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Les Miserables (2012) Review (PG-13)

Posted in A Few Old, Short Words, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2013 by Crash! Landen

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First… Yes. YES, I admit it. I went and saw this at the  movie theater a few weeks ago. There are chick flicks and then there are musicals and then there are ‘based on Broadway show’ musicals. Yes, I willingly went to see this. Are there reasons to see this if you aren’t really into musicals, as I am not? Well, yeah… Anne Hathaway… Wait, I have more… It has lots of big name people running around it besides Catwoman (even if she’s all that I really need). There’s Wolverine and the Gladiator in the two biggest roles.

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There are actors with three names like Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. There are some cute girls like Amanda Seyfried and plucky newcomer Samantha Barks. The film is obviously ‘Oscar bait’ with all of the singing and dancing and melodrama and crying and  angst in general. It IS a visual feast; I mean they spent the money on this sucker. Even the rags some of the people are wearing look like expensive designer rags (“Whose rags are you wearing?” “These are Amani”…). The money is apparent onscreen.

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Are there reasons not to see it? Well, it’s a musical based on a Broadway musical. Need more? There is much caterwauling.. And some screeching.. And some cryin’… And lots and LOTS of misery, as one would expect given the title. O’, the suffering. But, I’m not trying to steer you away from the movie. I actually liked it; I didn’t love it, but it is worth seeing on a big screen.

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Before I go any further, I guess I also need to put forth a link for the pronunciation of Les Miserables. Trust me, there is nothing worse than being ridiculed by idiots for pronouncing something correctly. If you know how to pronounce it, then forget I said anything.

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The film itself opens in truly spectacular fashion with Javert (played by the overly criticized Russell Crowe, who was far better here than he’ll get credit for) overseeing prisoners pulling a ship ashore in a rain storm at the beginning of the 19th century… And they’re all singing. Swear to God. One of the prisoners is Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman who is in full on “I’m going to win an Oscar!” mode. Valjean is released from prison, but finds that his fortunes haven’t picked up any. He is beaten, robbed, driven out of town after town until he finally gets taken in by the Church. Not being the grateful sort, he immediately steals from them and takes off in the night.

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Shortly after, he is apprehended  by the local authorities, but shockingly to both Valjean and the police, the presiding Bishop of the Church tells them that the items stolen were given to the ex-con as a gift. Then he gives him even more. Valjean is so filled with guilt and remorse by this act (and his life gone wrong) that he decides to make a profound change. He decides in grand angsty fashion to do something positive with his life. Oddly, he jumps parole and that gets Javert back on his case. Javert vows to see Valjean in chains again. They’re all still singing, by the way.

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Cut to: Eight years later, we meet Fantine, played by the always lovely even when she’s absolutely miserable, Anne ‘Catwoman’ Hathaway. Fantine works for ValjeanCo in one of those really crappy 18th century industrial factories that companies like Mac and Nike utilize in China to make even more gigantic profits (in defense of the one in the movie, at least they employ adults). The other women don’t like her and the foreman wants to get his hands all over her, if not other appendages. She is ultimately dismissed quite harshly when it’s found out that she has an illegitimate child. I guess that was frowned upon back then.

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Jobless and penniless, Fantine has to resort to all kinds of horrible acts and situations in order to make money to send to her daughter’s caretakers. In case you don’t know the story, I won’t reveal any more, except to say that because of Fantine’s situation, Valjean becomes concerned with her well being and that of her daughter. Did I mention there’s a revolution mounting? No? Well, there is.

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I believe that if this had  been made  based on the book instead of the musical, this might have been a stronger film.  I think there have been somewhere around 13 big screen adaptations over the years of the Victor Hugo novel, the same source material that the musical of the same name sprang from. From what I gather, having never seen the Broadway musical (thankfully), I take it that this film is more from that Broadway show than the novel itself.

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I did see the 1998 film that starred Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Geoffrey Rush, that I think may have illustrated that the non-singing version was the better way to go, despite lacking the truly stunning visuals, artistry and production values of this film. And I must say, I preferred the less melodramatic ending of that one. The singing, to me, is the biggest flaw of this new movie. It’s very difficult to get used to no matter how long it goes on (and it goes on a very, VERY long while).

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There were at least a couple of really great musical numbers that were successful in the film (the ones getting the most attention being Anne Hathaway’s teary eyed rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” amongst others). The big musical sequences were fine, it was really the in-between stuff that was off kilter if not downright awkward. I was even squirming at little at some of the worst moments.

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Here, the actors sang even their lines of dialogue which had an extremely jarring effect that continued throughout the film. All of the actors weren’t the best of singers, either, so it  was magnified in certain cases. Music is subjective, though, so I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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The film’s length was also problematic with the least interesting part of the story feeling the longest (That was the whole ‘pretty boy revolution’…For me I was glad to see their part of the story resolved and in the way that it was resolved. I can only say ‘they missed one’). Again, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the movie, I did. It’s a well made PRODUCTION of a Hollywood motion picture and it would be worth seeing for the spectacle alone. There IS a lot to like about this big screen adaptation.

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Hugh Jackman plays the role of Valjean with a charged desperation. You can see how much he wants to win that Oscar in every single moment he appears on camera. He does seem to have suffered for his part, even if the makeup department probably had a large part in depicting at least a bit of that suffering. While most characters in typical Hollywood musicals over-exaggerate every gesture, Jackman (or Huge Action as film critic Mark Kermode refers to him) turns his character’s emotions up to eleven.

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Anne… Ooooohhh Anne. I would find find it hard to believe that even her biggest critics would not admit that she was genuinely affecting in the role of Fantine. I did feel for her character in this film. She does do an awful lot of suffering. She emotes. She cried. There are lots of horrible things done to her. I knew the story and where it would end up, but I kind of wanted them to surprise the audience and have her luck change… But no.  The thing that surprised me was that her part was smaller than I thought that it was going to be. Or maybe it just seemed that way because of the intensity of her peformance. While Jackman voiced his character’s sorrows with gnashed teeth, Hathaway sang with a little more emotional range (and has a voice I’d listen to all day long).  Again, I have to mention the makeup department, because there were times when Hathaway looked pretty dangedable rough and that must be a feat in and of itself. There should be a separate category at the Oscars each year: Best Makeup Job Making a Hot Actress look Unattractive.

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The tone of the film was somewhat puzzling. It was just too darn serious for the most part. The only time it lightened up, was when Sasha Baron Cohen’s character popped up. I hate to say this when Anne Hathaway was in the movie, but he may have been the best thing about Les Miserables. Every time he was onscreen the tone of the film changed. It was a lot more fun, with Cohen delivering a number of pretty good laughs. I think if they had loosened up a little more and tried for a little more humor in the rest of the film, I would have liked it more than I did. I’m surprised he didn’t get more recognition for his role as the shady criminal that he plays. Even Helena Bonham Carter, who is usually a scene stealer herself, couldn’t keep up with him.

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But the biggest surprise may have  been from Samantha Barks. Just like Cohen, she stole the spotlight from whoever she was onscreen with. I think she even had the best song (and probably best voice) of the film. I think her quiet dramatics in the story may have stirred emotions more than the bigger moments. The fact that she wasn’t nominated for her supporting role is rather puzzling, but then that would be the description for the Oscars every year.

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What’s amazing is that two of the bigger characters of the film, who have a lot of screen time, are pushed into the background a little. Russell Crowe is going to look a lot less flashy when being contrasted next to the extroverted  song and dance man Jackman, anyway. I do think he’s been unfairly criticized, probably because many critics just don’t like him (what?! Critics being unfairly biased?! WHAT?!). I’m not one of those, though, and I think he did just fine as the relentless villain Javert. He sings in monotone for the most part, but I think that’s fitting for the villain.

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It’s a little confounding how Amanda Seyfried got lost in the shuffle. She plays the character that’s sort of this symbol for hope and renewal, but for me, wasn’t really focused on by the director, Tom Hooper. He seemed to be much more interested in the suffering and the Pretty Boy Dance Party, than in her role in the film. I think there some other problems that involved simple storytelling, also. Others may not agree with me, but if you didn’t know the story beforehand, as I did, there might have been some moments where you weren’t really sure what was happening, as when Valjean steals from the Church. Much like a song you hear on the radio, you get fragments of what’s happening and may not entirely get what the song is talking about. That may just be me, though, but I can at least pronounce the title, so back off.

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Anyway, good film, but not my movie of the year by any stretch. I do think it will win many of the bigger awards at the Oscars (which is going on right now… I’m not watching). This is the type of film that those Hollywood types love. I’ll be majorly surprised if Hathaway doesn’t win, especially. If I had a Best Actress award, she would probably win it this year and not just because I think she’s hot. Is that the right note to end on? I think so. This film will probably be in my Top 10 of 2012.

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I don’t know where it will fall yet, but it was a ‘big screen’ effort and one of the better musicals ever made almost by default, because of the lavish set pieces and meticulous attention to details. If you’re a fan of this sort of thing, you probably will like it even more than I did. If you’re NOT a fan of musicals, the awkward constant singing may make it intolerable. I ended up being able to tolerate it, though. If only there had not been so much crying.

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4.5 of 5

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Hugo (2011) Review (PG)

Posted in A Few Old, Short Words, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2011 by Crash! Landen

There’s nothing I love more than seeing films that have eerily similar images and themes to the comic that I’m currently working on right down to featuring one of my silver screen heroes Harold Lloyd. I’m not bitter or anything, though.So is that the earliest digression that I’ve ever presented in a review? It has to be. It was the first sentence. So, where was I? Yes, the beginning.

The story is of a young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who is living in the walls of a busy Paris train station. He winds the clocks of the station, which is the job of his uncle who had gone on a trip but did not return. The boy continues performing the duties of the job. He figures if the clocks keep running, no one will notice the man’s absence and he can continue to live there.

He spends his time pilfering food and more interestingly, gears, tools and parts from a toy store owner who operates a station shoppe. Hugo avoids (daily) the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen… adding his middle name Baron to separate himself from all of the other Sacha Cohens out there),  a righteously indignant stickler to the rules WWI veteran who specializes in capturing wayward children and shuttling them off to the nearest orphange.

The Inspector is aided by probably my favorite character in the film; Maximillian the Doberman. The canine is equally as bumbling as  the inspector, but probably twice as smart. The inspector seems obsessed with apprehending the young ‘troublemaker’, but he is also enamored with a woman, Lisette (the lovely and talented Emily Mortimer), that sells flowers in the station… Wait, I don’t want to get sidetracked with that…

Anyway… Hugo is caught by the toy store owner (Ben Kingsley) one day and is forced to reveal the fruits of his labor; the aforementioned gears and tools, plus a notebook with drawings of a steampunk style robot called the Automaton (of which Hugo has the real deal in his possession). The drawings are what truly sends the shop owner into a fury, demanding to know the name of the artist. Hugo remains silent and thus are the beginnings of several mild mysteries… Who was the artist? Who is the toy shop owner? What is the secret of the Automaton?

Aided in his quest by an ‘inside man’ (a girl in this case), Hugo slowly begins to ‘unlock’ the puzzle pieces. Chloe Grace Moretz (who now adds the middle name Grace to separate herself from all of the other Chloe Moretzes out there) plays Isabelle, a girl being raised by the toy store owner and his wife. She is  enamored with the idea of being part of an ‘adventure’ and becomes fast friends with Hugo. Along the way, Scorsese puts in numerous silent film references, background art, and detailing.

There were recreations of the films of Georges Méliès throughout, as well as just showing some of the original footage. Sometimes the actors (Kingsley and Helen McCrory specifically) were inserted into the original shots via CGI with mixed results.

I particularly didn’t like one shot  that was VERY poorly rendered by the art department, replacing the visage of the actual Jeanne Méliès with McCrory’s face). Several  plot/story elements were taken from the films of Méliès. The Automaton, for instance, was taken from one of his lost films (made in 1897!), “Guguisse et l’Automate” (The Clown and the Automaton).

My favorite moment of the film had to have been the Harold Lloyd references. I made mention to a friend that the trailer’s image of Hugo hanging from a clock hand (an image that I intended to use in my comic book…) was obviously referencing my favorite of the big silent film  comedians. Sure, Charlie Chapman was a huge star and  Buster Keaton was a physical comedy genius (and I’m a huge fan of his), but Lloyd was my favorite.  While Chaplain usually poked fun at the situation and Keaton was always the stoic yet steadfast hero/underdog, Lloyd wasn’t afraid to portray protagonists that were the victims of their own character flaws. He was the bumbling idiot who generally caused his own predicaments.

The image of  Lloyd from “Safety Last” where he dangled precariously from a giant clock on the side of a highrise used to be on my living room wall (it only came down when I moved). I also loved the almost imperceptible detail (even at a blown up size) that he wore a glove in order to hide that fact that he had blown off part of his hand when a real bomb was mistaken for a prop. That image just says a lot of things to me, symbollically and literally. Whew! Digressing, again. My point is that I enjoyed the scene where Hugo and Isabelle sneak into the theater to take in the Harold Lloyd matinee.  For a fan of Lloyd, that was fun to see.

Hugo has very little in common with the rest of Martin Scorsese’s body of film work. First, it’s a kid’s film, and he follows all the way through with that. No cursing. At all. I mean, it’s PG… Not PG-13. Not ‘PG with a questionable call by the ratings board’. PG. I was fully expecting to see  Joe Pesci or Ray Liotta drop in tolaunch a few F-bombs, but no… No lude behavior by shockmeister Sacha Baron Cohen, either… The lack of shocks were shocking. And I don’t have any problem with any of that stuff. I just have a problem with that stuff in kid’s movies. And that’s why it’s so surprising to me that this is a Scorsese film. That by itself would markedly differentiate this from his other films. But that’s just the beginning of this creative ninety degree turn by the director.

Visually, this is a masterpiece. It’s Scorsese’s best looking film by a considerable margin. The setting is not Paris of an era gone by so much as an idealized fairy tale Parisian world in which these characters inhabit. Scorsese has always stuck (mostly) to trying to create some kind of gritty realism. Hugo is the polar opposite. It’s not just a CGI ‘eye candy’ film, though. Hugo’s set design is pure artistry, even more so than a lot of recent fantasy films like the Harry Potter films in their best moments. The ambience of the film reminded me of the little seen City of Ember, only on the other side of the coin. Bright, upbeat with a light step.

The trouble is the story and characters are walking contradictions to that. Where there is a bustling crowd, the central characters tend to stand around. The poster at the top claims an ‘extraordinary adventure’. The visuals are certainly extraordinary. The actual story is… what’s the word? Languid… Yeah, that’s it. Languid. It unfolds at a snail’s crawl. A leisurely pace. There’s a good sequence early on of Hugo moving through the walls of the train station and a brief chase by the Station Inspector (Sacha B. Cohen) but that’s what you get in the trailer.  The trailer portrays this as a fast paced adventure full of ‘magical discoveries’. It is anything but that, yet, the very worst part, for me, is that the central character does nothing but cry the entire film… Nay, I say weep. He weeps. He’s weepie. If there is but one thing that I would have changed in this film: LESS WEEPING. It’s like every scene. Even the Emo-vanguard that was Spider-Man 3 did not feature a main male protagonist that WEEPED (not cried)… WEEPEDthis much. As soon as I finished off the last kernel of popcorn (which was before the pre-movie trailers ended), I began using the bag for my vomiting. Weep. Barf! Weepie weepie. Gag! Barf! Weep. Bleaaghch!!!

Sorry. Where was I?

In truth, the film is very close in its narrative style to Scorsese’s other films. It rambles. That’s fine in his films like “Good Fellas” or “The Departed” that are tales of moral ambiguity. Character studies detailing tragic lives and downward spirals. In a kids’ film, you have to kind of keep the attention of… ya’ know… kids. Scorsese LOVES film. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have made this, a movie that is essentially about what he loves so much: movies. He films things that other directors may not have even thought about filming. For instance, the “Are you talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver that actually says volumes about that character. Just the character threatening phantom antagonists in the mirror” and supposedly that was DeNiro  improvising. So he got the iconic moment that sums up both the film and the character… by accident. Scorsese just films stuff. On the other hand, in this case, he lets the film get bogged down in scenes that I was having trouble seeing why they were a part of the movie. He also seemed interested in telling too many stories in this that really were not that interesting. The main two intertwining stories are A) Hugo’s feelings about what happens to his father… And B) about a man regaining the feeling that his life had some purpose. But Scorsese also wants to tie in at least two more love stories (three if you count the dogs), a man who feels like he’s no longer viable, a divergence or two with a bookstore owner (but it IS the incomparable Christopher Lee), a man who is trying to preserve the films of his childhood… And on and on and on. And it’s mostly just talking. And talking. And explaining. Even the scenes portrayed as something ‘exciting’ (the films of Georges Méliès), are just more scenes of people standing around, only in costume.

Clearly, the story Scorsese wants to tell is the one of Georges Méliès, one of the earliest filmmakers. Scorsese is not only passionate about filmmaking, and not surprisingly that extends to preserving old films.He wants to share his film knowledge with everyone else. he wants it to matter to them like it does to him.

If you’ve been to a movie in the last few years you might have caught an ad for The Film Foundation (a charity dedicated to the task of ‘saving’ old deteriorating films).  There is an aspect of that (film preservation/holding on to the past) in the story. Many film critics have said that Hugo is an almost autobiographical tale about Martin Scorsese himself. I think that’s a stretch, but it IS about things that the director has an interest in.

That might be the thing, though, that works most against it. Film critics will love this. People interested in film or who aspire to work in the film industry will like this. Those that are not so interested in the historical side (involving Méliès and his films) will surely be bored by this. There just isn’t enough dramatic tension.

I’m not saying that I didn’t like it. I did. Artistically, it’s brilliant. The story engaged me, but that’s because I love movies. I don’t know if a 7 year old will find this nearly as captivating as I did. I don’t know if anyone from 7 to 90 will, either. I just know that I enjoyed it, but it was, at times, a long, hard watch. Still, it’s in contention for my ‘Best film of 2011′…

4.5 of 5

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