Sunday, January 06, 2013

10 Points on Les Misérables

Les Miserables (2012 - Tom Hooper)

I couldn't really count this as any type of formal "review"--more a collection of thoughts I had during and after the film. It allows me to put the thoughts out there without trying to make them cohere into an actual review.

1. I like the musical. It's no masterpiece, and I recognize that, but I like it, and I can think of many worse ways to pass an evening than by seeing a production of Les Miserables. I really like a lot of the songs, and I find it easy to get swept up in the big emotions of the piece. I also liked The Kings Speech, although more in the framework of a BBC-type biopic than as any type of major film. (I also liked Hooper's TV work from the 2000's.)

2. The musical is not at all well-served by the film, which only seems to highlight the weaknesses of the musical. Trying to bring a sense of realism to the film adaptation only highlights how much the musical simplifies Hugo's novel. A lot of the complexities get reduced to more simple emotions, and you can really feel the emotional button-pushing here. The female characters, especially are weak links. They never really register as anything, really. They weren't strong in the musical (a lot of that due to compressing Hugo's novel) but I don't remember Lea Salonga's Eponine being such a non-entity in the 10th Anniversary Concert. 

3. Theatre is a less realistic, more abstract medium than film, and that's why, for example, Fantine's life can fall completely apart over the space of about twenty minutes on stage, or why Cosette and Marius can go from total strangers to soul mates who can't stand to be apart over a similar period of time. But in the movie, when Fantine's downfall seems to be the result of one really crappy afternoon, or when the entire 1832 segment seems to take place over a 72-hour period (if not less), it just seems ridiculous. Also, "Look Down" at the beginning feels like the opening of Prince of Egypt where the slaves start singing "Deliver Us"; "At the End of the Day" might as well have been outtakes of the opening sequence of The Muppet Christmas Carol.

4. This is a truly poorly directed film. Hooper doesn't seem to have a clue (or care) what he's doing here. There isn't any real thematic coherence, and often not much coherence between the performers. Everything is haphazardly framed and edited together. A song between Marius, Eponine, and Cosette is made up of cuts between close-ups of each character, when it would have made sense frame Marius and Cosette in the same shot for their parts, or to show Marius and Cosette in the background of Eponine's parts. The film frequently cuts from one camera angle to a wildly different one, which can be as difficult on the eyes as 3D. I haven't seen so much strange framing or so many off-kilter camera angles since Elizabeth fourteen years ago.

5. Since it's been mentioned all over: Why does Hooper use so many close-ups? Like I said before, it undercuts the effectiveness of a lot of the musical numbers; it isolates the actors, and almost makes them seem to be performing in different films. Most of the songs involve multiple performers, but it's rare to see more than one person singing on screen at a time. And the sets look great, at least from what we can tell. Could it just be old-fashioned laziness? More close-ups reduce the amount of blocking to be done, which allows for faster work. 

6. "Do You Hear the People Sing?" is put in a different place in the film. In the musical it follows "Red and White/ABC Cafe", but in the film it follows "One Day More", and I think it actually works in the context of the movie. They also move "On My Own" to right before "One Day More" rather than after it. The song doesn't really make a lot of sense before "One Day More", but it is one of the better-staged musical numbers in the film. It's a bit literal-minded, but Hooper handles it better than many of the other numbers.

7. The Javert/Valjean dynamic isn't really clear here. We don't really A) understand why Javert is obsessed with Valjean for so long; or B) why Javert does what he does in the end. You never get the sense of them as being opposite sides of the same coin, which is really one of the keys to the piece. We wonder whether Javert has anything else to do with his life beyond pursuing Valjean. I hate to say that I haven't read the novel, but surely Victor Hugo's Javert is some more than the one-dimensional symbol of the rigidity of the law he comes off as being here.

8. Yes, "I Dreamed a Dream" is well-delivered by Hathaway, but Hooper's decision to shoot it in a garish close-up is suffocating--give her some room to breathe, Tom! The song always felt like it came of nowhere, and it still does here. Fantine quite literally seems to lose her job, sell her hair, sell her teeth, and become a prostitute over the course of one afternoon and evening, and we don't know anything about her beyond the fact that she has (as she incessantly repeats) a daughter who she sends money to. Fantine is wholly a victim, and because Fantine isn't really a character, the effectiveness of "I Dreamed a Dream" tends to depend more on whatever memories and emotions we tend to associate with it than it does on anything else, and I don't find it very effective here. I can see--and respect--the emotion that Hathaway puts into it, but Best Supporting Actress? No way. I preferred Eddie Redmayne's big solo to Anne Hathaway's. I think "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is one of the best songs in the piece, and I think it works (in the play and in the musical) because it doesn't come out of nowhere. We get a sense of the loss that he's singing about--we also got to know (albeit briefly) the friends he's singing about. I didn't care at all for the way the scene was put together, but I thought Redmayne nailed it. I really think that Redmayne, more than anyone else from the movie, deserves an Oscar nomination. 

10. I'm not totally sure where to begin with Russell Crowe, but I'll paraphrase a tweet I saw: His presence in the film has a whiff of, "This is the only guy who auditioned, so we'll just cast him and hope it works out." His performance of "Stars" was nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be, and in general he doesn't sound as bad when he's singing solos. Hugh Jackman is obviously more suited to a musical than Crowe, and he's better overall, but he seems poorly directed--unemotional at times when one would expect emotion, and over-the-top at times when some restraint might be called for.

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