When a director not known for his or her genre work takes on a sci-fi film, a horror, a zombie movie, an action picture, etc., audiences -- especially movie bloggers -- tend to get excited. But for some reason, when a filmmaker tackles a musical, very much an adjunct genre that can fit with myriad styles, audiences (at least online ones), tend to shrug.
Perhaps in this case that's because the musical in question is “Les Misérables” -- a Broadway production your parents likely attended -- and the director is Tom Hooper, the filmmaker behind "The King's Speech," now perceived as a conventional and safe Oscar choice and the person who bumped the more beloved "The Social Network" and David Fincher from achieving Academy gold.
Having never seen experienced or remained blissfully ignorant of "Les Misérables" the stage play (as well as most of its cinematic adaptations), I'll concede to any naysayers that as a piece of source material, it could be dull/for moms. But let's take a mile high view for a second.
What makes "Les Misérables" appealing? Well, a director taking the leap into a musical -- well recognized as one of the hardest genres to pull off let alone direct well -- after only a handful of feature-length dramas sounds like the kind of challenge that intrigues this writer. Secondly, the cast: Anne Hathaway (who we know can belt out a tune), Hugh Jackman (who can do the same given that his Broadway career is full of song-and-dance man roles), Russell Crowe (who seems to be having a comeback of sorts after his share of generic thrillers), plus Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and relative newcomer Samantha Barks (who already starred as her character Éponine in the London production of the show at the Queen's Theatre in 2010).
So it's a historical period piece drama (dying species? Check) set during the Paris Uprising of 1832, with a musical (difficult genre? Check) on top and some of the most talented actors around in a genre we've never seen any of them in? What's not to find appealing? Hooper gets points on ambition alone, not least for recording the singing live on set rather than in a studio months beforehand, which (if it works) could make for superior performances.
And sure, "The King's Speech" might have been a conservative Oscar Best Picture, but judged on its merits, it's a perfectly good little drama with wry moments of humor and a great cast (Colin Firth was excellent in it). And so while perhaps a little dry as a subject matter, compared to say "Hyde Park on Hudson" (a type of sequel that is entirely formulaic and toothless Oscar bait), "The King's Speech," is far from the ingratiatingly manipulative crowd pleaser that some accused it of being during that Oscar season. All of this is highly subjective, but I'm convinced that if "The King's Speech" came out in April and didn't take the Oscar crown from a more beloved filmmaker, it wouldn't have been maligned after the fact (and independently, reviews out of Toronto where it debuted were complimentary). Perhaps I’m simply concentrating on the online conversation which tends to be centered around boys with little attention span for nuanced-drama.
Hooper's got a good eye for tone and humor, and a fine sense for getting out of the way of good performances, along with an unflashy style of directing that never gets respect outside of awards. I’m not here to convince anyone that “Les Misérables” is going to be the best film of 2012, nor am I highly anticipating it as much as say, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (for random example). However, like “Life of Pi,” which turned out to be great (and I had been beating the drum for it around The Playlist water cooler for months despite a lot of “meh,” scratching-your-head responses), I’m saying, don’t dismiss or discount “Les Misérables” just yet. There’s a lot of reasons why it could be a big, bold spectacle, and who doesn’t love that? - Rodrigo Perez
Hugh Jackman. Russell Crowe. Anne Hathaway. Amanda Seyfried. The director of “The King’s Speech.” Holy crap, it’s like a white people-palooza. I'm making a larger point here, Sensitive Whitey, so stick with me.
“The King’s Speech” was a plate of deep-fried Oscar-bluehair-pleasing gumbo. As much as something like “The Avengers” panders to every fanboy in the world, “The King’s Speech” felt reverse engineered to appeal to the broadest of the broad, the older white moms and dads that comprise the majority of the Oscar pool (as well as the eventual viewing demographic). Dim and unchallenging, the visually simplistic story took shortcuts in its storytelling, from the minimized role of Queen Elizabeth as Supportive Wife to the jerk-ifying of King Edward VIII to the wallpapering of the, ahem, Nazi problem.
“The Social Network” was not the best film that year, but when forced into a two-horse race, voters and audiences looked at which film had more clearly defined villains, more simplistic decision-making amongst its characters, and a generally stuffy, sedate storytelling style that reminded us of the best of PBS. In this context, “The Social Network” was a set of knives, and “The King’s Speech” was a pillow.
Of course, what does Tom Hooper decide to do for an encore? Why, it appears to be a White People Totem, a popular tale re-envisioned by greater minds than him many times over. Really, among even fans of “Les Misérables,” was anybody saying, “I love Les Miz, but I wish it had more of a BBC sheen”? Certainly there is challenge for Hooper in tackling a musical, and for fans of that genre, it might be interesting. But there’s a reason it’s challenging -- most musicals are DREADFUL onscreen, pre-established material or not. The filmmakers often choose to play up the theatricality, which is to accentuate the artificiality. An approach with merit, certainly, but an approach for those who look at the medium as something that can be twisted, altered, and contorted to their specifications. Not “somewhere I work.”
And Hooper has been turning “somewhere I work” into a mantra, porting over his flat, ugly shooting style from television by abusing the fish-eye lens, as well as his innovation in “The King’s Speech” to shoot sequences with massive dead space over their heads to emphasize the off-center portraiture of each actor from within the frame. Yeah, I’ll bet Stan Brakhage was really jerking off on that.
Of course, he loaded this movie with interesting types, or bloated stars who sometimes show a tin ear for material. Jackman was minted as a star in “X-Men” twelve years ago, but a look at his resume reveals he hasn’t done much to earn this. Crowe is on the Brando/Oliver Reed schedule of showing up every other movie, while the next interesting performance given by Seyfried, as the juicy role of Cosette, will be her first.
Though it is not a very big role, Anne Hathaway has shown herself to be a strong performer, albeit one who hasn’t had her lungs truly tested on the big screen. She’s the one actor in this cast that’s shown a willingness to go somewhere unusual in the last five years, and could be an exciting part of the musical reaching the screen. But as Fantine, a hard-times prostitute who passes away through inglorious causes, the suggestion is that Hooper, adapting the second-longest running musical in history, opted to make nothing but safe, friendly choices, regardless of whether they are appropriate or not (Hooper’s version seems to have no room for a classical singer in the lead roles).
Contrast this with Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights,” which drastically reinvisioned that story by lopping off the second half and concentrating on the working-class brutality between the romance of Heathcliff and Catherine, creating a visceral, hard-to-watch love story that removes the usual trappings of period love stories. “Les Misérables,” which seems to preserve its story in amber, thematically and visually, is being pushed as a major Oscar contender and potential box office hit. “Wuthering Heights,” meanwhile, has already begun to fade from the critical discussion. Makes you wonder. - Gabe Toro