by Steve Habrat
Two years after Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech took the world by storm and made off with the Best Picture Oscar, the British director returns with a film so immense and extravagant, you won’t be able to believe your eyes. Hooper’s Les Misérables is certainly a worthy follow up to The King’s Speech, but in size and scope, Les Misérables blows it right out of the water. As epic as they come, Les Misérables is a big Hollywood blockbuster (and a shameless one at that), one sure to run away with awards like Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Production Design at the Academy Awards, but just like its predecessor, the film bowls over the viewer with one gigantic tidal wave of emotion after another. Just when you thought you’ve recovered from one heart wrenching moment, Hooper unleashes another one almost instantly. The film, and the stars who inhabit it, belt their hearts out as tears stream down their muddy faces, singing live over having the lyrics dubbed in post production. Each and every one of them will give you chills, especially Anne Hathaway’s teary-eyed “I Dreamed a Dream.” For as high as this film flies, it could still have stood to have at least forty minutes cut from it, mostly because by the final act, we do begin to feel it’s epic runtime of two hours and forty minutes. It appears that Hooper was wildly faithful to the musical and the novel by Victor Hugo, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Beginning in 1815, prisoner Jean Valjean (Played by Hugh Jackman) is released on parole by chilly prison guard Javert (Played by Russell Crowe) after serving a brutal seventeen-year sentence. Valjean is cast out into the world without any food or a home but is soon taken in by the kindly Bishop of Digne (Played by Colm Wilkinson), who offers him a hot meal and a bed. In the night, Valjean steals some of the Bishop’s silver and then flees, only to be quickly caught by local authorities. The Bishop insists that he gave Valjean the silver as a gift and demands that they let him go free. Moved by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and sets out to make a better life for himself. Eight years pass and Valjean, who goes by a new name, is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner. Employed at his factory is Fantine (Played by Anne Hathaway), who is discovered by her co-workers to be an illegitimate mother sending money to her sick daughter, Cosette (Played by Isabelle Allen), and is fired by the foreman. Desperate, Fantine turns to prostitution to make money but one evening, Javert confronts her after she attacks a belligerent customer. Javert tries to haul her off to jail but Valjean quickly stops him after he recognizes her from the factory. Near death, Fantine begs Valjean to find her daughter and to take care of her. Valjean agrees and sets out to find Cosette, but Javert begins to suspect that Valjean is the prisoner who broke parole eight years earlier and he begins hunting him down.
Each and every frame of Les Misérables looks like it cost almost $100 million dollars to project onto the screen. The makeup effects are absolutely astounding, especially the aging of Jackman’s Valjean as the story progresses. Every smudge of dirt and speck of filth so perfectly splattered across each actor’s face. Another standout moment is when Valjean trudges through the sewer with rebellious student Marius (Played by Eddie Redmayne) and human waste covers them from head to toe. It is appropriately nasty to the point where you can practically smell the stench. The costumes are all wildly detailed and eye catching, especially a jacket worn by Valjean with a massive collar. Then there are the special effects, especially the overhead shots of small villages and growing cities that are so fussy, they make you want to tear your hair out. Hooper hurls his camera directly at them to focus in on one specific character standing on the edge of a cliff or riding a horse through the streets. Later in the movie, there are one or two scenes that feel more like indoor sets rather than outdoor locations, which sort of take us out of the moment. I couldn’t help but wish that Hooper would have at least attempted to shoot them outside but I can’t imagine that he would have been able to pull off some of the environment detail that he was going for if he chose to shoot outside.
The other big draw to the big screen adaptation of Les Misérables is the live singing done in front of the camera rather than the music studio. While many critics and audience members have complained that it was a failed experiment (I don’t really understand why they think it was a failed experiment), I personally liked it and found that it adds a layer of realism to the bombastic gloss of this expensive epic. It allowed Hooper to apply long takes of his actors doing the thing that pays them millions of dollars— act. Sure there are a few brief cuts here and there, but Hooper lets the camera sit (and sometimes pace) with all the actors. We get up close and personal views of brokenhearted emotion heating up and then boiling over as the viewer hangs on the frame in a state of awe. While some of the voices are certainly not going to nab a record deal (looking at you, Mr. Crowe), you still have to admire their confidence to let their voices soar. The lack of a true professional makes things all the more realistic and down-to-earth. Some musicals (not all) loose me when the actors sing like trained professionals.
While Les Misérables is beautiful to look at, the film wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the downright incredible performances at the heart. While I’ve never downright hated Jackman as an actor, I could never really see the big deal about him but with Les Misérables, I am a true believer now. This guy is fantastic as Valjean, the tortured ex-prisoner who had his life turned upside down over stealing a mouthful of bread. While it is Jackman’s show, the one who makes off with the movie is Hathaway as Fantine, a woman forced into a life of hell. I promise that you will practically fall out of your seat when she performs “I Dreamed a Dream” as she battles back tears of embarrassment and defeat. It is a rare scene where the audience member actually wants to leap to their feet and break into applause. Crowe is great as the relentless Javert, who is always hot on Valjean’s heels. I can’t say too much for his vocal performance but the fact that he is really trying is good enough for me. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter drop by to add a bit of (grotesque) comedy to the mix as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, a couple of pick pockets who are taking care of darling little Cosette. Amanda Seyfried is a bit stiff as the adult Cosette, as is Redmayne as her suitor Marius. They get a last act love story and while it is effective, neither of them make us root for them like we should. Samantha Barks is also present as the Thénardier’s daughter Éponine, who secretly loves Marius. Barks wins our empathy with a lovely but painful solo performance in the rain.
While Les Misérables won’t win over every single viewer over, if you’re a fan of the book or the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, you are going to gush over Hooper’s achievement. I’d also say that if you enjoy musicals like I do, you are probably going to be hooked for a good majority of the movie. If you’re a casual moviegoer, be prepared for the longest two hours and forty minutes of your life. I still felt that the film ran a bit too long and some of the musical numbers could have been trimmed for a tighter and more inviting runtime, but there really isn’t one weak number of the bunch. Another minor complaint I had with the film was the fate of one of the characters, which just seemed downright bizarre and random. Overall, Les Misérables is overblown, funny, thrilling, mildly romantic, raw, repulsive, and most importantly, moving. It may have its flaws but is has everything a film fan could want in a movie and it really is a beautiful work of art to lay your eyes on. A phenomenal achievement for the very talented Mr. Hooper and the musical genre.
by Steve Habrat
Perhaps my expectations were too high going in to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest shock comedy The Dictator, a political satire that doesn’t ever really go for the throat. I was hoping for a comedy on the level of 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Bruno, a film with jokes that really left a mark and left you saying “ouch.” With The Dictator, Cohen parodies such real life dictators as the late Kim Jong-il and Muammar Gaddafi, both who were constantly making news and creating a stir throughout the world. One would expect Cohen to have a ball riffing these two individuals and he clearly is having a good time parading around in a fake beard, but this offering seems to just go in circles for eighty minutes. I kept waiting for something to truly shock me and outside of a joke made about women attending college and a climatic rant that will have any liberal-minded audience member jumping up in applause, I was left unmoved by Cohen’s effort. There are still some chuckle worthy moments and some gross-outs that lean more toward gross rather than funny, all of which you’d expect from The Dictator but even still, it doesn’t wield as much power as it would like.
The Dictator introduces us to Admiral General Aladeen (Played by Cohen), the dictator of the North African Republic of Waydia. The Supreme Leader, as Aladeen is often called, loves to oppress his people, pay Hollywood movie stars to sleep with him, order executions on those who get on his bad side, and develop nuclear weapons. Upon making an announcement that leads the world to believe he possesses advanced nuclear weapons, the United Nations Security Council declares that they will intervene militarily unless he shuts the program down. Aladeen and his uncle, Tamir (Played by Ben Kingsley), decide to travel to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. Upon his arrival, Aladeen is kidnapped by a hired hitman, who shaves his iconic beard and then accidentally unleashes him on the streets of New York. Aladeen then finds himself replaced by a dimwitted double that will sign a document making Waydia a democracy. With the help of an activist named Zooey (Played by Anna Farris), Aladeen begins trying to stop the signing of the document and in the process, develops a soft spot for Zooey and democracy.
At a brief eighty-three minutes, The Dictator doesn’t linger long enough to become too outrageous. Throughout those eighty-three minutes, it seemed like the nervous studio was holding Cohen back from really finding a groove. I can remember seeing Bruno for the first time and just feeling the air getting sucked out of the packed theater while multiple disgusted audience members bolted for the door. It appears that Paramount was determined to not let something like that happen with The Dictator. I wish that they had let Cohen go and do his wild and crazy thing, which would have helped the film out immensely. It should be noted that The Dictator is also structured like a normal Hollywood movie rather than the hidden camera footage of Cohen messing with real American citizens. Even the subject matter itself, which plays with our fear of terrorism in this post 9/11 world, seems to be a bit dated and almost cheap, like Cohen could have come up with something better to hit us over the head with.
As far as Cohen’s performance is concerned, he is immersed in this character 110%. He ad-libs with the best and he does think up a few stinging zingers, mostly the one about women attending college that really pissed off one girl in my showing. Oh, and he does deliver a good one about Dick Cheney that had me in stitches. For the first time, Cohen seems a bit too eager to make us gag over making us think, something that was put first in both Borat and Bruno. I liked it when Cohen really put himself in danger to make us laugh (Remember the rodeo sequence in Borat?), but also to show us the ugly sides of America, the ones we hear about but rarely ever see. Here it is all about defecating off of a building, masturbating, and yes, putting a cell phone in a woman’s vagina (you read that correctly). He also goes for easy and juvenile jokes, ones that Adam Sandler would settle for on what he perceived as one of his good days. Yet Cohen is as magnetic as always and he does make us feel for this lonely, lonely dictator.
As far as the rest of the performers are concerned, Ben Kingsley has little to do besides stand next to Cohen and mutter lines to side characters and John C. Riley shows up briefly as the hitman hired to kill Aladeen. Riley delivers some of the best lines The Dictator has to offer and then he is gone in a flash. Cohen, on the other hand, works well with Anna Farris, who plays things straighter than I imagined she would. She usually can’t resist taking a violent turn into wackoville but with The Dictator, she keeps things nice and liberally normal. Jason Mantzoukas shows up as a nuclear weapons developer Nadal, who Aladeen had thought he had executed. It should be said that Cohen and Mantzoukas have little comedic chemistry and have a hard time playing off each other. Sadly, they only briefly click.
For a film that could have had so much bite, The Dictator rarely ever bears its fangs. Instead, it gets hung up on body fluids and jokes about terrorists, throwaway jokes that I never thought I’d see Cohen fall back on. Yet I did enjoy parts of The Dictator and thought certain moments of it were really clever. A pair of political analysts who pick apart public appearances by Aladeen and his advisors are an absolutely hysterical riff on the ones we see on television, the ones who find so much in so little. Overall, I can say that while I am disappointed in this paint-by-numbers studio comedy, it was still a good time for a crass laugh or three. Yet I was left wishing that Cohen had raised the bar, been more offensive, and pushed the envelope just a little bit further. When it comes to his trio of mainstream comedies, The Dictator is the runt compared to the rough and tough Borat and Bruno. Oh well, at least the runt is kind of sweet and cute despite all the urine and seaman.
by Steve Habrat
Much like 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, auteur Tim Burton was placed on this earth to also direct 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which is based on Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 musical. Burton’s 2007 version of the film, which naturally stars Johnny Depp in the lead role of a vengeful barber who enjoys slicing the throats of his customers, was not only one of the best films of the year in which it was released but also one of Tim Burton’s greatest films. Yes, I believe that it sits near the top with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Part of what makes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street such a great film is that Burton successfully appeals to the wine-and-cheese crowd as well as snagging the Hot Topic crowd, which has got to be a first in the history of motion pictures. In addition to the usually flawless style, costumes, and set design, Burton hits a home run with Depp, who scales back the odd and makes Sweeney one of his more subtle characters. My suspicion is that the scaled back approach is in response to the singing that is required of Mr. Depp, who took vocal lessons and erupts in a voice that is not perfect but fittingly rough around the edges for such a dark film.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street introduces us to Benjamin Barker (Played by Johnny Depp), a barber who has returned to London after being banished for fifteen years for false charges by the wretched Judge Turpin (Played by Alan Rickman). It turns out that Turpin lusted after Barker’s wife, Lucy (Played by Laura Michelle Kelly), and wanted him out of the way so he could have her to himself. Assuming the alias “Sweeney Todd”, Barker makes his way to Fleet Street where he meets the equally demented Mrs. Lovett (Played by Helena Bonham Carter), who runs Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his wife committed suicide and that his teenage daughter Johanna (Played by Jayne Wisener) is being held against her will by Turpin. Whipping out his prized straight razor collection, Barker reopens his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies and together they begin trying to lure in Turpin and his overweight associate Beadle Bamford (Played by Timothy Spall) to exact their revenge. They also decide that they are going to grind up the bodies of their victims and put them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies to cover their tracks.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Burton’s bloodiest film since the Headless Horseman galloped through his interpretation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. Sweeney Todd is a nonstop freak show of a film, one that sprays Burton’s favored candle wax-esque blood out onto the audience from the opened necks of Sweeney’s victims. It’s a nasty piece of work and I mean that as a compliment. Given that Sweeney Todd is also a musical, the interest that many may have in the film will pale because most have a difficult time suspending the disbelief to really enjoy it. Burton understands this so rather than easily casting a slew of musicians to belt out Sondheim and Wheeler’s tunes, he turns to a handful of unexpected actors to do the jig. Burton places Depp and Cater right up front, both who lack voices that would make angles weep, belting out with voices that don’t seem too theatrical for this macabre outing. At times, they are a bit shrill but their left of center sound compliments the gloom quite nicely. Burton does even things out in the subplot involving the young sailor Anthony Hope (Played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who does have a musical background) and Barker’s daughter Johanna (portrayed by Irish singer Wisener), both who do have stage quality pipes on them.
If Depp and Carter are unlikely choices in the leads, the background actors are just as wild. Rickman, who also played Snape in the Harry Potter films, is another voice you would never expect to hear. We already knew he could do mean but it is good to see him dive in deeper with the protection of an R-rating. The same could be said about fellow Potter costar Spall, whose nasally voice is just the right amount of ugly to fit his physical appearance. The other surprise comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, THAT Sacha Baron Cohen) as the Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli who hides a dirty little secret. Cohen gets to flex his musical talents, which while not stage worthy, are still fitting for this film. He adds some quirky humor to all the bloodshed but when his turn comes to get evil, Cohen rises to the occasion and leaves us wanting more of his villainous turn. There is also the young Ed Sanders in the role of Toby, the boy assistant to Pirelli who mixes his tender affection for Mrs. Lovett in with a stunning vocal performance.
Sweeney Todd is ultimately Depp’s world and everyone else is just wandering the filthy streets. With his cheerless voice and heavy eyes, Depp is rather detached—a far throws from his energetic turns in films like Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a way, his blank slate is a welcomed approach because I was quick to assume this would be another one of his freak flag performances. He is electric next to the pasty Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who gets to do energetic wicked. A scene in which Mrs. Lovett shares a fantasy in which she marries Todd is a standout. Depp’s mug drooping into a frown will have you in stitches. When Depp and Carter harmonize, they are a grizzled knock-out, locked in a dance of death where Mrs. Lovett wields a rolling pin and Sweeney clutches a butchers cleaver is marvelous both in its symbolic imagery (it’s a bit obvious but cool) and its choreography. Another sequence of astonishing choreography is when Depp wanders the streets and snarls at his future victims, his voice going from smooth soaring to being spit onto the cheeks of men who don’t acknowledge him.
A Frankenstein’s monster of a film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a lumbering musical horror film that has held up and still locks me in when I revisit it. Balletic in pacing and with an abundance of gothic style, the film will leave you feeling nice and grimy after you’ve viewed it. It is faintly sexy and gloriously macabre with a gut punch of a tragic ending. In my opinion, Sweeney Todd is one of the more accessible musicals I have ever seen—never erupting into implausible song and dance numbers that are overly cheesy and remove us from the moment. It has buckets of gore for the horror crowd and actually has a number of hair-raising moments that will jolt you. It’s far from sophisticated but by now most should know what to expect by Burton but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of Burton’s most consistent films. A real grotesque freak fest.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.