Jan 28, 2013

[Movies] Les Misérables (2012)

When the news of a movie adaptation of the musical Les Misérables came out, I have to admit that I was extremely skeptical. Recent movie musicals have been rather hit or miss and this particular musical is one that is too easy to mess up given the level of expectations around it. Even just making a mediocre movie could be considered a failure just because it means far too much to too many people.

And for us here in the Philippines, we had to wait an additional few weeks to legally see the movie because of the all-encompassing nature of the Metro Manila Film Festivalwhich takes over all theaters every December. Thus we all had to content ourselves with reading the international reviews of the movie to get an appreciation for how things were going until January finally came along.

Did I like the movie? Yeah, I suppose like is a safe enough word for it. I certainly did not love it - and we'll get into the details of what made this movie not quite ideal for me. And I'm pretty sure it's not because of me having overly high standards or expectations. Again, I wasn't exactly expecting much from it given the track record of other movie musicals in recent years.

Synopsis: Les Misérables is the 2012 musical movie based on the musical of the same name, which in turn is based on the Victor Hugo book of the same name. Adapting this particular story seems to be quite the trend. It was directed by Tom Hooper, but I won't get into the screenplay since it wasn't particularly a factor.

For those who don't know the story, at the heart of the movie is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man convicted for stealing a loaf of bread many years ago. Because of an escape attempt, he has now spent over 19 years doing hard labor but is finally eligible for parole. But he has no luck finding a job given his status as a convict and it is only the kindness of the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson) when his lck begins to change. But he in turn steals silver from the Bishop and is quickly apprehended by the police. To his surprise, the Bishop lies and claims the silver had been a gift to him.

This act of kindness makes Valjean decide to lead a new life with the gift from the Bishop. He tears up the papers identifying him as a convict and takes on a new identity in order to break parole. An in 8 years he is the respectable Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and the owner of a small factory. One of his employs is the young Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a single mother who works to send money to the Thénardiers, who are taking care of her daughter Cosette. But the other factory workers learn of her illegitimate child and get her thrown out of the factory, thus putting her on the streets.

From there we all better understand why the title of the movie involves the world miserable given the various misfortunes that the characters face. And this is eventually juxtaposed against the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, which wasn't exactly a happy event either.

Now for the most part, the singing was pretty good. Sure Jackman is already recognized as a "legitimate" Broadway actor when you get down to it but Hathaway was the real gem in this cast. She did remarkably well in her role and for that she just might nab the Oscar (she already got the Golden Globe). I was also surprised by Eddie Redmayne as Marius. He sings pretty well for a guy who played a plucky builder in The Pillars of the Earth TV mini-series. And yes, Russel Crowe made for a rather lousy Javert, so blame the casting director and not the actor for being cast in a role he was bound to fail.

What annoys me a bit more is the fact that we lost the source of Javert's primary motivation for chasing down Valjean. It was not just because he was a guard at the prison while Valjean was serving his sentence. It was more because Valjean represented the one blemish in his sterling career.

But beyond the singing, we cannot ignore the movie aspects of this production.

A lot of hype went Hooper's decision to film the actors from a very close distance while they sang, to give it added impact or something along those lines. To be fair, this worked for some scenes, particularly Anne Hathaway's Oscar moment. But for the most part, it resulted in some ridiculous moments like when Jackman sings What Have I Done? where we have the camera following Jackman up and down a narrow corridor over and over again, and at times clearly stumbling over unseen obstacles as the camera man tries to walk backwards. Constantly using tight shots in almost every song number (of which the whole movie is a long singing piece) makes for very boring sequences that show little imagination on the part of the director.

Thus we see the extent of Hooper's TV experience may have worked against him. Tight shots work decently on TV since we all have relatively smaller screens. But when blown up on a theater screen, it because a dizzying, nauseating affair. Throw in the added decision to utilize a shaky-cam for many of the movie's scenes  again made it difficult for me to keep my lunch. There are 3D movies that have made me feel less nauseous than this one.

And it's a real shame that he decided to go this route given how much work was put into the sets and the costumes. As viewers, we are actively denied the chance to enjoy these aspects of the movie given the director chose not to show these things to us. Instead we were forces to count the number of freckles of Redmayne's face or examine just how intensely Jackman's neck muscles seem to swell while he sings.

Les Misérables is a good enough musical because of the singing but could have been a much better movie with a different director. So stop bashing Crowe for not performing at the same level as the other actors. Instead remember how a bad a director Hooper was with respect to how the whole thing came together. Thus I can only give the movie a rating of 3.5 comical moments with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen out of a possible 5.

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