Review: Les Miserables

I saw the Les Miserables movie today.  It was awesome. They did an awesome job of being faithful to the musical.  That said, especially near the beginning, the singing and integration of the music wasn't awesome.  (I've used the word awesome three times already in this post.  I am going to try to use it less now.)

Like with Sweeney Todd, I think the most major roles in Les Miserables went to the actors who got them less because they're the best actors for the role, and more because they're the most famous actors who kind of fit.  (Well, with Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp didn't fit at all.  And if you make allowances for that, did a great job.)

Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both had a rocky start in the roles.  Jackman did a much better job as Valjean as soon as he was allowed to shave -- he plays 'kind soul with a dark past' better than 'haggard vagrant crushed by the injustice of the world'.  Russell Crowe did not grow so well into the role.  Still, he was only distractingly bad near the beginning -- I got used to it.

Thenardier and his wife were fantastic.  (Sacha Baron Cohen must really like playing criminals in musicals.  Or maybe he just really likes musicals, and nobody will cast him as anything else.)

Gavroche was brilliant, too.

I won't say any more, lest I spoil, except to point out that I cried, a lot.  If your heart has turned to stone and you need a film to reach inside you and move something, go see Les Miserables.

Review and Commentary: Wreck-It Ralph

Quick review:  nearly everything about this movie is awesome.  It's fun, light, emotional rollercoster, life-affirming, optimistic and morally complex.  There are some elements that are problematic, and I'll get to that.  But I want to start by talking about the stuff I love.  Spoilers starting out below the fold.

From a writer's perspective, Wreck-It Ralph is incredible.  Every beat of the movie, every sudden dramatic moment, is perfectly set up by the characters and their setting.  The best things about Ralph -- his optimism, aspiration, and  good nature -- cause his biggest problems -- nearly getting his game shut off, destroying Vannelope's car.  And the reveal at the end, that King Candy was Turbo, came out of nowhere, and made absolute sense.  (I had thought it was just going to turn out that King Candy wanted to race, but had been programmed as an NPC.)

From an emotional perspective, this movie had me in tears more than once, for more than one reason.  If I had been watching it at home, I probably would have paused to finish weeping before getting back to the movie -- for that reason, I recommend seeing it in the theater, where you'll be forced to get the whole experience all at once.  It's worth it.

Moving on to the problematic stuff:

Wreck-It Ralph passes the Bechdel Test:  the other Sugar Racers, predominantly female, talk to Vannelope about whether she can race, and Vannelope and Calhoun are both strong women.  But for the most part, women are not represented well.  All the characters with aspirations beyond their programming are male -- Ralph wants to be accepted by the community of his game, Felix wants to impress Calhoun.  She, by the way, has the darkest backstory, like, ever, which (a.) illuminates her motivation as being down to a man's intervention, and (b.) manages to contextualize her strength as a type of weakness.

I'm not saying this movie is the worst representation of women in media right now, but it's not exactly breaking ground in that area.

This movie also comes off a bit like propaganda for the status quo.  Let's take a look, for example, at the Bad Guy Mantra:

I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.

There's a page on TVTropes called Villains Act, Heroes React.  (It turns out, the one called Status Quo Is God is not as relevant to this argument.)  It describes the tendency, in heroic plots, for the villain to do all the trying to change things, and the hero to do all the trying to keep things the same.  The villain's plan is usually awful, and it's good that they're being stopped.  But eventually it starts to feel like the point is "Change is bad."

In Wreck-It Ralph, the worst kind of people are people who compromise the playability of their game, and you compromise the playability of your game by changing things.  Even when Ralph does make a big change (in Sugar Rush) it's only okay when it's made clear that he's restoring an older, truer status quo.

Now, I don't mind the lesson that the way for things to be better is for everyone to accept and celebrate each other's value, as the NPCs in Fix-It Felix accept and celebrate Ralph at the end.  And, I recognize that this lesson is implicit in the premise -- an arcade game can't change how it works spontaneously, so the premise can't allow for that.

But that's just one way to phrase the lesson at the end -- another easy way to phrase it is "Know your place."  There's something a little bit dark about a world where the life of a villain is so consistently miserable that they need a support group to get through it, but have to keep that lifestyle, even though it's unrewarding, or their home will be destroyed for them, and everyone else who lives in that game.

Movie Reviews! Wanderlust, Bridesmaids, and the Lorax

I've been watching a bunch of movies with my partner recently, and I don't feel like I have enough to say about any of them to constitute their own post.  But I do have some thoughts on each of them.

Wanderlust (2012) - 3.5/5

I enjoyed this movie.  It was funny, pleasant, and just-sub-painfully awkward.  Long, drawn-out, awkward scenes that dwell on the characters' embarrassment are among the things I like least about contemporary comedy -- which is why I can't watch most Ben Stiller films -- and, several times, it looked like this movie was going to go there.  Ultimately, it only ended up doing it once.

I also liked that the hippie culture wasn't portrayed as categorically wrong about everything.  Except that one guy.  But he was a dick.

Bridesmaids - 3.5/5

This one had a bit more of the above-mentioned painful awkwardness.  But, like Wanderlust, Bridesmaids managed to subvert a lot of the traditional format for the kind of film that both of them are.  (Life-affirming comedies that argue there's something wrong with multiple segments of society.)  It also undercut the pain element of the awkwardness by consistently either pushing it way over the top, or letting more than one character make asses of themselves at once -- so it's not just like watching a home video of a nightmare I had once where everyone was watching, staring, judging me.

The Lorax - 4.5/5

I would like to start by saying that, yes, it's super-preachy.  Furthermore, I cried through like half of the movie.  Watching this movie reminded me (a.) of how preachy Dr. Seuss books really were, (b.) of how preachy all the stuff I read or watched when I was a kid, that influenced my worldview, was, and (c.) that it really is necessary to be that preachy to get through to kids.  Watching the Lorax reminded me that the culture of the United States, the one that's made of movies and TV shows and magazines, is constantly, aggressively, preaching a certain kind of mythology.  That mythology showed up in Bridesmaids and Wanderlust -- that nature isn't really the most important thing, that people who are rich aren't necessarily happy, but, mainly, that if there's anything wrong in your life, it's your fault, and you are the only one with the power to fix it.

Oh, and the way to fix things is by opening small businesses.

I'm not saying small businesses are intrinsically bad.  But there's a counterpoint to be made.  The world needs activists.  It needs nature.  It needs people who are willing to give up their own comfort to try and make the whole world a little better for everyone.

And it needs holes punched in those narratives, that legal equals good and success equals money.

My thoughts on "The Ledge"

I've been meaning to get around to seeing this movie for a very long time now, and finally noticed it on HBO OnDemand earlier today. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, "The Ledge" is a drama/thriller about a man standing on the ledge of a building, about to jump, and the story that lead him there.  It deals with the implications of fundamentalist faith and the main character's atheism.  Greta Christina wrote a great essay on it when it had just come out.

My feelings about it were mixed, and I'm not sure where to draw the lines between my personal discomfort and distaste.  I like that it's a serious, honest treatment of atheism that takes the main character, Gavin's, beliefs seriously and portrays them in a neutral/positive light.  (It's an overwhelmingly positive light compared to mainstream views of it.)

The characters largely respected Gavin's atheism, outside the main conflict with his fundamentalist neighbor.  And Gavin is portrayed as a genuinely flawed human being, but it's not all chalked up to his being godless.

But I'm not a huge fan of the genre, and I found myself consistently torn between my strong positive feelings for the treatments of the ideas in the movie and the cultural implications of them, and my general lack of interest in and distaste for the movie itself.

I don't want to spoil anything, but I did find the ending gratifying.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Real Steel

I saw Real Steel earlier tonight, the new Hugh Jackman movie.  It was cheesy, actiony and packed with product placement.  It was a perfect cheesy feel-good sports movie, with a sci fi twist. And I absolutely loved it.

I think I said cheesy a couple of times already -- beat for beat, the movie never missed an opportunity for a saccharine-sweet heartwarming moment.  Every line was ever so slightly melodramatic, every character action was a ham-fisted dramatization of the most extreme version of that character personality as was possible.  But, like a well-executed pop song, every overblown, cookie-cutter element was perfectly balanced and placed, and by the end of the movie I had tears in my eyes.

When you see a movie that has ludicrous amounts of concern and detail poured into it, you expect it to be something just slightly fringe, like Scott Pilgrim or Fight Club.  Or anything else by Edgar Wright or David Fincher.  Every once in a while, though, there's a mainstream, feel-good movie that's right in the middle of its genre, with a cast and director and producer who just really give a f---.

It's possible, probable, even, that under sharp scrutiny major parts of the plot of Real Steel would fall apart.  But the minutiae of the setting were as thorough as one ever sees.  The moment-to-moment elements of the setting breathed backstory, and you get the impression that the writers could have written any of a hundred films in that setting, and they'd all fall together into a perfect narrative.

Not just other sports movies, though -- I saw, at least, a legal drama, a lifetime-style tragedy, two mob films, a punk story, and a character piece about an obsessed inventor, in all of which the robot boxing would be nothing more than a peripheral element.

If you're looking for deep intellectual provocation and revolutionary style and content in a film, Real Steel is not your movie.  But if you just want to shut off your brain for a while and indulge in the junkfood of the mind that is pop culture, I cannot recommend Real Steel highly enough.  It may be cheesy fluff, but it's cheesy fluff by a crew of artists who deeply and sincerely care about getting their movies right -- even if getting it right just means two hours of mindless entertainment.