Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Since Northanger Abbey is the Austen novel I have most recently read, it is certainly my favorite. It is satirical perfection! But today I am here not to gush over the amazing wit and charm of the novel; I am supposed to be reviewing the 2007 film adaptation, which I now realize is a pretty difficult challenge. Hopefully, it will be less difficult than I imagine, and since I find it easy to talk about things that I love, I'll start there; with the cast.

"I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible" -- Catherine

Felicity Jones as Catherine, the young naive heroine is just as she should be. Her expressions and demeanor perfectly portray that innocent seventeen year old girl who imagines life to be like the Gothic-horror novels she reads, causing her to do and think some very stupid things, but, her sweetness and good-heartedness are portrayed equally well, and make her real and loveable. Comparing her to her book counterpart, I have no complaints whatsoever. Austen described her as, "when in good looks, pretty" so I'm inclined to think that Jones' absolutely adorable looks are a bit much, but one could argue that she's simply always in good looks, and to me that seems a perfectly acceptable explanation.
 
"Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings -- plain black shoes -- appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense." -- Mr. Tilney

On to Henry. J J Feild plays Mr. Tilney, and also balances the character very well. His goofy, teasing side as well as his serious, instructing one equally qualifies him as an ideal hero, and a perfect match for the heroine. Though both are good, his teasing side is my personal favorite - he gets the full amount and best of Austen's cheerful wit, and even though Field never gets to say some of my favorite book lines of his, the ones he does say are great, and it's easy enough to read the excluded ones and imagine him saying them. And Mr. Tilney's book and movie versions match wonderfully - appearance-wise as well. I also love that Austen said he only begins to love Catherine because he knew she was partial to him. It isn't made obvious in the movie, but it's easy to assume when you know it.


No matter how impressed I might be with those two main characters though, I will always be more impressed with Isabella Thorpe. Carey Mulligan is a brilliant actress and does a brilliant job with this conniving, falsely sweet character - so perfectly annoying, yet when Catherine says she feels sorry for her, somehow you do too. Mulligan is also gorgeous, and while her costumes might sometimes be a bit much, she looks every bit the part. Her last scene is great - her change of expressions as she begins to narrate her letter to Catherine says it all. I think this is the first film I noticed Mulligan in, and have yet to be unimpressed with her in anything since.

Carey Mulligan is probably one of few actresses that can make Felicity Jones look plain by comparison.

Thus concludes my favorite characters, but there are still a few left worth mentioning. James Morland (Hugh O'Conor) doesn't get much screen time, but take good advantage of what he gets. Eleanor Tilney, (Catherine Walker) is lovely and stylish and pleasing; Mrs. Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) is obsessed with her gowns, and amusing. Mr. Thorpe is extremely annoying and creepy, so, mission accomplished for William Beck. Captain Tilney makes me laugh with all his... swagger, and General Tilney is very scary - not quite handsome enough to match Austen's description, but his overall impression is intimidating, and that's close enough.

All that to say, the cast and their characterization of their particular characters is my favorite part of the film; you'd really have to start nit-picking to find any differences between film and book. Unfortunately, not so in other areas of the film, even in general plot points. Why, for instance, did they decide to just leave out the fact that eventually, General Tilney gave Henry and Catherine his consent to their marrying? And Catherine's parents wouldn't give their consent until he did? Perhaps because in the book a big factor to his giving the consent was in his discovering that Catherine was by no means poor - "Catherine would have three thousand pounds." says Austen, and this movie portrays her and her family as being rather poorer than that. I am also disappointed that we never get a look inside Mr. Tilney's house, and quite a bit more from her stay at Northanger is left out.

The last scene is so silly, and doesn't follow the book, or the time, yet somehow, I can't help but smile at it. It's very annoying.

But what is truly annoying is the change that makes Catherine read The Monk, instead of just Udolpho, which causes a couple of inappropriate scenes. Also, at only a hour and a half, it's just too short, even for Austen's shortest novel.

Still, I love this movie. I love and enjoy the characters, and whenever something goes wrong, I just remember how it goes in the book. The book, of course, will always be my favorite version of the story, and that's the case with all of Austen's novels, but this film version is very well made, and perfectly cast, so I will continue to watch it, and enjoy what I enjoy, tolerate what I don't, and block out the rest.

"To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well..." -- Jane Austen

There; not too difficult at all. I hope I have conveyed my impression intelligibly. If your conclusion after reading all that is that I find that the perfection of the cast and characters makes up for any imperfection elsewhere, (not that there is only imperfection elsewhere) you would be exactly right. And if it wasn't, well, I guess it is now.

-- 4/5 stars

My fourth review for this!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Rise of the Guardians

A while ago, I published a short anticipation post, Upcoming Movie: Rise of the Guardians, where I explained my interest in this DreamWorks animation. Short short version: it was because of the actors lending their voices to the characters. I was hoping the rest of the animated flick would... rise to the level of the talented, uniquely voiced actors starring.

Sadly, when it released and medium reviews came in, my hopes fell a little ways - not all the way - just enough to keep me away from the theater and 3D glasses. I finally got around to watching it yesterday.

Cheers!

Like any movie that involves Santa Claus, Rise of the Guardians is pretty much all about keeping kiddies believing in its fantasy characters. If the kids don't believe in the Guardians, they lose their power, so the bad guy - the Boogeyman - Pitch, has an evil plan to cause all the kids of the world to stop believing in them, so he can take over their dreams, replacing them with nightmares, and (therefore?) take over the world. To prevent this, the Man on the Moon chooses a new Guardian; Jack Frost.

If this sounds confusing, it's because it is. And too complicated for me to bother explaining any more - the first thirty minutes was almost totally spent in set-up. But essentially, Jack (Chris Pine) teams up with the existing Guardians, Santa (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman and his Aussie accent), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the voiceless Sandman, to defeat Jude Law's Pitch, doing his very best Loki impression.


One of my favorite things about animated movies: actor/character promo shots! Baldwin totally ruined the pattern though...

My instinct was right; the actors - or the actor's voices rather - where the best part of the film, but they still weren't as great as I was hoping. Hugh Jackman delivering practically nothing but punch lines was probably the best, and Isla Fisher, rambling and murmuring, the worst. The others had good moments and bad moments, easily defined; the serious moments were really forced (possibly due to having no one to play off of when recording lines alone?) I have to give Chris Pine credit though; he handled his lot of serious moments fairly well. And Alec Baldwin's Russian accent was funny addition. Jude Law had to be my favorite though - the whole movie was worth watching simply to hear him say "Oh, I thought I heard the clippity-clop of a unicorn." I also liked a neat effect as he would monologue while disappearing and re-appearing at varying distances, his voice would fade in and out, and the echo would change. Then he would suddenly be loud again, and our hero would wheel around to find him standing behind him in traditional creepy-baddie fashion.

So, I just made the connection that his black horses are nightmares. Duhh...

But that brings me to a few things that went wrong. Pitch is not the only character able to fly around and move inexplicably fast. They all can. And of course it made for a lot of location changes. Really fast ones. They're in the sky one moment, then in an alley, then a park, then suddenly somewhere where it's daytime. It got dizzying, and obviously was all only to show off the animation and 3D, and while I don't know about the 3D, the animation was nothing special compared to Disney and Pixar these days. There was one striking moment I can recall when Pitch and Jack have a Jedi-like standoff, but otherwise, Jack's hair was pretty much the only thing worth a good look.

Behold. The hair.

So I suppose this was done make use of some 3D gloss, and draw in little kids to the theater, and trick parents into bringing them by casting big-name actors. I don't know if the story was capable of being a truly great film by my taste (I never did that "Santa Claus" thing, so it holds very little charm for me) but it certainly could have been much better. Another mediocre attempt results in failed potential. Fortunately, it didn't disappoint me much; after all I never had anything much invested in it's quality, just a hankering to hear something new from a few actors I like. And that's what I got, along with a bonus of a mini Avengers-like adventure that is sometimes funny, has a few cute moments, and some interesting details.

-- 3/5 stars.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Gattaca

All Vincent Freeman ever wanted to do was travel in space - to leave the earth in a rocket, and catch a little closer glimpse of the stars. Unfortunately, he's had something of a handicap ever since birth - ever since conception - he is not genetically enhanced. Oh, his parents meant well when they opted to not "give him his best chance" by insuring his genes made him strong and healthy and handsome, but in a society full of genetically enhanced, "valid" humans, exceptional is the new normal. And exceptional people are not just born. Vincent's parents realize this, when seconds after he is born, a DNA test results in a long list of defects he has, or will very likely have, including heart failure, and a mere thirty-year life expectancy. Their next child is enhanced; "valid," and as they grow up, Anton quickly surpasses Vincent in everything. The only job the genetic-discriminating world will give Vincent is that of a janitor, but he refuses to accept his fate. He buys and assumes the identity of a swimming star, Jerome Morrow, who has practically perfect genetics, but was paralyzed in an accident. Armed with this identity, all it takes is a DNA test for "Jerome" to be accepted into Gattaca, and start training for a mission into space. And as if living the life of a different person isn't hard enough, just a week before Jerome is scheduled to finally leave the earth, successful, his mission director is found murdered, and the main suspect is a "in-valid" named... Vincent Freeman.

And all that is just the set-up.


This 1997 understated, suspenseful, mystery/sci-fi/drama was the first film for Kiwi writer/director Andrew Niccol, who also penned the brilliant The Truman Show, one of my ultimate favorite films. Gattaca isn't very similar to The Truman Show though; it's more Minority Report. There is at least one similarity I did notice though - both movies hold your attention with ease, without the use of action sequences - explosive, stylized, violent, epic or otherwise. There is action, but not the effect filled, drawn out kind you see in big blockbusters, or expect to see in science fiction flicks. Now, don't get me wrong; I love me some action sequences (The Avengers is one of my favorite movies too) and Niccol probably could've gotten away with putting some in Gattaca, but I really respect that he didn't, because he really didn't need to.

Suspense is the order of the day here, and I could tell it was well-done, and subtle suspense too, because I regularly discovered myself unknowingly at the edge of my seat. The drama of Jerome trying to keep his true identity a secret, and the murder mystery element is plenty to hold interest with a firm, very neo-noir hand.


Oh yeah, and there's a little romance too; nothing very special, but I usually don't like Uma Thurman at all, and her more mellow performance here was plenty good. She plays Irene, a valid, who has potential heart problems in spite of being enhanced, and catches Jerome's interest. Vincent/Jerome, that is - Ethan Hawke - and I'm thinking is the first film I've ever seen him in. He plays the determined, controlled, reaching-for-the-stars hero of the future very pleasingly... and looks impressivly like Jude Law.

Law is the real Jerome of course, who goes by Eugene after selling his identity. Wheelchair-bound, Eugene wheels around the basement of the apartment he shares with Jerome, collecting his own DNA for Jerome's use, and making sarcastic remarks, and, occasionally, saving the day. His supporting role was actually the meatiest role of the film, plus the source of comic relief, and of course, Law did a great job with it all. Every time I find one of my eyelashes now, I can hear him saying, "Keep your lashes on your lids where they belong!" It's... actually not a bad thing at all.


There were a few things that didn't sit quite right with me - spoilers though, so I won't go into detail - but nothing that ruined the overall movie experience. I did skip through one short scene though, that justified one third of the movie's PG-13 rating for "brief violent images, language, and some sexuality," (as per usual) and dealt with the other two-thirds, but it was all relatively mild.

I really like these kinds of movies. Different - Niccol tells a subtle, but unique story, and never adheres to genre stereotypes (like sci-fi requiring a side of action/adventure) just because that what you're "supposed" to do. And thought-provoking - Gattaca cleverly poses - plants - questions inside the plot, and then leaves you to your own devices to answer them to your satisfaction. Beautiful, but not overpowering or stylized, and never trying to force anything from us we don't want to give - Gattaca is an unimposing, cleverly acted, eye-pleasing science-fiction film. If you were me, you would be intrigued.

-- 4/5 stars.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Jennifer Ehle. Colin Firth. Elizabeth Bennet. Mr. Darcy. BBC. Six episodes. Five hours. Classic.

I love this picture...

I was around eleven years old when I first saw this mini-series. I remember getting pretty bored, and very restless, but I watched it. Over and over in fact, because of my parents and older sister. I tried to understand what was going on, and waited for a view of a horse or a pretty dress. Whenever I did understand a bit or piece here or there, I was incredibly proud of myself, and tried even harder to understand even more. Nearly nine years, and probably at least thirty viewings later, I've got a handle on the story, but I'm still catching new intricacies every time.

I'm going to have to make a conscious effort here, to not cover every single bit of this movie. So if you think of anything I left out, just automatically assume I loved it - unless it's a change from the book; then just assume that I "tolerate it with equanimity."

First off, the cast. Overall, obviously, no complaints. I am especially impressed though, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. They look great and sound great, but I love watching their reactions most of all; the subtleties there are so exquisite.

Watching Mr. Darcy's subtle smiles and expressions is one of my favorite things.

Everyone is well cast, and thanks to the five-hour run time, all get a little time of their own to shine in. Mr. Wickham (Adrian Lukis) is a great villain, and you almost feel bad that you have to dislike him; it's very rewarding though, to dislike the more obviously evil Lady Catherine (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and Bingley's (Crispin Bonham-Carter) sisters (Lucy Robinson and Anna Chancellor). Mrs. Bennet and other more mildly annoying characters are just the right amount of annoying, and fun to laugh at along with Lizzy. None of the characters are perfect - the good, likable characters all have their flaws - and we love them even more for it. Every character is individually developed just like their book counterparts; everyone loveable in their own way.

The story was adapted very faithfully, carefully, from Jane Austen's beloved novel, maintaining all the main plot points perfectly, and, just as importantly, the theme, the feel and the point of the entire book. Along with the dialogue, Austen's dry wit and satire remains happily intact. The complex characters are understood and done justice through the writers as well as the actors - a team effort, with everyone giving their all.

Lydia (Julia Sawalha), Jane (Susannah Harker), Mary (Lucy Briers), Kitty (Polly Maberly, honest), and Lizzy (Jennifer Ehle). All wonderful.

 I should clarify that I definitely don't get either restless or bored watching this anymore, even with the large number of times I've seen it. I still pay attention, and make sure I never leave the room when one of my absolute favorite parts are coming up. Obvious moments like when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy dance at Netherfield, and the two proposal scenes make my list, but also some more understated moments. Like Lizzy's reaction as Mr. Bennet reads Mr. Collins' letter in the final episode. Or the way Lizzy plays with Mr. Wickham, then finally lets him know she knows he had lied after he's married Lydia. Or when Mr. Darcy rolls his eyes behind Lady Catherine's back... and every time he relinquishes an understated smile. And many other little moments. I don't often leave the room while this movie is playing.

The busy scenes are especially great, because the background is always so interesting, with people mingling in the background, and actually developing their characters even more while a couple characters in the foreground carry on a conversation. Brilliant - making the most of every minute.

And I still love those pretty dresses. I now appreciate the men's costumes as well though, and I like looking for the fashion differences in the characters, and determining whether they are caused by the character's personal tastes, or their position or rank in life. Same with the houses, furniture, food... it's all so interesting!

I think I want this dress...

Speaking of their life, that's another thing I love - it's foreign to me, so I love to see the way life was lived back then. What was normal, what was considered right, and then through Lizzy's eyes, what of those things were ridiculous and laughable. Not only do we learn how society worked then, we also learn that it was just as silly sometimes as practical people now know today's society to be. Some things never change. It's a little like this movie (like the novel) was made for people of the early 1800s, and to truly understand it, you have to understand the time. An obstacle sure, but once you're over it, the reward is extremely satisfying. In this category, I still have much to learn.

Much like Lizzy in this scene. Another great costume example too - Mr. Darcy favors his green coat, and I can see why!

Even without understanding the time well, or even all, there is still something to this story... a love story. And not just about two people who fell in love, but two characters - two realistic people, proud and prejudiced as they were, who changed themselves, built up a strong relationship, and acted their love. Austen knew her characters, and knew how to develop them and shape them into a story - a satire, a comedy, a drama. A romance. And everyone involved with bringing her vision to the screen in this version knew how to adapt her story; they knew how to carefully translate it - as literally and respectfully as possible - to a different medium. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how Austen is done.


-- 5/5 stars.

My third review for this challenge!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

He Knew He Was Right

But was he?

He Knew He Was Right is a BBC mini-series of four, fifty-minute long episodes, based on the 1869 novel by Anthony Trollope.

Emily and Colonel Osborne being friendly...

There are three loosely connected plot lines that make up this story. The main one centers on a young happy couple, Louis and Emily Trevelyan (Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser). The conflict gets off to an early start in the first episode when Emily is frequently visited by her godfather Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy), who has a bad reputation for mischief when it comes to other men's wives. Louis asks Emily to stop seeing him after he hears some gossip going around, but she doesn't want to, as she's done nothing wrong, and doesn't want to appear as if she has by changing her behavior. Louis then begins to suspect her as well, and things escalate quickly from there.

This plot line is honestly pretty annoying. The scenario is rather unrealistic, and it drags on until you wish it would end just so it wouldn't keep interrupting the other two-and-a-half plots. I say "half" because this plot also involves Emily's sister Nora (Christina Cole), and a couple of suitors for her, Hugh Stanbury (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Mr. Glascock (Raymond Coulthard). Not much happens, but it's at least considerably less annoying.

Nora, and Hugh Stanbury

Another story line involves a young lady, Dorothy Stanbury, (Caroline Martin) who goes to visit her old aunt Miss Stanbury (Anna Massey), who takes a fancy to her and tries to arrange a marriage between her and a flirtatious clergyman, Reverend Gibson (David Tennant!) who is interested not so much in her as he is her two thousand pounds. Matthew Goode also makes a  appearance in this plot line.

And lastly, my favorite plot line follows Rev. Gibson and his being chased by two very desperate sisters Arabella and Camilla French (Fenella Woolgar and Claudie Blakley). This plot line is absolutely hilarious. Tennant is the reason I wanted to see this, and he's the main reason I enjoyed it.

Arabella, Rev. Gibson, and Camilla. Seeing Ten with old fashioned hair was very strange...

With the acting, filming costumes and such I have no complaints. The costumes were lovely, the acting wasn't distracting and therefore good, and the filming in general standard, with one exception; every once in a while, a character will breach the fourth wall, speak directly into the camera and explain their thoughts to you. It's a bit strange and awkward, but I wasn't involved in the show enough to care, and actually thought it was amusing, especially when Tennant's character did it.

One of the best things about this series was the opportunity to play "can you recognize that period drama actor?" Practically every character we recognized from somewhere else, and we had a lot of fun trying to figure out where we'd seen them. Like Nora was Mrs. Elton in the 2009 BBC Emma, and Mr. Glascock was Frank Churchill in the 1996 TV version of the same. My favorite though, has to be Fenella Woolgar, who reunited with David Tennant on a Doctor Who, where she played Agatha Christie.

Tennant and Woolgar in "The Unicorn and the Wasp." And yay, the hair's back to normal.

But that's enough trivia, back to the reviewing... actually, there's not much left to say. I thought overall the "main" plot line was worth sitting through in order to see the others, and I did enjoy myself in spite of being slightly irked half the time. In fact, it was a very good cautionary tale, though it seems unlikely that anyone could be as stubborn and ridiculous as some of these characters. I thought it would certainly be worth seeing once... and I was right.

- 3 stars.

Review number two for this challenge!