Film Review: Les Miserables

Considering the title of the movie is essentially “The Miserable Ones,” there was no way I was going into the film expecting a light-hearted romp through the streets of Paris. I have never seen any version of this musical before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it would be sad and there was a lot of singing. Beyond that, I basically went in blind.

The story spans several decades in post-revolution France. Everything centers on Jean Valjean (the phenomenal Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who broke his parole and went on the lam with a new identity. Over the years, he is essentially stalked by Javert (the horribly miscast Russell Crowe), a general who supervised Valjean during his imprisonment. Literally every time Valjean turns around, Javert seems to be there. Even 30 years later, Javert is still pissed that Valjean got away. And seriously, his crime was stealing a loaf of bread. By the end of the movie, I wanted to just give Javert a loaf of bread so he would get the hell over it. Anywho, at one point, Valjean crosses paths with the horribly tragic Fantine (future Oscar winner Anne Hathaway), who has had to turn to prostitution in order to support her daughter Cosette. Valjean ends up taking in Cosette (played as a child by Isabelle Allen and as an adult by Amanda Seyfried), who has basically been a child slave to innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Valjean and Cosette basically go into hiding and live their lives for several years. Cosette meets Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls horribly in love with her, although the Thenardier’s daughter Eponine (played as a child by Natalya Wallace and as an adult by Samantha Barks) is also in love with Marius. Valjean discovers that Marius is in love with Cosette and eventually comes around to the idea of them being together after seeing Marius in action with the other revolutionaries, including the adorable little boy Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone). Just about everyone meets a tragic end.

The cast of the film is pretty much phenomenal. Jackman is an amazing singer and makes a perfect Valjean. Hathaway is beautiful as Fantine and deserves the Oscar for her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” alone. She is certainly going to be the Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner in February. Redmayne does great with the role of Marius and we are going to see a lot more of him in the future. Cohen and Carter provide much-needed comic relief as the Thenardiers, and I’ve discovered that I greatly enjoy Cohen when he is not writing his own material. Seyfried and Barks don’t have a ton of material, but both do fantastic with what they have. Finally, the children are absolutely fantastic. In particular, Huttlestone as Gavroche is precious and I just wanted to hug him. The major misstep was casting Crowe as Javert. He is not nearly a strong enough singer to handle the role. Considering the dialogue is 95% song, Crowe was just not up to the challenge of this role.

The other major problem was having Tom Hooper direct the film. I hated so many of his directorial choices. He used close-up shots for a good 75% of the film. Close-ups can be very effective when used sparingly. During really moving ballads or tense moments, the close-ups could have been very striking. The problem is that when everything is in close-up, the actors can’t play off each other as well. Everything is in really soft focus as well, which got annoying. The film is 2 hours and 38 minutes long, so it already dragged at times and those directorial choices kept pulling me out of the movie.

The standout moments of the film are definitely Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” and Barks’ rendition of “On My Own.” There’s a reason those are the two most well-known songs from the stage musical. It’s because they’re heartbreakingly gorgeous. The art direction and costuming is fantastic. I just wish we had seen more of it than the constant close-up shots allowed. There is no doubt this is going to be nominated for Best Picture, and rightfully so. It’s a very solid adaptation of the stage musical and certainly one of the top films made this year. However, it is not going to be the winner.


Film & Book reviews: Struck by Lightning

Basically, everyone who has ever met me knows I’m a touch obsessed with television. I go through phases with various television shows. Currently, one of my biggest obsessions is “Glee.” Once again, not a shock to anyone who reads this blog or has ever talked to me in real life. There are two actors on the show who I absolutely adore: Chris Colfer and Darren Criss. They are two of the most talented young people currently working in Hollywood.

Chris Colfer is 22 years old. He has won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Kurt Hummel on “Glee.” His debut children’s novel “The Land of Stories” was a New York Times bestseller. He recently wrote and starred in his first feature film “Struck by Lightning,” which he then turned into a novel. Seriously. He’s three months younger than me and I feel like the biggest slacker in the world when I look at his list of accomplishments.

The basic plot of the story follows a high school senior named Carson Phillips (Colfer). His sole mission in life is to get out of his hometown of Clover. He dreams of attending Northwestern University and eventually becoming the editor of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, he has to put up with the general close-mindedness so commonly used in portrayals of small towns. All Carson wants is to be a writer. He is the editor of his school’s newspaper. The other members of his staff don’t care about getting the paper published. The one exception to this might be Malerie (Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect), who really tries but just doesn’t quite get it. When he finds out that just being editor of a school newspaper isn’t enough to impress Northwestern, his guidance counselor (Angela Kinsey, The Office) gives him the idea to start a literary magazine.

The literary magazine is a great idea, but the problem is that it can’t just feature Carson’s work. He needs to have submissions from other students. Carson doesn’t necessarily get along with his classmates…or people in general. He tries to get submissions by just asking for them, but pretty much insults them in the process. He gets a submission box full of garbage, literally. After catching two boys making out in the bathroom, he essentially blackmails them into writing for the magazine. Carson realizes that there are surely more people with secrets at the school and picks out a select few to extort. His targets include the cheerleading captain, football coach, class president, and a few other very popular students.

The quest to get the literary magazine up and running is pretty much the sole plot of the novel. Colfer writes it as a series of journal entries documenting the school year, so everything is from Carson’s point of view. The novel and the film are almost exactly the same, but there are a couple noticeable differences.

The novel spends some time going into the interactions between Carson and the people he’s blackmailing. Carson tries to inspire them in his own way by getting them to write. He has a couple meaningful conversations with these students. However, in the film, we only see the conversation between Carson and cheerleading captain Claire Matthews (Sarah Hyland, Modern Family).

The film also develops the relationship between Carson and his mother Sheryl (Allison Janney, The West Wing) a lot more than in the book. In general, Sheryl is far more developed in the film. She is an extremely compelling character, mostly because Janney is such an amazing actress. After divorcing her husband Neal (Dermot Mulroney), she spirals out of control and becomes a non-functioning alcoholic. She is addicted to basically every prescription drug. She is hateful towards Carson at every turn and takes every opportunity to remind him that dreams don’t come true. Colfer and Janney were fantastic in their scenes together and their relationship was the most interesting of both the film and book. Neal’s new fiancee April (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men) is also a character that is hardly mentioned in the novel, yet plays a much bigger role in the film. Janney and Hendricks play off each other so well and their scenes together are beyond fantastic. They basically represent the before and after of what a stressful relationship can do to a person.

The final piece of the puzzle is the relationship between Carson and his senile grandmother (Polly Bergen, The Caretakers). Bergen doesn’t have a huge role, but every scene she shares with Colfer is memorable. The film really needed this relationship. Carson is incredibly sarcastic with everyone else and would easily come across as an acerbic asshole without this relationship.

The balance between the sarcastic wit and the more sentimental moments make the novel and film magical. I was bawling by the end of the film. The major shortfall of the film is that it is so short. At only 84 minutes, it would have benefitted from maybe another 10 minutes to better flesh out Carson’s relationships with the other students in his school. Currently, the film is only available on demand or iTunes. It will be released in a small number of theaters January 11 and will hopefully be in wide release by the end of the month. The film is directed by Brian Dannelly, who also directed Saved!, another fantastic film about high school.