Skip to main content

How have you come to grief in a place such as this?


Les Misérables
(2012)

I’ve noted a few times that I’m not the greatest fan of musicals (every time I see one, actually), but I’m always willing to give any genre a chance (well, maybe not torture porn; I know going in I’m not the most receptive audience). I love the film version of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. I could probably even (vaguely) sing along to it. Les Mis, though. I’ve never seen it performed, never read Victor Hugo’s novel. I didn’t really have any expectations for it either way, except that there’s a danger of being spoiled by hype when something is acclaimed as the best ever of its kind. Fortunately (well, not for those who wanted a definitive movie version), this concern had been thoroughly dampened down by the generally negative word on director Tom Hooper’s choices regarding how to film the adaptation.

The Hooper thing is probably easiest to discuss first, since his choice to shoot 90% of the movie in close-up is indeed baffling. In close-up, using wide-angle lenses and mostly handheld. Oh, and plenty of swooping camera movements cut in at random moments. And… Dutch angles. I can kind of see some of the thinking behind some of these choices. He wants to create something raw and immediate, the equivalent with the camera to the dictate that the cast sing live. But the results are anti-intuitive for the most part.

It can work to an extent for a solo, isolated performer singing to themselves, but with any interaction the cast are cut off from each other; an island of their own head and shoulders, usually at one side of an empty frame. There are rarely clear establishing shots, and any sense of geography is by luck rather than design. Worse, the effect of handheld camera is as if someone has been on set making an amateur documentary; it is jarringly eat odds with artifice of the musical form. This is supposed to be an epic tale, but you wouldn’t know it the way Hooper films it. There is no sense of scale, and the extravagant sets more often than not go to waste. Occasionally, the weirdness of his choices seems some how appropriate; the tavern grotesquerie of Master of the House sort-of works, but in general the preponderance of low angle, wide lens shooting yields is distorting and tonally inappropriate. Given how visually illiterate Les Mis, I wouldn't let Tom Hooper mow your lawn if I were you. 

That said, despite Hooper’s best (or worst) efforts, the tale remains an involving one The songs are mostly strong, with a clear sense of narrative and purpose. This is Hugh Jackman’s show, and he gives a phenomenal performance as Jean Valjean, binding the disparate elements together and showing both heart and a belting pair of lungs. He’s so good that, when the young love/revolution plotline arrives during the second half, the film is off-balanced. Maybe this is a problem with the stage version too, but the proceedings only pick up again whenever Jackman’s on screen. I don’t think this is particularly the fault of Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried in that I’m not sure any performers could make what is a fairly sudden an insipid declaration of love gripping. The revolutionary speechifying and warbling are similarly laboured.

I don’t have much comment about the vocal performances; to my tin ear everyone sounded fine, although poor Russell Crowe is clearly not as proficient as his co-stars. Javert seems like a thankless sort of part anyway; enough screen time that he shouldn’t be a mere cypher, but insufficient depth to allow him to rise above being a real stinker.  His eventual fate rather reminded me of how Captain Kirk will sometimes confuses a alien or robot into self-destruction by introducing it to human concepts such as “love” or “emotion”.

I shouldn’t have dipped into the DVD extras, as now I can find little positive to say about gushing diva Anne Hathaway. Yeah, she cut her hair. She’s amazingly brave, blah blah. Whatever. It’s not like she’s stricken with alopecia. I found myself curiously unmoved by the plight of Fantine once she was ejected from the workhouse. Her subsequent mistreatment felt overly schematic, almost as if it was there just to lead into I Dreamed a Dream. Which, despite being one of the few sequences where Hooper just lets his performer get on with it, left me stone-hearted.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s comic relief didn’t really work for me either; perhaps they are more effective on stage, where the emotional stakes are higher and so the humorous release they provided is more necessary.

Nevertheless, I was caught up in Valjean’s journey through the decades. Jackman does all the heavy lifting, essentially carrying the piece while his director repeatedly fails the production. Even though Hooper’s film is a failure, enough of the musical’s essence survives to convince me that, done right, Les Misérables has a claim on its reputation. 

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli