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Recent Movies: Bastards, Wadjda, The Butler; Live Theatre: Les Misérables

November 10, 2013

Recent Movies

Bastards

In this French film noir, a ship captain leaves his post to get revenge on behalf of his sister whose family has faced recent tragedies.

This film is occasionally confusing but always intriguing thanks to the directing style of Claire Denis.  At first, it is difficult to distinguish who’s who partly because two characters look alike.  There are also times it is hard to understand the motives and actions of the main character.

Still, the intrigue seems to work especially with a plot twist followed by one of those endings that is shocking becuase one would not have expected the film to end at that point.  This is one of the few films that gets away with this device.

Rating (out of four stars):   * * *

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Wadjda

The title character is an 11-year old girl living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Her adventurous spirit causes trouble living in such a repressive environment, particulary for girls.

I compared this film to “The Circle”, an Iranian film in 2000 which also chronicled the difficult lives for females in another repressive regime.  “The Circle” was dramatic and tragic.  “Wadjda” has a good share of drama but it also has a special lightness.  Its characters seem to be able to find ways of having fun within their restrictions.

Occasionally, a side story about Wadjda’s mother is confusing.  The film also misses a few opportunities for other expanded side stories.  One involves a religiously fanatical school official who does not seem to practice what she preaches.  (Isn’t that always the case?).  Another involves a very amiable relative who seems to break barriers by working in an environment along with men despite the controversy this causes.

But the main draw in this film is the very charming performance of young actress Waad Mohammed.  Also, the fact that this film was made in Saudi Arabia is a special victory in itself.

Rating:   * * *

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The Butler

Based on the life of Eugene Allen, this film tells the story of the fictional Cecil Gaines, an African-American who overcomes early life tragedies and works as a butler in the White House between the Eisenhower and the Reagan presidencies.

This film does well in juxtaposing the broader U.S. history along with the civil rights struggles and the difficult family life of the main character.  This is the film’s greatest strength especially when the stories intersect and relate to each other.  This time period was volatile and still fascinating.  There is also an intriguing conflict between two family members who each handle their oppression differently: one continues to use survival skills even if the main problem still exists; the other is willing to fully lose security in the fight for justice.

Director Lee Daniels did a superb job with “Precious” a few years ago.  His best work in “The Butler” shows in the scenes of racial discrimination and violence during the 1960s which are shocking and dramatic.  His skills are rather weaker in some pivotal scenes near the end where a few events that could have had more impact seemed predictable.  Also, as there is such a super A-list of stars who all perform quite well, there isn’t really any scene where any of the performers shows greater depth as, say, Mo’Nique did in her final scene in “Precious”.  It is also unfortunate that the events of the 1970s were skipped over quickly.

Despite these criticisms, this is still a film that is entertaining while reminding the viewers of some of the most difficult times in modern history.

Rating:   * * *

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Live Theatre

“Les Misérables” (new version) at the Princess of Wales theatre, Toronto

This now classic musical (based on the novel by Victor Hugo) tells the story of a reformed criminal and his attempts to help others during the 1800s in France despite massive turmoil wherever he goes.  The musical was created by by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil.

Everything works beautifully in this grand production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell: the stage sets, the lighting, and the backdrop scenery are all perfect.  Then, of course, there are the performances of  those wonderful songs.  All performers were quite good and some were outstanding such as Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean), Eric Carpenter (Javert), and Melissa O’Neil (Éponine).

So many songs were spine-tingling:  “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Master of the House”, “Stars”, “On My Own”, “Bring Him Home” (brilliant), “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, the songs of the revolutionary students, the death scenes.  But the grandest events were the group numbers that ended the first and second acts:  “One Day More” and “When Tomorrow Comes”.  Moments like these are so powerful, they cause goosebumps followed by happy tears.

Despite having seen this musical before, this current production was truly unforgettable.  It is the stuff that dreams are made of:  a grand combination of magic and magnificence.

Rating:   * * * *

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