2012 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

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Well, folks…this has been an interesting year for movies.  It’s hard to believe I started this blog a year ago tomorrow…time sure does fly.  I’ve learned a lot in this past year and can see how my review style has evolved over the past twelve months.  I’ve appreciated your feedback, your company, and just your presence in my blog because I’ve used it all to help it get better.  Even if you read this everyday but never commented…I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  My readership has increased every month and it’s thanks to your word of mouth that has helped me get this blog up and running.  Some interesting developments are on the horizon that should make 2013 even more fun for you and me – thank you again for your patronage and keep spreading the news about The MN Movie Man. 

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

And now…the Best/Worst/Special Mentions of 2012.  Keep reading all the way to the bottom for a grand total that made me equal parts embarassed and proud.

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5. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson has been hit or miss for me for his entire career.  For each film I’ve liked there have been two that followed I could barely sit through.  Thankfully, Moonrise Kingdom is one of his best – a richly rewarding work that was as colorfully offbeat as you can be without making a Pee-Wee Herman movie.  Anderson gathered his usual troupe of players, many of whom play against type to wonderful results.  It’s not for everyone but those that like this kind of storytelling will be quite entertained.

4. Silver Linings Playbook – A most unexpected delight from director David O. Russell and an impressive line-up of actors, Silver Linings Playbook was not only one of the best films of the year but also one of the more unpredictable.  It kept changing its course ever so slightly so that you were never quite sure where you were headed.  In a year filled with great performances, the work of Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper should be dully recognized at Oscar time.

3. End of Watch – You missed this in theaters, didn’t you?  Shame on you!  Though well reviewed, End of Watch has come and gone into your local movie theaters TWICE since it was released in September.  The second release was aimed to give some extra oomph for Oscar voters but it may be all for naught as other higher-profile films drew the audiences that should have made this a priority.  Jake Gyllenhaal gives what may be his best performance along with underrated character actor Michael Pena as they play cops in Los Angeles that get on the very wrong side of a vicious drug ring.  The camera work and direction were excellent but it’s Gyllenhaal and Pena who make the dark drama fire on all cylinders.

2. Skyfall – Sorry Sean Connery but the mantle of “Best James Bond” has officially been passed to Daniel Craig.  The long-awaited return to the screen of 007 was an absolute winner from start to finish.  With a new director on board who was willing to push everyone involved to give their best, most timely work – a different kind of spy adventure emerged.  Add top shelf performances from Craig, Judi Dench, and SAG Award nominee Javier Bardem along with Adele’s (hopefully Oscar nominated) classy/classic theme song and you have all the makings for a film that set the Bond bar quite high.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild – Though I saw this in mid-July, I’ve been unable to shake some of the passages and performances in Benh Zeitlin’s unique film.  Following a father and daughter in a bayou community as they live with the aftermath of Hurricaine Katrina, the film is pure magic thanks to Zeitlin’s creative script and the one-two punch of actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry.  If there is any justice, Wallis will become the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee in history for her absolutely unforgettable performance.  You may have missed this one in the theaters, but it is available now for home viewing through the usual channels.

Honorable Mentions: The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, Les Misérables, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Looper, Django Unchained

Worst

5. One for the Money – Katherine Heigl blew her chances at a franchise with the total disaster that was One for the Money.  The first of the Stephanie Plum mysteries, this could have been a real game changer for her career but sadly Heigl is not a good enough actress to carry the film anywhere.  Though it may have worked better as a television series, there is still no good reason why Heigl was given the opportunity to bring Plum to life.  Heigl just isn’t a leading lady as her last five films have proven.  She needs to take a long, hard look at what type she is…I’d vote for the bitchy girlfriend supporting role.

4. Mirror Mirror – The first (and worst) of two disappointing Snow White films this year, Mirror Mirror earns its spot on the list by featuring some of the best looking sets/costumes paired with an absolutely abysmal plot and performances.  Though Julia Roberts may have relished playing someone wicked, she doesn’t have the follow through to make it work.  She looks like she’s having a great time…at our expense.  The truly awful one here is Lily Collins as Snow White, hampered by an unfortunate set of bushy eyebrows and a bad habit of letting her mouth hang open whenever she’s not speaking…she makes the fabled heroine seem like an absolute mouth breathing idiot.

3. Magic Mike – I know I’m in the minority on this, but I found Magic Mike to be a piece of crap.  Even with the pedigree of a good (but inconsistent) director and a buzz-worthy cast, the movie went nowhere slowly.  The most interesting thing about the film was in its origins as a loose adaptation of star Channing Tatum’s pre-Hollywood life as a stripper.  Filled with ugly cinematography, a terrible soundtrack of awful music, and more than a few head-scratching developments that didn’t jive, no amount of bared flesh could ultimately save this film from pole dancing onto my Worst of 2012 list.

2. This Is 40 – A late addition to this list but well deserving of the high placement, This Is 40 was the worst comedy I saw in 2012.  Most frustrating was that it featured two very likable stars in a film I described in my review as “a miserable cinematic mallet to the head.”  That the film could feature such funny people and be virtually laugh free is a gigantic achievement.  Director/writer Judd Apatow has once again forgotten that the first step in making an interesting film is to make it, well, interesting.  It’s a dull, sloppy, crude movie that’s 134 minutes of fights about the same thing and observations on married life/aging/raising kids that were funnier on episodes of Home Improvement.

1. The Apparition – Without question, The Apparition is the worst worst Worst of the Worst in 2012.  Seemingly edited by a rotating group of morons that never saw what the other was doing, the film makes no sense and has terrible acting on top of it all!  Twilight star Ashley Greene should be thankful she made some cash on that franchise because her movie career is over.  It’s a film that should never be heard from again…along with everyone that made it.

(Dis)Honorable Mentions: American Reunion, The Vow, The Raven, The Three Stooges, Won’t Back Down

Special

Most Misunderstood

John Carter – I still don’t  get why people attacked this film quite the way they did.  I found it to be an enjoyable sci-fi flick that blended some nice elements from adventure serials of the past.  With parts reminding me of the Indiana Jones films and nice performances from Taylor Kitsch (who struggled through Battleship but did good work in Savages in 2012) and Lynn Collins, the film was a critical and financial disaster.  I just don’t get why it was SO bad…I for sure saw worse big budgeted films this year.

Honorable Mention: Jack Reacher

Worth the Wait

Prometheus – A huge Alien fan, I had been looking forward to the semi-prequel Prometheus ever since it was announced nearly two years ago.  Though it left many with questions that didn’t get answered, I found Ridley Scott’s return to the genre he helped redefine (twice, once with Alien and again with Blade Runner) to be an entertaining ride.  Heck, I saw it three times in the theater and would have seen it again had I had the time.

Honorable Mention: The Bourne Legacy, The Dark Knight Rises

Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should:

Cracks

Julia’s Eyes (Los ojos de Julia)

Kill List

Paradise

Taking Chance

The Intouchables (potential Oscar bait!)

Wolfen

GrandClick HERE for a full listing of films

Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 138

Total Movies Seen at Home: 242

Grand Total for 2012 (not couting films seen multiple times): 370

Where I Saw the Most MoviesShowplace ICON (43 in 2012)

Movie Review ~ Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Put in charge of his young son, Ali leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Ali’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident.

Stars: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenarts, Bouli Lanners, Celine Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Armand Verdure

Director: Jacques Audiard

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When Marion Cotillard won her much deserved Best Actress Oscar in 2008 for La vie en rose, her main competition was Julie Christie in Away From Her.  Christie was the favorite to win going into the evening with Cotillard a mini-upset – this was fine with me as I had long felt that Christie was more of a supporting actress to her co-star Gordon Pinsent who was the real star of the show.  The same thing has happened with Rust and Bone.  All the love is going toward Cotillard without mentioning the other half of the equation — Matthias Schoenarts.

There’s no doubt that the work Cotillard does in Rust and Bone is praise-worthy.  As Stéphanie, a whale trainer at a Sea World-esque amusement park in France, she has to learn how to move on and cope when a horrific accident forever changes her life.  Cotillard lays herself bare literally and figuratively, getting to the troubled heart at the center of this woman.  She avoids the cinematic stumbling block of becoming bitter…but rather plays her as simply broken.

On the other side of the coin, Schoenarts has just as much of a challenge playing Ali, a man moving through life in any way that pleases him.  He steals, he takes his family for granted, and he doesn’t have much of a moral compass when it comes to ethics or relationships.  This is a man that makes choices that have serious consequences, no matter if the choice was accidental or on purpose.

Though it’s acted with a fierce passion, my main problem with the script was that it never seemed to justify why things were happening to these people they way they were.  Everything about the film seem contrived to move the characters to a pre-destined spot without any real motivation – so you’re left feeling as manipulated as the actors on screen.

For example, Stéphanie and Ali meet when he is a bouncer at a nightclub.  She is involved in a fight that leaves her bloodied so he drives her home…I guess his shift was over.  On the way back he insults her but she still lets him come up to meet her live in boyfriend in an awkwardly constructed scene.  Later, after Stéphanie has her accident, she calls Ali out of the blue to meet up.  Why after all this time would she call him to seek out his company?  I get that he maybe made enough of an impression on her to keep him fresh in her mind but it still was a transition that was more for the benefit of the story than the characters.

Director Audiard also contributed to the script that was adapted from two short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson and he has trouble juggling a lot of thin subplots that never feel fully resolved.  There are numerous characters and situations that are introduced only to be forgotten and never touched upon again.  Ali has a five year old son he was recently put in charge of but we don’t even hear why this happened.  For a while, it looks like the father-son plot might take center stage but it quickly veers into a plot about Ali’s involvement with illegal surveillance of employees at local businesses.  That is also jettisoned for Ali’s side job of brutal street fighting for cash that he lets Stéphanie come along and watch.

If you notice above, many of the plot strands involve Ali which is why I’m still amazed that Schoenarts isn’t mentioned as a worthy award nominee along with Cotillard.  Like Cotillard, Schoenarts leaves it all on the field for us without ever sacrificing the brute man that he clearly is.  Neither character is one that changes their tune without suffering for it…but Schoenarts seems to work his angle better.

All signs point to Cotillard receiving a Best Actress nomination for her performance and at the end of the day that is OK.  She’s had a solid year between this and The Dark Knight Rises (she filmed both films at the same time!) and she’s one of the most interesting actresses working today.  I hope we see more from Schoenarts as well because he’s the true north of the picture…unwavering and bold.

The Silver Bullet ~ Noobz

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Synopsis: Four friends embark on a journey to win the Gamecon Championship.

Release Date: January 25, 2013

Thoughts: I’m pretty sure I liked this movie better when it was called The Wizard.  That 1989 Fred Savage film followed the young star and his autistic brother as they traveled to California, ending up at a Nintendo gaming convention.  OK, maybe this isn’t exactly in the same vein but it sure reminded me of that.  Expect this one to show up at your local Redbox within weeks of its theatrical release.  With the star also being the writer/director this looks like a stale vanity project.

Movie Review ~ Promised Land

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A salesman for a natural gas company experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources

Stars: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The ads for Promised Land make it seem like it’s a cross between Erin Brockovich and Silkwood — while there is a definite David vs. Goliath element to the plot, it turns out that the film is less interested in the business side of things and more focused in the subtle exploration of what constitutes the “right thing to do”.   In the end, the film is perhaps too subtle for its own good and ends up barely making a blip on the radar despite even keeled direction and strong performances.

Damon and McDormand are representatives for a natural gas company that is looking to lease precious farm land from a community sitting on top of a 150 million dollar payload.  Instead of going in as smarmy salespeople, the two seek to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople so they can make their pitch with ease.  It’s a tricky balancing act to perform; we aren’t sure if they believe what they’re saying/selling so it’s hard to know what to discredit.

We’re shown early on that the team of Damon/McDormand are at the top of their field, so it’s no surprise that any sort of problem with this particular town takes a while to become evident.  It’s the combination of an informed retiree (Holbrook) and the appearance of an environmentalist with a personal story to tell (Krasinski) that throws two very big wrenches in what should have been an open and shut sales trip.

I appreciated that the film kept the big city business element out of the picture – there’s very little involvement from the billion dollar company that has sent Damon and McDormand out to close the deal. Instead, we watch as the two continue to meet with their target audience to not only sell them on their plans but stand up to the claims that their mining procedures would eventually turn the soil and water toxic.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay from a story by David Eggers and the piece is very timely.  As we continue to deplete our natural resources and fight for oil overseas, there is the thought that we need to look within our own soil for a way to fuel our country.  As farming begins to disappear across the US, the leasing of land to natural gas companies may be the only way for families and communities to survive.  To its credit, the movie does make good points on both sides but because it never really takes a solid stand either way there is a feeling of neutrality that may leave some unsatisfied.

Reteaming with his Good Will Hunting director Van Sant, Damon delivers a nicely nuanced performance — though I found it hard to believe that it’s this particular town that opens his eyes to problems within his company.  A shoehorned semi-romance with a teacher (DeWitt) doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of the movie and the implied competition with Krasinski for her hand feels a bit too pat.  Speaking of Krasinski, it’s clear that he’s got more in him than the character he’s played for nine seasons on television’s The Office but it’s strange that he’s written himself such a one dimensional role.  It also bugged me that his environmentalist character is very concerned about chemicals in the ground but could care less about scattering hundreds of pamphlets around town and Damon’s truck.

It’s really McDormand that quietly steals the show from her male counterparts.  Clearly realizing this is simply a job to support her family, she can be equal parts bulldog and supportive parental figure.  Her scenes with a local business owner (Welliver) have the kind of on the money feel that the film needed more of.  Wearing little make-up and dressed down, she looks the part and acts it wonderfully.

Swede cinematographer Linus Sandgren helps Van Sant’s even-keeled direction with a nice eye for small town life.  There are the requisite shots of American flags, county stores, and endless fields of harvest but it’s straightforward enough to not feel gimmicky.  Danny Elfman’s score is a far cry from the work he’s done for Tim Burton and it’s nice to hear something smooth and considerate from him.

Promised Land is a perfectly fine film with good people doing good work.  It’s going to fade from your memory quite fast and probably isn’t a movie you’ll revisit after it’s over.  Perhaps it’s too small of a film to really have an impact on the big screen – had it been made for television it might have worked out better.  That being said, it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of anyone involved or some of the stronger thematic material it covers.

Movie Review ~ This Is 40

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the lives of Pete and Debbie a few years after the events of Knocked Up.

Stars: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, John Lithgow, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Melissa McCarthy, Robert Smigel, Charlene Yi, Albert Brooks, Chris O’Dowd

Director: Judd Apatow

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: A miserable cinematic mallet to the head, This Is 40 is the latest film from director/writer Apatow and is being billed as a “sort-of sequel” to his 2007 blockbuster Knocked Up.  Instead of continuing on the story of the mismatched couple that found themselves pregnant, Apatow has crafted a very long follow-up that focuses on the characters from the “B” storyline from the first film.  In Knocked Up, married couple Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) were interesting variations on the best friend characters…people that had problems of their own that didn’t always come to the rescue like they would in most films.

In This Is 40, Debbie and Pete are both approaching the big 4-0 within days of each other (at least I think they are close together, the timeline for the film seemed to be rewritten every half hour) and…stop me if you’ve heard this before…the female is taking getting older worse than the male!!!  I know, right?  Unheard of!  That’s just one of the many clichéd situations, jokes, dialogue, etc. that This Is 40 employs in its epically long 2 ¼ hours.

It’s clear that Rudd (Wanderlust, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Mann (ParaNorman) have good chemistry and, like Knocked Up, I totally bought them as a married couple.  I’m just convinced that these particular characters didn’t need another whole film to themselves to complete their arc.  What’s more, this film is LONGER than Knocked Up and doesn’t have the strong supporting players that film did to keep things moving.  Instead, the movie is laboriously carried by Rudd, Mann, and the actresses playing their daughters.  Did I mention that Mann is married to Apatow and their real-life children play the offspring of Mann/Rudd (clearly standing in for Apatow) in the film?  Basically you are paying money to see the Apatow family home movies.

Like Apatow’s previous directorial efforts (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People) the movie is nearly 90 minutes too long.  There is so much extraneous material here that Apatow has seemed to jump the Director’s Cut gun and just given us his preferred cut of the film now instead of later.  What’s more, Universal Studios let him do it!  There are characters and scenes that could be wholly excised and not harm anything integral to the story yet there they are consistently ruining any sort of momentum the film gets going.  I’d go out on a limb and say that every scene went on at least a minute too long.

When you have to say that Megan Fox is the best of the supporting players, you know you may be in trouble.  The truth is, Fox is quite good as an employee at Mann’s barely mentioned California boutique and she saves whatever scenes she’s a part of…even though many of the jokes come at her expense.  Brooks and Lithgow play Rudd and Mann’s loser fathers – both actors could play these characters in their sleep…and it looks like they are asleep most of the time.  (Interesting to note that the credits list more make-up artists for Brooks than Mann…yet he still looks like a sand dune with eyes)  Yi and O’Dowd are awful in their roles…McCarthy starts off fairly well in her glorified cameo until she and Apatow take the comedy to an out-of-control hyper-vulgar state that lost my attention almost immediately.

Vulgarity is really the lifeblood of this film and Apatow may have thought he was being real witty letting his actors use all the swear words in the book and their derivatives but it only shows how average his writing style is by not finding a better voice to give to his actors.  I’m absolutely no prude when it comes to potty mouth-edness but the amount of expletives that come from every person in the film (even the children) is exhausting and undercut any point they are trying to make while using them.

Mann and Rudd spend 98% of the movie bickering and when they aren’t bickering they’re drunk, or high, or having sex, or laughing at their own jokes.  By the time Mann blows up at Rudd for the 900th time, the audience is numb to the conversation and we just await their eventual reconciliation.  Even if Apatow gets in a few on-the-nose observations about married life, they wind up being overshadowed by a general feeling of misery that is absolutely toxic.

So, in summary, here’s what I learned from seeing This Is 40: Marriage is hard, raising kids isn’t easy, parents are crazy, getting old sucks, and young people have different musical tastes than older people. Cutting edge material, Mr. Apatow….cutting edge.  It’s hard to believe that the same guy that gave us the excellent and witty television show Freaks and Geeks has sunk to this sub-par level.  It’s one of the least entertaining and least funny films released in 2012.

Movie Review ~ Hyde Park on Hudson

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of the love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley, centered around the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of the United Kingdom visited upstate New York

Stars: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams

Director: Roger Michell

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When I was young, I used to take weekend visits to my grandparents in Preston MN and more often than not we would take what is known as a Sunday Drive.  This involved piling into some big Cadillac/Oldsmobile and just heading off in any given direction to see where the roads would take us.  A pleasant and quiet time with conversations that were soft and familiar, it wouldn’t be out of the question if you nodded off a bit.  Just as often you would perk up if something of interest flew by, your curiosity piqued.  Though you always knew the destination would lead you back to where you started, you ended up not minding that you took the time for the trip.

Hyde Park on Hudson is like those Sunday Drives of my youth.  It’s one of the thinnest slice of life tales you’re likely to come by this year, harmless and almost gone from your memory by the time you’ve reached your car.  Charting an affair between FDR (Murray) and his cousin, Daisy (Linney) around the time that the King and Queen of England made their first visit to the US, the film mostly sticks to its pre-destined path and offers little variance from its formulaic (if realistic) set-up.

The light-hearted, breezy trailer for the film belies its true dramatic thrust and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy that the film wasn’t played all for laughs.  Though the adulterous doings of the President and a family member (however distant) may cause you to wince a bit, director Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) and screenwriter Richard Nelson wisely steer clear of making that the true focus of the film.

The movie is most interesting in showing the relationships between FDR and the women in his life – Daisy, his mother (Wilson), his wife (Williams), and secretary Missy (Marvel).   These scenes work so well because Murray shows a totally different side to his acting as FDR.  I’ve long found Murray to be an aloof grump, thanks in no part to roles that only reinforce that feeling (though he was excellent in Moonrise Kingdom).  His FDR is a real career highlight and had the acting field not been so strong this year, he could have found himself with an Oscar nomination for his work.

The casting of Linney was a bit problematic – mostly because we’ve seen her do this work before in better films.  I’ve grown to like Linney less and less as the years go by, a talent that was once razor sharp feels a bit dull now and her Daisy is perhaps a bit too naïve, too forgiving for the thick skinned Linney to play convincingly.  Actually, I couldn’t get Laura Dern out of my mind when I was watching the film…she may have been a better choice.

Williams, Wilson, and especially Marvel do nice work in their supporting roles but its West and Colman as the visiting royalty that walk away with the movie.  Though they are playing characters familiar to movie goers (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter recently played them in The Kings Speech), they make their own mark on the Royals who are visiting the US in a thinly veiled plea for help with the impending war.

West and Murray share one of the best scenes of 2012 as they talk about the impairments both suffer (a stutter for the King and polio for the President) and how it affects the way the public and their wives see them.  It’s a dynamic scene that both actors play pitch perfectly with Murray delivering my favorite two lines spoken in a movie this year: “What stutter?”

I only wish there were more scenes like that in the movie.  Even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I felt the film dragged on in its own reverie a bit too much.  Cinematographer Lol Crawley does excellent work in filming what Production Designer Simon Bowles has cooked up in his period settings.  Also nice was a unique score by Jeremy Sams that captured the feel of the time and also the mood of the scenes.

Inexplicably rated R for an implied sex scene, Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t destined for the history books nor should it be.  It’s a nicely formed small bite of a film that gets its job done and nothing more.  I’d recommend it as a choice for a leisurely Sunday diversion.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III

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Synopsis: A graphic designer’s enviable life slides into despair when his girlfriend breaks up with him.

Release Date: February 8, 2013

Thoughts:  Blech, somebody call Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) and let him know that his frequent collaborator Roman Coppola is copying his obtuse, askew style for his second feature film.  Coppola’s last film, CQ, was an absolute nightmare to sit through so I can’t imagine what A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III has in store for us.  I’m not sure what appeal Charlie Sheen has left that could be capitalized on as his disastrous last few years haven’t done him any favors, though his new TV show is amazingly doing well in the ratings.  As for this film, you can put me on the Not Interested list and pronto.  Even if the reviews of this are stellar, I’m going to have tough time making any kind of commitment to see it.

Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2012)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

ReviewFair Warning Note:  It’s next to impossible to give any kind of review of Les Misérables without mentioning a few key moments that some may consider spoilers.  I don’t think I’ll be saying anything you aren’t well aware of, but just in case…

 

In the early 90’s, producer Cameron Mackintosh attempted to get a movie version of his international mega-hit Les Misérables off the ground but with musicals still considered out of fashion it was not to be.  In 1998 a highly underrated non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale was released starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes.  As musicals started coming back into fashion, interest was raised again in this tale of redemption and sacrifice set around the time of the French Revolution.

Still, it wasn’t until newly minted Oscar winner Hooper (The King’s Speech) gave the property some attention that Mackintosh finally saw his pet project get the film treatment he had long sought.  Was it worth the wait for fans of the musical like myself?  Well, having seen Les Misérables countless times on tour, in London, and locally I can say that this fan left the theater satisfied and red-eyed from a finale that ate up my supply of tissues.

If you’ve read anything about the production of this musical, you’ll know that Hooper asked his actors to sing live to avoid the lyp-synching done in most films.  On paper, this sounds like a great idea and for the most part I thought it succeeded.  Would I have liked some of the actors to have a stronger delivery of the difficult material and a fuller sound?  Maybe.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have sacrificed some excellent and immediate performances that spring out of this technique just to smooth out some rough vocal patches.

Author Hugo weaved multiple characters over many years in his lengthy novel and a true plot synopsis would take up too much space here.  What you should know is that this is a story centered on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who breaks his parole when he realizes that his future is already laid out before him.  Turned away for work and denied even a place to sleep, it’s the kindness shown by a bishop (original London/Broadway Jean Valjean Colm Wilkinson) that changes the course of his life.

Jumping forward in time, Valjean is now a mayor and business owner.  A chance encounter with his former prison guard Javert (Crowe) and dying factory worker Fantine (Hathaway) again alters his path as he takes charge of Fantine’s young daughter Cosette and disappears from Javert’s sight again.  The final act is played out in the streets of Paris where convict and pursuer meet again in the midst of a bloody battle for freedom by students and unhappy citizens.

Jackman throws every inch of himself into the role, starting the picture with a bruised and battered appearance that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a horror movie.  Gaunt and wide-eyed, he is desperate to gain true freedom at any cost.  Vocally, Jackman is more than up to the challenge of Jean Valjean and he confidently navigates the high (notes) and lows of the character.  My only nitpick with Jackman is that he only seems to be able to sing at one volume…loud.  Anything less than that is spoken or colored with more intensity that a softer song needs.  “Bring Him Home” has always been a quiet battlefield ballad and Jackman sings it so loudly to a sleeping Marius (Redmayne) that I half expected the slumbering chap to open one eye to let us know he was really awake.

In his role as the unforgiving Javert, Crowe has an uphill battle to climb that he never really gets a good foothold for.  He’s not a bad singer, let’s not be cruel, but he’s not vocally right for this role and seems to know it.  Javert’s big number, “Stars”, requires some real strength not only in dramatic delivery but in vocal support and Crowe didn’t nail it for me.  His acting tends to suffer because of this so while I believed that he was a man obsessed with finding this convict, I didn’t see the breakdown of will that occurs within the character as his hunt draws to a close.

Redmayne and Seyfried are nicely lovey-dovey and if Seyfried’s reedy, thin, and heavily vibrato-ed soprano buckles under Redmayne’s assured baritenor, they at least create a palpable attraction in their moments together.  London stage actress Barks makes the most of her limited screen time with a character doomed to love a man that doesn’t notice her until it’s too late.  She makes tender gems out of the material, whether it’s the scaled back power ballad “On My Own” or a duet with Redmayne on “A Little Fall of Rain”.  Baron Cohen (The Dictator) and Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) reunite after another period musical (Sweeney Todd) and make the most out of their roles as crooked innkeepers.  Their material isn’t that hard, which is good for Bonham Carter’s barely-there voice.

Finally, it’s Hathaway who pretty much walks away with the movie.  I’ve long found Hathaway to be an annoyance whether on screen or in interviews but in taking the dark role of a woman who sells her body (and hair and teeth) to support her daughter, she’s found a role that gave me a newfound respect for her.  Gone is the toothy, winking, aw-shucks, pleaser and in her place is an actress that has given herself fully to the work.  She sings beautifully, her grief is laid bare, and she provides some of the more stirring moments in the fast moving film.  If Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for her work, it will be a crime because she absolutely deserves it and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every performance that might be up for the award this year.

Hooper films much of the film in close-up, letting many of the songs play out in uninterrupted takes.  Some have criticized this saying that it makes the film feel smaller than it is.  I totally disagree and feel that the close-ups, combined with the live singing make the movie feel more real and alive than ever.  Much of the material is heart-wrenching (some may say cloying) and to have an actor singing live and actually feeling the material adds necessary oomph.

Tremendously moving (like I said, the ending wrung my tear ducts dry), the film does drag in a few sequences.  A new song was written for the film and it doesn’t add anything to the proceedings – it’s really a near shameless attempt to add another Oscar nomination to the bevy of awards the film will certainly be up for.  Some wise truncating/eliminating of songs and a few small shuffles in order help keep the film moving but I can see where the movie may test your bladder as it comes upon its finale just shy of three hours.

As someone who responds to the music and appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, Les Misérables fit the bill of entertainment for me.  What you take out of it could be something totally different but any movie that lays itself bare and deals with issues of the redemption that we all seek and the ultimate sacrifice we eventually make deserves some attention.

Movie Review ~ The Guilt Trip

guilt_trip

The Facts:

Synopsis: As inventor Andy Brewster is about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime, a quick stop at his mom’s house turns into an unexpected cross-country voyage with her along for the ride.

Stars: Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Kathy Najimy, Colin Hanks, Adam Scott

Director: Anne Fletcher

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As anyone who has taken a road trip can tell you, the worst part of the trek can be when you’ve run out of things to talk about and are annoyed with your travel mates. You resort to niceties and having polite conversations as a way to distract you from the fact you have hundreds or thousands of miles left in your journey. That’s a great description of The Guilt Trip, the joyless new film starring one Funny Lady and one Stoner Dude.

One of the most frustratingly polite films I’ve ever seen, The Guilt Trip logs a bunch of miles in its cinematic adventure but never gets out of the garage in terms of entertainment. The film reads like a sure-fire winner with the unlikely pairing of Streisand and Rogan as a mother and son who hit the road from New Jersey to California as she accompanies her offspring on a sales pitch trip. This is a film that has an Olympic-sized pool of comedy in front of it but only gets to the end of the diving board before turning around and running away.

Seeming to not want to offend absolutely anyone, it instead winds up being a one way trip to Dullsville courtesy of flat direction from Fletcher (The Proposal) and a wimpy script by Dan Fogelman. I can’t say for sure, but even if the script was written with Streisand in mind it had to have had a major overhaul when she signed up to remove some humor and not sully her pristine and purposeful image. There’s just no other way to explain why the film wouldn’t take advantage of some prime comedic opportunities that it ignores.

Ok…I did laugh a few times. The first was when we meet Streisand, dressed in a typical Jersey jumpsuit with her hair perfectly rumpled she looks every bit the middle aged character we think she should be…until she lifts her hand to touch her hair and reveals those immaculate French manicured nails. The woman reuses water bottles to save the environment but doesn’t have any trouble shelling out bucks to keep her nails nice? Streisand is so overly made up at times that at one point I leaned over to my friend and said “Man, the guy that got to play Streisand is doing a great job.”

Rogan doesn’t fare any better and he looks as uncomfortable in the role as he does in the numerous suits he is poured into. I think Rogan’s pot head persona is nearing the end of its fifteen minutes of fame so it’s possible this was a way to test the waters as a real person…and it’s a failure. His character is such a stubborn doofus that you can’t muster up any kind of sympathy for him. The reasons he asks his mother to go with him on the trip are unclear too…for a time it seems like he asks her along for his own personal benefit but then it changes in a way that makes the audience unclear as to what the purpose was from the start. The final explanation is that there was no real reason for her to come along…aside from the fact that a movie plot depended on it.

Now I can see where the film’s restraint in the comedy department can seem refreshing to those weaned on movies that make jokes at the expense of the defenseless (mothers, old people, fat people, etc) but if the film had any real soul to it I may have gone with it a bit more. It’s plain to see that the movie doesn’t have much going for it aside from its stars whose talents are wasted and a premise that should have been milked for all its worth.

For a movie that takes its stars across the country, it may surprise you to know that neither Streisand nor Rogan left the state due to Streisand’s wish to stay close to home. Scenes of Streisand and Rogan in front of the Grand Canyon look like an effect out of an amusement park photo booth and the endless scenes in cars look like they were filmed in the span of two days. It’s a damn shame that more effort wasn’t put into punching up the script because I’d have watched a movie with Streisand and Rogan stuck in a car if the material was good enough.

So many missed chances and so many laughless minutes…The Guilt Trip is a movie you may find yourself re-writing in your head as the movie is playing out in front of you. With so many far better films playing in theaters now, you’ll be taken a guilt trip of your own making if you see this before pretty much any other film in cinemas now.