There’s nothing subtle about the epic Les Misérables, whether in Victor Hugo’s original book, the musical phenomenon that kicked off in the 80s, or the film now playing in theaters. Director Tom Hooper follows up his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech with a sweeping take on the musical version of Les Misérables, which tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his decades-long effort to find redemption following a 20-year prison stint.
Throughout the story, Valjean faces pursuit from Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who dogmatically believes that Valjean’s criminal past means that he’ll always be a criminal. One of the people impacted by Valjean’s attempt at reformation is Fantine, a factory worker forced into prostitution when she is fired from Valjean’s factory. As she is dying, she asks Valjean to take care of her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child; Amanda Seyfried as an adult). Years later, Valjean watches as Cosette falls in love with young student Marius (Eddie Redmayne) as Paris falls into a revolution.
Les Misérables is such a sprawling story that any attempt to film it seems doomed to fail on some level. Hooper’s take certainly has its own set of issues. Hooper is a competent, somewhat boring director. He takes some artistic chances with this adaptation, namely the decision for the entire cast to sing live on camera. That choice in particular works for the most part; in the hands of Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne and Samantha Barks (Eponine) in particular, the vocals include a heightened sense of drama. Where it fails is with Crowe, who already has a somewhat thankless role with Javert. While the cast as a whole delivers a variety of musical backgrounds to their individual performances, Crowe’s rock-singer background fails him in this environment.
Hooper also insists on showing the majority of the film in close-ups. This works for some numbers – “I Dreamed a Dream” in particular is a high point, thanks to Hathaway’s bravura performance – but often makes the film feel claustrophobic.
Still, the story of Les Misérables is generally regarded as one of the best of all time, and for good reason. Even with Hooper’s mistakes, the story still works, all while managing to deliver some of the best film performances of the year.
Also In Theaters
Quentin Tarantino’s latest bloody story is his most potentially controversial yet: it’s a film about slavery in the South, stylized like a Spaghetti western. Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave purchased by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Once freed by Schultz, the two team up to find and rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the twisted Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django Unchained comes across as a natural follow-up to Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated Inglourious Basterds, with a dynamic storyline and Tarantino’s signature style. Django also doesn’t shy away from its depiction of slavery as a brutal enterprise.
When high-profile actors take the lead in multiple franchises, it helps to make the franchises fairly different from each other. While Jack Reacher is fairly different from Tom Cruise’s time in the Mission: Impossible franchise, the characters of Reacher and Ethan Hunt feel remarkably similar. There’s one explanation: Cruise coasts on his charisma and star power, rather than working on differentiating his various roles. At least his star power shines brighter than almost any other star’s – Cruise turns the rather generic Jack Reacher into an enjoyable piece of violent fluff. Just check your brain at the theater’s door.
The last time Matt Damon teamed up with another actor to write a screenplay, the result was Good Will Hunting, which won Oscars for Damon and Ben Affleck. Don’t expect a repeat with Promised Land, which finds Damon teaming up with John Krasinski for both screenwriting and acting credits. Damon stars as a salesman attempting to buy drilling rights to land in a small town. When a schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) raises concerns about the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” process, the town becomes embroiled in a fight over whether or not to allow Damon’s employers come into town. As far as message movies go, Promised Land is more palatable than most, thanks to a focus on character development. Promised Land doesn’t go for easy solutions to the problems presented throughout the film. Unfortunately, a twist near the end of the film makes the ending feel more forced than natural. It’s still worth a viewing, thanks to strong performances and solid direction from Gus Van Sant.
This Is 40
The latest film from Judd Apatow follows in the vein of the director’s signature thought-provoking comedy. Based on characters appearing in Knocked Up, This Is 40 follows Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as they deal with the stresses of life while turning 40. With a runtime well over two hours, This Is 40 could have easily excised some scenes to make for a smoother experience. Then again, a film with some extraneous elements feels suited for its runtime.