Monday, March 25, 2013

Les Misérables

Valjean, young Cosette and Fantine doing a hell of a lot more smiling than they did in the movie.

Les Misérables is the reason why I love musical theater. It isn't just because of catchy, good songs and lyrics. Nor is it because of my near-crippling obsession with the show that I had through high school.

No, Les Misérables encapsulates everything that works in musical theater. You see, story-telling is very subjective depending on the medium. This is why a great book sucks as a movie. They are different mediums and the same story cannot be told in the same way.

However, musical theater is a bit unique in how it can tell a story and, as such, it can adapt much more than a movie can. Seriously, think about all of the shitty exposition scenes that you've seen in a movie that don't make sense with crap dialogue and ruin the mood and momentum of the story. But in a musical, you can have a single song set up exposition, mood and change the entire theme by one character and it will fit perfectly in place. If it was done by Sondheim, it's also probably uptempo.

But think about it, in musical theater and opera, a character can describe exactly what they feel, think, plan, fear and how whatever just happened affects them in a simple song. However, in a movie, you get clumsy scenes where you get unnatural dialogue and exposition to set up the next act. This is why every single movie version of Les Misérables has failed to cover anywhere near the scope of Victor Hugo's novel. Each movie focused on a single specific theme of the book and kept out so much more of the story creating a hollow experience for those familiar with Hugo's work. Now, granted, the musical doesn't cover everything, but it touches on so much more than any movie. A three and a half minute song can cover, in more depth, than what a half hour scene in a movie can.

Hugo wrote Les Misérables in five volumes. The first of which was Fantine. This would be a movie in and of itself to cover. However, with well-crafted songs, you get the depth and emotion of the story in 15 minutes in the musical. And those fifteen minutes carries more pathos with it than a movie can. Music moves us. It enhances the emotional range and storytelling as well. Fantine was written to show the unfair treatment of women in Hugo's time. While I am not a huge fan of her songs, I still have to say that the musical does an admirable job, in just a couple of songs, of bringing forth Hugo's entire point of the volume.

Anyhow, enough of my licking musical theater's asshole, as sweet as it may be. What did I think of the movie?

I worried going into it. Javert is my favorite musical character and probably one of my all-time favorite literary characters. And instead of some Broadway powerhouse singing his part, they got Russell Crowe. However, despite my reservations, Crowe did alright. I wasn't blown away by him and he never quite rose to the power the role calls for, but he was passable and didn't make me cringe too much.

However, what I did like was the direction for Javert. Director Tom Hooper did a couple of beautiful little things. First, when Javert confronts Valjean after Fantine's death, Valjean escapes by jumping from the window into the river. Javert balks at pursuit. This sets up his inability to swim, which eventually will be his method of suicide. When he sings Stars, he walks along the edge of the building over the city below. He is sure-footed and strong and each step is a stride with confidence. Again, this contrasts his death where he walks along the edge of the river, his footsteps are no longer strong and confident and he takes his own life.

Though speaking of the Javert-Valjean Confrontation song, they removed one of Valjean's verses, where he sings that he's a stronger man by far and if he has to kill Javert he will to save Cosette. I'm certain that this was removed to make Valjean seem "nicer" and therefore more sympathetic. But there is something interestingly odd about movie-goer in contrast to theater-goers where movie-goers need their heroes more "pure". Think about how a lot of the biting lyrics were removed from the movie version of Evita.

One of my biggest gripes with the movie was that they allowed the actors to sing "live", instead of pre-recording and them lip syncing to their songs. While it enhanced passion and pathos in some songs (I Dreamed a Dream), what it ultimately did was undercut the score, which really is a character in and of itself in the theatrical performance.

Little things, such as Valjean's Soliloquy before he rips up his yellow ticket should really bookcase and match Javert's Soliloquy just before he kills himself. There is a reason why these songs carry the same music. However, by singing it live, Jackman changed the tempo and pace of his song and broke the bookcase emphasis.

The other problem with the live singing is that too many times the actors sung too hushed or quiet. The end result was that instead of a full symphonic orchestra belting out the music and enhancing the power of the songs, it was a rather muted score, often drowned out by the singers.

I could go on and on about Les Misérables and my thoughts and theories. Seriously. I could for a fucking long time. But instead I'll say it was decent and end with a few random observations:

  •         This version of Les Misérables completely altered the whole Valjean/Javert dynamic. Seriously, Valjean should have the beard and Javert has the sideburns. However, this movie they swapped facial hair.
  •          Marius's voice sounds like Kermit the Frog singing. Seriously. Think about that next time you watch the movie or listen to the movie's soundtrack. Sorry I just ruined the role for you, but you cannot unhear it.
  •          "A Little Fall of Rain" is the most fucked up song. I mean, Marius loves Cosette, but Éponine loves Marius and sacrifices herself for him. So, as she lays there dying, Marius sings about how he wishes he could heal her with his love and so on. Lovely little sentiment. But what would have happened if she fucking pulled through? He just created a rather awkward situation for himself there. Is he going to ditch Cosette for her, or admit that it was just a little deathbed pillowtalk?
  •          The corset for Samantha Barks was too fucking tight. Seriously. I get that Éponine is poor and should be thin, but fucking hell! I'll forgive any flaws in her singing to the fact that I doubt she could fucking breathe.
  •          Every single performance of Les Misérables I have seen, I have always wondered why Marius is such a dipshit and falls for Cosette instead of Éponine. I mean, Éponine has better songs, sings in a better range and looks like she's probably into much freakier sex than squeaky-clean, squeaky-voiced, dull-song-singing Cosette. However, I love Amanda Seyfried and as cute as she was in the 25th Anniversary concert, Samantha Barks and her micro-waist didn't do it for me in the movie. For once, I agree with Marius's choice.
  •          When I saw the movie in the theater, I knew that I would have to strategically plan bathroom breaks around my six-year old daughter's micro-bladder. I had initially thought that "Do You Hear The People Sing" would be a fine time. The song is a little repetitive in the musical, following just after "Red and Black". So I was ready to run her out, but damn, if the movie didn't make that song really fucking rousing. So, instead, Molly had to hold it all the way until "Drink With Me".
  •          While Victor Hugo's story is a fucking shit-ton of coincidences (Marius's father met Thénardier at Waterloo, Éponine growing up with Cosette, every fucking person in the story running into each other throughout France making me think that France is the size of a fucking broomcloset), the movie left in my favorite of the coincidences as Valjean is taken in by the church's gardener, who was the man he rescued from being crushed by the cart. Things like this aren't forced storytelling, but rather are karmic cause and effect elements.
  •          Also, Victor Hugo can fucking ramble. If you read the unabridged Les Misérables then you'll be presented with selections like this: "And then Valjean ran to hide inside of the church with the cops right on his heels. The church he ran into has an interesting history..." and then you get two chapters about the history of the fucking church in the middle of a tense scene.

Though speaking of rambling and going on too long, I should probably cut this short.

Molly: (As usual, Molly is sitting next to me as I type this. Because of her age, her portion of the review will be in Q&A form. I will transcribe what we say and format it later.)

Chuckie: So, what did you think about Les Misérables?
Molly: Huh?
Chuckie: Les Miz.
Molly: I loved it.

Chuckie: What did you like about it?
Molly: I'll tell you what I didn't like about it.
Chuckie: What was that?
Molly: That people got shot. And also, um, that Javert fell off a cliff. It was on purpose though.

Chuckie: Okay, we'll get to that. But right now, what did you like about the movie?
Molly: My brain is only thinking of the Thenardiers.
Chuckie: So you liked the Thenardiers?
Molly: Yes, except for their rotten food.

Chuckie: Alright, maybe we should start from the beginning then. What was the movie about?
Molly: They still actually got the movie all wrong.
Chuckie: What do you mean?
Molly: Because we saw that, um,  Éponine walk in, then for another part she got shot when she was already in, but she was supposed to get shot when she was delivering the letter. That makes more sense, right?
Chuckie: I guess.
Molly: Yes, because how did she get shot before the war already started. It makes more sense if she got shot when she was delivering the letter. At least that's why my brain is telling me.

Chuckie: Alright, but what happened in the movie.
Molly: Um, Jean Valjean was in prison and all the prison people had to pull a boat and, um, Javert let Jean Valjean out of prison and everyone was mean to Jean Valjean and then he met the priest and the priest was nice to him and Jean Valjean, um, the priest let him stay at his place and he left so early and he stole his silver and, and, and the priest, um, gave him some candles. Then Jean Valjean became nice and he was the President.
Chuckie: Mayor.
Molly: Oh. Mayor. Then all the girls were mean to Fantine and then the girls started fighting and the mayor split them up, then the owner throwed her out and throwed her some money and then some people came and they cut off her hair and I don't want to say the other one. It weirded me out.

Chuckie: What was it?
Molly: I don't want to say it.
Chuckie: It's okay, you can say it.
Molly: When he took out her teeth.
Chuckie: Why did that weird you out?
Molly: I have no idea.

Chuckie: Okay, then what happened next?
Molly: That guy was being mean to her and throwing snow down her shirt and she scratched him and then the police officer came and they each said a story and they were taking her to jail and the police officer didn't care that she had a daughter. But Jean Valjean saved her from going to jail. Then Fantine died. Then... um... (she starts humming songs to remember) Then her daughter went to the well because of her babysitter and Jean Valjean met her and he took her back and he paid for her and she grew up and met... um... I forget his name.

Chuckie: Marius?
Molly: Yeah. Then he made a bear in a cage?
Chuckie: A bear in a cage?
Molly: Yeah. Where they made the wall.
Chuckie: Barricade.
Molly: Oh. That makes more sense. I thought that they were saying that they were making a bear in a cage.

Chuckie: What happened at the barricade?
Molly: Everybody died but Marius.
Chuckie: Alright. Then what happened?
Molly: Jean Valjean saved Marius. Then Javert saw him and let him go because he saw that he was doing something good and then he decided to go off a cliff.

Chuckie: Why did Javert kill himself?
Molly: Because he believed in the law too much and he thought the law was always right, but it wasn't good because Jean Valjean was doing good and if he was good, then the law wasn't good, but that was what he believed, so he decided to jump off the cliff.
Chuckie: That's why I love you, little girl.
Molly: It's a good thing Javert didn't meet the priest because the priest was the goodest person, but he lied. Jean Valjean really did steal the silver. So Javert should put the priest in jail for lying, but the priest was good because everyone else was mean.

Chuckie: Alright. Let's talk about some of the characters.
Molly: Wait. We didn't finish the story. Then they lived happily ever after.

Chuckie: Okay. So, tell me about Jean Valjean.
Molly: He was a good-slash-bad person. He robbed a house. He broke a window. He pretended to be a mayor, so he lied to the police about it, but he saved Marius for good.

Chuckie: Tell me about Javert.
Molly: He didn't mean any harm. He was just doing his job. Then he just fell off a cliff.

Chuckie: Now, I like to consider that the true emphasis of the story is the relationship between Valjean and Javert and Victor Hugo's struggles with criticisms of Catholicism. Javert was born in sin, being born in a jail, and he was unforgiving and knew only of rigid structure and law. Meanwhile, Valjean represents Christianity's forgiveness and redemption. He was cast in sin, but redeemed himself and was a good person. This conflict is the story. This conflict is also the take of two different views of religion.
Molly: Okay. I just want to be half-Canadian.

Chuckie: Um. Alright.
Molly: Stars, moons and suns and clowns?

Chuckie: Sure. How many stars would you give Les Misérables?
Molly: Les Miz.
Chuckie: Les Miz.
Molly: Fourteen.
Chuckie: Out of how many?
Molly: I just want it to be fourteen because it rhymes with Éponine. Also fifteen does.

Chuckie: Alright. So how many moons do you give it?
Molly: Sixty-one out of forty-one.

Chuckie: So, you give it twenty more moons than the most it could have?
Molly: Yeah.

Chuckie: Alright. How many suns?
Molly: A hundred and forty-five out of sixty-one.

Chuckie: And how many clowns?
Molly: A house.
Chuckie: What does that mean?
Molly: It means the numbers are in a house.
Chuckie: What does that mean?
Molly: Like a house number. Out of an egg. With a seven in it.

Chuckie: So, who do you think would like the movie?
Molly: Um, Edison. Maybe Mason. Uncle Neil. Uncle BJ. Grandmom and Pop Pop and Grammy and Pappy.

Chuckie: Well, I mean, what kind of people.
Molly: My family.
Chuckie: Alright. Fair enough.
Molly: Maybe Neveah. Maybe Ellen. Maybe Julie and Acacia and Amber.

Chuckie: So, who was your favorite character?
Molly: I have two. Um, Éponine and... um... the other girl.
Chuckie: Cosette?
Molly: Yeah. Her.

Chuckie: And what was your favorite song?
Molly: Um, the one where Éponine is standing behind Marius.
Chuckie: Huh?
Molly: At his house. Where she's standing behind him.
Chuckie: Oh. I thought it would be Lovely Ladies.
Molly: That's my second favorite song.

Chuckie: Is there anything else you wanted to say about the movie?
Molly: Yes. Gavroche didn't really run the town.

So, that's our review. So often musical theater doesn't translate to the movie screen. There is a different feel to it. Musical theater often breaks the fourth wall in such a subtle way that it isn't noticed. However, breaking the fourth wall in movies is often jarring and odd. Overall, Les Misérables didn't do a bad job, especially when you compare it to movie versions of Phantom of the Opera (terrible) and even Rent (which just doesn't charge the viewer the way a live performance of it charges the audience). Still, considering how hesitant I was with everything that could have been done wrong with this attempt of translation, I suppose I'm not disappointed with the result.

I'd give the movie version of Les Misérables four stars out of five. While Crowe doesn't exactly pull off the vocals needed for the role, the symbolism and directing of the character save him from falling into unforgivable mediocrity. He still has presence, though it is just not with his voice. Still, I would have given the movie another half-star if they fully committed to their apparent casting desires and replaced Marius with a muppet.

When we first saw the movie in the theater, Molly had already become familiar with the soundtrack and we had to keep shutting her up from belting out the songs along with the performance. Her favorite song at the time was "Lovely Ladies" and when Fantine sells herself for sex to the captain in her first viewing, she asked me in the theater what they were doing. I figured the movie theater on Christmas day wasn't the best place for this conversation and I distracted and avoided the question like any good parent knows how to do. Then, watching it at home on Blu-Ray, she asked me again during that scene and I balked and I told her, "Hold on, I really like this next song" and distracted her. Upon her next viewing of it (she's been obsessively watching it on her iPod), she brought it over to me and asked what they were doing again. Exasperated, I told her, "Fantine sold herself to him for sex" and Molly seemed to finally get it as she said, "Oooooooh!" then went back to watching it.

I'm a little afraid to ask her if she knows what that meant since it all seemed to click so well for her.

Molly gives the movie fourteen stars because it rhymes with Éponine. She also gives is sixty-one out of forty-one moons, a hundred and forty-five out of sixty-one suns and a clown with a house number out of an egg with seven in it. She also has a deep understanding of the depth of the character Javert and the struggles that he has with morality versus law and the ultimate conundrum that it presents and his inability to grasp how he can live in a world where the law may not always be just, even though she also thought the students were apparently putting a bear in a cage to protest the King's policies.

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