Cinema Movie Review: Les Miserables (2012)

Russell_Crowe_Costume_Javert_Les_Miserables_Set_1332785871‘Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved?’

And so, I can now die a happy man – not only was Skyfall (2012) released last year and is clearly the best Bond ever, 2013 has begun with the big-screen musical adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Cameron Mackintosh‘s amazing, world-beating show Les Miserables, with The King’s Speech (2010) director Tom Hooper at the helm. And…

…I have a confession to make, first up, and that is that I simply adore musicals. I have been made aware that there is apparently a Venn diagram that exists, which, taking some of my other tastes into consideration, such as horror films and fiction, would place me in the sociopath category, and I am not gay, but I cannot help it – musicals (a little like Woody Allen) divide the world squarely into them that do and them that don’t, and I am on the side of the angels. Watch it.

Anyway, it was at a cinema in London, while I was back in Blighty on business and decided I needed a night off, that I caught up with the film I have perhaps been awaiting with even more breathless anticipation than I was for Bond – you see, since around 1995, I have been a massive fan of the show, which is a peerless adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic, and have seen it on stage (London, Edinburgh, Sheffield and elsewhere) 25 (count ’em) times. It was actually the video of the special tenth anniversary of Les Miserables (it opened in 1985 to much critical carping, but what the hell did those critics know?) featuring the ‘dream cast’ (Colm Wilkinson, Michael Ball, Philip Quast et al) that first drew me to Les Mis, before I went to see it for the first time on stage in Bristol, 1996.

Enough of my history, let’s talk about Valjean (Hugh Jackman). In 1815, convict number 24601 Jean-Valjean is released on parole by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean was originally sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s starving child but, because of his repeated escape attempts, his sentence was increased to 19 years. Forced to carry a yellow ticket of leave, which casts him as a marked man who is thus unable to find work, he is nevertheless offered food and shelter by the saintly Bishop of Digne, but he steals his silver during the night. He is caught by the authorities, but the Bishop confirms Valjean’s story that the silver was given as a gift (‘You forgot I gave these also, would you leave the best behind?’), which ensures Valjean’s release. Horrified by what he has been reduced to, and awe-struck by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and vows to begin an honest life under a new identity. Javert swears he will bring the escaped convict to justice.

Of course, there is so much more to the story than the above, and Valjean’s road to redemption is long, tortuous and ever-winding. For those unfortunate souls out there who have not seen the stage show (around 80 million people worldwide have), now you have absolutely no excuse to miss out on an experience of a lifetime – when I heard that Hooper had decided not to post-synchronize the recorded vocals to lip movements, I was very much afraid that a total hash would be made of the job, as occured with Peter Bogdanovich’s disastrous musical At Long Last Love (1975), which also did not use post-synchronization.

I need not have worried – the beautifully powerful, haunting lyrics translate marvellously to the screen, sung direct to camera as they are, and the approach gives the film as a whole the immediacy and excitement of watching the show live. Very little more to be said, really, except that if Anne Hathaway does not get the 2013 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the tragic Fantine, whose child Cosette Valjean vows he will raise as a father, there is absolutely no justice. Forget ‘SuBo’ – I Dreamed A Dream, as sung by Hathaway, is the best version of the song that I have ever heard. Alright then, one more prediction to finish – I believe that Hooper’s incredible Les Miserables (2012) will be the first musical to lift the Best Picture gong since Chicago (2002). Definitely worth a flutter, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on seeing this, I implore you.

157 mins.

10 Best Music Documentaries

The music’s all that matters

In association with MokumGroupie.com, Picturenose’s Colin presents his take on the finest films on music to grace the silver screen.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Ry Cooder, who has played just about everything with just about everyone goes back to the roots of music for this wonderful outing to Cuba, where he showcases the talents of a bunch of hitherto unknown, ageing jazz musicians – many of whom are now household names. At least, they are in my household. Bulging with infectious Latin rhythms and some interesting insights into pre-Castro Cuban culture – and almost impossible to think it was made 12 years ago. Click here.

Anvil (2008)
Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses appears early in the movie, telling us that Anvil were in the same league as Metallica and Anthrax – Canadian power-metal gods. While this may have been true, the two mainstays of the band, Robb and Lips, have to resort to menial jobs to keep the tattered dream of rock and roll alive. Their final push for world stardom comes from an eastern European woman one of the band met online, who informs them she has organized a big European tour. Disastrous, funny, touching and surprising, you’ll end up loving the guys, if not their music. All the more funny because it’s true. Click here.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Without a doubt, the best ‘rockumentary’ never made. If you have ever been in any kind of band for more than ten minutes, a lot of the gags may be painfully familiar to you. In fact, it’s probably easier to watch if you haven’t. A wonderful spoof about an ageing rock band attempting a US comeback tour, made difficult by the fact that they all appear to be terminally narcissistic or just plain stupid. A true cult classic and one that contains some of the most quotable lines in contemporary cinema. Many rock stars are unhappy with this, as many of them think it’s based on them. Which may or may not be true. It’s a pity I only had ten slots to fill, because this film goes to 11. Click here.

The Last Waltz (1978)
Put simply, if you ain’t seen The Last Waltz, you probably don’t know your rock from your roll. Having been on the road and in the studio since 1960 – and quite a few of those years backing Bob Dylan – The Band put on a final show on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. You’re doing something right if the biggest names of the day turn out to help you say goodbye. There’s Clapton, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Dylan, Van Morrison and a list of others longer than a Leonard Cohen song. It was the first gig shot in 35mm film, and who better to direct the action than Martin Scorsese? The interviews are all very well but the passion for the music pervades and drives the film at a heady pace. Click here.

The Kids are Alright (1979)
Although they seem resigned to be recognized for their contribution to the theme songs for CSI: Wherever, The Who remain a class act, and one that defies imitation. Roger Daltrey, before he was considering acting or a career farming fish, was the frontman of this seminal English band. The Kids are Alright is actually a bit messy in its execution, which is fitting because The Who were indeed a bit messy in their approach to music. They existed as individuals, only becoming The Who we know and love on stage. The movie mostly captures this, jerking violently between timelines and situation but leaving us with one of the best rock docs ever made. Anything featuring Keith Moon’s swansong(s), Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again can’t be all that bad. Includes footage of Pete Townshend busting up guitars, naturally. Click here.

Notes from a Jazz Survivor (1982)
Art Pepper is the eponymous survivor. Jazz musicians are often held up as those who suffer for their art but very few suffer both for it and because of it. A member of the elite West Coast Jazz set in California, alongside such luminaries as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Shorty Rogers, Pepper sadly became embroiled in the drug culture surrounding him and his art. He talks frankly in this all-too-short documentary about the years of addiction, prison and failed marriages that became the backdrop for his sax-playing career. Interestingly, the film hardly ever touches on his life before or during prison, only on his time thereafter. It all sounds a bit dreary but he is upbeat and philosophical and the film is often surprisingly comical – and boy, can he play. Click here.

Elvis (1979)
I guess many of us would associate the partnership of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell with such enjoyable sci-fi nonsense as Escape from New York (1981) the Big Trouble in Little China (1986) romp or, of course, The Thing (1982). What would probably not spring to mind is their collaboration on Elvis (1979). This biopic was put on ice for many years after its 1979 release following a music-rights dispute. A shame because looking at Russell’s performance under the careful hand of the craftsman Carpenter, you’ll need to go and rinse your contact lenses to be sure it’s not the real Elvis Aaron Presley before your eyes. No, really – it’s just that good. Helpfully edited from three hours down to two for those with ADD, it’s only been available since last year. Click here.

Stop Making Sense (1984)
Shot over three nights by Jonathan Demme (of Silence of the Lambs (1991) fame), this documents dates on a tour undertaken by Talking Heads to promote their Speaking in Tongues album. The only thing remarkable about the film as a whole is its stark minimalism. The sets are non-existent and the colours bland. The show opens with David Byrne walking on stage, placing a cassette deck (remember those?) on the floor and pressing the button. The ticking of the beat box introduces Psycho Killer and the show – literally – builds from there, with new band members and equipment appearing all the time. Highlights are the big suit (it’s really big) and Byrne’s mad gyrations during Once in a Lifetime, like some kind of acid-head priest. Some call it pretentious and dated but hey, it’s a better show than many that seem to try too hard. Click here.

Walk the Line (2005)
Say what you like about the ‘method’ school of acting but there’s a lot to be said for studying your character so deeply that when you get in front of the cameras, you are him. Joaquin Phoenix did exactly this in his role as Johnny Cash in this biopic of the singer’s trials, tribulations and subsequent status as legend. The sheer effort put in by Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as his wife June Carter shines through not only in their uncanny portrayals of the people themselves but in their imitation of the stars’ voices. Near-flawless performances left lifelong Cash fans speechless and introduced a new generation to Cash’s catalogue of love, God and murder. Highly recommended for fans and JC virgins alike. Click here.

Shine (1996)
Before Geoffrey Rush reached the pinnacle of his career as Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean (yep, that was sarcasm), he played concert pianist David Helfgott in this quirky and controversial study of the performer’s formative years. Despite the inaccuracies that are claimed to exist by Helfgott’s sister, and the fact that the film suggests his schizoaffective disorder was caused due to attempting to master Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (which seems highly suspect), it remains something of a gem. All biographical pictures (and some books) embellish facts to push their point and Shine is no exception. Rush is brilliant and the film is great if you enjoy laughing and crying at the same time. Sad, funny and utterly watchable. Click here.

Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007)

Lou Reed's Berlin (2007)The right notes

The year 1973, when Lou Reed was at the peak of his popularity, if not yet his powers, saw the artist release Berlin, an ambitious album chronicling a couple’s drug and violence-spattered descent.

A critical and commercial disaster at the time, the album subsequently gained cult status over the years, eventually coming into the remit of director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat (1996) and, more recently, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)) in 2006, who filmed the concert (and just the concert) over five different evenings in St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York, for posterity.

And it’s only the concert itself that will be preserved because, unusually, there are no accompanying interviews, either with star or director, just an introductory post-titles on-screen explanation about the Berlin story.

But even Reed non-devotees may well forgive Schnabel the approach, because the classic album’s dark ambience is wonderfully complemented by the abstract visuals of the director’s daughter Lola and Emmanuelle Seigner, while Schnabel’s unflinching, sure hand captures an extraordinary concert experience perfectly, with an enormous debt owed to lead camerman Ellen Kuras.

The audience is largely absent from view, which gives the experience a personal, intimate feel for the viewer, while the band, which includes original musicians such as lead guitarist Steve Hunter and young guest vocalist Anthony from Anthony and the Johnsons (check out his beautiful take on Candy Says, a perfect antithesis to Reed’s customary grating-gravel tones), are obviously having a whale of a time. As a special bonus, Reed also includes the Velvet Underground retread Sweet Jane and his later composition Rock Minuet.

Pure cinema it may not be, but it’s a cool gig.

85 mins.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Heaven on their minds…

It’s a stone-cold certainty that my Picturenose partner Colin will have a few words to say about this choice of film for a nostalgia trip – musicals are his cinematic bête noire and, as for religion, don’t even think about it.

You see Col, unlike me, is not a sucker for ‘let’s do the show right here’ 1970s shtick but there is in fact a great deal more to Norman Jewison/Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice’s iconoclastic, deliberately anachronistic take on the greatest story ever told.

And, let’s face it, the death of Jesus Christ and the events that led up to it is a yarn for all times, regardless of whether you believe the man was mere flesh and blood or much more.

I’m assuming you know the story. What is perhaps most interesting, from a narrative sense, about the film and the show that preceded it, is the perspective from which we see the events of the final few weeks in Christ’s life – namely, Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson).

While gifted, high-pitched singer Ted Neeley as Christ works very well in the film’s more emotional numbers (such as Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say) and Hosanna), the story’s driving urgency comes almost completely from Anderson’s spitting rage and frustration which, perhaps ahead of any other interpretation of Our Lord’s betrayer, allows an insight into the desperate motivations of a man at the end of his tether, with genuine sympathy the inevitable, human reaction. A startling turn.

Of course, cynics will grumble that this interpretation, much like the original show, is locked in the 1970s, and may it rest in peace there. Pooh-pooh to them – details are still sketchy, but it’s looking like a 2010 remake is on the cards, and hooray say I because, sorry, I love both the show and film.

Jewison was an interesting (and, it must be said, unexpected) choice of director – while very much the man of the moment when the film was made (in the few years prior, he had made Fiddler on the Roof (1971), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965)), but his style was not considered at the time suitable by many critics. Never mind that – with only a few lapses into inappropriate slapstick (which were in the original show anyway, to be fair, such as the jaunty, irritating King Herod’s Song), Jewison, helped by Melvyn Bragg’s nuanced screenplay additions, brings all the key characters to life.

Barry Dennen is another standout as Pontius Pilate, while Bob Bingham brings a rough, merciless masculinity to his portrayal of Caiaphas. In addition, the director’s insertion of lumbering tanks and jet planes (you’ll know ’em when you see ’em), which would have seemed clumsily obvious in lesser hands, here contribute enormously to the film’s symbolic magic. And, for my own part, I still find Neeley’s death of Christ among the most moving ever committed to film.

There’s not really much more to say, is there? I think you’ll know by now whether or not you’re going to like it but I recommend watching Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say) on YouTube to find out what the buzz is…

Happy Easter.

108 mins.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma Mia! (2008)Super duper!

Sometimes, it’s important to pay tribute to those people who really matter, particularly during the season of goodwill. It is of course for this very reason that I hereby dedicate this review to Picturenose’s other half, my very good friend Colin, and not at all because I also know that this film, by Phyllida Lloyd, perhaps ahead of all others, will be the cynosure of what our Col despises when it comes to movies. Namely (as you may already have heard) it’s based on ABBA’s songs, and it’s a musical. In addition, the fact that we’re even breathing the words Mamma Mia! will doubtless mean that Picturenose’s hits will go up to around 100 million billion overnight. Heh, heh, heh…

Normally, of course, this website would never stoop to review something so terminally low-brow and crowd-pleasing as a good-time musical based on some of the catchiest songs ever written but, as it’s me in the driving seat for this one, whaddya say? Let’s boogie!

You want a plot synopsis? Really? Whatever – Amanda Seyfried is the unfeasibly cute Sophie Sheridan, who has, poor thing, spent her entire life ‘trapped’ on perhaps the most beautiful Greek island in existence with her mum, hotel-owner Donna (Meryl Streep), plus ocassional visits from her ma’s pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski).

But, on the eve of her wedding to love-of-life Sky (Dominic Cooper), Sophie realises that something’s missing from her blissful existence, because she doesn’t know who her dad is, and thus has no one to give her away. However, expect much comic high-jinx when she decides, crazy cat that she is, to invite the three men whom she has narrowed down, via her mum’s purloined yesteryear diary, as being her only possible progenitors. And these would be Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), Harry Bright (Colin Firth) and Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård), none of whom know, yet, why they have been invited back into the orbit of their former lover, nor who has actually invited them. Time to face the music…

Look, I’m sorry, but I am a hopeless, helpless fan of a good musical. And I am not gay, OK? Give me My Fair Lady (1964) at Christmas, and I am a happy man. Les Miserables (which is actually an opera) anytime, and I’m in heaven. So, after my old dad had nagged incessantly for me to see it, I finally bought him Catherine Johnson’s film-converted mega-smash, and watched it with him.

Surprise, surprise, I loved it. ABBA-originators Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, as executive producers, have obviously taken matters of style, mood and music completely in hand and, although the contrived nature of the set-up and picture-perfect lifestyle depicted might grate at first, just wait until the gals (and guys) start singing.

Meryl Streep is amazing – this is possibly the first time that’s she’s actually laughed (as well as sung) in a film. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and is the warm, sweet, sticky centre of a confection that could only be actively disliked by those with hearts of stone. And Colin.

And, for the chaps, much has been made of Pierce Brosnan’s alleged inability to hold a note. Unfair, say I – it’s nice to know what actually happens to James Bonds when they retire and, in all fairness, he sings a lot better than I do.

It’s only a quick post, full of cheap gags, but do yourself a favour and see this. In time, everybody else will. Over to you, Col… 🙂

108 mins.

Sweeney Todd (2007)

Sweeney Todd (2007)Johnny be bad…

Mr Depp seems singularly incapable of picking a bad role – after his triumphant conclusion to the Pirates of The Caribbean trilogy, At World’s End (2007), he reunited with Tim Burton for the first time since Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (2005) to make Sweeney Todd (2007). Burton’s output, on the other hand, had been somewhat underwhelming just previous to this – although Charlie… wasn’t half bad, it was preceded by the disappointing Corpse Bride (2005), Big Fish (2003) and Planet of the Apes (2001).

Fear not – this is Burton at his blackly humorous best, an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler Broadway smash musical. In the dark heart of Victorian England, Benjamin Barker (Depp) lives a simple, happy life as a barber with his wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and their baby daughter Johanna, before the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) has Barker deported to Australia on a trumped-up charge, rapes Lucy, then takes the older daughter (Jayne Wisener) as his ward.

Barker returns years later as none other than Sweeney Todd, moves above the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who has hidden his razors under a floorboard. He’s profoundly happy to have them back – bloody happy, you might say…

This is a beautifully crafted, ink-black and brooding adaptation – musicals are not to everyone’s taste (such as my Picturenose partner’s, for example, but what would he know?) but the poignancy, power, and creativity of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics have been done real justice by Burton’s decision to allow his actors/singers to be naturalistic, recognizable human beings. The on-stage melodrama is toned down to offer a quiet, chilling and at times very moving account of Todd’s despair, brilliantly wrought by Depp, with Helen Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett providing a conniving counterpart that’s also touched with melancholy.

Burton also manages to provide full Grand Guignol (only hinted at in the stage version), with the juxtaposition between naturalistic singing and acting only enhancing the effect of Todd’s revenge – blood has rarely gushed so beautifully.

116 mins.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Songs in the darkness

Here’s a simple question for you – did anyone not cry at this film, which won the European Film Awards Best Film prize in 2000 (as well as the trifling matters of the Palme D’Or and Best Actress at Cannes)? Lars von Trier, together with a performance from Björk that simply defines pathos, takes us into the heart of emotion and reworks the concept of the musical, to boot.

The plot has the simplicity of a fable – Selma Jezkova (Björk) is a Czech immigrant who lives in rural America with her young son Samuel (Vincent Paterson), eking out a bare existence as a factory worker in the 1960s, desperately trying to save enough money to allow her son to have an operation that will save his eyesight, as he has the same genetic, degenerative condition as Selma, whose sight has all but gone.

A lover of musicals – ‘In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens’ – Selma lives largely in her own mind, finding music in the mundanity of everyday life. And it is this device that is Von Trier’s stroke of genius – the fantastical, ‘let’s do the show right here’ nature of the classic musical is thus avoided, because all the song and dance numbers are taking place only in Selma’s inner world.

Catherine Deneuve provides stellar support as Selma’s true friend Kathy, who wants only to protect her gentle, ragamuffin-like innocence from the harsh realities of life, while David Morse, too, is excellent as the caring, compassionate but desperate neighbour whose dishonesty brings tragedy.

Musicals always divide audiences – some people simply cannot stand them, while for others, they are joyous examples of cinematic creativity. There are lessons to be learned in Dancer in the Dark for both sides of the argument – this is nothing less than a towering achievement.

Even more than that, it could be said that this is the film to convince Colin that the musical can be a worthwhile art form…but let’s not get too carried away, eh? 🙂

140 mins.