Category Archives: Review

thoughts on house of cards: episodes 1-4

Kevin Spacey wants to rule the world, and we humble mortals better get out of his way. The veteran actor joins an all-star cast in House of Cards, the atmospheric political thriller set to turn White House politics on its devious, manipulative head. Armed with the freedom of paid cable networks and the pedigree of Oscar nominees behind and before the camera, this show somehow manages to be as intellectual as it is hip. It’s an edgy, moody story with ambitions overshadowed only by the ones held by its ruthless protagonist.

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The Gist

House of Cards wastes no time in establishing its deceptively simple storyline: Francis “Frank” Underwood (Spacey) wants to dismantle and destroy the current presidential administration. This familiar plot of revenge is revitalized by Underwood himself, a charismatic, dangerously intelligent politician with a disarming Southern drawl. His near maniacal grip on vengeance is tempered by his wife’s serenely cool, but equally determined drive. Robin Wright gives Claire Underwood a blend of grace and understated ruthlessness rarely seen. It’s clear Frank and Claire were meant for each other, two star-crossed lovers who see one another’s sense of purpose reflected in the other. These two could have ruled a small continent back in the Middle Ages. Instead, they have their sights set on Capitol Hill.

Surrounding the Underwoods, is a cast of pawns. Frank handily picks up two lackeys on his quest for political domination: Zoe Barnes, a sexualized twist on the plucky girl reporter (played by Rooney Mara‘s sister, Kate Mara), and Pete Russo, a Congressman with an easily blackmail-able history of drug use and prostitution. Meanwhile, both Claire and Frank alternate interactions with Remy, a deep-pocketed lobbyist who trades funding for favors. What quickly becomes apparent is everyone has an agenda. In Frank’s world, you succeed by understanding these agendas – and then exploiting them to promote your own. Part of the fun of the show is watching how easy Frank makes this all look.

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Episodes 1-4

The first four episodes of House of Cards are exquisite, but they also feel like warm-up drills for an athlete before the actual game. Frank is setting things in motion and taking out minor players like regular people sweep out the trash. It almost feels…reflexive. Frank is merely reacting to betrayal: the intellectual equivalent of a hot-headed man’s resort to his fists. He leaves a wake of disgraced Congressmen in his path as well as decisively eliminating the Secretary of State and House Majority Leader by the end of episode four. If the show can deliver on the promise of these early episodes, then it’s set for a meteoric season arc. The potential of House of Cards is seemingly limitless, thanks to Frank’s incalculable drive and ambition. Would Frank be satisfied by merely take out the president or would he want to sit in the Oval Office himself? Is Frank the sort of man who would ever be satisfied with anything? For the sake of this show, hopefully not.

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The Game Changer

The most shocking element of House of Cards has nothing to do with the story (or the language or the sexual content). The first season of the show premiered – in its entirety – on February 1, 2013 at midnight. As if that wasn’t revolutionizing enough, the episodes are only available on Netflix. While making shows for the internet isn’t a new concept, the scale, scope and talent have arguably never even come close to House of Cards. And with Netflix set to exclusively release fourteen episodes of Arrested Development this May, the media company is poised to become a major player in television production.

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Hayley has other interests besides just nerdy TV shows. She also is a big fan of thinking. She ponders the great mysteries of life, like how more of her time can be devoted to watching those nerdy TV shows.

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oscar buzz: thoughts on zero dark thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is fucking terrible. Oh that felt incredible to say “out-loud.” Goddamn, I have literally never walked out of a movie, but Zero Dark Thirty almost pushed me over the edge. It is actually difficult to have a movie full to bursting with controversy that literally bored me to tears. But what’s worse than boredom? This movie is remarkably stupid and poorly written and acted with all the care and craft of a high-school musical.

The movie opens with some guy torturing some other guy. We’re supposed to think that it’s rough and edgy… because the doe-eyed white lady is clearly concerned. She reminds the suspect to “not be a naughty liar.” So she’s a softie, right? But literally 2 minutes later, scruff beard-man talks to a colleague and says “She’s a raw new recruit, someone to fear.”

Wait. What?

The confusion increases as she spends the rest of the movie bouncing between RoboCop and scared almost… damsel in distress. She’s one of the most inconsistent characters I’ve ever seen, literally no hyperbole here. In the middle of the movie, she’s devastated(?) by another character dying… a character that she’s had two interactions with, the first of which was being mocked by her. The second they’re best friends? Sort of? Then she dies as a result of a monumentally stupid decision that’s telegraphed from a mile away (pro-tip, maybe don’t let terrorists into your military base.) Then she gets blown up. And as an audience we’re sad because we’re told to be sad. Doe-eyed girl is sad, so we’re EXTRA sad. She even starts drinking. *Gasp*

Then, from her sadness comes a moment that was so stupid that I almost left the theater. James Gandolfini goes “WELL HOW TO WE KNOW HE’S IN THIS SUPER-HOUSE? I DON’T BELIEVE THIS!” And then she goes “WELL IN THE MOTHER FUCKER THAT FOUND THIS HOUSE.” I did not make up that line. Some of this review is schtick, because I hated every minute of it, but that line actually happened. Doe-eyed looks into the camera and says “I’M THE MOTHER FUCKER THAT FOUND THIS HOUSE!” The audience in my theater ERUPTED with laughter.

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This was the moment where I almost walked out of the theater. Once again, she shifts abruptly from soft to badass for no reason other than shitty writing and acting. It’s so bizarre, she doesn’t even change her tone. If she’d ended it with an innocent giggle and a “teehee!” it would not have seemed out of place. There’s a gigantic disconnect between her character and the events of the film. Saying someone is force to be reckoned with does not make them a force to be reckoned with.

As a brief aside, I brought this up following the viewing, and I was greeted with cat-calls and my friends calling me sexist. I’ll admit, this could sound sexist to an extent. In so many words, it sounds like I’m asserting that femininity is inherently weak. Not so, there are plenty of examples of femininity being strong, assertive, and a force to be reckoned with. Kill Bill is a terrific example of this. Beatrix is an unstoppable force, beautiful, yet vengeful. She’s doing everything she can to avenge her daughter’s supposed death, and yet at the end of the film, we see her as soft and loving.

And speaking of loving, there is literally no motivation for any character in the film. There’s not a personal relationship to speak of. People just act and we’re supposed to root for them because they’re white. Or monkeys. That’s not racist, that’s literally a plot-point in the film. We’re supposed to feel for monkeys who are killed off camera. Because they belong to beardy-guy. He actually says with his human mouth, “Goddamnit… they killed my monkeys…” BEAT. Like a human died. That’s how the scene plays out. Then later in the movie, doe-eyed girl is approached by a different younger, doe-eyeder girl, who then asks to have lunch with her. At which point she goes “I DON’T EAT OUT. TOO DANGEROUS.”

Why? She eats out several other times in the movie. Important plot points happen in restaurants. Like her character inexplicably being at the Marriot bombing in Pakistan. Bull shit. I do not believe that her character, who was supposedly based on a real “person” was there for a minute. It was so stupid and convenient. No, Kathryn Bigelow, you just wanted to blow up some brown people while we, as the audience, could watch doe-eyed girl react to the “horrors of war.”

Unlike The Hurt Locker, the cinematography is horrid. We just look at a thing, then look back at doe-eyed girl for how to feel. There’s not a single moment in the film where we, as an audience, are hit with anything remotely controversial. Is torture good? Just look at her face. Is bombing good? Just look at her face.

Which brings me to my largest point and biggest gripe. This movie is just fucking stupid, racist, and a chest-thumping. Yeah, we killed an 80 year-old man because he bombed us. We didn’t stop until that asshole was dead. Go us. Most pop culture that deals with this sort of thing is at least honest about it. It doesn’t purport to be anything more than a good-ol-fashioned “OOH-RAH!” This pretends to be art. At least Kid Rock has the good taste to just come out and say “Warrior” is a masturbatory exercise.

I elected not to use the names of the characters in this review because I didn’t need them. There are two characters that exist and the rest are wholly superfluous. We just look at the white girl and know she’s the good guy. It’s a thoughtless exercise filled with tedium and literally no tension.

The movie opens with the line “I own you.” And for most people watching and enjoying this film, that sentiment is spot-on.

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oscar buzz: thoughts on django unchained

Django Unchained is a brash film that tackles pre-Civil War America in all its racist, ridiculous, and blood-soaked glory. This film, it almost goes without saying, is not for everyone. The humor ranges from sweet to downright disgusting, and the violence starts out strong and escalates to a volatile finish. That being said, if you love Tarantino, you’ll love this. It’s bold done right – in-your-face storytelling that revels in the knowledge that boundaries are meant to be stepped on, laughed at, and ultimately, obliterated.

AA

Plot Overview

This wild ride revolves around the partnership between Django and Dr. King Schultz, an enterprising German expatriate. In three sweeping acts, Tarantino takes moviegoers through Django’s transformative journey from enslaved bounty hunter to masquerading Mandingo buyer to victorious angel of vengeance. Dr. Schultz is, for most of the movie, Django’s Virgil, leading and even enabling the lost man through the circles of white supremacist hell. At its heart, this film is really about Django’s quest to be reunited with his wife, a slave sold to the deliciously villainous Calvin Candie. However, oddly enough, that storyline turns out to be the least compelling, a fragile frame upon which the characters and side stories of a far more intriguing nature can be displayed. Not that it really matters. By the time Django seizes his revenge – out of a pile of dead bodies – all minor complaints are cast aside by the cleansing force that only a good shoot’-em-up finale can deliver.

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Oscar Nominations

  • Best Picture
  • Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
  • Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz

Chances of Django riding away with Oscar gold this February? Pretty low. The violent masterpiece is already steeped in multiple racial and gun control controversies, but the real truth is that this just isn’t the Academy’s usual cup of tea. With Daniel Day Lewis method-acting his way through Lincoln and American heroes taking out Bin Laden over in Zero Dark Thirty, there isn’t a lot of room for this bloody film that amuses as often as it horrifies. Really though, as cliché as it sounds, it is an honor just to be nominated. The Academy has never been the biggest fan of Tarantino, but it still recognizes his talent…albeit at a conservative trickle. (Though it’s worthy of note that Tarantino did at least take home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Pulp Fiction.)

On the other hand, the Academy already loves Waltz: they gave him the same award he’s nominated for now just four years ago. However, that role was a bit meatier and nastier. It would be hard for anyone to out act Waltz as Nazi nightmare Colonel Hans Landau– even Waltz himself. He certainly puts his all into Dr. Schultz, but Schultz – bless his heart – can’t hold a candle to Landau.

B

Oscar Snubs

  • Best Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Best Supporting Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio
  • Best Supporting Actor: Samuel L. Jackson

I suppose someone – not me – could make a case that Jamie Foxx deserves a nomination. Personally, I found his portrayal of the titular character merely suitable; it never seemed to move beyond a straight interpretation of a phenomenal script. The lack of nominations for those listed above is a different story. No one directs like Tarantino, and yet the man is still without a directing Oscar. I would have been happy if either DiCaprio or Jackson nabbed a nomination, but only awarding Waltz with the honor makes little sense after actually watching the movie. Once the story moves to its hearty middle, Waltz all but disappears under the stunning force and personality of Candie and his manservant Stephens, played by Jackson. (And not to gripe, but how did Alan Arkin beat out both these men to receive a nomination? I loved Arkin’s turn in Argo – another great movie of 2013 – but his character hardly makes a blip on my radar compared to the craters created by the denizens of Candieland.)

C

Trivia

  • Spot Quentin Tarantino in a rather long (and explosive) cameo as an Australian miner.
  • See any blood dripping mysteriously down Calvin Candie’s arm? Turns out Leonardo DiCaprio accidentally cut himself in a scene, but the camera kept rolling and he kept acting. Seriously, where is that man’s Oscar?
  • Tarantino wrote the screenplay with Will Smith in mind for the title role, but the actor turned it down.
  • Do you love action figures and Tarantino movies? Well, you’re in luck: Django toys are out of the manufacturing stage – and into a fire pit of controversy and protest.
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oscar buzz: thoughts on les miserable, part two

I’m not going to pretend that I was excited to see this movie; or that I even thought the movie would be amazing. I came into this movie with very low standards. And you know what they say: Those who are pessimistic are either proven right or pleasantly surprised. Both proved to be true.

While some singers and songs were better than I hoped, overall, the slight changes they made, I did not appreciate at all. The largest ones I saw came, quite disappointingly, during my favorite songs.

I Dreamed A Dream: I have not hidden my dislike of Anne Hathaway from anyone. Sure, sometimes she’s a great actress. Other times it’s so painful I wince when I hear her voice. Luckily, this was not one of those times. She was definitely one of the best actors—and singers!—of the movie.

In My Life/A Heart Full of Love: This is one of my favorite trio songs. Unfortunately, the singers did not do it justice. If you saw the 25th Anniversary of Les Mis, then you know that Samantha Barks can sing. On screen, she was slightly less impressive–but I still liked her more than Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried’s voice is so high that Redmayne and Barks are also forced to sing high–too high for all of them–which means a loss of power behind their voices. Also, Amanda Seyfried doesn’t sing–she trills. Is there a more annoying sound than someone trilling? Someone half-heartedly speak-talking. Other than that, no.

ABC Café/Red & Black: This was one of my favorite songs of the entire movie. I would say that the emotion behind this song—as seen by the very close camera—is one of the highlights. It was also when it became apparent that, when not singing with Sefried, queen of trilling, Redmayne could sing!

My favorite line from this song–and from the entire movie? “It is time for us all to decide who we are. Do we fight for a right at the Opera, now? Have you asked of yourselves what is the price you might pay?” (Linked is the better, 25th Anniversary Version)

Drink With Me: All of the main lines were taken out. Because they cut it down to be about a minute long, all of the dialogue—the men debating whether going to war is the right thing to do, and their reminiscing about the good times they used to have been cut out. Even stranger; they took out all the women in the song. Where the back-up singers used to be women singing to their men, in the movie it is young Gavroche soloing. While this is a nice sentiment, the lack of interaction between the men and women is apparent. Because of this, it took away from the effect the movie could have had when the women are cleaning up the pools of blood on the ground after the battle.

A Heart Full of Love Reprise: This trio was so disappointing that I almost cried—which would have been the only time my eyes would have watered during the movie. In the play, the lyrics begin with Cosette and Marius talking about Mauris’ healing. This is a great song because, typically, it switches between duets and trios—starring Cosette, Marius and Valjean. Instead, they take out almost all of Maruis’s lyrics and turn it into a quartet, with a random man standing on the stairs. Do we know who the stairs man is? Do we ever see him again? Is it ever explained why he is singing with them? No. (Sidenote: There is no link for this song, because it was so horrible they decided not to add it to the album. This is a fact.)Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: I’ve already talked about the setting of this song; but Redmayne’s singing mostly acapella was a very nice touch. This was my favorite song of the entire play. This is also the only song I would spend money on and buy. Additionally, one of my favorite singers was Eddie Redmayne. It probably would have been Anne Hathaway, but she was only in the first half hour or so. Give me Redmayne sans Seyfreid! Both he and Hathaway are also the only actors who can talk-sing.

Talk-Singing:
This was easily one of the largest problems. It was more than clear that Hugh Jackman got tired of talk-singing halfway through the movie and simply gave up. He looked to be in pain–and I was in pain from hearing him. Just because they talk-sing all the lines in the play doesn’t mean you have to do so in the movie. And the lines of emphasis in the play weren’t even sung with power, or triumphantly. You’ve either got to get all the lines sung, or don’t talk-sing. And only Samantha Barks, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne could successfully talk-sing. Everyone else just meandered along. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for the actors–and it wasn’t at all fun for my ears.

Epilogue: You can just tell that Hugh Jackman is tired of singing. He went from singing and talk-singing to just speaking the lyrics! They also changed the lyrics from:
It’s a story of those who always loved you
Your mother gave her life for you and gave you to my keeping
To: Of one who turned from hating
A man who only learned to love when you were in his keeping

I don’t care if these new lyrics have better symbolism. You’ve thrown symbolism in our face the entire movie.

Anne Hathaway was great; however, they deleted Samantha Barks’ entire section, turning the famous duet into a slightly-more-boring solo. Horrible. I did enjoy the priest’s little part.

Fun Facts/Favorite Things:
-The priest was played by the original Jean Valjean from Broadway. No wonder his voice was so good. And what wonderful homage!
-My favorite singer of the entire movie: leader of the National Guard (who sang for about 30 seconds) was Hadley Fraser, who played Marius, Grantiere, and Javert on Broadway. In the 25th Anniversary, he plays Grantiere.
-And as much as I did not enjoy the changes they made, I did like the larger role Gavroche was given. Especially touching was Javert’s putting his badge of honor on a deceased Gavroche.
-I also really enjoyed the action scenes—particularly setting up the barricade; getting chairs and furniture in any way possible. Including kissing women to steal their seats. There’s no sitting during war–especially when that chair will help build a fort!

Biggest Disappointment: Samantha Barks. As previously mentioned, she killed it at the 25th Anniversary. I’m not sure if that was just because she was singing with Nick Jonas or what, but in the movie she was almost like a different, less interesting person. And despite all that, she was still one of the best singers, in my opinion.

Favorite songs: Red & Black, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Finale
Best singers: Eddie Redmayne (despite his “Kermit-esque” voice when hitting high notes), Anne Hathaway, Hadley Fraser, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit
Best performance: Red & Black, Empty Chairs, Finale

Worst song:
Bring Him Home: This is a song I would pay never to hear again. You can tell that Hugh Jackman hates this song—and I hate his rendition of it.

Worst singers:
Russell Crowe: His best performance was the song before he killed himself. And I still disliked that one.

Hugh Jackman: He started out pretty good, but then it all went downhill. I don’t understand—he was good on Broadway as Curly from Oklahoma. Maybe the moral of this story is don’t turn plays into movies, because they don’t turn out well.

Amanda Seyfried: She has the honor of being in both of the worst plays-turned-into-movies ever: Mama Mia and Les Mis. Just because you can shriek doesn’t mean you should sing—or trill.

I feel like the direction started out pretty strong—but Hooper started leading everyone in contradictory directions, and it did not turn out well. I don’t know where this movie went wrong, but I can stay without a doubt that I would be entirely happy never seeing this movie ever again. The play, on the other hand, is an entirely different story.

-Please note that clicking on the titles will take you to the song on youtube.
-Also note that I would prefer that you listen to this: the entire 25th Anniversary with Ramin (black vest; later red coat), Hadley (green shirt), and Alfie (white shirt, or Jean Valjean), who should have been in the movie. Also, here are much better versions of Red & Black (which sounds awesome, despite Nick Jonas), Drink With MeIn My Life.
-Lastly, I did not review all of the songs, even though there were several that were more famous than the ones I chose. Many songs had been entirely deleted, or were pretty boring. For it to be on this particular list, the song had to be exceptionally awesome—or horribly bad. There is probably more of the latter than the former.

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oscar buzz: thoughts on les miserables

Overall: 7/10
Singing: 6/10
Videography: 6.5/10
Acting: 8/10
Plot: n/a

I’m going to say it straightout: I think one of the biggest problems with this movie is the demographic. Who is it supposed to appeal to? If you’ve seen the play, saying that this is a disappointment is justified and probably correct. And it is not a pleasurable experience for those to those who have never read or watched Les Mis before.

In addition, the choices made for this film are seemingly contradictory. If you want big names to boost the popularity, fine. That makes sense. But don’t expect them to sing live and sound up-to-Broadway par. Sure, they sounded okay–some sounded even good. But amazing? stellar? mindblowing? I think not. Either sing in a studio to help boost and “fluff” up the voices, or get amazing singers and record them singing live.

Plot:
From what I could tell, the plot was almost exactly the same as the play I saw. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–but isn’t necessarily a good thing, either. It is understandable that a play’s setting and scenery is limited; they have a small amount of space to work with, and precious seconds to change everything around. This, however, is a multi-million dollar movie. And it is quite evident that the effects of the movie were done in green screen. There were two vastly different kinds of camera work in this movie–regal, sweeping camera angles, which was the bird’s eye viewing of France, and the “two inches from the singer’s face” angle. The bird’s eye was clearly CGI–all of it. And, while pretty, was a bit jarring at times. I’m almost positive is was only used as a device to help transition the changing time periods.

I will say, that despite its ridiculous, unrealistic quality, I did like the camerawork following Jean Valjean’s ripped up letter toward France. And the battalions marching through the streets to reach the “barricade.”

A larger, more annoying problem with the camera-work can be found with the singers. Hooper–and the actors–are loving their “singing live” bit. We all know it. They’ve said it thousands of times, everywhere. But is that really something to be bragging about when it has drastically lowered the vocal qualities found in the movie? More about that later–back to the cameras. I felt no need to be that close to the actors while they were singing. Especially since that was the camera-work for easily over 75% of the movie. However, also jarring was when the actors were moving around and singing. Most of the time, the camera was very jarring and couldn’t even keep the actor’s face in the middle of the camera–or even on camera!

Two of my favorite parts in the play were translated much differently in the movie: Javert’s death, and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Javert’s death, in the play, was very impressive. As he jumped off the bridge, the ground moved up, swallowing him instead of him falling under the stage. In the movie, that was the funniest thing I have ever seen. Russell Crowe is sad, he’s standing on a bridge. Will he jump–will the jump kill him? He jumps into the shipyard, partially filled with water. But is it clear if the 300+ foot fall will kill him? We all know how implied messages are often ignored; let’s shove the answer down the audience’s throat. Cue the loudest sound of a back hitting cement and breaking I have ever heard. More realistic sound effects can be found in the Scary Movie series.

I also did not like the theme of “Russell Crowe walking on the ledge of things while half-heartedly singing.” My aunt* pointed out that at the beginning he walks confidently, unafraid of death. And at the end he tiptoes, scared, and commits suicide. While the parallels are more evident in the movie, as they have once again shoved the symbolism down your throat, it is also clear that the green screen work is exactly the same for the two parts.

And while I sincerely enjoyed “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” it being one of my favorite songs in the movie, a large majority of its impressiveness was lost when my brother reminded me of the scene in the play. In the play it is completely dark, with the exception of candles which are held by all of Marius’s friends, standing behind him. When the song ends, their candles are blown out and he is left alone on the stage.

Acting:
The biggest appeal, for me, was seeing the actors’ faces up close. (Sidenote: If they had panned back from the faces a bit, we still would have been able to clearly see their faces. But more about that later). When you compare professional actors to singers, or actors to Broadway members, it’s evident in the movie who came from what background. The background people, whose faces the camera did not zoom in on, were the Broadway members. I would have preferred more entire body acting rather than watching just their face. I’m not denying that Hooper did a great job of capturing the emotion on the actors’ faces while they sang and cried. But if he had stepped about ten feet back when filming the singers, he could have easily accommodated the Broadway members and “real” singers.

In no way am I denying the stellar actors’ stellar acting jobs–but let’s not get carried away and call them singers. The actors–who happened to be reasonably good at singing–included Anne Hathaway (I Dreamed A Dream), Eddie Redmayne (Empty Chairs at Empty Tables), and the cast for ABC Cafe/Red and Black.

In my opinion, this was filmed as a movie-musical, and the music was the largest component of this film–clearly it wasn’t the original plot. As such, I have a lot of things to say about Hooper’s musical choices, the changes in lyrics made, and an even closer look at the actors’ singing abilities. Because who doesn’t like bashing on the Gladiator’s singing? We are not entertained. Or, as The Onion put it, “Russell Crowe Praised For Stunning Portrayal Of Man Who Cannot Sing Or Act In ‘Les Misérables’.

This Review/Rant will continue in part two, where I will discuss musical choices, changes in lyrics and surprisingly good–and disappointingly bad–actors’ singing abilities.

*If family members show up in this post, it is because I saw it with my entire extended family. We then proceeded to break the movie apart scene by scene for the next several hours.

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