REVIEW: Les Misérables

19 12 2012

Les Miserables“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent,” wrote Victor Hugo in his novel “Les Misérables.”  Though his work has found expression in a number of different mediums since its publication in 1862, none has captured the public’s imagination quite like Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical.  It took the spirit of Hugo’s classic novel and put it on stage to powerful effect with an operatic score and poetic lyrics.

The endearing place “Les Misérables” holds in contemporary musical theatre is due to the supremacy of the music, featuring showstopper after showstopper that tug on the heartstrings and open the floodgates of the tear ducts.  I’ll go ahead and declare my lack of objectivity since I was fortunate enough to be a member of a production of “Les Misérables” in high school.  Watching the show from the audience is an ethereal experience, but living with that show for several weeks and being a part of conveying that show’s magic to an audience made it a truly spiritual experience for me.

However, theater does have its limitations.  Using terminology from cinematic camera proxemics, the audience is locked in perpetual longshot, forced to view the action from a distance.  Though the immediacy of the performer is felt, we see only broad strokes of emotion.  So for “Les Misérables” on stage, the potency must come across through the notes of the music, putting the emphasis on execution of the orchestra and the voices of the performers.

Yet these complex and well-written roles are a goldmine for actors, offering them chances to explore rich internal worlds and manifest them through beautiful song.  On stage, we are overcome by spectacle and score, so much so that we can lose the depth of the characters that build the colossus that is Hugo’s novel.  If the stage actor chooses to build in nuances in facial and body movement into their performance, it would be mainly for them alone as most in the auditorium would only be able to discern larger, grander motions.

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REVIEW: The Dictator

24 06 2012

The first time Sacha Baron Cohen lost himself in a character for a full-length theatrical release was 2006’s “Borat,” and it hilariously exposed American xenophobia while also providing a rollickingly good comedy for those unwilling to see what the humor was meant to reveal.  He did it again in 2009 for “Brüno,” and its lack of success (and arguably humor) may have shown how much less ready America is to deal with pent-up homophobia.

Now Sacha Baron Cohen is at it again in “The Dictator,” this time not as a personality from his outrageously funny “Da Ali G Show” from HBO.  Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya, is every bit as politically incorrect and outlandish as his previous three (if not more so).  He makes jokes about 9/11 and being friends with Osama bin Laden, executes just about anyone who disagrees with him, sleeps with actress/underground escort Megan Fox, and asks his pregnant wife (Anna Faris) if she will be having “a boy or an abortion.”  Yeah, he went there.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few jokes that Cohen can squeeze out of his boundary-pushing routine.  “The Dictator” has plenty of brilliant comedic moments, although the ones that succeed seem only giggle-worthy and the ones that fail appear to have been ripped straight from the Adam Sandler playbook.  However, the laugh gap isn’t the movie’s biggest problem.

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REVIEW: Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

23 06 2012

I had just finished sixth grade when the first “Madagascar” film came out, and I must say, I enjoyed it probably as much as the six-year-olds in the theater.  Then I was in tenth grade when “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” hit theaters, and I disdained it like a ten-year-old who thinks he’s too cool for school and animated kids entertainment.  Now, I’m heading into my sophomore year of college while “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” is taking over screens in three dimensions.  Regardless of your age watching this movie, if you can just accept the inherent childishness of the series, you can enjoy it.

DreamWorks Animation found a way to reclaim what they do best (and thus separates them from their main competitor, Pixar): providing a family movie experience that creates a bottom line of ridiculous, zany antics for the kids while also littering the film with very sophisticated wordplay and adult humor that flies right over the little ones’ heads.  Pixar tries to level the playing field and get child, parent, and grandparent to view the movie from the same viewpoint; that’s what makes “Up” one of my all-time favorites.

But only DreamWorks provides maturely humorous animation that you can watch the tykes around, and it’s pretty ingenious how they can create two totally different intellectual experiences.  I know you probably don’t expect to hear intellectual tossed around in many reviews of the “Madagascar” series, but it’s a smart way to make money and maybe turn that ticket stub into a DVD purchase.

If you can’t handle Chris Rock’s ludicrous “Circus Afro” song or any of the New York Zoo crew’s antics, then maybe your appetite for humor will be met by their numerous pot shots at Europeans.  Kids aren’t going to get all the jokes about European labor laws and culture, but if you’ve tuned into CNN in the past year, you might get a kick out of it.  (Seeing this just two days after coming back from Europe sure made me chuckle – these movies may ask you to suspend reality, but they sure nailed Europe.)  I’m not saying that any sort of comedic brilliance exists in the DNA of “Madagascar 3;” however, I will say I think you’ll be hard-pressed to sit through the movie without having a few good laughs.  B /





Oscars 2011: Monday Morning Wrap-Up

27 02 2012

In case you didn’t get enough of me talking about the Oscars yesterday – I mean, I only live-blogged for 10 hours – here’s a bit of a debriefing which can benefit from hindsight and the absence of heat of the moment blogging.

NPR‘s Linda Holmes called the show a “regrouping;” EW called it “comfort food;” I called it “a VERY good night.”  If I had to sum it up in a word, it would be nice.  It was very nice to have Billy Crystal back after a very strange couple of years experimenting with Oscar hosts, both good (Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Hugh Jackman), bad (Jon Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Anne Hathaway), and ugly (James Franco, Chris Rock).  It was old-fashioned, just like most of the winners … but if something isn’t broken, why try to fix it?  Here was his hysterical song-a-logue opener, per usual.

Maybe the show was just fun for me because the red carpet was SO dull.  The only two women who were worth a desktop background were Rooney Mara and Jessica Chastain.  Bravo, hope to see you all soon.

I mean, THIS was the highlight of the red carpet!  Bizarre, bizarre…

As everyone knew, this was their movie:

And for all those who think “The Artist” will be a head-scratcher of a winner, at least it’s not forgettable and disposable like “The King’s Speech.”  Curious future Academy-minded ponderers will just have to look beyond the title cards and at the context of its win.  The collective psyche of Hollywood should be pretty apparent.

As for the acting winners, no one can really complain.  Jean Dujardin was charming as can be, and a new generation got to see the greatest actress of our time take the Oscar stage to claim a prize she deserves.  Octavia Spencer got all choked up, and it was beautiful.  Christopher Plummer was dashing as ever, and it was very cool to see the oldest actor to ever win an Oscar deliver quite the speech.  In my opinion, they got Supporting exactly as they should – and then just fell to the allure of a living legend and a Frenchman doing his best matinee idol.  Nothing wrong with that.

I always take solace in knowing that many of the greatest movies ever were not Academy darlings.  You can break down many films into “their” movies and “our” movies, and here are some of the greats from 2011 that now belong to us, the fans.  They get “The Artist;” we get “Shame.”

Overall, as I more or less close the book on 2011, the Oscars were able to brighten a pretty dull year.  They found some great work and rewarded it.  While it might not have been my favorite, “The Artist” is a joyous and buoyant movie that reminds us of the artistry and emotion that brings us to the theater and to watching the Oscars every year.

(And in case any of you were wondering, here was my best of 2011 as of last night.  There are still a few movies from last year I didn’t see that could make a few slots move.)





REVIEW: Hugo

10 01 2012

It’s slightly disingenuous to make a film all about the magic of the movies and then have little to offer itself in the way of enchantment, but that’s what Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is – take it or leave it.  His ode to the pioneering days of cinema, when trailblazers like the Lumière Brothers began making movies and Georges Méliès invented special effects, is definitely heartfelt and powerful enough to awaken plenty of latent nostalgia.  However, his movie serves as a better tribute to their genius than it does as an equally majestic film deserving to stand alongside them in the annals of history.

What I left the theater being nostalgic for was “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York.”  While I certainly admire Scorsese for taking on a radically different project, and good for Paramount to give him $150 million to realize this passion of his, I missed the bullet-riddled, F-bomb filled director that I’ve come to love.  It’s a very finely crafted movie, clearly the work of an expert like Scorsese.  All of the below-the-line elements are as good as ever with his usual suspects – editor Thelma Schoonmaker, costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Dante Ferretti, and cinematographer Robert Richardson – returning to whisk us away to a train station in 1930s Paris with astounding precision.

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REVIEW: Bruno

7 08 2009

This review is incomplete because I missed the last 20 minutes of “Bruno,” but from the hour that I did see, I got the gist of it. Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest raunchy romp takes everything that made “Borat” work and throws it out the window. He replaces it with graphic male nudity and over-the-top and exaggerated homosexual sex scenes that made the bulk of the audience cringe in my theater. The movie has some funny moments, but they are incredibly brief and don’t make up for the other disturbing content that fills the bulk of the movie. “Bruno” makes “Borat” look like a Disney cartoon, offending people of virtually any sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or social group.

Cohen’s character, Bruno, is a flamboyantly homosexual fashion reporter who comes to America after being disgraced in his home country of Austria. Once there, his glitzy nature collides with the harsh homophobic climate in some parts of the United States. He starts out in Los Angeles where he tries to get his own fashion show on television. This ultimately flops, but it leads him to try to discover what really makes a celebrity. The quest is where the movie is at its funniest, as Bruno tries to get involved in social concerns like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even talking to an actual terrorist group leader. The best moment comes when he talks to two young, air-headed starlets about the most trendy issues and organizations. But its second half deals exclusively with tackling the subject of homosexuality, and here it takes a turn for the worst. I think had the filmmakers not bungled the handling of the very sensitive subject, it would have been bearable even for someone like me who is not easily offended. However, it is just awkward and unsettling, and when the projector died in my theater with 20 minutes left, very few people were willing to see it out the very graphic end.

As I am writing this review, the movie has flopped at the box office and received dismal reception from fans. I think the main reason for this is that Americans are much more willing to laugh at their xenophobia like they did in “Borat” than they are at their homophobia. I admire Cohen for having the guts to make movies like “Bruno” that attempt to throw all of our fears out of the closet and poke fun at them, but this attempt falls flat on its face. If after reading this, you are still compelled to see “Bruno,” my advice would be to wait until it comes out on DVD, rent it on iTunes, go take your computer and sit alone in the closet and watch it alone to avoid the awkwardness of watching it with anyone with whom you want to have a normal relationship. For the best experience with the character, take a look at his in-character talk show appearances this summer, or watch the much funnier “Da Ali G Show” where you will see a much less vulgar Bruno. C- / 1halfstars