LES MISERABLES (12A) It's not perfect, but when you hear the people sing, it soars

VICTOR HUGO'S novel set against the backdrop of the decades following the French Revolution, has been adapted for film and television many times over the years.

But since becoming the world's most popular stage musical, a film version has been a long time coming.

Now it's been conceived for the screen on a massive scale, a thunderous rock opera that begins in France in 1815 and tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), just released from prison into hard times and misery.

We meet him again a few years later and he's reinvented himself as a respectable businessman, but policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) won't leave him alone, believing him to have broken his parole.

Meanwhile Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired from Valjean's workhouse and forced into prostitution to provide for her daughter, Cosette, whom Valjean goes on to adopt while he continues to evade the clutches of Javert.

It's a massive story of moral men, a pair of larger than life characters who live by a certain code.

On top of that there's the political turmoil and social ills of the 1832 rebellion, and with so much plot and such a vast array of characters, it sometimes threatens to burst at the seams.

But mostly it's all about the songs, and they're uniformly excellent, with Claude-Michel Schönberg's endlessly hummable melodies and the smart, sharp lyrics coming alive on screen.

There are dozens of them, sung with gusto by a spirited cast, and almost all the linking dialogue is sung as well. And though the majority of the cast aren't pros, they're effective nonetheless, conveying emotional depth with grandeur and complete sincerity.

Director Tom Hooper gives his actors nowhere to hide, with their singing performances recorded live on set, often in single takes and brutal close-up.

This provides quite the showcase for Jackman and especially for Hathaway, whose rendition of the musical's signature number, I Dreamed a Dream, will break your heart and win her as Oscar, be in no doubt.

There's some fun too, mostly in the shape of Sacha Baron Cohen's Thénardier and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), who are Cosette's guardians and who show up just in time for some much needed light respite.

It's not perfect. A sprawling narrative in which the central plot becomes the uprising and the somewhat drippy romance between Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and young rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne) means the second half is no match for the first.

It can drag in places, and parts of the final third can sometimes feel like the June Rebellion is playing out in real time. And, let's face it, Russell Crowe can't sing.

In technical terms though, it's a glorious achievement, with sets, costumes and cinematography all of the highest quality.

And when it finally manages to overcome the bumps on the road and you hear the people sing, Les Misérables simply soars.

Director: Tom Hooper

Running time: 158 mins

TEXAS CHAINSAW (18) Idiotic beyond endurance...bottom of the barrel stuff

OK, HERE'S the thing. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, now almost 40 years old, is a paragon of grime and primal force still unmatched in horror cinema that no amount of remakes or rehashes can dilute.

This latest cash-grab is linked by a prologue set immediately after the events of the original, which shows how the extended family members of saw-wielding Leatherface were essentially lynched by the townsfolk, with only a baby surviving.

In the present day a young woman learns of a grandmother she never knew who left her Texas mansion in her will, and she and her friends, in true Scooby Doo style, make the trip to Texas in their van, there to meet up with Leatherface for bags of stalk-and-saw action.

There's plenty chainsawing alright, but no tension, no dread, as graphic gore replaces the implied horror and bestial impetus of Tobe Hooper's classic. Idiotic beyond endurance, with an ill-conceived set-up, nonsensical chronology, atrocious acting and characters behaving in ways that suggest the filmmakers have nothing but contempt for the intelligence of the audience, this is bottom of the barrel stuff.

Director: John Luessenhop

Running time: 92mins

GANGSTER SQUAD (15) A sloppy script, but a dead-eyed Sean Penn is terrific

INSPIRED by real events, this silly, intermittently enjoyable thriller takes place in Los Angeles in 1949, where mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is hellbent on taking over the town with his drugs and vice empire.

With most of the city's cops on his payroll, it falls to honest sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to lead Ryan Gosling and a small team in an effort to shut down Cohen's operation through any means necessary.

Strong in its period detailing and festooned in wall-to-wall violence, Gangster Squad is slick enough, and yet the action sequences consistently remind you that you're not watching The Untouchables, as much as director Ruben Fleischer might want you to think you are.

And all the muscular gunplay and smoky production design in the land can't always overcome a sloppy script that ticks every box you might imagine it would.

Gosling's relationship with Cohen's moll Grace (Emma Stone) aims for Bogart-Bacall cool, but the pair are unexpectedly and disappointingly lacking in heat, and their byplay comes up some way short, while the focus on that and Brolin's family life means the rest of the squad (Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi) barely register as characters.

But a dead-eyed Penn is terrific, and when the action occasionally finds the bullseye, there's just enough vibrant style to see it through.

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Running time: 113 mins


AMERICAN MARY (18) More to it than your average horror movie

DESPERATELY short on cash, medical student Mary (Katharine Isabelle) is hired by an unusual associate to perform some unorthodox surgical procedures, and becomes something of a celebrity in the "body-mod" community, though things soon get out of hand.

A blend of Tarantino revenge fantasy, J-horror and Cronenbergian body-yucks, this crazed Canadian psychodrama manages to be sadistic without ever needing to be unpleasant.

A vicious streak of deadpan humour runs throughout in its bizarre situations and oddball characters, and there's a measured matter of factness to the direction that just adds to the sense of unease.

It doesn't quite sustain the storytelling momentum all the way to the end, but there's much more going on here than in your average horror fare.

Directors: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

Running time: 103mins