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Saturday, 19 January 2013

THIS WEEK: Les Miserables/Hatchet/The Kid With a Bike/Tiny Furniture

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Excellent!

5 - Must See!!

Les Miserables

Les Miserables is based on the novel by Victor Hugo, which became one of the most beloved stage shows of the last century.  It is a story that starts with the simple idea of a man, Jean Valjean, who stole a loaf of bread out of desperation; his release, his breaking parole, and a moment of forgiveness sets in motion his own redemption, and the ongoing search for him by Inspector Javert.  From here the story goes on to cover a vast amount of time and culminates in the 19th Century French uprising, whilst dealing with issues of class, love, forgiveness and responsibility.  I heard it described rather well as, "a big, musical, French revolution-set version of Pay It Forward", which is not, at times, too far off the mark.

Tom Hooper comes off the back of his success with The King's Speech, and with this sets about upping his own game; Les Miserables is an all-round bigger, more daring artistic undertaking.  It seems that Hooper recognizes the stirring nature of the stage show, and that to adapt it for the screen there are two tricks necessary to play: don't fix what is not broken, and go balls-out to make it as big and dramatic as possible!  It is obvious from the opening scene, however, that he is keen to do everything with this musical that cannot be done on stage, the camera giving us an epic scope, swooping in, out and through incredible sets and landscapes.  It also gives us close-up, intimate interactions with actors as they work.  I have seen it said that this is, at times, misjudged or distracting, but I can honestly say I did not find it to be either, although I did note his refusal to play that much in mid-shot, almost, it seems, on principle.  This did not bother me, but I can understand it being frustrating to some.

Hugh Jackman is excellent in the role of Jean Valjeant; this is the bravest and best I have seen him since The Fountain.  Russell Crowe is the strangest bit of casting imaginable for a musical such as this, and yet the film contends with it rather well.  There has been some talk of Crowe being not as mean as the stage version of Javert, but it is in fact his presentation of a more complex man, struggling within himself, that makes his performance so vivid.  When you can get an audience caring this much for who is ostensibly a rather bland villain, you have done something right, and I certainly found myself caring for him as a human being rather than viewing him as simply, the bad guy.  In spite of being a bit out of his depth technically, in terms of singing voice, it is his finding of this character that somehow makes it work, and he actually delivers the song Stars with a striking beauty, a beauty which makes it one of the best scenes in the movie, and which highlights all the more why he works.  Hearing the audio is not enough; you actually have to see it, but when you do, it makes sense.  Bringing some light relief to what is otherwise a pretty heavy and dark affair are the very well cast Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, playing a couple of criminal inn-keepers, and looking like they've been dragged directly off the set of a not-yet-complete Tim Burton picture.

Anne Hathaway plays the disgraced Fantine, and she delivers from her first frame to her last, proving that she is certainly much more than just the pretty face.  When the character is at her lowest, with all hope snuffed out, she creates a new Somewhere Over The Rainbow with a barn-storming I Dreamed a Dream, a silver screen moment that is immediately classic, and which will be recalled for a long time to come as the scene in which a new bar was set for this classic song.  I very much doubt anybody will come close to affecting me with this number the way Hathaway does here; it is genuinely impossible to overstate just how powerful she is, as she hits nearly every negative emotional beat, clearly meaning every single word and tearing your heart out.  The trailer used a brief moment of her performance, but if that is all you have seen, you are not prepared, trust me.
Eddie Redmayne gives a surprisingly good turn as Marius, but it is his solo that renders us almost inconsolable.  Much like Hathaway, he throws himself into the performances with such an unexpected ferocity, you cannot fight its power.  These moments are ones in which maintaining a stiff upper lip becomes impossible, and if the lights were turned up, you would see everyone is in the same boat - falling apart becomes an utterly shameless act.  It is in these moments, also, that we forgive the odd wobbly note elsewhere, as we witness the benefit of actors being able to fully perform, rather than simply lip-synch a perfectly recorded track.  With the cast able to act their way through a scene, creating character and behaving in each moment as though they were delivering spoken dialogue, we experience the full force of the performance, warts and all.  The freedom to improvise with the live piano in their earpieces means the delivery is not always as precise as we might expect, but the payoff is the passion of it all; in this way it a bit like good jazz!

Intrinsic to the film because of the story is a sense of what I call "bittiness", one set of characters or set piece leaping to the next set of characters or set piece, which does jar at times, especially in the second half.  Why Inspector Javert is quite so intent on finding the "dangerous man" Valjean, as to search for years, is something never really understood, and it makes for a frustrating sort of convenience that they are continually running into each other for the sake of driving the story forward.  It will take some a little while to settle into the groove and feel of the film; something about everyone singing everything is a tad alienating, but we do reach a point where it settles in nicely.  This said, a few scenes never get around feeling a bit awkward in their staging, which was an unfortunate, but only occasional issue for me.  I must also admit that, where most of the music and songs are powerful, dramatic, raucous, exciting, and in one case even amusing, I could not help but notice some moments that don't work as well, with at least one song that really, for me, couldn't be over soon enough.  I do, of course, understand this may be a case of taste.

The thing about this movie is, even at its weakest moments, there is an overarching feeling that everyone loves what they are there for, and that they are giving heart and soul to make it as staggering as they can; they intend to make you experience something worth every penny paid for admission.  The more full-on, risky and daring it is, the more we can't help but think, "Like it or not, this is what cinema is all about!"  In spite of the individual issues we may pick out, this behemoth production rocks you at a core level; it is rough around the edges, but it makes virtues of most of its flaws.  Technically not the five-star show people know, but its bravery, gusto, and full-on determination to stir your spirits wipe out the negatives and power it through as a film, nay an experience, I found myself enjoying as though it were a masterpiece.  Do not be surprised if some people cheer at the end, or you find yourself, at the final ensemble scene with goosebumps, wanting to start your own revolution. 


At cinemas now.

Catch it if you like: The King's Speech, or the prospect of a risky musical spectacle with balls!


Adam Green would go on to write and direct a film called Frozen, which I recommend, but before that he made this cult classic send up of the B-Movie horror.  Two guys find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere with a group of holiday makers, being hunted by a ghost of the disfigured character named Victor Crowley, who, stuck with the rage of the night he was burned to death, is out to kill everyone who crosses his path.  Hatchet tells of the group's gradual demise in typical slasher fashion.

Opening with a sequence starring the legend Robert Englund (Freddy), following it up with a credit sequence set to Marilyn Manson's This Is The New Shit, and featuring a cameo by the great Tony Todd (Candyman), it is quite clear what Green's intentions with the film are; this is low budget, ridiculous, well scripted nonsense, full to the brim with bad cliche, and it is one of the most fun splatter-fests I've seen for a while.  It is undeniably bad, but what elevates it is the sense that Green is so up on the genre, and so in love with the tropes, that he has set out to have some fun with it, hence the laugh out loud dialogue and the film's overload of self-aware irony.  Make no mistake, this is no Wes Craven, it is more Romero with a knowing twist of self-ridicule.  Granted, it does lose steam in its final third, but if you know what you're watching, and are not looking for something trying to be good, you could have a great time with this.  I know I did.


Catch it if you like:  The Cabin In The Woods, The Evil Dead, Scream, and B-movie schlock horror.


Very little to say about this film, not because it's not good, but because it defies that much of a review by its nature.  A troubled young boy clings tirelessly to the idea that he can be with his father and along the way discovers what real love and a parent should be.  Somehow it all revolves around his bike.  Typical of French cinema really, it is not without its charm and it whizzes by nicely.  Cecile De France, who some may know as the central character in the flawed but fascinating Switchblade Romance, gives a typically fine performance as a woman who takes on responsibility for the boy Cyril, inexplicable as it may be, and Thomas Doret is very good as the titular kid himself.  I cannot say I did not enjoy it, but there is a sense that there was little concern for fleshing that much out at the writing stage, and it never really resolves that.  The film also comes to a swift close which, whilst not a bad place for the story to find its end, does leave it feeling somehow unfinished.  All-in-all a humble and charming slice of French drama, but nothing to write home about.



Lena Dunham is a writer with a future; writing, directing and starring in a film is a trick only occasionally pulled off well by the big boys not preceded by their ego, but watching Tiny Furniture, you are aware she has some chops.  A quick look at her IMDB page confirms the suspicion that she has had, and continues to gain, experience in many artistic fields, from the writing to editing to acting and now, directing.  Here she plays Aura, a college graduate who returns to live with her mother and sister while she works out what to do with herself.  This entails meeting a minor internet star and letting him stay at their home while her family are away, becoming a day hostess for a restaurant that never seems to have any custom, and unwittingly burning every bridge that could be important to her.

An off-beat drama featuring her very own mother and sister, pretty much playing themselves, it turns out, this feels like a Woody Allen piece.  If this is evidence to go by, Dunham has some way to go before she makes a truly compelling film, however, given its shoestring budget and low-key nature, it is not without some charm and good ideas.  It is also no doubt quite reflective of her own family, her mother actually having an artistic career not unlike the one presented in the film which, given some of the scenes in the film, make me wonder just how biographical the whole thing is.  Some of the drama works, some of the humour works, and the final scene is a thoughtful footnote.  Tiny Furniture, as the title suggests, is about small things, which turn out to be quite big things.  Not wholly successful, but worth a look.

2.5 / 5

Catch it if you like: Ghost World and the like.

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