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 review: The Sessions

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a poet. He graduated from UC-Berkeley with a degree in English and now works as a poet/journalist. He is also a survivor of polio. As a result of the disease, he now has to spend most of his time in an iron lung. He is not quadriplegic. He simply has no control over his muscles. He is a deeply religious man.

He also very much wants to have sex. Mark first falls in love with his caretaker Amanda (Annika Marks). He asks her to marry him, but she just does not feel that way about him. Mark then seeks advice from a therapist, who points him in the direction of a sex surrogate. He seeks the advice of his priest Father Brendan (the always phenomenal William H. Macy), who tells him that Jesus would probably give him a free pass for having sex outside of marriage. Father Brendan is probably the coolest priest I have ever seen depicted in the media.

Mark then meets his sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt). She quickly explains the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute. Though both receive money for having sex with people, Cheryl is not looking to establish repeat business. There is a limit on the number of “sessions” she will have with a client, in order to prevent too much attachment. Cheryl’s job is to guide Mark through his sexuality. She wants to help him discover what feels good, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and so forth. His primary goal is to achieve full penetration with a woman, so that is what the two of them work toward.

The film is exquisitely crafted. It is based on the article Mark O’Brien wrote about his experiences. The script was written by Ben Lewin, who also directed the film. Going into the awards season, most of the buzz is around Hawkes’ performance, as well as Hunt’s. Personally, I found Helen Hunt’s performance to be astounding. Her struggle to remain professional while clearly becoming attached to this client is something to which anyone who has been in a helping profession can relate. It is a very subdued performance and there are very few instances where you see her truly start to lose it. I have always preferred quieter performances to ones that are more in your face. At this point in the awards season, I would love to see Hunt become the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress race.

I also greatly enjoyed the fact that the film depicted a person with a disability as someone with a sex drive. Our society typically paints those with disabilities as these sexless beings. That is simply not the case. We need to understand that regardless of a person’s disability, he or she is still a human being. Sex is a biological urge. The majority of people with disabilities want to have sex at some point in their lives. It is extremely refreshing to see a film that acknowledges that fact.

In terms of gender representation, the film does pass the Bechdel test. We see a very brief scene between Cheryl and Mark’s caretaker Vera (Moon Bloodgood) in which Cheryl has a bit of an emotional breakdown. There is also a longer scene between Cheryl and the Mikvah Lady (Rhea Perlman) at a synagogue. They have a conversation about sexuality and how women feel about being naked. It is not a particularly long scene, but it raises a lot of really interesting questions.

We primarily see women in caretaker positions. The main caretakers are Vera and Amanda. However, Mark also has an aide named Rod (W. Earl Brown), who we see in a limited capacity. The relationship between Mark and Father Brendan is also very interesting. These two men spend the majority of the film talking about sex. However, they do it in a way that focuses on Mark’s vulnerabilities and fears. It’s extremely refreshing to see two men talk about sex in a way that does not objectify women at all. For a film where the two main characters spend a good portion of the time naked, I never felt like either character was objectified. Sex is portrayed in a very natural way. We see how it can be awkward and funny at times. It’s never meant to be really romantic between these people, but it still feels very intimate.

I would love to see the film get more buzz in the Best Picture category because I feel like it is a very well-crafted movie. I highly recommend it.