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"Les Misérables" Review

While I'm a big fan of musicals - more than most heterosexual men should be according to my mean girlfriend (who doesn't live in Canada) -I've never gotten on board with the whole "Lay Miz" thing. The bits of the score I've heard seemed overblown in the orchestrations compared to the classics or even contemporaries like Andrew Lloyd Webber. (For reference, I've seen The Phantom of the Opera on stage four times, twice in Detroit and twice at the gloriously-restored Pantages Theater in Toronto, once with Paul Stanley - yes, the singer of KISS! - as the Phantom. I thought the Joel Schumacher film was a mixed bag.)

Over a quarter-century after its stage debut, the film version of Les Misérables hit the silver screen with Oscar-winning director of The King's Speech, Tom Hooper, calling the shots with a top-shelf cast led by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. It was lush and loaded for Oscar bear and it just doesn't work very well.

Since the story of Jean Valjean (French for John Valjohn, I think) and his miserable life after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread is pretty much common knowledge, I'm going to discuss what doesn't work with this musical: There's too much music. No, not in a "too many notes" sense a la Amadeus - a reference that Phantom slyly referenced in the "Notes" number - but in the bad decision to maintain the "sung-thru" structure of the show in that all the dialog is sung instead of the songs standing separate of the dialog of the book. Having Gladiator and Wolverine bellowing in song what would've been more effective if acted is silly. If you're going to open a show up beyond what could portrayed on stage, what's preventing the crafting of dramatic scenes? Nothing but poor choices.

Compounding the damage is Hooper's insistence on shooting way too many scenes with a fisheye lens which exaggerates faces and makes things seem surreal when they should seem, well, miserable. His use of visual metaphors is also ham-handed as we watch Crowe's Inspector Javert perform two numbers while literally walking on the edge of precipices. (GET IT?!?!? NUDGE! NUDGE!) Adding another layer of mistakes is the editing which appears to have been done by kitchen blender with no regard to how to cut on the beat, frequently flipping at random from one shot to another. For editing to be noticeable, which it shouldn't be in general, it either has to be very good (e.g. The Social Network, Moneyball, or Star Wars) or very bad (e.g. Les Misérables) - this is the latter. The sequence depicting Fantine's decent into desperation and prostitution, selling her lovely hair and teeth, is supposed to take place over a period of time, but in Hooper's and his editors' hands, it looks like one really bad night.

While nominated for a bunch of Oscars, it's unlikely to take home any top prizes other than the sure-thing, slam dunk that is Anne "Yummy Girl" Hathaway's turn as the doomed Fantine. While she doesn't get naked (a surefire Oscar-bait tactic she joked when she hosted the Oscars after getting nada for Love and Other Drugs), she chopped her hair off and absolutely kills it on "I Dreamed A Dream" - aka that song that made Susan Boyle a household name. Instead of jamming a wide angle lens in her face and editing like a meth addict on a pogo stick, they simply let her sing the number in an unbroken 3:40-long shot and it's devastating. I'm sure the other nominees in Best Supporting Actress thought, "Well, at least I get to wear a pretty dress and have 'Academy Award Nominee' ahead of my name from now on," when they saw her shed a perfectly-timed tear in the middle of her plaint.

The much-hyped technique of recording the vocals live during filming instead of lip-synching to a pre-recorded track does help in making the performances more immediate, but it's dependent on the talent level of the performer; Jackman is good, Hathaway and Samantha Barks are great, Seyfried is surprisingly good, Crowe should stick to gladiatoring. The production design and costumes are your usual prestige period movie quality, but who cares about the frame with the portrait is substandard. Film musicals are tricky beasts to tame and there aren't many who can seem capable of doing it, not that Hooper deserves a participant ribbon for trying.

A final note: To tell you how unenthused I was about writing this review, while it appears on Dirkflix on the date/time I watched it, it's actually May 29th as I'm finally clearing this off my spindle in order to keep my pledge to review everything in some form. You're welcome.

Score: 6/10. Rent it if you're a fan; otherwise catch it on cable.

UPDATE: I saw this the night after posting the review despite it being around for a couple of months and I'm a fan of these guys. Really funny though he's too hard on Amanda Seyfried's singing.


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