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.