Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: TV Directors at the Movies: Les Misérables (2012) and Not Fade Away (2012)

Monday, January 14, 2013

TV Directors at the Movies: Les Misérables (2012) and Not Fade Away (2012)

by Tony Dayoub

I skipped the Golden Globes last night. Instead I had a wonderful night out with my wife. Without the kids. We ate at a romantic restaurant on the river, had drinks without straws sticking out of them and everything. Of course, maturity went out the window once we made it to the main event, a wonderful one-man show starring my childhood hero, William Shatner. Anyway, talk of his TV days, coupled with the awards won by Les Misérables last night, put me in the mindframe of looking at two TV directors and their approach to the recent theatrical releases they helmed.

Take Les Misérables. On principle alone, I have a problem with the fact it's even being touted for awards this season. Why should a movie based on a musical (based on a novel that has already been adapted to the screen no less than 13 times) have a crack at an award that should on some level be geared to celebrate a singular cinematic achievement? Shouldn't originality be one of the criteria? Things being the way they are though, I was willing to open my mind just a bit to view this version.

I'm an admirer of director Tom Hooper, if not for his previous Oscar-winning film, The King's Speech (2010), then for his wonderful HBO miniseries, John Adams (2008). But oy! Hooper has forgotten the size of the screen he is now framing his shots for. Sure, one unspoken advantage to bringing a stage musical to the screen is that it allows the camera to go in closer to the actor, making the viewer privy to emotions they may miss when sitting 50 yards away from the actor when seen live. But must every shot be a close-up? In filmic language, close-ups are the exclamation point of a sequence, used to underline the importance of a particular moment. Overuse of a close-up on a large movie screen, a tendency which plays more naturally on the smaller television screen, is akin to putting one of these (!) at the end of every sentence. It starts becoming repetitive, jarring, and robs it of its power.

Besides, Les Mis is set against the epic backdrop of the French Revolution. What does it say about Hooper when he continuously subverts the natural inclination to open the musical up onscreen, to show us the actual rebellion that fuels the film's climax, only to fill up the screen with faces of people caught up in soap opera plot twists? The director minimizes the impact of the class tensions which sparked the revolution and serve as the catalyst to the emotional drama between the various players in Les Mis.

I don't give a shit whether Hooper pre-recorded the singing or had his actors perform the songs live for the camera (an oft-promoted element of the movie). But I do think everyone did an amazing job. Yes, even the clearly in-over-his-head Russell Crowe, who brings a scrappy underdog quality to his vocals that rather suits the otherwise ominous Inspector Javert. Hugh Jackman is also more than adequate as Jean Valjean, sing-talking his way through the film yet remaining focused on the loneliness he leads as a reformed fugitive hiding in plain sight. The real standouts are Eddie Redmayne, whose angelic voice allows his Marius to transcend the limitations of his poorly expressed motivations for leading the rebellion, and Anne Hathaway, who only needs a few scenes to prove she's Oscar-worthy.

Well, really only one—Fantine's moving rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." And yes, Hooper shot this one all in close-up. But in this case, the long, uninterrupted take works because it envelops us in Hathaway's vocals and tears, drawing us into the hopeless grief of her character. While I believe there are other actresses who may be more deserving of the Best Supporting Actress award, I definitely wouldn't have a problem with Hathaway winning. In fact, I'm almost certain she will. I even pointed out to my wife the specific tear Hathaway sheds that will win her the Oscar just as it fell down her face. All kidding aside, this long, tight shot by Hooper is one which momentarily makes the film seem larger, the way a choice shot should. It's unfortunate he wasn't as choosy with the rest of Les Misérables's camera set-ups, diminishing the film—and even Hathaway's moment—exponentially with each subsequent close-up.

First-time film director David Chase, also from the land of HBO (where he created The Sopranos), aims for something smaller and more personal than Hooper—albeit a musical of a sort, as well—with Not Fade Away. This admittedly flawed debut follows Doug Damiano (John Magaro) and the growing generation gap between him and his father (James Gandolfini). Not without its charms, the coming-of-age story about a young man fronting a modestly popular garage band in mid-60s New Jersey has a sense of truth to it. This despite Chase's often ham-fisted direction and too-obvious allusions. Too often, Chase lapses into a similar overuse of close-ups to illustrate points the audience has picked up on without need for exclamation. But it's hard to deny that one of the film's genuine treats is the way the camera hugs Magaro's goofy, honest-looking face or lingers on that of Bella Heathcote who plays his pretty, doe-eyed girlfriend.

Not Fade Away's look at the schism that develops between the Greatest Generation and the newer, Summer of Love one plays like a gentler Quadrophenia, the Franc Roddam film based on the Who's rock opera. Like that film, the rock music serves as a backdrop in front of which we see the disillusionment of one generation come to fruition while it escapes the notice of another. But in this case, instead of it being lost on the parents, it is Damiano and his friends who don't see the wide expanse of the future opening up before them in a way that his embittered father recognizes just wasn't possible for those who came of age during World War II.

Despite being narrated by Damiano's younger sister, one gets the sense that this is how Chase remembers the past, if not necessarily exactly how it happened. (The sister's final dance, breaking the fourth wall, drives this home.) Little touches like Gandolfini eating in front of the droning TV set—his pants unbuttoned and belt unclasped—are familiar touchstones for those of us who had working-class dads. Still, despite these details and some throwaway acknowledgements of Chase's love of cinema—Damiano watches Antonioni's Blowup only to ask, "What kind of movie is this? Nothing happens"—Not Fade Away plays too small for the movie screen. This would have played much better and had a longer shelf-life as an HBO telefilm. As it is, Not Fade Away has had a disastrous time at the box office, getting lost amid the shuffle of this season's epic films, like Les Mis. Timing may be more to blame here than Chase's visual sense. However, there's no denying that when it comes to movies, bigger isn't necessarily better and self-restraint may benefit a television director left to his own devices on a larger field than the one he's used to playing on.


Lindsay said...

I could not agree more with you regarding Hooper's direction. Also the sentiment: "Shouldn't originality be one of the criteria?"

My boyfriend said " There should be a rule for how many times something can be adapted and still be nominated for Best Picture."

There's some truth in that!

Tony Dayoub said...

Yes, Lindsay. At what point does it become difficult to separate one filmmaker's technique from that of a predecessor? I suppose one could say that about any director's influences, but not when it's directly applied to the same story.