Les Misérables

December 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Directed by: Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”)
Written by: William Nicholson (“Gladiator”)

Whether you jump on board for the most recent cinematic adaptation of “Les Misérables,” based on Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel, will all depend on two major decisions Oscar-winning filmmaker Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) made to separate it from other versions of the musical that have come before. Of those two choices, one will more than likely earn an actress her first Academy Award of her career. The other is a debauched experiment in the actual framework of the musical. It’s sure to have anyone sitting on the fence reconsider giving the genre another chance after what can only be described as a grandiloquent mistake.

In “Les Misérables,” Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, an ex-prisoner who finds a new meaning to his life when he agrees to take care of Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child; Amanda Seyfried as a young woman). Cosette is the daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a worker at one of Valjean’s factories who is forced into a life of prostitution to pay her debts. Oscar winning actor Russell Crowe, who is completely miscast in this production, plays Javert, a police inspector who has long searched for Valjean for breaking parole years before.

Hooper’s first decision, which is likely to send actress Anne Hathaway to the podium for an Oscar come February, is having all the musical performances sung live. While most musicals shoot actors lip syncing their parts and dubbing them in post-production, allowing Hathaway and others to break from the normal practices and sing from within was the right call by Hooper. It is especially evident in Hathaway’s moving performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which captures the depth of the entire musical in a single powerful scene.

What else Hooper demands of his musical in a larger sense, however, is what ultimately takes ““Les Misérables” from an epic period drama into an indistinct collection of classic songs that would be better experienced listening to the film’s soundtrack. Instead of interspersing the musical numbers with dialogue, Hooper insists every word of the narrative be sung. By doing this, the intimacy, anger, or any number of other emotions the characters are supposed to share between each other is whittled down into awkward exchanges.

Despite the inevitable humming of the songs that will come after seeing the film, not much else will stick from “Les Misérables” aside from the beautiful technical aspects, including the costume design and art direction. For a narrative so swathed in raw emotion, however, Hathaway’s lone performance (and a memorable supporting role by theatrical actress Samantha Barks as Eponine) will make the only true connection.

The King’s Speech

December 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush
Directed by: Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”)
Written by:  David Seidler (“Quest for Camelot”)

While it’s natural for almost anyone to get a bit nervous when speaking in public, stumbling over a few words while giving a keynote address or losing your train of thought during a toast wouldn’t signify the end of the world. If you were the King of England in 1939, however, disappointing an entire nation at the brink of war was a definite possibility. No pressure, right?

Directed by Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”) from a script by 73-year-old screenwriter David Seidler (a former stutterer himself), “The King’s Speech” tells the little-known true story of King George VI (Colin Firth), known as “Bertie” by his family and friends, and his battle with a debilitating speech impediment that causes him to panic and freeze up every time he stands in front of a microphone.

The film opens in 1925 when our tongue-tied protagonist is about to deliver a major speech as the Duke of York during the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The scene becomes more and more devastating as a terrified Bertie – with speech in hand – opens his mouth and is unable to string two words together without his stammer reverberating through the stadium speakers. Painful as it is to witness, Bertie’s weakness is clearly evident through these awkward moments of silence.

Unable to overcome his stutter despite ongoing vocal treatments (one of his doctors encourages him to smoke because it “calms the nerves and gives you confidence”), Bertie’s supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) sets up a meeting with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Aussie-born speech therapist and amateur actor whose unorthodox techniques don’t initially impress the duke.

But with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin looming in the east, the monarchy needs someone confident enough to speak to the masses. Although Bertie is not meant to be the next king, the responsibility is transferred to him when his older brother David (Guy Pearce ), who holds the title of King Edward VIII for less than a year, shocks the House of Windsor when he renounces the throne so he can marry a twice-divorced American socialite.

With all of Britain watching, “The King’s Speech” builds toward King George VI’s first wartime radio broadcast to the nation. As the ineloquent king, Firth is simply mesmerizing, as is the rest of the talented cast who bring to life this fascinating footnote in British history. Charming, humorous, and engaging throughout, “The King’s Speech” is easily one of the best films of the year.

The Damned United

December 4, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall
Directed by: Tom Hooper (TV’s “John Adams” miniseries)
Written by: Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”)

It’s one thing to see a sports obsession coming from rowdy fans in the stands of a soccer match, but it’s an entirely different story when the mania is coming straight from the sidelines in unhealthy doses. In “The Damned United,” two-time Oscar nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”) adapts author David Peace’s nonfiction novel about English soccer coach Brian Clough and his desire to prove his worth in the professional English football league no matter how many enemies he makes.

Brian (Michael Sheen) has always been a cocky son of a gun, but when he gets the opportunity to coach the top-rated soccer team Leeds United after he leads a once-lowly second division soccer club out from the bottom barrel, his claws come out. The problem is, up until actually accepting the offer to coach Leeds, Brian was a strong critic of the championship team and their iconic longtime coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney). Not only does Brian hold a grudge with Don for an unintentional snub in the past, he publicly voices that he thinks the team only wins championships because they cheat. When he gets to Leeds, he intends to bring “good, clean, attractive football” to the area.

It won’t be as easy as it sounds, however. The players aren’t thrilled that one of their biggest detractors is now their coach and is trying to change the way they play the game. Brian has also never coached a team without his scout and assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), who is angry with his friend for sticking his foot in his mouth one too many times. His outspokenness is one of the reasons his last boss Sam Longson (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent) never supported him when Brian would go behind his back to recruit players and act like he owned the team.

As Brian, Sheen does a masterful job turning this talented coach into a hybrid character. There are times where Brian’s sheer enthusiasm for the game is contagious. Other times, Brian’s “mad ambition,” disregard of humility, and his ongoing rivalry with Don make it hard to sympathize with him. “Fire is good,” someone tells Brian, “but sometimes fire destroys everything.”

Still, this is what the character calls for. Sheen, who also portrayed characters written by Peace in “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen,” really accentuates the ugliness of the sports world through his personal vendetta with everyone who chooses to disagree with him and his inattention to his own faults as a human being.

Along with his performance, “The Damn United” is an engaging film that isn’t just for fans of soccer. It could have followed any other sport or other life situation and built these strong characters and themes around that and it still would have been a relatable story. Credit Morgan’s script and director Tom Hooper (“John Adams”) for crafting something that could have been ordinary into an unbeatable sports drama.