Cinema’s New Artistic Statements

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Strange to have a movie season replete with flicks the missus and I consider”must-sees.” One we saw the day after Christmas was, for me, a long awaited one: Les Misérables. The story is famous enough that I needn’t depict the plot. Suffice it to say that for the most part the movie clung closely to the book. There were a number of subplots barely touched on, of course, but in essence Victor Hugo’s story was there.

So a few comments on the cinematic aspects of this version of the book:

I hadn’t expected it to be completely sung, but it was. And I hadn’t expected to like that once I realized hardly a word was spoken without music. But I loved it. However, some will hate it. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s songs were less than musically imaginative, repeating one of three motifs I noted over and over. All actors were required to sing – not in the studio, but live. Some carried this off well, some not. Hugh Jackman’s (Jean Valjean) singing was spotty, Russell Crowe’s (Javert) was, well, bad. However, Anne Hathaway (Fantine) melded a surprising ability to sing with some deeply touching acting, as did Samantha Barks (Eponine). I could go on, but you get the idea here. The place in which the singing rose to epic proportions was at the end, as director Tom Hooper allowed Fantine and Valjean to dream of a completed French (and human) Revolution, on the Parisian ramparts. But clearly the songs weren’t to exercise musical muscles as much as to depict Hugo’s story, and I found this imaginative and inventive. I have to think Hugo would have approved.

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The settings seemed unreal, portraying Paris and other places in an almost cartoonish manner, but in an odd way, it worked. Perhaps because Hooper was presenting the story as an opera of sorts, and in that context the sets worked.

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And Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers were to me the acting hits of the movie.

All this makes me think about the state of high-end movie making these days. This movie and this season’s version of Anna Karenina were done stylistically, attempting to present their stories in a stage format – a very    high-end risk, that. Perhaps Hollywood, which is having to compete with cable’s rising quality made-for-TV movies, has decided to cast its lot with adventurous, risky artistic statements. In both cases, I think the risks worked. We’ll find out in a few weeks whether those risks bore fruit with the public and the critics.

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