Wednesday, December 26, 2012

LES MIZ: A delicious holiday gift from Universal Pictures

It has finally arrived. The all-star movie version of the 1980's megahit musical LES MISERABLES.

Full disclosure - I have never been a huge fan of Les Miz since its beginnings. My greatest memory of the show was meeting the late Davy (the Monkees) Jones in the audience during the perfomance that I attended. My problem with Les Miz? While I do find the score beautiful, I found the direction and the set design in the original production far too dark and dreary. And after the interminable length of the first act (two hours, if memory serves me right), the second act consisted of one endless reprise after another with just a smatterng of new tunes. (Composers, if you are going to keep an audience captive for nearly 4 hours, PLEASE, write some new songs for the second act.  And, at the very least, divide the show into three acts so that we can stretch our legs.)

Like the broadway hit EVITA, I thought the show would improve dramatically in a cinematic incarnation. This proved true with the Lloyd Webber- Rice musical when Hollywood came calling (despite Madonna) and I held similarly high hopes that a good screenwriter/director would whittle Les Miz down to its essentials and streamline it into a great peice of film.

Well, chiclets - the reviews are in - and they have been generally favorable. I shall not pass judgement until I have seen it for myself. But here's the review from the New York Times plus a link to metacritic. I shall let you read them for yourselves. Perhaps you can comment afterwards and see whether you find them fair or unfair.

The Wretched Lift Their Voices
by Manohla Dargis, New York Times

In the first long act of Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway opens her mouth, and the agony, passion and violence that have decorously idled in the background of this all-singing, all-suffering pop opera pour out. It’s a gusher! She’s playing Fantine, the factory worker turned prostitute turned martyr, and singing the showstopping “I Dreamed a Dream,” her gaunt face splotched red and brown. The artful grunge layered onto the cast can be a distraction, as you imagine assistant dirt wranglers anxiously hovering off camera. Ms. Hathaway, though, holds you rapt with raw, trembling emotion. She devours the song, the scene, the movie, and turns her astonishing, cavernous mouth into a vision of the void.

The director Tom Hooper can be a maddening busybody behind the camera, but this is one number in which he doesn’t try to upstage his performers. Maybe he was worried that Ms. Hathaway would wolf him down too. Whatever the case, he keeps it relatively simple. Moving the camera slightly with her — she lurches somewhat out of frame at one point, suggesting a violent, existential wrenching — he shoots the song in a head-and-shoulder close-up, with the background blurred. By that point, with her dignity and most of her pretty hair gone, Fantine has fallen as far as she can. She has become one of the abject castaways of the musical’s title, a wretched of the earth.

Written by Alain Boublil and the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg (with English-language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer), the musical Les Misérables is of course one really big show, perhaps the biggest and certainly one of the longest-running. Its Web site hints at its reach: Since the English-language version was first performed in London in 1985, it has been translated into 21 languages, performed in 43 countries, won almost 100 awards (Tony, Grammy) and been seen by more than 60 million people. In 1996 Hong Kong mourners sang “Do You Hear the People Sing” to memorialize Tiananmen Square. In 2009 the awkward duckling Susan Boyle became a swan and a world brand with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on the television show “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Somewhere amid the grime, power ballads and surging strings there is also Victor Hugo, whose monumental 1862 humanistic novel, Les Misérables, was, along with the musical Oliver!, Mr. Boublil’s original inspiration. Like the show, Mr. Hooper’s movie opens in 1815 and closes shortly after the quashed June Rebellion of 1832, boiling the story down to a pair of intertwined relationships.

The first pivots on the antagonism of a onetime prison guard, now inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe, strained) toward a former convict, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, earnest); the secone involves the love-at-first swooning between Cisette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary firebrand. As a child, Cosette was rescued by Valjean from her caretakers, the Thénardiers (the energetic Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who nicely stir, and stink up, the air).

Part of the tug of Les Misérables is that it recounts a familiar, reassuring story of oppression, liberation and redemption, complete with period costumes and tear-yanking songs. Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest. In the first number (“Look Down”), set against a digitally enhanced, visibly artificial port, Valjean helps haul an enormous ship into a dock. Dressed mainly in cardinal red, the prisoners pull on ropes, while singing during a lashing rain, with Javert glaring down at them. (And, yes, he will fall.)

By the time the scene ends, Valjean hasn’t just been handed his release papers after 19 years as a prisoner, he has also become a Christ figure, hoisting a preposterously large wooden pole on to his shoulder. Mr. Hooper’s maximalist approach is evident the very moment the scene begins — the camera swooping, as waves and music crash — setting an overblown tone that rarely quiets. His work in this passage, from the roller-coaster moves of the cameras to the loud incidental noise that muffles the lyrics, undermines his actors and begins to push the musical from spectacle toward bloat. Mr. Jackman suffers the most from Mr. Hooper’s approach, as when Valjean paces up and down a hallway while delivering “What Have I Done,” a to-and-fro that witlessly, needlessly, literalizes the character’s internal struggle.

Mr. Hooper’s decision to shoot the singing live, as opposed to having the singers lip-sync recorded songs, as has been customary in movie musicals since the 1930s, yields benefits. That’s especially the case with Ms. Hathaway, Mr. Redmayne and Daniel Huttlestone, a scene-stealer who plays the Thénardiers’ young son. (This isn’t the first contemporary musical to resurrect the practice of live singing, which was used for both At Long Last Love, directed by Peter Bodgandovich, and The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker.) It’s touching, watching performers like Ms. Hathaway and Mr. Redmayne giving it their all, complete with quavering chins and straining tendons. Mr. Redmayne, an appealing actor with a freckled face built for wonder, at times seems to be stretching his long body to hit his higher notes.

Mr. Redmayne’s sincerity complements Ms. Seyfried’s old-fashioned trilling and her wide-eyed appearance, even if their romance lacks spark. Then again, so does the movie. Song after song, as relationships and rebellion bloom, you wait in vain for the movie to, as well, and for the filmmaking to rise to the occasion of both its source material and its hard-working performers.

As he showed in The King's Speech and in the television series “John Adams,” Mr. Hooper can be very good with actors. But his inability to leave any lily ungilded — to direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around — is bludgeoning and deadly. By the grand finale, when tout le monde is waving the French tricolor in victory, you may instead be raising the white flag in exhausted defeat.

Les Misérables is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Gun death, poverty, face boils and revolution.

Les Misérables opened on December 25, 2012 nationwide.

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer; based on the novel by Victor Hugo and the stage musical by Mr. Boublil and Mr. Schönberg; music by Mr. Schönberg; lyrics by Mr. Kretzmer; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens; production design by Eve Stewart; costumes by Paco Delgado; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 37 minutes.

WITH: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier).

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