Monday, December 31, 2012


Adapting musicals to film is a tricky business. Movies are all about brevity, and film-fans can often get frustrated having to sit through a song-and-dance routine before getting to the next plot point. Musicals at their core are all about the music and the performances, and fans of the stage, the core-audience of these adaptations, will easily be turned off by having the source material reduced or cut. There is a balance which needs to be struck, and that was the massive task in front of director Tom Hooper in his adaptation of LES MISERABLES, one of the biggest, grandest, and most popular stage productions of all time.
Jean (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-prisoner who breaks parole despite being under the watchful eye of ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). Jean starts a new successful life and eventually befriends Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who eventually dies and asks him to care for her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who as a young girl is under the care of her criminal uncle and aunt (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Cosette eventually meets and falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is taking part in a violent revolution.

Director Tom Hooper clearly understands that movie comes first in an adaptation. All good films center around character, and that means emotion. Despite the grand scale and fantastic sets, Hooper never lets us forget about the characters in LES MIS. He literally pulls the audience out of the back (and front) rows and right in the faces of the characters; every tear, twitch, and look in the character’s eyes are right there for us to see and feel, and that makes the emotion, and consequently, the story of LES MIS flow naturally with energy and heart.
By making the cast-members sing all of their lines live, the door is opened for tremendous performances by everyone. There is real acting and emotion happening on-screen at all times, and it is all summed up in Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed A Dream”. Hathaway’s performance is filmed in one long take, with no edits or cutaways to apply eyedrops. That means the tears she eventually sheds are real, making this LES MIS not only the most realistic stage adaptation, but perhaps the most realistic movie ever filmed. This is raw emotion on film with enough power to bring the tears out of anyone.

The songs do very well in moving the plot forward, although some of them chug on for what seems like forever; by the third verse you may already get the point. It often feels like the film could have used some cutting here and there, as just when you think the film is heading out the exit door, no less than four more numbers come along. However, it is all a means to an end, and those hearty enough to soak it all in will be handsomely rewarded by film’s end.
Again, performances are outstanding all around…with Jackman and Hathaway being the standouts. Russell Crowe appears to have a bit of a limited range, but he seems to accomplish what is asked of him. The show is nearly stolen by the younger performers (under the age of 10), and by Samantha Banks, who is the only cast-member of LES MIS to have performed in the stage production.

People who are not fans of musicals on film may not be converted over with this LES MIS, as there is a lot of singing and only a handful of spoken words throughout. Fans of the stage may be turned off by the immediacy of the film, but should be happy over the honesty of the performances, and thrilled at the fact that they are out of their seats and practically on stage standing right next to the performers. Movie-fans have a lot to enjoy as well, because LES MIS puts character and story first, and that’s something everyone can relate to.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


The first thing that needs to be said about Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is this: it is not a new film. It is instead a large collection of Tarantino’s favorite film genres; recycled and refurbished as the driving force in an Old West backdrop. But DJANGO should not be judged upon that and that alone. The recycling of old ideas are the tools by which Tarantino chooses to tell his story. How well he uses those tools is how DJANGO should be judged.
Two years before the Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who is taken under the wing of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter who needs him to complete a job. Once the job is complete, Schultz decides to assist Django in freeing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is a slave under the ownership of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

DJANGO UNCHAINED is saturated in film lore. The film starts off as a Spaghetti Western, evolves into a Buddy-Cop flick, transforms into a Men-on-a-Mission movie, and then wraps with a Man-on-a-Reckoning/Vengeance tale; all with a sprinkle of BLAZING SADDLES here and there.  This is Quentin Tarantino unleashing his favorite things in such a heavy-handed manner you often wonder if he will show up on screen and begin drawing circles with chalk around all the references.
But the question for DJANGO is if this approach works as a storyteller. It does; for exactly one-half of the movie. DJANGO starts off very strong; setting up such a great Old West atmosphere it would not be a shocker to see Clint Eastwood show up in an old parka. There are moments of brilliance in DJANGO by way of making the many genres work for the story. However, for every single moment of brilliance there are five dumb ones. DJANGO too often falls into overlong scenes with too much talking and no payoff, leading to a lack of energy and urgency which borders upon dullness. The second act going into the third is where this problem is very apparent, as Django himself becomes an observer in his own character story. And speaking of character that is where DJANGO falls on its face. For as much talking as everyone does, there is no true development for anyone; everyone is very one-dimensional, which means there is no reason to care who gets shot, hung or castrated by movie’s end.

Tarantino deserves credit for tackling a touchy subject (slavery) with such brutal honesty. Nothing is held back. Nothing. The film is beautifully shot (although not overly remarkable), the gun-battles are fun (although the bloodshed is ridiculously exaggerated), and Tarantino’s skill for sharp dialogue continues to shine. However, Tarantino just can’t help himself at times. The film too often features music from the 1970’s era; everything from Jim Croce to Johnny Cash. The out-of-place music jolts you out of the Old West and makes the film feel like a light parody. The worst mistake made was the awful and tasteless inclusion of a gangster-rap song during a climatic gun-battle. For a director who claims to love the Old West genre so much, he oddly doesn’t think twice about taking a dump all over it.
The cast seems to be having fun with their roles, and they are equally fun to watch; perhaps a little too much fun as everyone seems to know that the entire run is tongue-in-cheek. The best work is done by DiCaprio and Jackson, who have great chemistry together for as much as their interesting character dynamic is allowed to grow.

There are several ways to look at DJANGO. As homage to the past it’s great. As an Old West film, its priority is in style, and not in transporting you to another time. As a Quentin Tarantino film it doesn’t quite have the zip of his prior works. As an overall movie, its shortcomings in character and energy are too much to overcome. A real shame, because this shoulda been a contender.

Friday, December 21, 2012


In what could be considered a sequel/companion piece to THE KING’S SPEECH (2012), HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is a look at the relations between the U.S. and Britain prior to the outbreak of WWII, along with an intimate look at the leaders of both nations.
War is looming between Britain and Germany, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) invite the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Coman) to the United States for a weekend at their private cottage. The Royals are looking for U.S. support in the case of a world war, while FDR engages in an improper relationship with his cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney).

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON has a lot going on. There are several storylines to be dealt with; FDR’s relationship with his wife and mistress, the young Royal Family getting used to their responsibilities along with American customs, and the weight of a possible second world war. None of these many storylines mesh together very well, and when things shift it often feels like watching five different films cobbled together. The film lacks a central focus, and what’s worse is that never has a sense of urgency about it. It never feels like a bad ending to all the drama would really matter.
Director Roger Michell often tries to get into the heads of his characters. There are a handful of scenes which are remarkable; the scene in which FDR and King George first get to know each other is as fine and exquisite as anything put to the silver screen. Unfortunately these moments are too few, and HUDSON falls back to its uninteresting grind of scattered dullness.

Bill Murray is very much a joy as FDR; very much sounding and looking the part. He has a handful of shining moments, but again, they are very few. The choices made with his FDR character are questionable, as FDR is too little shown as an important world leader and too much as a dirty old man. Still, Murray is the highlight of the film and is a joy to behold.
The biggest problem with HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is that it really has nothing important to say about its characters or their problems. There is just no interest to be found anywhere; no matter how often Murray charms away the camera. It is intolerably uninteresting, and unforgivingly boring.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Reel Opinion: How the New LES MISERABLES Movie is Unlike Anything You've Ever Seen

This month, a new film based upon Victor Hugo’s novel, LES MISERABLES opens. Over the years, it has been adapted into a globally successful musical play and countless film adaptations.
This new adaption seems to fall into a long line of Oscar-hopefuls over the years with the razzle-dazzle of a Broadway play. However, this LES MISERABLES is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before; every single actor is singing every single word…live.

Normally, the actors involved in a musical-to-film will go into a recording studio months before they arrive on set. In that studio, they would record their vocals…and then months later lip-sync on-set while the cameras are rolling. There is nothing wrong with the technique as it has been used for a hundred years. However, there is always the issue of the actors trying to recreate the emotion and feeling they had months before while recording the vocals; having had to make their acting-choices long before they met their cast-mates and took inspiration from the costumes and sets. This can lead to a disjointed film and obvious lip-syncing.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (THE KING’S SPEECH) avoids that problem by having his actors cut their vocals live on set as the cameras roll. Each actor wore a tiny, wireless earpiece on set, which played the basic melody of the song. By recording the vocals while acting on set, the actors were given the freedom of spontaneity, which gives the film a more natural appearance. In short, this is as close as you can get to a live stage production of LES MISERABLES.

Not only is this very innovative, but it is very true to the spirit of a LES MISERABLES stage production, which is really driven by the music in the first place. Hooper is taking it back to its roots and embracing it. This is pioneer-filmmaking; done for the pleasure of fans of stage and film.

The curtain rises on LES MISERABLES on December 25th, and stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


After director Peter Jackson swept the Oscars with his LORD OF THE RINGS finale in 2003, the cries for “more Middle-Earth” went up and never died down. With his first part of JRR Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT (sub-titled AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY), Jackson gives us a remarkable looking, jam-packed monstrous sampling of that beloved fantasy world; a massive helping which may be too much for most common-folk to swallow.
Sixty years before the events of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) recruits a homely hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), to assist a company of 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to retake their homeland which has been invaded and occupied by Smaug the dragon.
The source material which Jackson is working from is a very simple, 500-page children’s’ book with a quaint A to Z storyline. Looking to beef things up and give his built-in audience their demands of “more Middle-Earth”, Jackson delved into the extensive Appendices and post-RINGS writings which fill in the blanks of the history of Middle-Earth. THE HOBBIT is not just the story of “how” things happened, but also the “why”. As much as many filmgoers may hate the term, THE HOBBIT is very much a prequel, with many pieces and parts moving towards what will eventually become THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
The many plots and moving parts often seem like a distraction from the main story of Bilbo and his struggles to cope with his very first adventure in a big wide world full of danger within a company of dwarves who don’t want him there in the first place. The detours often seem unnecessary, but most of them do pay off by movie’s end, with the promise of the loose threads being picked up in the next two films. Amidst all the plot and mythology going on, Bilbo’s story as a character often takes a back seat, and his development seems to come in large spurts spread throughout the film. The technique works, as Bilbo’s little arc does pay-off with a fair bit of emotion.
Fans of Jackson’s RINGS trilogy and Tolkien’s writings will lap up every last detail of THE HOBBIT. Jackson has once again breathed life into Middle-Earth, with remarkable photography and near-perfect blending of practical effects and CGI. The amount of detail in the sets and characters, real and artificial, is astonishing. Middle-Earth has never looked more beautiful. Jackson also once again proves his talent as an action director; crafting together some excellent action sequences full of breathtaking moments and eye-popping visuals. THE HOBBIT is a great ride and more fun than a gaggle of drunken dwarves.
Each one of Jackson’s Middle-Earth films have been landmarks in CGI characters, and THE HOBBIT continues that tradition. The computer-generated characters, from goblins to trolls to eagles to wolf-like characters (and that just scratches the surface of the population) have an astonishing amount of detail and have a real-world presence and weight. The highlight of the CGI cast is once again Andy Serkis’ motion-captured Gollum, who looks absolutely incredible; he has never looked more life-like, menacing, and tragic.
The large cast is outstanding and seems to be having fun with their roles. Ian McKellen steps right back into his old grey cloak as if no time at all has passed. It is a joy to see him back along with Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee; so good it feels like going home for the holidays. Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo, having picked up many little movements and inflections that Ian Holm had when he first had the role in 2001. The film is nearly stolen by Richard Armitage’s Thorin, who gets most of the screentime and character development.

The total enjoyment of THE HOBBIT depends on just how much the viewer really loves their Middle-Earth. Non-fans of THE LORD OF THE RINGS won’t be sold any further here, as it is very far from an accessible, straight-ahead, A to Z film; plus its lightness on character and thickness on plot makes for a challenge to latch on to something. The story of THE HOBBIT is simple, but the world it is set in is massive, and it comes at you in heaps on the big screen. It is exactly what a journey should be: long and fulfilling.


Thursday, December 13, 2012


“I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.”
This month marks the 10th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS.
THE TWO TOWERS was the second part of Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS books. As the middle part of the trilogy, it was the most difficult to adapt into a stand-alone film as it really didn’t have an end, or a beginning. However, Jackson and his fine crew were able to craft together a memorable and deeply entertaining film by interjecting powerful themes of friendship and the importance of enduring hard times and insurmountable odds. Aside from the very-human drama, TOWERS was also memorable for its battle-scenes, driven by special software which gave thousands upon thousands of artificial CGI characters their own “minds”, which gave them ability to carry on a battle on their own.

Speaking of CGI characters, each LORD OF THE RINGS film was known for having at least one notable artificial character, and in THE TWO TOWERS, it was the villainous and scheming Gollum. Brought to life by remarkable motion-capture acting by Andy Serkis, Gollum was not only a marvel to look at, but it paved the way for motion-capture filmmaking. Without TOWERS, there never would have been AVATAR.

The result paid off. THE TWO TOWERS was an enormous box-office success, and a decade later, holds a respectable position as the 19th highest-grossing film of all time. The film was nominated for six Oscars, winning two.


This Blogger fondly remembers, and holds dear those magical three years in which he and his very own Fellowship lived and breathed THE LORD OF THE RINGS year-‘round. THE TWO TOWERS was special to look forward to as it was the first time we got to revisit Middle-Earth after the remarkable THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. With FELLOWSHIP, we had found our ground. In TOWERS, we learned how to defend it.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reel Facts: Concerning High Frame Rate Hobbits

Director Peter Jackson finally makes his long-awaited return to JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth this week with the first part of his adaptation of THE HOBBIT; the prelude to Jackson’s Oscar-winning THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Aside from legions of fans eagerly awaiting the curtain to rise on Bilbo Baggins and his friendly company of dwarves, THE HOBBIT’s historical impact lies in its technical presentation; it is the first film to be released in seven different formats.
Aside from the standard 2D and 3D formats, THE HOBBIT is the very first feature to be filmed and presented in a High Frame Rate (HFR). Frame Rate refers to the number of images (or frames) which flash before your eyes in one second. The standard for filmmakers (for the past 200 years) has been 24 frames-per-second (24fps). Jackson, along with innovative filmmakers James Cameron and Douglas Trumbull, have been pushing for the industry to make films at a higher frame rate. THE HOBBIT has been filmed at 48fps, and will be available at theatres in 2D and 3D formats.

Why the change? The bottom line is more images per second means greater detail, and that greater detail means a more immersive experience which puts you right into the movie. Also, the more detail counters the murkiness which today’s 3D films tend to suffer from.
Shooting at a higher frame rate is nothing new, but its uses have always been limited, and for specific purposes. Higher frame rates are typically used to film something extremely fast-moving for an extreme slow-motion playback, because more frames means no motion-blur in slow-motion. Things like shattering  glass or water splashing are crystal clear; the scene in INCEPTION (2010) when Leonardo DiCaprio gets dunked in a tub was shot at 1600fps, and then slowed down:

Notice the clarity of the water, and how the higher frame rate captured the water around his face. Exactly how that level of detail and lack of motion blur will look at regular speed will determine if 48fps will stick, or just become another gimmick like 3D has in the past decade. The first concern is that so much visual information on the screen may be difficult, or impossible for some people’s eyes and brains to process; imagine seeing a bicycle wheel spin at a high speed, only you can see every spoke turning at all times. It’s a possible case of sensory overload; just like our ears unable to withstand extremely loud noises, our eyes may not be able to process the overflow of images.

The good news is, despite the seemingly overwhelming list of choices... 2D at 24 and 48fps, 3D at 24 and 48fps, IMAX and IMAX 3D (the seventh is a new audio format), is that Jackson is presenting us with options. If you want no parts of 3D or a flashy new presentation, no one is holding a Ring of Power to your head and making you deal with it.

For a list of theatres and their formats, click HERE (this is updated often)

For a rough example of how a higher frame rate will look, click HERE


Thursday, December 6, 2012


“You can’t handle the truth!”
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Rob Reiner’s A FEW GOOD MEN

Adapted for the big screen by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the stage-play of the same name, A FEW GOOD MEN was a genre-setting, military-courtroom drama which has ripple effects to this day. Centered around two U.S. Marines charged with murder and their lawyer who defends them, A FEW GOOD MEN explored issues of law and order and military ethics in a clever mash-up.
Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of his film MISERY (1990), put together an all-star cast. It’s headliners were Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore, but often forgotten are the supporting cast; Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack, Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Noah Wyle (who would go on to television fame in ER).
The film was a critical and commercial success, and would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s screen-time was limited to a handful of scenes, but his impact was immediate and memorable enough to rightfully earn that nomination, and also a ranking in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Villains. AFI would also rank the film in its Top Courtroom Dramas, and Top 100 Movie Quotes.


As a former soldier and a fan of courtroom dramas, this Blogger instantly took a liking to A FEW GOOD MEN, and the film is always used as a reference when making a legal, or military ethics argument. The film is not only put together extremely well (the law-books never seem more exciting), but it carries important messages that last in and out of the armed forces.

“You don’t need to have a patch on your arm to have honor.”

Monday, December 3, 2012


The last time Brad Pitt and writer/director Andrew Dominik got together, the result was the masterful THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007); a beautifully-crafted opus which broke the mold on the stock old-west film with thoughtful focus on character ahead of gunshots and standard horse-chases. Their newest collaboration, KILLING THEM SOFTLY, also veers away from its hack-em-up mobster-flick roots by focusing on the backdrop more than the story and character.
Jackie (Brad Pitt) and his heavy-drinking pal Mickey (James Gandolfini) are cold hit-men hired by the mysterious Driver (Richard Jenkins) to whack two small-time crooks (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) that were dumb enough to rob a high-stakes card-game run by mobster Markie (Ray Liotta).

KILLING THEM SOFTLY has very little plot, if any; two guys out to whack two other guys. It throws in a bit of mystery by making it unclear who was actually behind the card-game robbery, but Andrew Dominik has other things to do in his mobster-flick. The film is set during the 2008 Presidential campaigns. Most of the scenes conveniently (and almost annoyingly) take place with a campaign speech playing on a TV or radio. The campaign speeches, mostly centered around the Nation’s economic crisis, serve as a clever narration; the content of each speech loosely mirrors the plot of the movie. It works as much as it misses; it’s there so much you can’t help but to say “I get the point” by the mid-way mark because it is so heavy-handed.

The characters in KILLING THEM SOFTLY don’t do much other than deliver long monologues about the state of their business and the country they live in. With so much talking going on, the film not only forgets about its own story, but it leaves its sub-text behind as well. Many scenes and characters serve zero purpose in the grand scheme of things; Gandolfini’s character is given a ton of screentime, contributes nothing to the plot and vanishes off-screen in a blink.

Despite the soupy narrative, Dominik has once again crafted a beautiful looking film. Partially shot in some of the still-abandoned areas of New Orleans, the film has a stark, desolate look which adds to Dominik’s ongoing social-commentary on the state of the country. Dominik’s camera takes us to some interesting, never-before-seen places, and there is a slow-motion assassination scene which has to be seen to be believed.

Dominik also pulls great performances out of his entire cast. Despite not having a whole lot to do but talk and listen, Brad Pitt’s hit-man character is a joy to watch, and his intro into the film is very memorable. James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta slip right back into their mobster-shoes so well they might as well have been playing the characters they first became famous for.

The movie wraps with a zinger of a line; a line so good it has to be considered to be one of the greatest closing-lines in film history. It is a strong social statement and wraps the film perfectly, and is almost enough to forgive and forget the fact that sitting through a lecture-hall on film just isn’t that much fun or interesting. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is definitely unique, but far from masterful.