Across the Universe
Despite practically growing up on musicals, a) I never got to see Les Misérables live and b) the televised/filmed productions of the seminal musical have never really struck me as deeply as, say, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Company, Chicago, Cabaret, etc. Les Misérables is great, I am certainly not denying that, but it never cracked my list of “favorites”. That said, I am truly a sucker for some of the music, “On My Own” probably being my favorite. The 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” Concert is quite lovely to behold, and thus, hearing of an actual film adaptation of the musical intrigued me. The original story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, had been adapted to the screen a handful of times (including one with Liam Neeson), but Tom Hooper’s period spectacle would mark the first time the musical would make it to the big screen. And, because I love musicals, I was excited. Instead of getting in line for the tickets, I should have gotten in line for the guillotines.
Les Misérables tells the sad, sad tale of a bunch of people prior and during the French Student Rebellion (June 1832), and not the French Revolution (1789-1799). Included in this group of the afflicted is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent over a decade in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; Javert (Russell Crowe), the dutiful officer; and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the poor single mother who goes to certain extremes in order to allocate money to send to the couple taking care of her daughter, Cosette (later played by Amanda Seyfried). As Jean Valjean moves up in the world under a pseudonym, the presiding officer holds a grudge and the animosity between the two ends up involving pretty much everyone else somehow or another.
The implications of a theatrical adaptation of a stage show, whether it is an actual play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rabbit Hole, etc.) or a musical (Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd) is to not merely paste the songs in a film like setting, but to fill in some of the holes by utilizing everything that film as a medium has to offer. Expand on character relationships, elaborate on character goals and motivations; effectively explain plot holes or context. With a musical (and its source material) that is so often incorrectly assumed to be about the French Revolution, you would think that the film adaptation would give the perfect opportunity to give more context to the time and setting of the darn thing. Alas, no. Tom Hooper, who can do period detail very well (see: Elizabeth I and John Adams from HBO), instead seems to concentrate on just seemingly cutting and pasting the singing of the stage show to a well-dressed back lot. Without that context or background, the stakes are not nearly as high and the audience, including myself, has less of a reason to care about a) the characters involved and b) the situations they are stuck in. There is no primer as to the Student Rebellion and the most we are offered are a couple lyrics sung by a dirty, if cherubic blond kid in a thick Manchester accent. He sings about the lack of change and the remaining bourgeoisie reign, but so what? That alone isn’t enough to make me care. Give me higher stakes and give me more reason. A couple lines from “ABC Café” are hardly reason enough to make us care about a Student Rebellion (who, by the way, seem too well dressed to really seem like they care about the upper class).
Part of the problem is the streamlining of the material. On stage, you have more time because you have an intermission, and those going to a musical have, generally, educated themselves enough to get the gist of things. If not, then the book or the lyrics do some of the heavy work for you. There is not as much an issue in terms of time and linearity because of the sparseness of sets and locations, but in a film, you must deal with time as a concept. Which means that as Valjean contemplates his existential identity crisis in “Who Am I?/The Trial”, in the space of three cuts, he goes from his little house to riding on horseback to the courthouse. Those three cuts take less than three seconds altogether. There is no actual travel, unless you count the split second, blink and you miss it ride on horseback. This is not limited to that one scene, but several scenes. The love story in the second half of the film looks entirely moronic because there isn’t enough time to develop Cosette and Marius’ attraction to one another. Star crossed love is romantic when the characters are allowed to revel in what they have just experienced, however brief it may be; but when it is reduced to literally ten seconds and no less than ten reverse, point of view shots, the rest of the stakes for love are dwarfed and just look stupid. In an attempt to quicken things up and make an already deathly long and poorly paced film seem shorter, some plot points are either dropped or obscured by and buried under the “let’s get through all the songs first”.
This, I suppose, is in itself a mixed bag. You have seen the ad more time than Sascha Baren Cohen’s ratty Thenardier has stolen gold pieces, and it has been something the Les Misérables have been pushing really hard: the live singing. Marketed as “the first time it’s ever been done before” is not actually true. The 1995 television adaptation of Gypsy (starring Bette Midler) featured live singing; Susan Stroman’s ill-fated screen adaptation of the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers had live singing; and Julie Taymor’s experimental Beatles musical Across the Universe had “live singing 80% of the time” (this according to the director’s commentary on the DVD). Les Misérables only stands apart from the first two in that the live singing isn’t so much singing (not in the performing way that most musicals employ) as it is giving life to the songs. When it’s done well in the film, it can be truly visceral and moving (Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks, for instance, nail you in the soul). When it does not work, it just seems sort of sad. While it is no surprise that Hathaway stuns with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the songs that seemed to work best were those that featured most of the company. “At the End of the Day”, “Lovely Ladies”, “One More Day”, and “Red and Black” all had verve and life to them, which several of the other solo/character focused songs did not.
Which brings me to this – Newsflash, I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice. I never have. He is a lovely actor, and his voice is technically fine. But, that’s what I don’t like about it. Jackman, as much soul as he tries to put into “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” seems to be so focused on technique and placed in a situation where he has to move and where the vocals will come out imperfect, he loses the essence of the tune. It sounds professional, sure, but the wealth of vibrato works against him in a way. Russell Crowe, for all of his unpolished singing abilities, in a way, surpasses Jackman vocally because you can hear the tune. The gravelly, maybe somewhat nasally quality gives more life to the character than Crowe actually provides when he is acting. (Much like Gerard Butler in Phantom, but worse.) It probably was not the best idea to hire Crowe, due to the complexity of the music and the range it requires.
With that laborious focus on singing and period detail by Hooper (whom I still, probably unfairly, resent for winning Best Director of The King’s Speech), the story, as I said, gets left behind. Which makes it feel like the intentions were to just see the famous people performing the songs one after the other. There are maybe 10 lines of dialogue total in the film, which, for most mainstream audiences, is not anywhere near enough. Again, with the medium of film, you have the opportunity to a) make a musical more accessible to other audiences and b) expound on story, characters, etc. There was zero attempt to do this; just song after song after song. It’s not this cycle that is inherently the problem; it’s the missed opportunity to make the story more enjoyable.
Aside from singing and famous people, some very strange focus (hah) was put on the film’s cinematography. Mostly, my time was spent scoffing in the theater, writing furiously on my notepad. If you’ve heard anyone complain about the camerawork, listen to them: it is pretty much the most abhorrent work I’ve seen this year. (As random as Killing Them Softly was, at least it was nice to look at and properly framed.) There should be a meme that says “FRAME A DAMN SCENE RIGHT, HOOPER!” I’m pretty sure his logic went as follows: “Okay, you go over there and act and I’m going to have my camera right up in your face. And then I’m going to turn it on a 135-degree angle.” While I’m sure the logic behind this was to provide an intimacy in the performance that the stage inherently cannot give, it does not explain why so many of his frames were off balance. That just looks like some of the half-assed pictures some of the slackers in my photography class take, except more expensive. Also, one can certainly utilize more than one camera angle to achieve intimacy. A musical, shot in all close-ups! There’s a reason why Fred Astaire was never shot in close up: so you could still get the essence of his performance.
When Hooper is not placing cameras six inches away from his actors’ faces, he is editing like he stepped into the editing room while on cocaine. I seriously wondered while I was sitting in the film if the people from Glee were editing the film. What few nice moments and nice frames there are on screen are snatched from us with a splice. This, again, affects linearity, but the constant CUT, CUT, CUT is so uninspired and useless. It works as an antithesis to the artistic desire to achieve more intimacy in the performances. The camera work itself does not work. Shakier than some of my own camera work on my short films, there seems to be no evidence of any SteadiCam used. Just tripods and someone seemingly drunk walking around with a camera. This is not supposed to be a poor man’s Dogme 95 inspired musical! You are no Anthony Dod Mantle! The action scenes don’t work either. If there isn’t a random Dutch angle (which, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no reason to be in there), there’s a fly, swoop, and a lot of cutting involved. I guess Michael Bay would be proud.
The film’s two saving graces are Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. I would like to think that Hathaway ignored Hooper’s direction altogether and that her transcendent portrayal of Fantine, however short it is (not a spoiler because of the source material), was pure instinct. She gives power, emotion, and passion to a film where there is none. Her heart shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the film’s highlight. It’s close enough to get every look of Fantine’s but far away enough so that there is distance. It’s not the camera that should destroy the distance between audience member and character; it’s the character themselves and their power. And Hathaway succeeds in spades (a little reminiscent, it has been said, of Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Samantha Barks, a newbie to the film world, has portrayed the gloomy, heartbroken Eponine before on stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables. Despite that, she still brings something entirely new and fresh to the film, her performance of “On My Own” absolutely splendid. I suppose, if you’re going to spend your money on the film, do it for these two girls, one of whom I wouldn’t be too mad should she win the Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne, whom I didn’t know could sing, is actually quite good as well, but the film’s inability to really dig deeper into his character and his motivations leave a lot to be desired and mar the experience.
Les Misérables is a trifle; a film that could have easily avoided its problems by reeling back its eagerness and giving the story a chance. The singing might be cool, but what’s a song without a story behind it? Les Misérables is also probably the first film whose cinematography made me actively angry in the theater. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are the film’s saviors. So, while you sit in the theater for what was, for me, a nearly unbearable two and a half hours, I’m going to sing these words:
“I had a dream this film would be,
So different from this Hell I’m watching,
So different now from what it seemed.
Now Hooper’s killed the dream I dreamed.”
Making my list of my top favorite 101 films was fun. Sort of. As you can imagine, the hardest part was whittling down all of my favorite films (a list I update regularly and runs around 300 or so) down to that rather restrictive number. It was hard. And I cheated a lot by including trilogies, series, and even thematic double features (prostitutes anyone?). But I wanted to show the best of my favorites. And I managed to forget some ones that have been incredibly important to me as well as new films I’ve only recently watched but feel more than confident in putting on the list. It’s about half and half here in that respect. I was originally going post the top ten I’d left out, but then I decided not to decide something that definitive and restraining like that. So, ladies and gents, my list of THIRTEEN films I forgot to include on my Top 101 Films:
1. 3 Women (1977)| Directed by Robert Altman
The loose story of 3 Women came to director Robert Altman in a dream. This dreamlike quality is evident in the loose yet controlled lucid style. A very strange story of identity (that bears a little resemblance to another film on this list), Sissy Spaceck plays a young naïf who attaches herself to the talkative nurse she works with played by Shelley Duvall. Those are two of the three women of the title, the third being a mysterious and enigmatic mural painter. Altman’s surreal structure and dream like narrative is gorgeous and hypnotic. Full of mystery, longing emotion, and expert performances from Spececk and Duvall, 3 Women is a masterwork.
2. Across the Universe (2007) | Directed by Julie Taymore
I grew up listening to the Beatles music, but it was not until my freshman year that I went head on into the Beatles work. And although I had seen Across the Universe once or twice prior and enjoyed it, its impact never hit me until then. The film is unabashedly polarizing, both in its innovative use of the Beatles’ music (warning, cover haters) as well as its intoxicating imagery. Taking the Beatles songs and weaving them into a star crossed love story was, regardless of its execution, one of the most ingenious ideas ever. Considering that the Beatles, throughout their expansive, yet short career, wrote some of the greatest love songs ever as well as some of the most subversively politically relevant music, it was only a matter of time until someone used that and appropriated it as a story. Taking place perfectly within the time of the Beatles career (from the early to late 1960s), Julie Taymore takes the characters’ names from songs (Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, etc.), throws some in-jokes in the mix (“Where did she come from?” “She came in through the bathroom window.”), and some truly dizzying images and makes an audacious masterpiece. Some of the best Beatles covers ever are featured in this film. It’s an incredible love story using incredible music, and just enough to cause a ruckus in the film world. You say you want a revolution…
3. Amélie (2001) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amélie is a quaint, picturesque film about a young woman that likes to mettle in other people’s lives, with varying degrees of success. It’s like a French Emma. But director Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses his camera so elegantly, he creates a quirky, deeply saturated world full of emotion and joviality. Audrey Tatou is absolutely perfect as the meddling main character. She is able to portray the complexity of a woman who likes to live totally vicariously. I don’t think is really a spoiler, but, yes my friends, Amelie is given a chance at love. Were it not for some of the sex and language, the film is beautifully whimsical that it could easily be a modern fairy tale or a children’s book.
4. Antichrist (2009)| Directed by Lars von Trier
I already had three of Lars von Trier’s films on the list, and that was primarily the reason I did not include Antichrist. The viscerally harrowing and terrifyingly abstract psychological thriller was my first introduction into the career and filmography of the director some, including myself, like to call “Lars von Troll”. While Melancholia was made as a result of a post-depression mindset, Antichrist is the film in which he rolls out all of the stops. This is, some have said, his deadly deadpan and sarcastic answer to the world of modern psychology. Exploring gender dynamics and the art of psychosis on film in a perfect way, von Trier nods to Kubrick and Tarkovsky, creating some of the most startling and arresting images ever on the screen. The first half of the film is fairly “normal” (with the occasional interjection of the abstract), Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the depressed patient and Willem Dafoe plays the husband and psychiatrist. Von Trier’s observations about gender dynamics, psychology, emotion, etc. are astute and well articulated. And the in the second half, as the He and She head into the forest called Eden, everything goes crazy and the film goes off the rails. Don’t let the controversial scenes deter you; this film is far more complex and fascinating than its reductive “scissor” ad campaign leads one to believe. With von Trier, there’s no doubt that chaos will reign.
5. Grey Gardens (1976)/Grey Gardens (2009) |Directed by the Maysles, et. Al/Michael Sucsy
Even though Jackie Onasis’ weird relatives, Big and Little Edie Beale, seem, only by description, to be eligible for the next season of Hoarders, which the two have that no Hoarders episode ever could show is gumption and one hell of a life story. A bizarre riches to rags story, the documentary, primarily directed by the Maysles Brothers (the team behind Gimme Shelter), captures a superbly realized cinema verite of how the Beales lived. And how they lived was in squalor. At one point, they were going to be evicted from their previously lavish East Hampton home, but Jackie O came to the rescue and spruced things up a bit. And then it got dirty again. The character that both Big and Little Edie have in them is kind of astonishing. While in the documentary it isn’t made clear how people of such privilege could end up like this, the story doesn’t need to be filled because the audience is so fascinated with the subjects. Everyone who’s ever seen it remembers the very beginning, where feminist philosopher Little Edie gives her “best costume for today” monologue. It’s quite an outstanding look and how Little Edie copes and manages with the life she lives. The decrepit house, the weird relationship Little Edie has with one of the camera guys (beautifully intrusive), Big Edie’s singing and stories of Gould, etc. It’s a fascinating character study. HBO decided in 2009 to fill in some of the blanks and did so marvelously, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange at the ready. Recreating some of the documentary footage (which Cinema Verite would do later for An American Family, but far less successfully) and flashing back and forth between the time the doc was being film and their lives beforehand, the two leads settle in their roles gloriously. Barrymore sounds so much like Little Edie, I yelped. Certainly not better than the original documentary, the HBO film makes a wonderful supplement. Grey Gardens is real life character study at its finest.
6. In the Mood for Love (2000) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
I may have mentioned in my little write up for Wong Kar-Wai’s other masterpiece Chungking Express that I’ve learned from Asian cinema that Asians are awesome at wallowing in their own self pity. (I should know, as I am Asian and spend my Friday nights crying into a pint of ice cream watching things like Eternal Sunshine.) While this remains true in Kaw-Wai’s loose sequel to his debut Days of Being Wild, IN the Mood for Love presents a romantic yearning that is so powerful and moving that it every other expression in love seems so trite. In Hong Kong in the 1960s, two married people move into the same apartment complex. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the man and woman, and the two learn of a secret that will bind them forever. The proceeding events have a tender delicacy and portray a beautiful intimacy that is rarely portrayed on the screen so well. Sofia Coppola said that she was inspired by the film when she made Lost in Translation, and the themes from In the Mood for Love are evident. Wong Kar-Wai’s beautiful film is one of the most stunning portrayals of love ever on screen.
7. Mulholland Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s weird universe, form Twin Peaks to Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, is a labyrinth of lies, an enigmatic world of deceit, and a poisonous letter to conventionality. Mulholland Dr. is one of his most puzzling and thrilling films, featuring alternate realities, projections of self, concepts of identity and desire, all in the city of desire and dreams. Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece shows us a deadly Hollywood noir, with a woman seeking stardom (Naomi Watts), a woman with amnesia under the guise of Rita Hayworth (Laura Harring), a director who is losing control of his film, and other various strings of plot. Originally conceived as a television plot line, filled with open endings and unfinished arcs, Lynch added material then the pilot was rejected, giving some semblance of an ending. Well, for Lynch, that is. As to the different theories surrounding the meaning of the film, that is left to interpretation. Nevertheless, the labyrinth of surrealism is one of the most exhilarating rides through Hollywood you will ever take.
8. Ratatouille (2007) |Directed by Brad Bird
I saw Ratatouille in theaters when it was released in 2007. Walking out of the theater, my immediate reaction was akin to, “How the heck did they sell this to kids?” Although easier to market than something like Hugo, Ratatouille’s “cooking rat” seemed like a hard sell. Since when do kids care about cooking? They just kind of expect their food to appear magically, either via their mother or through a drive-through window. But Ratatouille’s endearing “anyone can do it as long as your heart is in it” storyline is sweet enough to melt the hearts of viewers, but not so saccharine that cynics will groan and/or vomit. As usual with Pixar, the strength in the film is its storytelling. It is not really a typical way to tell this kind of story, and the devices used are actually fairly unique. The voice acting from Patton Oswalt is full of life, and after the film, you’ll be left hungry for more. (Kudos to Peter O’Toole to giving life to the cunning and articulate “villain”: a critic.)
9. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Say what you will about the last film, but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a very impressive mainstream foray into the world of dark psychoanalytical character studies, gritty realism, ethics of vigilante justice, and post-9/11 buzz words. Inhabiting a very real world metropolis under the guise of Gotham City, Nolan’s noirish take on the caped crusader presents an interesting thesis to contemporary moviegoers expecting the usual blow-‘em’up action movie: “How does a society react when someone fighting for justice comes to our aid and then leaves? What does that society do in their absence? How much do we need them?” Although interpreted, and logically so, as a very political, almost pro-Patriot Act kind of film, the realistic world that the characters live in make the stories and the characters more relevant than they have ever been. And although the films are very flawed, the ideas they present are at least enough to spark some semblance of discourse. Christian Bale nobly plays billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man with his own demons, ones he fights through the manifestation of a vigilante bat. Nolan and his team started from scratch, reinterpreting the Batman’s origin in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, terrorism engulfs the city of Gotham through that of the Joker (a stellar and pretty much legendary Heath Ledger), in the form of total chaos. And when the Batman is blackballed by the public, they seek his return when another ideologically motivated terror thrives in Gotham in Bane (Tom Hardy) in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s fascinating look at society, character, and politics make his Dark Knight Trilogy a unique triumph in modern blockbuster cinema.
10. The Terminal (2003) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European man who lives in the international terminal of an airport. His country, well, doesn’t technically exist anymore because of a military coup. Stunted by there being no common language and fending off a mean Customs Head (the delightfully asshole-ish Stanley Tucci), Viktor Navarski must make the most of everything and nothing. He has no money, but the terminal has a wealth of stores. What does he do? He takes those airport carts that refund a quarter and put them back all together so he has enough to get a small meal. Until Tucci stops him. As he gets “used to” living without a real country, he makes some friends in the form of an Indian custodian, a Spanish food cart delivery man, a police officer, and a very flirty flight attendant whom he falls deeply in love with (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The simplicity of the film is its strength, and while it may be in many ways Spielberg’s trademark sap, the film is so light and breezy that it is hardly a bad thing. The Terminal is sweet and affecting and features one of Tom Hanks’ best performances.
11. Wings of Desire (1987) | Directed by WIm Wenders
My English teacher from sophomore and junior year said that Wings of Desire was his favorite film. I got it for him for Christmas, and then ordered myself a copy. I was expecting… talk of angel and love. Besides that, I had no idea what I was in for. And what I was “in for” was one of the most lyrical, ludic films about what it is to love and what it is to live I have ever seen. Wings of Desire follows an Angel who falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist and sacrifices his immortality to be with her. As an Angel, he can hear the thoughts, the wishes, the desires of everyone around him, but he yearns so much to be with the lonely soul and to feel something humans call love. Wim Wenders’ film works both as a symphony for Berlin (it was made shortly prior to the reunification of Germany) as well as a tapestry to love itself. It was loosely remade into City of Angels. Skip that and just desire for love with the original.
12. Little Children (2006) | Directed by Todd Field
Very few adaptations of novels ever include the same narrative structure as that of the source material. For instance, third person omniscient narration has, to my knowledge, never been in a film adaptation. (I could be wrong, correct me if I am.) It may be used in films from time to time, even in the form of novel writing or even screenplay writing, such as in Stranger Than Fiction or Adaptation, but not actually an adaptation of a specific novel. Little Children makes a little change to that. Little Children, directed by directed by Todd Field, based on the book by Tom Perrotta (who gave us Election, which was adapted by Alexander Payne), and with a screenplay by the two of them, Little Children is perhaps the most literary film to come in the last few decades (tied with aforementioned Stranger Than Fiction). It at times seems to be a darker, more nuanced American Beauty-esque film, but that just touches the surface. There is irony there, as the film explores the surface of idealized suburban life, but only slightly. It does it in a masterful way, allowing more time to look at the characters: a mother and faded feminist (Kate Winslet), a “prom King” father (Patrick Wilson), and a man who was recently released on sex offender charges (Oscar nominated Jackie Earle Haley). The various routines the married people have and what the sex offender wants are disrupted by various things: an affair, yearning for love form their respective spouses, and the small Boston neighborhood’s reaction to a sex offender arriving on their streets. All around the little children. Stunning performances accentuate the desperation these people have, and, somewhat regretfully, you may find yourself pitying people who may not deserve it at a first look. And all around the little children.
13. The Complete Metropolis (1927) | Directed by Fritz Lang
I bought the Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis ages ago, and I deliberately continued putting it off because the prospect of a two and a half hour silent sci-fi drama, a behemoth of inspiration and influence, was daunting. Fritz Lang’s epic is said to have inspired Blade Runner, Star Wars, and nearly every other science fiction film imaginable. But the magnitude of importance of the film is far larger than ghettoizing it to the sci-fi genre. Metropolis may be one of the single most important works of art ever created. Its dialog and situations evoke the current political atmosphere, its imagery is reminiscent not only of German Expressionism, but every other style ever used, and its characters are as complex as any human. The Complete Metropolis is THE film to watch this election year. Where else will you see the legendary quote, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!” The film went for decades missing nearly a half hour of footage that was cut when American producers butchered it for its US release. The footage was nowhere to be found until a 16mm duplicate negative was found in a warehouse, of all places, in Buenos Aires. The print was in lousy condition, but Kino cropped it fix the aspect ratio and cleaned it up without removing its filmic qualities. The Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis looks absolutely stunning all around, and the film is powerful, exciting, and dramatic. Its influence in society is undeniable, form the language of film to the semantics of politics. Metropolis is a towering achievement in art.