Les Misérables.

In addition to the inherent difficulties of filming a musical, any cinematic version of Les Misérables is unenviably tasked with meeting the lofty and unavoidable expectations of those familiar with the beloved Broadway show (that's me).

Cramped by the awkward limitations of a single camera, this version of Les Misérables limped through the first act. Even with grandiose sets, several songs and scenes felt restricted by the size of the screen, as opposed to the more open space of the stage. The musical also encountered the usual issue of showing both the scope and intimacy of duets and ensemble pieces. 

Once the showcase solos arrived, Les Misérables took off, beginning when Anne Hathaway killed I Dreamed a Dream (in a good way) in a brilliant single take that may win her an Oscar. Similar lengthy shots greatly enhanced several songs, also adding a Broadway feel to other highlights like On My Own and Empty Chairs. The much-publicized method of having the actors sing live on set worked perfectly, allowing emotional nuances to be added in the moment, rather than limit them to the vocal inflections recorded months earlier. 

Amidst an all-star cast, new faces Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks stood out as Marius and Eponine, with their stage pedigrees beaming through. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were perfectly cast as the crass and crude Thenardiers, whose presence felt as slightly out-of-place as it did in the show. 

As Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman didn't always have the ideal voice for the part. But his presence was always right, and he nailed several key moments, including his final scene. Another big star was needed to play opposite Jackman, but Russell Crowe was not the best choice for Javert. He can sing decently, and interpreting the justice-obsessed lawman with more of an earthy voice is reasonable. But Javert has already been defined by a classic baritone with two show-stopping solos. Crowe simply doesn't have the pipes to fill that role. Even those unfamiliar with the music, will instantly recognize his shortcomings relative to his cast mates. 

With all the powerful music and numerous characters, the film misses the pacing of the stage, which benefits from the built-in pauses and interludes that come from scene transitions and set changes, giving the songs and story room to breathe. The film somehow rushed through its 2:40 running time, though it didn't need to be longer. This was probably more of an issue for those trying to absorb the story and/or music for the first time. 

Bringing Les Misérables to the big screen was a crazy ambitious project, and the film was never going to meet theatrical expectations. But thanks to the potent music, this film is a commendable effort that isn't perfect but soars to splendid heights and should satisfy fans. 8 of 10. 

P.S. I'm not going to quibble with how the movie skips verses or adds lines or changes words (even a few favorites). Tweaks are necessary for translation to film, and most of them are effective, or at least understandable.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A few brief thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which provided a welcome reprieve from Friday's tragedy...

As anticipated, The Hobbit was a wonderful return to Middle Earth, like revisiting a loved vacation spot to see old friends. Watching known characters like Gandalf and Frodo is a thrill; seeing the grassy comfort of the Shire generates smiles; hearing the musical themes of hobbits and elves induces happy chills. The film succeeds wildly on these nostalgic levels, as any well-made Hobbit movie would.

An Unexpected Journey is Bilbo-centric, focusing on Martin Freeman's superb young version of Ian Holm's Bilbo, as he joins a baker's dozen of dwarves in an intrepid attempt to reclaim their home. With adversaries ranging from trolls to wargs to self-doubt, their adventures are indeed grand. The visual effects are expectedly spectacular, and the action does not disappoint. The film's primary shortcoming is the lack of small moments that make the big moments worthwhile, like a great meal lacking adequate salt to fully draw out the flavor.

What seasoning there is stems from the film's most potent moments, which involve Bilbo's stellar quiet interactions with Gandalf, Gollum and the dwarves. As the story breathlessly races from one massive set piece to another, the minimal small scenes aren't enough to fully round out the film. Great adventure movies succeed not only because of the action but because of the characters. The emotional connection to the main characters here is diluted by the sheer volume of dwarves and the fact that their quest isn't as inherently compelling as destroying a world-threatening evil, nor is Bilbo's participation as easily understood.

This should change as the trilogy develops. For now, An Unexpected Journey felt very much like the first of three movies, providing an exciting ride and an enjoyable stage-setting first act that begs for more. Still a solid 8 of 10, with the potential to rise as the series progresses.


Hope springs eternal, even for the Royals.

"Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." -- Andy Dufresne

The Royals pitchers and catchers report today, marking the start of another baseball season. Although the spring in spring training doesn't mean much when there are still piles of snow taller than Randy Johnson around, the more important portent is hope.

Even for Royals fans who fully expect their team to lose 100 games this season, hope still exists. Hope for a championship or merely a playoff berth...heck, even an 80-win season...is extremely minuscule, but hope still exists.

Hope exists in the little things like the green of the grass, the elegant simplicity of the KC logo, and Alcides Escobar's glove. Hope exists in big things like the crown scoreboard and Billy Butler's bat. And hope exists in between, in the spray of the fountains, the smack of ball into glove, and the hook of Joakim Soria's curve.

Hope exists because sometimes hope is rewarded, by the playoff push of 2003 or Zack Greinke's unforgettable 2009 season. No one expected Joey Votto to be the NL MVP last season. No one thought the Rangers would get to the World Series. No one thought the Giants would win it. Sometimes hope triumphs.

And so we Royals fans hope. Maybe Luke Hochevar will harness the potential he flashed in his 80-pitch complete game. Maybe Lorenzo Cain is the truth in center field. Maybe Alex Gordon will finally turn into Alex Gordon. Perhaps a few vaunted prospects will be shining by the All-Star Break. Perhaps by season's end, the bright future of 2012 will be blinding.

Maybe none of those things will happen. Maybe they all will. As camp opens, the beauty lies in the brilliant possibilities of the unknown. That's why we believe. That's why we hope.


The Fighter.

As expected, The Fighter is a sports movie. The basic story is familiar to anyone who's seen a sports movie, and little is surprising along the way. All of which makes the superior nature of the film even more remarkable.

The Fighter succeeds because it does everything well, particularly the acting and the pacing. The performances are what make the movie, as the familiarity of the genre allows the actors to shine. The Fighter would have been good with lesser actors, but the strong leads and stellar supporting cast elevate the film to Oscar contender.

Christian Bale will justifiably win awards for his masterful portrayal of the drug-addicted former boxer Dicky Eklund. Amy Adams will rightfully earn plaudits for sassily playing against type as a hard-edged bartender turned determined muse. The supporting cast is pitch-perfect in their various quirky roles. Amidst all the characters, Mark Wahlberg is the glue of the film as the titular Micky Ward, who battles adversity both in and out of the ring. Several other roles are showier, and the part may not be a big stretch for the Boston-born tough guy, but Wahlberg holds the story together with his more-difficult-than-it-looks combination of fierceness and likability.

In a cinematic age with too many bloated films, The Fighter moves steadily along, avoiding the superfluous scenes that plague most movies. Yet director David O. Russell hits all the necessary notes flawlessly and still finds time for beautiful small moments, from a tender hand holding to the jotting of a number to a passionate celebratory kiss. These poignant instants put the finishing touches on a thoroughly enjoyable drama.

The Fighter is more than just a good sports movie. It's a great movie regardless of genre, featuring numerous outstanding performances. 9 of 10, which feels high, but I don't think anything could have been done better.


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will always be the best Narnia story, because it's the original. But Voyage of the Dawn Treader has long been my favorite, due to a seamless blend of mysterious adventure and thought-provoking morality. With its episodic island-hopping, Dawn Treader always seemed the most cinematic book of the series, although I think it would make an even better single season of television.

Similar to the film version of Prince Caspian, Dawn Treader largely fails to capture the book's true spirit, which is the main element I ask for in an adaptation. By adding a singular theme of good and evil, the movie does drive forward more easily, but inserting the layer of intentionality ends up depriving the story of its wide-eyed adventure, particularly when the climax doesn't match the buildup. In trying to make Dawn Treader a more conventional tale, the filmmakers neutered too much of the narrative's soul.

Traces of the book's heart do shine through occasionally in small but thrilling moments involving Lucy's smiles, a dragon's tears, Reepicheep's valor and Aslan's words. Even filmmakers who don't truly understand the book can't screw up these remarkable moments, which make the movie worthwhile for Narnia lovers. Perhaps the best part was the credits, which featured colorized versions of the book's original drawings. Those were fantastic.

I suspect that those unfamiliar with the book will still enjoy the movie, perhaps even moreso. Dawn Treader isn't a bad watch. Frankly, it was about what I expected, though less than I hoped. 6 of 10.

One other side note...

I can usually understand why changes are made to source material, even extreme changes like those in Dawn Treader. I get that they wanted a more substantive antagonist. Fine. Reepicheep should have had darker fur...but maybe a lighter color looks better on film. Caspian should be blond...I guess he looked better as a brunette. I can even accept bigger things like Ray Liotta batting from the wrong side as Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams; he was the perfect actor for the part otherwise. Okay, I get it. What I'll never understand is why small things are changed. For example, in the book Eustace puts the bracelet on his left arm, not his right, as he does in the movie. In HP4, why is Hermione's dress pink instead of blue? Why can't filmmakers get simple facts correct? What legitimate reason could there possibly be for changing those things? Maybe it's just laziness or apathy, but that inattention to detail is too often a microcosm of what frequently separates movies like these from phenomena like The Lord of the Rings.



Inception is yet another extremely well-made film by Christopher Nolan**. A fascinating idea executed perfectly by a strong ensemble of actors and a high-caliber technical crew.

The visual effects are very impressive and occasionally wow-inducing, so seamless and story-serving that they are almost overlooked. Avatar is a drastically different movie from Inception, but each uses visual effects perfectly, integrating them as part of the narrative rather than mere flashy eye candy.

Given the vibe of confusion emanating from Inception's buzz, I expected a labyrinthine story but was pleasantly surprised by its simplicity. The basic narrative structure is complex but fairly straightforward. It requires attention and thought but not to a painful degree, creating an excellent cinematic experience for those who want a dose of intellect with their entertainment. The production team deserves significant credit for that, as the various unique visuals made it easy to track the different arcs occurring simultaneously.

The film's primary shortcoming was the relatively weak emotional link. While most all the characters were likable, only one was fully three-dimensional, and his main emotional arc was more intriguing than engaging, interesting more as a plot device than for emotional reasons. Perhaps another viewing would enhance the emotional ties, which were overshadowed by the compelling main narrative. Inception was still a magnetic thriller despite that flaw, which speaks to how strong the mental and visual pulls were.

Inception may have been undone a bit by its own expectations. Despite reading little about it, but the positive buzz was unavoidable. I expected at least an 8 out of 10, so when I got exactly that, I wasn't underwhelmed; I was simply whelmed. Just like the United States soccer team, the movie met expectations so precisely that more seemed possible.

The best films execute inherently great emotional narratives in near-flawless fashion. Inception was a great story executed in that way but lacked power-infusing themes. 8/10 for the best film thus far this year (okay...it's actually the first 2010 movie I've seen in a theater).

**Can we discuss how ridiculously good Christopher Nolan is? Look at his six major films. Memento and The Dark Knight were two of the ten best films last decade. The Prestige and Batman Begins weren't far behind. Insomnia was well-made and decent, though a couple notches behind the other five, including Inception. That's an absurd career-opening run. He's the Albert Pujols of film directors.


Rich Heyroth, 1977-2007.

Bumping this on the three-year anniversary of the day I lost a friend...

(Audio version here)

Before Monday, I did not know Death. We had never met. He visited my neighborhood a few times, draping elderly relatives with his dark blanket, but that's about it. Until this week. Losing a good friend has been a difficult new experience, nowhere near as tough as it is for those closer to him, but difficult nonetheless.

People have a tendency to lionize the deceased, emphasizing the good qualities while ignoring their shortcomings. Somehow every single athlete who dies was the epitome of a family man, and all victims of tragedies powerfully transformed those around them. I tend to look at these flowery obituaries with a raised eyebrow, wondering about the shadows behind the praise. My point in saying this is not necessarily that those hagiographies are contrived, because extreme situations spawn extreme emotions. I merely want to emphasize that I do not throw the following cathartic words out lightly.

Rich Heyroth had an easy-going manner that allowed him to tread the line between friend and authority, both in and out of school. He was three years older than me, but was also deeper in life, already married and working on a child. We were in a Bible study together for a couple years, one that he led without coming across as a leader, but as more of a facilitator. He would often share the struggles of his life and marriage, not in a lecturing or warning manner, but in a simple, matter-of-fact way that oozed honesty. This ability continued when he and Elizabeth had a son last spring. He delighted in fatherhood, eagerly relating stories and lessons that Ethan created. As marriage loomed as a possibilty for me, I relished his encouraging thoughts. He was excited that I was getting married, and I was excited to learn more from his adventures and to share experiences of my own.

His gift of compassionate teaching was evident in the classroom and on the soccer field as well. By watching or reading media coverage or perusing comments on this page, one senses that Rich was the same person regardless of his surroundings. As the de facto Shawnee Heights soccer beat writer this spring, I observed his interactions with the girls team. He was the quintessential likeable assistant coach juxtaposed with the hardline head coach. He could joke and laugh with the bench players and managers with one breath, then bark instructions to a midfielder with the next.

A few years ago in our Bible study, we churned through the Book of Ecclesiastes with the help of Tommy Nelson's excellent book, The Problem of Life with God. Our Sunday School class went through Nelson's video series, A Life Well Lived, shortly thereafter. Appropriately enough, this Sunday we were to finish another run through it. Rich loved Ecclesiastes. As recently as a week before he departed this planet, we glanced at each other after the video, with a smile and a nod that expressed what we both knew: This is great stuff.Little did I know that a few days later, Ecclesiastes would serve as a great comfort. There is a time to be born and a time to die. Apparent injustices will occur, but God is in control. All we can do is be wise, be poised, be bold, and live life to the fullest under what our study termed the umbrella of God. Simple but profoundly insightful instructions.

Rich Heyroth was not a perfect man. Nor did he pretend to be. One of the things that made him so beloved was his ability to recognize his faults and ridicule them. In our fantasy leagues, the race to make certain comments about Rich was not only between Carrs and Congdons, but also against Rich himself. With a good sense of humor in hand, Rich worked hard at his jobs and roofing his house, and played hard when he had spare time, cherishing soccer, softball, and Band of Brothers. My earliest memory of Rich stems from playing chess at a lakehouse one summer. That scene epitomizes him, enjoying the freedoms of summer while actively seeking a challenge. He lived life well, and now he is partying in heaven, Twinkies in hand.

If you're interested in making a donation in Rich's memory, you have plenty of options. Contact Topeka Bible Church for information on donating to a family fund or a memorial fund. You can also participate in this fundraiser.