“MAN OF STEEL” (2013) Review

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“MAN OF STEEL” (2013) Review

When I had first learned that Warner Brothers Studios and D.C. Comics planned to release another Superman movie six years ago, I did not greet the news with any enthusiasm. In fact, my first reaction was sheer frustration. The last D.C. Comics movie I wanted to see was another Superman movie. 

There were so many reasons for my negative reaction to the news of a new Superman movie. The last one I saw was 2006’s “SUPERMAN RETURNS”, which had been directed by Bryan Singer. There had also been two television series about the Man of Steel in the past twenty (20) years – “LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN” (1993-1997) and “SMALLVILLE” (2001-2011). The film subsidiary for Marvel Comics have shown a willingness to release movies featuring a vast array of their comic book characters. On the other hand, D.C. Comics seems to be stuck on either Superman or Batman for television and movie material. There have been minor exceptions to the rule – including the Oliver Queen/Green Arrow character that became a regular on “SMALLVILLE”; the 2011 film, “THE GREEN LANTERN”; and the recent WB television series, “ARROW” (the Green Arrow again). Wonder Woman has not been a subject of a movie or television series in her own right since the Lynda Carter series from the 1970s. An unsuccessful television series about the Flash failed to last one season. And Aquaman merely served as a guest character on “SMALLVILLE” for a few episodes.

I had one other reservation regarding the announcement of a new Superman movie. The producers had chosen Zack Synder to direct the film. And I have never been a fan of his past films, at least the ones I have seen – namely the very successful “300”, the critically acclaimed “THE WATCHMEN” and “SUCKER PUNCH”. When I learned he had been selected to direct the new Superman film, “MAN OF STEEL”, my enthusiasm sunk even further. However, I saw the movie’s new trailer last spring and my opposition to the movie began to wane. What can I say? It impressed me. So, I decided to open my mind and give “MAN OF STEEL” a chance.

Thanks to David S. Goyer’s screenplay and the story created by him and Christopher Nolan, “MAN OF STEEL” follows the origins of Superman. Well . . . somewhat. The movie begins on the planet of Krypton, where scientist Jor-El assists his wife in the birth of their newborn son, Kal-El. Due to years of exploiting the planet’s natural resources by the planet’s inhabitants, the planet has an unstable core and faces imminent destruction. Jor-El and Lara plans to send their son to Earth to ensure his survival. They also infuse his cells with a genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian race, something that the planet’s military commander, General Zod desires. Zod and his followers commit a military coup. And the general murders Jor-El, after learning what the latter did with the genetic codex. But Zod and his followers are immediately captured and banished to the Phantom Zone. When Krypton finally self-destructs, the explosion frees Zod and his people; setting them on a search for young Kal-El and the genetic codex at other worlds colonized by Kryptonians.

Kal-El eventually lands on Earth and in the middle of the Kansas countryside. A farmer and his wife – Jonathan and Martha Kent – adopts and raises him, renaming him Clark Kent. However, Clark’s Kryptonian physiology gives him super abilities on Earth, which raises a lot of social problems for him. Jonathan eventually reveals to Clark that he came from another planet and advises not to use his abilities in public. Following Jonathan’s death, a bereaved Clark spends several years roaming the country and working at odd jobs, while he deals with his grief and save people in secret. He eventually infiltrates a scientific discovery of a Kryptonian scout spaceship in the Arctic, which had been discovered by the military. Also there is a reporter from the Daily Planet named Lois Lane. Clark, who is unaware of being followed by Lois, enters the alien ship. It allows him to communicate with the preserved consciousness of Jor-El in the form of a hologram. Jor-El reveals Clark’s origins and the extinction of his race, and tells Clark that he was sent to Earth to bring hope to mankind. Meanwhile, General Zod and his crew pick up a Kryptonian distress signal sent from the ship Clark had discovered on Earth. Zod arrives and demands the humans surrender Kal-El, whom he believes has the codex, or else Earth will be destroyed.

So . . . what did I not like about “MAN OF STEEL”? For one, I disliked the shaky cam photography used by Amir Mokri. I disliked its use by Paul Greengrass in some of his movies. I disliked its use in “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. And I certainly did not like its use in this film. It made the final confrontations between Superman and the Kryptonians more confusing. Then again, David Brenner’s editing certainly did not help – not in this scene or in the burning oil rig sequence in the movie’s first half hour. I have been a fan of Hans Zimmer for years. But I found his score for this movie rather heavy-handed, especially his use of horns. Speaking of Superman and the Kryptonians’ final confrontations – I thought it was a bit over-the-top in regard to the destruction inflicted upon Metropolis. It reminded me of final action sequence in “IRON MAN 3”, which I also did not care for.

Fortunately, there was a great deal more about “MAN OF STEEL” that I liked. And I find this amazing, considering my past opinion of director Zack Synder. David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan wrote a first-rate origin story for Superman. I noticed that they utilized the same or a similar story structure that they had used in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Instead of allowing Superman to face his most famous adversary in the first film, Goyer and Nolan utilized Superman’s Kryptonian origins to play a major role in the film’s story. Instead of Lex Luthor, Superman’s main nemesis in “MAN OF STEEL” proved to be General Zod. Some fans of the franchise were annoyed by this. I was not. Goyer and Nolan also did a first-rate job in exploring Clark Kent/Superman’s emotional growth, the loneliness he had endured during his childhood in flashbacks and those years he wandered before discovering the Kryptonian ship in the Artic, and his wariness toward the human race. I especially do not recall any previous Superman story or television series exploring the latter. How very original of Goyer, Nolan and director Zack Snyder. Some fans have complained about the different twists that Goyer, Nolan and Synder made to the Superman mythos – especially in his relationship with reporter Lois Lane. I do not understand the complaints, considering the number of twists and changes that have been made to the Superman mythos in movies and especially television during the past twenty years. And honestly? The twist to Clark/Superman’s relationship with Lois made the story fresher.

Although I did not particularly care for the over-the-top destruction featured in “MAN OF STEEL”, I must admit that the special effects featured in that last scene impressed me very much. I was also impressed by their work in the sequence that featured Superman’s fight against Faora-Ul and the other Kryptonian in Smallville. But the one sequence that featured some great special effects happened to be the one on Krypton. I found the effects very beautiful. In fact, there were other aspects of that sequence that really impressed me – namely Alex McDowell’s production designs, Anne Kuljian’s set decorations, Kim Sinclair and Chris Farmer’s art direction and especially James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs. Some have complained by the lack of red shorts for Superman’s costume. But I did not miss them. More importantly, I liked how Sinclair and Farmer linked Superman’s costume with those worn by many of the Kryptonians.

When I first heard that Henry Cavill had been hired to portray Clark Kent/Superman, I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback. Mind you, the idea of a British actor portraying an American comic book character was nothing new, thanks to Christian Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Anglo-American Andrew Garfield’s recent portrayal of Spider-Man. I only felt uncertain if Cavill could portray a Midwesterner with the proper accent. Okay, I am not an expert in Midwestern accents. But Cavill handled the American very well. More importantly, he gave a superb performance as the quiet, yet emotional Clark Kent who had spent a good number of years wallowing in loneliness. I was surprised that Amy Adams had signed on to portray Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. I did not expect her to appear in a comic book hero movie. But I must admit that I really enjoyed her performance, especially since her Lois proved to be a lot less blind about Superman’s secret identity and more willing to track down the truth. Michael Shannon effectively utilized that same intensity that provided for his Nelson Van Alden role in HBO’s “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” in his performance as the single-minded Kryptonian General Zod.

Antje Traue proved to be even more scary than Shannon as Zod’s second-in-command, the less verbal Faora-Ul. Laurence Fishburne gave an intense performance as Perry White, the no-nonsense editor of the Daily Planet. Russell Crowe’s Jor-El not only proved to be charismatic, but something of a bad ass. Ayelet Zurer provided a great deal of pathos and emotion in her performance as Superman’s mother, Lara Lor-Van. Diane Lane proved to be the movie’s emotional rock in her down-to-earth performance as Martha Kent, Superman’s adopted mother. And Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Jonathan Kent proved to be just as charismatic as Crowe’s Jor-El and as emotional as Zurer’s Lara. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of Richard Schiff, Michael Kelly and Christopher Meloni. I was really impressed with Harry Lennix’s performance as the commanding, yet paranoid General Swanwick.

“MAN OF STEEL” had a few problems. But I believe that the movie possessed a great deal more virtues, including a first-rate story created by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan and a superb cast led by a talented Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. But I was very surprised by Zack Synder’s direction, especially since he managed to curtail some of his less-than-pleasant excesses in films previous to this one, and at the same time, effectively helm a first-rate movie. For the first time, I found myself being more than pleased by a movie directed by Synder.

 

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“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

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“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Aside from the Liam Neeson thriller, ”TAKEN”, I must admit that I had never regarded those movies released between January and April of 2009, all that impressive. Many of them were not terrible.  But for me, it seemed as if I had been wallowing in a sea of mediocrity during that period.  Thankfully, this cinematic slog ended when I saw Kevin Macdonald’s 2009 thriller called, ”STATE OF PLAY”.

Based upon the critically acclaimed 2003 British miniseries of the same name, ”STATE OF PLAY” is about a Washington D.C. newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and centers around the relationship between leading journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his old friend Robert Collins (Ben Affleck), a U.S. congressman on the fast track and Baker’s employer. When Congressman Collins learns of his aide’s death, he asks his old friend, McAffrey to investigate her death when it is labeled as a suicide. McAffrey and a blogger with his newspaper named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) not only learn that Baker was Congressman Collins’ mistress, but there might be a connection between her death and the private military company that the congressman was investigating.

I have heard a few proclaim that the original British miniseries is superior to this version. If so, then it must have been one hell of a production. Do not get me wrong.  I did enjoy the British television version very much.  But like this film, it had its flaws.  And I must admit that despite its own flaws, I found this version of ”STATE OF PLAY” to be very impressive in its own right. Kevin Macdonald’s solid direction, along with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray created a tight thriller filled with interesting glimpses into the press and Washington politics. I doubt that this film will ever be critically acclaimed like the British miniseries or earn any award nominations, but it was a solid, well-acted movie filled with first-rate performances. And its story – unlike previous movies I have recently watched – did not end on a disappointing note. The movie ended with an unexpected twist that surprised me.

Russell Crowe led the cast, portraying Washington Globe journalist, Cal McAffrey. I would not consider his role to be as interesting as the Ed Hoffman character from ”BODY OF LIES”, Bud White in ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, Jeffrey Wigand in ”THE INSIDER” or his Oscar winning role in ”GLADIATOR” – Maximus Decimus Meridius. His Cal McAffrey is on the surface, an affable, yet slightly jaded reporter who becomes a relentless truth-seeker when pursuing a special story. In the case of Sonia Baker, McAffrey’s relentless investigation seemed rooted in his desire to extract his friend Collins from the gossip slingers over the latter’s affair with the aide and focus upon bringing down the private military company being investigated by Collins. Crowe is at turns relaxed and at the same time, intense and single-minded in his pursuit of journalistic truth.

Years ago, I had found myself thinking that if there was ever a remake of the 1950 classic, ”SUNSET BOULEVARD”, who could portray the doomed Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis. The first person that immediately came to my mind was Ben Affleck. Actress Nancy Olson once described William Holden at the time that particular movie was filmed as the typical handsome Hollywood leading actor . . . but with a touch of corruption that made his Joe Gillis so memorable. Frankly, I could say the same about Affleck. I saw him display this same trait in movies like ”BOUNCE””HOLLYWOODLAND”, “GONE GIRL” and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”.  And I could see it in his performance as Congressman Robert Collins. Affleck managed to skillfully project Collins not only as a dedicated crusader who is determined to bring down the private military company with a congressional investigation, but also a flawed man who became sexually attracted to his beautiful aide, while struggling to control his anger at the knowledge of his wife Anne’s (Robin Wright Penn) past affair with McAffrey.

The rest of the cast included Rachel McAdams’ solid portrayal of a popular blogger turned junior political reporter named Della Frye, who finds herself in the midst of the career-making story and mentored by McAffrey. Helen Mirren’s Washington Globe editor Cameron Lynne is wonderfully splashy and strong, without being over-the-top. I could say the same for Jason Bateman’s performance as a bisexual fetish club promoter named Dominic Foy, who has the information that McAffrey and Frye need. Michael Berresse portrayed a mysterious hitman named Robert Bingham and he does a pretty good job. However, I must admit that I found his performance as a sociopath a little over-the-top . . . especially in his last scene. Although not as memorable as some of the other supporting cast, both Harry Lennix as a Washington D.C. cop and Jeff Daniels as Affleck’s congressional mentor gave solid support to the movie. And there is Robin Wright Penn, who portrayed the congressman’s wife, Anne Collins. Penn gave a complex performance as the politician’s wife who is not only hurt and betrayed by her husband’s infidelity, but wracked with guilt over her own past indiscretion with McAffrey, along with desire for him.

If you are expecting ”STATE OF PLAY” to be the next ”ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” or ”SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”, you are going to be slightly disappointed.  I have seen better quality political films than this movie. But I can honestly say that I still found ”STATE OF PLAY” to be a solid and entertaining movie filled with intelligence, humor and a strong and steady cast.

 

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“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

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“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

When I had first learned about Ron Howard’s biopic about boxing champion James J. Braddock, I was very reluctant to see the film. In fact, I did not even bother to go see it. Instead, I merely dismissed “CINDERELLA MAN” as a ‘“SEABISCUIT” in the boxing ring’. After I finally saw the movie, I must admit that my original assessment stood. 

”CINDERELLA MAN” and the 2003 Oscar nominated film, ”SEABISCUIT” seemed to have a lot in common. Both were released by Universal Pictures. Both films possessed a running time that lasted over two hours, both were sentimental stories that centered around a famous sports figure and both were set during the Great Depression. Unlike ”SEABISCUIT””CINDERELLA MAN” told the story about a man – namely one James J. Braddock, an Irish-American boxer from New York and Bergen, New Jersey. The movie started out with Braddock (portrayed by Russell Crowe) as a boxing heavyweight contender in 1928, who had just won an important bout against another boxer named Tuffy Griffiths. But within five years, Braddock found himself as a has-been struggling to keep his family alive during the depths of the Depression, while working as longshoreman. Thanks to a last minute cancellation by another boxer, Braddock gets a second chance to fight but is put up against the number two contender in the world, Corn Griffin, by the promoters who see Braddock as nothing more than a punching bag. Braddock stuns the boxing experts and fans with a third round knockout of the formidable Griffin. After winning a few more bouts, Braddock ends facing boxing champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), for the heavyweight title in 1935.

Despite the similarities between ”CINDERELLA MAN” and ”SEABISCUIT”, I must admit that I regret not seeing this film in the theaters. It turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Director Ron Howard, along with screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, did an excellent job of chronicling Braddock’s boxing career at a time when he had been labeled a has-been by the sports media. The movie also featured some excellent fight sequences that came alive due to Howard’s direction, Crowe, Bierko, and the other actors who portrayed Braddock’s opponents. Although the movie’s main event was the championship fight between Braddock and Baer during the last thirty minutes, I was especially impressed by the sequence that featured Braddock’s fight against Art Lansky (Mark Simmons). In my opinion, most of the praise for these fight sequences belonged to cinematographer Salvatore Totino, and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (who both received Academy Award nominations for their work) for injecting the boxing sequences with rich atmosphere and effective editing.

Ironically, the movie’s centerpiece – at least in my opinion – was its deception of the Depression. I understand that Howard had used the city of Toronto to serve as 1930s Manhattan and New Jersey. And judging from the results on the screen, he did an excellent job of utilizing not only the cast led by Crowe, but also the talents of production designer Wynn Thomas, Gordon Sim’s set decorations, Peter Grundy and Dan Yarhi’s art direction and Totino’s photography to send moviegoers back in time. There are certain scenes that really seemed to recapture the desperation and poverty of the Depression’s early years:

*Braddock begs for money from the sports promoters and boxing managers at Madison Square Garden
*Mae Braddock’s discovery of the gas man turning off the family’s heat
*The Braddocks witness the desertion of a man from his wife and family
*Braddock’s search for his friend, Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), at a Hooverville in Central Park

Howard and casting agents, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, managed to gather an impressive group of cast members for the movie. The ironic thing is that despite the impressive display of talent on screen, hardly anyone gave what I would consider to be a memorable performance – save for one actor. Russell Crowe naturally gave an impressive, yet surprisingly likeable performance as James Braddock. Although I found his performance more than competent, I must say that I would not consider it to be one of his best roles. There was nothing really fascinating or complex about his Braddock. I suspect that screenwriters Hollingsworth and Goldsman could have made Braddock a more interesting character . . . and simply failed to rise to the occasion. I have to say the same about their portrayal of the boxer’s wife, Mae Braddock. Portrayed by Renee Zellweger, her Mae was a loving and supporting spouse, whose only kink in her personality revolved around her dislike of Braddock’s boxing. In fact, Zellweger’s Mae threatened to become a cliché of the countless number of women who end up as wives of men in dangerous professions. Thankfully, Zellweger managed to give an excellent performance and with Crowe, create a strong screen chemistry.

Paul Giamatti received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould. Many had assumed that Giamatti had received his nomination as a consolation prize for being passed over for his superb performance in ”SIDEWAYS”. After seeing his performance as Gould, I suspect they might be right. I am not saying that Giamatti gave a bad performance. He was excellent as Braddock’s enthusiastic and supportive manager. But there was nothing remarkable about it . . . or worthy of an Oscar nomination. If there is one performance that I found impressive, it was Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mike Wilson, Braddock’s friend and co-worker at the New York docks. Considine’s Wilson was a former stockbroker ruined by the 1929 Crash, who was forced to become a menial laborer in order to survive. Although his plight seemed bad enough to generate sympathy, Considine did an excellent job of portraying the character’s bitterness and cynicism toward his situation, President Roosevelt’s ability to lead the country out of the Depression and the world itself. I hate to say this, but I feel that the wrong actor had received the Oscar nomination. God knows I am a big fan of Giamatti. But if it had been left up to me, Considine would have received that nomination.

We finally come to Craig Bierko’s performance as Max Baer, champion boxer and Braddock’s final opponent in the movie. Baer’s character first makes his appearance in a championship fight against Primo Carnera, following Braddock’s surprising upset over Corn Griffin. From the start, he is portrayed as a brash and aggressive fighter who does not know when to quit. And it gets worse. Before I continue, I want to say that I have nothing against the actor who portrayed Baer. Like Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti, Bierko had to do the best he could with the material given to him. And he did the best he could. Bierko, being an above-average actor, infused a great deal of energy and charisma into his portrayal of Baer. It seemed a shame that Howard’s direction, along with Hollingsworth and Goldman’s script forced Bierko to portray Baer as some kind of callous thug who felt no remorse for killing two other fighters in the ring and was not above needling Braddock at a Manhattan nightclub by making suggestive remarks about Mae.

Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. (”THE BEVERLY HILLIBILLIES”) had been naturally outraged by what he deemed was the movie’s false portrayal of the boxer. What the movie failed to convey was that Baer had only killed one man in the ring – Frankie Campbell – and had been so shaken up by the other man’s death that it affected his boxing career for several years. Nor did Baer ever make any suggestive remarks toward Mae Braddock. He also hugged and congratulated Braddock following the latter’s June 1935 victory. I really do not know why Howard thought it was necessary to turn Baer into a one-note villain. Someone claimed that the movie needed a nemesis for Braddock that seemed more solid than the vague notion of the Depression. If that is true, I believe that Howard and the movie’s screenwriters turned Baer into a villain for nothing. As far as I am concerned, the Great Depression made an effective and frightening nemesis for Braddock. This was brilliantly conveyed in Braddock’s bout with Art Lasky. At one point in this sequence, the New Jersey boxer seemed to be on the verge of defeat . . . until his memories of his family and how the Depression had affected them . . . urged him to a hard-won victory. Sequences like the Braddock-Lasky fight and Braddock’s search for Mike Wilson in the Central Park Hooverville made the Great Depression a more effective nemesis than the one-dimensional and crude behavior of a falsely portrayed Max Baer ever could.

Despite the movie’s badly written portrayal of Baer, and slightly uninteresting major characters like James and Mae Braddock, and Joe Gould; ”CINDERELLA MAN” is still an excellent biopic that featured exciting boxing sequences. More importantly, it is one of the few Hollywood films that revealed an in-depth look into one of the country’s most traumatic periods – namely the Great Depression. Flawed or not, I believe that it is still worth watching.

 

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

There were a few movies released in 2012 that I was very reluctant to see in the theaters. One of those movies turned out to be “LES MISERABLES”, the recent adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1985 stage musical of the same name. And that musical was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.

Directed by Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, “LES MISERABLES” told the story of early 19th century French convict Jean Valjean released from prison on parole by a guard named Javert in 1815. Nineteen years earlier, Valjean had been imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family. Because of his paroled status, Valjean is driven out of every town. He is offered food and shelter by the Bishop of Digne, but steals the latter’s silver during the night. Valjean’s former prison guard, the police captures him. But the Bishop informs them that he had given the silver to Valjean as a gift. The former convict eventually breaks his parole and Javert vows to capture him. Eight years later, Valjean has become a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Some of Valjean’s factory workers discover that one of their own, a woman named Fantine, one of his workers, has been sending money to an illegitimate daughter named Cosette. Fantine uses her salary to pay an unscrupulous innkeeper named Thénardiers, his equally shady wife and their daughter Éponine to take care of Cosette. However, Valjean’s foreman dismisses Fantine and she resorts to desperate measures to support her daughter by selling her hair and teeth, before becoming a prostitute. Javert, who has become the town’s chief inspector, arrests Fantine for striking an abusive customer. Valjean saves her and has her hospitalized. He also learns that a man believed to be him, has been arrested. Refusing to allow an innocent man to become condemned in his place, Valjean reveals his identity during the man’s trial. Then then returns to the hospital and he promises the dying Fantine that he will look after Cosette.

Javert arrives to take Valjean into custody, but Valjean escape with a jump into the local river. He then pays the Thénardiers to allow him to take Cosette. The pair elude Javert’s pursuit and begin a new life in Paris. The story jumps nine years later in which the grandson of a wealthy man and student and named Marius Pontmercy becomes involved in a growing revolutionary movement following the death a government official sympathetic to the poor named Jean Maximilien Lamarque. He also falls in love with Cosette, much to Valjean’s dismay, who believes he is an agent of Javert’s. Meanwhile, Marius is unaware that Éponine Thénardier, the daughter of Cosette’s former caretakers, has fallen in love with him. Most of these storylines – Valjean’s reluctance to acknowledge Cosette and Marius’ love; Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius; and Valjean’s problems with Javert, who has joined the Paris police force, culminates in the long and detailed sequence that features the June Rebellion of 1832.

After watching my DVD copy of “LES MISERABLES”, I cannot deny that the movie has some great moments and struck me as pretty damn good. The sequence featuring Fantine’s troubles greatly moved me. After winning an Academy Award for her outstanding performance as the doomed woman, Anne Hathaway had expressed a hope that one day the misfortunes of Fantine would be found only in fiction in the future. That is a lovely hope, but knowing human nature, I doubt it will ever happen. And watching Fantine’s life spin out of control, due to the narrow-minded views of society and male objectivity of her body, I think my views on human nature sunk even further. Some critics had the nerve to claim that Fantine’s situation was something from the past and could never be considered relevant today. I am still amazed that adults – even those who considered themselves civilized and intelligent – could be so completely blind and idiotic. Even Valjean’s attempts to make a life for himself, following his release from prison struck me as relevant – echoing the attempts of some convicts to overcome the criminal pasts and records in an effort to make a new life. Usually with little or no success, thanks to the chilly attitude of the public. Hugh Jackman’s performance beautifully reflected the struggles of many convicts – past and present – to make new lives for themselves – especially in the movie’s first half hour. Although many people tend to view the police officer Javert as evil, I suspect they view his villainy as a product of any society that creates rules – at times rigid – to keep the general population in check. While watching “LES MISERABLES”, I realized that I could never view Javert as a villain of any kind. He merely seemed to be a foil or object to Valjean’s chances for a new life. More than anything, Javert seemed to be a victim of his own rigid views on good, evil and upholding the law. Russell Crowe did a beautiful job of expressing Javert’s inability to be flexible in his views on morality . . . even when his own flexibility comes to the fore when he allows Valjean to finally escape in the end. And it is a shame that he never earned an Academy Award or Golden Globe Award nomination.

“LES MISERABLES” has a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes. Yet, only 50 minutes of the film focused on Valjean’s early years as an ex-convict, his tenure as mayor of Montreuil-sur-Merhis, Fantine’s troubles and young Cosette’s time with the Thénardiers. The rest of the movie is set in 1832 Paris, leading up to the outbreak of the June Rebellion. And if I must honest . . . I found that a little disappointing. Mind you, not all of the 1832 segment was a waste. Thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, the segment featured a well directed and detailed account of the June Rebellion – especially from Marius Pontmercy, Valjean and Javert’s viewpoints. It featured more fine performances from Jackman and Crowe, as Valjean and Javert continued their game of cat and mouse. It also featured an excellent performance from Samantha Barks, who made a very impressive film debut as Éponine Thénardier, the oldest daughter of Cosette’s cruel caretakers. Many filmgoers and critics had complained about the romance between Cosette and Marius Pontmercy, claiming that it seemed forced. I do not know if I could agree with that assessment. I thought Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne did a pretty good job in conveying the young couple’s romantic interest in each other. The problem with their romance centered on Cosette’s character.

I realized that Seyfried did all she could to infuse some kind of energy into the role. I could say the same for Isabelle Allen. Both Seyfriend and Allen gave first-rate performances. Unfortunately, both were saddled with a one-dimensional character. At times, I found myself wishing that Éponine and not Cosette had ended up with Marius. In fact, I felt the movie could have explored Cosette and the Thénardiers’ relationship with a little more depth. As for the Thénardiers, they proved to be the story’s true villains. Unfortunately, Helen Bonham-Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen injected a little too much comedy into their performances. The couple came off more as comic relief, instead of villains. And I blame both Hooper and the screenwriters. Cosette and the Thénardiers were not the only problems. Although I had complimented Hooper’s direction of the June Rebellion scenes, the entire sequence threatened to go on and on . . . almost forever. I ended up as one relieved moviegoer when the sequence ended with quick violence and Valjean’s rescue of Marius. I have a deep suspicion that “LES MISERABLES” was really about the June Rebellion. Many claimed that Hugo was inspired by his witness of the insurrection. Which would explain why the story’s earlier period between 1815 and 1823 were rushed in a span of 50 minutes or so. Pity. Other moviegoers complained about Hooper’s constant use of close-ups in the film. And I have to agree with them. For a movie that was supposed to be a historic epic wrapped in a musical production, the balance between wide shots and close-ups somewhat unbalanced. During Valjean’s death scene, he envisioned not only the long dead Fatine, but also the insurrectionists who had fought alongside Marius before getting killed. One of those insurrectionists turned out to be Éponine Thénardier. Only she had died before Valjean had arrived at Marius’ barricade. So . . . why was he experiencing images of her?

I could comment on the singing performances of the cast. I thought they had more or less did a pretty good job. Many had criticized Crowe’s singing, but I honestly felt nothing wrong about it. Hathaway’s acting during her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” impressed me a lot more than her singing voice, which struck me as pretty solid. I had expected Jackman’s singing to knock my socks off. It did not quite reach that level. Like Hathaway and Crowe, his acting impressed me a lot more than his singing. Both Redmayne and Seyfried sang pretty well. So did Helen Bonham-Carter and Cohen. But the one musical performance that really impressed me was Samantha Barks’ rendition of “On My Own”. The actress/singer has a beautiful voice.

I liked “LES MISERABLES” very much. The movie featured fine performances from the cast. And Tom Hooper did a very good job in directing the film, despite the many close-ups. And I do believe that it deserved a Best Picture nomination. Do not get me wrong. I enjoy musicals very much. But I simply could not endure a musical that not only featured songs, but dialogue acted out in song. It stretched my patience just a little too much – like the drawn out sequences leading up to the violence that ended the June Rebellion. I would like to say that I regret missing “LES MISERABLES” in the movie theaters. But I would be lying. I have no regrets . . . as much as I like the film.

 

“AMERICAN GANGSTER” (2007) Review

American Gangster 1

 

“AMERICAN GANGSTER” (2007) Review

Six years ago, I saw a movie that managed to more than spark my interest. I am talking about the 2007 drama directed by Ridley Scott called, “AMERICAN GANGSTER”. The movie, which starred Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, told the story about drug lord Frank Lucas and the New Jersey cop who brought him down, Ritchie Roberts.

Set between 1968 and 1976, “AMERICAN GANGSTER” began with the death of Harlem mobster and Lucas’ own boss, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. Following Johnson’s death, Lucas found himself embroiled in a rivalry for control of Harlem. Realizing that he lacked the cash to assume control, he began a scheme that cut out middlemen in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from his source in Southeast Asia. He also organized the smuggling of heroin from Vietnam to the U.S. by using the coffins of dead American servicemen (“Cadaver Connection”).

The story also focused upon the man who had eventually captured Lucas, namely a New Jersey cop for Essex County named Ritchie Roberts. Roberts turned out to be a rare case amongst the law enforcers in the Tri-State area – namely an honest cop. When he and his partner, Javier Rivera stumbled across a cache of untraceable drug money, Roberts had insisted that it be reported. This one act not only drove his fellow cops (apparently honest cops were not trusted) to ostracize both Roberts and Rivera, and drove the latter to overdose on drugs that happened to be part of Lucas’ new product called ‘Blue Angel’. The movie not only focused upon Lucas and Roberts’ professional lives, which would eventually lead to the former’s arrest in 1975; it also focused on their private lives. Whereas drug lord Lucas is a loyal family man and faithful husband, honest cop Roberts turned out to be a notorious philanderer who had allowed an old friend and local mobster to be his son’s godfather.

Director Ridley Scott did a superb job of steering the audience into the world of the drug trade, East Coast organized crime and law enforcement from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. With Steve Zillian’s script, he also managed to give the audience a clear view of capitalism and its corrupting influence on mobsters, the police and local neighborhoods. This was especially conveyed in two scenes. One featured a conversation between Lucas and competitor Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr. in a cameo role), the former gave the latter a lesson on brand names and other forms of capitalism. It seemed that Barnes had been selling his product using Lucas’ brand name of Blue Angel. Believe or not, drug dealers apparently did stamp brand names on their products. Why not? Alcohol and tobacco companies do. The other featured a segment on how corrupt cops like NYPD Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) extort both money and drugs and cut into the mobs’ profits by selling the latter on the street.

Also Scott and Zillian gave the audience a look at the devastating impact that street drugs had on society – including soldiers in Vietnam, local citizens of Harlem and cops like Roberts’ partner, Rivera. Scott managed to re-create this setting without allowing the movie’s setting to slide into a cliche. I got so caught up in the movie that by the time it ended, two hours and forty mintues had passed without me realizing it.

In 1995, both Washington and Crowe did a movie together – a science-fiction thriller called, “VIRTUOSITY”. Needless to say that by the time the movie’s first half hour had end, I realized it was a stinker. And yes, it did deservedly bomb at the box office. Fortunately for Scott, he was lucky to work with the two dynamic actors’ second collaboration. And both Washington and Crowe were lucky to co-star in a movie that turned out to be twenty times better than “VIRTUOSITY”. Washington effortlessly re-created both the charm and the menace of the drug lord. And Crowe infused his usual intensity into the solidly honest Roberts. “AMERICAN GANGSTER” was also blessed by a solid cast led by the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr. as the very splashy drug kingpin Nicky Barnes, the intense John Ortiz as Roberts’ drug addicted partner, Javier Rivera, Ruby Dee as the staunchly emotional Mama Lucas and Josh Brolin in his deliciously corrupt portrayal of NYPD Detective Trupo.

I was very disappointed when “AMERICAN GANGSTER” failed to receive numerous Academy Award nominations during the 2007-2008 movie award seasons. In fact, it only earned two – a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ruby Dee and a Best Art Direction nomination for Arthur Max and Beth A. Rubino. And nothing else. Like I said, I felt very disappointed. If you have not seen “AMERICAN GANGSTER” yet, I recommend that you do so. After all, it is now available on DVD.