Olive Kitteridge the Novel, Transitioned Into an HBO Mini-Series..Well Done!

I just finished watching the 4 part mini-series on HBO of Olive Kitteridge. I guess it was true to the novel, by Elizabeth Strout, but I don't remember the book touching me quite so deeply and making me feel quite so sad. It is likely that I brought my own sadness and feelings of depression to the viewing, which predisposed my reactions to the TV series' and to the the main character, Olive Kitteridge. The story's themes and those of my own life merged, making me feel them with more intensity than I had planned for. In the final scene Olive is lying next to Jack Kennison, whom she meets after both of their spouses have died and both are feeling bereft, alone and without much reason to wake up in the morning. She has just been diverted from suicide and in that moment, lying beside Jack, she sees and admits to herself that she was responsible for creating the distance between herself and her son. She never meant to do so, but her inability to show love and affection and her over-capacity to judge and to be critical did not allow her to see and accept her son for he was, and being the child, the son could never accept Olive for who she was. Wow, re-reading  this first paragraph, perhaps I did not need to be predisposed to sadness and depression, it was all there,  loud and clear, for the taking. 

Olive and Henry's marriage is one neither of convenience nor deep love, yet you know in the depths of their relationship, there lies love and you see them trod on through the years conveniently, if not also with complication and sorrows. Olive knows her husband loves her and wouldn't do anything to hurt her, but for her, this feels like weakness. Olive has an affair of sorts (apparently never consummated) and it is not clear what she sees in him, that is lacking in Henry, but what is clear is that with this other man she feels truer to herself and thus is able to be more loving and affectionate. So sad that we live in such a rat race of circles, never ending, dizzying circles that keep us going round and round, but get us nowhere, so we stay in pain.

In the series, Psycho-therapy wins a place at the table. Although Olive predictably sees therapy as a means for weak people to find excuses, her son, is surely helped by it, in the end. He does not completely overcome the injuries he felt he suffered growing up, but it helps him to deal with his feelings so he can move forward with a woman who shares his sensibilities and with whom he has a relatively productive, loving relationship.  However, though Chris may have forgiven his mother within the therapy dynamic, he still cannot deal with the reality of his mother in the flesh. I recognize this. I recognize this to the point of tears. One can love their children, parents, family members in general with all their heart and vice-versa, but still never find peace with them.

There is a scene in particular with Olive, her son, his wife and their 2 children (from other relationships his wife had in the past), that for me was extraordinarily effective and emotionally exhausting. Hostility is simmering below the surface,while above, the mood is kept relatively breezy, despite negative insinuations and sarcasm. Finally Olive, who is fully participating in the underpinnings of the hostility, can take it no longer and states she is going home early from this visit she is making to her son's new home in NYC.  Christopher does not try to dissuade her, nor offer to take her to the airport, rather asks his wife to find the phone number for a taxi. Christopher's wife tries to explain to Olive how difficult it is and has always been for Chris to deal with her mood swings. But what Christopher and his wife don't see is what leads to the change of mood in Olive. The scene hits so close to home that it was painful to watch. The family sees the change in mood. They do not see what they or others  might have said or done to inflict the wound, to cause the pain,  to provoke the hurt. They only see the end result. And what's more, even if they did see what generated the hurt, they are unable to understand why it was so. 

I will have to return to the book to remember it better. I do recall that the book was written in several separate narratives, each almost it's own short story, with Olive as the  thread, winding through the many entities and pulling it together as a novel. The mini-series is told as a continuous narrative, which in and of itself is fine, but loses an aspect of the novel which added interest and had made it unique. I suppose due to time limitations, this was inevitable. I seem to recall the book being somewhat lighter, perhaps having  more humor to break the tension, less harshness in the character of Olive. I'm not sure. I may not be recalling it correctly. I remember Olive being extremely cantankerous, but not so depressed and totally filled with pain. Perhaps I'd just forgotten how she was unable to reach outside of her pain in order to bring some positive feelings to others in her company. Her husband may have received something positive, at times, but not much.  He  was, however, able to find relief in interactions with others, in other parts of his life, as with Denise, the young girl who had come to work with him in his Pharmacy. They each allowed the other to be themselves and give what they had to give to the other, despite their flaws. But, then Denise ends up marrying a man, after having lost her true love to a hunting accident (a scene that screams for more gun control and rethinking of hunting in modern times), who seems at first so quiet and unassuming, even  a bit slow-minded, but, who, after marriage to Denise, ends up bossing her, putting her down and taking full advantage of her timidity, becoming as this trait was in her, in an almost emotionally abusive way.

Finally, the perfectly up-side of the HBO drama was the portrayal by the actors of the main characters in the story.Two of my all time favorite actors,  Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins played the two main roles. Who could ever forget Frances McDormand in Fargo and I just loved Richard Jenkins in a movie I blogged about, The Visitor. Francis McDormand was inspired as Olive Kitteridge, though I pictured her as plumper, but no less frumpy. The pathos shown by both actors in their parts, as well as in the aging process (I believe there was a 25 year span) was amazing. And it was a pleasant surprise to see Bill Murray play Jack Kennison, who so beautifully met and matched Olive's cantankerousness. He was a splendid choice. Overall it was a splendid mini-series. It is always heartening when in making a movie or TV series, they do justice to the book on which it is based. Kudos to Olive Kitteridge, the novel and Olive Kitteridge, the HBO mini-series. 


A Christmas Memory Off Broadway Style

Last evening, December 17, 2014, my sister, Jo-Ann  and I went to see an off Broadway production of Truman Capote's story, "A Christmas Memory" at the DR2 (Daryl Roth 2) Theatre (The Irish Repertory Theatre). I smiled from beginning to end, though occasionally the smile turned downwards. for there were some bittersweet moments. It was clearly a collaborative effort among 7 outstanding actors, at least 3 musicians (I say at least, because they are artfully placed behind the lovely and simple set and we never actually see them, though they are a recurring audio-presence, adding so much to the whole of this production), the author of the book written for the play, based on the book by Capote, the composer of the music and the lyricist who wrote the words to 16 beautiful songs, some sung in unison, others by just one of the actors or a duo or trio with pleasing harmonies, humor, warmth and sincerity, and last but not least, Queenie, the cute little dog that intermittently graces the stage. All of these parts come together as an outstanding whole, which I would call a Play with Music, as opposed to a Musical, This reminds me of the blog I wrote about 5 years ago, "Next to Normal",for which I also had a very hard time fitting into one specific theatrical genre. Suffice it to say that both were completely satisfying theatrical experiences. 

The 7 wonderful actors were all new to me, with the exception of Alice Ripley, whom I absolutely loved in her Tony award winning performance as Diana in the 2009 production, "Next To Normal". In the book, "A Christmas Memory", the story is told by Buddy (based on a young Truman Capote), about himself and his relationship with his much older,distant cousin, Sook. Their relationship is the center of both the book and the play, and it is its heart and soul. Alice Ripley did such a beautifully subtle interpretation of cousin Sook in her pure feelings of love and friendship for Buddy, as well as her innocence, which seems to others in the family as childlike, not responsible, but, in reality, it is she who was responsible for giving her friend, Buddy, the assurance that there was someone in his life who looked after him and cared for and about him. I also really liked how Ripley's Sook dealt with her expression of her religion, in a straightforward, honest and non-confrontational way. It almost made me want to believe like she did. 

In this production, the other characters who are more or less just referenced in the book, are brought to life to support and expand on the core relationship between Buddy and Sook. I just loved the adult Buddy, played by Ashley Robinson. He was not only believable as the man you would imagine young Buddy becomes, but also as Truman Capote, whom Buddy did become.There was something in his smile and the twinkle in his eyes, behind those round, black glasses, that brought authenticity to his role as the adult Buddy and as Capote, himself. and that bonded the characters of Buddy, young and older. The boy who plays Young Buddy was also true to the character in Capote's small tender book. This young actor, Silvano Spagnuolo's performance, was fresh and real and filled with an innocence and wonderment that I think was much more present in a child of 1933 than one in 2014. I am not sure that it is so easy for a young child actor to accomplish all of this, but, accomplish it, he did. And what's more, I couldn't take my eyes off of him because he so closely resembled the son of a nephew (hint-hint Eran and Daniel). 

Sook's sister, Jennie, also Buddy's cousin, pretty much rules the roost in this spreading old house in Monroeville, Alabama, made warm and "homey" by Sook, yet cold and unyielding by Jennie. Jennie is as strict and demanding as her sister, Sook, is loving and easy-going. However,there is a wonderful song sung by Nancy Hess, the actress who plays Jennie, that besides for being a lovely song, serves to make her character into a more dimensional person, allowing the viewer to see beyond her harsh rigidness and into her heart's desire for young Buddy to become his greater self. I didn't want to see Buddy sent off to a military school and I am sure it was pure hell for the real Truman Capote, as a sensitive, creative young boy, but this song helped me to understand that what was behind Jennie's decision was, in her own way, love. 

Virginia Ann Woodruff plays the family's maid, Anna who acts as a conduit between the present time of the play,1955 and the past, 1933, In the present, 1955, the adult Buddy, comes back to the homestead out of nostalgia and to conclude some concrete business and an aging Anna immediately bonds with the grown up Buddy, whom she hadn't seen for so many years. Her songs and choreography add ragtime and blues to the musical mix. Samuel Cohen is wonderful as three very different characters in the play, adding integrity and humor to the production. The final character is the young girl who we know to be in real life, Harper Lee, Buddy's neighbor and friend. They have a kind of coy, love-hate relationship that boys and girls of a certain age have. Taylor Richardson plays Nelly Harper with  vivacity and charm.

In conclusion, I am grateful first and foremost that Truman Capote, originally Truman Streckful Persons (I would have changed that name too) saw fit to write the little gem of a book, called "A Christmas Memory" in 1956. I am grateful that The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City saw fit to make the book into a gem of a Play With Music in  2014. And I am grateful that I have a sister who shares my sensibilities, such that she appreciates both of these gems as much as I do. Until "fruitcake weather" comes again...I am a grateful reader and theater attendee...

"Imagine a morning in late November"
  ~Truman Capote
  ~ and Sherril Smoger-Kessous



And The 2014 Oscar For Best Picture Goes To....

As my good friend Charles Osgood (I don't really know him, but I feel like I do) says on CBS' Sunday Morning, here's the Academy Awards, by the numbers. Today is February 5. The Academy Awards show is on March 2. I have seen 5 of the 9 nominated films. I have 25 more viewing days to see them all by Oscar night. 

I will review them in the order I viewed them

Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and featuring Barkhad Abdi and other native Somalis, tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-Flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. 

My expectations of the movie were more or less neutral. Upon coming out of the theater, I held it in high regard.  I cared very much about the characters. I knew that the captain was going to make it through, but I did not know how and I knew nothing about the other crew members, if and how they would survive. It speaks well of a movie when you care about these things. 

The other aspect of the film that was most riveting was the portrayal of the so called pirates by this group of previously unknown, non-actors who had been recruitedwell, actually they auditioned for the parts, from a Somali community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Barkhad Abdi and the others played the parts so well, they were so captivating that you felt like it was really happening, as though it had been videoed. I give the film a B+

Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (he also directed the movie), tells the story, based on the book,The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, of a world-weary political journalist (Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book) who half-halfheartedly decides to pick up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken from her decades before, after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent. My only complaint about the movie was the way Philomena was initially portrayed, as if she were in the thralls of early dementia. She appeared somewhat dim witted and lacking nuance in her comprehension of Martin's dialog. As the movie progressed, it became clear that she in fact had a sense of humor and was in complete control of her faculties. 

In any case, the film is filled with feeling, yet not at all sentimental. It is a well told story with excellent performances, perhaps award worthy for "Dame" Dench. I give it a B+

American Hustle, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Brad Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. (I would have seen it, if for no other reason than to see him in a movie) was a movie I did not expect to like. Just the 1970's clothes and slick and greasy and tightly curled and combed-over men's hairstyles were enough to turn my stomach. The story is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, of the late 70's, early 80's, in which the FBI employed con artists to carry out sting operations. I really was not that interested to see this played out.

Well, was I ever surprised to leave this movie thinking it may be the one to win that coveted Oscar. The film far exceeded my expectations. One description I read called it "delicious debauchery" and that just begins to tell the story. 

American Hustle was at one moment so intimate and real, that you felt yourself imposing by watching and then at another, so totally crazy, like zonky crazy, that you can't believe they are doing what they are doing, but they are and you can't take your eyes off the screen. I think every one of the main actors (female and male) is deserving of a prize. We'll see. I give this one an A. 

Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb (not very well known until now) was a movie that I expected to love, after seeing coming attractions and having read and heard several interviews of a few of the actors. I did not love it, quite the opposite. It was for the most part dreary and, dare I say it, boring. It was in Black & White, which often adds a special dimension to a movie, but in this case, I think some color may have added a much needed dimension. 

The 'road trip' scenes were long and tedious. After all, there's just so much one can watch the flat prairie land going by, before finding one's eyes closing. The 'father-son' scenes missed the mark. And the people scenes made Nebraskans look like a bunch of dead-heads (and I don't mean as in The Grateful Dead), at best and less than intelligent, at worst. If they were not sitting immobile faced in front of sport TV, they were trying to beg, borrow or steal the money they thought their otherwise uninteresting relative or friend had supposedly won in a sweepstakes.

In fairness, Bruce Dern played the part of Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic, overly-trusting and mostly catatonic character to a 'T'. However, he'd already played the part in the HBO series, "Big Love". There was one saving grace in the movie. The actress's name is Angela McEwan and she plays the part of Peg Nagy, the owner of the town's small newspaper, who tells Woody's son, Will Forte as David Grant, about the relationship she had had with Woody before he married. She was soft spoken and completely real. She  totally drew me in to her character, though she was only on the screen for a few minutes. I would have liked to have seen more of her. It may have changed my opinion of the movie. I give it a C-.

Her, stars Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johanson as the voice of the "operating system".  It is about a lonely writer of email letters for special occasions, who develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that is designed to meet his every need, by being programmed with intuition and desire to know and understand it's owner. 

I start this review with a question. Why did the main character, Theodore, wear his trousers high-waisted like a nerd from the 50's? And why did the fly on these pants start all the way up where the belt hoops ought to be, but were not, because there was no belt? OK, I think I may already know the answer or at least an explanation after the fact. I just did a bit of research and found this... "Joaquin Phoenix's high-waisted Her Trousers go on sale. The sci-fi pants worn by the hero of Spike Jonze's Oscar-tipped romance form the centerpiece of a new fashion collection inspired by the film. They are destined to be the legwear of choice for the hipster cineaste in 2014". 

I went into this movie wondering what it was about and more importantly, why? I knew it was directed and written by Spike Jonze (not to be confused with Spike Lee) and I'd done some homework on him before I went to see the movie, Where The Wild Things Are and I became interested in him from that. So, this movie, Her, had Spike Jonze in its favor.

The coming attractions looked, well, silly. And parts of the movie were silly, like when Theodore is running through a courtyard with a huge smile on his face and so happy to be alive because he's finally found his soul-mate, even if she is only virtual! Who doesn't want a significant other who really gets you, who truly likes, even loves you for exactly who you are. We all want that "perfect" someone, though in reality no one is perfect. Samantha (the name Theo's virtual love gives herself) is perfect, well she starts off perfect. 

What I liked about the film was that it made you think about relationship in general. I found myself thinking a lot throughout, like for example, how it's so much easier to know a person via emails and messaging than in person because you can be so smart and witty and you never have to actually smell a person's breath or be annoyed by a stupid expression on their face or...well, you get the idea. Going back to silly, or maybe not so much silly as predictable, the relationship with this gorgeous, sexy voice (a la Johanson) goes the way of (Spoiler Alert!) most relationships with flesh and blood; in that real emotions get in the way, like jealousy and fear and selfishness (is that an emotion?) and feeling abandoned. Amy Adams, who plays Amy, a neighbor and good friend of Theo, is one of the best things about the movie. She is one hell of an actor and it's no surprise that she's in two of the nominated films  and she herself is nominated for actress in a leading role in American Hustle.

I would not say I did not like this movie, as I expected not to, but I also didn't really like it a lot. I give it a C+. 

So, that's the 5 movies I've seen to date. Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave...await me.

Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is a movie that must be seen at the theater and preferably in -IMAX 3D. It's just that kind of movie. I believe, seen any other way, will lose what makes the movie so totally engrossing. Although it's always nice to keep your eyes peeled on the beautiful George Clooney, it is Sandra Bullock who makes the film amazing, well Bullock and all of the special effects. I loved seeing a space movie where the female astronaut was central and key to the meaning of the movie. It was one of those "I'm lost, but now I'm found" experiences, but this time done in outer space. 

I read a critique criticizing the direction and writing, both done by Alfonso Cuaron, better known for Y Tu Mama Tambien, for making Bullock's character, Ryan, not strong enough, not able enough and not nuanced enough. I might agree with the lacking of nuance in character development overall, but I found myself relating to Bullock's character because she was not a hero astronaut, but she got through it through her own tenacity, which at times seemed limited, but it pulled her through. The camera got so close to her face and it was here in her face, that you could see nuance. I loved her performance in this movie. 

Some may, and have, found fault with the movie, Gravity, but two things are for sure. One is that it has to win for best cinematography. Two is that despite any fault, I did not take  my eyes off of the screen for one second. It was that compelling. I give it a B+. 

Last evening I saw the 7th of the 9 movies nominated for Best Picture of 2013. The movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, was not an easy one for me to watch, but I watched it with absolute attention. It affected me on a visceral level and after the credits, I got up and shouted, “I hated that movie”, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of my movie-mate, Haim. In talking about the film, just after viewing it, I had a hard time thinking of it as merely a movie because I wasn't sure if, to some degree, it wasn't justifying the debauchery that it portrayed.

The film was an adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir chronicling his rise and fall on Wall Street and his hard-partying, addiction-fueled personal life, spilling and overflowing into his professional life. If the intent of the movie is to show the “American Dream” on Quaaludes, then it hit its mark. But what bothered me was that though the main character, who is the epitome of greed, lust, drunk on power, money grubbing, conceit and worse, he never really gets his just desserts. Yes, (spoiler alert!) he is ultimately found guilty of money laundering and some other financial misdeeds, but because he agrees to “cooperate” with the feds (who for me were the good guys here) and name names of his former close friends and associates, his punishment is minimal and in the end he still, to some extent, succeeds to succeed. Belfort's lack of comeuppance for his misdeeds, serves to highlight what is wrong with the economic world of America.

Many people will see The Wolf of Wall Street as a thoroughly entertaining movie. It is filled in excess with nudity, sex, profanity and drugs up the yin yang, to such an extent that it loses any shock value it may have had the first or second or third or fourth time around. Maybe that’s the point. 

From the point of view of movie making, I did think Leonardo DiCaprio was extraordinary. His face and body go through so many different permutations, I thought he was a chameleon. Jonah Hill was very good, but his teeth annoyed and distracted me. He reminded me of some other past actor that I couldn't and still can’t place.
Maybe it’s not fair to say, but I hope this film does not win any awards. I give it a C.

 Here's my updated analysis of "Wolf". I just watched the interview of Leonardo DiCaprio by Lee Cowan on CBS Sunday Morning and having learned why and how DiCaprio got the movie made, after 7 years trying, my opinion was altered. “Because the world that we live in seems to be very surreal sometimes," DiCaprio said, "The incessant need for more is a part of our culture, and I see it all around me. And you know, doing this movie we wanted to put that darker nature of humanity up on screen." I see the intention was not to laud the sickening excesses, but to expose it. I maintain that there was an excess of the excess...girls parading around nude and seducing the boorish men, having sexual intercourse on any available surface...point made, taken...move on!!! But, still I up my grade to a B.

I have been knocking my brain about to figure out who Jonah Hill reminded me of with those overstated teeth of his in "Wolf of Wall Street" and it just came to me. Alan King, the comedian and actor who I liked, but he too had that look of a mouth full of newly CAPPED TEETH!

Dallas Buyer's Club is the 8th of the 9 nominated films I have seen. Unfortunately I viewed this one on my TV via Amazon Instant Video. I say unfortunately because I don't think one ever gets the full effect of a movie by viewing it outside of the movie theater. I paused it a few times and I became distracted. But since the Academy Awards is next weekend, I am making exceptions to  my own rule.

My initial reaction to this movie was enough already with America's excess of decadence, enough alcohol abuse, enough drugs and enough illicit sex. I have seen enough degeneracy in the past few months of movie viewing to last me a life time. As the movie progressed, however, I understood why it was nominated for best picture, and Matthew McConaughey for best actor and especially, Jared Leto for best supporting actor. 

The film takes place in 1985 Dallas, where an electrician and hustler, Ron Woodroof (another movie based on the real character), is filled with anger when diagnosed with AIDS (must be a mistake, "I'm not a homosexual"), and works around the system to get the medications he needs, by any means. He eventually starts a "buyers club" to help other AIDS patients get medications not available in the US, while, of course, filling his own pockets. Talk about hard to watch, viewing the good looking actor, Matthew McConaughey as a stick thin sickly looking victim, one must give him credit for his total lack of vanity in playing this role. He plays it beautifully (in the broadest sense of the word). 

If eliciting tears is an indication of greatness, this movie will win for sure. But, then crying is one of my strengths, some might even say easily elicited. Once again America's foibles take center stage, greed, stupidity, lack of compassion and over-bureaucratizing .  This time it is seen in pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment and the FDA. The movie isn't always easy to watch, but it's easy to see why you should. I give it a B+.


♫♫♫ I'm A Middle Aged Woman ♫♫♫ - Sherril's 60th Birthday Party October 2011


Today is a blustery cold day, Sunday, January 26, 2013, over two years since my 60th birthday, which means now I have to get my head around the age 62, instead of that younger age of 6o. I'm procrastinating going outside with a heavy basket of laundry and walking around my building to the laundry room. So, it came to me to watch this video of me singing the very funny and clever song written by LISA KOCH "I'm a Middle-Aged Woman" - YouTube, a song that women around the world, experiencing menopause, peri-menopause or post-menopause can relate to. A friend of my daughter filmed it and it is my daughter you see near the beginning coming up to help me with the microphone. My "backup" group are some of my friends all of whom were either fanning themselves or feeling like they wanted to and all Beautiful Dancing Babes! The party signified a passage in my life into years and ages I never thought I'd be, but now that I am there, I'm trying to "be here now" and be me!