I'm trying really hard to get back into the blogging thing after a dry spell.
Acting on a hunch, I declared to the children that they were no longer allowed to set their alarms for 6 AM so they could get downstairs before I wake up and claim the computer in order to play Minecraft.
I assured them it was not a punishment, just an attempt by me to reclaim my working and blogging time.
"You need more sleep anyway," I said. "Unless there's schoolwork you need to finish, please don't set your alarms to go off before eight."
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Mark and I went out this past weekend to see the filmed Les Misérables. I've noticed that it's received many cool and critical reviews, and I get the impression that it's going to be a love-it-or-hate-it thing. A local reviewer disliked it (but he also dislikes the staged musical: "I'd like to say the show never got boring, but that would be a lie: it does stop often for songs, and once you realize what any given round of bellowing is about, you can let your attention drift.") Jeffrey Overstreet at Patheos wrote a more thoughtful (and occasionally amusing) criticism, acknowledging that his dislike of it might be in part because it was his first exposure to the story, songs, and play.
(Overstreet's a little inaccurate, though, calling Jean Valjean a "Christ Figure" -- if he's a figure of anything, he's a "redeemed sinner" figure, not at all the same.)
My take on it: I enjoyed the whole thing. I am apparently one of the unwashed masses who, having loved the stage show, doesn't know any better than to like the movie too.
(Mark enjoyed it too, even though all he remembered of the story was the TL;DR: Jean Valjean is chased by a policeman.)
I've seen the opera form of Les Misérables on stage, performed by top regional/traveling companies three times. I own 3 different soundtracks, and I know the libretto by heart, including the French concept album. (Come on everybody! Á la volonté du peuple! et á la santé du progrès, Remplis ton coeur d'un vin rebelle, Et á demain, ami fidèle...)
Let's discuss the big-name stars.
- Anne Hathaway: surprisingly good, I don't know why anyone was complaining.
- Russell Crowe: Good on him for stepping up to the plate and trying so hard. Javert does deserve a stronger voice, but I couldn't blame Russell; just wanted to pat him on the head and say "You're doing a GOOD JOB."
- Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were fine, but I kept wishing they were Eric Idle and Madeline Kahn for some reason.
Overall an excellent adaptation of the stage to the screen, retaining the stagey feel very well without trying to BE a stage production when it couldn't possibly have been, while exploiting well the things that cinema excels in.
In particular, the close-up solos ("I Dreamed A Dream," "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables") were fantastic -- they all really took the strengths of film and ran with them. The film is being mocked for its close-ups, but I thought that the close-up was a good translation -- into film -- of the "spotlight" effect that's the best a stage production can do to highlight a character.
The live-singing technique transformed the songs, especially the emotional solo songs, into something new. (Here's a little video that explains it if you're unfamiliar) When you know the recorded versions very well, as I do -- I blast show tunes in the car from time to time to cheer myself up -- you get accustomed to a certain "polish" on the voices. In a stage production, the singer has no choice but to (a) belt it out, so that she can be heard all the way to the back of the theater, and (b) follow the timing of the orchestra.
But with the live singing, the actress/singer could adjust her voice timbre and volume, and the timing of the phrases to match the emotion of the moment. (An earpiece provided a live piano accompaniment to keep them on key.) Instead of the singer following the orchestra, the orchestral accompaniment was instead added later to match the singer. This makes a big difference in "I Dreamed A Dream," which is placed here after Fantine's descent into prostitution, and in "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables." Both of these characters are grieving, and you know, grief only sometimes calls for you to belt it out to the back of the hall, and it goes at its own pace.
I forgot where I was and fell into the story and the screen for at least the first half, although that was possibly an effect of the two margaritas I downed before the film.
(My new favorite date is to go out for nachos and too many margaritas at the bar next door to the theater, and then sober up while watching the movie.)
There was a certain grittiness to the look of it all which the film wore very well, too.
I expect that if you go to it expecting it to be cinematic you will be disappointed; if you go to it because you love the stage production and you want it to be stagey you will be happy.
Here's the Overstreet review again:
Hey, I have no problem applauding a narrative as profound as this one. But here I go again, digging out Ebert’s fundamental rule of film criticism: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” The filmmakers don’t get credit for the story; that belongs to Victor Hugo. As Gandalf might say, all the filmmakers have to do is “decide is what to do with the material that is given to us.” These filmmakers made me feel like I was suffocating, and I was oh so glad to get out of that theater.
See, what I think Overstreet misses here is that this movie is not about what he thinks when it is about how it is about it. It's not a movie about Restoration France. It's a movie about the blockbuster stage opera Les Misérables about Restoration France. The point is to bring the experience of the opera to new audiences in a new way. And the movie goes about being about a blockbuster stage opera very well.