Chuck Koplinski: An epic vision for 'Les Miserables'

Chuck Koplinski: An epic vision for 'Les Miserables'

Though you may ultimately object to some of director Tom Hooper's decisions in his adaptation of the Broadway juggernaut "Les Miserables," at the very least give him credit for taking on such an arduous task.

Since hitting the London stage in 1985, attempts to bring the musical to the cinema have progressed in fits and starts until it was thought to be a project that wouldn't translate to the big screen. Thankfully, Hooper doesn't shirk from the challenge and lets the audience know from the first scene that he has an epic vision in mind and he's not going to let anything prevent him from achieving it.

This tale of morality, justice, love and the law follows the cat-and-mouse game that takes place over several years between the peasant Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who's spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who's convinced that he will ultimately run afoul of the law again and he'll be there to take him in.

Branded a thief and on probation for the rest of his life, Valjean changes his identity and rehabilitates himself, eventually becoming a businessman and mayor of a provincial French town. However, a change in assignment brings Javert to this burg, and he soon realizes that Valjean is not who he seems to be.

A false arrest of one of Valjean's factory workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a deathbed promise to take care of her daughter Cosette and Javert finally identifying the former convict sends our hero on the run, ending up in Paris with his young charge. They live in relative peace and seclusion for 10 years, but the stirring of a new revolution threatens to expose Valjean's past and put Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in danger.

With nearly every piece of dialogue sung, the film takes on a rhythm that keeps this epic moving at a brisk pace.

On the whole, this is a sound strategy as Hooper has a lot of ground to cover, however there are times when key moments are rushed and not allowed to build to their proper emotional catharsis, particularly during "Who am I?" when Valjean wrestles over whether or not to let an innocent man go to jail in his stead. The entire story revolves around this pivotal moment, and in rushing it, it's not given its proper dramatic due.

Some have complained of Hopper's tight camera work, focusing on the faces of the cast, taking in their singing that was done live on set. While many note that this takes away from the inherent spectacle of the story, I feel it brings an immediacy to it and the people whose lives are nearly consumed by these colossal social events.

My complaint with the film is the same that I had with the stage production: the story flags once we hit the third act and the story of Cosette, her love Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the one who covets him, Eponine (Samantha Barks) becomes the focus. It simply isn't as compelling as the Valjean/Javert dynamic, and things nearly grind to a halt.

Still, the film is a stirring and moving production. The opening sequence sets the tone as Valjean and hundreds of other prisoners are seen trying to drag a massive ship into dry dock, an exercise in futility that underscores how useless their lives have become. Equally moving is Valjean's redemption at the hands of a kindly priest, who tells him he's "saved his soul for God," Hathaway's bitter rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," and Javert's final scene (yes, Crowe can sing!). When driven to tears by the tidal wave of emotion contained in these moments, it's easy to forgive "Les Miserables" its bloated faults and better to simply be swept away by its grand design.

 

Les Miserables

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks and Daniel Huttlestone.

Directed by Tom Hopper; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh; screenplay by William Nicholson (book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil; lyrics by Herbert Kretzman; based on the novel by Victor Hugo).

A Universal Pictures Release; 157 minutes. Rated PG-13 (suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements). At the AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

 

Also new in theaters

Anxiety and doubt the root of humor in "40." (3 1/2 stars out of 4) One of the problems with Judd Apatow's "This is 40" is that its characters live a lifestyle that's difficult for many of us to relate to. It's hard to empathize with someone who's complaining about money problems while seeing them spend a weekend at a posh resort. This sort of disconnect points to Apatow's lack of awareness where the economic realities of the day are concerned.

What he hasn't lost sight of is what makes us tick, or more accurately, what drives us insane, something he's able to portray on screen with his trademark sense of sharp, ironic humor.

"40" is full of touchstone moments that anyone who's ever been married will be able to relate to as one couple attempts to juggle their various roles: that of parent, spouse, child and individual. Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) are in the trap most of us have fallen into: They're barely able to meet all of their responsibilities and they rarely do any of them well.

Both celebrating their 40th birthdays in the same week, they're each approaching this milestone in different ways. For Pete it's no big deal, but for Debbie it's more traumatic as she insists that this is really her 38th birthday.

This week becomes more hellish as it unfolds, as they attempt to deal with their own personal issues: Pete tries to salvage his boutique recording business; Debbie reconnects with her distant father (John Lithgow). These crises are hardly original, but what makes the film work is Apatow's uncanny ability in his writing and direction to accurately recreate moments any married couple will recognize. They pick at one another over petty things, argue about sex, differ in how to raise their two daughters and harbor hidden resentments that are ultimately revealed.

To be sure, there are more than a few ribald moments, but they are rendered with Apatow's trademark brand of humor as awkwardness and honesty combine to create wholly human moments.

Rudd and Mann inhabit their roles fully, conveying a sense of weathered but loving togetherness, making it easy to connect with them. "40" reminds us that the best way to deal with life's curveballs is with a sense of humor and if you're lucky enough, you'll do so with a partner who accepts you despite your faults.

Streisand, Rogan connect in surprising "Trip." (3 stars out of 4) Who says Hollywood is out of new ideas? Anne Fletcher's "The Guilt Trip" manages to put a new spin on an old formula. How about a buddy picture between a mother and a son? Seems simple enough, and it is, as the film is quite funny at times as well as poignant without laying things on too thick.

What's most surprising about the feature is its star, Barbara Streisand, a polarizing performer who's never been more appealing than she is here.

In a brisk 96 minutes, Fletcher wastes little time getting things under way as we meet Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen), an inventor who's devoted far too much time and money on his organic cleaning product. Broke and alone, he decides to set out on a car trip, from New Jersey to San Francisco, to sell his invention to a series of suitable companies.

However, before leaving, Andy pays a visit to his mother, Joyce (Streisand) who smothers him, feeds him and tells him a story that prompts him to ask her if she'd like to come along. She jumps at the opportunity, and the fun begins.

The chemistry between the two stars is good, and it actually is a pleasure to spend time with them. Rogen effectively shows Andy struggling with being supportive of his mother but having to constantly deal with her many faux pas that embarrass him. Meanwhile, Streisand is able to put her more grating qualities aside (her tendency to dominate a scene, her sense of superiority) and conveys a sweetness born from the best of intentions that has her in the audience's good graces from the start.

On the whole, this winds up being the film's strong suit: the sense of restraint that all parties demonstrate. The laughs, which are plentiful, are never too dirty or over the top, while the script by Dan Fogelman never becomes so desperate that it resorts to simplistic slapstick gags as generational misunderstandings are all he needs.

Equally surprising is the deft touch Fletcher employs regarding the film's more emotional elements. While the tone is sincere, it never veers into the maudlin, and her two leads wisely never overplay their most poignant moments.

While "The Guilt Trip" isn't likely to appear on anyone's "10 Best" list for the year, it's a pleasant and surprisingly entertaining diversion that reminds us that while some good deeds may be precipitated by guilt they can ultimately pay off in sound emotional dividends. Who knows? Maybe a rash of mother-son road trips will result after the film proves successful.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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