Les Miserables

What makes a great romance? An exploration of ‘LA LA Land’

 

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Like The Artist before it, LA LA Land is a film that dares to think backward while telling a story that tells a story for a forward thinking audience.  It is a film that feels timeless, an instant classic.  Movie-goers feel like they are watching something akin to Singing in the Rain, Rebel without a Cause, and especially Casablanca.

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“I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL YOU SOMETHING NOW – I HATE JAZZ.”

Just as last year’s Whiplash had jazz purists saying, “That’s not how you become a great jazz musician,” LA LA Land has gotten some criticism for oversimplifying the genre into a “hackneyed cliché.”  While these would be fair criticisms of films that boast of being a thorough and definitive exploration of the genre, neither of these movies are actually about jazz.

LA LA Land’s got rhythm pumping through its veins from beginning to end, but the conversations in the film about the music style are used to clarify the metaphor.  Both metaphors, actually.

In one figurative sense, a jazz song is like a love story.  It is alive, improvisational, happens in the moment, and happens once.  You have to be there for it, paying attention and feeling it, or you’ll miss it.  This is a jazz song about two young hopefuls with stars in their eyes.  They find each other in a town that’s become stale, each filled with ambition to change their little piece of the world.

The second thing that jazz represents in LA LA Land film is the town in which the story takes place.   Hollywood – specifically the culture of film – is changing.  The classic cinema that this film lifts up is “dying on the vine.”  When Mia, a talented and yet frustrated actress, tells Sebastian, an equally frustrated jazz-obsessed musician, that she doesn’t like jazz, she might as well be saying, “I don’t like black and white movies.”

A writer tries to chat up Mia at a Hollywood party by telling her his specialty is “world building.”  He tells her he’s working on a “reimagining” of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and the way he describes it makes it sound ridiculous and familiar.  As he explains that he sees it as “a franchise,” it sounds like the kind of project that could be in development right now.  This trend is comparable to the “smooth jazz” station that you put on at parties and talk over.  It doesn’t challenge or move you, because it’s elevator music.  The only debate left when talking about the popcorn fair that breaks the box office these days (Batman v. Superman, Transformers, X-Men, TMNT, etc.) is whether or not it’s actually any good.

Make no mistake, however, when it comes to that second analogy, LA LA Land isn’t a stickler for stringent traditionalism.  You can’t grow your audience if you only play for an aging audience.  You have to appeal to young people without losing the guiding principles of compelling storytelling.  Films, like great jazz, must continue to be revolutionary.

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“WHY DO YOU SAY ROMANTIC LIKE IT’S A DIRTY WORD?”

Romance stories are difficult to make compelling to a modern audience, and because of that, the genre often becomes stale and predictable.  Like the blockbusters that have come to dominate the large and small screen, modern romance stories tend to involve gimmicks and props (i.e. vampire/werewolf/human love triangles, zombie/human partnerships, or the trust-fall exercise that is a sadomasochistic relationship).  Still, instead of having mass appeal, as it once did, the romance genre has become a niche market that is often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, usually in a bubble bath with a glass of white wine.

This is not the moment for romance stories.  In decades past, romantic-comedies were an enormous part of the industry.  I’ve heard commentary from producers that made their entire careers off that business that has bemoaned the loss.  They often speak of the quality of the films that have replaced them, insisting that the loss of rom-coms signifies a decline for Hollywood.  They refer to old stereotypes (“She’d see his comic book movie, and he’d go see her romance”), but that misses the point.

That being said, the musical is all but dead on the big screen.  The modern musical – if such a thing exists in film – exists in the form of a musician biopic (Ray, Walk the Line).  It can only be fiction if it’s purely on the soundtrack (The Great Gatsby) or if it’s centered around a music venue (Rock of Ages) or a rock star (School of Rock).  Aside from rare exceptions (Les Miserables), movie characters have only been allowed to sing where they would in the real world, such as on a stage (Ricki and The Flash).

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A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

Are you saying that theaters full of mindless drivel that tell sloppy, incoherent stories?

Sure.

More so than before?

Depends on when you mean.

I mean – movies like The Lone Ranger?

Oh, or The Tickler!

The Tickler didn’t have the inflated budget of The Lone Ranger!

No, but let me tell you a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.

Come on!  That was a classic!

No.  It’s just old.  Just like The Lone Ranger, it was a flop when it came out, and it included similar cultural appropriation.

But some of these big blockbusters are actually pretty good.

I don’t care if your movie is Captain Philips or Captain America, if you’ve got a good script, some nuanced performances, and a competent director, I will support it.  I’m just sick of the cookie cutter stories.

And you think that the issue is more prevalent with big blockbusters?

Oh, no.  Remember when we were talking about rom-com producers talking about the decline of the genre and saying it’s a symptom of declining quality in Hollywood?

Yeah.

Well, for every As Good As It Gets or Silver Linings Playbook there was a Serendipity or a Failure to Launch.

So what separates a bad romance story from a good one?

GREAT QUESTION!

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT ROMANTIC STORY?

The prevailing consensus for romance movies seems to have been to write the main characters straight, and then write fun, interesting friends for them to get advice from.  It’s not something that doesn’t work.  After all, it comes from Shakespeare’s playbook.  If Much Ado about Nothing is the prototypical rom-com, then why wouldn’t you do that?  Write an ingénue character for the women to sympathize with.  Write a romantic man for the men to sympathize with, and if you think it will make things more palatable for the guys, simply give the male lead a gender-specific pastime, like sports.

The memorable parts of Much Ado about Nothing, however, don’t involve the young lovers.  It’s all about Benedict and Beatrice and their bickering, prickly, reluctant love story, which is why I couldn’t implore more for you to craft characters that are specific and flawed.

Let’s take a look back at a film that is reasonably considered the greatest romance ever put on celluloid, Casablanca.  Rick is a man with some principle, but he isn’t a hero.  He’s a broken man, haunted by a broken heart.  He has disappeared into a crowd of low-life criminals that prey on the innocent, and he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.  In walks Elsa, a complicated woman that Rick both loves and hates.  She carries a secret that is the only thing that can heal Rick, but it will only work if they are both willing to make sacrifices.  The “friend” characters are colorful because every character is colorful in this film.  Everyone is allowed to shine, and it makes for a story that is anything but dull.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what is possibly the best romantic movie in modern times to discuss the second main point.  The Notebook, also starring Ryan Gosling, takes a step back from the main ingredients of romantic storytelling and frames them in a context that gives everything greater weight and power.  The deeper subject, that of the power and longevity of love even in the face of debilitating illness has often fallen into clichés of its own.  Boy meets girl; girl gets cancer.  It’s the pitch that’s launched a thousand Lifetime Originals.

What makes both The Notebook and LA LA Land so remarkable is that they each craft the story in a way that it allows for each season of the romance to bloom to its fullest.  Make no mistake, they both come with a gut punch, but it isn’t played to manipulate the audience.  It is the poetic crux of the story.  The same can be said for Casablanca.  There is poetry in pain.  There is love in sacrifice.  There is redemption in compassion.

It’s obvious to anyone that has studied Plato’s Poetics, but the elements of a remarkable romance are the same as those for any great story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Language
  4. Music
  5. Spectacle

Take care of each of those things, do it in that order of importance, and you’ll have something.  If you can incorporate Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then you might end up with a cinematic treasure.

Needless to say, LA LA Land does all of this.

 

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The 85th Annual Academy Awards

THE BROADCAST

Billy Crystal’s movie parodies brought a little of it.  Having Snoop Doggy Dogg piloting the airship from “The Mummy” is a perfect example, and fans of Crystal’s hosting have always placed these sucked-into-the-movies bit as the highlight of his broadcasts.  But then the rest of the show would fit into the same routine pattern of light roasting, back patting, often bizarre musical number, and then a sinkhole of political messages and flagrant attempts by the Academy to prove it’s value.

This year was a bit different.  And yet it wasn’t so different that it wrecked everything.  This year’s Oscars was the first truly post-modern show.

You see, in the post-modern era, we can sample from the past and create something new.  We can be self-deprecating and laugh at ourselves without subtracting meaning.  And we can show appreciation for what only a little while ago would have seemed old fashioned and out of style.

Think about it, so much of what happened last night would have been deemed inappropriate just a few years ago.  (Actually, critics from publications such as The New Yorker and LA Times seemed to be a bit behind the times and found everything immature and in violation of the sanctimonious proceedings.)

I understand that not everyone is going to be in favor of this type of show, and there’s a really simple way to find out if you’re one of those people.  Imagine that an Oscar host has a conversation with Captain Kirk via a giant screen on stage, and he’s told that he ruined the show by singing an immature, horrible song.  Now, imagine that they cut to that song, which is a song and dance number listing actresses and the most famous films in which you can see their breasts.  The tuxedo and top hate routine, called “I Saw Your Boobs,” which included a rousing chorus from the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Choir, was pretty much the first thing that happened.

I’m generally not a fan of Seth MacFarlane.  I find his work to be hit-and-miss with an emphasis on the latter, but I’ve always said that his hits are on point.  Last night, MacFarlane’s hard work paid off, and he helped create and execute the best broadcast in recent history.

The thing is, he didn’t just go for laughs.  The key to his success was that he did not pander.  He simply performed, and the show seemed mostly wish fulfillment for him.  His harshest critics have pointed this out, but they underestimate how powerful this was for the audience.  MacFarlane chatted with Shatner, danced with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe, sang as Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron danced oh-so-beautifully for us, looked like a friggin’ movie star in his tux, made fun of himself and his body of work, even did one of his patent cutaway gags to parody a classic film before introducing one of it’s stars.  He basically did all of the things WE would want to do as a host!  Despite being a part of the industry for so long, he isn’t a part of the hierarchy.  He’s an outsider that brought fresh perspective to eighty five years of history, and he was somehow able to do it with what I felt was the perfect balance of crass and class.

The Oscars have long attempted to appeal to a broader crowd, and it’s always been awkward.  From Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin telling jokes about how old they were while referencing things that the kids are into to Chris Rock wondering aloud if being white was all it took to make Jude Law famous to James Franco doing. . .  Well, whatever the hell he was doing.

Finally we live in a time where Barbara Streisand can sing “The Way We Were” without it being ironic.  We live in a time where the Oscars can borrow from “Dancing with the Stars,” “Family Guy,” and classical musicals of the silver screen all at the same time.

MY FAVORITE PART

While there were so many great moments over the course of the evening, including the James Bond tribute and some very touching acceptance speech moments, to me, the most beautiful moment came during the tribute to musicals.  Catherine Zeta-Jones kicked it all off atop a piano, magically recreating her award-winning role from “Chicago.”  The years seemed to melt away right before our eyes.  Even if the lip-syncing rumors prove credible, the fact remains that she was just as stunning and vibrant as she was eleven years ago.  Jennifer Hudson came out next, stirring up “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls.”  She destroyed that song and the audience.  It was a performance that not many people on earth could ever hope to give, and it brought the audience to it’s feet.  And then the cast of “Les Miserables” came out and brought it all home with their nominated tune.  They caused you to lean forward in your seat and bathe in their voices.

That’s the part I liked the most.  You see, after Jennifer Hudson rocked the theater with her powerful pipes, I’m sure Hugh Jackman found the nearest person backstage and asked, “I have to follow that, mate?”  And he did without missing a beat.  He did.  Anne Hathaway did.  So did Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Coen.  And so did Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, and Samantha Barks (who I think was robbed a nomination alongside Hathaway).  And most importantly to me – so did Russell Crowe.

I actually liked the way Russell Crowe performed his part in that film.  He bellows with authority and a twinge or two of rock and roll.  He emboldens his character and sings like a hunter squinting through a sharpshooter’s iron sights.  But I’m definitely in the minority in my opinion.  Unlike going into the production of the film, Russell Crowe went into this live performance knowing that the critics aren’t fond of the way he sings.  He knew he would be mercilessly scrutinized by them, his peers, and the billion people at home.  And he did it anyway.

ONE LINERS

“Welcome to the Oscars, and the quest to make Tommy Lee Jones laugh.”
-Seth MacFarlane’s opening line, which succeeded in getting the laughter he desired, which itself got loud applause.

“It’s not your fault, Ben.”
-Seth MacFarlane admitting that the Academy knew it screwed up in snubbing Ben Affleck from the Best Director nominations.  This line is a parody of Affleck’s Oscar winning screenplay “Good Will Hunting.”

“There was a lot of controversy over the multiple uses of the ‘N word’ in the film. I’m told the film was loosely based on Mel Gibson’s voice mail.”
– Seth MacFarlane, about best picture nominee “Django Unchained.”

“She said to me, I really hope I don’t lose to that old lady … Jennifer Lawrence.”
Seth MacFarlane, about 9-year-old “Beasts” star Quvenzhané Wallis.

“Since we got married 16 years ago, my wife Rebecca has lived with some very strange men.  She’s the versatile one in the family.  She’s been a perfect companion to all of them.”
– Daniel Day-Lewis, during his acceptance speech for Best Actor.

“You have to work harder than you think you possibly can. You can’t hold grudges. It’s hard, but you can’t hold grudges. And it doesn’t matter how knocked down you get in life, because that’s going to happen. All that matters is that you gotta get up.”
– Ben Affleck, during his acceptance speech for Best Picture

ON A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE OF…

You can generally look to the Honorary Oscars to see what the theme of the year’s Oscars will be.  This year, they gave the awards to George Stevens Jr (who founded the AFI), stuntman Hal Needham, and documentary filmmaker D.A Pennebaker.  To me, this signified that the Academy was paying tribute to the importance of film.  Honestly, this is the theme every broadcast should have, and you would think it would always be the main focal point.  It is a breath of fresh air when they can get past trying to prove that movies have meaning and simply celebrate the meaning of film.

It all culminated with Jack Nicholson’s nontraditional introduction of Best Picture.  He commented about how the category was traditionally presented by a single person, and then introduced his co-presenter who would help him via live video directly from the White House.

My initial thought was, “I guess ‘Lincoln’ won after all!”  I mean, the Golden Globes brought out Bill Clinton to give the movie based on the greatest American president it’s due.  Now that we have had an actual black president take the White House and only an idiot stuck in the 1990’s would continue to give that obtuse distinction to Clinton, how amazing to have the first black first lady to honor this great film about the fight for the Thirteenth Amendment?!

But that would have been a forced message, and in the post-modern Oscars, that would have seemed way too forced.

Instead, Michelle Obama gave a reasonably impassioned speech about how films do have importance whether they make us cry, laugh, get inspired, or not.  Movies are a part of what makes America great, and these nine nominees are the greatest examples in 2013.  It was just that simple.

ALSO DEAD

They always leave people off the memoriam.  This year, the following people were missing:

Richard Dawson
Phyllis Diller
David R. Ellis
Andy Griffith
Larry Hagman
Jack Hanlon
Ann Rutherford
Donna Summer

WHO GOT OSCAR GOLD?

BEST PICTURE
Argo

BEST ACTOR
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

BEST ACTRESS
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

BEST DIRECTOR
Ang Lee, Life of Pi

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Chris Terrio, Argo

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Brave

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Searching for Sugar Man

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Inocente, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine

BEST FILM EDITING
Argo, William Goldenberg

BEST FOREIGN FILM
Amour, Austria

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Les Misérables, Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Life of Pi, Mychael Danna

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Skyfall” from Skyfall, Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Lincoln, Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
Paperman, John Kahrs

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
Curfew, Shawn Christensen

BEST SOUND EDITING
Skyfall, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N.J. Ottosson

BEST SOUND MIXING
Les Misérables, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Life of Pi, Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott

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Three Adaptations: The Hobbit, Life of Pi, and Les Miserables

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THE HOBBIT

For better or worse, Peter Jackson and company have decided to create more than a simple adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” With the inclusion of stories from “The Silmarillion” and even some of the legendary author’s incomplete works, the team have taken what will be their final opportunity to present us with as much of Middle-earth as possible.  This has resulted in some very mixed reviews from mainstream critics and moviegoers alike.  But if you are like me, and you want to get sucked into Tolkien’s universe for as long as possible – forgoing bathroom breaks and the use of your lower limbs, you will love every minute of it!

“The Hobbit” were the bedtime stories the professor read to his sons when they were mere boys.  “The Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand, were the stories he wrote when they had grown old enough to fully understand the complexities of adult life.  Tolkien even went back and reworked one particular chapter from “The Hobbit” to further flesh out the tale: my absolute favorite passage from any of the books, “Riddles in the Dark.”  In the original story, Gollum was an honor-bound creature who gladly gave Bilbo the ring after being bested in their puzzles.  However, in the new context of the rings power, Gollum was given greater depth and an obsession for the possession of his precious prize.  Tolkien had wanted to create a whole new work from “The Hobbit,” creating a parallel narrative that would have the same emotional complexity and violence of “The Lord of the Rings.”  Taking the advise of his publisher, “The Hobbit” was left with only minor alterations.

Now it is Peter Jackson and crew that have given “The Hobbit” the long shadows that trail towards the Oscar winning series.  The additions of more combat, grittier imagery, and more frightening villains have allowed the story to keep the whimsy and charm of the child’s tale and also carry some of the adventure and gloom that the earlier films’ fans expect.

And that’s where the controversy starts.

If you’re a purist, this adaptation will not satisfy you.  If you’re a fan of the original films and are not prepared for the musical numbers and slapstick, you will not be satisfied.  If you are joe-blow movie-goer, you will probably find the length and pace tedious and will not be satisfied.  And to confound the issue even further, if you are easily distracted by new technology, the 3D and 48 frames per second will probably hold you back a bit too!  (I recommend seeing it more than once, and seeing it at the most advanced theater available to you.  I’ve seen it twice, and it was much better the second time around, and it was twice the movie at Arclight Cinemas versus AMC.)

For the rest of us, this is the movie we’ve been waiting for, and I for one was not disappointed.

Martin Freeman makes a very sympathetic Bilbo.  Sir Ian McKellen brings us more of the Gandalf we all love, and the Dwarves come across as diverse, fleshed out versions of their literary selves.

It all reminds me of when J. R. R.’s son Christopher (who drew the original maps of Middle-earth) tried to complete his father’s incomplete works based on his father’s notes.  Here was one of the children for whom this fantasy was created attempting to give all that was left of that world to us.  Since 1977, he has made difficult decisions in how to best present his late father’s work in “The Silmarillion,” “Unfinished Tales,” the twelve volumes of “The History of Middle-earth, and”The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.”

He too was met with harsh criticism.

OVERALL: 8/10

LIFE OF PI

When Ang Lee tried to tell a delicate story about man’s struggles with our monstrous nature in “The Hulk,” he failed to capture the essence of his subject.  With “Life of Pi,” however, he has brilliantly created a masterpiece with similar subject matter while presenting us with the adapted material with careful and reverent sensibilities.  This is easily one of the best pictures of 2012.

“Life of Pi” touches on two of my favorite subject matters: religion and storytelling.

The major dramatic question of the bookends revolves around whether Pi can tell this cynical writer a story that will make him believe in God, and we are given a possible parable that allows us to make up our own minds.  There is whimsy and merriment in this spiritual journey, but there is also harsh reality and an argument for reason.  Yann Martel’s book certainly tells a story about life that is so different from our own experiences, yet in many ways no different from our own lives, and David Magee’s adaptation floats on waves of splendor.

In some ways, this film reminds me of Tim Burton’s masterpiece, “Big Fish.”  It is an argument for the importance of storytelling.  The gift of a great story can alter us in ways that very little else can.  I was inspired by this story as I watched it, and I know it will stay with me for many years.

OVERALL: 10/10

LES MISERABLES

There is an unbroken four minute close-up of Anne Hathaway working through dozens of emotions through song.  And I could have sworn that I saw scripted, golden letters appear at the bottom of the screen: “For Your Consideration.”  When the music faded, I leaned over to my companion and whispered, “Well, she’s won the Oscar; now they just need to give it to her.”

Another adaptation, this one based on the musical that was based on the French language concept album that was itself based on Victor Hugo’s book, “Les Miserables” has been performed many times before.  However, the films (including the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Daines) have generally stuck to a dramatization of the novel and not the staged-musical.  A major undertaking, this is the first film to bring the hit Broadway show to an English speaking audience without simply being a filmed version of the play.  Tom Hooper was very brave to take on this project, and doubly so to film it in the manner he chose.

This film is remarkable in so many ways.  To start, the singing is not recorded in a vocal booth and played over for the actors to lip sync to.  These characters are piloted through the most emotionally driven performances of any filmed musical in history.  And they might very well be the most emotionally guided in any story told on screen, soundtrack, or stage.  The orchestral score is completely dictated by the actor’s decisions as well, and every note lifts the story upon it’s shoulders and carries the audience with it.

The cast is superb and perfectly cast.  Hugh Jackman shows the world why he’s such a stand-up guy on Broadway’s boards, conjuring the hardships of slavery and the worries of a haunted man in his eyes and face.  Russel Crowe bellows his opera with a dash of rock and roll, walking the line between solid ground and the abyss with a demeanor befitting his station as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.  Amanda Seyfried and Isabelle Allen both create a Cosette worth fighting for, and Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, and the others at the barricades bring their hopeless cause to life with passion and a tangible trepidation.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes shared by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who milked every comic moment with a zeal that was both delightful and dangerous.  Yet even with such a diversely talented group, all of whom exceeded even the least managed expectations, Anne Hathaway was the stand-out.  She opened herself up to us all and treated us to the most rare of vulnerabilities, creating a performance in this film that will be remembered by history.

We live in a truly remarkable time.  Les Miserables was created under circumstances that few filmmakers would dare to contemplate, and it is a triumph.

And we live in a time where an actor can travel a road that has stops at both Wolverine or Catwoman and a French period piece opera.

OVERALL: 9/10