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: Middle School
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: 1961
Date Released to DVD: November 15, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B005BDZN62

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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Based on a play Classic Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Musical Romance 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

Spartacus

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave in the Roman empire, about 70 years before the birth of Christ. A rebellious and proud man, he is sentenced to death for biting a guard but rescued by Biatius (Peter Ustinov), who buys him and takes him to his school for training and selling gladiators. Slave women are provided to the men as rewards. Varinia (Jean Simmons), a British slave, is given to Spartacus. He is awestruck by her grace and beauty, but when he sees that Biatius is watching them, he screams, “I am not an animal!” and will not touch her.

Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a Roman dignitary, visits Biatius’ home with two spoiled and decadent women, who insist on seeing a fight to the death. Spartacus is paired with Draba (Woody Strode), an Ethiopian, who fights with net and trident. Draba corners Spartacus but refuses to kill him, and intstead rushes toward Crassus, who slits his throat. Crassus buys Varinia, and when a guard taunts Spartacus about her, Spartacus kills him, and leads the other slaves in a revolt.

They escape to the countryside, and other slaves join them as they make progress toward the sea, where they hope to escape. Varinia and Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a slave singer and magician, escape from Crassus, and join the slaves. The Romans send troops to capture them, but the slaves defeat them, sending back the message that all they want is the freedom to return to their homes. Crassus uses the slave revolt to gain political power, by promising “order” if he is given complete control. When he is successful, triumphing over his political rival, Gracchus (Charles Laughton), he cuts off the slaves’ access to ships, and surrounds them with troops. Many are killed on both sides, and the slaves are recaptured. Crassus promises them their lives if they will just give him Spartacus. As Spartacus is about to step forward, each of the slaves cries out, “I am Spartacus!” The Romans crucify them all except for Spartacus and Antoninus, lining the Appian Way with 6000 crucifixes.

Crassus takes Varinia and her new baby back to his home. He wants her affection, as the ultimate triumph over Spartacus. Spartacus and Antoninus are ordered to fight to the death, with the survivor to be crucified. Each tries to kill the other, to save him from the slow death of crucifixion. Spartacus is successful, killing Antoninus out of love and mercy, and then he is crucified. Before he dies, he is able to see Varinia and his son, now both free, thanks to Gracchus.

Discussion: This epic saga of the price of freedom is thrilling to watch, the struggles of conscience as gripping as the brilliantly staged battle scenes. When we first see Spartacus, he strikes out at an oppressor almost reflexively. He does not care that the consequence is death; as he later says, for a slave death is only a release from pain.

His life is spared when he is purchased by Biatius. His training as a gladiator gives him his first chance to form bonds with fellow slaves. His exposure to the guards and to the degenerate women from Rome, who insist on watching muscular men kill each other, shows him that power is not based on worth. When he shouts, “I am not an animal!” he is saying it to himself as much as to Biatius. When he strikes out again, he is armed not only with the fighting skills he has learned, but also with an ability to lead, founded in a new sense of entitlement to freedom.

The characters in this movie are especially vivid and interesting. Varinia has a wonderful grace and a rare humor, which adds warmth to her character. She is able to shield her emotional self from the abuse she is forced to endure without deadening her feelings. Gracchus conveys the essential decency of a man who has made many compromises, political and spiritual.

Both the author of the book and the screenwriter were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and families should discuss how that influenced their approach to the story. Kids may also be interested to know that this was among the most popular movies show in the former Soviet Union, and should consider what it was that appealed to the communists.

Questions for Kids:

· Why was it important for the Romans to spread the rumor that Spartacus was of noble birth?

· What did Biatius mean when he said he had found his dignity? How was he changed?

· What did it mean when Gracchus responded that “dignity shortens life even more quickly than disease?”

· Why did Crassus say he was more concerned about killing the legend than killing the man?

· Why did each of the slaves claim to be Spartacus?

Connections: The movie cuts back and forth between the speeches given by Crassus and Spartacus to inspire their followers. Compare the speeches to each other, and to the most famous such speech in literature, Henry V’s “we few, we happy few” speech, delivered by Olivier (who also played Crassus) in the 1945 version of “Henry V,” and delivered with a very different interpretation by Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 version. The sense of community and loyalty of the slaves is reminiscient of similar scenes in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

This was the first screen credit for scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo after he was jailed for refusing to cooperate with Senater Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, though he wrote under other names during that period, and even won two Oscars for best screenplay under other names.

Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for his performance as the slave dealer who runs the gladiator school. He is a rare actor who is able to keep his character as interesting after becoming (at least comparatively) virtuous as he was before.

All of the performances are outstanding. Jean Simmons can also be seein in “Guys and Dolls” and “Great Expectations.” Charles Laughton can be seen in “Witness for the Prosecution,” and “Advise and Consent.” The movie also won Oscars for art direction, costume design, and cinematography.

In 1991, an expanded version of the film was released, restoring scenes that had been cut for the original release, including a bathing scene with Cassus and Antoninus with an implication of sexual interest. Because the original soundtrack was not available and Olivier was dead, his voice was dubbed by Anthony Hopkins.

Activities: Kids who like this movie might enjoy the novel by Howard Fast, also the author of a novel about the American revolution, April Morning.

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Classic Drama Epic/Historical Tragedy

The Yearling

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: This quiet, thoughtful, visually striking adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings covers a year in the life of the Baxter family, post-Civil War settlers in remote Florida. The focus is on Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), 12, a dreamy boy who loves animals and wishes he could have a pet, “something for my own, something to follow me.” Pa Baxter (Gregory Peck) is warm and understanding. Ma (Jane Wyman) seems harsh and rigid, but only because she has been so devastated by the loss of three children that she feels she has to contain her feelings, that if she allows herself to be vulnerable she will not be able to stand the pain.

The only other boy Jody knows is a frail boy named Fodderwing, who lives nearby. Jody loves to visit him, to hear his imaginative tales and play with his pets. Over Ma’s objections, Pa insists that Jody be allowed to have a young deer as a pet, and Jody goes to Fodderwing to ask him to name the deer. Fodderwing has died, but his father tells Jody he once said that if he had a deer, he would name it Flag, and that is the name Jody chooses. Jody loves Flag, and does everything he can to keep him, even building a high fence to keep Flag out of the corn crop, which is essential to the family’s livelihood. But Flag cannot stop eating the crop and has to be destroyed. Ma shoots him, and then Jody has to put him out of his misery.

Jody runs away, but returns. His father notes approvingly that Jody “takes for his share and goes on,” and tells Ma that “He’s done come back different. He’s taken the punishment. He ain’t a yearling no more.”

Discussion: This is a classic story of loss, not just of a beloved pet, but of the innocence and freedom of childhood that Flag symbolizes. Pa says to Jody: “Every man wants life to be a fine thing, and easy. Well, it’s fine, son, powerful fine. But it ain’t easy. I want life to be easier for you than it was for me….A man’s heart aches seeing his young ‘uns face the world knowing that they got to have their insides tore out the way his was tore.” All parents want to protect their children this way. And yet, all parents realize that having one’s “insides tore out” is a necessary part of growing up, that no one ever learns how to make responsible choices without these painful experiences. Pa tells Jody that life is “gettin’, losin’, gettin’, losin’.”

In the last moment of the film, as in the book, the boy and the deer run off together in Jody’s imagination. In part, this means that Jody’s innocence is gone with the deer. But it also means that a precious part of his spirit, the part that loved the deer so deeply, will be with him always, and will be a part of everything that he does.

Questions for Kids:

· Who is “the yearling?”

· What do you think of Pa’s strategy for trading his dog for a gun? What did he mean when he later said that his words were straight, but his intentions were crooked?

· What do Jody’s friends Fodderwing and Oliver tell you about him?

· Why was it hard for Ma to show affection? How can you tell?

· How was Jody different when he came back home?

Connections: Mature teenagers may be interested in “Cross Creek,” a fictionalized account of Rawlings’ life, including the writing of The Yearling, and “Gal Young ‘Un,” a film based on one of her short stories, about an exploitive husband his wife and his girlfriend.

Activities: Middle school kids will enjoy the book.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues For the Whole Family Tragedy
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