Les Miserables (2012)

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is quite an interesting animal. It’s the kind of animal that you can’t look away from, but that evolution is pretty much going to have its way with. Some fine performances and hit and miss production value add to the absolute and total lack of baritone and bass– reducing the impact of a film that one supposes was supposed to knock you silly.

Instead, it comes off a little silly.

Here’s a trailer. Warning: quavery voices ahead.

The deets:

Released December 25, 2012

Written by William Nicholson, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil (screenplay), based upon the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Directed by Tom Hooper

Starring Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham-Carter, Isabelle Allen, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, and COLM WILKINSON

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Odds are that if you are interested in this movie, you know the story. That said, here’s a summary. Jean Valjean (Jackman) was sent to prison for theft and had his sentence extended due to escape attempts. But he has now done his time and his parole office, Javert (Crowe), says he is able to go about his life but will always be a thief and must check in always.

Valjean, who went to prison after simply trying to feed his sister’s son, has become a hardened criminal and he goes about trying to scratch out some life. When a bishop (WILKINSON!!!!) takes him in, Valjean makes off with some valuable silver but is caught. But then the bishop acts as if he gave Valjean the silver, gives some more valuables, and tells Valjean that Valjean must now live a life of giving and forgiveness; the bishop has ‘bought (Valjean’s) soul for God.’

Now Valjean must choose, and he chooses to live a life of prosperity and charity, becoming true to the good inside him. But Javert is always at his heels. Fast forward many years and Valjean owns a factory and in a moment of neglect, allows an innocent single mother to be fired. This mother is Fantine (Hathaway), whose life spirals out of control and she ends up on the streets, partly because the people she has caring for her daughter are cheating her out of every penny.

As Fantine closes in on death, Valjean intercedes in a squabble at which Javert has shown up. Javert finds out that this is Valjean, but Valjean cannot go back to jail; he has to help Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Allen). He gets the girl away from the terrible couple that have been ‘caring for’ her, the Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham-Carter). Javert and Cosette escape Javert.

Fast forward again and Cosette (now played by Seyfreid) is a lovely young woman who falls in love with Marius (Redmayne). But Eponine (Barks) loves Marius too. What’s more, Eponine is the daughter of the Thenardiers, so she recognizes Cosette. A love triangle ensues, while the Thenardiers try to find Valjean and steal his money and Javert shows up to still try to catch Valjean. All of this is done with the French Revolution happening. Indeed, Marius is one of the student revolutionaries along with Enjolras (Tveit).

We have multiple showdowns between the revolutionaries and the French army, as well as between Javert and Valjean– which leaves Javert questioning what he thought was his righteous cause. When all is said and done, the truth of who Valjean is revealed and the lovers are together and tragedy has been the mother of wisdom.

And this is all done with singing.

Critique

Which is why it isn’t very good.

The book and stage production are obscenely powerful. The book is a sprawling epic that explores humanism, royalty, forgiveness, redemption, charity, sacrifice, heroism, dreams, truth, love, loyalty, and honor. The book is written by a remarkable novelist at the top of his game.

The stage production cuts through much of the detail and narrative and highlights the most dramatic events of the book with music and lyrics providing the connecting bridges between these events. The stage production is produced and performed by professionals for whom this is their livelihood. You don’t get on that stage unless you are a world-class singer and performer.

The movie cast almost entirely actors, some of whom might even be able to sing. The cast sings on set, right into the camera; no lip-syncing– which is a nice gimmick and does add immediacy but these people generally just can’t sing at the level required by the characters, the melodrama of these events, and a production that is loved by millions.

Setting aside a set design that wavers between kind of amazing and then very small-fry and seeming like a plywood stage set, and setting aside a plot and pacing that seem to be in a massive, helter-skelter rush, the singing simply doesn’t get it done.

Sure, for those who haven’t got a long history with this production, it’s passable. And for a crazed fan like this reviewer, there are moments that are effective, but so much of the singing is so darn weak and lacking in power, that I wanted the director to have said, “Dear heaven, we need to do better.”

Russell Crowe, you sounded like you were out of breath, your heart was in your throat, and like you had no idea that you should be singing more than two very high-pitched notes. You were the worst of the bunch.

Amanda Seyfried, you are adorable, but the quaver is distracting and actually shreds any emotional power you were trying to transmit.

Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, it’s not your fault. You were both good, but the director didn’t give you time to be sleazy enough.

Hugh Jackman, you started strong, but stayed at the exact same level.

Eddie Redmayne, dude, you can sing. Now get some freaking baritone.

Samantha Barks, thank you for being amazing.

Colm Wilkinson, I nearly died when I saw you as the bishop. You are flawless.

Tom Hooper, and for that matter Alain and Claude-Michel, what the freaking frak? Not one bass note was sung in this show. Maybe two baritone notes. Every dude singing in 2nd tenor? Seriously? “Singing the song of angry men?” If they’re men, where are the basses?

Ugh.

Also, slow down. Seriously.

See this movie, enjoy it for what it offers, but don’t expect powerful musical performances.

Content warnings: Plenty of melodramatic violence and implied terrible things. 

Writing: 4 (story will always be amazing)       Acting: 4       Singing: 2       Overall: 2.5

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The Raven

The Raven is not a very good movie. This is because John Cusack, while making a game effort, is not convincing and the plot is pretty much unappealingly repackaged suspense film tropes.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released April 27, 2012

Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare

Directed by James McTeigue

Starring Alice Eve, Pam Ferris, John Cusack, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Boston police detective Fields (Evans), notices that a grisly murder reminds him of a story written by local poet/story writer Edgar Allen Poe (Cusack). Poe is not the murderer, but when another murder occurs, also matching the writings of Poe, Fields asks Poe to join the investigation. Poe is currently experiencing severe writer’s block, possibly due to the steady stream of chemicals he is ingesting and also possibly due to the girl he has his heart set on being kept out of reach by her father.

The girl is Emily (Eve) and her father is police captain Charles Hamilton (Gleeson). Hamilton sees that Poe will only bring heartache to his daughter and is justified in keeping the two separate. However, Emily is in love with Poe, and love is as love does. (Why she loves the intemperate alcoholic is the biggest mystery of the film.)

The murderer is brutal and seemingly has limitless resources to recreate the dark murders of Poe’s stories, and we get to seem some pretty gruesome homicides in the course of the film.

Soon after Poe is looped into the case, he finds his writer’s block cured and he gets fully invested in the investigation. Which, you guessed it, endangers the woman he loves.

All of this story takes place over just a few days, the true history of which, in Poe’s life, are still a mystery. We know that Poe was found dead on a park bench in real history, but what preceded that death is unknown. This film does its best to shoehorn the story into known and unknown history.

Critique

The Raven has some very strong points, mostly from Luke Evans’ acting job, some fairly tense scenes and pacing, and Alice Eve’s remarkable ability to elevate every scene she is in. She makes her run of the mill, hard to understand love interest character strong and interesting.

What’s more, the premise of the film is pretty good and it is executed with some interesting development.

The main problem is that, although Cusack does nail some of the more intense scenes, in most of the film he is essentially a goatee’d John Cusack, in all of his mouth-breathing glory. The secondary problem is that we see most of the twists coming and the actual murderer is out of the blue, like an Agatha Christie culprit. Seriously. The murderer should have been someone we knew and who seemed murky in some way.

Not so much.

So this is a pretty good, somewhat too-gruesome film whose lead is hard to really like, whose love story is a bit hard to believe, and whose resolution is a little hard to swallow.

Content warnings: Some salty language, plenty of gruesome images.

Writing: 3.5          Acting: 3.5          Overall: 3

No need to be a poet and not know it, just share this baby. Go on, do it! The tell-tale heart/clock is ticking!

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Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank has an engaging premise and traipses along at a brisk pace, but as the third act rolls around, it loses momentum and then the ending wanders listlessly. At least Frank Langella is great.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released September 19, 2012

Written by Christopher D. Ford

Directed by Jake Schreier

Starring Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, Rachael Ma, James Marsden, and Jeremy Sisto.

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Frank (Langella– yeah), is an aging and supposedly retired cat burglar. He is beginning to lose his mental faculties and is kind of a slob, so his son (Marsden) gets Frank a robotic servant (the voice of Sarsgaard with Ma in the robot) to help around the house and make sure Frank eats well and stays safe. Meanwhile, Frank’s other child (Tyler) is far away but is not happy about Frank’s son dropping off a robot. She may be a little prejudiced against them.

Frank quickly learns that his new robot butler can pick locks and he hatches a plan to rob some local pretentious jackwagons of their massively expensive jewelry. It’s possible he wants to do this to sort of get back at these people for changing the local library so much that it might put the pretty librarian (Sarandon) out of a job.

So Frank and the robot go about their caper. Unfortunately, the local cops, led by the Sheriff (Sisto), know that Frank is a ‘retired’ burglar, so the attention goes onto him. So we then have a bit of a heist/escape film.

Which then turns into a semi-tragicomic wandering exploration of dementia and friendship.

Critique

Robot & Frank starts well, with a scene of Frank robbing a house. Look closely at the scene after– What house was Frank robbing?

So we get an idea that he might be losing his mind, but soon after that, we learn that Frank is still sharp and still has hopes and dreams. He has a crush on the local librarian and spends his time reading and walking. Langella is a very accessible actor and he quickly establishes depth and realism for Frank’s character. Marsden is also very good with his frustrated devotion to his father– he wants to help but understands when his dad pushes back and fights for his independence. Tyler is also good as the daughter who decides that her brother is screwing everything up.

The writing is sharp, at least to begin with. There is some very nice dialogue between Frank and the robot and their interactions serve to shine a light on how friendship works and just who these characters are. We also get to see a bit of the toll aging takes on a vital, dynamic person.

Everything is lighthearted and fun, even the escape sequences, until we end up with Frank in a new place and we are not sure what just happened. Was the entire film a roundabout essay on dementia? Who was the librarian, after all?

When significant plot questions are posed but unanswered (ala Inception), that’s like having a gun on a mantle and not firing it (thanks, Chekhov). It’s confusing and you begin to wonder what the point was.

If the point of Robot & Frank was to give Langella a chance to essentially do a clinic on light-touch acting, it worked out. If the story was to tell a quirky story about friendship and family, we don’t really know what the story being told was all about.

In the end, Robot & Frank is pretty much harmless, overall pointless entertainment. No punches, no big laughs, no emotional catharsis. All pretty tame, really. Recommended if you can see it without incurring extra costs.

Content warnings: A bit of salty language. 

Writing: 3          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

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Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook provides just over two hours of extra good acting packaged in an entertaining, fairly harmless story. It’s a fact that Jennifer Lawrence is extraordinary in this movie.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released December 25, 2012

Written by David O. Russell. Based on the book by David Quick.

Directed by David O. Russell

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Stiles, Jacki Weaver, Brea Bee, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, and Shea Wigham. 

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Silver Linings Playbook starts with a voice over from Pat Solitano (Cooper), who has just left a mental health hospital with his mother (Weaver) after being locked up for what is alluded to as a violent incident. On his way out, we meet his pal, Danny (Tucker) who tries to hitch a ride. When Pat and his mom get home, we meet Pat’s dad, Pat Sr. (De Niro). Now we start to understand what is going on.

Pat discovered his wife Nikki (Bee) having an affair with a history teacher and went nuts, beating the man to within an inch of his life. But it turns out that Pat had a history of volatility, and is now diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Pat has decided he doesn’t need meds and he can find the cure ala mind over matter. He just needs to have a plan and get fit and get his life together and then he can get Nikki back.

In the meantime, he’s still obsessive and smart and vulnerable and volatile. He’s trying to control himself, but– and this is important– he has an illness and he needs to take his medicine to treat it. Mind over matter ain’t going to cure this thing. The movie doesn’t quite highlight this well enough and almost intimates that love and discipline can cure Pat, which is not okay.

Moving on. Pat meets Tiffany (Lawrence) at his friend Ronnie’s (Ortiz) house. Tiffany is the sister of Ronnie’s wife, Veronica (Stiles), a controlling but well-meaning lady. Veronica also happens to be Nikki’s best friend.

Tiffany has recently gone through significant trauma and suffered through a rather noticeable and damaging breakdown. Thus, she, like Pat, has a tendency to say what is on her mind with little to no filter. These two kindred spirits have an instant connection, although Pat tirelessly points out he’s married still.

Tiffany agrees to get a letter from Pat to Nikki (there is a restraining order against Pat) if Pat agrees to help Tiffany prepare for a dance competition. On the side is Pat’s also volatile father who has lost his job and is now participating in illegal activity to make ends meet.

And thus the story unfolds. This is a romantic dramedy that is rated R. You can figure out that language will be used, tension will mount, stakes will be raised, and love will very likely conquer all.

Critique

Silver Linings Playbook was heavily involved in awards season for 2012 movies. There is a reason for this: it’s a wildly engaging movie because of a totally simple, accessible storyline delivered by spectacular performers.

The writing is not stupendous– although I do not speak for the book, which I haven’t read yet. There is nothing unpredictable about how the story unfolds– you can see every turn coming if you are familiar with tropes. That said, the dialogue is fresh, sharp, and extremely tight. What’s more, with David O. Russell helming this flick, the dialogue is delivered authentically and at a very natural rhythm.

The acting, particularly by Jackie Weaver as the mother and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, is astoundingly good. Both of these characters feel like they might almost be caricatures in the book– and on paper they are– but these ladies deliver characters with great depth of emotion and beautiful motivation. There is a particular moment where Tiffany accepts a dinner invitation that is very poorly timed– this moment had so many ways it could go wrong, but Lawrence keeps it even and delightful. That moment won Lawrence the Oscar. Everyone else does a great job too, even Bradley Cooper who has coasted on his stubble, looks, and fast-talking for far too long.

It’s unlikely that there is an adult that wouldn’t enjoy this movie with its fresh performances and perfectly accessible story.

Content warnings: There’s plenty of salty language mixed with a few fisticuffs. There is brief nudity that involves a woman’s backside and then her top for a moment.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

Find the silver lining in this long review and share it with your friends– your joy will be full and they will buy you dinner.

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