At the beginning of 1917, the World War One movie by writer and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), one British soldier is covered. One is not. This type of visual sets up 1917′s many stylized pictures that signal plot points to come. Most of 1917 is similarly structured, relatively predictable and visually, not conceptually, driven.
Indeed, there’s no historical context. The audience barely learns that the Germans are at war with the British, let alone that what was called the Great War irrevocably altered history, including the arts, as Ayn Rand observed in The Romantic Manifesto (1969). It is somehow fitting that this sensory-oriented, perpetually-driven film, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, only strives to immerse the audience in a selective depiction of war.
It’s a whole, not halfway, immersion. The British soldier characters played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman accept an assignment to save 1,600 Brits from enemy entrapment starting with a charge down the Western front’s winding trenches. The best line in the thrilling 1917, “we should think about this”, is the movie’s only effort to make the audience think about war; the rest of 1917 is more of a horror movie than an epic war movie.
Perhaps this is as it should be, though even the most horrifying great war films, such as Sergeant York (1941) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), both of which 1917 draws heavily from, go to tremendous efforts to dramatize and contextualize in detail war and the men who fought it. With Thomas Newman’s (Thank You for Your Service, Little Children, Bridge of Spies) electronic musical score, cinematography by Roger Deakins (The Goldfinch, 1984, Blade Runner 2049) and silhouettes, light and scenes of men running, Mendes fills 1917 with multitudes of arresting sounds and pictures to hold interest.
The cast, too, including Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Mark Strong (RobinHood) and Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse), deliver fine performances, particularly MacKay in the lead as the knowing soldier in search of an elusive and faraway band of British soldiers.
Yet the upshot is that 1917 lacks emotional, if not visceral, power. Surely, there are symbolic moments, such as a running soldier against the charge of his comrades, desperately trying to halt the push in an impossible task. This is the perfect metaphor for the Great War, which one of America’s worst presidents, Woodrow Wilson, championed, sending countless Americans to be sacrificed.
That the audience never learns the cause of war, this war’s or any war’s, and sees only some of the carefully selected effects for the sake of horror, goes to 1917′s anti-war message. Such a message may emerge in any honest war movie. In 1917, a historic year for at least a few major reasons, gripping human peril, spectacular images and ominous music mask what at root is a cliched and oddly hollow message that war is bad.
Disney, Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, writers and director J.J. Abrams dig Star Wars a sad and humble grave.
Starting with a bad title, ending with a causeless conclusion and leaving filler that climaxes too soon and accomplishes nothing of substance, the ninth episode of the saga drags, mugs, hams, flashes and limps to the end. What began as a fresh shot of idealism in the middle of a mythical movie series envisioned by George Lucas putters to an incoherently uninteresting ending with The Rise of Skywalker.
Abrams directs and Kennedy guides as Disney funds this mashup of mysticism and mainstreamed “social justice” pap. The problem’s not that Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a female protagonist with superpowers. The problem’s not even that the character is badly conceived, written and played, though, unfortunately, she is awful in every sense. The film’s flaw is fundamental; it exists to repeat an experience, not to dramatize a story, let alone a good story, let alone make the audience feel good and entertained, let alone provoke thought.
Diehards invested in 42 years of merchandising, including toys, discs and related memories, may be inclined to reject this view. I suspect, however, that they’ll be as fatigued as the boy who sat behind me. He started before the opening credits as a happy child and ended up drifting away in his father’s lap, bored, confused and, as far as I could tell, desperate to go home.
Rise of Skywalker blabs, flaps and flops.
Billy Dee Williams, an outstanding actor, reprising his role as a cad, best sums up the spirit of the final Star Wars movie of the central Lucas series; he can hardly work up an interest and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than this galaxy far, far away. Surprises, plot points and effects aside, the acting is almost universally flat, bad and sleep-inducing with the lines to match. Only Adam Driver, again as the villainous son of Leia Organa and Han Solo, stands out in every appearance. The less said about the late Carrie Fisher, as in The Last Jedi, reanimated, inserted and manipulated here in the same role she originated in 1977, the better. Her character, too, is backdated to become a Jedi knight she never was.
Ridley as Rey is pained, again, shifting looks between angry and hard or between light and caught by some magical, inexplicable feeling. The series’ religious Force, made more explicit and repetitious this time, dominates her character, engulfing Finn (John Boyega), who instructs someone that causeless “feelings” are paramount.
It is important that the audience understand that nothing is at stake in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Rey may be in the middle of a battle, or a duel, or a mission with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn, and, suddenly, she may wander, usually looking angry, intent or puzzled. Rey may stand in the middle of an open space, furrowing her brow and staring into a void. Or she may go off on her own into a storm, you never know and you never know why. This happens over and over.
This is the theme of what’s become of the George Lucas Star Wars; that one must go by “feelings”, not facts. That one must act on whim, never go by reason, and that good may or may not result but, in any case, the individual must subordinate the ego and rationality to faith, religion and whatever capricious “destiny” results. Time and again, each major character, even ghosts (Rise of Skywalker is loaded with ghosts), submits to the void.
For example, Poe, the closest to a voice of reason in the final trilogy, who was emasculated last time after a decent start in The Force Awakens, rises briefly in stature to regain his efficacious ability only to be reduced, really wiped, in the climactic battle. It’s not enough that he’s dead wrong (is this character right about anything?); Poe has to be deflated in being dead wrong and literally give up and renounce his earlier self-confidence. Only then is he “redeemed” by the universe or whatever’s believed to be outside of one’s self, like an Obama or McCain speech badly dramatized.
The Disney/Lucasfilm/Kathleen Kennedy left’s religion of irrationalism, i.e., feminism, multiculturalism, etc., trumps all with appallingly condescending plot points. Female minimizes male. Blacks pair with (and are saved by) blacks. Gays are gay only for an instant and only if they’re … female, of course. Females are omnipotent. Males are not; men are dolts. Humor almost always comes at the male’s expense.
I kept waiting for Yoda to have a cameo and announce that he’s transitioning. One major series character, who was once a candidate for the series’ hero, dismisses his entire life in two seconds with a line that he was wrong about nearly everything. Another male character, Finn, admits his incompetence at an important plot point; when asked what to do next during a military operation, he admits: “I have no idea [so] follow me.” This is intended as humor, though the boy behind me wasn’t laughing, and soon the child put several questions to his father, who told him to hush.
Finn’s line is telling. It shows that Star Wars inversion from 1977’s can-do Americanism to blank Nineties reboot and post-9/11 tribalism is complete. It falls to Finn, the flattest, blankest character, a former stormtrooper who the audience was once led to believe fell in love with the heroine, to pronounce the 42-year-old series’ edict, which looms over and dominates our culture: “[go by] instinct, feeling, the Force … I don’t know how [to think].”
Finn’s profession of ignorance stems from his fixation on cipher Rey, the ultimate whim-worshipper and magical mystic whose causeless actions invariably lead to mass death and destruction. I wish I could say as I have in previous series reviews that all of this is mitigated by enjoyable moments and effects. But almost everything is bad. Star destroyers appear in such volume as to be distracting and preposterous, even for a preachy, mystical soap opera disguised as a gussied up fantasy in outer space. Wildly undulating storm waves the size of a county go calm in an instant for no reason.
Frankly, the most entertaining moments involve the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), whose scenes and lines are pure cheese and crackers. They drip with melodrama to the point, with logic and reason the province here of the villains, that I was almost rooting for him and his Easter Island-like carvings, faceless band of Sith Lords and legions of assembled, cloaked believers.
It’s as if this section of Rise of Skywalker is a tribute to those B movies in which you find out that the whole town’s populated by worshippers of the devil, who then encircle and seek to sacrifice a screaming virgin until the handsome, dashing hero comes in to save her.
Today’s anti-sex “social justice” activists and makers of movies by commandment need not fear being “triggered”, however. This movie like its recent predecessors is celibate and sexless. Handsome, dashing heroes are, like Song of the South, smoking, sex, guns and egoism and other imagined Disney movie outrages and injustices, purged from Star Wars.
Rise of Skywalker (like Marvel’s movies) does not entertain. Apparently, it fails to entertain the boy behind me who, in two hours, went from happy anticipation to sad disappointment.
Having enjoyed movies, but, really, most stories in any format, about escaping Communism, I recently discovered Never Let Me Go (1953) co-starring Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven) and Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind). It’s good. I recommend it as crisp, taut entertainment.
Do not expect philosophical depth on the level of We the Living or The Lives of Others. It’s not that caliber of anti-Communist filmmaking. But, especially for the Fifties, when Hollywood’s disgusting affinity for Communism, in particular Soviet Communism during its bloodiest era, reached its zenith and was all the rage, Never Let Me Go takes a strong position against Soviet Russia with two major movie stars. This alone merits awareness and remembrance. With renewed relevance due to Communist China’s unceasing influence on, and what amounts to extortion of, the American press and technology and gaming industries, it is both pointed and fierce.
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Gable stars as an American reporter who’s savvy about Soviet Russia, having covered the U.S. ally during World War Two. But, being an American, he’s uniquely naive, as Ayn Rand explained during her historic 1947 congressional testimony, about the fact, scale and depth of pure evil of the Soviet dictatorship’s impact on daily life; he can’t fully conceive it and this shows in his narrative and initial actions in post-war Moscow.
He learns. This is not made explicit but it’s undeniably implied and embedded in what he chooses to do after falling in love with a ballerina (Tierney with a Russian accent). He’s been in love with her from the audience of the ballet for two years. Early on in Never Let Me Go, they meet once backstage after her encounter with his British press colleague, who is more compliant with Soviet censorship. Her name is Maria. He is shocked that she confesses that she’s spotted him in the crowd and has fantasized about him, too.
This is late career Clark Gable but he’s still Clark Gable and his gallantry, strength and fire still light up the room. Tierney, too, a beautiful actress of ability, shines here as the Russian ballerina, conveying the loss, pain and superior firsthand knowledge of Stalin’s barbarism and dancing in the climactic Swan Lake which precedes an elaborate, tense and daring attempt at defection when the Communist regime moves to strike the couple down.
Thirty-two years before director Taylor Hackford put Mikhail Baryshnikov as a ballet dancer who conceives of a brilliant defection to escape Soviet Russia in White Nights, director Delmer Daves (Destination Tokyo, Dark Passage, Spencer’s Mountain) featured one of the screen’s greatest movie stars as an American journalist who creates for the woman he adores a way to escape the 20th century’s worst dictatorship. Never Let Me Go, involving forged, earned alliances of shared values, mastery of the sea, swimming in the cold, dark water, a horrifying car chase, luck and a stunning surprise at the ballet, holds true to the end.
At two hours and 45 minutes, A Hidden Life ought to have been an unforgettable epic given its topic, one man’s refusal to sanction Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, instead, writer and director Terrence Malick’s movie suffers from too many problems. Like Malick’s overly romanticized 1978 farm drama, Days of Heaven, the distinctly cinematic director takes an approach that compartmentalizes the leading couple to the point of detachment. They’re neither sufficiently detailed and realistic to be plausible on the film’s terms nor romantic enough to be as noble as Malick apparently intends.
It takes a while to realize that A Hidden Life isn’t as profound as Malick evidently must’ve thought it could, should or would be. My first clue was the audio introduction, which precedes the opening pictures. The sounds of wind, insects and nature envelop the audience. This takes the audience into the setting, which is Austria’s mountain valley farms in 1939. A narrator comes next, speaking in the past tense beginning with an admission of error as black and white footage of the National Socialist acceptance and spread over Germany sweeps over the screen very effectively, demonstrating more or less that the whole of Germany knowingly and enthusiastically accepted the Nazi philosophy.
To anyone who’s seen the trailer or knows history, the quaint Austrian farming village and its young romantic couple (August Diehl and Valerie Pachner) clearly haven’t much of a chance. As in Days of Heaven, Malick lets the couple frolic in the fields, which is mostly what they do and for a long, long time. They’re soon married, with a few kids appearing at an early point, always with the Nazi threat looming but never in clear and explicit terms. By the time husband Franz (Diehl) is called upon to enlist in the Army and swear an oath to the Nazi dictator, which he declines to do, neither he nor anyone in town has really mentioned, let alone discussed, the Nazis; men are off to train, fight and defend Nazis. Women, children and old men are left alone to toil in the fields.
Those left behind still laugh, play, raise pigs and, amid neatly interspersed pictures of Nazis, life goes on. Only Franz objects to the takeover of Austria by dictatorship. That he does so without much of a reason is treated as unexceptional. His opposition is never really named and identified. It’s just something he does that’s regarded by villagers as unusual, then as unpatriotic and by loved ones as unusual, then inconvenient. The Nazi invasion comes without much impact other than the men being drafted and conscripted into military service. Jews never merit mention in A Hidden Life, remarkably. Every aspect of Nazi Austria just sort of happens without much rancor, notice or fuss.
Perhaps this is Malick’s point. But the lack of any exposition of the origin or progression of Franz’s convictions certainly makes more glaring that the leading man never articulates his opposition, which forms the basis for the entire film. The vacuum gets filled, slowly but surely, with faith and religion.
A Hidden Life depicts Austria as lovely and enchanting, with its fields, hills and simple people as God’s country and people, contaminated by the Nazi invaders through very little fault of their own. When Franz asks his “dear wife … what’s happened to our country?” I couldn’t help wondering why it took him so long to ask himself the same question. I also wondered why he and his wife never ask in the present, not the past, tense. That one so resolute in refusal does not ask “what’s happening?” before asking “what’s happened?” strikes me as impossible or unlikely.
As Franz pays the price for a refusal to submit, asking his God-fearing wife to “pray for me” when he’s jailed as she takes comfort in the land’s “wind, wheat and sky”, Nazis try to reason with him to cease his stubborn refusal to renounce his opposition. One of his jailers promises him that he can go free.
“But I am free,” he replies in what could’ve been A Hidden Life’s best line. Malick expects the audience to intrinsically grasp why. Franz’s refusal is less a principled stand than the refusal to put faith in the state above his faith in God, though even this is portrayed as too abstract. Heaven’s light shines upon him, while his long-suffering wife, working the farm and raising her kids with her sister and mother-in-law and being shunned by pro-Nazi villagers, surrounds herself with crucifixes, church attendance, a priest, prayer and pictures of Jesus Christ. For their part, the children are seen and not heard, playing and smiling as if largely and blissfully ignorant of their poverty, deprivation and absent father.
Compounding these problems are the languages of A Hidden Life, which switch from foreign to English in key scenes and transitions. Like its enticing advertisement, and most of the movies Malick makes, A Hidden Life looks like it contains great filmmaking, holding the promise of deliverance and adding up to a momentous epic. Yet, while it thankfully doesn’t sugarcoat the true life based consequences of opposing Nazis, it is too satisfied to take itself on faith.
The Moneychangers, a four-part 1976-1977 winter miniseries that aired on NBC, is based on the bestselling novel by Arthur Hailey, who also wrote Airport and Hotel. The miniseries has a varied broadcast history as it’s been re-broadcast in a few incarnations, having been split into shorter or longer segments of varying lengths. I watched the approximately eight-hour series on DVD.
The television drama is better than I’d expected. Combining subplots that feed into the history, conflict and survival of an American bank, which is what makes this miniseries appealing, The Moneychangers shows how general consumer banking works. How many TV series, then or now, revolve around the boardroom discourse, daily operations and profitability of a bank? I’ve never read the novel, though I’ve read some of Hailey’s fiction, which I’ve enjoyed as light industrial or business-themed entertainment.
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The Moneychangers, produced by Ross Hunter, who’d previously adapted Hailey’s Airport into one of Hollywood’s first major blockbusters in 1970, makes me want to read the novel. With a musical score by Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther, “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s), a cameo by Marla Gibbs (Florence on The Jeffersons), a radical, anti-profit Elizabeth Warren-type character and leading performances from Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) and Kirk Douglas (Paths of Glory) as two bankers competing for the bank’s top executive position, the miniseries has potential.
The Moneychangers bundles its variety, potential and possibility for good drama, or at least melodrama. Especially with pre-Dynasty Joan Collins as an upscale prostitute on a crooked banker’s (post-Bonanza Lorne Greene) payroll. Look for Robert Loggia (The Jagged Edge), Stan Shaw (Scared Straight) and Patrick O’Neal (The Doris Day Show) as a crime boss, young black activist and advertising crony.
Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show) plays a handsome young bank employee who embezzles the bank, gets caught, tried and convicted. He then serves time in prison. After he’s gang raped, he succumbs to an interracial same-sex relationship for protection. Later, upon his release from prison, the bank gives him an opportunity for a fresh start but it involves going underground to bust a counterfeit ring, with help from a single Latina mother and bank teller with whom he falls in love.
So, this is not typical mid-Seventies network television programming. Anne Baxter (All About Eve) co-stars as a top notch bank executive. Hayden Rorke (Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie) and Ralph Bellamy (Roots) also star in key roles. Look for Helen Hayes (the Boeing 707 stowaway in Airport) as an empathetic doctor.
The central plot involves the contentious rise of the two bankers seeking the bank’s top position after a grandson of the bank’s founder announces that he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Add to this a run on the bank, the “social justice” warrior (Susan Flannery), class and racial strife, a terrorist bombing, a mentally incapacitated spouse, suicide and a crime syndicate and The Moneychangers moves briskly with a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, the theme’s not an endorsement of capitalism. But, for a pre-high technology, pre-mergers and acquisitions showcase of banking, as with Airport and Hotel, I found the dramatization of the industry fairly accurate, relevant and absorbing.
Kirk Douglas is relatively subdued for a change, not hamming up every scene, gritting teeth and overacting, though he does show off his muscles. This is some of Douglas’s best acting. Plummer strongly plays a Puritanical second-hander and pulls off a powerful climax. The late Percy Rodrigues, in the best acting performance and role of his enduring career, plays the bank’s security chief. He catches the Bottoms character in crime and serves one of the The Moneychangers’ best performances and subplots. Anyone who works in banking or wonders what’s involved (or was in the mid-70s) in money-making, saving and changing will probably find something here to appreciate and enjoy, even if half-naked Collins and some of the cast are cheesy in that melodramatic acting style.
The Moneychangers does not depict high finance. But it entertains.
Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar, Jersey Boys, Gran Torino, Sully, Invictus, The 15:17 to Paris) surprises me again with another excellent motion picture. It’s another of director Clint Eastwood’s movies for Warner Bros., which is owned by AT&T. Extremely true to facts about the Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing of 1996, it’s another movie about a persecuted white male. In fact, this persecuted white male was vilified. He was almost destroyed. He was completely innocent. There was no reason to attack him. He was railroaded by the United States government, specifically the federal police known as the FBI (how’s that for relevance).
His name is Richard Jewell.
By titling his movie, sharply written by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games), with the name of the individual unjustly accused, persecuted and ruined by the U.S. government, Mr. Eastwood carefully and unequivocally draws your focus to the one against the mob. Indeed, this unreleased movie’s already being smeared by the Me, Too movement and attacked by the media. Yet Richard Jewell is unassailable in depicting the awful truth of what America’s press, state and public did in fact to Richard Jewell.
Never mind that Richard Jewell‘s uncannily timely, with its scathing indictment of today’s abuse of government power, media sensationalism, entrenched government officials for the status quo who thrive on favoritism and police power lust and puny-minded parasites that live through damaging decent, productive Americans through unsubstantiated claims and arbitrary assertions. That’s all cake icing, itself a credit to Clint Eastwood‘s unwavering vision and sense of justice, peppered here with references to John Wayne, cowboys and real, not artificial, quid pro quo.
The real surprise of Richard Jewell lies in its deft and subtle scope. The taut, sparse and purposeful movie concentrates on Jewell, portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) in the year’s most emotional and best screen acting, a flawed, fat man who lived with his mother (fearless and exemplary Kathy Bates), worked as a policeman and private security guard and became an American hero.
But this is also the story of the American South, the son and mother bond, the bond between men who share values, the virtuous cop, the productive American, the lone, self-confident individualist and the few, kind, lonely and courageous souls that move the world. Richard Jewell ties together all of these and more, thanks to screenwriter Ray, director Eastwood and the outstanding cast, and it does this with power, clarity and a thundering strike against the surveillance state and its Big Government control.
That said, Bates and Hauser are joined by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards…) as a radical government lawyer, Jon Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) as an FBI agent and, in a career best performance, Olivia Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens) as a skanky newspaper reporter. All five major cast members and others, including and especially Nina Arianda as an immigrant from a country where “when the government claims someone’s guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent”.
Richard Jewell as played by Hauser packs a wallop but it’s loaded and packed with wisdom and lessons. How men comfort one another with affection and without shame. How a mother fears for her son, especially when he’s perceived as weaker and doesn’t look like most people assume heroes are supposed to look. How men who are sons protect their friends, mothers — and total strangers.
Jewell may be obese, kind and slow, and he talks with a Southern accent, yet he possesses a commanding and disarming eye for detail. Over and over, from his astute ability to listen, watch and take note of what’s essential to his sense of awareness of human physicality with particular decency toward people who are physically challenged in some way, the young “rent-a-cop” refuses to disable his powers of observation. It’s what ultimately mitigates the bomb’s deadly impact on the Summer Olympics in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, where he’s assigned to patrol with a mix of local, state and federal police.
But what gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation its reputation for being the federal bureaucracy of incompetence in the 1990s, due to the agency’s debacles at Ruby Ridge, Waco and its bungled and unsolved inquiry into the explosion of TWA Flight 800 10 days before the Atlanta Olympics bombing, seizes the hero’s life. Hamm’s and Wilde’s characters are, in this way, part of larger and corrupt institutions. That they both fan the corruption with fully conscious and fundamental choices is undeniable. They know exactly what they’re doing.
They know exactly why, too. They are small, petty, foul creatures. This is what makes Richard Jewell rise to the historic (and, I must say, amid this week’s congressional disclosures of evidence of the FBI’s astonishing rot, quite timely) occasion. When the weight of the world goes against the fat security guard and his mother, pushing you to prejudge them as flawed and suspect, it’s the Others, traipsing and gallivanting with fanfare, who are the fraudulent wannabes. It’s Jewell who stands up to scrutiny.
That he does so against impossible fraud, injustice and malice to destroy him is what makes Richard Jewell an elegiac American forewarning. The man who studied maps, logs and Vincent Bugliosi’s outstanding literary case against the butcher of Brentwood, Outrage, is aided by an individualist of law, principle and, as a poster on the wall suggests, loyalty to individual “liberty”. Will their combined fidelity, bravery and integrity be enough to defend against the increasingly powerful state?
Richard Jewell in this sense poetically depicts and pays tribute to heroism while carefully showing you the truth, like Loving, of the cost of constantly fighting the corrupt, insidiously inflating Big Fat Government. It is not easy to watch. It is infuriating. Yet, as Hauser, Rockwell, Ray and Eastwood push you to the brink by making too simple the tale of the one who guarded Americans against an act of terrorism and was persecuted for being honorable, Richard Jewell stirs you to cheer for his stealthily victorious reclamation of self-esteem. This is what makes Richard Jewell one of 2019’s best pictures. This is what makes Richard Jewell, with the woman who raised him, worth knowing as remarkably decent, heroic and larger than life.
Cameron Mackintosh’s slightly changed production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables retains its glory. I decided to see the revised musical, after having seen the original 1989 production several times in Los Angeles. Les Misérables recently returned to Broadway with new staging, which is mixed, and scenery inspired by Hugo’s paintings, which adds a flair, in downtown Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center toward the end of its run there.
The 19th century France-themed Les Misérables is an unforgettable story. The musical version softens the villainy while keeping the plot’s redemptive theme for every character that does wrong to any degree. The songs “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Bring Him Home,” “One Day More,” and a great favorite, “Red and Black”, make this beloved musical one of the most popular in theatrical history.
This great musical is unique for its idealism and seriousness and this version did not disappoint. Nick Cartell’s Jean Valjean had a commanding presence. His “Bring Him Home” was easily the show’s most emotional performance. Other cast standouts include an actress named Phoenix Best as Eponine, a conniving ghetto girl who falls in love with a French aristocrat enlisted in an anti-government rebellion; she turns romantic, defies her father and fights for her true love. Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras was captivating in every scene, especially leading “Red and Black”, stupidly renamed “The People’s Song” against the very core of its meaning in this version. The actors playing the Thenardier couple overacted. Gavroche was too precocious (there is such a thing for this character, which entirely relies upon innocence for its full impact) though I think the part and the boy’s lines were rewritten to pander to modern parents, families and audiences.
The best performance belongs to Josh Davis as Javert. I’ve never liked this character and I still do not. I’m planning to review a few recent TV and movie versions of Les Misérables, which I’ve recently seen, and gained a new appreciation for the rationalistic policeman character. But Davis, whose physical, vocal and acting ability added dimension to his portrayal, delivered what for me is the first performance that makes his suicide truly meaningful, organic and impactful to the plot. I’m not a fan of the new set, which dominates the stage, though I was surprised at how much I like the infusion of pieces suggested by Hugo’s art. The barricade remains central to the performance.
Overall, I was as moved as ever, possibly more so because I’m older. What strikes me now, as against 30 years ago, when I first saw Les Misérables on the stage, is that the world has grown darker, more perverse, more desperate. The show’s explicitly Catholic underpinnings resonate less with the audience than its searching themes of wanting to examine and know who am I, what am I doing here on earth and how can I be my best. It was impossible during the often pin-drop perfect performance not to think of those young rebels in Hong Kong, and now also in Teheran and in countless other silent and unknown rebellions from Saudi Arabia to Communist Cuba, China and North Korea. I’ve the sense that I was not alone. Couples, families with children, older and younger adults of all types were held by the power of “Red and Black” (I refuse to call this poetry by its mangled title the people’s song) with the soft yet searing plea by an idealist to his fellow men:
It is time for us all To decide who we are Do we fight for the right To a night at the opera now? Have you asked of yourselves What’s the price you might pay? Is it simply a game For rich young boys to play? The color of the world Is changing day by day…
Red – the blood of angry men! Black – the dark of ages past! Red – a world about to dawn! Black – the night that ends at last!
Les Misérables endures, especially in the streets, back alleys and hushed halls of Hong Kong, where the anti-Communist rebels, young and old as in Les Misérables, unite, gather and mobilize despite China’s barbarism, brutality and oppression to sing the 1989 musical’s triumphant final “song of angry men who will not be slaves again”. In Pittsburgh this Thanksgiving, its banner waved with wonder, power and inspiration still.
The 2,800-seat Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, formerly a movie palace called the Stanley Theater before a $42 million renovation in 1987, affords intimacy and grandeur. Named for Mike Benedum, the son of West Virginian farmers and merchants who became a self-made, wildcat oil tycoon who made a charity after his only child died in 1918, the Liberty Street theater is nearly perfectly proportioned. I plan to return.