Les Miserables

Les Misérables has been a beloved musical stage play for over two decades and now it is a musical movie. Let us consider Les Miz, the movie.

It’s good, but not quite great. The musical performances—bravely sung live by the performers during the actual filming—range from top notch to merely passable. Likewise, the songs themselves range from magnificent to tedious. There are magic moments in the music, to be sure. But not every song sparkles.

The cast includes formidable talent, including Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Amanda Seyfried as Cossette. Hathaway is the best supporting actress frontrunner for her heart-tugging performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Another highlight is the Jackman/Crowe vocal duet/duel on “Confrontation.”

Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter handle the needed comic relief song “Master of the House” nicely. But their respective comic performances in movie musical Sweeney Todd were more effective, partly due to funnier source material.

Special mention must be made of newcomer Samantha Barks as Éponine. She is not only a great vocalist (a winner of a TV talent competition in Britain a few years back), but also has a strong onscreen presence. Look for big things for this woman.

The production of Les Misérables is big with a huge cast (singers and non-singers). Many of the settings are also big, though some are way too obviously computer-generated. The film’s finale is a stirring panoramic scene that closes the film on a strong emotional note.

Expectations have been running high for this movie. Some are met, but not all. Not hardly.

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Django Unchained

Everything you’ve heard about Django Unchained is true. Quentin Tarentino is a fearless filmmaker. And one of the things he does not fear is excess. Django Unchained is a big movie (2:45 or so) with lots going on.

Set in the antebellum South when slavery was legal, DU will touch some nerves. Is this film racially charged? Yes. Will this film generate controversy? Yes. Does this film entertain? Yes. Is it violent? Oh, yes. Is it funny? You betcha! Django Unchained is the must-see film of the Christmas season.

Christoph Waltz as King Schultz, a German dentist turned US bounty hunter, gives one of the year’s best acting performances. His character is smart, funny and, at times, sensitive. He can also ruthlessly violent. He tries to purchase Django, played by Jamie Foxx, from among a group of slaves after Django tells him he can identify the wanted killers that Schultz is seeking.

Django ends up riding alongside Schultz, who promises to help Django find his wife from whom he was separated. The two enter a small village where townsfolk are stunned to see a black man riding a horse next to a white man. They visit a plantation owned by “Big Daddy,” played by Don Johnson, where Django discovers the wanted men.

The journey to find Django’s wife takes them to Candyland, the Mississippi plantation of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Candie is a fan of “mandingo fighting,” which pits two slaves in a bloody, bare knuckles hand-to-hand battle. At the plantation, Django and Schultz scheme to secure Djanglo’s wife Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, from Candie. It’s not an easy mission to accomplish, thanks to interference from Candie’s loyal house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Foxx handles the title role with effective, appropriate restraint. DiCaprio, who’ll have that baby face throughout his life, is hard to buy as a nasty bad guy. Jackson gives a killer performance as the 70-ish senior slave.

Tarantino’s over-the-top script is filled with humor and surprises but also reveals a horrifying look at American slavery. One particularly memorable shot, lasting only a second or two, shows blood splattering on cotton bolls in a field. Other depictions of brutality are more direct.

As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, the soundtrack is a knockout, with tunes ranging from recycled Italian Spaghetti Western songs to Jim Croce’s 70’s hit “I Got a Name.”

Django Unchained will likely generate polarizing media commentary and new devotees of Quentin Tarantino and his distinctive, highly entertaining film making. Not to mention a few awards nominations, as well.

 

My Top Ten Movies for 2012

  1. The Dark Knight Rises—The story, the soundtrack, the villains, the heroes, the emotion. TDKR is satisfyingly stunning on so many levels.
  2. Argo—An amazing true story (with Hollywood embellishment) that fires up our American pride, from a period when our country was humbled. Efficient storytelling at its best.
  3. Silver Linings Playbook—An adult son with a mental illness moves back in with his sixty-something parents, following his court-ordered hospitalization. It’s funny and heartbreaking, often within the same scene.
  4. Moonrise Kingdom—From the wild imagination of Wes Anderson comes a story of very young love. Luckily for him (and for us), the two rookie actors who star in the key roles are fantastic.
  5. Django Unchained—Quentin Tarantino rewrites history again with a visit to the antebellum South where he fearlessly takes on the topic of slavery. Inspired performances from an impressive cast take this over-the-top story to spectacular heights.
  6. The Hobbit—This fantasy has a perfect mix of humor and peril. Martin Freeman brings a proper bemusement to Bilbo. The 48 frames per second technology takes cinema to a new level.
  7. The Hunger Games—The novelist’s compelling story is brought to life by a talented filmmaker and an excellent cast. Much of our modern culture is reflected in the film’s characters and events.
  8. Skyfall—The best and most memorable Bond movie in years, if not decades. To breathe this much new life into a 50-year-old franchise is an impressive feat. A toast (martini, of course) to all involved.
  9. Life of Pi—One of the most gorgeous films ever made. The story is good, but the images will endure. To borrow a cliché, this movie truly is “a feast for the eyes.”
  10. Hope Springs—One of the many good movies for older audiences in 2012.  A couple played by two of our best actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, visit a counselor who helps them communicate again. After a four-year sex drought, their clumsy efforts to reconnect are funny and poignant.

My Top Ten Movies for 2012 list does not include those that will not be released in St. Louis before year’s end, such as Zero Dark Thirty or Amour. And, while Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was one of the year’s best acting performances, the movie itself was flawed: too long, too ponderous and too theatrical.

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher is a good action adventure procedural with a plotline that gets a bit convoluted. But everything works out in the end, with some help from a friend.

This film’s big problem is that it begins with a sniper using a high-powered rifle to take out five individuals. Should its release have been delayed after Newtown? Stay tuned for the blowback.

The sniper sets up in a Pittsburgh parking garage and shoots across the Allegheny River with deadly accuracy. When evidence points to one particular guy, that guy (a former military sniper) writes on a pad, “Get Jack Reacher.” Reacher, played by Tom Cruise, is a former Army policeman with a sketchy background who sets out to find the real killer.

He gets help from the district attorney’s estranged daughter, played by former Bond girl Rosamund Pike. The DA is played by Richard Jenkins, who is rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s most dependable character actors. The daughter, Helen, claims her law firm wants to represent the alleged perp because her dad intimidates too many suspects into forced confessions. Flimsy reason, but without it, the film would have no blonde babe eye candy.

Reacher and Helen gather info on the victims and analyze the evidence. Meanwhile, they are forced to deal with bad guys who want to take them out of the picture, for reasons to be revealed later. Of course there’s a chase scene and it’s a good one that ends with Reacher’s clever escape.

Based on the alleged perp’s charge card bills, which show large gasoline purchases on weekends, Reacher suspects the guy had been driving to distant shooting ranges. Voila! When he finds the range where the guy shot targets, he gets vital information from and forms a vital association with the guy who runs the range, played by Robert Duvall.

As things get sorted out in the end, Duvall’s character provides an important helping hand and a spark of humor.

Wait, was there something missing in this movie? Yes! There’s no love scene between Cruise and Pike! Not even a kiss! The sexual tension that builds between them throughout the movie remains unfulfilled. Maybe something will happen in Jack Reacher II. (Yes, this feels like the first in a series.)

One more thing: I’ve never thought of Pittsburgh as a cool city. But the Steel Town looks good in this film, as well as in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Dark Knight Rises. But that Iron City Beer still sucks.

This Is 40

Some really funny lines and situations, some great supporting acting performances and two attractive leads should make for a great movie. Instead, This Is 40 is more of a movie stew.

This Is 40 is like a big, bloated sitcom. An R-rated sitcom with F-bombs liberally sprinkled throughout. There’s enough going on here to provide story frameworks for at least a half-dozen sitcom episodes.

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are Pete and Debbie. Both are about to turn 40. Their lives are filled with messy situations. Their sex life is losing sizzle. Pete’s record label is hemorrhaging cash. Debbie’s boutique has an employee stealing money. Their kids are borderline obnoxious. Their fathers load them with more baggage.

Pete and Debbie each have little secrets that they don’t share with one another, like Pete’s obsession with cupcakes and Debbie’s sneaking off to smoke. They also do not fully disclose their respective financial issues.

And Debbie lies about her age. So the climactic 40th birthday party is just Pete’s party (not a joint affair, like they’ve had in past years).

The strongest performances in This Is 40 come from Albert Brooks as Pete’s dad, John Lithgow as Debbie’s dad and Melissa McCarthy as a parent the couple has an issue with. As she did in Bridesmaids, McCarthy steals the show.

Director/writer Judd Apatow delivers a movie that runs 2 hours and fourteen minutes, a bit too long. Judicious use of the editing blade could’ve easily trimmed this into a tighter, more focused movie.

This Is 40 will make you laugh. It may portray situations like some in your own relationship. With the right personnel, This Is 40 could easily transition into a successful TV series. It has a lot of the right stuff, but just a little too much stuff to be as good as it could’ve been.

 

 

The Guilt Trip

Somebody had the great idea to cast Seth Rogen as the nerdy estranged son of doting Jewish widow mother Barbra Streisand. That person might want to rethink his/her future in the movie biz.

The Guilt Trip is an instantly forgettable film starring two people who have little chemistry. A weak and rarely funny script from a flimsy story idea doesn’t help. Did producers think that when these two appealing stars got together before the camera that magic would just spontaneously happen? Well, it didn’t.

Rogen plays a 30-ish LA chemist who flies back to Jersey to visit his mom before driving back west with stops along the way to pitch the cleaning solution he’s developed. A story his mother tells inspires him to invite her to make the week long trek across America with him.

Things that could’ve been funny are not, such as the choice of a book on CD they listen to in the car. Or Rogen’s uninspiring sales technique. Even the challenge at a Texas steakhouse to consume a monster chunk of meat in one hour produces little in the laughter department. Even the “hilarious” outtakes that run during the closing credits are ho-hum.

Much of the blame for The Guilt Trip’s failure goes to the old pro, Streisand. First, she’s had so much work done that she doesn’t quite look like Barbra Streisand anymore. Second, her character is only moderately wacky. Over-the-top zany might’ve worked better. Dialing back the wackiness does allow for a few moments of sweet motherly sensitivity.

Rogen is a talented actor and writer, but he does better in R-rated movies than in this PG-13 film. (Despite its tamer rating, there is a penis joke. A lame one. The joke, that is.) His name and reputation will sell tickets, but The Guilt Trip will not add to his long-term box office appeal.

This is a movie to watch on an obscure cable channel in four or five years when nothing else is on. There are better films in almost every other theater in the multiplex. This is not a trip you want to take.

 

 

Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson is a slice of FDR’s life in the pre-war late 1930’s. It’s a light piece of fluff but totally enjoyable.

Bill Murray is fun to watch as FDR. This is not the FDR of stern speeches and wartime gravity. This is the warmer and fuzzier FDR, away from Washington to enjoy some time in the idyllic countryside, 90 miles upriver from Manhattan. This is not the goofy, eccentric Bill Murray. This time he brings depth and maturity to the role.

On one visit to Hyde Park, Roosevelt sends for his distant cousin Daisy, played by Laura Linney. She isn’t really sure why she’s been summoned to hang out with the president, but after a few visits and a drive to a secluded spot, she soon finds out. This is a plain, single woman who lives quietly with her mother. Suddenly, she’s having an affair with FDR.

What’s weird about their arrangement is everybody on FDR’s staff seems to be aware of what’s happening. Even the president’s mother and his wife Eleanor appear to know what the score is. Even the King of England and his wife who visit Hyde Park know that FDR is a philanderer. Compared to the secrecy, denials and shame of the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, this adulterous fling seems almost respectable.

Linney is perfect for the role of Daisy. She is revealed to be more than a blank, uninteresting woman. She has feelings and self-respect. Daisy’s self esteem rises and falls as the film’s events unfold.

Murray doesn’t really look like FDR, but with the trademark cigarette holder and glasses as props, he comes close enough. His late night conversation with King George of England is one of the movie’s highlights and one of his more presidential scenes in the movie.

Hyde Park on Hudson and its players will not be award winners, but this period piece takes us to a pleasant time and place. It provides a few laughs and tells a good story. If that’s what you enjoy in a movie, check it out!

 

 

 

The Hobbit

The Hobbit has many great things going for it. Especially thrilling is the 48 frames per second technology, which provides images that are incredibly real looking.

Of course, what we see onscreen is unreal: Dwarves with huge feet. Creatures that are figments of creative imaginations. Settings that are other-worldly. And, our old weird little friend Gollum.

Unlike the three Lord of the Rings movies, The Hobbit is funny. Small chuckles and big laughs abound in a story that is also filled with peril and adventure. Yes, there were small bits of humor in the LOTR films, but The Hobbit is (as its director Peter Jackson has said in interviews) whimsical.

Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit. He brings an air of complete bemusement to the role. He vaguely resembles Martin Short, but Freeman appears frequently dumbfounded by plot developments. (Short would, I think, always be on the verge of a snicker, I must say.)

The entire movie has moments to savor, but a favorite is the scene where Bilbo falls into an impossibly deep hole and meets Gollum. It’s a case of “Finders Keepers” when Bilbo picks up a certain ring that has fallen from Gollum’s keep. As the two trade riddles, both the character Gollum and the actor playing him (the talented Andy Sorkis) are revealed to be strong enough to carry an entire movie. (Maybe after the three Hobbit movies are done?)

The great Ian McKellan is back as Gandalf and even he seems a bit less severe than in the LOTR triology.

Here’s one where real parental guidance comes into play. It’s PG-13, but okay for most 9, 10, 11 & 12 year olds, in my opinion. If your kids have enjoyed the later Harry Potter movies with no ill effects, they should be able to handle The Hobbit.

As for its length, that may be another issue. While the movie flew by for me, its 2:45 run time may be a problem for the more restless among us.

I liked the LOTR movies, but I love The Hobbit. Yep, it’s a “must see!”

Playing for Keeps

“Playing for Keeps” is a movie about a KIDS’ soccer team and a KIDS’ soccer coach, but it’s not a movie for KIDS. It’s PG-13. It’s a movie for soccer MOMS!

Gerard Butler is a divorced former pro soccer star. He has not done a good job of staying in touch with his son, who is about 8 years old. He reconnects with his son by becoming the boy’s soccer coach. Even though he was a cad, he still has strong feelings for his ex-wife, played by Jessica Biel.

Along the way, he is hit on by several attractive soccer moms. They are played by Uma Thurman, Judy Greer and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Catherine’s character helps him do an audition for an ESPN gig. He also gets hit on by Dennis Quaid—not for sex, but for playing time for his kid.

If you’ve ever seen a Hallmark or Lifetime movie, you can pretty much guess how this one turns out.

“Playing for Keeps” is a harmless piece of romantic comedy fluff. There are a few decent laughs and an appropriate amount of tearful regret and sappy sentimentality. Oh, and the kid is cute, too.