Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Les Misérables" Review - Hangin' With Mr. Hooper

Continuing my trend of discussing music (in a manner of speaking), I'd like to review the film "Les Misérables", which I saw last night.

This was a film that I was very much looking forward to seeing since the initial teaser trailer. "Les Mis" has always been my favorite non-Sondheim musical and one of my favorite stories in general. As my review of "Cloud Atlas" probably made clear, I'm a sucker for huge, sprawling stories involving a huge cast of characters, particularly when the characters are neither decidedly evil nor good.

I would honestly prefer the book over the musical simply because the musical does a couple of things I dislike. First of all, it overemphasizes the religious motifs a LOT. Yes, Jean Valjean became a more religious man after being saved by Myriel, but what I liked about the book was that Valjean initially refused to heed Digne's command. He went back into the world with no intention of changing. He then steals a 40-sous coin from a little boy, who then runs away. However, to his shock, he finds that he is immediately remorseful of this action. He is unable to find the boy and is consumed by guilt. He then discovers that his theft had been reported to the authorities, forcing him to flee Digne. In the musical, he just has a existential crisis, finds Jesus, and tears up his papers because apparently God wants him to break the law.

For similar reasons, I prefer the version of Javert in the book to the one in the musical. Don't get me wrong, Javert is still my favorite character in the musical, but he is somewhat cheapened by the song "Stars", which casts a religious light on Javert's actions and beliefs. It's not that I'm against religion, but part of what makes Javert interesting to me is that he does his duty because he believes the law is an infallible good, not for some divine reward after death. To Javert in the book, the law might as well be his god, and that makes his actions all the more poignant and terrifying. That being said, I get that the musical is trying to draw parallels between Valjean and Javert and making them both religious accomplishes that and also saves time.

Even so, "Les Mis" is a spectacular musical and I had been wanting to see it filmed for quite some time.

However, filmed musicals have a bit of a nasty track record as of late. "Sweeney Todd" was passable at best, "The Producers" was god-awful, "RENT" was worthless with the exception of Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson (and also for the soundtrack, which I'm ashamed to admit I prefer to the Original Broadway Cast version, mostly because I can't stand Rubin-Vega's voice), "Mamma Mia!" sucked before it was filmed, "The Phantom of the Opera" requires heaping helpings of irony to enjoy (though I admit I do enjoy it)... if it weren't for "Hairspray" and "Chicago", the past decade would have been a complete wash for filmed adaptations of Broadway shows.

I've also felt that the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood has gotten a lot less healthy recently. If you look at Broadway's current list of musicals, about 30% of them are adaptations of movies. While that may not sound too bad, 100% of the current Broadway musicals are based on something. And really, if you think about it, when's the last time we had a mainstream Broadway musical that told a completely original story with completely original music? "Avenue Q" springs to mind, but it definitely takes heavy amounts of inspiration for the works of Jim Henson. "Urinetown" fits the bill, but that's from a decade ago. I get that Broadway isn't as popular as it once was and the easiest way to get an audience is to adapt something they're already familiar with, but maybe if the budgets of the shows weren't inflated to a ridiculous degree (which "Les Mis" and other Cameron Mackintosh musicals are admittedly largely responsible for), they could afford to take more chances. OK, tangent over.

My point is, in the past decade a lot of otherwise good musicals were turned into awful movies, and otherwise good movies were turned into awful musicals.

Had I heard about "Les Mis" before I saw the teaser trailer, I likely would have been incredibly skeptical, but thankfully I didn't hear about it until I saw an interview with Anne Hathaway where she discussed it and they showed bits from the teaser. So my first impression for this film was Anne Hathaway's stunning performance.

Perhaps my expectations were a little too high to start with, but the more I saw, the more I liked. As much as I disliked Tom Hooper's "A King's Speech" -- which turned the life of a fascinating historical figure into an oversimplified feel-good story about how a king conquering his speech impediment also somehow fixed the classism of 20th century Britain and defeated Hitler -- I gave him a lot of rope here.

As a fan, my standards for a "Les Mis" movie were maybe a little too specific. "I Dreamed a Dream" needed to be painful. "Master of the House" needed to be funny. "A Little Fall of Rain" needed to make me cry. Gavroche needed to sing at least a tiny bit of "Little People". "Javert's Suicide" needed to send chills down my spine. And to the movie's credit, most of these standards were met.

Anne Hathaway's version of "I Dreamed a Dream" is easily the best I've ever seen, and we're talking about one of the most overdone showtunes in recent memory (thanks, Susan Boyle). Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are inspired as the Thenardiers. Back in "Sweeney Todd", I was convinced that Helena Bonham Carter didn't have the chops to play a part as bombastic as Mrs. Lovett, but "Les Mis" pretty much convinced me that she's either improved a lot in the past 5 years, or Tim Burton just sucks at directing musicals. As for Sacha Baron Cohen, he was pretty much the only actor in "Sweeney Todd" that was worth a damn and he's just as good here (he's also the only character who actually attempts to replicate a French accent). While Samantha Barks' Éponine is very good and Eddie Redmayne's Marius is a revelation (more on that later), "A Little Fall of Rain" didn't really get much out of me... though it was still good. Gavroche not only sang a few lines of "Little People" (though the full song is understandably cut), but he kicked a ton of ass. "Javert's Suicide" on the other hand was... awful.

OK, let's talk about Russell Crowe. I'm not entirely sure how he got the part of Javert. He doesn't really look the part, he's not a very good singer, and he's not exactly the Oscar Bait he once was. I mean, it was very impressive back in 1999-2001 where he got nominated three years in a row, but it's 2012 now. He hasn't even been in a critically acclaimed film since 2007. The movie already has enough Oscar Bait in Tom Hooper, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Whatever the reason, Russell Crowe ended up with the role of Javert and he's easily the weakest part of the movie.

That's not to say Russell Crowe absolutely sucks in the role. I've certainly seen worse performances of Javert in my lifetime and if nothing else, Russell Crowe's interpretation is definitely in-character and consistent. His singing isn't even that bad. The problem is mostly that everyone else in the film is just so well-suited to their roles that Russell Crowe sticks out like a sore thumb. Javert is meant to be intimidating and impressive, but Crowe almost never manages it. Thankfully, he actually does a decent job during "The Confrontation". When Jean Valjean starts to try and smooth-talk his way out of getting arrested, Crowe responds by unsheathing his sword in the least efficient way possible. Also, his delivery of the "I come from the gutter too!" line is probably the best he gets.

His singing, while rarely ever awful is almost always flat and lifeless. Yes, Javert is meant to be rigid and cold, but he still has a deep passion for his duty. The best Javert performers roar like lions, but Crowe whines like a dog. Since we don't believe his passion, his suicide is kind of inconsequential and almost funny. I shouldn't enjoy seeing my favorite character die.

That being said, Russel Crowe is not the only part of this movie that struggles. The other big issue is with the way it is filmed.

When we got to "I Dreamed a Dream", I was blown away with how utterly perfect Hathaway's performance was, and what's even more impressive is that she sang it live and all in one take. It made the performance really moving and involving.

The problem is that this is how Tom Hooper films almost every damn scene.

Now, I love that Hooper decided to go with live singing. If nothing else, this film will hopefully set the standard for all movie musicals going forward. Live singing is a vast improvement over lip-syncing and it's a wonder it took this long to seriously attempt it in a big-budget movie musical.

I also like that a good deal of the performances are done in one take, allowing them to feel more consistent.

But almost every scene can be summed up like this: Extreme close-up on the person who is singing, follow them around while they pace, but never cut to a wide shot, and then finally cut to a sweeping crane shot as they hold their last note at the end.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. "Master of the House" is wonderfully shot and actually makes use of the gorgeous set design. Aside from that, every time someone is singing, we just get one handheld shot of their head for the duration. And while this works well for moving, introspective songs like "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables", it just feels lazy the rest of the time.

I think I get what Hooper was going for. He was trying to make the film stand on the performances of the actors alone rather than on overproduced set pieces and stuff. That's all well and good, but if he wanted to do a version of "Les Mis" that stood on the strength of the actors alone, he probably should have just directed a version for the stage rather than for film. Film is a visual medium and with rare exception, there's not a lot to see here. It seems like there's a lot of really good set design, but we almost never get to see much of it. It's almost like Hooper was trying to film it like a documentary 95% of the time.

Douglas Ingram, the guy who storyboarded "Les Mis", also storyboarded "Captain America: The First Avenger" as well as a few other movies with a good sense of visual style. I imagine he drew a lot of really excellent, detailed storyboards for this film. Then Hooper set them on fire and made Ingram watch as he laughed maniacally.

Whenever the camera decides to detach from the actors, we get some really cool shots. There's this one shot that we see both in "Stars" and "Javert's Suicide" where Javert walks along the edge of a high place. It's a really cool visual cue. There's also a hilariously awesome shot in "Stars" where Javert is standing next to a ridiculous stone statue of an eagle or something. It actually made me laugh, but I was honestly just glad to see something other than Russell Crowe's sweaty pores. Thank God this movie wasn't in IMAX.

Russell Crowe and camerawork aside, there's a lot of excellent stuff here. As I mentioned, most of the cast is absolutely amazing, but I want to make particular note of newcomer Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Gavroche is a tricky character. Most productions I've seen usually cast some random kid and don't even get him to sing much, which is why "Little People" is often cut from the show. However, 12-year-old Daniel Huttlestone is fucking amazing in the role. There's this extra bit that Gavroche sings in "Look Down" that I think comes from the original French version but isn't included in any English version I've ever seen, but I absolutely loved it. Something about a cockney-sounding street urchin pontificating about French history made me actually give a crap about their pitiful rebellion. I'm calling it right now. Daniel Huttlestone will be huge when he grows up.

Amanda Seyfried is excellent as Cosette (I'm not usually a fan of too much vibrato, but she somehow nails it) even though Cosette is really kind of a boring character. During "A Heart Full of Love", a fucking butterfly shows up out of nowhere when she starts singing. I wouldn't be surprised if that wasn't planned and butterflies just naturally appear whenever Amanda Seyfried starts singing.

The biggest shocker for me personally was Eddie Redmayne as Marius. I typically loathe Marius, mostly because he's a privileged, naive rich kid convinced that his bland love story is the greatest ever told and gets Éponine killed. But for whatever reason, I found myself actually giving a shit about him. Maybe it was because Gavroche made me give a shit about the rebellion. Maybe it was because Enjolras and the other revolutionaries are all played wonderfully. Or maybe it was just because Eddie Redmayne was just that good.

It's really hard to talk about anything other than the cast in this movie because, as I mentioned, that's pretty much all this movie has. It may sound nit-picky, but because Tom Hooper apparently can't give a shit about the world outside of these characters' heads, I found myself having a hard time giving a shit about the characters. Even the characters I normally liked like Éponine generally left me feeling "meh". Hooper refused to contextualize most of the movie. I'm generally fond of directors that try and focus on the actors, but because each character is generally shot in a vacuum, we have a lot of really well-refined ingredients (and Russell Crowe) that are never really put together in a convincing way. Marius and Éponine work really well on their own, but during "A Little Fall of Rain", it feels like this was the first time they met even though they shared a number of scenes together, mostly because they were almost never in the same frame at the same time before that moment.

It's not just about getting sick of seeing the actors' faces for 3 hours. It's about Hooper's unwillingness to actually tell a story beyond what it written on the page.

Hooper deserves credit for making some bold choices. Some of the new bits work really well and the decision to do live singing really paid off in spades, but those sorts of choices could have been made by an executive producer. A director needs to try and put together a cohesive narrative and with a sprawling epic like "Les Mis", that's quite a huge undertaking. I wouldn't have minded if Hooper tried and missed the mark a little bit. I usually don't mind when directors fall a little bit short of their huge ambition. But it felt like Hooper didn't try at all. If you gave a robot a steadycam, the movie would have looked just about the same.

All in all, I'd say the movie is worth seeing if you're a fan of the musical or if you've always been curious to see what the show is like. I'd say this is a faithful adaptation of the show, if nothing else. I don't, however, think it stands particularly well on its own as a film. If you don't give a shit about this story going into it, the movie won't do much to convince you otherwise.

Still, I don't think we'll ever see a better film adaptation of the musical in our lifetimes. We may see a better film adaptation of the story itself, but I think that the only way you'll get to see a better version of the musical is if you go see it at the West End.