Movie Review – Les Miserables

Hide the razor blades, it's time for some Les Mis!

Hide the razor blades, it’s time for some Les Mis!

This is the first time I’ve ever seen the musical version of Les Miserables. This is something of a surprise, because around 21 years ago I listened to the full soundtrack. I just never had the chance to actually see a performance. During that time, for personal reasons, it became a very important story to me. Now I’ve finally had the chance to watch this movie. Was it worth the 21 year wait?

In a word, yes. This was absolutely everything that I’d hoped for in a movie version of the famed musical. Visually stunning, with such a memorable soundtrack and incredible performances, especially by Anne Hathaway who, goodness me, may well have sewn up an Oscar with her singing of “I Dreamed a Dream”, something that put even the Susan Boyle version to shame.

The story is by turns basic and complex. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a man convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. During that time, he tried to escape, but was caught, and ends up having fourteen years added to his sentence. Now after 19 years, he’s released on a parole, but, as many released from prison discover even now, he can’t find a job and can’t find a place to live. He’s taken in by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the Valjean role on stage), and then repays the bishop’s kindness by stealing silver plates and the like. When he’s caught, he claims the silver was a gift, and is astounded when the bishop not only backs him up, but offers him more. Valjean, who had been on the verge of turning into a villain, instead becomes a hero and sets out to return to being an honest man. Meantime, police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, who really has an incredible singing voice), sets off in pursuit of Valjean, while around them France seethes with revolutionary fervor.

That is, mind you, just scratching the surface. It doesn’t touch on the romance, the comedy relief, the violence, the death, the other death, the many, many, many deaths. Some of these deaths are truly heart-wrenching, and I’m only half joking when I comment about hiding the razors before watching.

The music is everything I’d expected and the sets are wonderful. But the real gem here are the performances. Jackman, Crowe, Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bohnam Carter are all exceptionally good in their roles, but it is Hathaway who walks off with the best performance on film. If you can sit through her final song and not want to start crying like a child, you might well need to have emotions.exe installed. In fact the only complaint I have about casting is that of Eddie Redmayne, a normally fine actor, but someone with a singing voice that sounds like what someone who wanted to parody a stage singing voice would sound like. It’s not bad, really, but very stylized and odd.

While I don’t think this movie will or should win Best Picture at the Oscars, it still has a great deal to recommend it. I highly recommend it, the highlight soundtrack, currently available for fifteen bucks from Amazon, and even, if you feel brave enough, reading the original book. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in any of the above.


Movie Review – Prometheus

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I wanted it to restore my faith in the Alien franchise and in Ridley Scott as a director. I wanted it to blow me away and leave me as impressed as anything I’ve ever seen at the movies. It is possible, perhaps, that my hopes for the film were too high, but I really wanted this movie to be great and instead it was just…there. Not great, not bad. Merely Serviceable and it should have been so much more.

You probably are aware by now that this is a (more or less) prequel to Scott’s sci-fi epic, Alien. This film owes much to that and has many parallels, though you don’t need to have seen the other movies to watch this one.

The movie shows us a world where alien astronauts visited the Earth back in the day (they’re vague as to when, but at least as far back as 35,000 years ago), and apparently the aliens had a hand in the creation of humanity. A team of scientists go to an alien world to have a look-see and find out what was going on all those centuries ago. Bad things happen, stuff gets blowed up real good and we get our tie-ins with the other movies.

If this sounds like I’m writing off the plot as being kind of a paint-by-numbers affair, it’s because I am. There’s no real revelations, except a stupid and pointless one involving DNA, the main character isn’t nearly as interesting as Ellen Ripley and the science in the movie is laughable. This is also one of those films that relies on everyone acting like an idiot (ie: a biologist who, when confronted with a snake-like reptile that’s clearly adopting a threat posture, moves in for a closer look, resulting in what you’d expect to have happen). The movie leaves us asking far more questions than we should be, and they aren’t ones like, “What’s the real nature of humanity?” but instead are ones like, “Why did anyone think this was a good idea for a film?”

But that’s not fair, perhaps. It wasn’t a bad idea for a film. There’s some rich treasure to be mined with the premise. It’s just that the execution was very flawed. I’ll say that Michael Fasbender did an excellent job as David, and the film looked very good. But beyond that, it just isn’t anything like what I’d wanted.

That said, given how very disjointed the plot is, I’ll be very curious to see what the director’s cut will be like. Mark my words: I’m expecting at least half an hour of deleted scenes which will probably clear up some of the problems with the film. I certainly hope so, anyhow, because as it stands it just isn’t very good.

Movie Review – The Avengers

Well, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it, and for a change, I actually haven’t anything bad to say about a movie I’ve seen. Usually if I push, I can find at least one or two things to complain about, but this? I actually can’t think of anything.

You probably know the plot by now. Loki (from Thor), is working with a mysterious alien someone to invade the Earth and wreak havoc. Nick Fury gets the Avengers together, including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and they all fight Loki and company. What follows is every fanboy’s wet dream as we get action, excitement, comedy, suspense and plenty of bang for the buck!

Surprisingly, I have really no major complaints about this movie. It is everything I like in an action film. There’s characters I like and can root for, there’s a clearly defined threat, and all the action was very easy to follow. Compare and contrast with something like Transformers 2.

How much did I like this movie? I’d be willing to pay again to see it in the theater, and given my current financial state, that’s saying something. Really aces all around! I can’t wait for the sequel!

Movie Review – Hugo

If you just looked at the trailers, you might think Martin Scorsese’s latest film was about nothing more than a little boy living in the clockworks at a train station in Paris, having magical, vaguely steampunk, Harry Potter style adventures. You’d be mostly wrong. Hugo is, instead, at its heart, a film that’s about films and the people who love them.

The main character is a boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who, like most of the French people in this movie, speaks with an English accent. He’s been living at the train station ever since his father (a clockmaker), died, leaving him an orphan in the care of his drunken uncle, who maintains all the clocks at the station.

Young Hugo takes over the job after his uncle disappears, though this is a secret that isn’t known to the station denizens, including the local police chief (Sasha Baron Cohen). He spends his spare time stealing food and occasionally swiping bits of clockwork from an old toy maker (Ben Kingsley). This goes well for him until one day when the toy maker catches him in the act, and finds a notebook on Hugo detailing a clockwork automaton that his father was working on repairing.

The toy maker goes a bit bonkers over this, and confiscates it, telling Hugo he’s going to burn it. Then his young goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz, who thankfully doesn’t kill anyone in this film), takes pity on the boy and tries to help him out. They’re both surprised to realize that a key she wears around her neck fits into a keyhole on Hugo’s clockwork man. They’re even more surprised when the image the automaton draws is one of the Man in the Moon with a rocket sticking into his eye. That the girl’s godfather is named Georges might start to give some in the audience pause for thought.

I loved this film from start to finish, and it’s by far the best film I’ve seen this year. It really does have everything, and oozes a love of film like nothing I’ve seen in a long time. The power of film to move the audience is explored here in ways I’ve never seen before, and like any good movie, it does an excellent job of showing me things I’ve never seen before.

I also greatly enjoyed the fact that the movie takes time to slow down and explore all the supporting characters. The policeman, the flower girl, the newspaper seller, the woman at the cafe. They all get their own stories, and those add something wonderful to the film, and something sadly lacking in most movies that can’t wait to get to the next explosion and haven’t time for character development for their main characters, much less supporting ones.

The 3D effects must be addressed. I’m not a fan of 3D, not even remotely. I find it a distraction, for the most part, and generally regard it as a way for movie studios to pad out their profits. It’s generally unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot. Even in the best 3D film I’ve seen before this, Avatar, it wasn’t that much more than a gimmick, though one used to good effect.

In this film, though, it really does add something. It really does give a whole new dimension to the movie. I guess this isn’t a surprise with a filmmaker like Scorsese. In his hands, this isn’t a distraction, and it isn’t a gimmick. I’m willing to bet that the film is just fine without 3D, but with it, it really becomes something unique and fascinating. If all 3D films were this good, I’d be less unhappy with them.

Hugo is a masterpiece. Look for it to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and for Ben Kinglesy as Best Actor. Yes, it’s that time of the year again. 🙂 Also, this movie is doing very poorly at the box office, so if you can, go see it in the theaters. You’ll be happy you did.

Movie Review – J. Edgar

Perhaps the only thing worse than an evil man getting near absolute power is a good man getting near absolute power. With an evil man, everyone is going to be watching him, on the lookout for abuses .With a good man, everyone assumes that he’s doing right because, well, he’s a good man.

J. Edgar Hoover, the first, and for several decades only, director of the FBI, started out as a good man, but a man who was clearly willing, from the start, to use legally and morally iffy tactics. No one really challenged him very hard on this. Why would they, since he was a good man? Then as the decades rolled on, the tactics became less legal and less moral and Hoover turned into something far from good.

J. Edgar, the new biopic directed by Clint Eastwood (who is, somewhat to my surprise, 81 years old), and staring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, tells the story of Hoover’s rise to power against a background of terrorist attacks in the early twentieth century; attacks which included the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building and a bombing on Wall Street in 1920. Hoover gets directly involved following a bomb attack on the home of the Attorney General (one of eight bomb attacks that night). He’s a young up-and-comer who has ideas for a more scientific, procedural approach to crime.

Hoover is eventually put in charge of the Bureau of Investigation, and begins to surround himself with various men, including one Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who are nearly as committed to stomping out Communism as he is.

The Bureau gets its first real chance to show the public what it can do when the Lindbergh baby is kidnapped. At first Hoover’s hands are tied by the fact that the Bureau can’t really do much and doesn’t have any federal jurisdiction. He gets the laws changed, and eventually has enough power to pursue and arrest a man who, in retrospect, probably didn’t do it.

At that point there’s no real stopping Hoover. He begins to amass secret files against anyone who he views as a threat to the nation (or to himself, though he seems to view the two as one in the same). These files soon become tools which he’s able to use to keep himself in power through blackmailing everyone from Congressmen on up to, at the very least, Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy.

Throughout all this, we see Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench), and his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), as well as, of course, his relationship with Tolson, which might have been more had Hoover’s mother made it very clear that she’d rather see her son dead than gay.

Ah, yes, the Tolson question. Tolson was Hoover’s friend and ally and quite probably more. The movie presents them as being deeply committed, probably in love, and never consummating their relationship. The only time Tolson kisses Hoover does not end well. For the record, from everything I can tell the way that their relationship is presented on screen as one that was intensely loving and yet non-sexual seems to be pretty accurate.

The film works for the most part, aside from some pacing issues, and interestingly, I feel that it could have benefited from being a bit longer, so as to have more time to explore the life of Hoover.

For example, the movie spends a great deal of time focusing on the Lindbergh kidnapping, and while that was clearly an important thing for Hoover personally and the FBI in general, I do wonder if there might have been a way to communicate that in a shorter time. It also would have been good to see some of Hoover’s failed efforts and to explore a bit more the illegal nature of much of what he did.

I also would have liked to have seen more of Hoover’s time in the 1950s. His involvement with the likes of HUAC, Joe McCarthy (who he openly scorns in the film), and especially closeted homosexual Roy Cohen could have proven very fascinating.

Also problematical on a more technical level is the aging makeup worn by Hammer to play the older version of Tolson. With him it looks like what it is: a latex mask adjusted somewhat by CGI. It didn’t look nearly as convincing as what Di Caprio had, which might speak more to Di Caprio’s ability to act through such makeup.

I haven’t seen a huge number of Eastwood’s other films, so it’s hard to me to put this one in relationship to those. I will say I found it far more engaging and enjoyable than Unforgiven and about as good as Million Dollar Baby (and certainly less depressing than that). It was also a lot more enjoyable than Invictus.

J. Edgar Hoover was clearly a complex and frequently troubled man. Ultimately this movie does do a very good job of showing him as a determined, effective and deeply flawed human being, every bit as complex as we might expect.

DVD Review – The Colors of the Mountain

(special thanks to Film Movement for providing me with a screener!)

Growing up anywhere isn’t really easy, especially once you hit the age of nine or so. At that age, you’re starting to understand that there’s a greater adult world that you don’t have access to, and that doesn’t intersect with your own, except for certain horrible times. Hard though being at that age is anywhere, I can only imagine how much worse it must be to be a child and grow up in a war zone. That’s the situation in which young Manuel finds himself in The Colors of the Mountain.

The story centers around a picturesque mountain village in Colombia. It’s a place where families scrape by, earning what they can by farming. You know, the standard salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They ask nothing from life and get even less.

Manuel lives there with his mother, farther and little baby brother. His biggest passion in life is soccer, though he also enjoys drawing and loves hanging out with his friends Julian and Poca Luz. He even loves going to school, though at least in part that seems to be due to him developing a crush on a girl there and on his teacher.

Not all is well in Manuel’s world, though he’s not really aware of that fact. His village is in an area where rebels are fighting the national military; each of whom seem to be worse than the other. Manuel’s father walks a narrow line of not supporting either, and, well, you know what happens with people like that in wars like this.

Manuel is vaguely aware of these things happening, but not really. The war is something that doesn’t matter to him. Or at least it doesn’t matter until his birthday rolls around and he gets a soccer ball which winds up in the middle of a minefield…

This really is a wonderful movie. It’s very touching and at times very funny. The performances all around are excellent, especially by Hernan Maurico Ocampo, who plays Manuel.

Also, the film is flat-out beautiful, showing the lush countryside of the Colombian mountains. Like most Americans, those mountains are something I’m really only accustomed to seeing in news reports about the ongoing drug war. It’s nice to see them in a somewhat more pleasant way.

And I must say, I found myself really caring about the characters. There’s at least a couple whose fate is left up in the air at the end of the movie, and I’d really like to learn what became of them (though I suspect the answer is “nothing good”).

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, and it’s one that I’d have a tough time recommending for younger children. But it is a beautiful, well-acted and generally wonderful film and for any adult audience, I highly recommend it.

=== Short Film ===

This month’s short film is a Cuban film called “The Swimmers”. It’s about a determined swim coach who wants his young charges to be the best swimmers around. The fact that their pool is currently devoid of water is something he seems to view as merely a minor setback.

This was a good film, and quite funny in parts, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the main feature. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not worth picking up the disc just for this movie.

Movie Review – Fright Night

Back when I was a wee lad and the only way to see movies after they left theatres was cable or your VCR, I stumbled across the film Fright Night. It was a bit cheesy, but it was a lot of fun, and I had enjoyed Roddy McDowell ever since I first saw him in Planet of the Apes. It was a film I was deeply fond of, and so I approached word of a remake with great trepidation. Thankfully this movie is at least as good, if not better, than the original.

The story follows Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin who, thankfully, has the good sense to take off his shirt at one point), a high school senior living in Las Vegas who tries to forget his former friendship with a boy named Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Ed is convinced that a vampire (Colin Farrell), has moved in next to Charlie, and the disappearance of their mutual friend Adam has pushed him to the point where he’s nearly in a panic. Charlie initially blows him off, as he’s far more interested in hanging out with his “cool” friends and being around his girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). Then Ed disappears, and Charlie starts to wonder what’s really going on.

I liked this film a lot more than I expected to. Farrell does an excellent job playing Jerry the vampire. He plays as someone who is just a bit “off”, almost like your basic movie serial killer, which technically is what he is. Mintz-Plasse also does a good job with what he’s given, though I wish he’d had a bit more screentime as, frankly, his portrayal of the character isn’t as memorable as that of Stephen Geoffreys (who later turned to doing gay porn. No, really!).

The real star of the show, however, and the one who steals the screen every moment he’s on, is David Tennant (who, yes, fanboys and girls, goes shirtless for large parts of the movie), playing the McDowell role of Peter Vincent. Now instead of being a washed-up actor, he’s a Las Vegas stage magician who pushes a vaguely Criss Angel image. He hams it up considerably, and does a good job of breaking away from his image as the Doctor. Rumor has it that his character is going to be spun-off into his own movie. I really hope that’s the case.

The movie doesn’t bring much that’s new to vampire lore, aside from making the vampires non-sparkly and restoring all the old weaknesses that modern movies seem to want to gloss over. It does occasionally dip into cliche, but it executes the cliches well, and I’ll say this: I’ll never look at a Century 21 sign the same again.

Ultimately this film stands well on its own and is a very good way to end the summer blockbuster season. One last note: this is a physically dark film, with most of the action taking place in dark rooms or at night. Do not see it in 3-D if you actually want to see the movie.