Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars Time – The Best Pictures (Part Two)

In Part One I looked at the historical films nominated for Best Picture, now I move on to the rest.

Les Miserables, is of course set in the past, but historical truth is not an issue. It has bigger problems – namely the book, the musical and the soundtrack. All three affect the film to its detriment.

Les-miserables-movie-poster1The novel written by Victor Hugo is an absolute thumper. And it’s not only big on length; it’s big on scope. Within it are treatise on the role of the Catholic Church and its monasteries, a scene at the Battle of Waterloo, an insurrection and many dozens of characters over the course of around 20 years. It’s a tough book to pack into one film. Oddly however it works fine when packed into one musical.

But the movie adaptation of the musical is at a great disadvantage because it does not have the benefits that a performance on the stage has.
In the book the scene where Jean Valjean discovers a man who looks like him is being tried for a crime and he decides to front up at the court and confess to being the real Valjean is lengthy and intense. It involves Valjean having to go to extreme lengths to get to the court, which is in another town, in time. In the musical on the stage all this happens in the song “Who Am I”, in which he shifts from being in his factory to the courtroom by way of a nifty scene change usually involving some backdrop coming down and perhaps the stage rotating to bring the court to the front.

When watching this occur on the stage you know what has happened and that it is a device done to make up for the fact that you can’t very well have Valjean getting on horses and riding across the stage for a while to show him getting to the court. The change is quick and acceptable within the language of theatre. But the language of theatre does not automatically translate to cinema. In the movie version we actually do see Valjean in a carriage trying to get to the court and then him walking in, but it is all quite disjointed. The opening of the song has him in his factory, then it shifts to his home, then he’s in the carriage, then he’s in the court room, all the while the song continues without any break. And it’s actually quite a short song – about 3 and a half minutes. 

What works fine on the stage, and the suspension of disbelief you allow in that setting, looks and feels askew when on film.

Similarly in the confrontation scene where Valjean and Javert fight and sing, a crucial last verse is lost. It is lost because on stage it is acceptable for two characters to stop and stand opposite each other singing instead of fighting. Were that to have happened in the movie it would have looked out of place , and because of that a crucial part of the song – namely the swearing of Valjean that he will save Cosette and Javert swearing that he will capture Valjean – is lost.

The film also suffers from pacing issues that don’t occur in the theatrical version.

Take the end of the confrontation song. We go from that with a jump cut to little Cosette singing “Castle on a Cloud”. We have no sense of time or place. Is it at the same time? We assume so, but where is she? Is she near Valjean or far away? Consistently throughout the film director Tom Hooper refrains from any establishing shot. This has the effect of viewers losing a sense of perspective of the events, and also – and more importantly – it fails to give the viewer anytime to relax.

The film is not an emotional roller-coaster, more a plateau. It get to 11 on the emotion metre early on and tries to stay there the whole time. By the end I was too drained to be too emotional about Valjean’s death. I mean geez, how many tears can you cry in 3 hours?

Look it’s not all bad. Anne Hathaway’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream” is astonishing. Her performance is worthy of all the awards she has received. But it was so good that it really is the film high point and more so because Hooper doesn’t let you gather a breath. Even the scene changes that occur in the stage production from actors walking on and off the stage is denied the movie viewer with the quick cut to the next song.
Take the songs “One Day More” and “On My Own”. In the theatrical version, “One Day More” is an absolute emotional pinnacle and then “On My Own” comes along and you are rendered completely undone. In the movie both are sung well, and the editing and direction of “One Day More” is probably the best done of all the songs, but when “On My Own” is sung, the level of emotion I usually feel – even when just listening to it on a CD was not there. The reason is pacing and timing.

In the stage version in between “One Day More” and “On My Own” you have the intermission – a time to talk to others, to let out a big sigh and say “Woah, how amazing was that!” And then you go back in, refreshed, recovered from the emotional high of “One Day More” and then Eponine comes on stage and absolutely destroys you. But you are with her because you have had that rest, your emotions have been able to subside a bit and you are ready.

In the movie, “On My Own” comes on after the attack on Valjean’s house which comes straight after “A Heart Full of Love”  is sung. Eponine screams and averts the attack on Valjean’s house and then BAM! she starts singing “On My Own”. She finishes and BAM! they’re all singing “One Day More” . Not only did they change around the order of the songs for no discernable narrative reason, they also deny us (because it’s a movie) the uplift from “One Day More”, followed by the rest in the intermission and then the emotion charging of “On My Own”.

If a version of Les Miserables doesn’t have you thinking “On My Own” is a massive high point in the film, then I think it’s pretty clear it has failed somewhat.

For some the movie was too long; for me it wasn’t long enough. Every scene felt rushed – because they were trying to tell the story of a thumping big novel in under three hours, using the template of a musical which was written knowing the theatrical device of an intermission was available.  If any film adaptation this year deserved to be split into parts it was this one, not The Hobbit.

The film also suffers from the singing. Not that it was terrible. I thought Hugh Jackman perfectly good – indeed his version of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” gave it a punch that I thought lacking in the theatrical version, all due to his “live singing”. But while Jackman and Hathaway’s versions of songs is helped by the live singing, others are less fortunate. Let’s not sugar coat it, Russell Crowe is not a great singer. He sure as hell is no Philip Quast who sings on the “Highlight's” version of the theatrical recording. It was hard not to wish they had recorded Crowe’s songs earlier and bumped them up with some musical trickery. Geez, if it was good enough to do to it for Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music, surely we could cope with it here.

Too often I longed for the original recordings. Sure I knew this was a different version of the musical, but at some point you really want to just hear some great singing. Indeed straight after seeing the film I put on the theatrical soundtrack and felt more at home. The problem for the film is that the musical version has been around for so long that it is tough to conceive a different version of the songs. I doubt that in 5 years time anyone will be listening to the movie soundtrack over the theatrical version. 

I also think the decision to sing all the dialogue as is done in the musical was a mistake. There is one scene where Crowe arrives at the Thenadier’s looking for Cosette and he says, without singing, “Where is the girl Cosette"?” In that moment I thought “Ahh there’s the Russell Crowe the great actor I want to see”. How good would it have been for Crowe and Jackman to have talked to each other rather than sing? Yes there are moments – such as during the confrontation where singing is required, but surely we don’t need Javert to hand Valjean his transfer papers in song. The singing took away from Crowe’s performance because he seemed to be concentrating more on the singing than on the acting.

And so is the film worthy of Best Picture? For me no. When the film version was announced my major concern was that it would be a dud – that it might ruin for me the joy of the musical. It didn’t do that, but neither will it live for me as the definitive version. When you think of the great musical films – West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Cabaret – the film versions are the definitive ones. The Sound of Music film is so pre-eminent that stage versions of it will now include songs written purely for the film version. I doubt any stage version of Les Miserables will include the new song “Suddenly”.

The film was an interesting version but my memory of it is mostly one of exhaustion. I’m not sure if I could watch it again in one sitting – I’d need the rest, and who knows, maybe it actually will work better at home on Blu-Ray or on TV. The adverts might actually give the viewer back the time to relax they need.
Among the nominees were two films who mixed the fantastic with the real: Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

life_of_piI didn’t see Life of Pi in the 3D version so am not able to comment on whether or not that makes it more effective, but I can’t believe it would – especially as the 2D version was already pretty spectacular.

The classic “unfilmable novel” (surely by now we can discard that description for any book, given how many unfilmable novels have now been filmed) was rendered into a rather lovely film.

The story of the boy adrift at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger is at turns magical and realistic. The CGI Tiger is probably the best CGI yet done – perhaps highlighting that the human eye is less able to accept non-humans when rendered in animated form. No “uncanny valley” exists for animals. The story is apparently a fable on the existence of god. To be honest I thought it more a meditation on what “truths” we are able to accept. For all the wonderful opening scenes involving Pi’s introduction to religion I didn’t gain any great sense that what happens to him on  the lifeboat is at all related to god – whether Allah, Jesus or Ganesha – though the importance of faith is crucial.

It is a captivating film with many great scenes of such awesome beauty that you really can only marvel at the technology that enabled them to be created. The acting – especially by Suraj Sharma in the lead role as Pi – is of a high standard and it all confirms Ang Lee (as if any confirmation was required) as one of the best directors going around. The word is he’ll direct Angelina Jolie in “Cleopatra” which normally would sound horrendous, but because it’s Ang Lee, I’m interested to see what he’ll do.

I don’t think Life of Pi will win the Best Picture, and I’m not sure it deserves to. Yes it is a wonderful couple of hours with beautiful visuals, but the overall message that faith is important and we can believe what we choose to believe is all a bit of a nothing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild also involves a child and wild animals – in this case ancient aurochs which have been released by melting icecaps and also by the imagination of 6 year old “Hushpuppy”. Set on a fictional island in the bayou off the New Orleans levee it concerns a remote community who has next to no connection with the rest of the world. Among the inhabitants is Hushpuppy and her father. The two have an odd relationship – they live in separate rusty shacks – and his parenting seems to mostly be teaching her skills to survive in the wild.

While watching the film I was constantly reminded of the 1970s Australians film Storm Boy, which also involved a child and father quite removed from modern society who are forced to deal with the intrusion of the outside world.
The common reports on the film are that it is magical and unlike anything you’ve seen. Well possibly. But I found it boring as hell. It is an art-house film for the art-house crowd. It suggests its young director, Benh Zeitlin, has a big future ahead of him. But while I don’t mind non-linear narratives and open endings, I struggled to keep interested in a group of people who interested me on an anthropologic level, but for whom I gained little sympathy.

I saw it about two weeks ago and honestly I can’t remember how it ends. 

silver_linings_playbookSilver Linings Playbook has the advantage in the Best Picture race of being the only one that deals with “average and contemporary” Americans. It concerns two people (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) who have mental health issues who inevitably fall in love and who perform in a dance contest together. While that is going on Cooper’s dad, Robert di Niro, who has massive OCD concerning the watching of football games, loses a large amount of money gambling on football. Inevitably (and not altogether realistically) the dance contest and the gambling intertwine.

Look it’s a nice film. Jennifer Lawrence is terribly wonderful. You ache for her at times. But the whole time I kept thinking that this is one of those families that only occurs in films or novels. Everyone is so damaged that it was less a portrayal of American society as a condemnation of the American psychological health system. As much as I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help agree with Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, who tweeted, “Apropos of nothing, I loved Silver Linings Playbook, but it really seems like that relationship could be a disaster going forward”.

In the end for me its downfall is that while I have met people like de Niro’s character (and may myself be at times like him when it comes to watching Adelaide Crows games) the main characters were movie truth people. They felt the type created for a novel or film – created to give us a quirky/unique view of modern life. amour_ver2
Such false creations are completely absent in the French film Amour, directed and written by Michael Haneke. It involves an elderly couple whose life is changed when the wife, Anne, played by Emmanuel Riva suffers a stroke.
It is such a shattering movie that is full of snippets of humour and warmth and moments that make you smile while your eyes get a bit watery.

It is honest, unflinching and brutal. It has absolutely no hope of winning Best Picture, but it is the one film of all the nine that remains with me. It is the only one of which I can recall a scene and feel a frisson of emotion. There is a scene which haunts me and which led after the films end for me to hold my wife in a long hug and that I wanted to keep going.

Amour is about life – life that doesn’t get much of a showing in films. The characters don’t have odd quirks or tics or exist in a world that is only found in movies. It is a quiet film – the dialogue doesn’t over power, there are many moments of peace, and the silence continues for much longer than any American director would allow. And yet it is full of such intensity that you come out completely spent.
It is clearly a French film – in more than just the language. And usually I favour the Oscars rewarding those films from the American/British/Australian side of filmmaking. The French have Cannes.
But Amour for mine is far and away the best film of the year. A film about grown ups for grown ups. It is challenging cinema; it won’t get an audience in the way that other lighter French films such as The Artist did, but it deserves to win the same award.


The list of nominations of course does not include the best nine films. Shockingly missing is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It’s often been said that The Master really needs to be seen twice to appreciate it. After watching it I had no real desire to watch it again. I thought it a bit of a lot that added to very little – as though the narrative collapses when attempts to discern just what it was all about. Sure it is notionally about the start of Scientology, but it is more than that, and oddly less as well because it is not actually about the beginnings of Scientology. 

I was ready to dismiss the film, and yet often over the weeks after watching it, I kept pondering scenes and the things said. I didn’t have any great desire to see the film again and yet I kept thinking about it, wanting to see those scenes again to see if they meant what I thought they meant. I read numerous articles on the film, wanting to get others’ interpretations.

I still think the whole less than the sum of its parts, but I would rank it second on my list of films of the year. And it certainly deserved to be nominated and Anderson sure as hell should have been nominated for Best Director.

Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina is a brilliant retelling of an oft oft oft filmed story. Wright sets the film partly upon a stage – yet not before any audience – and also on location. It mixes the theatrical and the filmic and does so in a way that makes Anna Karenina fresh. I only wish Les Miserables had been filmed in this manner, I think it would’ve  been one of the great experiences of cinema. Alas. Not to be. 

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