Friday, December 21, 2012

Movie Review: 'Les Misérables' Is A Landmark Musical, But...

Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off as Javert and Valjean in "Les Misérables." Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

It's finally here. The inevitable stage-to-film adaptation of one of the most loved musicals of all time has come. The Tony Award-winning epic "Les Misérables" has made its way to the big screen, complete with an amazing cast, lush production values and, keeping true to its theater roots, live singing. The first musical to ever have live singing throughout, "Les Miz" will be remembered as a landmark musical that changed the way movie musicals are made.

Making a comfortable transition to the big screen at the hands of Academy Award-winner Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"), "Les Miz's" memorable story of hero Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) on the run from persistent police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) will be embraced by die hard fans. Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, and Eddie Redmayne as Marius complete the roster of principal characters, and not one of them were miscast.

Produced in part by the show's original producer Cameron Mackintosh, "Les Miz" sticks true to the show's story, keeping the film as an operetta much like recent stage-to-film adaptations "The Phantom of The Opera," and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Like in the aforementioned films, the emotional wallop the audience gets from a live production gets diminished. Now it's not to say that there weren't goosebump-inducing moments (Like Hathaway's "I Dreamed A Dream") but the raw emotion from the stage withers away as the sets open up beyond the atrium. Yes, even good adaptations such as this can still lose the punch.

However, the fact that the cast had to sing every song live in every take did help. There's no way the emotion could be faked by lip-syncing to playback. Even though Crowe reminded me of the Pierce Brosnan train wreck of a performance in "Mamma Mia!" it was a groundbreaking technique that surpasses all musicals before it, no matter how great they are.

As the singing elevates this musical, the style brought it down. Collaborating with frequent cinematographer Danny Cohen, Hooper's handheld camera style, while liberating as we follow characters, was so bumpy at times. During the "What Have I Done?" prologue I noticed the cameraman stumble at least twice while following Jackman. There weren't slight bumps, but trips so noticeable the framing gets cock-eyed. If it's not blunders it's such long takes on one person singing that the ability to be free is trapped in one spot in one frame. The need to sing perfectly every time resulted in long takes that lowers the film's epicness in order to get ultimate singing quality.

The trouble with an operetta like "Les Miz" is the constant music, which can allow for flawless scene changes on stage but causes awkward transitions on film. At the end of an epic ballad or chorus number the screen falls silent and we wait to go somewhere else, i.e.- "I Dreamed A Dream" and "One More Day." 

Despite its flaws "Les Miz" boasts great acting, singing and wonderful sets and costumes. Who knows when we will see a new movie musical do what this film has done, but you can only hope that they all incorporate live singing (if they actually have the cast to do it). Early talk has thrust "Les Miz" as an Oscar frontrunner, but I don't think it's necessary. Sure, it's the grand epic the Academy loves, but it's not THAT great of a film to award. Award Tom Hooper for a job well done in his groundbreaking approach, but not the film as a whole.

Rating: B-

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