Movie review: “Les Miserables”

les miz

We saw the new movie version of “Les Miserables” last Saturday afternoon. I’ve never seen the stage show; naturally I know some of the music (there was a concert performance on TV a long time ago, and naturally I remember George Costanza singing “Master of the House” incessantly on “Seinfeld,” and then there was Susan Boyle).

I don’t know if there’s anyone who doesn’t know the plot by now, but if you don’t, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But it’s full of escapes and tragedy and deathbed scenes, and if your throat doesn’t tighten up at least once, you have no soul.

This is a dream cast: Hugh Jackman as the haunted Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Russell Crowe as Javert, Amanda Seyfried (whom I only knew as the daughter in “Mamma Mia”) as Cosette, and a wonderful newcomer, Samantha Barks, as Eponine. Lots of critics have complained that Crowe can’t sing, but frankly I don’t know what they’re talking about; he sings beautifully, and he is properly menacing in his role. I felt sorry for poor Hugh Jackman, though, who has a great voice, but who was forced to sing about half an octave above his comfortable range. His upper register is very weak, so the higher he sings, the feebler he sounds . . . But who cares? He’s Hugh Jackman, and I’d drink a whole tubful of his bathwater if I had the chance. (There’s a scene late in the movie when he sings a high-pitched number, and then speaks a few words in a normal tone, and I swear his voice drops four octaves as he does it.)

Let me just say a word about the wicked innkeeper and his wife, played perfectly by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter. (Honestly, what happened to Helena? She was such a fresh-faced young girl back in the Eighties. Then she started playing roles like Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies, and the demented pastry-cook in “Sweeney Todd.” And now this! She probably told the movie’s wardrobe department not to worry about her; she’d just bring her own clothes and fright-wig from home.) Sacha and Helena are a treat whenever they’re on the screen; they’re fairy-tale malevolent, but their stupidity and venality always work against them, and their natural goofiness makes you chuckle every time they come on screen.

You’ve probably heard the gimmick of the movie: instead of recording the songs separately, Tom Hooper, the director, made his cast sing right on the spot as they acted. This is an interesting choice; it’s what you get during a stage show, after all, and I think that’s what he was after. Sadly, however, Hooper keeps jabbing the camera into everyone’s face all the time, and it can be a little unnerving.

But these are minor quibbles. It’s an epic story, and this is an epic production. The acting is first-rate, and the sets are just the perfect combination of stage-illusion and reality. If it doesn’t get a handful of Oscar noms, je mangerai mon chapeau.

So get out there, kids.



Aux barricades!

For Sunday: “I Can See Clearly Now,” by Johnny Nash

This is one of the few songs that makes me really happy. It’s all bright sunny imagery, sung by a guy with a pure mellow voice over a simple cheerful rhythm, with one of those background choirs that sings in exactly the right places.


And the chord progression at the end of the bridge makes me shiver every time: “Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies . . .”



The tree of heaven

I have written enough about carnivorous plants and poisonous plants. Let’s talk about something more pleasant.

I see the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) every summer day in the streets and alleys of Providence. It’s everywhere in the eastern United States, and thrives in cities. It is a weed, believe it or not; it grows wherever it can – up through cracks in the pavement, if that’s all it can find. It can grow six feet a year. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the old book/movie “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but the title tree is A. altissima; it keeps bursting through the street, and no one can stop it.

I’ve never noticed (maybe I haven’t gotten close enough), but apparently it smells bad. T. S. Eliot, in the “Four Quartets,” refers to “the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard.” The Chinese word for the tree, chouchun, means literally “stink tree.”

Ah well, we can’t all smell like lilac or lavender, can we?

Ailanthus can reach tremendous heights, or it can be a shrub. It loves sunlight, but can tolerate shade when it has to. It likes rich soil best, but tolerates nasty environments too, and can grow in soil with the acidity of tomato juice. (Such a lot of things I learn from Wikipedia!)

The Chinese use it medicinally, to treat mental illness; the shaved root is mixed with boys’ urine and fermented soybeans, allowed to sit for a while, then strained. The bark contains an acknowledged antimalarial substance.

Most importantly of all: I like the tree of heaven. A few blocks from here, there used to be a vacant lot full of ailanthus, at least twenty feet high, in full sunlight. I loved them, though I knew they were squatters and that their time was probably short. Sure enough, they were cut down to make way for a Starbucks.

Starbucks coffee cannot be used to combat malaria, or mental illness, not even if you mix it with boys’ urine and fermented soybeans.

I would like my grove of ailanthus back.

stone soup

Chinese president Hu Jintao visited the White House this week. Much of the focus was on economic issues like currency manipulation, protecting intellectual property, and lifting the Chinese government preference for contracting only Chinese companies in aerospace and renewable energy fields. The goodwill between our nations was symbolized by a $45 billion export package. Obama addressed human rights only toward the end of his press conference remarks, prioritizing trade, global and regional security, environmental issues, and nuclear proliferation. Predictably, Hu focused on the latter, and discussed human rights only in terms of national sovereignty.

The media, on the other hand, zeroed-in on rights. Only two American reporters were given the opportunity to ask questions. The first reporter, from the AP, asked:

President Obama, you’ve covered the broad scope of this relationship, but I’d like to follow up specifically on your comments about human rights. Can you explain to…

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New England winter

cherry trees in snow

Walking through the parking lot of my office the other day, I noticed that the management company has put up those tall orange sticks again, in the landscaping and along the edges of the sidewalks.

If you live in a temperate climate, you won’t know what those are for. If you live in a place where snow falls heavily, you’ll know that they’re meant for snowplow season.

The sticks are about three or four feet high, so that even if we get a whopper of a snowstorm, the sticks will still be visible above the snow, and the plows can avoid the curbs and the shrubs.

It took me well over twenty years to figure out what the orange sticks were for. The property managers put them in place well before the snow falls, usually, so you don’t really make the connection between stick and snow.

I grew up in a very temperate place: western Washington state. Winters there are dark and rainy and relatively warm, and snow falls only once in a while. We didn’t need orange sticks in our parking lots.

Does it bear repeating that the New England winters are getting less and less snowy, and more and more like those Northwest winters? Here we are in mid-December, when the weather in Rhode Island should be freezing every day, and it was – mm – damp and dark and rainy today. Just like those old rain-foresty temperate winters in western Washington.

Also, there are still those damned cherry trees that bloomed a few weeks ago. It’s been happening with regularity over the past few years: the blooming of those insane (or deluded) trees in mid-winter.

The world is changing, kids, Mayapocalypse or no Mayapocalypse.

There are those who assure us that, even if climate change is happening, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a Northwest Passage! Saskatchewan and the Dakotas will be like Paradise!

And who needs Florida, or South Carolina, or the Maldive Islands, or cares if they’re swamped completely?

And who cares if the equatorial regions become uninhabitable? No one important lives there, right?

As I’ve said before: I have maybe twenty or thirty years left on earth, if I’m very lucky. I never dreamed I’d say something like this, but: I hope I don’t live to see the worst of it.

I’ve seen cherry trees blooming in New England in December.

That’s bad enough for me.

Joe Kernen, Ebenezer Scrooge, and how not to be a gadfly


A gadfly is, by definition, a person who shakes up the status quo. He/she questions the status quo. He/she challenges complacency and accepted wisdom.

It’s an important role. Socrates was a gadfly, and died for it. Galileo was a gadfly, and paid heavily for it.

However (to paraphrase Monty Python): being a gadfly isn’t just contradiction. It’s something more substantial than that.

There are people in the media who pose as gadflies. They do it by saying ridiculous things, and then they defy their audience to contradict them.

For example: Joe Kernen on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on weekday mornings.

Recently, Kernen interviewed someone on the topic of climate change. During thee interview, he told his guest that he (Kernen) was an MIT graduate, and that he (Kernen) knew that there was no such thing as “climate science.”

This isn’t being a gadfly. This is just being stupid.

Recently, Kernen was talking about foreign aid. “Someone told me,” he said (I paraphrase), “that going without government aid was a great incentive. Why don’t we apply the same idea to foreign countries? Don’t give them aid. It’ll encourage them to do better.”

Or, of course, they might perish.

From Dickens:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, `a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.



This was Scrooge’s idea of how to be a gadfly.

I hope you remember the rest of the story.

Merry Christmas, Joe Kernen.

Movie review: “The Hobbit”


Partner and I saw “The Hobbit” on Xmas Eve. I’m a big Tolkien nerd, so I couldn’t stay away, but I was dreading it a little too. The “Lord of the Rings” movies were beautifully made, but they didn’t always precisely agree with the way I’d imagined the books when I read them in the 1960s, and it hurt my heart a little.

“The Hobbit” is a children’s book. It tells the same basic story as “The Lord of the Rings” – a journey, lots of adventures along the way, spiders, monsters, battles, a distant mountain in the East – but it’s jokey and cute. There are some solemn bits, but they’re solemn in a long-ago-and-far-away fairy-tale way.

So the question was: could Peter Jackson take a funny clever children’s book and make something of it that wasn’t just “Lord of the Rings: the Prequel”?

The early reviews weren’t great. David Edelstein last weekend said that “The Hobbit” was “our punishment for liking ‘The Lord of the Rings’ too much.” Other reviewers complained of all kinds of things: too fast, too slow, too much CGI, too serious, too long. The only reviewer I saw who liked it was the FT’s Nigel Andrews, who calls it “a sort of masterwork.” He allows that you “have to like looking at folkloric weirdos with beards, hats, and bulbous noses,” and also that the first part of the movie has too many “walkies and fighties,” but it carries you along with it anyway.

I am here to tell you that Nigel Andrews was right, and I am the kind of person who likes bulbous noses and pointy hats, and I liked the movie very much.

First, however, the bad news: it’s much too long. The book moves along very briskly, so Jackson really had to pump a bunch of stuff into it to make it longer: flashbacks, explanatory sequences, framing devices. He drew, not only from “The Hobbit,” but from “The Lord of the Rings” itself, and its appendices, and lots of other Tolkien material. I didn’t find it tedious – as I said above, I’m a Tolkien nerd, I can name all thirteen dwarves while standing on my head – but I wondered how Partner was dealing with it. Was he overdosing on Middle-Earth?

But no! He liked it!

So there’s got to be some good stuff there.

Are you kidding? There’s a ton of good stuff there. There’s Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, funny and very (ahem) human; Ian McKellan as a (slightly) younger Gandalf, irascible as ever. Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, and he doesn’t look constipated anymore: he actually looks cheerful at times! And, naturally, you will find Andy Serkis’s Gollum, creepy and sad and horrible, in the movie’s best scene.

Jackson departed from the book, naturally, but his choices were mostly good. Bilbo and Gandalf are travelling with a group of thirteen dwarves. How in the hell do you create thirteen distinctive characters all at once and make them memorable? The answer: you don’t. You make maybe five or six of them distinctive, and rely on the rest of them to make background chatter. So we get to know Balin and Dwalin, and Bofur (I think), and Bombur (well, even in the book he’s the fat one), and Fili and Kili. And that’s plenty.

Jackson made the fight-scenes monumental, and dramatic, and even clever. (Barry Humphries, the comedian who created Dame Edna Everage, is the Great Goblin, a horrible creature with a huge goiter and a gift for snappy dialogue.)

But here’s the best bit of all.

In the book, about fifty pages along, Bilbo and the dwarves encounter three trolls with Cockney accents. The trolls want to eat Bilbo & Co., and have a big argument over how to cook them.

Before we went, I said to Partner, “I hope he gets the trolls right. And I hope they have Cockney accents.”

And they do.

Elbereth bless you, Peter Jackson.

For Christmas: Grace Jones sings “The Little Drummer Boy”

Okay, it’s Christmas, and it’s Obama’s second term. I get it. I need to be inclusive. I need to put something out here for everyone.

How about Grace Jones, circa 1990, on Pee-Wee Herman’s Christmas special, wearing a bizarre metallic headdress and breastplate and singing a technopop version of “The Little Drummer Boy”?


Now that’s inclusive.


Joyeux Noel.

For Christmas Eve: Dominic the Italian Christmas donkey

Dominick, the Italian Christmas donkey

There are some Christmas songs that I block out of my mind, until I hear them the next December, and think: Oh dear little lord Jesus, I forgot about that one.

This is one of them.

The more Italian you know, the funnier this song gets.


For Sunday: the ELO implores you not to be “So Serious”

This is a nice Eighties song with a bouncy beat and a pleasant melody, and a welcome message to boot.

It’s always best not to be so serious.

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