Movie review: “Les Miserables”

les miz

We saw the new movie version of “Les Miserables” last Saturday afternoon. I’ve never seen the stage show; naturally I know some of the music (there was a concert performance on TV a long time ago, and naturally I remember George Costanza singing “Master of the House” incessantly on “Seinfeld,” and then there was Susan Boyle).

I don’t know if there’s anyone who doesn’t know the plot by now, but if you don’t, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But it’s full of escapes and tragedy and deathbed scenes, and if your throat doesn’t tighten up at least once, you have no soul.

This is a dream cast: Hugh Jackman as the haunted Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Russell Crowe as Javert, Amanda Seyfried (whom I only knew as the daughter in “Mamma Mia”) as Cosette, and a wonderful newcomer, Samantha Barks, as Eponine. Lots of critics have complained that Crowe can’t sing, but frankly I don’t know what they’re talking about; he sings beautifully, and he is properly menacing in his role. I felt sorry for poor Hugh Jackman, though, who has a great voice, but who was forced to sing about half an octave above his comfortable range. His upper register is very weak, so the higher he sings, the feebler he sounds . . . But who cares? He’s Hugh Jackman, and I’d drink a whole tubful of his bathwater if I had the chance. (There’s a scene late in the movie when he sings a high-pitched number, and then speaks a few words in a normal tone, and I swear his voice drops four octaves as he does it.)

Let me just say a word about the wicked innkeeper and his wife, played perfectly by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter. (Honestly, what happened to Helena? She was such a fresh-faced young girl back in the Eighties. Then she started playing roles like Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies, and the demented pastry-cook in “Sweeney Todd.” And now this! She probably told the movie’s wardrobe department not to worry about her; she’d just bring her own clothes and fright-wig from home.) Sacha and Helena are a treat whenever they’re on the screen; they’re fairy-tale malevolent, but their stupidity and venality always work against them, and their natural goofiness makes you chuckle every time they come on screen.

You’ve probably heard the gimmick of the movie: instead of recording the songs separately, Tom Hooper, the director, made his cast sing right on the spot as they acted. This is an interesting choice; it’s what you get during a stage show, after all, and I think that’s what he was after. Sadly, however, Hooper keeps jabbing the camera into everyone’s face all the time, and it can be a little unnerving.

But these are minor quibbles. It’s an epic story, and this is an epic production. The acting is first-rate, and the sets are just the perfect combination of stage-illusion and reality. If it doesn’t get a handful of Oscar noms, je mangerai mon chapeau.

So get out there, kids.



Aux barricades!

Movie review: “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”


Partner and both like animated movies, so long as they’re clever and well-made. For this reason, we don’t see many of them. 



But we both wanted to see “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”



If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise: the stars are four animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the shy/showoff lion (Ben Stiller); Gloria the sentimental hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith); Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer); and Marty the hyperactive zebra (Chris Rock). The first movie took them (and a group of four paramilitary penguins) from New York to Madagascar, where they met a surreal band of lemurs led by the sublimely self-absorbed King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen); the second movie got them as far as Africa, where they dealt with their various back-to-nature issues, and in which Alex met his birth parents.



The third movie is as freewheeling and joyous as the first two, and maybe more so. Our heroes end up (don’t ask) in Monte Carlo, where they tangle with a vicious over-lipsticked ninja assassin animal control officer named Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). They escape by hiding out with the animals of the Circus Zaragoza: a goofy sea lion (Martin Short), a broodingly angry tiger (Bryan Cranston), and a sweetly matter-of-fact jaguar (Jessica Chastain). The animals bond, and triumph over their various adversities.



But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?



The fun of the movie is in the details. The dialogue is blazingly fast and funny. (Near the beginning of the movie, Alex the lion is romping through a model version of Manhattan. “Look!” he crows. “A street with eight Duane Reades!”) The plot twists are sharp and cleverly planned. (King Julien, the insane lemur, falls in love while in Rome, and needs a ring to seal his love. And, if you’re in Rome and want to steal a ring, who has the biggest and best ring of all?) The character development is surprisingly deep. (Vitaly, the Russian tiger, has a wonderful story arc, and his final redemption is brought about by hair conditioner. That’s a spoiler, but you’ll never figure it out in a million years without seeing the movie.) Some of the jokes are actually sophisticated. (DuBois the animal-control officer does a killer rendition of Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” to inspire her fellow animal-control officers, and I would love to know if that’s really Frances McDormand singing, because – if so – she’s terrific.) The animation is beautiful: there’s a chase through the streets of Monte Carlo that is spectacularly gorgeous, and I’m convinced they must have taken the animators there to get the details right.



And – I never thought I’d say this – I wish we’d seen this movie in 3D. You could see it in every scene: stuff popping out at you, characters flying through the air, sudden vertiginous angles. Maybe another time.



And here’s another spoiler-without-being-a-spoiler: there is a wonderful circus scene – all of the circus acts taking place around each other, in midair, in bright colors, dancing and doing trapeze routines, set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” that is truly entrancing and joyful.



Can you tell I enjoyed this movie?



Go. Take the kids, and grandma, and tell your friends. Forget your troubles and spend a pleasant ninety minutes.



You won’t regret it.


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