Monday, January 7, 2013

8 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Les Misérables"

1. Before seeing the 2012 movie version of Les Misérables, I'd never read Victor Hugo's novel, nor had I seen the stage musical it inspired, nor any of the film adaptations. I had no idea what the storyline would be and hadn't read any reviews other than Adam Lambert's Twitter-cism of the singing. Maybe I've just been living under a rock for much of my life while an iconic worldwide sensation passed me by, but aside from the Oscar buzz for Anne Hathaway, all I knew about Les Misérables going in were the songs "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own," so I had no expectations and no preconceived notions about what the movie should be. I can't remember the last time I went into a film with such a clean slate (usually, I at least know the general gist of the story), and I'm not sure whether that worked for or against the film. I'm leaning toward the latter because if I had gone in knowing more of the songs, I might have found the musical aspect of the musical more engrossing.

Tveit: "Idol"-ready
2. Or perhaps Adam Lambert was right when he offered the following Les Misérables critique via tweet: "Visually impressive w great Emotional performances. But the score suffered massively with great actors PRETENDING to be singers." If Les Misérables were American Idol's audition round, only about half of its primary cast (Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit) would be sent on to Hollywood. Before seeing the film, I had issues with Lambert's commentary. A movie musical isn't a singing competition. It's the acting that matters most, and I'd rather watch great actors PRETENDING to be singers (and for the record, if having your own rock band qualifies you as a singer, then Russell Crowe, for one great actor, wasn't pretending) than watch great singers pretending to be actors (with the exception of Dreamgirls Oscar winner and former Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson).

3. After seeing Les Misérables, I concur with Lambert. There was so much singing in the film that the vocal performances needed to be closer to virtuoso. Rather than take the Chicago/Hairspray/Dreamgirls approach to the movie musical, director Tom Hooper, who already used Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major to help The King's Speech win a Best Picture Oscar, took the Evita approach by having the cast sing the entire film. That tactic succeeded with Evita because its songs worked as screenplay, as exposition and as songs. You never got the sense that the characters were just singing dialogue to random melodies. Perhaps it was because I was unfamiliar with most of the music, but much of Les Misérables sounded to me like actors singing lines rather than songs. The uneven vocal performances undermined the film's dramatic impact because the movie depended so much on them, and Hugh Jackman, in particular, sometimes looked uncomfortable singing his lines instead of saying them. I'm sure he'll snag a Golden Globe for his efforts, much like Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical winners Johnny Depp and Richard Gere before him, but can you imagine how laughable Gere would have been in Chicago if he'd sung all of his lines?

4. Russell Crowe may not be the world's greatest singer (neither was Rex Harrison, who won both a Tony Award and an Oscar for My Fair Lady), but he remains one of the planet's greatest actors, and he was a towering presence in Les Misérables (and the one actor/character who didn't seem to age over the course of the movie). I couldn't take my eyes off of him whenever he was onscreen, and his was perhaps the acting performance that stayed with me most after the credits rolled. His solo scenes as he walked one foot in front of the other along the edge of the bridge were the film's most indelible for me. The role of Javert is almost the flipside of the one that won Crowe his Oscar (Gladiator's Maximus), and he made a character who I imagine was supposed to be the primary villain of the peace into a multi-dimensional, sympathetic guy who undergoes as much of a spiritual transformation as Jean Valjean in less screen time. "Eyes are the soul," MC Lyte once rapped in one of her best songs, and few actors understand this better than Crowe and Anne Hathaway (more on her in a moment).

5. I'd like to say that Hugh Jackman should give Daniel Day-Lewis hell on Oscar night, but if I did, it would just be because I love a good Academy Award showdown. Jackson is a fine actor and an okay singer, but he just didn't disappear into the role of Jean Valjean the way he had to in order to present any meaningful competition to Daniel Day-Lewis, whose pre-Lincoln performance, interestingly enough, was in the mostly panned musical Nine. I'm not even 100 percent convinced that Jackman earned a Best Actor nomination. Maybe it was his older-gentleman hairstyle, which reminded me a lot of Wolverine's, but during certain action scenes (like the sewer sequences where he dragged Marius's half-dead body while trying to elude capture), I kept having flashbacks to the Marvel superhero that made Jackman a superstar.

6. Anne Hathaway's version of Fantine is what happens when a decent singer and a fantastic actress merge into one for a movie musical. As a vocalist, Hathaway is no Elaine Paige, but she's certainly the equal of Susan Boyle, who rode "I Dreamed a Dream" to reality-show stardom a few years ago, just as Hathaway's rendition is almost guaranteed to earn Hathaway a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But her singing was secondary, as it should have been: Thanks to those expressive Anne Hathaway eyes (where's her song?), her performance would have been just as affecting had Les Misérables been as silent a movie as The Artist. Like Sally Field (Hathaway's closest Oscar competition) and Lincoln, Les Misérables could have used more of her.

7. I was equally impressed by Samantha Barks, and I wasn't even expecting her before she came out of nowhere to own about 30 or so minutes of the movie. Not only is she a great singer worthy of pop stardom, but she managed to make Éponine the most sympathetic character in the entire film. I was saddest to see her go. Aaron Tveit's Enjolras and the brave little boy were close seconds. (That I didn't shed a tear for Fantine's passing had less to do with Anne Hathaway's performance than this: From her first moment onscreen, it was obvious to me that she had nowhere to go but six feet under.)

8. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, with their matching triple names, were the perfect comic relief. I'd actually pay AU$7 (which was the cost of the Monday showing at Palace Kino Cinema on Collins Street in Melbourne) to watch them in their own movie. That said, I'm ready for Bonham Carter, who previously costarred in the Tom Hooper-directed The King's Speech and opposite Johnny Depp in the musical film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to give her filmography some more variety by ditching the period costumes and the crazy-lady shtick and playing a semi-normal modern woman. During their brief interaction in Les Misérables, I could have sworn I saw a flicker of a spark between her and Russell Crowe. Someone needs to cast those two as the leads in a The Sessions-style contemporary drama -- one without a single song sung blue or... Red.
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