Tag Archives: D+

BULLET TO THE HEAD

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D+

Hard on the heels of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the screen in “The Last Stand,” his old muscle-bound rival Sylvester Stallone continues the attempted comeback as an action-movie hero he started by reviving Rocky and Rambo and took into ensemble territory with “The Expendables” by taking on a new character, a hit-man named James Bonomo (Jimmy Bobo in the trade), in this effort from another veteran, Walter Hill. In “Bullet to the Head,” unfortunately, the pairing comes off more curdled nostalgia than cinematic excitement.

Set in the sin city of New Orleans, “Bullet” begins with Bobo and his partner Louis (Jon Seda) disposing of Greely (Holt McCallany), a dude partying in a hotel room. But when Jimmy encounters a prostitute showering in the guy’s bathroom, he spares her after he notices a peculiar tattoo on her back. Not long after, a big brute named Keegan (Jason Momoa) targets both men at a crowded bar where they’ve gone to get their payment for a job well done. Though his partner bites the dust, Bobo survives determined—like Sam Spade—to see to it the dead man gets justice.

But it’s not long before he’s saddled with Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), an out-of-town cop who happens to have been the partner of Greely, a detective gone bad and—unlike the locals—connects his death with Louis’. Bobo takes the wounded Kwon to be tended by his daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi), a tattoo artist with some medical training, before the duo follow the line of control from the fellow who originally hired Jimmy and Louis up the ladder to a sleazy lawyer named Baptiste (Christian Slater), who in turn points them to Robert Nikomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an African manipulator who’s out to make a killing in condos.

You know a movie is in trouble when the big reveal involves a shady real estate deal, and it’s even worse when the MacGuffin turns out to be a computer flash drive containing incriminating evidence about corrupt officials and massive bribes. But of course those are but excuses for a succession of action set-pieces involving lots of fists, guns and explosions. The presence of Shahi makes it inevitable that one plot twist will involve her becoming a damsel in distress—the only function she could possibly serve. And Kang’s participation insures that the script will follow the usual buddy-movie trajectory in which initial hostility will turn into a grudging camaraderie.

What might come as a surprise is that the final showdown between Bobo and Keegan involves not just punches and grunts, but a couple of big axes that are the villain’s weapons of choice. Whether one finds that a laudable departure from the ordinary or a ludicrous one will be a matter of taste.

What isn’t debatable is the fact that Stallone looks terrible, not because he’s aged poorly but because he’s obviously undergone so many treatments in an attempt to hold back the years. It hasn’t worked; Sly’s face looks as though it were made of wax rather than skin. Unhappily his acting abilities haven’t matured at all. And the supposed witticisms scripter Alessandro Camon, working from a French graphic novel, has provided him with are mots that could never be considered bon. (Perhaps they suffer in translation.)

To add to the picture’s problems, Kang is even worse—he comes across like an amateur called into service without any preparation, and his deer-in-the-headlights expression seems perfectly understandable. Shahi is pretty but inconsequential, Momoa a burly brute who nonetheless fails to register as truly scary, and Akinnuoye-Agbaje a grinning caricature. But certainly the most humiliating role is reserved for Slater, who’s definitely seen better days even in his run of failed television series. When a guy who used to be pegged as a leading man winds up tied to a chair and threatened by Sly Stallone, it’s clear his career has tanked.

“Bullet to the Head” doesn’t make much of the New Orleans scene. Lloyd Ahern II’s cinematography gives virtually everything a dark, murky appearance that carries no special ambiance. The remaining technical credits pass muster, but certainly make for an ugly-looking picture. Maybe that’s meant to match a narrative based on the premise that apparently everyone in a position of official authority in the Big Easy is utterly corrupt.

Actually Stallone had some success with his earlier comeback efforts. But if was hoping for a new franchise with Jimmy Bobo, he’s going to be disappointed. In that he’ll join anybody who goes to see this movie.

LES MISERABLES

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D+

Like Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which arrived DOA in theatres during the 2004 holiday season, Tom Hooper’s opulent but bloated version of another insipid pop opera proves a lump of coal in moviegoers’ Christmas stockings.

Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is, of course, a classic, and given its emotional power it’s understandable that it’s been filmed so often (nearly twenty times), most memorably in 1935 with Fredric March and the incomparable Charles Laughton—a bit creaky by modern standards (the heavenly choir in some of the music cuts is surely embarrassing) but still moving. But why this musicalization of it has become such an international phenomenon is puzzling. The French libretto by Alain Boubil reduces the tale to its most rudimentary points (the emphasis given to street urchin Gavroche, played here by irritating little Daniel Huddlestone, is perhaps the worst example), the score by Claude-Michel Schoenberg is a numbingly unvaried succession of dirgelike recitative-arias punctuated with spuriously uplifting choral outbursts, and Herbert Kretzmer’s English lyrics are unremittingly obvious and banal. But in an era when spectacle trumps content, the extravaganza that Cameron Mackintosh and his technical wizards fashioned on stage apparently convinced audiences that they were watching something special.

Director Tom Hooper, who had unexpected success with “The King’s Speech,” tries the same recipe in this screen adaptation of the show. This “Miserables” is big, with huge sets, florid costumes, cinematography by Danny Cohen that mixes large crowd scenes with overbearing close-ups and editing (by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens) that fluctuates between long takes and rapid-fire, jumbled cutting that often gets too busy for the material’s good. Hooper has also employed one technical innovation that proves to have both strengths and weaknesses. Rather than having the cast lip-synch to prerecorded tapes or dubbing the songs in post-production, he outfitted the performers with microphones as they sang. On the positive side, this adds emotional heft to their renditions, making use of their acting chops as well as their vocal chords. On the other, it reveals every vocal imperfection.

And unfortunately there are plenty of them. Anne Hathaway gets by well enough in her small role as Fantine, the doomed woman forced into prostitution after she loses her factory position; and Amanda Seyfried is surprisingly effective as older Cosette, whom the convict Valjean, living under a false name to elude capture by the obsessive Inspector Javert, rescues and brings up as her daughter. Eddie Redmayne is also fine as Marius, the young revolutionary who becomes Cosette’s romantic interest despite the love of Eponine (Samantha Barks, also okay) to keep them apart.

But in the pivotal roles of Valjean and Javert the production stumbles badly. Jackman emotes frantically, but to be honest, Hooper miscalculates by focusing on him in close-up too often, making you all too aware of all the effort he’s putting into his performance. And though his voice barely gets by on stage, here it’s unsatisfactory—thin, wobbly and unfocused. By contrast Russell Crowe as Javert barely emotes at all—he just walks through the picture looking as though he’s suffering from perpetual stomach upset, and though his vocalism might be perfectly adequate for a garage band, its range is hopelessly inadequate for this ersatz operatic writing. When he—and Jackman as well—attempt to take their voices into the upper register, they emit a strangulated sound that’s positively painful to hear.

The singing of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, the nasty couple from whom Javert takes Cosette, isn’t really much better, and their acting is really nothing more than mugging. Still one welcomes their big duet, “Master of the House,” simply because in the dreary sameness that marks most of Schoenberg’s score it comes across like like a real Broadway number—not a good one, necessarily (if fact, it sounds like something Lionel Bart would have rejected for “Oliver!”), but at least different from what surrounds it.

Maybe nothing will stop the legions of fans who have kept “Les Miserables” running on Broadway for years and touring endlessly from going to this film of it—though a similar history of success certainly didn’t help Schumacher’s “Phantom.” But unless you think that Schoenberg’s mediocre score is the height of musical profundity, you’d be well advised to stick with the March-Laughton version, where the leads deliver their lines in a truly musical way without singing. Or better yet, read the book.