Thursday, January 31, 2013

Les Misérables 10th anniversary concert: Review

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The newly remastered DVD of the glorious 1995 tenth anniversary concert of Les Misérables with 5.1 Surround Sound  released last November by BBC Home Entertainment has got to be the definitive recorded version of the much beloved musical to date. Not only is it a presentation of nearly the compete show, but it gathers together what is often thought of as the dream cast for the performance. Music is in the hands of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the addition of a chorus 150 voices strong. It is nothing less than a complete joy.

That it comes so close in time to the opening of its Academy Award nominated celluloid cousin is perhaps a mixed blessing. No doubt it will profit some from the hoopla and publicity surrounding the film. Those movie goers who enjoy the film may well want to hear what it sounded like on stage. On the other hand there will be those so impressed by the star power of a Hugh Jackman and maybe even an Anne Hathaway that they choose to wait for the film DVD. That would be a mistake. As effective as the film is, it can't compete with the stage version. Even in concert, where the cast is in costume but performs before microphones at the front of the stage, the show is an emotional powerhouse. One gets caught up in it and it is very easy to forget they are on stage.

There is, of course, a more recent concert version celebrating the 25 anniversay of the show available on DVD, and for those of us who thrill to the music of Schönberg and Boublil, it has its excellent moments as well, what it doesn't have is Colm Wilkinson, the original and the definitive Jean Valjean. Not that there is anything wrong with its star, Alfie Boe. He has an operatic voice that soars with power, but he is not Wilkinson. Wilkinson has a voice that is unique and his version of "Who am I?" is a dramatic tour de force, his "One Day More" stirs the soul, his "Bring Him Home" is unmatchable. Indeed once you've heard him, he becomes the measure by which to judge all the Valjeans since and all still to come.
Other definitive performances in the 10 anniversary concert are Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway (who also appears in the 25 concert) as the Thénardiers. Lea Salonga who sings the tragically doomed Fantine in the newer version sings the tragically doomed Éponine in the 1995 concert, a role she did in the Broadway production. Moreover in the 1995 concert you get the excellent Michael Ball playing Marius instead of the boyishly miscast Nick Jonas. As for the villain, Philip Quast an Australian, though no Russell Crowe) is a perfect Javert.

From some of the critical reaction to the current film, there are those it would seem, not quite enthralled with the music. They find much of the recitative puerile. They call much of it treacle. They dislike the repetition of the melodies. Of course, they are not the first to find fault with the show. London reviewers dumped on it when it opened in 1985; the London reviewers were wrong, and if popular reaction is any indication so too are the current complainers. While the verdict is still out on the film and its handling of the music, the verdict on the music has long been in. Puerile, treacle, repetitious be damned—audiences love it. There are musical moments in this show that stay with you forever—the comic "Master of the House, "the majestic finale of the first act, Javert's suicide, the death of Valjean, the. . . . but why go on, you really have to list every musical number in the show.

Bonus material on the two disc set includes some twenty minutes of newly discovered interview material with producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. There is also a British documentary from 1988, Stage by Stage: The Making of Les Mis which was included on the DVD's original release. It features performance footage from a number of productions from around the world. There is also a little commemorative booklet with some nice pictures, but no complete cast listing, and a replica of the ticket to the London reception after the show. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

DVD Review: The Tin Drum (Criterion Collection)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In spite of the critical success of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum, the first volume of The Danzig Trilogy, after its publication in 1959, for many years it was considered a daunting if not impossible project to adapt to the screen.  There was the great span of time it covered, the proper tone required to handle its fantastic events, as well as the salacious nature of some of the content. But even more problematical was the novel's central character Oskar Matzerath, a child who on his third birthday refuses to grow any further. He it seemed would have been impossible to cast. That director Volker Schlöndorff and his collaborating screen writer Jean-Claude Carrière were able to come up with a script that impressed Grass with its possibilities and then find a child actor small enough in starure, yet old enough to play Oskar is among the most remarkable things about this most remarkable film.

Originally released in 1979, the film which won both the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film was a shortened version of Schlöndorff's initial cut which ran well over the producer's requirement that it run no more than two and a quarter hours. With the film's great success, Schlöndorff wanted to restore the cuts, but producers were adamant that it would be a mistake to tamper with a winner. When in 2009 Schlöndorff was made aware that the original film negative which was being stored in Berlin was about to be destroyed, he agreed to take charge of it and convinced the powers that be to restore the cuts, adding  about 30 minutes to the film's running time. 

This restored director approved high-definition digital transfer of the complete version with a newly translated English subtitles is the centerpiece of the new two disc set in the Criterion Collection.
Although the film begins with a scene in which Oskar's grandmother squatting in a potato field hides a man running from a pair of decidedly Keystone-type Kops under her skirts, the man who is to become Oskar's grandfather, most of the narrative takes place after Oskar's birth, the period after WWI and the rise of the Nazis in what was then the free city of Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk. While the novel carries through to 1959, the film ends in 1945 with the Russian invasion of the city and the removal of much of the populace. Of the terms used to characterize the film, absurdist and surreal are the most apt. Schlöndorff, talking about Grass's reaction to their initial screenplay, says that he found it too logical. It needed to emphasize the fantastic. In the end it had to be treated as dark or black comedy, almost slapstick.

Oskar's refusal to grow up, when on his third birthday he receives what is to become his ubiquitous tin drum, is seen as a rejection of the responsibilities that come with adulthood. He wants a darker version of a Peter Pan-like freedom to do as he pleases. Not only does he want to march to his own drum, he wants everyone else to march to it as well. When he discovers that his high pitched screams can shatter glass, he learns that he can manage the adults and get them to do what he wants, without any responsibility for his behavior.  On the other hand, given the childish often immoral behavior of the adults around him, his rejection makes sense. His mother, father and uncle are engaged in a love triangle. They do little to keep their sexual peccadilloes quiet. The German neighbors and townsfolk fall prey to the Nazi pomp and propaganda. If this is what it is like to be an adult, why not remain a child?

Punctuating Oskar's narrative of some of the major historical events of first half of the last century are a series of memorable set pieces, unforgettable moments and images that will bury themselves deep in the consciousness: Oskar's birth as we emerge with him out of his mother's womb almost fully grown, the horse's head filled with eels pulled out  of the ocean by a fisherman as the family walks the beach, the Nazi rally that turns into a waltz fest, the Nazi attack on the nuns walking on the beach. Not to mention the troublesome sexuality of the scene in the bath house between Oskar and Maria the young girl who is destined to become his stepmother—a scene, along with one or two others that was to create some trouble for the film with censors in Canada and Oklahoma.

The Tin Drum is a challenging film that defies easy interpretation. It depicts a world in chaos, a world where traditional values have lost their meaning, and if there are any new ones they aren't working. It is that world where that famous beast has already slouched toward Bethlehem and been born. Schlödorff presents an insane vision of that insane world, a nightmarish vision that is shocking in its visceral accuracy.

Besides the trailer, this new Criterion Collection set includes an illuminating hour long interview with Schlöndorff filmed in 2012, a recording of Grass reading the passage from the novel describing Oskar's disruption of the Nazi rally illustrated by the scene in the film, and a number of early French television interviews with Schlödorff, Carrière and a few of the actors, most notably David Bennent who plays Oskar. The accompanying booklet has an essay, "Bang the Drum Loudly," by critic Geoffrey Macnab and some comments from Grass about the adaptation. It does not include the documentary Banned in Oklahoma which was included as bonus material in Criterion's 2004 release.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Near the end of The Flame Alphabet Ben Marcus's rhapsodic apocalyptic novel of a world where language has become toxic, Sam, the narrator, commenting on a fable of a young bird blindfolded as a rite of passage, says: "I am no fan of stories, perhaps because they seem more like problems that will never be solved. . . ." And although in many respects, The Flame Alphabet may be the most accessible of Marcus's books, he will find few fans among readers who like Sam prefer problems with solutions. Certainly there is a story here. Certainly that story seems to be saying something about language, communication and human socialization, but just as certainly, exactly what that story is saying may indeed seem like a problem that will never be solved.

Set in an America where adults are becoming mysteriously sickened by the speech of children, the story chronicles one man's attempt to find an antidote and save his family from the growing menace. Sam and his wife Claire seem a normal family with a young teen age daughter. Or at least they would be, if it wasn't that every time the girl speaks, indeed every time they hear any child speak they are sickened. Claire is wasting away, drying up, calcifying. And it isn't only them, all the adults  all over the country are having the same problem. Sam, an amateur, is doing his bumbling best to find a cure. 

They are members of a sect of reconstructionist Jews who worship secretly in huts in the forest, where they listen to sermons piped in electronically from holes in the ground. It is suggested that at least some people think that the sickness originated with these Jews and that somehow there are answers to be found in these hidden "Jew holes." Whether this is an anti-Semitic society looking for scapegoats is never really clear. Much of what is done to deal with the problem is at least a metaphoric allusion to Nazi solutions, final and otherwise. Children are carted away to unknown destinations on buses. People are forced out of their homes. People are used in medical experiments. These measures however are not particularly aimed at the Jews.

If at first the sickness is caused by the speech of children, gradually all language—written or spoken, indeed any form of human communication from any source becomes poisonous. While this would seem to suggest that Marcus is saying something about the existential betrayal of language, it would also suggest that using language to make a point about the failure of language is doomed to fail.  It goes beyond language: "This was not a disease of language anymore, it was a disease of insight, understanding, knowing." The book in a sense becomes the ultimate example of itself. Of course it provides no definitive answers; no answer is the answer. Like the blindfolded bird in the story which learns to live with the blindness, we must learn to live without the noise of language. Yet when it comes right down to it, Sam like Marcus turns to language. This is the ultimate paradox for the writer. Language is as likely to confuse as not. Words don't work, but what else does he have?

On the other hand, if in fact, Marcus is maintaining the inadequacy of language it is as likely as not that everything I have just said is inadequate. In the end, what can one say about The Flame Alphabet with any definitiveness. Certainly nothing definitive about what it all means. Any reader looking for definitive would do well to look elsewhere. On the other hand the reader happily willing to be teased out of thought by the venom of language will find The Flame Alphabet one of the most interesting of books of recent years.