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This Week at the Movies

'Django Unchained' is a wild, inventive western from Quentin Tarantino, while 'Les Miserables' is frequently impressive, but exhausting, and 'Promised Land' is a solid 'message movie.'

Quentin Tarantino follows up his critical and box office smash “Inglourious Basterds” with another exercise in genre subversion and historical fantasia that is audacious and – sure to be - controversial.

“Django Unchained” has the length and visual style of a spaghetti western that could have been directed by Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci, but it’s significantly bloodier and its hero is a freed slave.

Similar to “Basterds,” Tarantino’s latest is a pulp reimagining of history, but its depiction of America’s blight – slavery – is unflinching, disturbing and righteously angry.

The picture opens in pre-Civil War Texas as bounty hunter King Schultz (the indispensable Christoph Waltz) tracks down a group of slave traders, kills them and frees Django (Jaime Foxx), who is able to put faces to the names of three men with a price on their heads.

The first of the picture’s three parts involves the search for these men, while the second follows the further bounty hunting adventures of Django and Schultz. The film’s outrageous – and often horrific – third act is set in Candieland, a massive Mississippi plantation at which Django believes his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), is being kept as a slave.

It is there we meet Calvin Candie (a sinister Leonard DiCaprio), whose hobby is a cruel slave-on-slave series of battles known as “mandingo fighting,” and Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), a house slave and, quite possibly, the movie’s most shocking villain. Jackson’s portrayal of Steven is of an Uncle Tom character whose rewarded servility has mutated into a seething hatred of his fellow slave.

“Django Unchained” is extremely violent and it contains sequences that are difficult to watch. But while the picture – much like Tarantino’s other work – is an exploitation film, it is never exploitative.

The movie contains some of the funniest dialogue in the director’s oeuvre and much of its humor is at the expense of its unsavory characters. A scene in which a group of particularly stupid Klansman haggle over their poorly cut eyeholes is a case in point.

Much like “Basterds,” Tarantino’s new film is a revenge fantasy that is simultaneously an entertaining provocation and a catharsis against one of history’s cruelest injustices.

Tom Hooper’s epic-length adaptation of the stage musical of “Les Miserables” is visually stunning and well acted, but slightly overlong.

In this latest film version of Victor Hugo’s novel, Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, who spends years of his life attempting to allude policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) and, eventually, acting as father to Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the orphaned daughter of factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

“Les Miserables” has its share of highlights – an imaginative musical number sung by small time crook Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and the rousing finale are standouts.

But it’s Hathaway who steals the show as the tragic Fantine. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the number that brings down the house and it’s likely to win her an Academy Award.

But “Les Miserables” might leave you exhausted – and not necessarily in a good way. The picture is long and its extensive songbook gives weight to the expression that sometimes “less is more.”

Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the lavish and extraordinary set design as well as the technique employed by Hooper to have his actors sing live on camera, rather than lip synch to a pre-recorded track. And Hathaway’s performance is a spellbinder.

The risk taken in making a “message movie” is that the message often outweighs the story. But director Gus Van Sant manages to sidestep that mistake in his folksy anti-hydrofracking picture “Promised Land.”

For those not in the know, fracking is a controversial drilling practice that involves extracting natural gas and petroleum by drilling into rock layers. Supporters of the technique argue that it could provide revenue to the rural areas in which it is practiced, while environmentalists say it poses dangers to water supplies.

In Van Sant’s film, Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate salesman for energy supplier Global who travels to small town Pennsylvania to seek drilling rights for homeowners’ properties.

He and his partner Sue (a wry Frances McDormand) find early success, but run into problems after a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and environmentalist (John Krasinski) plant the seed of doubt in the minds of the town’s denizens.

Although the picture includes numerous sequences of fracking policy discussion that would typically threaten to overshadow the narrative in your average “message movie,” Damon and Krasinski’s script is sharp and its emphasis on character development carries the day.

For a movie about a serious and a controversial topic, “Promised Land” is frequently funny, charming and entertaining.

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