Monday, December 31, 2012

French Miss: You’ll Hear the People Sing and Sing and Sing in “Les Misérables”

Where there’s a will there’s a Hathaway. The wonderful young actress who just as many people find annoying as likeable steals the show in the movie musical “Les Misérables,” based on the extremely popular stage musical, which was based on Victor Hugo’s novel about poor people in 19th century France. Unfortunately as the doesn’t-live-very-long-because-she-turns-to-prositution-for-money tragic character Fantine, Hathaway leaves the film too early but makes an indelible mark indeed. Fortunately she’s practically bound for Oscar glory as tragic heroine who sort of serves as literally the mother of the story’s MacGuffin: her illegitimate daughter Cosette.

As someone who’s seen the Broadway stage musical and was never truly impressed, all I saw was a bunch of actors singing boring songs with French accents, I never felt truly gripped by the movie version as well. In the film, Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean. He’s a thief. But he’s a good and decent man. He only steals a loaf of bread. But due to circumstances out of his control, like existing as a poor man in 19th century France, he’s sent away to prison and under the watchful eye of the ruthless Javert (Russell Crowe, who can sing marginally well, remember he’s in a rock band too). Jean and Javert have an instant rivalry, but eventually Jean is released, breaks his parole intent on staying a good man, and goes into hiding only to emerge years later as a mayor and owner of a factory. Not a great way to hide out in my opinion. There, one his factory workers, Fantine (Hathaway), begins selling her body to make money to support her child after the factory’s foreman fires her. Since we know Jean is a good man he makes it his mission to take care of Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) and raise her well. She becomes just as morally sound as she does beautiful, (now played by Amanda Seyfried) which of course attracts the attention of a young suitor named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) but he’s also starting a revolution which can only end sadly in a story like this. Throw in a love triangle with Éponine (Samantha Barks) who’s also in love with Marius, and you have a recipe for tragic boredom. After watching all of this, including the two bumbling, greedy innkeepers played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who provide comic relief, I really wish that Fantine didn’t succumb to her unnamed illness. She was way more likable than any other character that appears after her untimely death. But that’s “Les Miserables” in an irreverent nutshell.

Fans of the stage musical will no doubt fully enjoy what director Tom Hooper has put on display here. He has some pretty fun cinematic devices up his sleeve, which have no doubt caused some controversy. For instance, many of his characters’ musical numbers in extreme close up. It sells the emotion and if you have an actor who can act well, which here there are many, why not? Besides, you can't do a closeup on a stage. The actors have also sung their parts live during filming as opposed to dubbing their singing in a studio. This doesn’t quite help those who aren’t as strong vocally (like Crowe) but is an interesting strategy regardless. I’m a fan of Hooper’s visual style including his interesting choice of framing. Anyone could put their actor at the center of the frame, but sometimes he chooses to have a lot of negative space around a not centered character. And of course all the production design and costumes and makeup are top notch.

But all the production value in the world couldn’t make me very emotionally attached to the film’s story. The actors singing nearly every line doesn’t quite help, neither does some of the movie’s underdeveloped relationships. I didn’t quite buy into Cosette and Marius’ love-at-first-sight romance, and didn’t quite connect to the Jean vs. Javet rivalry. The actors themselves were good, the script by William Nicholson was not. Les Miserables is a surprisingly divisive film, with some loving it and some complaining about some of its techniques. It’s certainly a well made-production with a lavish and loving attention to detail. Those who love the music and actors will certainly find a lot to adore, but overall I found myself being slightly misérable as well.  GRADE: C+

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Slaves on a Chain: Tarantino’s Violent Revenge Western “Django Unchained” is Bloody Good

Even though Quentin Tarantino’s movies have basically all of the same elements you always tend to be surprised by what you actually see in every new movie he makes. Like his last film, the spell-check unfriendly “Inglourious Basterds,” his latest effort “Django Unchained” is another ode to violent spaghetti westerns. And this thing is loaded with blood and guts which may actually surprise some who aren’t used to Kill Bill-level violence in their westerns. Of course this movie has a sort of blackspoitation twist as it’s essentially a slavery revenge drama. During the years before the Civil War, a white man frees a black slave, trains him to be a bounty hunter, and then the black man intends on rescuing his wife from a greedy racist plantation owner (was there any other kind of plantation owner?).

First of all, the acting here is top notch. Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, who was so chillingly charismatic and sadistic in “Inglourious Basterds,” is equally as charismatic but he’s playing a way more likable character. He’s a former dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz. In the film's wonderful opening he frees slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from a chain of slaves using his charm and his gun. He wants to team up with Django because he can identify some of the men he’s after. He agrees to help him rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who’s now help captive by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). His plantation is called Candieland. Does that count as pop culture reference? It is wonderful to see DiCaprio, who doesn’t show up for quite awhile into the film’s run time, in a showy role as a compelling villain. And oh what a villain he is. And it's fun to see Tarantino staple Samuel L. Jackson play such a prick and once popular actor Don Johnson getting fun, new material to work with here as plantation owner “Big Daddy.”

Like any good Tarantino film the movie is equally violent and controversial. The “n” word is used a lot, which is historically accurate, but no less abrasive each and every time it’s heard. And when characters get shot in this film blood spurts out in an orgy of red stage blood. There’s even a Kill Bill-like massacre sequence that literally paints the set red. What’s so ultimately satisfactory about all this is how well Tarantino balances extreme violence, humor, and emotion while packaging it into a meaningful and ultimately entertaining way. His strong flair for talky dialogue sequences are here in full form, but are never boring or dawn out, and an epic runtime simply flies by. Music and camerawork are standouts as usual too.

“Django Unchained” is Tarantino through and through and fans of his work will no doubt be pleased as they have been with his past films. Like “Inglourious Basterds,” it's fun to see Tarantino work in a historical setting, placing his crazy and weird characters in a real-life historical setting. He's made yet another extremely well-done genre film. Some may be put off by some of the elements here, but fans will no doubt rejoice.  GRADE: A-

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Return of the Ring: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is Mostly for Fantasy Fans

If you asked me to summarize the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” it might sound like a five year old trying to do the same. My brain doesn’t tend to work in the fantastical realm and therefore the latest fantasy adventure from Peter Jackson, the director of the immensely popular “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a little lost on me. I imagine fans of the first three films will most likely love it, although it doesn’t seem to be a dramatically significant as the original films. “The Hobbit” book, written by literally nerd favorite JRR Tolkien, by its nature is a more lighthearted story. Therefore the film feels more lighthearted as a result. Some may see it as a negative others may not; I feel rather indifferent to the whole thing. However, “The Hobbit” never grabbed me in the way any really well done action adventure film should do.

The Hobbit’s plot doesn’t feel quite as dense as the original trilogy. It’s a simple adventure revolving around a younger version of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who is recruited by the magical wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help a gaggle of goofy dwarves reclaim their home which was destroyed by a giant fire-breathing dragon. In the tradition of the Lord of the Rings, there is no real conclusion as this is only the first film in a planned trilogy. The group get into a bunch of random misadventures including run ins with giant trolls and creepy goblins. Cate Blanchett also shows up as one of the only female characters in Middle Earth.

One of the main problems is that with thirteen dwarves, you never really get to know any of them. Their names are too confusing to even pronounce and none of them are particularly all that memorable. Freeman is good as Bilbo, but there wasn’t really a character I could quite connect with. Fan favorite Gollum shows up to appease fans of the series mumbling nearly unintelligible dialogue in a scene that sort of halts all the momentum established for the first two hours. Although even at 166 minutes the film actually never felt too overly long, though it does take a little bit to get going. The best thing said about the movie is its production values. This is a big budget movie with great effects and set design and makeup. Although not every effect is really all the jaw dropping there is plenty of visual scrumptiousness to feast your eyes on. And Howard Shore returns with a majestic score.

Much has been said about Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot the film at 48 frames per second. While I saw the film in the traditional 24 fps, the new format gives the film an odd motion flow feel akin to what you might see on an HDTV though the detail is supposed to be excellent. Whichever way one sees the film it won’t prevent die hard fans from having a great time and it won’t convert those like me who feel rather indifferent.  GRADE: B-

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Trouble with Scary: “Hitchcock” is Light, Entertaining Behind-the-Scenes Fun

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” That may be true, but I’m not quite sure director Alfred Hitchcock had imaginary conversations with serial killer Ed Gein like he does in “Hitchcock;” a fun and fluffy behind the scenes look at the famous auteur during his days directing his masterpiece “Psycho.” In the film, Anthony Hopkins plays the Master of Suspense behind layers of latex and he’s mostly convincing. It feels more like an imitation rather than a full fledged character as seen in other real-life biopics like “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech” but it doesn’t matter. “Hitchcock” isn’t like those movies at all, nor should it be. It’s not really supposed to be taken too seriously; like the best of Hitch’s work it’s made to directly entertain, rather than inform, its audience. And I think it’s all the better because of that.

“Hitchcock” isn’t trying to be “Gandhi.” And as soon as you realize that you’ll have way more fun. It becomes apparent nearly seconds into the film as Hopkins, as Hitchcock directly addressed the audience, like he used to do so much. The film takes a look at Mr. Hitchcock after his hit “North by Northwest” has been released. He’s looking for a new project and comes across a book by novelist Robert Bloch called “Psycho.” It was a deeply disturbing novel about a young man who murders people while dressed as his deceased mother, whom he had murdered years earlier. Hitch thought it was just dark and twisted enough to become his next film, even though those around him, including his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) sort of thought it wasn’t the right choice. He proceeds anyways, using unconventional low budget methods like hiring the TV crew from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” shooting in black and white, and even having to fend off the censors, we get to see how “Psycho” came to be, even if most of these scenes are a bit too brief.

But this isn’t just a behind-the-scenes of the making of Psycho (The script is based on Stephen Rebello’s terrific non-fiction book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”). It’s also a behind-the-scenes look at Hitch’s relationship with his second shadow: his wife Alma. The woman was a repeatedly uncredited creative force throughout his entire career and the film does a decent job of making sure everyone knows how much influence his wife had on his projects (and how supportive she was). She had worked as an editor and screenwriter and had an uncanny eye for detail. During the editing of Psycho, she was the one who noticed Janet Leigh taking a breath after she was supposed to have been murdered. The movie, like most Hollywood fare, has to set up the conflict in their relationship by suggesting the possibility of Alma being driven to another man (her writer friend Whitfield Cook played by Danny Huston) while her husband becomes obsessed with  making Psycho and flirting with his leading ladies. For every moment like this we wish we could see more of the filming of Psycho, but for anyone who’s a big fan of Hitchcock’s film, the movie is simply a dream come true.

Director Sacha Gervasi, who makes his narrative feature debut here (he previously directed the documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil”), keeps things light and frothy with a strong undercurrent of macabre humor, highlighted by Danny Elfman’s  Bernard Herrmann influenced score.  Screenwriter John J. McLaughlin has employed some interesting elements, you might call gimmicks, like having Hitch interact with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) who influenced the creation of the murderous Norman Bates character. It’s also fun to see actors playing other actors. Scarlet Johansson shows up as Janet Leigh. James D’Arcy is Anthony Perkins. Jessica Biel is Vera Miles, who had a long and sorted history with the director. They all do a great job in their sometimes too brief roles. The great Toni Collette is Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s long time assistant. Even the Karate Kid himself Ralph Macchio shows up in a scene as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano. The film really shines when we get to see the Master of Suspense at work creating his masterpiece; even going as far as to conduct the screams of his audience from out in the lobby during a screening of the movie.

“Hitchcock” is real a treat for fans of Alfred Hitchcock and of anyone who enjoys watching movies about making movies. You’re not always quite sure how accurate it all is; this is a Hollywood movie after all but it does feature fun performances. And even if the film has identity issues because it can’t decide if it’s more interested in showing the behind the scenes of a marriage or of a movie, the whole thing is such a bizarre and fun romp I couldn’t help but enjoy it for all the same reasons why one enjoys a Hitchcock film in the first place: it’s just fun.  GRADE: A-