Friday, December 28, 2012


Every movie you come across, every experience, you have to be subjective when you come to it, and you have to bring your own experiences with it beforehand. With Les Miserables, or, just say it, 'Lay-Miz', I hadn't seen the musical before, in person or on video, didn't listen to the album, nor read the book or see any of the other movie adaptations (though after this I would like to). I came into it fresh, though knowing and/or respecting the cast assembled. And Tom Hooper's a good man to have for a period-piece after works like John Adams (for HBO) and the King's Speech (for Harvey Weinstein/Oscar glory). So, I just got to be honest... the music, in general, doesn't do it for me. 

It's a simple thing: it's not exactly a 'musical', it's an opera (or, what's the term, 'libretto' or other?) Everybody sings, and if I counted correctly there is about, perhaps, 3 to 5 percent of speaking dialog among what are a whole lot of just characters singing their dialog, all in rhyme, between some big set pieces and other numbers that just kinda, you know, stop suddenly. And because not much, if at all, has changed from the musical, there's an odd sort of contradiction going on dramatically that I found consistently interesting, if unnerving: here Hooper presents a very realistic, vivid depiction of 1815-1832-ish Paris, down to the cobblestones and grime and Terry Gilliam-esque direction (which I actually enjoyed, more often than not, though it got tiresome near the end), and yet... it's still a slavishly faithful adaptation of the staged setting.

Again, very interesting, this split. But, for me, the characters, with the exception of a few of the leads (i.e. Jean Valjean, and... maybe Marius to a small extent, or arguably Javert but with TOO much subtlety compared to everything else), there's no character development or growth that I could latch on to. Valjean is also a saint from minute one to the last, with Hooper especially emphasizing the Christ-like metaphor by the last scene. And so that leaves the music. And the singing. Lots and lots of singing. Sometimes singing about just moving from a place to another. And there is usually movement, or something not, from the camera to go along with this. And sometimes it matches up very well, such as Fatine's iconic 'Dreamed a Dream', where Hooper never cuts through the bulk of the song and practically gift-wraps her Oscar for her (and yes, it IS a showstopper, as well it should be). Other times, such as the other great (and just most fun) number 'Master of the House' with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the inn-keepers, the camera and cutting has to just try to keep up with their energy. 

But... there is just so MUCH there 'there', that it becomes too overwhelming, especially when in the second half, for me, the less interesting plot of the revolutionaries kicks in. This ties in, to be sure, with the Valjean/Javert conflict, which is the sort that is captivating at first and then... trickles off. I attribute this to Crowe's performance, far more than to do with Jackman, who is there for every scene and every beat and who could be my anchor through even the silly-sappy moments, because of a general stiffness to his character. And the singing isn't the issue, which other critics have latched on to. For what it's worth he can belt it out (almost) as much as the best of them, and is a decent contrast to, say, the almost unintentionally funny soprano pipes on Redmayne. But as far as a performance, sensing him in the character, it never clicked, which is a big problem as he's the villain of the piece. Upstanding and official, sure, it's called for. But there's little life I could send in what Crowe was playing. It just came off as going beat for beat.

To the film's credit, when the actors can click, such as Hathaway, it's thrilling (albeit she, too, has to amp up the drama to make Fatine even BIGGER in the scope of Hooper's lens, then again it's a smaller part than I expected). Hell, I didn't mind some of Hooper's wonky stylistic choices, at least on the whole, since that was one thing I was hoping to make the landscape different (cutting is a different story - when the action sparks up with the rebels vs the soldiers, it's a frenzy). But... it comes back to just not finding an in, personally, with the framework of the constant singing. It's almost unfair to say it, but I'll go there - because of so much singing, where every line, however trivial, is part of a song, the real big numbers almost became undermined. One of the great things in a movie musical is to have something that can move you, but, like any good song, you can remember. Aside from 'Dreamed a Dream', 'Master of the House', and most of 'One Day', where everybody gets a number layered like a symphonic-onion, I couldn't tell you what a song or tune was in Les Mis. For me, that was an issue that couldn't be totally resolved.

And yet, as a critic, my job is to tell you what I thought of it. Should I also say what you might find in it? I don't know. You all will come to Les Miserables with your own preconceptions, or come to it fresh. I can say that shards of the film counted, moments and scenes, even with a character I didn't feel I got enough time with like Samantha Barks's Eponine who sings about her love for a character and, for a few minutes, I really could feel it and connect... before it was over. Do you go for inspirational, quasi-or-all-the-way Christian-inspired schmaltz? Do you like seeing such daring-do (relatively) as seeing actors sing their songs live on camera without the lip-sync? Or are you a big fan just wanting to relive the experience you saw on stage for much less a ticket price, more popcorn, more trailers, and more close- ups? Then have at it. Les Miserables is a movie I think will split audiences, but to those that love it, it will be BIG, meaningful, impactful.  For those that hated it... I hear you, too. It's a work, as music, as film, as performance, that will give you a good sex-session. How you take it, depends entirely on the strokes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Papa Mike's Video #7: TITICUT FOLLIES - a Frederick Wiseman documentary

One of those great films that I may never want to watch again (like United 93) because it just peers almost TOO harsh with a camera-of-truth on to what went on in a hospital like the Bridgewater mental institution for the criminally insane in 1966.  Think the Maysles doing a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the book, not the movie) - we see the basics of the goings on at the hospital, how they are let out into the yard to kind of putter about, maybe at best a baseball and catcher's mitt, and then are given regular shavings, food (whether by the patient's choice or by forced-tube depends on how one reacts after such a time of, you know, electro-shocks and whatnot), and are belittled by the staff.

I should look at this as objectively as possible, since in a sense director Frederick Wiseman is doing the same.  He does employ some storytelling devices, such as cross-cutting (in a very effective if totally depressing set-piece of a sort) when the one patient we see, half-starved and half out-of-it, is force-fed with that tube and then, some time later, that patient being shaved and brushed up... as he is dead and getting ready for burial.  That was one of the great shocks in the film for me to see that, and for a brief moment I felt Wiseman crack his otherwise mostly coldly clinical lens on the proceedings to strike a point: you go in there, there's a very good chance you'll die.  For not too brief moments, a holocaust vibe can almost be felt.  At least for me.

Maybe the power of Titicut Follies is that everyone who comes to it will see something different.  You think that these guys in this mental hospital-cum-prison deserve to be here?  Hey, why not treat them like the scum they are?  But does that give the prison guards the right to, for example, taunt a patient about cleaning up his room when there's more likely than not *nothing* wrong with his room, and just waiting like a hot poker on a dog for him to snap?  Maybe to work in a place like this you gotta go a little nutso yourself; certainly a doctor, either Greek or Romanian or something, is either not really qualified to be a doctor with the kinds of questions he asks, or is a little crazy himself when asking another patient about his homosexual acts as a child in the boy scouts.  Did this contribute to his schizophrenia?  Who cares?  We must, I think is clear.  What about the guy who thinks he is NOT crazy, and has been mistreated for a year and a half?  Is he crazy, or not?  Do we have enough information to really judge?  Based on what we see, it's just fucked up all over, mostly on the doctor's end.

In the specific scheme of things, in terms of modern history, Titicut Follies is now a bit dated.  Thanks (or in some part no thanks) to Ronald Regan in the 1980's, facilities like this were shut down, in large part to their mismanagement and barbarism, but also because of new pharmaceutical drugs that DID help much better than, say, Thorazine or electro-shocks.  At the same time it can also be argued that, you know, more of these hospitals today might keep such psychpathic killers like Adam Lanza and James Holmes away from automatic weapons.  That's another kettle of fish.  But really, when it comes down to it, this is a time-capsule, a look into this very specific time in history (the kind that, by the way, does have scenes of patients talking, not too un-lucidly, about Vietnam and what Communism means, a striking moment any way you look at it) that was shot and edited to elicit SOME kind of reaction.  The worst thing of all is if you leave the film without any kind of reaction, the same indifference bureaucratic nothings give to such patients and/or prisoners that need some kind of better care than seen here.

But in the bigger picture, as it were, the film still resonates because so many systems, all across the world, have this kind of problem.  Not enough care, too much care in the wrong places, and just the attention to human decency in what people do in a system.  It can be a mental hospital or it can be just a trip to the DMV.  How people are treated, even those that don't seem to have clear idea always of what their doing, makes a difference.  Seeing the half-surreal scenes of the 'Titicut Follies' of the title bring this to light: this should be good for these people, and maybe for a few minutes for some of the people singing (at one point in the middle a couple of inmates have a duet) it brings happiness.  Yet I can't escape the feeling that this is also part and parcel of the whole manipulation: if they are animals to be tamed and controlled, as if beasts out of a wild cage (or like some of the side characters in Scorsese's Shutter Island), then maybe a little vaudeville will snap them into something that, well, is entertaining more for US than THEM.  At the end when the nurses moon the audience, the whole scene feels crazy, like as if we've taken the madness along with them.  And then it cuts to black.  Splash of reality all over.

Titicut Follies isn't a perfect film, some scenes drag and may feel 'dull' by conventional standards.  Fine.  Life has those moments as well.  In a sense I can see where the censors who banned the film were coming from, in terms of 'invasion of privacy' and so on.  We DO see too much.  I felt unclean by the end of this.  For Wiseman, he may have invaded their privacy.  Whether it was for some greater good he was achieving, or to just get it all down on celluloid, like some kind of cinematic anthropologist, he accomplished what he set out to do.  You can never 'un-see' a film like this, and that's the point.  Even the black and white serves a purpose, and has the same kind of harsh 'truth' style of a Night & Fog by Resnais.  It's an unpleasant masterpiece of documentation.

Special guest in the court of the MOVIE MONARCHY!

I forgot to post about this earlier, and shame on me, shame on the crown of America, and... oh, wait, what, there's no crown in America?  Goddamnit!  Someone should tell me these things!

I was on a podcast.  No, not the 'Creatively Stumped' Podcast, which I used to be one of the hosts on way back in the way (two/three years ago).  It's run by Matt Rorabeck and Eric Marchen, Canadian film critics (I think from that place, how do I say it, Otto-wa?)  They're knowledgable, fun cats to talk with, and I was very happy to be on their show back in OCTOBER, also with Miss Audrey Lorea, who has acted for me in projects, and I've produced for her, super great mega awesome collaborator.  Plus we got a special interview about our own films, 'Green Eyes' and 'Heaven is Now'.

AND I returned!  Yesterday, they had me on to talk about 'Jack Reacher', 'This is 40' (the latter I haven't seen yet, but I got to be kind of the questioner of things to keep the conversation lively), also new trailers and new-news.

AND MORE!  Tomorrow I'll be on for ANOTHER special Christmas podcast about my favorite American film of the year, 'Django Unchained', plus 'Les Miserables' (not seen), and some other trailer news.  I had to cut out near the end, but it was still fun as hell (and hell is for movie-childrens after all!)

Link to the first episode

The interview

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