‘Les Miserables’ Lives On

For an audience used to seeing “Les Miserables” on stage for the past 25-plus years, Tom Hooper’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography may seem strange.

Their film adaption of the musical, based on the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, is about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a French convict who served 19 years in jail over stealing a loaf of bread. After Valjean is released on parole, he is caught stealing silver from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who gave him shelter. Instead of accusing Valjean, the bishop says he gave Valjean the silver. Valjean repays the bishop’s kindness by trying to protect Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother passes away. Meanwhile, his parole officer Javert (Russell Crowe) hunts Valjean for not returning from parole.

While the story of “Les Miserables” has already been adapted in book, stage, radio and film form, Hooper and Cohen’s film brings the musical closer than ever before. Cohen’s camera zooms into Jean Valjean’s face as he is singing. The camera is shaky, as if Cohen is shooting on monkey cam, with the camera slung over his shoulder, rather than on tripod.

Meanwhile, Jackman is breaking the fourth wall of the boxed proscenium stage, staring directly at the camera while backlit by the sky or the bright, ornate church décor. It’s a bold choice — and it’s unsettling to see an actor’s face blown up — with their eyes piercing into your soul — on the silver screen while they sing their soliloquy. But although Cohen consistently zooms into an actor’s face so they are staring at the camera and confronting the viewer, this filming technique is both a hit and a miss throughout different segments of the film.

The most effective use of this technique is when Hooper is telling Fantine’s story. The subjective camera captures Hathaway’s pain as she pleas for money for her daughter. The close-up shots show Hathaway’s vulnerability, nakedness and despair when she loses her job at the factory, her hair when she’s begging for money, and her virginity when she is raped as a prostitute. The closeness and immediacy of the camera enhances Hathaway’s performance.

Meanwhile, Hathaway’s high piercing voice conveys a range of emotion as she sings the renowned title song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” through a stream of tears. At times it’s frail as she whispers her words. At other times, her voice is laced with venom and rage for the overwhelming unfairness of her situation. From pleas and gasps to fire and anger, Hathaway’s performance changes how you hear “I Dreamed a Dream” — and for the first time, you begin to understand what the song really means.

The closeness of the camera also forces the viewer to confront filth and poverty. After all, how can you refuse poverty when they stare you in the face and beg you to listen? The film shows the fingers of the poor and homeless reaching out for you as the undercurrent of rebellion and the French Revolution boils. Meanwhile, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) is singing, “Think you’re poor? Think you’re free? Follow me! Follow me!” Watching the French resistance of the 19th century, you can’t help but think of the residue of fire in the Occupy movement who crowded the parks of New York City just a year ago.

On the other end of the spectrum, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen shine as the gaudy carpetbaggers, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the greedy innkeepers who keep Cosette until her mother Fantine can settle her debt. Both Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are known for their over-the-top roles with Bonham Carter playing slightly mad characters such as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” films, and Baron Cohen playing absurd and comical characters such as Borat and Bruno. Although both actors may be typecast as the Thenardiers, the two work well together. While Bonham Carter is making out with guests in their number “Master of the House,” Baron Cohen is patting down guests while pick-pocketing them. Combined with lunacy and ridiculousness, the two are perfect for the role.

Yet while the Thenardiers are supposed to be ridiculous and over-the-top, the camera work and editing is ridiculous, making the audience very aware that this is a film and not a play. Even though the actors may hear the orchestra in their ears while singing live during each take, the dizzying aerial shots and the extreme close ups of the actors sometimes overshadow the actors’ talent. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, Cosette’s love interest, appears as a lovesick Romeo whose talent is being pretty for a majority of the film. However, after Marius is wounded and Redmayne is singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Redmayne releases more genuine waterworks. For such a morose scene, it would be fitting to tell the story with longer and slower shots. However, the nice profile shot of Redmayne is quickly replaced by a shot of Redmayne crying at the camera, staring directly at you. Then you see a shot of Redmayne singing in an empty room with empty chairs and empty tables. While Redmayne is bearing his heart and mourning the death of his friends, the editing makes Redmayne’s distress look cheap rather than subtle. Instead you are bludgeoned with multiple shots and camera angles that seem too intrusive on his pain, when all you want to see is Redmayne’s still profile as he is quietly mourning. The scene seems even cheaper and even more out of place when Amanda Seyfried suddenly appears and the two get married. The drastic shift between sadness and happiness causes vertigo, just as the shaky camera movements and badly framed shots showing actors with their foreheads cut off, bring you out of the story.

But in the end, the camera work doesn’t matter. You may be upset about why Jackman is back lit as he is pacing or how Cosette’s appearance seems to stifle Redmayne’s grief, but in the end, you can’t help being swept away by the music, which washes over you like a familiar wave. You can’t help but feel the solidarity as all the actors return to sing, “Do You Hear the People Sing.” You only wish the actors would run and return on the stage to sing an encore.

After all, isn’t the music all that matters? The Broadway musical hasn’t been translated into 21 languages and played more than 47,000 times to audiences of more than 60 million people worldwide for nothing.


‘The Hobbit’: A Road Still Travelled

Old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is telling young Frodo (Elijah Wood) a story, carefully crafting his words, while we are either intruding on a private moment and hobbit hole in the Shire — or perhaps we are Frodo, listening to Uncle Bilbo’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” After all, it is an extraordinary story — complete with marvelous kingdoms and fantastic beasts (from dragons and orcs, to dwarves and elves, to goblins and trolls). But just as Bilbo Baggins is teasing you with how fire-breathing dragons destroyed a dwarf kingdom in the first minute of the movie, director Peter Jackson takes you away from the scene and places you into the idyllic greenery of the Shire — home of Mr. Bilbo Baggins himself.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” based off of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again,” is the first of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy and the prequel to his three “Lord of the Rings” films. The first of three chapters introduces Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a fretful hobbit concerned about handkerchiefs and his ancient china. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up on his doorstep with about a dozen dwarves including Thorin (Richard Armitage) — son Thrain, the son of Thror, the king of the besieged dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain — Gandalf recruits Bilbo on a journey to reclaim the land the dwarves lost.

Unlike “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is much lighter, without any Grim Reapers or Ringwraiths casting long shadows like Dementors over the traveling party. At times, the dwarves’ folk songs make you wonder if you’ve fallen into a musical. After all, the dwarves gleefully goad Bilbo when singing, “Blunt the Knives.” Other times, you wonder if you’ve entered the ideal Dungeons and Dragons campaign, where a band of friends work together to accomplish a common goal. Along the way, there may be heroes — but it’s the performance of everyone in the production that carries that campaign and film.

Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, fussing over his material goods while the lively dwarves rearrange his furniture and pillage his pantry. It’s amusing to watch how frustrated Bilbo appears as he helplessly watches dwarves invade his home. From an anxious individual to a courageous companion, one of the highlights of the film is watching Bilbo grow as a character, reluctantly accepting the journey, and leaving the comfort of his books and maps. In one pivotal moment in the film, Bilbo is facing Gollum (Andy Serkis) with a life-or-death game of riddles. Quick in both feet and thought, Bilbo is seen confronting his fears, rather than deny the challenge.

The screenplay, written in collaboration by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, also develops Thorin’s character well beyond Tolkien’s words. Bearing a wooden branch as a shield, Thorin is frequently seen as David facing a pale and monstrous Goliath — a pale white orc almost three times his side. Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin is as a strong, prideful and courageous leader, whose honorable goals have won the respect of both dwarves and audience members alike. Even though Armitage is seen criticizing the tag-a-long hobbit in his company, Armitage’s nuanced portrayal of the dwarf prince allows us to understand him. Thorin and his band of merry dwarves will protect Bilbo with their lives despite how many times Thorin may quip about how burdensome the hobbit is.

The screenplay also makes Gandalf’s role as the deus ex machina very apparent in the film. Every time the company of miniature men is about to be killed or roasted alive, Gandalf’s mysterious and god-like appearance saves the day with his magic. Once again, McKellan adopts the role as adviser and protector — but at times, you find yourself shaking your head and smiling as the underdogs escape death again and again. Compared to an audience that may be used to more modern epic narratives like the “Game of Thrones” books or HBO series — known for author R. R. Martin’s fondness for killing favorite characters — the constant saving seems cheap.

However, Jackson’s story is very true to Tolkien’s book, albeit some embellishments. While Frodo never appears in “The Hobbit,” fans of the LOTR franchise will be thrilled to see Wood’s cameo in the first part of the film, which bridges “An Unexpected Journey” with “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first of “The Lord of the Rings” saga. With Frodo nailing up party signs, we are witnessing the eve of Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party and seeing the story of his adventure.

The 3D brings the adventure to life so you feel as if you’re immersed in the journey. Gold and rocks fall on you and the traveling company. The beauty of New Zealand is dazzling in its crispness. Despite the expansion of these moments with technology, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is just shy of three hours — and the tale is far from over. The first film of “The Hobbit” trilogy only tackled the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s 300-page book. While Jackson could have told the tale in the first minute recap of the film where he introduced the fire-breathing dragon who housed himself in a dwarf kingdom, Jackson expands the film to span three movies — each probably amassing about three hours in length.

While neither the 3D nor the length are strictly necessary to tell the story of “The Hobbit,” Jackson sums up his argument in Gandalf’s words: “All good stories need embellishment.”

And “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is certainly a good story.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. The movie is based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” 

All almost aboard the ‘Rise of the Guardians’

Once you pick up your suspension of disbelief along with your 3D glasses as you walk into the theater, “Rise of the Guardians” becomes quite an enjoyable film.

Based on William Joyce’s “Childhood of Guardians” series, the film centers around Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the Sandman — five guardians appointed by the Man in the Moon to protect children’s belief in magic against the forces of the Bogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law).

With an estimated $145 million budget, Dreamworks Animation’s “Rise of the Guardians” looks beautiful. Jack Frost, with his youthful face, big blue eyes and playful and carefree grin, is eye candy — cute as the Zac Efrons, Justin Beibers or Josh Hutchersons of the world — as he lures kids into snowball fights and guarantees snow days. (After all, who doesn’t love a guy who’s good with kids?) Meanwhile, the film’s animation is delightful, featuring a potpourri of colors and wonders. Easter eggs walk into rivers of pink dye while dreams float out of your head and prance around. Yetis assemble and paint Christmas toys in the North Pole while tiny tooth fairies, which resemble hummingbirds, flutter under pillows to collect teeth.

Although Pine may be as good looking as his animated counterpart, Jack, the 32-year-old actor’s voice is too deep to match the face of his character — who looks half his age. Pine’s voice, who commands the Starship Enterprise in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, is too suave, smooth and confident for a character who’s young and lost — trying to discover who he is and why he died. Closer to teenaged heartthrobs, like Efron or Hutcherson, would have been better suited for the role.

Meanwhile, Pine’s co-stars shine with their mastery at accents. Although we know Jackman can sing and voice a pretty good American accent, it’s refreshing to hear Jackman’s native Australian accent as he voices a large bunny that resembles a kangaroo. Meanwhile, Baldwin’s Russian accent completes the unconventional Santa Claus character, which also has “naughty” and “nice” tatooed on his arms. And Law, with his English accent, always sounds sexy — even when he’s voicing a misguided, black-haired villain that resembles Loki from “The Avengers.”

“Rise of the Guardians” takes us on a journey on the Polar Express — proving that you’re never too old to believe in magic. All you have to do is open your heart and believe.

“Rise of the Guardians” was directed by Peter Ramsey. The screenplay was written by David Lindsay-Abaire.