Tag Archives: D+

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.

ZOOLANDER

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D+

The advertising copy describes the doltish title character in Ben Stiller’s spy spoof “Zoolander” as having “1% Brain Activity,” but that percentage seems a trifle high for the movie itself. The “Ace Ventura” and “Austin Powers” franchises have, to be sure, set a very low standard for parodies of this kind, and this dismally dumb new effort belongs in such company. Based on a character the writer-director-star created for a fashion awards show, the picture–which has the imbecilic male model involved in a dastardly plot to assassinate a Malaysian leader (for reasons we won’t even begin to explain, but are remarkably tasteless)–shares the same fate as the many misguided attempts to expand SNL sketches into features: what might be amusing for a couple of minutes quickly pales when stretched agonizingly over ninety, especially when the plot hatched to showcase a comic character designed for a short segment proves as dopey and familiar as this one.

As with most of Stiller’s material, “Zoolander” has a high quotient of the bizarre, but unfortunately in this case that doesn’t translate into a large number of laughs. The title figure is purportedly the world’s number one supermodel, a dimwitted boob who flounces about in a snakeskin suits and other outrageous outfits and sports a killer “look.” Devastated when he’s dethroned by newcomer Hansel (Owen Wilson) in a “runway walk-off” (a sequence which ends on a particularly grotesque note) and disowned by his coal-mining father (Jon Voight), our hero takes a job with weirdo designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell), only to learn that his new employer has embroiled him in a fiendish scheme that will make him the patsy in an economically-motivated murder. He’s aided by a magazine reporter (Christine Taylor) who’d done a hostile piece on him but now begins to find him sweet instead of merely stupid. Taylor, of course, is Stiller’s real-life wife, and he makes the film into even more of a family affair by casting his father Ben as Zoolander’s blustering, foul-mouthed agent, his mother Anne Meara as a union protester, and even his sister Amy as a camp-follower of Hansel’s.

This results in the whole clan playing and decaying together, since the picture, even at a mere 89 minutes, seems endlessly padded without providing much merriment along the way. Its major problem is that Stiller, as often when he’s at center stage, confuses creepiness with hilarity; he can summon up some audience sympathy when playing harried schmucks in tenuously credible sitcom situations (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Meet the Parents”), but in outrageous stuff like this his wild-eyed intensity is more scary than endearing. Mike Myers might not be the brightest of comic bulbs, but he finally realized that his “Sprockets” character of Dieter, whose slimy persona could garner uneasy chortles in small doses, wouldn’t work in feature form. Over the long haul Zoolander is likely to make you equally queasy. Compounding the feeling is the presence of Ferrell. The SNL regular specializes in characters so strange that they’re more likely to disturb than entertain. That’s certainly the case here: Mugatu, with his platinum blond hair and prissy attitude, makes your skin crawl. It’s difficult to laugh under such conditions. Wilson manages a few moments of charm–a commodity in low supply, unhappily–as Zoolander’s rival (who turns out to be a good guy in the end), but Jerry Stiller comes on so strong as Maury Ballstein (a gruesome name for the representative of male models!) that he makes Rip Torn’s turn in “Freddy Got Fingered” look subtle by comparison. And Taylor is pretty much a cipher.

There are occasional spurts of mild amusement in Stiller’s script–a clever writer like him can’t help but come up with a few good lines and bits of business over the span of an hour and a half– and a raft of cameos–by David Bowie, Billy Zane, David Duchovny (in a takeoff on his Fox Mulder persona) and many others–may please viewers in much the same way as those in Mike Todd’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” did back in 1956. The costume design by David C. Robinson certainly succeeds in accentuating the hideousness of the world being satirized, and the numerous shots of the New York skyline happily avoid appearances by the WTC towers. On the other hand, some of the gags prove really repulsive–one, early on, involving the fate of our hero’s three dumb-as-post roommates is quite appalling–and the liberal use of ghastly ’80s tunes by luminaries like Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood (“Relax” reappears here in even longer form than in last week’s “Glitter”–what a revival!) on the soundtrack verges on torture.

Maybe the fashion scene is just too weird in reality to serve as the backdrop for successful screen comedy. After all, even Robert Altman bombed out in 1994’s “Pret-a-Porter” (aka “Ready to Wear”), and Stiller is no Altman. In the end all “Zoolander” manages to do is make you yearn for a character like Inspector Clouseau–a blundering boob, but one who could both get you to like him and make you laugh. Stiller’s creation, unfortunately, manages to do neither. Perhaps if the movie were about Hansel….