Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables has seen its fair share of adaptations. It's been a feature film over a dozen times, a miniseries, and of course the iconic 1980 stage musical - in addition to a radio production and a few foreign ripoffs. This year saw the musical adapted to the screen under the directorial care of Tom Hooper, who dominated the Oscars a couple of years back with The King's Speech. Opinions on this latest incarnation are likely to vary somewhat, as most already have their favorite version picked out.

The story chronicles the trials of the recently-freed convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he attempts to put a new life together for himself after nineteen years of imprisonment. After breaking his parole and assuming a new identity, Valjean finds himself hunted by the hawkish Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). And while Valjean remains the centerpiece of the story, numerous other characters of varying consequence come and go during the film's two-and-a-half-hour-plus run time; such as Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is forced into a life of prostitution and destitution after losing her job...her daughter Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried as an adult and Isabelle Allen as a child)...and many others.


Les Misérables is a beautiful piece of cinema. There are occasional presentations of grand spectacle; whether the camera is swooping in past the wreckage of a ship being hauled into dock, descending upon the crowded streets of 19th-century France, or floating into the sky as Valjean tears his papers and casts them into the mountain winds. It's a delicate balance handled appropriately and with breathtaking display. But for the most part, intimate handheld camerawork guides the film. We follow each character around the various set pieces in a way that makes us feel as though we're right there with them. This also allows for a much more visceral and emotionally resonant presentation of the movie's poignant scenes and songs. During several numbers ("Valjean's Soliloquy" and "I Dreamed a Dream" are the first that come to mind) Hooper wisely captures most - if not all - of the performance in a single take. This allows for the scene and the song to gain emotional momentum, and by the time the characters themselves are struggling to sing through their tears we as an audience are struggling with our own tears. It's such a simple approach, but it works wonders for the emotional impact of this movie.

Performances are as satisfying as can be expected from a cast this iconic and renowned. Jackman is well cast as Valjean, as his singing voice is well developed and has already been proven in his previous Broadway excursions. Moreover he's physically imposing enough to convincingly articulate the raw power and strength associated with the character. Russell Crowe's Javert is stern and unflinching, and his voice is good (if not always great) enough to carry the weight of Javert's own personal demons. Anne Hathaway is pitch perfect and develops her character quickly and convincingly during her comparatively brief screen time. And her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" has finally overcome the memory of Susan Boyle's YouTube'd-to-death performance of the same. If Hathaway's delivery doesn't garner at least one or two stray tears, you might need to double check your pulse; it's ineffably beautiful. Another performer who scores major points is Eddie Redmayne, who plays the idealistic revolutionary Marius Pontmercy. I've never given much thought to Redmayne one way or another - but both his acting and especially his singing in Les Misérables are fantastic.

Which brings me to the music itself. The iconic music of this piece is already crystallized in many a fan's mind by the original London Cast recording, and with good reason. I'm certainly not about to argue with the merit of that recording. But personally, I prefer the music of this adaptation. The orchestration is a bit more diverse here, dipping into arrangements that are occasionally more delicate and understated. Hooper also broke tradition with this film in regards to the recording itself. Most film musicals pre-record the song and have the actor's lip-sync on camera, but Les Misérables had the cast record their songs live on set - so the takes you're watching are also the takes you're hearing. This adds an additional layer to the performances, as actors are free to nuance the presentation and let their voices occasionally break or falter as they struggle through the passions sung. It's a seemingly minor detail, but it gives the film an even more inescapable sincerity.

Les Misérables feels very much like a stage musical, and I found that to be a very good thing. There are shifts in the tone of the film that reflect a more organic feel towards the viewing experience. The comic relief provided by Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively) almost feels out of place at first because it contrasts so starkly the heavy-handed aesthetic employed up to that point. But as the film continues, all of the pieces coalesce in their proper place and the resulting feel is, as I said, more akin to viewing a stage production than a film.


I mentioned before that the run time is just over two and a half hours. In a musical, that can feel a great deal longer where an entire scene revolves around a single song and moment in the story. This isn't a con per se, but I recommend saving the soft drinks until later if you plan to enjoy Les Misérables to the fullest.

If you don't like musicals to begin with, Les Misérables isn't likely to be your exception. It's as sappy and tear-jerking as any musical I can think of and you could call it heavy-handed without being entirely wrong. I personally love all of these qualities, but if you don't there's little you'll find enjoyable about this film.

And while the following is not directed at the film proper, I've come to find out that (at the moment anyway) the soundtrack for this film is only available as a "Highlights From..." title and doesn't include some of the more iconic pieces such as "Who Am I," "Do You Hear the People Sing," and several others. I hope Universal Republic sees fit to release a full cast recording in the near future as I was completely taken by the orchestration and arrangement. And honestly, how can a highlights album leave out "Do You Hear the People Sing"?


It's already begun making the rounds for awards announcements, snagging Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Song, and Best Picture. That's little wonder as the movie has all the ear marks of an award-magnet: breathtaking spectacle, stellar performances, and beautiful music. I have to admit that I didn't expect to blown away on the scale that I was by the time the film had concluded, but I'm all the more glad that I was.

Les Misérables (the original musical) has often been described as a "global phenomenon" and "worldwide sensation." I think it's safe to say the film comes about as close as it possibly could to capturing what has given birth to that kind of verbiage. If you're a diehard fan of the musical, this film isn't going to supplant your existing fondness - but I'm certain that it will supplement it. Everything about this film's composition is so lovely to behold, so achingly beautiful and heartfelt, it's impossible to deny its accomplishment. As a film, as a musical, as a piece of art - Les Misérables is an absolute triumph.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino is supposedly in his late 40s. But anyone familiar with his filmography can attest to the fact that he and his movies often evince much more youthful energy. Plastered all over every film he's made is an undeniable and undying love for cinema, and hundreds of references to a myriad of other works are usually embedded in each of his films. As a writer-director, Tarantino has only a handful of works to his name. And while some are more iconic than others, they are all unquestionably his.

As a huge fan of the man and his work, I've been eager to see Django Unchained for quite some time. The movie is a classic revenge movie, with a sufficiently troubling twist: slavery. Django (Jamie Foxx) is recruited by the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) early on in the movie to aid the latter in finding a trio of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers. Schultz does not know what they look like, but Django is intimately familiar with their features - as flashbacks reveal them to be the ones responsible for brutalizing him and his wife (Kerry Washington) and ultimately tearing them apart. The two soon become a professional bounty hunting duo and set out to reclaim Django's lost love. But of course this is a Quentin Tarantino film so there's going to be lots of language, lots of quirky dialogue, and lots of blood.


I had the pleasure of reading one of the early drafts of this screenplay some time back when it was posted online. My expectations were only elevated by this read-through, and while some revisions were made to the final product the meat of the story and the narrative was still completely in tact.

Tarantino has referred to Django Unchained in several interviews as a spaghetti western set in the American South, and that's a perfect description of this piece. All of the major genre factors are here: a deadly but accessible protagonist who usually has the perfect one-liner on standby, powerful pathos invoked by the depiction of innocent people being harmed, untamed wilderness captured beautifully on camera, and of course the music of Ennio Morricone. Hints of Quentin's love affair with spaghetti Westerns can be detected in some of his earlier works (most notably in Kill Bill: Vol 2), but in Django Unchained he's pulled out all the stops and is in full fanboy mode.

Performances all around are a real treat. Jamie Foxx develops Django from a bitter but mostly timid former slave into a full-fledged world-weary gunslinger. The transition doesn't take terribly long, but it's masterfully handled and by the time Django puts on his sunglasses (cool factor +100) he's completely believable as an iconic Western hero archetype. Christoph Waltz basically plays Dr. Schultz like he did the other Tarantino role that made him famous with American audiences; Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. But here he's one of the good guys, which makes him that much more entertaining to watch. He's charming and sophisticated, possessed of a wide vocabulary that often stumps his conversational partners, and of course thoroughly German. Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie, a character as morally decayed as his repulsively mottled teeth. And of course Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Candie's "head house nigger," is simultaneously compelling and frightening.

As you can imagine, any movie about slavery is going to have its fair share of bloody moments. But as I mentioned before, this is a Tarantino-directed movie about slavery so the bloodshed is taken to whole new level here. Many recent films have started replacing in-camera blood squibs with post production pre-rendered "bloodsplosions;" something that often works better depending on the context of the film (Sin City and 300 come to mind). In Django, however, it seems as though Tarantino was intentionally retaliating against that practice. The usual "pop" accompanied by a crimson mist to indicate a bullet wound is here replaced by a sizable burst of red fluid and a small treasure trove of "wet noises" for added effect. Django is easily Tarantino's bloodiest movie next to Kill Bill, but like that film all of the blood and gore is hyperbolic and stylized to emphasize its theatricality rather than its horror. Still, Django Unchained doesn't bother to rein itself in and as a revenge-film that's pretty ideal.

Django Unchained is also, as strange as it might seem, Tarantino's funniest film to date. There are enough laughs peppered throughout its run time that you could call it a comedy without being entirely heretical. It's obviously not a comedy, strictly speaking, but I laughed more often in Django Unchained than I have in many a movie billed exclusively as a comedy. And that goes for the audience in attendance with me.


The drawbacks to this film are largely subjective. If you're easily offended by coarse language and excessive violence, then Django Unchained is not for you. It's also almost 3 hours long; but for me this is a plus because I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and was glad to have so much of it to watch.

As a nitpick, I do have to mention two minor and very stereotypically "me" gripes. First, Tarantino's personal cameo in the film is as an Australian and his accent is pretty bad. It's never really explained why his character is Australian, so the part-British/part-Australian/part-stroke-patient grated on me a bit. Secondly, James Remar plays two characters in the film. I've got nothing against James Remar - he's a fantastic actor - but his first character dies early on and when his second character shows up his costume/makeup isn't strikingly different. It doesn't affect the story at all as neither character gets a great deal of screen time, but it just threw me off.


Django Unchained is exactly what I expected it to be: a bold and bloody revenge story accented by classic Tarantino-tropes. One of those tropes is, notably, the use of the word "nigger;" which has been the subject of some controversy. The word is used both as pejorative and as simply part of the parlance of the times depicted. It's an offensive word, undoubtedly. But in Django Unchained it has a place and it fits the film; it would be hypocritical to show slaves getting beaten and branded but then censor the verbiage used to demean them at the same time. I really do not like getting embroiled in race-related controversy, but I appreciate artists and writers who blast right past political correctness and just get to the point, however uncomfortable it may be. Up to this point in time, Dave Chappelle's work was the best example I could think of. But Django Unchained was, for me, a new kind of racial-barrier deconstruction. It was a real treat reveling in the revenge wrought upon slave owners in the film with an audience that was predominantly black.

That's where I think Django could be a watershed moment for racial strife in this country: bringing white and black people together to cheer on the demise of slave owners and racists for roughly 3 hours. Maybe I'm being far too generous with this movie (Spike Lee certainly would say so) regarding its capacity to effect change; time will tell. Either way, Django Unchained is arguably one of Tarantino's best; easily standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds in terms of sheer craftsmanship and entertainment value.

There's plenty of offensive content in this movie - from the violence, to the traditional swearing, to the repeated use of the n-word. But I don't think there's anything racially offensive about this movie given the historical context. And if you're a fan of bloody revenge Westerns or of Tarantino in general, you can't afford to miss Django because (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist!) it's off the chain.