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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Johnny English Reborn / Real Steel / Contagion

By إبن البيطار (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsNo cinema for about two weeks then three in a day. Well, I caught three. Because Cineworld buggered up a change in direct debit details, Gillian had to go home and ring them to re-enable her card which meant that she missed the first of our trilogy. Thanks a bunch, Cineworld.

Johnny English Reborn

“Dear God, don’t let me get killed by the Swiss.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: inept Bond-esque character makes a return only this time he’s not as goofy

See it if you like: Amusing comedy romps with a dash of slapstick which somehow still manage to shoehorn in a decent plot

We (re-)watched the original film the other week as Gillian hadn’t seen it before and, in honesty, it wasn’t as enjoyable as I remember. Still, I was looking forward to seeing Rowan Atkinson back on screen as the clumsy secret agent originally created for a series of Barclaycard commercials. It’s certainly better than another Mr Bean outing (shudder).

The film begins with English back in the bad books after something goes wrong in a job in Mozambique (more of which becomes clear as the story progresses). Stripped of his knighthood and his position with MI7 he is enrolled in a Tibetan monastery. Cue a rather amusing slapstick sequence where Atkinson gets to show off his legendary facial expressions, rubber limbs and comic timing.

The new head of MI7, Pegasus (Gillian Anderson with a posh accent) is forced to draft English back in when an informant insists on speaking only to him. English is partnered with junior agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya) who fills in the “sensible” role of Bough from the original without being the same character. Far less experienced and less prepared to pick up English’s mess. In fact, the opening (low speed and comically brilliant) chase sequence shows that the roles have very much been reversed. English with the smarts and Tucker obviously an inexperienced though keen agent.

There’s still a fair amount in the film that’s predictable – it’s that kind of humour – but there are plenty of good laughs that haven’t been spoiled in the trailer. The story isn’t bad, either, with a good handful of twists and turns. The action sequences are appropriately funny/ridiculous and also quite cool in places.

This is far from remake or rehash of the original. Atkinson has taken the English character in a new direction rather than just playing him out in another outing. This film is far better as a result.

Good laughs, great cast, family friendly and definitely recommended.

Real Steel

“You know you’re bringing him home in pieces, right?”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: down-and-out robot boxer discovers he has a son. Robots get smushed. Bonds form.

See it if you like: the idea of unusual combinations of father/son dramas and boxing/sports films.

This was a great film. Exciting, innovative, funny, emotional, visually impressive, imaginative… We loved it and the kids a couple of rows in front were completely enraptured with the fight sequences.

Ex-boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) has fallen into debt with far too many people as he travels the country trying to win cash back as a robot boxer. People no longer box. The viewing public has moved on, wanting to see gigantic metal titans beat each other to scrap.

To add to his problems, Kenton’s old girlfriend dies and he finds himself lumbered with an 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), for the summer.

The story then mixes Rocky (if you want to know how much, see the IMDB trivia page for the plot similarities) with a heart-warming drama where Charlie gets to know his son. Stars of the show are the robots, of course. Every single one was built both physically and digitally – and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between them.

When I look back, the story – certainly as far as the fights – was pretty much by-the-numbers. There are very few original stories left in Hollywood, the trick these days being in how well you tell them. This one is told particularly well. The stunning visuals really help, but the characters and plot are what’s important.

A sequel is mooted for 2014 and part of me is dreading it as this is a nicely-encapsulated story. It doesn’t need a sequel. This is a great movie in its own right.


“It’s a bad day to be a rhesus monkey.”

Plot-in–a-nutshell: A virulent virus breaks out and the CDC/WHO are tasked with stopping it as it sweeps across the world

See it if you like: dark dramas with a realistic edge

Imagine that the last Swine Flu or Bird Flu panic wasn’t as blown out of proportion as it seemed. Imagine that the virus really was novel and changing to the point where it spread remarkably quickly, killed in days and was ridiculously hard to cultivate in a lab. This is the premise for Contagion, a dark present-day thriller from Steven Soderbergh.

This film divided Gillian and I. She found it too slow and with not enough accurate information. I found it dark and gripping with just the right balance. It isn’t a fast film, she’s right, but the pace seems to increase as the virus spreads and as the public get more and more out of control.

Focus is very much on the medical staff involved in the case (played by the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet), though there are side-steps into the lives of victims (Matt Damon) and the anti-capitalist brigade (led by an appropriately annoying Jude Law) who believe that the drug companies are withholding cures so as to make more money for themselves.

Nothing like this has happened to us as yet, but it could. Plagues in history have been limited by geography. The way we hop across the globe nowadays means this isn’t going to happen any more. The figures thrown around in the film – tens of millions dead – are scarily possible.

It’s not surprising the performances are good when you look at the number of award winners and nominees up there. Soderbergh has quite the track record as well, though this is the first of his films I’ve seen that I’ve really enjoyed. A shame Gillian didn’t think as much of it as I did.

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X Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The fourth of the recent X-Men films, Wolverine takes a step back in time to fill in some gaps from X2. There are no great surprises for anyone who’s read the comics and there’s really not a lot of plot. More a sequence of set pieces and shots of Hugh Jackman looking to the heavens and roaring. Or squealing in his earlier incarnations.

Some characters such as Stryker, who appeared in earlier films (though set later in Logan’s life) are played by different actors but on the whole, the cast is OK. The special effects are pretty good in most places, which important as there’s very little else in the film to get excited about. Except maybe Mr Jackman in the buff (yes, Leah, I’m looking at you).

Plot-in-a-nutshell: young boy growing up discovers that he and his brother both have mutant powers. They run away, grow up and one goes bad. He hunts for the good one so the army can “help” him and they meet other mutants on the way.

No spoilers, but anyone who’s remotely familiar with the comics will know the story anyway. My main quibble is fanboy related. We all know Wolverine gets his invulnerability from Adamantium being bonded to his skeleton. We see the procedure in the film (and briefly in X2). Needles go in, squirty-squirty, out comes the superhero.

So if all they’ve done is plate his skeleton, how come his bony claws turn into sharp knives? Shouldn’t they just be shiny bony claws?

But I digress. The film’s entertaining enough for its running time, but it’s a little like X3 – all eye candy and little plot. The final battle scene has some rather nice destructions in it along the scale of the Golden Gate Bridge being ripped up but after all’s said and done there’s a lot more story in the X-Men canon that could have been used.

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