Les Miserables (2012)

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is quite an interesting animal. It’s the kind of animal that you can’t look away from, but that evolution is pretty much going to have its way with. Some fine performances and hit and miss production value add to the absolute and total lack of baritone and bass– reducing the impact of a film that one supposes was supposed to knock you silly.

Instead, it comes off a little silly.

Here’s a trailer. Warning: quavery voices ahead.

The deets:

Released December 25, 2012

Written by William Nicholson, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil (screenplay), based upon the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Directed by Tom Hooper

Starring Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham-Carter, Isabelle Allen, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, and COLM WILKINSON

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Odds are that if you are interested in this movie, you know the story. That said, here’s a summary. Jean Valjean (Jackman) was sent to prison for theft and had his sentence extended due to escape attempts. But he has now done his time and his parole office, Javert (Crowe), says he is able to go about his life but will always be a thief and must check in always.

Valjean, who went to prison after simply trying to feed his sister’s son, has become a hardened criminal and he goes about trying to scratch out some life. When a bishop (WILKINSON!!!!) takes him in, Valjean makes off with some valuable silver but is caught. But then the bishop acts as if he gave Valjean the silver, gives some more valuables, and tells Valjean that Valjean must now live a life of giving and forgiveness; the bishop has ‘bought (Valjean’s) soul for God.’

Now Valjean must choose, and he chooses to live a life of prosperity and charity, becoming true to the good inside him. But Javert is always at his heels. Fast forward many years and Valjean owns a factory and in a moment of neglect, allows an innocent single mother to be fired. This mother is Fantine (Hathaway), whose life spirals out of control and she ends up on the streets, partly because the people she has caring for her daughter are cheating her out of every penny.

As Fantine closes in on death, Valjean intercedes in a squabble at which Javert has shown up. Javert finds out that this is Valjean, but Valjean cannot go back to jail; he has to help Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Allen). He gets the girl away from the terrible couple that have been ‘caring for’ her, the Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham-Carter). Javert and Cosette escape Javert.

Fast forward again and Cosette (now played by Seyfreid) is a lovely young woman who falls in love with Marius (Redmayne). But Eponine (Barks) loves Marius too. What’s more, Eponine is the daughter of the Thenardiers, so she recognizes Cosette. A love triangle ensues, while the Thenardiers try to find Valjean and steal his money and Javert shows up to still try to catch Valjean. All of this is done with the French Revolution happening. Indeed, Marius is one of the student revolutionaries along with Enjolras (Tveit).

We have multiple showdowns between the revolutionaries and the French army, as well as between Javert and Valjean– which leaves Javert questioning what he thought was his righteous cause. When all is said and done, the truth of who Valjean is revealed and the lovers are together and tragedy has been the mother of wisdom.

And this is all done with singing.

Critique

Which is why it isn’t very good.

The book and stage production are obscenely powerful. The book is a sprawling epic that explores humanism, royalty, forgiveness, redemption, charity, sacrifice, heroism, dreams, truth, love, loyalty, and honor. The book is written by a remarkable novelist at the top of his game.

The stage production cuts through much of the detail and narrative and highlights the most dramatic events of the book with music and lyrics providing the connecting bridges between these events. The stage production is produced and performed by professionals for whom this is their livelihood. You don’t get on that stage unless you are a world-class singer and performer.

The movie cast almost entirely actors, some of whom might even be able to sing. The cast sings on set, right into the camera; no lip-syncing– which is a nice gimmick and does add immediacy but these people generally just can’t sing at the level required by the characters, the melodrama of these events, and a production that is loved by millions.

Setting aside a set design that wavers between kind of amazing and then very small-fry and seeming like a plywood stage set, and setting aside a plot and pacing that seem to be in a massive, helter-skelter rush, the singing simply doesn’t get it done.

Sure, for those who haven’t got a long history with this production, it’s passable. And for a crazed fan like this reviewer, there are moments that are effective, but so much of the singing is so darn weak and lacking in power, that I wanted the director to have said, “Dear heaven, we need to do better.”

Russell Crowe, you sounded like you were out of breath, your heart was in your throat, and like you had no idea that you should be singing more than two very high-pitched notes. You were the worst of the bunch.

Amanda Seyfried, you are adorable, but the quaver is distracting and actually shreds any emotional power you were trying to transmit.

Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, it’s not your fault. You were both good, but the director didn’t give you time to be sleazy enough.

Hugh Jackman, you started strong, but stayed at the exact same level.

Eddie Redmayne, dude, you can sing. Now get some freaking baritone.

Samantha Barks, thank you for being amazing.

Colm Wilkinson, I nearly died when I saw you as the bishop. You are flawless.

Tom Hooper, and for that matter Alain and Claude-Michel, what the freaking frak? Not one bass note was sung in this show. Maybe two baritone notes. Every dude singing in 2nd tenor? Seriously? “Singing the song of angry men?” If they’re men, where are the basses?

Ugh.

Also, slow down. Seriously.

See this movie, enjoy it for what it offers, but don’t expect powerful musical performances.

Content warnings: Plenty of melodramatic violence and implied terrible things. 

Writing: 4 (story will always be amazing)       Acting: 4       Singing: 2       Overall: 2.5

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The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is, overall, a pleasure to watch and is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the splendid trilogy by Christopher Nolan. It’s long and imperfect, but worth it.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released July 20, 2012

Written by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer, based on comics by Bob Kane

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Matthew Modine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Aaron Eckhart, Nestor Carbonell, and Chris Ellis

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Since taking the fall for Harvey Dent’s (Eckhart) crimes eight years ago, Batman has been in hiding, essentially retired, and Bruce Wayne (Bale) has been a hermit. (Interesting that nobody seems to make the connection…) But when Wayne Enterprises suffers financially and Wayne has a chance to get an altruistic investor named Miranda Tate (Cotillard) involved in helping his company, Wayne leaves his isolation. He also meets a talented cat  burglar named Selina Kyle (Hathaway).

Then Bane (Hardy) shows up and essentially wants to lay waste to the city of Gotham, ostensibly freeing the populace from the rule of the upper class. Now Batman has to use all of his resources to escape from a horrible prison that Bane tossed him in and save his city from all out destruction. He gains an untrustworthy ally in Kyle, still has Lucius Fox (Freeman) around to help him with gadgets, and of course has his trust butler, Alfred (Caine), by his side.

Add to all of this Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) wishing he could tell the world the truth about the hero Batman and a young, determined cop named Blake (Gordon-Levitt) who wants to make a difference in the world and help Batman.

Bane’s plan is complex and very destructive and he is very businesslike in his brutality and battle. Batman’s hurts are real and his burden will likely require his life. Selina Kyle seems to want to escape from her thieving life. Alfred wants Bruce Wayne to leave Batman behind and help his city as Bruce Wayne, finding a full and happy life for himself. Blake wants to stop Bane and keep Batman around so the sometimes impotent police can get a hand.

While the story gets quite complex, and we don’t see a lot of Batman and instead see a lot more of Catwoman and Blake and Gordon, this is still a very fine movie, albeit somewhat long. But so much of good happens in this film that the running time is totally forgivable.

Critique

The writing of The Dark Knight Rises is a clinic on tight plotting, thread weaving, and character-driven action. Each event that occurs comes about because a character has made a choice, which is why the movie is so engaging the entire time. True, we only first see Batman himself about 1/3 of the way through the film, but the character development is wondrous to behold.

The production design is not quite as dark as the first two film; there is definitely more light in this movie. The city is a character in itself and the staging is quite nice. Granted, there are some inconsistencies and a few goofs, like with the frozen river and Wayne Manor, but these are inconsequential. The camera work is epic, soaring, and at times very intimate, helping the stakes of the film hit close to home. That said, some of the editing is a little off, with a few transitions seeming rough and one really strange timeline goof which took me out of the story. This would not have been hard to fix and I wish Nolan had done so.

The acting is top-notch, and in a movie that is so crowded with talent, it’s an unfortunate truth that some folks get little screen time. Freeman’s Lucius Fox is one example; we see very little of him. Christian Bale carries the film on his capable shoulders, giving us a very risky superhero in a damaged, lost man who is not sure what his place in the world is. Tom Hardy basically growls and speaks in a strange voice, as well as lumbers and beats the tar out of Batman; honestly, he’s hard to understand at times. There’s not a lot to Bane, which is unfortunate for him since he’s following in the villain footsteps of the Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Cotillard is a lovely presence and she does a find job with another somewhat underused character in Miranda Tate. Oldman is pitch-perfect as usual, giving us an aging, still tough and principled Commissioner Gordan. But Gordon-Levitt, Hathaway, and Caine steal this movie. Blake’s motivations are displayed in his body language and fire. Hathaway practically channels Julie Newmar combined with Michelle Pfeiffer, nailing the part of a deliberately cold, selfish thief who is not happy with who she is but who knows what she’s capable of and will do what it takes to get what she wants or needs. Then there’s Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth. He provides the soul, the conscience, the heart, and really the salvation, for Bruce Wayne. He’s just lovely.

With a few goofs, a far less interesting villain than its two predecessors, and a lot of ground to cover, The Dark Knight Rises rises to the challenge of tying up this excellent, ground-breaking trilogy. The emotional climaxes pack a serious punch.

On its own, The Dark Knight Rises takes the number two spot for this year’s rankings so far. As a conclusion to the trilogy, it would take the number one spot.

Content warnings: lots and lots of stylized violence and a few near-gruesome images, some explosions, some harsh language, minimal sensuality

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

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