DJANGO UNCHAINED: 4 STARS

In a movie ripe with film homages, one stands head and shoulders above the rest as the film's best meta-moment. In Quentin Tarantino's unhinged Spaghetti western “Django Unchained” Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a slave-turned-bounty-hunter on a search for his wife.

On his journey he encounters a slave trader played by Italian star Franco Nero. Over a drink, Nero's character asks Django his name. “Django,” comes the reply. “D-J-A-N-G-O… the D is silent.”

“I know,” says Nero.

The sound you are hearing is the squeal of film nerds. It's a high-pitched grunt mixed with a sudden intake of air, the gasp of a movie fanatic whose mind has just been blown.

You see Nero (whose credits reads: “With the friendly participation of Franco Nero”) originated a gun slinging character named Django in a legendary 1966 eponymously titled movie.  

“Django Unchained” is heavy with references, both visual-lots of zooming cameras a la Sergio Leone-location wise-he borrowed the snow setting from The Great Silence-and even just a little bit silly-Kerry Washington's character's last name is Von Shaft in tribute to Richard Roundtree's most famous character-but only King of the Film Geeks, QT, would think to have two worlds collide by presenting dueling Djangos.

Tarantino brings his unique sensibility to every frame of “Django Unchained.” It's an uncompromising film, violent, grimly funny, and one in which the “n” word is as prevalent as any other noun. Like him or not, there is no denying that he is as true to his singular vision as any of the great filmmakers he pays homage to.  

Set two years before the Civil War, the film begins with Django (Foxx) in chains, being transported deep inside the Deep South by vicious slave traders the Speck brothers (James Remar and James Russo). On a remote country road they meet Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a courtly German bounty hunter-so courtly he even has a horse named Fritz who bows- who has been tracking Django. There's no reward for the slave; what he has is more interesting to Schultz-information.

The bounty hunter is looking to hunt down and kill a ruthless band of killers called the Brittle Brothers. Trouble is, he doesn't know what they look like, but Django, who was beaten by them and whose wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), was taken by them, does. They forge a deal. In return for his help Django will earn his freedom and Shultz will help find and rescue Broomhilda.  

Django agrees to go into business with Shultz-“Kill white folks and get paid for it? What's not to like?”-which leads them to Candie-Land, the plantation of the charming but vicious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Despite the name, there's nothing sweet about him or the place.

Tarantino is one of the handful of over-the-title directors who name is as big a draw as the story or actors. Even though there are big stars here like DiCaprio and Foxx, “Django Unchained” is first and foremost a Tarantino movie, with all that implies.

His trademarked anachronistic soundtrack-mixing 60s pop with religious music and rap-butts heads with violent but beautiful flourishes-like blood splattered cotton blossoms-in a movie that blends Spaghetti westerns with German fairy tales, revenge flicks and Hollywood history.

It a high wire act, tackling issues of the US's relationship with slavery, racism and the exploitation of women with equal parts earnestness, style, violence and humor.

As satire a scene involving hooded white supremacists arguing over the placement of the eyeholes on their homemade cowls--“I can't see **** out of this thing!”-is a pure Tarantino moment-acerbic, ridiculous and fearless.

The flamboyant filmmaking seems to have freed the actors.

Waltz and DiCaprio have the showiest roles. Waltz is a bounty hunter with a conscience-he doesn't want to take advantage of Django's status as a slave, but “for the time being I'm going to make this slavery malarkey work for me,” he says. “Still, I feel bad.”-a former dentist who “kills people and sells their corpses for cash,” which is in direct opposition to the slave traders-who buys and sell live people-he hunts and kills.

DiCaprio's rotten tooth grin belies how much fun he's having playing a Southern gentleman who is anything but.

Foxx is more stoic, a coiled spring eager for revenge on the people who have done him and his wife wrong. The role isn't without humor, however. Just check out the suit Django chooses when he is allowed to pick out his clothes for the firs time ever in his life.

“Django Unchained” is bloodier than you'll expect-with a shootout as violently gratuitous as any gun battle ever filmed-and funnier than you think it is going to be. It's a message movie and a pulpy crowd pleaser. In other words, it's a Tarantino film.

LES MISERABLES: 4 STARS

If the number 24601 brings a tear to your eye then you can likely skip past the synopsis paragraphs in this review as you probably already know the epic story of “Les Misérables.” For the uninitiated, however, what follows is the sad and tragic tale of obsession, love and redemption, now an all singing (but no dancing) operetta from "The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper.

Based on the mega-musical that brought Victor Hugo's 1862 French novel to Broadway, the film is a faithful adaptation of the show that inspired gallons of tears on the Great White Way.

Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean, a French national imprisoned for two decades for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Once released he breaks parole, flees, makes a new life for himself and searches for redemption. Searching for him is police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who refers to Valjean by his ID number, 24601. Their cat and mouse game spans two decades culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris.

Wringing extra emotional from the melodramatic tale is a side story concerning Fantine (Anne Hathaway), ill-fated factory worker (her story is one of the main reasons this is called the “Miserables”) and mother of an illegitimate child, Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as an adult). Forced into prostitution, she entrusts the care of her daughter to Valjean.

After the royal bollocking Joel Schumacher gave "The Phantom of the Opera" a few years ago the future of poperas on the big screen looked bleak. Sure "Chicago" hit some of the right notes, but apart from lighter fare like "Mama Mia" big time musicals have been few and far between at the movies.

Add to that the reputation of “Les Misérables.” It's not only an emotional epic, combining a stew of audience grabbers like forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and courage but it's also the world's longest-running musical. Fan expectation is high.

Director Hooper's all-star cast (with the addition of stage vets Samantha Barks and Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on Broadway) is game for the challenge, and once you get past the giggles at seeing tough guy Russell Crowe warbling operatic, it works.

Jackman is a natural, with both the acting and vocal chops to play Valjean. He's the lead, the heart of the show, but he isn't blessed with the most interesting repertoire. His songs are occasionally repetitive but perhaps because they're weren't prerecorded-as is the usual practice in screen musicals-but sung live on set, Jackman ups the sentiment and could land an Oscar nod for his work.

Crowe has better songs but a different approach, less musical theatre and more Pink Floyd.

Eddie "My Week with Marilyn" Redmayne as Marius is terrific in a strong supporting role and Amanda Seyfried's voice is almost as big as her eyes, but it is Anne Hathaway's performance that lingers.

As Fantine she has the smallest role of the leads, but given her slim screen time makes the biggest impression. Her version of the show's four Kleenex signature song "I Dreamed a Dream"-shot in one take-is a microcosm of the entire show. It's raw in its passion, hits on themes of life, death and disappointment echoed by the other characters and yes, it's a little bit showy. Hathaway nails it and kind of blows everybody else away in the process.

"Les Misérables" succeeds by playing it straight. Hooper highlights the star power but underplays everything else. The film looks sumptuous, but wisely avoids the flamboyant approach that sunk "Nine" and "The Phantom of the Opera."

PARENTAL GUIDANCE: 1 STAR

There's a scene in "Parental Guidance" partially shot from the perspective of a toilet bowl. There's an easy joke in there someone, but frankly, I think all the easy jokes in the world have been used up in the script of this new Billy Crystal, Bette Midler comedy. "It's not one of my better moments," says Crystal's character, and rarely have truer words been spoken.

Crystal and Midler are Arte and Diane. He's a recently fired baseball announcer, she's a former weatherperson and they're long distance grandparents to Harper (Bailee Madison), Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) and Turner (Joshua Rush). When their daughter and her husband (Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) have the chance to get away for five days they reluctantly ask Arte and Diane to babysit the kids.

"Parental Guidance" is the kind of movie the studios hope will attract the whole family from the grandparents on down to the young'uns. It has something for everyone in the clan... which means the edgiest things in the film are the curly waves in Midler's luxurious hair.

This is as safe and dull as it gets. There's nothing wrong with intergenerational family entertainment but during this time of year when many people use the movies as a diversion from stress filled get-togethers, a film as predictable as Aunt Edith's dry Christmas turkey and as cliché as Uncle Billy's comb-over it hardly feels like a relaxing distraction. More like punishment.  

Crystal and Midler are trying hard-it's like watching old vaudevillians. Slap stick isn't working? Well, here's a song! Don't like that? Let's mug for the camera! Trouble is, this movie's idea of high comedy is to play off of Arte's old guy lack of technical know how. Jokes about being poked on facebook and tweeting--"I'll make any sound you want!"--are the new knock knock jokes. They're lazy and worse, not funny.

“Parental Guidance” is heartwarming treacle. A sitcom level film which, in the vocabulary of the new age parents made me want to put on my “exit shoes” and walk away.

NOT FADE AWAY: 2 STARS

There's an old saying that goes, “If you can remember the 1960s… you weren't really there.” That may be true. Ask Grace Slick about 1968 and you're likely to be met with a blank stare. Luckily for us “Not Fade Away,” the feature debut from “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, is a spot on time capsule of the era. Too bad Chase didn't write a story to go along with it.

 The core of the story revolves around rock 'n' blues music, Doug (John Magaro) and the repercussions of living in a turbulent decade. Doug is invisible in high school-particularly to his crush Grace (Bella Heathcoat)-until he discovers a fundamental truth, girls like guys in bands. Playing drums in a Stones-influenced band gives him a taste of the life, but when he switches to lead sing he finds his vocation, much to his father's (James Gandolfini,) dismay. As the Summer of Love approaches so does interest from a recording industry big shot just as Doug contemplates a move to the West Coast to pursue his dream of solo success.   

“Not Fade Away” is at least partly autobiographical. Chase was a New Jersey drummer with a Stones fixation, which explains the level of care placed on the details, but it is hard to whip up excitement for a movie that tips its hand in the opening narration.

We're told off the bat that this is the story of a band that never made it. It's an anticlimactic way to start a film, and doesn't get any grabbier from there. It is interesting to watch Chase establish the time and place. The film is a cornucopia of 60s pop culture. The song “Satisfaction” blends effortlessly with the old-school Emergency Broadcast System alarm off the top, heralding a greatest hits of 60s cultural icons like “The twilight Zone,” Archie comics, JFK's assassination, even a sneering Dean Martin rolling his eyes after a Stones's performance on “The Hollywood Palace,” with the words “They're leaving right after the show for London-they're challenging the Beatles to a hair-pulling contest.”   

All that nicely sets up the decade and the anti-establishment stance personified by the soundtrack's music, but is let down by episodic storytelling and the lack of really compelling characters or situations. From the opening moments the story builds to an anti-climax, and on that score it delivers, providing one of the oddest and least satisfying conclusions to a movie in recent memory.

As an exercise in nostalgia “Not fade Away” mostly works, but like many trips down memory lane, the people you meet aren't always as interesting as you remember them.