Saturday, December 29, 2012


Please don't expect a bipartisan review of LES MISERABLES from me. First, I remember taking a group of Humanities students to see The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables with their original casts on Broadway. As they left Phantom, they were gushing with praise for the romantic story, music, and special effects (oh, that chandelier!). The next night, as Les Miz ended, not only the girls but also several football players trailed out of the theater in tears, most unable to express how they felt about the emotionally draining/elating closing. I was right there with them, sobbing away.

So when I read David Edelstein's vicious attack on Tom Hooper's film version of this epic theater piece, I thought I was living in a parallel universe, one which is moved by epic story-telling, both intimate and grand music, and one of the greatest musical casts since SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. But enough faint praise. Let's get down to specifics. Director Hooper  (Oscar, THE KING'S SPEECH) has a grand vision that lifts the stagebound musical into a more realistic, though often stylized, world. Instead of seeing characters in spotlights, we see them in interlocking cuts expressing their sentiments both to other cast members and to the audience. This is one of the great advantages of film. The opening sequence masterfully introduces Jean Val-Jean (Hugh Jackman in great acting and singing form) as he and fellow convicts attempt to lug a giant ship ashore. The themes of injustice to the poor and the hope for atonement and regeneration dominate the film in both song and sight. In an early scene the workers and the poor sing:

              At the end of the day you're another day older
             And that's all you can say for the life of the poor
                               It's a struggle, it's a war
                And there's nothing that anyone's giving
               One more day standing about, what is it for?
                               One day less to be living.

Director Hooper pans across the singers, forcing us to look at desperate, misshapen, and hopeless faces and not avoid them as we often avoid the poor we see in our own experience. Moments later we meet a prime example of grinding poverty, Fantine, played and sung with ferocious intensity by Anne Hathaway. Her show-stopping song "I Dreamed a Dream," in which she recalls her descent into hopelessness is the film's highlight. Fantine dies in the arms of Jean Val-Jean, spurring several plots forward. He saves and adopts Fantine's daughter Cosette, who grows into the lovely and innocent Amanda Seyfried. Jean Val-Jean is now hiding in plain sight and trying to avoid capture from his nemesis Javert (Russell Crowe, dramatically powerful, vocally tenuous at best). All of this is played against the failed Revolution of 1832  . Marius, played and sung beautifully by Eddie Tremayne, has fallen in love with Cosette, and she with him, while the hapless Eponine (Samantha Banks, the best and most professional voice in the film) looks on longingly. One of the best numbers in the film is their impassioned trio "A Heart full of Love," which is only one of the many numbers inspired by operatic classics.

The film's great climax comes as the students build a barricade out of furniture and empty coffins while singing "Do you Hear the People Sing?". This was a sensation on Broadway, but in the film it opens up to the streets of Paris, as people throw their furniture from the windows above to show their solidarity. "Do You Hear the People Sing? is recalled at the end of the film as Jean Val-Jean is called to Heaven. Both scenes are unabashedly emotional, and it takes a hard heart not to react. I feel the same way about the entire film. LES MISERABLES sweeps its viewers through a revolution and a multitude of love stories, betrayals, and deaths. Whether small or large, director Hooper infuses each scene with passion and artistry. But let's not forget what really makes LES MISERABLES a classic. It's the music. One of the best scores in musical theater history, LES MISERABLES was written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and spans musical genres from farce ("Master of the House," in which Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen clown it up in fine style) to love songs to stirring patriotic anthems. Unlike some film adaptations, LES MISERABLES doesn't underplay the music and the singing. The actors all did their own singing and were recorded on film and soundtrack, unlike the dubbing usually done in films like CHICAGO. The effect is one of immediacy and realism in the most unreal of movie genres...the Musical.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Peter Jackson, whose epic trilogy THE LORD OF THE RINGS, became one of the most successful franchises in movie history, has returned to J.R.R. Tolkien's fabled Middle Earth, this time to tell the prequel to LOTR. Fortunately, he has more success than George Lucas did with his clunky prequels to the original STAR WARS series.  THE HOBBIT (1937) is a relatively short and simple book about dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit on a quest for gold. It would have made one good film, but Jackson has decided to go the trilogy route again. Whether for profit or for story-telling possiblities remains to be seen.

Jackson's first installment of THE HOBBIT is a long, sometimes over-stuffed but energetic adventure that presses the major themes of most fantasy stories for young people: good battling evil against almost impossible odds and the process of the protagonist accepting his role in that battle. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins, a home-body Hobbit who leaves his comfort zone to follow a ragged band of dwarves and their psychic leader the itinerant wizard Gandalf in a quest for the gold stolen by the dragon Smaug. Their journey is filled with nasty Orcs, ghastly dwarf-eating trolls, and worst of all, carnivorous goblins. Some of the battles, especially with the Orcs, seem overly repetitive. How many Orc heads do we need thrown in our faces in ever-sharpening 3-D technology? And why does it take 40 minutes for Bilbo and the gang to leave the shire in the first place?

Nevertheless, there are wonderful moments in THE HOBBIT. One of the best is Bilbo's extended confrontation with the younger version of Gollum we know from LOTR.  Played again with a mixture of uncanny grace and repulsiveness, Gollum is one of the great film characters in film history, and Andy Serkis, who voiced him and motion-captured him deserves an Oscar nod. Bilbo and Gollum play an amusing game of riddles, with Bilbo's life on the line. When Gollum loses the Ring the entire plot of Lord of the Rings is set in motion. The second scene that stands out is both humorous and stomach-churning. The hellish Goblin kingdom in underground caverns is a marvel of intricate crosswalks, ladders and crannies all leading to the grossly obese King of the Goblins, who cracks jokes as he plans his next snack. And there is a beautiful scene of the dwarves' aerial rescue by magnificent eagles.

Peter Jackson may not have matched his Oscar-winning triumph THE RETURN OF THE KING, but he has created a rousing and often beautiful entertainment in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Tis the season when emotions rise, for better or worse. In many cases they are stirred by the media. Last Sunday night we watched the 60 MINUTES interview with Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean-Val Jean in the film version of the musical LES MISERABLES. It was only a 20 minute interview, but I found my tear ducts warming up every time the musical score boomed and Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and others belted out their songs with emotional bravaura. I should invest in Kleenex stock. The film is going to be an emotional avalanche, and I can't wait!

Then, Betsy and I were watching a repeat of Episode 2 of the second season of DOWNTON ABBEY, that toney Brit import on Public Television (Yes, I sent in my pledge) that has captivated American Anglophiles and soap opera fans alike. The scene that caught us off guard involved the Grantham family dealing with bad news with the proper stiff upper lip. They have learned that Matthew Crawley has gone missing behind German lines. But the show must go on; i.e, the musicale for recovering soldiers is in full swing. Sisters Lady Mary (Matthew's true love) and Lady Edith are soldiering through "If You Were the Only Girl in the World," and suddenly the missing Matthew appears. The song, the look on Lady Mary's face, the entire package brought me to tears. I turned to Betsy, and she was snuffling as well. More stock in Kleenex.

So should we do the "amurican" thing and stifle our tears? I think not. At this season of the year, at this juncture of our fractured world, maybe a few heartfelt tears, elicited by popular but worthy dramatic works, can be healthy and even cathartic for us all.  MERRY CHRISTMAS.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Want to give your movie-loving relative or friend a special treat for Christmas? Try one of these treasures:

NOTORIOUS, 1946. Hitchcock's best film from the 1940's features brilliant direction, beautifully designed black and white photography, and, of course, the stars. Cary Grant is a suave U.S. agent who enlists Ingrid Bergman, the daughter of a traitor and a "notorious" party girl, to spy on Nazi-sympathizers in Rio just after WWII. As he trains her, they fall madly in love. Her job forces her to marry wealthy industrialist Claude Rains and leads her into life-threatening danger. The famous key sequence that leads to deadly discoveries is the highlight of this suspense classic.

BLACK NARCISSUS, 1947 . Directed by Michael Powell and Emereck Pressburger, this fever-pitched drama about English nuns alone in a mountainous northern Indian province, provides Deborah Kerr one of her greatest roles. As Sister Clodagh, Kerr must control not only her high-strung sisters but also her own conflict between her faith and her simmering desire for a rough adventurer. This is a role she would enlarge on in HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON, 1957.   The stunning color photography by Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and Kerr won the New York Critics Award for Best Actress. Kerr would be nominated for 6 Best Actress awards, but BLACK NARCISSUS remains her finest performance.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, 1944. Vincente Minnelli's gingerbread dream of America in 1904 as the World's Fair approached starred Judy Garland in one of her signature roles, Esther Smith, an idealistic, romantic girl who falls in love with "The Boy Next Store." This rose-colored valentine to Americana featured Garland belting "The Trolley Song" and giving "Have Yourself a Merry, Little Christmas" its most tremulous, personal interpretation. Filmed in MGM's vivid storybook colors, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS remains one of the great musicals of all time.

BEST IN SHOW, 2000. One of the funniest satires ever made, this Christopher Guest-directed farce takes a close and scathing look at the dog show buisness. The cast of clueless owners includes ventriloquist and good ole boy (director Guest) and his bloodhound Hubert; a tacky but lovable couple (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), who seem to run into her former conquests at every turn, and their Norwich Terrier Winky; an obnoxious yuppie couple  (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), who personify status-climbing, and their neurotic Weimaraner; Sheri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), a bosomy blonde based on Anna Nicole Smith),  her barely alive sugar daddy, her standard Poodle Rhapsody in White, and her trainer Christie Cummings (Jane Lynch); and a campy gay couple played by John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean. It's amazing how many of these folks can be seen when you watch the annual Westminister Dog Show.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Ang Lee, a Hungry Tiger, and 3-D

Having achieved artistic and financial success in surprisingly different genres, the Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee has once again pulled off the nearly impossible. His first English speaking film SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, 1995, was a delightful adaptation that balanced the spirit and mirth of Jane Austen with a deeper, almost melancholy sensitivity and was nominated for 7 Oscars, winning one for Emma Thompson's Best Adapted Screenplay.

In 1999 Lee created an exotic world unfamiliar to most Americans in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, an epic martial arts epic that lifted the genre into both art and popular culture. His biggest gamble was using the Chinese language, instead of English. His risk paid off with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and three Oscars in the technical categories.

But perhaps his greatest gamble was 2005's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, an unprecedented and frank look at an abiding love between two macho cowboys. Lee won the Oscar for Best Director and the film was nominated for eight more. The performances, especially those of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall, were heart-rending and sincere, mostly due to Lee's direction.

THE LIFE OF PI, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, proved to be Ang Lee's greatest challenge. To tell a story where most of the action is placed on the high seas with only a boy and a hungry tiger seemed daunting, but Lee upped the stakes by using 3-D. Only a few films have used the process seriously, most notably AVATAR. Following the novel's structure, Lee uses a frame work where the middle-aged Pi tells the story of his strange past. When he was a child, Pi  and his family owned a zoo in India. Under political pressure, they decided to move to Canada with their animals. Early in the voyage a violent storm sinks the ship and only Pi escapes; that is, only Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a voracious tiger named Richard Parker, who quickly dispenses with the other animals.

So the great heart of LIFE OF PI is the struggle between a 16 year old boy and a hungry tiger together on a raft under every possible weather condition. Director Lee embraces this challenge with 3-D, not the kind that hurls objects at viewers but one that pulls them into the scene so that they feel as though they are on that raft. This dynamic involvement lifts this story to a higher level. The audience not only sees a sea filled with illuminated jelly fish shimmering in a heavenly aura but they feel surrounded by them. A similar feeling occurs when a whale rises close to the raft at night. Lee maintains an incredible level of tension between boy and tiger while suffusing the screen with beauty. One theme is that Pi manages to survive by keeping the tiger alive. This gives him purpose. Part of his drive to stay alive comes from his deeply felt religious beliefs in...Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity. Ang Lee makes all this and more believable and even transformative. See LIFE OF PI in a theater in 3-D for its full impact.