16 Things About Pixar’s “Coco”, Mexico, and Death

We took the kids to see Coco on the weekend – just as much for us as for them. Here are some notes (avoiding  spoilers, don’t worry).

coco-movie-miguel-dante

  1. We all loved it. Even with the high expectations I always have going into Disney/Pixar movies these days, they still impress. They are consistently worthy of the big screen, too.
  2. It’s not scary, in case you’re wondering about taking your kids. There’s the one moment when you’re like “Yikes! Lots of skulls!” and then everyone quickly gets used to the dead folks and it’s all cool.
  3. I had somehow managed not to know anything about this movie until a week or so ago, when I heard Anthony Gonzalez (who plays the 12-year-old protagonist, Miguel) in a CBC interview on Q. He’s (recently turned) thirteen, and just seems like the most earnest little cutie you’d like to hear on the radio. Sings like a wee Mariachi angel. (Even when crying, which is quite an accomplishment.) Aware of his talent but not obnoxiously so – and full of gratitude for the success he’s had. He began the audition process when he was nine years old, so he’s obviously learned something about patience and determination, too.
  4. Coco was released first in Mexico, and in time for Día de los Muertos. Appropriately.
  5. The movie is voiced by an all-Latino cast, and they do their own singing. Did you know that Benjamin Bratt can sing? I did not (I actually didn’t even know he was Latino, having not seen him in much), but was happy to find out.
  6. Imagery, imagery, oh-so-fantastic imagery. I have always loved the way Disney and Pixar go ALL IN with the beautiful details of cultural artistry. Land of the Dead? WOW. Obviously a ton of thought put into the visual feel of… everything.
  7. I adore listening to even the little snippets of Spanish in this movie. Makes me wish I had someone to practice my Spanish with. And I was thrilled to realize that the soundtrack (as streamed on Apple Music, anyway) has all the songs as sung in the English version, followed by ALL the Spanish versions!! YAY!
  8. The singers in the Spanish soundtrack for Coco are different, except for Gael García Bernal (who plays Héctor). This version’s Miguel is played by Luís Ángel Gómez Jaramillo. His voice is just as sweet (and stunningly similar) – and he also happens to be adorable.
  9. On that note (ha), the music is great. Exhilarating, actually. (Tons of thought and research put into this too.) As a person who deliberately finds Latin music to listen to when I need some musical/mental sunshine therapy, I relished every song. The kids loved them too and have been singing them at home. A child’s off-key-yet-earnest warbling of “Our love for each other will live on forever!!” is rather charming. (See below for AB’s renditions.)
  10. The big song, “Remember Me”, was written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez – who also wrote “Let it Go” and other faves from Frozen. So you can imagine. (Other songs are by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina and are wonderful also.)
  11. The one song that is sung only in Spanish is “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”), a Mexican folk song about “the ghost of a woman who lost her children and now cries while looking for them in the river, often causing misfortune to those who are near or hear her” (according to Wikipedia). This song is like Cohen’s Hallelujah – it has one jillion verses so anyone singing it has to just pick a few.
  12. As usual with Disney/Pixar, I cried watching this movie. A couple of times. You’ll know which moments if you see the movie. I sit there thinking Seriously, Pixar?? YOU ARE DELIBERATELY DOING THIS TO MAKE ME CRY. LOOK AT THOSE TINY HANDS. But I still love it. Being moved to tears is something a soul needs every so often. And Pixar is great at grabbing themes that speak to so many of us: loss of loved ones, sorrow of parting, difficulties of aging, passion for art, and the highs and lows of being part of a family.
  13. I really appreciate the apparent facility of this movie in talking about death. Whatever one may personally believe about the afterlife and whatnot, it makes total sense to me for death to be seen as the part of life that it is. Not something to shield the kids from. Not something to fear, although we take the sadness into account and share it. It’s just the way things are.
  14. I’ve never celebrated el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, November 1st), but I wish we did. (Maybe we could? I do know some gringos who do…) What a great concept, setting aside a day to think about our loved ones who have died, and to feel the connection that is still there – simply through love and memories.
  15. I don’t know whether this movie includes any deliberate in-your-face defiance in terms of Mexico and its people/language/music/beauty/cultural significance, etc. versus those particular “pro-wall” Americans… but I sure felt it. As the movie ends (with the song “Proud Corazón”, a statement in itself), it’s all “Annnnnd Mexican awesomeness FTW.” *mic drop* (Or possibly *guitar drop*.)
  16. If it sounds like I’m gushing about Coco, so be it. It’s my prerogative to be childishly exuberant and uncritical on my own blog every once in a while, right?

coco-movie-land-dead-muertos

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P.S. Just for interest, in case you don’t already know, I wanted to mention the big watery underground hole with the natural skylight that Miguel ends up in at one point in the movie; it’s called a cenote. It’s a natural sinkhole that forms when limestone bedrock collapses underground. I gave Sean a nudge when we saw it – we got to go into one in Mexico once. They’re tourist attractions, as you can see by the photo below. (Surrounded by tiny children who will eagerly sell you picture postcards of them.)

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24 Thoughts on Disney’s “Moana”

Our family went to see Moana the day after I saw Fantastic Beasts, so it was a fully magical weekend for me, cinema-wise.

moans-sunset-movie-still

Some thoughts on Disney’s latest epic:

  1. It’s a musical! I’d only seen trailer dialogue, so I didn’t realize this (even though I should have) until I was already watching it. Songs make me all happy.
  2. The music is co-written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who got famous for Hamilton only after signing on). It had me teary-eyed from the first song. It’s powerful, full of drums and lavish harmonies.
  3. The music is also apparently well-done in terms of authenticity, since Foa’i is a distinguished Samoan musician and he would know. (Also the whole team of composers immersed themselves in a Pacific music festival in New Zealand as part of the preparations.)
  4. Related to that, and predictably, I also loved the dancing. Not just the exuberant “choreography” for the musical numbers, but the lilting, traditional Polynesian movements that seem to come right from the ocean, performed by certain characters seemingly by instinct. The dance isn’t a topic in the movie, it’s just part of the fabric of the life portrayed. As it should be.
  5. The animation is just… indescribably beautiful. The scene at the beginning with baby Moana picking up shells… I could hardly bear it, with the shining colours and the living water and the perfectly-rendered toddler-walk. SO. TOTALLY. GORGEOUS.
  6. I cried a few times. Maybe several. Mostly due to beauty.
  7. Moana is a tough cookie. I liked her a lot. Described by producer Osnat Shurer as “kick-ass, feisty, [and] interesting.”
  8. She is also NOT a princess, as she explains with meta-Disney-humour. (She is, however, already being lumped into the “Disney Princess” club by social media.)
  9. I am grateful for her status in the Disney canon; that is to say, that she is one of an ever-expanding line of female heroines I’m glad for my daughter (and my son, for that matter) to emulate. I love that she’s going to succeed her father as chief, and no one makes any kind of deal about her being a female chief. (Sorry, I just spoiled it by getting excited about it being no big deal.)
  10. I’m also grateful that she’s not white. Much as I appreciate the multidimensionality and strength of character in recent white heroines like Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, Anna, and Riley (and even Judy Hopps, since even though she’s a rabbit, she’s got a distinctly Caucasian vibe going on), we’re a global society at this point. Time to represent – and properly.
  11. As I watched, I did wonder often how the (non-white) peoples represented in the film would feel about it. I get that as a white viewer, I could potentially be enthralled by something someone else would find offensive. It made me happy to read afterwards that reception of this movie has been mostly really positive among Pacific Islanders, including those involved in the production, as well as other Indigenous people and other people of colour. Disney is gradually turning things around regarding cultural appropriation.
  12. Moana, the character, is ridiculously beautiful, of course. But no more so than Auli’i Cravalho, who voiced her.
  13. And that gal can sing!! Holy smokes. I think she nailed the whole part, actually, despite being the youngest Disney “princess” voice ever (did the work at age 14, movie released on her 16th birthday).
  14. I couldn’t help adoring Grandma Tala’s character. The deep matriarchy in this film is so satisfying – especially when you compare it with all those movies where Mom dies (Bambi, Finding Nemo, Frozen) or is already somehow dead or gone when the movie starts (Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, Lilo & Stitch, The Rescuers, Big Hero 6).
  15. It also seemed significant to me that the animal sidekick Moana ends up bringing on the voyage is not the adorable tiny pig she has as a pet, but the bizarre-looking dumb-as-a-post chicken. Just another way to mix things up.
  16. That chicken is voiced by Alan Tudyk (also known as Wash, as well as the Duke of Weaselton and a number of other Disney bit-part voices). We did not guess it was him.
  17. Maui, the demigod, is well-played by (half-Samoan) Dwayne Johnson. More complex than he first appears, of course, with quirky moves that will apparently be familiar to fans of The Rock.
  18. Dwayne can sing too! What! He was great. We were fully impressed.
  19. The animation for Maui’s tattoos is hand-drawn, unlike most of the movie, which is CGI. And they are beautiful. That’s part of what makes the movie stunning: the Pacific-Island art. It’s woven throughout the movie’s imagery.
  20. Sean and I enjoyed hearing Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) voicing Tamatoa, the giant sparkly coconut crab/thief. Jemaine is great at weird+funny+sinister. (Did you know his mom is Maori?)
  21. There were a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the film, both for us and the kids. Some of them even overlapped.
    1. 21 b) I sure am glad I’m raising kids in the days where kids’ films are made with the parents in mind too. It’s very easy to watch them over and over. If I didn’t have kids, I’m sure I’d still watch them, and laugh and cry and feel my heart squeeze.
  22. Speaking of the kids’ reactions, there were some scary moments. Four-year-old AB quailed a bit watching the lava monster, Te Ka. She held onto my arm, but she never wanted to hide her eyes and never opted for my lap. And there were no nightmares or anything. So – scary but not regrettable.
  23. Although I’d say the main theme is the Belonging vs. Identity Quest thing (as it often is), to me the Sustainability message was also big. The unhappiness of Te Fiti (Mother Earth goddess with stolen heart) is a powerful message, but even more so is the “we only have this one island that provides for us and if it is ruined we are screwed” message. All of us have only got this one rock in space to live on (for now, at least) and we need to enact some healing before we kill ourselves off.
  24. I only figured out what was going on at the end a few seconds before Moana did – didn’t see it coming at all. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say that the dénouement was totally goose-bumpy and amazing… and yep, I shed tears.

moana-movie-poster

To sum up: highly recommend to all humans, goddesses, demigods, chickens, piglets, and Oceans.

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17 Thoughts on “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

As with the books… it’s been a while since I reviewed a movie too, huh? Might be rusty. Hence, the numbered list/crutch. Here goes! (No spoilers, I promise.)

J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them… Newt Scamander, young magizoologist, comes to New York City from England, sometime in the 1920s, just as a strange black shadow has been ripping apart NYC neighbourhoods… And what ensues? The hi-est kinds of jinks.

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  1. It’s just THRILLING to see a new movie from the wizarding world! (I’m sure there are those cynics saying “ahem, money grab,” but those of us who are fans have just been wishing in our hearts for more… and here it is!!)
  2. I went to see it without worrying that it would suck, because Skye (fellow Level 5 fan) had already seen it, and came back with one of those grins that tells you it was not just good, but great.
  3. It’s basically one happy nerd-treat after another, for folks who know their lore. Having read the books to my kids so recently, I had all the details in my mind of the significance of the Murtlap, Bowtruckles, Erumpent, etc.
  4. Eddie Redmayne, as Newt, is great at being awkcute.
  5. The movie is worth the ticket for the Niffler alone. Hilarious and adorable. HOW do they animate such attitude into a squat little animal with a duck bill? He could have his own movie: Fantastic Trinkets and Where I Found Them.
  6. The Ministry in the states is called MACUSA – the Magical Congress of the United States of America. (I was picturing it “MACOUSA.”)
  7. Katherine Waterston, who plays Tina, the MACUSA employee who kind of first befriends Newt, is great. I’d never seen her in anything but I enjoyed her acting.
  8. She’s apparently British. I couldn’t tell.
  9. Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, is a fun character. A lot more multi-dimensional than he first appears.
  10. I think they told Alison Sudol, who plays Tina’s sister Queenie, “Just channel Marilyn Monroe, witch version.”
  11. The fantastic beasts are truly fantastic. When you meet them, it’s like going on this mesmerizing journey of imaginative glee with the creators.
  12. There seems to me, at this moment in history, to be nothing CGI can’t accomplish.
  13. It was cool, but slightly saddening as well, to hear the characters calling Seraphina Picquery “Madam President.” Sigh.
  14. I think it’s possible that they let Eddie Redmayne improvise some bits where he’s communing with certain beasts. They were strange and wonderful, if a bit oddly-paced at times.
  15. I did not find the plot predictable, which is always good – and it’s fun to watch a wizarding movie for which I have not read the book multiple times (or at all).
  16. Skye and I nudged each other at the end, noting Newt’s yellow-and-black scarf: “He’s a Hufflepuff!” We keep an eye out for our peeps. (Because despite my identity crisis, I was a Hufflepuff first.)
  17. Apparently, we can look forward to 4 more Fantastic Beasts movies! They sure set up the audience for more at the end. Needless to say, I AM IN FAVOUR.

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BANG Double Feature Review: The Imitation Game + Into The Woods

Dilovely had herself TWO MOVIE DATES over the holidays, y’all. Both are still kinda recent (released in Canada on Christmas Day, only two weeks ago!), so I figured I could still say a few words. After all, it’s been ages since I reviewed a movie. (It’s the lack of frequency and/or freshness. That is to say, for example, that by the time I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, it had been in theatres for ages and was on its way out.)

into the woods poster

Into the Woods I saw with a friend and two of my siblings (plus the third in spirit!), one week after it came out. I had been really stoked to see it because A) yay musicals! and B) double yay Sondheim! and C) Anna Kendrick Meryl Streep Emily Blunt Johnny Depp Chris Pine and company, you know?

Let’s start with B), the brilliant Stephen Sondheim, cliché-defying composer of 23 musicals, including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (made into a movie by Tim Burton in 2007). His work has been criticized for being un-hummable. He does use unpredictable timing, melodies, and key signatures a lot of the time – which can be fun and/or confusing – but let’s be clear: he can also nail a memorable, sweeping refrain to bring tears to your eyes.

We had varying degrees of Sondheimism in attendance: my brother Ben was Props guy for a production of Into the Woods at his university years ago; my sister Emily has been a Sondheim junkie for a long time (since the era when she would pirate soundtracks from the library onto cassette tapes) and I’d wager she has memorized the lyrics of at least a dozen of his musicals, including this one. I, on the other hand, am an odd kind of Sondheim fan – I’ve known every word of Assassins for many years; I saw Sweeney Todd on stage; I did a project about Sondheim in university, learning many interesting things about the man and his music; but I was only acquainted with about 1/3 of the songs of Into the Woods.

I was actually in an ideal position to enjoy this particular film. I had the advantage of being familiar with Sondheim’s rapid-fire, overlapping lyrical techniques, as well as the most common melodic themes – but I didn’t really know anything about the story itself, other than that it interweaves lore from a bunch of different fairy tales. Thus, I could simply relish listening to Sondheim’s dazzling rhymes unfolding, without being weirded out by his unconventional style AND without being distracted by comparing every vocal nuance to a pre-memorized soundtrack (as I did with Les Mis). I felt that the editing made it possible to understand what was going on, even during fast, complex sections of lyrics.

into-the-woods-red-riding-hood

Also, I could watch the story happen without knowing what to expect. I felt like a kid, spellbound by a dramatic tale that might go anywhere.  The story is unusual and interesting, the locations are beautiful and real, the singing is top-notch, and the effects, banal as it sounds, really bring the plot to life. We all enjoyed it thoroughly, feeling it must be just what Sondheim wanted when freed from the constraints of the stage.

I also appreciated that, as always, Sondheim put his critical thinking skills to work when he created this story, spoofing or overturning stereotypical prince and princess characters. (I have several posts brewing about princesses.)

In case you’re wondering, my favourite songs/scenes were “Agony” (a sentiment shared by iTunes customers, apparently) for the melodramatic comedy, “On the Steps of the Palace” for sheer lyrics-based delight, and “Your Fault” for the singing (and editing) agility. They nailed ’em.

We did all wonder what it would be like to see this movie without prior knowledge. According to one friend, it was “really strange but really good,” which makes sense. Obviously people are agreeing with this – despite music that is not as conventionally catchy as, say, Les Misérables or ChicagoInto the Woods tickets, along with the soundtrack album, are still selling like hotcakes. It makes me happy that current moviegoers are open to this, and to movie musicals in general. That means more musicals to come, for all of us!

For more on my intermittently obsessive relationship with musicals, please click here.

And to hear a memorable, sweeping Sondheim refrain, please click here.

(I heard recently that seeing hyperlinks in the middle of an article, even if you don’t click on it, seriously disrupts one’s reading experience. I’m pretty sure it’s true. Henceforth, I’m putting my links separately.)

And now, on to The Imitation Game. An altogether different sort of film.

The-imitation-game-benedict-cumberbatch-poster

I went to see this one with my Hubbibi just a few days after it opened, having only seen the trailer, and knowing little about Enigma, the supposedly unbreakable encoding machine used by the Germans during World War II.

I did not know anything else about the plot or about Turing’s life, other than that he’s the genius known as the father of digital computing, and that he was gay. (Not a spoiler – it’s made known early on.) Oh, and I knew that Enigma was eventually solved and the Allies won the war.

Here’s what I can tell you without revealing any other plot points:

  • The movie manages to be suspenseful and heart-pounding at times, even though we know the outcome of the codebreaking efforts and the war. It also has a surprising number of chuckle-out-loud moments, and several that make you want to cry, for different reasons. (I didn’t cry, but I could have. The tears hovered in my chest for the whole film.)
  • After reading a novel called “Enigma” many years ago, then watching this movie in 2014, then watching the documentary “Codebreaker” (which I recommend, if you’re interested), I still didn’t understand what made Enigma so hard (how is it different from simple letter substitution?) until I found this sentence at plus.maths.org: “What made the Enigma machine so special was the fact that every time a letter was pressed, the movable parts of the machine would change position so that the next time the same letter was pressed, it would most likely be enciphered as something different.” OH. Now the movie makes sense.
  • Keira Knightley’s role as Joan Clarke, the only female cryptanalyst to work on Enigma with the men, is memorable and incredibly satisfying to watch. I’d like to see a movie all about her.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch impressed me. Perhaps the most because he is playing a character with great similarities to his Sherlock from the BBC series (genius, arrogant, socially odd), and yet his portrayal is not the same at all. His accolades are well-deserved. And I can’t think of a weak link in the supporting cast.
  • The only aspect I found a bit feeble was the structuring of the story, flashback-style, around Turing’s interview with Detective Nock. It was compelling at the beginning, but it kind of fizzled. And then they had to drop it before the final scenes anyway. But I guess these days a linear story doesn’t cut it. (Except in movie musicals with many overlapping plot lines; see above.)

the-imitation-game-benedict-cumberbatch-keira-knightley

If you’ve already seen the movie or know lots about Alan Turing – or don’t care about spoilers – I can also tell you the discussion topics that Sean and I chewed over after the movie:

  • It’s mind-blowing that Bletchley Park (central site of the Government Code and Cypher School, where all this codebreaking took place) wasn’t declassified until the 1970s – and some people who worked there maintain secrecy about it to this day. During the war, even high-up military officials didn’t know that the intelligence was coming to them via Enigma (an imaginary MI6 spy codenamed “Boniface” got the credit). Codebreakers never told their own spouses, even long after the war was over.
  • This also means that Alan Turing, whose own work literally made it possible to win the war, was never formally recognized for his monumental contribution. He could never tell that nasty-face Commander Denniston: “HA! See?? I TOLD YOU IT WOULD WORK.” Which must have rankled.
  • Even more mind-blowing (though sadly inevitable at the time) is the fact that the British government not only failed to honour Turing for his work, it criminalized him for his homosexuality. He opted for chemical castration (in the form of synthetic estrogen) over prison, in the hopes of continuing his work – not knowing it would wreak havoc on his mind as well as his libido.
  • Therefore, even though his death from cyanide poisoning at age 41 was chalked up to suicide, in my mind, he was killed by his own government, whose members didn’t know they basically owed him their existence. It could hardly be more tragically unfair.
  • Interestingly, it seems that on December 24th, 2013, the Queen issued a posthumous “Royal Pardon” for Alan Turing. How nice. No offense to the Queen, since I don’t think there exists a posthumous “Royal Acknowledgement of Heinous Injustice and Subsequent Begging for Forgiveness,” but a royal pardon does seem a bit thin. Not to mention grossly overdue.
  • Alan Turing did amazing things with his unique gifts while he was alive, and could have done many more of them if he had lived longer. Doesn’t it make you wonder how many great, world-changing minds and ideas have been quashed by people’s fears and prejudices? How much further we might have come by now, as a species, if we hadn’t been spending so much time and energy squelching humans because they were gay/black/women/etc. – and how many victims of prejudice had brilliant brains being wasted in obscurity?
  • It is also interesting to consider which individual humans in the world have truly changed the course of history. If Alan Turing hadn’t lived, the Allies might have lost, and the world might be extremely different right now. Which other historical figures – or present-day people – have had (or will have!) such impact? Discuss.

We also talked quite a bit about War then vs. War now, but that’s for another blog post.

So, to sum up: see Into the Woods for fun and singing; see The Imitation Game for heartstring-pulling and brain stimulation. I highly recommend each, but I wouldn’t try both in one day.

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BANG Book Review: 9-Volume Bookstravaganza!

{Tra la, this post was supposed to be finished and posted OVER A WEEK AGO. Ridonculous. Had several rough nights with congested baby, also working on E methodically testing every boundary he can think of, especially the one where he tries to get us to do his bidding by being a whine-meister. Boo, excuses.}

Sooo… You may or may not have noticed that I haven’t posted any GGG book club reviews for a while. I got behind by a few, and then they just piled right up. You know, like books.

Ergo, I’m going to catch myself up, shorterness style: Four Bullets Only Per Book. !!! ONLY.

1. One Day, by David Nicholls.

One-Day-David-Nicholls

  • A love story in which we follow the relationship of our protagonists for one day per year (St. Swithin’s Day) for twenty years. A neat idea, though it makes for a (deliberately) disjointed story.
  • Very readable, smart, interesting, but if you’re expecting a light, fun summer read, look elsewhere. This book has quite a bit of sad/depressing/frustrating stuff along with the romance.
  • It’s set in the U.K., written by an English author, and therefore contains cute words you don’t read in North American books. I enjoy them generally, but I noticed certain ones (such as as “raffish” and “larky”) came up too many times to remain charming.
  • One Day has the distinction of being the first book I ever read on my Kobo (e-reader). I loved its portability, but the editing was wonky: there were well over a dozen instances where the second letter was missing in words starting with F, so “flatly” became “fatly” and “frightened” became “fightened”, etc. At first it made me chuckle, and then I thought it was a weird joke I wasn’t getting, and then it made me unreasonably annoyed.

1.1 We watched the movie at our book club meeting, because obviously. (I get an extra set of bullets for that. Since it’s my blog and I say so.)

One-Day-one-day-movie-poster-Anne-Hathaway

  • I think I actually liked the movie better. *gasp.* The embodied characters were more endearing, probably because I liked the actors.
  • I finally saw the appeal of Jim Sturgess, who didn’t do anything for me in Across The Universe. Somehow, he was cuter and charminger in this – maybe I just don’t like him in Beatles-y hair.
  • Anne Hathaway was great, as usual, though her pronunciation (I think it’s supposed to be a Manchester accent) was unstable. AND, they actually made her look full-on frumpy in one scene. Impressive.
  • If I remember rightly, I got kinda choked up at the end. In a good way. (Whereas at the end of the book I was more like, “HUH???”)

2. Falling Backwards, by Jann Arden

jann arden falling backwards

  • Memoir of Jann Arden’s journey from (sorta) normal Canadian childhood to successful music career.
  • This lady is FUNNY. Also bizarre and disarmingly candid. I laughed out loud, many times.
  • She’s also a really good writer – very honest and unaffected, with occasional profound phrases that seem to pop up out of nowhere.
  • And she did some crazy stuff in her life. Alcoholic father, very troubled brother, and personal illnesses aside, she had adventures in fields and woods, rivers and high seas – and the urban jungle. Not exaggerating.

3. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley.

sweetness at the bottom of the pie alan bradley

  • Eleven-year-old detective Flavia de Luce narrates a tale of murder-mystery-solving, and gets herself into some serious escapades.
  • This character drives the book. She’s mischievous and smart and sassy and a little vulnerable sometimes, and I relished her.
  • She makes you want to learn chemistry. (That’s where much of her Sherlock-ability lies.)
  • There are more books about her! Someday I’ll have time for those. (But don’t worry, unlike SOME books, this one has its own gratifying ending.)

4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

Pirsig zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

  • Classic (1974) philosophical novel about a guy who takes a motorcycle road trip with his son and some friends, and lets his deeper mind do most of the talking.
  • This book was ground-breaking, life-changing, when it came out. (As indicated above.) My own parents have referred to it in such terms.
  • For us, it was not as thrilling as we’d hoped. Many (though not all) of the ruminations on technology are obsolete, and some bits seem kinda naive. Most of the GGG found it dense slogging, to the point of groanishness. I found some parts quite interesting, but to be honest, I haven’t finished it. I do plan to… someday.
  • I now associate it with the horribly sweet neon-orange beverage I had to drink during the 3.5-hour glucose test I did while pregnant with Baby AB, because Zen and TAOMM was how I passed the wait.
  • One extra point! to state that later editions have a bonus ending section that is not part of the original! Yes, I’m saying that if you haven’t read this since the 70s… THERE IS MORE TO THE STORY. (See how it makes sense that I get an extra bullet? Boo-yah, loophole.)

5. The Colour of Tea, by Hannah Tunnicliffe

color of tea hannah tunnicliffe

  • Grace moves to China for her husband’s work and is left listless by news of her infertility. Eventually, she picks up her bootstraps (or whatever the phrase is) and starts a new life as a café owner.
  • The heroine irritated me for the first few chapters (even though I could hardly blame her for her torpor), but I ended up liking her a lot.
  • The descriptions of the city of Macau are vivid and interesting, but not as much as the mouthwatering descriptions of the café food, especially the macarons of different flavours. (NOT macaroons – these are more like gourmet meringue sandwich cookies, as pictured on the cover. Our host procured some for the book club meeting, because obviously we were dying to try some, but I missed it. 🙁 )
  • The synergistic ending was one I (and probably many others) saw coming from a mile away… but it was still satisfying.

6. The Knife Of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

The_Knife_of_Never_Letting_Go_by_Patrick_Ness

  • In the land where there are no female humans – and the males can all hear each other’s thoughts – all the time – one young boy must escape. Things are not as they seem. Dun dun dunnnn.
  • Really interesting, thought-provoking concept. I think all of us enjoyed the way this alternate world was imagined, and were fairly carried away by the plot and flinty characters.
  • We were unanimously annoyed by the deliberate wrong spellings, though, since they only partially made sense. Maybe they appeal more to the (intended) YA audience.
  • Warning: it’s not over at the end! In fact, I was somewhat ticked off at the end. HUGE… BUILDUP… CRESCENDO… OMG CAN WE PLEASE JUST KNOW HOW IT ENDS?? And then it’s over, but nothing’s wrapped up because go read Book Two, people. Hmph.

7. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

white teeth zadie smith

  • An unlikely bunch of people in London are connected, practically as family, by a strange history and even stranger present events (present being mostly the 70s in this case).
  • I was fully impressed by the confidence with which Zadie Smith, at age 25, wrote this debut novel. The writing is quirky and opinionated and speaks brashly about all kinds of topics where I’d be tiptoeing. Evidently the rest of the world was also impressed, because it became an immediate bestseller and won a bunch of awards.
  • Some in the group found it kinda hard to get into. I found it mostly interesting, full of characters that were engaging if not completely likeable, but it helps that I was reading it on a very lightweight device, as it was apparently a very large book. The absorption-to-weight ratio matters.
  • There was one part in particular about a young black girl going to great lengths to achieve straight, silky hair. It is now branded on my memory forever, because shortly after finishing the book, I watched the documentary “Good Hair” on Netflix. It’s true and it’s crazy, y’all.

8. The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon

the story of beautiful girl rachel simon

 

  • Where do a deaf black man and a woman with Down Syndrome find true love together? At the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded.
  • This is an amazing and lovely story, written sensitively and beautifully through the POVs of several different people. We were all moved by it.
  • The author’s note at the end was great, too. She wrote humbly about not wanting to appropriate voices that weren’t hers, but needing to write about this, and give these characters a more joyful story than the real ones on which it’s based.
  • This book, like The Help, makes you shudder. This kind of treatment of differently-abled people was only a few decades ago (or less? could still be happening?) in the United States (and probably here in Canada, too). How scarily, horribly recent. How outrageously shameful.

9. Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre

something-fierce carmen-aguirre

  • Memoir of a young adulthood spent as a (daughter of a) revolutionary in South America, particularly Pinochet’s Chile; winner of Canada Reads in 2012.
  • One of those books that makes your jaw drop. Seriously?? She did all that stuff? At WHAT age? How was she this brave??
  • It reminds you that concentration camps and everyday danger are not limited to the WWII Holocaust. As the author points out, we have a sheltered, relatively naive existence here in Canada.
  • Despite all this, the book is not as harrowing or depressing as you might imagine. It’s written with a dark humour and frankness, and the evolution of Aguirre’s 11-year-old self to her adult self, under crazy circumstances, is fascinating.

Alors, voilà!

There are (I think) three books missing from this list (namely Animal Vegetable Miracle, Quiet, and Gold), which I will be reviewing individually, because the five-bullet rule was just not going to work for me in those cases. Please stay tuned.

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Related Posts:

Glennon Melton, Vampire Weekend, Iron Man 3, and other news bites.

I had a grand plan to craft a beautiful essay, rife with linkativity, proving the essential similarity of these three items:

Glennon Doyle Melton’s book Carry On, Warrior,

carry on warrior glennon doyle melton
A great read.

Vampire Weekend’s new album “Modern Vampires of the City”,

modernvampires
A great listen.

And Iron Man 3.

Iron-Man-3-IMAX-Poster-570x844
A great flick.

You see, this one time, in high school, I got perfect on an essay. Yep. My English teacher could find nothing wrong with it. (I am STILL proud of this, eighteen years later.) But I’m actually a little rusty, believe it or not. My skills have gone soft from too many bullet points.

Lacking the essay chops, I was gonna say something short but insightful about the use of irony or alliteration or metaphor, and the role of artistry in our modern lives. Then I thought that might cause a few too many folks to go Uggghhhh Dilovely, you’re scraping bottom, and proceed over here to cry with laughter.

Instead, we’re going to try a News Bites formula. For fun, because what could be funner than news bites? They’re like Fritos, without the fat content.

 

Blogger’s Book Insanely Popular Even Before Being Read

Glennon Doyle Melton is the creator/author of Momastery.com, a personal blog that exploded into the online world in January 2012 and became a community for people who passionately agreed with Glennon’s messages, including but not limited to “Love wins,” “Life is brutiful,” and “We can do hard things.” (I have been reading Momastery since then, and although I don’t usually participate in the comments, I have read some, and I am always gratified by the respectful, loving, open approach of those who identify themselves as “Monkees”.) I bought Glennon’s book, Carry On, Warrior, for myself and my mom on Mother’s Day. It contains some of her most popular blog posts and lots of new essays, forming a quasi-life-story that’s fascinating. Frankly, I ate it up. Loved it. Didn’t want it to be over as soon as it was. It’s funny, heartbreaking, wise, and deep without being heavy. Makes you want to be a better person, whilst also making you feel better about the kind of person you already are. WORD.

 

Household Attacked by Vampires

“Modern Vampires of the City” is the third album of one of our household’s fave bands, Vampire Weekend. We are listening to it obsessively around here, ever since Sean got it for me for my birthday. It’s a departure from their Africanesque/world sound; at first listen, it seems a bit more mainstream. Most of the lyrics are not as overtly oddball as those of the first two albums. But now that it’s becoming ingrained in the fibre of our lives, I can assure you, it’s just as original as ever. Maybe even more so. Their sound is simple but not. The lyrics completely baffle me but I love them anyway. As with the last album, Contra, my favourite song changes every day. (Currently it’s “Everlasting Arms”, but “Diane Young” is best for dancing to and “Unbelievers” is best for singing along to and “Yeah Hey” is the catchiest.)

 

Tony Stark Rendered Speechless by Pepper Potts

Sean wisely had me watch Iron Man and Iron Man 2 before we went to see Iron Man 3. They are all pretty epic and exciting, filled with witty deadpan remarks (mostly delivered by Robert Downey Jr.) at times of great stress and suspense. All the movies were good – I enjoy the scientific conscience and moral questions, as well as the effects so cool that you’re more than happy to suspend your disbelief. I think I have a bit of a crush on Tony Stark’s talking computer, Jarvis. But really, it’s all about RDJ and how he manages to portray an egomaniacal jerk who is also a heroic person with a lot of love in his precarious heart. This movie had it all: some slapstick, some suspense, some acrobatic midair humanitarianism, some laugh-out-loud moments, a small but great part for Rebecca Hall (whom I love), an evil part for Guy Pearce (who doesn’t love a Guy Pearce villain?), Gwyneth Paltrow kicking ass, a spunky little fatherless kid… And, forget about Gandhi. THIS is Ben Kingsley’s best role ever. Plus, the ending was very satisfying. {N.B.: I think there were just four of us left in the theatre by the time the post-credits joke scene came up. All those early leavers missed out on a good chuckle.}

 

Vampire Baby is Also Child Prodigy

So, not long ago, Baby AB cut her first two top teeth, and both were second incisors. If you got a view of her upper gums, she looked like a vampire baby. (Too much Vampire Weekend, undoubtedly.) Now, tooth #5 is coming in between those two, so she’ll just look like she was in hockey fight instead. BUT! The important thing is, she is totally talking, at eight months of age. When she’s in the mood (which is all the time except when you’re taking a video or otherwise trying to show her off) she waves her arm and says “Hi!” And I’m virtually certain she knows I’m “Mama” and Daddy is “Dada”, based on the frequency of those syllables in relation to who’s holding her. So she’s pretty much got the language thing in the bag. Amazing, yes??

 

Four-Year-Old Boy Becomes Father

E’s big birthday present from us, upon turning four, was a baby doll, as he had expressed interest in having one, specifically one whose clothes he could change. The search for, and subsequent giving of, that baby is gonna be its own whole blog post, but for now let me say: Awwwww.

 

Whole Family Flies Through the Air

On Thursday, my dad’s whole side of the family shall converge upon New Mexico (near Albuquerque) for my cousin’s wedding! First plane trip for the kids! (Trying not to think about how stressful that might turn out to be. I’m sure it’ll be nothing but fun, right? Especially the layovers.) We actually have passports for all of us! (Baby passport = ridiculously cute.) CAN’T WAIT to see the clan!! Two more sleeps, you guys!!!

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BANG Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

I read a high-school copy of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in Monteverde, Costa Rica, at my host family’s house, during a teaching internship. I also read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and The Bluest Eye, but The Great Gatsby was the most incongruous story in a place where the houses are made directly out of the trees that were cut down to carve a little space out of the Cloud Forest.

You see, I’ve remembered embarrassingly little from the book, despite enjoying it – but I did remember the decadence. The impressions of glowing parties, visible for miles, full of sparkly people, under glamorous starry skies. (Glamour in the cloud forest comes in the form of quetzals and fireflies – but that’s another blog post or seven.)

I also remembered a tense, emotional scene in a hot hotel room. And I remember that Jay Gatsby is a mysterious man in love. That’s about it.

So really, when Skye and I went to see Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, nothing about it was spoiled for me. From what I can tell via Wikipedia (since my memory does not serve), the film’s plot is very loyal to the book overall, and there’s tons of action in it that I did not see coming. Win!

 

the-great-gatsby-poster1

Bullet Time, in which I do not spoil anything, in case you too have forgotten the entire plot of the book or never read it in the first place:

  • Seriously, what an amazing cast. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson… all brought their characters to life memorably (unlike the book, apparently, for this lazy reader). Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan) and Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker) were quite believable as well, IMO.

the-great-gatsby-2013

  • If you’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” or “Moulin Rouge”, you could immediately guess that this film was also by him. It has all the earmarks: the era-conscious style from the very credits; the deliberate juxtaposition of loyal period costuming and anachronistic music; the crowd/party sequences that make you feel like you’re on drugs. And he likes him some Art Deco.
  • We saw the 3D version, not because we’re particular fans of 3D but because the showtime worked best for us. As I saw it, the 3D stuff is kinda contrived. The plot doesn’t exactly lend itself to OMGitscomingrightatme!! Nevertheless – the stuff they did was pretty cool. I found the 3D effective in illustrating connectedness, underscoring distances of space and time, making snowflakes look cool, and rendering those surreal scenes even more trippy.
  • I’m going to have to read The Great Gatsby again. The film showcases (often with onscreen handwriting that’s coming right at you) a lot of direct quotes from the book, the kind of fascinating writing that makes you go “Aha. Yes. Legendary American classic. Bravo, F. Scott.”
  • Did you know? The original book cover, designed by Francis Cugat, was commissioned while Fitzgerald was still writing it. Wikipedia says: The cover was completed before the novel; Fitzgerald was so enamored with it that he told his publisher he had “written it into” the novel. [You can’t see ’em too well, but there’s some nekkid ladies in those eyes, old sport.]

TGG-orig

  • In the movie, the effect of that billboard with the disembodied eyes is downright eerie, and is probably branded on my memory forever. Well played, Baz.
  • I enjoyed the party scenes and the sweeping 3D vistas and so on, but I enjoyed even more the focused scenes with the hard-core dialogue and acting. Those were SOLID. And now that I think about it, Luhrmann is just as good at taking things down to their essential heart as he is at making a big fancy imagery-fest.
  • And I guess Fitzgerald was also good at getting to the heart of things. The Great Gatsby was a commentary on excess and corruption and certain flaws in the American Dream, but it also is about people. What kind of attitude matters, what makes a person good or bad. It’s an interesting perspective that definitely provoked me some thoughts.
  • We went to see this movie – at 4 pm on the day it opened, no less – because it stars Skye’s boyfriend, Leo. Kudos, Skye, I have to admit he’s looking mighty fine these days.
leonardo-dicaprio-carey-mulligan
Leonardo and Carey
  • Skye and I gave this movie four out of four thumbs up.

Riveting Real-Life Side-Story:

So. We went to see this movie at the UltraAVX (“Ultra Audio-Visual Experience!!!”) theatre, which has assigned seating. We got to pick our seats when we purchased them, and there were like six other seats booked in the whole place, so naturally we picked far away from anyone else. Upon arriving at our seats, we saw that there was an elderly couple in our seats. They had chosen not to sit in the seats they’d picked originally, because those were too close to another couple of people who were, in the words of the curmudgeon gentleman, “just yappin’.” He recommended we not sit near them (even though they were more than entitled to yap – the previews hadn’t even started).

We came up with a recommendation of our own out of this experience:

If you decide to move from your assigned spot in a theatre where there are approximately twelve-and-a-half zillion empty seats, proper etiquette does not allow for you to sit one seat away from the people whose seats you accidentally took, then complain about the noise level of some innocent moviegoers… and then proceed to SNORE THROUGH THE LATTER HALF OF THE MOVIE. No. Ce n’est pas acceptable. Just so you know.

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BANG Movie Review: 42

Watching 42, it dawned on me that, for a person who can’t hit a baseball to save my life, I have seen – and enjoyed – a goodly number of baseball movies. (The Natural, Bull Durham, Stealing Home, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, and Moneyball – only a drop in the bucket of baseball movies.) I guess it’s a game with natural theatrical value.

42-movie poster chadwick boseman

42 is the story of Jackie Robinson’s rise to fame in 1947 as the first black player in Major League Baseball – and it really is an amazing story. I must admit I knew nothing about it – his name was familiar to me, and I probably could have told you he was a baseball player, but I had no idea of his pivotal role in the civil rights movement, “just” playing ball.

jackie robinson
Jackie Robinson in 1954

In case you don’t know, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was an athlete who was raised by a single mom in Pasadena, California. He attended UCLA and served in the military, and was known as “combative” when it came to being treated with racism. (He was even court-martialed once for this, but was acquitted.)

He was hand-picked by Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to be the man to break the colour barrier in Major League Baseball. And by gum, Jackie broke that barrier, using solid talent and incredible restraint.

  • This movie is not subtle. It is unabashedly earnest, like a kid telling a story: the characters are whole, clean, deceptively simple. They speak plainly and their lessons are clear. We don’t see the nuances of every mood and quirk.
  • I personally think this is a positive thing – not every movie has to be gritty and fast-paced just because we’re in an era of gritty, fast-paced movies. Even if the real-life story was more ambiguous (and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that it was), I enjoyed THIS version of the story. Isn’t that why we go to the movies anyway?
  • Besides, the subject matter has quite enough layers and puzzles in and of itself. It endows each character with the fullness of history, and that’s complex enough.
  • Look at that, I’m waxing cheesy, and I don’t care. That’s the kind of film this is.
  • The music goes right along with that unequivocal sincerity I mentioned: it’s full-on epic, swelling emotionally at all the right moments, designed to jerk those tears. Just as you’d want it to be when you combine sports with moral metamorphosis.
  • Can you bring your kids to it? I would say yes, it’s a family movie. There’s almost no violence included, and it puts tough messages in very watchable terms. To my recollection, there is but one (well-deserved) S-bomb. The N-word is used in abundance, as it would have been at the time.
  • Chadwick Boseman is endearing and convincing as Jackie. And looks a lot like the real one.
  • Harrison Ford does as great job as Branch Rickey, a rather less curmudgeonly character than usual for him. A daring and innovative guy.
42 branch rickey harrison ford
Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey
  • By the way, how does a guy born in 1881 get a name like “Branch”? It seems so hippie, like Meadow or Rain. Well, Wikipedia says his name was actually Wesley Branch Rickey, so I’m guessing it’s a family surname somewhere. There’s no evidence that his parents smoked weed.
  • I really enjoyed John C. McGinley in the role of commentator Red Barber. You could tell he relished all his folksy expressions. (In stark contrast to his role as Dr. Cox in Scrubs, who is only remotely folksy in sarcasm, right before he says something really mean.)
  • I also enjoyed Christopher Meloni as the Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher. Now there’s a character who’s weirdly honourable and dishonourable at the same time.
Chris-Meloni leo durocher
Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher
  • I did not so much enjoy my dear Alan Tudyk (a.k.a. Wash in Firefly and Serenity) in the role of racist asswipe Ben Chapman, the Phillies’ manager. But he did a good job, you know, as an actor. That’s why I disliked him so much.
  • One of my favourite elements in the story was the idea that Rickey asked for Robinson because he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” As a Quaker, I dig this concept of fighting assholery with dignity – MUCH harder than responding in kind.
  • Like my friend lola, I am way more affected by watching movies now that they tug at my mama-strings. There is a lovely scene where Jackie stares through the nursery window to tell his newborn son that he will be there for him, unlike his own father was… and all I could think about was generations of babies and their mamas who didn’t cuddle together RIGHT AWAY after birth, dissuaded from breastfeeding or taking any ownership of each other… those babies just lying in their separate little bassinets, waiting for someone to come pick them up, because that’s how it was done… I could cry just thinking about it. Not really on-topic, though.
  • There are so many well-executed inspirational moments in this film. I lost count of the number of times I found myself just grinning at the screen.
lucas black pee wee reese chadwick boseman jackie robinson 42 movie
Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson.
  • Even having absorbed lots of pop culture revolving around the civil rights movement, I found it eye-opening to realize how truly brave Jackie Robinson had to be, simply to do his job as a ball-player. Had he been possessed of less self-control, or had one of his aggressors been just crazy enough to cross that oh-so-fragile, invisible line… this could have been a tragic story.
  • Further to that, it’s eye-opening to realize how much his teammates took on, just playing with him. Racism in America was OFF THE HOOK back then. (I wish I could say it’s disappeared now.)
  • Makes you wonder what humankind as a species could have accomplished if we hadn’t spent so much time, energy, and brain power trying to keep people segregated. So pointless.
  • Further to that, it makes you wonder what humankind as a species could be accomplishing right now if we didn’t spend so much time, energy, and brain power protesting gay marriage. And so on and so forth.

So, to sum up: TOTALLY FRIGGIN’ HEARTWARMING. You should go see it.

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A Review of All Things Misérables

So I finally got to see the new Les Mis movie in mid-February, when it had been in theatres for a month and a half.

les_miserables_movie_poster
Just learned this awesome word: “oscarisé”. This director has been previously Oscarized. Way to go, Tom Hooper.

This is rather a travesty. I’m a musical geek. I could sing you most of the soundtracks for about a dozen different musicals.* I was also a French major; I studied much French lit, loved the Romantics, and I’ve even been to the Victor Hugo museum.

As you can imagine, this movie gave me a lot of feelings.

First, some back story. (Victor Hugo would want me to include this.)

Dilovely’s first exposure to Les Mis in any form was on a visit to family friends in Toronto. She was about 11. This family had the piano music for the Schönberg-Boublil-Kretzmer musical, and the dad was playing it while another friend, a girl around my age, swished her long skirt around and sang “Master of the House” and “On My Own”. She knew all the words. Mini-Di wished she were like this girl: confident, knowledgeable, able to sing in front of people. And the music… it was compelling. There was obviously great drama behind it.

It was the spring of 1990 when a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording, with Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, came into Mini-Di’s household, via her aunt. It was a home recording, on cassette tape, of course.

She and her sister Emily became totally obsessed. ‘Twas in the days before lyrics.com (or anything .com), so Em transcribed the lyrics by hand in a little spiral-bound notebook, and Mini-Di read them and listened for the parts she couldn’t get. They knew every word – and every inflection, every quirk of accent, every nuance of instrumentation. They were of an age where they understood the concepts of poverty, prostitution, homeless people, revolution, and death – but only superficially. Suddenly this story, with its gorgeously sad music, was making tragedy real.

Soon, Dilovely would see the musical live at the Royal Alexandra Theatre – twice – and receive a Les Mis T-shirt for her birthday.

Fast-forward ten years. [That’s a Hugo tactic too.] In 2000, Dilovely was in France, having finished her French degree during which she was, inevitably, moved by Victor Hugo’s poetry. That year, the musical version of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris was a wild success in Paris, starring Canadian Pierre Garand (a.k.a. Garou) as Quasimodo.

Dilovely found a copy of Les Misérables in the original French at Dunkerque’s Virgin Records store: two hefty paperback volumes totalling 1,948 pages (not counting appendices). She decided to make it her Everest.

Cosette-sweeping-les-miserables-emile-bayard-1862
“Cosette Sweeping” by Emile Bayard, 1862.

She spent over three months reading this chef-d’oeuvre (in between teaching and gallivanting), with her French-English dictionary close at hand. She adored it. She cried frequently over the story. When it was over, she mourned its finishing and missed the characters terribly. They had become family.

As you can imagine, she was rather stoked to find out that there would be a new movie of Les Mis, the first to incorporate the music from the musical, and the first movie-musical to use live (rather than pre-recorded and lip-synched) singing by the actors. She anticipated great things.

Then, poor Dilovely wasn’t sure she would even make it to see the movie in theatres.

It ended up being almost a covert op: get baby to sleep just in the nick of time, leave the house in a hurry to arrive less than two minutes before the opening scene, keep phone in bra for whole movie in case of emergency text from Auntie Em, return home as swiftly as possible once the movie is over, before baby remembers that she doesn’t know how to drink from the bottle. (She was chewing on the nipple happily enough when we came in, so it was better than nothing.)

So, here are my thoughts as a francophile/Les-Mis-devotee.

Firstly, A Note About The Book:

To be honest, after I’d read Les Misérables, I returned to the musical’s soundtrack and found it lacking. The book is incredibly rich, teeming with history both real and imagined.** Every character, major or minor, is endowed with a superbly crafted, heart-wrenching personal history. And Victor Hugo knew what he was doing; though I haven’t been able to find it for you, I remember reading a quotation from him in which he admitted that he strove to evoke powerful emotions in his readers – something on the order of “If y’all don’t cry reading this book, I’ll eat my hat,” but in erudite, Romantic French.

It was gratifying to see the movie and realize it recaptures some of the depth that was lost in the stage play.

General Notes:

  • This movie thoroughly impressed me: the performances, the singing abilities, the method acting, the sensitivity of the adaptation, the sound mixing (bonjour, Oscar!), the makeup (Oscar again), the costumes, the set design, the overall vision.
  • This movie contains some of the most raw acting I’ve ever seen. And I don’t mean raw as in under-done – I mean naked, harrowing, bare-your-soul-to-the-camera acting.
  • The main actors are apparently all Les Mis geeks, for whom playing these roles is a dream come true.
  • Their dedication to their roles is remarkable. For example:
    • Hugh Jackman drank no water for 36 hours prior to filming his convict scenes, to achieve the “gaunt” look;

    Film Religion

    • Eddie Redmayne sang 21 takes of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” to be satisfied with his work, even though the director was happy with take #12;

    eddie redmayne empty chairs at empty tables

    • and Anne Hathaway had them actually cut off her real hair, on camera.

    anne-hathaway-haircut-les-miserables-fantine

  • Sean, without previous exposure to the music, was not as thrilled with the movie. There were many scenes where he felt it would have been better if they’d spoken the dialogue instead of singing. I think that’s an unsolvable issue with movie musicals: when you put them onscreen, it’s just kinda strange that they’re singing. The same is true of Rent: when it’s a movie, you expect them to speak their dialogue, not sing it.
  • To combat this, I recommend listening repeatedly to the soundtrack until it’s part of the fabric of your being. Then it doesn’t seem incongruous at all.
  • While watching, I had occasional glimpses of how the movie might seem to an outsider, how it could be perceived as maudlin. I mean, the pathos is so thick you can chew on it. But that’s part of why we love it. I believe Hugo would have approved.

Comparison to the Stage Musical (spoiler warning, if you don’t already know the story… but who doesn’t?):

  • I noticed every time the music differed from the soundtrack in my head – alternate lyrics, more delicate instrumentation, and lots of abridged songs. (“Dog Eats Dog” was all but eliminated.)
  • The grit and sordidness of the time and place really come through on film. From the dizzying nosebleed section of the Royal Alex, you can’t fully appreciate how filthy everyone is. (Teeth especially.) On a movie set, one can achieve truly repulsive squalor. “Look Down”, “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” are outstanding examples of this.
  • Similarly, the intimacy of film allows for plot subtleties that aren’t possible in stage format. Suddenly certain realities are clear:
    • Fantine’s dawning acceptance, as her hallucinations dissipate, of the fact that she is dying and must give up care of her daughter;
    • the poignant youth and naïveté of the students;
    • Valjean’s jealousy and panic when he realizes Cosette will not always be his;
    • the gendarme’s regret after shooting Gavroche;
    • the pathetic haphazardness of the barricade, and indeed the “revolution” as a whole.
  • I loved the new song, “Suddenly”, sung by Valjean when he takes little Cosette into his care. This was one of the book’s plot points missing entirely from the musical: rescuing Cosette completely changes Valjean’s outlook and priorities. His love for her is immediate, intense, beautiful, and drives basically all of his subsequent actions. He is fiercely protective and fearful at the same time, as parents are. I was very glad they reincorporated this element.

Specific Notes:

  • The opening scene blew me away. “Goosebumps” doesn’t remotely cover it.
  • Hugh Jackman made me cry, especially in the Soliloquy at the beginning. I loved almost every aspect of his performance.
  • My only quibble was that I wished “Bring Him Home” were more wistful/delicate. But it’s, like, one of the hardest solos in the world, and he sang admirably.
  • Anne Hathaway made me cry multiple times, even though her character lasts for less than half the movie. I’m glad she won the Oscar.
  • I’d been warned that Amanda Seyfried as Cosette sings like a Chipmunk. I understood the reference immediately – it’s true that her vibrato is very trembly and the part is written super-high – but her pitch is right on and I thought she did a good job overall.
  • I was also warned that Russell Crowe as Javert was the weak link. I can’t disagree; his singing – especially his consonants – were tentative where they should have been full of conviction (no pun intended). His performance was lacklustre. But again, his pitch was good, and his duet with Jackman was solid – especially the low note on “Monsieur le maire, you wear a different chain” – so I forgive him.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thénardiers were appropriately gaudy and repellent, although I didn’t love Sacha’s constantly mutating accent. But I guess accents are his thing.
  • Eddie Redmayne is totally endearing as Marius. Earnest and freckly and boyish. He completely won me over with his delivery of the line, “I’m doing everything all wrong.”
  • Colm Wilkinson! Was in it! As the Bishop of Digne. I didn’t even recognize him – or his voice – while I was watching… so I guess I’ll have to see it again.
  • I appreciated the parts that recreated certain stage moments, like Valjean’s burdened silhouette in the sewer, and the angle at which Enjolras dies. My inner geek-self was tickled. (If you’re thinking, Um, Dilovely, what other self do you have? then yeah. Touché.)
  • I also appreciated the bits that gave us information from the book that was not in the stage version; for example:
    • we get to see the elephant statue that, in the book, is home to Gavroche and a bunch of other urchins.
    • we also catch sight of young Cosette’s doll that looks like a bundle of rags tied together; readers know she has wrapped up a little lead knife to be her doll. (I KNOW – how heartbreaking is that??)
  • I was confused for a moment by the enormous barricade that appears in the finale, with the whole cast singing atop it. I guess it’s probably reminding us that less than 20 years after the end of the story, in 1848, the French people would rise up for real and force King Louis-Philippe to abdicate – using a MUCH bigger barricade.

Notes on Revisiting the Story After Many Years:

  • As my understanding of the world increases, this story seems more and more relevant – and sad. There are people all over the world who still face tragic circumstances like those in Les Misérables, even though as a species, we should know better.
  • Fantine’s story touches me more now that I’m a mom. The idea of being obliged to give my child to someone else to look after and just hoping for the best, yearning for her all the time… Furthermore, knowing I’m going to leave the mortal plane and never hold her again… Just awful.
  • Hugo’s own story also hits home a lot more. His firstborn son died in infancy, and his second child Léopoldine drowned at age 19, shortly after being married. He knew all about pain, and also about passion, and politics. And he observed poverty all around him – the conditions he describes in the Les Misérables were not imagined. No wonder it’s an amazing book.
  • I need to read it again someday, even though it would probably take me… an embarrassingly long time.
  • And if you enjoyed the musical or the movie or even just the plot, I highly recommend reading it yourself.

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  • BONUS Factoid/Recommendation:
liberty-leading-the-people-1830
La Liberté guidant le peuple, by Eugène Delacroix.

This is one of my favourite Romantic paintings, commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris. The little boy right beside Lady Liberty is said to have inspired Hugo’s Gavroche. I fell in love with this after seeing it discussed on video by Sister Wendy, and later had the privilege of seeing it at the Louvre. Sister Wendy is amazing and so is the painting.

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*West Side Story, Showboat, Cats, Evita, Les Mis, Joseph, Miss Saigon, Assassins, Falsettos, A New Brain, Once On This Island, Rent, Parade… Sisters, what am I forgetting?

**For example, there is a section entitled “Waterloo”, a gruesome 70-page depiction of battle and its remains, related to the story only as historical context – and a vehicle to introduce Thénardier in the last few pages. I wrote a paper on it, about Hugo’s manipulation of time, during my M.A. That’s how much I love Hugo.

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Mysterious Movie Ratings

Do you ever wonder how films get their ratings? Especially kids’ movies. There seem to be some inconsistencies in the system.

For your edification, the Motion Picture Association of America says the following about G and PG movies:

G — General Audiences. All Ages Admitted. A G-rated motion picture contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that, in the view of the Rating Board, would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture. The G rating is not a “certificate of approval,” nor does it signify a “children’s” motion picture. Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present in G-rated motion pictures. Depictions of violence are minimal. No nudity, sex scenes or drug use are present in the motion picture.

PG — Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children. A PG-rated motion picture should be investigated by parents before they let their younger children attend. The PG rating indicates, in the view of the Rating Board, that parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, and parents should make that decision. The more mature themes in some PG-rated motion pictures may call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance. There is no drug use content in a PG-rated motion picture.

I remember my friend Skye, a fellow elementary school teacher, complaining about the first Shrek movie (before there were others) being rated PG and having inappropriate things in it – which means you can’t show it to kids. Or you could, but there would be repercussions. (If you don’t remember, Shrek makes jokes about his “ass”, referring to Donkey, but many little kids would hear that, and understand it as a bad word. This is in the school context, where hell, stupid, and shut up are also bad words.) Interestingly, they toned down the next two Shrek movies; they’re rated G.

Kung-Fu Panda is rated PG, as is Kung-Fu Panda 2, for “Violence”.

kung fu panda jack black
Ski-doosh.

Other movies get the rating for “Scary Situations” or “Mild Language” – or sometimes just “Language” (which always makes us chuckle).

So, who are the actual people that determine what makes an element “intense” or a situation “scary”? Who defines what “violence” is? Because I agree with the Kung-Fu Panda rating – there’s lots of inter-species martial arts in there – but then, I noticed that The Incredibles is rated G, even though you have Elastigirl knocking out security guards with punches to jaws she can’t even see. Huh.

the incredibles
She’s “Elastofille” in French.

As for “scary situations”… basically all animated Disney movies are rated G, but seriously – there are lots of situations that are scary. Your mom dying of illness/getting eaten by a barracuda/being shot by a hunter? Fleeing sharks/Arab thugs/the huntsman? And all those evil villains – Snow White’s step-mom, Maleficent, Ursula, Shan-Yu, the Green-Eyed Man… I could go on. You get the point.

I got to thinking about all this because we recently watched Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

alice in wonderland tim burton
Everyone in this film is a bit scary.

It does have lots of creepy imagery, typical of Tim Burton, and there’s battling. Even slaying. (I was nerdily annoyed that they all talked of slaying the “Jabberwocky”. The creature is a Jabberwock, people.) The funny part is that Sean noticed the disclaimer: it’s rated PG “For Fantasy Action/Violence Involving Scary Images And Situations, And For A Smoking Caterpillar.”

The original Disney Alice in Wonderland is rated G, even though there’s plenty of talk of beheading, abuse of tiny hedgehogs, and without a doubt, a smoking caterpillar.

You have to wonder how many movies out there are rated based on larvae with hookahs.

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