I put on Les Misérables while I was folding laundry, in part because I was curious to see whether my opinion of it had improved with increased familiarity. Verdict: No, Les Misérables is still awful, but the second act is not that bad, from about “Master of the House,” up to the point, shortly into the third act, where it turns almost literally into a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Gethsemane. In other words, the parts that involve ensemble singing, and especially those that foreground the revolutionary student Enjolras and his friends.
This is not to deny, as I’ve said before, that some of the individual songs, as songs, are very pretty, setting aside their repetitiveness, that they likely sound less ridiculous in the original French, and that they would probably work very well separately as cabaret pieces. Sitting through more than two hours of them and trying to fit them all into a coherent plot is something else. If you don’t really get what’s happening onstage—difficult enough, especially from the back rows, given that almost none of the plot is dramatized, only developed through dialogue and musical infodumps—you see that the story ends with Jean Valjean striding towards Heaven. If you more or less do, the story is Marius’s rescue from political activity and his return to the ranks of the respectably rich—at the price of the deaths of nearly everybody else—and Cosette’s similar rescue from poverty to be his wife; and Valjean’s salvation turns out to look a lot like financial prosperity. And whatever you do, don’t ask whether there’s any significance to the setting of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in the upper room of a tavern.
(Not worth a separate post, I think, but taking a similar tack with regard to how older people should think of their activist days, is The Company You Keep, where Robert Redford and Julie Christie play aging and cynical ex-Weatherman types, and Shia LaBeouf is the historically innocent young reporter who decides to track them down.)
The East, released in 2013, is a kind of low-key thriller (i.e., suspenseful, but not an action movie). It stars Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script with Zal Batmanglij, who directed. It also stars Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard. Marling plays Sarah (not her real name, but the only one we hear used in at least 99% of the movie), an operative for a private security company who infiltrates an eco-terrorist cell, and gets in too deep. Skarsgard plays Benji, the cell/commune’s charismatic leader. The film works well as an exposé of bad corporate practices and a call to viewers to think hard about the consequences of what they do.
Patricia Clarkson plays Sarah’s boss, and I wonder whether the movie would work if the role had been cast instead as a man. As it is, there’s a secondary story that involves Sarah renouncing, not only her previous life, but her allegiance to the Clarkson character, in favor of a more intimate relationship with the male cell leader—which struck me as unintentionally, and unfortunately distractingly, peculiar. Sarah begins the movie in a satisfying live-in relationship with a man, and with a high-powered career that involves a lot of travel and secrecy. She’s depicted as both a Christian and a woman deeply committed to her career (though it isn’t clear she’s ever thought about exactly what her job involves). She ends by breaking her commitments to boss, job, and lover all at once. In between, she bonds with several women, and with a gay man, all of whom instruct her in her new way of life. But her real commitment to the group begins when its dominant woman (Page) dies and Sarah subsequently has sex with the male leader. Her moral growth occurs at just the point when she switches her obedience from a woman to a man.
In a way, the ending inverts the traditional romantic happy ending. Sarah ends up alone, having abandoned both family and career, though now with a mission. Where she gets the money to pursue her mission is never explained. Benji’s cell was funded with the money he inherited, and Sarah has no such support. Nevertheless—though through her intimate subordination to Benji, followed by her break with him over tactics—she has found her own way.