Monthly Archives: March 2013

Some lighter reading: Paris in Love and Vinyl Café

After Sex at Dawn I took a break and enjoyed some lighter reading. Now I’m onto a book about World War II by Antony Beekov. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to post about that, it’s like 900 pages of small print on onionskin paper, but I’ll post about the light stuff:

51ihty1lg9L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU15_Paris in Love is a memoir by Eloisa James. She and her family took a sabbatical year and spent it in Paris and it sounds just great. Books about Paris always make me want to shop and eat. Interestingly, Eloisa James is also a romance writer with very good reviews so I thought I’d download one of her books. I downloaded The Ugly Duchess because the title is funny and it’s very well written. I don’t read romances any more but I went through a period of connoisseurship when I was a teenager so I can tell a good historical romance when I see one. James’ book doesn’t seem as dense as say, one of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ novels, but it’s very witty and fun and is moving along briskly. (I feel a post on romance novels coming on….)

51APWP4S0AL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU15_Vinyl Café is a creation of Stuart Maclean, a Canadian writer and radio personality. He dreamed up a typical Canadian family living in Toronto, and has a series of books which charmingly and hilariously relate episodes in their lives. These people get into more scrapes than Anne of Green Gables (another Canadian literary creation.) I wonder if that’s a Canadian thing. We just get into trouble, darn it. Anyway, these stories are laugh out loud funny so you can’t read them before bed, and not on a plane either. But I cannot recommend them highly enough. Maclean also has podcasts on CBC for download through iTunes, and I’ve been listening to them while I do chores around the house this weekend. If you download one, look for the names “Dave” and “Morley”. “Dave and the Bike” is a good one. The podcasts are of live shows Maclean has done around the country, so the first part is usually a lyrical talk about the history of the town he’s in, then there’s a musical interlude or two, then he gets into the story. So if you want to just hear about Dave and Morley then skip ahead until the last bit of music and applause stops. He’s a great speaker and storyteller. His podcasts kept me in a good mood all weekend despite payroll and laundry and changing bedding. “Stories from the Vinyl Café” is the first one, but the second one, “Home from the Vinyl Café” is even better.

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My List: The Powerful Actors

Disclaimer: I’m having a light day. I’m going back to book reviews soon but am being self-indulgent and thinking about movies lately:

After my review of Les Misérables, I got to thinking about actors and how some actors not only have great range and ability to convey emotion, but can project power. Just standing, they have enormous presence – your eye is drawn to them and they effortlessly hold your attention. I wonder why that is but I can’t figure it out. What I can do is post a lightweight piece (I’m having a lightweight day) about my favourite “power” actors (I’m just dealing with men right now; I’ll deal with women some other time):

Russell Crowe: Obviously he comes first to mind as I just saw him play Javert in Les Mis. But when I think “power” I think of Maximus in the Colosseum, head slightly lowered like a bull about to charge, and murderous intent in his eyes. Power comes out of him in nearly visible rays. The soundtrack of Gladiator helps but Russell Crowe has tremendous presence and also a good range, which is a quality I’m factoring in here. Being able to look menacing isn’t enough to make the list. He has a somber face but when he smiles something happens in his eyes and you could knock me over with a feather. Cinderella Man? Master and Commander? This is why he is number one.

Serious Crowe

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Happy Crowe

Denzel Washington: If I hadn’t just seen Russell Crowe play Javert I probably would have placed Mr. Washington first. He can be loud and raucous, he can be quiet and introspective, he can project suffering with liquid eyes (remember the whipping scene in Glory?),  he can do it all. He has a smolderingly dangerous presence, and even though he’s incredibly good-looking he has an everyman quality that is essential to place on this list.

Liam Neeson: Authority. Strength. Vulnerability. Even in Love, Actually he was a towering presence like an eagle amongst sparrows. When there’s an emergency, everyone will look to him. Like they did in The Grey.

Daniel Day-Lewis: Obviously. “Stay alive! I will find you!” And she did, and he did. I haven’t seen Lincoln yet but apparently he kicks ass in that too. And, of course, A Room With a View. Talk about range! Check! Everyman quality, check. Power, check.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: This is probably the third time I’ve mentioned that PSH should have played Henry VIII in The Tudors and it’s because he has the presence to play such a larger-than-life monarch. Henry VIII was a monster and megalomaniac but apparently he could also be quite charming and I think PSH would have conveyed those qualities very well. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, though gorgeous, doesn’t quite project the power that you need for this particular monarch. Nobody can do weary irony quite like PSH either, and every time I see him do it I get a thrill. Actually maybe it’s just how he’s feeling at the time. I just watched Mission Impossible III and I wonder if the ironic look on PSH’s face just is him thinking, “What am I doing here?” It’s hard to say. But he was wonderful in Patch Adams and The Talented Mr. Ripley and Doubt and I haven’t seen The Master yet but I hear he’s amazing in that too. That voice!

Eric Bana: He actually did play Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl, with some success. Again, Henry VIII was a gingery blonde, very fair. Casting Eric Bana is another attempt to make the Tudors hotter than they actually were. I know that when he was young, Henry VIII was strong and handsome, but he spent 20 years with Katherine of Aragorn; by the time he took up with Anne Boleyn he was already getting pudgy and he was damn near forty. Sorry for the digression – at least Eric Bana has the power that you need to convey the majesty of the throne, and a monarch as willful as Henry VIII. What about Munich? Pow! Amazing. Hulk? Also amazing. He can do charming, he can do menacing (Star Trek!), and he’s able to be vulnerable as well.

Daniel Craig: The only Bond to make this list. I love Sean Connery but he’s not as dangerous as everyone else here. DC is the suffering Bond, the yearning Bond, the less-smooth but more-compelling, rougher-round-the-edges Bond.

George Clooney: He held everyone’s attention in ER and that was just the start of it. Natural authority, big presence, ability to convey a wide range of emotions and thoughts, and although he can look devastating, he also has the everyman quality. (Denzel Washington did a stint on St. Elsewhere, it can’t be a coincidence.)

Christian Bale: He’s been around a long time and has displayed a wide range already, otherwise I’d put him in the “Growing Into It” list. In Empire of the Sun, when he was very young, he was riveting. He’s still riveting and has anyone else noticed that he looks like the young James Brolin?

Matt Damon: Good Will Hunting showed Matt Damon’s range in just the one film, and that was the first really notable thing he did. Since then he’s sought out interesting roles and he’s really grown into a figure with a presence. His Jason Bourne, though at times a stony-faced automaton dealing out death, also shows wonder, pain, longing, all the vulnerable emotions that land an actor on this list.

Ray Winstone: Although Mr. Winstone is not as well-known as the rest on this list, I think he has quite a presence! He’s one of a group of older character actors whom I adore: Ian McShane, Ben Kingsley, Brian Cox, Tom Wilkinson, Chris Cooper, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Geoffrey Rush…the list goes on.

I also have to add Chow Yun-Fat and Ken Watanabe; because they’re Asian actors, their exposure in Western film is less. However, whenever I have seen them on film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, Batman Begins, and Inception) they have both demonstrated the range, power and versatility of everyone else on the list.

Growing Into It List: these are the actors who are still evolving – they belong on this list but they’re not quite in the same league as my men above. Almost there but not quite…it’s just a matter of time and exposure and opportunities.

Mark Wahlberg: Talk about everyman. MW is a tightly coiled spring in the body of your ordinary guy. He can be tarted up and is devastating when he wants to be, but he has the ability to be anyone. I haven’t seen him do period yet and I doubt I ever will, but it would be interesting. Maybe Steinbeck or Hemingway as opposed to Brontë or Austen.

Ben Affleck: I don’t think he really found it and brought it until The Town. But The Town was amazing, one of my favourite movies ever. I think his strengths are perhaps more as a producer and director even though he is a very good actor. Can’t wait to see him do more challenging roles.

Jamie Foxx: The power is there, but as yet unleashed, so to speak. The range is nearly there but I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet so maybe it is there and I just don’t know it. My bad. But his performances in Ray and Collateral were stellar, in my opinion.

Robert Downey Jr.: He’s nearly there but so glib. There’s a lightness and wittiness that gives him membership on another list. Why? The characters he’s been playing have been limiting him. Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark tend to intellectualize everything, suppressing emotion and holding it at bay, thus reducing opportunities to emote in any meaningful way. It’s not that I don’t think it’s there, it’s just that in movies like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes it’s just not evident. It’s all wit, facetiousness and sarcasm. Fun, but not powerful or earnest. I’m talking in film, in what I’ve seen. Maybe he’s done something with tons of earnest emoting but I haven’t seen it.

Sam Worthington: He’ll probably top my list in a year or so. Brimming with potential but still quite young and kind of stagnating in the “Titans” movies. But he’s going to get there, I feel it.

Leonardo DiCaprio: I still think of LDC as a “young” actor, I don’t know why. As he ages he looks more and more like Jack Nicholson and he is tremendous actor. But this is my list.

Who isn’t on the list and why? I know; part of the reason I started this list is because I was watching MI: III during my workout and wondering why Tom Cruise, though fun to watch, does not have the same aura that Russell Crowe does. And Denzel Washington, and on and on and hey I think I’ve got a blog post here. Why not Brad Pitt? Why not Colin Firth? Hugh Jackman? Kevin Costner? What about Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino? I have my own criteria and not everyone made the cut, even though I think these are all amazing actors. Empirically, they are. But the essential qualities were 1) powerful presence, 2) range, 3) everyman quality and not everyone has that or has had the opportunity to showcase said qualities. Or else I just haven’t seen the film that would have landed them on my list. It’s subjective. Basically, I took everyone I could think of and tried to mentally cast them in Gladiator as Maximus, the quintessentially powerful yet vulnerable character. And period, to boot. It’s quite a fun exercise. Some work; some make you laugh out loud. Picture Hugh Grant as Maximus. See? But everyone on my key list could play Maximus. Oops, except for Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he could be king, so.

I thought hard about Clint Eastwood. I love him but his range of expression tends to go from Generally Annoyed to Detecting an Escape of Sewer Gas and not much else. I think it’s an old-school thing. My father-in-law has the same two expressions, very Clint. I’ve been trying hard to remember the end of Million Dollar Baby but I really don’t remember Clint’s expression changing much. He still looked pretty flinty at Hilary Swank’s bedside when any other human being would have been sobbing and howling with grief.

It’s a repressed thing. There’s emotion there, but it’s being repressed. Personal anecdote: I remember having the same look on my face after my father died. I suppressed my grief because I needed to be there for my mother and sister, and I didn’t dare indulge in the swelling of sorrow I could feel in my chest. I pushed it down ruthlessly, fearing that if I should allow a chink in the dam, the flood of grief would inundate me, drown me, and I would never be able to come back to any kind of equilibrium again. It literally felt like being at the edge of the abyss; if I allowed myself to feel the emotion I would tip over and never stop falling. Outwardly, I had the same narrowed eyes and gritted teeth that Clint displays on a regular basis. My mother sent me to a therapist, eventually, and even then it took the therapist 4 hours to get me to experience the emotions I was so relentlessly bottling up. It’s an old-fashioned, self-protective response to extreme emotion: the stiff upper lip, the stoicism. And the fact that our culture valued this quality shows when you watch older films and actors. But nowadays our culture allows us to emote and feel what we feel, and it’s ok, and we like that reflected in the films we watch. Every actor in Les Misérables had tears in their eyes at some point or other, if not constantly. In Gladiator, Russell Crowe emotes grief in a heartrending scene when he discovers his murdered family. I remember being shocked the first time I saw that. It made my chest hurt. You wouldn’t see Clint doing that. But it was raw, it was real, it was incredibly powerful, and that’s why Russell Crowe is at the top of my list.

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Les Misérables, sniff sniff

After the Oscars, in which the cast performance from Les Misérables nearly brought me to tears (I know, I know) I texted a friend to see if she wanted to go see it in the theatres. We’d gone to see The Hunger Games together and have a good cry, and it was tremendously satisfying, so we thought this would be great fun too.

Les Misérables

I’d seen the stage version, and while the music was good it didn’t really move me and I think I actually dozed off in some of the recitatives. I have not had a lot of luck with live musicals in general – I find the actors too far away for me to perceive any emotion in them, and in their efforts to project emotion they’re forced to the front of the stage to squall at the audience. I find this embarrassing. This is my fault; I love movies so much I think I’m conditioned to have expectations of close-ups and plots that move along with lightning speed. Also, when I was in my first year of university I bought seasons tickets to the opera with my cheap student discount. The opening night opera was a modern one set to a novel by Dostoevsky (if memory serves) and took place in a Siberian prison. I was in my first year of university and exhausted all the time from the course load and working to pay for it all – so my response to being warm, and in the dark, and in a Siberian prison – was of course to fall asleep. That set a pattern. I think I spent the entire season snoozing in the plush velvet seats of the Orpheum. I think I slept through The Marriage of Figaro, which is a great opera, but let’s face it, it’s four hours long.

The advantage of course of live stage productions is that there is an intermission so you can go pee – if you see the movie, it’s also 3 hours long and so gripping you don’t want to leave for the bathroom. Also the entire theatre is weeping so it’s fun to be part of that. Anyway, we were bursting by the time the movie finished. I’m amazed there was any water left in our bodies to excrete as we were weeping so copiously but there was a mad dash for the loos as soon as it was over so we weren’t the only ones. When you have a jumbo pop in a three hour movie with no intermission what do you expect?

Obviously, we loved the movie, and I did prefer it to the stage productions I’ve seen – sorry! I know it’s not very purist of me, but there you have it. It makes a big difference when you can see the actors’ faces close up, and they don’t have to do “big” emoting because of it. They can sing more intensely and passionately because they don’t have to project so far. I’m impressed that they recorded the singing while filming, so they weren’t dubbing in later, and they all managed to imbue the songs with so much emotion and feeling that it was all very touching even to a cynic like me. Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway have amazing voices and they sounded trained to my admittedly not professional ear. Russell Crowe’s voice is as furry as he is himself, and while he sang well he didn’t have the same clarity and precision as the others. However, he is such a forceful presence that he made an amazing Javert. Hugh Jackman made a powerful, sensitive Valjean and he emotes like a madman. He, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway all have these huge liquid eyes that they’re able to fill with pain, and sorrow, and joy and every other required emotion. It looks really easy when  you have those enormous eyes. All the actors (excepting the comic ones and they just didn’t have the opportunity in this category) have the quality of vulnerability which came across in film and I think would have been missed on the stage. Is Eddie Redmayne the most incredibly vulnerable-looking actor or is it just me? I spent half the film wondering how he makes his lips tremble like that. Amanda Seyfried’s clear blue eyes and even clearer soprano can melt you like chocolate in a toddler’s hand. You just want to put them all in your pocket like so many kittens.

Sacha Baron Cohen was such awesome fun in his role as the innkeeper Thénardier, which I expected, but it was surprising nonetheless, because he was so good. I liked him better in this than I did in anything else I’ve seen him in (I don’t like his films in general). I thought it was brilliant casting but he was so good it was still a surprise. Helena Bonham Carter is fabulous in everything she does (I’ve loved her since A Room With a View) and she really sucked the marrow out of this particular bone. I love the actors with the versatile faces, who can look beautiful, but tweak their hair a bit, fleck them with makeup and they look totally insane. HBC is definitely one of these and she brings it on in this role. Hugh Jackman was also good in this respect – he is empirically good looking, everybody agrees, but in the opening scene, when Valjean is an enslaved prisoner, he’s almost unrecognizable. He seems to physically manifest pain and agony. It can’t just be the makeup; it’s a gift. His unbearably poignant death scene unleashed a fresh torrent of tears from our audience; you could hardly hear the singing.

Three hours of melodic revolution later, we staggered out of the movie, into the loo, and out again, our makeup smeared and the fronts of our shirts speckled with popcorn bits. Then we happily headed down to Hapa Coal Harbour and had a light post-show meal.

I’ve been on iTunes comparing the vocal performances with the original Broadway cast performances and overall, the Broadway ones are better, although Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne are contenders. Interestingly, in comparing Russell Crowe’s “Stars” with the Broadway version I actually preferred Russell Crowe’s, go figure, because the stage voice seemed less masculine than Crowe’s – as anybody’s would, let’s face it – so the casting agents were definitely on to something. Conclusion: I enjoyed the film version much more than I did the live version. Close-ups and scenery pack a real punch and you just can’t do it all on the stage. I don’t know if I’ll purchase any recordings, mostly because I can’t hear some of these songs without crying and that would disrupt my day. There’s a time and place for everything.

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Samurai and Ninja

Our kids take Japanese language lessons. They’ve been learning the language since they were two when they started at an immersion preschool, and we’ve always had Japanese-speaking babysitters. Now our Japanese-speaking sitter is more of a tutor which is good because I don’t speak Japanese at all. My husband does speak Japanese, after ten years in Japan and another ten years of arguing with Japanese chefs in our restaurants.

The teachers in the school are lovely, and the girls enjoy their classes. I’m amazed by what they are learning – my 9-year-old is already learning kanji, the complicated characters that express an entire word or concept. There are many strokes to each character and you have to do the strokes in the right order.  They also learn about Japanese customs and traditions and history. It’s great.

Japanese schools are big on parent participation, which is fine, except that I never know what’s going on and just stand there with uncomprehending eyes and a frozen smile while I wait for Justin to translate what’s going on. Everyone else speaks Japanese – at least the moms do (when there’s a caucasian dad who speaks Japanese he usually speaks it a lot just so that everyone knows that he speaks the lingo – show offs).  Many of the kids are half-Asian, with a Japanese mother and a Canadian father, so these sessions work for them, but they don’t work for me. So I attend, reluctantly, and am constantly mystified.

Yesterday’s demonstration was no exception. The topic they were expositing was “Samurai and Ninja.” Or, “Killers and Assassins” to my western mind. Totally appropriate for kids age 6-10! But Samurai and Ninja! Pretty exciting. I’m sure people were disappointed that there was no hara-kiri (ritualized suicide) demonstrations but time was limited, so. We did learn what foods samurai and ninja ate (yes to rice and fish, no to hamburgers and spaghetti). Then the kids recited Japanese tongue twisters and the adults were encouraged to also recite tongue twisters (me, frozen smile, polite refusal). I don’t know what this had to do with samurai or ninja but a lot went over my head.

The climax of the demonstration was when we used black garbage bags to make ninja costumes for the kids. It’s basically an engineers’ raincoat: you cut a hole for the head and arms, cut a strip off the bottom for a belt, and you’re good. We made ninja headgear with a garbage bag cut in half and then folded into a triangle. Laid atop the head across the forehead with the point to the back, and then the sides folded against the cheeks, crossed under the chin and tied behind the neck, they were adorable.

One small thing I noticed though. I’ve seen The Last Samurai and I’ve read Shogun, so I figure I pretty much know everything there is to know about ninja. I could be wrong, but ninja were quiet, right? Because you never heard so much rustling in your life. It was the sound of an army walking through dry autumn leaves. These ninja could not sneak up on a marimba band. So I’m guessing the garbage-bag costumes were not exactly authentic. But like I said, I didn’t really understand everything that was happening.

But they were so sweet:

Ninja

I didn’t want to have the kids’ faces in here for obvious reasons.

So: we learned that ninjas didn’t eat spaghetti, it’s fun to see your kid dressed as garbage, and I didn’t have to perform a Japanese tongue-twister.

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