Joffrey’s The Nutcracker

I’m blown away by Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker. What makes this version stand out is that it’s set in Chicago, on Christmas Eve before the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

The shift from Germany to old Chicago was a brilliant idea. Clara’s family is poor and she lives with her family in a (very large) cabin for construction workers. The story remains essentially the same. For Christmas, Clara (aka Marie in some versions) receives a beloved nutcracker, which is broken by her rambunctious brother Fritz. Drama ensues and when Clara finally goes to sleep she has fantastic dreams of the Columbian Exhibition’s White City with Buffalo Bill dancing and a slew of performers from all corners of the globe.

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Tchaikovsky’s music is among my most favorite and is well known even to people who don’t follow classical music. It’s played beautifully by the Chicago Symphony.

The setting and special effects were magical using projected archival images from the actual World’s Fair. The sets in both acts were creative and captivating.

I loved seeing all the young girls dressed up to see this ballet. Their excitement rubbed off on me.

This is a must-see show.

Getting to Yes

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Getting to Yes by Robert Fisher and William Ury completely changed how I look at negotiations. Typically we think of negotiating like haggling at a flea market both sides begin with a false impossible request and they where each other down till they will reach a midpoint.

Getting to Yes opened my eyes to Principled Negotiation which separates the people from the positions and use tried-and-true principles to show the people you’re working with why you want what you want can find solutions the benefit all. So negotiation isn’t a battle of the wills, but we’ll rather a way to look at situations and base decisions on solid principles.

I got the audiobook on CD and played it in my car. I enjoy the narrators deep authoritative voice which reminded me of someone like Charlton Heston. His voice made some of that more humorous negotiation examples hilarious.

The book is methodical and would help anyone whether you’re negotiating a business contract, International peace, a salary, or a car purchase. It has help for people who have harmonious relationships or people dealing with toxic personalities. It’s a book I can see referring back to again and again. I was ready to apply these principles last week, but my supervisor forgot we were going to talk about a job offer that’s been on the table a few weeks. Maybe tomorrow.

Red Beard

 

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Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

The Forbidden Planet

A rather corny, yet fun sci-fi movie, The Forbidden Planet is a welcome delight. The effects are primitive compared to today’s, but I still enjoyed this film. In fact, the lower quality, not at all overstimulating, effects were just fine, rather nostalgic in fact.

Starring Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Moribus, a reclusive scientist who’s lived on this remote planet for years. He came there 20 or so years ago with a group of 20 or so scientists who all died mysteriously. When the film takes place Commander Adams, played by Leslie Nielsen, ignores Moribus’ warnings to turn around. Adams’ mission is to find out what happened on a planet called Altair IV when Moribus’ colleagues all died. Soon after landing, the commander and his men (there are no female or minority astronauts in 2200) are greeting by Robbie the Robot, whom I thoroughly enjoyed. Robbie speaks hundreds of laws, can manufacture clothing, food, alcohol and who knows what else.

Robbie takes a team of Adams’ men to Dr. Moribus, where they learn about the planet’s history and all the advanced technology he’s developed or was developed by a highly sophisticated society, the Krells. Despite their intelligence and high-minded philosophy, the Krells are no more, which is mysterious.

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Adams and his colleagues meet Dr. Moribus’ beautiful, sheltered daughter Alta and romance ensues.

Soon the odd Moribus, who’s not about to leave the planet, comes into conflict with Adams’. On top of that, a formidable monster attacks and kills one of Adams’ men. Then the monster comes to attack Moribus’ home/headquarters.

The film was fun and swift. Robbie the Robot was a real star, and the first robot to show personality in the history of science-fiction films.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1956 review in the Chicago Daily Tribune and saw that the reviewer was far from amused. Sci-Fi clearly wasn’t the reviewers’ genre. Take a look at the citation to see that writer’s pen name.

Note: My friend Kevin shared an article that shows how The Forbidden Planet is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Reference
TINEE, MAE. “This Space Ship Fails to Soar Far enough.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Apr 17 1956, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 9 June 2018 .

Ran

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Dividing the Kingdom

Akira Kurasawa’s Ran is a Japanese retelling of King Lear. It’s dramatic, epic and bloody. Other than the different setting, the big difference is rather than three daughters, the King in Ran has three sons. Here’s an old Siskel and Ebert review of this film, which I’m not alone in considering a classic.

Ran is thrilling and brought King Lear to life in a way the average reading or production usually doesn’t. I admit like the king’s advisors in all versions, I knew that Lear was wrong to step down when and how he did. That’ll always frustrate me.

The colors, costumes and war scenes were all remarkable. This Japanese version is compelling and moves briskly. Moreover, it gives viewers something to mull over as this story crosses cultures so successfully.

My only bone to pick is that the make up for the King/Samurai was so over done. He looked like he was half dead already, like he’d been embalmed.

Drunken Angel

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Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s an engaging film that grabbed me with characters I didn’t expect to see in a film, Japanese or otherwise.

Have you ever seen a film where a doctor call his patients idiots? Or one where you saw the patient and punch and toss a doctor out of a bar on his hinny?

Me neither.

Till I saw Drunken Angel that is. Set in post-WWII Japan, Drunken Angel presents a Tokyo neighborhood on the edge of a smelly, dirty swamp. The city’s polluted and the society’s sick and poisoned. It’s a city where everyone shops at the black market as that’s the only store with any desirable goods. Kurosawa wants to show a society that’s gone to pot.

His hero is a doctor who’s openly alcoholic and drinks diluted medical alcohol as the real stuff’s hard to come by. Despite his drinking, the doctor is a wise, caring man, surrounded by exasperating fools. A gangster comes to his office complaining that a nail poked into his hand. When the doctor extracts it, he sees the nail is actually a bullet. During this encounter, the doctor notices that the gangster probably has tuberculosis, but the young man rebuffs his advice to get an X-ray.

The gangster runs a nightclub and fights getting the healthcare he needs every step of the way. The doctor yells at him, pesters him, and throws bottles at him. The gangster just doesn’t get it. Finally, he goes to a high class doctor and gets his X-Ray done, but does nothing about it.

If this wasn’t exasperating enough to a doctor who really cares, Miyo, his nurse, who’s usually a sensible, calming influence, starts thinking maybe, just maybe, she should go over to the jail to see the no-good older gangster whom she was involved with (I can hardly call this brute who gave her VD and then deserted her a “lover”). The older gangster just cares about money and power. He sends his thugs out to get chase her down, but the doctor protects her.

I watched this absorbing film twice. The characters, though rough and very flawed, were original and vibrant. Drunken Angel shows Japan, broken, polluted and corrupted, after the war. It’s a side I hadn’t seen and a critique of a society that’s lost its morality and except for one character its ability to tell the truth.

The Criterion Collection DVD has an illuminating commentary by Donald Richie. Listen to that if you can.

The Nutcracker

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The Nutcracker, retold by Jean Richardson and illustrated by Francesca Crespi, is a beautiful retelling of of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale. They simplify the story and it’s not as scary as the original.

It’s a good nighttime read to prepare a child for the ballet.  The pictures are charming and the story can be read by a child.

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.

Carrot Top (Poil de Carrote) 1932

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Written and directed by Julian Duvivier, Poil de Carrote or Carrotop (1932) will grab your heart. It’s the story of a boy whose mother has no love for him, while she spoils and adores his older siblings Felix and Ernestine, Carrot Top is the family’s Cinderella, who has to do all the chores and is the only person in the home, including the maid, who wears rags.

When the film opens, Carrot Top is getting scolded for writing a school essay stating, “A family is a group of people forced to live together under one roof who cannot stand each other.” His teacher tells him that all mothers and fathers love their children. The teacher clearly hasn’t met Mr. and Mrs. Lepic. Carrot Top has to call his parents Mr. and Mrs. Lepic and he’s absolutely right when he tries to convince his teacher that not all families are like Norman Rockwell paintings. Throughout this debate we see how smart and witty Carrot Top is.

Just as predicted, when Carrot Top arrives in his home town from boarding school, no one’s there to pick him up from the train station. When he gets home, the abuse and trouble begin. At every chance the stern Mrs. Lepic ridicules and overworks her son, who it’s well know was an “accident.” Mr. Lepic has withdrawn from home life and just doesn’t see what’s going on. He lives in his own world surviving by ignoring everything around him.

Only the new maid, Annette sees the injustice and hardship Carrot Top faces. His only other allies are the little girl he plans to marry and his good natured godfather who offers solace, but doesn’t intervene till the very end.

As the story progresses, Carrot Top’s upbeat attitude erodes. His shrew of a mother who looks for every chance to make life hard for Carrot Top is just too much. It breaks his spirit to see children his age in town who’re in nice clothes and are allowed to play.

Robert Lynen gives a realistic, sincere performance that shows amazing emotional range. Poil de Carrote was his first film. I learned from Criterion Collection’s essay, that Lynen joined the French Resistance in his 20s and was caught and executed by the Nazi’s.

I chose this film because I saw that Harry Baur of Les Misérables played the father. Again he provides an excellent, sensitive performance.

While I’d never heard of this story, Poil de Carrote began as a novel, then was a play, a silent film directed by Julian Duvivier, who made this film. Through the years, Poil de Carrote has been adapted numerous times into TV programs, cartoons and other films.

Casque D’or

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I didn’t know what to expect when I borrowed Casque D’or from the library. One surprise was that the heroine, Marie, was played by Simone Signoret, who gave a forceful performance in Army of Shadows. Marie is a a gangster’s moll and outshines her friends, not only with her cascading blonde hair, but with her vivacious spirit. The film opens with scenes that come right out of a Renoir painting. A party of young lovers rowing along a river followed by a lively dance hall scene. Marie stands out as she is the only woman who’s rowing a boat and she stands up to her boorish, abusive boyfriend.

(It was hard to believe that Marie, who’s so self-assured, would give such a churl the time of day, but the plot requires that.)

In the dance hall we first see a dozen or so upper class men and women enter to take a good look at their “inferiors.” From their comments it’s clear that they’re hear for the entertainment of watching how people who aren’t dripping in diamonds behave.

Soon the attention turns to Marie’s friends, the gangsters and their girls. Ever petulant, Marie’s boyfriend Roland takes an immediate dislike to Manda a carpenter who catches Marie’s eye. Manda is a friend of one of the gangsters and introduces himself to Marie’s set and holds his head high as they mock him because he’s a carpenter. He is confident enough to let their jokes roll of his back and he accepts Marie’s offer of a dance.

Hothead, Roland is furious and a fight with Manda ensues. Overseen by the gang’s boss, Felix, who also has a thing for Marie, Roland and Manda fight in a way I’ve never seen in a film. First both men are searched and any weapons are confiscated. The two men are spit far apart and Felix tosses a knife to the ground and the first man to get it,can use it on his opponent. Roland gets the knife. The fight is deftly shot with many close ups and felt realer than any I’ve seen. In the end Manda kills Roland, which sets up the story.

Banda must flee, but Marie pursues him and while Manda hides out Marie is with him and their romance grows. Smitten with spunky Marie, Felix plots to get Felix arrested and sacrifices one of his own men to lure Manda into captivity. The ending is bold and theme of loyalty and Marie’s life-giving spirit make this a must-see.