The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons
After reading the novel, I had to watch the film directed by Orson Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons is considered a classic film though not up to the level of Welles’ Citizen Kane. The film is quite faithful to the book, but I wished it included George with his rival redhead Fred Kinney, the part when Eugene falls over laughing when he sees how similar George and Fred’s conflict is to his own foolishness and how Lucy was not exclusive to George, how she would go dancing and socialize with other young men and how that made George feel so insecure.

The film was good, but not as full as the book, which is so often the case.

Welles had the actors in dark settings. I wished the mansions had more light. Buy some candles! Or get electricity!

The film was enjoyable and a classic. Reading the essay on Criterion, I learned how much Welles’ vision was altered:

But in Welles’ absence, RKO Studios recut the original version of the film mercilessly—Welles said it looked like it had been “edited with a lawn mower”—reducing its running time from 131 to the present 88 minutes. Nevertheless, what survives is still one of the most strikingly beautiful and technically innovative films ever to come out of Hollywood. It also tells a good story—about the decline of a once powerful and wealthy turn-of-the-century Midwestern family—with a conviction and maturity that are rare for the old Hollywood system.

I wish I could see the 133 minutes, but I’m glad I saw this.

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Army of Shadows

An amazingly powerful film, Army of Shadows shows the ordinary people joined the French Resistance and courageously opposed the Germans during WWII.

From the solemn beginning with German soldiers goose-stepping in front of the Arc de Triomphe to the bitter end, when . . . oh, I won’t say, Army of Shadows grabbed me.

After the opening sequence, we meet Gerbier, who’s sitting in the back of a German truck getting transported to a prison camp. Scenes of ordinariness follow. The truck driver makes a stop to pick up provisions from a farmer. Gerbier’s guard makes small talk to let Gerbier know he’s going to a “good” prison camp. At the camp, Gerbier is housed with two groups of prisoners, the first three amuse themselves with dominos and chit chat and seem to be and to have been men who just go with the flow. The other two prisoners are a young communist and a dying Catholic teacher. The division reflects French society, two groups, one that’s earnest and sickly and the other that’s lively, but superficial. Neither one gets much accomplished. Thus Gerbier sets his own course and doesn’t join either “side.” He’s the lone, strong, sensible man.

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Gerbier is transported to the Nazi headquarters and manages to escape. Then as he meets the other members of the Resistance, we watch as Gerbier leads a plot to abduct and kill the young man, who betrayed the Resistance. ordinary people plan and organize what would be criminal acts they’d never undertake in ordinary circumstances.

All the actors deliver compelling performances. The story presents a fascinating look at history and was quite controversial when it was released in France in 1969. Critics were divided on the film because of its controversial portrayal of the Resistance fighters, who sometimes act like very intelligent gangsters.

What’s amazing about the film is how little action it contains. In certain instances there are chases and attacks, but that’s subordinate to the characters’ thinking, sacrifice and courage.

This film was so compelling that after I finished watching I started watching again, this time with the commentary running.

Lord of the Flies

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I remember reading about Ralph, Piggy and the other boys lost on the island in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies when I was a freshman in high school. While the writing was good, I didn’t particularly like the story showing how easily people revert to brutes. We may have seen the film, but I’m not sure.

A while back I ran across a cheap DVD of the Criterion Collection version of director Peter Brook’s 1963 The Lord of the Flies. It sat on my shelf till this week when as I avoided finishing my Government Documents’ paper. By now I’ve learned that Golding won the Nobel prize and I’ve seen and come to appreciate good filmmaking more so as you’d expect the experience was different, better.

While I still was horrified by the idea that two groups of English schoolboys get lost on a remote, uninhabited island and their fantasies about beasts and some desire for power warps them and turns them into brutes capable of murder and of denying responsibility for murder, I appreciated how naturally the boys acted and how hard it must have been to direct them. During filming Brooks had one camera man just take whatever shots he wanted. This decision turned out to be genius as that cameraman got dozens of small movements like when Piggy hesitates about getting into the water. His tentative steps back and forth weren’t directed or written, they were just real and true.

The DVD came with great bonus tracks including an interview with Golding, who rarely granted interviews. He explains how his parents were absolutely rational atheists and he came to see that that world view didn’t make sense. When WWII came, he fought and in the midst of the brutality and chaos he realized that the idea that if everyone’s educated and has enough to survive, and society embraced socialist values and forgot about religion, then all will be well, that we’d stop having wars. Golding found those ideas, which his father held to be wrong. The Lord of the Flies was an attempt, after three unsold novels, to illustrate how brutal we can all easily become. (Now The Lord of the Flies doesn’t perfectly argue against socialism or atheism, but those ideas prompted this story.)

I found the story captivating and may show it to one of my classes . . . if there’s time.

The Empty House

English: Second of the four illustrations incl...

English: Second of the four illustrations included in the edition of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by AC Doyle published in 1894 by A. L. Burt in New York. (Source: Wikipedia)

Sherlock, season 3 begins on PBS tonight. In anticipation, I’ve read “The Empty House,” the Arthur Conan Doyle (ACD) short story that the episode is based on. It’s been years since I’ve read a Sherlock story. When I was in high school, I was in the Sherlock Holmes Society and read several. Doyle knows how to tell a good story. His style is direct and compelling. His hero, Sherlock is brilliant yet flawed and he captures the friendship between Holmes and Watson very well. They’re able to speak frankly, though Watson sometimes refrains from commenting because he feels he won’t be listened to or in other cases, is in awe of his friend’s mental prowess.

“The Empty House” was the first story of Holmes’ return or resurrection. Fans will remember that Doyle grew tired of his popular character. Apparently, ACD suffered more than Watson from being overshadowed by Sherlock. Try as he might, he wanted Sherlock gone, but the public clamored for more and after 10 years, ACD relented and wrote, “The Empty House” in which Sherlock returns to solve the case of the murder of Ronald Adair.

Highlights include Sherlock explaining how and why he cheated death and fooled Moriarty and Watson holding what might be the first literary intervention when he voices disproval of Sherlock’s use of (the then legal) cocaine. Like the modern Sherlock played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the original Sherlock used stimulants to stave off the boredom of ordinary life.

I delighted in how often Sherlock quotes Shakespeare and recommend getting an annotated book like The Oxford Sherlock Holmes, which illuminates all the references and quotations.

Reading the story this time around, I was struck by how much screenwriters Moffat and Gatiss borrow from the original. I’m not complaining. In fact I applaud them for their faithful, clever adaptations.

Tonight American fans  see what the duo has done to explain Sherlock’s death. How could he fake his death so convincingly? The YouTube video above provides a thoughtful analysis. If it’s correct, Moffat and Gatiss would have closely followed what happened in the original story. Folks in the U.K. already know what happened. In North America we’ll soon find out.

Do read the originals. They’re well written and you’ll gain insight. For next week I’m finishing The Sign of Four.

Anna Karenina

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The 2012 Anna Karenina is visually masterful and dramatically potent. Director Joe Wright‘s film adheres to Tolstoy‘s novel, but moves at a clip. Viewers get all the essential with out all many of the details of the masterpiece. It’s a good introduction to a must-read book. If you only watch the film, you won’t get all the details of life in the country-side and the social issues of the late 19th century. You will get the passion and momentum of a woman caught up in a scandalous affair, though the film moves so fast that you don’t get the full sense of the isolation she feels when she moves with Vronsky to the country.

The film’s strength for me was it the gorgeous visuals. Wright presents a different world, a story set on a stage much of the time, a stage that transports us and contains Anna’s world. I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage . . . ” line. I’m sure I was meant to.

I read the book years ago and loved it. Anna Karenina is the story of a young, passionate woman married to a stern, coldly traditional man, who isn’t bad, but just has no idea how to love.  Anna meets a dashing officer, Vronsky. Their paths cross in Moscow and though part of her wants to avoid an affair that will not only destroy her marriage, but will break the heart of Kitty, a young relative of hers by marriage, she can’t help it. (From Anna’s point of view she can’t. That’s debatable, of course.)

Vronsky and Anna aren’t good at hiding their love and in this society that will cost a woman everything. Bravo to Jude Law who plays Anna’s husband in a way that makes him complex. He’s technically in the right, but he does so in such a wrong way, he just does not understand his wife and probably never did. Karenina can’t help himself and  while you sympathize, you know he’s making the problem worse. Keira Knightly stars as Anna and does the role justice, but I would have liked to have seen a Russian actress in the role.

Matthew MacFayden plays Anna’s philandering brother Oblonsky with much gusto and comedy, which was a bit over the top for me.  Just a little. Oblonsky is a brash character, but I was always aware that it was MacFayden playing a Russian, whereas Law dissolved into his character.

Downton Abbey fans will spy two cast members Michelle Dockery (Mary) and Thomas Howes (William, who died in WWI) appear.

When I read the novel years ago, I saw the 1967 Russian film. It’s very good and highly recommend it.

Nickel and Dimed

Northwestern dramatized Barbara Enrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed with great success. This three act play follows Enrenreich, a journalist who went undercover in Florida, Maine and Minnesota taking low paying jobs like waiting tables, cleaning houses and working at “Mall Mart.”

The cast was good especially Laura Winters, the star who was a likeable everywoman. Though it was hard to believe Winters was in her 50s, that wasn’t important. I hope to see Winters in more roles after she graduates.

What matters is that a privileged woman finds out how hard it is to get by on minimum wage, to find a decent place to live on meager wages. Enrenreich came to respect and understand her coworkers more than she expected.

The play, like the book, is a compelling look at those exploited by our economy.

Nickel and Dimed will be shown next weekend.

Frankenstein

If it weren’t for Theater Mania’s email offering 20% off tickets, I’d have never known that the National Theater Live was broadcasting Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Evanston. What Sherlock fan could pass up the deal?

The acting, sets and costumes were all outstanding. Last night we saw Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Dr. Frankenstein. I’d caught bits and pieces of old Frankenstein films, which gave me an idea of what to expect. However, I didn’t know the movies departed from Mary Shelley‘s book.

Now I know why.

Despite a stellar performance by Cumberbatch and creative staging, the story fell short of what I’d expected.

Just after birth

The play opened with a scene, a protracted scene, of the Creature’s birth masterfully performed by Cumberbatch, yet the scene dragged. After a while, I was thinking, “We get it, the Creature’s gawky and learning to walk is a clumsy, long process. Can you please move on?” How I wished the director had made that more succinct. I also wondered why Frankenstein hadn’t heard all the banging about his creature was doing. Why did it take him so long to get into the lab to see what the hell was going on? We’re later told that Frankenstein was a workaholic, obsessed with his work. Well, not that night.

Once the creature’s born and walking, Frankenstein discovers him and he freaks out. As a result of Frankenstein’s screaming rejection, the Creature hits the road. Mind you all he’s wearing is a loin cloth and he knows nothing of life. He can barely walk and has no knowledge of language. He has no concept of geography, what a town or street is, what buying or begging is. Nothing at all. Nada.

After a minor run in with some scamps, the Creature meets an old man who’s blind and thus accepting. The man teaches the Creature to read and think critically. Pretty far fetched since a baby needs to hear language for years before talking let alone reading Paradise Lost passages. Yeah, I don’t blame the B movie directors for departing from this story.

While under the tutelage of the blind man, the Creature hides in the shadows fearing rejection and abuse from anyone who can see him.

Life is fine, though limited till the old man’s son and daughter-in-law panic when they first see the Creature. The man was so set on integrating the Creature into his family, yet didn’t have the sense to prepare them for this meeting. He’d been working with the Creature for a long, long time.

If he thought the Creature was hideous, why didn’t he scrap the project and start anew after taking some sewing and art lessons?

Throughout the play the Creature is a gawky biped with gruesome scars and bruises that never heal. It’s like Frankenstein sewed the Creature with his feet. I never understood how Frankenstein, who designed and made the creature was so repulsed.

The play deals (ineptly, I’d say) with themes of responsibility, connection, alienation, prejudice, but it’s all done with the sophistication of an 19 year old. I’m far less impressed with Shelley’s stature as a novelist if this is indeed the accurate retelling the play claims to be.

Frankenstein was the typical one dimensional scientist who’s anti-social and uncomfortable in society. He’s okay with theory, but horrible with real life. For some reason, his fiance is madly in love with him and keeps trying to get blood from the rock-like heart of this nerd dressed in ruffles.

The cost of Frankenstein’s misuse of science is death, several deaths.

While the play will be performed again in July with Cumberbatch and Miller changing roles, I couldn’t sit through the story again. I’m sure Cumberbatch would do an excellent job as Frankenstein, yet he’s limited by the poor story.

It’s weird to see so much good in a production and yet not be able to whole heartedly recommend it. I’d even give the set designers and actors awards, but I wouldn’t want to sit through this again.