Les Misérables

Mix it in a mincer and pretend it’s beef

Jackman/HathawayHowever wonderful and entrancing Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables may be, let us remember that its source material is a 1980 musical that is itself a somewhat fast/loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.  In that sense, it remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original work (and most of the events and character relationships) for a third-hand script 150 years later.  For those not familiar with the musical based upon the novel, Les Misérables (loosely translated as The Wretched, The Victims, or The Poor Ones) is a sung-through musical in multiple acts, which in a way is similar to Hugo’s novel, which is split into five titled sections.

The five sections, mostly titled after characters’ names, may have helped the average filmgoer figure out who’s important in the movie if included.  For instance, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is the central figure who connects every character in the story, despite the fact that the character has less physical presence and longevity than most of the core cast.  Who would be able to guess her importance right off the bat?  Well, a reader would, seeing as Hugo titled the first section of the novel “Fantine.”  The pacing of the film, though, is expertly handled.  No time is wasted getting from event to event, even when several years pass, and as with a stage show, we are left to imagine what transpired in between.  Since the songs last longer than a simple conversation covering the same material, rendering the film 158 minutes, these quick transitions are especially appreciated, and do not subvert the idea that what happens later is earned.

The story begins in 1815 with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who earns parole after a nineteen year sentence.  However, the prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), tells him he’ll never be free as long as Javert is watching him.  Eventually, the starving Valjean is taken in by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson), but steals his silver and retreats in the night.  When Javert’s men capture him, the Bishop, in an incredible act of kindness and forgiveness, claims that the silver was a gift to Valjean, and that Valjean in fact forgot the most expensive pieces, and gives him two beautiful candlesticks, along with the warning that he had better use this gift to make himself an honest man.  Amazed by this generosity, Valjean breaks parole and assumes a new identity, and eight years later, he becomes a factory owner and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  Fantine, who works in the factory, is dismissed by an abusive foreman after he discovers that she’s been sending money to her illegitimate daughter and needs a raise.  Valjean, present in the room, ignores this because he spots Javert, now a police inspector, and worries that his old nemesis may be there to apprehend him.  Javert suspects, and his suspicions are confirmed when Valjean reveals his identity in order to save a man who has been wrongfully accused.  Before narrowly escaping the wrath of the obsessed Javert, who has been hunting him for almost a decade, Valjean brings Fantine (who has been forced into prostitution) to the hospital, asks her forgiveness, and promises to raise her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, and later Amanda Seyfried).  He buys Cosette from the perfidious Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), greedy innkeepers who have worked the little girl to the bone and treated her like an animal.  Nine years pass, Cosette grows up, and the Parisan June Rebellion of 1832 is about to begin, led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette after passing her on the street, and she reciprocates.  Valjean, effectively Cosette’s father, feared this day, and now finds himself not only still in hiding from Javert, but involved in the revolution because of Cosette.

The beauty of Les Misérables, perhaps, is the fact that even after 150 years, I cannot say “You can guess where the story goes from there,” as I do about so many popcorn flicks made from unreadable modern scripts.  This is in part due to the fact that Hooper and company leave most of the story threads intact and do not attempt to water any of the action down for the ADD Generation – granted, these are threads that the stage musical also kept intact, and Hooper’s film only leaves out two of the original songs, while adding a brand new one (“Suddenly,” sung by Hugh Jackman).  Not since Aronofsky’s The Fountain has Jackman truly shown us that he can do something besides playing Wolverine, and if he wasn’t already slated to play Wolverine once again later this year,  I’d say that this is the role that will break him out of actiony brain-garbage for good.  Russell Crowe is convincingly narcissistic and troubled as Javert, though his singing chops are dubious at best, and his voice seems to mysteriously improve as the film goes on.  Redmayne, known to me only from last year’s My Week With Marilyn, may have a breakout role here, bringing an intimate sort of sympathy to Marius, the closest thing to a Boring Hero you’ll see in Les Misérables.  Samantha Barks, who has played Éponine in the stage show, reprises the role here, and successfully fuses the character of the novel with that of the musical.  Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perfect as the story’s most unscrupulous players, and while the innkeepers were not used for comic effect in Hugo’s novel, the musical version makes them seem like they were written for these two actors, especially Baron Cohen, who gets through “Master of the House” without channeling any of his “Ali G Show” characters even once.  The showstopper, however, is Anne Hathaway, who plays one of the younger Fantines we’ve seen, and sings the famous “I Dreamed a Dream” in a single 4-minute shot.  This move by the filmmakers is brave, risky, and a roaring success.

The film adeptly retains the deeper facets of Hugo’s characters, particularly Valjean and Javert, who seem polar opposites (Valjean the embodiment of kindness and redemption, and Javert a human manifestation of vengeance and obsession), but neither of whom are completely black-and-white.  Javert remains a misguided antagonist who cannot separate morality and lawfulness, which leads to his famous conundrum in the end.  The film’s only missteps, maybe, are the extended battle scenes, which are fatiguing and sometimes make the film feel as though everything was leading up to a big gunfight, and the sheer, for lack of a better term, “Britishness” of the whole production, which obviously cannot be avoided.  It’s just disconcerting to hear Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) speaking cockney on the streets of Paris.  Make no mistake: the positives outweigh everything else, but if I were to watch it again, I’d probably fast-forward the fighting.

Is Les Mis one of the best films of the year?  Probably, though I’m not yet sure how to compare it to other films.  But wait – that isn’t my job; it’s the job of the people at the Academy, who haven’t gotten it right since before the damn musical was written.

Les Misérables (2012); written by Alain Boubil; based upon the novel by Victor Hugo; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried. 

The Man With Iron Fists

Tiger-style!

The fights in The Man With the Iron Fists are about what you’d expect given any knowledge of its narrow range of influences: they’re numerous, long, gory, and full of glamorous-looking airborne kicks and the occasional dismemberment (see also: bull-shitsu).

It was only a matter of time before RZA created his own martial arts epic, considering the effects of those classic kung-fu favorites on his music and virtually everything he’s ever produced.  The film comes off as a love note to the beloved genre, albeit without much in the way of reinvention or originality, and the film occasionally skirts a Tarantino-esque style of tribute (namely in the opening and ending sequences).  The main issue is that RZA chooses to cast himself in the title role instead of a more adept actor, and while I’m not sure I’d be able to resist the temptation of casting myself as the central character in a film that resembles a generic arcade fighting game, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with having the money and privilege to actually make that choice, and RZA’s performance doesn’t match that of the other actors in the film, leastways not enough to afford his character the lead role.

The story sees Thaddeus (RZA), an escaped slave and expert blacksmith, trapped and destitute in Jungle Village, a made-up place somewhere in an anachronistic era of China in which people apparently spent their days fighting with inventive weapons.  Though he feels badly about it, Thaddeus makes a living creating deadly weapons for bad people, most notably the clan of Silver Lion (Byron Mann), a turncoat warlord who murdered his adopted father in order to seize power.  Silver Lion’s closest advisers include Brass Body (Dave Bautista), a mercenary with the inexplicable power to turn his body to solid metal with the bat of an eye (amendment: an era of China in which people fight with inventive weapons and magic powers), and Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu), a hooded figure who serves as the film’s codex for 3/4 of the story until he’s needed for a fight scene.  The other main power structure in Jungle Village is Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu), the self-proclaimed Queen of the village, who runs a brothel, the women of which practice (unbeknownst to the villagers) “black widow style,” another seemingly magic-based form of fighting.  Eventually, a Man With No Name type figure who calls himself (ugh) “Jack Knife” (Russell Crowe, who I still can’t believe did this film) wanders into town in search of fortune.  Through one thing and another, Jack becomes involved in a revenge plot against the evil Silver Lion, allying with the stoic Thaddeus and Zen-Yi (Rick Yune), the real son of Silver Lion’s murdered stepfather.

The cast of characters is ambitiously huge and also includes Jamie Chung as Thaddeus’ girlfriend, Cung Lee as Bronze Lion (Silver Lion’s main crony), Gordon Liu as an ancient monk, Grace Huang and Andrew Lin as the Geminis (fighters hired by the Emperor to guard his gold, the film’s MacGuffin), and Pam Grier as Thaddeus’ mother.  The film is paced in such a way that an audience may be confused as to whether each character is receiving her/his proper amount of screen time, but in the end, things seem to fall into place.  The cast and its use resembles Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter series (originally X-rated in America for its violence, which is somewhat laughable now), in that it features a group of fighters with various seemingly unstoppable styles, and relies on its main character to devise techniques for defeating each of them.  Thaddeus, I think, cheats a little bit, and Crowe’s character carries a gun, but it’s still somehow easier to root for them than the heartless bastards they’re up against.

A film like this relies 95% on its fight scenes, and despite the obvious wire-work heavily featured throughout, there’s a sense of consistency.  The sheer amount of fighting is exhausting, but nothing comes out of left field (judge for yourself whether that’s good or bad).  Women get a short straw here (all, as you’d expect, are either dead or prostitutes), but Lucy Liu’s performance is more dedicated and fun than it needs to be.  Crowe, who has gained considerable weight (and apparently lost it for Les Miserables), is reliably funny and likeable, despite his character’s womanizing tendencies.  The best performance, though, has to be Byron Mann as the deliciously evil Silver Lion, such a sociopath that he makes fun of his victims’ pleas before slaughtering them.  Mann makes the role fun without going over the top (maybe a task in and of itself when considering how over-the-top the movie is anyway).

Something I can’t help but notice – slavery seems to be a hot topic lately.  Cloud Atlas had a slavery storyline, there’ve been three movies about Lincoln out in the past year, Tarantino’s Django Unchained involves a slave hunting down slave owners, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave is being adapted into a film next year, and now, even a pulpy fight-movie by RZA has an abrupt and obligatory back-story in which white guys in cowboy hats beat the hell out of Thaddeus and throw the “n-word” around.  Of course, this is an issue that we may never come to terms with as a nation and as a people, but I have to wonder why this year is the time in which to act it out.

The Man With the Iron Fists (2012); written and directed by RZA; starring Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, RZA, and Byron Mann.

Robin Hood (2010)

A pox on the phony King of England

Yes, it’s been a long time since the Disney version of Robin Hood, which I still maintain to be one of the best adaptations.  It had all that clever and witty fun that has come to be associated with folk tales of the type, and most of all, it was okay for the little ones.  No deaths, no innuendo (just mild talk about “kissing”), etc.  Then we had Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a brilliantly farcical satire on the story (“Locksley and Bagel: can’t miss!”).  Not quite as innocent, but all sorts of fun just the same.

Ridley Scott’s new film, originally titled Nottingham, has got to be the best “serious” adaptation of Robin Hood since Errol Flynn first drew the bow.  It’s mature and gritty, but retains that wit and charm we’ve all come to associate with the story.  It’s also the most violent of the lot – the MPAA’s rating is PG-13, but I suspect that someone got fooled at the last second.  People get shot through the neck, stabbed in the back, drowned, crushed between the bows of French sailing ships, and dragged through the woods by horses.  There isn’t excessive bloodspray, but I’d probably have the old “movies aren’t real” chat with the kids if all they’ve seen is the Disney version and they’re begging you to see this one.

The story is a re-imagining, much like the earlier discussed Alice in Wonderland.  This is intended to be a prequel of sorts to what becomes the Robin Hood legend.  We see how he meets Marian (according to Ridley Scott, anyway) and how he comes to be such good pals with his merry men, as well as the solidification of his outlaw status – I’m sure everyone has seen the epic wailing of Oscar Isaac in the trailer by now.  If not, I commend you for how little television you watch.

The film itself is something to behold.  The set-pieces are incredible, and the wide shots really illustrate the work that went into recreating 12th century England.  From the nighttime scuffles in Sherwood forest to the legions of loyal Englishmen percolating out from the high bluffs as King Philip looks on in terror, it’s all real when you’re in the theater.  Never did I once scoff at the CG; if there is heavy use of computer imagery in this film, I was too immersed to notice.

The cast is an excellent ensemble.  Oscar Isaac dominates his scenes as the bratty (yet knowledgeable and calculating) King John.  Mark Strong plays the main villain for the third time in a row as the treasonous Sir Godfrey, a character completely made up for the film, and he does it with complete professionalism.  Though most of his dialogue is standard “villain” and we never get to know Godfrey as a person, Strong avoids playing it “arch,” which is refreshing.  He got to do more in films like Guy Ritchie’s fantastic RocknRolla, last year’s Body of Lies and the recent Sherlock Holmes, but perhaps this film will bring him to a wider audience.  Also in this film is the amazing Cate Blanchett, who plays Marian as a down-to-earth widow rather than a lovestruck girl, and she surely doesn’t need any compliments from me that haven’t already been said.  Kevin Durand plays Little John, the first good-guy role I can recall him ever playing, and he does it with style.  This is his second film with Russell Crowe, the first being the remake of 3:10 To Yuma in which he had a bit part, and in this one he actually gets to spend a good amount of time acting with Crowe.  I hope this role helps break him out of being typecast as a bad guy, which after his definitive evil role as Martin Keamy on ABC’s Lost (which will almost inevitably be the “Mr. Blonde” of Durand’s career) makes this seem like an impossibility. Friar Tuck: Why do they call you Little John? Little John: What exactly are ye gettin’ at? The film also features Alan Doyle, frontman of Celtic band Great Big Sea, in the role of minstrel Allan O’Dayle.  Another truly inspired piece of casting on Scott/Crowe’s part, and it’s magic to see such talented people working together.  A bearded and scruffy-haired William Hurt also makes an appearance in a very nice role as William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Penbroke, who battles with words, and his scenes with Isaac and Strong are terrific.  Matt Macfayden appears as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns out to be the comic relief of the film, which is an interesting twist (and a more accurate one – sorry Kevin Costner).  The immortal Max von Sydow also appears, this time as the blind Walter Locksley, who becomes something like a father to Robin as the story goes on and makes you want to give him a big hug every time he’s on screen.

Crowe himself plays Robin as what I like to call the “boring hero.”  That is to say, a protagonist whose only aim is to advance the plot.  Despite being surrounded by wonderful characters, the boring hero has to do what the screenplay decrees.  To his credit, Crowe does his best to break his character out of this mold, although there are scenes where his eyes seem to glaze over and he just says “Fine, I’ll do it, even though it defies all logic.”  For examples of the boring hero, see any movie Sam Worthington has ever starred in, or any American film with Jason Statham.

Scott makes great use of his characters.  No one seems to just be added for the hell of it.  Everyone you see has something to do that couldn’t have happened without them.  Even King John’s trophy wife, Isabella (played by the gorgeous Léa Seydoux) has something to do besides sit next to Isaac and look nice.  She is charged with informing John that his best friend is a traitor: one of the most important moves anyone makes in the film, and the resulting scene between them burns with passion and skill.

The film contains a lot of Russell Crowe gliding past the camera on horseback, whether in slow motion or otherwise, with his mouth hanging open.  I lost count around ten.  It’s always good to see, as Crowe is incredible and Scott knows his massive battle pieces, though I wonder if Scott thought, “How many angles can I shoot this from?”  The film also contains several bald villains, including Strong, who seems to collect head injuries as the film goes on.  Why do the bald have to be portrayed as such slimeballs?  I wonder if there is some sort of statistic about this.

Robin Hood (2010); written by Brian Helgeland; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong and Oscar Isaac.