Monday, August 3, 2020

Reviewing Jane: Nothing Ever Fatigues Me But Doing What I Do Not Like

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2007
Director: Jeremy Lovering
Cast: Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Hugh Bonneville
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

It is no surprise that Jane Austen got the Shakespeare in Love treatment. Another British writer of popular romance works with an interesting historical life? Yeah, of course. There are only two things surprising about filmmakers cranking out a lightly fictionalized biopic of Austen: the first is that they waited almost a decade to make one, and the second is that they made two in the same goddamn year. The much more well-known Becoming Jane graced screens in 2007, shortly followed on British television by today's subject: Miss Austen Regrets.

Although, from the looks of this poster, maybe I made a mistake and I'm reviewing a 90's slasher movie instead.

Miss Austen Regrets, based on historical record, letters, and a lot of sweaty fantasizing, tells the story of the final months in the life of Jane Austen (Olivia Williams, who played Jane Fairfax in the BBC adaptation of Emma). Around the time that she is trying to get Emma published, she is visiting relatives, specifically her niece Fanny (Imogen Poots) who is deciding whether or not she should invite and accept the proposal of her suitor John Plumptre (Tom Hiddleston, with alarmingly curly hair). Watching this young woman experience love for the first time ignites reminiscences of her former suitors, broken engagements, and all the choices that led her to write and be the woman she is. Things are further complicated by the arrival of an old, now married flame Rev. Brook Bridges (Hugh Bonneville, AKA Paddington's dad).

And she never doesn't wear that bonnet that she has in that one drawing of her that everyone has seen.

Like all literary biopics, no matter how good, Miss Austen Regrets is a teensy bit dumb and doesn't give nearly enough credit to the author's powers of imagination. The characters in these movies always just write down exactly what happens to them and it magically turns into their well-known work (in this case she's directly inspired by the events of the movie to write Persuasion rather than Romeo & Juliet or Pride & Prejudice, so at least the filmmakers assume we're well-read this time). Also, I don't think Jane Austen just walked around saying random lines from her books in conversation as if she had just come up with them on the spot.

Now I don't have enough context for how well the film actually depicts Austen's life (though this watch has inspired me to crack open the giant compendium of her letters that has been collecting dust on my To Read shelf), but frankly that isn't a particularly interesting way to judge a movie regardless. However, that context might have allowed me to get more of a grip on the character study the filmmakers are attempting to play out here. 

Maybe what they're presenting here is entirely out of whatever historical record they could cobble together, but from my vantage point it seems incredibly messy. The script can't decide if Austen is a miserable spinster, a flirty sarcastic minx, a bitter drunk, or a playful feminist icon. And they're certainly not attempting to give her depth by showing she can be all of these things at once, because the tone keep erratically shifting around her (it also can't keep its eye on its secondary characters, shuttling Imogen Poots to the background too often for that storyline to really have the emotional meat on its bones it clearly desires). It's hard to get a bead on what this movie is trying to say about Austen, either psychologically or thematically, and once it ends it leaves you with a profound sense of "oh, that's it?"

Also the costumes are incredibly boring, I don't care if they're authentic. This is CINEMA, people!

Olivia Williams makes a game attempt at shoving all of these different characters into a single suitcase called Jane Austen. Her emotional scenes definitely sing, but they don't fit together in any sort of meaningful order or show any sort of actual progress to the character's arc. Her best moments are when she gets to just sit down with other characters and display her sparkling wit (entirely pilfered from any available Austenana). And at least there's a reliable stable of British acting personalities around to do the things that they do well and amuse eagle-eyed viewers (a special shout-out to Phyllida Law, who played Mrs. Bates in that other 1996 Emma, here playing Austen's mother).

And while Miss Austen Regrets never claimed to be mimicking the tone of one of Austen's novels, the endless references and homages to her work made me expect a film with a tone that was a little less, how you say... fucking depressing. It's a bitter, sad movie whose grueling grimness feels especially unearned by its failures as a character piece. It's certainly not a bad movie, even if it's an unfocused one, but I would certainly have enjoyed it for what it was if it didn't ultimately decide to be so punishing.

TL;DR: Miss Austen Regrets is an insubstantial character study but at least a fairly well-researched one.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 881
Other Films Based on Jane Austen in General
Miss Austen Regrets (Lovering, 2007)
Austenland (Hess, 2013)

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Reviewing Jane: Every Moment Has Its Pleasures And Its Hope

Year: 2007
Director: Iain B. MacDonald
Cast: Billie Piper, Blake Ritson, Hayley Atwell
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

Mansfield Park is my least favorite Jane Austen novel because it has the least dynamic heroine and the most outdate social mores (the drama of an entire colume hinges on the performance of a mildly licentious play), so I can't say I was particularly excited to sit through my second helping after the supremely boring 1999 adaptation. And seeing how the TV adaptations (usually for BBC or Masterpiece or both) as a rule tend to be worse than the theatrical efforts, so how could this have possibly gone right?

Well, casting someone I'm aware of certainly helps. Hey, it's that lady from the one season of Doctor Who that I watched!

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price (Billie Piper) is a poor young woman who has been raised in the titular country mansion with her rich relatives the Bertrams. Over the course of the past eight years or so she has fallen helplessly in love with her cousin Edmund (Blake Ritson), and we're actually meant to root for them to end up together, so that's another fun thing about 1800's literature. The Bertams' lives are turned upside down with the arrival of siblings Henry (Joseph Beattie) and Mary Crawford (Hayley Atwell), a lothario and a gold digger respectively.

While the Bertram sisters Maria (Michelle Ryan) and Julia (Catherine Steadman) battle it out over Henry despite Maria already being engaged, Edmund seems to be falling for Mary, much to Fanny's chagrin. She spends the entire summer being constantly reminded of her low place in the social hierarchy, subject to the ever-changing whims and vices of the rich folks around her.

And those vices include more than just saucy plays, let me tell you what.

So given everything Mansfield Park had going against it, imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the most entertaining iteration of the story, including the novel itself. I wouldn't dare to suggest it was better than the Austen text, but it's certainly more popcorny and delightful. Everything in the movie is something that can be found in the novel, so it's not exactly reinventing the wheel, but it arranges those elements in a way that's immensely satisfying. It draws out the emotional and humorous flavors of the story while cutting away all the fat that makes the book a bit of a dry read. 

They do fiddle with the character of Fanny a bit (which is necessary to sell her to a modern audience), giving her a bit more inner fire and rebelliousness that makes certain scenes gel poorly, but let's face facts that it would be extremely boring to watch her sit in corners and patiently observe the other characters like she does in the novel. And I adore that the film's approach seems to be "what I did over my horny summer vacation" (the eye fucking in this movie, and at one point thumb-touch fucking, is off the charts).

Also, apropos of nothing, no Jane Austen leading man has had more Hot Topic-looking bangs, thank you 2007.

The clarity of the narrative also allowed me to emotionally invest in the characters in a way I never had before, even if the performances aren't necessarily something to write home about. Hayley Atwell provides a terrific, snippy antagonist and Billie Piper is game for the material, even if she does seem constantly on the verge of tears. But aside from them, nobody rises above or sinks below "adequate," though Joseph Beattie could have helped make some of his scenes a little less muddled if he leaned more into mustache-twirling villainy.

And I should hope by now that I've explained my theory about the importance of the dance scenes to any Jane Austen adaptation. Mansfield Park's ball is no exception. Their line dancing is sometimes stilted and occasionally makes them look downright maniacal, but the filmmakers take advantage of the whirl of motion to catch us up on the dynamics between the characters, with Fanny coming in between but failing to divert the connection between Mary and Edmund. There's also an excellent closing dance at Fanny's wedding that visually highlights the way she finally feels like she belongs to the world of the Bertram rather than merely observing it from the sidelines unable to truly take part in it. 

I still hold out hope that the same year's Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins will be my favorite of the TV adaptations because it stars Sally Hawkins who I love, but I certainly can't complain about the effervescent treat I was given in Mansfield Park. Much like Fanny Price herself, this outing proves that greatness truly can come from anywhere regardless of fortune (or budget).

TL;DR: Mansfield Park is a surprisingly fun romp through the hornier side of Jane Austen's novels.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 815
Other Films Based on Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park (Rozema, 1999)
Mansfield Park (MacDonald, 2007)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Reviewing Jane: That Is His Notion Of Christian Forgiveness

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2003
Director: Andrew Black
Cast: Kam Heskin, Orlando Seale, Lucila Solá 
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The run of Mormon Jane Austen adaptations had less juice in it than the run of Bollywood adaptations, but the sheer amount of money in the latter industry might have more to do with it than anything. But gosh darnit, those Mormons (who quietly pumped out Scents and Sensibility, which we recently covered) won't seem to let our girl go, and our topic today is their first outing: Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy. The thing is, if I didn't have my qualms about letting box office money get into the hands of a religion that systematically treats LGBTQ people like dirt, I'd say let them have it. The adaptations might be toothless and banal, but so are the endless slurry of Hallmark movies based on Austen's novels, and these are a damn sight better than those, pound for pound. This movie even has the slightest idea that people of color exist, which Hallmark hasn't quite figured out yet.

"Colorism" they've certainly heard of though, considering that the woman on the left is their entire Latinx representation.

Pride & Prejudice transplants the classic tale into modern day Utah, and unlike every other modernization of the story, all five Bennet sisters are major characters. They're not all related in this version, but they at least live together and are all constant agents of the story. Obviously our focus is Elizabeth Bennett (Kam Heskin), a BYU student with dreams of being a big writer who enters an intially tense flirtation with handsome British snob Will Darcy (Orlando Seale), but we also get some Jane (Lucila Solá), an Argentinian with an open heart who falls for handsome lunkhead Charlie Bingley (Ben Gourley); Lydia (Kelly Stables), a boy-crazy, spoiled girl whose rich parents let her think she's the landlord for everyone else; Kitty (Amber Hamilton Russo), Lydia's younger sister who is Joey Tribbiani dumb; and Mary (Rainy Kerwin), a painfully nerdy bookish girl who has terrible luck with men.

Elizabeth's happy ending with Darcy meets roadblocks in the form of another potential interest, the persistent but charming Jack Wickham (Henry Maguire), and Bingley's snooty and capricious sister Caroline (Kara Holden), who has her own designs on Darcy.

Also in the way is Elizabeth's pride, which won't let her believe that her manuscript needs work.

Much like Scents and Sensibility, this film does a lot of work to hide its Mormon origins (in fact, the Latter-Day Comedy subtitle is only used in very specific markets), but there is just enough sprinkled in there for the eagle-eyed viewer to catch the dogwhistles. Again if not for my severe, genuine problems with the organized church of Mormonism, one could imagine this film being even better if it had more references other than a more particular focus on church than other adaptations. Having the story take place in this particular milieu gives it a unique texture that helps it stand out, and if there's a better fit for Austen's chaste romancing in modern America than the Mormon community, I haven't seen it (nor would I wish to).

And you know I love a modernization that actually seems aware of the characters and motions that make the original narrative click, because if I see one more adaptation of this novel that boils it down to "woman fixes a grumpy man," I will have no recourse but to write a strongly worded letter to Colin Firth. The movie even sees fit to use title cards with Austen quotes that highlight the main point of that chapter of the film (the ones that quote such lines of Pride and Prejudice as "One week later..." are a dire insult, however). These cards, all presented in pretty colors, also highlight the quite lovely production design of the movie, which is all rosy tones and smeared floor-to-ceiling pastels.

It's the Suspiria of Austen adaptations.

And that's as far as I can reasonably go with praising the movie. These Mormon adaptations never for a second flutter below a 5/10 (where the acting usually resides, especially in the case of Gourley and Russo), but they have a hard quality ceiling at 6/10. They are excruciatingly charming and pleasant, but fail to actually rouse themselves to become good

It certainly makes an effort, with stylistic fillips every now and again involving fantasies produced by Elizabeth's fanciful imagination (which makes me think the producers of this film noticed that that Scrubs show was probably going places), but it's too fearful of being challenging to rise in the ranks. 

And frankly, for the very same reason, the comedy here sucks on ice. It's altogether too cartoonish and wacky, proudly repeating and repeating and repeating gags like "Bingley has a failed business venture about making classical music CDs for dogs." The only moment that got a genuine belly laugh from me is a very strange scene where the music cuts off at a party and Mary tries to tide everyone over by singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" poorly. Someone offscreen in the crowd shouts out "You suck! And therefore this party sucks!" which is so absurdly articulate and random that it tickled me. I'm not sure what they were going for there, but it sure worked for me.

At the end of the day, I'm never going to rewatch any of these Mormon adaptations anymore than I will the Hallmark adaptations, but at least both of these films had me in a pleasant reverie the entire time rather than questioning every life choice I've ever made.

TL;DR: Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy is another shockingly decent Austen adaptation from the Mormon community, even if it's incapable of rising above the level of "decent."
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 986
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Bridget Jones' Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (Black, 2003)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride & Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)
Christmas at Pemberley (Theys, 2018)
Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe (McBrearty, 2018)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Reviewing Jane: I Come Here With No Expectations

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2011
Director: Brian Brough
Cast: Ashley Williams, Marla Sokoloff, Nick Zano
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

It seems like all the most popular Jane Austen titles have their own fallow period. Emma received three film adaptations between July 1995 and November 1996 alone. And while Pride and Prejudice has been pumping out nonstop reimaginings since the success of the BBC miniseries, that title hit that same number of adaptations in just a five month span in 2018. Well, it seems like Sense and Sensibility's fertile patch came in 2011, when two adaptations hit shelves before the midpoint of the year. First came From Prada to Nada, a Latinx spin on the classic story, followed swiftly by today's subject: Scents and Sensibility, which while not specifically a Mormon adaptation did come to us thanks to Mormon money.

White people just couldn't bear letting it out of their hands for more than a season.

In Scents and Sensibility, socialite sisters Elinor (Ashley Williams) and Marianne Dashwood (Marla Sokoloff) are brought to their financial knees when their father is arrested for embezzling. Their mother instantly leaves the house to get a job with their aunt, taking their younger sister Margaret (Danielle C. Ryan) with them. In this adaptation, Margaret is a sickly child suffering from Movie Disease where she is perfectly energetic and capable of doing whatever she wants except she's a little pale and apparently at death's door unless she gets her Medicine, which is very expensive and only talked about when the screenwriter remembers it.

Marianne, an English major and amateur lotion-maker, gets a job as a copy clerk at a Business Firm, where she begins a flirtation with handsome Senior Executive of Business, Brandon (Nick Zano). Elinor finds her work experience at Dashwood Enterprises (or was it Dashwood Investments? Who could care, we never find out what they do) suddenly a stain to her name and the only job she can get is as a custodian at a spa run by the capricious and cruel Fran Farris (JJ Neward). However, her lawyer brother Edward (Brad Johnson) takes a liking to her. When customers at the spa get wind of Marianne's new lotion recipe, which make one woman's feet feel like they did "when I was 20 years old," they might just get a foothold back into making the money they need if Fran and her duplicitous employee Lucy (Jaclyn Hales) don't get in the way.

Also is love with the pair of handsome white man in the cards? Yes? What a shock!

One thing that helped this particular adaptation stand out from its contemporaries (I'm including the Hilary and Haylie Duff modernization Material Girls from five years before in this assessment) was that it (mostly) used the actual names from the novel for its characters, showing that it had a bit more interest in actually representing the material from the novel. Not that Austen's heroines were trying to break into the lotion business, but the world is littered with enough faithless adaptations that I'll take what I can get.

The plot gets away from itself by the end, and the relationship with Brandon really has no relation to any element of the novel (though we are gladly spared the huge age gap this time), but beyond that it does its best to actually dress the core of the novel in modern clothes, which I really appreciate. It doesn't succeed at much more than the bare minimum, but I've come to learn that expecting even the bare minimum from something like this is to seal your doom.

Scents and Sensibility is at least entirely watchable and enjoyable the entire way through, even if it doesn't push itself beyond that for a single millisecond. There are no laughs, no tears, no romantic swoons to be had, but it's mildly charming in its banal plainness. It's the kind of movie you put on when you need white noise to hide the sound of you and your partner furiously necking on the couch.

A use which the Mormon producers almost certainly did not intend.

The cast is game to provide exactly the amount of nothing that the film asks for. Ashley Williams is probably the standout, a tireless workhorse never being less than appealing and sweet during every second she's onscreen. She's an uncrackable Formica countertop of charm, and while her resolute positivity prevents the stakes from wrenching any sort of drama from the material, she capably tempers Brad Johnson's maniacally cheerful Edward.

Come to think of it, maybe the ultimate appeal of Scents and Sensibility is in fact how ruthlessly generic it is. If you're looking to be challenged exactly zero times by a motion picture, you've come to the right place. And its goofy approach to anything resembling a real world enterprise (business, medicine, patent law, lotion making) by taking pains to be as nonspecific as possible is quite endearing. I think I finally get why straight people have the impression that Mormons can be so charming. This film is toothless, jovial, and completely unwilling to leave you with a single unpleasant thought.

That's not the instinct that leads to great cinema, but Scents and Sensibility didn't have to be great cinema for me to enjoy it. It just had to be better than Material Girls and From Prada to Nada, which is a low bar indeed.

TL;DR: Scents and Sensibility is deeply generic, but not unpleasant.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 931
Other Films Based on Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995)
Kandukondain Kandukondain (Menon, 2000)
Material Girls (Coolidge, 2006)
From Prada to Nada (Gracia, 2011)
Scents and Sensibility (Brough, 2011)
Sense, Sensibility, and Snowmen (Winning, 2019)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Reviewing Jane: Some Work In Which The Greatest Powers Of The Mind Are Displayed

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 1993
Director: Victor Nunez
Cast: Ashley Judd, Todd Field, Bentley Mitchum
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Ruby in Paradise came two years too early. If it had been released in 1995 or later, the fact that it's loosely inspired by Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey would have been front and center in all the press materials. Of course, it then would have had to compete with the banner year that brought us the Pride and Prejudice miniseries, Sense and Sensibility, Clueless, and Persuasion, thus launching Austen back into the media stratosphere.

But maybe this would have pressured it to be a little more Austen-y. It is obviously under no obligation to be so, given that most movies aren't made specifically for the purpose of fitting perfectly into a blogger's marathon 27 years later. But I must say I'm frustrated to be writing a review of a leisurely character drama (gross) and not an actual bona fide Jane Austen movie. Oh well, it's not like I'm in a drought of those. 

Pictured: The scripts for every Jane Austen project in the late 90's.

Ruby in Paradise tells the tale of Ruby Lee Gissing (Ashley Judd in her first major film role), a young woman who leaves Tennessee after the death of her mother and takes up residence in an off-season Florida beach town. While urban decay and stagnation surround her, she finds a job, finds friends, finds a man, loses some of those things, and in general tries to find herself.

You know, like happens in Northanger Abbey.

Let's wrap up this Jane Austen shit right off the bat. As much as writer-director-editor Victor Nunez claims this inspiration, frankly I don't see it. There is an assortment of women and an assortment of men that Austen scholars have feebly tried to map onto the characters of Northanger, but it's a wasted effort. There is an extended sequence where Ruby picks a book out of the library of her lover Mike (Todd Field, who would go on to earn three Oscar nominations by directing Little Children in 2006) and that book so happens to be Northanger Abbey.

They do dwell on the book for longer than an average movie would (before moving on to quoting Emily Dickinson a whole bunch, and I wonder why they didn't claim this movie was based on her writing as well), but the biggest connection they make is that Catherine Morland is an unlikely heroine who doesn't come from means. Ruby goes "wow, just like me," completely ignoring that Catherine is also an utter fool who is frightened by a pile of receipts in the bottom of a wardrobe. It reeks of somebody striving for respectability but turning in a book report after reading only one sentence of the novel.

And boy, does Ruby in Paradise strive for respectability. I am shocked to learn that the film is not Victor Nunez's first directorial effort, because it reeks of a young scab fresh out of film school shoving all his big, deep philosophical ideas into one laconic screenplay. It does have a mature assuredness about the way it presents these ideas, where it's not in any rush to get anyplace, but the overused voiceover explaining all the themes of the movie is exhausting.

Dear Diary, all my thoughts are very Deep and Important.

Ruby in Paradise has another huge liability in the form of Mike, who thankfully isn't treated as some sort of great, world-defining love affair, but is still beyond irritating to spend time with. He's like Ryan Gosling in La La Land learned about negging, constantly exerting his superiority over the few comforts and enjoyments that Ruby has. I'm especially irritated by a scene where he forces her to watch shitty religious programming on TV, saying "I watched your crap, now you can watch mine." He didn't watch her crap. He complained loudly during a movie she took him to, then made her leave halfway through because he's a big drama queen. That's not putting in effort, Mike! You don't get brownie points! Also the sound effects of the unseen film they're watching feature both swords clashing and laser blasts, so frankly it's probably a 10 out of 10.

Maybe the movie is successful because I also felt like I went on a shitty date with Mike. But I feel like the screenplay is too willing to forgive him. Just because he's not assaulting her like her other shitty boyfriend doesn't mean they're automatically a good match.

But I digress. The visuals of the movie are strong. A particular standout for me is the opening credit sequence, a road trip presented as a view of the road behind the car, rather than in front. I feel like this is an excellent way to put a visual button on the way this movie chooses to be reflective and introspective rather than rushing forward into the vast expanse of narrative possibility. There's also a much more obvious metaphor of a bridge that was half torn down, leading to nowhere. We get it, Victor. But it's still well shot!

And then there's the reason anybody gave a shit about this movie in the first place (including Roger Ebert, who put it in his Top Ten for the year): Ashley Judd. She gives a terrific, measured performance that is all subtle interplay and reactions. Her one big dramatic scene is similarly held back, completely lacking in the self-indulgence that riddles the screenplay. You're compelled by the way a smile lightly plays across her lips, almost threatening to break her facade, or how hard you can see her trying to keep her composure in a moment of great torment.

I can't say I previously had any fondness for Judd (I couldn't name a single one of her films), but she blew me away here. Her performance alone is reason enough to seek out the movie, but for the Jane Austen completists out there, don't waste your time. This is a completely different, albeit good, experience than the one you're looking for.

TL;DR: Ruby in Paradise is a solid movie, but a shitty Jane Austen adaptation.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1049
Other Films Based on Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey (Foster, 1987)
Ruby in Paradise (Nunez, 1993)
Northanger Abbey (Jones, 2007)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Reviewing Jane: I Found Myself, By Insensible Degrees, Sincerely Fond Of Her

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2000
Director: Rajiv Menon
Cast: Tabu, Mammootty, Aishwarya Rai
Run Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

Now I wouldn't exactly say I am the most qualified critic to be reviewing Bollywood cinema, even though I spent the better part of this year familiarizing myself with the form before reviewing Aisha (I did this for fun, not for Aisha, but it's a happy coincidence nonetheless). But I am DEFINITELY not the most qualified critic to be reviewing Kollywood, the Indian Tamil-language cinema out of Kodambakkam. Although this particular entry, a Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility titled Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It), shares a lot of its DNA with the Bollywood films I have seen, there is a distinct dreamlike quality to the film that I will dive into in greater detail. I can't say for sure whether this is an aspect unique to Kandukondain Kandukondain or Tamil cinema in general, though I do hope I have further opportunity to educate myself on that.

I'm just saying, I will be approaching this review specifically as a Jane Austen adaptation rather than as a piece of Tamil cinema. I am completely ready to weather any criticism of me misunderstanding what it means to be the latter.

You should ALWAYS take any movie review with a grain of salt, but I'm just saying that in terms of personal experience you should perhaps trust my judgment on, say, 80's slashers, more than Indian musical romantic comedies, though both have given me great joy in my time.

The sensible Sowmya (Tabu) and the passionate Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai, who also starred in the Bollywood-style Bride & Prejudice in 2004, so I guess she found herself a niche) are two sisters in a palatial Indian estate whose mother is constantly trying to marry off. Sowmya worries that the gossip about her being unlucky might turn out to be true, because her first fiance committed suicide after an affair in America, and her new lover Manohar (Ajith Kumar) has refused to get married until he finishes his first film, which is beset with problems. Meenakshi, on the other hand, is aware that wounded veteran Bala (Mammootty) is hopelessly in love with her, but she spurns the older man in favor of the dashing banker Srikanth (Abbas), though she is unaware that his constant poetry-quoting and sweet nothings are partially an attempt to distract her from the fact business is on the brink of ruin.

When their grandfather dies, leaving the estate to a capricious uncle and his wife, who kick out the family, they must start from scratch. Sowmya finds menial work at a software company despite her great computer skills, and Bala helps Meenakshi get a job at a music college. 

Because one of her great talents, aside from crying, is singing.

What's truly remarkable about Kandukondain Kandukondain is that, despite the requisite 2 and a half hour run time, the plot moves at a blistering clip. Especially when it comes to the heaving drama of Meenakshi's storyline (which tracks, because she's the resident Marianne), hardly a minute goes by where she's not stumbling into some new disastrous predicament or other. Some of this might have to do with the interesting choice to rearrange the order of events from the novel, not plunging the sisters into poverty until about halfway through rather than at the very beginning. We get to spend time with their romantic travails before their sink into ruin and watch how those dynamics shift afterward as well. 

Despite playing it fast and loose with the chronology, this is actually the modernization of the material that captures the flow of the novel best, actually realizing every major moment of the romantic arcs rather than just paying lip service to "rich sisters are poor now, whoops." Perhaps one other reason the plot appears to move so quickly is the fact that it needs to squeeze itself between the extended musical numbers. This is hardly unusual from the Bollywood movies that I've seen, but Kandukondain Kandukondain has an even more fixed devotion to unreality. Although the Bollywood musical numbers I've seen could hardly give a rat's ass about things like visual geography or narrative realism (to their credit, I might add), Kandukondain Kandukondain does them one better by having its numbers take place in what I would almost describe as a dream space, transporting its characters to new locations entirely, ones that we've never seen before and never will again, rather than having song and dance break out in the general setting in which the film takes place.

It's like a series of music videos keep breaking into the movie and running away with the characters. Some of these videos are Salvador Dalí nightmares (Meenakshi's first solo song sees her accompanied by backup dancers in a series of increasingly surreal costumes, including blue and black body paint, elephant heads, and big flat masks of the same turbaned man), some of them are gothic romance (including a dream ballet in a crumbling castle), some are classic Hollywood (one takes place on a giant film set of a boat, even though the movie Manohar is making is about a train) and some are... on train tracks in front of the Sphinx? They average out at about six minutes long apiece, and they pepper the film with a surreal quality that is compounded by how many opportunities there are to have musical numbers in a 150-minute film.

I don't think I disliked it at all. In fact, I might have loved it. But I certainly don't fully understand it. It's languorous and weird, and not given clarity by the film's tendency to transition between completely unrelated scenes introduced by characters we've never met with reckless abandon, but the music is generally pleasant and while the dancing is not particularly inspired, especially by the standards of what I have seen come out of Indian choreographers, it's certainly an inimitable experience.

Look, I've seen a loooot of movies. If you give me something I haven't seen before, that counts for a lot. Even if it's... whatever this is.

Even though the storytelling frequently leaves me flummoxed, the visual eye that brings the musical numbers together is clearly at play during the dialogue scenes as well. There's a beautiful, heart-rending sequence at the grandfather's funeral that fades to the workers cleaning his funeral petals off the floor in an empty ballroom, and the camera sometimes launches into wild positions to match the mood of the scene, capturing lonely anguish from an isolating bird's eye view or diving deep beneath the water when you least expect it.

Kandukondain Kandukondain also hits the mark by once again showing that Jane Austen's works, despite the tutting of certain pretentious folks who take her work altogether too seriously (this coming from a guy who's reviewed 26 movies based on her novels), are hilarious romantic comedies. The film embraces that spirit with moments like the wacky Hollywood satire on Manohar's film set, a romantic moment involving Sowmya being hit in the eye with a piece of paper, or a scene of mistaken identity that provides a cringe-inducing spot of mirth.

Altogether there is a lot to like, and perhaps even love, about Kandukondain Kandukondain. I certainly have my doubts about lifting it into the rafters as a minted classic Austen adaptation (once again, the age difference between the Colonel Brandon and Marianne characters doesn't translate too too far past the 1800's), but as a detour into an avenue of cinema I didn't even know existed until turning it on, it was certainly a delight.

TL;DR: Kandukondain Kandukondain is a spellbinding experience, despite its many eccentricities.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1297
Other Films Based on Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995)
Kandukondain Kandukondain (Menon, 2000)
Material Girls (Coolidge, 2006)
From Prada to Nada (Gracia, 2011)
Scents and Sensibility (Brough, 2011)
Sense, Sensibility, and Snowmen (Winning, 2019)

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Reviewing Jane: Without Music, Life Would Be A Blank To Me

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2010
Director: Rajshree Ojha
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Abhay Deol, Amrita Puri
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

Bollywood and Jane Austen are a match made in heaven. A modern culture with strict class divides that retains some focus on arranging marriages, and a romantic comedy art form that expresses this culture which spends a large amount of time focusing on dance? Yeah, it's no surprise Hindi cinema and Austen's novels found each other. Our first experience with this intersection was the sublime Bride & Prejudice (which, to be fair, was an English film with an Indian director and cast that is more inspired by Bollywood than strictly belonging to it, but an excellent example nonetheless).

Today we alight upon Aisha, an adaptation of Emma. I approached it cautiously, because it is a fool's errand to assume any movie will be as good as Bride & Prejudice, let alone merely because they share the same country of origin.

Smart move, Brennan.

Aisha tells the story of - you guessed it - Aisha (Sonam Kapoor), a layabout rich daddy's girl from Delhi who struts the shops with her best friend Pinky (Ira Dubey). When charity case Shefali (Amrita Puri) arrives in Delhi from her home in a neighboring village, Aisha decides to make her over and fix her up with confectionary heir Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar). Of course this goes horribly awry, and Aisha finds herself scolded as ever by family friend Arjun (Abhay Deol), with whom she has a very antagonistic relationship that may or may not blossom into love, no spoilers.

JK, it totally does.

Anyway, first, Aisha must find herself entangled even further in the love lives of her friends, becoming especially complicated when the handsome Dhruv (Arunoday Singh) comes to town.

Additionally, for the Austen scholars out there, while Dhruv is pretty clearly our analogue for Frank Churchill, once more the character of Jane Fairfax seems to have been removed, this time replaced with the general idea of the city of Mumbai. Poor Jane Fairfax.

Emma is a particularly challenging novel to bring to the screen, so it's a very pleasant surprise that we've already gotten two masterpieces from it (1995's Clueless and Autumn de Wilde's Emma. from earlier this year, though it feels a lifetime ago). So I'm not exactly disappointed that Aisha is terminally mediocre. It's better than being actively painful to watch, cough cough Gwyneth Paltrow. 

In fact, it's almost annoying that nothing in the movie is particularly bad. If it had been, it might at least have made more of an impression on me. OK, the score is pretty bad, with its overreliance on saccharine Looney Tunes marimbas to really nail in that this. is. a. COMEDY. But beyond that, it's just plain plain. It doesn't help that I could recite the plot of Emma in my sleep at this point, but maybe that's not even an unfair bias because this movie nakedly cribs from Clueless more than the actual source text (see: the scene where they're on the couch fighting over the remote, the scene where she is left stranded in an unsafe neighborhood and needs to be picked up, the fact that she has a best friend/sidekick in the first place, etc. etc. etc.). The one place where it strays from the template of either work is the scene that gives Shefali a bit more grit in standing up for herself than any Harriet analogue has ever been given.

But whatever text it's using, it relies on it too much to make the romance click. Aisha gives a heartfelt speech in the end detailing all the ways Arjun has helped her in her life, bringing up a heap of examples that haven't been depicted or even hinted at in the film. We know they're meant to be together because of the source material, rather than the pair of them actually having any chemistry.

I have nothing against the performances in particular, it's just that Aisha is particularly obsessed with keeping its leads separate from one another, even for an Austen tale.

But here's the thing. A theory I have developed over the course of reviewing over two dozen Austen adaptations is that the obligatory big dance scene is the key to whether or not a film has any drive to craft a valuable cinematic experience rather than just blow Austen's story up onscreen and go through the motions with little thought to making a film object that's interesting in any way. Seeing as how dance is key to the language of Bollywood filmmaking, I thought this would be a home run. And it is, briefly. Oh so briefly. 

Aisha and her friends visit a club that turns into a sexy, chaotic, colorful Hindi tango where partner-switching mayhem leaves Aisha alone in a twirling maelstrom of bodies. Through motion and music, the dynamics between the characters are brought to light, in the manner of the best Austen adaptations. Unfortunately, every other musical moment leaves a lot to be desired, so it recklessly dilutes the power of this moment. 

The other music is presented lackadaisically, plastered over endless music video montages that do nothing to further the story (one of them is a particularly craven three minute L'Oréal ad), and the ever-important finale number that graces even most music-free Bollywood flicks is, to be frank, abysmal. It's flatly choreographed, shot and edited in a confusing flurry, and is plastered over with a poorly mixed song that's largely a cappella, leaving the poor actors to flounder, attempting to dance cheerily over a track that literally doesn't even have a beat. 

Let's call this an exception to my theory. Most Austen films only have one opportunity to present us with dance, and live or die on that opportunity. Here we are given a cool half dozen, and one successful scene doesn't lift up the tiresome mass of the rest. Such is the way with the movie as a whole. Altogether most of the ideas here aren't terrible, they just aren't aiming high enough. They might clear the low bar to exist as a mildly enjoyable Austen adaptation, but they graze the bar with their foot and faceplant right into the mat in the process.

TL;DR: Aisha does the bare minimum to exist as either a Jane Austen adaptation or a Bollywood romantic comedy.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1076
Other Films Based on Emma
Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)
Emma (McGrath, 1996)
Emma (Lawrence, 1996)
Aisha (Ojha, 2010)
Emma. (de Wilde, 2020)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Reviewing Jane: I Am Only Kept Back By My Natural Awkwardness

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2006
Director: Martha Coolidge
Cast: Hilary Duff, Haylie Duff, Anjelica Huston 
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

We have had an unusually high number of female directors in this movie marathon, even considering that being a Jane Austen adaptation lands you squarely in Hollywood's "chick flick" corner, where they sometimes, grudgingly, let women have jobs. Most of the genre's best entries have come from women, surprise surprise. And Material Girls, the 2006 modernization of Sense and Sensibility that seems to have kicked off a small glut of copycat adaptations in the late 2000's, didn't lack a pedigree. It comes from director Martha Coolidge, after all, of the original Valley Girl

But here's the thing. I don't really like the original Valley Girl, and stars Hilary and Haylie Duff are no Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage.

Material Girls is the story of sisters Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Ava (Haylie Duff) Marchetta, two ditsy Paris Hilton analogues who are the faces of their late father's makeup line. When a recall scandal hits the company's newest product, hawkish cosmetics mogul Fabiella Du Mont (Anjelica Huston) seeks to buy the company out from under them. The girls are left with nothing, forced to live with their former maid Inez (Maria Conchita Alonso), and build themselves back up from the ground up. Just kidding, they do what rich people do and cause chaos while never really actually suffering, but they do have to ride the bus. Despicable!

Also there's some men in their lives. Pro bono lawyer Henry (Lukas Haas) and chemist Rick (Marcus Coloma) both help them along their journeys. I didn't see fit to mention him here, but also Brent Spiner is skulking around playing the oily businessman in charge of the company's interests.

But why did I even bother listing any other cast members? ANJELICA HUSTON is in the movie, people! This is not a drill!

Would you believe that Material Girls opens with Hilary and Haylie Duff embalming a cover of a Madonna song beneath a heavy layer of shiny mid-2000's pop lacquer? Guess which song!

The movie exists as a vehicle for the Duff sisters, not so much for their talents, but rather as an excuse to hold them up to the light to let them sparkle and distract tweens for 100 minutes. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, it's just that nobody else making the movie bothered to give the girls any sort of support system, including - let me check my notes - a screenplay.

Instead, we get a parade of gags that indulge in the basest instincts of mid-2000's film comedy. Suicide jokes, multiple queer characters who exist only to be mocked, and gags about nose jobs and eating disorders are just the tip of the iceberg here. 

Are you sold yet?

I think I've discovered the flaw of Jane Austen's work that has allowed for so many mediocre modernizations. Her most popular novels have become so iconic they can be boiled down to a simple log line that everyone knows, so nobody has to actually read them. That's how we get a million Pride and Prejudice clones that toss a vaguely handsome man named "Darcy" at a woman and have them not get along at first before falling in love. The world has accepted that this is what Pride and Prejudice is about, ignoring the nuances of the storyline and characters.

The same tragic fate has befallen Sense and Sensibility. "Sisters were rich and now they are poor" is an absolute brutalization of that sharp, shimmering satire, and not even all the movies can get that right. Let us not forget Sense and Sensibility and Snowmen, which is about sisters... and one of them doesn't get along with a guy at first before they fall in love. 

Sadly, Material Girls opts to fill everything around that paper thin log line with bloviating nonsense and references skimmed off the very surface of contemporary culture. Martha Coolidge might have directed herself an iconic teen movie once upon a time, but that time has passed and Clueless this ain't.

TL;DR: Material Girls is a shallow, unaffecting, unsurprisingly loose adaptation of an Austen classic.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 717
Other Films Based on Sense and Sensibility
Material Girls (Coolidge, 2006)
From Prada to Nada (Gracia, 2011)
Scents and Sensibility (Brough, 2011)

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Census Bloodbath: The Lunatic Is In The Hall

Year: 1982
Director: Jack Sholder
Cast: Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau 
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Up until now, I've been going through 1982 in pretty much chronological order, but I just had to skip ahead for two reasons: 1) I'm going to be speaking about this movie with the Keep Screaming podcast in about a month. 2) Alone in the Dark is the film on my remaining 1982 list that enjoys the loftiest reputation, so I seized onto it like a life raft, in a fit of desperation after a couple real stinkers.

Time to see if I made the right decision.

Alone in the Dark is perhaps the most diffuse slasher we've ever covered because it focuses on no less than four different killers, the psychopaths who populate the third floor of an asylum in sleepy Springwood. New psychologist Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz) has moved into town with his wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall) and daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), and are soon visited by his nuclear activist sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan), who is recovering from her own mental breakdown.

At work, Dan meets the psychopaths: Frank Hawkes (the Jack Palance), a veteran who is the de facto leader of the group; Preacher (the Martin Landau), a man who constantly lets loose a stream of religious fundamentalist babble; Fatty (Erland van Lidth), a child molester; and The Bleeder, who doesn't like to show his face (leading him to wear a pre-Friday the 13th hockey mask) but gets a nosebleed whenever he strangles his victims.

They are kept in bounds by an electric security system manned by the hippy dippy Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence), who thinks the world is the place that's crazy and the people under his care are "voyagers" into new spaces of the mind. Of course, there's a blackout and the killers are released. After a murder spree, they focus their sights on Dr. Potter, who they think has killed their former doctor, who just left for another job.

Donald Pleasence really needs to stop being hired to be in charge of mental patients, he really can NOT keep track of them.

Alone in the Dark is a curious beast. You've already seen the ways the structure breaks from the established slasher norm (and after the landmark year of 1981, which saw the release of literally dozens of theatrical slasher movies), and it breaks down even further when it becomes a home invasion/siege movie in the third act. But it was also the first film produced by a little distribution company known as New Line Cinema, which would eventually strike gold two years later with the release of an indie cheapie called A Nightmare on Elm Street.

An indie cheapie that would spawn a litany of sequels, the first of which was directed by Jack Sholder of... Alone in the Dark. Dude kept himself a job. 

And while your mileage on Freddy's Revenge may vary, the opening scene of Alone in the Dark is more than enough to prove to me how he got the gig. It's a dream from Preacher's perspective that takes place in a generic small town diner which slowly devolves into surreality, from a frog hopping across the counter to rain suddenly pouring from the ceiling. It's an impeccably crafted scene that has nothing to do with the remainder of the movie, but that doesn't mean it's not effective as a little capsule of nightmare fuel.

And I can't say I'm not grateful for this image.

I mostly get what Alone in the Dark is going for. It's attempting to show that Dr. Bain is right: the world we live in is crazy, and maybe those who society sees fit to put away aren't the ones we should be afraid of. The second the blackout occurs, the looting and rioting begins (this is apparently based on real incidents at the time as well), and the movie spends a lot of town fleshing out Toni's nuclear protest and the live wire rock 'n roll music that fuels her. Violence and chaos are everywhere in 1982, not just in the psychos behind the mask. But this is a slasher movies and they do need to chop up people, so they're really trying to have their cake and eat it too.

The place they're most successful is actually with the character Fatty, whose crimes are most irredeemable. However, his arc implies that he might actually be attempting to improve himself as a human being, and his inevitable eventual death is given the most heartbreaking coda. 

So this is all interesting, if not particularly well-executed. Unfortunately the slasher movie elements are worth far less. The gore budget on this film is nil, so a lot of the bloodier kills are edited into ribbons, giving the vaguest impression of what is even happening. I know down below, my description for kill #3 sounds very confident, but I have about 10% clarity on what actually happened beyond a vague slashing motion and a gob of goo that represents a completely illegible mystery internal organ.

And Jason wore it better, too.

And this is all presented rather plainly. Beyond the first sequence, the only moment that shows any sense of flair is a shot of Toni slowly drifting across the room to close an open window while absolute hell breaks loose behind her in deep focus. Also, I'm not going to complain about a movie that gets such heavy-hitters to play its killers. Unfortuantely, they're poorly written personalities and aren't given enough screen time to really ham it up. Thus, the character that emerges as truly iconic is a horny teen neighbor mysteriously named Bunky (Carol Levy), who gives the bizarre snack-devouring girl in Death Valley a run for her money as my favorite Census Bloodbath babysitter.

The way it all shakes out, I think I liked this film. But I'm incredibly far from loving it. It's fun to see the trends in horror (and New Line specifically) it's predicting, but pretty much everything on display here would be perfected later in the cycle.

Killer: Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance), Preacher (Martin Landau), Fatty (Erland van Lidth), and The Bleeder
Final Girl: The whole Potter family
Sign of the Times: When Toni first shows up, she is dressed like Hello Kitty joined the Cobra Kai dojo.
Best Kill: I love when the lieutenant is attached to a tree via crossbow bolt to the gut, because it's one of the only truly good effects and also it's the moment that really launches the movie into high adrenaline mode until the credits roll.
Scariest Moment: Lyla is cornered by Fatty who starts trying to groom her while they're alone together in her house.
Weirdest Moment: The asylum's post-blackout roll call includes the names David and Lisa.
Champion Dialogue: "What are you, some kind of asshole?"
Body Count: 12; committed by a good half dozen characters.
  1. Curtis has his back broken over Fatty's knee.
  2. Larkin has his head punched through a car window.
  3. Looter has his larynx removed with a hand rake.
  4. Mailman is hit with a van.
  5. Billy is killed offscreen.
  6. Bunky is lifted into the air and strangled.
  7. Lt. Burnett is shot in the gut with a crossbow.
  8. Dr. Leo Bain is axed.
  9. Fatty is cleavered in the back and the cleaver is hit with a bat.
  10. Tom is stabbed in the gut.
  11. Preacher is stabbed in the back.
  12. Bouncer has his head smashed against a wall.
TL;DR: Alone in the Dark does enough off-template stuff to distinguish itself, but it's not a particularly energetic slasher.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1274