Romeo & Juliet

Posted on October 10, 2013 at 6:00 pm

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the most-filmed play of all time, with dozens of versions and variations from the sublime (the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann versions, “West Side Story” and “Shakespeare in Love”) to the outlandish (the cute Gnomeo and Juliet, the robot short “Runaway Robots! Romie-O and Julie-8”) and the downright ridiculous (Norma Scherer and Leslie Howard were in twice the age of the characters they were playing).  The story of the “star-cross’d lovers” has immediate appeal — impetuous teenagers, disapproving parents, missed messages, and swordfights.  All it needs to succeed is leads with a lot of chemistry and the ability to adapt to the rhythms of iambic pentameter and the glorious language of the greatest writer in the history of English.  This movie fails on all three.  The leads have no chemistry with each other or with the glorious poetry of the dialog.  And “Downton Abbey’s” Julian Fellowes has mangled the adaptation, changing some of the lines and scenes.  It is not a terrible movie, but it is not an especially good one and with so many better alternatives it is an unnecessary one.

It begins with a useless added scene in which the Prince (Stellan Skarsgård) holds a tournament to settle once and for all the dispute between the feuding Montagues and Capulets.  It doesn’t work.  Soon a fight breaks out between the servants of the two houses that are “alike in dignity” (the play’s first scene) and the Prince is furious.  If they cannot keep the peace, there will be trouble.  Romeo (Douglas Booth), a Montague, is in love with a Capulet cousin named Rosaline.  When he finds out that the Capulets are having a masked party and Rosaline will be there, he and his friends attend the party so Romeo can see her.

Romeo-and-Julliet-romeo-and-juliet-2013-34909054-500-333But Romeo sees the Capulet daughter, Juliet (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld), and they are instantly struck by love.  In the play, their perfect unity is demonstrated by their first conversation, witty flirtation in the form of an exquisite sonnet.  It is one of the best-loved pieces of writing in history.  Yet this version mangles it by ramping up the intensity of the attraction right from the beginning so there is no sense of build-up.  More important, the utter lack of chemistry between the very pretty but bland Booth and the game but not up to the task Steinfeld makes us long for Bella and Edward or even Bella and Jacob.

There are some strong performances, unfortunately just making the two main characters look worse by comparison.  Lesley Manville (“Topsy Turvy”) give the nurse a warmth that is often lost in the usual caricatured portrayals.  Natascha McElhone is a sympathetic Lady Capulet and Paul Giamatti is superb as Friar Laurence.  The standout, though, is Christian Cooke as Mercurtio, whose energy is much missed once he is out of the picture.

Most appallingly, Fellowes has decided to make the text more “accessible” with some trims and edits to the language.  The slight gains in “accessibility” are overwhelmed by the loss of the music in the words and the poetry of the rhythm.  I bite my thumb at him.

Parents should know that this movie includes Shakespearean sword-fighting with many characters injured and killed, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and suicides.

Family discussion:  Did the novice make the right decision?  Why couldn’t Romeo and Juliet tell their parents the truth?

If you like this, try: the other versions by Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli and adaptations like “West Side Story” and “Warm Bodies,” a zombie romance where the characters are named R and Julie)

 

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Based on a play Classic Date movie Drama Remake Romance Stories about Teens Tragedy

Les Misérables

Posted on December 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Fair warning: I seem to be impervious to the appeal of “Les Misérables.”  I was not a fan of the stage show or the songs, but I understand that it is the most popular musical of all time, and I approached this movie version with an open mind.  My take is that it will make the fans happy, but I am still unpersuaded.

The musical is based on Victor Hugo’s vast novel about Jean Valjean (a magnificent Hugh Jackman), who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and spends the rest of his life trying to do good and to avoid the relentless pursuit of Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who is trying to put him back in prison for violating his parole.

When Valjean is first set free, he is bitter and angry.  He repays the kindness of a priest who tries to help him by stealing valuable silver treasures from the church.  Immediately captured, he is returned to the priest (played by Colm Wilkinson, the foremost Valjean in the stage version).  But the priest insists that the items were gifts, and with the police watching, he encourages Valjean to take more.  Valjean is transformed by this compassion and generosity, and he vows to be as good, loving, and devoted to helping others as the man who cared for him.

Years later, Valjean, under another name, is prosperous and public-spirited.  He owns a factory and he is mayor of his town.  Fantine (a heart-breaking Anne Hathaway) works in his factory to support a daughter she boards with an innkeeper and his wife.  She loses her job because she refuses to sleep with a foreman and is forced into prostitution.  Valjean is horrified and feels responsible.  As she lies dying, he promises to care for her daughter, Cosette.

Valjean rescues Cosette from the corrupt innkeeper (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham-Carter).  But he has attracted the attention of Javert, and so he and Cosette must hide.  Ten years later, with Paris in the upheaval of a revolution, an idealistic young man named Marius (“My Week with Marilyn’s” Eddie Redmayne) sees Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and instantly falls in love with her.  In the midst of uprisings and violent reprisals, Valjean tries to keep his promise to Fantine and keep Cosette safe and happy.

Production designer Eve Stewart has done a masterful job, making the setting as vibrant and as essential to the story-telling as any of the characters.  Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) made a critical contribution by having the actors sing their parts while they were filming, instead of pre-recording them to be played back when the movie was being shot.  Since the movie is “sung-through” (all dialogue is sung rather than alternating speaking and singing), this gives the music a welcome organic quality and immediacy. Hathaway’s character is on screen for only a brief time, but her big number, the “I Dreamed a Dream” song memorably sung by Susan Boyle, is wrenching.  Hooper keeps the camera on her beautiful face, like the “Nothing Compares 2 U” Sinead O’Connor video, the better to feel her anguish, and it is a stunning moment.  Elsewhere, he over-does the artsy angles and sometimes assumes too much familiarity with the storyline.  Crowe’s voice is not up to the task and Seyfried’s is stretched beyond its capacity.  Newcomer to film Samantha Barks (from the London cast) as Eponine, the daughter of the innkeepers who also loves Marius, sings like an angel and lights up the screen.

It’s a long slog at nearly three hours, for a non-Miz-head.  But I came away with more understanding of those who are.

Parents should know that this is an epic story of struggle against oppression with disturbing and graphic abuse of prisoners and others, many characters injured and killed, sad deaths (including death of a child), and a woman accused of sexual misconduct and forced into prostitution.

Family discussion: How does the priest change Jean Valjean’s notion of what he should do? Why was Javert so conflicted? Why were the rebels willing to risk their lives?

If you like this, try: the PBS concert specials saluting the 10th and 25th anniversaries of the musical and the non-musical film versions

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Based on a book Based on a play Drama Epic/Historical Musical Tragedy

West Side Story

Posted on November 15, 2011 at 8:00 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to drugs, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Gang violence, characters killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 1, 1970
Date Released to DVD: November 15, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B005BDZN62
Actress Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in a scene from the movie “West Side Story” (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

In honor of the 50th anniversary of this American classic there is a new Blu-Ray release of West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition.  Modeled on “Romeo and Juliet,” this movie puts the star-crossed lovers in two warring gangs in the slums of New York.  The opening dance number brings us up to date. The Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and and the Jets (Anglos) have blown up a series of petty insults and turf disputes into a war over who will rule the territory.   The leader of the Jets, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), goes to see his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer), the former leader of the gang.  Riff asks Tony to come to the dance that night to support him as he negotiates fight terms with Bernardo (George Chakiris), the leader of the Jets.  Tony has outgrown the gang, and wants more from life, but he and Riff are friends “womb to tomb,” so he agrees to go.  Moreno and Chakiris both won Oscars for their performances, two of the ten won by this movie, including Best Picture.  The brilliant music and lyrics are by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

Bernardo’s sister Maria, just arrived in the US, is getting ready for the dance, begging to have her dress cut just a little lower.  Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Rita Moreno), watches over her protectively.  At the dance, well-meaning Mr. Hand tries to get the teenagers to mix with each other, but tensions are high.  As each side dances furiously, everything seems to stop for Tony and Maria, who see each other and are transformed.

Bernardo is furious when he sees them together, and he takes Maria home.  But that night, Tony visits her, and they declare their love for each other.  She asks him to make sure there is no fighting, and he agrees.  At the “war council” he persuades them to make it a fist fight only, and he feels successful.  But Maria wants him to make sure there is no fighting of any kind, so he agrees to try to stop them.  Things get out of control, and Bernardo kills Riff with a knife.  Tony, overcome with grief and guilt, grabs the knife and kills Bernardo.

Running from the police and the Jets, Tony finds Maria.  They dream of a place where they could always be safe and together.  Anita agrees to take a message to Tony, but when she is harassed by the Jets, she angrily tells them that Maria is dead.  Blinded by grief, he stumbles out into the night, and is shot by one of the Sharks.  Maria holds him as he dies, and together, the Sharks and Jets carry him away.

The story retains its power, but the gangs are endearingly tame to us now.  Can it be that once there were gangs who fought with fists and knives?  This is a good opportunity to explore the reasons that people fight.  Anita says that the boys fight like they dance, “Like they have to get rid of something, quick.”  According to her, they are getting rid of “too much feeling.”  Kids understand that idea and may like to talk about what “too much feeling” feels like to them.  The music and dances in this movie do as much to tell the story as the dialogue and plot, and they illustrate this idea especially well.

One important difference between this movie and “Romeo and Juliet,” is that in Shakespeare’s play, the older generation plays an important role.  In “West Side Story,” the few adults who appear are ineffectual and tangential, like Mr. Hand (John Astin), who thinks he can get the kids to be friends by having them dance together.  Listen to the lopsided music-box song he plays for them, and see what a good job it does of expressing both what he is trying to accomplish and how hopeless it is.

            And, of course, this is an important movie to use in talking about prejudice.  See if you can get kids to watch carefully enough to figure out why the Sharks and Jets resent and mistrust each other.

Family discussion: If you were going to adapt the story of “Romeo and Juliet” today, what groups would the boy and girl come from? Where do you see the most prejudice today?  Listen to the song about “America,” with the Sharks and their girlfriends disagreeing about whether America has been good or bad to them. Which side do you agree with?  Are they both right?  Why? In the song “Tonight,” both sides sing, “Well they began it!”  Have you ever seen people act that way? One of the boys tells Doc “You was never my age.”  What does he mean?  Do all teenagers feel like that at times?  Have you ever dreamed of a special place where you could always be safe?  What would it be like? Tony has to decide how he can be loyal to his friend and loyal to Maria.  Why is that hard?  Who else in the movie has to make a decision about loyalty? If you could talk to Tony and Maria, what would you tell them to do?

Connections:  This is a great double-feature with “Romeo and Juliet” or the 1997 version, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”  It is fun to see how much of the movie’s structure is taken from the play.  In both, the lovers see each other at a party, and are immediately overcome.  In both, the boy comes to see the girl later that night.  Juliet speaks to Romeo from a balcony.  Maria speaks to Tony from a fire escape.  Romeo and Tony are both pulled back into the fight due to the deaths of their friends.  In both movies, tragedy results from missed messages.  There are some important differences, too.  Juliet dies, but Maria does not.

 

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A Man for All Seasons

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: The Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is a man of great principle and a devout Catholic in the time of King Henry VIII. The King wants to dissolve his marriage to the queen (a Spanish princess and the widow of his late brother) so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. All around him, courtiers and politicians plot to use this development to their advantage, or at least to hold on to their positions, given the conflict between the Church’s position that marriage is indissoluble and the King’s that it must be dissolved. For More, the choice is clear, and God comes before the King. But because of More’s incorruptible reputation, his support is crucial. Every possible form of persuasion and coercion is attempted, but More will not make any affirmative statement on behalf of the divorce (though he refrains from opposing it explicitly). And More will not lend his allegiance to the new church headed by the King.

Finally, having lost his position, his fortune, his reputation (on false charges) and his liberty, More is sentenced to death. He accepts it with grace and faith, forgiving the executioner.

Discussion: This is an outstanding (and brilliantly filmed) study of a man who is faced with a harrowingly difficult moral choice. The choice remains clear to him, even at great cost not just to himself but to his family. Yet within his clear moral imperative, he does calibrate. His conscience does not require him to work against or even speak out against the divorce; he need only keep silent.

Questions for Kids:

· What does the title mean?

· The same director made “High Noon” — do you see any similarities?

· What would you consider in deciding what to do, if you were More?

· What other characters in history can you think of who sustained such a commitment to a moral principle?

Connections: Kids and teens should read some of the books about this period, and see if they can find reproductions of the paintings by Hans Holbein of the real-life characters. They may want to watch some of the many movies about it as well. As history shows, the marriage that led to the establishment of the Church of England did not last. “Anne of the Thousand Days” tells the story of the relationship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, including, from a different perspective, some of the events of “A Man for All Seasons.” A British mini-series, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” devotes one episode to each wife, and is more historically accurate and very well done. Henry VIII is such a colorful figure that he appeared in several movies, including the classic “Private Life of Henry VIII” with Charles Laughton. His death appears in the (completely fictional) “Prince and the Pauper,” and his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, is featured in several movies, including “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn) and “Mary, Queen of Scots” (with Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth) and “Mary of Scotland” (with Katharine Hepburn as Mary and Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth).

This movie won six Oscars , including Best Picture, Director, and Actor.

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Based on a true story Biography Drama Epic/Historical Tragedy

Old Yeller

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: In 1869 Texas, Jim Coates (Fess Parker) says goodbye to his family, as he leaves for three months to sell their cattle. He tells his older son, Travis (Tommy Kirk) to take care of his mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and his younger brother, Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). Travis asks his father to bring him back a horse. His father says that what he needs is a dog, but Travis does not want one. “Not a dog in this world like old Belle was.”

A stray dog comes to their farm and scares the horse, knocking over Travis and knocking down the fence. Travis throws rocks at the dog, saying, “That dog better not come around here while I got a gun.” But the dog comes back and Arliss “claims” him, over Travis’ objections. Later, Old Yeller saves Arliss from a bear. Travis admits, “He’s a heap more dog than I ever figured him for.” Yeller turns out to be an outstanding dog for farming and hunting.

Old Yeller fights a wolf that was about to attack Katie. She insists he be tied up, because the wolf would not have attacked unless he had hydrophobia, and Yeller may have been infected. When Yeller becomes vicious, Travis knows he must shoot him.

Jim returns, as Travis and his friend Elsbeth are burying Old Yeller. Jim tells him that the loss of Yeller is “not a thing you can forget. Maybe not a thing you want to forget…Now and then, for no good reason a man can figure out, life will just haul off and knock him flat. Slam him agin’ the ground so hard it seems like all his insides is busted. It’s not all like that. A lot of it’s mighty fine. You can’t afford to waste the good part worrying about the bad. That makes it all bad…Sayin’ it’s one thing and feelin’ it’s another. I’ll tell you a trick that’s sometimes a big help. Start looking around for something good to take the place of the bad. As a general rule, you can find it.” Jim has brought the horse Travis wanted, but says, “Reckon you ain’t in no shape to take pleasure in him yet.” Travis goes back to the house, where he sees Yeller’s pup, and knows that he won’t replace Old Yeller, but will be as good a friend as his father was.

Discussion: Jim’s talk with Travis is a model of parental wisdom, understanding, and patience. He accepts and validates Travis’ feelings completely, and does not try to minimize or talk him out of them. (Contrast that with Elsbeth, who tries to comfort Travis by encouraging him to “come to like the pup.”) Instead of telling him what to do, he says, “I’ll tell you a trick that’s sometimes a big help,” letting him decide for himself whether to take the advice and, if he does, letting him decide whether this is one of the times that it is a big help or not. By saying that Travis is not “in shape to take pleasure from the horse” yet, Jim is again letting him know that he respects his feelings of loss and sorrow, and that there will be time for him to feel happy about the horse later.

Travis is not just reluctant to adopt Old Yeller at first — he is downright hostile. The reason is his sense of loss over his first dog, Belle. His ability to accept Young Yeller more easily shows how much he has grown up.

This is one of the finest of the early Disney dramas. The fight scenes are exciting and the family scenes are sensitive and evocative. It is a classic of loss, and an excellent way to begin a discussion of those issues.

Questions for Kids:

· Why doesn’t Travis want Old Yeller at first? Why doesn’t he want the pup?

· How does he hurt Elsbeth’s feelings?

· Why does Katie say “No wonder they didn’t want him on no cow drive” about Elsbeth’s father?

· Why did Sanderson trade Old Yeller for the toad and a meal?

· Why did Sanderson say “that’s the way a man talks” when Travis told him that he was a little scared but would take Sanderson’s advice? What made that “manly”?

Connections: McGuire, Kirk, and Corcoran appeared together in “Swiss Family Robinson.”

Activities: Kids who like animal stories may enjoy the book by Fred Gipson, who co-wrote the screenplay.

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Classic Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues For the Whole Family Tragedy
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