Thursday, December 27, 2012

If you love the Dowager Countess of Grantham...

There are exactly ten days until the American broadcast of the third season of "Downton Abbey". I am super excited!!! (FREE BATES!!!)

Then again, there are still 10 days of waiting, and, during that time, lots of people are home for the holidays and are looking for something good to watch on television. And if you are like me and were at home watching TV this past weekend, you realized that 1. there really was nothing good on TV, and 2. if you found something good on, it was interrupted with a lot of commercials.

So if you are looking for some movies to watch over the Christmas Break to get you in the mood for the return of "Downton Abbey" (and more importantly, the return of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Queen of the One Liners), I would recommend checking out some of Dame Maggie Smith's other films via the library or Netflix or OnDemand.

In this film based on actual events, young orphan Luca is raised by a tight knit community of Englishwomen in 1930s Florence. The "Scorpioni" are presided over by Lady Hester Random (Smith), who routinely butts heads with the flamboyant, wealthy American Elsa Morganthal, played by Cher.  As WWII breaks out, the remaining holdouts among the Scorpioni are interned, young Luca joins the Italian resistance, and Elsa tries to avoid the Gestapo. The film is heartwarming and nail biting and just perfectly charming. (I think Lady Hester would give old Lady Grantham a run for her money.)

This understated black comedy centers around the family of a preoccupied vicar. He is so preoccupied that he fails to notice that: his attention-starved wife is on the brink of an affair; their teenage daughter is (inappropriately) boy-crazy; and their shy young son is being bullied at school. With the arrival of new housekeeper Grace (Smith), all of the family's problems miraculously start to fade away, although Grace's methods are a little less Mary Poppins and a little more Sweeney Todd. 

In this romance, Lucy Honeychurch, an Edwardian Englishwoman, has a holiday in Florence, Italy. While there, she encounters the passionate and eccentric George Emerson. Following the return to England, George steps back into Lucy's life, and she must decide whether to go through with marriage to her straight-laced fiance, Cecil, or follow her attraction to George. Smith plays Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy's prim, high-strung, spinster cousin/chaperone. Even though this is the complete opposite of her "Downton" role, she still steals every scene.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
This is Smith's break-out role, and she is brilliant in this drama about a very unconventional teacher in a girls' school in Scotland. Singling out the creme de la creme among her students, Jean Brodie broadens "her girls'" horizons with lessons on art, music, politics, and even love, but her headstrong methods and her over-romanticized view of the world (she loves Franco!) leads to clashes with both the headmistress and, eventually, the very girls on whom she has come to rely. 

David Copperfield 
This adaptation of the Dickens' classic has some stand-out performances; Smith's Betsy Trotwood (aunt of David Copperfield) is one of them. (It also is a pre-Harry Potter pairing with a very young Daniel Radcliffe.) This BBC/Masterpiece drama was my first exposure to David Copperfield, and I loved it, especially Maggie's magisterial (yet loving) Aunt Betsy. She makes quick work of Mr. Murdstone. Very Dowager-y.

And as as added Christmas bonus, I would also suggest watching From Time to Time.  This sweet (and somewhat bittersweet) Christmastime story set during WWII has a young man (Cranford's Alex Etal) returning to his father's ancestral home to share the holiday with his estranged grandmother (Smith). While there, he begins to encounter spectral phenomena, which may assist him in solving a centuries' old mystery about the house. In addition to having a screenplay penned by Julian Fellowes, this film has the added bonus of performances from a number of other Downton cast members: Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), David Robb (Dr. Clarkson), and Christine Lohr (Mrs. Bird).

If you have any suggestions for other great Maggie Smith performances (Clash of the Titans, Gosford Park, the Harry Potter films), please leave your own recommendations in the comments!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

"Everything was beautiful at the ballet"* (except, not really)

Something that tends to surprise people (because, in general, I am really into the arts) is that I hate the ballet. (Disclaimer: I took ballet lessons for one year. My dad let me quit. Thanks, Dad!) I feel like the dance moves and the music just don't go together, which is counter intuitive to me. Of course, this would make sense as it is my understanding that, for many classical ballets, the music and the choreography were composed independent of each other (again, counter intuitive). Personally, I like it a lot better when the two work in tandem, like in a Broadway musical. (I love Broadway musicals.)

I especially dislike The Nutcracker. Now before I start being accused of imitating Ebenezer Scrooge, I would like to relate some background on this: I saw my first performance of The Nutcracker when I was about 7 years old. I spent a lot of the performance asking the Aunties (who took me, bless their hearts) when the Sugar Plum Fairy was going to turn up. (I distinctly remember this.) Apparently, the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy wasn't all that impressive to me because I was still asking about it at the end of the show. (I think it was one of those productions where Clara does the dance so there wasn't a separate Sugar Plum Fairy.) In the immortal words of Kevin Kline, in his Academy Award© winning role in A Fish Called Wanda, "Disappointed!!!!" I really have never seen a production of The Nutcracker that I feel does justice to Tchaikovsky's brilliant composition. (Disclaimer: This has not stopped me from dancing around my house to the music when the mood strikes me. This is referred to as "Interpretive Nutcracker" and is not remotely the same as ballet. In case you were wondering.)

The version of the record I had. (Thanks, Ebay!)
As a child, I had a long playing record of the Story of the Nutcracker that combined Tchaikovsky's music with Claire Bloom's narration of a simpler version of ETA Hoffman's original tale. This story was delightful, with elements of mystery, creativity, terror, heroism, and wonder. Now this was a dark story for a cold winter's night (or at least a dark-er story), and I played that record over and over again, so much so that I can almost hear Ms. Bloom's voice over parts in the music when I listen to recordings of the musical score now. (I actually listened to this album at my parents' house last Christmas because they still have a turntable. [Mine died several years ago. The fabulous JR is looking after my record collection until I replace it.])

(Image also from Ebay)
My mother also had given me a beautiful, hardcover book of The Nutcracker, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (of Where the Wild Things are fame.) This version of the story came about after the Pacific Northwest Ballet asked Sendak to design the scenery and costumes for their "untraditional" version of the ballet one Christmas. The ballet was much closer to the spirit of the original tale, and Sendak's designs, augmented by additional drawings, have become the imaginative illustrations of this book, while a fresh translation of Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King brings an edge that I have never seen in a performance of this story (or in "Interpretive Nutcracker", for that matter.)  I love it to bits, and I get it out every Christmas season to reread while listening to a recording of the ballet music. (It's the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recording, if that matters to you.)

A number of years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra did a concert of the complete Nutcracker. I persuaded JeGlide (a sometime co-performer of "Interpretive Nutcracker") to join me at Symphony Hall for the concert. I was so excited; I was practically jumping out of my seat. Not having the dancers in front of me while hearing the familiar music performed by a full symphony orchestra (and conducted by Seiji Ozawa) was such a treat and left such a fresh impression of the music that I really started to appreciate The Nutcracker all over again.

I think that it was because I enjoyed that concert so much that I actually agreed to go to the ballet again when my friend RJ invited me to join her at a performance of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet. We ended up leaving at intermission, and we may or may not have left because we were laughing and falling sleep intermittently. (Fortunately, the tickets were free, passed on from a colleague who had season's tickets and couldn't make that night's performance.) So the ballet still isn't for me, but I do love The Nutcracker, just not the ballet of The Nutcracker. Isn't it nice to know that there are plenty of ways you can still enjoy it without all the dancing?

* Lyrics from "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line, a Broadway musical and therefore acceptable to me

Friday, December 7, 2012

Have a Happy Hipster Christmas

CB2 is Crate & Barrel's modern furniture and decor line for the hip, urban, apartment-living kind of person I never really was even when I was urban and apartment-living. (I am much more an eclectic traditionalist.) I think that I ended up on their mailing list by accident. (I do love regular Crate & Barrel.)
Flipping casually through the latest CB2 catalog the other day (it usually goes straight into recycling,) I had to pause and laugh when I saw these guys. These are supposedly "Modern Worker" Christmas ornaments. To me, they are people from my old neighborhood in Allston. The only character missing is the band member with his guitar case.


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