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


The Deep Blue Sea an Underappreciated Gem

THE DEEP BLUE SEA (2011/US release 2012)
Directed by Terence Davis
Film4, 98 minutes, R (brief nudity)
* * * *

Lloyd Sellus, who lives in London, tells me that the prosperous city we see today was nothing like that of his youth. London was repeatedly shelled during World War II and, well into the 1960s, the city was marred by bombed-out neighborhoods and dire slums. The Deep Blue Sea is set in that London. It’s 1950, a time in which scorched ruins stand cheek by jowl with intact buildings and city services are so rudimentary that a bit of heat means bundling up several feet from the “electric fire” into which one feds coins for precious moments of (barely) radiating warmth. If that sounds uncomfortable, the heating was light years ahead of feminism. Women had few options and most British women stoically accepted that. But what if you can’t?

How does a young woman with ambition and strong views, but little money, negotiate such a world? There’s another common British trope–one found in dozens of traditional songs–that of a young lass marrying an older man. That’s the set-up for The Deep Blue Sea, a film based on a 1952 Terence Rattigan play. Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) is the young woman in question and she has married very well. She’s actually Lady Collyer, as her husband, Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), is a high court judge. He’s also decades older than she and, as one old folk song puts it, he has no “courage in him” (a pun on a British beer name and a metaphor for lack of virility). William may be a judge, but he’s a milquetoast dominated by an imperious, snooty mother whom Hester finds as pretentious as a queen and as dull as ditchwater. The film unfolds in various flashback sequences, but you could predict what happens when Hester meets young blade Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). She spends a lot of time wearing (and shedding) a red dress in the film and her name tips us off. She’s essentially Hawthorne’s Hester Pyrne (The Scarlett Letter) several centuries later and several thousand miles removed.

The movie is a love triad/tragedy and, like Hawthorne’s Hester, Lady Collyer is full of desire but devoid of options other than those that male-dominated society deigns to grant. The Deep Blue Sea is also decidedly a play set to film and will not be everybody’s cup of tea. (Indeed, Netflix audiences rank it low.) Much of it is painterly in tone, the palette being more somber Rembrandt than sunny Monet. It’s also akin to a silent film in places, including the first 7 ½ minutes in which there is no dialogue. For all of that, Weisz won the New York Film Critics’ 2012 Best Actress award and I’d call it well chosen. One should not confuse lack of dialogue with silence, and Weisz is stunning in the manner in which she conveys Hester’s desperation without histrionic speeches. We see her pain etched upon her face and in the languid ways in which she moves. Beale is every bit her equal. He doesn’t need to tell us about the unrequited love burning in his bosom–we can practically see the flames shooting from it. Hiddleston’s Freddie is also done well. All, even the smitten Hester, can see that he is a man-child whose exterior as a former RAF fighter pilot is shopworn veneer that scarcely covers the shallowness beyond the shell. 

The film’s title is drawn from the expression “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” a metaphor for being trapped by two unappealing options. If you were Hester, how would you choose? And what would you do if, suddenly, you couldn’t even opt for one over the other? This is a bleak film, but if you like ones filled with interior angst and have the patience for it, it’s a very good one. Few of us Yanks saw it. More’s the pity.

Rob Weir


Tony McManus New Release Classic in Good and Not-so-Good Ways

Mysterious Boundaries
Compass 7-4612-2
* * *

If you’ve ever heard Tony McManus add a delicate bridge to a fiery Alaisdair Fraser reel, lay it down double time with Quebeçois musicians, or marvel over his jazzy interpretations of Charles Mingus compositions, you already know that there’s not much he can’t do on the guitar. If you need any further proof, check out the artistry on Mysterious Boundaries. This time he puts his stamp on longhair stuff–the classics, not the hippies. This project that grew out of mandolin artist Mike Marshall’s challenge to McManus to learn Bach’s E major “Prelude.” That one’s on the new album, along with two others by Bach for good measure (“Allemande” and “Chaconne”). Among other things, you’ll also hear two from Baroque composer François Couperine, Claudio Monteverdi’s “Nigra Sum,” and “Gnossienne # 1” from avant-garde classical composer Erik Satie. As you can probably anticipate, McManus is technically flawless–his precise fingering of crisp melody notes in perfect resonance with resonating bass. I’d rank Mysterious Boundaries among the year’s top classical releases.

So why three stars instead of five? Call it purely a matter of preference–although I appreciate its complexity, I really don’t like classical music very much. What’s missing from McManus’s new album is what I find lacking in a lot classical music: passion and fire. Or, to be more precise, the way we define passion and fire in our age rather than the Baroque or some other past period. John Renbourn once called Tony McManus the “greatest Celtic guitarist in the world.” I agree, and I’d rather hear McManus raking barred chords up and down the neck, or adding crystalline contrast to pipes, fiddles, and accordions. McManus, of course, has more than earned the right to play whatever pleases him, just as we choose what makes its way into our listening rotations. If you’re a fan of classical music, Mysterious Boundaries will no doubt startle you, but I look forward to a future McManus release with more spit and less polish. --Rob Weir