Thursday, February 14, 2013

Les Miserables, Mor Funs!

Best Picture Roundup: Silver Linings Playbook | Argo | Les Mis | Life of Pi | Beasts of the Southern Wild | Lincoln | Django Unchained | Zero Dark Thirty | Amour

Les Miserables (or, as those of us who didn't take high school French like to call it, "Lay Miz") is a heartwarming, family-friendly, laugh-a-minute comedy.  If slapstick's not your thing, you may want to avoid this film.  For me, I found it charming, and I admit to smiling whenever the ol' slide whistle was coupled with someone slipping on the festering grime of post-revolutionary France.

Oh, wait, did I say any of those things?  I actually meant none of those things.

(Except the festering grime part, that's pretty accurate.)

(Note: I'll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.  Any spoilers will be significantly marked.  Read freely!)

To begin with, let's get three things established.  These are the three things that absolutely everyone discussing this film must state, as there is apparently some sort of Internet law about it.

1. People sing in this movie. Like, all the time.
2. Anne Hathaway is in the film for perhaps 5 minutes of screen time, and absolutely steals the show.
3. Russell Crowe is...underwhelming.

The singing thing, to me, is a silly thing to bring up, because it's usually brought up as a criticism.  I understand if musicals aren't your thing--they're not usually my thing--but it's like saying, "Star Wars is great, except for all those times they went into space."  If that's what's holding you back from enjoying Star Wars, then I don't think your problem is with Star Wars, my friend.  It's with the genre.  Les Mis is a musical, so stating something like "I just couldn't take it seriously how people spontaneously started singing" doesn't really count as a cunning critique of the film.

That being said, it's music is handled different than most musicals.  All of the singing in the film is "live"--that is, it was recorded as the actors were filmed, rather than being added in post-production.  This gives the film a strange sense of realism, a feeling of, "People don't just break out in song, but if they did, it would probably sound kind of like this."  This is coupled with a minimalist directorial style during the film's solo pieces; Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" consists basically of her face in front of a darkened background, and is absolutely breathtaking.

And to think I once questioned the choice to shoe-horn a Susan Boyle song into an established musical.
This directorial decision made me realize something I'm sure is considered every time a stage production is turned into a film: what will distinguish the film from the musical.  In many cases, the decision is to make the film even more lavish than the stage musical could ever hope to be; to me, this is what Phantom of the Opera did, and it often comes off as, at best, trying too hard.  There are moments of that in this film, too (though instead of "more lavish," it's mostly "more filthy"), but it's as though Tom Hooper realized that the one thing film can bring an audience that a stage cannot is the actor her or himself.  If Anne Hathaway had been filmed from a distance, wandering around a carefully-constructed setpiece, there would be little to distinguish watching it on a screen from watching it in real-life; but a close-up of her face, watching her every emotion, feeling her once-vibrant hope crushed into a desperate agony of helplessness...

The exception to the directorial minimalism, though, is any scene with Russell Crowe singing.  That's where you see the camera panning round and round, while CGI Paris spins in the distance.  This is because Russell Crowe's singing ability...er...can't quite carry a scene.


To be fair, Russell Crowe is not a bad singer.  Actually, wait, let me rephrase that: he's not a bad singer.  He hits his notes.  He conveys emotion with his songs.  He sings and acts at the same time.  I realize I sound kind of facetious here, but I'm actually quite serious: he does a good job.  It's just...he's surrounded by people doing a great job.  I've already said more than enough about Anne Hathaway's singing (in her one number, mind you), and Hugh Jackman is freaking Hugh Jackman.

Imagine that, just after this gif ends, when he looks off into the middle distance, he sings, "What have I done?  Sweet Jesus, what have I done?"

Do I recommend this movie?  Absolutely.  It's not everyone's cup of tea, and I've heard a lot of people who weren't fans.  All that I know, though, is that my wife and I saw it over Christmas break and loved it.  It's a great date-night movie, if you're not afraid to spice up your romantic evening with heartbreak after filth-covered heartbreak.

1 comment:

  1. Here are my thoughts on Les Mis (lightly edited from what I wrote on a BCC comment a few weeks back):

    I thought Les Mis was kinda lousy. Most of the characters failed the basic test of 1. Who is this person? and 2. Why do I care what he or she is doing? particularly in the film’s second half when the bland Marius suddenly becomes the protagonist in place of Valjean. Who is he? Err…some kind of student revolutionary against…umm…the government, because it is doing…bad things, I guess. He joined the revolutionaries because of reasons, and maybe he wants to help poor people? His buddy is passionate, but I’m not sure what his grievances are either. Marius falls in love with Cosette at one glance, and I sure wish we’d have gotten to know either character first so I’d have a reason to care (little girl Cosette was adorable, but that’s not much to go on after a fifteen year break). Eponine seems nice, then she dies. Javert is a git, and apparently the only policeman in France. First he's harassing Valjean, then suddenly he's preparing to fight against the revolutionaries, so I guess he's against Marius in a Two-for-one antagonist deal. I get that he's an allegory for Justice, but in service of what law? Who is he, and what does he believe, besides that “bad” people never change? The film does not tell us anything about him. Maybe the book does, but appealing to outside sources is cheating; the film should stand or fall on its own merits.

    (and from a later comment, talking about why the singing dialogue often clashes with the rest of the film's aesthetics)

    Part of the problem, I think, is that on stage it’s easier to accept that much of the plot and characterization are abstracted, because the “unreality” of live theater is inescapable. For a film, especially one that tries so hard for a realistic aesthetic, the abstractions are more jarring. Maybe the best solution is to embrace the theatricality and unreality in the film ala Chicago (imagine if that had been filmed that as a gritty modern courtroom drama), or to mix the singing elements with more traditional exposition and dialogue. I think Les Mis fails by trying to execute both the realistic and the abstract elements of its production simultaneously.

    So, in summary: As a musical, I can't judge because musicals really aren't my thing, but it was probably good. As a film, I though it just didn't work. But maybe I really just don't like all the outer space stuff :)

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