Sunday, December 30, 2012

Yes, I Cried My Eyes Out -- Here, You Can Have My Man Card

Reel To Reel: Les Misérables

Going Rate: Worth full price admission... and then some
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Emotional and graphic depiction of poverty and prostitution, Ye olde musket violence, a few curse words

I remember somebody criticizing the Broadway production of Les Misérables for "making the poor look cute." Maybe this film version is what he had in mind: a gritty yet soaring, emotionally draining contemporary opera set in 19th-century France that reaches deep into the soul and does not let go. Bring Kleenex -- a lot of it.

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) turns the wildly successful stage production into a musical drama, where dialogue is sung in the manner it would be spoken. Eschewing the traditional movie-musical convention of recording the songs in a studio and lip-synching them in front of the camera, Hooper's cast sings in real time. This technique required each cast member to listen to a piano played off-camera through a hidden earpiece to keep them in key. However, instead of looking at a conductor to guide their pace, the actors set their own time, and the orchestra recorded the backing instrumentation later, matching the actors' rhythms. The product is highly passionate and yet nuanced as the actors are required to act as they sing and play to the camera instead of the back of the house.

You already know Victor Hugo's story: paroled prisoner Jean Valjean (Jackman) is transformed by a priest's act of mercy, driven to break parole and inspired to become a new person. He reinvents himself as a successful businessman and agrees to care for the daughter of Fantine (Hathaway), one of his factory workers forced into a life of prostitution after losing her job. The daughter, Cosette (Seyfried), lives as a neglected errand girl to a corrupt innkeeper (Cohen) and his wife, who provide the musical's sparse lighter moments. Getting the girl away from her deplorable life at the inn is easy compared to getting away from policeman Javert (Crowe) who is engaged in a duel of wills with his former prisoner. The story takes us through a doomed uprising among Paris' poor in which Valjean and Cosette will come to terms with life, love and purpose.

Another benefit of watching the cast sing in real time is that you know their voices are their own, eschewing another Hollywood musical tradition of replacing some singing voices. I saw this film with my Queen Mother and Royal Father, and we all kept a scorecard. Hathaway's Fantine stands out, notably her heartbreaking version of "I Dreamed A Dream." Seyfried also turns in a powerful performance. Crowe's singing works, but he seems a little flatter than the rest -- or maybe that's by design. The big surprise is Jackman's Valjean: he definitely can sing his way through a demanding role. I kept saying to myself, "This is Wolverine?"

Hooper moves the story along at lightning speed. Some songs have been shortened considerably or reworked. One new number appears, written by the show's original composers. I don't think you will have any problem with the changes, and if you do, the stage production is still out there. Making a movie musical is not as simple as filming a theatrical performance, although Hooper conceivably could've gone that route and people would've understood. This version pushes realism while preserving the power and spirituality of a work that has been astounding audiences for more than 25 years.

It is not hard to understand why this story speaks to so many of us. It deals with redemption, love and loss. In Jean Valjean's journey, we remember our GOD is a GOD of second, third, and fourth chances. We remember how GOD uses imperfect people to do HIS work in this world. We remember the servants we are called to be, giving of ourselves and forgiving as GOD forgives us. How can GOD love us so much when we continue to show such lack of love to others? Why does HE trust us with HIS creation when we abuse the gifts we are given?

For the benefit of your fellow moviegoers, please refrain from singing at the end. But don't refrain from the tears. GOD gave them to you for a reason, including films like this.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What A Long Strange Trip This Is Going To Be

Reel To Reel: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Going Rate: Worth full price admission for LOTR fans, matinee for everybody else
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
Rated: PG-13 (but could pass for a straight PG)
Red Flags: Some scenes of intense fantasy battle violence, some of it gross, but nothing off the charts

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is epic fiction filmed epicly. At times, the prequel to the Lord Of The Rings saga plods, but it doesn't want to leave anything out. Peter Jackson is back at the helm as director, and he's found a way to split one book into three films. This first one clocks in at nearly three hours. I will confess I've never read The Hobbit, but at this pace, Jackson is not just filming every page; he's filming the margins.

Many of you reading this already know the plot: hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is recruited to join the wizard Gandalf (McKellen), warrior Thorin (Armitage) and a band of dwarves to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from a gold-hungry dragon that's seized upon the royal stockpile and run everyone out. Bilbo is living a middle-class life in the Shire: roomy hole in the ground with a nice library and lace handkerchiefs. After a wild party and a bit of self-reflection, Baggins decides it's time for an adventure with a group that could use someone small in stature to be their "burglar."

The film plays like a gigantic game of Dungeons and Dragons, full of episodes and battles and atmosphere to convince us the quest is no walk in the woods. We meet all sorts of monsters, creatures and characters, some of whom we know will be important later on, like the goblin Gollum (Serkis -- say it with me: "Dee Pwechiousss!"). The rest we might not have to remember, because they're not going to be around after this gargantuan first act.

I saw The Hobbit in much-debated high-frame-rate 3D, double the speed of standard motion pictures. Home theater geeks sometimes complain about the "soap-opera effect" caused by advanced-technology TV's that add in extra frames to smooth out motion but make Pirates Of The Caribbean look like an episode of The Young And The Restless. I found 48fps avoided that live-video look while still providing amazing clarity of J.R.R. Tolkien's universe perfected by Jackson and his digital wizards. They show much more wizardry than Gandalf, who uses his powers sparingly either because he prefers it that way or because he needs remedial education from Hogwarts -- or because we need to stretch the conflicts over three pictures.

Don't misunderstand: I liked the first Hobbit film. But you need to know it's not for the casual movie fan who may get sucked into it because of the hype. This is a film made for fanboys, and with millions of them around the world, Jackson has to deliver.

Friday, December 14, 2012

So What Did I Learn In The Past Year?

That's the question on my mind as I celebrate 41 years of growth. Here are the answers:

  • Don't get hung up in situations where you think you should be patching things up among other people because you think that's what GOD wants you to do. Move on with your life and let GOD work on it.
  • It's sad to see so many people look at high unemployment, low wages and crummy jobs and think to themselves, "Well, this is the new normal."  It's only normal if you allow it to be normal.  Otherwise, you need to make sure you're standing up for something better.
  • It doesn't matter who you voted for in the last election; Washington's biggest problem is egos.
  • You can never have enough kilts.
  • Those Coleman gas lamps are hot on top!
  • Marriage is still not in my future.
  • I don't know what's more annoying: candidate campaign robo-calls or debt collectors calling me looking for somebody else.
  • Thrift stores are my new favorites.  I used to think I was robbing from the poor by shopping at these places, but that's just not true.  You're finding a new home for goods people don't want anymore and cutting down on waste.  My favorite patriot, Ben Franklin, believed in frugality.  Why not me?  Why not all of us?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

It's On Like Donkey Kong

Reel To Reel: Wreck-It Ralph

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Video game violence (but nothing worse than what your kids are already playing) and mild potty-mouth jokes

Wreck-It Ralph is a loving tribute to classic video games, the kind I grew up with in the 1980's. Twice a year, Mom and Dad would take my brother and I and our friends to Showbiz Pizza Place for our birthdays, and we would feed the arcade machines as many quarters as my folks could afford. That was when coin-op gaming only cost a quarter, and the animated violence maxed out at Mario getting hit in the head with a barrel.

The movie's title character (Reilly) is the star villain of a video game modeled after Donkey Kong. Miffed that somebody moved his stump for an apartment building, he proceeds to wreck the place on every quarter. Players control the hero, Fix-It Felix Jr. (McBrayer) who climbs the floors and undoes the damage. Felix gets a medal at the end of each level while Ralph gets tossed to the ground by the grateful tenants and exiled to a nearby dump.

This has been going on for years and years, and the Fix-It Felix Jr. game is still taking quarters at the neighborhood arcade even as other games come and go. Such staying power would inspire pride in a lot of people, but not Ralph. The act's getting stale, and we see it in the beautifully executed opening minutes of the movie as he shares with a 12-step group for anonymous video game villains. Such a gathering happens in the style of Night At The Museum; when the arcade closes, the video game characters are free to leave their consoles and travel along the electrical wires to other games. They mingle inside a surge protector dubbed Game Central Station, a place where you'll see Sonic the Hedgehog reminding the characters that they can't regenerate if they die outside their game and Q*Bert begging for handouts after his machine was unplugged.

When the other characters of Ralph's game celebrate an anniversary without him, he understandably feels undervalued. Felix wouldn't have anything to fix in a game devoid of his presence. Ralph vows to win a medal, but knowing he can't do it in his game, he learns he can earn one down the wires in Hero's Mission, a first-person shooter commanded by Sergeant Calhoun (Lynch). Ralph sneaks in and grabs his medal, but his brief moment of triumph goes haywire when he accidentally launches himself and one of the game's virus-like baddies into a girly-girl racing game called Sugar Rush.

Inside a world that morphs Candy Land with Mario Kart, he meets aspiring Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman). She sees Ralph's medal as her ticket out of a hopeless, glitchy life in a domain ruled by King Candy (Tudyk, with a voice that reminded me of the forgotten jack-in-the-box from "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer"). Meanwhile, Ralph's game is going haywire, and the entire arcade could go with it if Felix and Calhoun don't stop the creature that's multiplying under the streets of sweets.

Wreck-It Ralph is a family movie you're not shy about taking the kids to see. In fact, you secretly want to see it more than the kids. Or you'll just go yourself (like I did). It masterfully blends different games from different eras with plenty of in-jokes for the retro gamer while keeping the children interested. It also keeps its manic sequences -- those compulsory elements of CGI kid-flicks -- restrained and reasonable.

As I mentioned, different games' characters mingle throughout the film, which I'm sure kept Disney's legal department busy all through the development cycle. Retro-gaming has gotten a nice slice of shelf space over the past few years, and Ralph will surely help it. I'd like to see the original Pac-Man and Donkey Kong back in arcades. I can only fathom so many flavors of Mortal Kombat or Doom.

What's more, I find Wreck-It Ralph has more of a heart than previous Disney CGI animation titles, and it's no surprise why: Pixar alum John Lasseter is executive producer, someone who knows how to make these films work on multiple levels with honest emotions and characters we care about.