December 30, 2012

Les MisÚrables

I'll start by saying that there's a lot of good things to say about the show.

It started with a strong hand. We knew going in that it had a great story, a good script, and fantastic songwriting. Most of the main characters were also played by very A-list actors, so the expectations were high.

The result was... disappointing.

I mean, what was good was really good. Anything involving Anne Hathaway, for instance; she has a rare mix of a good voice and good acting ability and ability to act while singing, and she pretty much steals the entire show. She makes you absolutely believe that she's at the end of her rope, selling her hair, her teeth (which, wtf?), and finally her body, all to save the daughter she probably hasn't even seen in several years. Her songs are the highlight of the show, and everything she touches turns to gold (and/or tears).

Other things were great. Hugh Jackman has a great set of pipes, and he sings a notoriously difficult repertoire. Honestly, not my favourite voice-type, but it's good for the part, and he does a great job. Amanda Seyfried was by far the least annoying Cosette I've seen; the part is unavoidably somewhat light, but she gives Cosette about as much depth as there can be. And we've heard her sing before, but, interestingly, not like this---all that trilly stuff is part of her Cosette performance, not an integral part of her voice, which makes it that much cooler. The Thenardiers were pretty much brilliant throughout (although singing their entire closing number while being carried out was... odd). The casting for Eponine gave us possibly the best Eponine I've ever seen or heard.

I wish I could say I loved their choice for Marius. In the stage productions, Marius is usually cast for looks and voice; acting ability is largely unnecessary as the character is vapid and whiny. Or so I thought; Eddie Redmayne played a much stronger Marius, one you can actually connect with, rather than one performing arias at a voice recital. But, and this is a crucial and unavoidable point, his voice sounds like Kermit the Frog. This is camouflaged when he's singing in a duet or trio, and blending with the others, but anything he's singing solo? Kermit, Kermit, Kermit. It's like he's trying to swallow his own tongue.

This would be a good point to bring up the sound engineering in this film: it is fantastic. I understand that contrary to the usual movie-musical practice (film scenes, then dub them with studio music recordings), most of the songs were recorded on-set with a combination of cleverly hidden mics and cleverly hidden earpieces. But, you'd never know that the music wasn't recorded in the studio, other than that the lips and breathing match up perfectly. The sound engineers have filtered out all the ambient stuff and then blended everybody perfectly. As a result, I think that at least for the duets and trios, the movie soundtrack are instantly the definitive recordings of those songs.

Well, except for Confrontation. It's not Russell Crowe's fault, really; it's just a damn shame. Their casting director should be blackballed for doing this to the show: they cast a Javert whose voice was in the wrong range. I suspect that they transposed his solos (Stars and the reprise) in a different key, because those were okay, but whenever he had to insert himself into any other song, he was stuck up at the top of his range with no room to maneuver, whether to do some acting or just plain sound nice. We know he can act, and there's enough evidence here that he can sing, but he was dealt a very bad hand on this show.

There were also some curious changes made to the text of the songs. I'm not the sort who obsesses over a movie version of something being slavishly true to whatever it's adapting from; when you switch mediums, you should play to your strengths. So when you shift the backdrop and this necessitates a lyric change, super. Or when you need an extra verse of something to bridge a gap, or you need to cut a verse for whatever reason, fine. What I didn't understand was why they so frequently made gratuitous changes. Substituting a synonym, or changing a word here or there---you know we all have the stage score memorised, right? We're gonna notice. Especially jarring were the four or five times when a change was made that actually significantly changed the character's motivations. (I wish I had been taking notes at the time, because I forgot the specifics of the changes as soon as I walked out of the theatre; the only example I can give wasn't a lyric change, but an acting one: there is just no plausible explanation for why Javert would pin a war medal on Gavroche. Look sad, maybe even show regret? Sure, fine. But a war medal?)

You may have noticed that up to this point I've carefully avoided mentioning one aspect of the film. The comments above this point would lead me to a generally positive review, with a few weak spots. What destroyed the movie for me were the visuals.

I mean, it's a movie, right? Talking pictures. If all I wanted were the audio track I'd buy the soundtrack. We've all seen Les Mis on stage, so we want to see what the different medium can do, right? This movie made three directorial decisions in the cinematography in which it parts company from most other movies (and all movie musicals that I'm aware of); one I'm sort of neutral about and the other two are flat-out FAIL.

The first choice, and the only one of the three I've seen others complain about elsewhere, is to spend a huge amount of time zoomed in ridiculously close to the actors' faces. I'm neutral about this because I totally understand where it comes from: we have all seen this on stage, and so we know what it looks like far away; and what the movie medium can really add to the canon of Les MisÚrables is a vision of how those characters look close-up while they are emoting through song. It's an interesting choice, and I appreciate the idea. It was weird in that singers' faces, it turns out, are not particularly pretty when actively singing, and visible saliva is distracting at best. So it's a good experiment with some salvageable lessons.

The second choice, which may have been borrowed from "action" movies, is to make it seem as if any non-static scene is filmed by a guy with a handicam (except that handicams actually have image stabilisers). It's not just the true action scenes, either; I saw it a little bit already in the boatyard scene and a lot during Valjean's cross-country trek. I think there might have been some good and epic visuals in these scenes, except that I couldn't actually see them, so they're kind of wasted. But that's nothing compared to...

The third choice, the one that did more than any other thing to ruin the show for me, was that the depth of field was so narrow, in nearly every scene, for the whole movie, that two thirds of the screen was blurry and out of focus. This was obviously intentional, so I will not criticise this as incompetent filming; but it was an absolutely disastrous choice. Probably if they'd done it in one or two scenes, it would be fine. But I think every single shot that included just one or two people in it, and that person was not in ridiculous close-up, had this problem. (My sister has a theory that it's only true in those scenes where a solo singer is singing their thoughts as opposed to singing for the world to hear, but that's basically all of them, so it doesn't really change my point.) I assume the intent is to force the viewer to look at the actor that's singing, but at least in my case, the effect was the opposite: I became much more aware of when my eyes were flicking around the scene to peripherally inspect the background, and my eyes try to focus but can't, so this rises from my subconscious to a conscious level and now I'm distracted. Of course I'm looking at the actor. But despite the fact that you've put all this work into staging an epic spectacle you are now not letting me actually look at it! I'd be slightly sympathetic if this were a cost-cutting measure that let them skimp on set/backdrop work, but I'm almost positive that's not true. The director just decided that we were only going to see what they wanted us to see and blurred out the rest. Ok, smart guy, but it distracts from the singing and destroys my ability to be absorbed into the show---because in real life, when your eye flicks around a scene, you actually see the rest of the scene, not a blurry mess.

If you're paying attention, you might have noticed that these three flaws neatly encompass nearly all possibilities, since we hit close-ups, medium-distance, and large action shots. So the review has to end up a negative one: the singing was good to great, the acting was good to great, but the movie was unwatchable. Too bad.

"We want a government that will resolve every problem we currently face with solutions that require no effort, no sacrifices, and no money. And I have no doubt that we have elected a group of people brave enough to promise exactly that." --Ed, ginandtacos.com

Posted by blahedo at 4:14am on 30 Dec 2012
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