Les Misérables

I wanted Les Misérables to be great, but it just wasn’t. A film that comes out on Christmas Day has got to be a pretty solid stuff, you’d think, but why wasn’t I blown away? Everyone else in the theater seemed to have a different outcome than I did; when the credits rolled, there was a momentary roar of applause. As if the people on the screen just moments before could hear us.

Les Miserables

Tom Hooper’s film is not terrible per se; it’s just careless to some degree – for one specific reason – Russell Crowe. Whoever allowed him to be cast in this should be seriously re-examined for experience in their craft. Crowe is dismal in his technique throughout the entire film. It’s literally like he didn’t want to be on set. You can almost see him just wishing the song was over already. Like he was in physical pain every time Hooper called action and he knew he had to sing live to the unapologetic cameras. With every scene that Crowe inhabits he not only sings completely flat, but he literally acts completely flat. I’m not even sure if I caught him raising an eyebrow, much less a full facial expression. The most movement he makes is pacing on ledges, horseback riding, a bit of sword play, and a much welcomed, back-snapping swan dive onto a brick wall. I really just can’t express enough how much Crowe ruined this whole experience for me.

Now, let’s pretend that Crowe was impeccable in his performance (hell, I’d settle for even just OK in his performance); the film would then be good. Not examining Crowe’s performance would allow us to examine the performances of the other actors more closely. Anne Hathaway is terrific. There’s really nothing more to be said about her darkly poignant downward spiral of a performance. Hugh Jackman is good, notable for his live theatre abilities, but in Hooper’s film he lets the scenes get the best of him sometimes. Early on, (around the first act), he comes across much like DeNiro in Cuarón’s Great Expectations remake. I think that’s when I liked Jackman best – the beginning. By the end of the film he’s a little too obvious in his character’s affectations and voice, and it almost gets boring to some degree.

Hooper’s imbued a wonderful dark sensibility to the film to the film as well, which should not be overlooked. He could have chosen to make this lighter fare, but instead kept it classic, cold and literary. He basically could be said to have directed Les Misérables for the stage here, only with setups for cameras and grips. The majority of the shots are handheld, with a wide lens, but smack-up-close-and-personal-walking-with-a-character-as-they-sing-to-the-lens (or just beyond it). Hooper is doing his best to make this an intimate and personal stage experience for cinema-goers. Granted, it’s not the first time this filming style has been done to this effect, but it’s the first time in recent movie history that it’s worked to such great ability. And it very much indeed has worked here. The audience becomes so enthralled; they’re obviously even willing to overlook Crowe (it probably also helps that sadly, most American audiences have no prior education or knowledge of the story of Les Misérables, so it’s like a brand new movie for them).

Take, for example, Chicago, a critically acclaimed movie and a hit with audiences, adapted from the stage, but filmed like a traditional Hollywood picture – just with singing. Many of the great auteurs have tried to bring alive the feeling, the rush, the one-dimensionality and the purity of the theater to the screen (Bergman, Leigh), but until now there wasn’t really a formula that seemed to work. Hooper’s found it. Maybe there’s method in the madness of shooting the actors singing their lines live for each take; maybe that even dictated the reasoning for shooting Les Misérables in the fluid and realistic, on-stage-style that he did, but whatever the reason, you will no doubt see this production formula used again.

Les Misérables is a film your family will probably love, and it’s most certainly a film with heart and beauty, there were a lot of sniffles in the screening which I was at, and I can understand why. To those who know nothing about the craft of filmmaking, this is cinema they can truly let wash over them and enjoy effortlessly, but to those who watch movies in a different way, there’s a lot left to be desired.

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Hunger

Hunger may have been directed by Rembrandt. At least, he had to be the cinematographer. This film is glorious to watch in all its squalor. Ninety percent of the film is set in the gleaming, industrial Irish institution that is almost comically known as Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (referred to here as just the Maze). The other ten percent of the film takes place outside the prison walls, just long enough to depict the justifiably paranoid lifestyle of one of the British guards.

The rancor that comes with watching Steve McQueen’s incredible Hunger is almost tangible in your living room. Yet everything about this film screams beautiful new-Asian cinema, such as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, (I’m re-appropriating the term “new-Asian cinema” for myself here, because I’d rather a film like Poetry take that credit, than the recent run of torture-horror flicks that seem to flood the Asian-via-America cinema markets). McQueen’s cinema is about experience. He wants to make you submit to his story when the lights go down. So get your color bars adjusted, fire up the Blu-ray and crank up the volume on the surround.

As McQueen himself says about the film, he wants to take you on a journey through the Maze, but bring you in two different ways. We see the guard as he begins his shift and we also see the new IRA prisoner Davey as he gets processed and immediately refuses to conform to the standards of the prison by not wearing their uniform. He is promptly delivered to his cell, naked, where he finds the walls that hold him in covered in fecal matter and his cellmate starved, unshaven and unwashed.

The incarcerated IRA here are on a no wash protest and so every so often the guards have to pull them from their cells, dragging them to a place in the prison where they can hold them down, cutting their long hair and beards with oversized pairs of shears and subsequently throw them in a bathtub, run a bar of soap over them and drag them back to their cells. Prison life gets worse as the film progresses and another scene depicts riot police called in to basically beat, and at turns violently and degradingly search the prisoners.

After a brutal and somehow expected killing of the British prison guard whom we are initially introduced to, comes the best scene in the film: a nearly twenty-minute, unedited, static two-shot where a priest attempts to convince the prisoner Bobby Sands not to start the hunger strike he’s planned out in his head. As opposed to other IRA-prisoner-led hunger strikes, Sands has the fortitude to envision this one happening on a more cataclysmic scale, basically tiering the order of the men who strike, so the strike can never really cease. The purpose of his tiered approach is to create more opportunity for serious casualty if the the Queen doesn’t respond, whereas in previous hunger strikes, all the men just stop eating at the same time in a more clumsy act of rebellion.

It’s a hugely integral scene to the film and a hugely integral moment in Sands’ life. His conversation with the priest is at turns witty and devastating as it soon becomes clear that his martyrdom is inevitable. Aside from the clear aesthetic reasons for shooting the scene this way – there’s no chance for the viewer to escape the inevitability of his fate as Bobby virtually confesses his premeditated suicide to a priest – it’s the filmmaker’s tool for catching you up from the entire first third of the film which had little to no dialogue. It’s now also been touted as the longest shot in a film.*

From this point on, we are forced to watch as Bobby destroys his body from the inside out. While the first third of the film is rooted in a sense of gritty, British cinema realism, the middle is a segue with priest and confessor that stands out as a slice of American independent cinema from the 70s, and the final stretch of Hunger is almost Bergman-esque avant-garde.

There’s an amazing sequence where Sands, virtually immobile, bed-ridden, malnourished and delusional, follows a crack in the ceiling above him all the way down to the wall, where the crack ends and the POV framing reveals himself as a young ghost, standing there, staring back at him. The film goes out on a relatively high note even though while he disintegrates in real life, we watch him as a lean, young man, racing through the woods near a river (which we’re familiar with from a story he tells the priest). Abruptly, he stops dead in his tracks. The foliage around him is a deep emerald green and the water of the river flows alongside. He looks over his shoulder behind him.

It’s really the perfect ending to his life.

Bobby Sands was not the only prisoner to die during this hunger strike. Nine other men did as well, ultimately prompting British government to yield to the IRA’s demands. During the strike Sands was also elected to British Parliament representing two counties in Ireland.

Editorial Note: As I was scouring the ‘net for some good stills from the film, I came across a Guardian article from November 2008 where – what did I find but this pictorial comparison of McQueen’s film to a Rembrandt painting! I find this extremely interesting, in that, when I began writing this and that first sentence came out where I compared the images in Hunger to Rembrandt, I had not heard of any comparisons as such, and I thought anyone who read mine would think me merely proselytizing on the side of the critic-debate that Hunger is more concerned with style over substance. While, granted, it is very stylistic, it’s not so in a way that I believe detracts from the film. As I detailed above, I find the film to be inspired by various cinematic movements and styles and I feel like it blends them all together to create a portrait of a man that surely could not be summed up in the most straight forward of terms.

Those Rascally Kids At It Again

With a video like some twisted version of Madonna’s “Frozen,” if “Frozen” were directed by Andrea Giacobbe instead of Chris Cunningham, and if the concept was inspired by Bergman’s Seventh Seal, the Rascals promote their latest single “Freakbeat Phantom.”

Agreed. White jeans are so hot. N’est pas?