Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Les Miserables

It's a little odd to spend $61 million to make a movie--with much of that likely going into lavish set construction--and then spend so much time in tight, shaky closeups of the warbling cast.  The effect is not unlike "The Hurt Locker" with show tunes.  And there is definitely something cringeworthy about Russell Crowe's vocals.  He's not a terrible singer, per se, but he booms in a manner akin to an adolescent being forced to sing in the church choir.

Having said that, the film incarnation of "Les Miserables" is competent and entertaining as a whole.  For those whose girlfriends/wives never dragged them to the stage musical, "Les Miserables" is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name.  It takes place in 19th century France and centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict paroled after a nineteen-year sentence for stealing bread and attempted escape.  Embittered, hungry, and marked as a criminal, Valjean turns to theft to feed himself, until the kindness of a bishop inspires him to start his life anew as a good and charitable man.  This includes saving Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman-turned-prostitute to whose misfortune Valjean unwittingly contributed.  Later, Valjean adopts Fantine's orphaned daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen and later Amanda Seyfried), and resides with her in Paris as a second revolution brews among the poor and local students.  Always in pursuit of Valjean is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean's former jailer whose rising through the police ranks fatefully brings him into Valjean's path many times over the years. Javert pursues Valjean for no other reason than that he broke parole and is a criminal and therefore cannot be redeemed.

The best musical performance is hands-down Anne Hathaway's sorrowful rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream".  She has said that she practiced singing whilst crying to nail the emotion of the scene, and the effect is heartbreaking.  Given Dame Judi Dench's Oscar win for her eight-minute role in "Shakespeare in Love", it is not implausible that Hathaway will pick up a nod this year.

This is definitely a case where the lack of an intermission in which to use the restroom and gulp a merlot at the bar causes the story to drag a little bit.  While the script is faithful to the musical, there are a few moments during the a few of the ballads where one starts to feel numb in the backside and wishful for a sword fight or a riot to liven up the mood.

The main issue that this writer had is the wasted potential for grandiose delivery.  It is arguable that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper sacrifices spectacle for emotional intimacy, and that what worked in "The King's Speech" is a little awkward here.  Maybe no one told Hooper he had four times the budget of that movie to play with here.  Also, many of the performances teeter on the edge of melodrama.

Overall, though, Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" is an often rousing and eventually soaring tale of love, liberty, and the pursuit of criminal fugitives.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt's and Andrew Dominik's sophomore collaboration, "Killing Them Softly" died at the box office this weekend at the hands of vampires, James Bond, and The Great Emancipator.  I saw it in a theater of less than a dozen people and two of them walked out, likely disappointed that Mr. Pitt spent less time busting caps and more time waxing philosophic about proper etiquette among thieves and killers.  But even if it's not the story you paid to see, it's still a great story.  It’s also thematically simpler than “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”.

When an ex-con dry cleaner hires two loser thugs to rob a mob-protected poker game, it looks like a can't-miss proposition.  The guy who runs the game, Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta) actually robbed his own game before and even bragged about it.  So when it happens again the bosses will just whack Trattman and that will be that.  But is anything ever that simple?

Enter Jackie Cogan (Pitt), an enforcer who keeps things simple.  As he rolls into town, we see and hear news broadcasts of George W. Bush consoling Americans on the then-burgeoning recession and Barack Obama and John McCain selling “hope” and “strength” respectively in their bids to lead the nation.  “Killing” is not so much a crime drama as a cynical perspective of what it really means to survive and thrive in these hard times.  Jackie is no hero, or even an anti-hero.  He just wants to restore the status quo with the least possible complication.  So when one of his targets is too close as a friend, he brings in broken down fellow hitman Mickey (James Gandolfini) to do the job.  Mickey’s purpose is not so much violence as present a portrait of someone worn down and numb by a lifetime of bloodshed.  For a film with two hitmen in it, this movie is going to disappoint anyone looking for lots of action.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

"Silver Linings Playbook" is David O. Russell's most biting look at pathological self-destruction and redemption since "I Heart Huckabees", albeit with a darker tone. Bradley Cooper goes Oscar-trolling as Pat Solitano, a former high school teacher sprung from a mental institution eight months after a violent breakdown. Living with his superstitious father (Robert De Niro finally back in form) and his doting mother (Jacki Weaver), Pat nurses delusions of repairing his relationship with his wife, who has filed a restraining order and all but divorced him. He does not find much solace until he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a fellow tortured soul soothing her grief--following the death of her husband--through unhealthy sexual encounters and ballroom dancing.

Cooper demonstrates a range never offered to him in the "Hangover" franchise or the sci-fi thriller "Limitless". From the outset, it is implausible that the actor who gave us the womanizing, alpha male Sack Lodge could inhabit a loser at rock-bottom trying to put his life back together, but Cooper pulls it off. Jennifer Lawrence also does great work, letting her freak flag fly while maintaining the undercurrent of strength laced with vulnerability that landed her the Oscar nod for "Winter's Bone". The great Mr. De Niro gives a heartfelt but appropriately restrained supporting performance as a father both exasperated by and concerned for his fragile son.

The story moves along at fairly brisk pace, with Pat and Tiffany feeling their way toward a real emotional connection the same way someone fumbles for a flashlight during a blackout. The focus remains on Pat, but presents Tiffany as closed off but desperate to feel something.

While it could be argued that the film squanders a lot of its dramatic weight with a slightly syrupy ending, the director offers a compelling portrait of two people doing their utmost to pick up the pieces of their broken existences and maybe find a little happiness.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cinema In the Age of Digital Bombardment

For the moment, if you want to surf a website, email or chat with a friend, or watch a movie or TV show, you need to type or tap a device that’s on your desk, in your lap, or in your hand. But the time may be coming sooner rather than later, that the computer and the iPad may hit the scrapheap in favor of technology that does not even require a finger or voice to operate.

The recent announcement by Google of its forthcoming glasses has sparked new discussion of the possibility of “augmented reality”. For those who don’t know the term, augmented reality (AR) is adding one or several layers of information to the visual landscape. Imagine walking down the street and looking at a string of restaurants or stores, and then seeing digital labels and links providing the names of the places and providing online reviews. It’s basically the way the Terminator sees the world, except you’re more likely to see a map to the nearest Starbucks than the most efficient way to kill John Connor.

Let’s say you see a poster on a bus shelter and decide you want to see the movie as soon as possible. AR allows the possibility of pulling up a map to the nearest Cineplex within walking distance and the day’s showtimes. An AR app that could do this would delight any cinephile. And if you’re watching a movie at phone, you could conceivably check out the designer label of the outfit the lead actress is wearing, as well as if it’s available at the local mall. AR is the potential to take movie merchandising to a whole new level.
But think about the actual experience of watching a film, whether it’s “The Avengers” or “The Maltese Falcon”. We already have 3D and surround sound to take us further into the movie than merely the image we see onscreen. What happens, though, when all this data and imagery that we’re increasingly bombarded with overloads our perception?

The speed at which society circulates information increases exponentially with each day. In New York City, video advertisements appear in taxicabs and even over urinals. We’re fast approaching a point where you won’t be able to look in any direction without seeing a digital video clip of some kind. YouTube is no longer a website; it’s a zeitgeist. Absorbing a single segment of media that conveys a single message is akin to talking on a pay phone while a freight train is roaring by.

What film-lovers should ask themselves is as the experience of viewing films and other media evolves, is it sensible to blindly follow the times and trends or question whether new is necessarily better? If you’ve got millions of pixels and megabytes and ones and zeroes coming at you per second, how much of all that information can you really process? If we get to the point when you directly access all of the movies product tie-ins and production notes and cast bios simultaneously, is there any time or attention span left to enjoy the actual story?

In the future, audiences may find it necessary to discipline themselves against absorbing an excess of information, to filter out the maelstrom of sights and sounds just to pick out the beginning, middle, and end of the tale they paid to see.