Friends with Kids

Friends with KidsThis 2011 movie written, produced and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt is about a group of shallow, sex-obsessed Manhattan Yuppies who start having children.  I’m going to discuss the full plot in some detail, so if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you probably shouldn’t read this review.  On the other hand, the story is quite predictable and if you haven’t figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, then all cylinders aren’t firing anyway.

Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), are both well-paid professionals in their mid-30s.  Best friends for many years, they live in the same building in Manhattan and have long telephone conversations usually involving a choice between grisly ways to die.  Julie asks Ben if he’d rather die a long, painful death by cancer or to see a loved one die the same way.  Ben chooses to watch the loved one die because he would still be alive.

They gather regularly with married friends Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), who are obsessed with having sex, and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph).  Not interested in each other Jason and Julie continually seek their own romantic relationships, the success measured in sexual happiness.  Their friends have children, but they continue to seek permanent mates themselves until one evening they decide to have a child of their own.  Seeing the misery that their friends have experienced, they decide that they can raise a child and still search for their own soul-mates.

While Ben and Leslie manage to make their marriage work, Alex and Missy’s relationship falls apart, further evidence that they’ve made the right decision.  As time passes, Jason becomes involved with a dancer, Mary Jane (Megan Fox), while Julie finds Mr. Right in the form of Kurt (Edward Burns).  When Alex gets drunk at a New Years skiing getaway for the eight of them, he comes down hard on Jason and Julie for not thinking through the effect their decision will have on their child.  Jason strongly defends the decision, declaring how much they love each other and how much they love their little boy.

Taking this to heart, Julie realizes that she really does love Jason more than Kurt.  When they get together to celebrate her birthday, she tells him how she feels, but Jason recoils, explaining that he loves her as a friend and is already in a deep relationship with Mary Jane.  Julie decides to move to Brooklyn to get away from him.  Both of their relationships end and Jason then realizes that he actually loves Julie, too.  It ends with him telling her that he’s changed his mind: he’d rather die himself than to watch her die of cancer.  She is reluctant at first to accept this change of heart, but when he promises great sex, she changes her mind.

There are moments in this movie that ring true and come close to being genuinely touching, but the predictability of the plot makes it very hard to become attached to story.  The characters are genuinely shallow.  Self-obsessed relationship-junkies who have probably never had an original thought in their lives, their elevation of sex to the be-all and end-all of human love comes across as pathetic and self-serving.

Maybe this is the present or the future of American ideals, but I sure hope not.  One can admire Westfeldt for her hard work in doing the project, but I really wish she had taken the time to put some thought into it.  I can’t really recommend this movie to anyone.

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The Graduate

Graduate 01“Hello, darkness, my old friend… I’ve come to talk with you again…”

Packed like a factory assembled doll among a throng of passengers, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sits anonymously on an airplane about to land in Los Angeles.  As “The Sound of Silence” plays, he steps up onto a conveyor belt, his figure black against a white wall, as if he were on an assembly line about to be delivered for final packaging.

A recent graduate of a prestigious east coast college, Ben has no idea what to do with himself, no idea what he wants to do with himself.  He feels lost, adrift.  His parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) hold a party to celebrate his graduation, but it is attended only by their wealthy friends, not one person his own age.  Lying in bed, in front of his fish tank, he stares blankly out into the world.  Forced to attend the party, he searches for some escape, but is cornered by a man who has only one word for him: plastics.

Retreating to his room, his privacy is broken by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner (Murray Hamilton), who nearly forces him to give her a ride home.  Getting him inside on the pretense that she needs the lights on, she fixes him a drink.  Ben figures out that she’s trying to seduce him and attempts to escape, but can’t seem to get away.  Mrs. Robinson then invites him up into the bedroom of her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) to see the girl’s portrait.  She is currently away at school attending the University of California-Berkeley.  Mrs. Robinson begins to undress in spite of Ben’s obvious nervousness, but is interrupted by the return of Mr. Robinson.  Ben quickly runs downstairs and sits with his drink when the man comes in the front door.  Mr. Robinson encourages him to date Elaine when she returns to L.A. on a school break.

Graduate 02At her request, Ben calls up Mrs. Robinson and she agrees to meet him at a hotel.  Overcome with nervousness, Ben goes through with his tryst and begins a summer of laziness, lying around in the pool during the day and meeting Mrs. Robinson for sex at night.  Gradually, he begins to want more from their relationship and forces Mrs. Robinson to begin talking about herself.  When the conversation comes around to Elaine, she forbids him to date her.  Ben rebels and they each say hurtful things, but when Mrs. Robinson begins to dress to leave, he apologizes and they continue their sexual meetings.

After Elaine has returned, Ben’s parents force him into dating her, over Mrs. Robinson’s objections.  In order to make it a horrible date, Ben takes Elaine to a strip joint and the stripper on stage twirls her pasties directly over Elaine’s head as silent tears fall from her eyes.  Humiliated, Elaine runs out and Ben follows her, feeling horrible about what he’s done.  He catches her, apologizes profusely, and they go out for burgers.  Whether through guilt or genuine attraction, Ben falls for Elaine and she seems to be falling for him.  He makes another date with her, but when he pulls up at the house, in a rainy downpour, Mrs. Robinson gets into his car instead, once again forbidding him to see Elaine, this time with the threat that she will tell Elaine about their affair.

Graduate 03Ben runs back to the house and reveals to Elaine that he has been having an affair with her mother.  Appalled, she throws him out and tells him she never wants to see him again.  Ben watches from a distance as she returns to Berkeley, then he follows her there and finally gets her to admit that she loves him, too.  Mr. Robinson shows up at Ben’s apartment and forbids the relationship, leading Elaine to leave school and marry her boyfriend.  Frantically driving back and forth, Ben finds the church, but he can’t get in.  Running up to the second story, he looks down as the wedding vows are concluded and begins to scream her name.  Seeing the vicious faces of those around her, Elaine screams back Ben’s name.  Using a cross to fight off the angry wedding party, Ben and Elaine escape, getting into the back of a bus and riding away.

The Graduate, released in 1967, still stands today as one of the best films ever made.  The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Charles Webb.  Produced by Lawrence Turman and directed by Mike Nichols, the movie was delayed for several years because they simply could not find the right cast.  Almost every big name in Hollywood was considered for every major role, but no one seemed to fit.

Actresses considered for the role of Elaine included Patty Duke, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, Joan Collins, Carroll Baker, Candice Bergen, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, Elizabeth Ashley, Carol Lynley, Sue Lyon, Yvette Mimieux, Suzanne Pleshette, Lee Remick, Pamela Tiffin, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld. 

Robert Osborne of TCM said, “Mike Nichols wanted Doris Day for Mrs. Robinson, Robert Redford for Benjamin Braddock, and Gene Hackman for Mr. Robinson.”

Other actresses considered for Mrs. Robinson included Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, Claire Bloom, Angie Dickinson, Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Anouk Aimee, Jennifer Jones, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Rosalind Russell, Simone Signoret, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Angela Lansbury, Natalie Wood, and Ava Gardner.  All were either turned down, refused to appear nude, or were unimpressed with the part.  Anne Bancroft, an accomplished stage and screen actress, wife of director Mel Brooks, took the part even though she was only seven years older than Dustin Hoffman

Graduate 05Hoffman and Ross were both chosen as Ben and Elaine when they tested together.  He was a 29 year old New York actor who was virtually unknown outside the live theater, but Turman brought him to Los Angeles to test.  Even though he was very much against the type they wanted for Ben, Nichols liked him very much and gave him the role.

The Graduate was also Nichols’ first film, although he was very well known from his Broadway successes.  It is surprising that a stage director should create one of the best films ever made in his first effort.  Maybe the long wait while they searched for the right cast gave him the extra time to craft the film into the beauty that it became.  Every single shot is lovingly assembled and extraordinarily powerful.  Hitchcock had mastered the art of framing long before this film was made, but Nichols uses camera angles in an even more powerful way.  The most iconic shot in the film is, of course, the one that shows Ben framed behind Mrs. Robinson’s leg, sheathed in a black stocking, but it is only one of hundreds of nearly perfect shots.

The creative use of dark and light in a color film was nearly unprecedented at the time.  For example, there is a scene early in the seduction when Mrs. Robinson is sitting at the bar in her home and Ben nervously paces back and forth in front of her.  It is shot from behind Ben who appears only as a black silhouette moving with a kind of nervy relentlessness back and forth, revealing Mrs. Robinson sitting with one leg propped on a bar stool, allowing Ben a tantalizing view.

Mirror shots are used to extreme advantage, the most obvious one when Mrs. Robinson takes Ben to Elaine’s room to seduce him.  As he looks at the portrait of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson appears nude in the reflection off of the glass.  Brilliant!  Not only is it a visually stunning image, but it also points up the terrible situation that Ben will be in later when he has to choose between the mother and daughter.

The use of music and sound is also brilliant.  “The Sound of Silence” is such a perfect representation of Ben’s state of mind at the beginning of the movie that the simple image of Ben’s head framed against the aquarium as it plays tells a whole story without any dialogue whatsoever.  The other Paul Simon songs, performed by Simon and Garfunkel, are super appropriate and set the mood wherever they are used.  The song “Mrs. Robinson” was adapted by Paul Simon especially for the film and it went on to become a huge hit.  Quite often Nichols uses silence itself to punctuate that deep, dark mood that Ben brings into the movie, relieving it with the beautiful Paul Simon melodies.

The acting is all superb.  Dustin Hoffman is wonderful as Ben, creating all kinds of great little mannerisms that make him a complete person, not the least of which is the short falsetto “Humpf” that comes out when he is particularly nervous.  Anne Bancroft gives a great performance as Mrs. Robinson, terribly restrained, yet allowing the viewer to see how great her own boredom is and how much her affair with Ben means to her, despite the fact that it is exclusively sexual.  Although Katherine Ross’s part is not huge, she does a great deal with it, especially in the scene where Ben reveals he’s been having an affair with her mother.

In addition, the supporting roles are extremely well done, most especially William Daniels as Mr. Robinson.  The cast list isn’t dense, but there are also a large number of cameo appearances, including Buck Henry, Alice Ghostley, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, and Richard Dreyfuss.

In spite of Ben’s heavy attitude coming into the film, it is really a first rate comedy and also a feel-good movie.  Although it was made in 1967, the comedy isn’t dated at all.  In fact, it could have been made last year and still hold up to scrutiny.  The only real reference to the time it was made was when Ben gets a room in Berkeley, his landlord tells him that he won’t tolerate any “agitators.”  In places, the costumes or hairstyles may give away the time, but they are nearly invisible, unlike many other period movies where they are obvious.  It comes in at under two hours and it doesn’t feel long at all.  In fact, it moves really fast.

The only “error” I found in the movie is that when Ben is driving north to see Elaine in Berkeley, he crosses the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, which he wouldn’t have done without a specific purpose.  It doesn’t really make sense in an otherwise perfectly crafted movie.

All of the parts of this film work so harmoniously that it should stand the test of time going forward in the future.  Many other good films may be made, but I believe that The Graduate will remain one of the best films ever made.  It certainly makes my Top Ten.  Because of the adult situations, I will recommend it for mature viewers.

A brilliant, long-lasting movie with great comedy, great angst, and a feel-good ending!

Graduate 04

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ricci_penelopePenelope

Penelope is a fun and well-made modern fairy tale. The wealthy Wilhern family has a curse on it.  Generations ago, a Wilhern son fell in love with a servant girl and wanted to marry her, but when the family found out, the engagement was broken.  The poor girl then killed herself, but her mother, a witch created a spell so that the next Wilhern daughter would be born with the face of a pig!


Pretty-in-Pink-Duckie-AndiePretty in Pink

It’s very rare in the realm of popular movies (outside of period pieces) that costumes play a major role, but Marilyn Vance is largely responsible for the success of the 1986 John Hughes script Pretty in Pink.  The third of the “Brat Pack” trilogy of movies, following Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, it closely resembles the first film, Sixteen Candles, and if Hughes had had his way by casting Anthony Michael Hall in the pivotal role of Duckie, it might have been even closer.


Psycho 1Psycho

The line between suspense and horror is blurred anyway, but when director Alfred Hitchcock and screen writer Joseph Stefano adapted master horror writer Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho for the screen, and composer Bernard Herrmann was brought on board, they changed the horror film genre forever, creating ripples that are still felt by filmmakers today.

 

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Ordinary Tim Hutton Elizabeteh McGovernOrdinary People

For those who remember what life was like in 1980, Ordinary People will be a real trip to the past.  For those who are too young to know, this movie will give you a brief tutorial in clothing, hair styles, cars, and so on.  For both types of people, this will be an extraordinary family drama, full of terrific performances, raw and deeply moving.

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Nick and Norah PhotoNick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

When a movie has as its basis such an incredible novel as Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, there should be no way that it could fail, yet this insipid teen comedy manages to toss aside all of the best stuff from the novel, including, amazingly, some of the best comedy.  It changes the course of events and ends without a single note of the beauty that gave the book such raw power.


Norma Rae 04Norma Rae

Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away.  Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.


North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreNorth by Northwest

Mistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.


Notorious 03Notorious

The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.

Dead Like Me

Dead Like MeThe Afterlife for a Grim Reaper is a pretty bizarre place in this terrific little Showtime television series that lasted two seasons.  Laced with dry, dark humor and peppered with expletives, Dead Like Me is full of fascinating, sometimes hilarious characters going about the process of reaping souls.  Sometimes, along the way, there are serious moments and a few solid observations about life and death.

Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth) is an 18 year old girl who has just dropped out of college.  She is bored with life and avoids unhappy situations by affecting an attitude of not caring what happens.  She is living at home with her mother, Joy (Cynthia Stevenson),  who is frustrated by her daughter’s apparent lack of love, father Clancy (Greg Kean), a professor at the University of Washington who is having an affair with a student and simply going through the motions at home, and her little sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), who worships her and is upset that George has cut her out of her life.

Upset with George’s lassitude, Joy sends her out to the Happy Time employment agency to get a job so she can get an apartment and move out.  At the Happy Time agency, she is a little freaked out by the receptionist, Crystal (Crystal Dahl) and the almost overbearingly happy Delores Herbig (Christine Willes), but she takes a part time job there and begins work as a file as a file clerk.  On her very first lunch break, unaware that the Mir Space Station’s deteriorating orbit is breaking it into pieces, she relaxes in a plaza when the Space Station’s toilet seat comes hurtling through the atmosphere and blows her into a hundred little pieces.  Although she wasn’t aware of it, a Grim Reaper (they look like normal people) shucks her soul from her body with a simple touch.  Standing around watching the fallout from her death, George is approached by Rube (Mandy Patinkin) who tells her that the man who just reaped her soul has filled his quota and she must take his place as a Grim Reaper.  She will also have a quota of souls to reap before she will be able to move on, but she won’t know what that quota is until she reaches the magic number.  Rube heads up a small group who work the External Influence Division, assigned to reap the souls of violent deaths, suicides, murders and so on.  She has a new body now that doesn’t look like her old one and, unfortunately, she must get a job and a place to live because there is no paycheck for reaping.

An English reaper, Mason (Callum Blue) takes her to a penthouse where an execution-style multiple murder has taken place and he tells her she can live there temporarily as he goes through pants pockets removing money.  The other reapers in her little band include Betty (Rebecca Gayheart), a carefree soul who takes pictures of the people whose soul she’s about to reap, and Roxy (Jasmine Guy), who works as a meter maid and has a no-nonsense approach to reaping souls.  There are also little creatures called Gravelings that scurry around arranging the accidents or situations that actually kill people.  In general, the reapers try to avoid these ugly little creatures as they cause a great deal of mayhem when their patience is tested.  This little group meets at various times at Der Waffle Haus restaurant, where Rube hands out their assignments on yellow Post-It notes, giving only initials, last name, place and ETD (Estimated Time of Death).  The waitress, Kiffany (Patricia Idlette), the cooks, the patrons, and even the food play a major role in the comedy.

George rebels against her new state of being at first, testing Rube’s patience as she tries to save a little girl who is about to die in a train crash.  However, Rube tells her that if the soul is not reaped, it will wither and die, leaving a hollow, unhappy person.  If the person does die without their soul being reaped, it continues to live on inside the dead body, which is a terrible thing to do to anyone.  Gradually, George begins to accept her state of being, but she can’t seem to let go of her family, repeatedly visiting them and watching as Joy grieves and Reggie acts out her sorrow by stealing toilet seats all over town.

The creator of the series, Bryan Fuller, brought a wicked sense of humor to the show and if you don’t like dark humor or if you take death too seriously, this is probably not the show for you.  I thought it was awfully funny and developed a serious addiction right from the beginning.

Ellen Muth Mandy PatinkinThe casting is excellent, beginning with Ellen Muth who was born to utter droll, witty, ironic comments, yet has the vulnerability to pull off the more serious moments, too.  Her character drives all of the action and she handles it deftly, leading us through the entire series.  George’s foil is Rube, played brilliantly by the multi-talented Mandy Pitinkin, making his character into a father figure for all of the reapers, a man who is much deeper than his surface appearance.  Blue, Gayheart, and Guy all offer sharp, well-rounded characters, although after the fifth episode, Gayheart’s character is replaced by Daisy Adair (Laura Harris), a former actress with a seriously sexy history, but who brings a deeper level of vulnerability than one might expect.

Cynthia Stevenson, who is always terrific, comes through again with a deep, well-layered performance as Joy and Brett McKillip is endearing as the angst-ridden Reggie.  Christine Willes is hilarious as Delores Herbig “as in, her big brown eyes” and so is Crystal Dahl as the spooky receptionist.

Clever, creative scripts keep the story moving along and even though each episode could be taken as a stand-alone episode, the story, especially during the first season does move forward from one episode to another.

Quirky, extremely funny, and very well written and directed, Dead Like Me is a terrific series full of dry, dark humor.  I highly recommend it for mature viewers.

All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

All the Weyrs of PernIn what many thought might be the last of the Pern 9th Pass novels, the computer AIVAS (Artificial Intelligence Voice Address System) serves as a major character in the fight to end Thread forever.  At the end of the previous novel, The Renegades of Pern, AIVAS came to life in the old Landing Administration Building after Piemer, Jancis, Jaxom, and his white dragon, Ruth, had unearthed the solar panels that had been intermittently covered by ash and dust over the last 2,500 years since the explosion of the volcano that sent the original colonists scurrying north to take Hold there.

The following review is written with the understanding that readers are already familiar with the novel, so if you haven’t read it yet, beware of plot spoilers!

With technology long lost to the people of Pern, AIVAS recites the history of the founding of the colony as told in Dragonsdawn, complete with movies and stills showing Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, and all of the other colorful figures, including the exploits of Sallah Telgar in thwarting the evil intentions of Avril Bitra.  In a sonorous male voice, AIVAS explains that his last assignment was to find a way to permanently remove Thread from the skies of Pern.  Now–with the help of darned near the whole planet–he’s found a way to do it.  This delights F’lar no end and they set about reconstructing Landing, teaching Jaxom, Piemer, Jancis, and anyone else who is interested how to assemble and use a computer.  Teaching remedial math, physics, medicine, and so on, he gradually elevates the level of education to the point where they can understand sophisticated concepts and manage complicated machinery, bringing them back to the level they were at when the original colonial ships arrived in orbit some 2,500 Turns ago.

This effort is not without the pernicious attempts of villains to thwart it.  Chief among them are Master Norist, head of the Glass Smith Crafthall and Lords Sigomal of Bitra and Begamon of Nerat.  Norist gives AIVAS the nickname of “The Abomination” and blames it for destroying the traditions of Pern.  He refuses to have anything to do with AIVAS and thus one of his subordinates, Master Morilton takes over working with Landing, his work benefiting from a greater knowledge that Norist.  In addition, Toric’s brother, Hamian, who had been sent to receive his Mastery from Fandarel in the Smithcrafthall, decides to take up the production of plastic, leaving Toric to commit himself to Landing.

AIVAS takes on the education of Master Oldive, Sharra, Mirrim, and others to not only study medicine more deeply, but to take apart frozen Thread ovoids and find ways to change parasitical bacteria into predators.  As time passes, Sharra gradually becomes aware that AIVAS has selected Jaxom to lead the dangerous mission.  Gradually, the craftsmen and dragonriders take each step along the road to prepare them for AIVAS’s Master plan, which he will not actually discuss with them: there are trips between to the Yokahama to prepare the ship for human occupation (and to remove Sallah Telgar’s body from the bridge), repairs and maintenance on the old ship, and extra-vehicular activity to familiarize dragons and riders with space.  Hamian is trying to develop enough space suits for the dragonriders.  Eventually, Jaxom, F’lar and Lessa take a trip to the Red Star to familiarize themselves with the landmarks so they can have reference points for the other dragons.

In spite of the best efforts of D’ram, Lytol, Jaxom, and the others, the Abominators hire devious people to drug and kidnap Master Robinton with the notion that they can force the dragonriders to destroy AIVAS to get him back.  They take this action boldly at the Ruatha Gather with Lord Jaxom and Lady Sharra presiding.  Of course, the dragonriders, with the help of fire lizards, locate Robinton and round up all the villains, who are condemned to exile for all their days.

Using a massive number of bronze dragons, the engines of the three space ships that were used to bring the original colonists to Pern are shifted between to the Red Star, where HNO3 canisters administer leaks that will eat through the metal surrounding the antimatter engines and eventually cause an explosion that will move the Red Star enough out of orbit that it will no longer drop Thread on Pern.  In addition, a number of green riders seed the bacteria that will eventually kill all Thread where it exists in the Oort Cloud, thus eliminating the threat of Thread forever.  What the other dragonriders don’t know is that Jaxom and Ruth lead two of the three groups far back in time to create explosions that nudge the Red Star toward its eventual orbit change–thus the two periods of long Intervals.

The book ends with Master Robinton expiring in the AIVAS chamber as the computer himself, his job done, shuts down to leave the Pernese to solve their future problems themselves.  “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” is his final message to everyone.

Dragonsdawn and All the Weyrs of Pern are the only genuinely science fiction novels in the Pern series.  Of course, the entire premise is based on a science fiction concept, but that is difficult to tell early in the series.  Indeed, just hearing the title “Dragonriders of Pern” makes most people automatically assume that the series is Fantasy.  Not so and these two books provide the groundwork.  And they are both very fun reads.

This book moves along quickly and it invests serious time in all of the major characters that readers have come to know and love: F’lar and Lessa, Jaxom and Sharra, Piemer and Jancis, Sebell and Menolly.  There is Robinton, D’ram, and Lytol, as well as the sympathetic Lord Holders, most notably Groghe, Larad, and Asgenar.  As the book takes place over four years–and the entire chronicle takes place over thirty Turns–we see the characters aging.  The Weyrleaders are over fifty years old now and we are seeing the decline and eventual surrender of Robinton, moved along by the actions of their enemies.

The villains are, as usual, shallow and one dimensional, while the major, positive characters are much more well-rounded.  And again, I can make the arguments that the villains are nearly unnecessary, given the difficulty of the overall problems to be overcome.  One thing that struck me in the last reading is the great depth of stupidity of McCaffrey’s bad people.  It is almost as if she’s making a point that there will always be shallow, stupid people.  On one level, that seems painfully obvious, but on another level, it seems to run counter to her ideal that most people are good and strive to improve themselves.  Humans are basically generous, fun-loving, inquisitive souls that strive to improve the world around them and also to enjoy the wonders of sexual fulfillment and of having and raising children.  These things are basic to Anne McCaffrey’s view of humanity, yet nearly every book contains a few people that are just stupid and shallow, with no inkling of what living is all about.  I guess the good thing here is that these characters are minor, as opposed Thella in The Renegades of Pern or Avril Bitra in Dragonsdawn.

Overall, this is one of the best books in the series.  If you are a fan of Pern and read the books in order, this is one of the most fun and quick to read.  If there is some sadness that the series is coming to an end, there is also much to delight in here: all of your favorites characters, plus the addition of AIVAS, the great, heroic deeds to be accomplished, the funeral of Sallah Telgar, which is something really special, and, of course, the moving of the Red Star.

It is truly a fun and well-written Dragonriders of Pern novel!

Jane Eyre 2011

Jane Eyre 2011This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

For a detailed plot synopsis, please see my review of the novel at the link below.

The movie begins between the second and third sections of the book, when Jane  (Mia Wasikowska) runs away from Thornfield Hall and becomes lost on the moors.  This is a dramatic departure from the other adaptations, which tell the story in a straightforward manner.  To bring the single most iconic scene to passionate life at the very beginning is both clever and stirring.  After she is found at the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), the first two parts of the story are told in flashback as Jane regains herself and settles into life with St. John and his two sisters, Mary and Diana.  The other two adaptations give the final third of the novel short shrift, but this version, by making it the “present day” of the movie, allows us to experience Jane’s new life and the relationship with St. John to the fullest.

The second innovation is that the script makes the deepest cuts in the first section, Jane’s childhood.  There are good and bad repercussions of this, but in this movie they are mostly good.  The abuse within Mrs. Reed’s (Sally Hawkins) household by both her aunt and her cousins is shown much more dramatically.  The child actress playing Jane at ten, Amelia Clarkson, does a terrific job.  The cruelty of the school is brought out more boldly in this version, as we actually see Jane’s friend, Helen Burns (Freya Parks) being caned by the headmistress.  So, even though this section is shorter, it is much more powerful in setting up Jane’s character.

After leaving Lowood as a 17 year old girl, Jane takes her position at Thornfield Hall.  In this version, it seems much older, more rustic and authentic, dark and brooding, becoming more the character that Brontë created in the novel.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) guides her through narrow hallways, dimly lit by candles.  Her pupil, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), speaks mostly French and is very charming.  Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is offensive, brooding and Gothic.  The entire creation of Thornfield Hall is much spookier than the other versions.  This film also shows the process of Jane and Rochester falling in love, which makes it much more believable.  The script actually brings over some of the dialogue from the book where Jane and Rochester speak during the evening.  The viewer can see Jane challenging him intellectually.

The acting is superb.  Mia Wasikowska gives an extraordinary performance as Jane Eyre, even if she is quite a bit more beautiful than the character in the book.  They try to make her look plain, but Wasikowska’s eyes alone give her away as a beautiful woman.  Likewise, Michael Fassbender is terrific as Rochester, but he’s just a little too handsome.  Nonetheless, these two actors have an extraordinary chemistry that brings a great deal of emotion to the story.  The supporting characters are also very well drawn, again bringing a felicity to the book that is rare in film adaptations.  Jamie Bell is especially good as St. Johns.

Cary Fukunaga’s expert direction brings this wonderful script to life, from creating the rustic Gothic texture of the environment to the beautiful use of light and shadows throughout Thornfield Hall.  The film is full of a kind of shimmering beauty that makes it a wonderful viewing experience.

From almost every point of view, this is a delightful adaptation of a great classic novel.


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Jane Eyre 1996Read my review of the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli movie of Jane Eyre.

Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.  Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format.


 

Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV movie of Jane Eyre.

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.

Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!