Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Recent Watches: Les Miserables (2012)

You could say I’ve got a love-hate relationship with musicals. As some one raised on Disney cartoons, I’ve got no built-in resentment against the genre. I’ve been open about my love for “Rocky Horror,” “Phantom of the Paradise,” or “Repo!” However, the appeal of Broadway musicals frequently escapes me. "Les Miserables" is one of those shows with a cultishly adoring fan-following. (To give you an idea, there's a fan-made "Les Mis" video game.) And now there's a movie.

From early on, it’s clear “Les Miserables” is one of those musicals where characters sing their lines with shouted enthusiasm, every other line of dialogue set to music. I’ve got problems with this. First off, dialogue rarely flows in any sort of musical or melodic fashion, especially when characters are spouting off exposition or bland information. Secondly, when practically the whole damn movie is sang, songs blunder into each other. It becomes impossible to pick stand-out numbers because there’s just so much damn music. Songs should be stand-out moments, not the entire show. Whenever the movie actually manages to find a decent melody or some genuine emotion, it is immediately trampled over by a change in tone, another character butting their head in, or one of the actors hitting an off-tune or overdubbed high note. 

That’s the other big problem with “Les Mis.” There’s just so much overwhelming, reaching-for-the-heavens, emotion. The movie is dripping in tears, bellows of agony and sorrow, rage-filled yells, declarations of love, misery (obviously I guess), impassioned pleas, and overblown emotion. There’s not a single subtle bone in the entire thing. I suppose that’s the stuff Broadway musicals are built on but because there’s so much of it, you quickly got numb.

This overstuffed approach to drama is best exemplified in Anne Hathaway’s character. First, she’s fired from her job, cuts her hair off and gets her teeth yank out, before turning to prostitution, all to care for a child we don’t even meet, see, or learn anything about for twenty more minutes. We have no investment in the child, so have little investment in Fantine’s struggle. This is misery-porn set to bland, overblown music. When Hathaway sings her big number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” she weeps and strains her voice, going way over the top of respected acting. Hathaway then, spoiler’s alert, dies almost immediately afterwards, making any investment we had in her as a character for naught.

And just what the fuck is “Les Miserables” about anyway? It has about ten different subplots and skips forward in time on three occasions. Jean Valjean is a victim of the imbalanced French justice system and Javert, the cop assigned to his case, is an asshole. He gets out, skips parole, TIME JUMP, restarts his life under an assumed identity, starts a business, adopts the dead hooker’s kid away from the greedy, thieving landlords, pleads with the courts and Javert, makes a daring escape from a frankly ridiculous horse chase, before another TIME JUMP.

I always thought “Les Miserables” was about the French Revolution and, over an hour in, it finally sort of becomes about that kind of. There’s a group of young Revolutionaries ready to lay the smack-down on the bourgeoisie but that’s not really important. The hooker’s little girl has grown up into Amanda Seyfried, who sees one of the Revolutionary Boys, and the two immediately fall in love upon first sight, despite the guy having a female best friend totally devoted to and in love with him that contributes nothing to the plot before dying. (You can tell who she is because she wears a hat.) The guy is all conflicted about his love’s conflicts with the impending revolution. Jean Valjean is all conflicted n’ shit about his adopted daughter getting married to some dude she literally just met.

There’s other Revolutionaries too, of course, but they all die in one of the most underwhelming action sequences I’ve ever seen. In this moment, it’s really obvious the movie is based on a stage play since the entire battle takes place in one aisle way. Valjean has a few run-ins with Javert, who is still around by the way, before saving Love Interest Guy’s life. He’s okay with the wedding now, wallows in the sewers for a while, runs away for reasons that are unimportant, gets found by the girl and the guy, and then dies too. Somewhere in there, Javert remembers he’s a subplot and neatly revolves it himself for reasons that are stupid. Also, the greedy Landlords are still here despite doing nothing of interest or importance. Despite not a single fucking thing about the underclass being abused and repressed getting resolved, despite the mountains of deaths, the movie ends on a happy note. I think I got it all. Even if it’s all senseless, at least the movie fills it’s bloated, 157 minutes run time with a bunch of rambling subplots and a cast of thousands.

The cast is filled with actors who aren’t really singers. You’d think someone would have realized this is a problem, since almost the entire fucking movie is sung. Hugh Jackman has performed in musicals before and even his voice is strained by the constant over-singing. Russell Crowe, who I guess does sing in that band with the awful name, is out of his element and it's obvious at times his voice was pitch-corrected and stretched out in the studio. It helps that Javert is one of the more interesting characters in the film, a relatively grey villain even if his internal conflicts are as simplistic as everyone else’s.

Hathaway and Seyfried are woefully out of their element and push their limited singing voice way pass their limits. (Hathaway is still going to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, since overblown emotion and hype is what wins you Oscars.) I guess Tom Hooper really liked “Sweeney Todd,” since Helena Bohnam Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen are both in the movie, despite both proving in that film a lack of sustainable musical talent. Cohen gets points for being the only guy in the entire picture to attempt a French accent, slipping and exaggerated though it is. Eddie Redmayne, who I last saw sexually menacing Chloe Moretz in “Hick,” does okay, I guess. The rest of the supporting cast are filled out with actual singers, far as I can tell.

Tom Hooper’s direction is rather awkward. He tries to have it both ways. He indulges his chamber drama style during several of the musical numbers, by having the actors sing directly into the camera, looking the audience in the eyes. All this does is bring the film’s all ready maudlin pace to a screeching halt and drawl attention to the cast’s woefully under-qualified pipes. He does serve the rules of big budget musical adaptations with sweeping shots craning over the CGI cities. Jumping back and forth between the two styles leaves the audience with whiplash. Even then, this still can’t escape its stage roots at times, with extended sequences of British people talking in rooms.

I’m not the audience for “Les Miserables,” so I guess my opinion is forfeit. But, seriously Oscar, why do you always fall for this shit? The big costume drama musical shit? Haven’t we all outgrown this kind of thing? This deserved a Best Picture nomination and “The Masters” didn’t? I don’t know if fans of the stage show will like it. I’m sure they’re a fickle butch. And, honestly, the movie that has Wolverine, Catwoman, Borat, and Maximus in it. There’s no excuse for it to be this fucking droll. Other then the fact that Broadway musicals are just fucking droll, I guess. [4/10]

Now I have seen all the Best Picture nominations. I rank them thus so, from most favorite to least favorite:

Django Unchained: 9/10
Silver Linings Playbook: 7/10
Argo: 7/10
Lincoln: 7/10
Beasts of the Southern Wild: 6.5/10
Amour: 6/10
Life of Pi: 6/10
Zero Dark Thirty: 5/10
Les Miserables: 4/10

A full review of "Django Unchained" will come with my Tarrantino’s Director Report Card, which will happen eventually, I promise. As for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the paragraph I wrote in my 2012 Retrospective will have to do. ONWARD TO THE OSCARS!

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