Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kind of a Movie Review: Les Miserables

Confession: I have an emotional connection to Les Miserables. Money wasn't exactly free-flowing when I was a youngster, so our family vacation each year usually involved a car ride to Toronto to stay with family friends and see a few big-city sites. The 6 hour drive was usually characterized by two things: 1) a pit stop at one of the Tim Horton's/Wendy's combinations along the highway and 2) my mother choosing the music we'd listen to on the car's tapedeck.

My mother's and father's musical tastes growing up could not have been more different. My mother worships at the altar of soft rock. Chicago is her inspiration, The Carpenters have her on top of the world. She played clarinet in high school band and rocked that muthafucka all over Europe playing music that sounds at home inside a cuckoo clock. My father, on the other hand, worked at a grocery store as a teenager until he could afford a $1200 turntable/speaker combo the better to horrify his mother and blast his vinyl collection of The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and Joe Cocker. The first date they ever went on was a Buffy St. Marie/Tom Waits concert so you know they must have been in love for that to work.

One thing that they more or less agree on is showtunes. They love the hell outta 'em. My mother owns everything Mssrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein ever put their names to and the two of them have been going to see the local amateur musical theatre company's productions for over 20 years. They both sing in a choir where Broadway has a big place as well as something called "Tin Pan Alley", according to the program for their latest show "Of Chorus, We'll Sing!" though what that means exactly remains a mystery to me.

On those long trips to Hogtown, in between the Kenny Rogers and the Peter Cetera, were one of two albums: The London cast recordings of Phantom of the Opera or the London cast recording of Les Miserables. Both albums were the highlight reel versions so, in the absence of any previous knowledge of the plot, key bits of storyline were missing from the narrative for us. For Phantom, that wasn't as much of a problem. I'd become mildly obsessed with TPotO as a child, mostly based on this book, a (warily given) Christmas present to me from my parents when I was 8. I ate it up, adored it. I also did a book report on the Leroux version in grade 8 so by then the remaining gaps in the story were filled in. But Les Mis.. well, that was a different story. I had no prior knowledge of the Hugo novel, the thick cockney accents (of France!) made some of the words hard to discern, and, let's face it, I was maybe 8 or 9 when we were listening to it so my background in French political history and living conditions of 1800s Europe were somewhat lacking*. I still loved Les Mis even if I didn't totally get it. With each passing year, though, more of what was going on was revealed to me. I think I can trace back the exact point I lost my childhood innocence to the moment when I realized what "Lovely Ladies" was actually about. I was never the same.

Turns out, through coincidence or serendipity, The Boy and his sister were also listeners of musicals on long car rides. Replace Phantom with Jesus Christ Superstar and we were virtually identical. They, however, had the non-highlight reel version so key facts like Eponine being the Thenardier's daughter and Jean Valjean's silver-stealing background had already been revealed to them many years prior- lucky jerks. When we heard the play was being brought to the big screen we were giddy with delight. They'd both seen the stage show but I never had. I finally got to see Phantom this past summer in New York and it made me feel 10-years-old again. I was so so excited to get a chance to see any version of Les Mis, let alone a big-budget musical spectacular. So very pumped, you guys.

We convinced my sister that she, too, had childhood memories of this sweeping, emotional epic but, seeing as she's 5 years younger than me, most of her memories of Les Mis are muted at best. But we didn't care.

"I remember the part where the innkeeper's wife says shit. That's about all."
"Good enough! Bring money for popcorn!"

So, now we get to the meat of the matter. 

1. Yes, the movie is over 2.5 hours long. No, it didn't feel like it. The sister, who can be the only true marker of this fact, since the rest of us would happily have sat in that theatre, watching that story unfold until we died of old age, said it didn't feel that long, and she commences continuous eyerolling at about the 85 minute mark during most movies. 

2. Yes, they can sing. Anne Hathaway does a damn good job. And hey, if you don't like her, she's not in it that much. I think she does a decent job of hiding her "Anne Hathawayness", which is probably what annoys most people. Chances are, you have someone in your life who reminds you of her. And you might not like certain aspects of their behavior. And when you finally figure out the parallel between them, you'll also stop liking Anne Hathaway. No? Just me? Cool. 

Anywho, I thought she knocked it out of the park. Hugh Jackman carries most of the plot and the music on his broad.. handsome.. ripply.. shoulders. No surprises there, but dude brings it home (zing! Musical-related jokery!). Samantha Barks just kills it, as everyone's favourite second banana (Garfunkel notwithstanding), Eponine. Russell Crowe, for all the pissing and complaining people do, is just fine. But that's it. Here's the thing. In the Glee of the Les Miserables cast, he is clearly Finn. Used to being the jock, unsure of himself, wanting to be accepted by the others, but scared to let his fabulous side show. Man up, Crowe. Blast those notes and hold them for heaven's sake. Don't save it for the shower, Gladiator. Belt. 

3. Yes, I was (and you may be, too) a broken shell of a person. 

Let me be absolutely clear: I am a crazy person. If I have a vivid dream where The Sister is a total, unrepentant asshole, I will then treat the real-life her with disdain and haughtiness for the better part of the next day. I know I have no right to be angry at her, she's done nothing wrong, but the fact remains that I feel weird about her until I shake the memory.

The same goes for artistic outlets. If I'm really into a book or a movie where the male characters are absolutely horrid people, then for a few days following the finish of said book/movie, there's a little steady drumbeat in the back of my head thrumming "Men. How could they???!" . When this happens, I'm pretty sure The Boy finds reasons to get really really involved with some video game or another until that blows over. 

So, if you know anything about what Fantine goes through in the beginning of that musical then know that I basically looked like this for a solid 15 minutes.

Total. Shell-shocked. Wreck. And The Boy has tread on eggshells ever since. I'm getting better. Men are, by and large, good people. But then.. the foreman.. the Captain... rage.. increasing..

Spoilers ahead if you want to avoid the gritty details:

Let's not forget that I had only the musical highlights to go by as a guide to story here. So while I was aware that Fantine sold her hair to pay for her child's care I had no earthly clue that she SOLD SOME OF HER TEETH. Let me say that again.


I just.. I don't.. 

Maybe it's because waking up from the dreams where my teeth are loose is the biggest relief ever (second only to waking up from pregnancy dreams, maybe), or maybe because French dentistry wasn't that much different from farming back then, or maybe it's because I'm irrationally attached to my teeth** but I just could not stop internally screaming for about 10 minutes. 

And, because I revel in self-schadenfreude, I just had to look up the character on Wikipedia to see if that actually happens in the Hugo book. And because it's Hugo, of course it does. 


Oh God you guys, it's been 48 hours and I'm still getting heart palpitations just thinking about it.

Add on deaths of children and revolutionaries and diseased women and unimaginable poverty and you can see why I was desperate for any laughter at all. And that's why I don't believe the critics who questioned the necessity of the Thenardiers and their buffoonery. Please. If they had stuck a LOLcat in the movie to release some tension at that point I would have suspended my disbelief for as long as required. Bitch is dark, son. Plus, stealing someone's hat is always funny.

4) I still only ever want to be cast as Mme Thenardier. I totally accept that I will never be a Broadway musical powerhouse. But when that dream was still a legitimate possibility, 10-year-old me wanted nothing more than to be the dirty, underhanded female companion of the Master of the House. Which should tell you something about me but I don't know what.

5) Is the movie perfect? No. Of course not. I mean, how many times can you watch Valjean escape from Javert without being like "WILL ONE OF YOU JUST SHOOT THE OTHER ALREADY??!" Turns out, less than 3 times. And I still think Eddie Redmayne's Marius sounds a bit too Kermitty for my tastes but, seriously, you guys. It was pretty great. Maybe it's just the nostalgic in me, but it was a really great adaptation of the show that, until now, existed only in my head. Vive la France musicale!

* Basically my understanding of France came from the largely forgettable Archie Abroad comics where Archie would show up in random countries with the gang, see the famous sights, have Jughead eat copious amounts of the local, well-known food item and the girls would fawn over whatever made the locals sexy. So France = Jughead eating croissants at the Arc de Triomphe while the girls wet themselves over Jean-Luc who was so sophisticated in his jaunty chapeau.

**I actually cried when one of my (perfectly healthy) teeth had to be removed in order to make room in my mouth. I may have apologized to it the night before for removing it from its home when it had done no wrong. Again, perfectly comfortable in my crazy.

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