LES MISERABLES



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There has been a lot of controversy over movies that have opened in the last few months (or as they are known in Hollywood, the ones more likely to have a chance at being nominated for an Oscar).  For Zero Dark Thirty, it’s the use of torture (oh, sorry, I mean, enhanced interrogation techniques; but you say potayto and I say, etc.); for Argo and Lincoln, it’s historical accuracy; for Django Unchained, it’s the use of the n-word and Tarantino’s take on slavery.  But none of them have shown the vitriol and ferocious debate that one major motion picture has created in the hearts of true movie goers: Les Miserables and its non-use of lip synching.   While all the objections of other films could be summed up by someone putting words in other people’s mouths, it’s only Les Miserables that hasn’t done it—literally.   And still has gotten in trouble for it.
Les Miserables, the movie version of the long running Broadway musical, is probably an experience you either go with or you don’t.  For the record, I did.  As with others in the audience I saw it with, I was often on the verge of tears at this large, sweeping story that takes place in France during the revolution (no, not the French revolution of 1789, dude, but the June Rebellion of 1832—if you didn’t know that, you are so obviously not a Les Miz fan).  It’s a story that has all the virtues of 19thcentury literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here).  It also has all the defects of 19th century literature: a huge, all-encompassing, complicated story; tons of coincidence; young people falling in life or death love with a look across a crowded room (or alleyway here).  Again, you either go with it or you don’t.
I don’t know how William Nicholson (who adapted the play to film) and director Tom Hooper did it.  There’s no reason for this movie to work.  It probably should have resulted in an over the top, campy musical adaptation filled with picturesque poor people dancing in the streets.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead we have a deeply moving and often overpowering story of man’s inhumanity to man and the power of spiritual redemption. 
Of course, much of this has to do with the original source material, a French musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, if for no other reason in that it’s not exactly a musical.  Though there are a few lines spoken here and there, Les Miserables is more an opera.  So instead of a story in which the authors had to create clunky transitions to songs sung by the various characters (which can result in a certain disconnect and call attention to the artificiality of what is going on), we instead have a story whose dialog and emotion is only heightened by music, a stirring score that just sweeps you along whether you want it to or not.   One can make the argument, I suppose, that the original story by Victor Hugo has been shrunk by the usual necessity of telling a big story in a smaller venue; but one can just as easily make the argument that the story has also been enlarged and deepened by the expressive and impassioned music.
But much of the success has to be laid at the feet of Nicholson and Hooper who had the dubious honor or taking a stylized staged production and setting it against the hyper realistic background that is almost inherent in film; an almost impossible task, but one the two have more than succeeded in as far as I’m concerned.  And they do it by throwing out all that stagy stylization (except the music, which, of course, can’t be gotten rid of) and adapting it and filming it all with a deathly seriousness.  There’s barely a trace of musical comedy or Broadway tinsel here.  They don’t even use the cute Dickensian approach that was so successful in Carol Reed’s film version of Oliver.    It’s a straightforward look at poverty and injustice filled with people who are desperately poor, starving, having no hope.  And the way Nicholson and Hooper film it, it’s often devastating in its realism, a realism that, in fact, may make it more difficult to return to the original.  Once one has seen Hooper’s staging of the fight at the barricade, the chase through the sewers, the stunning visuals of 19th Century Paris, can the stage ever again satisfy (sort of “how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, once they’ve seen gay Paree” type thing)?
One can almost tell how much Nicholson and Hooper have succeeded by pointing out the one major failure, the “Master of the House” number, a comic look at the innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who have so badly abused the young Cosette.  On stage, this number is a real show stopper.  In film, it’s a real show stopper too, but in a totally different way.  This is the one number that is all musical comedy and writer and director just couldn’t seem to find a way to fit its style into the rest of the movie and so it falls ponderously flat.  A close second is the song Suddenly, the only one written expressly for the movie (seemingly in an effort to get an Oscar nomination), a number that feels stylistically inconsistent and doesn’t really add anything to the film as a whole.
And there are some structural issues that can be traced to both source materials, the original musical and the book by Hugo.  From the stage, we get a story that jumps from scene to scene leaving out transitional details that result in a story that is at times told in a somewhat clunky manner (as in the scene at the court where a false Valjean is on trial).  From the book, we have a plot that has two stories—one, the conflict between Valjean and Jabert, and the other the love story of Cosette and Marius.  The two overlap in the middle, but just as one winds down (Valjean/Jabert), the other is still going strong and it takes awhile to wrap things up. 
But the rest of the movie is ravishing and ravishingly filmed, the camera often soaring above the actors to show a world that is being watched by God (astounding cinematography by Danny Cohen).  The CGI that enables the filmmakers to show a 19th Century Paris often takes one’s breath away.  The design aspects (costumes, sets, production design) are stunning.
And then there is the acting.  It’s a superlative cast, with nary a false note (pun intended) to be had.  They succeed for the same reason as Nicholson and Hopper: they all play their roles with a devastatingly seriousness.  It’s probably Hugh Jackman’s (Jean Valjean) best performance.  There’s no point in talking about Anne Hathaway as Fantine; I couldn’t improve on anything that hasn’t already been said.  The young lovers (Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) make us believe in not just love, but overpowering passion, at first sight.  The one major issue, as has been pointed out by better men than I is Russell Crowe as Javert.  His singing is a bit lacking (to put it diplomatically).  But I don’t think he’s quite the weak link everyone maintains, mainly because his acting is so sure and strong and he is often filmed against overpowering backdrops that help bring an intensity to what he is saying that his singing cannot.  At the same time, all I could think is how more interesting it would have been if Sacha Baron Cohen and Crowe had switched roles.
As for the non lip synching?  Sorry, guys, but I thought it was a brilliant decision.  It brought a dramatic intensity to the acting that I haven’t seen that often in musicals.  But like the movie, it’s probably something you go with or you don’t, and for the record, I did.

OSCAR RACE: Best Supporting Actor



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Continuing my analysis of the Oscar race (or as I call it, I need to get a life), it’s time to focus on the supporting acting categories.  One would think that supporting categories, whether male or female, would be much more difficult to predict and in one way they are.  While there is only one, maybe two, leads in a film (per gender), every film is crowded with supporting since, by deduction, if you’re not one of the two leads, you only have one alternative—supporting.   At the same time, like most categories, the possible nominations actually, and perhaps surprisingly, tend to settle rather fast to usually little more than six, or on rare occasions, seven possibilities.
I’ll start with the Best Supporting Actor category or as I and a friend of mine call it, the Don Ameche Award, named after the win by that actor for his role in Cocoon, not so much for his acting skill (which was often considered a joke by critics and film aficionados, though he did get better as he aged, like fine wine and cheese), but as a career award (like James Coburn, Christopher Plummer, Jack Palance, Sean Connery, Martin Landau, Alan Alda).  At the same time, I’m being facetious.  This doesn’t happen as often as one might think, and most of these performances were very deserving.  But I believe someone once did a study and discovered that supporting actor winners on average were older than supporting actress winners.  In the supporting actor category, it helps to have paid your dues more than in the distaff side, where voters (mostly male) tend to like their winners young and up and coming (even to the point of being a bit too Humbert Humbert in their choices, perhaps?).
At any rate, the dust has started to settle and it looks as if the list is becoming fairly clear.   At the same time, predictions are a bit hampered here by some of the films not having opened yet, so the performances in those movies are still somewhat unknown quantities.
Alan Arkin for Argo to win.  This now seems pretty settled and it would take a lot to unseat his position.   He’s already won his career award for Little Miss Sunshine, but that probably won’t cause him any problems this time around.  It’s a tremendous performance, a masterpiece of comic timing, in a very popular movie.   At the same time, Argo may have peaked a bit too soon and I may be speaking a bit too early. 
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master.  The Master went totally over my head (and apparently, based on audience reaction, I’m not the only one).  Everything about The Master is a bit iffy when it comes to nominations just because it didn’t connect with viewers, including Oscars voters.  But everyone is still saying that Hoffman is a shoo in (some think he may even win, but I don’t see it yet).  A lot may depend on the campaign, since the movie has disappeared and may take a little doing to get people to remember it even opened this year (critics’ awards may help here).
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.  He steals every scene he’s in and somehow breaths life into the somewhat stilted dialog.  Lincoln is coming along as a major contender against Argo for best picture with a success at the box office that exceeded expectations (Argo may now have peaked too soon), and Daniel Day-Lewis is almost certain to win best actor, which could give Jones’ nomination a boost.
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook.  It has now opened, been reviewed, is doing very well at the box office and no one has stopped saying de Niro is going to get a nom, so it seems that he will be included.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.  This is an unknown quantity as the movie hasn’t opened yet (apparently a story about a slave rescued by a bounty hunter with said slave now out to get revenge against the white men who abducted his wife is seen as the perfect choice for a Christmas opening).  What helps is that DiCaprio is a leading actor doing a supporting role, and this is always a plus when going for a nomination (and sometimes you win—Robin Williams and Renee Zellweger).   But until the movie opens, it’s hard to say.  This has caused some problems for Christoph Waltz.  The talk is he has been pushed to go for Best Actor (an unlikely nom at best), possibly to give DiCaprio a better chance.  But that’s mere speculation based on information I don’t really have, so do with it what you will.
Also possible is Dwight Henry, so deserving for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it’s a very crowded category and he may get squeezed out; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables, too unknown a quantity right now; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike, and in a weaker year he might have a chance since he’s done so many movies this year and has worked hard to broaden himself as an actor, which translates as really paid your dues (which the voters like), but it looks like he won’t make it; anybody else from Argo—very doubtful. 

MYSTERIES BOTH SECULAR AND DIVINE: Reviews of Angels and Demons and State of Play


The producers, director, and writers would have you believe that the intended audience for Angels & Demons are those who find religious issues to be of interest. But in reality, the actual audience for this movie are people who like crossword puzzles, anagrams and other word games. The real theme of the movie is not whether science and religion can be reconciled (in fact, whenever the dialog drifts to rel v. sci it all gets pretty silly), it’s what does this clue; that word hideously branded into a cardinal’s chest; that dead body mutilated and murdered in that way mean, and how will it lead Tom Hanks to what obscure bit of art history that will lead him to the bad guy. Angels and Demons is a perfectly acceptable suspense thriller that is actually very entertaining until the ending whereupon we are blessed (blessed, get it?, get it?) with one of those twists that renders everything that has come before it ridiculously unbelievable. The acting is perfectly fine with Stellan Skarsgard taking the honors. However, the real standout performance is the incredible recreation of the Vatican. The low point of the film is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s last line which is a paraphrase of Deborah Kerr’s final words in Tea and Sympathy (where she tells a teenager she is about to deflower “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will…be kind”). It’s simply too close not to believe that someone didn’t know.

I consider the original version of State of Play to be one of the great mini series in TV history. So I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie version. The main reason it worked as well as it did for me was that the authors (screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gillroy and Billy Ray) found an absolutely brilliant American parallel scandal to put at the heart of the drama, an attempt by a Big Brother type company to win a government contract to take over domestic spying. And whenever the movie focuses on the central mystery of how two apparently unrelated deaths are intrinsically linked, it’s riveting (the direction by Kevin McDonald is quite satisfactory). It falters when it comes to characterization. Russell Crowe plays one of those scruffy reporters who always looks like he just got out of bed; you know, the kind who don’t play by the rules, but we forgive him because he brings down people like Nixon? The character’s a cliché and if he’s not a stereotype, he should be. The up and coming blogger is played by Rachel McAdams and she has no real character whatsoever; she’s a less developed version of one of those Dirty Harry sidekicks, though in this movie she’s allowed a better fate. The little tete a tetes the two have over the old journalism versus the new journalism never catch fire because the dialogue is the same paint by numbers argument that comes up whenever any new technology is introduced, the old “mark my words, the introduction of sound will be the death of the movies” type stuff. The acting honors are taken by Helen Mirren as the hard as nails editor and Justin Bateman as a slimy bisexual lobbyist. Ben Affleck is becoming more and more interesting as he seems to be taking a page from the Matt Damon play book: be an ensemble player rather than a star. All in all, a fun ride.