A very linear picture for Quentin Tarantino after his diffuse "Inglourious Basterds," "Django Unchained" finds the esteemed director looking into provocative subjects such as racial dynamics and the limits of humanitarianism for what is his most sophisticated film yet. What seems to be a piece of getting-the-better-of-slavery fulfillment in the way that "Basterds" was a WWII redo turns out to be far more complicated. It's not his sturdiest ("Pulp Fiction") or most aesthetically pleasing ("Kill Bill: Volume 1"), but it should work to convince skeptics that Tarantino is working with more than simply dialogue and violence (which, with his consistent use of the "N-word," he perhaps purposefully intertwines).
"Unchained" works superbly in those areas as well. The ebb and flow between them is quite dramatic, as the film gives way from long periods of discussion to explosive action. Assisted by excellent performances by everyone in the cast (from the extraordinarily Oscar-worthy Christoph Waltz to the cocky born action-hero Jamie Foxx to the maddeningly antagonistic Samuel L. Jackson to the callous and surprisingly well-cast Leonardo DiCaprio), who draw from meticulously-crafted and thorny characters, Tarantino is able to make his statements palatable and effective. The most devastating to me was how tricky morality is. Every man is essentially for himself in a system like this, and those who are saved from it are only able to look out for themselves and a couple others.
Something about the film, perhaps the length or the way that the film at times seems to forget what it's trying to say in favor of badassery (which is, admittedly, striking), prevents it from going all the way and being a Tarantino masterwork for me. Maybe I'll need another viewing, which I'd be happy to grant it. For now, I can accept it as a flawed and bizarrely conceived film (in the way of "The Confessions of Nat Turner") that is also both exhilarating and hilarious. The audience I saw it with was totally into it, laughing and cheering as much as Tarantino could have intended. One even went as far as to say, in maybe the filmgoing quote of the year, that it was "better than Roots."
"Rust and Bone," by the great Jacques Audiard (known for "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and "A Prophet"), is also a film that defies its appearances. I hate to break it to those expecting a movie about whale training, or a movie where Audiard softened up for once, but Marion Cotillard's character is shown in her workspace all of 5 minutes, and there are hallmarks of his muscular-cum-moving style everywhere. That whole world is brought into the action only to provide a subtext for the rest of this wrenching work. About the various powers that particular individuals wield over others, it follows a number of people who could do much better with their lives but who are on a current path for destruction.
As the movie winds its way towards a potentially saccharine ending, Audiard knows how to make things matter. Matthias Schoenaerts' brutal boxer/lothario/tough guy Alain should earn little to no sympathy for how he treats his accommodating sister and young son, but in his treatment of the disabled Stephanie (Cotillard), we come to see him as a man with a willingness to help. The last 20 minutes of the film are also incredibly potent, featuring the most powerful declarations of love I've seen on screen this year. There are moments when Audiard seems to be making a Dardennes film, but every time that happens, he makes it all his own (from the superb, Bon Iver heavy music selections to the dramatic frankness). The way he binds everything together, adding many layers and circling back to details from near the start of the film, shows all of the three years he put into since "A Prophet." Like that film, I wasn't entirely satisfied the first time, but I feel like my admiration of this stirring Audiard variation will continue to grow.
A film that's fallen in my opinion since I first saw it a week ago, Kathryn Bigelow's admirably ambitious "Zero Dark Thirty" feels like a case of reach exceeding grasp. Whereas "The Hurt Locker" was a remarkably cinematic allegory due to its focus more on people than events, "Zero" is pitched in the opposite direction. In Mark Boal's astoundingly deficient script, the characters never really convinced me that they were more than figures to move things along. Maybe that doesn't seem particularly relevant in a movie like this one, but I felt emotionally shut out and only on board when Bigelow let involving spectacle take over. When she does, it's extraordinary.
But when she lifts tropes wholesale from other movies (like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's segment from the "9/11" omnibus, and pretty much every behind-closed-doors film ever made), it doesn't work.
In these moments (essentially the middle hour and a half of the movie), "Zero Dark Thirty" is painfully weighed down and makes one wish they were reading about the proceedings instead. (I don't really think Jessica Chastain carries these duller moments too well.) Spiced throughout are various headline-making instances of terrorism that are carried off in a rushed, unmemorable way. If slightly sensational, Spielburg's "Munich" was much more gut-punching when moving through violent historical injustices.
In my dislike, I exclude the opening and the ending. The opening depicts the Abu Ghraib torture of a man named Ammar (Reda Kateb) by an essentially sociopathic, horrifically insensitive, buddy-buddy CIA man named Dan (Jason Clarke). It's fascinating to see how callous such people can be, and the casting of the genial Clarke is successful in show the divide between a person's "usual" personality and their unforgivable actions. This section is also shot with visual prowess by Greig Fraser, who uses many a wide shot that gives an interesting sense of space to the miserable room. The big qualm I have and share with others, though, is the veiled implication that these torture sessions did in some way help the operation along. What comes later somewhat downplays this, but I'm still not entirely satisfied with Bigelow's approach towards it.
The ending shows the killing of Osama bin Laden. Meticulously portrayed, with every single maneuver documented, this section rivals (in its fascination, candor, and craftsmanship) any historical representation in cinema (including the most shattering moments of "Munich"). It made the film for me, and convinced me to look more into the workings of the rest of it. Especially the ending, which isn't done particularly well, but has a lot of unsettling things to say that I missed until discussion brought me to them.
The most enjoyable movie of this group of four was definitely "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." Very touching and compelling, it's also a film of effortless humor, and insight that seems truistic until you really look into it and find what depths it has. Why it truly succeeds, though, is due to the ensemble of Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and, in his strongest and least constrained performance to date, Ezra Miller. (Paul Rudd also appears in a small but comforting role.) Their chemistry feels so precious, and writer/director/original author Stephen Chbosky makes as much as he can of it.
We are presented with many damaged people who look for something more in others. Charlie (Lerman) is the most sought after, but he's searching too, still suffering from childhood trauma and heading into rough high school years where solid footing is absolutely necessary to keep from falling into sadness. He finds some stability in friendship with Patrick (Miller) and Sam (Watson), a droll step-brother and step-sister with a wild side and good taste. They've got issues of their own, though, and reasons to depend on Charlie as much he does on them.
The film shows the high school experience as a blur with moments of emotional salvation, which may seem like Chbosky is cutting corners but, with more consideration, this is probably the most accurate and interesting way the plot could have been portrayed. What's in focus is poignant, inventive, and spilling with awareness of the moment. Most importantly, there's an enduring quality to it that could make it something of a minor classic. I could watch this movie again right now, even though I just saw it for the first time two hours ago.
Django Unchained: B+, Rust and Bone: B+, Zero Dark Thirty: B-, The Perks of Being a Wallflower: B+
I have a feeling all of those ratings could rise with more study, though.
Django, Rust and Bone, and Perks would have all been in my top ten list had I seen them earlier. A revised edition of that list would be:
1. Queen of Versailles
2. Moonrise Kingdom
4. Django Unchained
5. Rust and Bone
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
9. Damsels in Distress