Ricki and the Flash Movie Review

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Meryl Streep’s latest is not her greatest, but she is, as usual, a joy to watch. In Ricki and the Flash, Streep stars as a former housewife who left her husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and children Julie, Josh, and Adam to pursue dreams of rock stardom. Years later, her children are grown, her husband is remarried, and she’s making ends meet by working as a grocery store clerk while singing in bars with her boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield) and their cover band The Flash. Then Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) attempts to commit suicide following a divorce, and Pete calls her home to try and help.

The acting was really top notch throughout. You expect excellence from actors like Streep and Kline, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well Mamie Gummer and Rick Springfield held their own, having expected them to be overshadowed by the famous pair at the top of the billings. The other standout in the cast was Audra McDonald as Maureen, Pete’s new wife and the children’s second mother. She had an outstanding confrontation with Ricki that was probably the single best acted scene in the film.

On the other hand, Sebastian Stan (of the Captain America films) and Nick Westrate (of TURN: Washington’s Spies) were both underutilized as Ricki’s sons Josh and Adam, respectively. I’m admittedly a fan of Sebastian, but I would have liked to see a little more of his character in particular. Of the three kids, he was outwardly the least embittered, but I did not get the impression that Julie was lying when she said he didn’t want Ricki at his wedding, so it might have been interesting to see that tension explored a little more. I couldn’t get a great handle on Josh’s fiancee Emily (Hailey Gates) either. She was clearly intensely uncomfortable with Ricki’s sudden arrival in her life, but I couldn’t tell if some of her behavior at the wedding was supposed to be discomfort or an alarming slide into Bridezilla-ness.

Written by Diablo Cody of Juno fame, there was lots of clever and snappy dialogue (fortunately it was also, for the most part, less precious than Juno‘s) and lots of laugh out loud moments despite the heavy themes the film touches on. I thought it handled the heavy issues regarding regrets, absentee parents, and abandonment issues relatively well for most of the film. Greg had an especially good line: “It doesn’t matter if your kids love you or not. It’s not their job to love you, it’s your job to love them!” However, I thought the ending felt too pat and simplistic. I suppose it was supposed to be some sort of “music brings people together” message, which may be true, but also sits a little uncomfortably in a film about a family literally torn apart by music.

Speaking of music, the soundtrack is a fantastic mix of classic rock and more modern hits, though I have to say I was disappointed when the film cut away from Streep’s rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” about 30 seconds in. (The full version is available on the film’s soundtrack.)

Overall, an enjoyable film, but not as memorable as it should have been, given its cast.

My rating: (3 / 5)

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Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace Book Review

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One of my favorite Russian history books, Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is the “biography” of a lesser known palace near St. Petersburg. Pavlovsk Palace is not as grand as better known palaces such as Peter the Great’s imitation Versailles at Peterhof, or the massive Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, but it’s inspired an unusual degree of devotion in many people across the centuries, starting with its original owner, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law and wife of the ill-fated Emperor Paul (Pavel) I. Catherine took Maria’s first two sons away from her at birth to raise herself, and Maria and Paul were only permitted to see them once a week. Deprived of her children, the artistic and cultured Maria threw her energies into designing and decorating the palace and gardens of Pavlovsk. There is quite a bit of interesting information about Maria, her architects and landscapers, and the different influences on the park’s final design, especially for anyone interested in architecture, fine art, or landscape design.

After Maria’s death, the park was opened to the public and became the site of fashionable concerts (including an extended visit by Strauss) for most of the later 19th century. The Soviets, after initially planning to sell off its treasures, were eventually persuaded by Pavlovsk’s caretaker to turn it into a state museum.

Then came World War II and the Nazi invasion of Russia. There is a fascinating and horrifying chapter about the siege of Leningrad, the deadliest in human history, during which 1-1.5 million civilians died and an additional 1,400,000 were evacuated. Pavlovsk itself was stripped of as many of its treasures as its caretakers could preserve while the Nazi army approached, and these were buried on the grounds of the park or taken to Leningrad or Siberia.  The rest were looted or destroyed by the Germans, who also cut down 70,000 trees within the park and set fire to the palace as they retreated near the end of the war. In the aftermath of the war, with the palace and park in smoldering ruins, its caretakers spent decades painstakingly rebuilding and restoring it to its former glory, and it is now once again open to the public.

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is well-written and absorbing, and will make you love Pavlovsk as much as its author clearly does. I was inspired after reading it to visit the park three times during my semester abroad in Russia and consider it one of the most beautiful spots in Russia.

Here’s a video with scenes from the palace and park:

My rating: (5 / 5)