Monday, March 25, 2013

Les Misérables: Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack

The time has come...and Les Misérables has been released on DVD and Blu-ray.

No huge fan of the stage musical, which I barely remember seeing in the late 90's, I find I still know a great deal of the score through osmosis.  The songs are infectious and really you can end up cleaning your apartment and humming or singing the tunes while butchering the lyricsJust me?

We begin with the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who has suffered for 19 years under hard labor and the watchful eye of Javert (Russell Crowe), all for stealing a bit of bread.  He is paroled but struggles to find work as a released prisoner with a record.  Nevertheless through religious transformation, he rediscovers his moral core and abandoning his parole obligations creates a new identity for himself, as an upstanding mayor of a town.  He encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who is cast out of her job because they discover she has an illegitimate child.  She is forced into prostitution and that is where Valjean discovers her, rescues her and promises to look after her child for her.  Since France only seems to have 12 different people living there, Javert shows up as a police officer and haunts Valjean...until he finds out his true identity.  Valjean rescues Cosette, from the Thenardiers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter) who have treated her a bit like Cinderella in their tavern where they steal from their customers.

Time leaps ahead and we are moved to Paris and introduced to the student revolutionaries Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) who are protesting the French government.  The Thenardiers are still up to their old tricks and run a street gang which includes their grown daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks).  Eponine loves Marius,  Marius however spies the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) across the market one day (again France has only 12 people in it) and immediately falls in love.  Eponine follows him and pines after him.  Then Cosette and Valjean go back on the run, because again Javert shows up.  Paris being I guess a small hamlet of 12 people.  Marius is devastated and throws himself into his rebellion and Eponine, dressed like a boy, joins in.  There are battles, suffering, death, sadness and a whole lot of songs sung. 

Personally Jimmy Smagula's mother's description of the movie is my favorite (it contains spoilers).

As I expected I found the filmed musical a bit tough to watch.  I listened in on the Tom Hooper commentary quite a bit (which is available on both the DVD and Blu-ray).  But alas he did not really explain why he felt the need to shoot so far up everyone's nostrils I could diagnose a sinus infection.  Actually he did say he felt the environment did not inform the songs and because many of the songs are sung to God or sung as prayer and reflect their internal struggle he felt keeping the camera on their faces was the right approach.  Alas because there is almost no spoken dialogue then the camera pretty much stays on a face at all times.  He seemed to favor shallow depth of field and shooting through objects--again keeping it intimate but frankly I overdosed on intimacy.   And lord there were a lot of crosses. I get it, Tom. Sacrifice, faith, redemption, Jesus.

The epic songs we are used to seeing fill a stage do play different in close quarters.  But the emotion almost felt trapped in the tight camera frame.  The story felt very choppy because of the lack of dialogue, exposition, and well the lack of action that takes place outside someones face.  There is a great deal of CGI (some was strict necessity because of live singing on the sound stage) but sadly I find Hooper's work drifts into saccharine sentimentality (I swear there is a digital butterfly flapping its wings during a love song--vomit).  I wanted to be liberated along with the students.  But open vistas or wide shots were few and far between.  

As for the performances, I was really surprised by how much I liked Eddie Redmayne.  He seemed to come alive in this film in a way I have not seen in other works.  I often find him to be a little cold and remote.  Maybe the songs loosened him up but it was a welcome respite.  Once the story turns to the student revolution it did feel like a breath of fresh air in a story that is one bad luck turn after the next.

Hugh Jackman is the unique singer who can act a song more than sing it, as was evident from his stage show Hugh Jackman:Back on Broadway (Side note: according to the interview with Jackman in the extras part of his training for this movie shoot was doing his Broadway show--glad we could help Hugh. Come back anytime).  And that's not a dig.  He makes a performance extraordinary through his acting even if the singing is just fine.  He gives the film 200% and whether you like it or not you cannot help but feel for him.  He is the film's greatest asset.  Russell Crowe was painful to watch.  His singing seemed lost in his cheeks.  And those of us who like Broadway star Aaron Tveit (Catch Me If You Can) can rejoice that he makes the stage to screen transition quite well. 

Nevertheless  if you like theater it is worth checking out the film on DVD/Blu-ray and the Combo Pack (which also includes a digital download and UltraViolet copy of the film).  There is definitely a drinking game to be had with spot the West End musical stars in the background of many scenes.  Many cast members who had been in stage productions of Les Misérables appear in the film.  I wish Hooper had spent a little more time pointing them out in the commentary (he does note the original Jean Valjean in one scene). 

There are many extras in the Combo Pack if you want to learn a lot more about the film's production.  For the Blu-ray, there are featurettes on the live singing, the battle at the barricade, a history of the West End theater connections to the film, and the on location shooting that did take place.  On the DVD (and also Blu-ray), there is a short documentary on the stars of the film where you can listen to Anne Hathaway talk about her "suffering" and tear up talking about her character, a history of Victor Hugo and his mistress who wrote him 20,000 letters in their lifetime (!), and the production design to recreate Paris. 

I was provided with a complimentary copy of the Blu-ray Combo Pack for review.     

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