Monday, October 31, 2011

Just Singing in the Rain: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Just in time for a snow storm in October, I picked up a copy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, another French film evoking rain in the title.

It’s 1957 in France, and 17-year-old Genevieve, who works in her mother’s boutique shop “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” falls in love with 20-year-old Guy, who works in a garage across the street. But Genevieve’s mother doesn’t want to see her married that young and Guy is drafted into his two years of military service. How will their love story end?

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is not a musical in the traditional sense where some is spoken with the occasional breaking out into song. Instead, every single word is sung. But it’s not an opera where everything is told in song because these aren’t really songs - they’re just regular dialogue that’s sung instead of spoken, which makes for some awkward lines like “a demain” or “merde” that is sung alone. I kept thinking while watching the movie how difficult it must have been for the actors to figure out how they would effectively sing one- or two-word lines without sounding ridiculous - or without sounding like they were simply speaking. But more so, I feel like something important is lost by having every single word sung like that. Typically, musicals, while yes being ridiculous and unrealistic (not a real criticism coming from me because I like them in part for this reason), use songs to convey that something that just happened and evokes some strong feelings - whether it’s excitement, anger, love, or what have you. But when you sing “see you tomorrow” in a scene of typical everyday events and then sing “I will wait for you” when tearfully departing from your lover, somehow the emotional impact of this second “song” is negated, or at least lessened. However, I will say that the instrumental music in the movie is absolutely beautiful, despite the lack of what I’d actually call song lyrics.

As for the story itself, it’s so predictable - not just the end outcome but every step along the way is easily and accurately guessed within the first half hour, if not sooner. The cinematography is beautiful, with some interesting shots, bright colors, and occasional scenic view, but that’s not enough to hold an entire movie. I’m missing how this movie received so much praise - “An instance classic” (New York Magazine); “An unmitigated triumph! A unique masterpiece! Inescapably addicting!” (New York Post); or “... A beam of movie heaven!” (Rolling Stone) - as I didn’t think it was that good. It was also listed in Steven Jay Schneider's book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I think I could have lived without seeing it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In the Mood for Love: Giving Romance a Shot

To preface this post, I’m going to point out that I’m rarely a fan of the romance genre in any medium – books, movies, what-have-you. That being said, I was still drawn to watch the 2007 movie Angel starring Romola Garai. Perhaps it was because I’ve liked Ms. Garai in past movies or because the period piece tends to pull me in, but I ignored my impulse against the romance. Although, after viewing the movie, I’m not entirely sure that “romance” is the greatest descriptor for this film, given that it in no way follows the formulaic romantic plot. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I should start with a brief description of the movie.

Schoolgirl Angel Deverell has her teacher, mother, and aunt concerned as she always has her head in the clouds, writing up fantastical melodramas. By a stroke of luck, without any study or research, she writes a novel that is picked up by a major London publisher. She becomes a smash hit and writes novel after melodramatic novel, raking in tons of money while she’s at, allowing her to move from living above her mother’s grocery store to Paradise House, the mansion of her dreams. She also wins the admiration of poet Nora, who becomes her personal secretary and biggest admirer. But Angel has no interest in the passionate love of Nora, instead pursuing Nora’s brother Esme – a cheater, gambler, alcoholic, failed artist, and all-around louse. (Yeah, she can really pick a winner.) In hardly any time, Angel convinces Esme to marry her, and it seems as though her dreams are complete. But is life in Paradise all she dreamed after all?

I honestly don’t know where to start to review or critique this movie. I’m still a bit puzzled as to whether I was to take it seriously or view it as a parody of bad melodramatic romances. Some of the dialogue was so stilted and poor that it came across badly even in the hands of decent actors who I’ve admired in the past. There were several scenes where characters were meant to be riding about town or visiting other countries where the background shots were clearly green-screened in. By clearly, I mean obviously so, in the style of 1940 and 1950 movies when they didn’t have the technology to do better. While I generally watch movies more for plot and characters than effects, a movie should at least attempt to transport me away into its reality without making obvious gaffes that remind me that this is just a movie. So again, I’m left wondering is this something intentional to poke fun at the movie’s melodramatic story? Yet no clear answer emerges. And, in terms of plot and characters, I found little to be appealing. The plot is kind of rambling at times (although some things do eventually end up coming full circle) and, as I mentioned above, Esme is a textbook cad while Angel isn’t really a character you can wholeheartedly root for – she’s shallow and completely self-absorbed. The only saving grace for this film was the lush costumes and interiors of the period piece. But with so many other period pieces out there that are so much better done, this isn’t one I would recommend.

Luckily, romances got a reprieve this weekend with 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, a delightful romance comic that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pan Am: A Trip Down Nostalgia Lane

As I noted in my last post, I'm trying really hard this year to enjoy fall for what it is, but today's gray and rainy day isn't helping much. Neither is trying to nurse away a bug that's been going around my family, but at least I've managed to keep awake more today than yesterday and as a result, I've been watching a bit of TV. One of the pluses I gave to fall in my last post was the return of old favorite TV shows and the beginning of new ones. Once again, I defer to my friend for a more inclusive run-down of the fall line-up, while I've checked out only two new shows - CBS's Unforgettable and now ABC's Pan Am.

At age 22, Laura realizes she doesn’t want to give up on her chance for adventure by getting married, so she runs out on her wedding day and decides to become a Pan Am stewardess like her sister Kate. Meanwhile, Kate is using her travel through Pan Am as a cover for couriering packages and messages for the CIA. Maggie, who has aspirations to change the world, bridles at the downsides of being a stewardess, such as wearing a girdle, the check-in before each flight to ensure stewardesses meet the ideal weight, and male passengers becoming too handy after drinking on the plane. Collette, a French woman orphaned by the Nazis, finds out that the passenger she was having a dalliance with is married and has a son, after which she becomes flirtatiously involved with their captain, Dean. Dean meanwhile is reeling from being abandoned by his girlfriend Bridget, a former stewardess and, unbeknown to him, Kate’s predecessor as spy. Rounding out the cast is Ted as the roguish co-pilot and Sanjeev as the navigator. (This may be a bit surprising to anyone who's seen the show, but I like the character of Ted. He’s basically a jerk, which makes me not like him, but he also shows glimmers of redemption here and there, which makes me think that he has the most room to grow as a character. However, I do not like that the third episode was starting to show a spark between him and Laura. She’s just emphatically said NO to settling down and getting married, and she shouldn’t be swept up into a new relationship with a guy who has plenty of issues of his own.)

Originally, I was on the fence about checking out Pan Am, but now that I've seen the first three episodes, I have to admit I’m surprisingly pleased with the show thus far. Yes, it is clearly banking on the popularity of Mad Men with the era but the creators didn't just set a show in the 1960s and think that was enough to gain an audience. It's not a silly piece of fluff about a by-gone era's style, although it is fun to see the differences from then and now, including hair styles, fashion choices, and
the cost of items, and there's that extra touch with the use of period music, such as "Mack the Knife." There's also lovely scenery and ambiance as the crew flies to and stays a while in a different city each week - so far visiting London, Paris, and Berlin. And, ah, doesn’t it make air travel look so nice? Everyone on the plane has room to spread out and have a good time, and in none of the scenes in the airport do we see anyone having to take off their shoes or be patted down like a criminal in order to travel from point A to point B.

But as I said earlier, the show is not just a love song to a past era. It also has good writing, characters, and plots, and it addresses deep issues, such as family relations, the past, spying, wars, politics, etc. So far there has been a lot of flashbacks so that we see what brought the characters to where they are now, and I for one love a good back story to my characters so I appreciate this added depth. The show's also filmed in a cinematic way, feeling more like a polished movie than the sort of rushed jobs that some TV shows get.

There's one scene in particular that illustrates this cinematic feeling and that is very poignant. As a bit of background, the beginning of the pilot had showed some images of people in the airport, including a little boy looking out the window in awe at the airplanes and then getting a nod from the pilot Dean. That same episode then ended with a little girl looking out the window in awe as the four main stewardesses board the plane with style and grace, and Laura turns back and gives her a encouraging look, similar to the pilot’s in the earlier scene. It felt like a nod to a future of even more barrier breaking for women and their career choices, where they could too could have the world, but without the limitations the stewardesses have (must be pretty, young, thin, and unmarried). In an
interview, feminist icon Gloria Steinem asked about the disastrously bad idea and already canceled show The Playboy Club, “Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward?” With Pan Am, it seems to be a little of both, but in this particular moment of the little girl looking out of the window in wonder at the stewardesses, the scales tip a little more towards the latter.

With any new show, there’s some gaffes in back stories and/or characterizations as the show finds its footing. In Pan Am's pilot I found that the actors playing Kate and Laura looked so much like sisters that it was hard to tell them apart. I probably wasn’t the only one to think so, as in the following episode Laura is suddenly a blonde. (Or perhaps it wasn't confusion between the characters, but the creators suddenly realizing there wasn’t an obligatory blonde on the show?) It would be one thing if it was explained that she colored her hair or the change was not acknowledged at all, but the show takes it a step further by pretending she was always a blonde. In fact there are three separate slips to indicate this is so: 1) Laura shows a childhood drawing to Kate of the two of them with one red-headed girl and one blonde girl, 2) someone at the airport specifically says “red-headed Miss Cameron” to distinguish that a phone call came in for Kate, and most egregious of all, 3) in a flashback scene to her wedding day, Laura has blonde hair even though in the pilot, the flashback scene of her wedding has her with red hair. I don’t know why this irked me so much but it did. It was probably a good idea going forwarded to change her hair color (although to be honest, she looked better with red hair) to avoid confusion, but to pretend like this was always the case when anyone with an internet connection can go back and see that she was a redhead in the pilot, it seems almost insulting to the viewers as though they would not pick up on the obvious change.

That’s a little thing though. The major downside with Pan Am is that there is little room for diversity in the show. Given the time period and the corporate setting, there will be little to no chance of bringing in non-Caucasian characters without specifically having to make race a topic. There is Sanjeev, but he's given very little screen time and honestly, given the time period and the setting, it seems odd to find him there. This is an unfortunate downside to any period piece.

Overall though, so far I'm intrigued and impressed, and I'll keep tuning in for at least a few more weeks to see where it goes.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Unforgettable: Somewhat Forgettable?

Fall is really a lovely time of year with its crisp autumnal weather and postcard beautiful scenery of leaves changing colors. But I have a hard time liking it because all it signals to me is the end of my beloved summer and the impending doom of another winter. (That may be a bit hyperbolic language for winter, but I really, really hate winter. If it were just cold, that would be bad enough. But it’s cold and pitch dark early every day – a horrible combination that makes me want to curl up in a ball and hibernate until spring comes along finally.) This year, I’m really trying hard to think of all the good things fall itself entails – it’s not cold yet but the cooler weather means that the cat curls up in my bed to stay warmer again, it’s no longer absurd to cook and use the oven without overheating the whole house, and it’s a great time to break out recipes for soups. There’s pumpkin carving to look forward to and my fridge is already stocked with limited edition pumpkin spice cream cheese and a creamy pumpkin pie. (Apparently, pumpkin might be the thing that tips the scales in fall’s favor.) And as my friend over on her TV blog points out, fall is the time for old favorite shows to return and new ones to emerge that might soon become favorites as well. Mostly, my interest lies in the former but there has been one new show I’ve been checking out – CBS’s drama Unforgettable.

Unforgettable is the story of Carrie Wells, an on-again-off-again police detective who has the ability to remember every moment of every day, except for the crucial day of her childhood when her sister was murdered. The premise of the show is an interesting one, but to date I’ve only felt so-so about the show. I’ve watched every episode that’s aired so far and I’ll more than likely tune in again for a few more weeks, but I’m just not sure that this is going to becoming a new favorite I’d watch from season to season.

On the plus side, I went in to the show thinking that I liked Poppy Montgomery in the past and I found that still to be true. Poppy Montgomery steals the show and literally stands out on the screen as the brightest thing in any given scene. I really like the character of Carrie -- from her interactions with her mother who can’t remember (which is an interesting foil to Carrie’s inability to ever forget) to her empathy for victims and suspects to her community service. Most especially, I’m interested in the back story of her sister’s murder and this is one thing that really pulls me back to the show each week. Al is an interesting character as well and they have a good rhythm with each other. You can already feel that there’s potential for the two of them to become deeper involved with each other as the show progresses.

In addition, the scenes of Carrie walking around in her memories to re-examine clues she might have missed the first time are pretty cool. It also makes her in line with detectives like Sherlock Holmes and his modern-day counterparts, Adrian Monk (Monk) and Shawn Spencer (Psych), in that it is the little things that she remembers that pull the case together. However, the cases themselves have not been anything particularly noteworthy. They’ve been interesting enough while viewing but not necessarily memorable (so they’re not so unforgettable, ha ha).

On the final plus side, I like that the opening of the show has taken a page from the introduction to Burn Notice by having a little spoken part about Carrie and how she remembers everything instead of a theme song, but I also like that there is an itty bitty theme song that shows up later when just the title of the show is flashed. Best of both worlds for a show’s opening.

Now to the down sides. There have been some bumps and gaffes along the way as the show stumbles for its footing. For instance, in the first episode, Carrie says she doesn’t want to become a cop again but in the second episode, she is back in the field again with nothing said about how she got there or what that process was like. Likewise, the first episode alludes to a past relationship between Carrie and Al and they appear to have chemistry again; however, in the second episode, all of a sudden Al has a girlfriend who is very confrontational with Carrie. Also, the show has yet to explain why Carrie can’t forget, at least not that I can recall. I certainly remember that the promos leading up to the show have a quote from Al explaining that it’s some sort of medical condition that she causes her to remember everything, but I haven’t seen that scene on the show itself.

But most damning of all for the show’s success (or lack thereof) is that the other members of Carrie and Al’s team don’t really stand out, so much so that I don’t even know all their names. That’s a major problem because when it comes right down to it Unforgettable is just another cop show and there’s so many of them out there already that a good cast of characters is needed to keep a new one afloat. I think the show has potential, but right now it needs a little more oomph.

Update: After viewing the fourth episode, it seems as though the show's writers are working on remedying this major problem of an uninteresting supporting cast. The other members of the team were given a bit more air time and we even got a bit of a back story for one. I didn't realize until the end of the episode that there wasn't a single mention of Carrie's murdered sister and that unsolved crime, yet I was still very much interested in the show. So there's potential for this one yet.

Machinal: Life, Love, & Murder in the Era of Machines

As an undergraduate, I took three English courses specifically studying and analyzing literary works meant for the stage (well, technically five courses if you include those two semesters of Shakespeare but for the purposes of this post, we won’t count those!). Those three courses covered American writers, women writers, and 20th century writers. Only one playwright that we studied fit in all three categories. That playwright was Sophie Treadwell, and her play Machinal was required reading in all three courses. And while any normal college student (and myself under different circumstances) would have read Machinal once and then go on memory for the other two courses, I know I read the play at least twice, maybe even all three times. That’s how much I loved this play. I even went on to write my mid-term essay for one of those classes on Machinal.

In all my readings of the play, I kept trying to imagine how this wonderful work would be if presented as it was meant to be - not simply read off the page but seen and heard with a full cast, scenery, and most importantly, the right sound effects. I had never thought I would see it live, being as it is a relatively obscure play. And while it was revived briefly in the 1990s, it hasn’t seen the light of day much since its first premiere on Broadway in 1928.

So you could imagine my excitement when an otherwise ordinary brochure listing the upcoming productions of the Rutgers student theater had Machinal on the list. I tried to order tickets before they even went on sale. Yeah, that’s how excited I was.

Publicity still for Rutgers' Mason Gross performance of Machinal

After tickets actually went on sale and I procured a pair for my mother and I, I filled the time in between the ordering and the actual play-going by searching through my pile of old schoolwork (because I never throw anything out) to find my worn photocopied version of the play. I eventually found it (complete with handwritten notes in the margin taken down over three separate lectures on the play) and re-read it in one sitting a few days before going to see the play.

Having just read the play then, I can assure you that the Rutgers’s production was true to the play to the word, excepting one point that diverges from the written script – the Rutgers’s production included a bit more to the ending to make it even more chilling. 

I will admit that before going into the play I had some fears as to how the students would present it. I’ve been to my fair share of modernized Shakespeare plays to know that sometimes productions take bizarre twists on older plays. But as soon as I walked into the theater, I heard some jaunty period music and saw a couple of displays of the research that went into the costumes and props for the play. There was undoubtedly a fair amount of research done on the actors’ parts as well, as they got down the accent, rhythm, and pace of fast-talking 1930s movie characters when the moment called for it.

Another thing that let me know right away that this production would be exactly what I was hoping for was the set. The theater where Machinal is being played is relatively small and doesn’t have an actual stage, just a clear floor area. Throughout the play, the cast would wheel on the necessary props to the floor, including desks, a bed, tables and chairs, etc. But that wasn’t what I first saw. Instead, the audience is immediately faced with a back wall made up of a chain-link door/window combo with a silhouetted skyline across it --behind which is a massive cog and wheel display. During scene changes these would turn and whir accompanied by an ominous and menacing soundtrack. It could be actually frightening at times and was an awesome addition to the play’s ambiance. 

Speaking of the play’s ambiance, this play calls for lots of ambient noise – from typewriters clanging in an office to children playing outside. As Treadwell herself explains in the stage directions at the beginning of the play, “The hope is to create a stage production that will have ‘style’ … In the dialogue of these scenes there is the attempt to catch the rhythm of our common city speech, its brassy sound, its trick of repetition, etc. Then there is, also, the use of many different sounds chosen primarily for their inherent emotional effect (steel riveting, a priest chanting, a Negro singing, jazz band, etc.), but contributing also to the creation of a background, an atmosphere.” I think the Rutgers’s production could have let the background noises extend for a little longer in some scenes, but overall I was impressed by the way they included in all the sound effects, which did indeed have an emotional effect. Finally seeing this play in person solidified my love of Treadwell’s expressionistic play with its interest in the world outside of just the play’s dialogue. 

But the dialogue itself was also gripping. When reading the play to one’s self, there’s a tendency to just read the words all in one go without pause or stop, so right there was another benefit of seeing Machinal acted live. The actors breathed life into the words by using emphasis, inflection, a wink and a nudge, and all the other little things that give added meaning to speech. This was particularly useful in the protagonist Helen’s soliloquies, full of her short, rushed speech with hardly a coherent sentence within a long paragraph. The actor portraying her perfectly gave the audience the empathy her character cries out for, as who doesn’t feel for the protagonist and her desire to just rest? Or at least sometimes share her feeling of being just another cog in a wheel? Of course, she’s a little insane too but that’s another story…and one that the actor also captured.

Indeed, all of the actors did phenomenal jobs, especially given that all were playing multiple roles. And while having the same actor play more than one role might have the potential for confusion, this was well done on the whole to avoid that. (There was one scene where it was perhaps a bit unclear that the one actor was now playing a different role, but hopefully the audience who hadn’t already read the play numerous times could re-adjust and figure out that he was now in a new role.)

Overall, this play was so good that I would honestly consider seeing it again before the production closes on Saturday. And I’m definitely recommending that anyone in the area run, not walk, to go see it before it’s over.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Year (and then some) of Jane Austen

It’s been slightly more than a year since a friend and I joined the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Since then, I’ve been re-working my way through the Austen canon and have re-read Emma, Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park. (Regrettably, Northanger Abbey is the only one I couldn’t find as an audio book, so I haven’t re-read that one yet. However, as that was the only one I had already read twice, I feel like I know it well enough to wait longer for another re-read.) In that time, I’ve also picked up Kipling’s short story “The Janeites,” the Lady Susan re-imagining Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, and the Sense and Sensibility modern adaptation The Three Weissmans of Westport. Through the JASNA group, I’ve not only been able to discuss these books with like-minded readers, but I’ve also visited the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, been to a Lady Susan reading at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, seen a youth theater version of Pride and Prejudice, played a Pride and Prejudice trivia game, and met the authors of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter as well as the author of The Darcys of Pemberley, which I just bought a copy of so I haven’t read yet.

Also, with all the re-reading of Jane Austen’s novels I’ve done, I’ve also re-watched (or watched for the first time) some of the various film adaptations of these novels. (I’ve also re-watched The Jane Austen Book Club, which is not strictly an adaptation but among the many things I like about this movie is how certain situations in the lives of its characters mirror plot lines from Austen’s works.) Here are my thoughts on those movie viewing experiences:

- Sense and Sensibility (2008): To start off, I wasn’t sure I would like this version. I’m pretty partial to the 1995 Ang Lee version, even if the ages are completely off and it has to cut a lot out to condense to a manageable film length, as it captures the characters and spirit of the book so well. But I ended up loving this one as well. It is true to the book, the characters are well scripted and acted (and the actor who plays Marianne actually looks a bit like a young Kate Winslet if anyone is particularly attached to Kate Winslet as Marianne), and the scenes of the English countryside are absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. It’s so well done as a whole, that you can forgive that the movie tries to sex things up a bit with the racier scenes of Willoughby (technically all stuff in the book anyway, it’s just all “off screen,” if you would, in the book).

- Persuasion (2008): I did not like this version that much the first time I saw it, but I thought perhaps that had to do with the long gap between when I read the book and when I saw the movie. Re-reading and re-viewing much closer together this time, I realize why I’m not thrilled by this movie. I realize that it is difficult to condense a novel into a movie rather than a miniseries, but it just varies too much from the actual book. I never warmed up to Captain Wentworth and felt as though the actor took a page from Colin Firth’s book and made Wentworth as standoffish as Darcy was. But that’s not Wentworth and it didn’t endear him to me. Furthermore, there was no chemistry between Wentworth and Anne, and that’s vital to a story about two people still in love with each other after all these years. Anne, being so introverted and moral, is a hard character to play but I think Sally Hawkins does okay with the role. I do absolutely love the actor playing Mary, as she is spot on.

There are several scenes that just drive me crazy in this movie. Earlier on there is a scene where Anne falls down and Wentworth has to pick her up. This is absolutely maddening to me – she’s not Marianne meeting Willougbhy! This scene replaces one in the book where Anne’s rambunctious nephew is not listening to her and Wentworth comes and picks him up to stop bothering Anne. It is a vitally different portrayal of her character – it shows her as a caring aunt; the movie replaces this vision with Anne as a clumsy walker. Not the same thing at all. As many others who have seen this movie agree, I can’t stand the scene of Anne running all around Bath; it is just absurdly out of place in this film. Also, conveniently Mrs. Smith the invalid can run up to Anne on the street and warn her that Mr. Eliot plans to marry her but keep a mistress. This is less a point of contention because I get that sometimes the transgressions of the Regency era need to be amped up for contemporary viewers to understand the enormity of the error, but it’s worth noting that this is not why Mr. Eliot is a cad in the book, and although he does eventually take a mistress, this is after Anne has already made it clear that she will not marry him.

On the plus side, like with the 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility, there are some beautiful visuals in the movie – especially of the scenery of Lyme and Bath.

- From Prada to Nada: In this contemporary re-telling of Sense and Sensibility, sisters Nora and Mary learn on their father’s death that he was bankrupt, and they are forced to move from their beautiful mansion into their aunt’s crowded home in East LA, where they learn to love, work, and get in touch with their Mexican roots.

While not everything transfers so well to the modern day, this movie (along with Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice) highlights the almost fairytale like nature of Jane Austen’s work – her stories have become a part of the culture and influence the consciousness of further storytelling. It is funny though to see what works and what doesn’t work over the years – Edward’s secret engagement subplot doesn’t transfer so well but the cheating Willoughy (here Rodrigo) subplot does! A hard one for me to fully embrace was how Brandon transformed into Bruno who, while yes doing nice things for Mary, also had a flirtation style with her that was mainly made up of exchanging insults.

Also hard for me to like was the character of Nora, surprisingly. Perhaps it’s because I like Elinor so much that I’m more critical of who plays her but the actor playing Nora seemed to be, well, acting. It was as though she were reading her lines instead of actually getting into the soul of the character. In addition, and this was more a fault of the writers than the actor, Nora was constantly doing things that seemed out of character for Elinor, such as needlessly hitting into her sister’s car in the driveway and brushing if off, refusing a needed job because Edward already ‘helped too much,’ getting drunk on tequila at a family party, kissing her boss, and getting upset about Edward’s engagement in front of the whole household. However, there was great chemistry between Nora and Edward and, at least in the beginning, his character is portrayed as a great guy who shows up with a U-Haul full of the girls’ things from their old house and taking on a pro bono case to please Nora. I liked this because I’ve never really understood from the text of Sense and Sensibility why Elinor love Edward so much early onwhen we really don’t get a great idea of his character.

In my opinion, though, the driving point of Sense and Sensibility isn’t Elinor and Edward (or even Marianne and Brandon) but the story of the two sisters. (Remember that the title refers to the characteristics of the two girls; perhaps it is more obviously their story under the original working title, Elinor and Marianne). With that in mind, a really poignant scene in From Prada to Nada was when Nora and Mary just moved into their aunt’s house and they are reduced to sharing not just a room but a bed. In a wordless scene, their different personalities are clearly depicted as Nora wakes up in the early morning and then tucks in a still-sleeping Mary. What a beautiful use of the visual nature of film to cinematically capture the characters and their relationship to each other.

For the more minor characters, I was glad to see the John Dashwood character (Gabe Jr. here) was redeemable in the end. His wife, Olivia, was possibly far worse (depending on how you view it) than Fanny Dashwood in that she would insult Nora and Mary directly to their faces. My only qualm with her was that she was basically the only Caucasian character in the whole movie (excepting her brother Edward and the barely-present Lucy Steele character) and she was the villain. Undoubtedly, there’s been ample evidence of Caucasian books and films ignoring or demonizing characters of other races, but in the modern day with a movie set in contemporary time, you’d hope for something more diverse and not so blatantly pointing to the “other” as the bad guy.

- Mansfield Park (2008): Taking Austen’s longest book and condensing it into an hour and a half movie is a feat that requires reducing characters (poor Mr. Yates is gone altogether) and events (much is collapsed or completely brushed over, such as the trip to Sotherton), and I understand that given time constraints (and viewer’s attention spans). However, I don’t understand why some things were flat out changed - i.e, leaving Fanny behind at Mansfield rather than sending her to Portsmouth or Fanny coming out at a picnic rather than a ball. Also, some characterizations were so reduced as to be meaningless (Mrs. Norris is hardly given lines so that you get no feel for how horrible she is) or are conflicted (Lady Bertram is more sly and clever than she should be and even Fanny spends a bit too much time running about free-spiritedly to feel like the reserved Miss Price of the novel). Overall though, it’s a fairly good “reader’s digest” version that doesn’t take too many liberties and would hopefully compel viewers to become readers.

(Short aside: In the old technology days of VHS, it was possibly to tape something off of television. My copy of Mansfield Park is one such tape and as we in my family are obsessive about giving ample time for programs to run over and thus occasionally end up taping something else in addition to the intended program, I found this tape also contained a half-hour long program narrated by Kevin Kline called Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, which was insightful and informative. And while I still can’t quite put my finger on the exact quality, Rousseau’s paintings reminded me of the Serena Perrone woodcuts I saw in Philadelphia by being both fanciful and na├»ve (the apparently preferred word choice to describe Rousseau’s works). To paraphrase one description of Rosseau’s work, it is both old and very modern – which I think aptly fits Perrone’s woodcuts as well.)

- Mansfield Park (1999) – On a second viewing of this movie, I recall the many reasons why I hate this version. For starters, the creators decide to present Fanny Price as an abolitionist feminist writer. They confuse Jane Austen herself with Fanny and take words from Austen’s letters and early stories and attribute them to Fanny. Not only is this confusing creator with creation, but it is a grossly bad example of it. Of all Austen’s characters, Fanny seems the least likely to be drawn from herself. I think poor Fanny Price is so unloved by many (For instance, this person, who cracks me up with his commentary but really has it out for Fanny. I can’t help but wonder what Fanny ever did to him! Sometime I feel like Sylvia from The Jane Austen Book Club, who defensively stands up for Fanny.) compared to other Austen heroines that screenwriters feel the need to mess with her character, but this version is particularly egregious. For instance, could anyone really imagine Fanny crying in Henry Crawford’s arms because she reads a letter from Edmund saying he cannot imagine any woman other than Mary Crawford as his wife? And I hate that Fanny does say yes to Henry Crawford’s proposals at one point, changing a core part of her character – her unflappable integrity.

This movie is also more explicit and sensual than other adaptations, and it particularly bothers me that Mary Crawford cannot keep her hands off of Fanny. One scene in particular (not present in the book in any way) involves Mary Crawford undressing Fanny after she was caught unawares in a deluge of rainfall and is clearly meant only to titillate as it adds absolutely nothing to the plot or characterizations.

Here and there were a few well done scenes or funny moments but on the whole these didn’t help to redeem the movie. I recall now why I watched this movie once after finishing the book and then never again. The only truly good thing was that Jonny Lee Miller (here playing Edmund) is quite nice to look at, but I could watch the Masterpiece version of Emma for him as my favorite hero Knightley and get a much better adaptation of a Jane Austen novel while I’m at it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Somewhat Sunny in Philadelphia

Last Sunday a friend and I trekked down to meet up with another friend and acquaintances in Philadelphia. While it may always be sunny in Philadelphia in the TV world, it was an overcast day with a 60 percent chance of rain forecast so we decided to stay indoors rather than hoofing around the city.

We began the day by taking a trip over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a building of such grand architecture as to make its exterior an art exhibit in itself. The museum's current big hit exhibit is titled "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus." As you can imagine from the title, this exhibit features the many, many portraits of Jesus painted by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. This exhibit was popular with our little group and based on the huge lines, many others who were at the museum. But I have to confess, it held no appeal for me. For starters, while I can appreciate Rembrandt's work considering the time in which it came, I am but very rarely a fan of dark and shadowy works in any medium. Furthermore, after years of visiting art museums, I've seen more than my fair share of paintings based on biblical stories, which let's admit it, is a limited palate when you consider the hundreds of artists over hundreds of years painting these scenes. To further limit that to only portraits of Jesus himself, you can imagine that this exhibit was rife with redundancy. I'm sure for major fans of Rembrandt, portraits, or religious iconography, this was a great exhibit. But for me, it was enough to breeze by quickly and then say, what next?

So while the rest of our group meandered and spent a while in this exhibit, I moved on to what was a far more interesting exhibit for my tastes, "Here and Now: Prints, Drawings and Photographs by Ten Philadelphia Artists." This seemed like a particularly fitting exhibit for me to see while visiting Philadelphia as I'd be unlikely to see it anywhere else. As you can probably gather from the name, there was no particular theme tying together the works of this exhibit, but rather the locality of the artists. But while there was no overarching theme in the works, I would say that a combining element, beyond just the city where the artists work, was a feeling of weightiness to the art. The artists all tackled serious issues, such as the feelings of being an outsider due to a multiracial background. That isn't too say that these subjects were all treated with a doom-and-gloom attitude. Some of the works did have an ironic or downright funny effect despite - or perhaps because of - their serious nature. While I enjoyed nearly all the works on display, two artists and their art particularly stood out. Daniel Heyman was on hand for interviews with Abu Ghraib detainees and displayed their portraits and their stories together. These were heart-breaking to read, yet very necessary works to have to remind us of atrocities around the world. Serena Perrone's woodcuts were haunting, even surreal at times. In particular, I liked her works "Phantom Vessels and the Bastion of Memory V,""A Day in November: Impending Loss," and "In the Realm of Reverie." There is some quality about these works that I can't quite put a finger on that somehow allows them to be both childlike and innocent yet have an undercurrent of dread lurking just beneath the surface. Of course, I love woodcuts (so much so that one of my favorite books is Lynd Ward's Gods' Man, a wordless novel entirely made up of woodcuts) so you'd be hard-pressed to find an exhibit featuring woodcuts that I wouldn't like.

I then wandered up to the section of the museum dedicated to European art from 1500 to 1850. What I really enjoyed here was the broad view of the term art. Yes, there were paintings and other traditional art works, but there were also porcelains, furniture, and other everyday items. It was fun to stumble upon such objects as a baby's cradle and be able to compare something hundreds of years old to what we use today. There was even a fully furnished 17th century Dutch room, which is pretty cool to view. I barely scratched the surface of this permanent exhibit when the rest of our group was finished with the Rembrandt exhibit and we all decided to trek over to the museum's auxiliary Perelman Building.

Across the street at the Perelman Building, we took in another current exhibit, "Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion." The exhibit featured the sleek designs for furniture, a car, and even shoes by architect Zaha Hadid. As a woman in a predominantly male field who has done particularly well, Zaha Hadid seems like an interesting person and I would have liked to learn even more about her as a part of the exhibit. Indeed, the only thing we all agreed we did not like about the exhibit was that there was not more of it. It was rather small and featured only a limited number of works. However, given the amount of work that went into this exhibit (Hadid also re-designed the exhibit space to create flows and contours to complement the works featured), I understand why that would be.

By this time, the museum was closing but it was still a little early for dinner. To kill some time, we went back to my friend's apartment and were flipping channels until we landed on the reality TV series, "Sister Wives," which ended up being fuel for the fire of us discussing various things. All I'm going to say here is that the show itself was like a train wreck - you know you shouldn't keep watching but you can't peel your eyes away.

After dinner, with storm clouds still threatening, we again returned to watching the tube, but this time selected a movie. I was actually the decider in choosing Sunshine Cleaning, which no one else in the group had seen yet and I didn't mind re-watching myself. I'm always a little bit nervous about zealously suggesting something for fear it won't live up to everyone else's then-heightened expectations or that my quirky brand of humor won't appeal to others, but everyone agreed at the end that they enjoyed the movie. My one friend expressed it perfectly by saying that it was one movie where the characters actually felt "real." However, before I go too far in editorializing about the movie, I should provide a brief summary. Rose (Amy Adams) is a single mother with a child who needs special attention at school. Even working as hard as she does, cleaning houses doesn't pay enough for the school she wants her son to attend. When her boyfriend (Steve Zahn) finds out how much a crime scene clean-up crew makes, he suggests he takes her cleaning skills in a different direction. Rose enlists her slacker sister Norah (Emily Blunt) into starting a business with her, Sunshine Cleaning, to invest in this lucrative field. The film also co-stars Clifton Collins, Jr. as a helpful cleaning supply store owner who steers the sisters in the right direction as they start their business, Alan Arkin as the unreliable father of Rose and Norah, and
Mary Lynn Rajskub as the woman Norah finds herself befriending.

There are so many things I like about this movie and viewing it a second time only made that more abundantly clear. The movie had originally been recommended to me by a friend when we realized we both liked Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, and she pointed out that they starred together in Sunshine Cleaning. And, indeed, both did an excellent job in this movie (and actually look as though they could be sisters). Alan Arkin doesn't disappoint as the quirky grandfather, and young
Jason Spevack, who plays Rose's son Oscar, is absolutely adorable. Clifton Collins, Jr., who I couldn't stand as Perry Smith in Capote, redeems himself in my eyes as the subtly played Winston. Actually, I feel that most of the characterizations were understated, adding to the feeling that the characters were indeed "real." After the movie ended, we actually spent some time wondering about the pasts and futures of these characters, including their motivations, as though they were actual people we were trying to learn more about and analyze. I love that the movie provided that kind of fodder.

Likewise, while the movie is nominally a comedy (and has many funny moments, especially of the darkly humorous type that I like), it had plenty of serious undertones and opened the conversation around it up to death and dying, marriage and relationships, family relations, middle-class working families and their unique troubles, etc. The next time you're looking for an alternative to your latest run-of-the-mill Hollywood churn-out, Sunshine Cleaning fits the bill.