Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, The Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey and Thompson on Hollywood blogger Anne Thompson discuss “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables” and other fall season movies.
On Christmas Day, moviegoers were given the option of two new releases: “Django Unchained” and “Les Misérables.” But if you had to pick just one…
CARRIE RICKEY: I would probably go for “Les Miz,” mostly because after the first hour of “Django,” I felt the movie went from a fun exploitation movie into something more dehumanizing; it wasn’t for me. It exceeded my threshold for combining humor and violence. The most interesting contrast between the two movies I’ve seen is that great Funny or Die video where Anne Hathaway and Sam Jackson, respective stars of each movie, talk about whether it’s better to be a 19th-century slave in the United States or a 19th-century whore during the July revolution of 1832 in France.
Were you surprised by the way “Django” shifted gears in its second hour?
CR: Most directors have a certain running time they feel good about. Tarantino’s seems to be between two and a half and three hours. Once the movie gets to the plantation, Candyland, it became airless to me. I have a problem with this forensic interest in violence and what it can do to people’s bodies. That’s just hard for me even though I’ve been doing this for a long time.
Of course, “Les Miz” has plenty of physical discomfort as well.
CR: Around our house, we call it “Hugh Jackman Unchained.” Although I’ve admired his performances in “X-Men” and rom coms like “Someone Like You” and “Kate and Leopold,” I feel that when he sings he becomes fully himself as an actor. He’s working everything. I was surprised how much I liked his performance. I didn’t like the whole movie as much. I think the scene in which Anne Hathaway has her big number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” I was surprised by the mise-en-scene. A man is having sex with her from behind and we see her breasts as if they’re on a platter. I was just unnerved by that scene. Because Tom Hooper likes wide angles, it was even more exaggerated. Yes, there’s a lot of misery in both movies. To answer the Funny or Die question, I don’t know how to compare being a slave or a prostitute in the 19th century. They’re not jobs I want.
ANNE THOMPSON: I’m in the same camp on both films. I just saw “Les Miz” a second time and really enjoyed it even though it is miserable. Both films are beautiful and have their own strong, powerful signature styles. My argument on “Django” is that as beautiful as it is in some ways, it is also very ugly, distributing and very out of control. He didn’t modulate it. He didn’t figure out in the editing room. I agree that Candyland is where it goes wrong. Talk about forensics — it’s an issue when Leonard DiCaprio goes off on the question of phrenology, which he apparently introduced to Tarantino as an idea, because this has been added to the script, which I greatly admired. There’s a heartbreaking love story in “Django,” but the way that Tarantino, in his characteristic way, references old movies, it’s very disjunctive. He doesn’t allow for a more heartfelt experience. He brings you in and out in a headier way. In a funny way, he’s afraid of all the material he’s working with here and keeps himself at a distance from it.
CR: I was thinking, god, I liked this better when it was called “Skin Game,” the movie with Louis Gossett Jr. and James Garner. The best thing about “Django” for me was Christoph Waltz. He was wonderful and the film had a different tone when he was onscreen. All the oxygen goes out when he leaves.
AT: He’s the human character who brings civilization to this world.
CR: Without him, it’s a snuff movie.
What do you make of Tarantino’s current fixation on revisionist approach to history? Is it trivial?
CR: I don’t think it’s trivial. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. It’s tough stuff, and his default is to make it comic or violent, but it’s very hard. I saw “Mandingo” when it came out, with James Mason yelling about winning a Mandingo warrior, that was so over-the-top —
AT: And sensationalized. That movie is on a totally different planet.
CR: But part of “Django” is on this planet. I think maybe he was having a conversation with movie geeks rather than the real culture, which made me uncomfortable.
AT: But all the actors are really good. I really like this movie. It’s a question of whether it could’ve been better if he had had more time and trimmed some stuff that didn’t work. Maybe the music could’ve been less intrusive. But I have to say that there was an Academy screening recently where it reportedly played really well. At this stage of the Oscar season, apparently, people are so tired of all these grim movies. They found the movie really enjoyable. What we’ve seen so far are the online fan reviews. This is a pattern now where you read the early online stuff and in the trades first; then the longer and often more thought-out reviews come out closer to the release.
It’s difficult to determine the movie’s audience since Tarantino seemingly makes movies first and foremost for himself. Is that a valuable motive?
AT: Absolutely. The industry values and envies Tarantino for having the freedom that he has. He has maintained a consistent output that any filmmaker would envy.
CR: I value auteurs and directorial vision, but there’s a point where it gets too meta for me where it’s like having a conversation with the past for the initiated. I don’t think that’s a good strategy for inviting people in. I saw “Django” with critics and tastemakers in Philadelphia. It was about 50-50 black-white, racially. There were probably people there who had never seen a Tarantino movie before who didn’t get a lot of the references. I was asked when I was walking out, “What did this mean? What did that mean?” This wasn’t a Hollywood screening. These were civilians and they weren’t getting the references. That’s not something I’d write about because I don’t review audiences, but it’s a potential barrier.
AT: On the other hand, black audiences will be thrilled by Jamie Foxx’s empowerment and how he comes into his own as an action hero, which is very gratifying as a story trope in this movie.
They might be just as frustrated by white English-language actors playing French people in “Les Miz.”
AT: And they’re mostly Australians. (laughs) That’s where the real men are. By the way, that’s going to be a big hit. I have questioned from the beginning the idea of opening “Django” during the holidays. It just doesn’t feel right to me at all.
CR: Well, as you say, they’re both feel-bad movies.
AT: “Les Miz” is cathartic in that it’s beautiful.
CR: I suppose “Django” is, too, in that it wipes the races off the screen so that the character and his wife can be a couple in a post-Lincoln world. In fact, I think the more apt comparison to “Django” is “Lincoln.” Yes, it’s Christmas and these are the two Christmas movies, but most people aren’t current on what just opened. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are further up my readers’ lists. I’m in the fourth-largest city in America and there aren’t as many movie geeks per capita here.
AT: As someone who roots for women directors and watched the role of women in Hollywood all my life, we’ve been so proud of Kathryn Bigelow, and yet here she is with rising star writer Mark Boal — the two of them are together as an item, a team, who defer to each other a great deal. And now this political firestorm is rising around the movie about whether it’s pro-torture. It’s a press campaign like anything that has to do with the Oscar.
CR: I think it’s much larger than Oscar politics. This is about a lot of people from the right saying that Obama said we didn’t torture anyone but we did.
AT: Oscar campaign people are taking advantage of it. When you start to deny a film’s veracity, that can hurt it, as it did with “Hurricane” back in the day.
CR: I believe that. The New York Times really tried to kill “Hurricane,” and it’s a great movie.
AT: “Zero Dark Thirty” has a marketing problem, too. They’re trying to sell it as a SEAL adventure movie even though it’s actually a CIA procedural of a brainy nature led by this fabulous woman character who didn’t play well with men.
CR: It’s a really strong and fascinating movie. I have a lot of other movies on my top 10.
AT: But you didn’t like “Life of Pi.”
That’s one anomaly this season — a much more uplifting, spiritual movie getting some traction this season. It’s maybe even a bigger crowdpleaser than “Lincoln.”
CR: Well, I’ve seen a movie with more talk than “Lincoln.”
AT: I was surprised that the Indiewire poll gave Best Screenplay to Tony Kushner for that movie.
Critics tend to be divided on Spielberg. A lot of people expected grating sentimentality, but found Kushner’s screenplay added a greater intellectual dimension.
AT: I think there’s a magic alchemy between Kushner and Daniel Day-Lewis, the two of them almost counteracting Spielberg so that he was forced to shape this movie around their aesthetic.
CR: The two movies Kushner and Spielberg have done together, this one and “Munich,” have been really interesting. They bring stuff out in each other. Both movies have a lot of talk in them as well as the emotionalism of Spielberg and the political context that Kushner is good at. I love the scene where the Lincolns are having a domestic fight. It’s an amazing scene. I guess I thought about the Reagans and Clintons’ domestic life. I always bought the idea that Marry was batty, but it never occurred to me that she was batty because she lost a son and didn’t want to lose another one. That was great context.
AT: But “Life of Pi” has a spirituality that will bring people to it over the holidays. It’s like an “Avatar” that takes you into an entire different world.
CR: I never thought of it as a spiritual movie but rather the stories we tell each other to deal with life.
AT: But it’s also about god. Richard Parker, the tiger, could be seen as god. What kept him alive?
Well, let’s not spoil the movie. What you can see from this conversation is just how diverse moviegoers’ options are right now. Is this an unnaturally good year?
CR: This is one of the best Christmases I can remember in a long time. Two CIA movies, plus “Lincoln” having parallels with our political times. You have the standard movies for Jews on Christmas: “The Guilt Trip” and “Parental Guidance.”
Then there’s “Jack Reacher.”
CR: I loved “Mission Impossible 4,” but this just seemed really an attempt to be two things at once: A fast-moving, slightly comic action movie but it really seemed to be about what war does to people and civilians can’t understand it. The interesting parts of the movie are the relationship between Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall, because they’ve been to war and nobody else understands it. The movie almost seems like it’s been designed for Iraq vets. I was surprised by all of that.
AT: Is it fun?
CR: It wasn’t for me. I was disappointed, but came in with high hopes because of the Cruise-Christopher McQuarrie relationship. It was thin. There was a good performance by David Oyelowo.
AT: And he’s also in “Middle of Nowhere.”
CR: I loved “Middle of Nowhere.” He’s great in that. He’s even in “Lincoln,” in the opening scene.
AT: And he’s in “The Paperboy”!
CR: He’s fantastic in that! There’s a huge variety of movies right now.
AT: Also, both “Amour” and “Barbara” just opened.
CR: Among foreign films, I really loved “Sister,” which is fantastic, beautifully acted, well-shot.
AT: I was very taken by “A Royal Affair.”
CR: I was really disappointed by “Hyde Park on Hudson.”
AT: That was my least favorite film. I don’t understand why Laura Linney wanted to make the movie. The whole thing about FDR and women was offensive, icky and gross — not to put too fine a point on it. It was like bad Masterpiece Theater.
CR: It was like “My Week With Marilyn.” The private lives of public figures — but my joke was it was like “pubic lives.” I really didn’t want to know about it. So I was disappointed in that movie — but as a year, 2012 was great. My 16-year-old and her friends love “Wreck-It Ralph.” While I liked parts of “Brave,” certain parts of it didn’t work.
AT: Brenda Chapman was thrown off of that project, so we don’t know what it would’ve been.
CR: We can guess. All those shots of men getting drunk were added in. It was frat party. That stuff threw off the rhythms of the movie. But that’s just a guess. Anyway, “Wreck-It Ralph” is very strong. The boys want to see “Jack Reacher.”
Maybe they’re better off with “Les Miz.”
AT: To answer the reason of why we have so many good studio holiday movies this year: “The King’s Speech” opened up the gates again. For a long time, dramas were a dirty word. They weren’t allowed. There are two reasons for optimism: The drama is now permitted and adults now drive the box office. The boomer generation is the one that still goes to the movies and likes adult dramas. The studios have finally figured this out.