Sunday, January 6, 2013

LET'S REVIEW: A Defense of Les Miz...

It's a brand new year and I thought it would be time to introduce a brand new column.  Occasionally, I will give my readers a review of a Movie, TV Series, Play or Book that is bouncing around in our Pop Culture consciousness.  And to begin, I thought I would open with the long-awaited film adaptation of the mega-hit stage musical Les Misérables, directed by The King's Speech's Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper.  The overall critical reaction to the film has been mixed.  But what I am seeing in most of the reviews, both negative and positive, is a not-so-surprising trend in the critics reviewing it.  The ones who really loved it (and there were quite a few!), were already in love with the musical from it's previous stage productions.  The ones who really loathed it (and there were quite a few!), did not like the stage musical already (which then begs the question as to why their respective publication would have them review the film version, but I digress!).  Now granting the fact that I am enamored with the stage musical already, it is not too far of a leap to believe that I was equally impressed with the film version.  I was.  But that is not to say I do not understand or disagree with some of the criticisms thrown at Hooper's adaptation.  In some of the cases, I see their points.  But in most of those cases, it comes down to typical critical nit-picking.  Is it the greatest stage-to-screen musical adaptation? No; not when films like My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Fiddler On the Roof and Chicago exist.  But is it the most disappointing stage-to-screen musical adaptation? Certainly not; not when films like Annie, The Wiz, A Chorus Line, Hair and The Phantom of the Opera exist. These are truly sad when you think of the talented directors behind each of those films: John Huston, Sidney Lumet, Richard Attenborough, Milos Forman and Joel Schumacher, respectively (I know Schumacher can be quite awful, but he's also had some good films!).  So LET'S REVIEW!

First and foremost, let's go through the most crucial thing when adapting a successful stage musical to the big screen: casting.  Casting a big brassy musical like Les Miz is made even harder these days particularly because of the expectations of the audience, the "non-acceptance" of lip-syncing (sorry Marni Nixon!), the boldness of the difficult score and the lack of truly talented "A-List" actors.  All that being said, Hooper could not have found a better Jean Valjean than Hugh Jackman.  For Les Miz (any production!), the strength of it ultimately lies on the shoulders of the actor playing Valjean.  As the central role of the story (which has been adapted more times than any Shakespeare play, thanks to its several French adaptations!), the actor playing Valjean has to run a gamut of emotions from convict to respected factory owner to unexpected father to man-on-the-run to willing revolutionary.  In the musical, add singing difficult songs like "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home" and you have a character that is extremely difficult to cast.  But in Hugh Jackman (known to audiences as Wolverine from the X-Men films), Hooper got an actor who uses every piece of himself as both an actor and a performer (he is, after all, a Tony Award-winning musical star!).  His voice is strong, his acting is perfect and his looks (which change throughout the film, spanning 20 years!) match every time.  It is truly the performance of his career.

But Valjean is not the only character crucial to the casting process of Les Miz.  As with most musicals, the female characters become the thing that Broadway purists and fans become obsessed over.  And thanks to the likes of a cherubic singer (and YouTube sensation) named Susan Boyle, the casting of Fantine is almost equally crucial to the casting of Valjean (even though the character only appears in 30 minutes of the entire 3 hour musical!).  Fans love this character (partly because the original 1985 London production cast Broadway legend Patti LuPone as Fantine!).  But once again, Hooper cast the proper person giving the performance of her career.  Anne Hathaway, who has shown her musical chops here and there on film before, truly transformed herself to play the tragic character that is Fantine.  And her rendition of the iconic "I Dreamed a Dream" is overwhelmingly impressive, especially when  you hear she completed the scene in one take (take that Sinatra!).  She IS the front-runner in the Supporting Actress category at every Awards this season (and should obtain an Oscar nod come Thursday!).

With Jackman and Hathaway taking most of the praise (albeit deserving!), most of the critics take their "vengeance" out on some of the other actors in the principal roles.  And in Russell Crowe, unfortunately, they have rather an easy target.  Unlike Jackman and Hathaway, Academy Award-winner Crowe is not extremely well-known for his musical "talents" (he has a rock band, folks!).  He also has never had the friendliest relationship with the press (he's had incidents with papparazzi that make Sean Penn look like a Care Bear!).  And in a role like Javert, expectations are very high (and in Crowe's case, almost unfairly high!).  You see, Crowe is obviously not used to or comfortable with this style of singing (usually known as "recitative").  He uses all of his intense method-acting skills to try to cover his discomfort and sometimes it works (other times...not really!).  But then I think to myself: Who else really could have played this role in this adaptation?  You see, there are certain criteria the studio, the creatives and the audience has in the casting of Javert...and each one's criteria is very different from the other!  Every adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel has a Javert that is of equal caliber in both ability and star quality to the man playing Valjean (since most versions are French, you're just going to have to trust me!).  You  need an "A-List" actor to play opposite Hugh Jackman's "A-List" casting of Valjean.  So run through the list of "A-List" actors in your mind who could: 1) Act the role of Javert (cause let's face it, he needs to be a quality actor!) and 2) Actually sing! And not just sing, but be willing to step outside a "comfort zone" and sing this style of music.  In that last respect, Crowe stepped up.  He's not perfect, which is unfortunate, but he is not so-bad-you-want-to-forget-he-was-cast-in-the-first-place (Gerard Butler, I'm looking at you!).

The rest of the principals fit their roles well.  Eddie Redmayne, who plays the lovelorn Marius, was the biggest surprise with a sweet and lush tenor voice and an emotional quality I rarely get out of most guys who have played Marius.  In the role of Eponine, Hooper took a chance and cast the unknown Samantha Barks (who has played the role on stage in the UK).  She is not only talented but extremely beautiful (which might sometimes work against the Eponine that exists in Hugo's novel, but who cares?!?!).  As the treacherous Thenardiers, Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are well-cast.  I mean, they would be on my list if I were casting (so if you had problems with them, that's on you!).  Broadway star Aaron Tveit gives the Tony-winning role of Enjolras a mix of pretty-boy good looks and strong musical chops.  And as Cosette, Amanda Seyfried is fine (with what she has to do!).  I always feel Cosette gets the short end of the stick in the muscial as far as material goes.  I think that is why I have rarely seen a Cosette that can match the quality of either the original London Cosette (Rebecca Caine) or the original Broadway Cosette (Judy Kuhn).  So with that said, Seyfried (whose voice is surely not as strong as Caine's or Kuhn's) is pretty good and very pretty to watch.

And now on to the criticism that is at the forefront of most of the nay-sayers out there.  In The King's Speech, Tom Hooper used close-ups and the wide-angle lenses to give us the "fishbowl" quality of a royal life.  And even there, some people didn't like it.  In Les Miz, Hooper once again uses a ton of close-ups and strange angles to give us an intimate quality that he feels balances against the epic quality of the original story (and stage production!).  But I am going to venture another theory as to why this technique works and why Victor Hugo himself would have loved it.  With all the close-ups and strange tilted angles, we the audience feel extremely like a fly on that "fourth wall" that exists in both the theatre and the movies.  The audience is shoved right into the action and is right up close to the peasants and convicts and thieves and revolutionaries and whores of Hugo's world.  And Hugo would have wanted it that way.  The point of his original novel, Les Misérables, was to shove this world of poverty right in the faces of the bourgeoisie he so loathed in many of his works.  These close angles are supposed to give intimacy and a certain level of discomfort.  Hugo would have wanted nothing less.

So to all the negative critics out there, I say this is a great musical film adaptation that should be viewed by both fans of the original and those who are not familiar with the material.  I would love to see it on Oscar's list of Best Picture nominees come this Thursday!

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