Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hooper's In the House: Les Miserables

I love musicals. Always have. I'm particularly fond of the palpable energy of live performances — highlighted by those awesome moments when talented singers belt out heartfelt lyrics to the back row — but cinematic adaptations of musicals can be plenty wonderful, too. And yet I didn't have particularly high hopes for Tom Hooper's adaptation of Les Miserables, because that's one musical that's never really touched me, on stage or on screen: it's an epic tale of tragedy and love that somehow leaves me cold.

In fact, the only part of Les Mis that never fails to thrill me is the atypically jovial number "Master of the House," performed by the delightfully corrupt innkeeper and his wife.

Never fails until now, that is.

Performed in Hooper's adaptation by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who make up for any vocal deficiencies with an all-in attitude that's wholly befitting musical theater (see: Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd), the rendition itself is adequate. But what's frustratingly inadequate is Hooper's cinematography, which often provides tight shots when we need wide shots and wide shots when we need close-ups. In some instances, Hooper's camera seems to be playing catch-up to the action, as if the movement of the actors wasn't choreographed in advance.

Hooper's Les Mis is not without pleasant surprises, but in my mind Les Mis just isn't Les Mis without a rousing rendition of "Master of the House." So, on that note, here's a review of said film to the tune of said musical number.

In case you need some musical accompaniment, I've embedded a (rousing) performance of "Master of the House" from the recent 25th anniversary concert so you can follow along. Pick things up at the 45-second mark.

Welcome readers,
Sit yourself down,
Hear of the best musical in town.

It is Les Mis,
Cast full of stars,
Flashy showbiz,
And a date with Oscars.

Seldom do you see
Such reviews from me:
A slant on film content
As song parody...

Hooper's in the house!
Sound out the alarm:
Needless camera movements do your stomach harm.
Tells an epic tale.
Edits in a blur.
For those who hate long takes it's the perfect cure.
Hathaway's the movie's savior.
She is worth the ticket price.
Her Fantine dreams in one take, saving Hooper from his urge to splice.

Hooper's in the house!
Camera's in the face;
Globetrotting story without a sense of place.
Claustrophobic shots.
Not a single dance.
Half the time we can't be sure they're wearing pants.
Everybody loves a tripod.
Everybody wants to see.
But Hooper's camera wanders like he spends his Thursdays watching Glee.

Hooper's in the house!
Jackman comes up big.
At last a Jean Valjean who's not a total prig!
Gives a sense of pain,
Earns our love and care,
Delivers in his standoffs with Crowe's Javert.
Everybody loves a ballad.
Everybody loves a song.
But even Peter Jackson thinks this thing goes on a little long.

Patience reader,
I'm sure you know
This movie's breadth
Is due to Hugo.

Songs are still fun;
They're just not terse.
Seyfried delights,
So things could be worse.

Here emotion's raw.
Here the singing's live,
As vowed in the ad you've seen a thousand times.

Anne's beyond compare!
Soul beyond belief!
Tears running down her face and trembling with grief.
Earns any acclaim.
Oscar would be right.
Less concerned with beauty than with Cosette's plight.
Cynicism's more than welcome,
But come with an open mind:
So much heartfelt passion has to touch that devil deep inside.

Javert's cold as ice,
Marius is nice,
War, alas, is a strangely dull plot device.
Here a little slice.
There a little cut.
If paid by the shot that would explain the glut.
When it comes to framing action,
There's just one trick Hooper knows:
Tight close-ups of the face,
Throw cameras round the place,
Jesus, how his lack of vision shows!

Hooper's in the house!
Camera's on its side:
Fruitlessly angled shots we cannot abide!
Latter part's a bore.
Staging's far from great.
But singing tends to make Oscar masturbate.
Talent is always in fashion:
Actors give it all they've got.
Handheld is so queasy,
Jesus, what I'd do for a fixed shot!

I used to dream
This wouldn't make me wince.
But, God Almighty,
Some blandness is evident.

Hooper's in the house?!
Try going outside!
A wide shot of a landscape is worth a try.
All this indoor rain
Couldn't make me wet.
Wish Deakins could've shot Seyfried's silhouette!
What a cruel use of lenses:
No verve of screen or of stage!
These flat compositions might as well have stayed on Hugo's page.

Hooper's in the house!
Space is really tight.
Someone help the cameraman to stand upright!
Dim and drab decor.
Structures have no weight.
And yet this thing has the taste of Oscar bait.

Everybody cheer the vocals!
Everybody cheer the heart!
Everybody bring a flask: sing-alongers don't stop when asked.
Everybody brace for the task, 'cause Hooper's in the house!


jake said...

This is hilarious. I don't want to show this to my Dad because he's really excited for this movie, but he always digs your reviews, so I'm go ahead and forward it to him anyway.

I love it, thank you.

p.s can't wait to hear what you think about "Rust and Bone."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for including that final image of the dutch tilt that nearly finished me off ;)

Craig said...

Tom Hooper, Rob Marshall and Stephen Daldry should star in a Marx Brothers update where together they try to direct a scene of a high-toned Oscar-bait production. Sidesplitting farce. With Harvey Weinstein as Margaret Dumont.

Unknown said...

I had been joking that Tom Hooper seems to want to remake THE THIRD MAN with his inexplicable use of canted angles. And then I see the last still you used in this article.

Craig said...

Those angles aren't intentional, Steven. Hooper kept tripping over the tripod.

Richard Bellamy said...

Very funny! Indeed, this movie is a task. I enjoyed it and was hoping it would end after the somewhat gripping rescue of Marius, but it went on and on and on! All I remember from this movie is faces! Oh, and the shot of the snow falling on Javert in the balcony.

Sam Juliano said...

One of your most creative posts ever, and further proof of your exceeding talent Jason. Really top-drawer!

I have seen the film now three times over the four days since it opened, and am now ready to proclaim it as the film of the year, vaulting ahead of THE TURIN HORSE, THE LIFE OF PI, WAR WITCH, ZERO DARK THIRTY, OSLO AUGUST 17TH, LINCOLN and AMOUR.

I have seen the Broadway show several times, including the first way back in 1988 when it opened, and I am a huge fan of Schonberg's and Boublil's score, suffused as it is with soaring lyricism and Puccinian melodic felicity.

I must say I agree with you on the ineffectiveness of MASTER OF THE HOUSE (always a delight in the theatre) but this is much more than compensated by Hathaways's ssensational "I Dreamed A Dreamed," Valjean's wrenchingly beautiful "Bring Him Home," Bark's lovely "On My Own," the rousing "One Day More" donehere with impressive montage cutting, much like what was employed in WEST SIDE STORY at the half-way point, the sublime duet "A Heart Full of Love" and Redmayne's impassioned eulogy to his dead companions "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables." The sweet aria "Drink With Me" with it's overlapping voices and Cosette's "Castle on a Cloud" are also memorable codas, as they were on stage.

Hooper's gambit mostly pays off the way I see it, as the show's intimacy was retained, and the focus remained on the work's strongest component: it's score.

Hathaway, Jackman, Barks, Seyfried and Redmayne delivered magnificent performances, while Crowe, the weak-link wasn't any kind of serious liability. Heis singing is OK, but admittedly the dead-pan style, required in this role, was of a different emotional variety than the others. He did have one big moment with "Stars" and he was a commanding physical presence, if not properly demonic. A close site friend and writer surprised me yesterday when he came in with a 4 of 5 star reaction to the film, stating his girlfriend and over half the theatre were in tears at the end during that unforgettable finale in the church where Hathaway and others reappear, and that for the most part he was pleasantly surprised, being a long-time film musical hater. He took issues with "emotional manipulation" and "forced profundity" in this work, and I re-print my response here, since I realize that these issues with always be brought up duing pro and con LES MIS discussions:

(continued on second comment)

Sam Juliano said...

"While I must agree with you on Cohen and Carter as curiously forgettable as the evil Thenardiers, and the relatively weak staging of one of the orginal show's most cherished numbers, "Master of the House," I will take issue with a few things you said here in dissent. First of all, Crowe can sing well enough (no Michael Crawford of course. Ha!) but passable and able to negotiate the big moments. The problem is that his relatively flat trajectory contridicts the more emotionally tinged voive work of all the others. Sure this can be explained in part by the nature of his role, with is monotone in it's dogged determination, but Crowe despite his commanding physical presence, simply wasn't 'demonic' enough as one of world literature's most infamous characters. Think for example of Charles Venal and Charles Laughton in prior film versions. Crowe has some past musical talent and once led up a rock band, but they should have gone elsewhere to fill this role. Still, in my opinion is passed the test, and didn't bring the film down with his performance.

Emotional manipulation and the matter of profundity in the material? On the latter point I refer to Victor Hugo's sprawling literary masterpiece, which is my own favorite novel of all time. I first read it right after I saw the Broadway show in 1988, and read it a second time several years later. The strain to capture that "philosophical profundity' you speak of is nothing more than transcribing the written word onto stage and film. The metamorphosis and spiritual enlightment - exposes on politics, society and religion -are all woven in here to powerful individual and cumulative effect. Upton Sinclair says it best here:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

One gets goose bumps reading that Sinclair excerpt! So Maurizio, when you make claim that the film "does often teether on a kind of overbearingly ugly attempt at profundity that it does not posess" I must strongly disagree. The film -and the stage musical before it- do possess the philosophical (spiritual if you will) moorings of the novel, and a number of other elements that Sinclair points to, and this is what always made the stage play so transcendent, and brough thematic clarity and deep emotional resonance to this emotionally overwhelming story.

(continued on third comment)

Sam Juliano said...

As far as "emotional manipulation" I'll argue vehemently that this is part of the entire musical equation from the time the genre launched hundreds of years ago. If Les Miserables the stage play and film are "emotionally manipulative" well then we must conclude that operatic figures like Puccini, Donizetti, Rossini and Bizet played by the same rules. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The entire scope of the musical theatre embraces this type of deliberate emotional immersion, many times with wreckless abandon. It is why (in the case of Les Miserables the stage musical and film) have had some lasting and profound effect on audiences, many who understand the power of music in conveying the pathos and transformative nature of the original material. I'd subsequently argue that Schonberg and Boublil knew that melodic and soaring operatic lyricism would best convey the incomparable greatness and life-changing nature of Hugo's work."

In any case Jason, this poem deserves wide exposure and publication, and I was delighted to hear you are a big fan of the stage show, and found a good deal to admire in the film, even with the issues you craftily incorporate into this brilliant take on the material.

Bravo!!! Definitely one of the greatest posts ever!!

Jason Bellamy said...

* "Thanks for including that final image of the dutch tilt that nearly finished me off."

* "I had been joking that Tom Hooper seems to want to remake THE THIRD MAN with his inexplicable use of canted angles. And then I see the last still you used in this article."

Cooper/Raquel and Steven: I'm not one to think that every Dutch angle needs to really Mean Something. That is, I'm OK with directors going by feel, trusting their gut, and using angles that Just Feel Right, nothing more.

That said, I don't remember feeling particularly offended by any of the odd compositions in THE KING'S SPEECH (I just found them odd). But in JOHN ADAMS and in the shot in LES MIS provided above, all I could think was "WHAT THE FUCK!?!" The implementation is so random, so jarring, that everything stops as the utter pointlessness of the composition smacks you in the face -- a sting that lasts for several minutes more.

After LES MIS, I did some Googling about Dutch angles and came across the Wikipedia entry. I love what it says about JOHN ADAMS:

"John Adams (2008 TV miniseries) makes heavy use of Dutch angles, often just to make the shot composition fill the frame."

Translation: "Fuck if we know."

Anyway, on the same page there's this line from Ebert's review of BATTLEFIELD EARTH, which seems to apply, too:

"The director ... has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why."

Jason Bellamy said...

Some additional replies ...

* Jake: Thanks for the kind words. I haven't seen RUST AND BONE yet, but I hope to get to it sometime this weekend. The next few weeks will be busy, and I have a backlog of reviews I want to write, but I'll write it up if I can.

* Craig & Hokahey: The other day I read an interview with Hooper in which he suggested that he initially planned to present "I Dreamed a Dream" in a wide shot, but Eddie Redmayne saw some of the dailies and suggested he was silly not to capture all the nuances of Hathaway's performance with an exclusive close-up.

Go with me on this: it reminded me a bit of Sally Jenkins' recent "What's the big deal?" column on her buddy Lance Armstrong, in which she suggests that she can't get too worked up over a guy cheating in a cheaters' sport. See, what Jenkins (perhaps intentionally) ignores is that no one is really upset that Armstrong cheated in a cheaters' sport. Most people are upset that he's such a lying scumbag -- a guy who repeatedly denied his use and suggested he was the victim of a witch hunt when in fact he was a bullying ringleader of PED use.

Here's where it gets back to Hooper: The uncut, close-up of Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is a brilliant filmmaking decision. But no one is complaining about his exclusive use of close-ups there. No, people are wondering why a movie that's 157 minutes long needs to spend at least 100 of those minutes (probably closer to 120) in close-up.

I suppose Hooper is right: close-ups always work. You can't go wrong shooting tight on the faces of movie stars. But, man, going all-in like that sure smacks of the worst kind of artistic cowardice.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: First of all, you're far too kind. But thank you.

Second ...

There's an undeniable power to characters expressing themselves through song. And so if someone likes musicals even a little bit, LES MIS is going to be moving, at least in places. And that's how I found the movie: moving in places.

You're exactly right that emotional manipulation is the whole point. It's the whole point of art. Any art.

I agree with you that the rapid cutting worked best in the "One Day More" montage. I also agree that Crowe is plenty fine. I can't say he blew me away with his performance, but I'm wondering if some of the folks who found him so terrible just weren't willing to 'go there' with Crowe. Sure, I've heard better Javerts. But I found Crowe's determination quite convincing.

I can't put LES MIS among my top films of this year. But the highlights of this film far exceed those of musicals like DREAMGIRLS, which was all the critical rage not so long ago.

Unknown said...

I don't think dutch angles need to necessarily mean anything either, but I do think in films, such as THE THIRD MAN or DO THE RIGHT THING, that they can contribute to emotion and atmosphere.

But, based on THE KING'S SPEECH (a bore) and JOHN ADAMS (which I liked in spite of the direction), I really have no idea WHY Tom Hooper is composing shots this way. They are the equivalent of JJ Abrams' lens flares, stylistic choices that I assume are meant to be directorial signatures, but add nothing. If anything, they only mean to distract you from the rather specious ideas being presented. Yes, I'm looking at you, KING'S SPEECH.

Flor said...

I couldn't have explained all this better. I felt odd while watching the film because I went to see it with two friends who weren't horribly wincing at every Dutch tilt or impossible close-up and I didn't know if I was being too picky.

They said they hadn't noticed anything odd and I was basically pulling my hair out xD. Hooper obviously smoked something terribly strong during filming and editing.