Singers in the Dark: Les Misérables
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.”
To Rise from Darkness: The Dark Knight Rises
I guess I might as well be honest while I am here: I miss indie-minded Christopher Nolan. I miss that stylized simplicity of Following, the complexity of simplicity of The Prestige, the non-linear emotional/cerebral rollercoaster of Memento, and the guilt laden suspense of Insomnia. That is not to say I don’t like his Batman films; in fact, I love them. All that independent, creative, and mind bending sensibility is definitely imbued in his Batman trilogy (to some extent, with a sledgehammer), but you can tell that both he, as well as some of his audience, cannot wait until he makes another small, non-humongous budgeted film. It is his desire to give his stories and characters layers that makes his Batman films so interesting. The fear and desire in Batman Begins and the internal conflict of vigilantism in The Dark Knight (with other political subtext, of course) are what make the films so compelling. Nolan’s grand finale to his Bat-Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is no different in its intentions, but, as I said, you can tell he’s ready to revisit his roots. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is incredible, but, perhaps to the fault of high expectations that could never be met, I left the theater a little let down.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, the third film in the trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne having turned into a rich recluse, the kind that the public would be quick to make a snark allusion to Howard Hughes. However, he comes out of hiding when Gotham City faces a new threat in the form of the hulking monster that is Bane. Bane is ready to destroy the entire city, blowing it to smithereens. And while there are plenty of explosive action sequences, the focus here, as usual, is on the story and the characters. Sort of.
While Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both handled large action scenes and even larger, more powerful scenes of drama and suspense, The Dark Knight Rises seems to have trouble reconciling the two. You either get scenes of great emotion and contemplation followed by a somewhat lackluster action sequence, or you get something rather trite and heavy handed followed by “action poetry”. Is it the running time or is it something else? It takes a while for the film to focus properly, balancing the two perfectly, allowing both drama and action to occur very closely together and balance well. But the film seems hesitant to make up its mind about not what to focus on but how to do it. You have a stunning prologue in a similar fashion to The Dark Knight’s Kubrick inspired first six minutes, and then for the next half hour, it seems, it’s all Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred discussing how much Gotham, and Wayne himself, needs “the Batman”.
While the trouble in focus is a problem, the presence of the weighty internal conflict is welcome. As heavy handed as it may be, the fact that it is there at all and the fact that Nolan gives us a protagonist, an iconic one at that, whom we can explore psychoanalytically is one of the blessings of the trilogy’s existence. If anything, it’s the realism and the psychoanalytic approach that make the films (greatly aided by Bale’s awesome performance), not the huge set pieces. Michael Caine also does quite well as the loyal and conflicted Alfred, trying desperately to motivate Bruce Wayne to do the right thing, which does not always necessarily mean become the Batman. Here, it’s all about the battle between hope and lost faith. But, what Bale does here, once again, is show that Batman is human and that every facet of desire and motivation is real. Bale’s realism and humanity in playing the character is stunning and one of the best things about this film in particular.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we are introduced to a new villain: Bane, a character who, in the past, was a steroid pumped demon, usually working under or with another villain. Here, embodied by Tom Hardy, he is like Bronson on steroids. Er, well, more steroids. The point being, he is more human than he has been in other iterations, yet still monstrous. As far symbolic representations go, you can draw comparisons between the maniacal and chaotic Joker and driven and deliberate Bane. The Joker likes to create chaos for the sake of chaos, both as a means of pure joy and pleasure as well as a way to turn Gotham’s finest into Gotham’s most twisted and evil. He is real world terrorism without motivation that the public can understand. The destruction he creates is as enigmatic and flamboyant as he is. Bane, however, has a very specific goal. His objective is socially oriented (which may or may not recall strains of the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement), so that he can bring Gotham down from within. He is the terrorism with a driven ideology, and one for all to hear. However, as good as Tom Hardy is, simply because Heath Ledgers performance has been forever embedded into our minds, his villain is not as good. Maybe because Bane has a definite objective, he seems less interesting than a villain without reason. Maybe mystery is sometimes the best thing for a villain. Regardless, even if he is not the best, Hardy plays him to the hilt, and the deep, electronically manipulated voice is effective once you get used to it.
The police have a larger role in the film, with two characters taking the leads: Commissioner Gordon, riddled with guilt about Batman’s exile from society, and newbie John Blake, a dedicated cop with a broken past. It really is nice to see Gary Oldman have a larger role here. Much the same way that Jude Law has done with Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Gary Oldman brings intelligence and pathos to a character for whom layers did not exist in the films prior to Nolan’s. Oldman is skilled and plays Gordon fantastically. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was in Inception, plays Blake with sensitivity and intelligence, though his character is often relegated to acting like a junior detective. However, once his character begins to take control, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is all the better and more interesting. He is able to side step some of the cheesiness that seems to be inherent in the script regarding his character’s past, but not so much that the audience would not be able to identify with him. In short, both actors do extremely well.
The women of Nolan’s Batman trilogy have faltered, mostly because there has only been one, and she did not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. The women of Batman’s world never really have, with few exceptions. Selina Kyle, however, is one of those exceptions. Played with verve, class, wit, and sex appeal by Anne Hathaway, Catwoman manages to be a rather compelling character in this finale. Given no real origin story, only alluded to as someone trying escape her past with a clean slate, the mystery surrounding he character, and the vulnerability that Hathaway is able to portray (without being too sappy or cliché) makes Catwoman even sexier. Her new suit is sleek, yet simple and minimal, as opposed to the dominatrix outfit Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns. Once again, the tension between Batman and Catwoman is palpable. You could cut the sexual tension with a bat ranger. Anne Hathaway surprised me because, as much as I adore her, I was honestly not sure if she would be able to pull off playing Catwoman. She did pull it off, and very well. Marion Cotillard, who worked with Nolan on Inception, joins the cast as well, also vying for Bruce Wayne’s heart. Cotillard does fine, if not spectacularly. She’s enticing, but her character, Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist, does not seem to be the kind of man that Bruce Wayne would legitimately fall for. She does not seem to fit with Wayne. Sure, she “stands” for something, but she never gives the impression that she would go out and do whatever it took to do what needs to be done, in the way that Rachel Dawes did, especially the way Maggie Gyllenhaal played her in The Dark Knight. For there to be a convincing love interest, he or she must be other’s equal, and Tate is not, even if the woman who plays her is one of the finest actresses around.
One of the film’s biggest flaws, aside its slightly plodding story and pace, is its setting. In the previous films, Gotham City, no matter how much it may have resembled Chicago or New York, always had a sense of anonymity about it. Gotham is supposed to be Any Metropolis, USA. Here, we are given New York City, plain and obvious. From sightings of specific bridges (Brooklyn, for instance) to Saks Fifth Avenue, the anonymity disappears from the setting and, in those moments, the films steps out of the limbo between Batman’s universe and reality and just sits in reality. It is extremely jarring to see locations that are supposed to exist generically and realize that not only do you recognize them, that you have probably been there. Here, Nolan’s focus again seems unbalanced. With the inclusion of a new, fun vehicle called the Bat, we are once again ripped form one realm and shoved into another. The Bat is like the Tumbler, but it flies. This, to me, seems silly. It reminded me of the invisible Aston Martin V12 Vanquish from the James Bond film Die Another Day, and they both don’t work for the same reason: for characters that are so rooted in reality (for their respective interpretations and approaches), the use of such a gadget seems counterintuitive. Obviously, things in the film would never happen, but even the carnage and destruction that goes on feels real because that is how Nolan has approached the films. All of a sudden adding what is essentially a flying Batmobile is a strange move. Here, in both cases, the biggest problem of the film is demonstrated, in that it does not know when to be real, when to be fantastical, or when to balance the two.
The Batman films have molded and conformed thematically to whatever the contemporary social and political atmosphere is. Here, we plainly see strains of various recent social movements, and again, it is the focus that trips up the pacing and the story. Nolan handles the socio-political material better than anyone else would have, but as clear as the extremism is in the film, it sometimes gets caught up in itself. Strains of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement stand out the most, with dialogue form characters that read out the conceits as obviously as the final speech in The Dark Knight. As soon as the lesson in political science is put on the back burner, but still present yet subtle, the representations that the characters become and their motivations stand for seem smoother and more easily digestible than some of the ham fisted and overt ideas.
The action, though, seems of a different flavor that one is used to. It still remains fairly coherent in its editing and execution style, but you get the sense that, once again, there’s difficulty in reconciling the action epic of Michael Bay proportions and the thrilling, almost poetic action to counterpose the emotional weight of the story. The final forty-five minutes, however, are very satisfying to watch on the big screen. Especially, in IMAX.
The film also seems to be more stylistically different than those from the rest of the series, but its ties to the universe make it so that the film would not be able to stand on its own very well. That is not inherently bad, but while the other two films can be their own entity, it is harder to compartmentalize and separate The Dark Knight Rises from its counterparts. The film, though, does nice tie some things together, and it ends up being a fairly satisfying ending.
As “disappointed” as I was, I will still contend to the fact that it is a pretty splendid film. Maybe it isn’t the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be, but with the sky high expectations, can you blame it? While the film is flawed in several ways, it is a pretty incredible and fantastic way to end a superb film trilogy. Though the film has trouble with its pacing and its ability to focus, its strengths in acting and pieces of its storytelling outweigh its weaknesses. Similarly, in the film, the light is able to makes its way through the darkness in Gotham, if barely.
Also, check out my essay comparing Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s approaches the Batman at VeryAware.com!
2012 in Film: #54 – Rio
2012 in Film: #54
Rio (2011) | Directed by Carlos Saldanha
Thoughts: Adorable and cute animated film that is, in all honesty, kinda fluffy. What’s nice about this film is that, while it does have some environmental subtext (save the birds!), it isn’t shoved down your throat like, say, Wall-E (sorry, I still love you though). Charming cast. If Eisenberg does this well playing a neurotic, frantic character, I hope he does just as well in Woody Allen’s new film. Hathaway is great. But will.i.am is obnoxious, as are the human characters. Not sure why there are so many Angry Bird derived characters though.