Film Review: Les Miserables

I think it’s safe to say that of all the movies released in 2012, Les Misérables was one of the ones I was most anticipating. This is for a few reasons:

1) I love the book

2) It contains my favorite villain of all time

3) I love the musical, and have seen it (I think) five times on stage. I’m not entirely sure. I stopped counting after a bit.

4) The production value looked incredible, like it could finally convey the visual scope of the story along with the emotional scope.

5) Anne Hathaway

After seeing it on Christmas day (and crying for a solid two hours), I came away with mixed feelings. Overall, loved it. I thought it was gorgeous, well-acted, and mostly well-sung. It hit all my emotional buttons, and was one of those movies I wanted to talk about (and did) for hours and days after.

But there were also some places where it fell short. And as a die-hard fan of the musical, I had a hard time just shrugging those things off. And disclaimer: I’m both a lifelong fan and a musician, so I may be drifting into “things no one cares about except me” territory. You’ve been warned.

First off, the casting for this film obviously, with a couple exceptions went in the direction of “well-known actors who can sing,” rather than “well-known singers who can act.”  In some cases, this was fine. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen may not have had the vocal range of their stage counterparts, but their characterization of the Thénardiers (who are pretty much the comic relief of the story, and not the vocal heavy lifters) was so spot-on that I overlooked their “singing.” Then there were surprises like Eddie Redmayne as Marius (I know that his head-shaking vibrato bothered some of my vocal-instructor friends, but I honestly didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out) or Anne Hathaway (who deserves all the awards. All. Of. Them. But more on that later). And Hugh Jackman, who did not have the vocal quality I expect for Valjean (“quality,” in this case, meaning timbre, not excellence), acted the part amazingly and sang it…well. His voice didn’t have the weight or the almost transcendent quality of Colm Wilkinson’s Valjean, but for those who have not had the music memorized for the past twenty years — which, let’s face it, is most of the movie-going audience, and I’m a bit of an anomaly — I don’t think this would be a disappointment.

But in a couple cases, I really, really wish they had gone with seasoned Broadway actors over A-list Hollywood. The main example is Russell Crowe as Javert. Don’t get me wrong, Russell Crowe is a fine actor, but he didn’t do anything acting-wise with the character that a stage actor couldn’t have done, and the singing was just not up to par with what the role requires. Here’s the thing with Javert. His character has this huge presence, both in the show and in Valjean’s life. He carries this tremendous weight of responsibility everywhere he goes, and his songs are meant to convey that. So it’s actually important to the character that he has a strong, solid baritone voice. Having to strain for the notes, or struggle for breath, weakens the character. It’s not just about how it sounds on the recording; I feel the character of Javert was done a disservice by having anyone less than a professional singer try to pull it off. Compare, for example, Russell Crowe singing “Stars” to Philip Quast (who many consider the definitive Javert) on the same song, and notice how much more gravity Quast’s version has. And as Javert is normally my favorite role in Les Mis, and has my favorite songs, having to hear Crowe sing out-of-breath and through his nose was…a disappointment.

And then there was Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, who had the look and the range, but not the support. I’m not sure if hers was a problem of casting, or just a casualty of the decision to film all the singing live. I think she would be highly benefited from a studio recording and some heavy filters. She also had kind of a Snow White vibrato, which can get grating after a bit. But this didn’t bother me as much, because honestly, Cosette isn’t anyone’s favorite character.

loved Samantha Barks’ Eponine and Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras. These are both Broadway actors who were cast in principal supporting roles, and both were amazing. I thought they may have actually been holding back a bit so as not to stick out compared to the Hollywood actors, but any time either of them opened their mouths, I was transfixed. Enjolras is my second-favorite Les Mis character, and Tveit seriously broke my heart with his conviction. Actually, all the scenes with the students made me have ALL THE FEELINGS. Probably because the students were, again, cast with stage actors instead of movie actors.

Let’s talk for a moment about Anne Hathaway. She is the huge, glaring exception to the “they should have cast singers” feel I have about this. Because she was amazing. And really, she sang her songs beautifully. She’s on screen for maybe 15 minutes, but they were the 15 minutes that stole the film. She did Fantine’s signature song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” (which you may remember from the trailer) in one take, in extreme close-up, and it’s phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it on film, or stage, and she deserves every award she’s nominated for. Heck, they should dream up some new awards and give them to her, just so she can have more awards. She’s that good.

Okay, getting off casting, let’s talk about the production. It’s gorgeous, in the way that “gorgeous” can sometimes mean “disgusting.” I mean, Les Misérables is very appropriately titled. Most of the characters are, indeed, miserable. So there are some truly terrible settings: the shipyard where Valjean is incarcerated, the Thénardiers’ run-down inn, the docks teeming with bottom-dollar prostitutes, the sewers, the bloody barricade. So while some places, like the church where Valjean gets his second chance, or the garden where Cosette meets Marius, are objectively beautiful settings, most of the film is in a much grittier world. But the grit is so artistic and real that it’s also beautiful.

And as far as the emotion and the story-telling, Les Mis succeeded. Beyond succeeded. It really told this amazing story, spanning both cities and decades, wonderfully well. It broke my heart again and again and again (which is what I was expecting — this is not exactly a “pick-me-up” kind of show). I started crying at the first scene between Valjean and the Bishop (probably less than 15 minutes into the movie) and did not stop until the end.

They changed some things from the stage show. Some songs were cut entirely, nearly every song was truncated in some way and much of the transitional music was eliminated (it was done well, though, and unless you have the show memorized, you won’t notice). The order of a couple songs was changed around, and at the end, they eliminated a character from the final song (it works). But it all worked for the film, and the story, and even as a musical purist, I didn’t have any problems with it.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this movie to both lifelong fans of the story or musical, or those who are new to it. It’s amazing. Yes, you have to overlook some “meh” singing, but really that turns out to be a little thing in the overall scope of the film. If you’ve been on the fence about this one, go see it. You’ll be glad you did.

Throwback Thursday (December 6) – Les Miserables

Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books.

It’s the nature of book blogging to focus mainly on new releases, but there are thousands of great books out there that haven’t seen the “New Releases” shelf in years. We hope to be able to bring attention to some older titles that may not be at the top of the current bestseller list, but still deserve a spot in your To-Be-Read pile.

You don’t have to be a book blogger to participate! You can put up a Throwback Thursday post on your non-bookish blog; or if you don’t have a blog at all, just use the comments to tell us about a book you remember fondly.


And NOW! We’re expanding! Throwback Thursday is no longer limited to just books! Throwback Thursday is dedicated to shining the spotlight on any book-related old favorites that need to be remembered.What’s your favorite classic television show or movie adaptation? What about your favorite song? Was your favorite toy a character from a book?

Here’s how it works:

  • Pick any media (or non-media item) released more than 5 years ago. Remember to keep it book-related!
  • Write up a short summary (include the title, author, and cover art, if applicable) and an explanation of why you love it. Make sure to link back to The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books in your post.
  • Link up your post at The Housework Can Wait or Never Too Fond of Books.
  • Visit as many blogs as you can, reminisce about books you loved, and discover some “new” books for your TBR list – or some other classic!

Feel free to grab the Throwback Thursday button code from the sidebar to use in your posts.

Thanks for participating, and we look forward to seeing which books you choose to remember!

My Throwback this week is…

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

I love this story. It’s beautiful and epic and inspiring and so, so sad. It is the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict recently released after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon realizing he will never be able to build a new life for himself when he’s forced to show all potential employers his yellow ticket marking him as a felon, he breaks his parole. Flash forward a few years, he’s built a new life for himself. Unfortunately, others aren’t so lucky, and after Fantine is dismissed from one of his factories, she becomes desperate to provide for her child, Cosette, turning eventually to prostitution. When she is on her deathbed, Valjean promises to care for Cosette, as he feels responsible for what happened to her. He raises Cosette as his own, and when she grows up, she falls in love with passionate young student Marius on the eve of the Paris Uprising. As Marius attempts to choose between love and duty, Valjean realizes that Javert — the Inspector who has been hunting him since he broke his parole — has found him, and he is faced with a decision: Should he take Cosette and run, or should he stand his ground and finally face the ghosts of his past?

I KNOW. THIS STORY IS AMAZING. And yes, it is 150-year-old French literature, so it’s a bit hefty and doesn’t exactly fly by. But it’s worth muddling through.

AND NOW! Since we are changing Throwback Thursday to include other media inspired by books, I’ll also call attention to the musical, because it is fabulous and my favorite stage show of all time. I’ve seen it live five times and yes, I am BESIDE MYSELF with anticipation for the movie. (There was another movie, but I can’t recommend that one because although it follows the book pretty well, it ends WAY too early). But I haven’t seen the 2012 movie yet, so I can’t yet give it my shining stamp of approval, but I HAVE seen the stage show (five times, remember?) and can tell you that it is worth seeing. You will cry and be astounded.

(P.S. You don’t have to highlight the book and the movie/show/musical/play/whatever in the same post. I’m just doing it because I feel like it.)

Here, have a song.

Oh, also, Colm Wilkinson who plays Valjean in that video — and originated the role in London and New York — plays the bishop in the 2012 movie. How awesome is that?

This is a blog hop! Link up your Throwback Thursday post below!

Discussion: Rooting for the Bad Guy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about villains, and what makes a great one. And although I put a picture of good ol’ Voldy up here, I actually am of the opinion that if the Harry Potter series has a shortcoming (GASP!), it is in the characterization of Voldemort (don’t worry, I will still take Harry Potter’s shortcomings over most other series’ strengths any day). And this is because he spends over half the series as just Super Evil Supervillain Who is Evil for the Sake of Being Evil.

Later on, he got some back story, but it was never really enough to make me feel him as a character. He was simply a foil for Harry (and, you know, the rest of humanity), because having a mega-evil über-wizard as Harry’s nemesis made for some awesome story lines.

So. If Voldemort is not the epitome of all villains, who is?

I’m pretty sure you are not going to be able to predict my answer here. Please bear with me.

Yup, my favorite villain of all time is Inspector Javert from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, seen the movies, or heard the music. Because the reason I love him can translate to something you are familiar with.

Basically, Javert is a police officer who spends the entire story attempting to hunt down an escaped convict and return him to prison. He also tries to serve his country by infiltrating a renegade group of students who are fanning the flames of rebellion among the citizens of France.

And he’s the bad guy.

The reason he’s my favorite is because he’s so well developed, that if Victor Hugo had decided to write a Les Misérables companion novel from Javert’s POV, he could have easily become the protagonist. His motivations are solid, and he honestly believes he is doing the right thing throughout the entirety of the story by thwarting our heroes at every turn. He is the hero in his own story.

Switching from the book to the musical for a minute (which is absolutely not completely accurate to the book, but which I love and have seen live five times, and am immensely excited for the movie), Javert also sings my favorite song in the show. If you didn’t know anything about the story and just heard this song, you could believe that this is a hero’s anthem.

So stepping away from 19th century French literature for a moment, how does this apply to modern villains? To Voldemort and Umbridge, President Snow and Cato, Victoria and the Volturi?

I think there’s a few things that set a great villain apart from a decent villain.

Decent: Has a well-developed origin/back story.

Great: Has a well-developed,  somewhat sympathetic (not necessarily entirely, but at least partially sympathetic) origin/back story.

Decent: Has his/her own reasons for wanting to thwart the hero other than because they are supposed to.

Great: Has his/her own compelling and understandable reasons for wanting to thwart the hero. Note: These do not have to be sane reasons. Some of the best villains are complete loons with no moral center. But even with the craziest villains, we should be able to follow their reasoning, even if we don’t agree with it.

Decent: Is dark and scary and kind of a caricature.

Great: Is dark and scary and real.

Decent: Thinks he/she is the hero of his/her own story.

Great: If the story was told through his/her eyes, we could easily be convinced that he/she is the hero of the story, and that the hero is the villain.

So who are some great villains? Well, none of the ones I listed above, sadly. But here are some I do think are great, taken from movies, TV, and books.

Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

This would be a great example of the character being completely crazy. I don’t think he could ever convince any of us that his disturbing cannibalistic fashion statements were based on sane brain function. But even though he is certifiably nuts, he has a way of always making twisted, shiver-inducing sense. And that, to me, is the scariest part of his story.

Detective Jimmy ShakerRansom.

This isn’t the greatest movie ever, by any means, but I always thought Gary Sinise’s Detective Shaker was an amazingly nuanced and well-developed villain. If you haven’t seen this 1996 flick, I’d recommend it for Shaker alone.

Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

He was never a pure villain or a pure hero. Even when his mission in life was to kill our favorite sassy slayer, it was hard not to root for him. And even when he was trying to turn it around, you could sense the darkness just beneath the surface. Spike is one of my favorite characters of all time, in any medium, because of all these layers.

BoromirThe Fellowship of the Ring.

I have now officially seen the movie so many times that I can’t view Boromir objectively anymore — I can’t see any part of his slow succumbing to the ring without thinking of everything that follows — but I remember hating Boromir the first time I read Fellowship. But at the same time, it was so believable watching this gradual descent from a celebrated hero into a bitter man under the ring’s control. Speaking of which…

Gollum, The Return of the King

Granted, Gollum spends the entire Hobbit/Lord of the Rings series being villainous, but he reaches his most evil — and most sympathetic — in Return of the King. No matter how many times he deceived and sabotaged Frodo, I couldn’t help but feel my heart break for him just a little.

Severus SnapeHarry Potter.

Yes, I know that Snape’s status as a villain is up for serious debate, but I would argue that anyone who makes our hero that miserable for that long can be considered a villain, at least during the time the misery is occurring. But the fact that whether or not he even is a villain, despite the misery, is a testament to how well-developed his character is. Voldemort and Umbridge may not be on my list, but J.K. more than made up for it with Snape.

Darth VaderStar Wars.

I almost forgot one of my favorite nuanced villains, Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader. Ignoring for a second how terrible the prequels were (I used to think their one saving grace was the fight sequences, then I saw this, and now…), he totally embodies my theory that the best villains could actually be the hero if the story was told from their point of view. Anakin is the protagonist of the (awful) Episodes I-III and the villain of the (awesome) Episodes IV-VI. And that is kind of amazing.

Note: A story does not have to have an awesome villain to be successful. Lots of stories aren’t about a sentient antagonist, but are instead about heroes overcoming some other sort of conflict, and those stories can be just as good, if not better, than stories featuring intelligent, nuanced villains.

But if the foil to the hero is The Bad Guy, then I’d certainly hope the bad guy has a good reason for doing what he’s doing.

What do you think? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why do you love to hate them (or hate to love them)?

Starting out

I’ve loved to read ever since I could read.

In elementary school, I devoured series like The Boxcar Children and The Baby-sitters Club.

In middle school, I ventured into the world of science fiction with Michael Crichton.

In high school, I dabbled in a variety of genres, from classic literature like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre and Lord of the Rings, to the legal thrillers of John Grisham, to the sweet and semi-sappy romances of Maeve Binchy.

The only limitation I put on myself was that I didn’t want to read anything that was actually written for kids my age. I viewed Young Adult Fiction with distain. I thought the only people who read it were kids who didn’t know any better. I was Above It All.

Then in college, a friend gave me a book for my birthday. It was a gag gift, since it was a series I had made fun of for years (and it wasn’t even the first book in the series). He knew if I owned it, I’d have to read it.

The book was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I read it.

I loved it.

Fast-forward to over a decade later. I now read what I want. Sometimes it’s books about teenagers, written for teenagers. Sometimes it’s books written for adults about housewives, detectives, spies, reporters, librarians. If it sounds interesting, I’ll read it.

I finally realized that it’s not “mature” to look down my nose at a book simply because of its intended audience. Likewise, I was not winning any brownie points in life by only reading books written for adults (and let’s face it, there’s just as much — if not more — garbage out there targeted at adults as there is for kids).

This year – 2012 – I decided to start writing down my thoughts about the books I read. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I always end each book I read with my head swimming with thoughts, and often no one to share them with. So I’ll share them with you (whoever you are).

You may not agree with me. That’s fine. I don’t agree with anyone on books (or most other things) 100% of the time either.

So here we go.