Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: "Les Miserables" is the Amazing Musical Adaptation We've Been Waiting For

Hugh Jackman

One of the greatest joys of watching director Tom Hooper's latest Les Miserables is the realization that the musical genre has been regenerated with life. After mainstream duds like this past summer's Rock of Ages, it is fascinating to watch as Hooper takes the beloved stage show based on Victor Hugo's novel and turn it into this big lavish story with an all star cast and live recordings. Even if the film has flaws (which it does), it wears the passion and craft so proudly that it turns a movie that is essentially three hours of singing into a well constructed narrative with vivacious tunes and some jaw dropping performances. Les Miserables is a refreshing sight for the sheer fact that it feels like people are trying. But with all of this effort in place, can it go the extra mile and earn Best Picture?

If the next year's Oscars should be proud to boast about anything, it is that almost all of the nominees have defined voices, crackling with authenticity, a factor that was missing from this year's nominees and essentially made the winners less interesting. However this time, we have a musical of epic proportions facing against a war procedural and making of a fake movie for the top honor. That alone should provide interesting fodder for host Seth MacFarlane, who I am sure already has a joke based around "Russell Crowe can't sing" in his arsenal along with whatever racist thing he has for Django Unchained.

As many of you know by now, Les Miserables was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. I have long been of the mindset that musicals need to be revived and not just mocked with quick buck karaoke films. I felt like Hooper was a decent choice, having proven himself capable with The King's Speech to handle period pieces with a fine attention to detail. The idea that the film is somewhat successful is reason enough for it to get nominations and hopefully get new projects going with equal or more interesting calibers.

The story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) on a tale of redemption as he travels through France and helps the underclass find reasons to live under the brutal hand of Javert (Russell Crowe). With an excessive amount of characters, the story covers decades and subplots dealing with love and freedom, all set to wonderfully constructed music adapted from the stage show. Fans of the stage version will have plenty to nitpick about and hopefully overall enjoy.

The benefit of Hooper's efforts is that he turns this sweeping epic into a personal tale that features numerous long shots of the actors singing. Without question, the most popular one is the heart wrenching "I Dreamed a Dream," sung by Fantine (Anne Hathaway). It may seem overly simple: stare into the camera, but it captures the brilliant pain of the characters and heightens emotional deft as the film chugs along. This only makes some performances stand out and essentially makes Jackman, the most passionate and relied upon performer, to stand out and carry the film into gripping, depressing directions.

Left to right: Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen
For those worrying that the film is too bleak, it kind of comes with a title like Les Miserables. However, it does have plenty of humor, as provided in numbers like "Master of the House" that reflect the scummy side of France with sly wit and despicable characters, played infectiously by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. The film manages to capture an array of emotions in an average scene, usually ending up somewhere around hopeful. By the time that the ensemble gets to sing together, it shakes you to the core and unlocks those deep emotions that you didn't know you had.

With this said, the singing is an interesting choice. Hooper has publicized that the actors sung their own vocals live when the scenes were filmed. At first, it seems problematic, with the vocals interfering with the natural elements and the instruments in "Look Down," but by the time "At the End of the Day" pops on, it totally clicks and the choice makes sense. There are certain cadences and rhythms that are unexpectedly more heartbreaking with a cracked voice. Even Russell Crowe, who is notoriously being bashed for his performance, isn't that bad, as his character calls for a stern, leader type.

The new song "Suddenly" is a peculiar choice that doesn't really strike me as a great addition. It makes sense as transition into the next scene, but even the orchestration feels a little off. However, Jackman really does an amazing job singing that almost all of the flaws are set aside for his brilliant choice of cadence. Still, in the grand scheme of the music, it is one of the lesser memorable choices in an otherwise aggressively fun take on all of the music.

The production is at times a little weird, choosing close-ups as the main way to evoke emotion. This is more problematic in the last half, in which the revolution feels almost too personal and the epic scope is somewhat hurt. However, by then, the addition of Marius (Eddie Redmayne) saves the day with a romance to Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and a love triangle with Eponine (Samantha Barks) that adds weight to the conclusion of the film. Of course, by this point, the music and energy has either swept you in or you're just wishing the next 40 minutes will hurry up and pass. For me, it was a breathtaking, beautiful achievement and every time a crowd shot required everyone to sing, it captured what makes musicals great. The sense of camaraderie and passion to move forward.

Les Miserables may be not click with people outside of the world of musical fans, but for those that do, it is a joy ride that is sometimes a little slogging, but always features bold, interesting choices and amazing performances that lift the film into a euphoric state at times. Hooper does a competent job with production and the live singing may be hit and miss, but overall creates the sense of vulnerability necessary to make this feel like an important musical. For all of its flaws, I loved Les Miserables and admire it even more for the song composition, stage designs, and the great acting.

Left to right: Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne

With this said, what are my thoughts on its Oscar chances? Let's get the big one out of the way. I do not believe that Les Miserables will win Best Picture anymore. I may love it, but the film and its 95% sung dialogue almost feel like a niche audience. It also seems to be one of the more polarizing film experiences with stage fans bashing portions of the film and haters finding it too excessive. While it isn't always the case, the Best Picture winner is usually somewhat crowd pleasing films like either director Ben Affleck's Argo or director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. True, at the publication of this review, Les Miserables is the top film at the box office. However, I still believe that even though I would love to see a musical win a Best Picture once in the upcoming decade, I don't feel like this is the one. True, Hooper is already beloved for winning for The King's Speech, but the only way this film will win is if it is looked at technically, which involves impressively gorgeous sets and great music compositions.

This doesn't mean that it won't place. I am positive that the film will get a Best Picture nomination, as reflected by the recent Golden Globe nomination. This film has some traction behind it, but not enough for overall quality. With Hooper being the notorious downside to the film, I doubt that he will get a Best Director nomination either, even though it is somewhat bold to go against the grain like he did. It may get a Best Adapted Screenplay, but when Silver Linings Playbook and Argo seem to be clogging up slots, it seems unlikely.

However, the acting is the strongest section. For months, Anne Hathaway has owned the Best Supporting Actress category, and finally seeing her sing "I Dreamed a Dream," it all makes sense. She is too effective when it comes to emoting and the long shot take only makes the piece more powerful. With that said, the unfortunate upset that director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln seems to be having on the other categories may jeopardize the win with Sally Field. Of course, statistics website Gold Derby places Hathaway's odds at 8:5 to Field's 7:2. Pretty close, but hopefully won't create too much of an upset.

While I am an obsessive believer that Joaquin Phoenix should win Best Actor for The Master, I think that Hugh Jackman turns in a convincing reason to finally get an Oscar nomination. His performance of Jean Valjean is brilliantly expressed in every way. It makes Daniel Day Lewis (the current front runner) in Lincoln seem very lazy. Again, it is pretty close with odds being placed with Day Lewis in the lead with odds of 8:5 and Jackman at 9:2. This is much better than Phoenix, who is in sixth with odds of 14:1. I hope that somehow through marketing, we can finally convince voters that Day Lewis's reputation is the real thing being praised here and not a Best Actor-worthy performance.

Speaking that I found it to be gorgeous, I think that it deserves all of the technical and costume design nominations. However, when you add in Cloud Atlas, Anna Karenina, and Life of Pi, those slots quickly fill up. However, with Les Miserables being as popular as it is, I am almost sure that it will win Best Costume Design. Anna Karenina leads the pack with odds of 15:8 and Les Miserables barely trails with 27:10. Either way, both are faring better than my original hope of Cloud Atlas, which has odds of 12:1. 

As for the song "Suddenly." It is a fine nominee, though a little too emotional to really have a strong impact. Adele's "Skyfall" still carries the pack with odds of 21:10, and John Legend's "Who Did That to You" (Django Unchained) still doesn't even place. There is no contest that "Suddenly" will get nominated, though right now, "Skyfall" is the song to beat, as Adele is winning points just for being so beloved right now. Despite Jackman's brilliance, he just cannot compete with her vocal range in that song.

I really hope that of all of the possible nominations, Les Miserables will win Best Supporting Actress and hopefully get Hugh Jackman at very least nominated. I don't expect the Oscars to reward a musical for some reason. I am slowly shifting my mindset to the idea that maybe Zero Dark Thirty will be our champion. It has ended up on more critic's best of lists and has won many more awards. Still, Les Miserables' technical achievements are far too many to leave it out of the running, which may result in a hefty presence in costume and technical categories.

Do you think that the film was great? Do you believe that Hugh Jackman should win Best Actor? Is "Suddenly" worthy of a nomination? Is there anyone able to compete with Anne Hathaway's amazing performance? 

1 comment:

  1. I think Les Mis will be our champion in the technical categories come Oscar ceremony in February. "Suddenly" should grab an award because the song is full of meaning, but the voice is ok. The thing with Les Mis - that won't let it grab the Best Picture and Director at the Oscars is there's too much singing - the singing takes over the story.

    But I do think Les Mis will grab Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes. And Anne Hathaway is definitely a lock for Best Supporting Actress, same with Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor because they give it their all.

    I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, but I have a feeling it may sweep the Oscars. It's hard to tell - there's so many good films out right now!