REVIEW: Les Miserables

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Les Misérables
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson (screenplay), Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics), Victor Hugo (novel)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried

When I originally saw Les Misérables, I was so disheartened and uninspired  that I didn’t even want to write down any thoughts about it.  Anne Hathaway was great, yes.  At times the raw combination of extended takes done in close-up and live singing from the performers was thrilling.  But the movie was bloated, sloppy and completely overdone.

Having not seen the stage musical or read Victor Hugo’s gargantuan novel, I came to the material with completely fresh eyes.  It begins with a sweeping, artificial-looking descent into a 19th century French work camp, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is completing a 20 year work sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his family.  He is overseen by Javert (Russell Crowe), a ruthless, incredibly narrow character whose sole pursuit throughout the movie is to show up conveniently at any given scenario where Valjean is present and make him squirm.

The movie hinges on their incredibly poorly realized relationship and countless manipulative emotional tangents.  Les Misérables seems to operate with the understanding that it deserves every wrenching, song-driven outburst without the slightest bit of narrative coherence.  More so than director Tom Hooper’s previous Oscar-baiting effort The King’s Speech, it is a deliberate ploy to earn trophies with period costume design and unearned emotional response.

As grimy and desperate as Jackman appears and as surprisingly good as Crowe’s singing voice is, the movie is punishing.  It peaks less than an hour into its two-and-a-half hour run time with Hathaway’s take on I Dreamed a Dream,” where her downtrodden prostitute Fantine weeps for her ruined life after she’s sold her hair and teeth to support her daughter.  Shot in a single take like several of the other numbers, it is a very good illustration of what Hooper occasionally does very well and often does very poorly with this material.  The close-up of Hathaway’s face is effective precisely because it seems unable to contain her emotion, and because her singing is raw.

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Jackman’s Valjean, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of being an effective character in close-up.  He is often on the move evading the authorities or trying to rescue and care for Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a young girl and Amanda Seyfried as a young woman), but the constraints Hooper placed on the musical demand that he must capture the singing live, and gets the camera in obsessively close to highlight just how live and strained his performers are.

This would be an admirable effort if the movie wasn’t such a blatant grab at awards.  Despite the desperate hearts at its core, it is exhausting not because the story is effective but because it isn’t.  It jumps ahead years at a time, stopping for revolution and love but never expanding or really caring about them.  The music often adds nothing to a scene, and despite coherent, elaborate costume choices and set design it never transports you.  Above all else, Les Misérables is the triumph of artifice over feeling and entitlement over storytelling.

Grade: D

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: David Seidler (screenplay)
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon

For many, public speaking is a terrifying undertaking by itself.  When you add on the everyday concerns of an English monarch- mounting war, daddy issues, a debilitating speech impediment- it definitely doesn’t help.  The King’s Speech surrounds itself with a plethora of talented British character actors, many straight off the Harry Potter set, and has a go at the story of the stuttering King George VI (Colin Firth).  In the end unfortunately, it cannot escape what it really is: a cooly calculated period drama bred like a racehorse for Oscar season.

The set-up in and of itself sounds like something you’d hear from many of the nominees for Best Picture.  Prior to World War II, we follow the Duke of York as he becomes King of England and tackles a stutter that has plagued him his entire life.  He does this with the help of an eccentric teacher (Geoffrey Rush) and a devoted wife (Helena Bonham Carter.)  I can almost see a half-drunk celebrity reading that synopsis come Oscar night.

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And the winners should be…. 2011 Oscar Predictions (Matt’s Picks)

Best Picture

The Social Network
Black Swan
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
Winter’s Bone
The Kids Are All Right
Inception
Toy Story 3
The Fighter
True Grit

Should Win I’d be the most happy with Social Network, Black Swan, or The Kids Are All Right.  There’s no real Blind Side this year, but The King’s Speech is the least deserving… and it’s also one of the front-runners.
Will Win: The Social Network has a real shot, but so does The King’s Speech. Many have already handed it to King George, but I’m leaning toward King Zuckerberg.
Snubbed: There’s really no Blind Side this year among the nominees. However, over The King’s Speech I would’ve nominated The Ghost Writer, Enter the Void, White Material, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Splice or I Am Love.


Best Director

Tom Hooper- The King’s Speech
Darren Aronofsky- Black Swan
Joel & Ethan Coen- True Grit
David Fincher- The Social Network
David O. Russell- The Fighter

Should Win: Aronofsky.  His direction on Black Swan was the best thing about the movie, which is saying a lot.  Fincher is also great, but so many other elements of Social Network would’ve worked on their own if not as well.  You can’t really say that about Black Swan.
Will Win: Fincher.  Even if The Social Network doesn’t walk away with the night’s biggest trophy, this one is a pretty safe bet.
Snubbed: Yes, yes, Christopher Nolan deserved a nomination  for Inception here over Tom Hooper, but don’t forget Danny Boyle.  His direction on 127 Hours was impeccable and his movie was better than both Inception and The King’s Speech.   I’d also throw in Lisa Cholodenko’s low-key genius in The Kid’s Are All Right, Gasper Noe’s hallucinatory brilliance in Enter the Void, Roman Polanski’s artful storytelling in The Ghost Writer and the mesmerizing work of Claire Denis in White Material.

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Communication breakdown: always the same?

According to the two front-runners for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, communication is not half the battle: it’s the entire war.  These two very different seeming movies actually speak mounds about our fear to speak. 

The Social Network is the more obvious with this, taking a dark, rapid-fire look into how one outcast started an online empire simply because he couldn’t fit into the real world.  Mark Zuckerberg, as many may have noticed on his recent Saturday Night Live appearance, has trouble in real life.  The way Jesse Eisenberg portrays him, his brain seems backed up because he can’t talk fast enough, emitting sentences in short, machine gun-like bursts.

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REVIEW: The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: David Seidler (screenplay)
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon

For many, public speaking is a terrifying undertaking by itself.  When you add on the everyday concerns of an English monarch- mounting war, daddy issues, a debilitating speech impediment- it definitely doesn’t help.  The King’s Speech surrounds itself with a plethora of talented British character actors, many straight off the Harry Potter set, and has a go at the story of the stuttering King George VI (Colin Firth).  In the end unfortunately, it cannot escape what it really is: a cooly calculated period drama bred like a racehorse for Oscar season.

The set-up in and of itself sounds like something you’d hear from many of the nominees for Best Picture.  Prior to World War II, we follow the Duke of York as he becomes King of England and tackles a stutter that has plagued him his entire life.  He does this with the help of an eccentric teacher (Geoffrey Rush) and a devoted wife (Helena Bonham Carter.)  I can almost see a half-drunk celebrity reading that synopsis come Oscar night.

Continue reading