Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods, a film

Listen, I love movies. And I love Broadway musicals. In the same way, I suppose, that one can love walks in the park and also, deep dish pizza. Both are story-telling entertainments, but distinctly birds of different feathers. I was talking about the recent film, Into the Woods, with someone yesterday and she raised an interesting question: Why make a movie based on a musical? I’ve been thinking about this, and can only guess that the people behind it are like me and love both too. And it seems to me that if you’re going to adapt something from one medium to another, the focus should be on what the new medium can do that the other couldn’t. In the case of film, there’s cinematography, of course, the ability to paint a broader scene than that on a stage. And there’s editing, the honing of moments that’s impossible during a live show. And we get the actors in close-up. Characters in musicals tend to be painted in broad strokes but in a film, we’re able to get closer.

I’ve seen lots of musicals but have never seen a production of Into the Woods. And it’s only now that I’m becoming aware of the uproar about director Rob Marshall’s decisions to cut certain characters and songs and the fear that what he’d give us would be a Disney-approved dumbing-down of a complicated musical containing some dark stuff. Again, I haven’t seen the musical (but I will), so I can’t comment on that. And maybe that’s for the best. Because I loved Into the Woods, the film, and I’m glad, in a way, that I wasn’t distracted by a previous version in another medium. It seemed to me that the filmmakers used every tool in the movie-making box to translate this from stage to screen. The shots in the woods were beautifully and hauntingly done; the scenes had a continuity, one to the next, that felt like a musical. I thought all the actors did a fabulous job. And as fans of the Broadway version already know, all the songs are great. It’s funny and touching and entertaining from start to finish. I saw it with my daughter and a couple of her friends (all twelve years old). The friends weren’t impressed; they thought it boring and long. My daughter loved it but then again, this is the girl who’s seen Wicked four times. If you don’t like musicals will you love the movie? I don’t know. If you love this musical, will you hate the movie? I don’t know. I only know that it was a very enjoyable afternoon for me.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon was born in the Midwest but lived for many years in New Hampshire, where she was the state’s poet laureate when she died, too early, in 1995. She suffered from depression for much of her adult life; the mysteries and familiarities of home life were another theme of her work. Read more about her here.

Taking Down the Tree

by Jane Kenyon (1947-1995)
"Give me some light!" cries Hamlet's
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. "Light! Light!" cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it's dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother's childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it's darkness
we're having, let it be extravagant.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorite Films, 2014

It’s actually a difficult task to make a Best of the Year film list before the year is over because many of the heavy-hitting Oscar contenders are released right at year’s end. There are several I’m looking forward to seeing before 2014 is over, or maybe shortly into the new year. But you have to draw a line somewhere, if you’re doing a list, so I’ll draw mine today. I take some comfort in the fact that I think it will be very, very difficult to top my top three, no matter which films I take in over Christmas week. As always, I include films from other years that I watched this year. Because it’s my blog, you see, so it’s all about me! First, my favorites of 2014:

1. Boyhood

No doubt you'll be hearing much about this film as awards season gets underway. It's all for good reason. Yes, there's the fact that they filmed this coming-of-age story for over a decade, but the actual viewing experience, the immersion and the depth, the poignancy and the unforgettable characters--these are the reasons why it's my favorite movie of the year. Not to be missed, a masterpiece.

2.  Whiplash

For a week or so after viewing, I actually thought this film may topple Boyhood for my favorite of the year. It's that good. The story is about the tumultuous relationship between Andrew, a driven, young, jazz drummer and his teacher at a prestigious music conservatory. Riveting performances by both leads and pacing that will keep you on the edge of your seat. In the end, a stunning look at what it takes to make the grade and the price of artistic achievement. Fantastic film-making and to say it's a very close second to Boyhood is the ultimate compliment.

3. Force Majeure

A film from a Swedish director that should be nominated for Best Picture but most definitely will walk off with Best Foreign Film nevertheless. It's been compared to Scenes from a Marriage, for all good reasons. But it's wickedly funny too. The short synopsis: "A man's selfish reaction to the danger posed by an avalanche causes cracks in his marriage and relationships with his children." Wonderful performances, much to digest in this beautifully filmed story. I wrote more about it here.

4. Birdman

Michael Keaton plays an aging movie star who's known primarily for his role as a superhero and who's now trying to salvage some respectability by directing and acting in the stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. It's an bold conceit, and this film pretty much traces Keaton's character's comeuppance for thinking he could do so. And it's an indictment of the film industry's reliance on franchises, and it's another story about a misunderstood and suffering artist, which I think is becoming one of my favorite genres (see Whiplash, above, and 2013's choice, Inside Llewyn Davis).

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

One of the best times I had in the theater this year. Funny and fun, it's sort of a buddy film meets superhero film meets comedy. I couldn't even tell you, these many months after seeing it, what the exact plot was, but I'm sure saving the entire universe had something to do with it. But I do recall being entertained throughout, and touched at times by the humanity of it.

6.  Nightcrawler

A very strange film about a drifter who becomes immersed in the world of crime journalism. Which is a nice way of saying, the world of creepy photographers who drive around during night hours, waiting to take photos of gruesome events to be sold to the highest media bidder. The world of the movie is an exaggerated, seedier version of American news culture, or is it? Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as an emotionally removed, edges-of-society type, but Rene Russo is amazing as a tough but world-weary television exec who falls under Gyllenhaal's spell. You won't be able to look away.

7.  Edge of Tomorrow

An unfortunately-titled action film that was smart and entertaining, with great special effects. Tom Cruise plays a military officer more accustomed to offices than fields of war, and he finds himself in a time loop trying to defeat a band of relentless aliens. It's funny and engaging, with all the action you can handle. Say what you will about Tom Cruise but he rarely attaches himself to a low-quality project and this is no exception. A very good movie.

Other films from other years:

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Another poor choice of titles, but this Argentine crime thriller won the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year. The parallel stories trace the history between a retired judiciary employee and a judge who were coworkers twenty-five years before. They've both been unable to shake a rape and murder case from that time, and the stilted romance between them. All the loose ends are taken up these decades later, when they reopen the case.

Tim's Vermeer (2013)

Tim Jenison is an inventor, an engineer, and the founder of a computer graphics company. He becomes convinced that Vermeer must have used some sort of early technology to compose and paint his paintings, so he tries to prove this by copying one of his masterpieces. An interesting contemplation about what constitutes art.

The White Ribbon (2009)

Another Best Foreign Film nominee from 2009. A German drama about a small village in the early 1900s beset by a series of unexplained events. Suspicions rise and villager turns against villager against puritanical hierarchy. A meditation on humanity but also the nature of good and evil. Riveting.

The Skin I Live In (2011)

A Pedro Almodovar film starring Antonio Banderas as a psychopathic surgeon who's conducting secret experiments on a captive patient in his home. Peopled with bizarre characters and paced with edge-of-your-seat suspense, this film had an amazing twist that I never saw coming. Good stuff.

Elena (2011)

A Russian drama about Elena, a former nurse who has married up in life, after meeting her husband when he was a patient. Elena has a hapless son, and her husband a disturbed daughter, and the story is about Elena's efforts to secure some of her husband's fortune for her son. The actress Nadezhda Markina is wonderful as the down-but-not-out housewife.  

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

The true story of the photographer, Vivian Maier, who was unknown until after her death, when over 100,000 of her photographs were purchased, mostly undeveloped, at an auction. The stories of the photographs, and of the woman herself, are equally fascinating. A must see.

A Royal Affair (2012)

I suppose no year would be complete without a Mads Mikkelsen offering from me. This one is a period piece in which he plays an "ordinary man who wins the queen's heart and starts a revolution." And he has a messy ponytail and a simmering look. And this film has one of the best, prolonged, first kisses ever. Really.

What have I missed? What were your favorite films this year?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Joseph Brodsky


Born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky, persecuted in his native Soviet Union for the spirit of his poetry and for his Jewish heritage, Brodsky spent five years in an Arctic labor camp, where he composed this poem. In 1972, he settled in America and eventually taught at several universities, including Yale and Cambridge. And from 1962 to 1995, virtually the expanse of his writing career, he composed a Christmas poem every year. These "Nativity Poems" often employ Biblical themes, but Brodsky saw the holiday as a metaphor for many things: rebirth, redemption, the ultimate tragedy of life. Still, there's a glimmer at the end of this poem, written when he was only in his mid-twenties and at a time when hope was hard to come by. You can read more about his life and work here.

January 1, 1965

by Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

The kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards' nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you'd snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

What is this? Sadness? Yes, perhaps.
A little tune that never stops.
One knows by heart its downs and ups.
May it be played on par
with things to come, with one's eclipse,
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for what occasionally keeps
them trained on something far.

And staring up where no cloud drifts
because your sock's devoid of gifts
you'll understand this thrift: it fits
your age; it's not a slight.
It is too late for some breakthrough,
for miracles, for Santa's crew.
And suddenly you'll realize that you
yourself are a gift outright.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Ron Rash


My Favorite Reads of 2014 post yesterday included a special three-book section on a new favorite author, Ron Rash, and today, I'm sharing a poem by this same talent. Maybe I'm becoming a groupie; you be the judge. Biographical insight on Mr. Rash here. And for a very special treat, watch the poet read this poem and others at this site. Really, you'll enjoy his wonderful accent, which brings a new flavor to these words.

by Ron Rash

As though shedding an old skin,
Fall Creek slips free from fall’s weight,
clots of leaves blackening snags,
back of pool where years ago
local lore claims clothes were shed
by a man and woman wed
less than a month, who let hoe
and plow handle slip from hands,
left rows half done, crossed dark waves
of bottomland to lie on
a bed of ferns, make a child,
and all the while the woman
stretching both arms behind her
over the bank, hands swaying
wrist-deep in current — perhaps
some old wives’ tale, water’s pulse
pulsing what seed might be sown,
or just her need to let go
the world awhile, let the creek
wash away every burden
her life had carried so far,
open a room for this new
becoming as her body
flowed around her man like water.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Favorite Reads, 2014

I’ve read fifty-seven books this year, one more than last year which seems strange to me because it certainly felt like I read much more. I blame the fact that I tackled a few longish books—The Historian and Wolf Hall among them—and I struggled with some, especially those two. Oh, how I struggled. In the end, I find that my list of favorites is long and impossible to shorten, so I apologize in advance. Just when I think of striking one from the list, all of its merits come flooding back. It was a very, very good year of reading. In fact, I’d say two of these novels are in contention for my personal Best of All Time list, which, of course, needs time and space to solidify. But without further rambling, here are my top thirteen, and a special three-book addendum.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (2013) by Rhonda Riley

The plot: When Evelyn Roe’s great-aunt dies, she is put in charge of the North Carolina farm left behind. Evelyn is the eldest of the family and the only one who’s ever shown an interest in working the land. So at seventeen years of age, she finds herself living alone for the first time in her life. During a turbulent storm, she discovers what she believes to be an injured and disfigured solider, almost completely buried in patch of mud. She nurses the stranger back to life and thus begins the love story of her time on earth. Of everything I read this year, my mind returns to this one most often. Definitely etched as a favorite for all time. Here’s the rest of what I wrote about it.

The Orchardist (2013) by Amanda Coplin

Ms. Coplin’s publisher boldly claims “At once intimate and epic, The Orchardist is historical fiction at its best, in the grand literary tradition of William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, and Toni Morrison.” I don’t know about all that, but it is very, very good. A story set in the American West about what happens when a solitary orchardist takes in two troubled young teens. Touching and sweeping, a fabulous read.

Burial Rites (2014) by Hannah Kent

My book club loved this novel about a condemned Icelandic woman in the early 1800s. Kent evokes a starkly vivid world, creates unforgettable characters, and manages a taut suspense throughout. Your book club will love it too, I promise.

Lila (2014) by Marilynne Robinson

I spent the first few pages of this book wondering if readers who were new to Robinson’s series would enjoy it as much as I was. Lila, the main character, is the same one who appears in Gilead and Home (two novels on my previously mentioned Best of All Time list), and this new novel focuses on her version of the story we already know from those novels. And then I forgot all about this question, as I became captivated by Robinson’s wonderful writing. Unsurprisingly, I loved it.

Where I’m Calling From (1989) by Raymond Carver

I’ve read some of these stories in other settings, and there’s a reason why Carver’s considered a master of the short story. Because he’s a master of the short story. This collection should be required reading for anyone considering the form. His characters are familiar and flawed, and they find themselves in situations that seem normal but often are tragic. An unflinching spotlight on the human condition.

The Golem & The Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker

One of the few books I decided to read based, primarily, on its cover (the hardcover version is a work of art). The story follows two immigrants recently arrived to America at the tail end of the 19th century. One is a golem, a woman fashioned from clay by a rabbi in Danzig; the other is a jinni from the Syrian desert, recently freed from a copper flask. This mystical and touching saga traces the paths of both until they finally merge. Entertaining throughout, with much to chew on afterwards.

Coincidence (2014) by J.W. Ironmonger

On Midsummer’s Day, 1982, three-year-old Azalea is found, wandering alone, at an English fairground. She has blazing red hair and a small scar on her face. Ten years later, to the day, her adoptive parents are killed in Uganda while she survives. Feeling that her life has been framed by a series of coincidences, she seeks out an expert in debunking them. The novel slowly adds clues, both to Azalea’s past and present, as it weaves its story from her beginnings, to her time in Africa with her missionary adoptive parents, to her present day. The result is an intelligent, suspenseful love story of sorts.

HHhH (2013) by Laurent Binet

One of the more original things I read this year. A historical novel that traces the fatal attack on the Nazi Heydrich by two hired assassins, yet also the personal journey of its author, Laurent Binet, as he follows the historical clues. Tense, inventive and extremely smart, this book will make you rethink history and how it’s remembered and retold. A brilliant novel that engages on every level.

A Monster Calls (2013) by Patrick Ness (author) and Jim Kay (illustrator)

Thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. It seems to want something and the story follows Conor's attempts to find out what it is. This book was the result of a collaboration between the author, an illustrator, and the woman whose idea inspired the story. The result is a perfect book, one that moved me tremendously, and one that I don’t want to say too much about because you should experience it yourself.

Can’t and Won’t (2014) by Lydia Davis

Another stellar collection of stories from a writer who’s had a big effect on me and countless other writers. I don’t mean to keep telling you what to do, but if you’re a writer, you should give her a read.

We are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2014)

Another book that I don’t want to say too much about. It’s the story of an atypical family (aren’t they all?) and the tragic events that divert their course. It’s also about memory and humanity’s relationship to the animal world, and about love in surprising and stubborn forms. An inventive, endlessly intelligent novel.

Things We Set on Fire (2014) by Deborah Reed

Three generations of women are pulled together through a tragic event, and the past begins to unravel. Vivvie’s daughter Kate is hospitalized and she is called to help with her two granddaughters. There are implications about the death of Vivvie’s husband many years before, there are buried secrets and resentments, and there is the implosion that occurs when the family comes together. An evocative and beautifully written book about family and ultimately, forgiveness.  

With a Zero at its Heart (2014) by Charles Lambert

A collection of short “stories,” each ten paragraphs long, with each paragraph containing 120 words. If this seems gimmicky to you, don’t worry. It’s an engrossing reading experience, and you won’t be thinking about the framework once you start. In spare, tender vignettes, the author tells the story of a boy growing to be a man—the experiences and heartbreaks, the sensory, the emotional. The benefit of the form, I think, is that the forced brevity crystallizes the prose to almost poetry. Each snapshot adds to a collage of life that is both touching and affecting. A book to savor and ponder.

And finally, a special three-book addendum, featuring three works I loved by author Ron Rash:

Burning Bright (2010)

Peopled with unforgettable characters living in Appalachia, this collection of stories spans from the Civil War to present day. There is an assured calmness about his writing, and usually some sort of subtle heart-wrenching that sneaks up on you. This was my first introduction to Rash, and I was hooked.

One Foot in Eden (2002)

The second thing I read by Rash, and quite possibly my favorite book of the year. Also the second contender for that All Time list, and another book I consider near perfect. The story centers around the death of a local thug and the sheriff’s journey as he tries to discover what happened. It’s a little bit gothic, a little bit suspense, and a whole lot of human folly and the tragedy that often follows. This book made me think that maybe working my way through Rash’s books will go some distance toward filling part of the Kent-Haruf-shaped hole in my heart. LOVED this novel.

Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013)

Another stellar collection of stories. If I had to identify a common strain, it’d be the flawed but lovable characters, all trying to make their way. And always that little hook, like shining a light on something you’d forgotten about within yourself.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Claude McKay


Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, immigrated to the United States, and, along with Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and many others, was part of the Harlem Renaissance, which you can read about here. A short biography of McKay can be found here


by Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Force Majeure, a film

I have been contemplating many things about this film since watching it last week. I’ve been thinking about the title, which to an English speaker with no experience with the French language, translated in my mind to “Major Force.” And this seemed to fit the storyline, which follows a young Swedish couple as their ski vacation in France is interrupted by a perceived avalanche. I say perceived because what they witness, as they breakfast on the terrace restaurant of their resort, is a controlled avalanche. But they, and every other diner, believes the threat to be actual. It appears that the mass of snow is about to engulf them. What happens during this perceived emergency and especially what happens after is the focus of director Ruben Ostlund’s lens. With my amateur translation in mind, I’ve been contemplating which is the major force of the film: nature and its catastrophic effects on humans, or human nature itself, which often results in the same.

I have since looked up “force majeure,” which does have a literal translation but is better known for its broader meaning. Force majeure is a common clause used in legal contracts, essentially freeing both parties from liability in the case of an extraordinary event out of their control. Basically, those happenings we might call “acts of God.” The contract of the film would certainly be the marriage of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They are a young yuppie couple with two adorable yet indulged children, and they’ve all come to the mountains to enjoy five days of familial togetherness. The only fissure evident from the beginning is a sense that Ebba thinks her husband spends too much time at work and too much time with his thoughts elsewhere. In an early scene, the beautiful family naps together after a morning of skiing. When Tomas’s cell phone rings, he says he’ll turn it off but moments later, Ebba catches him looking at it. They both chuckle. Soon, their troubles will be much more serious.

Because when that perceived threat comes, when everyone in the restaurant begins to gasp and grab their loved ones at the sight of the snow, cascading down the hill like a big, white wave, what does Tomas do, you ask? Well, he grabs his gloves and phone and runs inside. Alone. After the avalanche, when a white-out of mist has cleared, he sheepishly returns. The children know what he has done. Ebba knows too and while she tries, for a time, to forget it, the vacation takes a turn. Long-standing issues rise to the surface; new ones compete for air.

I loved the slow and deliberate pace of the film, the lingering shots of man’s machinery—the ski lifts, the electric walkways, the vast hotel—and the way the snow pressed in from all sides. I loved Ebba’s valiant efforts to believe something great about her husband, and I even loved the pitiable husband, self-proclaimed victim of his own impulses. All of the acting was superb and the intensity of Ostlund’s gaze into the intricacies of marriage put me in mind of Bergman, of course. And yet, there’s dark comedy in the film too, especially in the scenes with Tomas’s brother Mats (Kristofer Hivju), an alpha male who looks like a Greek god and who is vacationing with his twenty-year-old girlfriend. The movie has much to say about gender roles and the preposterousness of expectations where human behavior is concerned. And the scenery is breathtaking. But best of all, I’ve been thinking about the film and all of its nuances, for days and days. Definitely a must-see.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Remembering Kent Haruf

Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that Kent Haruf had passed away. Earlier in the year, I had entered one of my short stories in a contest he was to judge, and I indulged myself imagining him reading the piece near his hearth. However, I soon received an announcement that he had stepped down due to health issues. So I had already imagined this, the worst possible outcome. Still, the news was crushing. I'm feeling a little indulgent for being so sad about the death of someone I don't know, and yet, I am. If pressed to choose just one writer whose work has impacted me most, there wouldn't be anyone who even comes close. But I don't want this to be about me. I want to tell you, again, about his wonderful books. They are:

The Tie That Binds (1984)
Where You Once Belonged (1990)
Plainsong (1999)
Eventide (2004)
Benediction (2013)

The last three comprise a trilogy with overlapping characters and storylines, set in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado. Among Haruf's fervent band of followers, many began their love affair with Plainsong, which was a National Book Award finalist. It's a great place to start, if you haven't read his work. But the earlier books are good too. All three of his latter works would find a place on a list of my most beloved novels.

His publisher has announced that a final novel, Our Souls at Night, will be published next year. I'll look forward to that, but it doesn't seem like enough. Maybe there would have never been enough of Haruf's wonderful writing, at least not for me.

What I wrote about Haruf and Benediction last year here.

The author picks his top ten books here.

And here's an excerpt from Haruf's wonderful Plainsong, so that you can begin your own love affair with this talented writer.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka