Les Misérables, Ep 1

It’s no secret that Les Misérables is one of my favorite stories of all time. I’ve read the book and seen the musical, the film with Liam Neeson, the film with Jean Gabin and the one with Harry Barr. I’ve loved them all.

I lost track of time and missed the premier of Masterpiece’s newest Les Mis, but fortunately, I taped it and am now ready for episode 2.

Beginning with Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) robbing the pockets of soldiers killed at Waterloo. As luck would have it, Pontmercy, a solider, wakes up and mistakes Thénardier for a savior. Then in the prison where Jean Val Jean (Dominic West) toils away while being abused, beaten and tricked by the guards and Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo), a 19th century French Pharisee. Early on we also see Pontmercy’s wealthy father-in-law who’s taken custody of his grandson when the boy’s mother died. Vehemently opposed to Pontmercy’s politics, the grandfather forbids Pontmercy to see his own son, Marius, a cutie pie in velvet and frilly collars.

Fantine’s story of meeting Felix, Cossette’s father, this production starts earlier in the book than the musical. We get to see the slimy, philandering Felix who loves and leaves poor, naive Fantine. Interwoven with Fantine’s story, we see Jean Valjean get freed from jail and encounter hostility and injustice till he’s welcome by the saintly Bishop Digne.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the story. It’s a lush production. I always have an odd feeling about computer graphics. I can tell it’s not real (or faux real). I sense something lacking in the vast settings that must be computer graphics.

The story spans decades and contains several plot lines. Victor Hugo dedicated each section of the book according to a main character. The screenwriter has woven several sections together and the chronology’s changed. Some things seem to be simultaneous here, when they weren’t in the book. For example, at the end of episode 1, Fantine’s holding her daughter Cossette, who looks like she is at least a year old. Yet Felix just abandoned her a few hours before. I thought Fantine got pregnant after Felix left her. Also, Jean Valjean has just left the Bishop’s. It seems the timing is off between Fantine, whose story doesn’t need much time to progress to the next stage, and Jean Valjean, who took many years to get to the next point when he’ll meet Fantine.

Even though there are some differences between other productions and these do bother me, the annoyance is small and Les Misérables is a story that can’t be ruined. (Knock on wood.) So far this series is off to a good start.

Victorian Slum House

I discovered the absorbing Victorian Slum House series last night and was blown away. It’s a British reality show, which like PBS’ Frontier House took a number of modern people and put them back in the past. The participants of Victorian Slum House go back to the late 19th century to live in poverty in a Victorian slum.

One family  of 5 lives in a one apartment. Another is a tailor’s family and the four of them live in two rooms. As a tailor, they expected to make clothes from scratch. What they learn is their assigned to buy highly worn used clothes and fix or modify them. During the 1860s, when episode 1 is set, poor people didn’t buy new clothes. They bought what was patched up.

There’s a single man who’s a rent collector and also does some woodwork. He did opt to switch his modern protheses for one that resembles what was used back then. The producers did add some material that made it more comfortable than what people of his class had. There’s a couple that are shop keepers and they live on the top floor of the slum. They have better clothing and furnishings. Yet their finances are precarious because they depend upon their customers being able to pay up at the end of the week. No one knows for sure what they’ll earn in a week so their fear is real.

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Sleeping on benches, Victorian era

Finally there’s a single mom with ten year old twins. Her lot is the most precarious. She works from home making fancy gift boxes. She starts with lots of optimism, but bought more food on credit than the others and her earnings fell far short of what she planned. So she’s very close to being evicted. In fact, in the 1860s, my guess is that she would have been and she’d have wound up down stairs in the sleeping room, where people slept on benches sitting up.

The program is full of interesting facts and the participants comments are enlightening.

The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

Moulin Rouge

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I didn’t know John Huston directed Moulin Rouge in 1952. A friend, who also likes old movies,  shared a couple DVDs with me and this is one of them. I never saw the 2001 Moulin RougeI (and probably won’t because it sounds like a very different story).

Huston’s Moulin Rouge is a biopic, the story of the famous painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec, played convincingly by José Ferrer, frequents this cabaret where all the colorful characters of 19th century Paris convene to dance, drink and often fight (not only the men, but most likely, the ladies). Lautrec was born into a noble family. At and early age he is injured falling down the stairs and the doctors fail to repair his bones as they should. Thus Lautrec’s growth is stunted making him a social misfit.

Yes, he’s witty, smart and talented, but when his first love rejects him running from the room when he declares his love, Lautrec decides he’ll never fit in the country, in his father’s world so he heads to Paris and paints the dancers and clowns at the Moulin Rouge and shares drinks and barbs with the best artists of his day: Cezanne, Monet, etc.

Twice in his life he meets a pivotal woman. The first is a low class manipulator and I pitied Henri as he pined for this deceptive sponge. Later he meets a woman worthy of love, but he’s too jaded to expect that a woman would really love him.

I didn’t expect much of this film, mainly because I’d never heard of it. I found it an absorbing biography of a witty, fascinating artist.

Red River

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I usually don’t care for Westerns, but Red River (1948) with John Wayne is a new exception. In Red River, Wayne goes against type and plays a character who’s hard to like. Tom Dunson goes out west to seek a fortune from ranching. Early on he splits from his wagon train and leaves behind his lady love. To no avail, she pleads for him to take her with him.

Nope, she’ll be safer with the group and Tom’ll send for her. Unfortunately, Comanches attack the wagon train killing everyone but Matt, a boy who manages to escape with a cow. Tom adopts Matt and apparently sent him to school.

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Fourteen years later, after the Civil War, the 10,000 cattle, Tom’s raised are worthless since Southerners can’t afford beef. He must get his cattle to Missouri in spite of danger from Indians and terrible trail conditions. He lays down the law with the men who agree to go with him. If you start, you must finish. You’ll get $100, big money for going.

As they proceed, times are tough. They must fight Indians, put up with meagre rations and with Tom, who grows more obsessed and stubborn refusing to change his route when it’s clear that his plan is too dangerous. Men rebel and Matt’s caught in the middle against his adoptive father. Wayne plays a complex man and with most actors he’d be completely unlikeable. Clift’s Matt is natural and every move is simple, yet absorbing. According to the Criterion supplements, Clift, who’s films I hadn’t seen, was the first “Method” actor to become a star.

The Paradise

Denise Lovett

Denise Lovett

After Moray shook up The Paradise by jilting the powerful Katherine Glendenning, we’re back at this store a year later to see what’s new. Moray returns from Paris because Katherine, who now owns the store with her new husband, Mr. Tom Weston, a severe and scary man, summoned him. Katherine’s father has died. His loan put the store in his name as a means of keeping Moray faithful. That ploy didn’t work, but it won’t be easy for Moray to get the store back, as he’d like to.

Miss Audrey decides to marry Edmund, Denise’s uncle and she and go off to the seaside to live in a cottage her brother bequeathed to her. Ah, so now there’s a top position open in ladies’ wear. Who will get it Clara or Denise? In episode three Denise gets it in spite of Moray’s warning that the games between Katherine and Tom. Katherine’s drawn to this gloomy foreboding man. God knows why.

Episode 5 of 8 airs Sunday the 26th. Spoilers follow.

Tom treats his daughter, who’s about 7, terribly, belittling her, glaring at her and yelling at her not to touch his things! Miss Flora is sure to grow up in need of Dr. Freud’s expertise. Katherine is the kind stepmother, breaking a long held tradition, but she just indulges poor Flora with shopping trips. The girl has no playmates or friends. Poor thing.

I’ve liked the series and needed a dose of historical drama – corsets and all. I’m not sure whether I’m more draw by Denise’s romance with Moray or her ambition to run ladies’ wear and create the most magnificent department store in the Western world. I know Katherine’s plots are compelling. She’s someone I would watch with care. It’s clear that she want’s Denise to fail and fall as punishment for capturing Moray’s heart.

I miss Pauline, who was Clara and Denise’s roommate cum colleague. I didn’t catch what took her away. She did so want to marry. I should re-watch episode 1 to find out. Sam’s back and I’d like to see him in a more prominent role. He should be doing more at work, not just cutting cloth and uttering witticisms. Susy, who’s mother we learned is a drinker, replaced Pauline. She’s a good supporting character who needs to learn the ropes.

Tom has a back full of scars which Katherine uses to pull him under her influence, or try to. He’s very much a man who wants to be in charge, but he’s living in her father’s house and the money’s from her family. The scars on the back and dialog have suggested that he was attacked while retreating . . . hmm? What’s the story on that?

From week to week, my curiosity remains piqued as I want to know what Katherine’s up to, how Tom will react to any manipulation towards Moray and Denise which will reveal that Katherine married just to show Moray she could.

Hansel und Gretel

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Engelbert Humperdink’s (the original Humperdink, not the pop singer) Hansel und Gretel. As you’d expect the music was heavenly and the story was compelling. This version emphasized the hunger and poverty this family experienced. The first act portrays how this family has no food other than a small jug of milk, probably 2 cups full, hardly enough for a family of four. The children lament how they’re starving and long for food. During the pre-opera lecture, we were reminded  that before a neighbor gave Hansel and Gretel‘s family the milk, the probably hadn’t eaten breakfast or dinner the night before. Yet when they get rambunctious and are cavorting around the kitchen they break the milk jug losing the only food the family has.

The mother returns and is furious when she learns that the milk’s gone. She sends Hansel and Gretel into the forest to get a large bowl full of berries. After they leave, their father returns and fortunately, he’s sold all his goods, the brooms he makes, and has bought a large bag of food. Their problems are over. When father learns that the children are off in the woods, he’s alarmed. The forest is dangerous. A terrible witch who preys on children lives there. What was mother thinking?

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The second act is set in the forest, done with a minimal naturalistic style, with dark, foreboding visuals. Again the music is moving and the visuals compel. The highlight of the act was when the children say their prayers singing to the 14 angels who protect them.

Opera newcomers would appreciate this performance as the story is so familiar and the music is beautifully sung. There are some differences from the cozier versions of the story we usually hear. The mother is not a stepmother. The scenes with the bread crumbs aren’t here and we don’t see a colorful candy house. So the artistry of the sets isn’t what you’d expect, but the visuals do express the theme of hunger and hard times well.

All in all, this production of Hansel und Gretel pulls us in from start to finish.

Lincoln

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What is this far off, vacant look about?

Although I can see the hard work that went into the performances in Stephen Spielberg‘s Lincoln, I can’t say I liked the film. No doubt it will win several nominations and even awards, but I was struck by how the film lumbered along and how Daniel Day Lewis‘ Lincoln seemed so detached from the people around him. I can see that Day Lewis perfected Lincoln’s walk and mannerisms, but this character seemed removed from the others and hence hard for me to connect with.

There was something quite odd about the lighting, that distracted me. I realize they didn’t have electric light so I appreciated the night scenes with rooms that weren’t as bright as ours are now. But why were the rooms with the windows open during the day so dark, while the sun poured in through the windows as if the sun were a lot closer than it is. Shouldn’t a sun lit room then be like one now? I’ve toured the White House, Lincoln’s Springfield home and other preserved homes of the 19th century and never seen such lighting. It’s as if there were more eclipses or something during this era.

The maneuverings to pass the 13th amendment freeing slaves form the plot and I can see that it’s good to have a thread that the story clings to. I guess it sort of worked, but this choice didn’t thrill me. It was okay.

A lot of good actors appear. Some of my favorites like Hal Halbrook, David Strathairn, and James Spader. They all add to the film, but still I feel something was missing.

It was strange that Daniel Day Lewis went to such pains to portray Lincoln as he really was, while the script rejected some of the historical consultant’s advice and mucked around with history. For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not sit in the galley to watch congress and congress didn’t vote state by state. Most historical films do add some fiction, but I don’t think these choices added anything to the drama. Also, I’m puzzled by the choice to not show the shooting in Ford’s theater, but rather to fake the audience out with a scene in another theater where Lincoln’s youngest son was watching a play.

Now I did still have jet lag, a little, when I saw this movie on Wednesday, but I’m not sure that’s the only reason I had a hard time staying awake during the second half of the film. I never fall asleep in a movie, but I did doze off twice here and had to fight to stay awake. Mind you, I can stay awake for rather esoteric fare.

I know a lot of people praise the film highly, but I left thinking something’s missing or wrong here. This film could have been better and I’d like to see a Lincoln film based on other material, not just (or mainly) on Team of Rivals, which I still need to read.

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.

Daniel Deronda

Adapted from a George Eliot novel, the BBC production of Daniel Deronda will quench any Anglophile’s thirst for drama and romance. The series opens with a head strong, vivacious beauty, a Victorian Scarlett O’Hara, winning and quickly losing big at a German gaming table. It seems her laughing off the loss doesn’t ring true. Maybe she isn’t as well off as she appears.

Soon we learn the captivating woman is Gwendolyn, whose family isn’t well off (in fact they lose everything by the end of episode 1). The title character, Daniel, sees Gwendolyn lose all her winnings and as a professional guardian angel, retrieves the lost necklace Gwendolyn had to hock. While few words pass between the two, we can see that they’re both smitten.

Daniel has no idea who his real parents are. Most his life a rather stodgy, yet kind man has taken him in and acted as a father. He plays the part so well that most people assume the man is Daniel’s father. In any event Daniel has had the upbringing of a gentleman without the solid footing of one. Like any good hero, he’s very handsome and very kind.

One day he rescues a young woman, Mira, who tries to drown herself. He takes her to some friends and oversees her care and her budding singing career. There’s some warmth between Daniel and Mira, but it simmers in the first three episodes. They would make a good couple, but she is Jewish and while Daniel is open minded for the era, he doesn’t seem ready to chance marrying Mira. Still he doesn’t like it when his best friend expresses a desire to marry Mira either.

While Daniel and Mira are getting acquainted and Daniel’s helping Mira find her long lost relations and learning more and more about Jewish culture in a corner of Victorian England, I’ve never seen, Gwendolyn’s family has hit hard times. It’s impossible for them to keep her in silk and satin. (She always got the best horses, clothes, etc. while her non-blonde-haired siblings got table scraps it seems.) Her uncle can get her a position as a governess.

A governess? Are you kidding? Gwendolyn has always wanted the finer things and she’ll do anything to get them, anything including Grandcourt, a cold man with money, whom she knows has neglected a mistress and three children.

The story is absorbing. The relationships are all in a knot and no one’s where they should be. To make matters more complicated, you have to ask yourself whether you’d root for Gwendolyn and Daniel since she’s so self-absorbed. The most redeeming aspect of Gwendolyn’s character is that she doesn’t pretend to be generous or kind. She’s quite open about her faults, which she sees as assets, rather like Cynthia in Wives and Daughters. If a villain knows her faults, she’s on the path to heroism.

After seeing Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey it’s hard to imagine him as a cad, or worse, but in Daniel Deronda he’s a scoundrel. He enjoys subjugating Gwendolyn and that is why he married this stunningly beautiful, albeit selfish and frivolous young woman. My, a lot of women need rescuing here and there’s only one Daniel in the village.

Tomorrow I’ll finish episode 4.