Our Christmastime movie roundup: ‘Cirque,’ ‘Les Miz,’ ‘Django,’ ‘This is 40’

Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz go on the hunt in ‘Django Unchained.’

Django Unchained. After remaking various genre pictures throughout his career — blaxploitation, pulp, Hitchcock, grindhouse, war movies, kung fu actioners — it was only a matter of time until Quentin Tarantino eventually turned his sights on the spaghetti Western. And since he chose with Inglourious Basterds to rewrite the history of World War II, can we be surprised that Django Unchained turns the revenge Western into slavery-empowerment potboiler?

Not surprised, and not disappointed, either. Django may be QT’s best movie — certainly his best since Pulp Fiction. Well paced and beautifully shot, it sets out as a get-the-bad-guys quest pic: In 1848, German dentist-cum-bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who waltzes away with the picture) purchases slave Django (Jamie Foxx — apparently Jim Brown was unavailable) to help him identify three men with high bounties; if Django will tag along and do it, King will grant him his freedom.

But the quest is unexpectedly and quickly fulfilled, and rather than part ways, the duo become a team — think of them as The Magnificent Two — cashing in bounties while simultaneously looking for Django’s wife, who was sold to another slave owner in Mississippi (Leonardo DiCaprio).

As a plea for racial tolerance, Django Unchained makes more pervasive use of the “N” word than any place shy of a Kanye West video, but the themes of humanity translate even while the film evolves into a bloodletting. Tarantino even inserts a gay subtext, with DiCaprio seeming unusually obsessed with the strapping and charismatic Django (Foxx has never looked sexier), adding a homoerotic undertone to the later scenes.

QT keeps his characteristic send-ups of old genres (a ‘60s-era Columbia Pictures logo, a score that’s wannabe Ennio Morricone when it’s not contemporary rock songs, jump-focus camerawork, even casting Don Johnson as a Col. Sanders look-alike), but rather than distract they add moments of levity to the flamboyant a bloodbath that is more like a swimming pool before the final credits. This is what Shane might look like if Tarantino were born a few generations earlier, and it has the capacity to become that kind of classic.

Four and a half stars. Rated R. 175 mins. Opens Dec. 25 in wide release.

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D. There are surely some cynics who will dismiss this film as a 90-minute commercial for the MGM Resorts in Las Vegas, which host the half-dozen Cirque du Soleil shows performed herein. That would diminish, though, the impressive character of this charming and family-friendly film … one that also has definite gay appeal. On Christmas Day, if you want to see well-toned male bodies doing magnificent athletic tasks without watching football, Worlds Away is the answer.

Not simply a concert movie that films Cirque acts, it’s more of a filmic transcription of the theatrical experience: An adventure a la Labyrinth where a girl, obsessed with an aerialist (the breathtaking Igor Zaripov), follows him down a rabbit hole to an alternative universe. There she meets the carnival acts culled from several shows in Vegas, most notably O and The Beatles: Love, but also Ka, Mystere, Viva Elvis and Zumanity.

The editing, photography, costumes and music are all top-notch, and 3D has rarely been so well employed, accentuating the musculature of the athlete-artists while the use of slo-mo makes mere water droplets feel dramatic. Hypnotically theatrical, it toggles between Hong Kong action film, androgynous sex show and demonstration of remarkable skill (a crazy fire dance, Elvis superheroes on trampolines, a cube juggler with a great body — let’s face it), it is balletic and dreamy. If you haven’t seen a Cirque show, this is the introduction you’ve been waiting for; if you have, it’s a journey of a different kind.

Three stars. Rated PG. 85 mins. Now playing in wide release.

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in ‘Les Miz.’

Les Miserables. The trend nowadays is not to make movies of the big hit new Broadway musical quickly, but to wait decades, once the show has become an institution with a built-in audience desperate to see it. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Oliver!, The Sound of Music, Cabaret and West Side Story all took less than six years to go from stage to screen. Compare that to filmed versions of Sweeney Todd (30 years), Nine (28), Chicago (26), Dreamgirls (25), Evita (17) and The Phantom of the Opera (16); even Mamma Mia, comparatively rushed at seven years, was based on music from 30 years earlier. And we’re still waiting on Cats, Wicked and Jersey Boys.

At 25 years, the wait for Les Miz is about average. The plus: It has a built-in audience who know every note by heart! That’s also the bad news. Les Miz is now so iconic, so familiar, that to change it in any significant ways would risk pissing off its legions of fans. When a piece of theater is so sacrosanct, it becomes hard for it to breathe.

And Les Miz needs breathing room, desperately. Although it has been opened up, with sweeping landscapes and gorgeous sets (it’s definitely a pretty film), it’s constrained by its operatic sing-through conception. In musicals, songs are needed to set up location, to give exposition, to tell the interior life of characters; movies have visuals for that, and often there’s a redundancy. Devotees may be satisfied, perhaps even thrilled, but everyone else is looking for a movie.

Nonetheless, director Tom Hooper’s decision to have all the actors sing live (not to recorded tracks), serves him well with the likes of Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine: Both can sing, but more, they can act.

Less impressive is Russell Crowe, who  has the look of evil Javert but not the chops. His voice isn’t strong, and it’s not a true baritone (tenoring as the villain?! Puccini would roll over) and sings through his nose as if he’s fighting off a cold (he loses the fight). As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried’s voice is marked by a bird-like coo, brittle as an octogenarian’s bones; the trills grow annoying. And “One Day More,” onstage a thrilling quintet that ends Act 1, turns into an editing nightmare. How do you juggle all the components successfully? The answer is: You don’t. Les Miz has scope and power through its music, but as a movie? It preaches to the choir of fans … and leaves little room for new converts.

Two and a half stars. Rated PG-13. 165 mins. Opens Dec. 25 in wide release.

This Is 40. Everything I dislike about a Judd Apatow movie is encapsulated in the closing credits of This Is 40: “An Apatow Production /A Judd Apatow Film / Written and Directed by Judd Apatow / Based on Characters Created by Judd Apatow / Produced by Judd Apatow / Starring Leslie Mann [Mrs. Judd Apatow], Iris Apatow and Maude Apatow.”

Vanity, thy name is Apatow.

Add to that a scene of outtakes, where Melissa McCarthy improvises insults against a middle school principal, and you have the clubby, indulgent nature of Judd’s aesthetic, where funny people say increasingly outrageous gross-outs until the audience buckles over.

It doesn’t help the enjoyment of this movie that I saw Annie Hall again just a week before. Woody Allen has usually been able to channel improvisational riffs from his own life into masterful looks into the human condition; Apatow just makes us endure his buddies getting high and working out their issues onscreen.

There are some funny jokes, sure, especially when Paul Rudd and Albert Brooks share a scene, but you have to endure the whining of Leslie Mann’s in-denial wife and the overlong, foul-mouthed meandering that is Apatow’s stock-in-trade. Parenthood — couplehood (at least in heteroworld) — never looked less appetizing.

One star. Rated R. 130 mins. Now playing in wide release.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 21, 2012.