Rut Out of Rain: “Les Misérables”

Pic 117

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) didn’t want his sister’s child (no, sorry: son) to starve, so he stole a loaf (no, sorry: mouthful) of bread and — as a result — did four (no, sorry: 19) years in prison before escaping (no, sorry: being paroled) into a French society that traps its citizens between diametric systems of industry, religion, law and idealism, with only slivers spared for love. Somewhere in between, Anne Hathaway dies.

Let’s be honest: Les Misérables is a spectacular failure, failing to various degrees as spectacle, as drama, and as a musical.

It’s best as the first one, shot, wide-angle, in Parisian alleyways and small town factories and seaside brothels — designed and lit beautifully, and wily and cinematographic, as director Tom Hooper usually is, though there are handfuls of slopping editing, which choke already-breathless sequences; and the often-swooping camera, meant to mimic a celestial sense of adoration, too often strands the actors before it, leaving them bleating to the sky.

It fares much worse as drama: to be built on music, Les Mis doesn’t much value stillness — a shame, because the film is adapted from a musical which grew out of a concept album which is based on Victor Hugo’s socially uproarious 19th-century novel and because, as such, there’s plenty of room for honest (and honestly good, and goodly honest) kitchen-sink-and-all storytelling.

A kitchen sink is about the only thing missing from this, which has been overseen by the production’s original producer and creative triumvirate, in tandem with Hooper and writer William Nicholson. There’s just about room for everything else — whores and their children; prisoners and their dependents; innkeepers and their duplicities; outrage; eruption; revolution; sin; saintliness; God.

Room, rhyme even, but not reason. Hugo’s text has its place, and its power. As a movie, Les Misérables strains at the seams with the burden of catching up to the stage show, already out of breath trying to catch up to him. Its passions (depressions, despairs) should erupt, making harmony from humanistic cacophony. But everything swirls together. (So many French names! So many leitmotifs!) Red and black? Try gray.

By my count, there are more than 20 distinct numbers in Les Misérables. Maybe half of them hold their weight; a third are good. I’d blame lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, except he’s only a facile writer, with a love of soft-focus, Platonic metaphors and hymnal syntax — and not a terrible one; and I’d blame composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, whose score is brassy and stringed and too pat by half, except that that prettiness has hooks within its shallow depths. Their collaboration is a fine thing, negligible if not for its weight, but it props up a clankerous, many-pieced production, prone to whirligig ridiculousness about — of all things — a failed student revolution. Why, in multiple key moments, have multi-part harmonies where a third voice intrudes, singing exposition that strains toward poetry? Why not.

Want to know the worst part about Les Misérables? When it isn’t failing, which it isn’t doing for only a bit of a nearly three hour running time, it almost floats. For this act of levitation, I credit Hooper and Nicholson, musical newbies both, for sorting out and making temporal-spatial-cognitive sense of all that happens to everyone in the course of the story (no small thing, really: I’ve seen productions that leave half the audience stranded by intermission). The narrative still edges toward pageantry, but at least it’s followable — a key thing, really, because it allows you to plug right into its best performances, which are nearly great.

Much has been made of Hathaway’s spin on Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” and much more will follow: she collapses each line into a thunderclap of emotion, and follows through on each of the song’s suggestions, including its righteousness. The performance, done mostly in one take, will probably win her an Oscar.

If I were in a generous mood, though, why not cut that Oscar up and spread it out among other standout moments, including Samantha Barks’ rain-on-my-cheeks “On My Own,” Jackman’s crucial act one soliloquy, which cracks open with Baptismal rage, and the tingly-stupid chemistry between Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, as two twentysomethings who learn the real secret of French happiness: not freedom, man. Love.

More Likely to Get Cut: “Skyfall”

James Bond is old. Bond is old. There are streaks of grey in his whiskers (Daniel Craig looks like he dipped his chin in silver) and a credits-ending announcement proudly celebrating “50 years.” So you’d be forgiven for thinking, when Bond’s body first appears before the camera in jackknife silhouette, that this latest entry would be necessarily rusty, too. Which it is and it is not: any hint of real rust is purely theoretic. Bond, this Bond, our Bond (which Craig is and is not; he’s always been a better spy than the series deserves) still Bonds: bullets, women, whiskey-colored alcohol — the whole thing. But Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes from a screenplay written en troika, has a tendency to move in oblique ellipticals. That’s fair, to a point: everything comes back to something else. But it has the unfortunate side-effect of making the film interesting only by degrees. Too often, Skyfall seems like the working out of a problem: What next?

The answer is death. Bond’s (maybe), in singularity, but also of a way of life, en extremis: the murder of belief, or at least of the past which held it. There is a gathering gloom between the joints of the film’s sequences of a sort that creases foreheads and knits eyebrows. A lot of British spies (Craig’s, but also Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris) spend a lot of time looking worried, harried and hounded. Skyfall isn’t a chase film, but it feels haunted nonetheless, by a featureless existentialism. Have I lost you yet? If not, you may make it through this 150-minute narrative with adrenal glands more-or-less intact. But if you waver, you waver, I think, wisely: after four years away from theaters, following the cramped and ornery Quantum of Solace, the Bond series is richer, or more jagged, than its creative output had foreshadowed. But it’s less likeable — gorgeous (during a high-rise fist fight in one scene, or at an Eastern bar in another) but remote.

So anyway: Bond dies (or not), returns (or does he?) and works with Dench’s M, the stooped headmistress of Britain’s MI6. For a while, they chase after the loss of a crucial intelligence document, lost before the start of the film in a seamless and ridiculous McGuffin. Later, they do battle. But against who?

There’s a lot of plot to Skyfall, and a lot of tense shoulders. Dench is at the forefront, like never before in the series, but she does a lot of the same thing instead of many different things, one after the other. This is either by design or folly, but the performance limits the psychological scope of the narrative; and the narrative, by turn, lacks edge.

Is it worth seeing? Bloody hell, yes. Stick with Skyfall; I never warmed up to it, not quite, but I got hooked on its tin-flinty themes and on its insistence on linking Craig and Dench in a quasi-mythical charade.

Beyond all of that, of course, is this: Javier Bardem, as the film’s fanged boy wonder, its malevolent pack of dogs (he’s the one doing the hounding) and the centerpiece of the movie’s standout scene, which rests on the one-two punch of strong writing and queasy misdirection. (What is he saying and why is he doing?) It isn’t great, or doesn’t seem that way on first viewing. But it eats at you.

On a re-read, I realize that all sounds like abstraction. Well there it is.

Heart Made of Parts: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

It’s weird, realizing that watching The Amazing Spider-Man takes almost three hours because a lot of things take three hours — a week’s worth of cardio; a soufflé; Titanic — and most of those things have very little in common with Marc Webb’s tremulous, woobie-wonder reboot. (A woobie, for the uninitiated, is also known as an Andrew Garfield.)

Boy has parents who leave, then die. Boy grows up, gets bitten. Gets powerful. Boy angsts.

The film, much like its hero Peter Parker (that’d be Garfield, beneath a storm of hair), is capable of both outsized dramatic gawk and small epiphanies, and Webb enjoys himself while rolling through the origin story (it’s a reboot after Sam Raimi’s five-year-old trilogy, but also one that actually goes back to the beginning, Batman Begins-style). But his determination to bend the Marvel material to his own inclinations — less superheroic than super-adolescent — has its own casualties. The structure is a patchwork that keeps slamming audiences into small climaxes that never, themselves, quite climax. Perspective is flipped inside-out: Webb projects every moment through the prism of Garfield’s adolescence.

It’s smart filmmaking, because Garfield is a fleet, emotive charmer and because fleet, emotive charms can sustain pretty much any movie, for any length. But his front-and-self-centeredness hasn’t been built into a strong storytelling strategy: every emotional obstacle is actually just one emotional obstacle (Peter feels fatherless and abandoned, didn’t you hear?) that The Amazing Spider-Man keeps ramming back into, without new nuance or fresh developments.

Or put another way: count the number of on-screen adult males at the beginning of the movie. Count them again at the end. The difference is the film: one note distended to fill a symphony.

Are there villians? Sure. And Garfield battles them, in-between a romance with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. Is there spandex?  Sure. And Garfield wears it, when he isn’t agonizing over his place in the city as, y’know, a teenager and citizen and, yes also, a superhero.

But is Peter agonizing, really? Garfield strikes a posture of agro-angst but his journey is done in comic-book bright letters. And Webb, as he proves on the heels of (500) Days of Summer, is more clever than he is incisive; quick with empathy — everything is feelings all the time — but little else. He presses forward heart-first.

All around this is an actual, panel-to-screen story, with blocks of acrobatic city destruction and speeches about the moral obligation of citizenry — not to mention Stone, curt and pop-eyed vulnerable, who plays an effervescent romantic duet with Garfield.

The Amazing Spider-Man is a slim, attendant film about adolescence.

Too bad that it’s also about superheroes.

This Tornado Loves You: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Wes Anderson is showing off a new kind of Wes Anderson in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom — an Andersonian model of Anderson-ness that’s been both updated and revamped. There are many wheels spinning in his latest movie; few of them spin for no reason.

There is an island, first. Or, rather, first there is Bob Balaban, carrying on here in a voiceover tradition that has also included Alec Baldwin. We, he tells us, are on New Penzance Island. It is 1965. A storm approaches “in three days’ time.”

The islanders scramble in the calm, including: a troupe of khaki scouts, so-named for their beige hegemony, led by Edward Norton; a pair of maligned lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and their four children, led by the eldest, Suzy (Kara Hayward), whose favorite movie, I suspect, is all of Gwyneth Paltrow’s scenes from The Royal Tenenbaums.

There’s a policeman (Bruce Willis), who seems sad, a woman in blue (Tilda Swinton) who doesn’t seem to have a name and khaki’d scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) who is sad, angry and deeply strange.

He’s also — and this is the film’s biggest, broadest mistake, and also its central hinge — a solipsistic romantic who turns every wounded-ego overture into the signs of a fragile emotional interior.

I didn’t buy it, and I’m not sure most audiences will either. Unlike Suzy, who runs away with him at the film’s beginning, kicking off a days-long search that steers the plot, Sam is featureless in his angst: an old-Anderson ideal. It’s a shame, because new-Anderson sustains the major majority of Moonrise Kingdom with a gorgeous sense of Romantic (capital-r) comedy. His characters — all sketches done with a steady hand so that they shade around the edges, suggesting depth without revealing it — woo and wound each other around an idyllic illogicality: the older you get, the harder it is to find and fall in love.

Writing with Roman Coppola, as he did last with The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson has tapped into a peacefully jarring version of how peace can jar un-peaceful people. He still shoots in rigid perpendiculars, as if the world were a dollhouse that was missing its fourth wall, but there’s more flexibility, more sweetness here, than in anything he’s done before. That buoys his humor, all sight gags and ironic improbability, and gives him new emotional headroom. Suzy and Sam are in love, a ridiculousness which so doesn’t stand much scrutiny that Anderson sugarcoats it, but theirs are not the only spirits of romance and whimsy. Even in the face of gathering blackness and rising floodwaters (remember the coming storm) Moonrise Kingdom is too chipper to cop to ennui. It’s irascibly sentimental.

There are few strands of the Anderson-Coppola partnership that made the freeze-dried The Darjeeling Limited, an international farce so heartless-hollow it echoed. This is more the Anderson who made the fantastic Fantastic Mr. Fox, though this lacks that film’s outrageous detailing, and it is miles away from the Anderson of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Moonrise Kingdom isn’t great, as those were, but it’s also not quite so chilly-hip. There are fewer quirked eyebrows but there is more open laughter and open sadness: orphans get what they want and what they need. The sky breaks open — but in the downpour, no one drowns.

Up All Night: “Magic Mike”

Magic Mike is the best Steven Soderbergh of the last three years. Channing Tatum’s, too.

Also strippers.

Tatum’s Michael Lane is a man on a mission: he dabbles in several businesses, hustling to keep them each afloat. At night, he takes his clothes off. His audience covers him in money. Behind and around him is a six-man male dance revue (the group’s name rhymes with “Block-rocking Kings of Tampa”).

Strip, repeat.

But the film — a candy-colored carnival of partial nudity and drug use and clothes in various states of un-clothing — is less magical than the title would imply; its perspective is offset by a clever, side-eyed pseudo-pornographic banality. That’s because Soderbergh, working from Reid Carolin’s script, approaches the material as a realist, not a hedonist. He shows off the pounds of flesh — both actual and metaphoric. That aforementioned candy coloring, which coats the on-stage routines, is balanced against the sickly-yellow slathering of every before-sunset scene.

Mike, it turns out, is only getting older. The woman he’s sort of seeing (the tart Olivia Munn) has no desire to see him anywhere with clothes on. And the promise of new business endeavors, and eventual respectability and stability, are starting to seem more like dreams.

That’s the up-and-down of it: a fable staged as fantasy. There’s a sour lining of morality wrapping around the dreamboat sweetness of Magic Mike — but that gives no credit to the film’s crafty dramatic multiplicity: at a construction job early on, 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) catches Mike’s eye. Makes sense: Adam is Mike, pre-Mike, and he’s a charmingly scruffy lout. (Soderbergh stages his first substantial scene with vicious portent.) Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the club’s owner-emcee, is Mike post-Mike, and he’s an oily, loutish charmer.

And then there is Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), who does little more in each scene than observe. She’s the film’s moral center, and its real romantic lead — but her reticence comes off as prudish, thanks to Soderbergh’s shrewdness. After all, who’s worried about sin when you can have skin?

Give it time: the second-half of Magic Mike is full of bad drug trips and drug deals and business deals. But the tempo never rises above shrug-in-cheek, scored — like Soderbergh’s 2009 The Girlfriend Experience — to an economy of detachment that feels both bracing and moralistic. We’re seduced and then shamed by the seams of the seduction.

Whatever: all of this is excepting the film’s grinding choreography and rhythm.

And all of this, together with that, makes the silly-serious Magic Mike the movie of the summer so far.

Come From Nothing: “Prometheus”

It spoils nothing to say that Prometheus is mostly about itself.

It’s about other things, of course, like the philosophical dimensions of existentialism and the chicness of sleek blond haircuts, but Ridley Scott’s gorgeous, metaphysically malevolent Alien-y not-Alien epic is mostly, yes, about mysteries and mythologies of its own devising. The film is both alpha and omega, creating a universe of navels and then filling it with navel gazers.

We begin at The Beginning. Or something. A milk-white figure, proportioned like a body builder, stands on a high ledge watching the sky. There is a ship there. It leaves. The figure takes a drink. He falls.

We continue in The Future, in the mountains and then aboard the titular, trillion-dollar spaceship. A team of scientists, led by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, think they’ve found a map of the stars leading them to a moon that might, maybe, they hope (with, at least in one case, crosses clutched) hold the home of their makers, the Engineers.

The space-bound team lands, awoken under the care of the android David (Michael Fassbender) who has spent his solitary years in flight watching — and re-watching — and re-watching — Lawrence of Arabia. He wears Peter O’Toole’s slick shag; he quotes Lawrence’s aphorisms like received wisdom. Surveying the arid land the ship lands into on that distant moon, he observes: “There is nothing in the desert. And no man needs nothing.” This is not mere pop playfulness.

Prometheus is little more than two hours long. The set-up takes more than a quarter of that. So make no mistake: Scott, directing a script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, is building a world here, peopled with myths and their multiple interpretations and myth-readers and their multiple dissidents, instead of a movie. His is the providence of creation — not fear. And he pushes the audience forward with the dreadful promise of exploration.

But we’ve come to be scared, of course, and Scott is not afraid to be scary: the narrative’s skeleton is hung around a large round temple facing the docked Prometheus which is full of tunnels that are not empty. This allows for both shocks and surprises and, as with films either alien, Alien or Alien-ish, the inviolate violation of the body. Tentacles, after all, are most terrifying when they’re inside you.

More terrors await beside, besides the physical. The scientists find some answers and find still more to find. For this, I’d credit Lindelof, who significantly re-drafted Spaihts’ original script. Two years out from his six-season ABC serial Lost and Lindelof’s strength remains his dramatic rhythm — he is an avid lover of Chekhovian portent. If Prometheus can occasionally feel too much like a long-form TV show (its chunks are easily digestible in 43-minute bites), it also feels like a wily piece of starry-eyed storytelling that is most pleasurable for the way it sets-up Genre Talking Points (the origin of Humanity and humanity) and then pursues them with savvy, the narrative like a hook. Big momentum pushes smaller moments forward; existential themes shade with emotion. And characters like David blossom as tricky true believers. He’s soulless and soulful, all at the same time

Much has been made of the film’s connection to Scott’s 1979 horrific sci-fi cornerstone. Prometheus is every bit Alien’s aesthetic equal — designed, whole-cloth, with an eye for the astounding power of dimension. (The size of things, both big and small, are especially important.) And it has more more talented actors giving strong performances at once: Rapace may be a Sigourney Weaver stand-in, but she doesn’t repeat Weaver’s narrative superiority. Fassbender, Marshall-Green and Charlize Theron (as the tightly-bunned manager Meredith Vickers) rise up around her in support. The result is a welcome equanimity.

“There is only death here,” one character says, thick in the middle of terror. But there are wonders in Prometheus, too. Given a franchise to work with, Scott and Lindelof might show us more.

To the Rubble: “Battleship”

I like Battleship — really, I do. And my weakness for it is only partially, really really, a weakness for the whiff-of-melancholic charms of lead Taylor Kitsch and not at all, really really really, a weakness for the nuts-and-bolts-and-steel structure of the film, with its spangled panache, which is really not that weak at all.

The thing, about a small group of destroyers (no, not battleships; the distinction is a crucial contrivance) waylaid by alien technology and forced to battle for a sort-of square mile of naval supremacy, is all about the tons of tons of ordinance and hoarse-voiced orders and CGI-approved extra- and terrestrial destruction. But the thing, this 131 minute-long movie overseen by director Peter Berg from a script by Jon & Erich Hoeber, is light when it has no incentive to be. Rapaciously so: Berg never met a slowed-down or sped-up or slam-smash shot sequence he didn’t love and want to replicate. But in the years since the Earthbound Hancock — a film too plagued by its big-brain metaphysical nonsense — Berg’s gained a healthy sliver of self-awareness to go with his tent-pole ambitions. With this, the first of a failed series of films based on board games, he honors Battleship’s grid-based origins. Honors, yes, and alters, adds on to and improves beyond.

And in this, a certified specimen of three-act classicism, is everything that something like the later Transformers sequels should have done right: there is spectacle, too much almost definitely, all strung together along coherent narrative lines and all jumbled in the name of dramatic variety and not incoherency. The difference between Berg and Bay is the minute difference between a foible and a folly. See Battleship, with its billowing fracases of bloodless carnage, buttressed by sentiment-swelling, teeth-gnashing conservatism and based on the story on one man who finds his purpose in service of, of all things, America — and then see Transformers 2, 3, or 7, which have none of any of that. You decide which is which.