As we ascend from the depths of the ocean, a murmur becomes a workman's chant lamenting years wasted in prison, a lack of sympathy, and the disparity between the bourgeoisie and the poverty-stricken. The ocean churns, the sea water floods the base of the ship, and Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) - among a hundred others - strains to pull tree-trunk-like cords of rope to right the ship. Watching over is Javert (Russell Crowe), an inspector akin to Measure for Measure's Angelo. His strict attention to law and order both vilifies and lauds him. He toes the line strictly, dismissing any empathy - even though, like Valjean, he "comes from the gutter too."
As the storm recedes and the ship docks, Valjean's parole begins. Nineteen winters after his crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's son, Valjean leaves prison, permanently marked by the nefarious stamps on his papers, forced to trek up the side of a mountain each month in order to see his archaic-version of a parole officer.
Tom Hooper's version of Les Miserables is, at times, emotionally charged with music and positively overwhelming with vast social themes. In part, it studies the permanently-locked lower class, those destined to end up in prison because, like Valjean, their attempts to survive have delivered them there. Furthermore, their papers become their existence. The stamp of criminality essentially bars them from employment and makeshift soup kitchens. Valjean is destined to either die or commit another crime, thus entering the recidivist circuit.
With help from a benevolent Monsignor, Valjean rediscovers his faith in humanity - even if it only exists briefly throughout much of this film - and sheds his prisoner-stigma. Unfortunately, this is accomplished through breaking his parole, which draws Javert on a cross-country, cross-decade mission to recapture him.
In a film akin to the documentaries Into the Abyss and The House I Live In, Les Miserables illustrates the extent to which the decks are stacked. Valjean becomes a criminal when he steals food, and he can only shed the stigma of "criminal" by becoming, in effect, a criminal. In a more comical progression, Thenardier (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his wife, Madame Thenardier (Helena Bonham Carter) are Master and Mistress of a combination house of ill-repute, tavern, and hotel. Each guest or patron who enters is swindled in some form, but the scene is satirically playful. They pickpocket, but also charge usurious taxes, fees, and additional charges.
While clearly criminals, they are a perverse mirror of the bourgeoisie and the French government that hold that the growing, writhing, lower-lower class in check.
Moreover, Les Miserables is about children, or rather, the symbolic transformation of children. When Valjean is sent to prison in 1796, he and his kin are part of the underclass, which compels him to steal food. Their fate is unknown, but his invested attachment to Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), a young girl left behind in 1826 when her mother Fantine (Anne Hathway) dies, suggests that they suffered the same fate as those teeming with futility and hopelessness in the streets.
For both Valjean and Fantine, the byway to support children is crime. Whereas Valjean was a thief, Fantine must resort to selling her body. First, as she sells her hair, then her teeth, then she becomes a prostitute. The scene here, despite its heavy sadness, is a marvel and one of the best in the film. Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is filled with palpable anger, sorrow, hope, and regret. Hooper's camera is unflinching and Hathaway's voice never breaks despite tears intermingled with moments of oxygen-starved coughing. Moreover, the scene is telling in that Fantine was employed sewing various clothing on a factory floor until her child was discovered. Since she is unwed, she becomes a signifier of the unclean. Her child becomes the burdensome mark of impropriety. While this is ironic because her co-workers hardly seem proper, it provides the opportunity to cull her from the mix, keeping any additional stigma out of their bounds.
Through Fantine's death, Valjean comes to adopt Cosette, a piece of currency and bargaining chip for Monseiur and Madame Thenardier who had, by default, taken her in. They understand Valjean - or Lemur as he goes by in Montreuil - is wealthy now and is able to offer more than the few sous that they swindle from customers. Sardonically, their own daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks) holds little or no value when she becomes older and stops helping them pilfer patrons. Rather, she is one of the young revolutionaries. And ten years later, she also falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young, passionate boy who comes from bourgeoisie stock but who fights for the underclass. Unfortunately, he is in love with Cosette.
And, here lies the downside of Les Miserables. Most of the time, it is solidly directed with emotionally-charged performances. At others, it becomes overwrought with ennui when we expect it to be the most replete with feeling. As the next revolution builds, Valjean must flee with Cosette because Javert has once again gotten close. (Here, the child gives meaning to Valjean's life, but his life also functions as her prison.) At the same time, musical soliloquies are intermingled: Javert proclaims that he will fulfill his duty and bring Javert to justice; Marius declares his love for Cossette; the revolutionaries ramp up the charge. But, these feel very disjointed. The emotion is stunted in each performance as the scenes cut back and forth without capturing the power behind each sentiment.
And, this continues for the next forty minutes or so. The musical that starts like a powerhouse, takes a break before finishing strong. It's almost as if the performers tired of the constant crescendo and just needed a break, like they were cried out or exhausted.
Similarly, Les Miserables doesn't always capitalize on the tragic irony that resides, churning, underneath its music. During the performance of "Red and Black," two sides of the revolution are pit against each other. Marius uses his love for Cosette as fuel to fight, but he is distracted by his infatuation. His other young revolutionaries look on the blood that has spilled and the "dark history" behind them. While a love story is building. Something bigger remains unsaid. This is the definition of the class war. Marius is only able to revel in "love at first sight" and think about being with Cosette because of his family's wealth. He was never disowned. Sure, his grandfather is miffed at him, but he wasn't removed from the will. That which Marius fights against is that which he owns, and that which allows him to treat the revolution like a hobby. His focus is Cosette, and he can afford to have her.
On the other hand, his brooding friends have no choice but to fight. They grew up in the gutters; they cannot afford a betrothed or to have other children. This is intensified by Eponine, who is so far removed from snagging Marius that she binds her breasts and covers her hair, effectively renouncing her gender and its possibilities by fighting in the revolution.
Admittedly, Hooper didn't write Les Miserables, but as a director, he began the film with a heavy discourse into class, privilege, and the contradictions that writhe within us all. But here, he seems to forfeit these themes in favor of relaying a love story. And while cute and saccharine, Cosette and Marius seem the least conflicted, which is a bit odd, since they - their affluence and bourgeois status -- will be the targets of the next uprising. And while the film is attempting to end powerfully with the singing voices of the dead, it fails to nod to this scene's futility. Yes, it lifts the audience's hearts, but we began in a circuit of poverty and revolution. And, we're still there at the end of the film, though this is hardly highlighted. Love conquers all, so long as you can afford it.
After a nine-year hiatus, how does one follow up his Academy Award winning efforts for Best Picture and Best Director? Well, if you're Peter Jackson, you realize that you little or nothing to prove, so you make The Hobbit. Revealing the life of a young Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit is beautifully shot and masterfully crafted. The landscape are sprawling and lush; the caverns are dark and treacherous. In truth, the depth of field in this film might be unmatched by any other two-dimensional endeavor - and I can only imagine how it would look in 48fps.
However, what The Hobbit does visually overcompensates for what it lacks narratively.
Intended to be a trilogy based on Tolkien's original novel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey stretches the first third of the book as far as it can go. Unfortunately, there is very little substance here. The script offer repeated variations of a few lines:
"Bilbo Baggins should not be a part of this group," declare a handful of dwarves a number of times.
"Bilbo Baggins is an important part of this group," rejoins Gandolf (Ian McKellen) and, toward the end, Biblo (Martin Freeman).
Speak, crescendo, solemnity, repeat.
We know Gandolf wants Bilbo there. Bilbo at times wants to be there because his life is without adventure, but it's a mystery as to why he's there at all. This will certainly be revealed as Jackson works his way through the trilogy, but, as a stand-alone film, The Hobbit is rather shallow.
In a way, Jackson's second trilogy - the first installment at least - echoes the second trilogy from George Lucas. At the time that Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were released, much of the acclaim was for visuals, while a lot of the criticism was directed at the story. To be clear, The Hobbit is much more beautiful that anything in Episode 1. Perhaps this is the benefit of fifteen more years of developing technology, but I think, in general, Jackson deserves a lot of the credit for how he shoots each scene. Fellowship of the Ring was released only a few years after Episode 1, and it looked markedly better all around.
However, Jackson seems to employ some of the same gimmicks that Lucas used. When redundant lines and battles are not on screen, The Hobbit plays on our knowledge of what happens in the second trilogy. The movie begins with Frodo (Elijah Wood) so that Lord fans are sated and brought back into the world of Hobbiton. There are also appearances by Saruman (Christopher Lee), Gladadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), as they sit around a table, but this feels more like an injection of familiarity. We know what happens between Saruman and Gandolf, so this is the very brief precursor suggestion a former friendship, but the content of the discussion is rather unimportant to the tale. Most of what they discuss was exposited a few times before.
In the same way that we have an interest in Annikan Skywalker because we know what he becomes, cameos of familiar characters pique our interest, but this feels like a ploy to remind folks of what happens eventually. Similar allusions occur during tongue-in-cheek references. One in particular finds Bilbo asserting that the "worst is behind them" when, clearly, it is not - at least, not if the next fifteen-to-twenty hours of film have anything to say about it.
Throughout, it feels as if The Hobbit is not deep enough to stretch along nine hours. This is certainly a passion project for Jackson; he has nothing left to prove; and he's done a marvelous job creating an aesthetically awesome land. At the same time, it often feels as if we are supposed to love the characters because we know what eventually happens and the trials and tribulations that lie ahead.
The Hobbit also reminds me of why I'm not a huge fantasy fan. The third act of the film is wrapped up in a rather incredible manner without explanation other than to just assume the audience will buy the events and suspend their disbelief. This is well and good in a general sense, but there was very little to hold on throughout this film, so the rescue of the dwarves becomes confusingly improbable and feels like a convenient loophole.
Between the stunning visuals (perhaps with the exception of the trolls; they look a bit cell-animationy) and the paucity of story, the best interaction is between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis). He feels more realistic this time around as CG has improved, but we get a clearer glimpse at the schizophrenic madness that resides within this mysterious creature.
I'm a fan of Judd Apatow's films - even the moments that revel in fecophilia. The 40 Year Old Version explores sweetness and shyness in a world of one-night stands and flings. Knocked Up looks at a man on the verge of being thrust into fatherhood - or, more accurately, a woman who becomes a mother the day that the stick turns blue. Even Funny People, a film that veered in tone and style from the previous two, gives us a man in George Simmons forced to come to terms with his own mortality at a relatively young age.
Each of these films offers a lens on the perpetual adolescent in the face of maturity, the need to mature and the desire to remain young at heart, and the importance of sincerity in a culture built by sound bites and status updates.
Going in to This is 40, I expected nothing less than a fine satire about humanity and the conflicts one finds in getting older. As opposed to the surprising parenthood in Knocked Up, and the delayed loss of virginity in 40 Year Old Virgin, This is 40 offers a lack of alternatives. The two protagonists Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), both characters from Knocked Up, are too old to start over and too young to feel old. Their children Sadie and Charlotte (Apatow and Mann's real-life daughters Maude and Iris) are a teenager and a pre-teen, respectively, and always at each other's throats. They are too old to be constantly cute and too young to be left on their own. As Debbie and Pete drift further away from each other, they are uncomfortably and frustratingly moored together by their progeny.
The commentary here could be about the responsibilities felt after high school, the pressures to get married, appear successful, have a family, and create a lineage. Something could be said about the intricate significance of children in this dynamic. If there were no children - as alluded to in the film - perhaps their relationship would have ended fourteen years earlier. There would be no silly fights; there would be no deception; there would be no frustration.
Characteristically, the male protagonist is a persistent juvenile. Pete couldn't get a real job, so he started a record label - one that is failing. As Debbie runs around in the morning, Pete dons his bicycling gear, eats cereal with his daughters, and protests that he would help if Debbie would just tell him what to do. At the same time, Debbie comes across as a control freak and seems to frighten Pete out of doing anything, which is one reason why Pete escapes to the bathroom "four times" a day to play iPad Scrabble and find solace. (Once again Apatow links feces with satisfaction as if he were writing a script while reviewing Freud's Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis.)
Pete's need to escape also labels Debbie as the characteristic adult in an Apatow film. She is more together and aware than her husband, but her turning forty in the beginning of the movie sets her off kilter. She constantly offers different years of birth when filling out forms - painfully and annoyingly exposited to us at her gynecologist's office - and she refuses to celebrate a co-birthday with Pete, even though their birthdays fall during the same week and it is something they have always done.
This is 40 also attempts to look at the inconvenient, infringing oppression of family dynamics in general, assuming that all families are damaged, wonky, and destined to disintegrate. Debbie's biological father, Oliver (John Lithgow), is initially cold, has a new life with new kids, and is predominantly absent. Pete's father, Larry (Albert Brooks), is a perpetual mooch who lives off his son's donations. He too is a man-child, but one that makes Pete look like father of the year. All things considered, Pete's doing pretty well.
Unfortunately, it is the depiction of family dynamics that sinks This is 40. It has its funny moments, and the ending is pretty sweet if uberpredictable, but the characters are extremely underdeveloped, and everyone is a cartoonish stereotype. The problem stems from the tagline: "The sort-of sequel to Knocked Up," one that is accurate in that this film is more of a spin-off than a sequel. In Knocked Up, Pete and Debbie foreshadowed the potential difficulties in marriage for the shoved-together Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl). The bickering was funny but mature and off-set the immature bantering of Ben and his on-pillow-farting brood of stoners.
Here, their bickering is exacerbated, and they are simply snarky and passive aggressive. In a sense, this relates the tension between the couple. Truthfully, the most honest moments in the film are when they try to work through a therapist's suggestion but can't help but being contemptuously condescending, but this is only momentary. Their snarkiness that often devolves to jokes about sex or other bodily functions feels inorganic and reminds us of two-minute sketches thrown together. Most scenes - even if they start earnestly - are truncated and disjointed, devolving to discussions of sagging boobs, anal fissures, or farting in bed.
Essentially, this film suffers the fate of most spin offs: underdeveloped characters that were meant to be comic relief of bits of philosophical teachings. Save Frasier and 20% of shows affiliated with Happy Days or All in the Family, most spin-offs flounder for this reason: the characters are shallow and ridiculous. They are punch lines without the build. They exist only to dance around themes and suggest that every relationship is an overflowing channel of frustration and regret.
The most earnest character - and best performance throughout - is Albert Brook's Larry. He's hilarious, offensive, and his lines are delivered with conviction, not as if he's giving the audience a pause to laugh. The other bright spot is Melissa McCarthy's ranting. She plays Catherine, the mother of the boy whom Debbie verbally assaults. However, these outtakes don't arrive for 130 minutes, which means there's plenty of dysfunction to sludge through.
Hitchcock is tongue-in-cheek, sentimental, revealing, and, overall, a production - which seems to be the way that Hitchcock himself would have wanted it, if the film is to be believed. Admittedly, here lies the rub. Is it accurate that the master of suspense routinely spoke with such a mesmerizing and dreary cadence, extended both his lips and gut forward and he stood mostly profile to gaze with his eyes down at his foil in conversation, even if he was the same height or shorter?
Or, is this the caricature that has been created by "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" - a fanciful bookend to the movie?
Director Sacha Gervasi frames Hitchcock's life as if it were one of his movies. Like L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) in Rear Window, he is a voyeur, always peering through blinds. He's also perverse like Norman Bates as he peers through various peepholes on film sets. The latter is often paralleled during the filming of Psycho - the primary focus of Hitchcock. Much like Norman Bates acts on his aggression, guilt, and transgressions, so too does Hitchcock as he slashes away at Vivien Leigh (Scarlett Johansson in the canonical shower scene. The thought of his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), having an affair with another man is too much to take - despite his many infatuations and fantasized trysts with other women.
Alma is the all-too capable auteur, whose work on her husband's scripts goes uncredited and unappreciated for most of the marriage / working career. Hitchcock dominates the industry, and his meticulous perfection goes unquestioned - even though it comes in part from Alma. It seems, in real life as well: as they garden, she organizes and works; he tries to escape for a drink. Though mutually beneficial to each other, Alma is often an accessory or a piece of furniture.
This dynamic and ensuing conflict sets up the largest irony in the presumed life of Hitchcock. For Psycho, a movie ripe with misogyny, wherein a psychotic man with a God complex both snuffs out and then provides life for his deceased mother, it takes a woman's acumen and influence to revive the initially poorly received Psycho - at least by the studios. It seems that Alfred Hitchcock's most popular film - though it came at the end of a nearly forty year career - almost never got off the ground until tweaks, suggestions, and edits were made by his betrothed.
And, this is the heart and soul of the film: the dynamic between the artist and the collaborator, the famous and the unnoticed, the husband and the wife. This is a bit antithetical to how we often think of Hitchcock. His egotism is famous, but his love of his wife is lesser known - often overshadowed by his obsession with female stars. Anthony Hopkins is often uncanny in his impersonation of Hitchcock. While the makeup to round out his jowls, at times, feels waxy, his mannerisms and cadence are consistent, consistently drawing us into the character.
Helen Mirren, characteristically also brings strength and vibrancy to Alma. Her voice is stern; her intelligence palatable but not condescending or pedantic. She does not wilt in the face of tragedy, and her soul overpowers her potential transgressions, making her desirably noble.
The downside of Hitchcock is the attempted paralleling of his life / psychosis with Ed Gein. While Gein is famous for his murders, his penchant for human-skin-pottery, and the way in which his crimes inspired a handful of cinema villains (Norman Bates, Leatherface, Buffalo Bill, among others), the connection is forced. I suppose in a sense that both Hitchcock at the end of his career and Gein in the morbid prime of his were seeking to preserve their existences: Hitchcock needed to perpetually reaffirm his value in Hollywood and Gein needed to alleviate his guilt and maintain stasis.
However, the suspense within Hitchcock and the weak assumptions that Hitchcock is on the precipice of insanity feel forced and unnecessary in a film that centers on the aforementioned irony - much more so than our belief that Hitchcock might have been closer to madness than genius.
Earnest and typecast, Ralph introduces himself as a "bad guy" during a Bad-Anon meeting, where "One game at a time" is the mantra to move through life as a video game villain. Set in a Toy Story-like world where video game characters lead their own lives out of the control of quarter-pumping game fanatics as soon as the arcade closes, Disney's Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant film about the dangers of typecasting and profiling.
In an arcade replete with games that span decades, Ralph is the villain of Fix It Felix, a Donkey Kong like-game wherein Felix (voiced by Jack McBriar) attempts to repair an apartment building that crumbles under the force of Ralph's smashing on the roof. Each window that breaks, each brick that cracks, each door that falls from its hinges is fixed with a touch of Felix's golden hammer. Even though Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is simply doing his job, he is relegated to the dump after the arcade closes while the building's tenants, Felix, and other video game good guys travel via shuttles running through power cords and surge protectors to live it up in the penthouse.
As they dance, drink, and eat cake, each movement reminds us of 16-bit consoles like the embryonic Sega and Nintendo of the early 1980's. Felix and his crew move at right angles, their legs cleanly separate and come back together when they jump in profile a la Mario, and their staccato movements recreate the choppiness of Zelda, Metroid, or the famous plumbers.
There are also flashes of next-generation consoles with cameos by Sonic the Hedgehog, who warns us "If you die outside of your own game, you don't regenerate...ever." This becomes important as Ralph tries to prove that he can be a good guy. Making a bet that he can win a medal and thus be admitted to the party, Ralph leaves his game and enters a first-person shooter game reminiscent of Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, and their ilk. Here, he makes his way to the upper floor of a skyscraper overrun with alien insects, capturing the coveted medal. At the same time, his inexperience allows a cybug (a virus) to escape the game with him, sending them via shuttle through various cables and eventually into Sugar Rush, a game that can only be described as the progeny of Candy Land and Super Mario Cart.
In this land, he encounters the precocious Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), a capricious imp prohibited from racing because she is a glitch, a dangerous entity that - if she's allowed to cross the finish line - will destroy the game, causing it to become "Out of Order" and bringing about the destruction and death of every character within.
The dialog between the two outliers is pithy, clever, and pun-filled. It is also genuinely endearing.
Most of all, their connection as the ostracized creates an additional play on things being "Out of Order." In each video game, no matter the decade, no matter the quality of graphics, exists an "us versus them" mentality. The bad guys must be bad for the good to be good. This is a simple assessment of video games in general, but there's a truth. Good stems from the recognition of bad. And often, bad is a result of the unusual or those deemed improper, impure, or unusual. Ralph is gargantuan and akin to a caveman with rage issues; Vanellope is runty and a flickering glitch; Sargeant Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch) fights aliens because she has been "programmed with a tragic backstory." In a sense, Calhoun is the most satirical lens offered on society. She is a constructed history personified, and she's leading the charge, much like the personified surge protectors (the men standing at the entry point to other video game cables meeting in the Grand Central Surge Protector) randomly checks the bad guys as they enter a public area.
Wreck-It Ralph is fun, entertaining, visually stunning, and exciting. It's also a parable on our perceptions of good, bad, the military, bullying, and ethnocentrism. It's adult and it's juvenile; most of all, it's worth viewing.