Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité," with feeling!

Let me begin by admitting that I'm a relative newcomer when it comes to musicals, Broadway or otherwise.  With the notable exceptions of 'Grease' and 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' it wasn't until the Oscar winning 'Chicago' in 2002 that I took any kind of interest in the genre, and even then I've only watched a few, and they're either on the quirky ('Across the Universe') or light-hearted ('The Producers,' 'Hairspray' starring John Travolta and 'Rock of Ages') side. 
Having missed the 1998 'Les Misérables' starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes, I can't say that the current version starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried is superior.  Nevertheless, I came away from this moving tale of love, hope, sacrifice, duty, and redemption set in the sprawling backdrop of 19th century France with a newfound respect for the emotive power of storytelling through music.  Nearly every song in 'Les Misérables' is filled with such heartfelt emotions that you cannot help but feel the pain and sorrow of its downtrodden characters: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Éponine, and even Javert.  Although its themes of social justice and societal passions remained the same as the Victor Hugo novel on which it is based, the movie's strength lies in its compassion and empathy for the plight of the less fortunate. 
Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried shined as mother and daughter Fantine and Cosette, respectively, but I was also impressed with Samantha Bark's Éponine, whose unrequited love for Marius (Eddie Redmayne) was one of the most heart-breaking subplots in the movie.  Hugh Jackman, who hosted Tony Awards and is no stranger to the Broadway scene, sang admirably as well, while Russell Crowe's Javert sang within his limits and held his own. 
I won't lie to you, at over two and a half hours 'Les Misérables' did test my patience more than once, but like Jean Valjean, it ultimately redeemed itself with its compassion and heart in the end.

Grade: A-

I guess you can say I'm a 'fan' of Fantine.

Sukiyaki Western Django, Unleashed

As some of you may (or may not) know, I'm a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino.  His exploitative, violent B-movies are 'the sh!t!' and I've seen every one of them: 'Reservoir Dogs,' 'Pulp Fiction,' 'Jackie Brown,' 'Kill Bill' Vols. 1 and 2, 'Death Proof,' 'Inglourious Basterds' and now 'Django Unchained.'  While some may find his movies offensive to their delicate sensibilities, one cannot deny that he is among the best when it comes to crafting witty and darkly funny dialogue.  Only Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith come close in this department.  If you don't believe me, watch 'Pulp Fiction' again.
'Django Unchained' is Tarantino's spaghetti-western, and in many ways it's a 'love letter' to the Sergio Leone movies starring Clint Eastwood with Tarantino's own flourishes.  Its name is inspired by a 2007 movie by prolific and controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike named 'Sukiyaki Western Django' which Tarantino starred in, and sounds just silly enough that we know we're in for a good time.  And 'Django Unchained' is vintage Tarantino.  The story of a slave from Texas freed by a bounty hunter who later went on a quest (Hobbits and dwarves aren't the only ones allowed to go on quests now, are they?) to reunite with his long lost wife on a plantation in Mississippi, the movie is done in classic Tarantino style and, to borrow a term from the movie itself, lots of 'panache.'  As in lots of over-the-top action, '70's Grindhouse violence with copious amounts of unrealistic blood squibs, and some very funny moments (largely provided by Samuel L. Jackson) interspersed with a great soundtrack.  Mmmmm mmmmm delicious!
Tarantino doesn't make movies very often, but I eagerly await each one because I know it will be a treat.  Call me a fan.  His and his pal Rodriguez's too.

Grade: A

Now we know why Django wants to return to her so badly.....

Welcome Back to Middle-Earth, Part 1

It's hard to believe, but it's been 10 years since 'The Return of the King' graced the big screen, Peter Jackson's third and final installment of 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy which garnered 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  His lovingly and laboriously crafted adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic ('The Fellowship of the Ring,' 'The Two Towers' and 'The Return of the King') is a tour-de-force masterpiece that as a whole are among my favorite films of all time. 
Call me a 'Dungeons and Dragons' geek if you must, but ever since I've read my very first fantasy series  'The Chronicles of Prydain' by Lloyd Alexander as a wee child, I've been fascinated with medieval fantasy and enchanted realms populated by fire-breathing dragons. noble elves and hardy dwarves.  But come on, given the mainstream popularity of 'The Lord of the Rings,' 'The Game of Thrones,' 'Harry Potter' and 'World of Warcraft' nowadays, geek is the new chic if you ask me.
Back on topic, Peter Jackson finally returns to Middle-Earth with 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,' and this first part of his much awaited prequel is a rollicking adventure indeed.  While it's not as grand or sweeping an epic as 'The Lord of the Rings,' it's not meant to be.  As a faithful adaptation of the novel it is based on, 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' stands on its own very well, just like its resourceful anti-hero, Bilbo Baggins, recruited by the wizard Gandalf to aid 13 dwarves to reclaim their lost kingdom many years after they were ousted from their mountain keep by the dragon Smaug.  An adventure awaits, as our hapless band of heroes must keep themselves from being eaten by trolls, evade orcs and battle a ruthless Goblin King and his minions to fulfill their quest. 
Well, as you can see, this first part of what will be another planned trilogy on 'The Hobbit' pretty much had me at 'hello,' so I can't say that this review is entirely unbiased.  I just love the fantasy genre, especially when it's done by a master such as Peter Jackson.
Grade: A
It looks cooler in Japanese, no? 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Young Man and the Sea

Once in a while, a wondrous, fantastical, magical and uplifting movie comes along that illustrates the power of the human spirit: 'The Shawshank Redemption,' 'Forrest Gump,' 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' and 'The Green Mile,' just to name a few.  Acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi' is such a movie.  Not having read the book, I came into the movie with a blank slate and open mind, and I came away enraptured, awed and impressed by the movie's beauty and sheer storytelling power.
'Life of Pi' is a movie about a sixteen year old Indian boy whose family was lost in a shipwreck and had to survive for 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean (thanks Wikipedia!).  His only companion for most of his time at sea is a ferocious big cat named Richard Parker who wanted to eat him.  What kind of story is this anyway, you ask?  Well, you have to see it to believe it, and do go see it in 3D will you, because the cinematography is achingly beautiful. 
What you take away from 'Life of Pi,' like the protagonist himself, is really up to you.  It is a spiritual journey of self discovery, and the fact that Pi was once a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim at the same time tells us that faith, universal and enduring, is an uniquely human trait that comes from within our hearts, regardless of its form.  The fantastical storytelling hints at an allegorical narrative, and in the end (for those of you who haven't read the novel) Pi does tell us a different version of the tale and gives us a choice to believe either one.  And for the record, I too prefer the more fantastical.

Grade: A


Lincoln according to Spielberg

Steven Spielberg's latest movie, 'Lincoln,' isn't a biopic but rather a snapshot of his final year in office.  The year is 1865, Lincoln is in his second term and the Confederacy is on its last legs in the final year of the 'War Between the States.'  And yet, Lincoln is determined to the point of obsession in getting the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed through congress.  From the debate floor of the House of Representatives to shady backroom dealings, we get a glimpse of 19th century politics that's not much different from Beltway politics today.  Through his Secretary of State William Seward and other intermediaries, Lincoln was not above getting his hands dirty and employing unsavory characters (such as W.N. Bilbo and Robert Latham) to coax, cajole, buy or twist arms to get the twenty Democratic votes he needed for the two-thirds majority to pass the Amendment.  Indeed, he even resorted to (gasp!) flat out lying, claiming that he had no knowledge a Confederate delegation (which has been kept waiting) came to sue for peace, so as to deny his democratic opponents cause for postponing the vote.  All of a sudden, 'Honest Abe' doesn't seem so fitting a nickname anymore. 

Before you rip me, let me just say that I have the highest respect and admiration for good ol' Abe.  Lincoln, after all, is a man, with foibles like everyone else.  Daniel Day-Lewis gave the performance of his career portraying our sixteenth president, and we really come to see (and believe) what Lincoln really could have been like.  He can be a great orator, sure, but not all the time, and he's better at telling stories and anecdotes in more intimate settings.  He was stubborn at times and prone to losing his temper.  He fought with his wife occasionally, such as over his eldest son's desire to risk his life and join the Union Army.  In other words, he was 'human.'  Of course, as historical epics go kudos must be given to the fine ensemble cast as well, in particular Tommy Lee Jones as the easily outraged Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as the pragmatic William Sewell, Sally Field as the headstrong and opinionated Mrs. Lincoln, James Spader as the smug and slimy W.N. Bilbo (even the name sounds slippery) and Lee Pace as the smooth-talking Mr. Wood.

Spielberg deftly directed 'Lincoln' with a sure hand and once again brought history to life, much as he did in 'Schindler's List,' 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'Amistad' and 'War Horse.'  A true auteur whose visionary genius and ability to tell a story through the canvas of the celluloid is second to none, he is proving once again why he may be the greatest director of our generation.

Grade: A