Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens 01This story of a simple-minded mother and daughter, born into privilege and unable to generate the income necessary for basic survival, forces us to ask dangerous questions about social responsibility.  HBO Films enlisted two extraordinary actors, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, to create this compelling movie, that deserves a much wider audience than what the cable channel can generate.

Grey Gardens 02Based on historical events, this film tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (Lange), aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy/Onasis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter, also named Edith (Barrymore).  For simplicity, I’ll use the film’s reference of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” to distinguish the two characters.  Most of the movie takes place in 1975, when two filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles, filmed a documentary, called Grey Gardens, the name of the East Hampton estate, on Long Island, where the two women lived, but there are also flashbacks through their lives leading up to that time, beginning in 1936.

Big Edie (Edith Bouvier, sister of John Vernou Bouvier III, Jacqueline’s father) was a lady of high society who married New York businessman Phelan Beale (Ken Howard).  They settled on the Long Island estate of Grey Gardens and had several children, Little Edie being the youngest.  In 1936, as a young woman, Edie decides that she wants to become an actress and singer.  Although not overly talented, her energetic, bubbly personality could have carried her quite far, but both her father and mother prevented it from happening.  Phelan, quite aware of her simple-minded personality, thinks that she should marry a wealthy man who can take care of her, while Big Edie wants to keep her at home at Grey Gardens, where she can help to entertain their endless parties.  Big Edie is herself a singer and wants nothing more than to sip champagne, sing, and entertain.

Frustrated with the way his wife throws away their money, and struggling himself in the Depression era economy, Phelan takes Little Edie to New York City, where he tries to get her to stay within her allowance and find a husband.  She is more concerned with getting an audition, but falls in love with a married man, tycoon Julius Krug (Daniel Baldwin).  When Phelan learns of this relationship, he forces Little Edie to return to Grey Gardens.  With a big audition coming up, she drives back into the city and tries to see Julius, who becomes enraged that she might ruin his marriage.

Utterly dejected, she returns to take care of her mother at Grey Gardens.  Suffering from a nervous disease, exasperated by seeing her life fall apart, Little Edie loses all of her hair and takes to covering her head in scarves and blouses, creating her own unique look.  Ultimately, Phelan can no longer support their lifestyle.  He is disgusted by the continual round of parties and he divorces Big Edie.  When he dies, he leaves her the Grey Gardens estate and a limited trust for the survival of his ex-wife and daughter.  Gradually, all of their servants and friends leave until they are completely alone.

The older sons urge Big Edie to sell Grey Gardens so that she and Little Edie will have enough money to live on once the trust expires, but she feels that estate is her home, all she has left, and she refuses to sell.  With no one to maintain it, the estate begins to fall apart.  Big Edie adopts lots of cats and raccoons wander the house picking through the trash.  At last, the trust expires and there is no longer any income.  Scrounging for food and without heat, the two women barely survive the harsh New York winters, listening on a little radio as Jacqueline marries John F. Kennedy, survives his assassination, and marries Aristotle Onasis.

Neighbors complain about the stink emanating from the property and eventually city inspectors come to condemn the property, but the women carry on in spite of it.  The attention of the city brings a photographer to the house and Little Edie invites him in to take their pictures and when the word gets out that Jacqueline’s family is living in complete poverty and filth, she comes to visit them.  Fondly remembering the gay days of her aunt and cousin, she contributes the money to enable them to survive, hiring local contractors to clean up the house, fix broken windows, haul out their rusting old car, and provide for them going into the future.

When the Maysles show up with the idea of doing a documentary, Little Edie embraces it as an opportunity to showcase her talents to the world.  In the film, she sings and dances, argues with her mother, shows them around the property and sees a future in which she can finally escape Grey Gardens for good.  Big Edie, who has depended on her daughter so long, allows Little Edie to go to the premier and finally accepts that her daughter will have to go out into the world.

Directed by Michael Sucsy and written by Sucsy and Patricia Rozema, the script takes a great deal from the real lives of the two women, but especially from Little Edie.  Her surviving letters and journals were used by the director to flesh out the details of her life and used very successfully in the movie.  The camera is non-intrusive in the storytelling and fragments of the documentary have been recreated to great effect, intercut with the regular action.

Jessica Lange is terrific as Big Edie, showing a great range as we see the character grow from a woman of around forty into her old age.  A consistent and marvelous performance.

However, Drew Barrymore really steals the movie.  Her Little Edie, although every bit as simple-minded as her mother, is given an amazing degree of nuance that allows her to touch us with her own tragedy, yet soar with her indomitable spirit.  If anyone ever doubts that Barrymore is not one of the best female actors working today, please refer them to this movie, because she carries with a brilliant performance.

Nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, it won Outstanding Television Movie, Lange won for Best Actress, Howard for Best Supporting Actor, as well as winning for art direction, hair, and make-up.

Both a tragedy and a comedy, this is an emotionally engaged, beautifully written and acted movie.  I highly recommend it!

Dollhouse

Dollhouse 01Dollhouse is an action-adventure series in a science fiction framework that strives to be much more than it actually is.  Created by whiz kid Joss Whedon and produced by its star, Eliza Dushku, the beautiful and well acted series jerks all over the map while consistently delivering fun, action-packed stories that mostly work toward a semi-coherent ending.

The Rossum Corporation (named in homage to the 1920’s play about robots, RUR, Rossom’s Universal Robots) is a gigantic, powerful medical company that takes advantage of their knowledge to manipulate and control active brain function.  They have created a technology that allows them to wipe a brain of all of its permanent memories, recording it onto a “wedge.”  Into this vacant brain, they install an “active” architecture that allows the subject to be implanted with a temporary personality and skills, easily wiped away once their assignment is finished.  They recruit volunteers who wish to forget their lives for a period of five years, during which they will be housed in a secret underground location called a Dollhouse.  Located in major urban areas, there are a number of dollhouses around the world.  They are also not above forcing their enemies into performing this function.  Periodically, each doll is served up a new personality paid for by the extremely wealthy for purposes ranging from a night of steamy sex to enacting a personal fantasy to performing complex business moves or even criminal actions.

The series focuses primarily on the Los Angeles Dollhouse, under the leadership of Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) and Security Chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond).  Their principal technician is the brilliant, geeky Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).  Each Active is named according the Greek alphabet.  Unfortunately, Alpha (Alan Tudyk) suffered an accident in which all of his past personalities were imprinted simultaneously into his Active architecture, creating a schizophrenic, homicidal maniac.  He butchers many of the security personnel and some of the dolls before escaping.  Their primary female doll, Whiskey (Amy Acker), survives, but with her face mutilated.  Rather than waste her talents, they imprint her with the personality of a medical doctor (Dr. Saunders) and put her on the staff.  Alpha also spares Echo (Eliza Dushku) who then becomes the primary female doll.

Dollhouse 02Dushku is forceful in driving the series, not only as the leading actress, but also as the producer.  She has matured into a fine actress and her beauty is simply stunning.

The new number one male doll becomes Victor (Enver Gjokaj), who plays a number of roles throughout the series.  Gjokaj displays mad skills as an actor and his performances enhance the series considerably.  His love interest becomes Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a newcomer to the Dollhouse who also becomes a major player in the series.

Discredited FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) attempts to locate the Dollhouse, aided by his beautiful neighbor, Mellie, who also turns out to be doll November (Miracle Laurie).  Rounding out the cast is Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who becomes Echo’s “handler,” the Dollhouse insider who watches over her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm during her assignments.

Almost every aspect of this is beautiful, from the actors to the sets to the kinetic camera work and direction.  Even the title music is truly memorable.  Every episode flows with a speed and symmetry that makes it almost impossible to turn away, frequently using flashback sequences to fill in the past and once using a flash-forward to show the future.  The series finale takes us into that future to see the effect of the technology on the future.

Dollhouse 04Great acting abounds throughout the series.  Although Dusku’s character Echo always fuels the action, terrific performances by Fran Kranz, Enver Gjokaj, and Dichen Lachman enhance nearly episode.  If you like really good acting, it permeates this show, from the leads down to the smallest recurring characters.  In Season Two, Summer Glau has a really great recurring role as Topher’s other half in the Washington D.C. Dollhouse.

That being said, the show does suffer from a lack of identity.  Whedon and his writing staff waver between science fiction, action adventure, and character studies.  They rely far, far too much on violent fight scenes, rather than serious thought, to propel the story forward.  The fight scenes are all done extremely well, but after a while there is a sameness about them that proves ultimately distracting.  Like many shows of this nature, there are some stand-alone episodes, but it mostly catapults forward toward its ending, building details that all come to fruition at one point or another.  There are times in some episodes, however, when the viewer is led to believe that there will be major changes, only to have the show reset at the end of the episode, leaving the viewer back at the status quo when the next episode begins, so there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about what is going forward and what is remaining the same.  In terms of the style, Whedon admits on one of the special features that he had once considered doing every episode in a different style, one mystery, one crime, one science fiction, one 1940’s throwback, etc.  He didn’t do it, but I think this ultimately leads to a confusion of style that keeps the show from becoming completely cohesive.

Dollhouse 05The 26 episodes that comprise the two seasons would neatly make one full season of Star Trek, either Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager.  In addition to the 26 full episodes, there is a pilot included on the DVD that was never aired on Fox.  A confusing mish-mash of scenes, the pilot was eventually carved up, some of it ending up on the cutting room floor and some of it wedged into the story line of Episode 1.

One thing I generally like about DVDs is the ability to illuminate a show or a movie through interviews with the creators and actors, but the Dollhouse DVD is mostly full of self-congratulatory interviews, which I never like.  There’s something about creators and actors just patting themselves on the back that puts me off.  If you’re going to talk about your show, please talk about the theme, the story, the style, and creative arc.  I know you’re good, you don’t have to keep telling me.

The first season ends with a show that takes the Dollhouse into the future and it is extremely compelling.  At first, it put me off, but the more I watched and later as I thought about it, I came to feel that it made a perfect ending.  If the series had been canceled after one season, I would have been extremely satisfied.  In fact, the second season, however, is quite good, if a bit jerky and it is worth waiting for the ending, when the show moves totally into the future.

I highly recommend this television show for all science fiction junkies, for fans of action-adventure and fight scenes, and, oddly enough, for fans of another television show, Quantum Leap, for having great stand-alone episodes that concentrate more on character and story than on fighting and series-building.  In spite of its problems there is a lot of stuff to be found in Dollhouse and it really does get a high recommendation.

Sense and Sensibility (2008)

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 Elinor MarianneThis 2008 adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel stands out as the best so far, not because it is utterly faithful to the novel, although it is the most faithful of all adaptations over the last twenty-five years, but because it really penetrates the emotional heart of the novel.

This version begins by revealing the two actions that fuel the story.  The first is only alluded to in the novel: the seduction of Eliza Williams by John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper).  It is shown in close-ups lit with the bright red of a fireplace, so it isn’t possible to truly identify either the seducer or seduced.  The second action is the true beginning of the novel: the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood.  On his deathbed, surrounded by his second wife, Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer), and her daughters, Elinor (Hattie Morahan), Marianne (Charity Wakefield), and Margaret (Lucy Boynton), he entreats his son John (Mark Gatiss), from his first marriage, to make sure they are adequately taken care of, given that the English system of inheritance will exclude them from all but a paltry yearly stipend.

John inherits Norland Park and his wife, Fanny (Claire Skinner), immediately wants to move in and convinces him that his promise to his father certainly wouldn’t any kind of financial security.  When the Dashwoods arrive, Marianne is quite upset.  She feels the mansion should be rightfully theirs, but Elinor, the more sensible of the two reminds her that the house is not legally theirs.  Fanny is unbearable.  They decide to look for a new place to live, but Mrs. Dashwood simply has no idea of how little money they have.  Elinor suggests that they will only be able to afford a cottage.

Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens), the oldest son in their moneyed family, comes to visit and he and Elinor are deeply attracted to one another.  Just the opposite of Fanny, he is nice to Margaret and makes friends with Marianne.  Fanny, seeing the attachment between Elinor and Edward, counsels Mrs. Dashwood that Edward is destined to marry a very wealthy, well-placed society woman.  Shortly after that, Mrs. Dashwood receives an invitation from her cousin, Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams), to let a cottage on his estate at Barton Park in Devonshire and she immediately accepts.

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 CharityThe family relocates to a beautiful cottage by the seaside, surrounded by rolling hills and the rough rocky cliffs of the shoreline.  Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett), immediately set about trying to find husbands for them.  They introduce Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey), a wealthy former military man of thirty-five.  He falls in love with Marianne, but she thinks he is too old and lacks passion.  In an attempt to evade him, she takes a fall in the hills and is rescued by Willoughby, who is visiting his aunt at nearby Allenham.  Thinking him very romantic, Marianne falls in love with him, not realizing that he has already seduced Eliza Williams.  Brandon, confronts Willoughby, but the latter proclaims that his intentions toward Marianne are honorable. 

Mrs. Jennings’ nieces, Lucy (Anna Madeley) and Anne Steele (Daisy Haggard), come to visit and Lucy confides in Elinor that she has had a private four-year engagement to Edward.  It comes as a shock, but Lucy swears Elinor to secrecy.  Every time they meet thereafter, Lucy reminds Elinor that’s Edward is her lover.

As the whole group prepares to go on a picnic to Brandon’s estate, Delaford, but receives an urgent letter that causes him to cancel.  He rides off leaving the party confuses, but Willoughby takes advantage of the situation to take Marianne to show her Allenham, while his aunt is away.  Since he has taken a lock of her hair and seems to be completely in love with Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor assume that they are privately engaged, but when it looks like Willoughby will make a formal proposal, he suddenly leaves for London at his aunt’s bidding.

Later, Mrs. Jennings decides to visit her home in London and takes the girls with her.  Expecting to see Willoughby, Marianne writes to him every day, but hears nothing.  Then, at an Assembly, she confronts him and he coldly turns his back on her.  Nearly fainting, she is rescued by Brandon.  He returns all of her letters to her, apologizing for giving the false impression that he may have cared for her.  Marianne is distraught.  Mrs. Jennings then discovers that Willoughby is engaged to a young woman of great fortune and Brandon reveals to Elinor that Willoughby seduced his young ward, fifteen year old Eliza Williams and left her with child.

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 Elinor WeepingThe group goes to a gathering held by Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh), where Lucy Steele hopes to gain the good will of her future mother-in-law, but when Anne accidentally reveals the engagement, Mrs. Ferrars tells Edward that unless he breaks the engagement, she will cut him off from his fortune.  A man of honor, Edward sticks to his promise to Lucy.

Brandon escorts the family back to Devonshire, stopping at Delaford along the way.  Seized by her grief at losing Willoughby, Marianne gets lost in the rain and is found by Brandon.  She is put to bed, but develops a life-threatening fever.  Elinor waits at her bedside while Brandon brings their mother, but Marianne’s fever breaks and she recovers.  Realizing that Brandon loves her and seeing how he has cared for her, Marianne switches her affections to him and becomes engaged.

When Edward returns, everyone assumes that he is married to Lucy, but he reveals that Lucy has also switched her affections to his brother and has married him, leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.  Hearing this news, Elinor tries to cope with her feelings as Edward proposes.  A happy ending is thus concluded, with Marianne happy as the mistress of Delaford while Elinor marries poor Edward in his country parsonage, happier than she would have ever believed.

Sense and Sensibility Lucy BoyntonFans of the book will note that several changes have been made, but nothing truly drastic.  Many other versions of the story have managed to lose characters, such as little sister Margaret, who plays a great part in this version, and Anne Steele, who also plays a big part.  The script is written by Andrew Davies who did such a masterful job with the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which is largely regarded as the best version of that masterpiece.  Even with the few changes that Davies has made, the script remains more faithful to the novel than any other version.  The characters of Elinor and Marianne are beautifully written and take their part at the heart of the story.  Marianne’s passion is appropriately tempered with Elinor’s restraint.

Casting is frequently the cause of either the success or failure of a novel adaptation and that is certainly the case here.  Hatty Morahan’s Elinor is staid, but always, beneath the surface, you see her emotions whirling.  This care to show us how much Elinor feels, while outwardly appearing in control, is simply a beautiful job of acting.  Charity Wakefield’s beauty certainly compliments her passionate view of life and the acting is superb.  These two bring us full circle as Marianne learns some of the restraint of her sister, while Elinor finally opens up her heart and allows us to see deeply inside.  The chemistry of these two as sisters is truly great.  Janet McTeer is marvelous as Mrs. Dashwood and the charming restraint of Lucy Boynton as Margaret is simply delightful.

All the technical aspects are very well done, the sets beautiful and especially landscape of Devonshire is a delight to the eye.  One great little detail is Margaret’s collection of sea shells which she strings together to make a visual motif that the camera repeatedly comes back to.  The beauty of the sea side is lovingly captured.

Sequenced into a three episode series, each episode lasting one hour, it comes out to three hours compared to the five hours of Pride and Prejudice, but compared other movie versions, constrained to a two-hour format, this covers the scope of the book very well indeed.  If watching the DVD, you may as well skip the self-congratulatory “Making of” featurette and go immediately to Disk 2, which has a movie length BBC production called “Miss Austen Regrets.”  This is a fictional biography of Jane Austen and is fairly well done.

I highly recommend this version of Sense and Sensibility and it would make a great addition to any Janite collection.

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.

Jane Eyre 1997

Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreThis film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 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.

This review contains plot spoilers.

Orphaned ten year old Jane Eyre (Laura Harling), horribly mistreated by her father’s family, is bundled off to the Lowood Institution, a terrible school for orphan girls, ran by the evil Reverend Brocklehurst (Michael Denigris).  She makes one close friend who dies of typhus, but grows up to become a teacher.  The adult Jane Eyre (Samantha Morton), looking to see more of the world, takes a position as governess at Thornfield Manor.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Gemma Jones) treats her kindly and she takes charge of a little French girl, Adele (Timia Berthome).  The master of the manor, Mr. Edward Rochester (Ciarán Hinds) is a rough man who has been greatly disappointed in life.  He takes an interest in Jane and they become friends, gradually falling in love.

But Thornfield holds a great secret, which Jane gradually becomes aware of: a seemingly crazy servant, Grace Poole, wanders the house at night, giggling insanely.  Mrs. Fairfax informs Jane that Ms. Poole is kept on due to her long service to the family.  Mr. Rochester brings some of the local gentry to visit him, including a beautiful young woman, Blanche Ingram (Abigail Cruttenden) who is determine to marry Rochester.  Jane is nearly at her wits end when she receives word that her aunt is dying and has requested her presence.  While Jane is gone, Rochester misses her terribly and when she returns he proposes to her.  They have some happiness before the wedding, which is interrupted by a Mr. Mason stating that they cannot be married because Mr. Rochester already has a wife.  Rochester drags them all back to Thornfield to reveal his insane wife that he married in Jamaica, through the deception of her family.  The marriage called off, Jane runs away and is discovered unconscious in a field by a young, handsome minister, St. John (Rupert Penry-Jones) who begs her to marry him and follow him to India as a missionary.  Jane, still obsessed with Rochester, goes back to find Thornfield burned to the ground, Rochester’s wife dead, and him a blind man wallowing in his own misery.  She surprises him, they marry and have two children.

Obviously, to anyone familiar with the novel, the film leaves out a great deal of the story.  It rushes through Jane’s childhood, skips through the Lowood years, eliminates the Reeds as viable characters, leaves out her inheritance and shoots through her association with St. John, all to serve the purpose of the romance, which is quite successful.  In this adaptation, it is not a deep story, but it is skillfully told.  The direction by Robert Young is deft, using creative camera angles, deep colors, and excellent editing.

Samantha Morton really carries the move from beginning to end.  Beautiful, passionately attached to her character, she wraps the movie around her and makes everything work.  Ciarán Hinds is a fine actor, but gets carried away sometimes with his passion.  The other supporting actors, including the wonderful Gemma Jones, all add to the strong ensemble.

In this version, we may miss major parts of the story, but the arc has been honed into something that somehow works altogether.  It’s sad that a knowledge of the full work by Brontë might hinder enjoyment of this movie, but that simply can’t be avoided in any adaptation of a major novel.  The one thing we call all be thankful for is that the preachiness of the book is cut along with everything else.

I think this movie should be seen, if for no other reason than the excellent performance by Samantha Morton!


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 movie Jane Eyre by Franco Zeffirelli!

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.


Jane Eyre 2011Read my review of the 1997 Cary Fukunaga movie of Jane Eyre.

This 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.

Wallander

 

?????????????????????????This BBC mystery series is actually a chain of films based on the novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander, a middle aged man coping with the deterioration of Sweden’s utopian ideals as the country wades into the 21st Century.  The Wallander novels have attained a world-wide popularity based as much on the character’s accessibility as the gripping nature of the crimes he solves.

Although many of the novels had already been adapted into Swedish films, in 2006 Mankell formed a production company called Yellow Bird for the express purpose of bringing the novels to the English speaking part of the world.  Producers Anne Mensah of BBC Scotland and Andy Harries and Francis Hopkinson of Left Bank Pictures were brought in to shepherd the project.  Although many distinguished British actors were considered for the series, Kenneth Branagh was a fan of the books and directly interceded the process.  He met with Mankell at an Ingmar Bergman film festival and literally talked the author into hiring him to play the role.  Various locations were considered for the movie including Scotland and the state of Maine in the United States, but the importance of the country the books were set in, Sweden, ultimately won out.  The country is so important that it is like a co-starring character.

The first three books to be filmed were Sidetracked, Firewall, and One Step Behind, although eventually the other novels would also be filmed.  This article deals exclusively with the first three movies.

Sidetracked introduces us to the character of Kurt Wallander by immediately dousing us in the beauty of a Swedish field abloom with rapeseed (a bright-yellow flowering member of the mustard family–see the photo) that dominates the camera.  Wallender has been called in because a young woman is hiding in the field.  He tries to approach her, declaring himself as a policeman, but she pours a can of gas over herself and sets herself afire.  Wallander is appalled and perplexed.  “What’s our country coming to,” he asks, “when fifteen year old girls set themselves on fire?”  In this first movie we discover that he is recently separated from his wife and that his grown daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) who is deeply concerned about his lifestyle, especially his hideous eating habits and his devotion to his job that frequently leaves him burned out and exhausted.  He has a very difficult relationship with his father (David Warner), but Linda eventually brings them back together and Kurt discovers that his father now has Alzheimer’s.  We also meet Wallander’s co-workers, most of whom are as devoted their work as he is.  Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) works most closely with him, but the group of detectives also includes Kalle Svedberg (Tom Beard) and Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston)  His investigation of the self-immolation eventually leads to a former police executive who is running a forced prostitution ring, supplying young girls, many foreign, to provide as virgins to wealthy businessmen.

Firewall begins with the murder of a cab driver by two young women who calmly turn themselves in and then wallow in a fatalist state that reveals nothing of why they did it.  In this movie, Linda sets up her father to participate in an internet dating site and he eventually dates the first woman to respond, but his faith that he might actually be able to start over is severely shaken by developments in the story.  His investigation of the murder uncovers a plot to bring down the European banking system by way of computer hacking.

The third film, One Step Behind, is a much more personal story as Wallander investigates a serial killer who is so random that no pattern can be discerned, even though they bring in a professional profiler to help them.  He forms a close bond with a girl who might lead them to the killer, but she is murdered practically before his eyes.  This leads him to a much deeper love for his own daughter, Linda.  He also meets a very interesting woman who seems to understand what he is going through.  Ultimately, the killer becomes more daring and brings his carnage to Wallander’s front door.

The directing, under the guidance of Philip Martin, is very smart, combining both documentary and drama film techniques to bring alive the landscape of Sweden.  The films capture the modern architecture and the nearly surreal beauty of the countryside by using a very lightweight, high resolution digital camera.  They create a kind of stark beauty that makes the movies each stand out as a visual delight, a rare and extraordinary imagery that doesn’t just bring the stories to life, but brings the landscape front and center.  The use of color in the imagery consistently keeps the viewer in a state of hyper-realism that is bold and addictive.

Branagh is perfect as Wallander, creating a character that is completely believable and engaging, so personally involved in his work that the viewer is allowed to see a fully realized person, with all of his faults as well as his good points.  He is very easy to identify with and that is part of what makes the movies so special.  All of the supporting actors are also well cast and believable.

If there is any fault to find with the movies, it is that the first two mysteries are pretty easy to solve and there are points where you wonder why Wallander hasn’t put it all together.  In those first two films, I knew who committed the murders long before the detective did, even though the directors did not tip it off.  At a certain point, I realized that even though I knew who committed the crimes, the films concentrate so well on the personal aspects, Wallander’s character, and the nature of the landscape that it just wasn’t important.  The third movie, however, works both as a mystery and as a great real-life drama and it makes me eager to see more.

I confess that I’m not a great fan of crime drama or murder mystery, but Wallander goes far beyond simple genre filmmaking, into a depth of character and landscape that makes each movie very special.  I look forward to seeing more of the Wallander movies in the future!

The Dust Bowl PBS A Ken Burns Film

Dust Bowl 02In 2012, PBS aired this four part miniseries by famed documentary director Ken Burns that looks at the ecological catastrophe that occurred in America’s Great Plains between approximately 1931 and 1938. Written by Dayton Duncan and narrated by Peter Coyote, the film combines still photographs and film from the period with color film shot specifically for the program, interviews with survivors of the calamity, and voice-overs of writing from various victims.

The first part of the film, “The Great Plow-Up” looks at the land before the disaster, showing how the tough area survived the incessant wind and drought by evolving the sturdy buffalo grass that grew deep into the soil for hundreds of miles from Canada to the Texas panhandle. Native Americans were ideally suited as inhabitants because they did not depend on agriculture, but rather on the buffalo who roamed this great, free expanse of prairie.

When Indians were routed onto reservations, Anglos first used the grazing land for cattle, but the frequent droughts, long and difficult transportation to markets, and division of the land into individual, fenced parcels were but a few of the obstacles to successful ranching. The true changes in the land began to occur when Oklahoma was opened to homesteading settlers and immigrants and poor tenant farmers spilled into the territory on the promise of owning their own property. The wheat boom prior to and during World War I spurred further settlement. The tough buffalo grass was torn out by plows and wheat was planted in its stead. “Suitcase farmers” streamed in from cities, present only long enough to plow and sow before returning to cities and wait for the rain to grow the wheat before returning to harvest it. This “great plow-up” was aided by one of the wettest decades the Great Plains ever saw, during the 1920s. The boom carried through the stock market crash of 1929 and beyond as millions of acres were plowed up for cash crops.

“Dust to Eat” then chronicles the Great Depression’s effects on the wheat market as prices fell due to the excess of wheat and millions of tons filled grain elevators or were strewn out rotting on the prairie. At the same time, a periodic drought assaulted the land and the constant winds picked up the topsoil and circulated it in the sky. Beginning in 1931, simple dust storms escalated into gigantic billows of earth, born by the winds across the plains and dumped back onto the land as loose, dry pellets mixed with sand. As the 30’s continued, more and more of these storms assaulted the farmers, blossoming into deadly concentrations of tiny particles that worked their way into the lungs of human beings. “Dust pneumonia” became a common cause of death. These storms reached their apex on “Black Sunday,” April 14, 1935 when a wall of concentrated dirty air two hundred miles wide and ten thousand feet high swept across “No Man’s Land.”

The effects of this “end of the world” storm fell in Chicago, then Washington D.C. and New York, finally dumping the last of its dust over the Atlantic Ocean. Springing into action, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt started the work that would eventually reclaim the Great Plains, but it would take a long time.

The third installment of the series, “Reaping the Whirlwind” details the continued catastrophe through the late ’30’s and the final installment, “The Hardy Ones” covers the mass exodus to California and the farmers who stayed and eventually saw the land regenerate through improved farming techniques, such as terracing, planting of wind-break trees, and so forth.

Overall, the film is totally captivating and at its best deeply moving. Photographs by Dorothea Lange and other photographers who memorialized the face of the ecological disaster are stunning and deeply evocative, as are the voices of those who were only children when the dust clouds descended on them. The stature of the Black Sunday storm is fully realized in Burns’ beautiful camera movement and Duncan’s terrific script.

This film should be seen by all mid-westerners and most certainly by farmers and anyone intimately connected to the land. This catastrophe was not forced on us by nature, but we brought it about ourselves through excessive greed, lack of forethought, and our tampering with an ecosystem that was perfectly evolved to survive and continue on its own. This was mankind’s mistake.

It was a mistake whose lessons we should take to heart. Near the end of the film, as we see the effect of irrigation on miles of fields, we are reminded that the water comes directly from the Oglala Aquifer, whose capacity is dwindling, year by year, as we extract millions of gallons to dump on our crops.

What will happen to us when it is gone and our Bread Basket reverts to the windswept prairie of our past?

John Adams HBO Miniseries

John and AbigailExecutive Producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman assembled a great team to bring Pulitzer historian David McCollough’s book John Adams to life in this seven part HBO miniseries.  It is a beautiful, gritty and moving account of the life of our second President, John Adams and his wife Abigail, beginning on the evening of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and continuing until Adams’ death in 1826.

Adapted by Kirk Ellis and directed by Tom Hooper, the lengthy film might have easily lost its audience, but brilliant performances by Paul Giamatti as John and Laura Linney as Abigail stir interest even in what might have been some long segments.

The son of a “shoemaker and farmer,” Adams’ keen intelligence made him one of the keenest attorneys in Boston. At first repelled by mob violence, he was forced to become a patriot by King George’s harsh measures against the Massachusetts colony.  When asked to serve in the first Continental Congress, he went unwillingly, but his commitment to the ideals of freedom gradually molded him into the “firebrand” that pushed and forced the difficult birth of a nation.  In all of this, his wife Abigail was the “ballast” that kept him on point, yet his long absences were extremely difficult for her as she raised their three children, sons John Quincy and Charles, and daughter Nabby on their family farm, Peacefield.

Working with Benjamin Franklin, Adams convinced Thomas Jefferson to author the Declaration of Independence. Once that great document was complete, he was dispatched to France to assist Franklin with obtaining French assistance in the war with England.  When Franklin found Adams’ direct diplomacy to be a liability, he wrote home requesting that Adams be removed from the mission.  Seeking assistance from the Netherlands, Adams became gravely ill and suffered from his separation from Abigail and his belief that he was a failure.

The end of the war saw Adams appointed as the first Ambassador to England and he had Abigail join him in Europe while their children were sent off to school. He and Abigail became close friends with Jefferson, who was the Ambassador to France.  Although living far away from the new nation, Adams grieved over the forming of political parties, which, he thought, divided the nation.  When he returned, however, he was elected George Washington’s Vice President and served in that capacity through two terms before he himself was elected President by a razor-thin margin.

His presidency was marked by the desire of the American people for war with France, which he opposed and during this time, Jefferson became his political enemy, along with George Washington’s adjutant Alexander Hamilton. The Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts and Adams, his political back against a wall, signed them into law, against his own better wishes, and clearly against the Constitution of the United States. It would haunt him throughout the rest of his life.

The heart of the miniseries rests with the two principal actors. Paul Giamatti is perfect as John Adams. Not only does he look the part, but his attention to detail is positively absorbing.  He ages over fifty years during the course of the show and you see the weight of his decisions on his shoulders, the weight of his separation from his family, and ultimately, his love of freedom.

Laura Linney has toiled virtually unknown for many years now and it is great to see her finally in a leading role that allows her to use all of her talents in the creation of a marvelous character. Most of the story concerns the relationship of John and Abigail and the brilliance of her acting lights the story.

The supporting actors are all pretty good and most of them look the parts they play, which is itself kind of a miracle, but there are some performances that are so understated that one might have wished a bit more liveliness. David Morse, for example, looks the part of George Washington completely, yet his performance is quite understated.  Stephen Dillane, however, not only looks the part of Thomas Jefferson, but his understated performance comes off as more studied and deeper.  Tom Wilkinson makes a delightful Benjamin Franklin.

More interesting, however, are the children of John and Abigail and the family that surrounds them in their domestic lives. The child actors who play them as children are believable and even affecting in their small roles.  Among the adult actors, Sarah Polley is extraordinary as Nabby (Abigail Adams Smith).

I tend to have difficulty with long films. There are notable exceptions, of course, and this is one.  The style of art direction, costume, and especially make-up set this drama aside from most.  In producing period dramas, the temptation is go overboard and to make everything beautiful, usually so far beyond reality as to be alienating.  In John Adams, the producers have labored to create a sense of reality and that is part of what makes this a great film.  The skin blemishes, the heat under the wigs, the decaying teeth, the stained clothing, the dirty, muddy streets, candlelight, oil lanterns, and what seems now to be brutal, primitive medicine all play a major role in this creation.

It is both excellent television and excellent film-making. Stick with it and you will be rewarded with an incredible little fact at the end, something that surprised me very much.  This is a deeply moving television experience!