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Monday
Dec172012

Flaws and All... The Worst Within The Best (Pictures)

Does a movie have to be perfect to be deemed a masterpiece or a grand success? That's a rhetorical question of course since the answer is no. What's perfect after all? Sometimes mistakes and flaws in judgement (which are, of course, in the eye of the beholder) can make a movie more organic and lively than something that is technically irreproachable.

Encore Entertainment was recently ranting about the weird and unfortunate trend of people rooting for movies to fail... in many cases even before they've seen them. It's a weird truth about Oscar season and I'll admit right here and now before we begin that I've also been guilty on occasion. It's how I've been feeling about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from the moment I heard they were splitting one book into three movies. It rubbed against all of my core beliefs about what's wrong with Hollywood and their willingness to sacrifice good storytelling and goodwill to shake down eager fans for every last penny.

It's easiest to spot this kneejerk HAHA YOU SUCK mentality in the ongoing attacks on Les Misérables around the internet and the almost sadistic joy you could feel rippling out when it debuted to unexpectedly harsh reviews. More...

Les Miz will continue to be this year's easiest target, partially because it's an epic (the larger the target...), partially because it's earnest without any of the protective critical armor of intellectualism or auteurism, and partially because it's a musical. This last point is the exasperating one. Musicals, more than any other genre, are subject to mobs and their torches. A truth: a musical's individual qualities don't matter to many viewers who loathe musicals on principal. A second less forgivable truth: a musical's individual qualities don't even matter to a certain subset of critics, opinion-makers and pundits since it's arguably the only film genre that one isn't required to approach with respect or even understanding of how its internal rules operate when reviewing it. Imagine the beating critics would take online if they didn't know anything about the horror genre and ripped into a new horror film that aficionados were fond of. (This skewed ignorance is acceptable in criticism point became evidently clear to me while reading reviews that took issue with Sweeney Todd's "weak" and "tuneless" score. Argh! If you think Sondheim's masterpiece is a lousy one you know next to nothing about musical theater and have confused the source material's greatness with the weakness of non-musically trained voices and direction). 

Is Tom Hooper a good director? He hasn't changed his approach much for his third feature but people didn't mind last time to the tune of an Oscar winI've seen Les Miz one and ½ times now (blame a faulty screener for the ½), and I stand by my initial excitement. I've yet to write a review which tends to be the last step in solidifying my opinion so perhaps my enthusiasm will wane. But, wax or wane, the movie is special, particularly in its first half since Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are insanely committed to high-wire work in roles they seem born to play. But, yes, yes, the film has flaws. Chief among them is Russell Crowe who is unfortunately blank in the crucial role of Javert -- as if he was nervous to make bold choices with the character, unable to act while singing, or as if he mistook minimalism for nuance. I wish, along with the haters of the film, that Tom Hooper had a few more visual ideas up his sleeve. His team (art direction, costumes, editing, etcetera) is doing fine work but you wouldn't always know it from his "All Close-Ups! All the Time!" aesthetic. His choice to shoot the key solos in long largely unbroken close-ups is absolutely thrilling -- no moreso than in Hugh Jackman's "Soliloquy" and Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" both of which blow the roof off --  but nobody would gripe about this style if Hooper and his cinematographer Danny Cohen had the visual imagination to vary their technique in the building block scenes between these big payoffs and especially if they understand that it's not the best approach for duets and choruses. I was personally most frustrated by this visual limitation during the Cosette/Eponine/Marius medley. Love triangles work best when the viewer can see the geometry in play. A series of closeups of three beautiful actors just isn't going to cut it when the whole point of the scene is not their own journey but their journey in relationship to one another

But I'm willing to forgive if not endorse Tom Hooper for this frustrating lapse in visual judgment because I understand that this is a very real flaw in about 92% of the movies made nowadays. Blame your beloved iPhones and TVs for modern Hollywood's weird insistence that all movies be shot in such a way that they're easy to understand when reduced to tiny squares. I keep hoping that this trend will turn around now that home screens are regularly quite large but we're still on the downward spiral from decades of pan & scan and TV dominance. I kept hoping that once TV started getting more cinematic (see Mad Men and other acclaimed visual treats) that the cinema would stop trying to get televised but so far that tipping point hasn't come.

All that said, Les Miz is hardly the only Oscar Goliath with flaws. Let's look quickly at the four other presumed frontrunners. You know which films those are...

ZERO DARK THIRTY
This week the media has been buzzing about the "glorifies torture!" charge that's been launched against the movie in pieces from The New Yorker to . Naturally, the film's legion of rabid fans have rushed, foaming at the mouth, to its defense. But the fannish absolutism of the defenders sometimes reduces the argument in the film's favor to a shrill "NO IT DOES NOT!" suggesting, at least to me, that the film is too new and people are too besotted with it to have really worked through it.

Kathryn Bigelow and her team are completely not shy about presenting deeply uncomfortable images and morally confusing messages but Zero Dark Thirty's fans are reluctant to receive them as such. I go back and forth on the charge myself. I think it's ludicrous to suggest that the film can't be read as pro-torture since the film does infer that these torture sessions during the films first act help Maya (Jessica Chastain) develop her (correct) theories. It seems that short of a line of dialogue saying "wow, we would have never figured this out without torture!" the film's most passionate fans would refute the charge.

Moral quandaries aside, the film has a pretty glaring unrelated flaw that you don't hear people talking about. Kathryn Bigelow is a terrific choreographer as directors go and she's always had a gift for suspense but in one key scene involving a CIA agent played by Jennifer Ehle, Bigelow telegraphs an impending disaster so far ahead of time that the scene loses its bite and starts to feel like a sadistic countdown for a lame red herring rather than a gripping 'where is this going?' piece of the puzzle it's previously been presented as.

LINCOLN
Tony Kushner's screenplay, adapted in part from two chapters of "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", is so vivid and entertaining for large chunks and so shockingly special within the usually mundane realm of people-standing-around-in-rooms-arguing drama, that it's easy to brush off the weaker aspects of the film by forgetting them outright: the beginning battlefield sequence never once feels genuine but like a theatrical prologue of noble intent with characters entirely free of character (and period) who are just standing around to impart "Message!" and signify "The Future!". That's also true of Gloria Reuben's entire character which is a shame because in the realm of politics the film is never shorn of complexity. Another quibble: the ending is weirdly insistent on having it all ways about the Lincoln assassination and it doesn't feel tonally connected to the rest of the movie. 

I was recently talking to a frequent moviegoer with fairly high-end taste at a party that had nothing to do with the movies. Her favorite this year is Beasts of the Southern Wild and she was quite insistent that Lincoln was "boring!" and "the most boring" of the Oscar contenders. I heard the same from a member of AMPAS Acting branch recently at a different party with the additional gripe that Spielberg should have edited out at least 20 minutes of the thing. Both times I was surprised. I am generally less forgiving than many critics of movies that sail on past the two hour mark without thinking of the demands they're making on one's ass and patience, but I was never bored by Lincoln. But, again, flaws are in the eye of the beholder.

ARGO
Ben Affleck's third film, a giant leap forward in his journey to become Clint Eastwood 2.0, has had a weird month. Back in late October it seemed that everyone was in love with it but the bloom went off the rose and suddenly around the internet there was a groundswell of "Argo sucks". Backlash is a common occurence for Oscar frontrunners so it's not entirely surprising but the tide seemed to turn quickly. This started, I think, with the first screenings of Zero Dark Thirty which many pundits like to see as a total equivalency given that both films are Middle East and US Government related. In some ways though it's a false equivalency. Like many critics I also prefer Zero Dark Thirty but in point of fact it's not better at everything than Argo is because THEY ARE TRYING TO DO VERY DIFFERENT THINGS: Argo is a joking rescue adventure about an altruistic hero in the 1970s who risks his life to save his countrymen who are trapped in the Middle East and it also happens to be an ode to the power of make-believe and the movies; Zero Dark Thirty is a stone-faced mystery about a heroine who gives the whole of herself to avenge her countrymen who are trapped psychologically in the Middle East and it also happens to be a riveting procedural about "certainty" in a world where nothing is certain, least of all your own heroism (and we're back to the torture controvery again).

In short, it's stupid to attack Argo because you like Zero Dark Thirty. But have at it if you find fault with its excessive dramatic cliches, not entirely ungeneric "thriller" filmmaking, or its weird fudging of facts for drama (why fudge facts when the story is super dramatic already?). Also, I remain mystified that people like the score, which is one of Alexandre Desplat's weakest efforts to date. His score for Zero Dark Thirty is much bet--- ARGH, HERE WE GO AGAIN.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
I can't even talk about this movie which I think is the worst film David O. Russell has ever made and is being received like it's his unqualified best. WHY does everyone love it? I found it shrill, chaotic, reductive, absurd, and sexist... though it did have some good laughs. And, Bradley Cooper's surprisingly strong performance aside, it's free of genuine-feeling characterizations and characters though there's star charisma and "characters" to spare... 

Whew. It was good to get all of that out of my system. Generally speaking I love the movies. Even the ones I gripe about. But I'm feeling a touch sensitive about the tomatoes being thrown at my beloved Les Miz. No film is perfect. Shut out the haters and the always terrible character trait of wishing for others to fail and try to enjoy every movie you see, warts and all. Movies are way more fun to love than hate. Wait for the Oscar nominations to arrive on January 10th, and THEN start bitching about the movies that are overappreciated according to you. But give them a fighting chance to find their fans first so someone can argue back at you about their merits. 

 

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Reader Comments (101)

Excellent post. Art is inherently imperfect because it's human. What Pauline Kael hated about Stanley Kubrick was his attempt at formal perfection, which she thought made his movies lifeless, mechanical, even amoral ("A Clockwork Orange"). But it's also impossible to be ambitious about your art without wanting to be "perfect."

I look forward to "Les Miz" and "Zero Dark Thirty," although I'm fairly certain I'll like "Zero Dark" more. Throw my gay card in the trash, but I just don't get into musicals. Luckily, I'm not a critic and I don't have to act like my personal preferences are universal. Or I don't have to try to overcome my personal preferences in order to be fair.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOwen Walter

Some of the animus toward Les Miserables, at least in the critical community, probably has to do with lingering resentment toward Tom Hooper for cutting in front of David Fincher/The Social Network in 2010. Also likely as a reaction against the rapturous reception it received at its first screening. Now I don't know, I haven't seen the film. Complaints about the monotonous framing kind of have me expecting the worst, though.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

Oh, one more thing. I'm kind of doubtful about your assertion that critics show more deference to horror movies/horror movie conventions than toward musicals/musical conventions. I've never heard of a mainstream critic complain about characters bursting into song in a musical. But critics grouse all the time about the gore and predictability of horror movies. But maybe that wasn't the point you were trying to make...?

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

You're hyper-sensitive about the mass indifference to musical theater and their adaptations. I like plenty of unwanted and unloved things, but I take comfort in being the army of one. Sometimes it feels good to be the only one with the appreciation for the mediocre or misunderstood.

Lincoln being boring is why I have zero desire to see it. Spielberg has gotten very boring with age. And when he's serious, it gets worse.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

For me, the way into "Lincoln" is to think of its auteur as Kushner rather than Spielberg. In fact, I think he's the main reason the movie is doing so well with the critics; the best parts of it are moving and complex and funny in the way "Angels in America" was. At the same time, I agree with Nathaniel about Gloria Ruben (plus, S. Epatha Merkerson and the White House manservant). The main flaw and irony of the movie is that it has no complexly human African-American characters.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOwen Walter

Interesting read. Yes, you could say all films have some kind of flaw. However, there are some films that so fully achieve what they set out to achieve that things that could be considered flaws are not really problems within the context of what the film accomplishes. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the only real example of this I've seen this year in my view.

In the case of Lincoln, as a counter-example, I don't see how that opening scene isn't just considered objectively bad. It just doesn't contribute to what the film is successful in achieving.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDean

I'm afraid I must disagree that movies are always way more fun to love than hate.

(Yeah yeah, if it comes from a place of genuine affection for film-making instead of overly-personal vitriol. But I've enjoyed few things more this year than describing how terrible The Raven, for example, was.)

Otherwise, good point. Seeing the film should always be where one's opinion is actually made!

As for Les Mis, I've been reading good and bad reviews with equal pleasure. Human nature, I guess.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmes

Excellent post, Nathaniel! I, too am continually confounded by people hating on movies (especially before they've even seen them) for not meeting their often fairly ridiculous expectations. I particularly DESPISED Stephanie Zacharek's review of Les Miz because she accused it of not being fun. Must all musicals be fun? Les Mis is NOT a musical comedy; in fact, it's practically a musical tragedy! I LOVED the show on Broadway (it's still my #1 show I've ever seen), but I don't think I would have ever called it "fun", so this both confused me and pissed me off.

I really enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook, but then I was half expecting it to be terrible, so the fact that the actors offered any depth AT ALL to their characters caused me to explode with glee. I don't think Russell went far enough with it, and I think it should have ended sooner (that last scene practically kills the whole film dead), but overall I still liked it.

Lincoln is fine, it just felt too much like a play to me. Other than the VERY short dream scene at the beginning I didn't find it particularly cinematic. Not that that should matter, though. This is a case of my ridiculous expectations getting the better of me. For what it is, it is much better than it needed to be, no matter what else I thought of it.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Very interesting. I have to agree with your assessment of critics and musical films. They often review the conventions of the genre (and their discomfort with them) instead of the film itself. I read one review of Les Miz that mentioned wanting a break from all the singing and I thought, gee, do you know the source material? The show is bombastic and unsubtle...but joyously, unapologetically so. If the movie captures that, then I have to think it did its job well.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

"Musicals, more than any other genre, are subject to mobs and their torches. A truth: a musical's individual qualities don't matter to many viewers who loathe musicals on principal. A second less forgivable truth: a musical's individual qualities don't even matter to a certain subset of critics, opinion-makers and pundits since it's arguably the only film genre that one isn't required to approach with respect or even understanding of how its internal rules operate when reviewing it. "

TRUTH!

Re: Silver Linings Playbook...I was also initially turned off by its chaotic nature. But then I realized that it was honestly portraying the unique attitude and character of that sort of Philly neighborhood (irreverent and antagonistic to an extent). It's quite brilliant in this regard. Great ensemble work and great sense of place. It's a different atmosphere from the community in "The Fighter", so I think all your qualms (shrill, chaotic, reductive, absurd, and sexist) are appropriate to the setting.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

I wasn't overly impressed by Silver Linings, but I did think Cooper, DeNiro, and Lawrence gave some career-best performances.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBia

1. I didn't mind King's Speech beating Social Network. I didn't really LOVE either film, but I was a lot more entertained by King's Speech than Social Network, which left me really cold.

2. Musicals are usually regarded as fluff and that's usually because there are very few people who can do them properly and with respect. Les Miz (as much as I love it) is not a great show. It's got poor use of leitmotif and some dodgy lyrics borrowed from the Andrew Lloyd Webber school of writing, but it's a show with a lot of heart and I am glad Tom Hooper is doing right by it. To see where it could have gone, one only needs to see the mess Rob Marshall made of NINE, a film ashamed of its own genre. Sadly, the stuff we get on stage these days is overwhelmingly awful. Gone are the days where you can see a new show by Sondheim on Broadway. Every so often a score that isn't jukeboxy and full of pop cliches comes around but lately you have to hunt them down off Broadway and see them before they disappear (like this season's Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812)

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAle-Alejandro

It's getting tough to find intelligent online discussion of film for a lot of the reasons you mention. I think a lot of that comes from the sad fact that it's easier to write criticism (where the jokes come easier) than it is to write praise (where your sincerity is then subject to criticism.) There's also the fact that being glib in advance fills your website with "I knew it and here's why" style comments.
That's why I'm so grateful for this site, where the articles are from an honest place and the comments section is usually polite and friendly. The podcasts, in particular, are always appreciated: actual movie lovers talking lovingly about movies! It's so novel!

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I agree Nate thta you are being over-sensitive. I have heard many people complain about " Lincoln" for example, and the issue of torture in ZDT is on fire (you are probably nodding at Sasha Stone. She doesn´t count. She is always partial, has her pets (just like you ahve yours- Hathaway, for example), is hysterical, turns a blind eye to want she doesnt want to see or deal with, has no emotional balance and is borderline insane, although I admit she writes well when she wants to. She is a Bigelow fanatic and most people don´t take her seriously. Her nervous breakdown when The Social network lost was hilarious, though).

I think people have two problems with Les Miz: one, as Victoria said, is the residual resentment towards Hooper for the whole TSN/TKS thing two years ago- you were on the TSN team and quite desliked Hooper´s win, didnt you? many people still have a sour taste in their mouths over this incidente and therefore have lots of badwill and animosity regarding Hooper.

But there is something else: I think Les Miz campaign has been too much too soon. The campaign is oppressive. Its way too over hyped. Way too soon. So, a backlash is almost expected. They were already declared winners before the first trailer even came out. When the first trailer came out, it was all : "the race is over they will win every awards in every category by every group/guild/association everyone can go home its the second coming of Christ its the peak of western civilization its the greatest achievement in movie history Citizen Kane and the Godfather and Bergman and Kubrick and Fellini can all suck it and go die they are all losers and everything else in the world sucks and this is the only good thing ever done in the history of mankind.". Its too much. It gets tired and old too soon. It feels like something is being shoved down our throats.

Hathaway´s campaign in particular has been too much. Its overbearing. Its suffocating. She is EVERYWHERE EVERYDAY, talking about how she starved herself and her hair and her mother EVERYDAY. You cant buy a magazine, open the newspaper, turn on the tv and go online without seeing her face and listening/hearing her go on and on and on and on about how she starved herself and cut her hair and her mother and how much she wants a baby and blah blah blha all the time. A backlash in this case is more than expected. There´s only so much of overexposition the public can take.

And I reme,ber a couple of years ago Nathaniel when it was Natalie Portman who was everyday on the media telling the same story over and over again about how she atarved herself and how she trained and how she hurt her leg or back or whatever and how she was pregnant and met her fiance on ste and how she was super skinny and nearly died of starvartion and blah blah blah and you said that this is the just the kind of attitude (and campaign) that takes the attention off of the acting and the performance itself and turns it to starvation and dieting and physical transformation and how you though she won not only because of her perfomance, no matter how good it was, but because of the endless stories of dieting and training, and dancing and getting pregnant. Dont you think it will also go down like this for Hathaway? When she wins, will it be for the performance alone or because she couldnt keep for mouth shut about her diet and her health and her hair?????

Oddly enough, Daniel day Lewis said just two days ago that after what de Niro did in raging bull weight gain/loss and physical transformations shouldnt count for anything anymore.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I haven't seen Les Miz, but I was so sure critics were supposed to bash it. Hooper won his Oscars against the whole critics community and their pet, The Social Network.

And I wanted it to fail for this very reason, I admit. I loathe The King's Speech and the guy who directed that Crash scale Oscar disaster can´t be that lucky again. Because, yes, The Social Network losing to The King's Speech was even worse than Crash beating Brokeback Mountain.

Now imagine Paul Haggis directing a musical you love by Sondheim. Would you root against him anyway? I would. (But I'd see the movie and if it were good, I'd forgive him - NOT SO SURE)

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Lincoln was very boring to me as well.

And I totally agree on the ending, it didn't fit the film at all. It's like ... he was going for an unexpected approach, but why? It's not even like he only did that, he was blatantly tricking us by putting it in a theatre, making us think we're about to see his assassination. A more straightforward approach of seeing the actual assassination would've fit the movie more. But I also just really wanted to see the assassination. Either way, it felt out of place.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

ON MUSICALS:

Yes, I don't care at all about musical theater. But I love musicals, because I love filmusicals.

What works on Broadway not always work on film. You know, people singing so high, those melodrmatic ballads... They lack movement. They lack cinema.

Most of my favorite musicals are originals. People sing them jazzly. People dance a lot. That's why Chicago and Moulin Rouge were the only musicals to gain Oscar attention. One of them is an adaptation from Broadway, but it was created by a master of moviemaking, that could understand the dynamics of film. The other one is Moulin Rouge, that was pure cinema.

I am sorry to disappoint you, but give me tons of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire but, please, don't make me go through that three-hour long musicals from the 60's (unless they're directed by Robert Wise).

I love musicals, and I wish Broadway weren't the main source of material of this genre.

Why can't we have people conceiving original screenplays for movie musicals? A new Arthur Freed?

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I HATE when actors go on and on and on and on about weight loss. I find ti hypocritical and disrespectful. towards people who really have no choice because they are too poor to eat properly. Starvation shouldnt be something to brag about, even less so when you are being paid millions and millions for it, and being taken care of by a team of top doctors and nurses and nutritionists and personal trainers and people who will do nothing but babysit you and worry about your health 24/7.Its not as if their health was actually under risk. It never was. It never would be. I´m sure such an extreme diet is very unpleasant, but they were being paid millions to endure it for a while. Then they think its cool and fashionable to tell amusing stories about it when many people around the world go through the same thing on a daily basis because they have no choice; are not assisted by fancy doctors, are not being paid millions and wont gt awards for it.

Plus, the acting should be enough. What we see on screen should be enough. The work should speak for itself and stand on its own, regardless how many pounds the actor lost/gained or if she/he only ate crushed ice and one slice of lettuce a day for how many months. That´s not what the performance should be about. Everybody in the world now knows about Hathaway´s diet and that shouldnt be the point. It should be about what we see onscreen, and not about her weight loss and hair style.

Which brings me to: I effing HATE when women act as if cutting her hair is a major sacrifice. HAIR GROWS BACK. Some of the most beautiful women and some of the greatest fashion icons had very short hair: Twiggy, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Sedgwick, Jean Seberg, Mia Farrow, Linda Evangelista, Halle berry, Charlize Theron- who, by the way, just shaved her entire head for a role and we havent heard her going on and on and on endlessly about it. Actually she hasnt said a word about it. Hair grows back. You are not donating a kidney, you are not amputating a limb. You are just getting yout hair cut. it should not be treated as this major sacrifice or achievement. its just hair. It will grow back, and you will be take care of by the greatest hairstylists and make up artists in the world while you wiat for you locks to grow back.

Then again, many many people in the world have cancer and lose their hair because they have no choice. In this case, it really is a life or death situation. Why not show some respect instead of acting like your hair cut is such a big deal????

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

It's getting tough to find intelligent online discussion of film for a lot of the reasons you mention. I think a lot of that comes from the sad fact that it's easier to write criticism (where the jokes come easier) than it is to write praise (where your sincerity is then subject to criticism.) There's also the fact that being glib in advance fills your website with "I knew it and here's why" style comments. So a lot of places end up with a culture of sarcasm, negativity and defensiveness.
That's why I'm so grateful for this site, where the articles are from an honest place and the comments section is usually polite and friendly. The podcasts, in particular, are always appreciated: actual movie lovers talking lovingly about movies! It's so novel!

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

More than 10 years ago a brazillian actress named Carolina Dieckman-major, major celebirty- completly shaved her head on national television because her character on the eight o clock sopa opera- somenthing major major major in Brazil- had leukemia. She went totally bald in front of the cameras, in a similar fashion to what Portman did in V for Vendetta, but even before her. She was bald for many months, because her character was sick for quite a while- then she recover and had her happily ever after, but the actress was still bald for a while after the soap ended.

here is the scene, which is until this day remembered in Brasil:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbHI3QQARAo

or here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVtMyI9MmWQ

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I'll bite on the Les Mis stuff. I have not seen the movie, just the clips that are making their way around the web, but I'm afraid I have an opinion already that will be hard to shake when I see the film. I am a musical theater enthusiast, I grew up on classic Hollywood and once a year bus trips to Broadway, and I have been finding myself put out by Les Mis from its first press releases. A lot of it comes down to Tom Hooper's questionable decisions as a director, which are all visible from the trailer and from the clips released in anticipation of its wide release.

First and foremost, the choice to have the actors sing live on set strikes me as disrespectful, not just to film musicals as a genre, but to the actors who are being forced into this mode of performance. They are at once being asked to sell the audience the heightened and surreal effect of singing their innermost feelings, while simultaneously being forced to do so in the kind of naturalistic acting style that would befit a Oscar friendly period piece with no music at all. The purpose behind this idea is transparent enough; Hooper was obviously working under the assumption that by having the actors sing live on set, he would make the performances more grounded, more real, more impressive. But musicals have no place in reality, and this decision is as tone deaf to the genre as the criticism of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd score.

Musicals exist above reality. They are only possible through artifice. The audience, from the first bar of singing, knows that they are not in a world like our own. How could they be? These people are singing. By design, musicals are made to take the audience to a place where the only reality that matters is emotional. A successful musical, film or stage, is not defined by reality, it's defined by emotional intensity. Reality is a distraction from emotion, both for the actors and for the audience. Judy Garland wasn't Judy Garland because what she was doing was realistic, she was great because she made highly melodramatic emotional beats feel as natural as breathing.

And so Hooper's principle cripples the film musical before it has even begun. Watching Hugh Jackman's "Who Am I?" when it was released to the web, I was struck with how small the number is. While in the stage musical it swells to a fever pitch, building in speed and intensity, finally culminating in the roar of "I'm Jean Valjean! 2-4-6-0-1!", in the movie it is barely a whisper. It's not just Hugh Jackman's delivery, which thanks to Hooper's insistence on naturalism leans toward speak-singing despite the impressive vocal ability he's shown elsewhere, it's the sound mixing too, which thanks to the split between live vocals and studio strings sounds completely disjointed. Not to mention that in his commitment to a "natural" Les Mis Hooper seems to be afraid of the power those strings bring to the scene, and so he turns down the volume in the mix, making the strings sound like a timid afterthought, rather than a larger expression of the emotions of the song. It's like in every frame he is apologizing for the movie being a musical, like he's ashamed of the power that music can bring to a story.

Add to that Hooper's frankly ugly framing, which insists on focusing the audience right up the actor's noses, his weird fisheye lens work, his inability to stage scenes outside of closeup, his middlebrow commitment to "serious" art, and the musical's own tendencies toward self-seriousness, and I'm more than a bit worried about what I'm going to be spending my $10 on here.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTB

This was a great read, Nat. I saw your tweet to SS on Saturday and knew something was up. Thank you for sharing and letting some steam out. I hope I enjoy Les Miz as much as you did (the first time).

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVince Smetana

did someone just call rob marshall a "master of moviemaking"?

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterL

TB, I'm also a musical theater fan, but I think it's absolutely possible to do what Hooper is doing with the musical (and wish more people would pay attention to very nuanced acting while singing). I think despite it's "flaws" (again, Sondheim it ain't), Les Miz has a lot of heart and grounding the singing in that kind of laser beamed acting will bring it out. Not to mention, lip synced vocals always look and sound fake. I am excited to see someone actually honor the artistry of a singing actor.

Just because something is not realism, doesn't mean it can't be honest.

Also, Les Miz's pop ballad score can be VERY VERY VERY cheesy if it's not grounded in a strong sense of dramaturgy (compare Patti LuPone's "I Dreamed a Dream" to Susan Boyle's for example) and I think Hooper's instinct to get very real with the acting will keep the material's syrupy power ballads from going out of control. Unfortunately, that kind of stand and deliver pop belt has infected all of Broadway these days and I welcome a more nuanced delivery (with this score . . . Sweeney Todd was entirely different . . . that work is a masterpiece and needs no directorial intervention to counteract its flaws. The movie should have starred two really good singing actors who can do justice to Sondheim's score).

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAle-Alejandro

"Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are insanely committed to high-wire work in roles they seem born to play." Thank you for this. Whatever happens with this film, I totally believe that these two actors have taken an almost unbelievable risk in order to create something very special, and they both (more than any of the other fine actors in any of the other fine movies) deserve to be rewarded for that risk and creation.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I'm very tired of this sudden Les Miz backlash. I'm still very excited to see the film but all this hating on musicals all over the web is awful. I understand many don't like musicals, but shouldn't they do their research on musicals before making comparisons of Les Miz to Sweeney Todd or Dreamgirls or Chicago?

The more Silver Linings Playbook is getting recognition, the more I really dislike Jennifer Lawrence's chances of being nominated and winning. The film is very erratic and her performance is such a step down from Winter's Bone.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

The thrashing some critics are giving Les Mis is a bit disheartening. I saw the film a few weeks ago and, yes, despite my absolute love for it I can't deny it has its share of flaws. But some of these reviews (Schwarzbaum's over at EW comes to mind) come off as angry and just downright nasty, not a critique of the movie but an undeserved lashing.

And TB, while I agree with aspects of your lengthy analysis (Jackman's singing was, for me, the weakest part of the film), this in-depth description of why you will inevitably dislike a movie you haven't seen is exactly what this article points out: rooting for a movie to fail before even seeing it ("rooting for it to fail" might be a bit strong). I challenge you to take these pre-constructed reservations you have about what Les Mis will and won't do incorrectly, so you don't fall prey to exactly what Nat is zeroing in on here.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Excellent, excellent post.

I particularly agree about the Ehle scene from ZD30, which was the movie's one major flop of a scene in an otherwise outstanding picture.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

Great article, Nathan. Lovely insights. I love SLP, but I understand what you're saying about it. Sounds like you might hate it as much as I loathe The Master. No, wait, that's not possible. LOL

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I've changed my mind about The Hobbit being broken up into 3 parts. At first, I thought, WTF..,? But looking at those photos of the giant Gollum installation in the New Zealand airport, and the planes that are themed painted, I see how proud New Zeakanders are of these movies.

New Zealand only has a population of 4 and a half million people (about half the population of Los Angeles County). The WETA workshop is one of the world's best (a kind if New Zealand Industrial Light and Magic) but it needs to be kept in work. The Tolkien books filmmaking are an important source of employment and ongoing technical innovation in New Zealand. So I decided that my attitude to 3 movies would be a charitable contribution to international filmmaking.

But now that I've seen the first part of the Hobbit, I'm okay with it. It's leisurely, fun, adventure entertainment. I liked having a LOTR movie to go to every Christmas, it's one everyone can agree on. So we'll enjoy being able to agree going to The Hobbit every year now.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Great Post:

Have not seen Les Miz, but am looking forward to it ....

Loved Lincoln ... although I went with the idea I'd be bored .. haven't cared for Spielberg movies since Schindler's List ... I feel he tries to manipulate the audience..

SPL was OK ... not very special in any way ... DeNiro's best performance in years hope Lawrence gets passed by for the Oscar

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Happy to see that some of you understand what i'm trying to say about Les Miz. Review the damn movie every time, not your distaste for Tom Hooper's previous Oscar win or the genre of movie you're watching. I thought it atrocious that Hooper won Best Director for The King's Speech but that's hardly a reason to hate Les Miz which is a different film.

L -- i caught that too ;)

TB -- I don't know what to say to all of that. I am not a fan of speak-singing as it happens (its' the reason I'm not crazy about My Fair Lady) But I love love love what Hugh Jackman accomplishes in his first big number and yes, he eventually gets to the singing-singing from the speak-singing which people are pretending he doesn't. But whatever.

although me to say though -- i hear your frustration and I've shared it abuout other movies -- but it's weird and offbase to think that Les Miz is ashamed of being a musical. It is a sung through movie that is never NOT singing at you nor is it ever coy about it or trying to excuse the singing. I was so relieved to be watching a musical that wanted to be a musical for the first time in a while.

Amanda -- I hate this too but this happens literally every year so why are people pissed at Anne Hathaway for it? Why not be pissed at 231 actors from the past couple of decades in film.

Cal -- i would not root for ANYONE to fail making a Sondheim adaptation. It's just not in my best interest. Sondheim is the Genius of Geniusing Geniuses and the thing I want most in the world for the Movie Musical is for someone --anyone -- to do him justice.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Part of the distaste for Les Mis is definitely Tom Hooper and his whole "British Royalty Porn" attitude (your words), but I completely disagree about the reasons for being epic or earnest. That feels like you trying to sneak in some back-handed insult to those who don't like Les Mis as also not liking epic and earnest films which is just wildly and unjustly assumptive. I love and crave epic and passion in my films. When I saw the trailer for Les Mis on the big screen I was really excited to see it, it looked like a big epic production. However, once I realized the actors would be singing the E..n..t..i..r..e F..i..l..m.. my excitement waned.

Along with horror/slasher, I'll admit musicals are one of my least favorite genres, but I do love Wizard of Oz, Grease, SInging in the Rain, Rocky Horror, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Chicago and a few others. I remember seeing Chicago in the theater and being blown away by the acting, the production, the style, the passion...but then half-way through I felt oddly deflated, it was too much too fast. If every musical number in a musical is its own little climax, then the first few are exciting, but by the 8th, the 10th, the 12th... I feel spent, the effect has worn thin because it blew its wad too soon too many times..the audience is numb regardless of the quality.

This pacing problem is the main reason why I don't like musicals, I want to take a break for awhile and come back to it so the effect is potent again. The best musicals, IMO, know how to balance the numbers in the film by controlling the excess and cheese-ballness with the story. That's the key, like Oz or Grease, there is enough spoken word story-line mixed with the musical numbers that makes you appreciate the numbers more when they effectively and appropriately come around. I mean I can, on a film-studies level, appreciate the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but sitting through non-stop singing of dialogue is torture, IMO. This is my main reason why Les Mis looks disappointing; the actors, the production, the passion is all there, but 2.5 hours of singing...only a niche market is going to like that and thinks it's critically 'good'.

In the end I think there's musical people and non-musical people, and a large divide separates them.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHoopla

Master of moviemaking was Bob Fosse, not Marshall. Icwas talkung about the original show. Fosse's choreography is the perfect fit for editing, is naturally cinematic.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Hoopla -- i applaud your honesty and I have always readily admitted that I'm a musicals man so people have to take that into account when I love them (just as you should but people rarely do when a critic who always loves violent serious traditionally masculine films loves, i dunno, Braveheart...) But as for my point about large targets. I was using Les Miz as an example but I wasn't trying to conflate a connection between people who don't like epics. Just suggesting that large targets are easier to hit (Fact) and epics are often under immediate scrutiny.

as for earnest... I do feel like the more sincere and open hearted movies are the harder time they have passing muster in an age where snark and irony and meta commentary are so beloved. Which might be why musical comedies are the most popular kind of musicals for today's audiences.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Despite Les Mis being the season's biggest punching bag by the critics (and yet every industry person who has seen it has been falling over singing its praises) - I'm standing by it sight unseen!

Though I liked SLP a lot and am surprised that it's "that" groan worthy top contender this year. I liked Lincoln a lot more than I thought I would and am seeing ZDT on Wednesday!

I'm just happy it's not so black and white this year. Like King's Speech vs. Social Network or (shudder) Brokeback vs. Crash. There are detractors and merits for every leading contender. Yay 2012!

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

nathaniel I think people are growing tired of hathaway because she is overdoing it. I think since you really love her you may not see it or may not be bothered by it but she is overcooking it. People are already tired of her, there´s this general perception that she is overplaying, being too agressive and " out there" with her campaign and telling the same stories over and over and over again- its mid-december and her stories about her hair and weight and mother and future baby are already old and overplayed. She is overdoing it and I think its turning against her. A backlash has started. She ie everywhere, she is more over-exposed then Kate Middleton. Almost as overexposed as the Kardashians. There´s only so much people can take. It feels like something is being forced on us, and I know you really love her, but she can come off as a bit fake, disengenous, a bit fo a try hard nad very conceited on interviews and talk shows. She projects a " try hard", desperate, faux-intellectual image that doesnt always come off as genuine or spontaneous, and she sometimes sounds very conceited and full of herself, like she takes herself waaaaay too seriously and thinks very serioulsy and highly of her self, and may come off as a bit desperate for the oscar. Girl should be a bit more collected and cool, not be in our face all the time 24/7 telling the same stories over and over again with a self-important attitude.

Many people were turned off by Natalie Portman´s campaign two years ago- actually, many people started hating her after her BS campaign, and her wounded knee, and her aching back, and her dieting, and her ballet lessons, and her starvation, and her unborn baby and her fiancee. There were even those who couldn´t stand Kate Winslet by the end of that oscar season.When Phoenix and Hopkins talk about actors who came off as desperate and doing whatever it takes for an awards, hathaway´s face comes to mind. Too much of anything is a bad thing. Hathaway and her publicists should learn a thing or two about moderation.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Acting in musicals is tricky because beyond the actual song and dance skills necessary to pull it off, there's the added challenge of bringing a level of realism to the proceedings. More often than not, it takes more than just charisma to carry this out.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Love this post. I feel similarly on Lincoln and Silver Linings, though I'm only OK on Argo. Really, though, if the BP roster is this good every year, I'm going to be one happy camper.

I'm really glad we can have more than five, too. Beasts and Life of Pi should be in there, and hopefully they'll make it.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

@Ryan I wouldn't say I'm rooting for it to fail as much as I'm not sure that I'm going to like it. But I take your criticism. Of course it's not ideal to go into a movie with as many opinions as I already have, and I'm definitely going to try to be objective when I do finally get the chance to see it. But as someone who loves musicals, I would say I'm a bit more invested in the finished product than I am in most other movies. When footage started showing up, I couldn't stop myself from watching and forming opinions.

Oh and the weirdest thing about that EW review is that she THRASHES it and then gives it a C. What? What kind of spineless criticism is that? If there was nothing that you liked, don't pretend it was average just for the sake of not having a dissenting opinion. If you thought it was a C movie, maybe give it a C review instead of going for the cheap page views.

@NathanielR I will readily admit that I haven't seen the movie yet, so I'm not in the place to criticize it. But since your article was about preconceived arguments to Les Mis and other Oscary movies this season, I thought I'd share mine, since it (longwindedly) came from a bit of a different perspective.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTB

So you basically made this post to stick up for Les Miz and shit on SLP. Typical.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

There's a feeling that something is larger at stake with the impending fate of Les Miserables. If it bombs, it means the death knell for movie musicals for the foreseeable future.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Matt -- if so I wasted 1400 words inbetween ;) but the first part was the impetus yes. I'm just sick of the disingenousness in discussions of it. so many agendas!

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Except your opinions on the other were mostly positive,, with some reservations. The idea of posting about Les Miz first and SLP last (also the longest and shortest of the bunch) hardly seems coincidental. Your accusations towards SLP are typically backed up with no evidence rather than the fact you're angry a film you didn't like is doing better than a film you did like with critics. Seriously, grow up.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

I don't see what is wrong with wanting a prize re anne h,if a nactor feels there work is good then why shouldn't they talk about it and describe what they did in terms of physical alteration,it's a aprtt of the whole performance the shaving off of fantines hair,i'd rather see an actor try than phone it in.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

Also, the comments on Alonso Duralde's review of the film is exactly the problem. You think critics have agendas? Well, do you think you and the rest of the Les Miz fans are helping when they insult critics for letting their opinions be known? The critical community is a fairly tight-knight group, the only agendas here are the ones by created by the Les Miz fans.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

I don't have a problem with what Anne Hathaway talks about it interviews because that's ALWAYS what actors/actresses talk about when they discuss roles. They are always asked about what drew them to the part and what risks that had to take. It's part of the industry.

That said, I think Hathaway's performance will speak for itself haircut or no.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean

You're wrong about "Silver Linings Playbook." It's excellent, and if there were no "Lincoln" in the equation, I think that Bradley Cooper would win lead actor. And I already have Jennifer Lawrence winning lead actress. It's her "time" and all, and she's hot and young in a weak lead actress field.

Are you going to say you're wrong about "Les Miz" when its critical score plummets further and further down the abyss? This is like "Crash" and "The Reader" level shitty, and it's not just the blogosphere saying it b/c it's a musical. I haven't read this kind of vitriol for a film in a long time. It's hilarious to me, and just b/c of my acute dislike for Tom Hooper and "The King's Speech," this is nice retribution for me (I never said I wasn't petty.) You loving it is your thing, but you were part of the problem too in overhyping this beast before the public got a chance to see it for themselves (I won't have the privilege until well after 12/25). You're the kind of audience that's predisposed to love this (musical theater lover, gayyy, etc.). It was a skewed viewpoint from the get-go. When you do your actual review, I hope you're able to call a spade a spade if it's really a dud and level with your readers.

I loved "Lincoln," but I can get where the "wordy" criticism lies. It's the kind of film where I'd rather it do too much than too little. The odds are already stacked against it with people's divergent views on Spielberg films, biopic hatred, and Daniel Day-Lewis's radical and divisive transformative performances. I hope both end up winning their third Oscars, b/c they've earned them. And if Tony Kushner is one step closer to EGOTing, that's a-okay in my book too.

I don't really want to see "Zero Dark Thirty" for a bunch of reasons, but for the Oscars, I'll have to. Is there a way to "endorse torture" without really endorsing it? It makes my head hurt thinking about it too much. But I did like "The Hurt Locker," so maybe I'll change my mind on seeing it eventually.

And here's another question related to this: Can we support Nicole Kidman with a pure heart for a nomination when the film she's surrounded by ("The Paperboy") is so bad?

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiam

Of course he's wrong, his score for the film after he first saw it was a B-, now he's acting like it's the worst film of the year, somehow I think if the reviews for Les Miz were better, he wouldn't be so harsh on SLP.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

This is my big problem with awards season. Not only does it reduce a whole year's worth of diverse films (and this year is a particular strong, diverse year, so its especially irritating) down to four or five middlebrow, Academy friendly "favorites," but then you've got all these internet-enabled idiots who feel its their patriotic duty to get behind their chosen film and slag the other handful of favorites, frequently sight unseen, all in some pathetic effort to boost their favorite in the eyes of 5000 voters who don't know who they are and will likely never read what they're saying. So rather than serving as a vehicle for promoting the love of film, the Oscars, and all the "precursor" awards just become another excuse for spewing negativity.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

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