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LES MISERABLES (2012)

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Director: Tom Hooper
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 157 min.

In 1815, Jean Valjean is finally released from prison on parole; he has served 19 years as a slave in punishment for stealing a loaf of bread to save a family member from starvation.  As Valjean struggles to find employment and lodging, the startling kindness and mercy of a priest who reaches out to him moves him deeply.  Dedicating himself to the work of God and care of the poor, Valjean breaks his parole and begins a new life under a false identity. 

Several years later, Valjean has become a respected politician and businessman.  When a former prison guard, Javert, suddenly arrives in town, however, Valjean knows his true identity will soon be discovered.  Around the same time, he meets Fantine, a young woman who was fired from Valjean’s factory by a corrupt foreman and has since resorted to prostitution to provide for her young daughter, Cosette.   Realizing that Fantine is terminally ill, Valjean vows to care for Cosette.  Valjean and Cosette live a life on the run, pursued by Javert and attempting to find a safe haven in a society that is once again teetering on the brink of revolution.

An excellent film adaptation of an excellent musical! Unlike some stage-to-screen adaptations of musicals, Tom Hooper’s Les Mis keeps the focus on the music, even retaining the recitative portions of sung conversations between characters.  With the exception of the role of Javert, I never felt that either vocal talent or acting talent was compromised for the sake of the other.  Russell Crowe is undeniably a better actor than he is a singer.  Still, although his voice was sometimes overpowered by the other male voices, he was consistently on pitch and confident enough in his singing that it did not detract much from his overall performance.  And no surprises in the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway!   A great film and fun to see on the big screen–I highly recommend this adaptation of Les Miserable.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

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Director: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 169 min.

When Gandalf the Grey and a roudy bunch of dwarves show up on his doorstep, the flustered Bilbo Baggins tries very hard to send them away.  He is not interested in any adventures, thank you!  Although the story of the dwarves’ lost homeland intrigues him, the fear of being roasted by the dragon who has taken over the Lonely Mountain makes him faint.  And he is certainly not the burglar that Gandalf has told the dwarves that he is!  But the next morning when he awakes to find the dwarves gone on their quest, something seizes hold of Bilbo and he runs out the door on an adventure after all.  

Unfortunately, the quest of the dwarves has not gone unnoticed.  An old orc enemy of their leader, Thorin, is determined to chase down and destroy the “dwarf scum.”  Further complicating matters, the dwarves will need the help from the elves to read an ancient map, and not all of the elves and wizards approve of their mission.  Meanwhile, the woodland wizard Radagast delivers concerning news that a dark power–a necromancer–has awakened somewhere in the South.  Gandalf fears that a sinister change is beginning in Middle Earth…

I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  If you are hoping for a faithful adaptation of The Hobbit, however, you may be disappointed.  While The Hobbit is a fairly lighthearted children’s book, the film is much darker and more violent–similar to the Lord of the Rings films.  While some aspects of the Hobbit quest are portrayed with acute attention to detail (such as the descriptions of the dwarves and their rowdy party at Bilbo’s house) and others are only slightly altered to be more action-heavy (such as the encounter with the trolls and the Stone Giants), there are huge plot threads added in–many coming from other Tolkien works.

Instead of an adaptation of The Hobbit, the film is more of a prequel to the Lord of the Rings films.  The book The Hobbit was written before the LOTR books and explains how Bilbo Baggins acquired the ring of power, as well as introducing some of the characters and types of characters who would be major players in LOTR.  The film goes beyond this.  Assuming that viewers have already seen LOTR, the film traces not only the quest of Bilbo and the dwarves but also the early signs of the rise of Sauron and some of the backstory of the tensions that exist between the different races (elves, dwarves, men, etc.).  It also matches LOTR in tone–much darker than the Hobbit book.

Thinking of it as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, I loved the film and am thoroughly looking forward to the next two installments!  There was still plenty of humor, Bilbo’s character development still moved from nervous, accident-prone, and useless toward confident, heroic, and repected by his fellows, and so many interesting themes from LOTR are picked up and explored.  If you liked the LOTR films, I highly recommed checking out The Hobbit!  See it in 3D if you can; it is not gimicky at all and adds a lot of depth.

THE AVENGERS (2012)

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Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 143 min.

When a mysterious alien enemy breaks into a high-security government lab and steals a tesseract–capable of ripping a hole in the universe–the entire planet is in danger.  To make matters worse, the enemy captures several government agents, including superhero Hawkeye, and takes over their minds, gaining access not only to their peculiar skills but also to all of the government’s secrets.  Agent Nick Fury tries to assemble a group of Earth’s greatest defenders to defeat the menace.  Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the Black Widdow all answer the call, some more reluctantly than others.  But if they are going to do anything as a team, they will first need to find a way to get along with each other.  The “Avengers Initiative” might never get off the ground–unless they have something to avenge.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie.  Typical of Joss Whedon productions, characters and personalities are a major focal point–something which is often overlooked in large budget action movies.  That is not to say that he skimped on the action.  There was plenty of destruction, combat, and suspense to go around.  The Avengers is not the greatest thing that Joss Whedon has ever done, but Firefly is hard to top.  I would highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys a good action movie and anyone who enjoyed the origin stories.  If you are hoping for hard science fiction, however, you may be disappointed.  Aside from the obvious space travel and super powers, there was very little focus on the science/technology aspects of the plot.

SERENITY (2005)

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Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 min.

Science fiction fans everywhere wept when Joss Whedon’s phenomenal television series “Firefly” (2002) was canceled after just one season.  The 2005 film Serenity picks up roughly where the show left off and ties up some of the most frustrating loose ends of the plot.

When the Earth’s environment began to die out, the human race colonized other planets, terraforming them to support human life.  When the governments of the wealthy central planets decided to unite all planets under one Alliance, the “less civilized” border planets fought back.  Among the Independent soldiers were Mal Reynolds and Zoe Washburn.  After their crushing defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley which ended the war, Mal and Zoe got themselves a ship (a Firefly class ship that Mal named Serenity) and a crew and began to travel, picking up any jobs they could get, most of them illegal.  Among the crew members that they assembled over time were Simon, a former Alliance doctor, and his little sister, River, who he had rescued from some sort of Alliance medical testing facility where she had been the victim of experimental brain surgery.  No one knows exactly what the Alliance had been trying to do to River, but she seems to have lost her sanity.  It also quickly becomes clear that she has special abilities, in martial arts and possibly mind-reading.  As Alliance officials try to hunt Simon and River down, Mal has to decide whether protecting the fugitives puts the rest of his crew at risk.  Complicating Mal’s loyalties, it seems that River subconsciously remembers a secret that could bring the downfall of the hated Alliance. The only catch is that in order to uncover the secret, the crew will have to face the bloodthirsty Reavers.

Although intended for both devoted “Firefly” fans and newcomers, Serenity is likely to fall flat if you haven’t seen the series first. Important plot details are conveyed, but the relationships in the film are less meaningful without knowledge of the depth and nuance of the character development in the series. That said, I highly recommend both the series and this film.  “Firefly”/Serenity is character-driven sci-fi at its best, building on conventions of the genre but with new twists (a series set in outer space, but with no aliens, the feel of a Western, and an emphasis on social and political conflict in addition to traditional gun fights and spaceship chases).  The characters are realistic and complicated, the scripts filled with a blend of hilarious comedy, romance, action, and heartache.  Joss Whedon is well-loved for a reason, and “Firefly”/Serenity is his masterpiece.

But watch “Firefly” first . . .

THE INCREDIBLES (2005)

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In the “Glory Days,” Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, and other superheroes used their powers to protect the citizens and keep the world free from crime.  But when a series of lawsuits force all of the supers to stop their hero work and adopt their secret identities as their only identities, Mr. Incredible (Bob Parr) finds himself stuck in a miserable, dead-end job, listening to police scanners at night just to try for a little excitement.  Elastigirl (Helen) disapproves of her husband’s moonlighting hero work, because every time he gets caught, they have to uproot the family and go into hiding somewhere else.  After a moment of violent anger loses him his job at the insurance company, Bob discovers a message from a mysterious woman named Mirage who addresses him as Mr. Incredible and offers him a high paying job capturing a government-designed attack droid.  Bob tells Helen that his company is sending him to a conference, and flies off to a volcanic island to meet Mirage.  But it quickly becomes clear that there is more going on that a simple government mission.  In the end it will take all of the Incredibles–Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet (who can turn invisible and create force fields), and Dash (whose power is speed)–to take down the super villain and save the world from destruction.

This is one of my favorite movies of all time.  The characters are brilliantly imagined, the realistic family tensions weave beautifully into the superhero/action/adventure story, and the screenwriting is hilarious.  It’s a great movie for both kids and adults!

“GAME OF THRONES” (2011)

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Creators: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Writer (book): George R.R. Martin

Based on the first book of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (A Song of Ice and Fire), this ten episode HBO mini-series introduces a fantasy world of political intrigue and rivalries that is at once horrifying and fascinating.  In a land that bears a striking resemblance to medieval England, Lord Stark governs some land in the North from his castle at Winterfell, while his friend Robert rules in the capital as king.  The Stark family is powerful, but not as powerful as the Queen’s family, the Lanisters—who are for the most part the villains.  Jaime Lanister is responsible for killing the former king and putting Robert on the throne; although, since the former king had gone mad and begun murdering his courtiers, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Meanwhile across the channel to the East (in a country that is clearly not supposed to be France . . . at all . . . ), the children of the assassinated mad king live in exile, plotting their return.  The only person who doesn’t seem to want power is Lord Stark, yet he and his family find themselves in the middle of a vicious political struggle that cannot end well.  And in the country to the North where the barbarian tribes live (yes, we all know it’s supposed to be Scotland . . .) the deadly and mysterious “White Walkers” seem to have returned, murdering and dismembering members of the king’s guard who stand guard on the large wall that separate the barbaric Northern lands from the rest of the kingdom.

Not for the squeamish, this show is great for lovers of high fantasy who are comfortable with incredibly graphic sexual content and violence.   The characters are great, with some fantastic acting—especially, in my opinion, from Sean Bean as Lord Stark.  There are some who are mostly good and others who are mostly bad, but most characters have shades of grey in their actions and motivations—even the villains.  (My favorite character is Arya, Lord Stark’s youngest daughter, who wants to be a knight instead of a lady.)  Also, as you may have gleaned from the summary, it would be difficult to pick up this show from the middle.  I’d recommend starting with the first episode and watching it in order.   I haven’t read the books yet, but they are supposed to be excellent as well.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)

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Director: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 min

This was on T.V. yesterday, and I couldn’t help watching it!  It is one of my favorites.

Indiana Jones, the adventurous archaeologist, learns that his father (played by Sean Connery) has gone missing while searching for the Holy Grail in Venice.  Indiana also receives a package in the mail: his father’s diary with his notes and clues about the Holy Grail.  Knowing his father must be in trouble, Indiana Jones and Marcus Brody, the museum curate, travel to Europe and meet Dr. Elsa Schneider, his father’s colleague.  They begin following a trail of clues in Venice and immediately incite violence and mayhem all around them.  They also swiftly come to the realization that—as is the case in all good Indiana Jones movies—the Nazis are to blame. The mission becomes a race not only to rescue Indy’s father, but to find the Holy Grail before the Nazis get their hands on it.

I really love this movie.  It’s great action with a lot of humor, especially in the banter between Indiana Jones (“Junior”) and his father.  But I do like Raiders of the Lost Ark better, mostly because Karen Allen is by far a superior leading-lady, and Dr. Scheider’s fake Austrian accent is really annoying.  If Karen Allen were in this one, or if Sean Connery were in Raiders I would be a lot happier.  But still a great movie!