Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Misérables—The Movie

Hugh Jackman as a boss
Faithful readers of the blog will know that I do not like the stage version of Les Misérables. The book was my favorite novel until I met Life of Pi, but I always thought the musical was tacky and lacking. So it was with very low expectations that I walked into the cinema today, but boy was I pleasantly surprised.

The film was superior to the play in almost every way imaginable. The most obvious and immediate difference between the two is the film's magnificent cinematography. The opening shots of the shipyard are stunning and grand, and they convey so much more so much more quickly than watching a dozen people in rags pantomiming physical labor on a dimly lit stage. But that opening scene was just a prelude to a long series of breathtaking and sweeping images.

The biggest departure from the play that was, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest masterstrokes of the film was to have the actors sing in a much more natural, much less broadway style. Part of that is personal preference. I've always found the Broadway vocal aesthetic intolerable and over the top (and this is coming from an opera fan). I have always hated Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" because it comes off as hammy and grossly insincere, be it Lea Salonga, Ruthie Henshall, Susan Boyle…whoever. The way they would belt out "I had a dream my life would be / so different from this HELL I'M LIVING" was affected and ridiculous. But the way Anne Hathaway sang it was so direct, natural, and sincere. For one, she left behind the dreary morse-code monotony of the opening lines and actually spoke a few words. For another, she let her voice falter on some critical notes in order to give life to some otherwise unfathomably idiotic lyrics. I found that these words that I had previously mocked unsparingly were brining me to the threshold of tears. She sang the role better than it's ever been sung before.

But this was not "good singing" in a strictly music sense—it worked brilliantly within the movie, but I'd never buy this soundtrack. Almost every actor in the movie is seriously off pitch many, many times, but almost always to great emotional effect. That just kind of makes sense: if you're dying from a gunshot wound or venereal disease or old age, you're bound to let your pitch waver a bit.

The way Tom Hooper shot Fantine's solo was unflinching in a way that just can't be done on the stage. The camera hung so close to her eyes and never pulled away. The word that kept coming to my mind was visceral. Her descent into prostitution is much more graphic than the stage would permit as well, but I thought it was absolutely necessary if you're going to keep "Lovely Ladies" in the movie. I always hated that song. The jokes about penis shape and placement seriously undercut the horror of Fantine's demise. Comedy can be an effective way of commenting on subjects too delicate to tackle head-on, but it can also undermine the gravity of a serious issue. The latter is what happens in the musical, but the movie doesn't suffer from this problem at all, largely because its treatment of Fantine's story is so brutal.

But back to the music. Anne Dudley did a great job adapting the score for film. She brought out all that was best in the original music while leaving behind its weaker points (i.e., everything 80s). And the new music she wrote fit seamlessly into the original. But as I said before, the best thing about the music was the very organic way it was sung. Hugh Jackman was a champion at this. When the time came for him to belt out "I'm 24601," he did it at full blast and with an intensity that made it soar past my cynicism. But in a break from the norm, he sang "Bring Him Home" without any falsetto, which made him sound strained and weary, which was perfectly fitting for the scene.

Russell Crowe was the only one who wasn't pulling his weight, although his interpretation of Javert was much more nuanced and interesting than the antagonist ever appears on stage.

But the crowning achievement of the film adaptation was simply that it did a much better job of storytelling than the musical. In the play, the only inkling you get of Javert's backstory (his being born a bastard in a prison) comes out when he and Valjean are singing over each other. In the film, they wisely got Valjean to shut up and let us hear that crucial line from Javert.

There are countless other minor scenes and touches that the movie adds to make the story comprehensible and relevant. One vitally important scene is right at the beginning when Valjean is still in prison. Javert orders him to retrieve a flag from the shallows, and rather than just picking up the flag, Valjean singlehandedly lifts the entire mast the flag was attached to. It was an act of defiance and phenomenal strength that would have given Javert a reason to dislike and remember Valjean. It's doubly important since Javert recognizes Valjean later precisely because Javert witnesses his similar act of unbelievable strength.

Hugh Jackman, by the way, is perfect for his role. He is able to command poise, wisdom, and savagery in equal measure, and all the while making us believe that he's capable of any physical feat. It helps that he's Wolverine.

The only scene that really didn't work for me was unfortunately the last scene. Rather than embracing a full fledged apotheosis like the play does, Hooper puts the redeemed Jean Valjean and the dead revolutionaries right back into a war-torn Paris. It was cheap and didn't really make sense. The whole point of Valjean's life was that his acts of goodness and grace transcended the economic and political turmoil of his age. Having his spirit "set free" just to go back to a barricade was a miscalculation on Hooper's part.

And unfortunately, the film kept the inane "Castle on a Cloud," which makes me want to shove a broom in Cosette's face and tell her to shut it.

But really and truly I could not have been more pleased and surprised with this adaptation. I feel so lucky that two of my favorite books, Les Misérables and Life of Pi were both made into such masterful adaptations within such close proximity.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Film Adaptation of Life of Pi, or "That's a Tall Order"

When I first read Life of Pi, I thought it could never be made into a film. When I heard there was to be a film and it was in 3D, I groaned. When I heard it was rated PG, I thought, impossible.

I've read Pi twice in the past few months to gear up for the film. I listened to the audiobook, which was a first, but I really recommend it. The point is, I'm more familiar with the book now than I've ever been. And I say with pleasure that the film naturally had some additions and deletions from the original text, but it did a near perfect job of capturing the spirit and message of the book. It was playful, tragic, sublime, joyful, and wise.

There are a few things that I didn't really appreciate about the book until I saw the film. I never thought, for example, of how the life boat is this one point suspended between the vastness of the ocean and the infinity of the cosmos. Ang Lee drives that point home several times in magnificent shots of the boat from far off with the heavens reflected in the surface of the water.

I'd never realized how much Poe's sense of the sublime factored into Pi. The sinking of the Tsimtsum is at once exquisitely beautiful and magnificently terrifying. Richard Parker likewise continually inspires that same awe and fear. And there's a near-catastrophic encounter with a whale that was invented for the movie, but certainly fits in like it belonged there the whole time.

And I'd never been so convinced by the story "without animals." Don't get me wrong, I still subscribe to the story "with animals," but there was a critical bit of leverage in how the movie chose to present the second story. When I read the version without animals in the novel, I always imagined the action as it was being described. But rather than show the second story, the movie just has Pi tell it. Watching him deliver the second account and watching the emotional toll it took on him lent a layer of credence to the second story I'd never felt before.

But back to the more movie-ish parts of the movie. The score was apt, the acting was magnificent, and the cinematography was breathtaking. It's one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. I love the way they introduced Richard Parker. Everyone who played Pi during the various stages of his life was a joy to watch. All the animal effects were totally convincing…

I really have no substantial complaints. The film enhanced my reading of the book, which is more than I could have asked for.

I have more that I want to say about the book, but what else is new? I don't think it would be very appropriate or fit well into this post. But I'll just close with this: I love the simplicity of Pi. Although the structure and themes of the novel are so complex and intricate they spiral out towards infinity, the basic premise can be expressed with just three nouns. Boy, lifeboat, tiger.