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Les Misérables

The worst type of movie is the one that fails to live up to expectations. Usually when this happens, the movie itself is far below what it could and should have been. Usually, the standalone trailer is astonishing, managing to hit a range of emotions in a short two minutes, while the movie itself, when fleshed out to feature length, completely misses the mark. Rarely, however, does a movie fail to live up to expectations and is still as good as Les Misérables. It would be somewhat of a stretch to call it one of the greatest musicals ever made—it’s not even one of the best movies of this year—but its narrative grandiosity, lush visuals, assured direction and phenomenal performances from a terrific ensemble cast make it more than your ordinary film musical. Les Misérables deftly crafts unparalleled moments of beauty and awe, conveying true emotion around themes of love, loss and hardship that will cause all but the most hardened viewers to sympathize with, and maybe even cry for, those fighting onscreen.

Based on the Victor Hugo novel from 1862 (and adapted into a stage musical in 1980), Les Misérables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a Frenchman who has spent many years as a prisoner and slave for stealing bread, overseen by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). When the film begins, he is finally released from his imprisonment, but is put on parole for the rest of his life. If he breaks it, he will be hunted down and captured. Rather than heed that warning, he breaks parole anyway and starts a new life as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of the town he has chosen to settle in. One day, he runs into Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an ex-employee of his who was fired from his factory and is now selling herself to make ends meet and support her young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). After tragedy strikes Fantine, Jean decides to adopt Cosette and raise her as his own, all while he hides from Javert’s relentless pursuit. Many years pass and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried), is all grown up and they’re about to find themselves in the middle of a revolution.

Les Misérables isn’t like your typical musical. It’s not full of flamboyant choreography or energetic numbers that are cut to resemble a music video. Instead, it’s very reserved. The camera more often than not settles on close-ups and rolls without cutting, the performers singing their numbers in one take. This lends terrific weight to a film that relies almost entirely on the emotional fragility of its viewers. When the actors sing these songs, pouring their hearts and souls into them, and you are so close that you see every twitch in their skin and tear forming in their eyes, it’s impossible not to feel something. In particular, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and, perhaps due to this single moment in a nearly three hour long film, likely to win her an Oscar.

Much of the emotional impact comes from the fact that, unlike most movie musicals that pre-record their songs before shooting, the actors are singing the songs in real time, much like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. There’s no lip-synching present here and the turmoil of the characters comes through tenfold because they’re singing in character, not in some studio behind a microphone. It’s a tactic that is brilliantly used by director Tom Hooper, who, if 2010’s remarkable The King’s Speech is any indication, knows how to maximize the effect his movies have on an audience.

Despite the tragic story that unfolds and the many deaths that accompany it, Les Misérables has some lighthearted moments that come mostly from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Their presence is ever welcome in the sea of sadness, but there’s too little of them and they end up overshadowing some of the other, bleaker moments, if for no other reason than because they’re more upbeat. This discrepancy between these two different styles is indicative of the film as a whole, in that certain sections aren’t as interesting as others. Very few movies of this length have the ability to maintain viewer attention and with a gap of songs that range from breathtaking to flat out boring, Les Misérables doesn’t pull it off.

It’s still a wonder to behold, though, and its final scene, despite some lags in the narrative, packs a punch that wasn’t paralleled in any other movie this year. There has been a lot of hyperbole when expressing opinions of it in recent months, however. Some are saying it’s one of the best musicals (or even crazier, one of the best movies) ever while others are saying it’s overwrought, overlong and manipulative. Neither of those extremes are accurate. Les Misérables is neither great nor terrible, but it’s effective and rousing and, provided you can sit still for almost three hours, absolutely worth a watch.

Les Misérables receives 4/5


The King's Speech

When December approaches, critics begin to put together their best of the year lists. I personally start early to ensure that I’ll have it done by my own set deadline. But just as I’ve become comfortable with my list, a new movie is screened that puts a kink in my plans. It sets me back, but I’m happy to oblige for a film that is truly worthy. The King’s Speech is this year’s setback.

The film takes place in the mid-30’s and follows the rise of King George VI (Colin Firth) as King of England after the death of his father. At a troubled time in world history, during the ascension of the Nazi threat, King George VI is forced to take to the airwaves and deliver necessary wartime speeches, but there’s a problem. He has a terrible speech impediment that is enhanced when he reads. Wishing to help, his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), seeks out the help of local speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who makes it his goal to work with the new monarch and help him become the voice of England.

The King’s Speech is masterful, a rousing drama that is as captivating in the first frame as it is the last. I hesitate to label it a British period piece because I fear readers may immediately write it off as a bore, but don’t be fooled. This is as good a movie as has been released all year. It features dazzling cinematography, a wonderful screenplay that flows with the greatest of ease and three central performances that are all, in their own way, worthy of accolades. This is a multi-Oscar contender and whatever it wins, it deserves.

The eye-catching shot composition is the first thing you’ll notice as you sit through this wonderful movie. As some incredibly smart people once told me, every shot should tell a story and in that regard, The King’s Speech tells many great ones. The contrast between backgrounds that rest behind certain characters tells much about them. In one early scene, King George VI sits on a couch that is pushed against a wall that is seemingly old, dilapidated and unpleasant on the eye. Its decaying outer skin, however, is the only part you can see. You can’t see the steadfast support beams dutifully holding up the building. Just like that wall, people look at the new king and see only what he has on the outside, bumbling articulation and excessive anxiety. They don’t see the strong, passionate man underneath. It’s a striking metaphor and the movie is filled with them.

If there’s one complaint I can levy towards many films these days, it is for their superfluous nature, throwing scenes in where they are not needed. The King’s Speech avoids this issue entirely. Its pacing is pitch perfect and its nearly two hour long runtime goes by in the blink of an eye. While the scenes not involving the witty back and forth between King George VI and Lionel are less interesting by comparison, they’re still wholly compelling. Not a single one feels unnecessary or out of place.

Of course, even the greatest films have small problems, but any that existed in this one went under my radar until the very end. To say why would be spoiling it (though this is based on real events so you should know it already), so let’s just say that the fact that the country was about to head off to war seemed less important to the characters than the king’s diction, which caused some strange discomfort inside me.

But this story isn’t about the war; it's about the courage and determination of King George VI. It’s hard to fault it for picking a focus and staying on it because every facet of The King’s Speech is meticulously crafted. From the funniest of jokes to the soberest of drama, this is an all around marvelous movie. It may be set in the 30's, but it doesn't get bogged down in old timey rhetoric and even if you are someone who has yet to enjoy a period piece, I guarantee you’ll enjoy this one.

The King’s Speech receives 5/5