Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables (UK/2012)

Julien Faddoul

(0 stars)

d – Tom Hooper
w – William Nicholson, Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg   (Based on the Novel by Victor Hugo)
ph – Danny Cohen
pd – Eve Stewart
ed – Chris Dickens, Melanie Ann Oliver
cos – Paco Delgado

p – Cameron Mackintosh, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Colm Wilkinson, Isabelle Allen

One of the greatest of all films is Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It recently was placed at number nine on 2012’s instalment of the Sight and Sound’s Greatest Movies of All Time. Dreyer once wrote, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.” He was a filmmaker known for his use of intense facial close-ups (not a very popular stratagem during the silent era) and it reached its apogee on that film, where his camera assiduously explores Joan’s anguish and the malevolence of her accusers. It is a brilliant film. If you haven’t seen it, do. My life changed forever and so might yours.

Although I obviously do not know this for sure, I can’t help but feel that Tom Hooper must have seen (and loved) this film as well. There is a clear influence from one director to another. Mr Hooper, in all his films, loves keeping his camera a nose away from his actors. Never has he done it more so than in his latest, the big-screen adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables, based on the Broadway musical…..based on the London libretto by Herbert Kretzmer..…based on the French production by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg…..based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Whew! Suffice it to say that after all those incarnations, a movie was surely on its way. And fans have certainly been waiting.

In case you’re the one in one thousandth who doesn’t know the plot, here it is: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape and, upon his release, redeems himself under a new identity as a wealthy factory owner and socially liberal, god-fearing mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. But his former prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), now a police inspector, finds him out and mercilessly hounds him until their day of reckoning on the barricades in Paris during the uprising of June 1832. Throughout those years Valjean has been raising an employee of his, Fantine (Anne Hathaway)’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as a woman) after her death. As a girl she was raised by two cruel and crass innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Cosette has a star-crossed romance with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a wealthy lad turned idealistic revolutionary; his comrades-in-arms are Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and the unsophisticated Eponine (Samantha Barks), who mournfully admits that her treasured Marius is smitten by Cosette.

The stage musical itself is far from a great work of art. Like all of Mackintosh’s musicals, it never knew how to disguise any kind of flaw. But of all those British musicals of the 1980’s, Les Miserables was certainly the best. In translating the musical from stage to screen, Mr Hooper has brought every flaw along with it and then some. The easiest flaw to objectify quickly is the mood of the piece. The musical has never, not in any incarnation, understood what the mood of Victor Hugo’s book was about. The one exclusion is Claude Lelouch’s 1995 adaptation. Everything here from the acting to the costumes to the photography is meant to evoke sadness and misery. But it doesn’t, or ever does. Everyone is instead merely doing misery, whatever that’s supposed to be; as if everyone involved had stopped reading the book after the title. Many people would asses that musicals can only do the action and never truly evoke anything. They are wrong. Miserably wrong. And Victor Hugo, a poetic idealist, wrote about something much, much more.

The difference between this film and The Passion of Joan of Arc – and the reason why this will be the last time Mr Hooper is ever compared to the great Mr Dreyer – is that the close-ups in Les Miserables feel like just another directorial tactic in a movie full of tactics. Mr Hooper films a great deal of it in eyebrow-to-lower-lip close-up. And when he isn’t doing that, he is cutting like a maniac in Ken Russell/Ridley Scott fashion. And when he isn’t doing that, he is shaking the camera hysterically between crowds of screeching extras. Each individual set piece is shaped as a blur of racket and chaos. There's no breathing room in his approach, visually or otherwise.

Another unbearably visible tactic is the decision to have all the performers sing the score live. This was done to give the performers more control of their process and, in turn, the capturing of spontaneous moments. I felt this idea (which has actually been done many times before) was successful in achieving that. But the method of the experiment never left the conscience air, once again constantly reminding me that I was seeing performers doing misery and singing live with their hearts on their sleeves. I still see Mr Hooper’s tactical effort.

I hesitate to say anything about the cast because there is really no need. They are all adequate. No more, no less. Mr Jackman, Mr Crowe, Ms Hathaway, Ms Barks and Mr Redmayne all have deeply emotional numbers to belt out – and all of them, once again, are shot by Mr Hooper (and cinematographer Danny Cohen) as if they are filming Maria Falconetti herself – and in every instance the result was deflation, not elation. Ms Hathaway’s song is the musical’s most famous number “I Dreamed a Dream” and thus is getting a lot of attention for her 3 minute close-up. I found her merely sufficient, as I did all the performers for the entire almost 3-hour running time.

But it’s not their fault. Nor is it Mr Cohen’s or Eve Stewart’s production design (a beacon of artificiality) or Chris Dickens and Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing (the “Master of the House” number contains some of the most atrocious editing of the year). I’m afraid the blame lies with the auteur behind the camera, a man who is clearly more interested in shovelling directorial decisions in your face instead of making a movie about anything in particular. I have yet to be wholly convinced by a Tom Hooper film, despite his undeserved Academy Award, but I felt this being his biggest undertaking I would at least experience an interesting experimentation instead of what it was: interminable agony.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Amour (France/Austria/2012)

Julien Faddoul

***  (3 stars)

wd – Michael Haneke
ph – Darius Khondji
pd – Jean-Vincent Puzos
ed – Nadine Muse, Monika Willi
cos – Catherine Leterrier

p – Margaret Ménégoz

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell

The act of watching a movie is in-part an extended act of voyeurism. We are being allowed to observe the lives of the characters from the safe distance behind this mystic box they call “a camera”, and most of the time we see things that society would never allow us to see in life. What a devilish and exhilarating act! With this in mind, the question is raised as to whether what we feel when we see things we shouldn’t be seeing is a natural human reaction or a hardened manifestation that we have been conditioned to feel through the permissiveness of the culture? The answer to this is within the way the voyeuristic offense has been served to us. When people are dying willy-nilly in Total Recall (2012) we feel nothing because the presentation has disguised the voyeuristic truth. Yet a single slap in the face in an Ozu film is a shocking tremor to behold.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (although he was born in Germany and has worked predominately in France) has constructed an oeuvre on voyeurism versus desensitization. His latest film, Amour, avows this immediately. The film begins with the most startling jump-scare I’ve seen this year. Authorities brake through the blockaded doors of an abandoned apartment, and the stench of death instantaneously overcomes them. Mr Haneke’s camera fluidly follows the police around the apartment, before settling on the decomposing body of an elderly woman. Then, the word “Amour”, in black-and-white, plastered on the screen.

After this we meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a married couple who are both 80 years old. They are retired, educated music teachers. In fact, when we meet them they are attending the performance of a former favourite student. When they arrive back home they realize that their house has been robbed. We never meet these criminals or witness the crime. The reason we never meet them is because they are us. We, the audience, are in fact the intruders who are about to observe the far too personal goings-on of what led to that opening shot.

The next morning, in an agonizing, beautifully acted scene, Anne suffers a stroke. Mr Haneke has continually been accused of presenting a cold view of the world. I have never agreed with this. His austerity, much like Ozu, is born out of the voyeuristic decisions he makes to show how his characters (who occupy the same world as us) love one another. When it was announced what the title of his new film would be, people joked. I didn’t. For Mr Haneke has always made movies where we see what love is behind closed doors. The conundrum occurs because many people’s definition of love is incorrect. They say “Love”, when they really mean “Romance” or “Lust”. Much like Quentin Crisp, Mr Haneke defines love as: the extra effort you make in dealing with people whom you do not like. Amour affirms this.

The austerity is felt within the flow of the film. As always with this filmmaker, scenes begin and/or end never when we expect them to. Sometimes we are allowed to voyeur only through mid-conversation and other times we are given permission to view far beyond the point of necessary information. Both Mr Trintignant and Ms Riva are astonishing. She has only done four films in the last fourteen years, him zero. To see these two greats working again in such complex circumstances is a formidable affair. Ms Riva’s most famous performance being another film with the word "amour" in the title. The always beautiful and brilliant Isabelle Huppert (her third film with Haneke) here plays their extremely concerned daughter.

For me, Michael Haneke’s masterpiece is Cache. In that film there is a moment when one character decides to do something, then does it in front of another character. I dare not reveal what it is. Anyone reading this that has seen the picture knows exactly what I’m talking about. It is a moment that stops the heart unlike anything else any director has done; whether they are working in the thriller genre or not. There is a similar moment in Amour that not only throws everything we have seen into question, but also the reason why we have been allowed to see anything at all. And believe me, “allow” is the correct term.

Amour was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a deserving winner it is. It beat out two other great films, Holy Motors (2012) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). It is a definite, exceptional work of grace and stimulating intelligence by one of the greatest living filmmakers. It is not only one of Mr Haneke’s best films, it is also one of the year’s best.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Pitch Perfect (2012/US)


Julien Faddoul

(0 stars)

d – Jason Moore
w – Kay Cannon   (Based on the Book by Mickey Rapkin)
ph – Julio Macat
pd – Barry Robinson
m – Christophe Beck, Mark Kilian
ed – Lisa Zeno Churgin
cos – Salvador Perez Jr

p – Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Max Handelman

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Skylar Astin, Freddie Stroma, Alexis Knapp, Adam DeVine, Ester Dean, Brock Kelly, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins

Pitch Perfect, directed by Jason Moore and written by Kay Cannon, is by no means a dumb movie. It tells the story of Becca, a young college freshman who is so-over-everything that she tells people they’re dorky right to their faces, oh my! She aspires to be a record producer. She does grunt work at the college radio station and halfheartedly auditions for a prissy, flirtatious, but sisterly a cappella ensemble. They spend the rest of the film harmonizing their way through many pop standards (most of which are premillennial) that even a music-illiterate dummy like me will recognize instantly.

The movie is based on a book by Mickey Rapkin. The rest of the cast includes Anna Camp, Brittany Snow (both of whom are delightful), Adam DeVine, Ester Dean, Skylar Astin and Rebel Wilson. It is 113 minutes long, which is, with all due respect, too long. The reason I feel calling Pitch Perfect dumb is misleading is because it has cognizance. It is aware of the inevitability of the story and the characters. Kendrick and Astin develop a romance that one can see coming from Neptune. It is bubbly, it is buoyant. It is made with skill and precision and is attempting to enter the pantheon of ironic comedies that constantly fill our movie screens.

The reason I can’t quite recommend it, though, is because cognizance is getting old. Pitch Perfect, although is stuffed with many quips, is never really funny or surprising. It does a dishonour to the beautiful memories of Bring it On, Mean Girls and, my personal favourite, Easy A. And Becca is certainly no Olive Penderghast. Irony over purity is a dangerous game, and what Pitch Perfect is trying to be about is certainly not a fool’s game, I am sorry to say that it never actually succeeds. And I badly wanted it to with all my heart. The quips and putdowns are coming at you so fast and furious that the feeling is akin to searching through a pile of discounted clothes until you find a score. You’re constantly digging through a dumpster.

I have a queasy feeling that Anna Kendrick might currently be suffering from typecasting. Once again here she plays a snotty young woman who thinks she knows more than everyone else only to gain a wider perspective by the film’s end. Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku, Lindsay Lohan and Emma Stone were all there first and it is a shame to pigeonhole Kendrick (who is talented) in this kind of dreary persona.

I am unsold on Rebel Wilson, whom I still consider to be inexplicably popular. The film itself demands that you love her; love her with laughter. Mr Moore and Ms Cannon save almost all the good stuff for her. But the atrocious level of cruelty that all the characters that she doesn’t play in her movies (Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) treat her with still comes across as a rather dubious ploy by an emerging actress to gain popularity. Her character’s name in this movie is Fat Amy, a title she calls herself. Get it? Do you love her yet? She has skill, but I have yet to see talent.

Pitch Perfect feels that if it tries to be about something that is not as noble as other films that it can get away with being sub-par. It can’t. And I know that there is a delightful teen comedy buried within Pitch Perfect bursting to get out. Maybe next time.