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Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Jackman’

…but, oh, reader, it did not end there. Regular partakers of this nonsense may recall that occasionally I like to spice things up by changing the format of the review – doing part of it as a list, or a piece of short fiction, or something else which feels appropriate (for example). And part of me thought that the most apposite way of commenting on Tom Hooper’s inescapable Les Miserables would be to write a song about it in suitably sweeping style. But I’ve got a lot of other work on at the moment, and I couldn’t be bothered. It wouldn’t sound the same without the full orchestral backing, anyway.

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Speaking of which, listening to the BBC’s flagship film programme, I caught a snippet of Hooper’s film from which the music had been snipped, giving the impression that the actors were singing a cappella. The results were, shall we say, rather amusing in the case of Russell Crowe, not someone for whom a career in musical theatre likely beckons. And so I turned up for the movie well prepared to chuckle and jeer my way through it.

Didn’t quite work out that way, though. Based on the stage show, which is based on a novel by Victor Hugo, we open on a gang of convicts working as slave labour in 1815 France. Most prominent is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whose surname rhymes with his prison number (good news for the lyricist), who almost straight away is given his parole by merciless cop Javert (Crowe). Valjean has to carry around a document revealing his criminal past or end up straight back in the clink, which makes his life almost intolerable.

However, an act of kindness from a stranger forces Valjean to reconsider his philosophy, and he sets out to become a better person, breaking his parole in the process and revealing that, in addition to possessing tremendous physical strength and a fine tenor voice, he is incapable of facing a moral dilemma without singing about it at great length.

Anyway, some years later the reinvented Valjean is now a prosperous philanthropist – but unfortunately his path crosses that of Javert once more. The policeman vaguely remembers him from somewhere, and soon events conspire to force Valjean to reveal his true identity and go on the run once more: this time in the company of little orphan girl Cosette, whom (for various reasons too lengthy to recount here) he has taken into his protection.

This is a long film with a lot of plot. Suffice to say that later on there is a lot of flag-waving, shooting, crawling through excrement, redemption, unrequited love, and exasperating cor-blimey-guv’nor Cockney accents before everything is resolved. (I’m still not sure what the chorus of hopeful spectres in the final shot are on about. Are they starting a revolution against God, or something? Good luck with that, guys.)

So like I say, I turned up to laugh at the extraordinary hats and hairpieces which pepper the movie, with my usual air of detached indulgence. But then we got to the scene where the kindly old priest (Colm Wilkinson) whom Valjean has tried to rob makes him a gift of everything he’s stolen, plus adds a bit more, saying Valjean clearly needs it more than him, and exhorts him to be a better a person… and as a gut-punch of sheer sincere human decency it really takes some beating. Oh! It’s so sweet! Cripes.

And then we had the scene where the innocent single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), reduced through no fault of her own to the deepest depths of debasement and despair – we get to see her degradation in some detail – sings a plaintive song about how life hasn’t quite worked out how she had hoped… and maybe it’s the context, or the song, or the way Hathaway puts it over… but suddenly I was losing it and welling up despite myself. I am ashamed to admit it but I was properly weeping in the cinema. (I haven’t cried so much since River Song died.) There is some weird power in certain sections of this film that enables it to circumvent your rational brain and interfere directly with your emotions.

Despite this remarkable faculty, there’s a lot about Les Mis that I was not particularly struck by. The plot eventually moves on to focus on a bunch of younger characters, mainly lovestruck young girls and floppy-haired student revolutionaries, all of whom were either wet or annoying or both (there’s a Cockney urchin living in 1832 Paris whom I would cheerfully have shot even before the revolution started). Amanda Seyfried, playing the female lead, sings with a curiously quavering voice, producing a vibrato effect I found very irksome. Much better, I thought, was Samantha Barks – if big musicals were still a major film genre, this girl would be a global superstar on the strength of her performance here.

I found the plot at this stage less involving and much missed the older characters. I’ve been rude about Hugh Jackman’s acting in the past but this is a part which really fits him like a glove, in terms of his persona, his range, and his singing ability. I even thought Russell Crowe brought a lot to the movie in terms of sheer presence and personality, although hitting some of the notes appears to be causing him significant discomfort. Let’s put this in perspective, though – if we’re talking about unsuitable A-list stars mooing their way through a musical, our yardstick has got to be Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!, and Crowe’s nowhere near that bad.

But it does seem to go on for a terribly long time, and there’s only so much that comedy scenes from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter can do to perk it up a bit. Why is practically the entire thing sung, anyway? It just feels like a stab at opera. I suppose you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. The big songs are all great, though, even if towards the end it gets a bit repetitive: it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is this film is capable of dying without literally making a big production number out of it.

There’s the funny thing, though. I was sitting there towards the end, stirring a bit restlessly in my seat, wondering how long the damn thing had left to go, as the character in the scene was making a hell of a meal of passing away. ‘This movie is so overblown and sentimental in places, and much too long,’ I found myself thinking, even while realising at that very moment that I had gone again. The sneaky film had bypassed my rational mind once more.

All praise to Tom Hooper for that, and for the sheer look, scale, and technical achievement of the thing, for all of them are deeply impressive (why on Earth hasn’t he been Oscar nominated?). Despite all that, and the intensely powerful moments I’ve already mentioned, I still think this is a flawed movie in some ways. A monumental piece of work that will be remembered for a long time, but still – for me – easier to admire than to genuinely like.

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If you’re going to write about films with any kind of objectivity, one of things it behooves you to do is to try and separate the film itself from the context in which you see it – you shouldn’t let the lousy sound quality, or the poorly-racked screen or inadequate rake of the theatre get in the way – even the French tourists behind you talking noisily all the way through should not be a factor when it comes to giving your considered opinion.

Obviously this is not always as easy as it sounds, and most weeks the release of a movie in which Hugh Jackman must bond with his long-estranged young son by training a robot as a boxer would be greeted by a cry of ‘What fresh hell is this?!?’ But following my recent experience at the hands of Paul Anderson and his minions, I’ll try anything to get a cheap popcorn rush, even if that means going to see Shawn Levy’s Real Steel.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, an ex-fighter now wheeling and dealing in the lower reaches of the robot boxing circuit of a near-future America. He is feckless and irresponsible, to the despair of old friend-and-maybe-a-bit-more Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), but also, and more importantly, his numerous creditors. But luck smiles on Charlie when he learns he is the owner of an eleven-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose maternal relatives are very keen to adopt him. A deal is struck where Charlie signs away his custodial rights in exchange for money to buy a new robot – but part of the arrangement is that Charlie has to look after Max for the summer, something neither of them is very pleased about.

Things do not work out with the new robot, and, on his uppers, Charlie is forced to use an ancient old machine salvaged by Max which appears to have been welded together out of spare plumbing supplies. Can their new fighter Atom shock the world and challenge for the title belt? And can Charlie and Max build some kind of father-son bond?

If you can’t guess the answer to both of these questions, then all I can say is – Hello. A cinema is a big dark room where moving pictures are projected onto a wall, normally telling a story – because you have clearly just escaped from an Amish colony or somewhere similar. There are films I’ve been watching for the second or third time which were less predictable than Real Steel.

The big danger for me as far as this film is concerned is to compare it too closely with Steel, a very different adaptation of the same Richard Matheson short story which aired on The Twilight Zone in 1963. In that version, Lee Marvin plays the lead role, and when his boxing android blows a gasket just before a fight he has to go into the ring himself against an opponent he has no chance of defeating. It’s a simple story but it does say something about the courage and determination of a boxer that rings true, and the conclusion genuinely surprised me.

Well, there’s nothing like that here – we get the archetypal father-son bonding story welded effectively enough to the archetypal boxing-underdog story, all slathered in a gloss of CGI-heavy no-brainer SF. And it looks very slick, and tells the story proficiently, but that’s really all it does.

The problem is mainly that the emotional story at the centre of the film is trite and hackneyed and quite simply doesn’t ring true. I think this may be down to Jackman – hugely charismatic he undoubtedly is, but it increasingly seems to me that he is an actor of extremely limited range. At the start of the film Charlie is a loser on the skids, who sells his own son without a second thought, and Hugh Jackman isn’t convincing for a second. He does a certain kind of laconic toughness and integrity very well, but outside this comfort zone the quality of his performance drops off dramatically. That said, no-one in this movie is really able to distinguish themselves, which is hardly surprising given the material they have to work with.

Real Steel is arguably a good fifteen minutes too long as well – it’s a loooong time before the man-and-boy-and-crapbot-take-on-the-world plot really gets into gear, and the film seems to be trying to be a sprawling emotional epic rather than the genre movie that would suit it much better. As a result, Atom’s ascension to the robot boxing big-time seems a little too rapid, with not enough incidental fights along the way. (We don’t get the scene where success goes to Atom’s CPU and he’s caught disporting himself in a hotel room with a couple of spin-dryers high on WD-40, either – maybe this will be in the sequel.)

The actual robot fights are the only time the movie really comes to life, with plenty of whangs and clongs and ka-dongs per minute. The import of boxing cliches and imagery into an SF context is amusingly done and the CGI itself is state of the art, or very close to it. And such is the power of the underdog-makes-good story that you really don’t care how cliched it all is, or that every fight has basically the same plot – Atom gets paddled around the ring for a while before pluckily battling his way back into it. Something which is cheesily uplifting is still uplifting on some level.

But anyway. This is not an actively bad film, but certainly not a very good one either. If as much thought and effort had gone into the script as the robot designs and choreography, then it might have been a different story. As it is, Real Steel is a film with a lot in common with its robotic protagonist – some signs of having a good heart, but overall really just mechanical.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 21st 2006: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that recently lost eight hours and has absolutely no idea where they’ve gone. Yes, 24LAS is now coming to you fairly live from the less desirable end of Tokyo, courtesy of Big Orange Cybercafe (Free Drinks But It’s 3p A Minute) Ltd.

Luckily, they have cinemas in Japan and a striking resemblence they bear to the British kind too: big dark rooms full of seats, mostly facing a screen on which they show films. I tell you, this foreign travel, you learn a thing or two. The main difference as far as I can tell (other than the subtitles) is that the film trailers and drinks adverts are all jumbled together and the anti-piracy warning is really OTT.

Anyway, the latest big movie to hit my local cineplex in Makuhari-Hongo is Brett Ratner’s X Men: The Last Stand, which got overlooked on its UK release (by me, anyway). The title is a subtle clue that this is the third in the X Men series, but the first not to be directed by Bryan Singer (who was off remaking Superman at the time).

Maintaining admirably close continuity with the last installment, the new movie opens with things looking unusually cheery for Marvel’s merry mutants — well, okay, Cyclops is still bummed out about his girlfriend’s rather contrived death, but everyone else is fairly happy.

But then!!! The world is shocked by the news that a cure for mutation has been discovered, capable of turning even the X-Men into normal (albeit unfeasibly attractive and well-styled) people. Magneto (Ian McKellen) is not best pleased about this, but sees it as a means to attract many new followers. The X-Men also have their concerns, but are distracted by the apparent resurrection of their old comrade Jean Grey, something which will have grave consequences for more than one of their number…

This movie has taken a lot of stick, largely I suspect because the received wisdom is that Bryan Singer is an auteur but Brett Ratner is a hack. I can sort of see where that idea comes from, but I really rather enjoyed Last Stand both times I saw it. It may lack some of the darkness of the last installment in particular, but the central allegory survives intact and there’s crash-bang-wallop in spades (something Singer always seems to shy away from).

There are problems, admittedly — the two main plotlines, one based on Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, the other on Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix saga, coil about each other but never actually mesh. There’s a lot of jostling for screentime amongst the various characters. (Angel in particular may as well not have bothered turning up.)

However, it isn’t afraid to dispose of key characters in spectacularly terminal style. There are genuinely shocking moments in Last Stand. And some of the newcomers acquit themselves well, particularly Kelsey Grammer as the Beast. As Juggernaut, Vinnie Jones makes a significant impression (sorry, that should read ‘big dent’).

In the end, this is a cheerful and entertaining blockbuster movie, never less than competently made and acted. Singer fanboys may recoil in horror, but its bright and energetic style is probably more to my taste than that of the first two movies and arguably closer to the tone of the comic books. An undemandingly fun night out, no matter what time zone you’re in.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 8th 2003: 

Well, it looks like summer is nearly upon us, bringing with it a virtual cavalcade of sequels and superheroes (many with the letter X in their titles). The first of these is, of course, Bryan Singer’s X2 – the sequel to 2000’s X-Men. Superhero sequels actually have a pretty good strike rate (I’m thinking here of the second installments of Superman, Batman and Blade, for starters [I don’t know what the hell I was thinking of vis-a-vis Batman Returns. Sorry – A]), so surely this one isn’t going to be a let down… Certainly they’ve retained the same impressive cast: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still the one with the adamantium claws, skeleton, and quiff, Magneto (Gandalf) is still the mutant master of magnetism, Professor X (Patrick Stewart, taking the weight off) is the one whose superpowers are the least drain on the budget, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is still the one with the X-Man codename that the scriptwriters are too embarrassed to use…

Following on reasonably closely from the events of the first film, X2 opens with an attempt on the US President’s life by the imp-like teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a sequence which plays rather like The West Wing on acid. Army scientist Stryker (Brian Cox) uses this as an excuse to crack down on mutant activity, particularly the Xavier School – an institution he has a special and sinister interest in. Meanwhile, still on the scene are Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who have an agenda of their own…

Possibly due to the bigger budget, this is a slightly different film to the first one: where that essentially had a political subtext, this one is more personally and emotionally based. And, for most of the film, the results are spectacularly impressive, as the story alternates between impressive effects sequences and involving personal revelations to utterly engrossing effect.

I have never hidden the fact that I’m a comics fan, and so my approach to a film like this is inevitably slightly different to that of a purely cinematic feature like, ooh, Terminator 3. Most of the niggling gripes I had with the first film are answered, one way or another – this time round there’s a lot more action and many more X-Men on display, as Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) get beefed-up roles and characters like Colossus, Jubilee, Beast, Shadowcat, and Karma all get cameos or namechecks of various significance. Having said that, Cyclops (James Marsden) is – very nearly unforgivably, given he’s a lynchpin of the comic – reduced to not much more than a supporting character, and there’s still no sign of the Danger Room.

But on its own terms as a film, X2 is highly impressive in nearly every respect. There’s a hugely charismatic performance from Jackman, a funny and sympathetic one from Cumming, and another world-class display of scene-stealing from Ian McKellen – he’s helped a lot by the fact that he gets, in his jail-break, arguably the best set-piece of the film. However, what keeps this from transcending X-Men in every single department is the climax. Where, the first time round, it was concise and simple and pacy, this time round it seems to take up about a quarter of the film’s running time, with half-a-dozen different plot threads and a succession of fights, crises, reversals and revelations. One of these is not only unnecessary and half-baked, but also a wholly underwhelming appropriation of the Dark Phoenix storyline (one of the most famous and best-loved stories from the comic), and thus promises to irk both the hard-core fans and normal people. The result is that the film loses momentum towards the end, which is a real disappointment – but at least it does provide genuine closure in place of a cliffhanger.

Given some of the groundbreaking pyrotechnics we’re promised later this summer (most obviously by the Wachowskis and Ang Lee) it would have been easy for X2 to slip back to being a blockbuster of the second rank. For all that it has its flaws and disappointments, this is an extremely impressive example of the genre, and entertaining from start to finish. Perhaps not the masterpiece that some people were anticipating, but by no means a disappointment: not a truly great movie, but great fun to watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 13th 2004:

Hello again, everyone – and here we are once more at the start of blockbuster season, a part of the cinemagoing calendar with pleasures and pains all is own. First off the blocks this year is popcorn auteur Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing – but then again you probably knew that already, given the saturation-level publicity it’s been given (the theatrical trailer alone seems to have been on nearly as often as the ‘Hurt me Gunter! Make me bleed!’ one).

Very much in the tradition of Sommers’ mega-grossing Mummy movies, Van Helsing kicks off with a loving pastiche of the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s, depicting the terrible success of the unholy experiments of Dr Frankenstein (Sam West doing a pretty fair Colin Clive impersonation), and the sacking of his castle by the traditional mob of revolting peasants. But hang on! Who’s this lurking unexpectedly on the scene? Blow me if it isn’t Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, in a hairstyle and costume that unaccountably reminded me of Ricky Gervais in his New Romantic incarnation). Having backed Frankenstein’s experiments for reasons of his own, the Count now wants the Monster (Shuler Hensley)…

Fast forward one year and we get to meet our eponymous hero, played (rather well) by Hugh Jackman of X-Men fame. He’s a sort of extreme-prejudice exorcist for the Vatican, tracking down creatures of the night and giving them a good slap, armed only with crossbow, stakes, circular-saw-thingy, shampoo and curling tongs. For his latest mission he and his comedy sidekick Karl (The Lord of the Rings‘ David Wenham, doing exactly what the part calls for) are packed off to Transylvania to aid tight-trousered Gypsy princess Kate Beckinsale in her struggle against Dracula and his evil female minions (no, not the Cheeky Girls). But just what is Dracula up to? And how is it connected with Van Helsing’s own mysterious past?

Naturally, this milieu and these characters come with a considerable history of which Sommers seems reasonably aware. It’s quite well known that after the death of Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula and Van Helsing), his widow successfully sued the makers of the 1922 film Nosferatu for plagiarism and got nearly every print destroyed, on the grounds that it was an unlicensed rip-off with Stoker going uncredited. Well, Stoker isn’t credited on this movie either (certainly not prominently – and neither are Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson or Curt Siodmak, for that matter), but the studio needn’t worry as their film bears roughly zero resemblence to the original novel.

Obviously not keen on contending with fond memories of Lugosi, Karloff, Cushing, and so on, Sommers has crafted this tale as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, steampunk swashbuckler, which puts simply being outrageously entertaining ahead of making too much sense. The prologue aside, it doesn’t resemble the horror films of Universal or Hammer very much – although in some ways it is very similar indeed to Roman Polanski’s marvellous Dance of the Vampires, even down to stealing a few visual flourishes.

It’s also operating in narrative territory perilously close to last year’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, sharing several characters, the same actor in the villain’s role, and a virtually identical action sequence. (I suppose it also has quite a lot in common with Beckinsale’s last big movie, Underworld, too.) But this is by far a better treatment of this sort of material – winningly played, energetic enough to cover the holes in the plot, and very inventive – Sommers even crowbars in a Bond spoof without utterly destroying the credibility of the movie.

Admittedly, after an irresistible first half hour or so, the pace flags, and the way the film lunges from one headbangingly overblown CGI set piece to another gets a bit wearying before the end. (The special effects range from the impressive to the rather ropy.) It’s too long, and the final scene will doubtless be too appallingly schmaltzy by far for many tastes. But it’s wittily played by Beckinsale and the Australians (coincidence though it doubtless is, the fact that we can now have a blockbuster where 75% of the leads are Aussies shows just how much muscle the Antipodes now wields in the movie business), and skilfully put together by Sommers. It’s not deep. It’s not thoughtful. It has no aspirations towards seriousness or genuine art. But it’s a lot better than it looks on paper: I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. A good omen for the summer.

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