Thoroughly misérable

My brother, a classical singer, recently grumbled to a professional acquaintance about the score of Les Misérables, wondering why everyone goes on about it like it’s Gershwin – something written with the talent of a composer in the classical tradition who got mixed up in the razzmatazz of musical theatre. The response was starling. A carmine-painted nail prodded his lapel. “Don’t diss Les Mis,” the prodder warned, going on to describe the rapture of having seen it as a kid in 1985, the drive home from the Barbican through the night-orange city with programme clutched to Laura Ashley blouse, feeling fully initiated into the whole tragic scale of adult life.

The tears were for Jean Valjean, hero of the story (played in the film by Hugh Jackman), who steals a loaf of bread for his starving sister and is banged up for eternity, escaping parole only to be chased across post-Revolution France – in the film by Russell Crowe, who’s got it in for him big-style. We are never quite sure why Inspector Javert despises Valjean so much – ask Victor Hugo – but Crowe is absurdly desperate to get his man, and stands on the steps of the military academy in Greenwich (where much of the film was shot) with his fists balled up in frustration and his usually impressive belly contained by a fetching military uniform (the bigger Crowe is the better if you ask me – his is not a body born to fight against its DNA).

There is no memorable spoken dialogue. Every line here (as on stage) is doggedly sung, even though recitative as a concept ought to have died with Mozart, and on screen here gives the whole thing an air of neurotic pomposity – a low form pumping itself into seriousness by adopting one of the 18th century’s more tedious devices. Even Bizet recognised that a bit of normal chit-chat went down a storm in Carmen. Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made a much-applauded decision to record all the vocals live while filming (nothing is dubbed) but this feels as much to do with giving the mediocre score some crucial oomph or magic as it was an artistic decision. What else could he do?

“The Man That Got Away” in A Star is Born is a good song. “Maybe This Time” in Cabaret is a good song. Even “Send in the Clowns” is a good song! “I Dreamed a Dream” is not – although it’s the best of a bad lot – and Anne Hathaway will win an Oscar for her rendition lasting around three minutes, and deservedly so, because she does something stunning here. Singing much of the number unaccompanied, the actress is utterly in control of the rhythm – and is determined that nothing should hurry her. For a moment we have a shift in pace and tone, personality and feeling. We have interpretation. In a way, her triumph is the stone in the film’s shoe – it peaks 15 minutes in, and all the rest seems even more mired in its monotonously frigid colour palette, washed in a frosty pale blue, as unreal and boring as Christopher Nolan’s grey Gotham City. This is a movie about suffering with no jagged edges.

The beginning of a melancholy documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about an 85-year-old master sushi chef called Jiro Ono, is of endless fish being pressed on to rice then painted with one swipe of sauce. The images are voluptuous – how many varieties of fish and crab and squid and sea urchin! How increasingly rare the flesh! Ono, a sushi chef since a teenager, folds on his belt like a samurai before service and often dreams in sushi, even now doodling new creations (the art goes back 1,000 years) on bits of paper like da Vinci with his helicopters.

His restaurant in Tokyo seats only 10, and people book a year in advance, Jiro preparing each morsel in front of the diner and then standing and watching – his face implacable – as they eat (an experience described as unnerving) while in the background his assistants devotedly roll octopus into mulch. Sushi, once a great and expensive Japanese delicacy, has long been conveyor-belted into the super-disposable international snack. Tuna are almost no more. The themes of age and appalling loss give the film a freakishly affecting lyricism.

If you knew nothing whatsoever about What Richard Did, for a long time watching you would still be entirely in the dark as to its genre and yet enjoying the growing sense of, if not quite dread, something being wrong. Loosely based on real events, it watches a dimpled high-school rugby player in Dublin ruining his gilded life in a drunken fight. Its power tails away significantly after the fracas but before this the film has a magnificent hold.

Midnight Son, a vampire film just when we scarcely need another, has its young, blood-tempted hero living in a squalid LA basement coming to terms with his demanding condition. Has he murdered for food before? Or is this a sudden escalation in his appetites? It’s never made clear, which grates, but the film plugs its holes with a curdled blankness.

Gangster Squad, telling the true story of a gang of undercover cops bringing down the mob in 1940s Hollywood, is so catastrophically juvenile and style-fixated there is no detectable trace of any talent involved. The trailer promised us LA Confidential – with Ryan Gosling! Or at the very least The Untouchables – with Ryan Gosling! Imagine the thrill if it had been either. (Ryan Gosling is in it, but like everything else comes over prodigiously facile.) Sean Penn appears too, as a crazed mob lord. Baked by long months of extracurricular aid work in Haiti between films, the 52- year-old Penn's appearance is now something stunning to behold. Truly, he is a creature made of bark.

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