Film: Yuletide Bloat

It seems to happen every awards season, particularly around Christmastime. I’m not talking about indigestion from eating too much scrumptious holiday treats (though I am guilty as charged). And I’m not referring to one too many glasses of eggnog giving you the kind of sugar rush that triggers a mad dash to the bathroom.

No, dear viewer, the last moviegoing weekends of 2012 inevitably bring on viewer fatigue from sitting through films that are just too damn long. Is there any practical motive to stretch out a potentially taut narrative past the two-and-a-half hour mark? Our tushes are not amused, Peter Jackson. You know I find your passion for Middle Earth nothing short of inspiring, but when it comes to the first installment of The Hobbit (one out of three!), less would have been so much more, buddy.

Jackson can breathe a sigh of relief. In this week’s column I take a look, not at the movies that are already playing at a multiplex near you – for the record, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey‘s okay, just egregiously overinflated – but at the year-end releases arriving in South Florida during the next few days. Let’s begin with the title that you should avoid, but will probably be dragged to anyway.

One senses something is a-miz with the long-awaited screen version of Les Misérables from the very first scene. The Wagnerian opening chords whet your appetite for a sweeping, old-fashioned movie musical, and the impressive CGI sets the tone for the inhumane struggle of prison inmates in early 19th Century France attempt to hoist a ship under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert. Look, it’s Russell Crowe in the role he was born to play! This is going to be awesome.

And then the singing starts.

An African inmate, who, like everyone else in the film’s A-list cast, is singing live as opposed to lip-synching to previously recorded material, intones the first verses of “Look Down,” and it sounds as if the man is embarrassed to be singing. Cut to Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean, an unfortunate soul serving time for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his ailing nephew. The Aussie screen and stage dynamo imbues Victor Hugo’s defiant leading man with the requisite conviction, but he’s stuck in a production that’s conspicuously uncomfortable with the fact that almost every line of dialogue is sung.

And then Crowe opens his mouth. The feeble warbling that comes out of it makes Pierce Brosnan’s dog howls in Mamma Mia! soothing by comparison. Okay, he’s not that bad, but the Abba’s-greatest-hits-on-a-Greek-isle guilty pleasure was supposed to be light fare. Les Miz requires gravitas…and fearsome pipes. Crowe only manages to nail the first part. Javert’s supposed to be Valjean’s vocal equal, yang to Jackman’s yin, and the Gladiator star comes up short.

But before you start pointing fingers at Crowe as the worst offender, allow me to draw your attention to the men behind the cameras, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and cinematographer Danny Cohen (Speech as well, but also Johnny English Reborn). The John Adams helmer has been accused of being a workmanlike hack, and I stood up for him at every turn, but his tone-deaf mise en scène here is indefensible. When it comes to taking a beloved, long-running Broadway musical and making it work on its own terms as a feature, the man is all thumbs. For the film’s visual scheme, he has asked Cohen to shoot most closeups from a skewed perspective, more often than not using wide angle lens. The distorted results fail to lend this sinking ship the scope that the source material demands. By the end of the first hour I was wide-angled out. I still had 90 minutes to go.

In a few instances, Hooper’s decision to linger on his performers’ solos without cutting away pays off, most noticeably with Anne Hathaway, who digs deep to find Fantine’s inner turmoil. The Oscar-bound actress is gone after roughly fifteen minutes of screen time, and her absence leaves a gaping void that no other cast member can fill, even though Jackman gives it 100 percent.

Les Misérables hits rock bottom when Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen enter the picture as the greedy grifters taking care of Cosette, Fantine’s daughter and Valjean’s ward-to-be. The sensible thing would have been for Hopper to rein in the Sweeney Todd actors’ scenery chewing, but instead he amps up the grotesque, squalor’s-so-droll gags, and you stare at the screen the way you would a train wreck unfolding in slow motion. Even worse, he keeps inserting the characters throughout the movie as his recurring buffoons.

What prevents Hooper’s ambitious misfire from falling into prestige oblivion is the film’s protracted but reasonably compelling final hour, which chronicles the Paris Uprising of 1832 from the young rebels’ point of view. For a brief but not insignificant portion of its running time, Les Miz captures the fist-pumping sense of justice that gave Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s stage production its emotional charge. The drawbacks, it saddens me to report, outweigh the virtues in what, for my money, is the most crushing disappointment at the movies in a year filled with way too many letdowns.

A column about movie overlength wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that rambling charmer of the comedy genre, Knocked Up director Judd Apatow. It’s clear the Freaks and Geeks co-creator is aiming to be heir apparent to James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), and the potential to reach that goal is pretty evident throughout his body of work. But the man doesn’t know when to stop.

This Is 40 is Apatow unfiltered, at once his most observant and his most self-indulgent offering. A sequel of sorts to Knocked Up, the film focuses, not on Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s accidental parents, but on their cheerfully dysfunctional friends, played once again by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (aka Mrs. Apatow). It seems the seemingly stable spouses are turning the big four-oh within days of each other, and they’re undergoing a bout of mid-life crisis.

Apatow writes these roles with the painfully intimate know-how of someone who has been there. The discreetly raunchy shower sex scene that opens the film, for instance, comes to an abrupt halt after Pete (Rudd) admits to Debbie (Mann) that he took Viagra just before getting frisky with his better half. (There go his chances of getting a boner again.) Every married couple, Apatow appears to argue, keeps secrets from each other, deceives each other with the best of intentions in mind. In Pete’s case, he’s giving money to his leech of a dad (Albert Brooks), something Debbie already knows and deeply resents, but he’s also withholding the fact that their finances are in far worse shape than she imagines.

This Is 40 resolves its domestic dilemmas in too tidy a manner, but not before shining a compassionate but brutally unvarnished light on the negotiations that enable married Gen-Xers to survive as the aspirations they pursued with such idealism in their twenties and thirties take a back seat to more pressing matters like, say, trying to avoid selling your home. The film could have benefited from a more streamlined narrative structure, but its frequently shapeless scenes yield moments of harsh truths that could have only come from someone who bears the battle scars.

Speaking of brutality, Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating pre-Civil War “Southern,” has inevitably been drawing attention for its liberal, period-accurate usage of the N word. My advice: tough it out. Of all the high-profile Christmas releases, this mish-mash of spaghetti Western and Roots-flavored blaxploitation is the one that makes the best use of its sizable running time. The story of a slave-turned-bounty hunter (a controlled performance from Jami Foxx) attempting to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) doesn’t quite find the Pulp Fiction auteur firing on all cylinders. It’s Jackie Brown-solid.

The first film Tarantino has released without his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, could have used a little more TLC in the editing suite – the film was reportedly rushed through post-production to make its holiday release date – but it creates a bracingly believable, albeit occasionally anachronistic, antebellum landscape that ultimately feels more believable than many period films striving for strict realism. And nobody can stage a bloodbath like the Kill Bill whiz. The revenge scenario this time around lacks the resonance of QT’s best work, but I’ll take second-tier Tarantino over most of the more dignified – and far less fun – award hopefuls currently elbowing for room at local theaters.

On that note, have a Merry (bloody) Christmas, everyone!

About Ruben Rosario

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