Costume Drama

Once I smartened up and changed my Netflix plan from streaming to DVD, I finally got to watch a couple of movies I’ve had my eye on for awhile: Love and Friendship, and A Quit Passion.

love and friendship

Love and Friendship is based on early, little-known novella of Jane Austen’s, called Lady Susan. The story’s namesake is not the typical Austen heroine we’ve come to know and love–in other words, she’s not a young, unmarried woman looking for love with a suitably rich husband, a delightful, spirited woman who nonetheless conforms to her society’s norms and conventions.

Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is not that woman. She’s a still-attractive older widow who schemes relentlessly to score a rich husband, for herself and also for her 17-year old daughter, Federica. She doesn’t care a fig about love, at least not when it comes to husbands. Husbands are a means to an end: financial security. She does, however, carry on an adulterous affair with the married Lord Manwing.

Unlike Lizzie, Emma, Catherine, and the Dashwood sisters, Lady Susan is not likable. Her outward charm masks a cunning ruthlessness that one nonetheless has no choice but to admire. Why? Because, despite being a woman in a staunchly patriarchal society, like any true Austen heroine she gets what she wants–not by some fairy-tale luck (having the good fortune to fall in love with and to secure a conveniently rich man). She knows intimately well the system she’s working within, and pulls all of the strings to her advantage. In the end, she scores a rich husband, who is stupid enough to believe the baby she carries is his own; her daughter fits the more typical Austen heroine in that she falls in love with a suitably rich man and blissfully marries him, but she is not the star of the show.

That Austen wrote such a scandalous main character–and have it all end well for her–is just another reason I find Jane Austen endlessly fascinating. She was a proto-feminist that knew Lady Susan could never be published in her time. It only took 200 years for this character to see the light of day, and though we may cringe at her methods, we must concede her brilliance and determination. Lady Susan forged a life on her own terms in a world that afforded her very little choice.

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A Quiet Passion is a biopic of Emily Dickinson that I’ve been very eager to see. Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame) plays the enigmatic Dickinson, and she does so brilliantly here. Nixon recites her poems in a voice-over throughout the scenes of the film, and one gets a sense of Dickinson’s brilliance, her sensitivity, her spiritual struggle, her fierce intelligence.

She was extremely close to her family (her parents, brother Austin and sister Vinnie), and was content to live with them forever. She feared being parted from friends and family, either through death or marriage. She quite probably fell in love with both men and women–including a married pastor–but her loves were always fervently spiritual and intellectual in nature, and never consummated physically.

Inevitably, her parents died. Her good friend, the outspoken Vryling Buffam, married (and therefore relented to convention) and was no longer hers. Her married brother Austin commenced an affair with a married woman, and his infidelity enraged her.

“Why does life have to be so ugly?” she beseeches her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) at one point.

Near the end of her life she became embittered, and her fear of loss and death caused her to withdraw from life and society, never leaving her home, or even her room, for that matter. She pushed people away with cutting words. She continued to write, however, always struggling with the state of her soul, with the question of whether God existed, what awaited us after death. She was a brilliant, complicated woman who suffered and died from Bright’s disease at the age of 55.

I enjoyed the film, but had a problem with much of the dialogue. I expect witty banter from intelligent people, but these people talked in a way that raised it to ridiculous heights. Did people really converse in this manner? Their conversations didn’t feel at all natural; rather, they seemed artificially constructed, as if they were reading from well-thought out orations or speeches. It wasn’t believable, and actually got a little annoying. The only time it felt real was when characters lost their tempers and screamed at each other (in a very articulate manner, of course). Finally, real human beings!

Have you seen these movies? What did you think? Leave a comment and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

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Cinematic Scribes

I love movies. I love writing and writers. So of course I love movies about writing and writers. There are countless movies out there about writers, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Wonder Boys. Michael Douglas in a shabby pink bathrobe and Toby Maguire tucked under the covers with Robert Downey, Jr. is enough to get me on board here. Douglas is a writing teacher who hasn’t had anything published since his award-winning novel seven years prior, and can’t seem to get his life together; Maguire is one of his students, a gifted writer in need of guidance.

wonder boys

Stranger Than Fiction. Will Ferrel is an IRS auditor who suddenly begins to hear a voice in his head, narrating his life. Emma Thompson is the writer who is writing his story. To break her writer’s block, she decides she has to kill off her main character. Her character takes exception to this, and trippy madcappery ensues.

stranger than fiction

Sideways. Paul Giammati is Miles, a struggling writer and wine enthusiast who takes his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a trip into wine country before Jack’s upcoming wedding. Miles looks forward to enjoying the wine, but Jack wants one last fling before his nuptials. His shenanigans throws the trip into disarray and jeopardizes Miles’ budding relationship with a woman he meets and connects with (Virginia Madsen).

sideways

And of course, there are the crazy writer/crazy fan movies from Stephen King: The Shining, Misery, and Secret Window, which are enough to make you rethink writing as a life choice.

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I also love biopics and tributes: The Hours (Virginia Woolf), Iris (Iris Murdoch), Shakespeare in Love, Shadowlands (C.S. Lewis). Many, many others I’ve seen and haven’t seen.

Writers are an odd bunch, and it’s fun to watch a slice of their lives on film, from quirky to creepy.

Do you have a favorite writer movie?

Dumb is Good (And Funny)

I finally watched Dumb and Dumber Too on cable the other day, and I have to say my disappointment completely matched my low expectations.

You have to understand the iconic position the original Dumb and Dumber holds in my family. Every single line in that movie literally (and I use the word “literally” in its literal sense here) is a cultural and comedic touchstone. More than twenty years after its release, we still quote lines at any moment that seems appropriate.

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I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

If we’re flicking through the channels and come across D&D, we’ll watch it, no matter where in the movie it is. We still laugh. A lot. Every single time. It never gets old.

Until the same ideas are rehashed and reheated in an unfunny sequel (okay, I giggled here and there), served up as something new, when it’s really just overcooked leftovers. The writers tried to cash in on repeating a formula, and for me, it didn’t work. You just can’t improve on gold; better just to leave it alone–and I love almost everything Jim Carey touches.

This got me thinking about humor in general, and what makes me laugh, specifically. Jim Carey’s goofball slapstick comedy fits right into my long history of loving and laughing at, well, slapstick goofballs. Maybe it started when I was a kid, with a steady diet of Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings, and Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges on Sunday mornings, before the TV38 movie–some horror flick like Hell House or Kingdom of the Spiders. This juxtaposition of the silly and the horrific probably has a lot to do with my weirdness–it might even be the key to my entire personality…anyway, I absorbed that sense of the absurd into my blood early on.

In the eighties, I drank up the Airplane! movies, which spoofed the airline disaster movies of the seventies. There’s a lot of quotes from those movies that fall from my lips now and then (“Don’t call me Shirley,” of course; “She’s starting to shimmy,” and references to Ted’s “drinking” problem). My brother Randy has called me “Scraps” for over 30 years now, based on a bit about a dog named Scraps in one of these films (a kind of sick joke, actually), that we laughed and laughed about together. To this day, he hasn’t called me anything else.

I dutifully followed Leslie Nielson into his Naked Gun movies, where he played the hapless Detective Frank Drebbin.

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The eighties and nineties were filled with these stupid-is funny movies, like Top Secret with Val Kilmer, and the Hot Shots movies with Charlie Sheen. I imbibed them all. Even thinking about these movies makes me giggle. At the time, they induced gut-wrenching guffaws and I-can’t-stop-crying-I’m-going-to-pee-my-pants laughter. Lots of other kinds of comedy make me laugh, but this ridiculousness holds a special place in my funny bone.

Some people don’t get it. They wrinkle their nose and look at you as if you’ve lost your mind. “That’s so dumb.” Well, yeah, that’s the point. And I’m sorry, but if you can sit through a performance of Jim Carey’s spastic facial expressions and plasticman gestures without losing it, that’s a little sad. Lighten up, because life is absurd. Let’s laugh at it.

jim carey

What makes you laugh? Do these movies crack you up, or leave you groaning? Leave a comment and we’ll laugh about it!

 

 

 

 

Tormented Genius Women

I have a thing for tormented genius women.

Not because I think I’m a tormented genius. I’m often tormented, but not much of a genius. It just seems like true brilliance often comes with a price, whether it’s tragedy, mental illness or repression or all of these. I’m thinking mostly of women like the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others. Men aren’t immune–think Van Gogh, or Edgar Allen Poe. The myth is that artists and writers need to be a little unstable to create their immortal work.

Obviously this isn’t true for all creatives. But the ones we’re often fascinated with are the ones that suffered and bled out genius.

What got me thinking about this is the recent film A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, as well as the BBC’s film To Walk Invisible: The BrontesI haven’t seen the Dickinson film yet, but it’s at the very top of my list as far as movies go right now.

Dickinson was famously reclusive, and towards the end of her life barely left her room. She died in 1886, at 55 years of age, of “Bright’s Disease”, commonly known as nephritis.

(Shamefully, I live only 20 miles away from her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and I’ve never visited her museum. I’ve put it on my summer to-do list.)

quiet passion
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia Dickinson.

A few other wonderful films I like about tormented genius women include:

The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Though not a straight biography, this film interweaves three story lines concerning Virginia Woolf, her work and themes. Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. She committed suicide in 1941 by drowning, at 59.

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Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

Sylvia, based on the life of Sylvia Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Plath, a young poet in the 1950’s, trying to make her mark in the literary world while still outwardly conforming to the feminine ideal of wife and mother. Plath suffered from depression, and committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, by carbon monoxide poisoning.

paltrow plath
Paltrow as Plath, with Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes

Cheerful, right?

Luckily, we have other genius women, like Jane Austen, whose dazzling gems of comedy and social satire emphasize the genius rather than the torment. Despite her own life being marked by financial struggles, loss, and the boundaries of her gender, her works are a delight to read. She never married, and died in 1817 at the age of 41, possibly of Addison’s Disease.

I’ve read all of Austen’s novels repeatedly, but never read an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. It’s been made into a movie called Love and Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, and it’s also on my must-watch list. As far as biopics about Jane, there’s Becoming Jane, which focused on her relationship with Tom LeFroy. An enjoyable film, but it probably took some dramatic license and exaggerated the romance with LeFroy.

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James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane

While I’m talking about women authors and film, I want to mention The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (brilliant in her own right, quite sane, and very much alive). I’m seriously thinking about subscribing to Hulu simply to watch the new series based on the book.

 

handmaid 2
Elisabeth Moss as Offred.

Have you seen any of these movies? Do you have a favorite tormented genius woman author? Who have I forgotten? Drop me a line, and we’ll talk about it!

To Walk Invisible: The Brontes

brontes

I came across this Masterpiece Theater film on PBS the other day, and my heart leaped a little with an anticipatory thrill. Ever since ninth grade English class, when I fell in love with Jane Eyre, the Brontes have held an almost mythical position in my budding writer’s mind. And though I’ve read the books countless times, seen many film adaptations of their work, and (many years ago) read several biographies, I’ve never seen a movie about the Brontes themselves and their struggles.

To Walk Invisible focuses on the three years leading up to the publication of their books as well as their brother Branwell’s death, with intermittent scenes of the siblings as children, playing and creating their fantastic, imaginary worlds. The children are shown with strange, fiery crowns over their heads, as if signifying their creative genius, masters of their imaginations. Kind of weird, but I understand the intent.

Their father Patrick Branwell is the curate of Howarth, in North Yorkshire, amid the hilly, twisty cobblestone streets of the town, with the lonely, windswept moors all around. It helps to know a little about the events leading up to the beginning of the film: Charlotte and Emily have recently returned from Brussels after trying to open up a school for girls; while there, Charlotte had developed an obsessive, unrequited love for a professor she studied under. Anne and Branwell had returned home from Thorpe Green, a household where they held positions as governess and tutor, respectively; Branwell had been dismissed, purportedly for having an affair with his employer’s wife. Anne had left earlier, having known what was going on and being unable to cope with the shame of it.

Branwell
Branwell Bronte (Adam Nagaitis)

Branwell, as the only son, is expected by the family to do great things. A writer and artist in his own right, his creative efforts are derailed by the doomed love affair, which sets him on a course of destructive alcoholism and drug abuse. The sisters wonder what their future may hold, since as women, they are not allowed to support themselves outside the home (except as governesses or teachers, positions they abhor), and it seems obvious their brother is not going to provide any kind of support. Already in their late twenties, their marriage prospects  (the only other way to find security) seem dim.

But Charlotte (played by Finn Atkins, who brilliantly brings to life the diminutive, eldest sister’s fierce intelligence and practical ambition) has another idea: the three sisters should try to publish their work. Under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, they could “walk invisible”, and therefore be judged by their work rather than as women writing (which was considered vulgar, coarse and immoral).

They begin with a volume of poetry, propped up by Emily’s brilliant verse. It sells two copies. But it opens the door for their fiction: Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Charlotte’s The Professor, based on her experience of unrequited love for her teacher. Emily’s and Anne’s novels are published, but not Charlotte’s. She tries again with Jane Eyre, and it is this novel that eventually propels her toward fame and financial security.

In the meantime, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis, who manages to elicit pity from us for the dissolute brother, as well as contempt) continues to deteriorate and torment his family with his drunken shenanigans. Charlotte is furious at his behavior, Anne (Charlie Murphy) feels responsible for not stopping his tomfoolery at Thorpe Green, and Emily (Chloe Pirrie), though frustrated with him, has a soft spot for her brother and is often the one cleaning up his vomit or dragging him home.

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Patrick Bronte (Jonathan Pryce)

The sisters finally tell their old, ailing father (Jonathan Pryce) that their books have been published, to save him from worry about what his daughters will do when he’s gone. He’s proud of them, and understands their desire to keep their identity secret, from the world, and especially from Branwell. But an error on the part of a publisher forces Charlotte and Anne to travel to London to fix it, thus revealing their identities.

It isn’t long after that Branwell dies from tuberculosis. There’s a sad little scene of the Bronte children, with the three sisters with their fiery crowns seated at a table, and Branwell, his own brilliant fire now doused, approaches them, offering his box of soldiers that they had played with and created their stories around. Young Charlotte looks at him gravely, and announces “You can go now.” Dejected, the boy turns around and leaves. Cue lump in throat.

The film ends here, with a jarring fast forward to the present, showing a crowded Bronte museum with subtitles that informs us of the fate of Emily and Anne. Tragically, Emily dies merely three months after Branwell, also from tuberculosis, and several months after this, Anne succumbs.

Oddly, there is no mention of Charlotte, who lives on to write several more books. She eventually marries a friend of the family, Arthur Bell Nichols, but dies from complications during pregnancy.

I’ve often had flashes of envy when I think about the Brontes–to possess such brilliance! To have your name live on long after you’re gone! But if the price is to live a short life of repression, unrequited love, and death all around you, I can pass. I’m grateful for the gifts of literature these three extraordinary women have left for the rest of us.

 

 

 

Dracula Untold

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This movie has been languishing on my DVR for 5 months. I had some time on a Friday afternoon last week, and although I “should” have been writing, I grabbed some popcorn and settled in.

I’m always interested in new interpretations of the Dracula myth–I’ve read the book a couple of times, and enjoyed the 1992 movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” This one combines the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler (a Romanian prince who lived in the fifteenth century, known for his cruelty and impaling of his enemies) and a few elements of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel.

In Dracula Untold, Vlad (Luke Evans, that guy from Laketown in The Hobbit) is a loving husband and father, who will do anything to protect his people. Taken hostage by the Turks as a child to ensure his father’s loyalty to the sultan, Vlad now rules his kingdom and pays tribute to the Turks to keep the peace. On a scouting trip, he and his men encounter a terrifying supernatural creature in a cave atop Broken Tooth Mountain. Vlad learns that centuries before, a man had made a terrible bargain with a demon; he got the demon’s powers but became stuck in that cave forever until someone else comes along to take up the burden.

During an Easter celebration, the Turks  barge in and demand 1000 boys for their armies. They also demand Vlad’s young son (Art Parkinson, young Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones) as a hostage, just as he had been held captive years before. At first, he feels compelled to acquiesce, but at the last moment changes his mind and slaughters the Turks sent to bring his boy back. Now he’s in big trouble, and needs a miracle to save his people.

He races toward Broken Tooth Mountain to face the demon-like creature he had encountered earlier–he wants his powers, and sees it as the only way to defeat the Turks.

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He faces the vampire (Charles Dance, also from Game of Thrones), and agrees to his deal: he’ll get the powers, and if he refrains from drinking human blood for three days, he’ll go back to normal. If not, then he’ll be a monster for eternity, and agrees to help the present vampire get revenge on the demon who tricked him into his present state.

Simple enough, right? Right. It’s fun watching Vlad take on the entire Turkish army by himself (and with his millions of bats), but you just know things are going to go terribly wrong. He’s pretty much useless by day, his own people start to distrust and fear him, the thirst for human blood becomes unbearable, and personal tragedy isn’t far behind.

I thought this was a pretty entertaining movie for what it was, dark and sweeping and wrenching, and the ending promises a sequel at some point (remember that bargain with the original vampire?) I’d go see it.

untold montage

 

 

 

Movie Musings

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I love movies.

While following the storyline of a TV show over time is a wonderful thing–you don’t have to say goodbye to favorite characters for weeks, months, even years–there’s also something satisfying about a story encapsulated into a two or three hour span, and you’re done (unless we’re talking about sequels, prequels, or entire franchises, of course). To me, TV shows are like novels, while movies are short stories. I love them both.

Before my daughter was born, I could often be found in a movie theater, usually alone, eager to watch the story about to unfold on the big screen; or staying up late to watch a taped (yes, taped on VHS) movie that I’d been wanting to see for awhile. But that’s a rare thing these days. I find it difficult to get to the theater to see that new, interesting film, and by the time I do find the time to go, the one I want to see has moved on. Okay, I’ll have to catch it on cable when it comes around, I think. When it does, I record it on the DVR, and there it sits, waiting forlornly for me to watch. It seems neither my husband nor I can stay awake long enough to get in a whole two hour movie after Lilly is tucked into bed. Long before the credits roll, we’re snoring. That’s why TV shows have eclipsed movies in my entertainment world lately. It’s easier to fit in a one hour show, to take little bites of a long-running story.

I still have hope. I still make lists of movies I’d love to see, and maybe someday I will watch them. Here’s the latest list:

  • Hidden Figures. Who can resist this true story (that none of us knew of) about African American women who helped launch the space program? I can’t.
  • Manchester by the Sea. I love a good, quiet, intense indie film now and then. This looks like one of those I can sink my teeth into.
  • Arrival. Aliens, hello?
  • Rogue One. Not sure if I should care about this one-if it doesn’t directly concern the original characters, I’m all “Meh.” But I’m a fan, so I’ll probably view it sometime.
  • Dracula Untold. This movie has been around for a few years, and has been patiently waiting for me to watch on my DVR for six months. I really do want to see it.

 

In the meantime, we’re deep into the middle of the last season of Grimm, and I’m thinking about getting back to The Walking Dead On Demand to catch up on Season 7. Once I finished Season Six, I needed a break from that world. I couldn’t bear to witness the horrors inflicted upon the group by the evil Negan. But I’ve heard they’re rallying, and will try to overthrow that bad dude soon. That I have to see.

So what about you? Have you seen any of the movies above? What’s your opinion? Drop a line and we’ll talk about it!