Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Singing and Dancing

While my sister and I were growing up, our parents always wanted us to have a healthy appreciation for the arts and culture. Movies, museums and the theater were visited often, and those trips helped shape me into the man I have become, and continue to guide my perceptions of the world today. One I remember with some clarity was a showing at Boston's Wang Center of Les Miserables, the musical about poverty and revolution, crime and punishment in 1800's France. Even after all this time, I can remember the legendary musical numbers performed live by people who were masters of their craft. On Christmas, the whole country got a chance to see Tom Hooper's vision of that story on the big screen. Hooper, who could have done any project he wanted after scoring big with 2010's The King's Speech, decided to tackle the challenge of turning a story told 98% in song to a cinematic masterpiece. How did he do? Well, let's review.

Les Miserables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) - a man who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's children - after he is paroled. While he at first cannot find work due to his reputation as a "dangerous criminal", Valjean eventually catches a break and manages to make some wealth and do some good for the people of France after fleeing parole and taking an assumed name. His nemesis and the man chasing him is Javert (Russell Crowe), an officer of the law who rigidly enforces the law and cracks down on even the smallest infractions. Valjean finds a purpose in life when he attempts to aid the sick and struggling mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and adopts her daughter Cosette upon her death. Meanwhile, a revolution is building as the downtrodden common folk take up arms against the oppressive King and bourgeoisie.

Hope you enjoy Hathaway's performance... it's damned short
The good news is, if you love the musical as much as some people I know, you won't have any problems with the big screen rendition of Les Mis. Hooper changes almost nothing about what makes the musical so impressive, from its memorable musical score to its multiple-threaded story full of entertaining characters. He augments only in the tiniest bits, most notably in the addition of a new song for Jackman at the midway point. Like the musical, the actors rarely speak in anything but verse, and the director gets great vocalization from his cast by having had them sing live during filming, rather than recording it in post production. While it takes some effort to get used to, and at a few moments the singing doesn't quite match the music, the result is a largely authentic emotional response from his actors, who really get into their performances as though they were really playing on Broadway.

She dreamed a dream, and then she was gone.
The cast of course is a big reason for why the whole thing turned out nicely, and the main credit for that can be attributed to Jackman and Hathaway. Hathaway especially steals the show, and considering she has MAYBE twenty minutes of screen time in a two-plus hour movie, that says a lot. She's assisted somewhat by Hooper's direction (the fall into degradation of Fantine just happens to be the most masterfully shot sequence in the whole movie), but for the most part she deserves all the credit in the world for taking an important bit part and wringing everything out of it that she could. I didn't even know she could SING, and here she is belting out solos like a veteran vocalist. She's an Oscar guarantee at this point, bringing talents to the role that very few people could have expected. Jackman, however, has a history with song and stage, and so his excellence as Jean Valjean comes as absolutely no surprise. The part plays to the best aspects of his theatrical abilities, and anybody who is used to seeing him play manly men in the X-Men films or Real Steel needs to see his work here. The rest of the cast are a step down, though both Eddie Redmayne and debuting Samantha Barks will completely surprise you with their acting and singing abilities. Both have long, excellent careers ahead of them at this point. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen put on strong performances as secondary villains (when am I going to stop being surprised by Cohen's talents?), and while Amanda Seyfried did not really impress me with her appearances, she was so barely present that it's hard to really give her a hard time. The only dud in casting was Crowe, who sports a fine singing voice but can't seem to loosen up and look natural for the camera. It's especially surprising when you consider what a good job he did in the unspectacular Man with the Iron Fists. Here, he puts on one of his lesser performances, the weakest part of an otherwise great group.

If it wasn't for Hathaway, everybody would be talking about her.
But while Hooper gets a lot out of his cast and puts on some great visuals, his story feels... exactly the same as the musical. At the core, you're getting pretty much the same experience you would on a stage, and while that is pretty impressive it also speaks to a glaring lack of individuality in his vision. The last time I saw a musical theater-turned-theatrical release, it was 2007's Sweeny Todd, which suffered from much the same ailment. There just wasn't enough to make it feel like more than they filmed a stage play. While Hooper's Les Mis is a far superior experience than Tim Burton's production, at times the director could have mixed things up a bit to make up for the play's... melodramatics, especially in the final act. The final ten minutes are largely underwhelming, shoehorning an obscene amount of plot into a few minutes of film, and the closing scene is almost as bad as Titanic's "applause" finale. So why did this make the final cut? Because it was that way in the musical, that's why.

And he's STILL the manliest man in Hollywood.
There are people who absolutely LOVE the stage version of Les Miserables. Usually when adaptations such as this are made, they alienate fans of the original by completely changing elements that made the original experience unique, whether major or minor. But fans of the stage Les Mis will have no such issues, as few changes and an excellent voice cast guarantee that diehards will walk out of the theater crying and sure they have just seen a masterpiece. For the rest of us, this musical is great, but doesn't live up to that impossible superlative. Keep Jackman and Hathaway earmarked for their exquisite performances, but otherwise this is "just" a great, deeply encompassing good time at the movies, not one of 2012's absolute best.


Anonymous said...

This movie and this review made me shed one singular tear. Two tears up!!!!!!!!

Nicolas Sarkozy

Anonymous said...

Will you review my favorite 2 Chainz song?