Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: Les Misérables

We saw Les Misérables over the weekend and the three things everyone says about it are true.

  1. The movie was good and Anne Hathaway was great
  2. The movie is three hours of giant faces singing at the camera
  3. Some of the lyrics were changed for no clear reason.

It's the third one that keeps me wondering. Like anyone familiar with a song, I follow the singer along in my head and when they get to a changed word, it's distracting. It's kind of like seeing a live concert where a performer tweaks the words of his own song on the fly. By and large, the changes made the songs no better or worse than they had been, just different. Why, then, make the changes at all? As Emerson said, "If you shoot the king, you must kill him." Change for the sake of change is pointless.

My history with Les Misérables goes back to when I first met Jen, in about 1995. I was working a night shift job and she let me borrow her Original Cast recording greatest hits tape. I put it in my Walkman and listened to it every night. I read the book, and we went to see the show on Broadway a year or two later.

Later on, we picked up the CD that had Kaho Shimada as Eponine. I always remember her, because she learned her lines phonetically for the role because she spoke almost no English at the time.  That always impressed me.

I like musicals, but I also recognize that they're faintly ridiculous. (I've heard Scott Pilgrim versus the World described as a musical, but with people breaking into video game fights instead of songs) As much as I liked Les Misérables movie, I think it loses something in the transition from stage to screen, because it's less stylized, more firmly grounded in the real world. We're asked to take it more seriously.

That said, the scene at the beginning where the prisoners are righting the boat was impressive and makes great use of the big screen. I liked the bit where Valjean picks up the mast, which foreshadows the scene with the cart later on. I also liked it that the movie made it explicit that the reason Valjean didn't intervene to protect Fantine at the beginning was because he was distracted by Javert's arrival. (Also, it's a tiny detail, but I liked that the double they got for Valjean in the courtroom scene did look enough like him from his prisoner days to be realistically mistaken for him.) Also good was Javert walking in the edge of the convent walls, something paralleled in the scene above the Seine.

Hugh Jackman was distractingly, Hugh Jackman. Same deal with Russell Crowe, though in his case, he was distractingly Russell Crowe. Anne Hathaway, though just as famous as the two male leads, didn't stick out for me in the same way and I don't know why.

Jackman was fine. He has a background in musical theater, so I expected him to be decent and he was. However, he has the annoying habit of shaking or nodding his head to reinforce what he's saying, a trait I associate with anchors on the evening news.

Russell Crowe was solid too. Javert is my favorite character in the book, and I'll talk about him a little later.

I've liked  Anne Hathaway since I first saw her in the Princess Diaries. I was one of the people who believed she had the chops to play Catwoman. She really is prodigiously talented and it's great to see her in challenging roles and getting the recognition she deserves.

Also, she's pretty. I like this picture.

Amanda Seyfried was Cosette.  Seyfried is great. She's a local girl, from Allentown, PA, and I've been a fan since first seeing her in Veronica Mars. Unfortunately, the role of Cosette is not a challenging one.  "You're pretty, Cosette." "You're pretty too, Marius. Herp derp."

Samantha Banks was Eponine. I like the character and I like the actress after seeing her in the part.

I'm so old that I remember when Helena Bonham Carter used to be an actor and not someone who channels Bellatrix Lestrange for every performance. Borat was fine as Thernardier, but he got tiresome after a while. We get it, dude. You can't remember her name. It was funny the first time, and less funny each of the twenty subsequent times you said it.

So, Javert.  My last movie review is also about a man known for saying "I am the Law!", but that's just a meaningless coincidence.

It's no secret that that Philip Gerard, the lieutenant from The Fugitive, is based on Inspector Javert. He was named Sam Gerard in the 1993 movie, and my favorite part in the movie is the scene when Gerard has dropped his gun and Kimble has recovered it and is pointing it at him.

Kimble: I didn't kill my wife!
Gerard: I don't care!

The delivery is just perfect.

I think Javert is a wonderful adversary, though not, properly speaking, a villain.  Jen used to joke that I thought that Javert was the real hero of the book. I wouldn't go quite that far, but I do think he is a fundamentally decent man.

Here's how Hugo described him.

Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice, – error. The honest, pitiless joy of a fanatic in the full flood of his atrocity preserves a certain lugubriously venerable radiance. Without himself suspecting the fact, Javert in his formidable happiness was to be pitied, as is every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as this face, wherein was displayed all that may be designated as the evil of the good.

A lot of the traits that make him such a great Inspector are also the ones that make him a horrible human being. Seeing the movie helped me put into words what I like about Javert and Eponine.  They endure hardship for their beliefs in a way that Valjean and Cosette never do. Valjean is a good guy, absolutely, Lawful Good, but he's hardly the ideal guardian for a little girl, being an escaped convict pursued by a fanatical policeman. The best thing he could do for her would be to find a home for her and then get completely out of her life.  She is the daughter he never had, and though he loves her and provides for her, his actions are by no means entirely altruistic.

In Mike Carey's Lucifer miniseries, a militant archangel says to Lucifer, "There is no room for doubt or scruple in the service of the name", and I've always liked that line and thought it applied to Javert as well. (Another one that fits is "Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.")

My favorite scene with Javert is where he's turning in his resignation after accusing the mayor of being Valjean.

Javert: Monsieur, a serious... a grave violation of the public trust has been committed. An inferior has shown a complete lack of respect for the law. He must be exposed and punished.
Valjean: Who is the offender?
Javert: I am. I slandered you Monsieur le maire, I'm here to ask that you demand my dismissal.

Being a police officer was his entire identity and he was ready to give it up because he violated his own moral code.

Stan Lee always said of his villains that they could have been heroes if not for a single flaw or failing. On the whole, Javert has almost certainly done more good than harm. (I think the argument could be made that he did more good than Valjean)  Sure, it sucks to be Valjean when Javert is hounding you, but when Javert's monomania is directed towards actual criminals, he's pretty good at catching them.

And just the same, there is something profoundly pitiable about him. He was born in a prison, and this gave him such a black and white, pitiless view of the world. ("Reform is a discredited fantasy. Modern science tells us that people are by nature, law breakers or law abiders. A wolf could wear sheep's clothing but he's still a wolf.") He'll break before he'll bend and in the end, this kills him.

I was talking with Lily about the movie. I was looking up showtimes and I asked her how she thought the girl in the poster was feeling. She looked and said "Confident", very certainly.

And we talked a little about Valjean and how he's arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. She knows it's wrong to steal, but she understands too that it's wrong for children to suffer too. I wasn't thinking of a Heinz dilemma when I asked the question, but it's always interesting listening to her reason these things out.

Fat Tony: Bart, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?
Bart: No.
Fat Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?
Bart: Uh uh.
Fat Tony: And, what if your family don't like bread? They like... cigarettes?  

Heh heh heh.

Overall, a very solid movie. It's not perfect, but it's grand and ambitious and it's got Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop. What's not to love?