Tom Hooper (Oscar winner for The King's Speech) has lovingly adapted the musical theater phenomenon Les Miserables (which debuted on the stage in 1980) to the silver screen, using the medium of film to open up the streets of 19th century Paris and the 1832 uprising that is at the center of the movie's narrative while offering greater intimacy to the individual miseries of the story's principals. Hugh Jackman (a movie star who is also a richly talented theatrical performer) lends impressive gravitas to the thankless role of Jean Valjean, the fugitive bread thief who spends the film (and Victor Hugo's novel) bearing his soul and eluding Inspector Javert (an oddly inert Russell Crowe). Over the course of roughly two decades, Valjean, who hides his identity to avoid capture, goes from bitter malcontent to noble saint. Along the way he adopts an orphaned waif, Cosette (played as a young woman by Amanda Seyfried). Cosette's mother, Fantine, (a riveting Anne Hathaway) was run out of Valjean's garment factory by a lusty overseer, reduced to turning tricks on the docks and dies 30 minutes into the film. Yes, there's a lot going on here, which forces the film (like the stage version) to rely on familiar tropes and a few cliches to keep things moving. But the film's ultimate appeal lies not in the elegance of its plot lines but in the beauty of its score. Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) and Herbert Kretzmer (English adaptor of the French lyrics by Alain Boubill and Jean-Marc Natel) composed a half-dozen semi-operatic musical motifs that tie the action and the characters together. The songs seemingly were crafted to be overplayed (in the style of grand opera) and none of the principal actors holds anything back. Even the featured players like Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (comic relief as the extortionist innkeepers, the Thenardiers) are given ample room to strut and preen. As others have noted, the standout in the film is young Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) as the love-struck revolutionary Marius. He sings with a heartthrob's tenor and his character is featured on several of the film's loveliest songs. His trio A Heart Full of Love with Seyfried and newcomer Samantha Barks as Eponine is a high-point of Act One and his solo performance of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables will leave no one unmoved. On that note, the film is an unapologetic tearjerker but highly recommended nonetheless.
Friday, December 28, 2012
Quentin Tarantino may know the meaning of understatement but he certainly doesn't apply it to his films. The best of Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) are American Grand guignol -- intensely dramatic stories of bullets and blood, buckets and buckets of blood. His films are often structurally complex and frequently surreal and have drawn Hollywood's finest. Tarantino's latest typically incredible tale, Django Unchained, is the story of a runaway slave Django (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) who is bought and freed by a German dentist / bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) so that Django can lead him to a trio of fugitives hiding on a Mississippi plantation. In the course of their getting acquainted, Django tells Schultz he would like help finding and freeing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who, as luck would have it is at the same plantation. Before they set off, however, Django must learn how to handle a six-shooter and soon displays lightning reflexes and an eagle eye. Django dresses as The Blue Boy and poses as the doctor's valet, while he and Schultz winter out West -- gunning down bad guys without remorse. When spring arrives, they head south and that is where they encounter Calvin Candie (Leondard DiCaprio) the sadistic (is there any other kind) master of Candieland Plantation (go with it) and his slithering Uncle Tom of a butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Tarantino stages some terrifically tense and excruciatingly brutal scenes down in Dixie. The entire film is a vulgar and irreverent live action cartoon that has more than a few howlingly funny moments amidst all of the gore (as we've come to expect). Some viewers have raised questions about the use of the n-word in the film and, frankly, I'm amazed that the point has even been raised. The film is set pre-Civil War and so the word seems appropriate. What does seem anachronistic and pointless is the use of M-F by butler Stephen. The effect was way too ghetto for my taste. Highly recommended but it is an extremely violent affair.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Friday, December 21, 2012
Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is a feast of cinematic elegance and motion. With a screenplay by Tom Stoppard (who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love) this classic story of a virtuous Russian noblewoman (Keira Knightley) who abandons the love of her kind and patient husband (Jude Law) to answer the persistent entreaties of a dashing young count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and eventually descends into fatal madness has been structured like a stage play that often bursts out from the proscenium onto snowscapes and verdant meadows. It's an intriguing concept; one I don't believe I've ever seen done quite like this. Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love (1998) blended action on the boards and in the streets, but not like this film. This is ingenious. By showing the audience the machinery behind the action, Wright and Stoppard appear to be saying quite literally that Tolstoy's tragic tale of facades is melodramatic by design. And what marvelous machinery. A long scene of a seasonal ball at which Anna and her illicit suitor Vronksy meet early in the film is a swirling human carousel of twisting arms and hands. It's brilliantly elegant and erotic, like foreplay in jodhpurs and bustles. Wright -- who is best known for his 2007 film Atonement which also starred Knightley -- has delivered a film that is resplendent and romantic and highly recommended.
Monday, December 17, 2012
A Jewish musical for a family holiday singalong? Why not? The holidays are not just about Christmas, after all. The Bock and Harnick score for Fiddler on the Roof (the eternal story about a devout and befuddled milkman, his wife and their five daughters during the Russian pogroms) is loaded with singable tunes -- Matchmaker, Matchmaker; Sunrise, Sunset; If I Were a Rich Man; Sabbath Prayer, among them. All wonderful. The seminal recording of this show from 1964 features Zero Mostel's Tevye. His duet with Maria Karnilova, Do You Love Me?, is lovely and sweet and sad and true.
Saturday, December 15, 2012
Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is loaded with the cinema auteur's trademark splendor -- breathtaking vistas, richly fantastic interiors, amazing creatures (this film's demonic orcs seem more three-dimensional), epic battles -- but the true payday for this first entry in another Jackson / Tolkien trilogy, at least for me, were the set pieces that feature some stellar cameos. Yes, yes, Ian McKellen is terrific as the cagey wizard Gandalf the Grey and Martin Freeman (Sherlock and The Office [original U.K. series]) is a beautifully realized Bilbo Baggins, the "burglar / hobbit" recruited by the 13 dwarves pictured here to help them reclaim from a loathsome dragon their mountain home and the mounds of treasure within. In contrast to the Lord of the Rings series, which balanced action and exposition pretty well, some sections of the nearly three-hour film drag but that's to cavil about relatively small matters when what Jackson has put on the screen is so wonderfully entertaining. I was especially delighted by the Troll brothers (William Kircher, Peter Hambleton and Mark Hadlow) as they bickered over the best seasoning for dwarf-on-a-spit, the riddle scene with Bilbo and Gollum (the ever amazing Andy Serkis) and the Great Goblin's gambol, which featured Barry Humphries (yes, he of Dame Edna Everidge) as the Goblin. The Hobbit has more humorous moments than the Ring trilogy and no romance, unless you count audience members falling under the spell of the dreamy dwarf prince Thorin, played by the towering (6'-2") Richard Armitage. The film is probably too intense for very young children. The orcs are frightening but the dwarves are fun, as is to be expected. Highly Recommended.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
The Golden Globe nominations were announced today, and, predictably, Lincoln appears to be the film to beat with nominations for best picture, director (Steven Spielberg), actor (Daniel Day-Lews), supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones) and supporting actress (Sally Field) among its seven nods. I'm a bit behind in my viewing as I've not seen many of the other picture nominees -- Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Quentin Tarantino's Django, David O. Russell's Silver Lining Playbook, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables or newcomer Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock. I've not seen a single one of the best actress performances but I have seen all five best actor performances (which might suggest that women are typically given stronger roles in smaller films) and would rank them Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington in Flight, John Hawkes in The Session, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master and Richard Gere in Arbitrage.The other lead performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's puzzling The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, a smart move as he and Phoenix would have cancelled each other out otherwise, even though neither stands a chance of taking the Globe from Daniel Day Lewis, IMO.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Doug Liman's Go (1999) begins on Christmas Eve and ends the next morning and follows a rag tag band of supermarket clerks and a couple of their customers in a wild ride through the environs of L.A. and Las Vegas in search of drugs and / or sex. Liman, director of Swingers and The Bourne Identity, takes an intricate script by John August and weaves together three tales of woe and intrigue (to borrow from Car Talk) that star, principally, Sarah Polley as Ronna, a luckless checkout girl who wants to try her hand at drug dealing to stave off eviction from her apartment; Desmond Askew as Ronna's co-worker, a British horn dog named Simon who sets out for Vegas with his band of merry men and gets chased out by the mob; and Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf as a pair of a soap opera stars who are also lovers working off drug charges by helping a police sting bring down a major player named Todd Gaines (Timothy Olyphant). Nearly everyone ends up at a Mary Xmas warehouse rave where scores are settled. It's tons of irreverent late-night holiday fun. Recommended. P.S. A pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes is featured as Ronna's wary but willing best friend Clare.
Because Hettie Macdonald's first feature film, Beautiful Thing (1996), has so much genuine heart, a winning cast of characters, a fresh and respectful treatment of gay youth, and a soundtrack by Mama Cass, one will forgive it's achingly bad third reel. Based on Jonathan Harvey's play, which apparently is still routinely performed in Britain, the film tells the story of two teen-aged Londoners -- Jamie and Ste -- growing up next door to each other in the working class tenements of the Thamesmead district. Jamie is a the bookish loner who lives with his single Mum, Sandra, a barmaid with dreams of running her own pub. Ste is the affable jock who is routinely beaten by his abusive father and older brother. Jamie is smitten with Ste, who is oblivious (or so we are led to believe) until a particularly bad beat down finds the boy bunking next door at Jamie's. Macdonald's staging of the boys' "discovery" is handled smartly, respectfully and realistically, even though one could argue that having "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from The Sound of Music playing in the background is a bit heavy-handed. The boys' friendships becomes a point of peculiar interest for their nosy neighbor Leah (Tameka Empson), who spends most of the film channeling Mama Cass. The inevitable panicked confrontation between a fearful Sandra and her tearful son, though overwrought, somehow rings true. After that scene, however, the movie careers into a ditch of implausibility following a drug-induced Leah. The final shot of the lads doing a box step in the tenement quad is pure fantasy. For those unaccustomed to London working class dialects, some of the dialogue (not counting universal vulgarisms) might be indecipherable but that won't keep you from enjoying a different kind of family film. FYI, for fans of Dr. Who, Macdonald went on to direct the highly celebrated Blink episode from 2007, which featured the weeping angels. Recommended.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Leave it to Alan Ball to kick off his terrifically involving (though maddeningly uneven) HBO series Six Feet Under with a fatal car wreck on Christmas Eve. The patriarch of a brittle and self-involved L.A. family, the Fishers, is a mortician who is killed when his funeral coach (a/k/a hearse) is T-boned by a city bus while he reaches for another smoke. (Ball has never met an irony he did not immediately fall in love with.) Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) leaves behind his sexually and socially repressed wife, Ruth (Frances Conroy); his emotionally stunted libertine of an older son, Nate (Peter Krause); his closeted and repressed younger son, David (Michael C. Hall); a raging spitfire of a daughter, Clair (Lauren Ambrose) who was reputedly Ball's alter ego and all of their many loves and losses. Regular viewers of the series, which aired from 2001 to 2005, grew to know and love the Fishers and the series despite their pretty obvious flaws (both the Fishers' and the series'). I was devoted to it for the entirety of its run and occasionally reach back to re-watch favorite episodes, among them "Back to the Garden" from Season 2, which features the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as Ruth's airy sister Sarah who invites Clair out to Topanga Canyon for a visit and a little spiritual awakening.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Facebook Friends of a certain age might remember when old movies were shown on network television pretty routinely. Staples on Saturday and Sunday afternoons were the comedies of the '40s that featured Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the Eastside Kids, and Abbott and Costello. Created more as diversions from the stresses of war and want than as art, these films were later broadcast on television because they were cheap and inoffensive family fare. I don't know that any of them has aged particularly well (although Seth McFarlane has gotten quite a lot of mileage out of the Crosby and Hope "Road to ..." movies on Family Guy) but I have a special fondness for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. My favorite of the dozens of films they released during the '40s and '50s is probably not the best (technically) in their catalog but it's imaginative and a little magical, The Time of Their Lives (1946). The movie tells the story of a humble tinker and a young woman who meet on a colonial estate and are mistakenly killed as traitors by American Revolutionary War soldiers while trying to leave the estate to warn General Washington of Benedict Arnold's treachery. Their bodies are dumped in a well and cursed. For more than 150 years their ghosts are trapped on the property and may only be released to go to heaven if proof of their innocence is revealed. Costello plays the tinker, Marjorie Allen the young woman who was killed with him and Abbott plays both the tinker's rival and later a psychiatrist. The special effects (which were endlessly fascinating back in the day) will seem quaint to some but, unlike today's effects, they won't overwhelm the story. Recommended.
Christopher Guest's first feature film, The Big Picture, was about making a movie that is true to your individual vision ... and how impossible that is in Hollywood. Guest, who went on to direct other wonderfully oddball pictures -- Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind -- has crafted a clever and insightful tale about a film student (Kevin Bacon) who after winning a school competition accepts an offer to direct an actual movie at an actual studio. Despite some major red flags during his first meeting with a studio producer (J.T. Walsh), he descends deeper and deeper into the maw of the beast, compromising his vision, alienating his girlfriend (Emily Longstreth), dumping his friend and cameraman (Michael McKean) and coming close to forgetting why he got involved in the business in the first place. In short, he becomes a typical Tinsel Town D-bag. Guest, a terrific film satirist and chameleonic actor, has made an imaginative and ultimately uplifting film that is actually about more than movies -- as the title suggests.
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Diahann Carroll was not the first choice for the title role in John Berry's Claudine (1974), a single mom of six living in Harlem and trying to keep body and soul together on public assistance. The great Diana Sands (A Raisin in the Sun) was originally cast but bowed out when she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked Carroll (TV's Julia) to do the picture, a fresh and refreshing film of a woman caught in a familiar Catch 22 created by the "system" that penalizes welfare recipients for actually working. Unable to make enough to provide for her children, Claudine lies to social service workers about having a job as a maid. It's while working that she meets a kind and cheerful garbage collector Rupert, played by James Earl Jones. Claudine is cautious after being loved then abandoned before but not nearly as wary as her children, who dislike her friend immediately. Eventually, they warm up to him but, as so often happens in life and the movies, reversals and set backs are visited upon the couple and old wounds are exposed anew and no one manages the disappointment well, but none less well than Claudine's oldest, Charles, played by Lawrence Hilton-Jackson (later of Welcome Back, Kotter). The final reel is poignant and, yes, a little sentimental but it works. Both Carroll and Jones are wonderful in this lovingly charming film that wore its dignity like a crown. Carroll was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. She didn't take home the statue but the film is certainly a winner. Recommended..
While few would argue that Jerry Lewis's hefty filmography for Paramount back during the '50s and '60s amounts to great art, those movies are enduring curios of Cold War era American popular culture and often provide insight into human nature, warts and all. Lewis's most popular work might be his self-directed The Nutty Professor from 1963 (What'll it be, Hmmm?) and his performance in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy opposite Robert DeNiro. For me, his 1960 movie A Visit to a Small Planet has a more distinguished pedigree than most of his work, as it was based on a late '50s satirical Broadway play by Gore Vidal. A thinly veiled send-up of American paranoia, Planet tells the story of a naive alien lad named Kreton who comes to Earth to study the ways of humans. He ends up staying with a typical suburban family and discovers, often by way of his mind-reading capabilities, that humans are not always what they appear to be. Lewis plays Kreton with his signature vaudevillian broadness and the film is not nearly as cynical as one might expect considering its connection to Vidal. It does represent for me a model of what made Lewis such a staple in American cinema -- it illustrated that we should treat each other better and laugh at ourselves as we do it. Something to keep in mind during the holidays, yes? Recommended.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
I first watched this early Blake Edwards film (1960) the summer before I started university (1975). Its depiction of college life was quite unlike what I would encounter at USC and not just because the film was made 15 years before. The movie stars the inimitable Bing Crosby as a wealthy fast-food restaurant magnate who decides to earn his college degree. He moves into a dormitory on campus where one on his roommates is played by the then stud du jour Fabian. (Yes, there is singing.) Bing wears a frosh's beanie, gets the hots for and dates his French teacher (Nicole Maurey), pledges a fraternity and hangs out with a hippie free spirit played by Tuesday Weld, who I think is studying anthropology. (None of which I did.) And, predictably, he gives the commencement speech at the end of the film. (Ditto.) It's all harmless, colorful fun and for those of us whose college experience was quite different is a little like visiting another planet. (Which will be another of my holiday film recommendations later.) This film has only recently been available on disc. Recommended.
Friday, December 7, 2012
Inside Moves, directed by Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon), is not a great film but it's warm and affectionate. It's seasonal in that it's about a constructed family of disabled misfits who hang out at a bar in Oakland that's tended by everybody's best friend Jerry (David Morse). Jerry's actual best friend, Roary (John Savage) threw himself off a building but only permanently crippled himself. Jerry wants to return to the basketball courts but he has a bum leg. He is able to get the operation he needs when a professional ballplayer loans him the money. After healing, Jerry joins the Golden State Warriors and for a while, and to his shame, forgets about his old life, and his friends, at the bar. Diana Scarwid was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Roary's waitress girlfriend, Louise, who bears an entirely different sort of wounds. Yes, it's a movie about what's important in life, and I think that's what the holiday season is for.
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Last night, I enjoyed the first of several holiday meals planned with friends over the coming weeks. (I had the duck.) I was reminded last night of a marvelous film about family, friends and food from 1987, Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast. Sumptuous, elegant and atmospheric only begin to describe the wonder of this film set in the 1800s about a French refugee who seeks shelter in the home of two pious elderly sisters in a port town in Denmark and all three rediscover the vitality of life. Based on a Isak Dinesen story, Axel filmed the preparation of the titular banquet with nearly anthropological detail. It's a cinematic feast that's perfectly suited for the holidays. Highly recommended (but maybe not on an empty stomach).
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
I was thinking about "holiday movies" that aren't "Holiday Movies," that is, movies that don't have Christmas or Hanukkah as a theme or a backdrop but that have at their core a spirit of newness and hope. Billy Elliott is a splendid example of what I mean besides being a tremendously life-affirming movie overall. It's the story of young British lad growing up in a coal-mining town during Margaret Thatcher's "reign" as Prime Minister and her war against the miners' unions. Despite his father's coaxing to explore boxing after school, Billy discovers an interest in the ballet and therein lies a whole different sort of battle -- one that has a truly surprising conclusion. Director Stephen Daldry was nominated for an Oscar for this film, and the wonderful Julie Walters' performance as the stern but kindly ballet mistress was recognized as well. The film's enormous heart, however, is Jamie Bell, in his first feature film. And what a debut. Highly Recommended.
Sunday, December 2, 2012
The adult take-away from Disney's superb animated feature Wreck-it Ralph is that life is a precarious balancing act between what we do for a living and who we are. Kids will not want to take anything away because they will not want to leave the spangling / eye-popping terrain inside their favorite joy stick games. Ralph is the "bad guy" in the popular Fix-it Felix Jr. (a game I'd never heard of before this film, much less played), who after 30 years trashing an apartment building and being tossed in the mud by angry tenants starts feeling stifled and a little envious of the game's hero, Felix, who cleans up Ralph's mess with his magic hammer. Ralph is voiced by the ever-affable John C. Reilly and Felix by 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer. After being rebuffed by the other characters in Fix-it and attending a group therapy session for other alienated arcade villains, Ralph gets the notion to prove he has the right stuff by entering other games to fight alongside the good guys, most notably Sergeant Calhoun (Glee's Jane Lynch) from Hero's Duty. If he brings home a victory medal, the other Fix-it characters have promised to treat him better. Ralph eventually ends up in Sugar Rush, a mind-boggling confection of a racing game where he meets the amped-up King Candy (voiced by Alan Tudyk, who channels Ed Wynn) and the spunky but glitchy Vannellope (Sarah Silverman). It's all delightful and funny and smart and potentially lethal for diabetics both for the sticky sweet wonderland that is Sugar Rush and for the sticky sweet sentiment at the heart of the movie. Recommended in 3D.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
Early in Ben Lewin's wonderfully touching film The Sessions, sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene is undressing paralyzed poet / journalist Mark O'Brien when he shrieks and swears to heaven. The scene is startling because Cheryl's ministrations to that point had been tender and enticing. Soon it becomes clear that O'Brien's yelp was not from physical pain but fear of the intimacy he desired so badly. He's conflicted, trapped by polio in an inert body, only able to move his head. He hires the surrogate so that he might experience lovemaking because, as he says, at 38 he's past his "sell by" date. The terrific screenplay was written by Lewin and based on an essay "On Seeing A Sex Surrogate" written by the real O'Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49. As played by the luminescent Helen Hunt (Mad About You, As Good As It Gets) and the extraordinary character actor John Hawkes (Deadwood, Lincoln), these two people become much more to each other (and to the audience) than therapist and client. They are -- as O'Brien's priest and confessor (William H. Macy) says -- companions on a journey of discovery, one that is by turns illuminating, joyful, humbling and, in the end, truly and honestly painful. Enormously human, this is an adult film that deals frankly with sexuality. Highly recommended.
Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly" is a briny and not entirely satisfying diversion that has the feel of a Guy Ritchie film but without the narrative complexity or humor. "Killing" bears some resemblance to Dominik's movie from 2007, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a lugubrious nearly three hour study of the title characters and fatal event that features yards and yards of dense introspection. Killing, though not nearly as long as "Assassination," is also talky and stars Brad Pitt, who appeared in "Assassination" and Richie's "Snatch." In "Killing," Pitt is a wet worker hired by the Mob to clean up the mess created by an amateurish hit on one of the syndicate's many poker enterprises. He's told that the games are on hold until the culprits are dispatched. So, time is of the essence. Even so, Dominik is a patient director with a taste for lengthy set pieces, the most interesting in "Killing" are the tense initial poker house robbery, an excruciating pummeling of a witless mobster (Ray Liotta) during a downpour, and a riveting 15-minute cocktail conversation between Pitt's Jackie and a boozing, forlorn sociopath named Mickey, played to perfection by James Gandolfini. Dominik has crafted a manly film that is not altogether satisfying and, inexplicably, has as a backdrop the Wall Street collapse and presidential election of 2008. The movie's odd coda, despite being a surprisingly astute assessment of America's national obsession, doesn't quite fit Pitt's character or the film, for that matter. Bloody, explosive violence and unceasing use of the F-word makes this movie a decidedly adult affair.
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