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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

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Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables," in theaters today.
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables," in theaters today.

"Les Miserables" makes for a miserable movie

Merry Christmas, "Les Miz" lovers – I'm about to hate all over your musical.

All right, calm down. I don't hate the musical itself, per se. What I hate is its utterly superfluous big screen adaptation, which I'm about 90 percent sure is getting rave reviews only because people can't differentiate between "great musical" and "great musical lazily slapped onto film for mass consumption."

"Les Miserables," to the musical-inclined, is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a 19th-century French parole jumper who vows to care for young Cosette (Isabelle Allen/ Amanda Seyfried) after the death of her mother, Fantine (Anne Hathaway). "Les Miserables," to the musical-less-than-inclined, is that new movie with Hathaway ugly-crying into the camera as she belts out that Susan Boyle song.

Those in the latter camp will be sorely disappointed when Hathaway bites it within minutes of first appearing on screen, and that's the fault of a dirty marketing trick to get people into seats with her clout behind the trailers. It's a minor offense, though, compared to the rest of the more legitimate shortcomings that litter this two-and-a-half-hour trudge.

For all of the languid pace it takes up in later acts, "Les Miz" rushes through its exposition like the opening credits were on fire. It drops key points of the introduction in moments, scattered across characters in a muddled mess of sing-talking, which is itself hard to follow right from the beginning. The exchanges may as well have been in French, especially considering Valjean and Javert (Russell Crowe)'s penchants for referring to themselves in the third person.

It wasn't the completely musical dialogue that turned me off, though, but the constant soliloquizing. Having the characters talk to themselves to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to the audience might work on a Broadway stage, but in a movie – where "showing" takes precedent to "telling" – the device just comes off as lazy. After being translated from no…

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Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained," in theaters now.
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained," in theaters now.

"Django Unchained" is off the hook

Well, it took director Quentin Tarantino 20 years, but he finally got his Western ... kinda. 

Although it's fair to say he's been preparing his entire career with his raucously bloody shoot-'em-ups, Tarantino's time warming up has been well spent if "Django Unchained" is the final result. The antebellum revenge tale pits freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and eccentric German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) against sinister plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in a battle to rescue Django's captive wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). 

Because he just can't help himself, Tarantino hasn't just taken a good ol' Western showdown and dropped it onto a plantation; he's used a classic German folk tale to frame it (hence Broomhilda, the damsel in distress). The tale is actually explained in the film, but the metaphor fuels "Django" loosely from beginning to end. I say "loosely," because, well, there's just no cramping Tarantino's distinctive style. 

There's no mistaking "Django" for anything but a Tarantino flick. It's evident from the very first notes of the part spaghetti Western, part Blacksploitation introduction, complete with exposition-laden song lyrics and his perpetual soft spot for grindhouse cinema. It's Quent-sploitation at its finest, which is enough to isolate a solid portion of the average movie-going audience. Tarantino has carved out a niche of trademark in-your-face satire and over-the-top action, and "Django" is fraught with it. But, while it's easy to understand how that isn't everyone's cup of tea, there's more to this movie than meets the intro.

Naturally, the cast is on the top of the "awesome" list. Waltz, returning to Tarantino's direction after his award-winning turn as the cheerfully sadistic Col. Hans Landa in "Inglourious Basterds," is appropriately fantastic taking up the "good guy" torch as Django's mentor. He almost hits good overload, but then you snap back to reality and think, "Nahhh." 

In fact, a lot …

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"This is 40" hits theaters today.
"This is 40" hits theaters today.

"This is 40" is a movie in mid-life crisis

Unlike most middle-aged men, Judd Apatow can afford a whole garage of Camaros and Mustangs. So, it makes sense that his mid-life crisis would manifest not with a youthful car buy, but by splurging on the production of a new movie.

"This is 40" is that movie – a semi-sequel to "Knocked Up" and Apatow's personal take on the foibles of family and getting old. It's also scattered, emotionally confusing, inappropriately funny and borderline heartfelt – which sounds a lot like a mid-life crisis to me.

"40" revisits Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) just as both of them hit their 40th birthdays. They both have independent, fulfilling (but not perfect) jobs and juggle the responsibility of raising two daughters (Apatow and Mann's real-life offspring, Maude and Iris). But, they're not happy, and it quickly becomes apparent that their money situation – among other things – isn't so hot. This serves as the catalyst for all sorts of turmoil, from extended family squabbles to full-on relationship upheaval.

First I have to express my amusement (and concern) that, according to Apatow at least, humor seems to be genetic – and contagious. Everyone in "40" spouts off their one-liners with the same "I'm not trying to be funny, this is just how I talk" wit. Pete and Debbie, their friends, doctors – even the kids – keep pace with Apatow's style. I'm not coming down on the humor, but I did find its widespread usage distracting, and ultimately it detracts from the realism of what they're all trying to accomplish. It's funny – very funny at times – but personally, if I talked to my mother the way Charlotte talks to Debbie when I was younger I'd have gotten smacked (history backs this up).

Much like the one-size-fits-all humor, the whole family dynamic also trips over into the world of the contrived. It tries too hard at the outset to make itself relatable by cramming all of the "getting old" greatest hits into the first half hour. Pete's…

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Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are mesmerizing in "Silver Linings Playbook."
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are mesmerizing in "Silver Linings Playbook."
The ensemble performances in "Argo" made it a pulse-pounding winner.
The ensemble performances in "Argo" made it a pulse-pounding winner.
The kids (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in particular) stole the show in "Moonrise Kingdom."
The kids (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in particular) stole the show in "Moonrise Kingdom."

10 movie winners (and five big losers) of 2012

Well, another year of movies is (almost) in the books. Full of many memorable ups and seared-in-my-brain-forever downs, 2012 didn't leave much room for purely "meh" film. While I generally hate picking favorites, it was surprisingly easy to narrow the list down to my ultimate Top 10 (ask for ranks or a top five, however, and things might get ugly).

Of course, I can't bid the year goodbye without calling out its epic movie fails one last time. This list is only a five-r, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in insultingly bad content (or lack thereof). It's also un-ranked, more for the reason that doing so would be a lot like playing Would You Rather? with dueling options of a hot garbage shower or a steamy bath of dogsh*t.

Both lists are below. Feel like something missed the lists? That's what the Talkbacks are for.

Top 10 Films of 2012

"Argo"
Historical dramas have it tough. They can't just be good – they have to be excellent enough to keep their audience in suspense despite the fact that they already got handed a big looming spoiler by high school history class. "Argo" didn't just keep viewers on the edge of their seats, it actually made them believe the 1979 Iranian rescue mission it brought to the big screen had a serious chance of not succeeding. Perilously tense and brilliantly executed, actor/director Ben Affleck's latest thriller is a perfect example of this technique done right.

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
As a writer, it's embarrassing to admit that I had no words coming out of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," but if anything deserves to leave me speechless, this is it. Having never read the book "Perks" is based on I didn't know what I was getting into, but I knew whatever it was had to be something worthwhile – it's not often a book's author steps up to not only write its film adaptation's screenplay, but also direct it. Stephen Chbosky clearly had a strong attachment, and after watching this beautifully emoti…

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