Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

January 31, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Les-Miserables-Poster1

I’m sorry, but Les Misérables is overrated. Or perhaps more accurately, it just wasn’t for me.

Director Tom Hooper, coming off his 2011 Oscars triumph with The King’s Speech, appeared to have a winner on his hands. One of the most beloved musicals of all-time. The likable singing and dancing Hugh Jackman as the protagonist Jean Valjean. Probably the hottest actress on the planet right now, Anne Hathaway, to play poor Fantine and sing the classic “I Dreamed a Dream.” Amanda Seyfried. Russell Crowe. Even Helena Bonham Carter and Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen). It was a sure hit and an Oscar certainty.

But Les Misérables ended up getting mixed reviews from critics, and I find myself siding with those who didn’t fall for its charm. Those who love the musical will love this film no matter what, but I  personally found it to be an exhausting and often dull experience that I couldn’t really get into until it was almost over. Technically, the film is supposedly quite a remarkable achievement, with spectacular sets, strong performances and a lot of long single takes and live singing (rather than recorded in post-production like most other musicals). But really, who cares about all of that if the film isn’t any good in the end?

I had never seen a stage production of the musical so I’ll assume there are others who aren’t familiar with the plot. The story is set in 1815 and Jackman’s Valjean is a thief who is paroled by Crowe’s ruthless prison guard Javert after years of imprisonment. Basically, Valjean decides to turn his life around and be a good guy and Javert can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s a miserable time to be alive (hence the title) and the remainder of the film focuses on the struggles of the masses, Jackman trying to be good, and Crowe not letting him. It goes on for years and years.

The biggest problem with Les Misérables is that 99.9% of all vocal interactions between characters is sung. There is essentially no dialogue except a stray word here or there. As a result, we get a lot of long singing monologues where we have to listen really carefully to the lyrics (which is not always clear) just to figure out what the heck is going on.

That can get annoying and takes time to get used to, but fine, it’s a musical, so I get that. What bothered me more was that most of this talk-singing was awful to listen to. Not that the actors’ voices were bad — it’s just that there’s no real tune or melody. It just sounds like a bunch of people playing a lame game where they have to sing everything and are making up the tune as they go along. It’s really monotonous and challenges the audience not to tune out, so to speak, after a little while.

Yes, there is a handful of REAL musical numbers that are pretty good, with Hathaway’s much-lauded “I Dreamed a Dream” number being the highlight, as well as Carter and Borat’s “Master of the House” (which I was familiar with through that Seinfeld episode with Elaine’s dad and Jerry’s inside-out coat), but these are few and far in between. The vast majority of the film was dominated by this crappy talk-singing or sing-talking and I just could not stand it.

The performances were good, I’ll admit that, but was Hathaway’s performance really that good? Oscar-favourite good? I personally think it’s a little overrated, especially considering (spoiler alert!)  she only has a few minutes of screen time. Then again, Judi Dench won for something like 9 minutes of acting in Shakespeare in Love, so why the heck not?

I do, on the other hand, have to defend Russell Crowe a little bit here. Crowe has been panned for his singing, but I thought he was perfectly adequate. A little wooden, perhaps, but he’s freaking Pavarotti compared to Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia.

Anyway, Les Misérables turned out to be a huge disappointment. It probably would have been great as a stage show, and Hooper has basically shot an extravagant stage show on film, but that’s why we have different media formats. I finally got into the story and the characters towards the latter part of the film’s third act, but by then it was too little too late.

2 stars out of 5

PS: Dang, the trailer made the film look so awesome. If only it really was.

Anthony Mundine explains “blatant robbery” against Daniel Geale

January 31, 2013 in Best Of, Boxing, Humor, Sport by pacejmiller

Anthony Mundine hits Daniel Geale on the fist with a perfectly timed chin

Anthony Mundine hits Daniel Geale on the fist with a perfectly timed chin

In one of the most shocking and disgraceful decisions in boxing history, Anthony “The Man” Mundine was blatantly robbed in Sydney last night against Daniel Geale in their high-anticipated rematch. Despite dominating the historical 12-round championship fight (that was not reported by any mainstream media outside of Australia), Mundine suffered his fifth career defeat with scores of 117-111, 117-111, 116-112, all in favor of reigning IBF Middleweight champion Geale.

A shattered and bewildered Mundine fled the Sydney Entertainment Center as soon as the decision was announced, but after finding time to compose himself later in the evening, told reporters what everyone clearly knew — he was robbed.

“I walked straight into an ambush, that is the best way I can sum it up,” he said, fighting back tears. “I obviously had to knock him out. I knew that, I said before the fight that the only way they were going to beat me is if they rob me, but I didn’t think it was going to be so obvious and I didn’t think it was going to be so blatant, as blatant as the headbutts and elbows I was constantly getting away with during the fight.”

Mundine said he intentionally took all those stinging jabs and crushing body blows from Geale because he believed demonstrating his endurance and “ability to take a punch” was going to impress the judges more than landing any meaningful punches of his own.

“I knew I had to prove to the judges I didn’t have a glass head after two previous incidents that didn’t reflect too well on me,” Mundine explained, referring to this:

mundine ottke

and this:

“Both those incidents were intentional, though,” he added, “because no one would agree to fight me if they knew how unstoppable I truly was.”

Mundine didn’t think his second fight with Geale was even close, and said he believed every boxing expert and audience member who thought Geale easily won the fight had obviously been bribed. Either that or because “they hate me for all the racist, inflammatory, nonsensical, moronic and boneheaded things I have said throughout the years,” he said.

“I thought I was dominant enough to get the victory,” Mundine said. “Honestly, I thought it was eight rounds to four — all day. That is why I was so buoyant after the fight but they took my fourth world title off me, man.”

Mundine explained that he only “acted like I was losing” all throughout the fight because he didn’t want to appear too cocky, unlike Geale, “that shameless showboater,” he said. “My corner was only pretending to be desperate but we really thought we had the fight in the bag all along. I only acted like Geale’s punches hurt me because I felt sorry for him after I accused him of being a fake Aborigine and said those insensitive but true things about his wife and kids.”

Mundine even claimed that his corner secretly applied make-up in between rounds to make it look like his face was bruised and swollen from Geale’s punches. “I decided if I was going to be the good guy I was going to go all in,” he added.

The man who calls himself “The Man” said the reason why his face and body language were so convincing was because he got acting tips from his good buddy Russell Crowe in exchange for giving Crowe singing lessons for Les Miserables.

Crowe, who was ringside, tweeted after the fight: “Geale v Mundine, bullshit biased commentary, bullshit biased result. Nobody won that fight. 15 rounds next time.” He later clarified that he didn’t think the fight was “actually a draw” as the tweet suggested and said that if 15 rounds was good enough for him in Cinderella Man, based on a true story set in the Great Depression, then it would be good enough for Mundine-Geale III in 2013.

Crowe then directed reporters to this award-winning article which showed what a true stand-up guy he was.

Sonny Bill Williams, another truly stand-up fellow who walked out on his footy team midway through a season for more money overseas, didn’t just believe, but actually thought Mundine won the fight when the decision was announced, tweeting last night: “Hanging out with @Anthony_Mundine celebrating a victory.”

Williams was stunned when told later that Mundine in fact lost the fight. “I thought when they said the winner was  ‘still the IBF champion of the world’ they were referring to Choc. I didn’t realise Choc has never held the IBF title. In any weight class. Ever. It was still a good night out though.”

Mundine admits had he pressured Geale more he might never have left the fight in the hands of the judges. “If I would have put the second and third attack, now I kick myself, I probably would have knocked him out,” he said. “That is how dominant I was. I was hitting him hard with all parts of my body and I was hurting him. My cheekbone was doing serious damage to his left jab and I think my ribs might have even fractured his right fist.”

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

January 31, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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This was the film everybody knew was coming when US President Barack Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in a raid in Pakistan in the early hours of May 2, 2011. I remember thinking at the time that the film was most probably going to be another “Team America!” (f*%k yeah!) style-film like Act of Valor (which I am yet to review) and that it was most likely going to suck balls.

But then I heard that the film was going to be directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, who gave us Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, and more importantly, she had already been planning a film about the hunt for Bin Laden for years and done stacks of background research that could be imported over to this new project.

The result, Zero Dark Thirty, is a tense, meticulously crafted, superbly acted and unsensationalized account of the 10-year hunt for in Laden since 9/11. While I don’t agree with a lot of American critics who are calling it the best film of the year — I actually think it’s an inferior film to The Hurt Locker — I was still fascinated and riveted by this film from start to finish. The final extended raid sequence, which is like another film in itself, felt so authentic that I almost thought I was watching a documentary with actual footage of the assault on Bin Laden’s compound.

This speaks volumes about Bigelow’s ability as a director. We know how the story begins and how it ends, but somehow she still manages to create tension and drama with everything in between. The story focuses on Maya, a young federal agent played by Jessica Chastain (who picked up the Golden Globe and is a favourite for the Oscars) whose job description consists of only one thing: find Bin Laden. We follow Maya for a decade as she endures numerous close calls and goes from green rookie to seasoned veteran, from a novice interrogator (aka torturer) to one of the most instrumental contributors in locating Bin Laden and ultimately convincing the White House to carry out the raid.

Chastain, with her obsessive work ethic and feistiness, is the heart and soul of the film and rightfully deserves the Oscar nomination. A couple of Aussies, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton (both of whom will be seen next in The Great Gatsby) also shine in pivotal roles. The most recognizable members of the cast, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and James Gandolfini, are also stellar and surprisingly non-distracting.

Some say Zero Dark Thirty is a controversial film because of its supposedly pro-torture stance. Yes, it shows torture and the torture being effective in getting terror suspects to talk, but I don’t think that is necessarily saying torture is a good thing. The fact is, the US government did torture terror suspects (though the extent is disputed by officials), and it probably worked. But it’s not just that — I think Bigelow was trying to show the audience the price America had to pay to get their man, and questions us whether it was worth it. In that sense it’s arguable that Zero Dark Thirty is in fact an anti-torture movie. But to be honest I don’t really care. It’s just a movie.

There are parts of the 160-minute film that some viewers will find a little slow. I’ve been addicted to Homeland lately so all that espionage talk and the insights into the politics of politics was right up my alley, though I admit there was, naturally, a sense of inevitability to the whole thing. This is why I still think The Hurt Locker is a better film, but there is no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty will go down in history as the far more memorable one.

4 stars out of 5

PS: The trailer to the sequel below.

New Year’s resolution 3: read more (classics and fantasy)

January 25, 2013 in Fantasy, Misc, On Writing by pacejmiller

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in Library

I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to last year, but I blame that on the life-draining force that is parenthood, which makes sleep a priority over anything not baby-related. I blame that as well awesome TV series such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Most of all, I blame the turd that is the Fifty Shades Trilogy, which wasted a good part of my year and just about turned me off reading altogether.

This year, I am glad to say, I have already read two books (though I started one of them last year) and am halfway through a third. Reading really does help your writing in so many ways, including expanding your imagination and ability to visualize scenes, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I feel like I am already way behind because I didn’t read all that much once I hit high school, which I blame entirely on Sony (Playstation) and basketball.

Anyway, this year one of my resolutions is to read more. A lot more. I have already started executing my ‘no smartphone and read instead before bed’ plan, which is kind of working. I’m also trying to read whenever I can on public transport and even during lunch breaks at work.

A subset of that plan is to read more classics. I always find them daunting and often put them off in favour of trash like Fifty Shades or whatever commercial fiction is in fashion, but it’s time for me to discover why classics are classics. The last modern classic I read was probably Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (which I loved) and the last classic of any era I read was Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (which, despite being told repeatedly that it was probably the most technically perfect book ever written, bored me to death).

The good thing is that many older classics are now out of copyright and free to download. My guess is I will attempt to tackle the easier ones first, like say Frankenstein or Dracula, or perhaps some Dickens. War and Peace and James Joyce will probably have to wait a few more decades.

The other of part of the goal is to read more fantasy to prepare myself to get back on the fantasy writing wagon. I have A Game of Thrones ready to go, and if that isn’t enough I might finally (re)try the original Sword of Shannara trilogy or Feist’s Magician.

I doubt I’m going to get through anywhere near what I’ve planned for myself but I sure am going to try.

Happy reading!

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (2012)

January 22, 2013 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

pitch perfect

Pitch Perfect by Hubert Widjaya — watercolor and pen on Canson paper.

Note: Huge shoutout to Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya for providing the wonderful artwork for this post. See below for a casual chat we had about the film following my review.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of musicals, especially ones that look like they are riding the wave of a popular trend to make a quick buck at the box office. But as it turned out, Pitch Perfect was one of the my biggest surprises of 2012, and I must admit that I was completely wrong to prejudge the film as simply a two-hour episode of Glee.

So what made Pitch Perfect so good? It had a formulaic premise — a new girl, played by Anna Kendrick (Twilight, Up in the Air, 50/50, End of Watch — she’s obviously killing it right now) joins an all-girl a cappella group full of misfits and leads them against a rival campy all-boy group in a battle to capture the national title. It was also a little hit and miss at times, as most comedies involving teens and college students can be.

pitch

Original film poster

But Pitch Perfect was funny — very funny, and unexpectedly so. Full credit to director Jason Moore (former TV director) and screenwriter Kay Cannon (who worked on 30 Rock — that explains a lot) for making the humour dry, quirky and satirical, without overstepping the mark (for the most part).

Massive kudos to Aussie Rebel Wilson, who appears to be conquering Hollywood with one scene-stealing role after another. Here she plays Fat Amy, easily the standout character of the whole group and the provider of the best laughs. The rest of the cast, which includes Skylar Astin (Spring Awakening), Anna Camp (The Help) and Brittany Snow (Hairspray), as well as the always welcome Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, were also all very good.

Oh yes, and the singing. I was pleasantly surprised by how excellent it was, especially considering much of the main cast, as far as I know, aren’t known for their vocal cords. I’ve only ever heard bits and pieces of Glee but it was easily just as good as any of the singing in that.

Singing is, of course, just half of the equation. What made Pitch Perfect a real treat for me was the classic songs covered by the singers. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find yourself nodding along to the Bangles, Ace of Base and the theme from The Breakfast Club, among others, many of which are given fresh interpretations or mixed with more recent hits to form catchy medleys.

While you’re likely to forget about Pitch Perfect in a couple of years, you’re also likely to have a great time while watching it. I certainly did.

Conversation with HW:

PJM: Are you a fan of Glee? Chances are, Pitch Perfect is  an attempt to cash in on the success of Glee, which I thought would have been a recipe for disaster, but I think they pulled it off. What did you think?

HW: Haven’t seen Glee. Judging by the ads Glee looks like its aimed at a girly/female audience, whereas Pitch Perfect had a streetwise chick vibe — which is why I saw it. It solidly lived up to expectation. Great one liners and natural performances.

PJM: Who were the standouts for you?

HW: I have only seen Rebel Wilson in this, but can see why she’s popular. She has a sweet but dirty vibe, and isn’t forcing her charisma, which she does apparently in Bridesmaids. Anna Kendrick though is a standout; she brings the heart, and sweet emotional center to what could have been a low-brow teen flick. In fact, it loses a star for two ill-judged vomit scenes. Like they were trying to appeal to teen boy market.

PJM: I never expected Anna Kendrick to have such a great set of pipes.

HW: You’ve raised a good point. Do you know if they all sing for real or if it’s dubbed?

PJM: I understand it’s all real voices but recorded in the studio. It’s not live like in Les Miserables.

HW: Right.

PJM: How does this film compare to other musicals you’ve seen in recent years, if any?

HW: Only really seen Chicago I think at the cinema, but that was brilliant too. Pitch Perfect was almost like two forms of entertainment for the price of one. A movie and entertaining songs within. Where does it lose marks for you?

PJM: It’s not really losing marks as opposed to not gaining marks. Some of the jokes were a little hit and miss and enjoyment depends on your musical tastes. It’s a good film for people who grew up on the classic songs they sing but have not given up on more modern hits. So what would you give it out of five?

HW: A solid, sing songy 4 stars.

PJM: Me too. 4 stars out of 5.