Jack Reacher

Since the earliest days of movies, stars have been fascinating to audiences. Fan magazines have been packed with pictures, stories and interviews featuring their favorite actors. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, those stories were carefully managed and negative info about the stars rarely made the headlines. There were occasional exceptions like the trials of Fatty Arbuckle and Errol Flynn, but for the most part, private lives were often kept private. We live in different times now a days. There is a 24 hour media cycle and everything ends up on line at some point. Tom Cruise has been maybe the biggest star in Hollywood films for most of the last thirty years, and his dirty laundry is often exhibited and speculated over. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. His religious views, marriage, sex life are of no importance to me. I care about his films, their production development, business decisions and his performances in those movies. Everything else can pound sand as far as I’m concerned. Tom Cruise is a “MOVIE STAR” and he makes films that for the most part work.

After the debacle of “Rock of Ages”, Cruise is back in familiar territory with Jack Reacher. This is a criminal procedural with a heavy action bent and a good measure of vengeance film thrown in. I have not read any of the books the movie is based on, but after seeing this I am very likely to become a fan. This is a great idea for a character. In essence, Reacher is a modern day Lone Ranger. He is an outsider with skills and a willingness to pursue justice, even if it means he has to go outside the lines to do so. This will allow the character to work in different scenarios, settings and with different casts of characters on a regular basis. I heard some of the criticism of his casting last year, Cruise being 5’7″ and the character in the books being 6’5″. As he has proven repeatedly in his career, Cruise is usually up to the challenge when it comes to physicality. His devotion to staying physically capable of doing these roles is obvious by his build and the lack of obvious aging in his face and body. I don’t think he needed to loom over the other characters in this story to be intimidating.

The story gets a little convoluted at times. The ultimate source of the motivation is as out there as the pharmaceutical company conspiracy that turned out to be the motivation in “The Fugitive” twenty years ago. It’s one of those “huh?” moments, that ultimately does not matter. We can follow how Reacher’s character strung out the facts, looked at events and then made inferences. There is a lot more deductive reasoning in this movie than there was in the Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes films. The action in this movie also makes a lot more sense. There are a couple of very well staged fight sequences, and an excellent car chase scene. The car chase will remind anyone who saw films in the 70s of movies they probably loved as well. The chase is reminiscent of the car chase scenes in “Bullet”, “The French Connection”, and “The Seven Ups”. I still have not caught up with “Drive” from last year, but I suspect it features some of the same kinds of real world stunts and a actor who looks believable behind the wheel. Cruise sells this character especially well when he drives that Chevelle SS though Pittsburgh, chasing down bad guys while simultaneously being chased by the cops.

As far as I’m concerned, now that Clint Eastwood is semi retired and Gene Hackman is permanently retired, there is no better actor on screen than Robert Duvall. He gets to put in a short appearance in this film, but he shows up at the right moments and leaves the exact kind of impression you want from a character such as he plays here. Rosamund Pike is a beautiful woman who plays intelligence very well in this part. While she does end up being the damsel in distress, before that happens she is a fierce character that Reacher plays against and she adds a good deal to the quality of the film. I think Richard Jenkins is one of the great character actors working today, but he needs more parts that take advantage of his gifts. His role in this film was not distinctive enough for him to be filling it. None of the bad guys gets much chance to make an impression. Werner Herzog, is creepy, but that is mostly the script and the makeup that sells this character.

The backstory that Reacher tells concerning the original suspect in the crime is also chilling. There was one line that I thought introduced a bit of political bullshit into the film, but it had nothing to do with the story itself so I quickly forgot it. This is the film that will fill the action void until all the shoot em ups open in January. It is actually a pretty smart mystery, that introduces us to a unique new film character. I enjoyed the hell out of this film and I want to spend more time with Jack Reacher, especially if he is played by a professional like Tom Cruise. This looked like a pretty modestly produced film. There are not a bunch of special effects shots or big set pieces. We get good actors selling a solid story, that involves a good amount of physical brutality. That shouts “Merry Christmas” to me.

Les Misérables

Every year since I was first married, we have made it a point to go out after Christmas activities at home and see a movie. That first year, we went despite my parents protestations to see a movie at 10:00 at night. 1980’s film was “First Family” a truly terrible comedy starring my favorite TV star Bob Newhart. Over the years our selection has been a bit more careful. Some of our holiday selections seemed to fit with the mood or spirit of the day; for example “Phantom of the Opera”. Other choices flew in the face of the holiday, I guess a kind of counter programming, like “I Am Legend”. Last year we saw the Spielberg film “War Horse” on Christmas Day, and it was a solid mixture of drama and hope for the holiday. Lat summer, when we saw the trailer for Les Misérables, and it proclaimed that it was opening on Christmas, it seems our fate was set. The haunting singing of Anne Hathaway in the piece provoke tears within the short time span of the promo. I have never made a secret of my sentimentality and this movie was tapping into it before I even knew what was happening.

I’ve never seen Les Misérables on stage. Although it has been a popular musical for nearly thirty years, it was not something that I sought out. I have seen the 1935 film version of the story, so I had a passing familiarity with the plot. Anyone who has watched TV or You Tube in the last few years has heard “I Dreamed A Dream”, as it was the song that Susan Boyle sang that got her all that attention. It is a lovely song and it works for the film, but it is only one of maybe three songs from the film that seems complete. Having grown up on musicals made for films, I am used to songs having a beginning and an end and they occur in a context or story. It is true that “Phantom” uses the same sing through style as this film, I found that much easier to make sense of and enjoy. Way too often, the movement in the story here consists of people singing the script, without melody or chorus. Instead of finding it engaging, I found it off putting. My guess is that had I been more familiar with the music and the story, I would have embraced it more fully. I’m sad to say I’m not as enthusiastic as I would like to be.

The movie is shot (or at least it was presented in) an aspect ratio that feels a little cramped. It looked like a straight 1:85 framing, which is fairly standard, but is not typical of big screen films with sweeping backgrounds and soaring camera shots. There are so many close ups to allow the performers to connect with the songs that it literally gets right in your face with the melodramatic events taking place on screen. Hugh Jackman sings his heart out and his voice is strong and moving, but we get caught up looking in his eyes so often that other characters seem to be unnecessary in the scenes he is in. Hathaway is spectacular in voice and look. The tragic arc of her story seems so quick to me however that the fall has less of the emotional depth to it than I was expecting. Russel Crowe may not be a professional singer, but he acquitted himself admirably here, he was certainly not the embarrassment that Pierce Brosnan was in “Mama Mia” a couple of years ago. Crowe also gets the close up treatment, and in his case, the method seemed to work better because he was using his eyes more than his voice to convey the character’s feelings.

The last third of the picture introduces a new story line and moves the characters we have been following to the background. These new characters never get much of a chance to develop, they are icons of “heroic student”, “intellectually awakened rich boy”, and “plucky but tragic street urchin”. There is a love story that seems to develop almost entirely off screen, so that when characters act in a manner that suggests that their love is the only thing that matters, it is a little hard for me to go with. The one character that stands out is a conflicted romantic rival for Cossette, the little girl grown up and in love. Eponine is also a little girls grown up but she gets the big song in the last part of the film and while it does produce goosebumps, that is mostly due to the performance and not the story of her sacrifice.

I enjoyed the movie immensely, but I never felt the passion in the 2 hours and forty minutes watching it, that I felt in the minute and a half of the teaser trailer. That is an emotional letdown. The film is beautiful to look at, despite the often ugly parts of life it shows us. The performers are all top notch, and some of their voices deserve awards just for the sounds that they produced. More than any other musical of this sort, I felt the stage origins of the film. The key songs attempting to finish an act in a rousing way, the spotlight song for a featured performer, the scene and setting of events for dramatic effect all seemed to shout “THEATER” to me. I do enjoy the theatrical experience, but i wanted a more cinematic experience with this movie. I wanted to be taken into the story, and I wanted to care about the characters. I simply felt I was watching them go through the story, as performers rather than actors. It was a good film with some flaws that took me out of the experience. Maybe a second shot will improve my reaction to it, but for now, muted praise rather than glorious enthusiasm.