Tag: Russell Crowe

Movie Review: Les Miserables

I’m one of those kids who grew up in the 80s, and along with a love of Transformers and a front-row seat for the growth of home computing from the Apple ][e to the iPad and Google Glass, like many kids in the 80s my soundtrack for road trips foisted on me and my sisters by my parents was those of Broadway musicals. One of the very best that was often asked for by both my sisters and myself was Les Miserables. The big broad tale adapted from Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel makes for a fantastic stage production. It has fantastic music, deep and complex characters, a fascinating backdrop… and it tries really, really hard to be one of the grandest films ever created.

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Our story begins with Jean Valjean, a convict of 19 years who finally gets paroled much to the chagrin of local constable Javert. After an encounter with a benevolent and deeply patient and understanding bishop, Valjean does everything he can reinvent himself as a good citizen. He becomes the owner of a factory and mayor of a small town, before one of his workers, Fantine, is shunned so hard out of the factory she turns to prostitution to pay the bills of her daughter, currently living with a corrupt innkeeping couple. When she dies, Valjean swears to take her daughter into his keeping. He raises her as his own, pursued by Javert, and becomes involved in the June Rebellion of 1832.

The scope of this tale and the involvement of the characters with real events poise it on the edge of truly epic territory, and the revolutionary zeal that permeates the third act definitely reinforces this status. Les Miserables is bent on demonstrating that people can be capable of great change, be it in themselves or for society, and gives examples of both success and failure. Add to this a memorable and moving selection of songs that run the gamut of emotion, from determined resolve to the first pangs of love to despair and loss, and it’s clear why this stage production of this novel has stood the test of time. And now we have a film adaptation of that stage production of the same novel, and unfortunately, something got lost along the way.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
The actors really do give their all.

I’m sure a lot of people would jump right into the most immediate flaw in the production, which is the delivery of the songs. Some new songs were added and others had their lyrics changed, which in and of itself can infuriate hardcore Les Mis fans the way the absence of Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings trilogy enrages hardcore Tolkien fans. A good deal of a song’s quality, however, is in the delivery rather than the lyrics, and that means somebody has to sing them. For the most part the cast does an admirable job, with obvious standouts being Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Samantha Barks. However, Russell Crowe presents a problem. He’s a great actor, and his singing voice is perfectly fine, even if his range seems a touch limited based on what we hear. The problem is, there are times when he has to transition from singing to acting, and you can almost hear an audible clunk like there’s something stuck in his gearbox. And Amanda Seyfried, lovely as ever, sounds almost nervous at times, in a way that has nothing to do with her character, as she tries to sing some of her lines. How much of this is actually on the cast, though? Let’s pull back and look at the film from a broader perspective.

Les Miserables was directed by Tom Hooper, late of his Oscar-winning direction in The King’s Speech. I like Tom Hooper – his work on the John Adams mini-series is exemplary – but something is just off on his work in Les Mis. He made the decision to have his actors sing on-set, with no dub-overs and (apparently) minimal sound correction. This leads to things like nervous actors (Seyfried), actors having to make odd transitions (Crowe), and some songs just not ringing as true as they could. A key moment in Jackman’s “Who Am I” feels undercut by what must surely have been a decision by Hooper. On top of this, most of the songs are presented with the camera directly in the face of the singer. While this does push the actors to emote in a believable way that evokes pathos, and both Hathaway and Jackman are clearly up to the task, it tends to rip the context out from under the songs. Instead of imagining these high emotional moments in the backdrop of the events in the character’s life, we get the moment encapsulated and isolated in a way that disrupts the narrative flow. As good as the music is, focusing this tightly on it causes the story to suffer and makes the issues in any song all the more glaring.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
You had one job. ONE JOB, JAVERT.

I’ll say again that I like Tom Hooper, and he still manages to present some excellent shots in Les Miserables. He does discomfort, tension, intimate character work, and historical atmosphere very well. However, the film never really clicked for me. I like the songs, but they didn’t have the punch they could have. I was moved to tears, but not as much as I could have been. This sort of film is very difficult to review because it both tries hard enough that I want to come down on the side of recommending it, but also makes more than enough mistakes to warrant giving it a pass. I’m sure there’s a song in there somewhere.

Stuff I Liked: 19th century France never felt squeaky clean or over-produced. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen make great Thernadiers. Costume design was good. As I said, Hooper presents some fantastic shots here and there.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The constant close-ups were at first unnerving, then annoying. A little editing of the songs could have smoothed over a lot of issues. Russell Crowe feels misdirected in places, which undercuts an otherwise exemplary performance. Marius and Cosette’s romance feels a touch ridiculous as presented and much of the third act seemed a bit rushed.
Stuff I Loved: Jackman and Hathaway are absolutely fantastic. For all of the faults in his performance, Crowe does a great job with the complex and compelling character of Javert. Despite their changes and presentation, many of the songs still have their emotional weight and power, especially “I Dreamed A Dream”, “Bring Him Home”, and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.

Bottom Line: I wanted to like Les Miserables. What it manages to accomplish is admirable. But, unfortunately, it stumbles too much and makes too many mistakes to earn a strong recommendation. You would have just as good an experience listening to the soundtrack from either the film or the musical, and nothing will compare to seeing it on stage. Granted, the film version is cheaper, but this is truly a case of you get what you pay for.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Robin Hood

A little something different this week… thanks to Jonny at Non-Social Media.

Original Text:

Spoiler
Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that the actors Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Russell Crowe have all that much in common other than their profession. We are, after all, talking about actors from different genres and even eras of film. However, they have now all portrayed versions of perhaps the most famous rogue of British folklore: Robin Hood. Flynn’s Robin was a man of high adventure, Costner’s was barely British and Elwes was in a spoof. As for Russell Crowe, his Robin was the central character in Ridley Scott’s 2010 more ‘historical’ adaptation of the story, and by ‘historical’ I mean that very special kind of history that conflates years of people and events into something that fits a theatrical running time and the attention spans of your typical movie-going audience.

While in the past Robin has always been at least peripherally attached to noble title and lands in Nottinghamshire, this time around our hero is plain Robin Longstride, an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army of the Third Crusade. Robin himself isn’t much of a holy warrior, though, and when he makes his distaste for the slaughter of innocents over the name given to inscrutable omnipotent beings known to his sovereign, he’s put in the stocks. Richard gets himself killed and Robin takes it upon himself to escape, but not before stumbling across a few plot-relevant items that give him a way back to England. Events unfold around him that will set him on the path of becoming an outlaw whose fame will live on hundreds if not thousands of years after he’s dead.

Historical fiction is a road both Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have walked down before. Crowe has been a lifelong fan of the legendary archer, but was never quite satisfied with the way Hollywood portrayed him. Scott, on the other hand, found a spec script in 2007 that tried to take the legend in a new direction. However, he eventually became dissatisfied with the evolution of the story, and what had begun as a revisionist film of the legend called Nottingham became a film simply entitled Robin Hood, styling itself as a Crusades-era Batman Begins.

For the most part, this actually works. We have a brilliantly talented cast, with nuanced and interesting characters delivering well-paced and balanced dialog in period settings that feel, for the most part, authentic. I get the feeling that this sort of thing has become something of a comfort zone for Ridley Scott, and all of the main selling points of Kingdom of Heaven are present here. From gorgeous shots of the English countryside to the inclusion of historical figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine, this film has a lot going for it.

Of course, true history buffs are likely to be somewhat put off by Scott’s interpretation of historical events. Things take place years before they actually happened, perpetuated by different people. Some figures meet ends differently than they did in life and liberties are taken with important documents and items. And like Kingdom of Heaven, at least in the theatrical release, some elements of the plot feel cobbled together with rubber cement and a staple gun. There’s at least a couple bits missing that would have smoothed out rough patches in the story, and some elements feel like holdovers from the original Nottingham notion. That’s not likely to be the case, however, as the writers of that original treatment were shouldered out of the production entirely. Now you’ll need to poke around online to see what they originally had in mind.

As much as it seems harsh that the original creative spark for the movie was removed from the hands of those writers, the end result could certainly have turned out worse. Prequels, by and large, have earned a stigma for being unnecessary works of fiction that fill in too many of the blanks audiences would probably prefer to populate themselves. While I can’t help but agree with the spirit of this sentiment, if a work is aiming to present the origins of a character in an intelligent, relatable and at least somewhat unique (but not superfluous) manner, I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Like the aforementioned Batman Begins or X-Men: First Class, Robin Hood gives us a look at a character we think we knew in a way that we can understand, relate to and cheer for. Prequels may not always be necessary stories, but if the job is done well enough, the story will still feel worth telling.

While the mileage of this film with the individual film-goer is likely to vary, I do feel that Robin Hood does its job with more than adequate aplomb. Some of the moments in the third act feel a bit over-the-top, most notably King John’s declaration at the end, and I am curious as to how a Director’s Cut of this movie would compare to its original release. However, in its theatrical version, the story is relatively free of overt contrivance, the characters are solid and the acting is poignant without being melodramatic. Some may feel there are too many echoes of Braveheart or Gladiator or other movies here, but Robin Hood manages to find its own place and I feel it’s worth seeing since its merits do outweigh its flaws.

There are some universal things present here, outside of the legend of Robin Hood: Don’t get into a swordfight with Russell Crowe, don’t make Kevin Durand (here playing Little John) angry, and most of all, do not mess with Cate Blanchett anywhere near a forest. You piss off Galadriel or perpetuate wickeness in her wood, you are entering a world of pain.

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