Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
Coming down from the surging adrenaline rush, I was trying to determine when was the last time an action movie made me feel the immersive, delirious highs that Mission: Impossible – Fallout offers in spades, and what I came up with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, this is the best straightforward action movie in three years. It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie in the series, which, if it hadn’t already, has assumed the peak position of the most consistent, most entertaining, and best action franchise in Hollywood. Allow me to explain how returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) makes an action movie that demolishes the competition.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been pulled back into spy action thanks to the lingering fallout (eh, eh?) of the capture of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose followers, nicknamed The Apostles, have stolen three plutonium cores. It’s Ethan Hunt’s fault the nuclear cores got loose, and so he and his team, Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), must clean up after their mess. The CIA sends its own asset, the burly August Walker (Henry Cavill), to help oversee the mission and specifically Ethan Hunt, who must pose as a shadowy terrorist broker to maintain appearances with important figures in the criminal underworld. In order to get the nuclear parts, Ethan Hunt has to retrieve Solomon Lane and release him back into the open. Complicating matters further is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who needs Solomon dead to clear her own spy debts.
Every action movie lives or dies depending upon its unique set pieces, often the first thing constructed by a studio and then the plot mechanics are ladled on merely as the barest of connecting tissue. They need to have stakes, they need to have purpose, they need to be memorable, and they need to be understood and develop organically. Mission: Impossible – Fallout could be taught in filmmaking schools about how to properly build action set pieces. They are brilliant. McQuarrie finds interesting ways to set them up, complicate them, and just keep the escalation going in a manner that still maintains the believability of the moment. Take for instance a foot chase where Ethan Hunt is trying to nab a bad guy through downtown London. Where McQuarrie pushes into the extraordinary is by having that foot chase on a multi-level terrain. Ethan Hunt has to chase after his target but multiple stories above the ground, and so he’s leaping out windows, jumping over rooftops simply to keep up. It’s a simple twist that takes what we’re familiar with and, literally, elevates it to new heights. Or take for instance the mission in Paris to capture Solomon Lane. At first it’s capture, then it’s flee police, then it’s flee another assassin. There are multiple stages to this sequence, each with a new goal, each with new complications, and each with new eye-popping stunts and escapes. The action finds natural points to progress, making smart use of the geography, and keeping different elements at play to come in and out to add more problems. This is how you do action right. As soon as the half-hour mark settles in with the arrival of Walker, the movie is practically nonstop in its set pieces until the very end. At a steep 147 minutes, this is the longest Mission: Impossible movie yet but it’s breathless in its execution.
Amazing set pieces that are cleverly designed is one aspect of a great action movie, but if you can’t tell what’s going on, what’s the point of all that cleverness? Fortunately, McQuarrie understands this and adheres to a visceral depiction of the action that creates gloriously immersive and pulse-pounding sequences. The set pieces are terrific, so it stands to reason the stuntwork should be terrific, and to make sure you appreciate the stuntwork, McQuarrie makes sure the photography highlights the verisimilitude. It’s a symbiotic (or as the Venom trailer tells me, “sym-BI-oat-ic”) relationship but when done correctly, as evidenced in this film, it’s the key to truly kinetic action sequences. Take for instance a parachute jump that marks the start of the second act. McQuarrie films it as a sustained long take, and as the camera plummets to the ground chasing after the two men, our brains can tell us that there is some special effects trickery to mitigate the dangers, but our senses are overwhelmed with the sustained illusion of tension. The fight choreography is equally up to the challenge. A bathroom brawl with Ethan Hunt and Walker and another man becomes a lesson in how many things can be smashed and what can be used as a weapon. A high-speed motorcycle chase through Parisian streets gets even more frantic when Ethan Hunt drives against traffic, and the scene becomes even more exciting when McQuarrie’s lens allows us to see the danger in all its glory.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has been notable for its insane stuntwork but also, chiefly after the second installment, its edict to practical effects and maintaining the believability of its reality. It’s still movie spy shenanigans and globetrotting adventures, yes, but the moment-to-moment thrills feel like they’re really happening. The Fast and Furious franchise has gained great acclaim for the bombast of its physics-defying spectacle, and the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to have gone purposely in the opposite direction. It’s real Tom Cruise jumping off that building, it’s real Tom Cruise riding through traffic on a motorcycle, and it’s real Tom Cruise falling and climbing up a speeding helicopter during the thrilling finale. Cruise has had a death wish when it comes to throwing himself into the high-wire stunts of his franchise, but even at 56 years old he’s still at it, essentially trying to commit suicide on film for all of our amusement. Cruise is one of the few remaining movie stars and his commitment is without question.
This is also the first Mission: Impossible film that feels like the characters matter. It’s a direct continuation from the previous film, 2015’s Rogue Nation, bringing back the (somewhat lackluster) villain, the newest spy counterpart/potential love interest, the CIA and IMF brass, and the essential supporting team members from prior engagements. Because of this it feels more like what happened previously was establishment for a new story building upon that foundation. Rather than starting all over, the characters find ways to deepen their relationships, and the film opens up Ethan Hunt as a character and the toll his duty takes on those closest to him. There are some nice quiet moments that examine these characters as actual people. Several complications are as a direct result of personal character decisions, some good and some bad. I was joking with my pal Ben Bailey beforehand about wondering whether they’d find a way for Ving Rhames to matter, since he hasn’t been much more than “a guy in the van” for four movies, and by God they make him matter. They make each team member matter, finding moments to give them, mini-goals they’re entrusted with. During the dizzying helicopter chase in the finale, supporting players are left with their own task. Luther has to defuse a bomb but doesn’t have enough hands. Benji has to find something valuable in a very needle-haystack situation designed to torment and waste precious time. Ilsa is at cross-purposes for most of the film, not wanting to harm her fellow allies but also being given her own orders to prove her loyalty and protect her future. All of this comes to a head and it makes the parts feel as important as the whole. That’s great storytelling.
Let’s talk about that million-dollar mustache of Cavill’s. It was a year ago that Justice League re-shoots required Cavill and the Mission: Impossible team refused to allow their actor to shave his mustache, thus leading to that unsettling fake baby lip Superman was sporting in a majority of his scenes in the haphazard Justice League film. I just read an AV Club interview with McQuarrie where he for the first time discusses the whole mustache brouhaha and apparently Paramount estimated that it would have cost them three million for the effects to uphold Cavill’s upper lip continuity. Warner Brothers refused to pay up and so went down that ill-fated CGI mustache-removing route. It was shortly afterwards that Cruise shattered his ankle in a roof-leaping stunt (that is in the finished film and advertisements) and the production had to shut down for a month. If only Warner Brothers had waited, perhaps we all could have avoided this mustache mess.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a new highpoint for the best action franchise going in movies today (I’m still waiting for a third Raid film, Gareth Evans). The set pieces are memorable and unique, leading from one into the next with exquisite precision and thought. The action sequences are stunning and shot with stunning photography, highlighting the stunning stuntwork by the best death-defying professionals. It’s the first Mission: Impossible movie that doesn’t climax at its middle; in fact there’s a pretty obvious reveal that feels like it was going to be a late Act Three twist, but McQuarrie recognizes the audience thinking ahead, and there’s like a whole other exciting 45 minutes after. The stakes are better felt because the characters matter and are integrated in meaningful ways. This is the most I’ve enjoyed Henry Cavill in a movie (with possible exception of another spy movie, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and you know what, his mustache works too. While the vertigo-inducing Burj Khalifa sequence is the best set piece in the franchise, Fallout has everything else beat at every level. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a reminder that there are few things in the world of cinema better than a properly orchestrated, properly filmed, and properly developed action movie operating at full throttle. This is one of the reasons why we go to the movies, folks. See it in IMAX if possible. Soak it up.
Nate’s Grade: A
Concussion wants to be a hard-hitting drama exposing the dangers of repetitive head trauma in football and the lengths of the cover-ups and collusion within the NFL, except that movie already exists and is the Frontline documentary League of Denial that was too controversial to air on ESPN. Concussion, in comparison, is an adequate but hopelessly underwhelming film on the Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu (Will Smith) who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players. The resistance and denials are soft-pedaled, though the movie treats them with heightened dramatic stakes that are unearned. There’s one threatening anonymous phone call but for the most part it feels like Dr. Omalu is just being ignored, and “being ignored” is a hard thing to turn into outstanding dramatic stakes at the movies. The movie doesn’t let the NFL completely off the hook but its critiques have been softened by studio interference (as revealed through the Sony email hack). As a straightforward drama, Concussion is easy to watch and Smith gives an authentic performance that doesn’t have to go to histrionic lengths to communicate his internal struggle. There’s a nice subplot with Omalu courting his eventual wife played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin are strong supporting players. David Morse gets a show-stopping part to show off his acting skills. By the end, it all feels just a little too nice, a little too polished, and a little too easy, both in how it presents a complicated medical discovery and its implications but also the NFL’s response. For an awards-season drama that’s meant to shock and inform, being “easy” is the wrong call.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Note: “League of Denial” is currently available on Netflix streaming and I encourage people to check it out.
Not as outlandishly crazy as the Fast and the Furious series, not as beholden to tradition as the Bond series, the Mission: Impossible series doesn’t get the same notoriety but I’d declare it the most consistent and best action franchise going today. Each new film is a distillation of their director’s strengths, keeping things fresh, and the mainstay is Tom Cruise in prime action hero mode and risking his life like a madman. While not as dizzyingly entertaining as 2011’s Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation is another fun and action-packed spy thriller with terrific and memorable set pieces. The plot involves Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team on the run, again, as their agency is shut down for its reckless methods. A rival agency known as The Syndicate is plotting political assassinations, so Hunt and his team (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) must work along the fringes to save the day. The newest addition is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as a mysterious ally and antagonist for Hunt. She’s smart, formidable, and not treated as a romantic interest or overly sexualized (progress). After Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in Ex Machina, and now Ferguson’s steely turn, it’s quite a booming year for Swedish imports. The series’ star is still Cruise and his cavalier treatment of his 50-year-old body in the pursuit of the daredevil stunts. The opening with Cruise attached to the outside of an ascending cargo plane is a stunning image jolted by the charge of realism. An underwater vault break-in is wonderfully developed. The snazzy car chases, motorcycle chases, and foot chases all benefit from Cruise being front and center. Say what you will about the man but he’s a movie star. The biggest problem with Rogue Nation is much like Ghost Protocol in that it peaks in the middle. The last act takes place entirely in London and it just can’t compare with what came earlier, which leaves the movie lumbering to a close with its rather substandard villain. Even with a less than stellar conclusion, Rogue Nation is another entertaining, fun, and thrilling action movie that would be the best the summer has to offer if it weren’t for the highs of Mad Max. Nate’s Grade: B+
I have no qualms with my heterosexual nature to make the following statement: I love a good musical. Why shouldn’t I? None other than Martin Scorsese said any true film lover is a fan of horror movies and musicals, two genres uniquely suited to the visual flourishes of cinema. My tastes tend to run toward the more offbeat, like Avenue Q and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd and Dancer in the Dark. My favorite movie musical of all time is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, but that’s probably because I’m a movie lover first and foremost. A well-done movie musical can sweep you off your feet. The polarizing Moulin Rouge! is still my favorite film of 2001; I love every messy, ambitious, transporting second of it. And that’s what the best musicals and, in general, best films achieve: they transport us to another realm. Since the success of 2002’s Chicago, there’s been a run of hit-or-miss movie musicals proliferating the big screen. It’s hard to think of any longstanding Broadway hits that have yet to make the leap (you’ll get your turn, Book of Mormon). Of course it also works the other way, with plenty of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, like Shrek, Elf, Ghost, Catch Me if You Can, Newsies, A Christmas Story, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and Tony-winner for Best Musical, Once. Then you get movies turned into musicals and back into movie musicals, like The Producers and Hairspray. It seems like Broadway and Hollywood are stuck in a loop, feeding off one another’s spoils.
In 2012, two high-profile musicals got the big screen treatment: Rock of Ages and Les Miserables. The former is from 2009 whereas the latter is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, beginning in 1980 and spanning continents. Rock of Ages was savaged by critics and bombed at the box-office, whereas Les Miz is soaring this holiday season and is seen as a major Oscar contender. Of course one of these films is about the outrage of the lower classes being exploited by an unfair system that benefits the rich, and the other has Tom Cruise and a monkey named “Hey Man.” Having seen both films recently, and Les Miserables more than once, I think they present an interesting discussion on the pitfalls of adapting a popular theatrical show to film. You won’t have to wait long to figure out which movie succeeds and which falters badly.
Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. Prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is nearing the end of his twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced Valjean will never reform and go back to a life of crime. After help from a kindly bishop, Valjean flees his parole and sets up a new life as a businessman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s workers, gets thrown out and tumbles down a chain of regrettable circumstances. She becomes a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean recognizes poor Fantine on the street and, horrified at his own neglect leading her to this path, takes it upon himself to care for her and her daughter. Years later, the teenaged Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen for the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius enlists his good friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help find out who Cosette is, all the while ignorant that Eponine is clearly in love with him. The young people of France are riled up about class abuses and exploitation, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. Javert is also becoming suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, so Valjean feels the need to flee once again. However, Cosette’s love and the bravery of the young revolutionaries makes Valjean decide to stop running from his past.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made the ballsy but ultimately brilliant decision to have his performers sing live. Every line, every note, every performance is captured in the moment; there is nary a second of lip-synching. I cannot overstate how blessed this decision was. It places the emphasis on the performances, and that’s exactly what something as big and deeply felt as Les Miserables required for the big screen. Look, Hollywood actors are never going to be able to outdo trained and professional theatrical singers. What I expect from movie stars is movie-star level performances, and Hooper understands this. These actors aren’t playing to the cheap seats, belting the tunes with power and over exaggerated dramatics (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style given the theatrical setting). In many ways, this is a more intimate Les Miserables, and it still maintains its charms and magic. There is no choreography, short of perhaps the more jovial “Master of the House” number, and Hooper puts us right in the muck of life in a 19th century impoverished slum. This is one dirty movie with lots of grimy period details, creating a reality that can only be implied on stage. The more visceral version of Les Miserables demands performances that are more naturalistic and less bombastic, to a degree. I am a cinephile first but I genuinely prefer my musicals with trained actors to trained singers. A great actor can add so much inflection and personality through the prism of song, whereas a great singer is concentrating on the notes first and foremost. I value performance over nailing the mechanics, and more movie musicals should follow Hooper’s path. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do the movie musical experience right.
I don’t know if Hooper was exactly the right man for the job but he certainly does the beloved stage show justice. Hooper’s visual tics are still present. The man loves to film in close-ups and at all sorts of tilted Dutch angles; he also loves filming a conversation between two people where neither one will be in the same shot. It’s a peculiarity that I never really warmed up to. However, Hooper generally has the best interests of his movie at stake, capitalizing on the large outpouring of feeling. This is a Big Musical with big emotions, and it’s easy to be swept up in its exuberant earnestness and humanism. It even has a famous concluding line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at under lesser circumstances. Now, thinking back, you’ll realize that many of these people were simply painfully naïve and that there was a slew of death for no good reason. Purists may chafe at some altered lyrics and truncated songs, but really this is pretty much the closest version of the famous stage show you’ll ever see adapted. Not one of the songs has been cut (in fact a new one was written for the film by the original composers), and at a lengthy 157 minutes, it’s practically as long as the stage show, and just about sung through every moment. There are probably ten total lines that are merely spoken. I predict hardcore Les Miz fans will lap up every second.
Les Miserables also boasts some fortuitous casting (Taylor Swift at one point was rumored to be up for a role… shudder), none more than Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises). She is nothing less than perfect as Fantine. There isn’t a false note during any of her acting. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful, so breathtaking, so intensely felt, that it ranks up there with some of the best moments in all of 2012 movies. And oh can this woman sing her ass off too. You feel every flicker of anger and devastation, the grain in her voice, on the verge of tears and fury. This woman deserves every accolade they can come up with this year. This woman is a total lock for Best Supporting Actress. She’s wonderful during every moment of her screen time and the lengths and emotional ferocity of her performance, and subsequent pitfalls the character endures, left me reaching for the tissues at several points.
The other standout amidst a pretty stellar cast is Barks. This is her first film work though she has plenty of experience with her character, portraying Eponine in the 25th anniversary run of Les Miserables. Her singing is terrific, as you’d imagine, but her acting is just as strong. Her rendition of “On My Own” is a showstopper of a number. Barks naturally transitions to the demands of film. I was completely on Team Eponine and found her to be an infinitely better catch than Cosette. After people get a glimpse of this woman, she is going to get plenty more acting offers, and a few concerned inquiries into the size of her waist, which at times looks like it might be the size of The Rock’s neck. Hooper also has the good sense to film both “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” in unbroken takes; focus tightly pinned on our outstanding actresses, letting the skill of their performances sell the big emotions.
Of course the crux of the tale rests on two men, Valjean and Javert, and the rest of the cast does kind of get saddled in underdeveloped roles made more apparent as a movie. It seems blasphemous to say I was a little disappointed with both lead actors. Crowe (Robin Hood) is easily the weakest singer of the cast but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He has a lower register and sings his parts like a rock musician rather than a Broadway player. Fans of the stage show will have to adjust their expectations for a more subdued Javert. Still, having an actor of Crowe’s talents is definitely a plus even if his singing is adequate. Jackman (Real Steel) is a Tony-winning thespian, so I held him to a higher standard. He’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jean Valjean, and Jackman does an admittedly fine job with the bigger emotional parts. I just expected more from his vocal abilities but it’s not a major detraction. As my mother noted, it’s not too difficult to spot the classically trained singers in the cast. Also, for eagle-eyed Les Miz fans, look for the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop in this movie.
There is the tricky nature of translating a Broadway production into some variance of period reality. There’s plenty of relevance with the class struggle illustrated in the second half of the movie (Bane would approve). It’s an obvious statement but film is a different medium than the theater and affords different opportunities. The depressing reality of lower class life and the vultures that preyed on others is striking, yes, but sort of conflicts with the comic relief characters represented by the scheming Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). When the seriousness of the period is inflated, they feel like they sort of belong in a different movie. Then there’s just the conflict between stage reality and film reality. On the stage we’ll accept Marius falling madly in love with Cosette at first sight. When it’s on film, the guy comes across as a callous chump, oblivious to Eponine’s pining. He ignores the friend he’s had for years for some blonde in a bonnet. And the final number, reuniting all the dead cast members, works better as a curtain call than a finale to a film. These are just the quirks of theater one must just accept. I wouldn’t say the songs and music is in the same category as Sondheim or Webber, but there are definitely some hummable tunes here made all the more swooning. You’ll have a fine pick of songs to get stuck in your head for days (mine: “Look Down”).
Earlier this year, Rock of Ages came and quickly left the box-office, failing to make a splash with the American public despite a healthy enough run on Broadway and touring the country. The stage show is a jukebox musical set to the head-banging tunes of 1980s hair metal. Adam Shankman, the director behind the bouncy and thoroughly entertaining 2007 Hairspray movie musical, was tasked with bringing Rock of Ages to the screen with the same finesse. Cherie (Julianne Hough) a hopeful singer just off the bus from Oklahoma, meets up with Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice kid who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a rock club running afoul with the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The club owners (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) are relying on fickle, burned-out, taciturn, and overall mysterious rock legend Stacy Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save their club from financial ruin. Along the way, Cherie and Drew look for their big breaks, fall in love, get pulled apart, and reunite in time for one final sendoff to leave the audience tapping their toes.
Allow me to elucidate on my main problem with the rise in jukebox musicals: I find them to be, with rare exception, exceedingly lazy. The musical number is meant to advance the narrative and give insights into character and situation, just like any other aspect of plot. You’ll find great original tunes that do this. When you’re dealing with pop songs that the public is well familiar with, then your job becomes even harder, and I find many are just not up to the task. Too often jukebox musicals are designed to merely string together a pre-packaged and time-tested number of hit songs, utilizing the faintest of narrative threads to get from one song to the next. The appeal of jukebox musicals lies not with the story or characters but waiting for the next recognizable song and wondering how it will, poorly, fit into this new context. You’ll notice that these jukebox musicals seem to have twice as many song numbers. They know their selling point, and more singing means less time spent developing characters and story. And so my impression of the jukebox musical is one of a cynical cash grab following the bare minimum of narratives to achieve the status of musical so it can be resold with low risk. I’m simplifying things in my ire, yes, but there’s a definite reason that jukebox musicals have sprouted like mad in the past few years. They don’t require as much work and the audience seems to hold them to a lesser standard. Much like the worst of Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans), it seems just recognizing the familiar has become the core draw of entertainment.
And this is one of the main problems with Rock of Ages. I’ve never seen the stage show, but my God for something that purports to live the rock and roll lifestyle, it’s certainly so tame and scrubbed clean of anything dangerous. This feels like your grandparents’ idea of what “modern” rock music is. After a cursory search online, I’ve found that the movie makes some significant changes to convert a story about rock and roll hedonism into sanitized family friendly fare (spoilers to follow, theatergoers): apparently in the stage version, Cherie and Jaxx had sex, Jaxx remains a creep and flees the country on statutory rape charges, though before that he and Cherie share a lap dance/duet to “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” the family values crusader characters were new inventions, the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, the best singer in the film) is considerably beefed up to provide Jaxx his happy ending, and they don’t even use the song “Oh Cherie.” I’m not a stickler for adaptation changes, but clearly it feels like Rock of Ages had every edge carefully sanded down to reach out to the widest array of mainstream filmgoers (Shankman says he cut Cherie’s lap dance number because it tested poorly with mothers). The funny part is that the movie lambastes a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) for playing to demo numbers, shooting for pandering mass appeal rather than the art, man. Feel the hypocrisy.
The first hour of Rock of Ages is mildly passable mostly because of the goofy supporting cast, but then the movie just keeps going, getting more and more tedious with every protracted minute. The second half involves Cherie and Drew apart and finding new lows; for him it’s selling his soul to join in a boy band, and for her it’s selling herself, working as a stripper. Let’s look back at that sentence. One of those life choices is not nearly as upsetting as the other. Nothing against the hard-working strippers in this country, but Cherie taking to the pole is definitely more of a moral compromise for the character than whatever the hell Drew endures. It’s this leaden second hour that made me lose faith that Rock of Ages would even provide a morsel of cheesy entertainment. It has the misfortune of two of the blandest leads I’ve ever seen in a musical. Hogue (Footloose) and Boneta (Mean Girls 2) are both physically blessed specimens of human genetics, but oh are these kids boring boring boring. Their love story is completely malnourished and you couldn’t scrape together one interesting thing about them combined. The fact that Rock of Ages further strips away any interesting personality from Cherie (see above) makes them even more disastrously boring. To be stuck with these two for another hour of vapid griping, only to magically get back together, is interminable. Thank God they pumped up the side characters because that is the only time when Rock of Ages even challenges for your attention. Cruise isn’t the best singer but he’s pretty good belting out 80s rock hits, and the man has his natural charisma and stage presence to spare.
So I guess where Rock of Ages goes wrong, and where Les Miserables succeeds, is thinking of how best to translate the experience of the stage to the medium of film. Shankman does a pitiful job staging his musical numbers, with lackluster choreography that rarely takes advantage of the sets and characters. Worse, Shankman feels like he strays from the tone and angle of the stage show, sanitizing the rock and roll lifestyle and looking for ways to squeeze in bland happy endings. In other words, he doesn’t capture enough of the essence of the original stage show to please neophytes and fans of the Broadway show. With Les Miserables, I think most fans of the stage show, and they are legion, will walk away feeling satisfied with the results, content that real artists treated the long-running musical with justice. Hooper opens up the world of the stage show, utilizing the parameters of film, and the emphasis on performance over singing mechanics maximizes the unique power of film. Les Miserables is a grand movie musical smartly adapted to the opportunities of film. Rock of Ages is a sloppy, neutered, criminally boring mess poorly developed and poorly translated to the silver screen. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Oh, and guys, if you see Les Miserables, it will get you super laid with your girlfriend (I have anecdotal evidence).
Les Miserables: B+
Rock of Ages: C-