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Review – Les Misérables (12a) [2013]

Les Mis - title banner2

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

Cast:

At the beginning of 2012, audiences were treated to the silent film, The Artist. It was unexpectedly charming and something different in an age of formulaic, clichéd blockbusters. A year on, and audiences are treated to something different once again in the form of the marvellous Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

The storyline is based upon the 1862 historical-fiction novel by Victor Hugo and the subsequent theatre production. It loosely centres round Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javier (Russell Crowe). Jean Valjean is a convicted man, who breaks his parole and seemingly vanishes in his bid to start a new life. Javier, the Inspector, upon discovering what Jean Valjean has done, is determined to find Prisoner 24601 and bring him to justice.

The plot for Les Misérables is more detailed and layered than that, especially as it has a large cast all with roles to play before the story ends. Unlike the stage version, the film does a good job of keeping the narrative understandable and easy to follow, despite having to take out chunks from the book. This is no small achievement, considering that more or less the entire movie is sung. Credit should rightly go to Tom Hooper for this, as well as for successfully turning a theatrical play into an Oscar-nominated film. (It should be borne in mind that The Woman In Black was the last time a director attempted to translate a play into a movie, and the less said about that film the better!)

However, in spite of Hooper cutting out sections of the book, the film still seems too long and somehow bloated at 158 minutes. The Artist, it should be noted, is only 100 minutes and, consequently, does not feel over-stuffed. Part of the reason for why Les Misérables feels this way is due to the numerous sub-plots taking place throughout the story, many of which have only questionable importance to its outcome.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Yet, more significantly, does the story actually matter? When one watches Les Misérables in the theatre, one is more likely to be awed by the music and the mechanics of the stage, than taken in by the (slightly contrived) narrative. But the movie does not have an innovatively-devised podium. Additionally, it suffers from a cast that, while stellar in name, generally lack the powerful vocals of their stage counterparts.

Russell ‘wannabe-Napoleon Bonaparte’ Crowe and Hugh Jackman, the two leading men, are particularly guilty of this. It is not that their performances are bad, it is just painfully obvious that they are actors first and singers a distant second. One might argue that this is what Hooper desired as he claimed to want the vocals ‘raw’ and conversational, rather than melodramatic. (Then again, he could have been saying this as a defence of his cast, in hindsight, after realising that he should have used stage actors instead of Crowe and Jackman.)

Also, the more one sees and hears the supporting cast, the more Crowe and Jackman are shown up; in particular, against Anne Hathaway. Hathaway, as Fantine, might look pale and terribly thin with her skin, bone and flesh emaciated a la Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but she most certainly can sing. In Rio I, Hathaway showed that she can sing well and nicely. But in Les Misérables she takes her talents to a new level, acquiring immense vigour in her voice, despite clearly lacking in nourishment.

No-one else looks starved like her, but Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, as the rebel Marius and Éponine, respectively, have very good voices; Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, illustrates that she’s a better singer than actor (and that she can exist without her incongruous pink lip-gloss, unlike in the medieval-themed Red Riding Hood); while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, respectively, show us that they may not have noteworthy vocals, but that they can still make us laugh whilst in tune.

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Yet, if one is truly bothered about the singing not being up to scratch with the stage performers, one can still admire the sceneries and the visuals. Cinema, as opposed to theatre, is not limited by the area of a stage (however impressive the mechanics of it may be), and Hooper uses this to his advantage to give viewers a true feel for the (miserable) neighbourhoods that our characters come from in a way that the theatre perhaps can’t convey as deeply.

All-in-all, Les Misérables is very impressive theatrical production-cum-film. The cast’s vocals may not be as strong as those actors on the stage, and the movie lacks some of the charms of the theatre. Nevertheless, like The Artist, Les Misérables is something different, and it should be celebrated that an operatic-style film can be delivered in such a superb and entertaining manner.

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Review – Take Shelter (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Often, when it comes to a descent into insanity, one is clueless that he/she is no longer behaving in a ‘normal’ way (whatever that means); it is only those around the ‘crazy’ individual that are aware of his/her madness. This is apparent in films like Shutter Island and Black Swan. The drama Take Shelter, despite being lame in comparison to those aforementioned movies, deals interestingly with the opposite.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) looking at some dark storm clouds with concern. This is what convinces him to build a storm shelter, even if he cannot afford it.

Based in a small town in Ohio, Curtis (Michael Shannon – Vanilla Sky, Machine Gun Preacher, Man of Steel), a man in his middle-thirties, is a construction-site worker. He may live in a decent-sized house and his life might ostensibly look like it is going well, but behind the scenes things are not so rosy. Curtis’s relationship with his wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain – The Debt, The Help, Coriolanus), has become strained due to some financial difficulties, as well as emotional stresses concerning their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).

Soon, Curtis starts having apocalyptic nightmares and visions of a gas storm that will destroy the town and its inhabitants. Fearing for his family, he builds an impenetrable storm shelter. The trouble for Curtis is that no-one else is concerned about this impending storm, and his mother, Sarah (Kathy Baker – Edward Scissorhands, Machine Gun Preacher, Against The Wall), was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her early thirties. Curtis is aware of this and worries that he is suffering from the same mental illness. But is this the case?

Sam (Jessica Chastain) makng breakfast for her family. She wonders why her husband has become so distant to her in recent times.

The plot for Take Shelter is simple and easy to follow. Audiences will have little difficulty in differentiating when they’re watching reality and Curtis’s dreams, since the dreams tend to be darker than real world (yet surprising not disturbing). However, as a result of needing to fix the film round Curtis, the director, Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Mud), focuses too greatly upon Curtis at the expense of the other main characters, Sam and Hannah. Indeed, neither Sam’s nor Hannah’s problems are even touched upon, which has the consequence of making them virtually irrelevant to the storyline. This is bizarre and undermines the movie’s realism.

Furthermore, Take Shelter is slow-paced and some parts of the plot go by the way side, such as Sam’s need for (breast?) implants (which would have been a good opportunity to delve into some of Sam’s insecurities), whilst the ending is a cheap stunt to make one rethink the entire movie. Also, considering the music throughout is either an ominous, yet anticipatory, beat or a boding-doom thud, one waits expectantly for the climax, like in Black Swan, or for the revelatory twist, such as in Shutter Island. But it never arrives, which is extremely frustrating.

Viewer’s frustration is likely to be exacerbated by the film’s length. At 121 minutes Take Shelter is quite long, and the movie feels longer still because of the artistic style that Nichols has employed. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this style, but for a film about psychological disorders it may not have been the most sensible method to choose. Too many scenes have little action or dialogue, and when there is dialogue it can often have prolonged gaps and be devoid of emotion. The lack of outburst from any of the two main adult characters seems odd too (and perhaps improbable) considering the emotional strains and financial pressures that they’re under. Maybe if Nichols had taken inspiration from the emotive drama, Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter would have been considerably better.

The family in the shelter after hearing the storm siren. Such is Curtis’s paranoia that he even bought his family the most up-to-date gas masks in the case of a storm.

In Revolutionary Road, Frank (Leonardo Dicaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) had depth and the power to make audiences empathise with their respective feelings and predicaments. In contrast, here, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain perform with a remarkable lack of intensity, plus there appears to be no love or antipathy between the married couple (even though they constantly remind us of their love for each other). The acting is not poor and it gets better as the film goes on; yet, it is a far cry from the exceptional performances in any of the aforementioned movies.

Over-all, Take Shelter shows us that people with psychological disorders can realise, to a limited extent, that they are veering towards ‘insanity.’ It is just irritating that the film is quite uneventful, tedious and lacks the strong performances necessary to put it on a par with Black Swan or Revolutionary Road.

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Review – Immortals 3D (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

300 and Conan The Barbarian had much in common. Both were the ultimate guy’s film, with plenty of action, swordplay and spilt blood (and for women, there were hulking men with CGI-enhanced torsos). Immortals follows the same theme, just being an inferior version of the two aforementioned movies.

Theseus (Henry Cavill), all ripped and ready to throw himself into the thick of the action.

Set in Ancient Greece, the Heraklion King of Crete, Hyperion (Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler, Iron man 2, The Courier), is hell-bent on destroying the gods, since they failed to answer his prayers to save his family from illness. To do this he needs to unleash the Titans from Mount Tartarus. But he can only set them loose with the Epirus Bow. Yet, the bow is missing and only the gorgeous virgin oracle, Phaedra (Freida Pinto – Miral, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Black Gold), knows of its location. Thus, King Hyperion marches upon the holy site where she dwells in order to extract the information.

En route, and almost simultaneously, Hyperion’s army pillages a small village where a young peasant, called Theseus (Henry Cavill – Red Riding Hood, The Tudors, Man of Steel) lives with his mother. Theseus has been trained since childhood by an ‘old man’ (John Hurt – Harry Potter I, VII(i) & VII(ii), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, In Love With Alma Cogan), who is really Zeus (Luke Evans – Clash of the Titans, Tamara Drewe, The Hobbit I & II) in human form, for a war that will make him immortal. Before long, only Theseus’s abilities will be the barrier between Hyperion and his awful ambitions.

The storyline is simple and easy to follow. One may not come out with a greater understanding of Ancient Greek societies (other than their belief in polytheism), and at 117 minutes Immortals might be a little long; nevertheless, one is unlikely to become bored during the movie. Like in 300 and Conan, it may not be intellectually stimulating. But there is more than enough fighting and bloodshed to keep viewers occupied, even if the combat and battle tactics appear very similar. (And what is it about this genre and men walking around and going into battle bare-chested?)

The beautiful Phaedra (Freida Pinto), dressed for a dinner-date, tending to Theseus’s wounds. Perhaps if he had worn some body armour, his injuries may have been avoided?

However, there is much that Immortals lacks in comparison to those other two films. First, it lacks the (far from subtle) political connotations of 300, entailing that the film has no hidden message (in fairness, nor does Conan). Second, the dialogue in Immortals might be less crude than in 300 and Conan, but it is more contrived, less amusing and more predictable, which never bodes well. (At least the dialogue in the atrocious Season of the Witch was so terrible it was funny!) Third, Immortals lacks the strong, massive main character that Gerard Butler and Jason Mamoa respectively portrayed, and which is needed in a film like this. Despite a muscular (and painted) six-pack, the relatively-small Henry Cavill gives a pitiful and unconvincing display as the hero, Theseus. This does not augur well for him, considering that his next major role is in the upcoming Superman film, wherein he plays the eponymous man of steel himself.

The rest of the cast, in the main, are no better. Worse, they all take their roles seriously, which exacerbates the poverty of their performances, to the extent of making the supporting cast in 300 look like professional warriors. The exception to this in Immortals is Mickey Rourke, since he takes his role as a joke. Consequently, Rourke comes out with some credit, as he puts across Hyperion’s shallowness character and incalculable cruelty well in equal measure. Although, the price Rourke pays is the risk of Hyperion becoming slightly pantomime, in a similar manner to Rodrigo Santoro as Emperor Xerxes in 300 or Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym in Conan. Not that it matters, since none of these movies can be taken remotely seriously.

King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) pontificating to a defector, before inflciting inhumane cruelty upon him or her. If one looks carefully, one can see the scars over his left eye.

The acting in Immortals may be generally pathetic, but the film has some attributes that are not utterly terrible. The director, Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Mirror, Mirror), has put the movie together smoothly; the music may not be memorable, but it is still fitting for the scenes; and just like with 300 and Conan, one doubts how much of the background sceneries are real in Immortals, but the special effects are quite decent (even if the 3D is virtually non-existent).

On the whole, even those who like the genre may well be disappointed with Immortals. The film may have some worthwhile CGI and combat scenes; nevertheless, one is more likely to go away remembering the weak acting and dialogue. In short, Immortals is just a poor man’s 300 and Conan The Barbarian.

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