Monday, January 07, 2013

Movie Review: "Les Misérables" (2012)

Pitch (Im)perfect.

Like his character Jean Valjean hefting massive weights by sheer force of will, Hugh Jackman almost singlehandedly carries the weight of this ambitious, overstuffed, bombastic film adaptation of the international megahit musical.  It is up to you, though, to decide whether Jackman's effort is reminiscent more of Atlas or of Sisyphus. Oh, and Academy?  Give Anne Hathaway her Best Supporting Actress statuette and get it over with already.

Sorry it took me forever to get around to writing this!  I was busy with holiday things.  But now it's time to procrastinate on doing schoolwork, so here's a movie review at last for you!

The Good:
Australian star Hugh Jackman is the heart and soul of this entire effort, and he proves that he has the acting (and the singing) chops for the part.  In the role of Valjean, a convict jailed for stealing bread who becomes a fugitive when he breaks parole, Jackman turns in an absorbing depiction of a sweeping character arc.  He makes you not only forget that he was ever Wolverine; he also draws you into his plight and his journey, and he does it under the limitation of having almost no spoken lines at all.  (Here's an assignment: compare/contrast Jackman's musical Valjean with Liam Neeson's version in the non-musical 1998 film of Victor Hugo's 1862 tome.)   

The performance that everybody's talking about, though, belongs to Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the factory worker who falls on hard times and is forced into terrible degradation.  Her "I Dreamed a Dream" was filmed as a continuous take, and it is indeed something to see and hear.  That song may well be, as one critic calls it, an "ode to self-pity," but she makes you feel her despair as a visceral thing almost as physical as her bodily trauma.  People were audibly weeping all around me in the theater.  As in, SOBBING LIKE SCHOOLGIRLS.  I am not kidding.  Then someone a few seats away from me took out a hanky and blew her nose amid the sniveling.  Let me tell you: nothing ruins a heart-rending song about hopelessness more than hearing a snot-filled, foghorn-like "HOOOOOOOONK!" from mere feet away.  Ugh.

The Bad:
I hate to do this since I love the undeniably talented Russell Crowe, but ... He seems strangely constricted and uncomfortable as Javert, the police inspector who relentlessly hunts Valjean (think: The Fugitive).  Crowe looks absolutely fabulous in his costuming and is impressive indeed on horseback, but he seems unable to act and sing at the same time and so ends up doing neither thing particularly well.  This is a shame, really, and I was a little surprised, but Crowe isn't at his best; he seems to be a pale, stiff version of his usual self (was the handsome period suit too itchy?), and his singing voice doesn't seem to reflect his character.  The movie also does Crowe/Javert a terrible disservice in his final scene; let's just say that the sound effect ruined the moment.

Crowe's Javert at least is more or less memorable in the sense that he has his motivation and it's comprehensible.  The romance between Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) feels utterly contrived, and I'm afraid that I didn't buy it for a moment.  The two young lovers are largely forgettable in their milquetoast mooning.  There's a reason why everybody always roots for Éponine (energetically embodied by an impossibly wasp-waisted Samantha Banks - somebody get that girl a sandwich, stat!).  Still, Redmayne can actually kind of sing.

The worst offender of the film, however, is director Tom Hooper.  He's constructed this movie so it is literally in your face ... or, more accurately, in the faces of his actors.  The camera is constantly zooming in on the actors' features until you feel almost claustrophobic, as if you were stuck in a corner with an irate professor SCREAMING AS LOUDLY AS HE CAN RIGHT INTO YOUR FACE.  Are we all supposed to be examining Hugh Jackman's tonsils?  counting Russell Crowe's pores?  You almost expect to feel flying spittle hitting you in the eye.  Hey, Hooper, two words: personal space.  Meanwhile, I'm starting to feel sorry for everyone on the cast who had to sing, really sing, (the songs were not done with pre-recorded lyrics and lip-sync) with the camera all but squashing their noses.  The miserable side-effect of this suffocating approach is that you lose all sense of the scope of things.  The flick does better when the camera pulls back to show some actual settings.

There's also a problem with trying to convert a stage musical into a film.  The editing seemed choppy, the narrative was too much like skipping from one setpiece to another, and the lack of spoken dialogue became wearying.  In terms of art direction, the film also has a strangely disjointed combination of artifice and realism. The whole first scene of prisoners pulling on ship's ropes seemed like so much visual contrivance.

The Weird:
I can't decide whether casting Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the repulsive Thénardiers was a good thing or a bad thing.  Did they provide welcome comic relief or off-puttingly cringeworthy antics?

Assorted Thoughts:
~I really don't get all the fans who say that Eddie Redmayne is hot.  I don't see it.  Then again, I've never really liked Marius or his little revolutionary friends.  Which brings me to ...

~"Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is poignant and all that good tearjerking stuff, but I'm really of two minds about the entire depiction of the June rebellion of 1832 in Paris.  Oh, it looks all "romantic" on stage (and now on film, sort of), but it was a bloody business that ended up killing or wounding hundreds of people.  The scene of gunsmoke and banners and barricades looks ZOMG totally fantastic on stage, but it all ended pretty horribly both in the musical and in history.  Not even the most rousing rendition of "Do You Hear the People Sing" can change that.  Maybe I simply can't let go of being a history student; I just don't think the doomed insurrection, even in a musical, was very "romantic."  Sorry.  A lot of movie critics are comparing the uprising to Occupy Wall Street. Well, I didn't think that noisy convulsion was so "romantic" either, and the comparison actually isn't a really good one, but whatever.

On top of this, aside from some vague lines about General Lamarque (I know: who?), the film doesn't really give the audience much context for the anti-monarchist uprising.  This makes it really hard either to understand just what the stakes are or (let's be honest) to care very much.  I wouldn't blame you for asking, Ummmm, I wasn't paying attention - why are we revolting again?  (For those of you who are wondering, hey, anti-monarchist?  Didn't we already have the French Revolution and lop off King Louis XVI's noggin?  Darling, that is so 1793!  French history is confusing, and there was Napoleon too, and now we're in 1832 and getting into all kinds of political messes. But just wait until 1848!  Geez, give me British history any day.)  But hey, maybe it doesn't really matter, since the whole thing is ultimately one huge narrative device to give Valjean the spotlight for encountering Javert and Marius.

~Redemption, Justice, Law, Mercy, and Identity

For the record, I don't think Javert is a villain, not really, not in the sense of actual conscious evil.  His entire life is devoted to the enforcement of the law, and he is an inflexible stickler for the letter of that law.  It becomes too simplistic.  His real problem is the failure to understand the complex interplay of justice and mercy, along with the ideas that the letter of the law is not the same as the spirit of the law and that sometimes - oh yes - doing the by-the-book approach ends up being unexpectedly but nonetheless immoral and unjust.  What happens when the agent of righteous anger realizes that the object of his wrath is not the villain he had always assumed him to be?  when the righteous avenger realizes that he's been fundamentally wrong?  Javert's final dilemma goes beyond legal or moral to being existential.

As for Valjean: his story is one of the most - OK, I'm going to say this politically incorrect thing - Christian narratives ever.  His really is a story about forgiveness and redemption and second chances and renewal, about choices and the struggle to do the right thing.  And if you're not even remotely touched by his tale (and by the gentle bishop's transformative act of mercy), then I just can't help you.

The Verdict: 
Despite its many flaws, the film is worth seeing once for Jackman and Hathaway.  Overall, MM gives this film a grade of B-.

Rotten Tomatoes gives Les Miz a fresh rating of 70%.

Les Miz runs 157 minutes and is rated for PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, and brief (soul-shredding) sensuality.

Here is the trailer:


Eric said...

I finally got around to watching the 2012 movie adaptation of the musical, Les Miserables. My reactions. If you want to listen to the music of Les Miz, you're better off pulling up the 10th anniversary special on youtube. The director, Tom Hooper, claims his actors were directed to adapt their singing to method acting on set, but I don't entirely buy that given that some actors deviated from the musical style more than others. I suspect some of the actors were simply more able than the others to achieve Broadway-quality singing, and those who could sing the songs conventionally, did. The added songs and song parts (eg, Marius's grandfather joining a Marius-Cosette duet) were flat. I'd like to see the songs that Hooper edited out of the film, such as Cohen's Dog Eats Dog. The loud crunch of Javert's body hitting the river and the quick beat with Cosette reaching up for Marius at the bottom of the tavern stairs were clumsy. Speaking of Javert, it's good to know that after Captain Jack Aubrey left His Royal Majesty's Navy he was able to find work as a corrections officer in France. Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop looks like Mike Myers as Goldfinger. The last scene on the barricade heaven with dead soldiers strewn at the foot looks like a north Korean passion play. Editing out Eponine singing with Fantine like ghost Jedi in Valjean's death scene was a mistake. Yes, we can accept the Bishop probably had died by then, but his death wasn't part of the story nor included with Fantine, Eponine, and Valjean's deaths in the motif of love-based deathbed redemption. It's so easy for Marius Pontmercy. Eponine and Cosette both fall in love with Marius with no effort on his part. He's reckless in a deadly situation that kills all his friends, yet Eponine and Valjean take turns saving his life with Eponine sacrificing her life for his. If Valjean caught his fatal illness in the sewer, then he sacrificed his life for Marius, too. Then Marius returns to his rich grandfather's household with his new bride. For a people's hero who claims he wouldn't accept a cent he didn't earn, Marius seems comfortably unconflicted resuming his life of luxury with the pampered Cosette. Gavroche was a combatant pilfering ammunition from dead soldiers in plain view of the dead soldiers' buddies; they were kind enough to give him a warning shot but he insisted on continuing; I would have shot him, too. The French Army in the movie is disturbingly callous with the bodies of their dead soldiers. The soldiers leave their dead buddies lying about for Valjean to steal a uniform, and after the battle, the soldiers' bodies are left lying on the street and then stacked in a cart on the side while the women clean the street. I grant that the deployment of soldiers took more of a cannon-fodder approach in the 19th century, but that doesn't mean soldiers cared less about each other or line officers cared less about their men. The military reverence for their dead is ages old. And why are the students better marksmen than the soldiers? At least when the Ewoks fought the Imperial garrison on Endor, we could accept the Ewoks were skilled warriors conducting an ambush and not "rich young boy" university students confronting professional soldiers head on.

Mad Minerva said...

That sounds about right, especially where Marius is concerned. But did you like Anne Hathaway?

Eric said...

I did like her. Hathaway's Fantine epitomized what Hooper was going for in his adaptation of the musical - not just translating the musical to a movie, but reconstructing the musical as a movie. Of all the actors, I thought she did the best job of retailoring her role for the movie. Fantine and Cosette are 2-dimensional characters in the musical, more plot device than featured characters. For the movie, Hooper and Hathaway elevated Fantine to a macabre focal point while staying true to her story that's tragic but otherwise sanitized in the musical.

* That's not a criticism of Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried acts and sings Cosette better than the all-star Cosettes on youtube. If she played Cosette on stage, Seyfried could be remembered as arguably the best Cosette like Lea Salonga is remembered for her Eponine. The character of Cosette just remains the same in the musical and movie.

Of the singing parts that were noticeably altered other than for timing, Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream is the only one that became a song for the movie that is distinct from the same song in the musical rather than a chopped up version of the same song.

And that should be Goldmember, not Goldfinger.

Mad Minerva said...

No argument from me. Hathaway was definitely a highlight.