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Cinema trifecta: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, The Impossible

by Mark Burger

The expansive screen adaptation of Les Miserables , is a grand musical in the great Hollywood tradition. Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, director Tom Hooper has done an admirable job in translating the story from the stage to the screen, augmented by glorious production design and period detail — yet never dwarfing its characters.

Hugh Jackman plays the former convict Jean Valjean, attempting to make amends for his past transgressions by doing good in life, a situation complicated not only by growing political unrest but also the presence of the fanatical Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who is obsessed with bringing Valjean to justice.

The appropriately impassioned cast includes Anne Hathaway as the tragic Fantine, Amanda Seyfried as her daughter Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as the young anarchist Marius and newcomer Elizabeth Barks as Eponine, who loves Marius although he loves only Cosette. Adding grimy comic relief are Helena Bonham Carter (in Sweeney Todd mode) and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenardiers, who are both grubby and moneygrubbing. Every character has a Big Moment (some have more than one), and many are true show-stoppers. That the actors do their own singing live is a potentially risky venture that pays handsome dividends.

It’s fascinating to observe how Hooper balances the epic grandeur with the more intimate emotions of the characters. Both Victor Hugo’s original novel and Cameron Mackintosh’s Broadway production run the gamut: love, loss, guilt, obsession, despair, sacrifice. Les Miserables retains (and celebrates) the essence of both the novel and the stage production while also fashioning its own individual identity.

Musicals tend to run an inherent risk of veering into high camp (which is acceptable) or low dirge (which is not), but Les Miserables hits the high notes and stays in tune throughout. It’s powerful and passionate — just what it should be. From misery comes magnificence.

Django Unchained , is Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the spaghetti Westerns that inspired and informed him. Borrowing only the title character’s name and theme song from a 1966 favorite that starred Franco Nero, this is very bloody, very funny and too bloody long. It’s as if Tarantino had to pack every in-joke and reference into its 165-minute(!) running time. (His legion of fans will undoubtedly be delighted to know that he essentially does.)

At heart, however, this is a simple tale of revenge, although duly (over)dressed by Tarantino and Co. Jamie Foxx plays the title role, here a former slave who teams with bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to locate his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who has been sold into slavery elsewhere. Dr. Schultz schools Django in his trade while Django bides his time waiting for the moment to strike and reclaim his wife.

Foxx acquits himself well as a strong, silent type in the Clint Eastwood mold, although he tends to be overshadowed by Leonardo DiCaprio (silky and sadistic as a plantation owner), Samuel L. Jackson (as DiCaprio’s right-hand slave, as it were) and Waltz, all of whom have showier and more loquacious roles.

As might be expected, Tarantino has packed even the smallest roles with familiar faces and cult icons, including James Remar (in two roles, no less), James Russo, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Dennis Christopher, Walton Goggins, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn and real-life daughter Amber, Robert Carradine, Tom Wopat, Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill and the former Django himself, Nero (in a funny cameo). In some cases, it barely registers who’s onscreen before they exit the proceedings — immediately and violently.

Not unlike Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2008), which was likewise too long, the story allows a wide berth for dramatic (and darkly comedic) license. Those looking for a more realistic portrayal of the pre-Civil War American slave trade might well be advised to look elsewhere; the name of the game in Django Unchained is action — and plenty of it. In terms of giving the audience more bang for its buck, Tarantino gives the audience much more… and then a bit more.

The Impossible , is a harrowing and heart-rending drama set against the backdrop of the horrific 2004 tsunami that decimated the coast of Southeast Asia. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, a couple whose holiday vacation with their three sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) becomes a battle for survival.

When the tsunami unexpectedly hits — in a sequence of breathtaking intensity — the family is scattered by the deluge. Maria and oldest son Lucas (the terrific Holland) are swept in one direction, not knowing (until much later) whether Henry and the other two boys are even alive. Thus begins an arduous, seemingly impossible journey for one half of the family to find the other.

It would take a filmmaker of considerable incompetence to muff so powerful and potent a story, especially one based in fact, but director Juan Antonio Bayona (of The Orphanage renown) never falters in keeping the narrative on target and the focus on the human element of the story.

This is one film in which the special effects could have easily held sway, but amidst the chaos and catastrophe depicted, the human spirit cannot be quelled. That’s the heartening, hopeful message of The Impossible. It’s not a “family film” in the accepted sense of the term, yet it does celebrate the heroism of an average, ordinary family caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

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