Les Misérables (2012) – Tom Hooper

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With a few thunderous introductory notes, we are thrust into Schönberg’s classic musical, finally brought to the big screen.  Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, the film follows ex-con Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who, after breaking his parole, attempts to build a life for himself while avoiding dogged pursuit by the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe).  Valjean agrees to take custody of a young girl named Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother falls ill and dies, and the two eventually find themselves entangled in a revolutionary uprising in Paris.

This musical is almost entirely sung through, and Hooper made the innovative decision to record all the film’s singing live.  Not only is this an impressive feat to pull off (this is a show that requires a pretty serious amount of vocal range and stamina), but it also allows the actors to be more expressive in their singing, to act through their singing.

And it does seem to pay off.  Overall the performances are emotive and nuanced.  Jackman carries the film as Valjean, comfortable with almost three hours of screen time and a tremendous amount of singing.  Valjean’s parts range from bass notes in the opening number, “Look Down”, to high falsetto towards the end in “Bring Him Home”, and Jackman pulls it all off with style and grace.

Crowe does his best as Javert, although his vocals are uneasy, especially when pitted against Jackman’s.  He actually carries the sung dialogue quite well, as his lower register is husky and rich — but when he ascends to the higher notes, his voice becomes reedy and self-conscious.  Unfortunately this means that Javert’s bigger numbers are lackluster, both in vocal power and in emotional depth.  Crowe does all that he can to compensate for his unimpressive singing, though, and in terms of acting he really breathes life into Javert, a character so staunch and single-minded that he threatens to be two-dimensional (sometimes laughably so).

Surprisingly, the real standout performance in the film comes from Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Cosette’s young mother.  Fantine, fired from her factory job, is forced to resort to prostitution in order to continue sending Cosette money, and in her soliloquy “I Dreamed a Dream” she laments the turn her life has taken.  Hathaway’s Fantine is fragile and vulnerable, and her singing is hauntingly beautiful — emotionally sincere, clear in tone, with moments of grit and throatiness.

The supporting cast is, for the most part, equally strong.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are M & Mme Thénardier, wicked innkeepers that provide some much-needed comedic relief to the plot.  (There were several moments in which Cohen had me literally unable to stop laughing, which was a little embarrassing after a while.)  Samantha Barks nearly steals Act II as Éponine, the Thénardier’s daughter who is unrequitedly infatuated with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary in love with Cosette.  Seyfried’s Cosette, on the other hand, is beautiful and sincere but still sadly an archetypal character, and her quivering soprano notes leave something to be desired.

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The translation of Les Misérables from the stage to the screen does the musical several favors.  Because the story follows so many characters, a problem that often arises is that everyone is painted with brushstrokes too broad.  Javert can be almost robotic in his devotion to the law, Éponine whiny and self-pitying, Marius a Prince Charming, Cosette a china doll.  Hooper’s use of sustained close-ups transforms the sweeping musical into an intimate story — one in which we get to know the characters in all their human detail.  Accordingly, many of the actors (Hathaway and Redmayne the most notably) opt for gentler, more fragile renditions of their songs, rendering the great story smaller, more personal.

Conversely, the big screen also allows Hooper to be bigger than the stage: to show the great scope of the world Hugo depicts in his novel.  We are taken to prisons, monasteries, battlegrounds, sewers, and homes, all with a vividness that the stage simply cannot achieve.  The chase scenes are that much more exhilarating, the battles that much more real.  Hooper is also able to cut to flashbacks and different locations with ease, which comes in handy with a story with so many characters.

This is not a perfect film.  Some of the ensemble songs are a little garbled, some of the choices are a little overstated.  I was not particularly fond of the new songs that were added into the film (“Suddenly”—what a bore!).  The film is also three hours long, and for someone who already dislikes musical theater, it will probably be a little much to stomach.  (As New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane punned, “I screamed a scream as time went by.”)  If you have some patience and an open mind, however, it’s a mighty story of human grief, determination, and love, and in my opinion it’s worth the three hours.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – Peter Jackson

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Let me just start this off by saying that when The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, my sister and I (ages 11 and 8) literally wrote a petition to my dad about why we should be allowed to watch it, despite its PG-13 rating.  Our petition was successful (!!!), and after giddily enjoying the first film in the trilogy, I began literally counting down the days until the second film would come out.  I go a little crazy for the Lord of the Rings movies.  I don’t know why.

You can imagine, then, my excitement/anxiety concerning The Hobbit.  I wanted it to be as awesome as The Lord of the Rings, but I had my doubts, mostly because of the decision to split the story into three films.  The Hobbit —the only Tolkien work I’ve actually read — tells the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his journey with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to reclaim the dwarves’ mountain home from the dragon Smaug.  If Tolkien could fit that entire adventure into a 300-page book, Peter Jackson should be able to squeeze it into a 3-hour movie.  Right?

I tried not to worry about it while I was watching, although there are certainly some aspects of the film that suffer because of that choice, particularly in the beginning of the film.  After a necessary but sort of cloying introduction with Frodo (Elijah Wood), we are taken into Bilbo’s past to witness the arrival of Gandalf and the dwarves.  The entire first hour of the film could probably be cut in half (did the dwarves really need to sing two songs while feasting at Bilbo’s house?), and you get the feeling that Jackson is taking his time with these early scenes in order to fill out the film.  Annoying.

Once the action finally gets going, though, The Hobbit really does take on the excitement and grandeur that I was hoping for.  Tolkien’s brilliant story is there, and even chopping it up into three segments and beefing them up with supplemental plotlines can’t ruin it.  For LotR fans, this film also has a satisfying mix of familiar characters — Frodo (briefly), Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, the unforgettable Gollum — as well as some new and equally likable ones.  Freeman, with his kind face and bumbling demeanor, is a perfect choice for Bilbo, and we watch him stumble from mishap to mishap and root for him every step of the way.

The Hobbit, unlike the LotR trilogy, is a book for children, and the film is actually pretty lighthearted and sweet.  While it’s certainly refreshing not having constantly to worry about the Dark Lord Sauron destroying Middle Earth, there are moments in The Hobbit in which things seem a little over-simplified.  The dwarves are constantly making quips at each other, which fits with their jolly nature — but I hard time believing that more serious characters like Gandalf and the Great Goblin would also throw around one-liners in moments of peril.  Perhaps my biggest problem with the film was Azog, the Pale Orc, an archetypal villain complete with a scarred face and an evil laugh.  These aspects of the film were not taken directly from Tolkien’s text, and I felt that they strayed from Tolkien’s style in favor of a more generic blockbuster formula.

This film definitely wasn’t perfect.  I would have loved to get the entire story in one go, because, unlike the LotR trilogy, it wasn’t meant to be experienced in segments. That being said, I really enjoyed the movie and I thought it was quite well done.  The Riddles in the Dark scene was pretty perfect, and the ending was killer (I was shocked that Jackson didn’t go for his usual monologue-about-the-dark-times-to-come-but-how-there-is-still-hope-and-even-little-hobbits-can-make-a-difference type of ending).  And by stretching The Hobbit into a trilogy, we get that much more time to absorb the beautiful spectacle that is Middle Earth, and to delve into some of the other texts that Tolkien has written.

And let’s be real — no matter what Peter Jackson does, I will always be excited for the next Tolkien film to come out.  I just can’t help myself.

The English Patient (1996) – Anthony Minghella

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In a role that makes him look like Lord Voldemort almost as much as when he actually played Lord Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes stars as Count Laszlo de Almásy, a pilot and cartographer suffering horrible burns.  Now being tended to by the Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) in an abandoned monastery, he recalls his ill-fated affair with the beautiful Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) during WWII.

I’d never seen this before, and I think I cried six individual times when I was watching it.  It’s unbelievably emotional and romantic.  We’re talking sweeping, classical romance here.  Nicholas Sparks, please step aside.

This is a film that is constantly shifting back and forth between two stories: Almásy’s present, and his memories of his past.  Generally speaking this format can sometimes be really tedious — right when one story is getting really interesting, you’re forced to switch to another — but Minghella artfully balances the two stories, making the viewer equally engaged by both of them.  He also thankfully dodges what I expected to find in this film, which was a host of scenes where Hana sits down beside Almásy’s bed and says, “Please, sir, tell me more about the woman in the desert…” Almásy is actually reluctant to share any of his memories, and perhaps the reason the transitions back and forth are so smooth is because they are occurring for the most part in head.

Although the film is technically set in WWII, it actually takes place mostly on the geographical and chronological outskirts of the war. Almásy’s past and present bring us to two primary settings, respectively: the Sahara desert and the Italian monastery, at the very beginning and the very end of the war.  Because of their isolation, these settings become sanctuaries for the characters, both from the events of the war and from ordinary societal pressures.  There is a sense that in these places, the characters are able to act freely and (at least for the time being) without real-world consequences.

The beautiful Katherine arrives in the desert with her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and — despite the fact that Almásy’s many years in the desert seem to have rendered him incapable of carrying on a normal conversation, let alone flirting — falls into an affair with the taciturn & dreadfully handsome Almásy.  She justifies her infidelity: “This is a different world, is what I tell myself. A different life. And here I’m a different wife.”

One of Almásy’s colleagues, a German photographer named Bermann (Peter Rühring), also takes advantage of the isolated location, evidently having an affair with Kamal (Samy Azaiez), one of the desert guides. When Kamal hits his head on a cave’s low ceiling, Bermann clutches him tenderly; and on the drive back to camp, Bermann flirtatiously feeds Kamal pieces of fruit.  He glances at Almásy and says with a nervous laugh, “How do you explain… to someone who has never been here… feelings which seem quite normal?”  For both Katherine and Bermann, the remote setting facilitates and excuses their feelings and actions.

(There also seems to be a strange connection between Bermann’s affectionate reaction to Kamal’s hitting his head, and Almásy’s coldness when Katherine hits her head while trying to end the affair.  I couldn’t quite piece together whether it was meant to be anything more than a clever contrast.)

In Almásy’s present day, the monastery also offers a place of respite for Hana.  At the beginning of the film, Hana has fallen into the common wartime habit of seeking fellow countrymen.  When she invites David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a fellow Canadian, to stay with them at the monastery, Almásy demands, “Why are people always so happy when they collide with someone from the same place? What happened in Montreal when you passed a man in the street? Did you invite him to live with you?”  “This is a war,” Hana answers; “where you come from becomes important.” And yet, soon after saying this she begins an affair with Kip (Naveen Andrews) (Sayid Jarrah from Lost!!), a Sikh lieutenant who specializes in deactivating German bombs.  The two find happiness together despite their completely different backgrounds.

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Sadly, the viewer and the characters share the bittersweet knowledge that these affairs must eventually come to an end, because they are predicated on something dreamlike and transient.  Even in these isolated locations, reality cannot be evaded forever.  And sadly, Hana’s initial statement that “where you come from [is] important” ends up being all too true, and the question of one’s background is ultimately Almásy’s undoing.

Although it has elements of a tragedy (the inevitability of Almásy and Katherine’s demise, for instance: within the first five minutes of the film we know that this will happen, and then we spend the rest of the film experiencing exactly how and why), this film is not an entirely pessimistic one.  It is a war movie that focuses not on the war itself, but on the impact that wartime can have on individuals; and it is thus a story that spans the breadth of human emotion.  While Almásy’s story is one of tragedy, Hana, with her warmth and almost childlike energy, is a source of vitality and hope for the viewer, and her story is ultimately an optimistic one.

This film has the trappings of an old classic and the nuance of a contemporary film.  The acting is pretty spectacular (no surprises there, it’s really an all-star cast), and Minghella’s screenplay and directing are outstanding.  Almásy’s scar tissue is a little much to take in at times, but what did you expect when you decided to watch a film about a man covered in third-degree burns?