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.