Monthly Archives: December 2012

Les Miserables (*** 1/2)

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Les Miserables tells the life of one Jean Valjean, a French commoner imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. After release from incarceration after nineteen years, a future of hopelessness is averted by the surprising graciousness of a priest who refuses to condemn this damaged human. The rest of the story details how ValJean comes to terms with hope and virtue even as the world goes on being cruel. He is pursued relentlessly by a policeman named Javert who has no room for mercy, only the exacting application of the law. The story sets up and follows a clear duality between these two men, one struggling to live by the law of grace, the other by the law of the law. Victor Hugo’s narrative has a clear, refreshing favor for the perspective which exists for the sake of others over and against dehumanizing devotion to abstract principles.

The historical backdrop of the French Revolution which frames the latter half of the film underscores an unpopular idea: the essential connection between the bleeding God of the Christian faith and the bleeding heart of classical liberalism. The rousing spirit of this film and musical derives its power from a wholehearted affirmation of human life and dignity which may have been ignored by the Christian church from time to time (especially so in the time the film is set) but is no less central to the redemptive structure of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. As the prophet Ezekiel insisted to the Israel’s confused exiles, God “takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Les Miz takes this idea as its very heart, building Jean ValJean around the very question of what it would do to a man were he to be convinced that every human life has value and attempt to live that way. The story’s happy ending is wrought of a man’s lifetime of hard choices in the direction of selflessness and virtue.

As a Les Miz neophyte, I’m not sure how to judge the spectacle I saw on the screen. Having neither read the book nor seen the stage production, nor a note of the music or word of the lyrics save what was in the trailer and on American Idol I have little to compare it to. I only very recently saw the 1998 non-musical film with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, a movie that works in spite of itself given the fantastic source material. I am getting these caveats off my chest so I can just simply say that I loved Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables with a full heart even if it is cinematically so-so.

Don’t get me wrong–the movie looks good. The sets, the costumes, all the gloomy grime of revolutionary France, it’s all flush with the lived-in details suggestive of realism. My problem here is that musicals by the twisted and necessary logic of their genre are an abstraction from reality (even more so than theater proper or films in general) and this adaptation frequently aims at a contemporary grittiness that I found distracting. I am usually put off by how clean sewer water looks in most television and film, but no such complaint here! It’s disgusting, as is reasonable. But when your narrative structure is this thematically typological and scene after scene you’re going for rousing emotional response the subtlety of the real seems like a tertiary concern. It’s Broadway, kids! Be creative.

Analogous to its visual realism are the performances: powerful, subtle acting from all of the main players with fantastic singing to boot. I had heard that Hugh Jackman could sing, but act? Wow, Wolverine never felt this conflicted about anything. Anne Hathaway is as good as has been said, her “I Dreamed a Dream” a full-body ballad of bruised hope. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises, she’s walked away from two major releases this year stealing the show in a supporting role. It’s a film about the righteous value of a human life and these actors bring it home. What might be lost in a crowded theater is potently evident on the big screen: you’ll be drawn in by the potent drama of their arresting performances. Otherwise you’re just a skulking Javert.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (***)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If you’re not familiar with the fantasy epics of J.R.R. Tolkien–sprawling tomes of adventure and apocalypse and even more sprawling tomes of ancient mythos–Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie might be just right for you. It’s been called by some a dreary slog that will only really appeal to hardcore fans, but Jackson’s latest three hour carnival plays out as if Tolkien’s work were being retold by a hyperactive ten year old with a love for swashbuckling fantasy epicness but only a partial memory of the book read to him as a younger child. It’s really fun. It’s an abomination as a work of adapted fiction.

Ostensibly about a fussy bourgeois midget unwittingly caught up in a dragon-slaying adventure, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes every opportunity it can to digress, to add on, to re-invent Tolkien’s wheel. Early on Gandalf remarks that “all the best stories deserve to be embellished”–Jackson clearly believes this. A lot of the extra material has the feeling of that hyperactive ten year old approaching a scene and saying, “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if…” As in Bilbo’s (the fussy bourgeois midget, or hobbit) encounter with three trolls, where a relatively quiet battle of wits from the book is stuffed with battling dwarves and a flashbang appearance from a wizard. The overall effect recalls the visual maximalism of Jackson’s King Kong. It’s a fitting style for the story of an oversized ape, an uncomfortable one for that of an undersized human.

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Martin Freeman, who plays the Hobbit, seems to be the only one who remembers that he’s in an undersized human movie. His performance is as naturalistic as one could hope for–probably the best performance in all of the Tolkien adaptations to date, and at least side-by-side with Viggo Mortensen and Andy Serkis. And he provides the heart of the movie, taking us back to the strong emotional throughline of the series where small and weak creatures do incredibly brave things for virtuous reasons. His explanation to the dwarves as to why he’s continuing on their quest towards the film’s end is particularly moving.

The thing about this movie is that despite its shortcomings in being The Hobbit, it excels at being a rollicking adventure movie in a way that most such releases can only half-heartedly strive for. If overstuffed, it allows itself moments of batshit insanity, such as the expansion of the birdshit-stained forest wizard Radagast the Brown, a mentally unstable Ace Ventura magician with the most absurd means of conveyance in film history (trumping even Neverending Story‘s racing snail). Also see the entire sequence involving the goblin kingdom and their testicle-chinned king (it’s that intentionally revolting).

I saw the film in 3D at 48fps, which is almost as bad as people have been saying. When the visual information becomes sufficiently overloaded the effect works though at the expense of anything recognizable as classical cinematography. On a smaller scale, however, things take on the televisual quality of most BBC productions. Combined with the film’s leisurely pacing, it makes Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey seem at times like the first part in the most lavish BBC miniseries ever produced. Also, the shuffling between large and small scale sequences gives the film a jarring visual effect, switching up unexpectedly between the best you’ve ever seen and the worst. It’s ultimately a distraction.

If you love high adventure, wild fantasy and frenzied set pieces then The Hobbit is for you. If you love Tolkien, expect less of him than even Jackson’s other movies provided and consider yourself warned.

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