Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty Can Be Deleted from the Rental Queue

Trust Your Instincts with Questionable Movies

Film critic Roger Ebert (R.I.P.) once gave a refreshingly honest answer to the question of whether he thought reviews made any difference. Ebert opined that most films are “review-proof”–including summer blockbusters and those with “hot” stars–in that people will go to see them no matter how bad critics say there are. The critic’s difference comes, Ebert speculated, in films that aren’t hyped or widely distributed. With these, critical praise or damnation can be the difference between a film being seen by a wide audience, or one that won’t even show up on HBO after midnight.

Ebert is right, though I’d amend his remarks to say that reviews also make a difference for films that seem to be aimed at a specific audience and whose hype may or may not match reality. Such films generally open “big,” but the reviews determine if they have staying power. My rule is to trust your instincts with films of that nature. It’s always good to stretch yourself now and then, but there’s no need to sit through something you just don’t care about. (I dodged Kill Bill for the reason that I’ve never seen a film involving martial arts that I like.)

I recently rented two films that made me wish I paid attention to the instinct that made me stay away when they were in the theater. The two are quite different: Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty. Of the two, the second is much better, but neither comes close to matching their pre-release hype.

I’m always skeptical of musicals, a genre I tend to either hate (Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Momma Mia, Annie) or be astonished by (All That Jazz, Chicago, Moulin Rouge, The Singing Detective). I really didn’t want to see Les Misérables and I was right. It’s not the show’s fault. I saw it in London and was mesmerized by it. Moreover, Victor Hugo’s novel is one of the greatest stories in Western history. (It has inspired adaptations ranging from I am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang to The Fugitive.) Alas, Director Tom Hooper’s 2012 film is as flat as a flounder and as dull as CNN. One problem is that Hooper filled the screen with big names (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Helena Bonham Carter) rather than singers. The best that can be said is that a few of them didn’t suck, which is more than can be said for Sacha Baron Cohen. (My instincts say never see a film in which he appears.)

Mainly the film doesn’t work because the score is terrible, instant death for a musical. All of the “dialogue” is sung, but in the way you might invent a tune to sing your grocery list. What’s left with is a “big” production–big sets, pull-out feature songs, loads of extras, and dramatic effects. In London, the famed sewer chase was nothing more than swirling spots that evoked light pouring through street grates. In the film, nothing is left to the imagination, but it’s a spectacle that fails to be spectacular. The film made money, but critics were unmoved. They were right, Call Les Mis a swing and a miss.

I was also nervous about Zero Dark Thirty because I thought it might be inflammatory and because I’m sick of the American cult of the warrior. I was wrong on the first score, but dead on the money on the second. It’s the story of a CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain who has to cut through skepticism and sexism to get leaders ranging from her bureau chief to President Obama to believe that she knows where Osama bin Laden is hiding. She was correct and American troops took him out. Chastain was praised to the hilt and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but there’s nothing special about her performance.

Director Kathryn Bigelow must live a charmed life, though, as she got away with eliding history far more recklessly than much-maligned Michael Moore ever did. She rockets between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and explosions in Khobar, London, Bagram, and Times Square with such dizzying speed that it’s nearly impossible to establish a credible time line. That’s weird, because the film is needlessly long (157 minutes) and contains many places where she could have sped the pace without sacrificing clarity. I give Bigelow credit for showing that the U.S. does torture its enemies, but for me the key moments were those in which we see Chastain gazing with longing and admiration at troops before and after their mission into Pakistan. Bigelow depicts their mission as a cross between a video game and Black Hawk Down. It’s hard not to see Chastain as Bigelow’s alter ego. Most of what she’s done, including The Hurt Locker (2010), involves macho men (cops, troops, sailors, cyberpunks, FBI agents) and I’m beginning to wonder if she longs to be one of the warriors or simply bed them all. The film’s tone changes to celebratory at the end, thereby negating the torture she critiqued earlier. It’s as if all the terrible things are justified because they helped the US hit its man. In the end, Zero Dark Thirty plays like a teenaged boy’s video fantasy of getting the bad guys. This film made some money, but not a lot. Those who loved it think it failed to spark because Americans are fatigued by the war on terror. Maybe they are, but I think it’s because it’s merely an average film, not a great one. --Rob Weir

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