Les Miserables Not So Miserable In Its Home Release

Courtesy:  Universal Pictures

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Adapting classical literature for the big screen is one of Hollywood’s most time honored traditions.  Countless books have been adapted for the silver screen since the industry’s Golden Era.  Just as common for movie studios to do is to adapt stage plays that have themselves been adapted from books.  So as common as this practice is even now in Hollywood’s modern era, it takes a lot to make a movie of this fashion stand out in today’s overly crowded movie market.  Enter the newest big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic story, Les Miserables.

The latest adaptation of Victor Hugo’s timeless story of redemption is one of the best movies of 2012.  And now that it has been released to BD/DVD/Digital combo pack, it has proven to be one of this year’s best home releases.   It isn’t the year’s best.  But it does come close as it struggles with at least two glaring issues.  Those issues are the movie’s scene transitions and its general cinematography.  Much of the cinematography issue goes hand in hand with the problematic scene transitions.  Though there’s just as much problem with this movie’s shooting style not directly linked to the transitions in question.  Despite having issues with shooting and scene transitions, the movie’s positives far outweigh its negatives.  And those positives are many.

The primary positive to the home release of Les Miserables is its abundance of bonus features.  The bonus features included in the movie’s new home release offer lots of interesting tidbits that make the movie more worthy of respect.  For starters, viewers learn through the bonus features that star Hugh Jackman actually went through a rather rigorous diet and exercise regimen in order to obtain a specific look of a convict who has spent much of his life in prison.  It definitely worked as he looked every part the convincing character.  Just as interesting to learn in watching the bonus features is the vocal work that went into singing each scene.  Most audiences know by now that the entire movie was sung.  It shows how seriously those behind the movie took its creation.  The bonus features expand on the musical aspect of the movie.  Jackman and company explain the training that was undertaken and how the cast and crew balanced the noise of the cast and instruments with the cast singing.  Part of that balance came in the form of carpeting on the scenery floors to cancel out footsteps and keeping the pianist in a soundproof box, just to point out a little bit.  One could go on for quite some time discussing the role of the bonus features in the new home release of Les Miserables.  But viewers would be better left to check out the remaining bonus features for themselves.  That’s because there is so much more to cover in this new home release.

The bonus features included in the new home release of Les Miserables go a long way toward making the movie better at home than it was in theaters.  So what else could help elevate the movie?  How about the director’s commentary?  Director Tom Hooper discusses a variety of topics throughout the course of the movie.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his commentary is how he and writers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil adapted not just the famed stage play but also the original literary work into one full big screen work.  Those who have read the novel likely recognize the combination.  But those who are more familiar with the stage presentation will appreciate this little nugget of information.  It explains away the order of events in the movie in comparison to the stage work.  This is just one more factor that makes Les Miserables better than it was originally given credit for in theaters.  And yet again, it’s more proof of the value of special features on a movie’s home release.

Speaking of the movie’s audio commentary, the commentary involuntarily points out one more positive to the movie.  That positive is the movie’s casting.  Experienced fans will recognize both Samantha Barks and Colm Wilkinson from the 25th anniversary performance of the musical from London’s O2 arena. Samantha Barks reprises her role here as Eponine.  Wilkinson on the other hand actually plays the bishop.  This role is just as important as that of Jean Valjean in that it is the bishop who first helps Valjean turn around his life.  He showed in his performance here that his vocal chops are just as sharp as ever.

Just as interesting as Wilkinson and Bark returning for this adaptation of Les Miserables is the mention by [Tom] Hooper that casting Eddie Redmayne was quite the choice considering so many of his fellow actors had also played the role of Marius.  One can only imagine how nerve wracking it had to have been for Redmayne to have been so new to the role and surrounded by those who were so experienced in his role.  He pulled off the role quite well though.  This little piece of information, along with everything else that Hooper discusses in the audio commentary makes the movie that much more enjoyable.  Though, it should be pointed out that while he does discuss the camera work, there is no apology for his shooting style.  It is that shooting style that is really the movie’s one major downfall.

The music, acting, and scenery make this latest adaptation of Les Miserables a huge hit, as do the bonus features and audio commentary.  For all of this movie’s shining positives, there is one glaring negative that none of the positives can erase.  That negative is the general cinematography.  It, along with some of the scene transitions, makes things a little bit difficult to handle; so difficult in fact that they could leave viewers feeling slightly dizzy and even confused.  The problem with the cinematography is that throughout the movie, Hooper tries too hard to catch the emotion of his cast.  The resultant effect is that it makes it seem as if the cast is over emoting, thus making the acting seem a little bit campy. On the other hand, the rough scene transitions do eventually make way for smoother transitions, thus making the movie that much more bearable and more worth the watch, whether one is an experienced fan of this classic musical or not.

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Audiences Will “Love” Dreamworks’ New Madagascar Special

Courtesy:  Dreamworks Home Entertainment/Dreamworks Animation SKG/20th Century Fox/ 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Courtesy: Dreamworks Home Entertainment/Dreamworks Animation SKG/20th Century Fox/ 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Dreamworks Animations’ Madagascar movies comprise one of the company’s most successful franchises.  It’s so successful in fact that it has even spawned a holiday special titled, Merry Madagascar.  Now the Madagascar gang is back again for yet another holiday special.  This time, love is in the air for the gang as Valentine’s Day nears.  Ironically enough King Julian (once again voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen) gets his hands on a perfume called “Love Potion #9” that makes anyone that wears it irresistible.  When the “love potion” is used on Marty, it leads to an unintended effect, which ends up in Marty and the rest of Alex’s friends learning a very valuable lesson about friendship and love.  The moral lesson and the laughs together will keep audiences engaged throughout the course of the special’s near half-hour run time.  To be exact, Madly Madagascar’s run time is closer to twenty-five minutes than thirty.  Though chances are if it is ever run on television, it will reach the half-hour mark thanks to commercials. 

The run-time aside, much of the reason for the enjoyment in this special comes from the special’s writing staff and the voice cast’s ability to interpret the script.  The entire cast from the previous Madagascar movies is back once more, with one more addition.  Phil LaMarr (Futurama) joins the cast as the voice of a wildlife official at a Safari camp who has to chase after the infamous penguins of Madagascar.  That’s right, even the penguins are back, creating their own mischief as the love bug has hit their leader, too.  The original voice actors behind the penguins have returned, too.  Keeping all of this in mind, it’s no wonder that interpreting the script for this special was so simple for the cast as it had to have been old hat for everybody. 

The cast’s interpretation of the writers’ script plays its own role (no pun intended) in the success of this latest special.  Audiences will also appreciate that the CG-based “animation” used in all of the previous Madagascar installments was used in this special, too.  That familiarity of sorts—as minor as it may be—will help make this new installment a welcome return for audiences of all ages.  The pop culture references to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Robert Palmer, The Black Eyed Peas, and The Clovers also make for their own laughs.  All of this combined with the script writing and voice acting will make Madly Madagascar a Valentines special that the whole family will enjoy year after year.

The main feature included in this new DVD release is enjoyable enough for the whole family.  It’s only part of the overall enjoyment that families will get from this new release.  Just as enjoyable are the bonus shorts included with it.  Two bonus shorts are included on the disc.  The first of the pair is a touching Pixar style piece titled, “First Flight” in which a rather unhappy man learns the meaning of happiness when a baby bird falls from its nest and he ends up teaching the young avian how to fly.  It truly is a moving story as short as it is.  And it will leave both kids and adults smiling and shedding at least some tears of joy.  Being that the only dialogue here so to speak is the man and bird “talking” to each other through bird song, the music played a big role in the success of the story.  It came through in a big way, too.  It added so much emotion to the entire story.  It goes to prove that Pixar just might have some competition next awards season if Dreamworks continues to try its hand with more animated shorts.  And from the viewpoint of this critic, if this short is any indication, more shorts from Dreamworks would be welcome.

The second short of the pair is far less emotional.  Instead it’s on the exact opposite end of the spectrum.  It’s taken from Dreamworks’ Over The Hedge movie franchise.  The short, titled, “Hammy’s Boomerang Adventure” is a laugh-a-minute short that follows Hammy and his friends in their discovery of a video camera.  Hammy’s friends use it to play a prank on Hammy.  The writing for this short harkens back to the days of the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts with its physical comedy between Hammy and the Boomerang.  And as with the short’s companion Madagascar feature, the original voice actors from Over The Hedge have returned here adding to the hilarity.  Adding even more enjoyment to the short is a little musical number from pop star Ben Folds.  Folds performs a song titled, ‘Heist’ for the short’s end credits.  It’s not that long, obviously.  But it’s still a catchy little tune that will have viewers tapping their toes.  It might even be enough to get audiences interested in hearing more of his music.  His music combined with the equally enjoyable shorts and main feature from the Madagascar gang come together to make for a DVD that any audience will want to check out when it hits store shelves next Tuesday, January 29th.  It will also be available online.  It can be ordered direct online via the 20th Century Fox store at http://www.foxconnect.com/madly-madagascar.html.

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Les Miserables Not 2012’s Best, But Close To It

Courtesy:  Universal Pictures

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Adapting classical literature for the big screen is one of Hollywood’s most time honored traditions.  Countless books have been adapted for the silver screen since the industry’s Golden Era.  Just as common for movie studios to do is to adapt stage plays that have themselves been adapted from books.  So as common as this practice is even now in Hollywood’s modern era, it takes a lot to make a movie of this fashion stand out in today’s overly crowded movie market.  Enter the newest big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic story, Les Miserables.

The latest adaptation of Victor Hugo’s timeless story of redemption is one of the best movies of 2012.   It isn’t the year’s best.  But it does come close as it struggles with at least two glaring issues.  Those issues are the movie’s scene transitions and its general cinematography.  Much of the cinematography issue goes hand in hand with the problematic scene transitions.  Though there’s just as much problem with this movie’s shooting style not directly linked to the transitions in question.  Despite having issues with shooting and scene transitions, the movie’s positives far outweigh its negatives.  And those positives are many.

The most obvious problem weighing down this latest adaptation of Les Miserables is its shooting style (I.E. its cinematography).  Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) makes a valiant attempt to bring out as much of the emotion as possible from each scene with his shooting style.  The problem is that he tried too hard.  Throughout the story’s near three-hour run time, this shooting style is so consistent that it could potentially leave audiences feeling somewhat dizzy and even confused.  The cameras spin, cut, and make every other possible transition so much that it leaves audiences not knowing where they are going to go next.  It happens so much that it would be no surprise if it leaves some audiences so bothered by it that it makes audiences contemplate just walking out because they can’t take feeling the way which they feel.  The issue with the shooting style is just the tip of the iceberg for this movie’s problems.  To make matters worse, the shooting style is at times linked directly to its problematic scene transitions.

Anyone who has seen Les Miserable live on stage knows that while they take time, the scene transitions are smooth enough to keep track of exactly what’s going on in the story.  The case with the latest on-screen adaptation is the polar opposite of the stage play.  The scene transitions in this version happen so fast that viewers almost need a program to keep up with what’s happening.  This is one of the areas in which Hooper obviously struggled to do honor to the legacy established by this timeless classic.  Rather than making smooth transitions, it felt almost as if much of the movie was just a load of scenes tied together with jump cut edits.  Add in that problematic shooting style, and audiences get a work that felt anything but fluid.  Rather it felt like each scene was piecemealed together.  The two factors together made the movie noticeably less enjoyable than it could have been, despite the outstanding performance on the part of both Jackman and co-star Anne Hathaway.

While Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises, Get Smart, The Princess Diaries) isn’t technically a veteran in the acting business, she surprisingly proved herself in the role of Fantine.  Her chops as a singer were the most impressive part of her performance.  The emotion with which she sang made her portrayal fully believable.  There are those who have alleged that she was doing little more than simply hamming it up for the cameras.  But that obviously isn’t the case.  Considering her previous roles, this could finally be the one to catapult her to the upper echelons of the movie industry.  And while he is already in the businesses’ upper echelons, the choice of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean was common sense considering his current track record both on stage and screen.  He carried the movie on his shoulders.  Watching his moment of redemption at the story’s end will leave any viewer with more than just a tear in his or her eye.  Perhaps the only poor choice in casting this movie was that of Russell Crowe.  Crowe’s portrayal of Inspector Javert worked on the superficial level.  He is old enough that he looked the part.  But his general performance simply was not believable.  Luckily that was about the only poor choice in casting this take on the time honored classic.  That being the case, it is no surprise that this take on Les Miserables has been nominated for a handful of Golden Globes.  And it would be no surprise if it makes the Oscar nod list more than once, too.

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Philip Sayblack can be contacted at psayblack@wnct.com