As you may have noticed, this week I’m doing some leading-up-to-the-Oscars-on-Sunday reviews. This one here completes my best-picture-nominees checklist, and then I’m gonna do a few less acclaimed previous movies from some of the nominees or people involved with the nominated films.
I know, I know. The Oscars don’t mean anything, blah blah blah. You know, the Super Bowl doesn’t prove who the best football player is either, but I don’t begrudge football fans for enjoying watching it. I like watching the Oscars every year and rooting for movies I like and against ones that I don’t like. I have no illusions about it being real important or an accurate scientific measurement of artistic worth or anything stupid like that, so skip the condescending lecture this year. I’ll just re-read the ones I got last year and the year before and the year before and repeat if desired.
The fact is I have fun watching the Oscars and I like to see all of the best picture nominees beforehand. As a non-professional critic and with the up-to-10-nominees they have now this is somewhat of an achievement, I think, and it forces me to watch some things I normally wouldn’t get around to. Before the nominations came out I was hoping the not-great buzz on LES MISERABLES would spare me having to sit through it, but no dice. So a couple weekends ago I saw AMOUR and the next weekend I capped it off with a Miserable Sunday.
I’m not a musical guy. Maybe sometimes in movies, but the world of Broadway is completely alien and unappealing to me. Okay maybe I’d watch the Spider-man one. But nothing else.
Because of that I didn’t really know anything about this LES MIS musical. Also I never read the Victor Hugo book it was adapted from, or knew what it was about, other than the French Revolution. Also I didn’t know anything about the French Revolution.
Furthermore, I did not think director Tom Hooper’s last movie THE KING’S SPEECH was all that great or that he was a very good director. And I resent him for stealing Tobe Hooper’s thunder as the director with the name T. Hooper. And even from people who have none of these ignorances or biases, I had not heard anything good about LES MISERABLES other than Anne Hathaway is good in it. So let’s be clear, I am not trying to give a fair review here, I am writing this only as a completist, biting the bullet to get through the 3ish hours so I can have an informed opinion on whichever one ends up winning the award.
But, shit. I liked this movie.
You probly shouldn’t take that as “holy shit, for Vern to like this movie it must be amazing.” Those ignorances I listed probly actually helped me to appreciate it more than others. For one thing, I don’t give even one shit about the musical, let alone two, so I would not have any idea what problems anybody would have of this as an adaptation of that. More importantly, this was my first time experiencing this story. Turns out it’s a good story! An epic, spanning many years, in sections that cover different connected sets of characters. A vivid portrait of human misery and how the ruling class turn a blind eye to it, or help perpetuate it with their cold-hearted policies. A mythical life-long battle between two opposites, a good man who lives his entire life as a criminal on the run, and a well-meaning asshole who dedicates his life to enforcing a literalist, black-and-white interpreation of the law.
I’ll try to describe it accurately. I don’t want anybody to go in thinking this is gonna be exactly the same as THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE EXPENDABLES, TRANSFORMABLES or other “-ables” movies. It’s very, very similar but not exactly the same, so keep that in mind. And don’t expect WWE Superstar The Miz to be in very many important scenes. I don’t want you to be disappointed.
Although this is in fact a musical about singing, the lead actor Mr. Huge Ackman begins in full badass mode. He’s got a bushy beard and scrappily shaven, heavily-scarred scalp, he’s a convict doing hard labor knee deep in water pulling on a big rope followed by 52 brothers bruised, battered, and scarred, but hard. They’re singing a song about not making eye contact with the overseer Javert (Russell Crowe from THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS).
One thing they gotta do in this movie and probly not on stage, they gotta sing while getting water dumped on them. Here they’ve got waves spraying in their faces. Way later in the movie the brunette lady does her big number in the pouring rain and the second one with her face and hair drenched. I know the cast of STEP UP 2 THE STREETS are saying “tell me about it” but I can’t imagine that was easy.
And if you haven’t seen the propaganda film that they showed before all movies for a while at the chain theaters we have downtown, the singing in this movie was all done live on camera, not pre-recorded and lip-synched like in most movie musicals. This allows them to put the emphasis on acting in the moment instead of matching up to their previous choices. They can cry and sputter and change their timing and, I imagine, choke on a wave. Though somehow they avoid that.
Jackman is playing Jean Valjean, notorious bread thief. He got a heavy 5 year bid for stealing bread for his starving baby nephew (shades of HARA-KIRI here) and then it grew into 16 because he tries to bust out so many times. He gets out on parole but now he’s a Miserable, nobody will hire him because he has a record, he has to sleep in the sewers where random assholes constantly beat the shit out of him like they’re trying to act out A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before it exists. Only an unexpected act of kindness from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) gets him a little dough and he’s like “fuck this” and jumps his parole to live under an alias and stop being treated so miserable-y.
Now it’s years later, Valjean looks more respectable and has become a successful businessman and even the mayor of his town. Fuckin Javert is around though, I think he’s been promoted to inspector or something, and if he recognizes Valjean our boy is fucked. Parole violation. Otherwise, he’s doing fine. But working in his factory is another Miserable: poor Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who right under his nose gets fired for some bullshit, at which point she has to sell her hair and teeth and prostitute herself ’cause she needs 200 bucks. Not for drugs, to buy her daughter Cosette back from some assholes that took her.
I told you I heard how good Anne Hathaway was, but I was not prepared for how good Anne Hathaway was. There’s a scene in here, probly famous by now, where she sings sort of the main song of the movie. But she does it laying in a coffin and it’s all done in close-up in one continuous take, Tony-Jaa-going-up-the-stairs style. She sings about how badly life has fucked her. She starts quiet, she gets louder, she cries, she screams in anger. It’s this hair-raising display of raw emotion, top notch acting, but still singing the damn song. I mean it’s just overwhelming. I had to remind myself that this is Catwoman here, in the real world she seems to be a really happy and stable young lady, who has had a good life so far and has been richly rewarded for her talents, and hung out with Julie Andrews. This is only acting, this isn’t how she really feels. If it had been some actress who I knew had been served a shit sandwich in life, like Lindsay Lohan or somebody, I would’ve probly started crying like a bitch. I’d be sitting there in a theater watching LES MISERABLES and crying because of a song about a sad lady. Thank you, THE MISERABLES, for sparing me that humiliation.
But man, that scene is one of those rare movie moments where it’s just an undeniable display of talent, you have to take your hat off and admire that somebody really pulled that off. I brought up Tony Jaa on purpose because that’s what it reminded me of, of those Human Special Effect moments when Tony or Jackie or somebody puts some ridiculous stunt on film and you can’t believe they actually did that. Or when Michelle Yeoh jumped the motorcycle onto the moving train. When this scene ended and it finally cut away from her I exhaled and thought, damn. And I was on board for the rest of the movie.
People have made fun of Russell Crowe in this movie, because he’s no Anne Hathaway. He doesn’t have a huge vocal range in my opinion, but I thought he did fine. I respect him for having the balls to do it. I guess I can see how maybe he was miscast for this part. I don’t know what it is traditionally but as a character he strikes me more as a little weinery guy, like maybe the bad guy in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2-3. Because there’s a scene where Valjean saves a man’s life by lifting a trailer off of him, and that’s how Javert recognizes him as a convict from back in the day, who was real strong. That moment would maybe make more sense if Javert was a dainty guy with soft hands who never worked a day in his life. But that’s not Russell Crowe. In fact, later in the movie when Javert goes undercover with the revolutionaries, and is dressed like a working class dude, I noticed that it looked way more natural than when he was wearing the uniform. So maybe Javert shouldn’t be as rugged as Russell Crowe.
Or maybe he should. Maybe if it was like that it would be stacking the deck too much, making it too easy to hate him. Crowe gives him some sense of humanity that makes his cluelessness all the more maddening. He’s a good villain. He understands law but not honor. He’s not evil, he’s just so set in his ways that he’d dedicate his life to the punishment of a guy for stealing bread, and then (SPOILER) would rather commit suicide than evolve his understanding of right and wrong.
Being a progressive factory owner, Valjean blames himself for what happened to Fantine and decides he owes her a Wookiee-like life debt. So he makes it his mission to rescue little Cosette from her owners, a couple of comical innkeepers played by Sacha Baron Cohen (SWEENEY TODD) and Helena Bonham Carter (SWEENEY TODD). I wonder if Hooper had to dress up as Tim Burton to direct her? Not all the comedy in this part works for me, but I got a few chuckles, and I think these two (especially Cohen) are funnier than most people would be, and are good at portraying these kind of repulsive characters.
Cosette grows up into Amanda Seyfried, who Valjean raises as a daughter without letting her know he’s a fugitive. She and the innkeeper’s spoiled daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) both fall for a rich boy turned revolutionary named Marius. Cosette’s adoptive father is on the run ’cause he stole bread, so it’s ironic that she dedicates her life to loving this loaf of white bread played by Eddie Redmayne. At least in this version it seems like there’s not much emphasis on the grown up Cosette, but maybe that’s because we feel so much more for Eponine in this love triangle. She’s the one that gets rejected and gets to sing a couple touching songs about it, both while soaking wet.
Actually, this whole French Revolution section of the story feels a little rushed, but I don’t mind, I know they’re trying to fit alot on there. There’s a little boy who looks like Charlie Bucket. He sinsgs stuff like, “There was a time we killed the King / We tried to change the world too fast” and “This is the land that fought for liberty / Now when we fight we fight for bread.” I like it because he’s singing about a history he can’t possibly remember or understand. But this is the fight he’s been born into. It’s a sad idea, though not as sad as the ending where they’re all in some kind of Heaven where you still gotta fight for revolution and build a big wall out of junk! That doesn’t seem fair.
One character I didn’t get much of a read on is this long-haired co-revolutionary, who doesn’t seem as important as Marius just because he doesn’t get his own love story:
I was thinking Disney should snatch this guy up to play Anakin in Revenge of the Sith: The Musical, or just Sith! as the Broadway nerds will nickname it. Think about it. Palpatine would sing “Not By a Jedi” on the balcony at the opera, Padme would sing “A Path I Cannot Follow (You Killed Younglings)” on planet Mustafar (number one export: lava). So many of the emotional leaps that people have a problem with in that movie they would fully accept in a musical: Anakin’s switch from hero to galactic menace, his “Noooo!!!” tirade after turning into Darth Vader, Padme dying of Losing The Will To Live. In fact, Jackman succumbs to the same disease in this movie. But in Sith! they could do a big song and make it more of a tear-filled show-stopper like Hathaway’s scene.
I had heard THE MISERABLES was a poorly shot movie. Well, it could be more visual. It’s definitely not a gorgeous one like EVITA or something, and for such an epic it’s pretty light on wide shots. There’s alot of scenes shot mostly in close up, and that might take away some of the specialness of Hathaway’s big scene. It would stand out even more if no other scenes were shot at all like that. But it’s a real lived-in world, looks like lots of giant, detailed sets, without too many of the obvious CGI shots you get now days (not that I’m against those necessarily).
My opinion of Hooper’s directivational skills has improved after this. I mean, he must be good with actors to get performances like Hathaway’s and Jackman’s. And the idea of doing the singing live on camera, which I’ve read was his insistence, definitely does add to the more emotional scenes. I’m not saying I’ll watch everything he does for now on, but I have more trust in him than I did just from THE KING’S SPEECH.
There’s also a scene where they’re climbing through a muddy sewer and there’s dead bodies. In my opinion the real T. Hooper for sure ghost directed this and probly most of the rest of the movie and should be given a greenlight and final cut on a $60 million remake of TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D as his reward.
Anyway, you have my confession now. I liked THE MIS. And now I know what the deal is with that t-shirt with the sad little girl on it. I guess next I gotta figure out what the hell “Cats” is all about.
(I don’t mean that. Please don’t make a movie out of that and/or get it nominated for best picture.)
my reviews of this year’s best picture nominees:
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.