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There has been a lot of controversy over movies that have opened in the last few months (or as they are known in Hollywood, the ones more likely to have a chance at being nominated for an Oscar).  For Zero Dark Thirty, it’s the use of torture (oh, sorry, I mean, enhanced interrogation techniques; but you say potayto and I say, etc.); for Argo and Lincoln, it’s historical accuracy; for Django Unchained, it’s the use of the n-word and Tarantino’s take on slavery.  But none of them have shown the vitriol and ferocious debate that one major motion picture has created in the hearts of true movie goers: Les Miserables and its non-use of lip synching.   While all the objections of other films could be summed up by someone putting words in other people’s mouths, it’s only Les Miserables that hasn’t done it—literally.   And still has gotten in trouble for it.
Les Miserables, the movie version of the long running Broadway musical, is probably an experience you either go with or you don’t.  For the record, I did.  As with others in the audience I saw it with, I was often on the verge of tears at this large, sweeping story that takes place in France during the revolution (no, not the French revolution of 1789, dude, but the June Rebellion of 1832—if you didn’t know that, you are so obviously not a Les Miz fan).  It’s a story that has all the virtues of 19thcentury literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here).  It also has all the defects of 19th century literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here).  Again, you either go with it or you don’t.
I don’t know how William Nicholson (who adapted the play to film) and director Tom Hooper did it.  There’s no reason for this movie to work.  It probably should have resulted in an over the top, campy musical adaptation filled with picturesque poor people dancing in the streets.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead we have a deeply moving and often overpowering story of man’s inhumanity to man and the power of spiritual redemption. 
Of course, much of this has to do with the original source material, a French musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, if for no other reason in that it’s not exactly a musical.  Though there are a few lines spoken here and there, Les Miserables is more an opera.  So instead of a story in which the authors had to create clunky transitions to songs sung by the various characters (which can result in a certain disconnect and call attention to the artificiality of what is going on), we instead have a story whose dialog and emotion is only heightened by music, a stirring score that just sweeps you along whether you want it to or not.   One can make the argument, I suppose, that the original story by Victor Hugo has been shrunk by the usual necessity of telling a big story in a smaller venue; but one can just as easily make the argument that the story has also been enlarged and deepened by the expressive and impassioned music.
But much of the success has to be laid at the feet of Nicholson and Hooper who had the dubious honor or taking a stylized staged production and setting it against the hyper realistic background that is almost inherent in film; an almost impossible task, but one the two have more than succeeded in as far as I’m concerned.  And they do it by throwing out all that stagy stylization (except the music, which, of course, can’t be gotten rid of) and adapting it and filming it all with a deathly seriousness.  There’s barely a trace of musical comedy or Broadway tinsel here.  They don’t even use the cute Dickensian approach that was so successful in Carol Reed’s film version of Oliver.    It’s a straightforward look at poverty and injustice filled with people who are desperately poor, starving, having no hope.  And the way Nicholson and Hooper film it, it’s often devastating in its realism, a realism that, in fact, may make it more difficult to return to the original.  Once one has seen Hooper’s staging of the fight at the barricade, the chase through the sewers, the stunning visuals of 19th Century Paris, can the stage ever again satisfy (sort of “how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, once they’ve seen gay Paree” type thing)?
One can almost tell how much Nicholson and Hooper have succeeded by pointing out the one major failure, the “Master of the House” number, a comic look at the innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who have so badly abused the young Cosette.  On stage, this number is a real show stopper.  In film, it’s a real show stopper too, but in a totally different way.  This is the one number that is all musical comedy and writer and director just couldn’t seem to find a way to fit its style into the rest of the movie and so it falls ponderously flat.  A close second is the song Suddenly, the only one written expressly for the movie (seemingly in an effort to get an Oscar nomination), a number that feels stylistically inconsistent and doesn’t really add anything to the film as a whole.
And there are some structural issues that can be traced to both source materials, the original musical and the book by Hugo.  From the stage, we get a story that jumps from scene to scene leaving out transitional details that result in a story that is at times told in a somewhat clunky manner (as in the scene at the court where a false Valjean is on trial).  From the book, we have a plot that has two stories—one, the conflict between Valjean and Jabert, and the other the love story of Cosette and Marius.  The two overlap in the middle, but just as one winds down (Valjean/Jabert), the other is still going strong and it takes awhile to wrap things up. 
But the rest of the movie is ravishing and ravishingly filmed, the camera often soaring above the actors to show a world that is being watched by God (astounding cinematography by Danny Cohen).  The CGI that enables the filmmakers to show a 19th Century Paris often takes one’s breath away.  The design aspects (costumes, sets, production design) are stunning.
And then there is the acting.  It’s a superlative cast, with nary a false note (pun intended) to be had.  They succeed for the same reason as Nicholson and Hopper: they all play their roles with a devastatingly seriousness.  It’s probably Hugh Jackman’s (Jean Valjean) best performance.  There’s no point in talking about Anne Hathaway as Fantine; I couldn’t improve on anything that hasn’t already been said.  The young lovers (Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) make us believe in not just love, but overpowering passion, at first sight.  The one major issue, as has been pointed out by better men than I is Russell Crowe as Javert.  His singing is a bit lacking (to put it diplomatically).  But I don’t think he’s quite the weak link everyone maintains, mainly because his acting is so sure and strong and he is often filmed against overpowering backdrops that help bring an intensity to what he is saying that his singing cannot.  At the same time, all I could think is how more interesting it would have been if Sacha Baron Cohen and Crowe had switched roles.
As for the non lip synching?  Sorry, guys, but I thought it was a brilliant decision.  It brought a dramatic intensity to the acting that I haven’t seen that often in musicals.  But like the movie, it’s probably something you go with or you don’t, and for the record, I did.

THE WOMEN: Predictions for Academy Award nominations and awards: Actress and Supporting Actress

As is the case for most of the categories, most of the noms have pretty much already been determined and there’s little that can be done to stop the runaway train, outside one of the potentials being arrested as a child murderer. Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Natalie Portman (The Black Swan) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) are in with the in crowd, Lawrence especially after her award for Breakthrough Performance from the National Board of Review. However, the fight for who will actually win is between Bening and Portman. I believe the award will go to Bening, because, as the cliché has it, it’s her time. Portman has many supporters, but she’s still new to the whole awards thingy and I believe the Academy will want to make her earn a few more dues before giving her a statuette.

The final two spots are a bit up for grabs. Nicole Kidman will probably be number four for the Rabbit Hole, the best and most interesting work she’s done in some time, even if the movie is just an excellent okay picture. The only hesitation here is that the movie has yet to open, plus an additional caveat listed below.

As for the last spot, it’s between Leslie Manville for Another Year and Tilda Swinton for I Am Love. I believe that most people have now forgotten about I Am Love, which means that if the Academy is looking for another art house nominee to add to Lawrence’s nom, they will probably go for Manville, a movie that hasn’t opened yet. Manville won the National Board of Review, which can’t hurt, and Mike Leigh, who directed the film, has a pretty good track record in getting his actors nominations. Which means, poor Tilda Swinton. I’m not sure why Swinton is being so overlooked. She won an Oscar, for God’s sake, yet she can’t get no respect for Julia last year, and this year, it looks like it’s a no go for I Am Love. It probably didn’t help that her movie wasn’t the Italian entry in the foreign language category. It would probably also help if her movies were released later in the year. What may make the final determination here is the end of year critics’ awards, which might turn the tide in someone’s favor.

Julianne Moore is also in the “can’t get no respect” situation as well. Last year she was overlooked for a nom for A Single Man for some ungodly reason. This year, she may be left out in the cold for The Kids Are All Right. There’s some talk of pushing her for Supporting Actress, which may be her only hope. Sally Hawkins has a chance of getting an apology nomination for Made in Dagenham after not getting a slot for Happy-Go-Lucky, but though some people like her latest film, it’s not really getting the buzz. The same for Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs; no one seems to really hate it, but no one is responding to it either. I think most people have forgotten that Secretariat has come out, which probably dooms Diane Lane (one of our most underrated actresses). Blue Valentine hasn’t opened yet, so it’s hard to say how Michelle Williams will do. She’s done an incredible job of making everyone forget she was ever in Dawson’s Creek, but I’m getting the feeling her chances will be hurt by the “do I really have to see one more film for Oscar consideration, and such a downer one at that” situation. At the same time, Weinstein is distributing the movie, and it’s never good to count a Weinstein movie out of the running. Noomi Rapace is also being touted for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but she seems to be getting lost in the shuffle; what actually may not have helped is the releasing of all three movies in one year—voters may wonder which one they’re supposed to nominate her for or even forget that the first one was even released this year.

However, there is one possibility of a huge monkey wrench: Helen Mirren in the Tempest. She’s liked; she’s playing a part written for a man (and written by Shakespeare); and it’s the sort of part that, if it takes movie goers by storm, could get her a last minute nomination. If it happens, this may spell doom for Nicole Kidman.

At this point, the Supporting Actress is the most suspense filled because there is no clear front runner. The most definite nominees as of now are Helena Bonham Carter (a lot of fun in The King’s Speech); Melissa Leo (for The Fighter, which hasn’t opened yet); Diane Weist (wonderful, simply wonderful, in the Rabbit Hole); and finally Jacki Weaver, who seems a sure shot at a nom because of her National Board of Review win for The Animal Kingdom. My friend Jerry in Chicago thinks it will go to Bonham Carter who will be swept up in the wins for The King’s Speech and because some might consider it her time. I’m going to go for Melissa Leo because I think the Academy has been dying to give her an award ever since Frozen River and since she is a character actress and not a lead, there may not be enough possibilities in the future; it may be now or never. Though Diane Weist is very moving in Rabbit Hole, the nom is all she’ll get. And as for Jacki Weaver, who quite possibly deserves it, well, let’s face it, it’s an Australian Film, and the Academy is loath to give an acting award, especially a supporting one, to a film made outside of the U.S., unless it’s England (the Commonwealth doesn’t count).

For the fifth nomination, many names are being tossed about, but the two who have the greatest chance are Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right, if she is pushed for the position, and Hailee Steinfeld, for the unreleased True Grit. Right now, I’d say Steinfeld has the momentum, but it does depend on who well received the movie is.

IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: Reviews of Alice in Wonderland and Mother.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a much, much, much, much, much, much, much better movie than the reviews would have you think; or as the Mad Hatter might put it, it is a muchness better movie than the reviewers would have you think. This is one of Burton’s most imaginative exercises in visual stylization, an at times stunning reimagining of what Wonderland looks like, that dreamlike (or maybe not, maybe it’s really real, hey, it could happen) escape from the doldrums location that Alice visits when things get too boring in her own world. In Burton’s version of the tale, as written by Linda Woolverton (a long way from the TV show Dennis the Menace, thank God), Alice is now 19 and is being bandied about as collateral in a business deal—or as they called it in Victorian times, marriage. She is being manipulated into wedding, or merging with, the nebbish son of her late father’s business partner, who now owns the business. The proposal itself is a Dickensian equivalent of those prospective bridegrooms who buy billboards, electronic and otherwise, and ask for their girlfriend’s hand in marriage while the whole world watches. Alice, admirably, runs away from all this folderol and falls through her rabbit hole, ending up once again in Wonderland, though Alice has no memory of her first visit. It’s here that the story and Burton’s vision really takes off. Before this, the plot, made up of scenes at a party thrown by her potential in-laws, was somewhat flat and uninteresting. The only part that really worked was the appearance of a pair of twins, a scene that had the double edge of showing what these opening scenes could of and should have been, but weren’t. Other characters are also supposed to be alter egos to the inhabitants of Wonderland, but it’s not always clear who is who. For example, even after the movie was over, I still wasn’t certain who Alice’s roué of a brother in law was supposed to represent. And would it have hurt the author to do things like have Alice arrive at the party while her potential mother-in-law was playing cards just to make things a little easier, if not more fun? But once down the rabbit hole, Burton’s Wonderland is a frabjous creation (neat trick sneaking that word in, isn’t it?). The highlight, of course, is Helena Bonham-Carter’s bulbous headed Red Queen, played with all the petulant childishness of Miranda Richardson playing Elizabeth I in the Blackadder series. Even for those who are against capital punishment, every time Bonham-Carter says “off with their head”, you just want to go, “say it again, say it again”. Other standouts are Matt Lucas as the somewhat creepy, slow witted Tweedledum/Tweedledee and the brilliant Stephen Fry as the now you see him, now you don’t Cheshire Cat; there’s also more than able support from Timothy Spall as Bayard, a bloodhound (the part he usually plays in all his films) and Crispin Glover as Stayne, the Red Queen’s knight. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen is par for the course a bit bland, while Alan Rickman, excellent as the caterpillar, is somewhat let down by the screenplay here. As fascinating as the movie is, it never quite works. Perhaps it’s because the story becomes a bit too formulaic the nearer it comes to its climax, lacking the anarchic goofiness of the source material. And there’s something also a bit disappointing in the ending; Alice escapes marriage to a fool, but ends up becoming part of the colonizing British Empire. She’s off to extend her father’s business to China and one can’t help but think, “what, is she going to get China addicted to opium so they will be forced to sell Great Britain their tea?”. One can’t help but think she could have made a better choice still, like returning to Wonderland.

Mother is the latest from South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong who gave us the monster movie The Host and the movie about a different sort of monster, Memories of Murder, which revolves around the search for a serial killer. Mother is not far off from being a monster movie itself. It’s about a slow witted young man being railroaded in the murder of a young girl and the monstrous lengths his mother, played by Hye-ja Kim, will go to save him, even though it’s possible that even though her son is being railroaded, he could still be guilty. In Psycho, Anthony Perkins says “[a] boy’s best friend is his mother” and that is so true here as Hye-ja Kim will stop at nothing, even killing someone herself, to help her son get out of prison. The movie, and Bong’s others, may not be to everyone’s taste. The acting style is not what we in the West would call naturalistic. It’s somewhat stylized and at times over the top in the way people wear their emotions on their shoulders. But the performances are first rate, especially Hye-ja Kim (in one of those no matter how much she repulses me, I still can’t help but be on her side characters), as well as Ku Jin as her son’s supposed best friend and the one most likely to have killed the girl if the son didn’t. The plot is pretty much of a page turner and it has a wonderfully Hitchcockian moment in which Kim gets stuck in a closet and has to watch a young couple have sex, then sneak out while the two are asleep; as in true Sir Alfred fashion, one wants to look away, but then of course, the voyeur in all of us claims victory. There are a few constants in Bong’s movies so far, other than there are monsters living among us. Even more constant perhaps is the portrayal of the Korean police as hopelessly inept and corrupt (even if they get the right person, it’s by accident, not by solid procedural investigation). They’re a modern day equivalents of the Keystone Cops and I don’t think I’d want to be Bong if he’d ever has to make a call to 911. The darkly comic and riveting screenplay is by Eun-kyo Park, Wun-kyo Park and the director. One of the best films of the year so far.