Film Review: Les Miserables (dir. by Tom Hooper)

I was recently talking to one of my fellow film bloggers when the subject of this year’s Oscar nominees came up.  After I told her that I thought that Beasts of the Southern Wild was the worst of this year’s nominees, she rather vigorously shook her head and said, “No film this year was less deserving of a nomination than Les Mis.”

Now, I have to admit that it’s rare that her and I ever agree on anything.  For instance, she thinks that Barack Obama is going to save the world whereas I … well, let’s just say that I don’t.  She watches Glee and I would watch Community if it would ever come back on the air.  However, we do usually agree about films and, in fact, our friendship was initially the result of our shared loathing for Avatar.  So, I was curious why her reaction to Les Miserables was so different from mine.

In her own words, Les Miserables was “bombastic” and over-directed by Tom Hooper.  She complained about Russell Crowe’s singing and she felt that Sacha Baron Cohen appeared to be acting in a totally different film from everyone else.  The term “style over substance” came up more than a few times and she felt that even the things that did work — like Anne Hathaway’s draining performance as Fantine, Samantha Barks’ poignant work as Eponine, and Aaron Tveit’s charismatic performance as Enjorlas — simply served to highlight how uneven the film was when taken as a whole.  Finally — and I think that this is actually the key behind a lot of the online backlash against Les Miserables — she admitted that a part of her reaction was due to the fact that she still resented the fact that Hooper’s previous film, The King’s Speech, defeated The Social Network for Best Picture way back in 2010.

What’s ironic is that I found myself agreeing with a lot of what she was saying.  The fact of the matter is that Hooper does over-direct Les Miserables and the frequent jump cuts do tend to detract from the film’s performances.  It’s not a coincidence that the film’s best performance is given by one of the few performers (Anna Hathaway, of course) who is actually allowed to sing an entire song in close-up without Hooper cutting away to distract us with something else.  And yes, Sacha Baron Cohen does feel out-of-place and yes, Russell Crowe is a bit miscast in the role of Javert.

And yet, despite those not minor complaints, I still loved Les Miserables and I think it’s more than deserving of its nomination for Best Picture of the year.

Les Miserables in an adaptation of the Broadway musical that was itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.  The plot will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an English class.  In 19th century France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) serves 19 years in prison for stealing bread.  When he’s paroled from prison, he adopts a new identity and starts a new life.  Eventually, he becomes a factory owner and a local politician and is known for his kindness and honesty.  When the tragic prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) dies, Valjean adopts her daughter, Cosette.  However, when the obsessive Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) learns of Valjean’s true identity, Valjean and Cosette are forced to go into hiding.  Many years later, the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen in love with the revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne, who gives a performance that is just as good as Hathaway’s much more lauded work). As France descends into revolution, Javert again discovers Valjean, much blood is shed on the streets of Paris, and Sacha Baron Cohen keeps popping up and offering some awkward comedic relief.

Yes, Les Miserables is all about style and yes, it is a bit bombastic but is that necessarily a bad thing?  I loved Les Mis specifically because it was such an old school spectacle.  There have been several very serious, very sober-minded adaptations of Les Miserables and most of them, especially the nearly 5 hour French version from 1934, deserve to be seen.  Both the Broadway musical and Hooper’s adaptation play up the story’s inherent melodrama and the resulting show is one that is designed to get more of an emotional response than an intellectual one.  Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is a film that has specifically been made for those of us who aren’t ashamed to shed a few tears at the movies.  When I walked out of the theater after watching Les Miserables, I had mascara everywhere and I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay this uneven but ultimately triumphant film.

The Case for Dredd 3-D


I don’t know that many people who, in the thrall of a weak September, dished out the $5, $10, $12, to see Dredd 3-D. This is curious, because I saw it the day that it came out, and I sang its praises til… wait, when am I writing this? I suppose the singing goes on. If you’ve seen Dredd 3-D, you probably had the same initial reaction I did – that this movie is much, much, much better than you ever thought it would be. But, having seen it three times in theaters, and roughly one billion times since the DVD release… there’s more to this movie. This is a truly great film. And since we’re in the season of handing out awards, and because movies like Dredd 3-D know from the moment of their inception that they will never sniff a nomination, it seems like a fine time to extol the virtues of what might be the best action movie made since the calendar flipped over from 1989.

If you’ve seen the film, I can probably spare you most of this song of praise. Of the few people that I know who have seen the film (most of them forced to see it by me), I have heard very few complaints. Of course, I have targeted the film’s audience amongst my own friends, and I’m not trying to win it the support of the Academy. But for a film to be so universally heralded amongst fans of a certain genre is actually fairly impressive in 2013, let alone for that very same film – a gritty B action film, by all accounts – to command a startling 77% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, is nothing short of incredible.

For the uninitiated, let’s start at the beginning. What is Dredd 3-D?

Well, it’s an exploration of a dystopian future that is the primary subject of the long-running Judge Dredd comic strip, an American hero who has been published almost exclusively in the United Kingdom. Dredd is a living metaphor, he is blind justice, the implacable and unrelenting arm of the law. He is fearless, he is formidable… he is the law. In a desolate future, North America is a nuclear wasteland. Outside of the boundaries of the incredible Megacity One, all is irradiated desolation. The Megacity runs from Boston to Washington DC, and contains twice as many people as lived in all of North America in 2012. Within the city limits, only one organization is still fighting to maintain order… the Judges of the Hall of Justice. They are judges, they are juries, and if necessary, they are executioners.

In Dredd 3-D, this is effectively all of the exposition we need. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the merciless reality of a law that is actively losing its struggle to serve and protect. Megacity One is falling apart day by day. But if Dredd himself is dismayed, he does not show it. Our opening sequence is a bloodbath of a high-speed chase through the streets of Megacity One that is given all the feel of a totally average day on the job. Innocent people die, vehicles are destroyed, drugs are consumed, and assault weapons are in abundance. So routine does the film make the bust feel, that it drew me into the world of Judge Dredd. Once I was there, and once the action started, the film never released its talons.

From there, Judge Dredd hauls rookie Judge-Candidate Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) out into the real world. As befits an assessment, Anderson takes the lead, committing herself and Dredd to respond to a multiple homicide at Peach Trees, one of the massive megastructures of Megacity One, a single tenement that houses over 75,000 people. Upon arrival, the Judges determine that the corpses – skinned and thrown off the balcony of Peach Trees’ level 200 – were executions, intended to send a message. From there, we’re off. The Judges fight their way up the megastructure and toward survival, battling against the savage druglord Ma-Ma (Lena Headley) and her minions. Most of the effects are practical, most of the dialogue is minimal, and while the story does have its emotional aspect, the action is the centerpiece of this film.

So, given that, why would I prop this film up as one of 2012’s best? Why would I, had I an Academy vote, have nominated Dredd 3-D for Best Picture (and probably Best Direction and Best Score, but probably nothing else). Because Dredd 3-D understands its genre, and its audience, and it attempts to be a perfect film within that framework. There is no pretension here. There are no regal accents, timeless proclamations of love, or elaborate Victorian costumes. That probably disqualifies Dredd from an award this year, but it shouldn’t. Because Dredd is a better film than Les Miserables (which, earnestly, has been done better more than once before). It is a better film than Lincoln (no one has ever claimed that they felt Dredd 3-D’s length)… because Dredd 3-D is a perfect action movie. If we do not ascribe any deeper motivations or requirements to a film than it be relentlessly entertaining and that it fill the basic requirements of its genre, there are few films ever made that will fill this criteria better.

Dredd 3-D sets up its scenario expertly, in a handful of scenes, and without much in the way of dialogue. Karl Urban has proved time and again that he is both versatile and talented (and criminally underrated, but that’s neither here nor there) but he is not asked to do much here. Dredd delivers his lines in the same tone of voice regardless of the situation. Where Dredd’s catch-phrases seemed campy and over-wrought in the 1995 adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone, Urban seems to have the better measure of his character. He is mercilessly deadpan, transforming one-liners into either tiny morsels of dry humour or vaguely ominous threats. Because Dredd’s persona is so unvarying, it never seems like he’s delivering a line. He is simply stating facts, as he observes them, and we are reacting in turn. Throughout the film, Dredd delivers roughly three facial expressions – a default look of grim severity, a look of significant disappointment (when a particular misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson) and one that I would not describe otherwise than grim fury (when a particularly more unfortunate misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson).

Dredd 3-D doesn’t demand much from its audience, but it outputs entertainment at an almost unvarying rate. The action scenes and set-pieces are actually remarkably varied (such as they can be) despite the confined nature of the film’s locations. As we watch, Dredd’s relentless implacability, and the sense that he literally cannot be stopped, actually become a fun part of the story. There is literally nothing to recommend the villains of the piece to us, despite a fairly layered performance by Lena Headley, who manages to be savage, determined, exhausted, and regretful basically all at once. This is one circumstance in which we very much want “the law” to prevail… and if what you hunger for is watching the law burn gang-bangers to death with incendiary ammunition, this film will grant you your fondest wish.

So, while Dredd 3-D may not have been nominated for any prestigious awards this season, please do it the favour of checking it out. It is a nearly-perfect action movie, and it is that way in spite of, not because of, its source material. Show it some love, and hope that the who’s-who of Hollywood realizes why this film is worth our time – and that they make many more films just like it.