Les Miserables (2012) Review (PG-13)

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First… Yes. YES, I admit it. I went and saw this at the  movie theater a few weeks ago. There are chick flicks and then there are musicals and then there are ‘based on Broadway show’ musicals. Yes, I willingly went to see this. Are there reasons to see this if you aren’t really into musicals, as I am not? Well, yeah… Anne Hathaway… Wait, I have more… It has lots of big name people running around it besides Catwoman (even if she’s all that I really need). There’s Wolverine and the Gladiator in the two biggest roles.

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There are actors with three names like Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. There are some cute girls like Amanda Seyfried and plucky newcomer Samantha Barks. The film is obviously ‘Oscar bait’ with all of the singing and dancing and melodrama and crying and  angst in general. It IS a visual feast; I mean they spent the money on this sucker. Even the rags some of the people are wearing look like expensive designer rags (“Whose rags are you wearing?” “These are Amani”…). The money is apparent onscreen.

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Are there reasons not to see it? Well, it’s a musical based on a Broadway musical. Need more? There is much caterwauling.. And some screeching.. And some cryin’… And lots and LOTS of misery, as one would expect given the title. O’, the suffering. But, I’m not trying to steer you away from the movie. I actually liked it; I didn’t love it, but it is worth seeing on a big screen.

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Before I go any further, I guess I also need to put forth a link for the pronunciation of Les Miserables. Trust me, there is nothing worse than being ridiculed by idiots for pronouncing something correctly. If you know how to pronounce it, then forget I said anything.

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The film itself opens in truly spectacular fashion with Javert (played by the overly criticized Russell Crowe, who was far better here than he’ll get credit for) overseeing prisoners pulling a ship ashore in a rain storm at the beginning of the 19th century… And they’re all singing. Swear to God. One of the prisoners is Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman who is in full on “I’m going to win an Oscar!” mode. Valjean is released from prison, but finds that his fortunes haven’t picked up any. He is beaten, robbed, driven out of town after town until he finally gets taken in by the Church. Not being the grateful sort, he immediately steals from them and takes off in the night.

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Shortly after, he is apprehended  by the local authorities, but shockingly to both Valjean and the police, the presiding Bishop of the Church tells them that the items stolen were given to the ex-con as a gift. Then he gives him even more. Valjean is so filled with guilt and remorse by this act (and his life gone wrong) that he decides to make a profound change. He decides in grand angsty fashion to do something positive with his life. Oddly, he jumps parole and that gets Javert back on his case. Javert vows to see Valjean in chains again. They’re all still singing, by the way.

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Cut to: Eight years later, we meet Fantine, played by the always lovely even when she’s absolutely miserable, Anne ‘Catwoman’ Hathaway. Fantine works for ValjeanCo in one of those really crappy 18th century industrial factories that companies like Mac and Nike utilize in China to make even more gigantic profits (in defense of the one in the movie, at least they employ adults). The other women don’t like her and the foreman wants to get his hands all over her, if not other appendages. She is ultimately dismissed quite harshly when it’s found out that she has an illegitimate child. I guess that was frowned upon back then.

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Jobless and penniless, Fantine has to resort to all kinds of horrible acts and situations in order to make money to send to her daughter’s caretakers. In case you don’t know the story, I won’t reveal any more, except to say that because of Fantine’s situation, Valjean becomes concerned with her well being and that of her daughter. Did I mention there’s a revolution mounting? No? Well, there is.

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I believe that if this had  been made  based on the book instead of the musical, this might have been a stronger film.  I think there have been somewhere around 13 big screen adaptations over the years of the Victor Hugo novel, the same source material that the musical of the same name sprang from. From what I gather, having never seen the Broadway musical (thankfully), I take it that this film is more from that Broadway show than the novel itself.

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I did see the 1998 film that starred Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Geoffrey Rush, that I think may have illustrated that the non-singing version was the better way to go, despite lacking the truly stunning visuals, artistry and production values of this film. And I must say, I preferred the less melodramatic ending of that one. The singing, to me, is the biggest flaw of this new movie. It’s very difficult to get used to no matter how long it goes on (and it goes on a very, VERY long while).

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There were at least a couple of really great musical numbers that were successful in the film (the ones getting the most attention being Anne Hathaway’s teary eyed rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” amongst others). The big musical sequences were fine, it was really the in-between stuff that was off kilter if not downright awkward. I was even squirming at little at some of the worst moments.

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Here, the actors sang even their lines of dialogue which had an extremely jarring effect that continued throughout the film. All of the actors weren’t the best of singers, either, so it  was magnified in certain cases. Music is subjective, though, so I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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The film’s length was also problematic with the least interesting part of the story feeling the longest (That was the whole ‘pretty boy revolution’…For me I was glad to see their part of the story resolved and in the way that it was resolved. I can only say ‘they missed one’). Again, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the movie, I did. It’s a well made PRODUCTION of a Hollywood motion picture and it would be worth seeing for the spectacle alone. There IS a lot to like about this big screen adaptation.

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Hugh Jackman plays the role of Valjean with a charged desperation. You can see how much he wants to win that Oscar in every single moment he appears on camera. He does seem to have suffered for his part, even if the makeup department probably had a large part in depicting at least a bit of that suffering. While most characters in typical Hollywood musicals over-exaggerate every gesture, Jackman (or Huge Action as film critic Mark Kermode refers to him) turns his character’s emotions up to eleven.

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Anne… Ooooohhh Anne. I would find find it hard to believe that even her biggest critics would not admit that she was genuinely affecting in the role of Fantine. I did feel for her character in this film. She does do an awful lot of suffering. She emotes. She cried. There are lots of horrible things done to her. I knew the story and where it would end up, but I kind of wanted them to surprise the audience and have her luck change… But no.  The thing that surprised me was that her part was smaller than I thought that it was going to be. Or maybe it just seemed that way because of the intensity of her peformance. While Jackman voiced his character’s sorrows with gnashed teeth, Hathaway sang with a little more emotional range (and has a voice I’d listen to all day long).  Again, I have to mention the makeup department, because there were times when Hathaway looked pretty dangedable rough and that must be a feat in and of itself. There should be a separate category at the Oscars each year: Best Makeup Job Making a Hot Actress look Unattractive.

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The tone of the film was somewhat puzzling. It was just too darn serious for the most part. The only time it lightened up, was when Sasha Baron Cohen’s character popped up. I hate to say this when Anne Hathaway was in the movie, but he may have been the best thing about Les Miserables. Every time he was onscreen the tone of the film changed. It was a lot more fun, with Cohen delivering a number of pretty good laughs. I think if they had loosened up a little more and tried for a little more humor in the rest of the film, I would have liked it more than I did. I’m surprised he didn’t get more recognition for his role as the shady criminal that he plays. Even Helena Bonham Carter, who is usually a scene stealer herself, couldn’t keep up with him.

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But the biggest surprise may have  been from Samantha Barks. Just like Cohen, she stole the spotlight from whoever she was onscreen with. I think she even had the best song (and probably best voice) of the film. I think her quiet dramatics in the story may have stirred emotions more than the bigger moments. The fact that she wasn’t nominated for her supporting role is rather puzzling, but then that would be the description for the Oscars every year.

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What’s amazing is that two of the bigger characters of the film, who have a lot of screen time, are pushed into the background a little. Russell Crowe is going to look a lot less flashy when being contrasted next to the extroverted  song and dance man Jackman, anyway. I do think he’s been unfairly criticized, probably because many critics just don’t like him (what?! Critics being unfairly biased?! WHAT?!). I’m not one of those, though, and I think he did just fine as the relentless villain Javert. He sings in monotone for the most part, but I think that’s fitting for the villain.

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It’s a little confounding how Amanda Seyfried got lost in the shuffle. She plays the character that’s sort of this symbol for hope and renewal, but for me, wasn’t really focused on by the director, Tom Hooper. He seemed to be much more interested in the suffering and the Pretty Boy Dance Party, than in her role in the film. I think there some other problems that involved simple storytelling, also. Others may not agree with me, but if you didn’t know the story beforehand, as I did, there might have been some moments where you weren’t really sure what was happening, as when Valjean steals from the Church. Much like a song you hear on the radio, you get fragments of what’s happening and may not entirely get what the song is talking about. That may just be me, though, but I can at least pronounce the title, so back off.

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Anyway, good film, but not my movie of the year by any stretch. I do think it will win many of the bigger awards at the Oscars (which is going on right now… I’m not watching). This is the type of film that those Hollywood types love. I’ll be majorly surprised if Hathaway doesn’t win, especially. If I had a Best Actress award, she would probably win it this year and not just because I think she’s hot. Is that the right note to end on? I think so. This film will probably be in my Top 10 of 2012.

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I don’t know where it will fall yet, but it was a ‘big screen’ effort and one of the better musicals ever made almost by default, because of the lavish set pieces and meticulous attention to details. If you’re a fan of this sort of thing, you probably will like it even more than I did. If you’re NOT a fan of musicals, the awkward constant singing may make it intolerable. I ended up being able to tolerate it, though. If only there had not been so much crying.

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4.5 of 5

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3 Responses to “Les Miserables (2012) Review (PG-13)”

  1. It’s a movie that would be nearly as effective on the small screen and really demands the big screen and booming sound. If you don’t like musicals then stay away, but otherwise it’s definitely worth checking out. Good review.

  2. […] Les Miserables (An apropos title if there ever was one. They sure were miserable. So miserable they went around […]

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