UK

Les Misérables (2012)

Having seen the recent BBC adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo, it’s hard to go back to any other version, catchy tunes or no. The aching six-part miniseries only amplifies the deficits of Tom Hooper’s big screen production and shows the limitations of the musical format in telling Hugo’s sprawling story of poverty and revolution. That’s not to dismiss this handsome film, which boasts many positives, or Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s long-running musical, which was my introduction to musical theater, but rebottling emotions can be difficult, and this grand project leaves as much to be desired as to be admired.

I’ll start with a positive, topped by Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She deserves every award for her performance as Fantine, a character who doesn’t even make it halfway through the first act. It’s early nineteenth century France, and after the young woman loses her job in a factory, she turns to prostitution to pay for her daughter’s keep. Hair shorn and teeth pulled, Fantine bats away lechers and wonders how her life has come to this. The camera is fixed on Hathaway, unable to ignore Fantine’s hopeless fury.

Her misery is felt equally by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. He finds redemption first from a merciful bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role) and then in the town of Montreuil, where he becomes a respectable businessman and mayor. Nothing he does seems to atone for his past though, and he is undone by the tenacious prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), and his guilt over Fantine’s downfall. Jackman is at his best when Valjean is at his lowest. “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” sung shortly after his release, is laden with despair but also carries the faintest strains of hope.

That is something in short supply as every hard won happiness is met by more suffering. Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), from the abusive Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), but they are forced to hide from Javert, who’s determined to chase them throughout France. When the story shifts forward nine years, the focus turns towards the anti-monarchists charging through the streets of Paris. Among them is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young man infatuated with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), loved by Éponine Thénardier (Samantha Barks), and loyal to the student rebels. Things finally come to a head at the barricades, where everyone loses one way or another.

I’ve always been drawn to the emotional texture of Les Misérables, and the film’s overall look primes the landscape beautifully. Several set pieces show off the story’s scope, such as the cavernous shipyard that opens the movie, the cramped and humble Parisian alleys, and, briefly, Marius’s decadent family home. The factory in Montreuil is also striking, sparse but saturated in blue. The entire production design, including makeup and costuming, are fitting of this spectacle.

Hooper’s direction never really rises above the ostentation though. Here is a story brimming with regret and love and forgiveness, where every character, perhaps with the exception of the Thénardiers, walks along some path of redemption. Hooper plows through it all. It’s as if the movie is at the service of brassy showtunes rather than the characters, who barely have time to catch their breath. Even with its substantial two and a half hour runtime, we’re watching one song crash into another and then another.

His decision to film the live singing instead of using prerecorded music is at least partly to blame. The technique has its advantages, and in the case of the slower songs, we get some nuance that we might not see and hear from a studio performance (again, see Anne Hathaway). But this also necessitates a lot of close-ups, and for a sung-through musical, that’s a lot of giant headshots. The camera is far too tight on the actors when they are singing. It translates into a visually overwhelming, claustrophobic experience, something my friend discovered when he got motion sick and nearly lost his dinner all over the lobby floor.

Some of the better performances are powerful enough to ignore that. Redmayne impresses with his intimate interpretation of a broken Marius in the second act, revisiting the scene of the uprising in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” He doesn’t have the gravity of Michael Ball, who originated the role, but is heartbreaking because of his fragility. Daniel Huttlestone, taking on the part of street urchin Gavroche two years before he co-starred in Into the Woods, also proves he can handle a musical challenge. In the middle of the pack are Seyfried, Barks (reprising her role from the twenty-fifth anniversary concert), and Aaron Tveit as the rebellion’s leader, Enjolras. All give fine performances if not particularly memorable ones. As the comical and rascally innkeepers, Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter add levity, but their singing falls flat.

That leaves Jackman and Crowe, both capable actors but not the best fit for this film. Of the two, Jackman fares far better as Valjean and is quite moving in his despair. If this were a non-musical adaptation, his acting would shine. I keep circling back to his singing though and think his voice too reedy considering Valjean’s physical and emotional heft. For someone best known as Wolverine, Jackman sounds pretty feeble as he strains for the higher notes.

Still, casting the Tony-winner is understandable, unlike the choice of Crowe as Javert. He’s in his own league of awful here but not for a lack of trying. Crowe is so out of his depth that he completely loses his character. Rather than a police inspector with an obsessive agenda and an unbending sense of justice, Javert is a confused guy in a funny hat squeaking out threats. Surely a dramatic reading of the lyrics would have been better for all of us. If there is a bright side to Crowe’s participation, it is the reminder that Philip Quast gifted us with this profound performance of “Stars” in the tenth anniversary concert, and that is the version I’m off to watch now.

“Valjean’s Soliloquy” by Hugh Jackman:

“At the End of the Day” by Anne Hathaway and cast:

“I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway:

“The Confrontation” by Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman:

“Castle on a Cloud” by Isabelle Allen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Master of the House” by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Suddenly” by Hugh Jackman:

“Stars” by Russell Crowe:

“Paris/Look Down” by Daniel Huttlestone, Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“Red and Black” by Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” by Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks:

“On My Own” by Samantha Barks:

“One Day More” by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and cast:

“Do You Hear the People Sing” by cast:

“A Little Fall of Rain” by Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne:

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Eddie Redmayne:

Released: 2012
Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Dir: Tom Hooper
Writer: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson
Time: 158 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

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Golden Years (2016)

Golden Years doesn’t map out the ideal retirement plan, but you could keep it on the backburner. Or don’t since this slight comedy of errors about pensioners with a vengeance doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The heist film offers a daffy plot and a veteran cast to match, but it also suffers long pauses slowing the overall momentum. Those inclined to rage against the system may find in this movie some poetic justice, but it’s not as satisfying as say levying a seventy percent marginal tax rate on millionaires.

Arthur (Bernard Hill), a generally content retiree, has his life turned upside down when his pension is wiped out. Besides the utter indifference of financial services representatives, he faces the more pressing concern of paying for his wife’s medication. Martha (Virginia McKenna) is kept in the dark while Arthur tries to figure out how they’ll make it through the next few months, never mind the next few years. He comes upon an age-old plan, the one everyone gets when they’re really hard up for cash, and decides to rob a bank. He doesn’t scheme so much as fall into the idea, and his first robbery of £75,000 is finely choreographed if chaotic and unexpected bit of handiwork.

The story hits national news and attracts the attention of two police detectives, Sid (Alun Armstrong) and Stringer (Brad Moore). Stringer, a hard-charging officer who imagines himself the hero of every scenario, is convinced that the series of robberies is being carried out by highly trained young men with a meticulous attack plan. Sid is more circumspect, his years of experience telling him that something doesn’t add up but he’s not sure what.

Heist films operate on the premise that one’s luck is always about to run out, and there are some humorous if predictable close calls here, one of which involves eating the evidence. There’s not enough of these moments though, and Golden Years doesn’t follow through on the formula. Instead of each side ratcheting things up, the tension subsides the more Arthur and Martha get away with it. They become so comfortable in their new line of work that they even enlist a few friends (Phil Davis, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas) to keep up with their ambitions. The expected showdown between them and the law fizzles, however, and instead turns into a counseling session for Sid and his unhappy wife (Sue Johnston).

The film could have made bigger impression if it had padded the story with more humor and less of a feel good attitude. It tries to have it all ways, taking the real hardships and the indignities suffered by the elderly and pairing it with goofiness of a heist plot. That dichotomy can work, but this film takes the easy way out with every resolution instead of confronting its somber feelings. When the only consequence seems to be a good one, it blunts the emotional impact, and the story goes from looking at real injustice to a game some old folks play because it’s a step up from bingo night.

Released: 2016
Prod: Mark Foligno
Dir: John Miller
Writer: John Miller, Nick Knowles, Jeremy Sheldon
Cast: Bernard Hill, Virginia McKenna, Sue Johnston, Phil Davis, Brad Moore, Mark Williams, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas, Simon Callow, Alun Armstrong, Richard Cambridge
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

The Time of Their Lives (2017)

You aren’t wrong to expect big things from a movie titled The Time of Their Lives. This film, however, offers anything but. What little excitement there is to be had in the story about two seniors on an impromptu French adventure can boiled down to a few minutes at most. Joan Collins and Pauline Collins star as unlikely travel companions, the former as Helen, a film star whose fame and looks have long faded, and the latter as Priscilla, a woman who lives a comfortable life but with a husband (Ronald Pickup) who resents her.

The two are thrown together after an incident at a seaside truck stop. Helen, on a supervised excursion with other residents of her care home, escapes the minders and helps commandeer a coachload of seniors. Priscilla, also on an outing with husband Frank, mistakenly boards the bus and is drawn into Helen’s plan, the first part of which involves sneaking into France in order to attend a friend’s funeral.

The set-up is a classic tale of opposites attracting. The two are meant to strengthen one another and thereby learn to make the most of their remaining years. Carefree, risk-taking Helen and humble, devoted Priscilla would never cross paths on their own, but luck, if one can call it that, has them trapped together for an hours-long drive through the French countryside. Indeed they are an intriguing duo, with both Collinses perfectly cast for their parts. Joan Collins channels all the Dynasty vibes with hair, makeup, and attitude to match. Her counterpart, ever so timid, shuffles along until she doesn’t and then politely but firmly takes her stand.

Two characters don’t make a movie though, and this septuagenarian road trip is forever stuck in neutral, not trusting itself to even take a spin around the block. The few times it starts to get wild – a near drowning in the Channel, a nighttime encounter after their fuel runs out, a fully naked Franco Nero – it pulls back, as if operating by some rule against overexciting its audience. The script wastes its best assets. Helen and Priscilla long to be cared for, but their so-called adventure is so dull that their real trials, the one this trip is supposed to illuminate, don’t end up mattering much.

More than a feisty old woman, Helen refuses to settle into the smallness of her life as it is now. She longs to connect with people, especially those in her past, and seeks to be empathetic in a way that comes so naturally to travel partner. Priscilla, meanwhile, could use a thrill or two. Haunted by the death of her son some four decades ago, she has been emotionally walled off from her husband, who blames her for their child’s death. The couple have never processed their grief, and this impromptu excursion may be what Priscilla needs to free her from years of guilt and bitterness. Life lessons aren’t gained when one person sleeps through a six hour drive though or when conversation gets cut for a montage of a lovely French market.

Released: 2017
Prod: Sarah Sulick
Dir: Roger Goldby
Writer: Roger Goldby
Cast: Joan Collins, Pauline Collins, Franco Nero, Ronald Pickup, Joely Richardson, Siân Reeves
Time: 104 min
Lang: English, some French
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Calendar Girls (2003)

If we’re compiling a list of pinup models for a charity calendar, Helen Mirren would definitely be on my list. So it makes sense to me that she should take the lead on Calendar Girls, a film about women of a certain age who decide to pose nude to raise funds for a cancer charity. Based on a true story, it recounts how a group of Yorkshire women, namely the ladies of the Knapely Women’s Institute, went from housewives to international stars after daring to show some skin.

British folks aren’t going to get their kit off that easily though, at least this is the lesson I learned from The Full Monty. For Chris (Mirren) and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters), the death of Annie’s husband (John Alderton) from cancer is enough motivation. Both are members of the local women’s group, Chris reluctantly so, and are inspired to take a chance on their own tastefully nude calendar. This fundraising idea is not just an alterative to the group’s traditional Yorkshire scenes calendar but also a much needed diversion from the WI’s scintillating lectures on broccoli, tea towels, and the like. Of course, some of the more conservative members prefer gazing at country bridges than at wrinkled navels, and Chris and Annie face pushback from the local chairwoman (Geraldine James).

The film offers up plenty of devilish moments, and it’s funniest exactly where you’d expect it to be. The women, who also include Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Annette Crosbie, and Linda Bassett, enlist a skeptical hospital porter (Philip Glenister) to take the photos. Unfortunately, they also don’t want him anywhere near their naked bodies. Things get tricky when he has to direct them from afar, instructing them just how to angle a pair of pruning shears or a set of glazed buns to hide their lady parts.

The laughs ease up once the calendar goes into production, and national and international media get ahold of their story. Fame starts to take its toll, bringing out Chris’s diva tendencies. Her need to be at the center of attention strains her relationship with Annie, whom she accuses of being too much a martyr for the cause. Chris’s family life suffers too as she leaves her husband (Ciarán Hinds) and son (John-Paul Macleod) in her wake.

The tone of this third act isn’t enough to overwhelm the rest of the film, which remains a hilarious and light-hearted movie. It helps that the women are all top class, a gorgeous, cheeky set that I wouldn’t mind shadowing, well, forever. Mirren might not have a regal bearing here, but she’s still a dizzying force. It’s no wonder Hinds’s character, a true feminist, is utterly smitten. Imrie’s saucy streak was a highlight as well. The movie probably reinforces everything casual American viewers think about England. It certainly seems like a land of Knapely-esque villages where no problem is so big that it can’t be solved with a picnic on the Moors and a fulsome rendition of “Jerusalem.” But damn, what a fun place to be if only for a while.

Released: 2003
Prod: Nick Barton
Dir: Nigel Cole
Writer: Tim Firth, Juliette Towhidi
Cast: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Geraldine James, Philip Glenister, Ciarán Hinds, John Alderton, George Costigan, John-Paul Macleod
Time: 108 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

A Christmas Star (2017)

To reach A Christmas Star’s sweet center, you have to overcome certain flaws in narrative and character development, which may not be worth the trouble to some. Noelle (Erin Galway-Kendrick), the main character, is an eleven year old girl with miraculous powers, a perk of having been born in a barn under the Christmas star on Christmas Day. Unfortunately her powers are limited to one type of miracle – stopping arguments, and this particular skill set isn’t integrated into the story in any logical way. Instead, it’s more of a nice character quirk, something that occasionally sets her apart from others but that is talked about far more than it is used. No one except her best friend Spud-Bob (James Stockdale) knows about her powers despite their jarring and very noticeable effects.

It’s an unnecessary distraction from the rest of the story, which is propped up by one cliché after another but at least makes sense. The Northern Irish town of Pottersglen is in need of some saving. Its signature nativity snow globes aren’t selling anymore, and the pottery that makes them and that employs most of the town is facing ruin. Enter cartoonish villains, Mr. Shepherd (Pierce Brosnan) and Pat McKerrod (Robert James-Collier), the American owners. Well, McKerrod is originally from Pottersglen but left after some drama involving smashed snow globes and a rejected proposal to Noelle’s mom (Bronagh Waugh). This maybe explains his ropey American accent? Anyway, McKerrod hopes to turn mow down the pottery and most of the town and replace it with his own Christmas Kingdom, a premiere hotel-casino-golf-course destination but presumably with a holiday touch.

James-Collier already proved his slimeball bonafides in Downton Abbey as downstairs scoundrel Thomas Barrow. He’s moved upstairs now but still looks like the kind of guy who would enjoy ruining your life. The movie falls just short of an exaggerated kids’ movie though, and it doesn’t need a greedy bad guy rubbing his gloved hands together while cooking up his next scheme. The presence of a son makes things even more awkward. McKerrod keeps barking at Junior (John Moan) to “man up.” I wasn’t aware this was a 1950s sitcom and “Junior” was still a thing, and it’s not clear why McKerrod is stringing his detested preteen son along on a major business trip.

Noelle’s father (Richard Clements) is another confusing figure. A respectable, kind, and even clumsy person, he is also prone to lashing out at his daughter. Some of these fits of rage merit a trip to anger management, but the casual way with which his wife and Noelle dismiss them make me think that this is not really a part of his character. I understand freaking out about your daughter nearly getting crunched by a motorbike, but no need to get apoplectic about her claiming to have powers, especially when people always seem to stop mid-argument around her.

So what is this sweet center that I love about A Christmas Star? Kids. Galway-Kendrick and Stockdale in particular. For two young actors with few credits to their name, they capably light up the whole film, filling me with warm feelings long after I’d finished watching. Each radiates a childlike wonder that is equal parts innocence, confidence, and hope. Together though Noelle and Spud-Bob share a beautiful friendship. They are funny, like when they try to test her miracle powers by multiplying loaves, and honest, like when they talk about feeling different (Stockdale is physically disabled). Their vulnerability with one another touched me in a way that even Noelle’s relationship with her parents did not. I will always love it when young people want to see the good in others, and this movie, for all its faults, aims for that optimism. I will also love it when a movie supports young people in arts, and this production from the youth film charity, Cinemagic, does just that.

Released: 2017
Prod: Joan Burney Keatings
Dir: Richard Elson
Writer: Maire Campbell, Richard Elson
Cast: Rob James-Collier, Suranne Jones, Bronagh Waugh, Erin Galway-Kendrick, Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Richard Clements, Philip Rafferty, James Stockdale, Roma Tomelty
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019