Les Misérables, Ep 2

lily les misLast night was the second episode of the Masterpiece/BBC production of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I knew what was coming. I knew that Fantine was in for a tough timethis week. Her lover Felix had agandoned her and their baby Cosette and Fantine had no family or skills to support her well.

Last night we saw Madame Thenardier for the first time. Olivia Colman’s portrayal is both lusty as you’d expect, but also more likable because unlike the novel or the films, this Madame Thenardier tells her disreputable husband that he should be more honest because by getting a reputation for honesty, their inn would prosper. He slaps her for this. Later, another character makes the same point. I’m not sure why this production chose to white wash Madam Thenardier’s character when earlier productions succeeded with the character depicted as shown in the book.

As anyone who’s seen the films or read the novel know, in the next chapters Fantine experiences great hardship. She’s truly one of the “Les Misérables.” Though I wanted to be strong, I did have to look away at at one time mute the TV as Fantine’s fate takes a turn for the very worse.

The episode was unstinting in its depiction of Fantine’s fall. In fact the scribbler she uses to read letters from the Thenardier’s treats Fantine horribly suggesting, if not urging her to sell herself and criticizing her for selling her “assets,” i.e. her hair and teeth, before she turned to prostitution because with her cropped hair and toothless smile, she’s a less desirable object . . . . Ugh.

Fantine’s fall is worse than Jean Valjean’s and part of this is due to her extreme naivety. She never questions the Thenardier’s who constantly ask for more money to care for Cosette. She leaves her daughter with absolute strangers, though in this day there were orphanages for children with living parents. That would be the better route. In the book we’re told that Fantine had no parents at all and just grew up wandering about her small town and getting food, clothing and shelter from whoever felt generous. (Not sure why she wasn’t in an orphanage.) So that information explains a lot about why Fantine lacks common sense and has no one, no aunt, cousin, parent, etc. to turn to for help.

Cleaned up and dignified, Jean Valjean has moved upward gaining wealth and power now that his factory is prospering and he’s become mayor. The people love him. But soon Jalvert turns up and recognizes his old prisoner. Naturally Valjean gets nervous, but he remains true to the Bishop. He’s found God and honesty, though he still errors (in terms of firing Fantine, mainly because he didn’t know her full story). This production does a better job than the musical showing how much Valjean agonizes over saving the thief who’s about to die in his place. The musical certainly shows us how easy it would be for Jean Valjean to keep quiet and continue to live his new life, but this drama accentuates the dilemma.

There’s one sequence with Marius as a young boy. Somehow time hasn’t effected him as much as it has Cosette. His growth is a lot slower than hers in the interim between this and last week. Anyway, what struck me was the powered wig he sports and is worn by his grandpa and his cronies. It’s a stark, grandiose contrast to the prosperous Jean Valjean’s hair. I can’t remember if Hugo’s book makes the upperclass this contemptible.

All in all, I’m enjoyed episode 2, though it had some scenes of great suffering that I couldn’t bear. Things are bad, but not this bad in the weeks ahead. I will add that this is not an episode I advise kids watching. It might even be considered R rated for Fantine’s struggles in the streets.

 

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Bohemian Rhapsody

I knew all the Queen hits, but didn’t know much about the band’s history or Freddie Mercury’s life. I just watched Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend figuring it would be more entertaining than a marathon awards show, since those usually drag on and on.

The film acquainted me with the general background of the band. I found it interesting that one musician was an astro-physicist, another studied dentistry and another studied electrical engineering. Of course, the big star was Freddie Mercury, who was a performer par excellence.

Born Farrokh Balsara, Freddie Mercury is the center of this film. The film goes through the band’s history which was inseparable from Mercury’s life. In many ways as unique on the surface Mercury seemed, the events and relationships he experienced follow that of many stars – parents who don’t understand, dissatisfaction with the ordinary life of study, followed by work and conventional family, joining a band, fighting for success, disagreements once success is attained, destructive excess and rebellion with the corporate types running things, Yet, while this was nothing new to anyone growing up in the era, who know this music scene and the biographies of its brightest stars, the film does entertain. Queen’s music still has wide appeal.

The film’s strength is its music and visuals. There’s a lot of color and glitz which fit Mercury. Actor Rami Malek won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance and he did succeed in bringing Mercury back to life.

Yet this is not a film that would get a screenwriting award. I felt the story sped through the drama that shaped the band and Mercury. It’s as if it was written based on a checklist: quickly show conflict with stern father who doesn’t understand music, show meeting his wife and jump to their marriage. Check off requisite arguments between the band members and with the music business guy. I hoped for more depth and a closer look into Freddie.

Essentially, Freddie’s life was a sad one. Like many in his position, he trusted the snake, who is certain to appear once you’re successful and throwing big parties. He didn’t appreciate the people he could count on. Nothing was enough. Early on Freddie’s father tells him that he can’t get anywhere pretending you’re someone that you’re not. On the one hand, Freddie’s right to reject the message as his father’s ideas about getting a steady job, etc. aren’t what he was born to do. However, the tragedy of Mercury’s life was that he didn’t understand the wisdom in his father’s statement. Mercury perfected his role as performer, but his other facets were neglected and undeveloped. It’s a pity he didn’t grow as a mature friend, colleague, or intimate partner. He didn’t develop Farrokh Balsara; like Elvis and so many others, his life was tragic because he focused so much on his persona and not on his inner life or soul.

In short the movie was worth watching, but I’d love it if it were shorter and focused on particular areas of Mercury’s life rather than everything. The Steve Jobs film by Aaron Sorkin is a better example of how a biopic can show a person’s life concisely.

Elecktra

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Electktra & Klytämnestra (sic)

Last night I saw the Lyric Opera’s Electra by R. Strauss. I’d just read Agamemnon so I was lucky to see this story, which is the next in Aeschylus’ trilogy. When Agamemnon ends, when Clytemnestra (in German Klytämnestra) kills her husband because he killed their daughter Iphigeneia to appease the gods. Their son, Orestes is outraged and wants revenge.

This opera opens with some maids gossiping about Elektra, Orestes’ sister,  has been acting oddly. Only one maid stands up for the Elektra.

The setting is stark and dystopian. A columned palace has rubble all around. Everyone’s dressed in drab grays and browns. Later Elektra comes out and laments her father’s death. She asserts that her siblings and she will dance at their father’s tomb. Hmm. I suppose that was some custom in ancient days.

Kytämnestra comes on stage and she’s quite a sight. While I picture her as a Greek goddess, what I saw was truer to the composer’s vision, i.e. a solid German woman. The costume was much like the scenery – savage, brutal and dystopian. She looked more like a monster than a woman. I found it odd that neither Klytämnestra nor her ladies had sleeves. The bottom part of their gowns, though dark and depressing, seemed to cry out for sleeves of some kind. All these noble women had frightful, garish make up.

The story continues with lots of lamenting from Elektra, who does hope that her brother can take action and get justice for her father’s death. Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister is somewhat caught in the middle, though she doesn’t see that there’s no safety in the middle. Chrysothemis just wants to get married and have a slew of children, but in a society so soaked in blood, that can’t happen. Klytämnestra expends her energy worrying about whether Orestes will seek justice through murder.

I found this story quite gory and very German, rather than Greek. The cast was heavier and the make up and sets were also dark and heavy. The performances were excellent except that sometimes Elektra waved her arms around in an odd way.

I was lucky to see the next installment of this ancient story, but I don’t think everyone needs to see it. My guess is that Il Traviata, which is also playing, is the better opera right now.

Agamemnon

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This month my online book club went back to the classics and read Agamemnon. I got Oliver Taplin’s translation from the book above that had the entire Oresteia trilogy. Taplin’s translation was smooth poetry that was quite easy to understand but I wanted some footnotes so I wouldn’t have to look up all the specifically Greek terms like threnody and such.

Aeschylus takes the audience and readers on a fierce journey with powerful people betraying each other, killing their daughters, and getting revenge as they story examines whether people have free will or not. It’s a swift read that still has power today. The play is stark with few extras. Whereas contemporary stories have lots of walk on parts, the Greeks had the chorus do most of the exposition, analysis and commentary on the characters. Aeschylus wisely knows that he’ll cause the audience to become involved by creating complicated characters who do terrible or foolish things and deserve punishment, but since those inflicting the punishment are even worse people, who articulate their side well, that your mind will spend days turning the story over in their minds.

I’m glad I read this powerful play because it showed me that paring down a story to its essentials and making characters bold makes a story stronger. Even though Clytemnestra gives Lady Macbeth a run for her money, the story’s so absorbing that I stayed with it.

There’s a reason people still read the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. I liked this translation so much that I will read the other two plays.

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.

A View from a Bridge

The Goodman Theater’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from a Bridge demonstrates why good theater will never die. The powerful performances in this story about Eddie, a longshoreman who’s too attached to his orphaned niece, Catherine.

Eddie’s agreed to allow his wife Beatrice’s two cousins from Italy to stay with them in secret as they get work. The cousins are in the US illegally because the economy in their home country is horrible. The older cousin, Marco, just wants to save up money for his family back home, the younger cousin Rodolfo is enamored with American culture and more interested in starting a singing career and making it big than in working the docks. It’s pretty surprising that Eddie’s okay with illegal workers at the docks as that would undercut his best interest.

Things get sour when Catherine, who from the start of the play has been shockingly affectionate with Eddie, starts to date Rodolfo. Eddie’s jealousy grows to culminate in tragedy as you’d expect from Miller.

The play’s performers were outstanding. The end was provocative and a shock in its depiction. All I’ll say is I didn’t need so much blood pouring everywhere. Nonetheless, A View from a Bridge is a strong opening for Goodman’s 2017-18 season.

Crazed Fruit

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When I picked Crazed Fruit (1956) out at the library, I had no idea what it was about our who the director, Ko Nakahira was. Until recently, the only directors I knew were Ozu and Kurosawa. I’ve learned Japan has produced many masterful filmmakers.

Crazed Fruit takes place in the late 1950s when Japan is getting prosperous, at least the elite are. The main characters are two brothers from a wealthy family. The brothers, Natsuhisha and Haruji, spend their summer with their fellow rich kids gambling, smoking, drinking, fighting and going after girls. Another occupation is complaining about how their college professors know nothing and how their futures are meaningless. While it’s becoming an economic wonder, Japan doesn’t offer any outlet for their passions.

When the brothers arrive at the train station en route to their pal’s summer house, they see Eri, a beautiful, alluring young woman. Haruji, who’s the young, innocent brother, is smitten, but his brother, who’s quite the lover boy, pulls him away so they can hurry over to their friends.

The next day while out on a boat, they notice a girl in the water. It turns out to be Eri. Soon both boys are smitten and don’t really care or, in the case of Haruji, know, that Eri’s married to a much older, prosperous Western man.

Haruji innocently courts Eri, who always has an excuse why she can’t be picked up at home. The scenes with Haruji and Eri are tastefully sensual. The camera captures their desire as they lie next to each other sunbathing on the rocks by the sea in a way that’s exquisite. It’s a much more compelling than any sex scene I’ve seen in 10 years or more. Nakahira is a master, who deserves to be studies by every filmmaker and film lover.

Soon Natsuhisha becomes obsessed with Eri. He finds her house and sees her husband. He promises to keep her Western husband a secret from Haruji if Eri will have sex with him. She agrees. Eri’s character is hinted at rather than well defined. She’s a mystery and unlike other characters. She’s insulted and angry, but also willing. Natsuhisha exudes animal chemistry and she finds him more than satisfying in the bedroom. Eri seems to want to keep her three men, to keep those relationships separate, but to keep them. Of course, this is impossible

The film, which is based on a novel by Ishihara, broke new ground in depicting sensuality and the abandonment of traditional morality among rich youth. At the time, though people’s own mores had changed, film had not. Japanese films tended to uphold traditional morals. While the tragic ending in Crazed Fruit certainly doesn’t promote the lifestyle or choices of the idle rich, it did shock the elders at the cinema.

Crazed Fruit was conceived and produced to be a low budget, teen flick that would cash in at the box office. The story, in Nakahira’s hands, is a beautiful classic.

The Criterion Collection offers two thoughtful essays on Crazed Fruit. The commentary by Japan film expert Donald Richie greatly enhances the film as he explains the social context and context of this film within Japanese filmmaking.