Saturday, January 28, 2012

Emma (Miniseries)

Jim O’Hanlon, 2009 (9.5*)
Masterpiece Theater version for BBC

There have been a veritable plethora of Jane Austen’s novels put to film, usually 3 to 5 per novel. In fact, this is the fourth version of Emma since 1972, beginning with another BBC miniseries, then a tv film with Kate Beckinsale, then the more famous film in 1996 with Gwyneth Paltrow (trying her best to affect a British accent, see our review here), then finally what I would call the definitive version – this one with the engaging Romola Garai. There was also the updated American adaptation, Clueless (1995), from Amy Heckerling, which retold the story with a spoiled Beverly Hills princess and a hilarious spoof of modern teens, starring a spunky 16-yr old newcomer Alicia Silverstone. (Ok, I confess, this over-the-top version is my favorite one to rewatch, but it bears few traces of Miss Austen.)

Romola Garai, whose name is the feminine version of Romulus, founder of Rome, comes from a Hungarian background, born in Hong Kong, and later relocated to England. Perhaps this outsider’s take on Austen gave her the necessary freshness and naivity that the role ultimately requires.

For the incogniscenti, Emma is born into aristocracy, and in this film Michael Gambon plays her doting and ultra-mindful father with loving humor – he frets about anyone even walking outside catching their death of something - in his mind it's best not to leave home at all. Emma’s mother died when she was “too young to remember her laugh”, and she’s remained by her father’s side ever since.

She’s grown up with a neighbor, a Mr. Knightly, who has been not only her brother-in-law, but like a brother, often scolding her like a parent for her insensitive improprieties. Jonny Lee Miller (yes, the one from the aborted Eli Stone tv show) turns in a remarkably effective and in tune performance as Emma’s longtime friend and confidante; one could argue that he’s the best cast male of any of Austen’s novels put to film.

Michael Gambon, Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller

Not being interested in romance, Emma fancies herself a matchmaking cupid after taking responsibility for getting her governess hitched to a wealthy widower nearby. Spurred on by this achievement, she spends the story trying to advise everyone in her sphere regarding romance, without any firsthand experience herself.

Most people either love Jane Austen or think she’s overblown and trivial; after all, most of her novels are about little more than whether a single woman will ever get married or not. However, primary plots aside, Austen’s forte was in painting a picture of both aristocracy and the common people within their spheres, society’s affect on individual happiness, usually influenced by idle gossip and speculation of outsiders.

This version of Emma was so wonderfully cast that it’s now easily my favorite Austen work put to film. A rather long work at around 270 minutes, it does give the novel ample coverage; it’s been described as Austen’s most complex plot with the most relationships. Emma grows from child to woman before our eyes, yet it’s her childish innocence that makes her so likable, even though Austen herself said of all her heroines, Emma is a person she wouldn’t like herself.

The outing to Box Hill

In this production, she is surrounded by a well-cast supporting group of characters. Blake Ritson was funny and dead on as the local preacher Mr. Elton. The chatty but well meaning Miss Bates was perfectly played by Tamsin Greig. Perhaps only Laura Pyper as Jane Fairfax was too tepid to exhibit even a brief glimpse of personality, dominated by her aunt, Miss Bates.

If you like Austen, you should love this; if you like the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater, this is another stalwart entry in that long-enduring and endearing series. It may not have the wonderful subtlety or complexity of Downton Abbey, but then it’s a novel from a century and a half ago, so in that regard it’s amazing, and a tribute to Austen, that it’s still able to enthrall audiences this far removed from her period in history. No film can capture the beauty and artistry of eloquent prose, but this mini-series in four parts comes as close to Austen as any other to date.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Five Minutes of Heaven

Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009 (8.4*)
Sundance Awards for directing and screenplay.

Based on a true story of the troubles in Northern Ireland. A Protestant worker is ordered to leave a shipyard in Lurgan by Catholics. In retaliation, a teenage gang of four, members of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) orders a Catholic to leave, a man named Griffin. The youths decide to kill him, even though he’s scheduled to leave the yard anyway in just a week.

When they show up at Griffin’s house, unknown to them, the senior Griffin has left the house, but his eldest son is watching tv in the living room, while his younger brother is kicking a soccer ball on the sidewalk out front. The masked hitman, Alistair Little, approaches, looks at the kid on the street staring at him, an image which will haunt him later, and still shoots his brother through the front window and kills him. Nine year old Joe Griffin not only witnesses the attack from just a few feet away, powerless to do anything, but his own mother blames him for not stopping the killing. Both his parents die soon afterwards, neither recovering from the loss of their oldest son.

Thirty-three years later, after serving a 12-year prison term, Little and Griffin are approached by a documentary television show, who sets up a meeting between the two men. Veteran star Liam Neeson plays Little as an adult, who is now a successful politician in Belfast. Griffin is an embittered man still living in the same town of Lurgan, though now he’s married and has two beautiful girls. Due to losing his entire family over the killing, Griffin has never forgiven Little, and wants, as he puts it, just "five minutes of heaven", when he can confront Little face-to-face and kill him.

James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday) steals this film as Joe Griffin. Even though he’s now married with two children, years of torment and anguish are etched on his face in nearly every scene. He makes the audience feel his pain on a visceral level, without ever giving a false note – one feels that Nesbitt himself has gone through something similar in his own life. He steals the acting kudos from Oscar®-winner Liam Neeson in this small film produced by the BBC for television. In all honesty, he has the far meatier role, as a contrite Alistair Little seems almost resigned to giving Griffin the chance he needs for vengance. It’s a crime that Nesbitt wasn’t nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar® for best actor, it’s one of the best performances of the last decade.

Nesbitt with one of his 7 acting awards –
he won 3 for Cold Feet (1997),
and two for Bloody Sunday (2002)

This film deserves a far better rating than the 6.7 given at IMDB (by only 6,000 viewers). More people should watch this film, and all the other good films on 'the trouble' in Northern Ireland. There are excellent films on this subject, notably Bloody Sunday (2002), the Cannes Palm d’Or winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and for PBS, both Naming the Names (which remembers the victims of Bloody Sunday) and Frontline: Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein. Probably the first great film on this subject is John Ford’s classic, The Informer (1935), for which Victor McLaglen was awarded the Oscar for best actor.

Not being from Great Britain, those of us in the U.S., and probably the rest of the world, need to see the films on this subject so we can better understand the history of violence and repression there.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen, 2011 (9.0*)
Woody is back! This is a light romantic fantasy in the same vein as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice, which mixes reality with a fantasy world that obviously comes from the mind of the protagonist.

Owen Wilson is a young American, on a trip to Paris with his domineering fiance, Rachel MacAdams, whose right-wing parents are wealthy capitalists there for a business deal (naturally - why else would capitalists go anywhere but for some tax deductible reason, because the wealthy don't have to pay taxes since they can deduct everything from travel to meals by claiming they are 'for business purposes' - then the rest of us have to make up this shortfall).

Wilson is a screenwriter attempting to write a serious novel, while everyone urges him to do what he's successful at already. He seeks solitude at night by wandering around Paris alone. After midnight, magic happens, and he runs into people he assumes are in costume, but finds out that he's been transported in time to Paris of the 20's, first being found in the streets by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who introduce him to Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). He later meets Picasso, and his beautiful model, played by Marion Cotillard, a muse for all the famous artists of her era. Naturally, the two strike up a platonic romance.

Wilson's fantasy world is centered around creative artists who spent time in Paris: Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Luis Bunuel, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Salvador Dali ("I paint you, with your lips melting into the sand - and of course, a rhinoceros!" - hilariously played by Adrien Brody), Paul Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec are just a few of the famous artists who come alive for Owen Wilson on his post-midnight walks around Paris.

This film is superficially a light romantic comedy, but beneath all that is the underlying and beautiful idea that art not only is immortal, but will influence and inspire future generations of creative people. It also contains the protagonists desire to live in another era (don't we all?) he imagines is greater than his own (for Wilson, Paris in the 20's).

As an artist (painting and writing) this film reinforced my lifelong belief in the power of creativity. Most of the awards are for Allen's screenplay, which should be a favorite for an Oscar®. I would elevate this work above Woody's other output of the last 15 or so years.

Note: in the rating, PG-14, in the beginning, it is mentioned that "features smoking" - holy smoke, are we now warning people when there are cigarettes in films? what's next, "characters eating pork", or "loud noises emitted by fireworks", or "capitalist merchants overcharging for coffee"?


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Lost Horizon

Frank Capra, 1937 (8.2*)
Exotic, unspoiled locales around the world have always appealed to the more daring individuals of more populous regions, such as Europe; just look at the nationalities of all the famous explorers. In 1923, Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel was the first known westerner to enter the forbidden Tibetan city of Lhasa. She then published her accounts in her 1932 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet.

Shortly thereafter, novelist James Hilton wrote a short novel about a flight of western travelers that crashes in the Himilayas, and the survivors are rescued and taken to a fictitious hidden city in a mountain valley, called Shangri-La. Basically, this is a story of an exotic utopia untouched by civilization and the ills of modern society. The westerners are treated like welcome guests, and their’s is an adventure of a lifetime.

Frank Capra went out of character for this film of adventure and fantasy, starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, and Edward Everett Horton as the crash survivors, and Sam Jaffe miscast as a Tibetan spiritual master. It's contains none of Capra's homespun humor, nor is it a glimpse at classic Americana. A newer partially restored version has the entire soundtrack, but some scenes are filled in with only still images. It looks like the Hays Commission deleted scenes where people were simply talking, but within their bedrooms - innocent enough unless you're under the cloud of censorship.

The story may also be taken as a metaphor of a spiritual quest to find one’s center within, away from the distractions of the material world. Often we get a peek at this realm, and find it difficult to return due to life circumstances. Like the beautiful Australian film Walkabout, this utopia may exist in one’s past, and you can either remember it nostalgically, or make the physical effort to return to the same location where you once found bliss.

Since the late 1800’s, there have been many accounts by westerners of this little-explored region of earth and it’s philosophies, until during the 60’s it blossumed into an international cultural movement, generally called The New Age. The allure of the Himilayas and it’s mountain people have had a profound effect on western civilization, whether intentional or not. This story was an early entry that added fuel to that fire.

Nominated for 7 Academy Awards for 1937, including picture (a year when there were 10 nominations, the winner being The Life of Emile Zola), it won two, for film editing and art direction.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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