Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Miss That Was Les Miserables

Last night, due to the winter storm locking everyone in, my roommates and I decided to watch a good movie, A League Of Their Own (neither of them had seen it), and then we elected to watch a rather bad movie, Les Miserables (which we'd all seen, and do Javert impressions around the house constantly).

Now, when I say bad movie, there's a lot of different sub-categorizations I like to use.
First, there's a truly bad movie. There are no redeeming qualities to it. There's not even little joys to be found, weird choices or over-the-top bad acting, or a terribly on-the-nose script. Some or all of those things would bump it into the next category...
...The batshit, so-bad-it's-good movie. This is where you'll find your The Room's, and Birdemics. They are, objectively, terrible movies, but elements of them are just so insane that you can't help but watch them. But if the choices rather incite anger or frustration more often than glee, then you move into a third category...
...The joyless, bad and boring movie. It'd be one thing if it was just bad. But if they are trying very hard, or there's a good concept in there, or there's some good performances, or what have you, you fall into this final category. A lot of nostalgia-tinged pieces will fall into this. Labyrinth for me falls into this category now. It's not a good movie. David Bowie is outstanding, that goes without saying. The puppetry is par excellence, because of course it's Jim Henson. But nothing happens in the movie. You don't understand character motivations and you don't really care that anyone gets what they want by the end. And other than Dance Magic, there's not really another song you can sing off the top of your head.

Les Miserables falls somewhere between the latter two categories.

When this movie first came out 4 years ago, I wanted to like it. Les Miz has always been one of my favorite musicals of all time. The music is of course unforgettable, and with the right actors, you will fall in love with pretty much all the characters (except maybe Cosette, who never does anything, and is defined purely by Marius loving her, and possibly just for being beautiful, because she does nothing of substance that we see in the proceedings of the musical).
I loved the casting all around. Everyone made sense to me, I was pleased to see they all had at least some music background, whether it be music or musicals. They were all good actors whom I admired, and the amount of the thought that was being put into the film seemed to all herald good things for it. So what went wrong? What kept it from being as good as Chicago, or Hairspray, or hell, even Into the Woods?

First, I think the initial conceit of the movie worked in opposition to being a good adaptation of a musical. Tom Hooper's idea of everyone singing live on camera is all fine in theory, but the close-ups are unbearably jarring. They're not pleasing cinematically. The more aesthetic shots, like panning to the sky during Javert's song Stars, or craning out during Bring Him Home, that's what we see movies for. These extreme close-ups take out everything that is visually interesting from the shot.
The fact that everyone was treating that like a big deal, that they were actually singing live on the set, and it not really being that big a deal hurts the idea of the movie. Frankly, for a lot of the songs, I would've liked to hear the best possible takes of the voice. When you see a musical live on stage, you expect them to be singing live, and of course they are. In a movie, you are willing to excuse the idea that they are lip-syncing because the expectation is that they are going to put the best record of the performance together, because this what will be on tape forever. (Did I really just say tape? Oh, boy...)
Some of the lines got sung in ways that are inexplicable. And that wouldn't be the case if they went and overlaid good takes. They also wouldn't have had to do this confining close-up business, and opened up the movie to be more cinematic. The opening with the chain gang pulling in the boat is so epic, the time jumps with the camera flying over the city are awesome. Why would you want all these beautiful songs filmed so claustrophobically?

I'll pause here and say that the one time it works, is Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed A Dream as Fantine. Holy shit, girl. All the praise she gets for that solo is well-deserved. How cool would it have been if she'd been the one part of this film that was done like that? She sang it live, on the set, and they got it down in just a couple takes? Again, Hathaway is fantastic.

Lastly on this note, I think the orchestral arrangement suffers greatly from this choice. During music interludes, the orchestration is robust, vibrant. Accompanying singers though, even group numbers, it feels thinned out. Is that a limitation of the sound mixing, because the voice capture was only so high? It seems unlikely in this technological day and age, but regardless, the music is definitely not as rich as it could be.

The second thing involves a much larger, over-arching discussion, and that is what makes a good adaptation, versus what makes a good film? Are the two necessarily working in opposition to each other? For some, "purists," it would seem that way.
When Into The Woods made cuts here and there and even to a lesser extent when Sweeney Todd did it, there was a kind of outcry from musical theatre enthusiasts about how they weren't sticking to the source material. It's kind of a whole spirit or letter idea. If you do a straightforward adaptation of everything on page and put it on film, do you have a good movie?
One need only look at the Harry Potter series to see this very argument at work, and the case for distilling the essence of the source material into something filmworthy making for much better films. The first two Potter films are the most faithful straightforward adaptations. They suffer from overly long running times with nothing much of note happening, many elements included that never pay off, and characters that don't develop because we don't have the benefit of a narrator explaining things to us. Order of the Phoenix is the best step in the opposite direction. It gets the essence of the book, while making a very interesting film. In fact, I think it does the book one better, because not much happens in that book.

Les Miz is not "unfilmable", but some thought has to be put into what makes a film a good film, and not just what makes a faithful adaptation.
I mentioned earlier that Cosette does next to nothing in the musical. That she is simply defined by other characters. First, by Fantine, then the Thendardiers, then Valjean, and finally Marius. It's not that she doesn't have any agency, it's that she doesn't even really have a character.
I have no idea what her character is like in the book. To this day, and most likely for the rest of my days, I will never read Victor Hugo's novel. I'm sure it's great, but I attempted it in high school and I don't know if you can rage-quit a book, but that's basically what happened.

Anyway, this is a flaw of the musical. This is an opportunity to improve something that doesn't quite work in the musical. Some advantages are taken: I feel the Thenardiers actually do love each other in the movie, as one of my roommates said: a good relationship of terrible people; I like the attempt at more character development for Valjean, confessing he feels he has purpose once he has the young Cosette; I also appreciated the attempt at humanizing Javert in a very quiet moment, where he pins one of his medals onto the lapel of the murdered Gavroche after the fall of the barricade.

But there's definitely not enough development of Cosette as a character. Even Eponine suffers from the adaptation, particularly her relationship with Marius, which I think is lacking here in the film. Again, there were also opportunities to express these through the cinematography, but constrained by the close-ups, we sacrifice that as well. One particular one that stuck out to me was during the song A Heart Full of Love. It's composed entirely of close-ups, with the exception of one racked focus shot of Marius in the foreground and Eponine behind him. We never get to see Marius and Cosette in the same shot, and I would've really loved to see a shot of all three of them, the two lovers together, Eponine away some distance, left alone. Because here's the thing, without moments like that expressed through the visuals, I felt no connection to Eponine when she sings On My Own.
Now, of course she sang it great. And we all know On My Own well (how many times have we heard it at auditions?) so we didn't need everything because we had it going in, but taking it purely from the movie, I just don't get enough sense of it. Even her death scene isn't treated with the love that she feels for Marius. On My Own shouldn't be the first and only indication that she loves him. Otherwise, why does she do these things for him? Why does she remain friends with him? Why does she take him to Cosette?

And lastly, and unfortunately my biggest issue, is the casting of the movie.
I said earlier that I was confident in the casting. And I stand by that. When they were all announced, you couldn't have convinced me that any of them were a bad choice.
But as it turns out, we lucked out on Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Everyone else was just... serviceable.
Chief among the best other than Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne as Marius (which when you think about it, isn't that great of a role, but Redmayne manages to do a lot with not much), and Samantha Barks as Eponine, even though again, she's doing a lot with so little. Everyone else is just okay. Helena Bonham Carter isn't quite brassy enough for Madame Thenardier. Sacha Baron Cohen isn't as colorful as he could be, although I think he does a good "film version" of a somewhat menacing Thenardier. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe though, are both out of their depth in terms of what abilities are needed to pull off these very demanding roles.

And what should have happened was that it should have been helmed by a cast that knows those roles and knows what they're doing. I know Rent didn't quite work with most of the original Broadway cast, but that was because of its soulless adaptation to film. This needed to be done by a Broadway cast of veterans. John Owen Jones, Alfie Boe, J. Mark McVey... all outstanding and believable Jean Valjeans. Norm Lewis for Javert. And if we needed star power still, you still have Hathaway as Fantine, you could have put Lea Michele in as Eponine, kept Seyfried for Cosette, and then shuffled the Thenardiers, Enjolras, and Marius.

Here's the thing that I find confusing. They wanted to adapt Les Miserables to a movie, because they knew it would be popular. But then they put only established stars into the cast because they needed box office draws. But why? Is that because they don't have enough faith in the notoriety of the musical? Well, then why adapt at all, then? If their thinking was we have to throw stars in here or no one's going to buy a ticket, then why do Les Miz? Les Miz is a hard show to do. That's why it needed more skilled Broadway veterans to do pull it off. Because at the end of it, it's the music and the songs that everyone remembers and loves. And with the exception of Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream, nothing else quite compares. Hugh Jackman is an accomplished song and dance man with actual Broadway shows under his belt, but he's not qualified to sing a demanding and high role like Valjean, and it shows, because he's clearly struggling through a lot of it. Same with Russell Crowe. There are shades of a good voice in there, and I've seen him sing in other instances, but in this movie, maybe it's the nerves, maybe it's the range, but he brings no dynamics to his songs, and he sounds completely out of his league. Amanda Seyfried has also done other musical movies but she's just not up to scratch for Cosette, who sings so much high harmony in this show.

And that's the catch-22 of it: I can't think of better people to play these roles who are Hollywood stars. And to make it this all-star cast of stars who are outmatched by the material, they were never going to hit it home. Les Miz could have been their chance to take some world class actors and turn them into stars, and do the adaptation of a beloved musical right. Instead, they tried too hard to make it a bigger deal than it actually was with not enough class to back it up.