Monthly Archives: April 2011

My cinematic alphabet


(The) Breakfast Club



 Ever After

 (A) Fish Called Wanda

Gosford Park


Iron Man

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Kiss Me, Kate

Lady & the Tramp

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World

Nightmare Before Christmas

On the Town

(The) Philadelphia Story

(The) Quick and the Dead

Runaway Bride

Singin’ in the Rain

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Up in the Air




Young Frankenstein


Review: Mansfield Park (1999)

I have a really important rule that I try to stick to when watching movies. If it’s an adaptation of a book, don’t expect it to be anything like. It’s like being a pessimist. If you always expect the worst, sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Same with an adaptation: if you expect something to be completely different and then it’s mostly the same, you’ll think it’s brilliant. I generally try not to even be irritated if a movie is way off-base … it’s just not really worth it. Usually, things fall somewhere in the middle. They get a lot of things right, but they screw up a lot, and it all evens out. Such a movie is Mansfield Park.

Loosely based on the novel by Jane Austen (with additions from biographical material, apparently), Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), a poor girl who is sent away to live with wealthier relations. She grows up with her extended family at Mansfield Park and reaps the benefit of upbringing and education, but is still always reminded of her lower station. As she grows up, she falls in love with her cousin Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller), but understands that she can never hope to marry him. The Bertram family is turned upside down by the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz), a charming pair of siblings. Henry pays court, to some degree, to all of the young ladies of the family: Maria, engaged to be married; Julia, the younger sister, and Fanny herself. Mary and Edmund strike up a friendship as well. After Maria marries, Henry turns the larger part of his attention to Fanny, eventually proposing marriage to her. She is mistrustful of his advances, and rejects him, which gains her the disapproval of Sir Thomas, her uncle, who exiles her back to her poor family.
Ultimately, Fanny’s assessment of Henry’s character is proven correct when he runs off with Maria. This crisis brings most of the family together again, causes Mary to show her true colors as well, and rids the Bertrams (all except Maria) of the Crawfords for once and for all. And, as you’d expect, Fanny eventually gets her happy ending.

First of all, I’d like to say that there were a lot of good things about this movie. It’s lovely to look at, and all of the acting is very good. Of particular note are Nivola and Davidtz as the charming but “modern” Crawfords. I enjoyed the inclusion of various subtexts from the novel, especially the anti-slavery message delivered through the contention between the oldest son, Tom, and his father over their plantations in Antigua. The addition of biographical material relating to Austen herself was harmless, and actually added a bit of cohesion through Fanny’s acting as narrator.

I do, however, have some issues to discuss. Big surprise, right? Here’s what I don’t understand. If you want to make an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, you should do so. If, on the other hand, you want to make a “period drama” with lots of fairly anachronistic sexy bits and some extra romance thrown in, well, I’d imagine there are plenty of screenwriters out there with a story to sell. I guess the reason you’d take an Austen novel and add in the sex and romance yourself would be because people are more likely to see something “based on the beloved novel by Jane Austen,” or whatever it is the movie blurbs say than just some random period piece. But for someone who’s read Austen, and a fair amount of Victorian novels besides, it’s just sort of weird, offputting, and confusing.

I mean, there’s no sex in Jane Austen. Oh, it’s there, obviously, particularly when a young man and woman run off together and her reputation is consequently ruined. But it’s always implied, and never spelled out. But here, we’ve got Mary putting the moves on Fanny during a play rehearsal in order to fluster her audience (Edmund) and Maria and Henry actually being caught in bed together. Not to mention Fanny kissing both Henry and Edmund. I will grant you the kissing at the very end, if I must, but mostly, I guess I just like my Austen to be pretty sexless. You don’t see anyone smooching in Ang Lee’s marvelous Sense & Sensibility, now, do you? And would you say that movie wasn’t romantic enough? Not if you want to remain my friend, you wouldn’t. (Just kidding.)

I guess the main thing I would say is that the director/screenwriter Patricia Rozema had a good understanding of her source material, but wanted to play up the more “modern” and “sophisticated” aspects of the Crawford’s sensibilities. In my opinion, she went a bit too far, so that they ended up seeming overly anachronistic, as though they were really time-travelers from the twentieth century who stumbled into 1803, or whatever. Not only in those few examples, but overall in terms of their behavior and dialogue. And unfortunately, it threw off the entire feel of the movie. I think that it could have been a very lovely and true adaptation had those few tweaks not been made. I’m sure that’s just me, though, and I know others who love the movie. So take the review for what it’s worth. I thought it was a good movie with a major failing at its heart, but I think it’s worth watching if you like period dramas. It was just … a little too spicy for me.

Review: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange was a movie I never had any intention of seeing. I’d always heard that this movie was really violent (ultra-violent, as Alex would say) and disturbing, so it just wasn’t at all my type of thing. But then we decided to watch the 1998 AFI 100 Movies List (see this post) and it became the movie I was looking forward to the least. But, we finally have made it to number 46, and so it was time. It actually didn’t even sit on the coffee table for much more than a week; I think we both just wanted to get it out of the way. And, well, now it is. And you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Alex (Malcolm McDowall) is a young man (“malchick”) living in a dystopian society. Along with his buddies (“droogs”), he roams the streets at night, causing mayhem of various kinds. Boys will be boys? They beat up old, homeless, drunks, get into fights with rival gangs, engage in rape and home invasion, all while picking up whatever loot they can find through their activities. The trouble really begins when Alex’s followers decide they’ve had enough of his leadership, and set him up to take a fall. Next thing he knows, he’s in jail as a convicted murderer. He leaps at the chance, therefore, to be part of an experimental government reform program that will make him a free man in about two weeks. Essentially, he is conditioned, by drugs and constant exposure, to become violently ill when confronted with sex and/or violence. And, sadly, Beethoven, which he loves. Reformed, he finds life to be extremely difficult as he is kicked out by his parents, beaten up by his former buddies, and victimized by his former victims. He is eventually imprisoned by a group of subversives who want to use his tale of woe as a weapon against the government. They drive him to attempt suicide, and when he is unsuccessful, the government steps in, “cures” him, and makes him their poster child instead. In the end we are lead to believe that he will again get up to his old tricks.

I would not go so far as to say that I liked this movie, but I didn’t hate it, either. A couple of years ago I actually read the book, and that I really liked. This adaptation stays pretty true to the novel, and through Kubrick’s weird vision becomes a really stylish and visually arresting piece of work. As the main character, Alex, Malcolm McDowall is at once creepy and charismatic. He’s not at all a stupid boy … it’s just that his tastes run to blood and guts. His sensitivity shines through in his love of music, and it’s truly moving when he begs his reformers not to take that love from him. It is the connection of Beethoven to the horrors he witnesses that seems to get through to him the message that violence is bad and unfair. The film is certainly disturbing at times, particularly in its treatment of women. There’s a lot of nudity, and women are, for the most part, clearly second-class citizens in Alex’s world.

The artistry and the visual aspects are what makes this film worth watching, and are the means by which Kubrick interprets the themes of the novel. The costumes, the sets, even the violence exhibited is bright, flashy, and garish. I felt that Alex’s world is/was distinctly cartoonish. One of the main themes is that of youth vs. age, and I think that this is depicted very clearly through the bright colors and over-sexualized decor of the homes and establishments we see. Youth is king. Alex goes through a lot, but through it all he maintains his swagger, the carelessness of a young man who doesn’t actually believe he will ever grow up, grow old, and die. Age is something to be mocked and laughed at rather than respected. Even when his two “droogs” come of age and are given “grown-up” jobs as police officers, they’re still exactly the same. They’re playing at being adults.

Did I say this movie was worth watching? It’s very weird, and often disturbing, but I think if you can stomach what goes on, it’s kind of fascinating. The slang (called nadsat by Burgess, the author of the book) is a little hard to keep up with in this medium, but mostly the context comes through. It’s not a short film, and it gets a little bogged down in the middle, but you kind of need the break after the violence and whatnot, most of which occurs in the first half.
I guess I’d only recommend this if you were really interested in seeing it, but I have to say that I was pretty surprised. Maybe all this watching of movies I wouldn’t normally be interested in really has expanded my horizons, eh?

Review: The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Taylor. Burton. Zeffirelli. Shakespeare. What could go wrong? Not a lot, as it turns out, in this fun adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. Hollywood’s greatest lovers team up to bring Shakespeare’s moneygrubbing Petruchio and feisty Katharine to life, and the result is, if not exactly electrifying, certainly entertaining.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, here it is. It’s actually reasonably uncomplicated, by Shakespearean standards. Baptista of Padua has two daughters: Katharina, who is a terror, and Bianca, who is all things sweet and lovely. Bianca has three suitors, among them the handsome scholar Lucentio (introducing Michael York!), lately come to Padua. Unfortunately for them, Baptista has sworn that he will not marry off Bianca until he has found a husband for Katharina, which is well-nigh impossible because she is so disagreeable. Enter Petruchio, an acquaintance of one of the suitors, who has come to Padua to find a wealthy wife. He declares that he will marry anyone if she comes with a large-enough dowry, and agrees to take on the wooing of Katharina. In short order they are married, and he then sets about “taming” her by making her as miserable in her new life as possible, and showing her the effect her type of behavior has on other people. Meanwhile, Lucentio is posing as Bianca’s tutor in order to woo her, and his servant, Tranio, is posing as Lucentio. Their deception comes unraveled when Lucentio’s father arrives, but all is sorted out and Lucentio wins Bianca’s hand. Petruchio and the (now-tamed) Katharina return for the wedding celebration, where Katharina delivers a speech on the appropriate duty of women to their husbands, and they all live, presumably, happily ever after.

This is a really fun adaptation to watch. It’s a very earthy, physically humorous production, and of course the lead actors are completely mesmerizing. This was my introduction to Richard Burton, and for the most part he did not disappoint. He started out as a classical actor on the stage, and it’s clear that Shakespearean verse comes as naturally to him as breathing. His Petruchio is very rough-and-tumble, and it added an interesting dimension to the plot in that while he is taming Katharina, she is also taming him. Elizabeth Taylor is not the first actress who would come to mind for the shrewish Katharina, but she holds her own quite admirably. She’s not as comfortable with the lines, but in her early scenes she lets go of her typically glamorous personae and is a shrieking terror; throwing everything she can get her hands on at anyone who crosses her path, glaring and fuming and cursing. I wouldn’t want to mess with her. The supporting cast are all quite funny and capable, but really, you’re only watching for the Burtons, and it’s totally worth it.

The film is not without flaws, but they’re mostly due to the screenplay, I think. It feels very rushed and choppy some of the time, since with Shakespeare one usually has to make a fair amount of cuts in order to have a movie of tolerable length. The end, where Katharina shows up “tamed” (which is only loosely interpreted here, I think) seems to come from out of nowhere. It’s typical Shakespeare in that he ties up all his loose ends for the finale, but I can’t recall if it’s quite so cut-and-dried in the play, or if it’s always this abrupt. Overall, though, everyone onscreen seems to be having such a good time that you’ll be taken along for the ride.

It’s easy to see how the star power of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could be accused of overshadowing the films in which they appeared, but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t, in my opinion) detract from their abilities as actors. The great aspects of this production are the little things, the little glances and expressions and small moments that these two world-class performers bring to their roles. It doesn’t always happen in Shakespeare that you see the characters as real people, but that’s what Taylor and Burton have managed here. Katharina and Petruchio are two flawed individuals who end up together, and slowly realize that they’re pretty happy about that, and that it’s changing them for the better. In this interpretation, we are not necessarily lead to believe that “happily ever after” will be a quiet affair, but then, whose ever really is?

Book review: Furious Love

Another movie star bio, this time the story of the famous love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s a great book, and you should check out both it and my review!