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 2012–BEST DIRECTOR



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Continuing my Oscar predictions, the next category is Director.  In certain ways, picking the director nominees used to be fairly easy.  You selected which five films you thought would be nominated for best picture and then try and decide which one wouldn’t correspond with a director (there often was one difference).  But now that it is possible for there to be up to ten picture nominees, this sort of throws a monkey wrench into the system.
In many ways, you still make your guesses using the same principle.  You decide which five movies you suspect would have been the nominees if the rules of up to ten weren’t in existence and you take that as your cue for your basic list of for the director’s category.
Like all the other categories, the top five seem to be slowly rising to the top.  So to the list:
Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty to win.  It’s not just the double whammy so far of winning the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review awards.  There’s no guarantee that that translates into an Oscar win, though at the same time, it don’t hurt.  Part of what is helping here is that Argo, which had the lead, peaked and was being overshadowed by Spielberg and Lincoln (which was more successful than was originally thought) and is now being overshadowed by Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty as well.  Will she win?  Right now it’s all buzz, but the buzz is deaf impairing, so unless the movie opens and then crashes and burns, it seems she’s got it (the first female director to win twice; the first to be even nominated twice).
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.  This seems like a done deal, not just because it’s Lincoln directed by Spielberg, but also because it did much better than anyone expected (which is important since people expected it to do well as it was).
Ben Affleck for Argo.  Once the front runner for winning, but has now been eclipsed.  But his nomination still seems like it’s in with the in crowd.
Tom Hooper for Les Miserables.  My only hesitation here is that the movie hasn’t opened and I’m a little loathe to make a prediction for a musical (I still remember Nine), but it looks like a sure thing.
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s a serious comedy and that doesn’t hurt and people just seem to love it to death. 
Now there are definitely other possibilities, but here is where things get tricky.  If you think that another director is going to get in there, you’re going to have to decide who won’t make it.   Right now, I think only Tom Hooper and David O. Russell have a chance of being unseated and replaced by: Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master (the issue here is that the critics loved it, but the public, which includes the voters, didn’t); Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (deserving, and the strongest possibility for an upset as far as I’m concerned); Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained (the movie is too unknown a quantity and it may open too late to really excite people); Peter Jackson for The Hobbit (he’s already got it for The Lord of the Rings, I can’t see them doing it again and some people haven’t been happy with some of his directorial choices; it may also be opening too late for people to care); Michael Haneke for Amour (probably deserving, but he’s probably going to get shut out; and since it’s going to win Best Foreign Language Film, they’ll probably nominate it for screenplay and forget the direction); Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom (forget about it, it will be Zeitlin before Anderson). 

TALKING TURKEY: Predictions for Academy Award Nominations and Awards


For most people, the Thanksgiving weekend is the beginning of Christmas shopping. For people who have no life, this is the beginning of the knock down, drag out, no hitting below the belt (unless it can help you win) period known as the countdown for Oscar nominations.

As of now, I believe six of the top eight awards are spoken for (Picture, Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay), with two (Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay) still unknown.

Best Picture as of now seems to be going to The King’s Speech. It’s one of those fun period pieces the British put out every once in awhile, mainly because they can and they do have the history for it after all (the best we can come up with are biopics or TV series about drudges like John Adams). Even though the U.S. threw the yoke of British tyranny off its backs in 1776, we’ve never gotten over the penis envy of their having a monarchy and we’re just fascinated by it. Though I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could ever claim that the King’s Speech is great art, it is a lot of fun and it more than gets the job down; for what it is, it’s actually much better than that. It also fits in step, rather oddly in a way, with the theme of the movies that have won Best Picture lately: for the last six years, the leads have been working or middle class (or lower) people struggling to get by (Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker; one could even go to seven if one thinks of the leads in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as the English working class who like nothing better than to have a drink at the pub; smoke a pipe; and be left alone). Though the story of The King’s Speech is about King George VI’s overcoming a stutter, the story is equally about Lionel Logue, the therapist, who is, like the characters in the previous Best Pictures, struggling just to make ends meet (and no matter what the Academy does, the role of Logue is a co-lead, not a supporting part). And last, but by no means least, this is a Weinstein production (can anyone say Shakespeare in Love).

The other nine nominees as of now are: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Store 3, True Grit and Winter’s Bone. True Grit is the most uncertain entry here: there is good buzz about it, but no one’s really seen it and it could be one of those that crashes and burns upon entry (remember Amelia?); but I seriously doubt it. Black Swan is The King’s Speech’s main rival, but people seem to love it or hate it from what I’m getting now, so it’s a bit uncertain (and maybe just a bit too arty, the sort of film the Academy nominates to prove that they know it when they see it, but that doesn’t mean they want to hang it on their wall). People are also talking about 127 Hours (but I think it’s one of those in which the nomination is award enough type thing). The Kids Are All Right had it in the bag until the award season really began in earnest and all these other movies, like The King’s Speech and Black Swan, started opening. The Social Network has its supporters, but it may be just a bit too smart (though All About Eve also won way back when). Winter’s Bone is going to be the small picture that everyone is going to nominate to prove that there’s a plate at the Academy Awards table for even the poor relations. Inception will be nominated to apologize for past oversights to Christopher Nolan and because it’s so brilliantly directed; but the script is a bit too much of a letdown for it to win. Toy Store 3 is great, but let’s face it, it’s animated and it’s going to win in that category. The Fighter is still a bit unknown, but the buzz is better for it than for True Grit, and Wahlberg has apparently agreed to make still another movie with the director David O. Russell, so maybe his reputation is making a comeback.

As for director, now five nominees have to be whittled down from the top ten here. It used to be with five nominations there would be one or two directing picks that didn’t match up to picture. But with ten, it’s hard to believe that will ever be the case (though as soon as someone says something won’t happen with the Academy, it usually does—see Driving Miss Daisy getting Best Picture without getting a directing nod). As usual, Best Director will probably go to the director of the Best Picture, meaning that Tom Hooper (previously known mainly for TV work) will win. It’s rare that the Academy will split the awards and their often has to be a good reason for it (like wanting to award a gay movie Best Picture while not awarding a gay movie Best Picture the year Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain and Crash won best picture). The question really then becomes who will the other four be.

Christopher Nolan (Inception), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and David Fincher (the Social Network) seem to be sure things. All bets are off if any of them are arrested for child molestation, but all things being equal, it seems pretty certain. That leaves the fifth position. At one time, it was going to automatically be Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right; and then 127 Hours opened and Danny Boyle’s name started being bandied about. At this point, the fifth space will depend on whether 127 Hours peaks too soon (quite possible) and whether The Kids Are All Right will have a strong enough campaign mounted for it. I’m going for Lisa Cholodenko (I think the first blush of 127 Hours may wear off a bit soon).

I know that some of these movies have yet to open and I haven’t seen all of them. I have a friend who said that she couldn’t predict a winner or nominee until she’s actually seen the film. I most respectfully disagree. In theory, one would never have to see a movie in one’s life and still be able to predict all the movies that will be recognized. When it comes to something winning an Academy Award, or even being nominated, being the best is often not remotely a consideration and the worst thing one can do in making guesses is to be led by one’s heart.

Next, some thoughts on the acting categories.