Monday, 25 February 2013

Movie Review: Les Misérables

Title: Les Misérables
Director: Tom Hooper
Year Released: 2012
Running Time: 158 minutes
Classification: PG-13 (M)
Genre: Historical drama, Musical

Tom Hooper's Les Misérables is a lavish production designed to punch you in the heart and jerk you around by the feelings. If you're not a fan of the stage musical or musicals in general, then you probably won't like the film – it's all singing, all the time. On the other hand, if you like musicals and being emotionally manipulated, then you're in for a right old treat.

Set in 19th century France, the film tells a story of interlocking lives – each, in its own way, touched with misery. At its centre is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an escaped convict who remakes himself as an honest man whilst on the run from the law, in this case personified by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). The sweeping narrative is essentially about people trying to survive in a crapsack world. That said, Les Misérables won't make you too miserable. Sure, a lot of bad things happen, but in the end enough “good” happens so that you won't leave the cinema weeping for the fate of humanity, even if you do leave weeping.

The main strength of the film lies in its star-studded cast, who by and large play their roles with the requisite amount of melodrama and theatrical flair. By now, you've probably heard several opinions about the live singing. Here are mine:
  • My favourites were Anne Hathaway's Fantine, Aaron Tveit's Enjolras and Colm Wilkinson's cameo as the Bishop.
  • Hugh Jackman could've been better but I still cried during most of his songs. Such is the power of Hugh Jackman.
  • I was expecting Russell Crowe to be horrible given all the bad press, but he's not as bad as everyone makes him out to be. While he's the weakest singer out of the main cast, he wasn't objectively terrible.
  • Eddie Redmayne continues to confuse me with his strange/good looks and his Kermit-y singing voice (and I like Kermit, so I don't know what to make of this).
  • My main disappointment was Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier – I found him a bit bland and his having a French accent didn't make sense. I know the story's set in France, but when so many characters have cockney accents, well, it's just confusing.

I must say I really liked the old timey painterly – and occasionally stage-like – look of the movie. The camera, on the other hand, seemed to really like close-ups of faces. I presume this is to ensure that the viewer doesn't miss how heart-wrenching everything is, because it totally is and you should totally cry, gosh darn it. The film practically demands the audience to feel for its characters, and while this might be distracting and annoying for some, I was swept along in the emotional ride all too easily. The one exception was (spoiler alert) Javert's suicide scene, which goes so far that it's almost hilarious.

Two main problems about the movie were the pacing and the unexplained bits. With so much story, so many songs and so little time, there are understandable time constraints, but the oddities were enough to put a dent in my enjoyment. For example (spoiler alert), it feels as if Fantine goes from getting fired to selling teeth all within the space of an afternoon. What about finding another job, Fantine? Or maybe trying a bit harder to get your old job back? Another thing I struggled with was the implausibility of the insta-love between Marius and Cosette (Amanda Seyfreid), and the fact that “being in love” seemed to be their one collective personality trait. The revolution (happening because poor people have it bad? or something) was also badly explained, its execution poorly organised at best and stupid at worst. Had I not known the general plot beforehand, I would probably have struggled with understanding what was going on. While the film is by no means a study in realism, these moments of incredulity pulled me out of the story and I found myself pondering the logistics of it all when I should have been crying instead.

The film is a good adaptation of the musical. The singing and the emotional punishment might not be for everyone, but for musical lovers and masochists it's fantastic. The catchy tunes and ~dramatic~ performances make it one of the more pleasant depressing films to watch. Les Misérables is not without flaws, but half the time they're fun to argue about and the other half of the time you're probably trying too hard not to ugly-cry to really care.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Book Review: The Redbreast

Title: The Redbreast (book #3 in the Harry Hole series)
Author: Jo Nesbø, English translation by Don Bartlett
Year Published: 2000, translation 2006
Genre: Crime, Historical fiction, Thriller, Mystery

Detective Harry Hole is a recovering alcoholic, reassigned after a rather serious mishap involving the US Secret Service. In his new role, he is asked to investigate neo-Nazis, but what really piques his interest is the fact a high-powered rifle has been smuggled into Norway. Interwoven with Harry's story is a story of a WWII soldier who fought for the Nazis at the Eastern Front. As both tales unfold, bodies pile up and it becomes a case of identifying the killer.

The Redbreast is the third book in Jo Nesbø's popular Harry Hole series but one of the first to be translated into English. Thankfully, it works as a standalone, though some plot arcs aren't resolved by the end of the book. Many of the characters feel “lived-in”, a result, I imagine, of having appeared in previous books, and it's great – you get the sense that they were people before the events of the story. At the same time, there's enough description so that new readers won't feel like they're missing out. Previous events are mentioned only passingly; phrases like “what happened in Sydney and Bangkok” are thrown in but what they refer to aren't necessary to the understanding of the plot. No doubt readers of the previous books will get more out of it, but as a newbie I found The Redbreast to be very accessible on its own.

I don't usually read crime novels and I picked this one on the basis of its Norwegian setting. Fortunately, a sense of place did come through – and not in a down-your-throat sort of way – and this adds to the book's charm. If you're looking for a change from the usual American/British settings then you might want to give Nesbø's Oslo a go.

The writing is simple and the chapters brief. The author gets to the point – no purple prose here – and delivers a healthy dose of humour at the same time. Characters are drawn with a deft stroke, their description precise and at times compellingly vile. Despite its length the book is an easy, comfortable read. The narrative jumps between different characters and time lines and the tension builds slowly throughout. I read the book intermittently, but I reckon it's better suited to being read at once – I found myself having to flip back and forth to keep track of who everyone was. As an aside, the WWII plotline starts in the thick of it – being woefully ignorant of WWII I didn't know what was going on at first and who the Norwegians were fighting for. If you're as clueless as I am, then a quick browse on wiki before you read the book might be helpful (basically, Norway was occupied by the Germans and there were Norwegians who fought both for and against them – though of course this is an extreme simplification).

Now I don't mind it when things take time to get going (indeed I prefer it to the common need to dazzle from the get-go), but the “nothing's happening” feeling at the start of the book may put off some readers. The plot and Harry's investigation feel directionless at times, but then I know nothing of being a detective so maybe that's just how it is. I found myself swept along with the book's internal logic and didn't think too hard on whether certain things made sense – which was perhaps for the best. The bits about Harry's personal life were fine, but as regards the crime aspect, I would've liked a bit more of a driving force. It's only towards the end that the book becomes more of a whodunit.

Crime tropes are in plentiful supply: there are Nazis both regular and neo (which the Norwegian angle rendered less off-putting for me), a long-suffering good-hearted boss, a psychologist who advises Harry on criminal minds, races against time, and a myriad of characters and plots connected in ways that are too neat by half. It can get a bit cliched and contrived, but overall the book is still enjoyable.

The Redbreast is a fun and diverting read. It's easy to see why the Harry Hole series is popular. There's nothing especially original going on, but that doesn't really matter. The writing style, the characterisation and the interweaving of plots are the book's main strengths. For those who haven't read Scandi-crime yet the setting might also provide a refreshing change.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Reading order for the Harry Hole series (those marked with an asterisk are not yet available in English):
  • The Bat
  • The Cockroaches*
  • The Redbreast
  • Nemesis
  • The Devil's Star
  • The Redeemer
  • The Snowman
  • The Leopard
  • Phantom
  • Police* (upcoming)