Thursday, March 28, 2013

Les Miserables the Movie: Impressions of the DVD Release

It seemed only fair to end my Les Miserables fan-girling with my impressions of the recent DVD/blu-ray release.  In some ways, I wish that Universal had waited a little longer, because the movie was still doing pretty well at the box office (better than expected) and given another month or two, it might have overtaken Chicago and even Grease to become the highest-grossing musical in the United States.  Oh well.  I'm sure the movie will get another chance when it is rereleased with the extended cut.  *exaggerated wink*

Like many, I purchased the Target "deluxe" DVD set, which came with a "stage to screen" booklet and a bonus disc.  The blu-ray disc contains exclusive bonus material, as did the bonus disc.  So what did I think?

Blu-Ray Disc

As expected, the blu-ray disc had crystal clear graphics that were beautiful to behold.  However, the disc itself was a complete fail.  It plodded along from one segment to the next, taking a very long time to process or upload new material.  Worst of all, it not only gave you no option to skip the commercials, but it also showed commercials on the menu screen.  Oh sure, you had the option of turning off the ticker, but the ticker should never have ever been on in the first place.  There has to be a separation between the commercials and the main event, especially on a DVD that you have paid to own and watch multiple times.  And while the disc had no trouble playing the actual movie, when I paused it for a length of time, I found that I could not get it started again.  Instead, it went back to the beginning -- the very beginning, which meant that I had to watch the commercials all over again.  Forget it.     

That said, if you can stomach the commercials, the blu-ray does provide some very good special features, some of which are available on the regular DVD and some of which are not.  The features unique to the blu-ray are The West End Connection (under A Revolutionary Approach), Les Miserables On Location, Battle at the Barricade, and Live Singing.

1.  The West End Connection

It takes a look at some of the West End performers from past and present who are taking part in the movie.  The list includes Colm Wilkinson, Frances Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser, and Samantha Barks.  This was a nice feature overall, but not nearly long enough.  It would have been nice to get a runthrough of every West Ender associated with the film, since there were dozens.  More clips with different actors would have nice as well.  I also wish that the feature had shown clips of the actors' past performances, but maybe there was concern about too much comparison?

2.  Les Miserables On Location

Another nice feature that was, sadly, not nearly long enough.  The best part was the sequence where they set up the opening scene with the convicts.  Otherwise, we got glimpses of the French countryside, the Royal Naval College where a lot of Parisian footage was filmed, and the manor house that served as Marius's family home.  If you watched the clips the preceded the movie's release, there is not much new here.  

3.  Battle at the Barricade

This feature describes the manner in which the students and other cast literally tossed together the barricade in 10 to 15 minutes.  They did such a good job that Hooper decided to use their barricade instead of the one he had pre-made.

4.  Live Singing

Now this is the real gem of the bonus material.  At first it starts out very much like the live singing featurette that was released prior to the movie.  But then it expands to show how "Master of the House" and the "Confrontation" looked and sounded without the aid of an orchestra.  We also get to see the process of the orchestra figuring out how to play according to the beats of the actors' singing.  One very good sequence involved Cameron Mackintosh complaining that "Do You Hear the People Sing?" did not "combust" the way it should.  If you could choose only one extra to watch, this should be it.


DVD

Happily, the DVD allows you to skip the commercials.  If you have a high-quality flat screen and don't want to deal with the hassle, I would say watch the movie on this disc.  It contains bonus material that is also available on the blu-ray, except for the features mentioned above.  Apart from Tom Hooper's commentary, there is not a whole lot that is new if you have watched the promotional clips.  Nonetheless, it still contains some interesting nuggets.

1.  Tom Hooper's Commentary

Hooper is the only one with commentary on this set, and he provides a very rich, detailed take on the filming process.  You really get a sense of appreciation for how much hard work and thought went into planning and filming each scene.  I won't give away everything he says to those who have not listened, but here are some things that stood out for me:

  • The "fountain" that Javert falls into when he commits suicide was actually a pick up shot.  Hooper and his crew felt that Javert plunging into the water was not dramatic enough, so they added a bath in after the fact.  It was supposed to look as though it was "tempting, calling to" Javert.  
  • Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried's first scenes together were the Epilogue.  I would imagine that such an intense bonding process created a connection that could be felt during other scenes.
  • It was Russell Crowe's idea for Valjean and Javert to be sword fighting during the "Confrontation."
  • Hooper originally filmed the 1848 barricade ending, but in a wise move, decided that he preferred the ghostly barricade, and did not want living people (such as older Marius and Cosette) mixing with the ghosts.
  • In the scene where Valjean is leaving and tries/fails to lift the trunk, Hooper notes that since he had been "practically drowning" in sewage, it's not surprising that he could have caught something that would make him frail.  
  • Hooper wanted Amanda Seyfried to play Cosette as intelligent and aware (which is also why he added the scene where she is told of Valjean's departure) because her character in the musical is so passive.
  • Eddie Redmayne, ever perceptive, feared that Marius would seem callous if they went straight from Eponine dying to him seeking out Cosette.  Hooper dismisses his concerns, but I think he was right.  What is more, watching that bit of commentary, I got the impression that "Her name was Eponine" was never filmed.  Can anyone else watch that part and confirm?

2.  The Stars of Les Miserables

Again, very little that you haven't already seen if you watched the promotional releases.  Hooper needed the "perfect storm" of singing and acting.  The movie would not have been made if not for Hugh Jackman's existence.  Anne Hathaway's mother was Fantine.  The one new thing I learned -- and I'm not so sure it's new -- courtesy of Samantha Barks: Eddie Redmayne has a very strong falsetto.

3.  Creating the Perfect Paris

See above.  Paris was recreated on the Richard Attenborough sound stage, the largest in the UK, because the Paris of 1832 no longer exists.  The French tore up the narrow streets in the 1850s because they were so prime for starting revolutions.

4.  The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo's Les Miserables

This feature looks at Victor Hugo's life and influences, and makes the connection to parts of Les Miserables.  Notably, Hugo went into exile after Napoleon III's coup and did not return until he was deposed.  His funeral had two million spectators.  Oh, and it would appear that throughout his life, Victor Hugo had an incredibly high forehead.  


Bonus Disc

The supplemental disc mixes already familiar material with some surprises.

1.  The Genesis of Les Miserables

Nothing new if you watched the promotional releases.  In fact, I think this is the same retrospective as the one they released before the movie.  It traces the musical's evolution from its French origins to its opening at the Barbican in London.   

2.  The Transformation of Hugh Jackman

This one goes maybe slightly more in-depth into the transformation he went through to play convict Valjean.  It also features fleeting scenes that never made it into the final cut, such as Valjean emerging from the water after his plunge following the "Confrontation."

3.  The Young Revolutionaries

Yay, we get to see Aaron Tveit speak!  This is probably the best of the bonus content.  Aaron Tveit describes the bond between Marius and Enjolras, and says that all of the "students" bonded throughout filming.  Eddie Redmayne mentions being "terrified" that so many of the ensemble students had actually played Marius on the West End.  The students show off their "death makeup" before going off to film the scene where they die horribly.  It's fun to watch, and a nice tribute to the "barricade boys," whose tweets I followed during the filming process and who have been overshadowed by the major players.

4.  Anatomy of a Scene: Lovely Ladies

Another good one.  Hooper really wanted to create a hellish landscape, so he brought in fish to be gutted and let it slowly rot, as well as covered the set with slime.  Anne Hathaway says that her nose constantly running was not acting, but a reaction to the chilly set.  As with the West End bonus, I just wish that all of the "ladies" could have been introduced, since many have played prominent roles on the West End, yet the only one I recognized was Frances Ruffelle. 

5.  Anatomy of a Scene: Master of the House

This one is good as well.  We watch the actors work out how to do the dance choreography.  Helena Bonham Carter notes that a lot of the comedy was not written and it took work to figure out before filming.  She also introduces her newfound ability to pickpocket.  For whatever reason, only Bonham Carter and not Sasha Baron Cohen was interviewed for this.  Did Baron Cohen have laryngitis that week?  Not that I'm complaining.

6.  Les Miserables Lives On

This one surprised me when I first saw it.  It draws very explicit connections between the anger in 1832 and the massive inequality that gave rise to the Occupy movement.  Not that those connections aren't apt, but I was surprised that Hooper and company were so openly political, that they didn't just invoke a bland "universality" theme to avoid alienating a segment of consumers.  Overall, very interesting and worth watching.      


Conclusion

The discs definitely feature a lot of good material, including new material that was not released before the movie.  At the same time, I felt as though something was being held back.  I wanted more interviews with the extended cast, as well as commentary from the actors.  An extended scene of the actors either singing live or filming the barricade sequence would have also been great.  If there is ever an extended release, I have no doubt we will get to see more of this material.  Until then, what we have is pretty good.

So adieu, Les Miz.  Thank you for providing so much entertainment.  Maybe I'll catch you next time on Broadway in 2014.

3 comments:

  1. Btw., when I say "another month or two," I mean with a decent number of screens, like 1,000. Another month or two with the number of screens showing that movie now, it would be lucky to earn another $1 million.

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  2. Here, here! The commercials at the start actually put a family member off watching. I had collared them to watch 15 minutes or so to convince them how good it was, but after 5 commercials and 10 minutes the film hadn't started and they got up and left.

    I am disgusted that I am trapped into watching so many commercials on a DVD I have bought. Were do we complain to?

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    1. I would guess the Universal home video department. I think it's Universal Studios Entertainment. Hopefully in the second generation, the blu-ray will be much better. Mine is pretty awful, from the commercials to the plodding to (I discovered after I watched in full) the skipping scenes and pixelation! The rest of the package is fine, but I am tempted to demand a new blu-ray disc.

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