Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hearty Rom-Coms

Generally speaking, I'm not the hugest fan of romantic comedies ... or romantic movies ... or most of the ones that pass for "comedic" these days. But there were a couple of movies that were on my "to watch" list for quite some time that I finally got around to, which both are purportedly part of the rom-com genre.

First up, a movie called Playing by the Heart. Never heard of? I'm not surprised, because it didn't seem to win much critical or box office love when it came out back in 1998. What is surprising is how so many talented actors were convinced to take part in this unexceptional film. The movie opens with a number of unconnected couples in various stages of relationships: 
- Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) are an older couple facing the end of their relationship now that Paul's been diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor. One shocking revelation still remains though: An old affair that Paul had is discovered by Hannah. "Fun" note: watching how Paul tries to explain away this affair is pathetic. Second "fun" note: Paul's terminal illness no longer seems to be an issue at the tacked-on "happy" ending.
- Joan (Angelia Jolie) just got out of a terrible and ridiculous relationship but after breaking up with her boyfriend via a payphone in a club, she immediately turns upon the stranger (Ryan Phillippe) standing next to the phone and tries to pick him up. This happens repeatedly, night after night, despite his unwillingness to be in a relationship. "Fun" note: Ryan Phillippe's angsty portrayal is just him looking sullen all the time. 
- Meredith (Gillian Anderson) is a workaholic divorcee whose "meet cute" with an architect (Jon Stewart) involves a wall-sized bookcase falling over on her tiny self. "Fun" note: Jon Stewart's character is basically an asshole masquerading as a "nice guy." Yet I'm 99% sure the audience is supposed to think he really is a nice guy. Nope.
- Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) is having an affair because the "mystique" of it is so much better than her "boring" husband. "Fun" note: Shut up, Gracie. Second "fun" note: Even she seems to be have a more or less optimistic ending, despite all odds.
- Hugh (Dennis Quaid) keeps trying to tell a different sob story to whatever woman will listen to in bars across town. "Fun" note: Hugh could probably save himself a lot of grief by being more honest.
- And last but not least is the only non-romantic couple in the cast: Mark (Jay Mohr) is dying of AIDS and now has to open up to his mother (Ellen Burstyn) about his homosexuality. "Fun" note: The movie tries so hard to be open-minded and modern, but its handling of this topic feels both so preachy and so dated. 

These disparate characters and storylines eventually come together in an ending that I *think* is supposed to surprise the viewer, although it is easily predictable early enough into the movie. As you can probably gather from my sarcastic comments above, I wasn't a big fan of this movie. Almost everything about it felt contrived and/or saccharine, and the relationships depicted were all so unhealthy, yet we're clearly supposed to be happy at the ending. No thank you. And despite having such a talented cast, the performances were mostly pretty shoddy, although I can't help to think that a lot of that has to do with a corny plot and terrible dialogue. The only real standout is Ellen Burstyn as the grieving mother of a dying son, but even that is just a small part of the movie. There are a few funny moments scattered here and there in the movie, but honestly even those aren't that good.

Final word: Do yourself a favor and save your time by staying away from this title. I didn't believe Jon Stewart when he made fun of his movie career by holding this movie up as an example of wretchedness. No wonder this movie was hard to get a copy of -- it's not worth watching.

Next up was In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacLaine, and based on the book of the same name. Rose (Collette) and Maggie (Diaz) are two sisters who couldn't be more dissimilar -- Rose is practical and plain; Maggie is flighty and primped. When a particularly painful betrayal happens, Rose kicks Maggie out. Forced to find her way on her own, Maggie discovers a grandmother (MacLaine) the girls never knew they had.

So I read the book this movie was based on way back when and loved it. When the movie came out, I wanted to see it but for some reason I just never got around to it. Recently, I read a memoir by Jennifer Weiner (the author of In Her Shoes) and her mentioning the movie in that memoir renewed my interest in watching it. Luckily my library had a copy, so I grabbed it right up. 

It's hard to review this movie 100% fairly. It's been so long since I've read the book now that I can't accurately compare the two -- the only glaringly "wrong" thing to me was that Maggie's time in Princeton (a part which for some reason sticks out to me more than any other part of the book) is completely missing from the movie. I guess it just wouldn't have filmed as well perhaps, but I felt like it was a crucial part to her story. 

Other than that, the movie seemed to jive more or less with the overall message of the book. Somehow though -- the condensed time perhaps -- the movie lacked some of the emotional impact of the book. Although I've loved Toni Collette in many other things before (including but not limited to United States of Tara), her story seemed the most lacking in emotional "realness" -- so often, her character just burst out with something that didn't seem to mesh with anything else, or else other characters referred to changes in her emotional state that just didn't seem to be there. Mostly I chalk that up to the shortened storytelling time more than on Collette's performance, but it was still a bit disappointing. (Also, it was terribly hard to believe that her character was so insecure about being overweight when she looks like she's about a size 4.)

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised with Cameron Diaz's performance. It is probably biased of me, but I didn't expect much from the star of There's Something About Mary and The Sweetest Thing (two movies I wish I had never wasted my time on). However, she really embodied the role of Maggie and brought an impressive range to the character. Shirley MacLaine also did a fine job in her role as a grandmother long estranged from her grandchildren and dealing with some heavy emotional baggage of her own.

While both the book and the movie have been cast in the ghetto of "chick lit" and "rom-com," respectively, the story of In Her Shoes is so much more than your standard romantic storyline (girl meets boy, they have a falling out of some sort, girl and boy end up back together when everything is cleared up). Deep and varied issues are addressed, ranging from mental illness and death to forgiveness and acceptance. It is not necessarily a strictly "feel good" movie, although it does end on uplifting notes.

Final word: Hard to say with this one, actually. If at all possible for you to do so, I'd recommend you read the book, which was so thoroughly good. Barring that, then maybe watching the movie is a worthwhile use of your time. It's a decent choice for when you don't want something too fluffy, but you also don't want to be slammed by something unremittingly depressing with no hope whatsoever.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Come On, Get Happy

As I've lamented before on this blog many a time, winter is my least favorite season of all. It is looong, cold, dreary, and dark. It makes me wish I was a bear who could hibernate these months away and emerge well rested for spring. But since that's just a fantasy that won't happen, I've been trying to dispel my winter blues with fun and light-hearted movies -- not my usual fare but perfect for lifting my spirits, even if just temporarily. And as I've been away from this blog for a while, I thought I would try a quick summation of those movies in this one post. (It may get a little long though...)

To try to improve my mood, I watched these three movies in recent weeks: The Answer ManZootopia, and The Peanuts Movie. Two kids' movies and a romantic comedy -- this is how I roll in the winter, people.

The Answer Man

This is a romantic comedy from 2009 about a hermetic best-selling author and a single mom with a recently opened small business who meet almost by happenstance and decide to start dating. Literally, the entire rationale behind me watching this movie was "Lauren Graham is in it." The description sounded okay, and I was willing to give it a try, but I was not expecting much. With that attitude going in, I was surprisingly pleased. Sure, the romance part was pretty flat, but the acting was superb, the comedy was good, and it was really more of a story about the author becoming a more social and caring human being than it was a purely romantic comedy. I'll address each of those points a little more fully below.

Jeff Daniels as author Arlen Faber was comedy gold in a multi-faceted role. Faber is a character who is struggling with a number of things -- physical pain from a bad back, a crisis of faith, a desire to be left alone by the people who want to adulate him for his best-selling religious books, and coming to terms with being needed by others and finding himself wanting to be around other people as part of their lives. Lauren Graham was predictably wonderful, presenting her usual mixture of fun-loving comedy turning to fierce drama at a moment's notice. As she herself once noted, she does seem to be typecast into the single mom role, and there were a few moments in the opening of the movie that felt like the movie was trying to give us Lorelei Gilmore with a young son instead of teenaged daughter. But then the character of Elizabeth comes into her own, and we see her more as a dedicated chiropractor, determined to help patients and see her small clinic succeed, and as a friend/love interest to Arlen.  Lou Taylor Pucci as recovering drug addict and struggling independent bookstore owner played perfectly whether in humorous or serious scenes, in either case serving to further stretch Faber's growth and development. Smaller roles were well acted and rounded out the cast of quirky characters.

As I've probably mentioned in the past, I'm not the hugest comedy fan - especially sitcoms or romantic comedies, which tend to feel very predictable and, as a consequence, dull. But that being said, I found myself laughing quite a bit with this movie. A lot of that came from Faber's unexpectedly foul-mouthed or flippant sayings, but some of it was physical and situational humor as well (like Elizabeth trying to promote her business by having her assistant dress up as a giant spine outside their office or Faber being pulled unexpectedly into a parent-teacher conference for Elizabeth's son). There's also a bit of the "awkward first date (or three)" conversational humor, which is a somewhat stereotypical romantic comedy move, but that's usually the best part of any rom-com in my opinion. 

And, finally, I enjoyed this movie more than the standard fare romantic comedy because it was much more than just that. The movie addressed Arlen's need to get outside of himself and his worries to connect with other people and care about them. Sure, that included a potential romantic partner, but it also included her son and people in the community like Kris the bookseller. Faber doesn't completely change his personality or attitude but he does become more willing to embrace other people and help them on their course through life, in turn helping himself to be more compassionate. That may sound overly sentimental, but the movie manages to stay *just* above the rim of being truly sappy. 

Like I said at the beginning of this movie review, I was surprisingly amused and entertained by this movie. And I'm surprised to find myself recommending it as well if you want something on the cheery side for your next movie pick.


A good number of the little kids (and grown adults for that matter) in my life had already seen this movie when it came out in theaters and loved it. I figured I'd get around to it eventually, which turned out to be a day I was still in a down mood. Zootopia tells the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny from a small rural community who can't wait to become a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, despite the nay-saying she hears from literally everyone, ranging from the local bully to her own parents. She persists in her goals anyhow, passing all the hurdles to becoming a police officer and arriving in Zootopia to learn about an ongoing missing animals case, to which she is not assigned because, again, no one believes a small rabbit can accomplish much. But through a series of unexpected circumstances, she ends up partnering with Nick, a con-man (or con-fox, as the case is) to uncover a much bigger conspiracy that anyone expected.

As you might expect from a children's animated movie, there is all kinds of humor in Zootopia, ranging from very obvious slapstick bits for kids to references clearly meant for adults. My favorite two scenes that had me laughing out loud involved a DMV office run entirely by the slowest moving sloths and an introduction to the criminal boss, "Mr. Big," who mimicked several Godfather lines. The movie definitely hit the spot in improving my bad mood, even if it didn't succeed in doing so for a terribly long time. 

But Zootopia also succeeds in presenting a number of important issues to children in a digestible form without being overly didactic. There is soooo much about not judging people by their outside appearance but instead by their personal qualities, like commitment to righting wrongs and perseverance in the face of internal and external doubts. Yes, there are times when some of this lesson is a bit heavy handed, but it's never a "hit you over the head" morality tale. 

Like we've all come to expect with a Disney movie, this one features a lot of talented actors lending their voices to various characters, including Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy, Jason Bateman as Nick, Idris Elba as the police chief, Shakira as the pop star Gazelle (giving the film its catchy theme song), and many many more. As we've all come to expect with an animated film from Disney, the success of Zootopia has inevitably led to there being talks of a possible sequel, one which ::eye roll:: many hope will lead to Judy and Nick getting together as a romantic couple. Let's just hope that any follow-up movie is of as high a caliber as this first one was. 

The Peanuts Movie

Last, and let's admit it, least, I watched the new reincarnation of Charles Schulz's characters that is The Peanuts Movie. As a bit of background, I've never been the hugest Peanuts fan, though I do generally find some of the older short movies both funny and fun to have on around the appropriate holidays. This movie, written by Schulz's son and grandson, stays true to the original characters in interesting ways, but it is sometimes perhaps a little too true to them. Bear with me as I explain.

The Peanuts Movie is largely centered around Charlie Brown's crush on the new girl at school (known simply as The Little Red-Haired Girl) and his myriad attempts to do something great to get her to notice and like him. But because it's Charlie Brown, these attempts inevitably do not turn out as planned. Throughout his many endeavors, Charlie Brown's myriad friends, including his sister Sally and his loyal dog Snoopy, strive to help him out. At the end of the school year, when Charlie Brown finally manages to just talk directly to The Little Red-Haired Girl, she says that she admires all the good qualities he demonstrated when things went wrong, including his selflessness in advancing others before himself. 

Among many of the nods to the original comics include Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment, the kite-eating tree, Marcie inexplicably calling Patty "sir," the muffled voices of all adults (voiced here in a stroke of genius by Trombone Shorty), and Snoopy's dreams of being an ace war pilot battling the Red Baron for the skies. This last one has always been a bit of an odd one in my opinion, and some parts of the movie involving these scenes went on a little too long for my liking. There's also a love interest for Snoopy here, mirroring Charlie Brown's story back in the real life part of the movie. 

Also true to the original Peanuts were the many bizarrely romantic relationships seen among schoolchildren. Perhaps because Charlie's crush is the focus on this movie, I started noticing these relationships more than I usually do. Almost all of them involve girls who nag and borderline bully boys into liking them back (e.g., Lucy and Schroeder, Sally and Linus, Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown). Meanwhile, Charlie Brown's entire basis for liking The Little Red-Haired Girl is that she's "pretty" and she chews on her pencil like he does. He never even learns her name. She is literally "The Little Red-Haired Girl" from beginning to end of the movie. The weird relationship dynamics were kind of unsettling as an adult, and it makes me wonder what kind of message is being sent to kids when they watch this movie. I understand that attempts were being made for continuity between the past Peanuts and the present, but some of this was just a bit too much. It could be left in the past.

It was interesting for me though when I went searching for the origins of the "sir" moniker for Peppermint Patty that I found this article explaining how this character was Charles Schulz's response to second-wave feminism. He chose to make a character that defied the stereotypical feminine traits, instead opting to make Patty a fan of sports who doesn't wear skirts. So that was nice to learn; I just wish that the new creators might have found some ways to bring the female characters of The Peanuts Movie past the 1960s. 

That all being said, there were pretty funny parts to this movie as well as some charming ones. Particularly hilarious to me was Charlie Brown's quest to write the perfect book report to impress The Little Red-Haired Girl, which ends up involving a mistaken search for the book "Leo's Toy Store" by Warren Peace. There was also plenty of slapstick and physical comedy to entertain those who really enjoy that kind of comedy, like the small children who are the target audience for this movie. I really did love the ending in which The Little Red-Haired Girl pointed out all the times Charlie Brown stood up and did the right thing, even if it didn't seem beneficial to him at the time. That was definitely a high note in this movie, teaching children important lessons about how being a good person is about helping others, not just promoting yourself and your achievements.

The animation style is different from the original Peanuts films, given the many changes in technology since then. I guess it could be off-putting for some, but I didn't mind it much after a few minutes of getting used to it. The look and feel of the characters was the same, even down to Lucy being a horrible bully, which I wish was addressed more. All in all, I found this movie an amusing diversion, especially for adults who grew up loving these characters. But I would be hesitant to share it with small children without discussing the problematic parts later.

Well, those are my two cents (and perhaps a little more) on these movies. Have you seen them and have any thoughts? What do you do to keep the winter blues at bay?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Who Murdered Laura?

Recently I read The Feminist Press's re-issue of the mystery novel Laura by Vera Caspary. I greatly enjoyed reading the book, including the editor's afterword that discussed Caspary's life and successes. Among those successes was having her novels and screenplays adapted into Hollywood flicks, with Laura being notable on that list. I decided to track down the film version of the story and found that easy to do with it being right on Netflix for instant streaming.

Laura is the story of a young socialite who is murdered in her apartment late one night, just days before her upcoming wedding. In the wake of this event, her friends and acquaintances are shocked while her fiancé starts acting a bit suspicious. Added into the mix is a tough, street-smart detective who is determined to find Laura's murderer and won't be belittled by her society crowd. He soon finds himself obsessed with the dead woman.

The afterword of the novel primed me for the possibility of significant changes between the book and the film by noting that Caspary was appreciative of some of the changes made by Otto Preminger, the film's director, and critical of others -- to the point of getting in a shouting match with Preminger at a restaurant. With that being said though, the changes were actually not hugely dramatic in the end. Those changes include:
  • The viewer gets to see a glimpse of what Laura's life was like with the party scene that was absent in the book but added to the movie. This is undoubtedly a bonus.
  • There is a significant change in the murder weapon from novel to film, which Caspary apparently objected to greatly and lost that battle. The symbolism therefore changes, but in the end, I don't think this was a huge detractor to the story being told.
  • Lydecker is vividly described in the book as an overweight man with a van Dyck beard and a walking cane (which is most likely just an affectation). This person is transformed into a svelte, mustachioed gentleman. Classic Hollywood for you -- everyone has to be pretty, even if they are specifically described as otherwise.
Why?? At least keep the van Dyck beard, if nothing else...

  • Lydecker has a radio program rather than a column. This is quite fitting with the audio-visual medium and is thus a logical change. It also makes for a very haunting scene towards the end when we hear Lydecker's spoken essay on love voiced over a very dramatic moment.
  • Laura's aunt is less of an invalid and more of a fiancé snatcher. She seriously throws herself at Shelby way too much; it's rather disturbing how blithe she is about telling her niece that she's no good for her own fiancé who would be better off with her instead. (Side note: How strange is it to think of Vincent Price as "leading man" material instead of the king of horror??)
Unexpected but ultimately believable --
Vincent Price as old money, handsome "keeper" Shelby
The biggest change, which is the hardest to exactly point how or why it's different, is in the character of Laura herself. She seems like more a damsel in distress or naïve ingénue than the driven and successful career woman of the novel. Again, it's hard to place a finger on exactly what's wrong or different, but there's a je ne sais quoi about Gene Tierney's performance as the titular character that is just off a little. A reviewer for The New York Times back in 1944 says it best:

"Yes, you get the idea that this Laura must have been something truly wonderful. Now, at the risk of being unchivalrous, we venture to say that when the lady herself appears upon the scene via a flashback of events leading up to the tragedy, she is a disappointment. For Gene Tierney simply doesn't measure up to the word-portrait of her character. Pretty, indeed, but hardly the type of girl we had expected to meet. For Miss Tierney plays at being a brilliant and sophisticated advertising executive with the wild-eyed innocence of a college junior." (emphasis mine)

All in all, this is a solid adaptation of the novel that gets the basic story right and has a fantastic noir look to all its scenes, including the ominous black-and-white shadows present in numerous moments. Indeed, all of the lighting works to create beautiful effects. In addition, the moody atmospheric music seals the noir feel, even the romantic titular song written by Johnny Mercer for the movie. But unfortunately the characters are just a *little* wrong, which detracted somewhat from the viewing after readering the book. I'd recommend the novel over the film, unless you're the type who prefers movie watching to book reading. However, it's worth pointing out that, as always, this is just my opinion -- the novel has faded in to relative obscurity while the movie has been put on numerous "best of" lists and important histories of film.

For a Good Time, Call BUtterfield 8

For some reason, within the past month of so the movie BUtterfield 8 came up a couple of times. The first time I came across it (while researching ambiance and facts for a 1960s party I was throwing), it piqued my interest a bit after I heard that Elizabeth Taylor won a Best Actress Oscar for it. The second time it came up (when reading a book that mentioned several infamous cases involving the disappearance, death, and/or murder of young women in the 1940s), I decided I really had to check it out. So I found a copy through my local library and popped it in my DVD player.

Note: This review is going to have spoilers, so beware. But, hey, you've had 50+ years to watch this movie. ;)

BUtterfield 8 starts with Gloria waking up alone in the luxurious apartment suite of Liggett, a man she met the night before. At first, she slowly and seemingly happily wanders about the apartment, admiring the fancy clothes and sundry niceties belonging to Liggett's absent wife. But when she spies a note from him asking if $250 is enough, she goes into a rage and writes "No Sale" across the ornate mirror with lipstick before storming out of the apartment with his wife's mink coat as a revenge. This beginning is veeeery slow and feels like the type that wouldn't fly with modern audiences at all who expect an explosion or a plane crash or a murder in the first scene of any movie or TV show. It's only in retrospect that the viewer actually realizes what is going on, as we are unaware in the long, dialogue-free introduction who Gloria is, where she's waking up, or why she's there. This is not the kind of draw we're used to nowadays.

Gloria then waltzes her way over to the cramped and less refined apartment belonging to her childhood friend and current struggling musician Steve, where she shows off her new coat and whines that the man dared to actually pay her, which confuses Steve -- and frankly, the audience as well at this point -- because he doesn't quite understand what she wants from these meaningless relationships she starts with men. He worries about her future, which she pooh-poohs before getting his girlfriend to come over and lend her a more appropriate outfit to go home to her mother in, as she doesn't want her mother to know who she really is and what she does with her time. The girlfriend is furious at Gloria but complies while she is present, later giving her boyfriend an ultimatum to choose between her and Gloria, to which he sighs that he can't give up on Gloria because he has such a strong bond with her and feels it is his "brotherly" duty to watch out for her. (Although it's difficult to see what exactly he's doing to help Gloria, for it seems that he is only enabling the very behaviors in Gloria that he says he worries about. Also, their "brother-sister" relationship seems to have far more sexual tension than the one between Gloria and Liggett, perhaps not unsurprising given that the actors playing Gloria and Steve - Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, respectively - were newlyweds.)

Eventually Liggett and Gloria make up when she gets him to understand that she chooses and drops men as she pleases and she refuses to accept money or any goods from these men, no matter how wealthy they are or how much they offer her. The two then run off together for days on end without telling anyone where they are or when they'll be back -- a particularly cruel move on Gloria's part as her poor mother sits at home worrying if Gloria is alive or dead. (Liggett's wife meanwhile is safely ensconced with her sick mother and unaware of what her husband is doing back in New York anyway.) Gloria comes to believe she is in love, even though the "romance" between the two is hardly shown and it doesn't seem that they share anything beyond a sexual attraction. This is not helped by a rather wooden performance from Laurence Harvey as Liggett, who always seems rather bored by Gloria except in later scenes when he comes alive with anger. Gloria happily returns to New York and starts bearing her soul to everyone -- from discharging herself from psychiatriatic help because she is "cured" now with her newfound love to finally confessing to her mother about her past indiscretions only to let her know that is in the past now that she's found someone permanent.

However, as someone wise said, karma's a bitch. When Liggett's wife returns home and notices her mink is missing, he immediately (and correctly) suspects that Gloria stole it. A huge and public fight ensues and ends with the two parting ways. A distraught Gloria ends up at Steve's apartment again, truly bearing her soul this time when she confesses to him that she was sexually molested by her mother's boyfriend when in her early teens, a scene that transforms her from a hedonistic character to simply a hurt one. Somehow this confession awakens some sort of bizarre sympathy transference in Steve that causes him to propose to his girlfriend, at which point Gloria quietly sneaks back home to her mother. Gloria decides to start life anew and move away from New York to Boston. But early en route, she is tracked down by a now remorseful Liggett who refuses to let her go. She dashes into her car without him and drives speedily away, but Liggett is just not the kind of guy to take no for an answer. He pursues her in his own car until, in her desperation, she unwittingly drives into a construction pit, her car wretchedly tumbling over and over again with fatal results for Gloria.

Talk about an ending. There is clearly no going back and starting again for a "bad girl" in the late 50s/early 60s. But for a cheating husband? Liggett returns home to his wife and the final lines of the movie are given to him expressing hope that they'll work on their marriage. Wow. Truly, despite all the times that Gloria is referred to as a "call girl" or "high-class prostitute" by other reviewers, the Gloria depicted in the movie makes it clear she doesn't take money from men, although she is happy to flirt with or sleep with whomever she likes. Clearly she has a broken past and her current relationships are in shambles (whether it's lying to her mother, provoking the anger of her only friend's girlfriend, or getting involved with already married men), but her life is not nearly so scandalous or salacious as the movie posters would have you believe. Nevertheless, she pays the ultimate price - her very existence - for living the life of a single woman making her own decisions. For a modern audience, this is a very bitter pill to swallow. It's not surprising to learn that, according to Taylor biographer Alexander Walker, Taylor herself was opposed to doing this movie as it cast in her such a negative role, but alas was under contract with the film's studio, MGM, to make this movie whether she wanted to or not.

The film is based on a novel of the same name by John O'Hara. Never having read that title, I'm not sure how this movie lines up with the book, particularly whether or not the portrayal of Gloria is any different. I suspect that like with many movies that came out in this time period, much had to be left unsaid -- for instance, Holly Golightly's call girl status in Breakfast at Tiffany's. However, as I previously mentioned, I can't say that for certain, not having read the book. It's worth noting that the book was based partially on a real-life drama concerning the mysterious death of Starr Faithfull, which occurred nearly 30 years before this movie was released. I wonder if that contributes even more to the feeling that this movie is very dated.

Indeed, this movie's biggest criticism these days is just how very old-fashioned melodramatic it is. Contemporary audiences give it pretty low rates for being dated and too much of a soap opera. I hate to be one more voice piling on, but these critiques seem fair. This movie is worth watching for a steamy and emotional performance by Taylor, but otherwise it falls flat and rankles with modern-day conceptions of women's autonomy rather than scandalizing viewers with the idea that people have sex outside of marriage.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

CSI: Pemberley

Please be aware of some spoilers with this review.

After being disappointed with the book Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James and finding it a bit tedious to get through at points, you'd think I wouldn't want to seek out the miniseries based on it, right? Wrong. Why would I do such a thing? There's a simple two-word answer: Matthew Goode. Over time and many viewings, I've come to respect this actor so much, whether he's the morally ambiguous Ozymandis (my views on his portrayal have changed since re-watching Watchmen a few times) or the sweet and charming Mr. Brooke Burgess of He Knew He Was Right. Heck, I even tried a bad romantic comedy for his sake (well, his sake and Amy Adams's sake). So I was going to check out the BBC version of Death Comes to Pemberley no matter which role he played in it, although I was glad to find that he played the dashing and devilish Wickham -- perfect casting in my opinion.

Death Comes to Pemberley the miniseries closely follows the book Death Comes to Pemberley in that all the elements of that story are presented here. However, those elements are often in a divergent order from the book, with a different character revealing certain points or with more spectacle given to a specific moment. All in all, each change from the book to the miniseries is clearly meant to heightened the suspense and drama of the storytelling -- something I wish James had done all along so that the book would have been more successful as the murder mystery it purports to be. In fact, viewing this miniseries just exemplified for me the importance of a good editor -- the intrigue and drama were there all along in Death Comes to Pemberley if only someone had the good sense to cut down on the redundancies and work on the pacing a bit more.

With the miniseries, repetition is not really an issue, even with the two different hearings/trials for Wickham. The mystery unfolds over time instead of coming in with a bang at the end; here we see the mystery woman in the woods almost immediately at the start of the story and we learn early on about Louisa's illegitimate child, for just two examples. Of course, we don't learn the significance of either of these events until much later on, with the latter giving rise to a subtle suspicion on Elizabeth's part that perhaps Darcy has not been faithful to her rather than being thought of as an issue connected to the murder right away.

Speaking of Elizabeth and Darcy, the miniseries does a much better job of portraying these characters than the book, keeping much more in line with Jane Austen's original characters. Yes, we do lose some insights into Darcy's inner thoughts, but Matthew Rhys's Darcy is the quiet, reserved Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and, while Elizabeth is perhaps not quite as spunky as the original, she's a huge improvement over the practically lifeless character of the Death Comes to Pemeberly novel. The casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth was genius as she is perfect as portraying a well-mannered woman who also willing and eager to speak her mind. She is also given a lot more to do than in the novel -- some critics have pointed out how the actor seems to still be playing her role from Bletchley Circle, gathering up clues and using them to solve smaller mysteries until she discovers the final reveal. I am perfectly fine with this change; indeed, I'm happy to see Elizabeth being active again instead of just a bystander. Her wit and humor is largely on the back burner, but you can get a sense that she has the capacity for it when not facing down a crisis, which is not at all the impression you get from P.D. James's Elizabeth.

The relationship between the Darcys is also far more interesting here. In the book, their love is a unshakable foundation, or so we are repeatedly told, but we hardly ever see them together. Here, there is rather a different story. There is a great deal of tension between the two, especially as they argue over various points, such as whether it is right for Georgiana to marry for affection or for position (more on this below). Darcy's insistence that his sister marry with an eye toward her family duties makes Elizabeth worry if he is doubting his own decision to marry for love instead. She also laments that her marriage to him has brought him to this horrid situation of being brother-in-law to a possible murderer and, as aforementioned, seems to question whether he has been carrying on an affair with Louisa. But all's well that ends well and, in a very un-Austen-like turn, there's even a steamy sex scene between the two. Necessary? Maybe not, but it sure beats the practically nil interactions between the couple that the reader of Death Comes to Pemberley gets.

Another bit of heightened drama in the miniseries is that the love triangle between Georgiana Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Henry Alveston is actually more of a complicated affair, rather than a two-page possibility of an issue that is quickly dismissed. You can see the pathos as Georgiana attempts to decide between honor and romance, between following the wishes of her beloved brother and staying true to her own heart. In a particularly heartbreaking scene, she sobs openly in front of stiff servants as she struggles with trying to do what is right. Also kudos to the acting chops of Mr. James Norton, who so thoroughly inhabited the despicable, slimy rapist and kidnapper of Happy Valley that I barely recognized him here as he played the sweet and amiable Alveston.

The miniseries version of Death Comes to Pemberley also plays up the possibility of Wickham's death much more so than in the book. With a capital crime, this should have been more of a looming shadow in the book, but it really wasn't. Here, however, the gallows are frequently close at hand, forever reminding the viewer of the deadly consequences that are so near if Wickham is not acquitted. The story of the young boy hanged when Darcy and Wickham were just children is also used to more dramatic effect here, with the two being scarred by this visual at a tender age and both remembering or referencing it at times throughout the trial.

Minor characters were played to great advantage here as well. Jenna Coleman was divine as Lydia -- offsetting her perfectly ridiculous and ostentatious hysterics with a few rare moments of actual depth and sincerity of emotion that allow viewers to pity her even as they dislike her. The equally ridiculous Mrs. Bennet was also a breath of fresh air in terms of comedic effect -- having her descend on Pemberley after the tragedy of Denny's death instead of the kind and gentle Jane was no doubt more burdensome for the characters but far more fun for the viewers. Although she's on the screen but briefly, Lady Catherine is also great for moments of social satire. Louisa and her family can perhaps be a tad melodramatic at times and Mrs. Younge is too much of a viper, but overall I believe the casting was well done and the characters were well played.

Another thing done well with the miniseries was that rather than introducing this myriad of characters and their various histories right away in a compact, arguably rushed prologue, the writers went instead with the flashback route. At different points throughout the TV series, we see the characters' past meetings and interactions in these flashbacks, which allows the rich back stories to gently unfurl and give the viewers time to settle in and digest each new piece of information.

I'm not sure that I'd call this "must-see" TV, but I would definitely, without a doubt, unequivocally recommend watching this miniseries over reading the book of the same name. You'll thank me later.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

How Do We Measure Greatness? On Watching The Great Gatsby

It's a story everyone knows. Boy meets girl, girl rejects boy due to lack of money, boy makes lots of money and comes back looking for the girl who has since married. Even if you haven't read or seen The Great Gatsby, this very basic outline of the story is probably is familiar to you in one form or another in some other book or movie. But chances are you have read The Great Gatsby for in the nearly 100 years since Gatsby's original publication, it's become a staple in nearly every high school curriculum and several college courses as well. A popular movie in the 1970s brought the story to a wide audience as well.

But Hollywood is Hollywood and even if everyone already knows a story, that doesn't stop big movie studios from taking another stab at it. So it really shouldn't be a surprise that Warner Brothers would reboot the story for a 2013 film version of it. But on the plus side, this latest version was helmed by director Baz Luhrman, whose name should be a clue that we'd be getting something completely different this time around. When I saw the previews for this version of The Great Gatsby, the visual look and feel of the movie seemed very appealing and right up my alley, so I knew it would only be a matter of time before I saw it.

Of course, then as usual, time got away from me and I didn't see the movie. But when the movie came up as part of my book group's discussion of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald this week, I decided it was time to finally check it out. After watching the film, these are my thoughts on it.

This latest incarnation of The Great Gatsby is indeed a visual spectacle, from Gatsby's lavish song-and-dance parties full of glitter and glam to the imposing and divergent domiciles of Gatsby and the Buchanans to the shining gleam coming off of racing cars to the bright colors of Long Island and Manhattan set against the stark gritty, gray reality of the ash heaps in between them both. Indeed, this last part hit a surreal level of hyper-reality with Long Island and Manhattan nearly jumping off the screen with their luminosity while the valley of ashes doesn't have a lick of color beyond the ever-present blue eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's billboard looming over everything as 'the eyes of God,'  and even these are faded and muted. (Up close we get a tad bit of color in the ash heaps in the form of Myrtle's all-red ensemble, a visual reminder of how she clearly doesn't fit in here .. and of course a reminder that she's 'the other woman' wearing the scarlet letter, so to speak.)

All of the visual beauty in this movie might make it seem like it's a case of style over substance, yet the movie stays largely true to the original work and, using Nick Carraway as the voice-over narrator throughout the film, makes liberal use of direct lines of text from the book. It clearly hits all the most important symbolism of the book, including the aforementioned billboard as well as the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, which almost comes off the screen with the close-up effects. In fact, it almost gets to the point where it feels like Luhrman is hitting the viewer over the head and saying, 'hey, look at the symbolism already, won't you?' In addition, the story isn't given a Hollywood happy ending but retains its original pessimism; any happiness seen in this plot is quickly fleeting.

Still, something felt a little off in this adaptation, even if I can't quite place my finger on what exactly that is. The first major issue I had was in casting Nick in a role that was more Fitzgerald than Carraway -- the framing device placed Nick in a mental institution of some sort writing away his troubles to get a grip on how he felt about that whole summer of Gatsby. I'm never a fan of when movies try to interject more of the author into a character than the author originally did. (I'm looking at you, 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park, which tried to convert Fanny Price into Jane Austen herself.) Tobey Maguire as Nick seemed all wrong as a casting decision, and his habit of stretching out words and sentences to impossible lengths when narrating very, very quickly got old. I was holding back from shouting 'spit it out already!' at the screen.

The second thing that I found very bizarre was the use of modern-day pop songs alongside the period pieces, set, and costumes. It was one thing in Luhrman's Moulin Rouge, which was a musical and used variations of modern songs as sung by the film's characters to interject some levity to an otherwise very serious and depressing movie as well as to heighten the mood and/or atmosphere of certain scenes. But here, in a film trying to be dramatic, serious, and important while maintaining a decent amount of accuracy to the source material and time period, it just seemed wrong to be hearing Fergie in the background. Perhaps when Jay-Z is a film's producer, it becomes a prerequisite to play his and his wife's songs, regardless of the anachronism it presents; all I know is it seemed all kinds of jarring and took away from the storytelling going on in the film.

Back to the plus sides, with the exception of Maguire, the casting was superb. Everyone fit into their roles like a glove, but I think that Carey Mulligan as Daisy was the stand-out performance. I had never been a fan of the 1974 movie version of The Great Gatsby, and Mia Farrow as Daisy had been a large part of that, so I was very pleased to see Mulligan embodying Daisy in such a fantastic way. I also liked that even though it's hard with older source material like this, there were some attempts at diversity done; in particular, there's a very brief moment in a scene when Nick comments on how everything is changing as they speed past a car full of clearly wealthy African-American people with a Caucasian chauffeur. It's not much, but it's a little step in the right direction of more diversely cast movies and TV shows.

Overall, I did enjoy this movie as an entertaining break from the everyday and a new twist on a classic novel. I'm glad to have seen it at last, but it's not a movie I feel like I'd ever need to re-visit, which for me is the true test of a movie's greatness.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Miss JJ Tackles the "Read Harder" Challenge

A friend of mine has been blogging throughout the year about the Book Riot's 2015 Read Harder Challenge. I found the challenge intriguing (although I maintain that its name could use something more accurate, as it is a challenge about reading more broadly, not necessarily "harder," whatever that vague nomenclature means), so I've been checking in throughout the year to see how I'm doing on it meeting all its criteria.

That being said, I also have to admit I didn't go too far out of my way much to pick up books that fit into 24 categories laid out by Book Riot, somewhat defeating the purpose of the challenge. Still, I'm glad to find that my usual reading habits - fueled by personal and automatic recommendations, various review sources, advanced reader copies, and book club choices - actually make for a pretty well-rounded reading experience.

As you can see, out of the 24, I was able to tackle 23 - nearly all, which I'm chalking up as a win, even if some titles were a bit of a stretch. I ended up using some picture books to fill a couple of categories but, hey, don't knock children's literature if you want to be friends with me! :)  Of those tasks that I didn't get to this year or stretched to meet, I have read those types of works in the past, so I feel okay about not hitting those marks in 2015 specifically.

Below is a list of the 24 categories from Book Riot's challenge, followed by the books (with links to my personal reviews) I read this year that fit into that particular category. Throughout the year, I ended up reading more than one book from certain categories; however, if a book fit into more than one category, I kept it within just the "best fit" category. So an audiobook by an author from Africa went under the latter category (which would otherwise be empty) rather than going in the former category that already had a few contributions.

My hope with this post is that you might find some books of interest to you and/or find some titles from any of these 24 tasks that you weren't able to complete - or did complete and are now hungry for more books from the same category! But please note that I'm not necessarily recommending all of these books whole-heartedly; in fact, some were very bad reads in my opinion. So buyer beware - read the reviews before you make a decision on a title that catches your fancy.

1) A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
2) A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
(These first two tasks were the most difficult because books don't generally list an author's age at the time of the writing. It's possible I read more books that fit these categories but was unaware of it. In some cases, it's very difficult to learn the age of an author at all unless they are very famous author ... which usually doesn't happen under the age of 25!)

3) A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people)
4) A book published by an indie press
(Like with #1 and #2, this was a rather difficult one because it's not really something I'm consciously aware of when picking a book. It's possible I read other books that fit this category during the year, but I didn't quite realize it at the time.)

5) A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ
6) A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
(NOT reading a book written by a man would be the greater challenge. There were many others that fit this category, but I didn't feel inclined to list them all. I chose these two because with the time period they were written in, 1940 and 1929, respectively, they are more male centric than others simply written by a man. Suffice to say, this task "challenge" was met several times over. And over again. Many of those books are listed here elsewhere.)
7) A book that takes place in Asia
(Note: None of these take place fully in Asia, but they do have numerous scenes set in Japan and Malaysia amongst the three of them.)
8) A book by an author from Africa
9) A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.)
10) A microhistory
11) A YA novel
12) A sci-fi novel
13) A romance novel
14) A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
15) A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.)
  • Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (modernization of Emma by Jane Austen)
  • Jack Maggs by Peter Carey (parallel novel to Great Expectations by Charles Dickens) *
16) An audiobook
17) A collection of poetry
18) A book that someone else has recommended to you
19) A book that was originally published in another language
20) A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind
21) A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over)
22) A book published before 1850
(Okay, yeah, you got me - This was a re-read. But it's been around a decade since I read it last, plus this time I went with an audio version rather than a printed copy. So, kind of like new?)

23) A book published this year
24) A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”)

* These were books that I started this year but did not finish by the end of it. Hence why there is no link to a review. [This post was updated February 2016 to add a linked review for Jack Maggs. And again ... finally ... in July 2016 to add a linked review for Salt: A World History.]

As the year comes to a close tonight, I'm glad that I worked on this challenge during 2015 and am looking forward to trying out the 2016 challenge! Happy new year and new reading to all. :)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Misallying Love Interests & Etc.

Hello, my beloved readers, if any of you are still here! I know that once again I've been neglectful in keeping up to date here, although I have so many things I'd like to share. One day...

In the spirit of trying to write about things when they're fresh in my mind, I'd like to talk briefly about a play I saw this evening. Tonight I was in the audience for the play Misalliance at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Misalliance is a drawing room comedy written by George Bernard Shaw in the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike other Shaw plays, this one isn't particularly well known and apparently doesn't see the stage often these days. Reviews for this particular production were rather mixed, and I think I get why that is.

Misalliance is a play that seems to take a while to get started, but even after it did take off some, I still found myself a little puzzled as to what exactly the plot was. There just simply isn't much of a plot. The entire play takes place in one evening in one setting - the pavilion room of a wealthy businessman in the English countryside. The characters consist of a family of four as well as the daughter's fiancée and his father, and a few unexpected guests. Some of the themes explored include the parent-child relationship, education, the class system, speech versus action, politics, and feminism. While this is all well and good, there times here and there where the play was very speech-y and it was unclear what this all was leading to -- sometimes, it would loop back around to the general themes and flow of the play while other times it would just be there to be there. It also seemed like the characters were sometimes a bit contradictory in all their long-windedness.

On the plus side, there were definitely a lot of humorous parts to the play, which is what I was hoping for and expecting. Shaw makes more than a few meta-references to plays and all their trappings that had good tongue-in-cheek quality to them. The father's penchant for pushing books at everyone was a hilarious refrain in particular. After a plane crashes in the garden outside, things got a bit farcical, but that was in a good way. The introduction of Lina, the Polish acrobat, was refreshingly funny and added some physical comedy to the play. She also elicited a lot of laughs either through her own person or through the minor plot points she put into action. In addition, Lina brought home more of the feminist theme, with a rousing speech that was the only one to elicit applause from the audience mid-scene:

Oh, your Johnny! with his marriage.  He will do the straight thing by me.  He will give me a home, a position.  He tells me I must know that my present position is not one for a nice woman.  This to me, Lina Szczepanowska!  I am an honest woman.  I earn my living.  I am a free woman.  I live in my own house.  I am a woman of the world.  I have thousands of friends. Every night crowds of people applaud me, delight in me, buy my picture, pay hard-earned money to see me.  I am strong.  I am skillful. I am brave.  I am independent.  I am unbought.  I am all that a woman ought to be; and in my family there has not been a single drunkard for four generations. And this Englishman! this linendraper! he dares to ask me to come and live with him in this rrrrrrrabbit hutch, and take my bread from his hand, and ask him for pocket money, and wear soft clothes, and be his woman! his wife!  Sooner than that, I would stoop to the lowest depths of my profession.  I would stuff lions with food and pretend to tame them.  I would deceive honest people's eyes with conjuring tricks instead of real feats of strength and skill.  I would be a clown and set bad examples of conduct to little children.  I would sink yet lower and be an actress or an opera singer, imperiling my soul by the wicked lie of pretending to be somebody else. All this I would do sooner than take my bread from the hand of a man and make him the master of my body and soul. And so you may tell your Johnny to buy an Englishwoman: he shall not buy Lina Szczepanowska; and I will not stay in the house where such dishonor is offered me.

Similar sentiments are expressed by the 20-something daughter of the family, Hypatia, who feels trapped in her upper middle-class life:
  • "I don't want to be good; and I don't want to be bad. I just don't want to be bothered about either good or bad. I want to be an active verb."
  • "I want to be; I want to do; and I'm game to suffer if it costs that.  But stick here doing nothing but being good and nice and ladylike I simply won't."
  • "Men like conventions because men made them. I didn't make them. I don't like them. I won't keep them."

Of course, the feminist in me identified with a lot of this (but not necessarily with the way Hypatia went about her search for adventure ... although given the time period and her social situation, she really didn't have a ton of options available to her). So that specific theme as well as the humor really appealed to me. This particular production also had an absolutely beautiful and elaborately detailed set (see pictures above), excellent actors who were well cast, attractive costumes, and a lovely intimate setting in the relatively small theater. While there were some speeches that did drag and seemed a little pointless, overall I'm glad to have seen this play. Tomorrow is the last two showings of this production, so run - don't walk - to the box office to grab your tickets!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Detective Jackson Brodie Investigates in Case Histories

Recently, I've gotten into author Kate Atkinson's works and have been making my way through two of her book series. The first of these is her Jackson Brodie series, which contains the following four books to date:

- Case Histories;
- One Good Turn;
- When Will There Be Good News?; and
- Started Early, Took My Dog.

So far I've read the first three and have enjoyed the high-brow mystery novels that Atkinson presents. Somewhere along in this reading process, I heard that a TV miniseries had been created based on the books, but I wasn't much interested. That is, until I wandered over to Atkinson's website and saw that Jason Isaacs plays the lead role in the series. After loving his portrayal of Detective Michael Britten on Awake, I just knew Isaacs would be perfect as Brodie.

Isaacs as Brodie in Case Histories
The TV series is a product of BBC Scotland, is simply named Case Histories after the first book, and has two seasons to date (or "series" as they say in the U.K.). The first season covers the events of the first three books and consists of six episodes of roughly one hour in length each, with two episodes dedicated per book. The second season follows the fourth book and is made up of three episodes. Since I've only read the first three books so far, I've only watched the first season, but I'm pleased with what I've seen.

In the essence of time, Case Histories the TV show truncates the books a great deal. We have far less musing about random things and fewer direct insights into character's thought processes. Backstories are significantly shortened. The time between the cases goes from years to months, and basically everything takes place in Edinburgh rather than having Brodie moving about Europe frequently. And Brodie never leaves his private investigating career for greener pastures (before ultimately being sucked back into mysterious circumstance after mysterious circumstance). While purists may object to these liberties, they make sense to me given the medium change.

Other big changes in the transition from book to television come in the way of the characters. Some characters - like Deborah Arnold - are given bigger roles to play, while others - like Joanna Hunter - are given far less screen time. Meanwhile, some characters - like David Lastingham - don't make it into the show at all. Julia becomes a far more sympathetic character while Marcus is made less likable. Several characters end up with happier - or at least more optimistic - conclusions than they did in the books, particularly Martin Canning and Amelia Land.

As I surmised, Isaacs makes a wonderful Jackson Brodie. In an interview, Kate Atkinson admitted that her readers seemed more enamored with Jackson than she was, and while I enjoyed the books, I can't say it was because I was in love with Jackson. However, Isaacs gives Brodie a charm that isn't there in the books while tamping down his overprotectiveness a bit so that it comes off more endearing and less machismo. Also, without giving away any spoilers, TV's Brodie doesn't do the something in book two that is inexcusable and unforgivable to me, so that's a big plus.

Likewise, Amanda Abbington was amazing as Louise Munroe. Even though Munroe was easily one of my favorite characters in the novels, her rough exterior could come off abrasive without the benefit of her inner dialogue that we get in the text. But Abbington was able to keep Munroe snappy on the job and antagonistic toward Jackson while maintaining a je ne sais quoi that allows viewers to realize she's not entirely serious about her tough talk and there's a marshmallow soul beneath that all.

Other castings that I found just perfect are:
- Gwyneth Keyworth as Reggie - wonderfully fitting the part of a teenaged girl who looks much longer, while also bringing forth so much of Reggie's pathos, even with the reduced screen time to explore Reggie's past and present woes; and
- Fenella Woolgar as Amelia - such lovely casting, as I enjoyed Woolgar's bit role in BBC's production of He Knew He Was Right and I'm currently being very impressed with Woolgar's reading of the audiobook version of Atkinson's Life After Life.

The remaining characters are mostly well cast, although I can't help but be befuddled by the choice for Theo Wyre. He's a fine enough actor for getting the characterization of a kind but obsessively grieving father across, but the book makes such a fuss of repeatedly noting how obese he is - to the point of his doctor and his daughter worrying over his health, of his having his groceries delivered to his home because he doesn't want others to judge his food choices; of his being winded after walking up a flight of stairs; of his constantly being concerned about others' perception of him because of his weight. Philip Davis as Theo barely has a "spare tire" physique, yet alone a largeness that's going to turn heads in astonishment. I don't know why that small detail bugged me so much, but it did. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see that casting had managed to add in a few minority characters so that the show would be a little diverse. (It could still use more, but I guess there's only so much you can do with the source material... )

As I mentioned earlier, the events of the novels are greatly truncated and fused, resulting in a faster pacing, fewer tangents, and more of Brodie tying up loose ends all on his own genius (rather than the sometimes happenstance way that the readers find out the conclusion of a mystery in the books). The show seems sometimes to take a more light-hearted approach to the grimness of Brodie's world, with elements like the more flirty banter between Jackson and Louise and the oddly upbeat musical interludes that often scatter throughout scenes (when of course we're not being "treated" to Brodie's favorite country Western songs). Again, this is one of the issues that arises with converting a book to the screen - the book found its humor in little funny random thoughts in characters' minds or in Atkinson's literary references, neither of which really can find their way into a television script.

All in all, this TV series is a solid attempt at translating the text into film. While there's nothing particularly spectacular about it, I also don't think there's much to offend fans of those books in the changes that were made. And for those who don't have the time or inclination to tackle the book series, this is a perfectly adequate substitution for some entertainment with considerably less gore than many other crime dramas and with interesting characters and plotlines. On that note, despite knowing how the mysteries resolved in the book, there was still a bit of suspense in how they would be solved or end in the TV series, given the revisions. Although this show isn't an instant favorite of mine by any stretch, it's appealing enough that I'll probably try to track down Season 2 once I finish reading the fourth book.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Morven Museum's Schoolgirl Needlework Exhibit

Today I joined the Central New Jersey region of the Jane Austen Society of North America to tour the "Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860" temporary exhibit at the Morven Museum in Princeton, NJ. Luckily one of the region's members read The New York Times review of the exhibit and suggested we visit or I would have completely missed out on this gem. To be entirely truthful, I wasn't sure exactly how much interest this exhibit would hold for me, but happily I ended up absolutely loving it. The exhibit displays embroideries in silk and wool that were completed by young, relatively wealthy girls as part of their formal education during the 18th and 19th centuries. All of the pieces reflect the work of girls from New Jersey, although in some cases the girls were sent to nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware to be taught at a prestigious girls' schools. These needlework samplers were generally meant to be displays of how privileged and talented these girls were.
“It is amazing to me, how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. ... They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses.” - Charles Bingley in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. 
As we had a relatively large group and made plans some time in advance, we were able to secure a special PowerPoint presentation by two of the exhibit's co-curators as well as a semi-guided tour of the exhibit with them. The presentation helped a great deal in putting the exhibit into context. The co-curators described how there were regional differences evident in the needlework. Some counties had heavy influences from their Quaker founders, for instance. They also noted how even though there were distinct variations that could be largely attributed to one area or county, there was definitely cross-over as teachers moved from one school to another and brought their knowledge to a new set of schoolgirls. Another neat fact I learned from the presentation that I might not have gleaned readily from the exhibit was that not only did the exhibit cover more than 100 years of works, it also reflected needlework pieces from girls as young as 5 and as old as 29. Seeing the impressive needlework of 5- and 7-year-old girls was kind of mind blowing!

The needlework pieces themselves are astounding. Some show their wear while others have stood the test of time pretty well, still showing off bright colors and clearly legible text. Designs vary but are often of a similar nature: animals (particularly birds and deer), simple buildings, landscapes with a person or two, and alphabets and verses abound. Some pieces were used as a way to delineated a family tree/family historical record. Other more complicated works presented maps of the state or country. One sample contains the poem whose first line inspired the exhibit's title:
“Hail specimen of female art / The needle’s magic power to show / To canvas various hues impart / And make a mimic world to grow / A sampler then with care peruse / An emblem sage you may find there / The canvas takes what forms you choose / So education forms the mind.” - Anne Rickey
A few of the exhibit pieces also mixed media by having the needlework sent out for painting by an artist. Usually this done with silk-embroidered pieces rather than wool. After the schoolgirl completed her embroidering of the piece, then a painter would add in details or a landscape background to complete the piece. Finally, the piece would be framed, which was unusual for many of these samplers. The effect was stunning, and one of my favorite pieces in the whole exhibit was one of these samplers.

The talent and patience that went in to stitching these elaborate pieces are clearly evident. One thing I really appreciated about this exhibit is how it's elevated to the level of art something that was essentially homework and hung up only in the way that a proud parent posts an A-plus paper on the family fridge in our time. Nowadays, needlework is generally considered more in the line of a hobby than anything else. Viewing these works reminded me of all the embroideries my grandmother so lovingly made as something 'to keep her hands busy' when she had some down time, so this exhibit gave me a happy feeling of nostalgia as well as history lesson. At any rate, these pieces were certainly not items that were planned to be part of a museum exhibit originally! While museums by and large highlight the history of men (for better or worse), this exhibit gives a voice (metaphorically speaking) to a population that is traditionally in the background of history.

A companion catalog book available at the museum's gift shop provides more details about the exhibit and its historical background for those interested in learning even more. As it is, the exhibit's plaques contain more information than I could completely absorb in one relatively short visit, so this is a gallery worth re-visiting.

Speaking of re-visiting, I'd love to return to the Morven again some other time to spend additional time with the permanent collection and participate in one of their usual hourly guided tours to learn more about the history of the place. I did learn in my brief walkthrough on my own that the museum was originally a mansion whose celebrated residents include the president of the Continental Congress from 1782-1783. The building later became the state Governor's Mansion and was home to five governors. It is now a National Historic Landmark. And to think that I've driven past this place numerous, numerous times before and never once even gave it a second glance.

Another trip to the Morven Museum is definitely in my future and I hope in yours as well. The "Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860" is only on display for roughly another month, closing on March 29, so don't delay in checking it out!