Les Misérables

120px-Film-stripAnother quick review following another rushed cinema trip around work and baby duties. Friends had been giving it good to better feedback, so we opted for the big budget Hollywood version of the Schonberg and Boublil musical classic.

Les Misérables (2012)

“Can you hear the people sing?”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: parolee goes on the run to turn a new leaf and gets caught up on French Revolution goings-on

See it if you like: actual proper musicals, not just plays with a few songs chucked in

I’ve never seen the stage version though I absolutely adore the CD set I bought about 20 years ago. As such my comparisons are inevitably going to be predominantly based on the audio side of things. On this front it comes off very well indeed, but I’ll get into that a bit more later.

Visually it’s stunning. Huge, impressive sets which seem authentic enough while still maintaining the feel of a stage show. In many of the scenes I could imagine the cast on an actual stage in front of me, but the production values are obviously far greater than any theatre could hope to match.

The opening sequence kicks things off in this manner with scores of men pulling on ropes to haul a stricken ship out of stormy water and into dry dock. You just couldn’t do that in any theatre. A perfect mix of scenery and CGI makes this scene simply enormous.

We’re introduced, at this point, to our two main characters: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). It’s always a risk when you take someone famous for their acting skills and put them into a role where they have to sing a few words. To take two men known for action flicks and put them in as leads to a film that has about 0.1% spoken dialogue (the rest all being sung) must have involved a lot of auditions or a leap of faith on the part of the director.

On the whole, it’s paid off. Jackman certainly gives the acting performance of his career if his voice doesn’t quite match up to the task, while Crowe plays things a little easier but (on the whole) has the better voice.

Stand-out, though, is Anne Hathaway who plays the downtrodden Fantine. If she was auditioned alongside any of the original stage cast, she’d be up there with the top choices. Add to this an outstanding acting performance and you have one of the best displays of talent on screen I have seen in a long time.

Amanda Seyfried as the older Cosette rounds out the main cast and gives a good performance also. The remaining two well-known names are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who provide comic relief as the Thénardiers, a couple of the dodgiest characters you’re ever likely to meet. Both are suitably revolting and fit the parts perfectly.

The remainder of the cast are less well known and/or have performed in the stage show and managed to jump on board this celluloid version. They hold their own against the premium rate cast well, from rugrats like Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche) and Isabelle Allen (young Cosette) to main members like Samantha Barks (Éponine), there isn’t a duffer in the bunch.

It’s a cracking story with highs, lows and a huge amount of passion. The songs are superb, though definitely more “acted” (by which I mean emotionally performed) than the CD version I have. I swear there were a small number of lyrical changes as well – very minor ones – but I could be wrong.

There is always a risk in taking something as hugely well known as this from one medium to another, and in many cases the simple expedient of chucking money at it results in a complete mess. This, however, is far from it. Big, glorious, and hugely emotional it’s as good a film version as could ever be imagined.

I know some people won’t like it (and didn’t), but I really did. I’d still love to go and see it on stage, I’m sure I will one day, but this will tide me over in the meantime. Hell, I think I’m going to dig out the CDs and pop them in the car. It’ll make a change from the Cavalera Conspiracy track that came on the stereo when we left the cinema!

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Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

As if this one needs an introduction. We’d hoped to see it at the IMAX as I saw the first two episodes there. Unfortunately, you have to book at least a day in advance at the Glasgow one due to their steam-powered booking system (assuming you can even find it on their web site). Also, simply due to popularity, the film is booked out for every evening performance until the middle of this week – and with Littler Miss working her way down the birth canal slower than a barge through treacle, we can’t risk blowing the cash on something we may not be able to get to. So, off to Parkhead we went. Oh, and with no concerns about trying to find a 2D showing as there was no crappy, revenue-driven urge to produce a 3D version of the film. Thank you director Christopher Nolan for putting your foot down about that one.

Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. The film follows on very closely from the end of The Dark Knight, with prisoners incarcerated as a result of the Harvey Dent Act. Gotham is free of organised crime and, as a result, the mysterious Batman has disappeared. However, this is Gotham. And this is a trilogy. So something has to happen.

Cue villain-of-the-moment Bane, born of darkness and out to destroy Batman – and Gotham City while he’s at it. It’s difficult to go too much further without giving anything much away so I’ll leave it at that and focus on the overall quality of the film. Before you see it, though, this excellent article on ScreenRant is worth a read. It’s pretty much spoiler-free!

There’s no denying the acting pedigree of the cast. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine return as Fox and Alfred respectively. Two of the most respected actors of their generation, and deservedly so. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, takes on a major part of the story. As well as an ensemble cast, it’s a multi-faceted story which ensures these people aren’t just background to Christian Bale‘s hoarse whispering Batman and Tom Hardy‘s muffle-voiced Bane.

Ah, yes. Bane. Huge, scary but often hard to understand. On the whole, I got most of what he said but there were some lines I just didn’t catch. In fairness, Batman was just as unintelligible one a small handful of instances.

The film runs for a long time – 2hrs 45 mins, in fact. Be prepared for a long sit and don’t expect a thrill a minute or a bucket of laughs between the action sequences. Dark Knight Rises is a dark film – very dark. Unrelenting in places. It could be worse. Some of the death scenes are cut away from rather abruptly which is probably what’s earned it the 12A rating in the UK rather than a 15.

The action and effects are, as expected, fantastic. They’re not as “big” as those in, say, Avengers Assemble, but they’re more gritty. Having said that, I found the fight sequences lacking a little something, perhaps because the two main proponents (Bane and Batman) are so heavily padded. Anne Hathaway‘s Selina Kyle (she’s not referred to as Catwoman at all during the film) are actually slightly better to watch and not just because she fills a leather outfit so well.

Expectations are bound to be high for this film and mainly as the last film was, simply put, absolutely outstanding. However, you’re never going to get that chemistry again. In fairness, all three films in the trilogy have aimed to be different as well and bearing that in mind, Dark Knight Rises is successful. It’s not like the other two, it is an intellectual level apart from other superhero films and it’s very much a wonderful piece of work.

However, it’s also not as good as I was hoping. Some of the dialogue just clunked for me and I think I was expecting more of the action scenes. I do think I’d have enjoyed it more visually if we’d caught it at the IMAX, but that’s only the visuals. The pace would still have been slow and Dark Knight would still be kicking it for overall quality.

It’s good. In fact, it’s very good. But it’s not the utterly amazing classic it’s been built up to be. It’s really only let down by its own hype and the expectations put upon it by the second episode in the series.

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Rio / Red Riding Hood / Source Code

The plan for three films turned into a plan for one. Then two more. Which makes three anyway.


“I am not an ostrich!”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: adopted macaw head to Brazil to discover his heritage and get laid.

I really wanted to avoid this film purely because it’s been used for the last three million years (or so it seems) to advertise Orange phones before every damn film I’ve seen. However, the kids wanted to see it (in preference to Winnie The Pooh and Hop) so off we went on Sunday afternoon. Oh, we saw the 2D version because Little Mister is under 6 and his older sister finds the glasses very uncomfortable. And I can’t bloody stand it.

It’s by the same folk who did the Ice Age movies, and it’s got a similar style of humour. It’s also definitely back on a par with the first of that series after the twee decline they went through. It  is a very bright and colourful movie with plenty of action to keep the youngsters happy although Little Mister didn’t seem quite in the mood to be engaged by it. Elder Sister really liked it.

The story is simple enough. A young macaw is stolen from the forests and finds a home in North America with a young girl (Linda voiced by Leslie Mann) who he grows up with. A Brazilian ornithologist arrives to beg that Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) be taken on a trip back “home” to pair up with the other last remaining macaw to save the species. Jewel (Anne Hathaway) turns out to be a little more of a live spirit and she and Blu end up going through a series of adventures.

The side characters and clever use of visual humour will keep adults interested as the kids giggle at the animated slapstick and ogle the visuals.

Not the best animated film ever, but definitely one that should entertain the sprogs if you have a spare afternoon. And that’s all that matters, isn’t it?

Red Riding Hood

“Grandmother… what big eyes you have.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: A small village has been safe from the curse of a werewolf for twenty years when it suddenly strikes once again… but who it is, and what does it want?

This was one of those “we’re intrigued, but the times fit in with when we’re free” films. The two trailers we’d seen led us to think a) crap and b) hum, maybe not so crap. The reviews haven’t been kind, but I’d recommend giving it a chance.

It’s set in the middle ages, in a small insular village called Daggerhorn. Every full moon the villagers put out a sacrifice (goat, pig, whatever) and the local werewolf nabs it rather than killing one of the people. However, twenty years after the last human gets snatched, a local girl is eviscerated and questions start to arise.

The girl’s sister, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), is the titular Red Riding Hood and central character. It is she who is caught up in the mystery of the identity of the werewolf, a mystery that takes another turn when Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) arrives in town on a personal crusade against all things lycanthrope.

The story then becomes a half decent whodunnit combined with a some soap opera touches as family and relationship secrets are exposed. Friendships are strained, beliefs tested and Oldman overacts as wonderfully as only he knows how.

I think Gillian reckoned this was “OK”. I was quite impressed, largely as I wasn’t expecting much. It did take a little while to get going, but once things started ticking along I was guessing here and there as to who the werewolf was and why they were interested in Valerie. In true Murder, She Wrote style all of these details are revealed when we find out who the rampaging half-wolf is, along with brief flashbacks to the events we didn’t see clearly the first time.

Red Riding Hood won’t win any awards, and likely won’t do too well judging by the ratings I’ve seen so far. Which is a shame, as it’s not as bad as some people are making out. If there’s nothing else on, it’s worth 100 minutes of your time.

Source Code

“Oh boy.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Soldier time-travels (repeatedly) back to a commuter train to find out who blew it up and to prevent a major terrorist bombing.

Along similar lines to the likes of Deja Vu and Quantum Leap, Jake Gyllenhall‘s character Colter Stevens is part of a military-funder operation allowing tweaking with the timelines. The limitation with this expedition is that Stevens can only witness and interact with an alternative reality’s version of the last 8 minutes of his host’s life, taking place during events which have already occurred. Simply put, unlike Sam Beckett, he can’t put right what once went wrong… but he can hopefully collect enough information to prevent an upcoming event of much greater proportions from taking place.

The reviews and comments I’ve seen about Source Code are universally complimentary and a huge number are marvelling at the complicated twists and mystery as to what the “source code” actually is. Frankly, anyone posting comments like that on Twitter has never seen a sci-fi film. This is as linear as it gets, and although being a good story its twists have been done before. The “big twist” at the end is even explained by the central character, after a fashion, during the main body of the film!

As with most modern sci-fi, it’s best to disengage the believability circuits at the same time as you start shovelling popcorn into your gob. Source Code is nicely character-driven with a good premise, much of what made Quantum Leap so deservedly popular. Although it’s not difficult to stay a scene or two ahead of the screenwriters, Gyllenhaal really does make you care for his character.

He’s aided by the sympathetic “controller” Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who is overseem by the rather more self-obsessed Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), while engaging with several characters on the doomed train – in particular Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who sits opposite him, and who he vows to save – despite being told that this is impossible.

I think Source Code suffered from the exact opposite problem as Red Riding Hood. After all the pizzaz, I was expecting it to be awe-inspiring. Instead it’s just “pretty good” so almost a let-down. Well-made, very well acted and not overblown it makes for a good film with a nice story but it simply isn’t the incredible movie it’s being made out to me.

Oh, and the Quantum Leap quote I put at the start of the review? The classic “Oh boy”? It’s in there. And it’s the first words spoken by the very actor who made them famous. Good luck spotting them!

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Love & Other Drugs / The Next Three Days / The Way Back

Ah, been a while since I did three films in a day. In a bid to avoid take a break from working hard, I headed over to the Cineworld in Edinburgh for one romcom, a thriller and a historical drama. I like a nice mix.

Love and Other Drugs

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Boy meets girl. Shags her. Meets another girl. Shags her. Meets another girl. Shags her. Meets another girl. Shags her, but likes her. Sells some pills along the way (legally).

LaOD is definitely more “romantic” than “comedy”. There are some genuinely funny moments in it, but it focusses far more on the story than it does on laughs. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. It is. Hugely so.

This is largely due to Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. And this is partly due to the amount of flesh they show. One thing that’s always annoyed me about films is the way a couple can be all over each other, then the scene cuts and they insist on keeping themselves covered with sheets. Not so in this film! That’s not to say it’s remotely pornographic – unless you’re from the Bible Belt, in which case curved table legs are fairly hard core.

The performances are fantastic, especially Hathaway who plays a character with onsetting Parkinsons Disease. The writers have managed to make this a major point (as it should be) without turning things schmaltzy.

Jamie (Gyllenhaal) grows up as the film progresses, and he portrays this with some strength. Moving from the easy-going playboy to a dedicated partner in stages as the film progresses, he matures over the course of the two hours or so.

Josh Gad is also excellent as the comedy relief, Jamie’s brother. He pops up in just the right places to give some laughs and does manage to steal some of the scenes he’s in. Basically, he’s there for the guys who are taking their partners to see this film on a date.

A great story with passionate performances from the leads.

The Next Three Days

Plot-in-a-nutshell: A woman is jailed for a crime she didn’t commit (or did she?) and her husband starts to plot a way of getting her out. Only he’s not that great at it.

This isn’t the first “damsel in distress and amateur husband/partner comes to the rescue” film by any stretch. It is, however, ever so slightly more realistically portrayed than most others. Hubby (John – played by Russell Crowe) is a school teacher. He isn’t ex-military and doesn’t have a keen interest in survivalism.

His wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is jailed for murdering her boss which she denies. However, there’s a lot of doubt as to the truth of this. This simple fact does make the film a bit more interesting. Will the actually get away with John’s plan? Should they? After all, there’s every chance she did it.

Indeed, John keeps screwing up. As ever, I’ll avoid spoilers, but his methods don’t always work out too well. Of course, where’s the fun in a film where everything is easy? You’ll end up with something like Law Abiding Citizen which has been done.

Despite a 2-hour running time, The Next Three Days doesn’t overstay its welcome and maintains interest right the way through. It does use some classic cinema tricks to maintain tension which are woefully predictable, but they only detract slightly from the film.

The Way Back

Plot-in-a-nutshell: A small group escape from a Russian gulag in Siberia then travel 4000 miles – on foot – to freedom.

There’s some debate as to the truthfulness of the book on which this film is based, but there’s enough fact in there to make it a wonderfully emotional work. Starting in the work camps of frozen Sibera (all 5 million square miles of it), the group head south in search of freedom. This takes a lot longer than they expect.

The group is made up of Russians, Poles, an American… quite a mix and indicative of the fact that Communism didn’t care who it trampled as long as it got its own way.

Not all the actors are from Eastern Europe, despite paying characters from there. Ed Harris does play the lone American, but Colin Farrell puts on a pretty acceptable accent as the mad knife-wielding lowlife who forces his way into the escape party.

The majority of the film depicts the group’s journey through harsh snow, mountains, plains, lakes, and desert as they make their way south to India and freedom from the reaches of Communism.

It does seem to rush a little as the time goes by. The early stages of the trek take up the most time, and each lengthier stage takes less and less screen time as the story progresses. Still, I suppose there’s only so much you can show of people walking with the sun beating down on them, or snow blinding them.

There’s a great story here with some compelling performances. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s quite classic material. Far better than some of the brain-numbing crap being thrust on us these days, though.

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