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EPIC (2013)
We may already live in a world where Beyoncé reigns supreme, but imagine one where Beyoncé is queen of the forest, with dashing knights at her disposal and gawking plant creatures for fans. That should be enough to get you to see Epic, a fantastic animated film from the studio that brought us Ice Age: Blue Sky Studios. But if you’re still on the fence,I can assure you that Epic certainly lives up to its title. Full of breathtaking imagery, crazy detailed animation and boasting a phenomenal voice cast from the aforementioned Queen Bey and Colin Farrell to the always amazing Christoph Waltz, it’s a story that has a lot of heart, plenty of fun action and great humor. Rounding out the all-star cast are Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Steven Tyler and Blake Anderson. 
The story follows Mary Katherine, a teenage girl who comes to live with her estranged father after her parents’ separation. Her father has some interesting preoccupations, such as an obsessive fascination with forest creatures, whom he’s convinced include tiny people living in advanced civilizations. This drives Mary Katherine (or as she prefers, MK) crazy and she becomes increasingly frustrated with what she considers her father’s erratic aloofness. When she is suddenly shrunk down to bug size, MK discovers that everything she thought her father had imagined is actually real, from the small soldiers called Leaf Men to their saddle-laden hummingbird transports. When the forest kingdom finds itself under attack, MK realizes her father may be the best person to help her newfound friends.

From a technical standpoint this movie is ridiculously detailed from the design aesthetic to the adrenaline-pumped, large scale action sequences. It’s readily apparent that a lot of thought and care went into the making of the story. For example, in one scene the characters go deep into the trunk of a tree, where the tree rings house scrolls that represent the history of the forest - a library of memories, if you will. This reflects the detail-orientedness of the writers because they took something scientific like the real use of tree rings to determine the age of a tree and put a whimsical spin to it. The visuals are also quite phenomenal, really drawing viewers into this magical secret world. There were epic battles that would make Peter Jackson proud, and cool camera work that would certainly garner Zack Snyder’s stamp of approval. 
The voice cast also really delivered, making the film even more entertaining. Colin Farrell could not have been better cast as the gallant Ronin, commander of the Leaf Men. If I am not mistaken, this is the first animated film he has lent his voice to and he did an excellent job. Amanda Seyfried was also really amazing as MK. She probably has one of the best-sounding voices for animation. Christoph Waltz was perfect as the villainous Mandrake. He injected a lot of swagger and sass, as he is prone to do, to his shadowy character. Last but not least, a lot of the comedic elements of the film were provided by the snail and slug duo Grub and Mub, voiced by Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd. Add to all this Danny Boyle’s fabulous score, which enhanced the charm and whimsy of the film.

While there were many scenes that were laugh-out loud funny, the film is still very emotion-driven. At the heart of this story is a theme of family, unity, teamwork and an enduring legacy of passing the torch. I’m a big believer that animated films are this generation’s fables, and I think Epic succeeds (like most other great animated movies) because it balances exciting adventure with a moral that resonates with audiences young and old. There’s the moving tale of a daughter reaching out to her estranged father, and one of a hidden kingdom of forest creatures working together to restore order and community in their wooded home. Best of all, Epic has a subtle but relevant message about the environment: while mother nature can largely take care of the Earth, sometimes she could use a hand. This message is certainly not as heavy-handed as the themes of Fern Gully, but it shines through in the portrayal of teamwork between humans and nature. 
Epic is a great adventure to embark on with family and friends, featuring some brilliant animation, a solid story and an entertaining cast.

EPIC (2013)

We may already live in a world where Beyoncé reigns supreme, but imagine one where Beyoncé is queen of the forest, with dashing knights at her disposal and gawking plant creatures for fans. That should be enough to get you to see Epic, a fantastic animated film from the studio that brought us Ice Age: Blue Sky Studios. But if you’re still on the fence,I can assure you that Epic certainly lives up to its title. Full of breathtaking imagery, crazy detailed animation and boasting a phenomenal voice cast from the aforementioned Queen Bey and Colin Farrell to the always amazing Christoph Waltz, it’s a story that has a lot of heart, plenty of fun action and great humor. Rounding out the all-star cast are Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Steven Tyler and Blake Anderson. 

The story follows Mary Katherine, a teenage girl who comes to live with her estranged father after her parents’ separation. Her father has some interesting preoccupations, such as an obsessive fascination with forest creatures, whom he’s convinced include tiny people living in advanced civilizations. This drives Mary Katherine (or as she prefers, MK) crazy and she becomes increasingly frustrated with what she considers her father’s erratic aloofness. When she is suddenly shrunk down to bug size, MK discovers that everything she thought her father had imagined is actually real, from the small soldiers called Leaf Men to their saddle-laden hummingbird transports. When the forest kingdom finds itself under attack, MK realizes her father may be the best person to help her newfound friends.

From a technical standpoint this movie is ridiculously detailed from the design aesthetic to the adrenaline-pumped, large scale action sequences. It’s readily apparent that a lot of thought and care went into the making of the story. For example, in one scene the characters go deep into the trunk of a tree, where the tree rings house scrolls that represent the history of the forest - a library of memories, if you will. This reflects the detail-orientedness of the writers because they took something scientific like the real use of tree rings to determine the age of a tree and put a whimsical spin to it. The visuals are also quite phenomenal, really drawing viewers into this magical secret world. There were epic battles that would make Peter Jackson proud, and cool camera work that would certainly garner Zack Snyder’s stamp of approval. 

The voice cast also really delivered, making the film even more entertaining. Colin Farrell could not have been better cast as the gallant Ronin, commander of the Leaf Men. If I am not mistaken, this is the first animated film he has lent his voice to and he did an excellent job. Amanda Seyfried was also really amazing as MK. She probably has one of the best-sounding voices for animation. Christoph Waltz was perfect as the villainous Mandrake. He injected a lot of swagger and sass, as he is prone to do, to his shadowy character. Last but not least, a lot of the comedic elements of the film were provided by the snail and slug duo Grub and Mub, voiced by Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd. Add to all this Danny Boyle’s fabulous score, which enhanced the charm and whimsy of the film.

While there were many scenes that were laugh-out loud funny, the film is still very emotion-driven. At the heart of this story is a theme of family, unity, teamwork and an enduring legacy of passing the torch. I’m a big believer that animated films are this generation’s fables, and I think Epic succeeds (like most other great animated movies) because it balances exciting adventure with a moral that resonates with audiences young and old. There’s the moving tale of a daughter reaching out to her estranged father, and one of a hidden kingdom of forest creatures working together to restore order and community in their wooded home. Best of all, Epic has a subtle but relevant message about the environment: while mother nature can largely take care of the Earth, sometimes she could use a hand. This message is certainly not as heavy-handed as the themes of Fern Gully, but it shines through in the portrayal of teamwork between humans and nature. 

Epic is a great adventure to embark on with family and friends, featuring some brilliant animation, a solid story and an entertaining cast.

LES MISÉRABLES (2012)
It would be an understatement to say that attempting to adapt one of the most popular and longest running musicals of all time for the big screen is an incredibly daunting task, but Tom Hooper sure is the man for the job. The King’s Speech director approached the film adaptation of the much-loved musical in a way that married the best of what broadway has to offer with the magic and grandiosity of film. The power of theater is in its authenticity; with actors conveying emotions directly to an audience without the filters of editing and special effects that can sometimes distract from the genuineness of the material. The magic of cinema, on the other hand, is in its capacity to take something to an entirely new level in scale. Everything is bigger, bolder, and brighter, yet without entirely sacrificing the intimacy offered by broadway. With Les Mis, Hooper was able to offer audiences the best of both worlds, and he was extremely fortunate to be blessed with a marvelous and multitalented cast consisting of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, to name a few. Not only were these actors gifted with amazing voices, but their performances perfectly matched the evocative music and story. 
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It can be said that Les Misérables is the feelgood movie of the year, because the characters in the film experience such misery that the audience ends up feeling good about themselves. The story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, revolves around Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has just been released from prison after stealing a loaf of bread. Rejoining society isn’t very easy; the social stigma of being a convict becomes too much of a burden to many, including Valjean, who has a difficult time finding honest work and shelter because of his criminal record. Add to that the fact that he has captured the dogged interest of police chief Javert (Russell Crowe), who has made it his life’s mission to make sure Valjean never forgets that he is a criminal. Valjean almost gets sent back to prison after he steals from a church, but the priest who took him in decides not to press charges against him, in effect giving Valjean another chance at life. This act of kindness brings an epiphany to Valjean, and he realizes that he needs to make a real effort to change his life, else he will never get out of the hole he dug himself into. Years pass and Valjean is now a successful businessman, owning a textile factory and even going on to become mayor of a small town. One of his factory workers is a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who struggles with odd jobs to make ends meet for her young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Fantine’s good looks earn the envy of her coworkers, who turn against her and accuse her of being a troublemaker, leading her to be thrown out and left in the streets. Desperate, Fantine turns to a brothel, where she sells her hair and teeth for money to send to the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter), husband and wife innkeepers who are looking after Cosette in Fantine’s absence. In Fantine’s line of work as a prostitute, she becomes extremely sick and one night, Valjean happens upon her on the street and takes her in. Fantine’s sickness overwhelms her and she dies, but not before Valjean promises that he will take care of her daughter Cosette. Javert discovers that Valjean has been living under an alias and confronts him at the hospital. Valjean pleads for Javert to give him a few days so that he can fulfill his promise to Fantine and make sure Cosette is looked after. Javert refuses, so Valjean flees and goes to the Thénardiers, where he pays them a hefty sum of money to release Cosette. 

Fast forward a few years and Cosette is all grown up (played by Amanda Seyfried). She and Valjean have managed to live a quiet life together, but one day Valjean runs into the Thénardiers, who now scam people for money and realize that they could have asked Valjean for more in exchange for Cosette. A ruckus erupts and Javert rides in and discovers Valjean and Cosette, but before he has a chance to capture Valjean, they escape. Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary, sees Cosette during this rumble with the Thénardiers. He is instantly smitten and convinces his friend, Éponine (Samantha Barks), to help find her. Éponine is in love with Marius, but as his friend she helps him find Cosette. Unfortunately Cosette and Marius’ reunion is short-lived, as Valjean is too unsettled by his run-in with Javert to stay at the same location. He and Cosette flee and Marius goes off to join the revolutionaries. I’ll end the synopsis here, but the rest of the film culminates in a battle between the revolutionaries and French army.
The story has multiple themes, from salvation and second chances to paying it forward, idealism and the harshness of the world we live in. Being kind to another human being is seeing God’s face in theirs, as the song goes. The story is called Les Misérables (French for “the miserable ones” or “the wretched/unfortunate/poor ones”) for a reason, and it’s because it’s one filled with strife, struggle and survival, all in different stages of people’s lives. Valjean’s struggles are one of redemption - one mistake turned his life upside down and his whole life has since been dedicated to righting this wrong. Fantine’s struggle is one of sheer misfortune; a single mother with no one to care for her and her child, she had to make sacrifices to ensure that her daughter wouldn’t end up like her. In the later half of the story, these individual struggles combine to form the story of the many citizens of France, who have suffered in poverty and oppression for so long that they have decided they’ve had enough. There’s a nice arc to the story that makes the individual stories matter even more when looking at the bigger picture. That said, it’s no wonder that a story like Les Mis’ has captured the fascination of fans and filmmakers around the world. It’s a universal story that everyone can relate to, but what makes it truly special is that when put against the backdrop of soaring music and melody, the story takes on a whole new meaning and evocativeness.
One can say that music is a universal langage; even without understanding a word, one can feel the emotion a song tries to convey. And without a doubt, Les Mis’ epic story is hammered home by music that appeals to those emotions. With songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream”, “On My Own” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, capturing the misery, longing and sorrow of each of the characters, the film is taken to new and even more compelling heights. The musical performances in the film were brilliant; from Anne Hathaway’s fragile, heartbreaking rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, to the jolly, humorous “Master of the House”, featuring Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter. What made their performances stand out was that they were recorded live, with the actors singing and acting at the same time. Traditionally when musicals are adapted for the big screen, actors lip sync to a pre-recorded track (usually recorded in a studio). The problem with this is that it leaves little room for flexibility for the actors; they have to keep time with a pre-recorded track while acting at the same time. Instead, with Tom Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live, it gives them the freedom to sing in a way that matches each moment in their character’s story. The result is an authenticity never before seen in musicals adapted for the screen; this method captured the magic of a broadway performance while elevating the performance with the tools cinema has to offer. For example, in a scene involving Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, the audience can hear the turmoil in Hathaway’s voice when she sings about shattered dreams and endless misfortune. At the same time, we get the benefits of close-up shots showing each tremble of the lips, every flutter of eyelids, along with every flash of agony in each character’s eyes. The effect is that audiences feel like they are right in there with the characters, feeling everything they are feeling and living through all of the trauma that they are in.  

One of the things that especially impressed me with this film was how certain scenes were shot in a much more intimate way than others, without a whole lot of camera work, save for the steady cam shots trained on the characters when they are singing. In Eddie Redmayne’s rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, his character Marius is simply standing in the middle of a barren room of a dilapidated building, but the tension and sadness is thick in the air, all a product of very minimalistic camera work and a brilliant, moving performance from Redmayne. When he sings of fallen comrades, the audience isn’t burdened with distractions of shots that cut away, but we see Marius’ expression change with every line he sings, making his emotions seem all the more raw and uninhibited. Similarly, when Anne Hathway is singing “I Dreamed a Dream”, all we see is the expression on her character’s face, which is a mixture of self-pity, shame and woe. It’s great that Tom Hooper trusted his actors enough to convey the character’s story by giving them the camera’s full attention. While scenes like these were decidedly more intimate, there were others that certainly took advantage of the epic scale of the film. The opening scene of Valjean and prisoners singing “Look Down” as they tug a ship to shore was a showcase of how big a film like this could be. The elaborate costumes and set designs were also aspects of the film that capitalized on the bigness of the medium. 
Performance-wise, the clear standouts in this film were Redmayne, Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit and Jackman, whose voices and acting were the most impeccable. Redmayne’s performance in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” alone was worth the price of admission, for he sung it with an unbelievable sense of vulnerability that it made me weep. Hathaway also nailed every scene she was in; bringing audiences to tears with her raw rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”. The part where she almost snarled the line “He took my childhood in his stride,” startled me because of how much meaning she put into it. There was a lot of nuance in her performance that I felt really made it compelling and deeply affecting. Of course, the rest of the soaring music was performed admirably. Standouts include Samantha Barks’ “On My Own” (Barks’ voice was as smooth as butter and was so pleasing to listen to, especially during the “A Little Fall of Rain” duet with Eddie Redmayne’s Marius), “ABC Cafe/Red and Black”, performed by the revolutionary crowd and led by Aaron Tveit (whose voice was full-throated and amazing), and the lovely ditty “Castle on a Cloud” by Isabelle Allen. Jackman did a great job with the acting, as well as with a lot of Valjean’s songs, but melodically they just didn’t appeal to me as much as the others did. Jackman did a solid job with the new song “Suddenly”, as well as “One Day More” and “Bring Him Home”. As for Russell Crowe, I would say did a good job as well, though his voice wasn’t as evenly matched compared to all the other performers. However, I thought that was actually a good thing. I liked that Javert didn’t sound flawless or amazing, because I felt it made audiences more astute to the kind of character he was portraying - someone stuffy, closed-minded and haughty. His dogged pursuit of Valjean was, I felt, matched perfectly by Crowe’s singing. “Stars” was a great number for Crowe. I also felt that the presence of Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen brought some much-needed levity to what would have been an otherwise dour and depressing story. Their portrayal of the cockroach-like Thénardiers was pretty terrific, and I thought they made a fine pair. 

Performances aside, there were some things that could have been a lot better. I felt that Amanda Seyfried’s voice at times sounded a little too shrill. There were also some scenes that made unnecessary use of the Dutch angle, which I found rather distracting. I also wished there was a little bit more time devoted to Cosette and Marius, because their romance was supposed to be the one good thing that came out of such abysmal circumstances, and yet there wasn’t enough of their love involved, although Redmayne and Seyfried certainly took advantage of every single minute they had together to make it seem as though they really were two star-struck lovers. Marius’ infatuation with Cosette is infectious, certainly enough to make audiences swoon and empathize with his lovesick character. Finally, and this one is probably just a matter of personal preference, but I would have liked the film better had some of the lines in certain songs been uttered instead of sung. To me, a lot of Javert’s, Valjean’s and Cosette’s lines sounded strange when they were sung, as if they were either out of tune or just that they didn’t fit the scene they were performing. I know that these songs have been performed countless times on stage without them coming off oddly, so perhaps it was simply a matter of difference in the way they were sung. Other than that, I thought the film was really well done. 
For a lot of musicals adapted for the big screen, there is a tendency for performances to come off as over-the-top and exaggerated. The great thing about Les Mis is that it knows it’s playing to audiences from behind the screen, so there’s no overexaggeration in terms of acting, but at the same time scenes feel just as intimate as if viewers were watching it on stage from a mere few feet away. I liked that there was a sense of control of where the action erupted and where scenes could get quiet, which made the emotional impact of the film much stronger. It’s a great skill for a director to have to be able to rein in acting or any other movement on screen in favor of a stillness that results in a much more compelling overall effect. 
Les Misérables is one of the must-see films of the year, because it not only features amazing performances from its remarkable cast, but it pays a respectable homage to the novel and the broadway musical that so many love. There are a lot of breathtakingly pretty shots, amazing sets and delightful numbers with some whimsy (such as the Thénardiers’ “Master of the House”, which brought a lot of lighthearted fun into an otherwise melancholy set). While the majority of the story is extremely bleak, there are certainly parts of it that are welcome because of the sense of hope they bring. Marius and Cosette’s romance is a lovely rose amid a sea of thorns, and the relief of death from a wretched life is a sad but ultimately fulfilling end for some of our characters. You’d have to be stone-hearted to come away from Les Misérables with a dry eye. It’s an evocative film with a lot of memorable performances, particularly from Redmayne and Hathaway, and finally, a fitting adaptation for a much-loved musical. 

LES MISÉRABLES (2012)

It would be an understatement to say that attempting to adapt one of the most popular and longest running musicals of all time for the big screen is an incredibly daunting task, but Tom Hooper sure is the man for the job. The King’s Speech director approached the film adaptation of the much-loved musical in a way that married the best of what broadway has to offer with the magic and grandiosity of film. The power of theater is in its authenticity; with actors conveying emotions directly to an audience without the filters of editing and special effects that can sometimes distract from the genuineness of the material. The magic of cinema, on the other hand, is in its capacity to take something to an entirely new level in scale. Everything is bigger, bolder, and brighter, yet without entirely sacrificing the intimacy offered by broadway. With Les Mis, Hooper was able to offer audiences the best of both worlds, and he was extremely fortunate to be blessed with a marvelous and multitalented cast consisting of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, to name a few. Not only were these actors gifted with amazing voices, but their performances perfectly matched the evocative music and story. 

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Check out this behind the scenes peek into the making of Les Misérables, where the actors and director Tom Hooper talk about what sets this movie apart from all other musicals. It’s an interesting process described, allowing actors to record the songs live and having them dictate the terms of how the music will eventually sound. This process surely lends itself to translating a sense of authenticity, something I’ve personally found difficult to achieve with musicals in particular. I’m very excited for this film, and for those of you who hadn’t heard, its release has been moved to Christmas Day.