Tuesday, January 29, 2013

ROUND UP--Les Miserables

Periodically, the Academy nominates a musical to stand among the best motion picture nominees.  And sometimes they even win.  The last musical to win Best Picture was Chicago, in 2002.

This year's musical nominee is Les Miserables.

We had seen Les Mis (as it is more easily referred to) twice before on stage, including seeing it on Broadway.  As a stage musical, it is an enjoyable performance with a dramatic historical backdrop, a tale of revenge and redemption, an interwoven love story, a touch of comic relief, and a fair bathing of pathos.  All that plus some quite stirring songs that you can actually hum days after seeing the performance.

But transfer these ingredients to the screen--and what do you get?  Sadly, I think you get a piecework of dramatic vignettes that only just barely hang together.

Several elements work against this movie being a satisfying experience.  First, there is what seems to have been a conscious decision to present the movie as though it were a stage performance.  Of course, a stage is a limited space which imposes restrictions on actor and scene.  Movies are free from these restrictions and can frequently bring a different and vibrant element to making a story visual.  But repeatedly, the way scenes are presented in Les Mis gives you the impression of its being a stage performance.  The most obvious example of this was the decision to have all the singing performed live for the camera--that is, not dubbed in afterwards.  So the camera is constantly right in the face of the actors as they sing.  Sometimes it works well--as when Anne Hathaway sings "I Dreamed a Dream."  Sometimes it just seems forced as when Russell Crowe sings...well, just about anything.

Another example of the staginess is the way the movie goes from scene to scene.  Scenes follow each other with almost no transition--except an occasional "20 years later" or some such other explanatory note.  The effect is more confusing than anything else.   Even the context of the movie is somewhat mysterious.  It is set during times of revolution in France--QUICK--what revolution is this in France?

Did you say the French Revolution?  Well, duh.  It's France, it's revolution--hence the French Revolution.  But, no.  The uprising that dominates the latter part of the movie actually takes place in 1832, the so-called June Rebellion.  Victor Hugo immortalizes this rebellion in his novel Les Miserables.  But for his work, this rebellion would have been a footnote in history.  What the movie presents is even more confusing.

In fact, the way each of the plot elements is presented is confusing.  We have multiple story lines--the intertwined fates of Jean Valjean who serves time for the most minor of crimes and Jafvert who pursues Valjean because...well, it's not really clear why.  There is Fantine who works in Valjean's factory--oh, that's after he is out of prison and becomes a town mayor and captain of industry.  Fantine is fired and turns to prostitution to earn money to support her daughter Cosette who is being kept by the Thénardiers who...oh, never mind. 

I haven't even gotten to Valjean's decision to take in Cosette and raise her as his own daughter, or to the students' rebellion which introduces us to Marius who is loved by Éponine (the Thénardiers' daughter), only Marius loves Cosette...

All of these elements are in the stage version too, but somehow they hang together more convincingly in the stage version.  Here in the movie version, we are presented with scene after scene quilt-like fashion, only the binding stitches are missing.

Another disappointment for me was how some of the characters were portrayed.  The exceptions are Hugh Jackman who is amazing in the role of Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathway who is a revelation as Fantine.  Two big disappointments were Russell Crowe as Jafvert--which he plays with a flat slightly baffled vengeance.  His demeanor seems to be rather like a dog that knows he hates cats, but doesn't quite know why--but, oh look--there's that cat, gotta chase it.  And there's Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter cast as the Thénardiers.  In the stage version, these characters are benignly comic.  In the movie they are manically rapacious and grasping.  The inn scene with them filching practically everything from customers at the inn is--frankly--off putting and disgusting.

I make it sound as though the whole movie experience was a waste.  Well, for the most part the singing is good, at times even stirring--and isn't that what you want in a musical?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

ROUND UP--Silver Linings Playbook

Every year, when the Oscar nominations are first announced, there are a few surprises.  No doubt, the nomination of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK* for best picture was one such surprise.

Several years ago, there was a sudden flurry of independent films--and while SILVER LININGS may not be an independent--it has that kind of feel.  I really enjoy indie films.  Rather than use (or overuse) special effects, violence, mayhem and absurd story lines, indies draw their strength from character development and credible plot lines.

I am thinking about movies such as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (nominated for Best Picture in 2006), or LOVELY AND AMAZING (2001) or THE SUNSHINE STATE (2002).  On a recent plane trip, I rewatched IN AMERICA (2002).  I loved it again--having forgotten how touching and sweet it is. 

I itemize these movies because that is the kind of movie that really appeals to me.  Despite that, I was at first reluctant to go and see SILVER LININGS .  I tend to do advance research before going to see a movie--if it is historically based, I might brush up on the historical context.  I certainly read reviews, and check out the tomato meter

So when I read the plot summary for SILVER LININGS , I hesitated.  It sounded confusing, even potentially screwed up.  But then I checked the tomato meter--hmmmm 92%.  Well, OK, let's give it a try.

I am so glad we did.  In the movie, we meet Pat Soltano (Bradley Cooper) whose life has come apart.  Actually, he is the one who pulled it apart--he lost his wife, his job, and is in a state institution (mental? penal? both?) as the movie opens.  Soon, his mother bails him out, giving him a chance to put his life back together.  He has no place to go, so he is back with his parents living in his boyhood bedroom.  Not an auspicious beginning.  His sole goal at this point is to get back in the good graces of his estranged wife.

Along the way, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has as many problems as Pat does.  Slowly a relationship of sorts develops.  Tiffany also has a goal--to participate in a dance contest but she lacks a partner.  Through some maneuverings, she cajoles Pat into being her partner.

OK--enough plot.  I should add that the movie is set in Philadelphia, and being an Eagles' fan is a prominent part of the plot--Pat's father (Robert De Niro) is a die-hard fan.  But, as I said, enough plot.

A quick word on the acting--I had not seen Bradley Cooper in a role before (or seen him in any other way) but I am now a fan, especially if he keeps playing roles such as Pat.  As for Jennifer Lawrence, we first saw her in WINTER'S BONE (oh, another indie--2010) and were absolutely blown away with her performance in that movie.

So see SILVER LININGS .  I hope you will be as charmed as I am.

*From here on out, I will just say SILVER LININGS .

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

ROUND UP--Lincoln

Time to do the Oscar round-up.  Every year, part of our preparation for watching a favorite annual spectacle—the Academy Awards—involves trundling off to movies.  We usually compress this preparation into one or two weeks.  This year, we have been a little more leisurely, a little less frenetic.

Even before the Oscar nominations were announced, we went to see LINCOLN.  Whether or not the movie was nominated was of less import than seeing one of the consummate actors of our time—Daniel Day Lewis—at his craft.  Only, we didn’t see Daniel Day Lewis.  Instead we saw a reincarnation of Lincoln—the long wearied looks as the weight of the Civil War grinding on weighs on him; the flex of his jaw as he endures the in-fighting within his cabinet; the twinkle in his eye as he recalls an anecdote that may—or may not—have bearing on a situation before him.

There are wonderful little bon mots sprinkled throughout the highly literate screenplay.  In one scene, Lincoln wanders into the communications area where two young men sit, waiting to send and receive Morse code messages.  Seemingly disconnected from all the action surrounding the scene, and even to some extent the whole movie, Lincoln launches into a rumination of Euclid’s First Common Notion (Things which equal the same thing also equal one another.)  He muses about having been reading Euclid and cites the First Common Notion.  He draws no explicit conclusions.  But to the viewer, a clear foundation is laid down that in deed and fact “all men are created equal.”

The fulcrum of the movie is the fight to get the 16th amendment passed.  And quite a messy fight it is.  It is both heartening and disheartening to see how contemporary that fight seems.  Update the players, the setting and you could easily see the event as something occurring in our time.

When the Academy Award nominees were announced, it was no surprise at all to see how many nominations LINCOLN garnered—deservedly so in my view.  In addition to Daniel Day Lewis’ powerful incarnation as Lincoln, Sally Fields is cast as Mary Todd Lincoln—a role she plays with a convincing blend of tartness, pathos and touch of insanity.  Tommy Lee Jones is Senator Thaddeus Stevens who eventually had to bend his unbending principles to accomplish something great. 

Finally, kudos go to Stephen Spielberg for directing this movie, and to Tony Kushner for pulling out of the myriad of historical accounts a coherent narrative that is the screenplay.

If you have time to see just ONE of the nominated movies, make it LINCOLN.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


I can't say ANNI-versary, as that refers to year.
But, the newest member has reached one month...

Monday, January 07, 2013

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Happily spending time with our London family...soon time to return home to the U.S.

Meet the newest member--

And her mama--

And her papa--

And the newly minted grandparents--


And Grandma--

And a grand time was had by all!


Tuesday, January 01, 2013

No Small Potatoes

Among some Americans, there is a presumption that British cuisine is…somewhat lacking. Frankly, based on my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. I have not gone grocery shopping frequently while visiting London, but occasionally we have.  Visiting food stores is one interesting way to experience a slice of culture in a particular country.

One of the first times we visited our daughter and son-in-law, we spent a fair bit of time in absolute delight at the Borough Market, which was near their flat at that time.  We loved wandering around the various stalls—in fact, I wrote about thatexperience.  The smells, the sights, the absolute sensual overload. 
On our most recent trip, I went grocery shopping with our son-in-law.  Our mission—procure all the ingredients for a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch New Year’s Day dinner: pork loin roast, potatoes, sauerkraut and applesauce.  The large grocery store we went in had lovely pork roasts, including some from free range pigs.  Really?  Thinking about shopping for meats in my local U.S. grocery store, I do not routinely find free range meats.

And as for potatoes.  Well!  I did recall the Borough Market shopping experience where the vegetable arrays were an absolute feast for  the eyes, with at least 10 different kinds of POTATOES.  Once again, the choices were far larger than I would find in a typical U.S. grocery store.  In the U.S., I might have a choice of ordinary white potatoes, yellow potatoes, redskin potatoes and baking potatoes.

In London, in a large grocery store, my choices were:  “essential” potatoes, “essential” baking potatoes, organic potatoes, organic NEW potatoes, baby potatoes,  Maris Piper potatoes, King Edward potatoes, McCain roasting potatoes, Red Desiree potatoes, Charlotte potatoes, Carlingford small new potatoes, Roseval potatoes and fingerling potatoes.  All of these were the FRESH potatoes.

Our shopping trip was successful—true, we had to go to two different grocery stores to get all the items.  The large grocery store was OUT of sauerkraut.  But, once we went to a grocery that stocked “American” goods, we got the sauerkraut AND the applesauce.

Our New Year’s Day meal was a success.  And my admiration is great for the dedication of English grocers, small and large, whether in supermarket grocery store or open-air market, to stocking a full array of marvelous foods.

Next time someone scoffs at English cuisine—I might just say “it is far better than you know.”  Why, in the U.S., you can only find a few kinds of potatoes.   And no small potatoes!
 Note the dish with mashed potatoes in the foreground.