Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Les Misérables

I've been looking forward to the big-screen adaptation of my favorite musical of all-time since the announcement was made that Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) would be directing.  One-by-one, the casting announcements for Les Miserables only peaked my interest.  I finally got to see the movie over the weekend and I must say that I was a bit disappointed   While most of the movie was excellent and true to the play, I felt that a few added scenes and songs were unnecessary and helped bloat the movie to it's 2.5-hour runtime.  Most of the cast sings their hearts out and Hooper's unique directorial choices help make this film a must-see holiday movie.

For those (few) of you who haven't seen the award-winning Broadway musical, the story of Les Mis takes place during the French Revolution and chronicles former prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he redeems himself from past crimes and tries to avoid the clutches of his arch nemesis Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).  Several side-stories are intertwined featuring a love triangle between Valjean's adopted daughter Cossette (Amanda Seyfried), a revolutionist named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and his friend Eponine (the powerful Samantha Banks in her first ever movie role).  Cossette's mother Fantine, featured earlier in the story, is played by the movie's brightest star, Anne Hathaway.

Throughout the musical/film, a variety of amazing sweeping songs are performed.  I believe that the music of Les Mis is by-far the best collection of songs featured in a single musical.  Hooper made the decision to film his actors with live music playing in an earpiece so they could sing their lines live on film to the music.  In the past, musicals were shot with vocals recorded on separate tracks and synched to the actors mouths during the filmed scenes.  Hooper's method results in a truly unique and powerful performance that allows Jackman, Hathaway and company to deliver raw emotion during the songs.  Two numbers in particular stand out.  Valjean's opening song in the church is totally raw and amazingly performed by Jackman.  His face convey's the mental dilemma that his character is facing and it's hard to believe that most of the song occurs in one single take.  Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is even BETTER as you get a totally uninterrupted single shot that zooms in on her face during  one of the low points of Fantine's story.  The pain and suffering she emits in 4 minutes of film are enough to make her a virtual shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress.  I was blown away at how effective the close-up singing was at immersing the audience in the story and songs.

Mixed in with the amazing performances of Hathaway, Jackman, Redmayne and others are a few songs that miss the mark.  Crowe is just simply outclassed in this film.  He may be a good lead singer of his side-gig band but here his voice is not powerful enough to carry some of the epic songs that Javert needs to sing.  "Stars" in particular (one of my favorite songs) becomes a meek and unimpressive number when in the care of Crowe's voice.  Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play the mischevious Thenardier couple as if they are fresh out of Sweeney Todd and the rest of the supporting cast is adequate enough.  Visually, Hooper's team does a great job with set design and cinemtography as well in painting a vivid picture of revolutionary France.

I saw this movie with my lovely girlfriend who hadn't been exposed to the play before.  She absolutely loved the movie and I think the primary reason was that she had no prior play experience to compare it to.  Since I was comparing every song to the original London cast version on stage, some of the songs were underwhelming to me.  I also noticed that extra lines of dialogue were added to add context to the story.  These extra verses were sung throughout to the tune of songs that had been performed already.  I think the movie would have felt tighter and better paced if some of the added content was removed.  I also would have liked to see another actor in the role of Javert.  Crowe is still a quality actor but this just isn't the role for him in my opinion.

All this being said, Les Mis on the big screen is worth the price of admission and it really is a unique and rewarding experience to be able to see the actors deliver intense performances by singing live to the camera.  This movie will deservedly win a few Oscars in 2013 and I think Tom Hooper definitely did the musical justice, but I can only give this movie 4 JRs out of 5.

NOTE:  I will not be able to give my annual year-end top 10 movie list until AFTER I have had a chance to see Zero Dark Thirty.  Katherine Bigelow's film opens nationwide on January 11th and I will see it shortly thereafter.  

Review: This is 40

In a somewhat-sequel to Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, This is 40 gives us a realistic (and sometimes hilarious) look at what it's like to reach mid-life.  The movie is a bit too long and has a few jokes that fall flat, but contains enough signature Apatow moments and some solid performances from an excellent ensemble cast to make it slightly worth seeing.  However, Paul Rudd delivers yet another solid comedic effort and that-alone makes it worthwhile for me (slightly upping my JR rating).

Rudd and Leslie Mann play Pete and Debbie, the troubled couple from Knocked Up (Debbie is Katherine Heigl's sister in that film) that both find themselves approaching the big 4-0.  Finances, careers and kids all combine to through extra pressure on their marriage.  Through a sea of curse words and some solid adult humor, we get to see Rudd and Mann play off each other and embody what it's like to go through mid-life problems.  As a late thirty-something myself with kids, I can relate to a lot of the situations that they go through.  The problem with the movie is that the rest of what made Knocked Up such a good movie is completely removed.  Seth Rogan and company made that movie so funny and there just isn't enough LOL moments in this film to raise the comedic bar.  Rudd and Mann do what they can though and really do have some chemistry together.

John Lithgow shows up mid-way through the film as Mann's father.  I haven't seen him in a film in a long time and is a welcome addition to this cast.  He gives a muted and genuine performance as a reclusive parent who isn't really sure how to connect with his daughter or grandkids.  After Rudd, Lithgow is the highlight of this movie for me.  Albert Brooks and Jason Seigel chip in as well to bolster a talented cast. Apatow and Mann use their own kids in the movie once again and it really adds to the authenticity of watching Debbie interact with her actual children.

Surprisingly this is only the third major film that Judd Apatow has directed (After Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin).  It is definitely the weakest of the three and makes me start to consider the revelation that Apatow is a better producer/writer than he is a director.  Despite some slow parts, This is 40 is still a relevant movie for someone my age and is quite enjoyable at times.  A lukewarm 3 out of 5 JRs for this movie.  I would recommend waiting for DVD on this one.