Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

January 31, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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.

Movie Review: Life of Pie (3D IMAX) (2012)

November 27, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Yann Martel’s Man Booker-winning Life of Pi is one of my favourite novels of all-time, and so I was both excited and apprehensive when I heard that it was finally released as a movie more than 10 years after it was originally published.

One of the reasons why the film took so long to adapt from the 2001 novel is because filmmakers deemed it unadaptable and unfilmable, which was certainly the way I felt when I finished reading it. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Oscar winner Ang Lee, one of the most skilled directors of his generation.

And so I’m glad to say that the film version of Life of Pi is a huge success. While it doesn’t quite make me believe in God, as the story’s protagonist suggests, it is probably as good as it could have ever been given the inherent difficulties in bringing this wonderful tale to life.

The adapted screenplay by Oscar nominee David Magee (Finding Neverland) turned out to be surprisingly faithful to the novel (as far as I can remember anyway). Told through the voice of the titular character, it tells the story of a young Indian boy who becomes stranded on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The first problem, of course, is making the situation believable within its own context. The second is employing special effects that support authenticity. And the third, and possibly biggest obstacle, is to make a 2-hour film interesting when most of it is dominated by a single human character and a mostly-CGI animal incapable of dialogue.

To Lee’s credit, he overcomes all three problems with ease, or at least it feels that way. Lee’s Life of Pi comes across as a kind of surreal fable recounted by a skilled storyteller, enabling it to feel both genuine and fantastical. The special effects are seamless (Lee says his experience on the underrated Hulk made it possible) and I certainly could not tell when the tiger was real or animated. As for keeping the story interesting, Lee does so by lengthening the on-land introduction (though not unnecessarily so — it sets up the characters and the remainder of the film nicely) and by changing things up constantly so there is not a lot of repetition when they are at sea.

The performance of Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi is remarkable, especially considering that it’s the teenage student’s first film. He didn’t have to do it alone but he carries the film through its toughest stretches and remained convincing all the way until the very end.

Some have criticised the film’s preachiness about god/religion and its ending, but both of these things come straight from the novel. Personally, the ending was one thing about the novel that I truly loved, and I’m glad Lee decided to keep it in, though I question his decision to rely on strictly verbal storytelling as opposed to utilizing the visual. I can’t say much more without giving things away so I’ll stop there.

Granted, there are times when the film felt a little like a prettier version of Castaway (the one with a skinny Tom Hanks and “Wilsoooooon!”) and the story occasionally felt trapped in that little lifeboat, but on the whole Life of Pi is an enchanting, poetic and visually stunning experience that’s also unexpectedly moving and thought-provoking — even for someone who has read the book. Going in, I thought I’d appreciate the film’s aesthetics and technical achievements more than anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised by the emotive storytelling and engrossing drama.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: That said, I’m still not sold on the 3D, which despite my numerous vows I ended up paying extra for again — I thought only the introductory sequence with the animals, and maybe a few of the underwater scenes, were really enhanced by the 3D; the rest seemed perfectly fine in 2D to me. The extra large screen and superior sound from IMAX, on the other hand, was probably worth it.

PPS: I wonder what kind of film it would have been had M Night Shyamalan adapted and directed it, as rumoured earlier. That’s not bagging Mr Airbender — I’m genuinely wondering.

Movie Review: The Help (2011)

April 1, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Even before I saw The Help I knew it was going to be a polarising film.  While some called it the best film of the year, I had also heard that the film was accused of trying to ‘glamorise’ what some African-American maids had to go through during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s.  I can’t say I know enough about it or history to make any sort of meaningful comment on that, so instead I simply approached the film as a piece of entertainment.  And as such, I would say The Help worked on most levels, even though it didn’t blow me away like it did for many others.

The Help, based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is about Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white journalist who decides to write a book from the point of view of black maids as they work for their white bosses and look after their white children. Skeeter herself was more or less raised by a black maid, and unlike many of her peers, such as the insufferable Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), sees them as people rather than something a lot less. Two of the maids central to the story are Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who are both initially reluctant to help Skeeter with her book for obvious reasons but eventually take it in their stride.

I guess it’s easy to view The Help as a “good white person saves black people” kind of movie, because to some extent, it is. Skeeter is so obviously “good” and characters like Hilly are so obviously “bad” — there’s really no middle ground. As a result, I can see why some people felt the film was trying too hard to skew audiences in one direction, as Hollywood films often tend to do.

However, what prevents it from being more than merely a melodramatic feel-good movie aimed at making white people feel better about themselves are the awesome performances from Davis and Spencer, both of whom received worthy Oscar nominations. Spencer, who won the best support actress gong, was especially brilliant and stole the show as the outspoken Minny.  By making the film more about these extremely strong black characters rather than Skeeter, The Help ended up being a lot more entertaining and touching than I initially expected, without making me feel like I was being over-manipulated.

Also unexpectedly good was fellow best supporting actress nominee Jessica Chastain, playing the outcast Celia, who gave the film a different dimension with her affable naivete and sweetness. This is the type of film that would have been a complete flop had it not been for the strong ensemble cast. Full credit has to go to director and screenwriter Tate Taylor (who adapted the book) for eliciting such solid performances and penning an adaptation that utilises humour so well. Yes, although it tackles some serious themes, The Help comes across as generally quite light-hearted and contains plenty of funny moments.

At the end of the day, while it does oversimplify the situation a little (or a lot, depending on your point of view), I found The Help to be an entertaining feel-good film that generated exactly the type of emotions I expected it would. It’s not perfect and it’s not the type of film that usually appeals to me, but I think it’s a little unfair that the film is being criticised for not being certain things when it probably never intended to be those things in the first place.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Next Year’s Best Picture Oscar Frontrunner

March 9, 2011 in Blogging, Entertainment, Misc

Trailer courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel Live.

I would so pay to see this film.

Predicting Oscars 09: who should win and who will

February 21, 2009 in Entertainment

oscarI’m excited.

The ceremony for the 81st Academy Awards is finally about to take place.  I’ve finally managed to see most of the nominated films for the major catgories that are available to me (see reviews here, here and here).  While I initially predicted the winners and losers when the nominations first came out (here and here), the landscape has changed a little and I feel that now, since I’ve seen most of the films, I can also comment on who deserves to win.

So for tomorrow night, here’s who should win and who will (only categories with films I’ve seen).  If there is an asterick (*) next to a nominee it means I have not seen that film (so my views do not include it).

Best Picture

slumdog-millionaire1Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: All great movies.  Based on my ratings and reviews of the films, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader scored the highest marks, but I would give the nod to Button.  I just thought it was such an unusual and memorable film.  Though not quite as good, it had a certain Forrest Gump-feel to it (probably because of the same writer).

Who will win: Slumdog Millionaire has been tipped all along and there won’t be anything standing in its way come Oscar night.  There is a teeny little chance for an improbable upset by Button (which had the most nominations) but I can’t see any of the scandals derailing what should be a glorious night for Slumdog.  Especially now that all the child actors are coming to the ceremony (albeit after the voting).

Best Director

boyleNominees: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Stephen Daldry (The Reader), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) Gus Van Sant (Milk)

Who should win: A very difficult one to pick because I feel they all did terrific jobs in their respective films.  If I had to pick one I’d have to go with Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire was just that little bit more extraordinary than the others, and the way he pieced it all together was absolutely masterful.

Who will win: Danny Boyle.  No doubt about it.

Best Actor

rourkeNominees: Richard Jenkins (The Visitor)*, Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Sean Penn (Milk), Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)

Who should win: A coin-toss between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke.  I saw The Wrestler first and thought Rourke was a lock based on his emotional, nuanced performance, not to mention his amazing physical resemblance to a real-life wrestler.  You felt his physical pain in the ring, you felt his emotional pain outside of it.  It was the performance of a lifetime.  But then I saw Milk and Sean Penn’s performance just blew me away.  Yes, he was playing a real-life character, but man did he do it well.  You honestly believed he was the inspirational Harvey Milk.  Too hard for me to choose.

Who will win: Mickey Rourke.  He’s the sentimental favourite and Penn has already got one (for Mystic River).  The only way Rourke can lose is if he really pissed off as many people in the industry as he claims (and judging from his BAFTA acceptance speech I can kind of see how it might be possible).

Best Actress

kate-winslet-golden-globes-2009-best-actressNominees: Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Angelina Jolie (Changeling), Melissa Leo (Frozen River)*, Meryl Streep (Doubt), Kate Winslet (The Reader)

Who should win: Really tough choice.  I think as far as the performance is concerned, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway are all very deserving (Jolie was very good but not quite there).  But based on the difficulty of the roles they had to play I would give Kate Winslet the edge.  Her character was so important to what The Reader was trying to tell and she played each phase of Hanna Schmitz’s life wonderfully.

Who will win: Kate Winslet.  It’s her time.  Streep is consistently this good so she won’t stand out as much, whereas Hathaway is young and she’ll have plenty of chances (plus her role is less sensational).

Best Supporting Actor

ledgerNominees: Josh Brolin (Milk), Robert Downey Jr (Tropic Thunder), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)

Who should win: Heath Ledger.  As terrific as Hoffman was in Doubt and Shannon was in Revolutionary Road, Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight will forever be remembered as one of the great ones.  I still remember when he was first cast as the Joker and plenty of people scoffed at the idea that he could pull it off (even after Brokeback Mountain).  No one is denying that he was the right man for the role now.

Who will win: Heath Ledger.  All the major awards leading up to the Oscars indicate he will win.  I honestly believe he deserves it, even if he were still alive today – the performance was that mesmerizing.  The fact that he’s not around anymore just about locks it in.

Best Supporting Actress

cruzNominees: Amy Adams (Doubt), Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Viola Davis (Doubt), Taraji P Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)

Who should win: The ones that stood out for me were Amy Adams and Taraji P Henson.  Marisa Tomei was wonderful in The Wrestler but I liked the other two more.  Viola Davis was barely in Doubt, though she made great use of her limited screen time.  Penelope Cruz was good but I didn’t think the performance was Oscar-worthy – or maybe I just didn’t like the character.

Who will win: Penelope Cruz.  In this case, I think the least deserving will win.  She’s the most well-known of the group and her role was different and explosive.  Plus all the focus has been on her leading up to the Oscars.  I hope she doesn’t win but I think she will.

Best Original Screenplay

in-brugesNominees: Frozen River*, Happy-Go-Lucky*, In Bruges, Milk, WALL-E

Who should win: Having only seen 3 of the 5 nominees, I don’t feel sufficiently equipped to judge this one.  Out of the 3 films I did see, they were all very good, but probably In Bruges stood out as just being somewhat special.

Who will win: In Bruges has taken a lot of the lead-up awards, but WALL-E is also a favourite because it manages to do so much with so little dialogue.  I’m going with In Bruges but won’t be surprised in WALL-E took it out.  Note I originally picked Milk, but that was before I saw most of the films.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: “Adapted” screenplay is thrown around a little loosely because some of the scripts I’m sure barely resemble the original source.  Nevertheless, I thought the adaptation of The Reader was sensational, dealing with the majority of the themes and events perfectly in Bernhard Schlink’s novel.

Who will win: Originally picked Doubt but after seeing the film I felt the adaptation could have been better.  I have a feeling this award will be lumped with the bunch of awards that Slumdog Millionaire will win on the night.

Cinematography

Nominees: Changeling, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: Another tough one.  I’m don’t have any technical specialty so this is based purely on what I thought looked best.  And using that criterion, I thought Changeling was particularly memorable, though Slumdog Millionaire’s eye-opening portrayal of Mumbai was also impressive.

Who will win: Slumdog to bag another one.

Editing

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: Another technical one, but I liked the work in Button, where editing was particularly important.

Who will win: This might be one of those sympathy awards given to Button, which, despite all its nominations, continues to be beaten by Slumdog.  I hope so because I think in this case it deserves the award.

Art Direction

benjamin-button1Nominees: Changeling, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, The Duchess*, Revoluntionary Road

Who should win: I thought the Art Direction in Changeling was the best, though The Dark Knight was pretty cool too.

Who will win: A category where Slumdog was not nominated?  Chalk this one up to Button because when the two films go head to head, it’s going to lose out most times.

Makeup

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Who should win: No contest – the make-up in Button was just ridiculous.  Sure, Hellboy II was good, but we had seen it all in the first film.

Who will win: Button.  The make-up had to be seen to be believed – especially the old Cate Blanchett.

Visual Effects

buttonNominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Iron Man

Who should win: Another no contest in favour of Button.  As goods as the effects were in the two superhero films, the effects in Button were the best I’ve ever seen.  Freakishly amazing.

Who will win: See above.  Button all the way.  It cannot not win.

Costume Design

Nominees: Australia*, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Duchess*, Milk, Revoluntionary Road

Who should win: Only seen 3 of the 5 films, so not qualified.  Though from what I’ve seen of the other 2, The Duchess looked great.

Who will win: The Duchess had won the earlier awards so I look for the trend to continue.

Music (Original Score)

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Defiance*, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E

Who should win: To be honest I can’t really remember much of the music in any of the films – except the Bollywood music in Slumdog.

Who will win: Slumdog, just because it’s the favourite to win.

Music (Original Song)

slumdogNominees: Slumdog Millionaire (twice), WALL-E

Who should win: Slumdog – one of the songs was pretty good.

Who will win: Slumdog – it has a 2 in 3 chance anyway.

Sound

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E

Who should win: The sound in The Dark Knight stood out for me amongst the nominees.  It was probably the Batcycle.

Who will win: Slumdog.

Sound Editing

the-dark-knightNominees: The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E, Wanted

Who should win: Now this I remember pretty well, and The Dark Knight was phenomenal.

Who will win: The Dark Knight.  I hope it gets this one – and Slumdog can’t just win them all.

Animated Film

walleNominees: Bolt*, Kung Fu Panda, WALL-E

Who should win: Not a big fan of animated films but WALL-E wasn’t too bad.  Kung Fu Panda was pretty ordinary and Bolt (which I haven’t seen) didn’t look too crash hot either.

Who will win: WALL-E – pretty much a lock. 

 
%d bloggers like this: