Friday, January 11, 2013

Manning the Barricades on Behalf of Les Misérables

Les Misérables, the movie based on the hit musical, was released in America on Christmas. I saw the second showing of the day at a local theater, with family and friends, electing to see Les Miz rather than Django Unchained, which I saw later that week.

I went into Les Miserables with great expectations—coincidentally referencing another classic work of 19th century literature, published just a year before the Victor Hugo tome dropped in 1862—as the stage musical is one of my all-time favorites (officially #2 on this list) and, IMHO, the best piece of musical theater ever created.

But I also entered the movie with a good bit of wariness.

Having in November seen a sensationally well-sung touring version of the musical, which I’ve taken in numerous times, I was skeptical about the vocal chops of the movie’s stars, particularly Russell Crowe, but also to varying degrees, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter and others.

Also, while advance buzz for the movie seemed to generally be strong, not only had recent stage-to-screen adaptations of cherished musicals like The Producers and Rent been relatively disappointing, but some critics—including Michael Phillips in my local Chicago Tribune—had truly trashed Les Miserables.

In giving the film 1-1/2 stars out of 4, Phillips wrote “Too little in this frenzied mess of a film registers because [Director Tom] Hooper is trying to make everything register at the same nutty pitch.”

But I went to the movie on Christmas and I loved it. To the point of ranking it #6 on my list of Best New Movies I Saw in 2012.

This isn’t to say that I thought everything about it—particularly the singing—was absolutely exquisite. For pure vocal prowess, the recent DVD of the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables or a touring production or the one playing in London is likely a good step greater.

Crowe actually sang a bit better than I expected, but a bit short of phenomenally, while Jackman—who has solid stage musical credits—sounded a bit thinner of voice than I would’ve thought. Hathaway was very good—she, like Jackman, has now earned an Oscar nomination—but perhaps over-emoted a touch, while Seyfried's singing was solid if not quite sensational.

But while this may sound like I’m being hypercritical, or even negative, in truth the slightly-below-pristine movie star singing did very little to detract from my tremendous overall enjoyment of Les Miserables on screen.

Over nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes that for me never dragged, Hugo’s classic storyline, the score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and the adaptation and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer all retained their power to glorious effect. And whatever quibbles some critics had about not only the singing, but Hooper’s camerawork and editing choices, were for me rendered inconsequential.

When I walked out of the theater, I was already looking forward to Les Miserables being released on DVD so I could add it to my collection and watch it again.

But while the Les Miz movie has certainly seemed to have its fair share of champions among friends, the public and the press—it garnered a Best Picture Oscar nom—over the past few weeks, I became aware of a good number of people who truly hated it.
In Time magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, “This is a bad movie.”

Nick Digilio, a WGN Radio host and avowed movie buff, put it on his list of Worst Movies of 2012, as did Michael Phillips.

David Edelstein of New York Magazine called it “tasteless bombardment.”

In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum opined that “this fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines.”

In her New York Times review, Manohla Dargis referred to Hooper’s directorial approach as being “bludgeoning and deadly.”

And in the most vitriolic harangue I’ve yet encountered, David Denby wrote in the New Yorker, “I had never seen the show or heard the score; I came to the material fresh, without preconception, and throughout the entire hundred and fifty-seven minutes I sat cowering in my seat, lost in shame and chagrin. This movie is not just bad (“bombast,” as Anthony Lane characterized it in a wonderful review in the current issue of the magazine). It’s terrible; it’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive.”
Certainly, I realize and respect that everyone—and especially professional critics—are going to have different viewpoints on things, and if it’s their job (or even just wont) to share them, they should be nothing but candid about their opinions.

And when someone as esteemed as Richard Corliss finds fault with Hooper’s technical approach—writing “…when Hooper pulls back for the big view, his camera style switches from mesmerized single takes to catch-as-catch-can choppiness. The barricade scenes are filled with rapid, indiscriminate vignettes of the protesters; the shots don’t build, they just pile up—I can’t help but appreciate that he’s assessing things with a much more trained eye than I.

Especially as someone who openly espouses my opinions on this blog, with which I imagine and respect that many people may disagree, I generally take a “to each their own” philosophy. Some people hate musicals. Some people hate Springsteen. Some 5547 people have given Citizen Kane a “1” rating (out of 10) on IMDB. We all have our opinions and we’re all entitled to them.

To wit, I recently watched Persona, an Ingmar Bergman film that the British Film Institute ranks as the 17th best film ever. I could see the unique movie's merits, but nowhere to that extent. And though they often tend to be lumped together, I am far less a fan of Phantom of the Opera—or even Boublil and Schönberg ’s Miss Saigon—than I am of Les Misérables.

So it’s not like I don’t get that variances of opinion—and even seeming inconsistencies among our
own—are not just normal, but in many ways valuable, even essential.

Yet while I wouldn’t even say that outright slams are the majority—Metacritic cites only 2 purely negative critics' reviews out of 41 total, though 15 are “mixed” rather than positive—I found myself somewhat puzzled by exactly what had made Denby and the other naysayers so miserable.

So the other day, after work, I went to see Les Miserables again.

And I went specifically looking to be bothered by the camera angles and close-up shots that bounced around and subpar singing and an overload of empty bombast. I was looking for evidence to feel sheepish about my longstanding regard for Les Miz, a musical Denby says “was a killer for girls between the ages of eight and about fourteen,” with music that “is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise.”

Well, with the caveat that I never purport to know what the hell I’m talking about, in seeing Les Miserables on screen for a second time, with the express purpose to focus on its supposed flaws, I wound up feeling the same way about it as I did the first time.

I loved it.

Sure, I can appreciate where some of the criticisms are coming from. Much of the music is overtly anthemic and tugs at your heartstrings. The score is filled with musical motifs that repeat ad nauseum. It seems somewhat odd that Javert (played by Crowe) seemingly has no other purpose in life than to hunt Valjean (Jackman), and the way the two characters (and others) constantly cross paths across France every few years seems too conveniently coincidental. As noted above, the stars' singing voices are likely a touch below prime Broadway or West End caliber. And yes, at a few points, the camera seemed to jump around more than it may have needed to.

Etc., etc., etc.

Still, there really wasn’t a moment within the 157 minutes that I didn’t like. By and large, the movie follows the book of the musical, which condensed the action of a 1,000+ page epic novel that takes place over about 20 years into a cohesively compelling 3-hour show. Hooper and his editors made a few sequencing alterations, and there are a couple points where you may wonder why so-and-so is suddenly here and then there, but in my estimation, everything holds together much more than it doesn’t.

The performances are good, the songs are luscious and for someone who loves the stage version as much as I do, the movie is every bit as good as I could’ve hoped. Understanding that in show “business,” movies are made to make money, I get—and agree with—why movie stars were employed, rather than perhaps lesser-known Broadway vets with better singing voices.

And if, as it seems Denby would suggest, I am mistaking attractive artifice for true beauty, so be it.

I’ll happily squint if it means deriving as much pleasure (and yes, uplift) as I have from Les Miserables, on stage, and now, on screen.

And if you hate Les Miserables, c’est la vie.

Do you hear the people sing?

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