Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Layman's Review of the 2012 Les Miserables Movie

I am breaking tradition on my blog and writing about something other than photography or graphic design. Today is a review of Les Miserables, the much anticipated movie adaptation of the now classic stage show.

The original stage show came out in 1987 when I was in senior in high school. In those days, I hung out with the drama club... which is about as geeky as the glee club is today. Thankfully, I never got on stage, but I would help with the programs and sets. It was fun to be a part of something like that.

I know I may open myself to ridicule to admit that have I listened to show tunes, but that was the year that Les Mis and the Phantom of the Opera came out... and those productions were some of the best ever put on stage.

Les Mis has been made into multiple movie adaptations, but this is the first one based on the Broadway musical. Like everyone else who loved the stage productions, I had my reservations about the actors cast for the lead roles. Would they deliver the role and singing performance the material deserved? The short answers are "yes"and "mostly"... depending on which actor you are talking about.

The producers had an interesting problem to consider when casting. They could have either picked great singers who were might have been relative unknowns or find movie stars who could sing... not always an easy thing to do.

Bringing established actors to the project brings star power which may account for some box office success, but it could backfire if the singers don't hit the notes. The decision to live record all the singing was an artistic choice to bring the story to life, and give it the emotional gravitas that love, death, sacrifice, revolution and redemption requires.

The acting was excellent by just about every member of the cast. The main characters really dug into their roles and were not afraid to completely lose emotional control... to look ugly, vulnerable or "human". A pet peeve of mine is seeing an actor's bag of tricks (Merrill Streep... I'm calling you out). When I see this behavior, I am pulled out of the story and back to reality of a crowded theater. The magic spell is broken.

On the other hand, when an actor is present, committed and completely in the moment, I lose myself in the story. That moment for me in this movie was the "I Dreamed a Dream" scene sung by Anne Hathaway. This is the song they used in teasers leading up to opening day... and with good reason. Her performance was so true, emotional and gut wrenching that it made up for any nit picks I might have had about the rest of the film. It was the bravest performance I have seen on film...and this is where the value of the live singing pays off. Here choices in timing, inflection, emphasis and all those other things I am not qualified to talk about were Oscar worthy (update... this has since come true).

Hugh Jackman turned in the lion-share's of sung dialog.... though with mixed success. If I am being 100% honest, his voice at times irked me. My wife mentioned it too. Perhaps we are just too used to the 1987 studio version? When I got home, I listened to the 2 versions back to back and while they are simliar in pitch, there is a unique tone that is missing for me. His acting, however, made up for any vocal shortcomings with a load of charisma. I can forgive some of the awkward pauses, lost tunes and a few "just spoken words". He should be commended for his efforts.

Russell Crowe is a favorite actor of mine and supposedly a singer in a band, and I can forgive his lack of a trained voice too. He tried the best he could. Some of the long extended notes were not going to be possible for him. It did not spoil my enjoyment of the movie, but it made me wonder who else could have played some of these roles...

In the end, I think the director made the right decision to hire film actors instead of stage actors. To me the 2 different arenas require different skills. Modern movie acting requires subtlety and stage shows larger overt actions that can be seen from the back of a theater. The lack of subtlety shows up in moments like Apennine's "On My Own". This showstopper usually brings the house down, but this case it felt weak in comparison to more nuanced emotional performances by other actors.

The surprise for me was to see Sasha Baron-Cohen (aka Borat) play the devious inn-keeper, Thenardier. He was great despite the fact that half the time he switched in an out of a French accent in mid-song. Actually, most of the cast had English accents thought the story was in France. Hmmm.... How weird is that?

In a neat cameo, the original actor to play Jean Val-Jean, Colm Wilkinson, made an appearance as the bishop. That was a nice touch, though I did not recognize his voice at all.

Make no mistake. This is a long, emotionally taxing movie where practically every word is sung. If that bothers you, don't see it. You should really think of it more as a Broadway style show with amazing living sets, no intermission... and only costs $10 (or less if you rent it). Quite a bargain when you think about it.