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LES MISERABLES (2012/IN THEATERS) Who would have thought that turning Victor Hugo’s lengthy 1862 French historical novel into a musical would have had such long-lasting results? If you’ve never seen a stage production of Les Miserables, you have missed a definite phenomenon. Referred to as a “sung through musical play,” Les Mis was originally performed in French in 1980, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. However, the French production closed after only three months. At the request of Peter Farago who was a fan of the French work, Cameron Mackintosh, who had developed “Cats,” assembled a production team to adapt the French musical for a British audience. After two years in development, the English-language version opened in London on October 8, 1985, at the Barbican Centre—and has been running continuously worldwide ever since. Ironically, the original musical—even in English–bombed with the critics but was saved by audience popularity. This mirrors a bit the reception to the new film version, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), which has garnered only a 58% Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics yet is already a box office success with an 85% audience rating.
My opinion? The movie feels very long at 2 hours, 38 minutes, and I missed the Intermission desperately—especially that glass of something alcoholic I would have enjoyed. However, for fans of the musical, this film will be more than welcome. The cast is strong, with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the hero of the piece, who wills himself to live a better life after 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. Russell Crowe is his nemesis as Inspector Javert, determined to arrest him again after Valjean jumps parole and creates a new identity. Anne Hathaway is certainly poignant as Fantine, the embodiment of the French poor during the Revolutionary period. Her demise from simple seamstress to debased whore seems to happen very quickly on screen but is in fact quite true to the original version. As you surely know, Valjean swears to the dying Fantine that he will find and care for her daughter Cosette, who is under the dubious care of two innkeepers. These are Monsieur and Madame Thenardier who bring desperately needed comic relief to all this tragedy–at least they did in the stage version I saw. Unfortunately, they are not as funny in the film, despite being played broadly by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Others in the cast are quite good, particularly Eddie Redmayne as Marius, one of the band of student rebels who take up most of the second half of the production. Marius falls for the older Cosette (a worthy Amanda Seyfried) while Samantha Barks, a veteran of London’s 25th Anniversary production of the musical, is also strong as the older Eponine, daughter of the Thenardier’s and desperately in love with Marius. No wonder the film seems long! There’s lots of plot, endless singing (truly) and also endless close-ups and continuously moving camera work, reminding us that we’re watching a “big production.” I found I missed the distance between stage and audience, as well as the wonder of the stage sets. Given a choice to see this musical again, I feel I would choose the stage. But judge for yourself—this is definitely a movie to see before the awards season kicks into high gear and the songs really will linger with you for days.
As we wind up for Christmas, it is one of the few times a year that we gather around the TV and force family members to watch holiday themed movies. So we thought that we would give you the guide to the best to watch with the whole family, and those which are best viewed after the kids and grandparents are in bed. Here is our Christmas movie countdown for the family and for the adults.
For the Family:
5 – White Christmas
This is really the one that started it all. Fun for the whole family, especially for the musical lovers. With a cast of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney; it is tough to go wrong with this holiday favorite. True, there are some fifties jokes and references that you might have to explain to kids, but then you can just have them sing along to every song and it won’t matter. All kidding aside, White Christmas is pretty much the standard for all Christmas movies, and it still stands the test of time.
4 – A Christmas Story
This may seem low on the list, but since it has begun to run for 24 hours on Christmas Day, the luster of the jokes are not as sharp as they used to. However, this should be used instead of a fake fire on your TV during the holiday. Thanks to TNT, this has become a part of everyone’s Christmas experience along with egg nog and family bickering. In addition, the best jokes never get old from “NOT A FINGER” to “Fraaa-geeley! Must be Italian.” this movie can never get old.
3 – A Christmas Carol
It seems every five years or so a remake comes out with some twist or all-star cast, so we cannot recommend which one is the best since there are over twenty versions. Whether is be performed by Muppets, Shakespearean Actors, or Mr. Bean; this story is a staple of the holiday season. Dickens’ model holds true to always provide an entertaining story of redemption and the holiday spirit. And lets face it, it is not the Christmas season until you hear, “God Bless Us Everyone.”
2 – Elf
The only recent recommendation on this list, but this contains everything that we have come to love in a family Christmas movie. There are jokes for kids and ones for adults. There is a story of redemption, and a story of acceptance. James Caan sings, and Bob Newhart is a tiny elf. A talking Norwal, and a surly Santa. All of this with Will Ferrell at his comedic height, makes for an original Christmas movie that seems to be inventive for Hollywood even outside the holiday season. If you don’t agree then you are a cotton-headed ninny-muggins.
1 – It’s A Wonderful Life
As if this wouldn’t make out list. This movie is great because it could fall on any day of the year, but it takes on a greater meaning that George Bailey finds out what his life is worth during the Christmas season. This movie is so ingrained in our sub-conscious that it has become the American Christmas Carol, and represents the American ideal greater than Dickens ever could. While it has been imitated several times from film to TV, there is no replacing the original. The fact that it is Jimmy Stewart‘s and Donna Reed‘s most recognizable parts over everything else they have done, shows how widely popular this film has become over the years.
So now that you have seen every hokey holiday film known to man, it is time to kick back and enjoy yourself. Here are our top five R rated, or close to it, movies.
5 – Scrooged
What could be better than a Christmas movie with Bill Murray. One where he is the part of Scrooge. While we admit that many of the jokes are dated, Murray turns in a great performance along with Carol Kane. Not to mention an appearance by David Johansen (apparently taking a break from his alter ego Buster Poindexter). Scrooged provides all of the highlights of A Christmas Carol with a wittiness of someone who is reacting honestly.
4 – The Ref
This forgotten gem is a classic for those with dysfunctional families. While the plot is implausible, the family fighting is priceless. From annoying in laws to the dominerring matriarch, this film shows that resolution can be achieved through fighting. Denis Leary was at his acerbic height, and was supported beautifully by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis. Who all were still awaiting their big film roles, and were still willing to work on an independent film. In addition, it was one of the stronger showings from the late Ted Demme.
3 - Bad Santa
This has to be one of the oddest movies on the list, but it still remains a classic Christmas movie. Billy Bob Thorton pulls off some decent comedic acting with a kid. His frustrated rants are comic gold. Which is what makes the dynamic of the movie so funny. Different from most movies, Thorton treats the kid as an dumber adult not as a child, but the fact that it is a clueless kid makes the relationship so comedic. And in what other movie do you see the gift of a wooden pickle.
2 – Die Hard
Oh yes, this is a Christmas movie. And there is no better way to release stress than to watch Bruce Willis pull glass out of his feet while talking to the dad of Family Matters. While the premise of the Die Hard series is becoming an old one, this was and still is one hell of an action movie. In a way the film does show the Christmas tradition; a family coming together, and a man saving Christmas for a bunch of people to ensure joy for the holiday. Sure it is a stretch, but really think about and yippee ki yay.
1 – Christmas Vacation
This is the best Christmas movie since Bing Crosby tapped danced with Danny f’in Kaye. Leave it to the Griswolds to show us the true meaning of family. From office christmas presents to the Jelly of the month club, this never fails to generate laughs. There is Cousin Eddie, the boxed cat, and the Squirrel! Vacation shows us that no matter how horrible the holidays can be, it is best to laugh and manically drink egg nog. Just try not to get locked in the attic or over cook the turkey. Happy Holidays, and have fun.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012/IN THEATERS) The trailers for this film had me seriously intrigued—Brad Pitt teaming again with Andrew Dominik, the down-under director who brought us “The Killing of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” with Pitt as Jesse James. That film is a true small masterpiece if I’ve ever seen one (check out my review on SML—I’m a big fan) and this one promised great actors—Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard—along with some snappy dialogue and some Johnny Cash tunes. Wow. That was the preview, mind you, not the movie. When you actually sit down to watch the film, what you get first are two talkative scuzzy hoods—Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn)—meeting with dry cleaner/mob guy Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to plot a robbery. Sounds good, yes? The plan is to rob a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a guy who not long ago confessed that he had robbed his own game and brought the law down on everybody. So the idea is that a second robbery will be pinned on Markie who will take the heat while the real robbers enjoy the cash. The robbery goes down as planned and this sets in motion the appearance of Brad Pitt as Jackie—a mob enforcer brought in by a suit (Richard Jenkins), who tasks him with taking out all parties involved in the robbery, including Markie and the two scuzz-bags. Jackie brings in his buddy Mickey (Gandolfini) to help but learns over time that Mickey has lost it to booze and broads, so in the end he handles it all pretty much by himself. The screenplay, written by Dominik, is based on a novel by George V. Higgins entitled “Cogan’s Trade.” Higgins famously also wrote “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which was made into a terrific film in 1973 starring Robert Mitchum as Eddie. “Cogan’s Trade” was actually set in Boston but Dominik has moved the film to a bombed out New Orleans and insists on bringing in a message to us viewers about the downfall of America and our underbelly of money and selling out. So he updates the film to late 2008—just before Obama’s election—in the middle of the economic crisis and he adds endless over-voiced yammering about the state of our country on CNN or talk radio during scenes set in cars and bars. Do gangsters watch CNN? Is it running in your average mobster bar? Do mob guys listen to talk radio? Who knows? It seemed odd to me and off-putting. But lots in this film is that way—including rough editing, self-conscious dialogue, and plenty of slow-motion violence—a strange combination. So I can see why the film has a relatively low rating among viewers. Nonetheless, there are some fabulous performances in there (including a solo piece from Gandolfini about a woman in Florida) that make the film worth watching. Use your best judgment but don’t go out of your way for this one. Too bad. This is a seriously talented director. We’ll hope for better in the future.
ANNA KARENINA (2012/IN THEATERS) There seems to be no awards love yet for the latest film from director Joe Wright who also gave us Price and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Hanna (2011). I happen to be a big fan of all those films and also of Keira Knightley, Wright’s favorite actress, who takes on the title role of Anna in this over-the-top artful rendition of the Leo Tolstoy classic. This time the screenplay is by no less than Tom Stoppard and the production is in a league of its own for creativity. The entire movie is set in a 19th century theater and every inch of that setting is used, including the catwalks and the orchestra pit. But unlike some movies in theater settings (remember A Prairie Home Companion?), in this film sometimes the walls fall away and we are transported straight out into a Russian wheat field or winter palace. Good grief! It’s a bit dizzying at the start, but soon you get into the rhythm of this artifice and begin to watch the story for what it is—a tale of tragic love. Anna is a good woman, married to the highly regarded and important Karenin (an excellent Jude Law) who is a good man but something of a bore. The two have a young son who is the apple of Anna’s eye. On the train to meet with her brother Stiva (played by Matthew Macfayden who was Mr. Darcy in Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Anna meets the Countess Vronsky and her handsome young son Alexei (a blond Aaron-Taylor Johnson–you may remember him from Savages or Nowhere Boy). Young Vronsky is attracted to Anna and courts her from that instant forward. Anna falls under his spell and eventually abandons everything—her son, her daughter by Vronsky, her life in public, her husband—to enjoy the passion of romance. Knightley is brilliant in the role, showing a wide range of emotion. And of course, she is positively gorgeous in the endless show of costumes which mark the period and the wealth of Russian society in those days. Of course, there’s a tragic ending—surely you know it. Does the movie work, amidst all the hustle and bustle of its staging? I think ultimately yes thanks to the strength of Keira Knightley and surprisingly of Jude Law. Catch it while you can—but only if you like period pieces done to excess!
So by now we have all read or heard the reviews of the newest Bond film, and we know where Roger Moore ranks this new one. Since this is the 50th anniversary of Bond films, we want to see how the new one stacks up against the previous films. However, one cannot just compare one bond film to another, there is a process that must be followed.
First, we have to look at all of the Bond actors and what their best are. Now for most there are the first three that are the stand outs. For example beginning with the best; Connery’s first three were Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. After those first three came Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds Are Forever. While Thunderball was good, it was not up to par with the first three. Moving to Roger Moore; he began with Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, and The Spy Who Loved Me. Moore then followed with Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and A View To A Kill. Again, sub-par efforts after a strong beginning. Unfortunately other actors did not fare as well, George Lazenby had a strong showing, but gave up after just one. Brosnan had a phenomenal freshman effort with Goldeneye, but failed bigger than any other Bond before. And then Dalton was never given a chance and had a good showing with Living Daylights, but Liscence to Kill ended his run.
So where does this leave us? Well, we have to agree with the addition of Craig that the best all time Bonds now look like this: Connery, Craig, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, and Lazenby. Craig can move down, but Connery will always be the best. Now, Roger Moore has already said Skyfall is the best, so by his word, it comes down to just comes down to Connery’s and Casino Royale. Skyfall already beats out Quantum of Solace. We already know it beats Connery’s last three, so now where does Skyfall fit in with the rest. It is in the opinion of this writer that it falls as is, as the fifth best.
While Skyfall is very good, it does not beat the impact that Casino Royale had re-energizing the series. And it cannot be better than the Connery top three because simply that is where the movie leaves off. From the coat hanger in the receiving room to the leather padded door of the new M office, Bond has come full circle. In addition, this movie did a far better job at honoring the past through small winks and nods to the older movies instead of cheap gimmicks that Die Another Day used. The most important thing is that Bond is strong and still the bad ass he should always be, and that makes me happy.
LINCOLN (2012/IN THEATERS) It appears that Steven Spielberg is working to give us a new history lesson every few years. He started with Schindler’s List, educating us about the true-to-life effort of Oscar Schindler to save Jewish lives during WWII. After that, it was Munich (my favorite) that brought to life the shadowy efforts of Israel to avenge the deaths of their Olympic athletes after their murder in Germany. Last year, he showed us what WWI looked like in “War Horse” and stated in many interviews that he felt American audiences knew nothing about that war—it just wasn’t being taught. This year, he has chosen to focus on the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency, just after his re-election to a second term, and specifically to illustrate to us the efforts which were required to gain passage of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery–a very important part of our history and one which resonates with the audience following this year’s tough re-election for our first black president. The screenplay for the movie was written by Tony Kushner and is based on a short section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” the heralded biography of Mr. Lincoln. The film is long—2 and ½ hours—and is certainly “talky,” with a bit of the stage play about it. This makes sense, since Tony Kushner, while brilliant, is first and foremost a writer for the stage. Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln really carries the entire movie IMHO, although Sally Fields is strong as Mary Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones is wonderful also as Thaddeus Stevens, the famous abolitionist. Plenty of familiar and wonderful faces show up in the supporting cast, among them David Strathaim as William Seward, Jared Harris (of Mad Men fame) as Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Gordon Levitt as Abe and Mary’s son Robert Lincoln. And don’t forget about James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson and all the rest who help bring the story to life. Perfect timing for this film’s release and I definitely recommend seeing it. Stage-y or not, you will leave the theater with more appreciation than ever for Lincoln’s accomplishments—and of course, you’ll have seen Daniel Day Lewis’ sure to win Oscar performance.
THE SESSIONS (2012/IN THEATERS) Written and directed by Ben Lewin, this indie film tells the “life is stranger than fiction” story of Mark O’Brien, a charming and funny man whose childhood polio has left him immobile—breathing through an iron-lung at night with only the ability to turn his head slightly. Nonetheless, he has learned to type using a pencil held in his mouth and he writes articles and poetry. Mark is introduced to us while crossing the graduation stage at UC Berkeley, lying completely flat on his battery-powered rolling bed and wearing a cap and gown–clearly a guy with determination. In a pivotal moment, O’Brien (played beautifully by John Hawkes) takes up a writing assignment on the topic of “sex and people with disabilities” which opens his eyes to the idea that he might experience real consensual sex before he reaches what he calls his “sell-by date.” Enter sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who offers him—in a wonderfully matter of fact way—a maximum of six sessions in which to lose his virginity. Being a good Catholic, Mark first consults Father Brendan (William H. Macy) for advice on having sex outside of wedlock—he’s told to “go for it.” And so the film does, weaving the story primarily between the sessions themselves and Mark’s various confessions to Father Brendan. It’s an unusual story for sure and one that packed a surprisingly emotional punch by the film’s end, IMHO. The movie is well done and there’s already early Oscar buzz for Hawkes, who is certainly a long way from his menacing performances in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene and Winter’s Bone. Here, he’s down right loveable. And that fact, indeed, is what makes the movie really work. Even if you feel a bit squeamish about watching nudity combined with serious disability, I predict this one will win you over. It certainly succeeded for the folks at this year’s Sundance where it won the Audience Award as well as a Special Jury Award. Worth catching, either in the theater or later on DVD.
WRECK IT RALPH (2012/IN THEATERS) Disney’s latest offering works hard to be the Toy Story of video games—introducing us to the secret life of all those characters in the arcade with clever backstories based on electrical outlets, computer code and even glitches. True confessions: I am NOT a video game person so about half way through this 93 minute romp, I wondered if I should have skipped it. But by the end, I found I was a convert–having a great time and rooting for the hero of the piece: Wreck It Ralph. The story is pretty simple: Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) has been wrecking the same building for 30 years so that Fix It Felix (Jack McBrayer) can bounce around with his magic gold hammer and fix it. EVery day, Felix receives a medal for his success and Ralph is thrown into the mud. Once the arcade closes, Ralph retreats to his “home” in the brick dump while Felix goes to the penthouse where he is celebrated by the video residents of the building. Ralph is jealous and more than that, he is tired of being the bad guy. Seeing his chance, he leaves his own game and ventures into a more modern video game featuring war heroes and medals and a tough lady Sergeant (Jane Lynch), and by sheer force, he gets his own medal. Unfortunately, he is thrown next into a game called “Sugar Rush” where he encounters a trouble-making young girl called Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) who steals his medal and uses it to enter the big race run each day in that game. Soon we also meet the king of Sugar Rush who is determined to keep young Vanellope out of the race…..and so it goes. Meanwhile Felix leaves “Fix It Felix” to find Ralph before his entire game is determined to be “out of order” and ready for the dump heap. And the tough Sergeant is also in Sugar Rush, trying to fend off the “bugs” which will end all the electronic fun for everyone. The entire movie definitely has a Toy Story feeling—complete with a fabulous 20 minute spirited ending chock full of clever shout-outs to various video games, and a good guy vs. bad guy classic set-up. Good fun altogether–and say, the noise and color certainly will leaving you feeling like you just spent an hour and a half in a video arcade!! There were lots of kids at the showing I attended, and while they didn’t shout at the screen (or even laugh) they seemed to be having a good time. The one guy who was laughing (in the row behind me), I figured to be a real video guy who got all the in-jokes. A great anecdote to the negativity of our current election. If you go, have fun!! And BTW: there’s a gorgeous B&W short animation prior to the show, which alone is worth the price of admission for us oldies
SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012/IN THEATERS) Ha! This funny and crazy film was written and directed by Martin McDonagh who also brought us the little masterpiece In Bruges (2008), one of my personal all-time favorites. Seven Psychopaths has already won the People’s Choice Award at Toronto this year—but in the Midnight Madness category, mind you. Fitting. Though not nearly as tight or well-written as In Bruges, my friends and I found ourselves laughing out loud frequently at this one–which centers on an Irish screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell) who has a title for his next work but that’s about all. The title? Seven Psychopaths, of course. Enter Marty’s buddy Billy (a fabulous Sam Rockwell) who places an ad seeking psychopaths in LA to come to his house and tell their tales to Marty. Only one comes—Zachariah (played by Tom Waits) but he has quite a story to tell. And really, Billy and his friend Hans (the ever fabulous Christopher Walken) already have enough storyline for any screenwriter. Hans makes a living by kidnapping pets and then returning them for handsome ransoms. Billy is his right-hand man who unfortunately kidnaps Bonny—the favorite little Shih Tzu belonging to gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Soon the blood begins to flow as Charlie’s gang discovers Bonny’s whereabouts. Actually, I should say that the blood started to flow from the very opening minutes of this film, in a definite ode to Pulp Fiction. Indeed, you’ll be thinking about Tarentino while watching this movie. It’s fun and the plot, such as it is, turns back on itself in an admirable and more than amusing way. My advice: if you enjoyed In Bruges and Pulp Fiction, this movie’s for you. Catch it soon and have a great time!