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Film Review: Les Miserables

Les Miserables

I love the stage production of Les Miserables. Maybe not the most fashionable thing for a male in his mid-twenties to say, but that’s how it is. I was in a (school) production of it a while back playing various small parts, as is my inability to sing very well, and pretty much instantly grew very fond of it. I then saw the stage show in London and was blown away by it. I have, therefore, been really rather looking forward to a full musical version finally hitting the big screen.

The plot is a little complicated but I’ll do my best to explain. It’s revolutionary France and Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison on parole. However, he breaks his parole and goes on the run, pursued by the fiercely law-abiding Javert (Russell Crowe). Years later, Valjean, now a town mayor, comes across the dieing Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who turned to prostitution after Valjean failed to stop her getting sacked from her job in a factory. Wracked with guilt, Valjean agrees to take custody of Fantine’s daughter Cosette who is living with corrupt innkeepers The Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonam Carter). Fastforward eight or nine years and French students are planning a revolution. Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is still living with Valjean and falls in love with student rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who is also the apple of the Thenardiers’ daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks). Javert continues to pursue Valjean as the students’ uprising begins.

And breathe. A bit longwinded, that, but a short synopsis simply wouldn’t do the story’s scale justice. It’s a story of epic proportion and quite the undertaking for The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper. Les Mis has been brought to the big screen a couple of times but never as a faithful adaptation of the long running stage show, and Hooper wants to hammer home the message that this is pretty new ground for the musical.

Anne HathawayFor example, when you’re in the theatre, depending on where you’re sitting, everything is somewhere around medium/medium long shot distance, but here Hooper gives us shots and angles you simply don’t get in the theatre – namely long shots and close ups. So many close ups. Most solos are accompanied by a personal space-invading close up, allowing us to get more from the facial expressions that you perhaps would from viewing a stage show. This is a clever tactic but one that becomes a little weary when it’s been done for the 43rd time.

Same goes for the long shot, whether it be static, sweeping, soaring, tracking, etc; we’re constantly being reminded that this is something that film offers us that the stage cannot. However, this is completely at odds with many of the locations which don’t disguise the fact that they’re filmed on a sound stage. There’s actually a claustrophobic feel to many of the locations, giving the impression that there’s nothing beyond what’s not on screen. Whether this is intended as some sort of homage to the stage show is anyone’s guess. This also leads the film to feel like a series of set pieces, rather than one continuous story. On stage, sets and characters come and go seamlessly, but the film-exclusive feature of editing eliminates this, which doesn’t help the fluidity of the story.

Onto the performances. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Valjean, flexing his rather impressive vocal chords and further establishing himself as one of the most depressingly perfect men in the world. Eddie Redmayne is also impressive in his breakthrough role as Marius, whilst Samantha Barks does admirably in the role of Eponine she reprises from the West End show. Much credit also, as has been said many times already, must go to Anna Hathaway. As Fantine she gives a performance so heart-achingly affecting that, although she’s only on screen for a short time, she steals the entire show, her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, sure to go down as a career-defining moment.

Les Mis - at the barricadeSo there’s the good; how about the not so good? Probably best start with Mr Crowe. In short, Russell Crowe can’t really sing, which is pretty important in a musical. Javert should be intimidating, but Crowe’s faux rock star gravelly rasp just doesn’t sit right. He’s trying to hit notes his voice just wasn’t meant to hit. That said, it’s not a complete abomination that many have suggested. Amanda Seyfried must also come under fire in the vocal department. She’s another name to add to the poster but her voice is so shrill at times that only dogs and bats can actually hear her.

Les Miserables isn’t a short film and the second half of the film doesn’t quite grab the attention as consistently as the first, although this issue is rooted in the stage show rather than limited to the film. It does feel ever so slightly on the long side but when you consider you would normally have a 15 minute interval half way through, this is hardly surprising. The majority of the music in the second half doesn’t carry quite as much energy as what’s come before, with many of the key songs being slow, downbeat affairs. The main storyline also shifts dramatically from that of Valjean to the revolution, which feels a little jarring considering we have spent no time invested in this storyline up until then. It’s a long way into the film to introduce such a major story arc.

The good in Les Miserables vastly outweighs the bad and I’m perfectly happy with the way it has been adapted for the screen. Indeed, some of the problems it does have come from the source (by source, I mean the musical, not the Victor Hugo book). It may take some a little time to get used to characters singing literally almost every single line, but that only adds to the experience. It was a directorial masterstroke by Tom Hooper to have all the actors sing live rather than dub them in post production as it really helps convey the emotions of the characters and give it a more realistic feel. Not all works transfer effectively from stage to screen but this is one that was long overdue and, baring the odd falter, has done so with bags of emotion and raw power.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

Chris

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Film Review: Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians

Aaaaand cue the annual big Christmas family movie. There are only three things in life that are certainties – death, Nicolas Cage accepting a film role, and a family friendly festive film to warm the yuletide cockles. Last year we had the lovely Arthur Christmas and this year Dreamworks have taken on the mantle with Rise of the Guardians. What? Wait, that can’t be right. It’s set at EASTER?!

Plot thus: The children of the world are looked after by four Guardians – Santa (Alec Baldwin (voice only, it’s all animated)), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the (voiceless) Sandman. However, an ancient evil known as Pitch Black (Jude Law) threatens to turn all of the children’s dreams into nightmares and make them stop believing in the current Guardians. To combat the threat, a petulant Jack Frost, struggling to work out the reason for his existence, is enlisted to join the legendary group.

So, yeah the film is set at Easter. A pretty bizarre move from Dreamworks considering the time of year the film has been released and that one of the main characters is Mr Claus himself. However, as the film involves kids questioning the existence of these childhood figures, basing the whole thing at Christmas might lead to a few too many awkward questions this time of the year. Much safer to bash Monsieur Lapin instead. Despite that it is still essentially a Christmas film in all but time of the year. There’s loads of snow and ice, a bloke with a big white beard riding a sleigh, and plenty of fun and frivolity. Pretty much all you need.

Hades...I mean PitchRise of the Guardians presents said Guardians (some of them, at least) in a genuinely refreshing way, which helps it stand out from the usual incarnations. Santa has a Russian accent, carries a sword and has ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ tattoos on his arms, making him seem like something from Eastern Promises, whilst the Easter Bunny is a 6’1″ boomerang-throwing Australian. However, not all the characters are quite so interesting. Emo Jack Frost is a disgruntled, angsty teenager (complete with stylish spiky hair and hood) who for the most part of the film is just a bit whiny, although he does become more of an interesting character as the film progresses. Similarly, the Tooth Fairy spends much of her time fawning over Jack or crying: hardly a strong female role. As the big bad villain, Pitch (bearing more than a little resemblance to Hades from Disney’s Hercules) is also really quite boring. Visually, he’s as interesting as an office chair, whilst his motives are more than a little wishy-washy. His scary demon horse things are pretty cool though.

It’s an interesting universe that is created here, inspired by William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood book series, and there are times that you wish for a little more insight into the characters’ backgrounds. If all the Guardians were once normal humans, why were they picked to become the Guardians? We learn Jack’s story but no-one else’s. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how much you liked this film), there is ample room for potential sequels which, if this does well, will surely follow.

The story isn’t really anything new at its core, however. It’s a ‘face up to your fears’/’coming of age’ story that has been told plenty of times before, although this does offer its own unique take. There are some overly corny moments fresh from the Big Book of Vomit-Inducing Cliches but as it’s essentially a children’s film, that can be overlooked. Despite that, there are a couple of darker moments (not just the visual ones caused by the 3D) that do give the film a bit more depth. Talking of depth, the aforementioned 3D works pretty well for the most part aside from a couple of blurry moments and delivers a couple of genuine ‘jump out of the screen’ moments. Whether that’s a good thing is entirely up to you. The visuals in general are very impressive whilst lacking the spit and polish that comes from some of Dreamworks’ competitors, namely the Mouse House and associated studios.

Like the journey a humble carpenter and his suspiciously pregnant wife (supposedly) made all those years ago at this time of year, many families like to make a trip to check out a good ol’ family film come the holiday season, and they could certainly do worse than Rise of the Guardians.

Chris

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Film review: The Prestige

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”

The Prestige

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two aspiring illusionists working together in Victorian London, but when Angier’s wife is killed during an act, the two are torn apart. Hell-bent on outdoing each other, the pair, both aided and hampered by the beautiful Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), go to extraordinary lengths to prove they are the greater magician.

The Prestige formed part of a magical double bill in 2006 alongside The Illusionist, but largely thanks to its trio of Jackman, Bale and Johansson it pretty much eclipsed its illusionary brethren. It also had the advantage of having Christopher Nolan at the helm fresh from Batman Begins to lend a bit of narrative nouse that the director has become renowned for. Adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name, The Prestige is an atmospheric period piece that effectively combines magic’s inherent mystery and intrigue with a plot that constantly keeps you second guessing right to the very end.

Christian BaleThe narrative jumps around between different time periods of the magicians’ rivalry, although Nolan does well to ensure it never becomes too confusing. The carefully crafted mise-en-scene not only creates an intriguing world for the characters, but also elicits a certain dreamlike quality that is equal parts beautiful and sinister. Neither Algiers nor Borden are particularly likeable characters; both have somewhat dishonourable intentions and it’s hard to know who to naturally side with. This, combined with the cinematography and flitting narrative all adds to the feeling that nothing is quite as it seems and that you shouldn’t be so quick to take everything at face value.

The Prestige is a film that definitely warrants a second viewing, presuming you enjoyed it first time round of course. There are some superb instances of foreshadowing, with some being much more subtle than others. Again, this just adds to the film’s mystery and intrigue. And as with ‘real’ magic, these are the things the film does best. The plot itself has a few holes in it here and there, although nothing that will break the film, and the characters can be a little one-dimensional at times. Bale’s Borden is by far the pick of the bunch, whilst Jackman and Johansson don’t exactly give memorable performances. In fact, Jackman’s best moments are when he actually plays Gerald Root, an out of work actor used as Algier’s double in his act.

Although magic is undoubtedly the basis for the film, it also becomes somewhat of a MacGuffin. The real theme of the story is two men with an all-consuming obsession and a friendship not just turned sour, but deadly. The Prestige is an interesting example of art imitating art and one that challenges the audience to question everything they are seeing. With magic it’s the reveal that gets the big reactions, and The Prestige just about delivers on this front. It’s not going to have you open-mouthed in amazement but it will likely leave you with a sense of satisfaction, if indeed you had at all been fooled. But then again, as the quote at the top of this review states, you don’t really want to work it out anyway.

Words: Chris Thomson

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