Could be dubbed the bold and the brave as Critic After Dark Noel Vera takes in a double-bill featuring Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables; and Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas.
Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (2012), about relentless Inspector Javert’s (Russell Crowe) hunt for ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is (for the first hour or so anyway) the absolute worse movie I’ve seen in 2012.
Chop-suey editing; canted camera angles; relentless gigantic closeups (director Hooper had gone through great trouble and expense to record the cast’s singing live, and wanted to make sure you knew it), a narrative that seems to jump, skip, leap across years without even a by-your-leave. The first hour or so is an encyclopedia of slovenly, speeded-up storytelling (apparently Hooper wanted to skip through Valjean’s life to arrive at the Fantine storyline and barricades), like watching a movie on fast-forward while the disc skipped every other scene.
Doesn’t help that Crowe - playing Javert - makes it plain to everyone who can hear that he can’t sing. Not a note. Oh, he has a nicely solemn speaking voice, but the moment it tries to follow a melody to the higher registers it falls flat on its face and just lies there, twitching… actually got a cat like that, a big tabby weighing twenty pounds who when stalking towards strangers with his massive size and big eyes can be a tad unsettling; then he opens his mouth, the tiniest ‘mew’ pops out, and all sense of intimidation flies out the window.
Crowe’s voice has exactly that effect - and unlike say Marlon Brando (who had to deal with a nasal whine and unfortunate lisp in A Streetcar Named Desire) - Crowe has yet learned to draw attention back to him with sneaky bits of stage business.
The film starts becoming fairly good when Hooper settles down long enough to allow us to listen to Anne Hathaway as Fantine singing her one dramatic solo. Problem is, this is Hathaway intent on remaking her Princess Diaries image into something edgier, playing a character shredding her soul to pieces in private, and it would help (maybe even nudge her performance into actual poignancy) if Hooper’s camera and microphone weren’t six inches away from her mouth. It’s like listening to someone pour their heart out straight into your ear canal, at full volume - at some point you’re bound to go deaf.
I’d like to go on comparing this to the Broadway and London East End hit (in summation: not a fan of the musical and still the movie doesn’t come out well), but I’d rather compare it to Victor Hugo’s original novel. Les Miserables the book has plenty the matter with it - endless passages of obscure French politics, a seemingly bottomless cistern of bathos (not to mention the courage to wield said bathos frequently and shamelessly).
It does enjoy two advantages: Hugo’s prose, which is tremendously detailed and eloquent (at least as translated to English), and his canvas - a thousand five hundred pages’ worth, at least in my single-volume paperback, able to spread any sentimental detail or unlikely plot twist across days and months and years even, to the point that it looks like a relatively realistic facsimile of life.
The musical can’t indulge in that kind of luxury; it has to compress over a thousand pages of passion, violence, hatred, sadism, comedy and sacrifice into roughly two hours and forty-five minutes of singing, and the net effect is that what looked impressive and grand on the printed page smacks of rank melodrama on the theater stage. Add a movie camera that refuses to back away more than ten inches for most of its hundred and fifty minute running time and you have a serious problem. Do I hear the people sing? I sure do. Now back off.
Siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer are brave souls to try tackle Cloud Atlas (2012), and like Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, theirs flails as much as flies. Perhaps the worse bits are when the messages of fellow humanity and social tolerance become galumphingly obvious, almost half the picture; best are when the movie relaxes and just tells the stories, which are often as hilarious as they are harrowing.
Six stories, two in the past, two in the more or less present (one takes place in the ’70s) and two in the future, the quality varying widely. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” - about the friendship between a Moriori slave and a lawyer - didn’t really do much for me, basically an odd-couple, slave-wins-freedom drama with an unsubtle bit of poisoning thrown in.
“Letters From Zedelghem” fares better, mostly from the fascinating dynamics between Ben Wishaw as the apprentice composer and Jim Broadbent as his famous employer (the employer thinks the innovative melodies he’s hearing are coming from his own head when they’re really from the apprentice - who is both inspired by and attracted to him).
“Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” takes a page from the true-life mystery of Karen Silkwood but fails to transmute the basic premise into anything more interesting (the segment does benefit from all the cracker-jack action sequences (directed by Tykwer) punctuating the narrative).
“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” - to my mind the funniest and best of the six stories - is about a publisher turned fugitive turned (thanks to his resentful brother) prisoner in a retirement home (is it a coincidence that this also prominently features Jim Broadbent? Didn’t think so).
“An Orison of Sonmi 451″ on the other hand is possibly the worst, a pious account of a dystopian future where servile clone Sonmi 451 (Donna Bae, usually terrific but not here) turns revolutionary. Again the direction (by the Wachowskis this time) saves the segment with vivid and coherent action sequences set in a future Seoul that outdo anything George Lucas attempted in his Star Wars prequels (the Wachowskis finally redeeming themselves for their clunky direction of the Matrix movies). Sonmi 451 is presented as a mostly passive witness; when she’s finally called upon to do something heroic, she solemnly quotes Solzhenitsyn while the world goes to hell below her (fortunately the image of all those people dying at her feet lend some gravitas to her otherwise uninspired oration).
“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is the latest of the stories, taking place a hundred and seventy-seven years after the Sonmi story, and features a kind of postapocalyptic lingo made up of (far as I can tell) distorted Southern and street slang a la Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.
The made-up language is fairly easy to follow (when in doubt just remember Tom Hanks is escorting Halle Berry on a secret mission). I’m on the middle on this segment - not especially bad but not particularly memorable, other than the Road Warrior costumes and makeup (somehow more suited to the Australian Outback than some vaguely Arcadian wilderness) and the fairly well-directed action sequences (again, the Wachowskis). Onscreen and summarized in a magazine article (or in this case a blog post), the storylines seem trite and overfamiliar.
The use of recognizable celebrities in elaborate makeup playing multiple roles is even more problematic - I suppose this echoing of faces is meant to imply an echoing of themes and values over different ages, over different cultures, and (as the occasional cross-dressing actor implies) even over differing sexual orientation. But you can make the connections without badly done makeup; you also avoid unintended comparisons to (among others) Monty Python (”Oh look, Hugo Weaving in drag! Again!”). A noble experiment, not a successful one.
And yet - and yet - there’s something to the film. The novel is shaped according to a brilliant conceit: each story is told in chronological order and ends - pauses, breaks off - in a cliffhanger, all except the last one which finishes; then the second-to-the last story continues and concludes, the third-to-the last continues and concludes, and so on till the novel ends with the earliest story, set in the 19th century - a sort of Russian matryoshka doll structure of narrative nested in a narrative nested in a narrative…
Don’t know if Tykwer and the Wachowskis could have pulled this off onscreen (kind of wish they did), but they do resort to one of the oldest of storytelling devices, dating all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: different stories from different time periods told in parallel, one cutting to the next in a vague matching scheme. Doesn’t help the first half-hour much - we meet one new character after another, six stories’ worth, and jump across stories without pause or introduction. Matters improve on the second half-hour, with the conflict established for each, the entire section being possibly the movie’s most structurally conventional.
By the next half hour you begin to notice a reinforcing repetitiveness to the way the Wachowskis and Tykwer cut from one story to another. A door is blasted; Sonmi intones “Heaven is just another door opening;” another door swings wide to admitting Adam Ewing; and so on. The echoing gives these initially pedestrian themes emotional amplitude, starts to intensify one’s viewing experience. By film’s end - well, you may not have seen the best mainstream movie of the year (I’d say that’s Zemeckis’ Flight) nor the most lyrical and innovative (arguably Beasts of the Southern Wild), but you just might have seen the bravest, which is no small thing.
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