Saturday, March 26, 2011

"You've transfixed me quite..." ~ JANE EYRE

British stories and literature are one of the few things I find that I can like several film adaptations of. I have two versions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Pride and Prejudice and I love both the versions of these for different reasons. This is the third version of Jane Eyre I’ve seen. The first was a BBC mini-series that was horrendous, and the second was the 1996 film with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. I absolutely loved that version, but I think the latest adaption released this year at the hand of director Cary Fukunaga tells the story in the most original and hauntingly beautiful way yet.

The first thing I want to mention is the title role of Jane Eyre. I was absolutely blown away by Mia Wasikowska. Though I’ve liked her since her birth into the film world, she didn’t really show what she was fully capable of until this role. She was meant to be Jane Eyre. She also nailed the Northern English accent, which only added to the endearment of her portrayal.

Now perhaps it’s just the fact that I am a woman, or my own experiences in matters of the heart, or just the emotional state I was in when I watched this, but Mia’s performance hit every note and key of my heart. She was electrifying, utterly believable, and completely convincing. Until this performance I had never fully grasped what the conditions and circumstances penned by Charlotte Bronte actually did the character, and that’s what Mia brought to it. Every time Rochester ignored her, or flirted with stupid, silly other women, or any time he would do something dangerously romantic she showed it in her voice and throughout her entire body from her eyes to her hands. It almost took my breath away to watch her in certain scenes because I was like, “Dear God, I know exactly what she’s feeling.” And it was almost awful to relive, but that, my friends, is the power of good acting. I know next Oscar season is miles away, but if people have any sense they won’t forget her then.

There was a subtle, yet excruciatingly potent sensuality in the film. You have a man in his “prime” and a young lady just into full womanhood. The difference brings a set of hormonal and emotional strain that is absolutely bewitching. It wasn’t immodest or improper in actuality, but it definitely flirted with the line drawn between those things. Films like this have a much “hotter” sense of passion than films filled with erotic sex scenes. Less is more, and usually far more poignant. The scene after Jane saves Rochester from the fire in his bedroom was a part that stands out in particular. He leaves to go deal with the “fire-starter,” telling Jane to stay in his room. He has given her his coat, and when he returns she is curled up in it and drawing it to her nose taking in the scent. Then he thanks her and takes her hand and they get so close it’s practically exploding with tension. She tells him she’s going back to her room because she’s cold, but when she gets there she sighs and begins to untie her nightgown as if she’s hot, well the audience was too! *laughs*

Michael Fassbender is a suave, and sharp version of Rochester. Although Rochester is pretty much kind of a jerk since he was written, he isn’t quite so unsympathetic as this version portrayed. My one complaint was that this film needed to develop him and all his mysteries more. Jane is so unbelievably well-developed and you really feel her plight, but for those who watch this film not already knowing the story, he comes off a bit different due to a lack in background and expansion of character.

My favorite scene in any version of this story is Jane and Rochester’s “fireside talk” where they banter back and forth in wit and Spartan-like honesty. The dialogue is superb. These are two people who are simple and plain in looks but completely leveled in mind and spirit. Their differences and headstrong attitudes begin to fence in an elegant duel that has no winner, for both are equal. That is why Rochester loves Jane and in declaring his love for her calls her his equal. Even though Rochester has his issues, this part of their love story is enthralling to me. True love and romance is nothing if not two people, equal and alike in mind and spirit, finding their mate. So in this way, I find Charlotte Bronte a genius. She scripted a cranky and selfish rich man with a plain, young governess. The concept would seem boring on the surface, but she made their romance sensational with the power of mind and heart. Brilliance.

Roger Ebert said in his review of the film: "...voluptuous visuals and ambitious art direction,” and he’s right. I have watched more period pieces than I can count, and this one had a special presence I’ve never experienced before. Part of what made this version so spectacular is the production design. Mr. Rochester’s main “sitting room” with the long dining table, decorative piano, and chairs was stunning. The whole time I coveted everything and kept whispering “I want that! I want that!” The costumes kept to their simple, gothic roots but added an extra flair that made them stand out and be noticed. Even Jane’s wedding dress, which you would think is a bright and happy thing, felt cold and foreboding thanks to the design setting the perfect mood. To marry the production design perfectly, they had outstanding cinematography which bound the story and each intense scene in tight threads of art. Throw a dark and brooding score of woeful strings on top of all of this and you have one delicious film.

There wasn’t one facet that wasn’t wholly drenched in talent. Editing is such an art, but a lot of times it’s rare to see distinct styles of editing in this genre. I was so happy to find that both the script writer and the editor helped make this version unique and unforgettable by starting the story backward and telling 80% of it in flashback. The film is more than just another remake, it has strong legs to stand on its own. I am hoping to add both the Jane Eyre films I love to my collection of British double-takes in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Best On-screen Kisses #2

I guess this is a fairy tale week for me (one of many I'm sure)...

Best On-screen Kisses #2: Penelope and Johnny (Max) from Penelope.

Penelope is a very underrated film. Is it the greatest thing ever? By no means, but for what it’s supposed to be, a contemporary fairy tale, it’s perfect. The story is simple, cute, even cliché, but rich with new approaches and whimsical production design. The costumes are colorful, vibrant and combine several eras of style and design. The sets are imaginary and completely unique amongst any in their type also blending Grimm Brothers décor in a modern setting. As an artist who is fond of combining time periods and different genres in the same movie, Penelope really hits home for me.

For background, Penelope is a blue-blooded girl whose family has been long accursed that the next daughter in their line would be born with the face of a pig. Unfortunately, this fell upon her. The only way to break the curse is to find another blue-blood (aka: rich, upper-class person) to accept her and love her in spite of her looks. It’s a classic Beauty and the Beast reversal.

Penelope is played by the actress who never seems to age, the gorgeous and eccentric Christina Ricci. Though she is nearly 30 at the time of this film’s production, she inhabits the looks and behaviors of a much younger girl flawlessly. Her adorable performance is guaranteed to enchant anyone who watches.

Penelope becomes entangled with Max played by the ridiculously talented James McAvoy. Once again, McAvoy superbly hides his thick, Scottish accent in an American guise. Max is really down-and-out gambler named Johnny, but in an effort to earn money he goes undercover as a blue-blood in an effort to get a picture of Penelope and a fat wad of cash. Of course, he soon realizes his wrong doing in this, and after hurting her (and himself) greatly, he has to clean up and redeem himself.

I’ll skip all the stuff that happens in between their separation and reunion, because hopefully you’ll have seen the film yourself, if you haven’t, beware of spoilers. In the end Penelope breaks the curse herself and Johnny gives up his life of gambling, but also loses all hope of ever getting to be with her. When she finds out the honorable things he’s done to fix the mess, she goes looking for him. It’s Halloween and she’s dressed as, well, herself complete with a pig-face mask. She thinks she’s in disguise but it’s pretty obvious he knows it’s her from the moment she stops by. Once she gives herself away completely, he rushes to her impulsively and kisses her.

Now maybe it’s just the gorgeous song “Hoppipolla” by Wenzel Templeton & Robert Pegg that plays when this happens right through to the end of the film, but it’s more than that. It’s the way he runs and grabs her without hesitation or forethought. I know this sounds silly, but more than one female peer of mine has said after watching this film that they would love to be kissed like that. For a man to drop all his guard and inhibition and say everything while saying nothing. You can almost feel the fireworks going on inside the characters when you watch this happen, as if their passion could be rippled across as lake to the audience, and that, for me, is the sign of a perfect kiss.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas: Red Riding Hood

When watching films people are, more often than not, either doing one of two things....

The first is nitpicking everything so much that it’s un-enjoyable and we veil all the good characteristics of a film in our fog of pessimism. The other is turning into a vegetable and using little to no brain power as we watch, allowing us to be indifferent to the brilliance, or the garbage of it. Both of these approaches are wrong.

Though I’ve been guilty myself, I strive to dig into films, to separate the chaff from the harvest, looking for both what is wonderful and what is abysmal. Red Riding Hood is a film that presented a good opportunity for that. I had no hope for the film either way, so I was neither surprised nor disappointed. However, as I thought about it a day later, I realized there was much I could dig into. Red Riding Hood is a classic example of when bad things happen to good ideas.

I love fairy tales. I always have. They have shaped the way I think and the way I tell my stories. They are all so different and every version of them is filled with new insights and delights. I love their ridiculous premises, dark style, romantic nature, and above all symbolism and messages. The idea of retelling the red riding hood story as a dark, gothic romance thrills me, but sadly this movie does not live up to the par it ought to. Something like this should be a movie-maker’s dream. The shell of the story is already there, and you get to expand on it in your own way. Just like the storytellers of old, you get to have a version of the fairy-tale while still connecting yours with the string of others in the recognizable foundation. 

Amanda Seyfried is cast as Valerie or “red riding hood.” I really like Amanda Seyfried. She doesn’t necessarily always choose great projects, but she does have great potential. I think pushed by the right directors she could transform entirely. Quite obviously, she’s gorgeous. Her eyes will suck you right into the screen. She has an otherworldly quality that is inhibited by our modern trends and society. She has Elvish, even alien-like beauty and when she’s cast in roles (like this one) it really shows. I hope she’ll do more period pieces or fantastical films.

The film has too much going on; it's too busy. It wastes time with several soap-opera-like subplots which could have been handled in less superfluous ways. Part of the sin in this is that they do too much telling and not enough showing. They have a character tell back story, and so quickly if you blink you might miss it. That is fine to do, but it also needs to show and be implied by the action, the mood, or anything physically and visually present in the film. I don’t feel satisfied at all. The story could have, should have, gone deeper. I love the idea of transforming a fairy tale from it’s one-page origins into an epic and compelling story, but using soap-opera drama is NOT the way to do that.

The script is bad, and in my opinion is what makes the film subpar. The lines are dull and two-dimensional which rob the actors in a lot of ways. The two guys who are her “love interests,” Max Irons as Peter and Shiloh Fernandez as Henri, are completely flat and both lack any real chemistry with her. Now, this could be because of their uninspiring script and lines like “I could eat you up…” *gag* or they could just be flat actors, but in this film there’s no way to tell.

There was really only had one line in the whole thing I thought was worthy... When Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) comes to the town to help them kill the wolf, he explains that his wife was one and for years he never knew. One night the truth came out and he had to kill her. They begin to point fingers in the town accusing people of being the wolf, one of the accused is a mentally handicap boy named Claude. Valerie steps forth to defend him shouting, “It’s not him, I know him!” and Solomon grabs her and says, “Better than I knew my own wife?” Now maybe it was just Gary’s awesome delivery, but to me that line stands out because it was short and incontrovertible. When you are married, you know a person to every last detail. You know them. So in saying that with one quick and powerful sentence, it hits like a sledgehammer that she has no case with her pleas. 

The film is only an hour and forty minutes and should have been longer. I hate that in our ADD society we rush through films and complain about their shallow nature afterward, instead of fixing the problem. There is so much to develop in this story, characters, relationships, and definitely the setting. Father Solomon is the most prominent character, but even he had so much more to delve into. This film, like so many, needs to take out meaningless scenes and shots and replace them with purposeful ones. Give the characters something to do, to say, and to be that has significance to the story. Don’t have anything in the script or the camera that doesn’t matter. 

Catherine Hardwicke directed, and one thing I really like about her films is her style through cinematography. It’s rough and edgy, but smooth and sultry at the same time which is not easy to do. She captures the physical essence of people and place wonderfully. She makes the most of the scenery and uses every last drop of its beauty. 

But along with capturing the physical essence you need to work with writers who can fill in the rest. This film has all the visual aspects on full burners: lush setting and design, simple and beautiful costumes, especially that red hood, amazing posters and concept art, fantastic cinematography, and, for all that, it still fails simply because the story is poorly developed and the script doesn't do its job. Always remember W.I.P! (Writing is Power) As I mentioned previously, it’s not the only film that is guilty of this crime, but the trouble is if we don’t speak up about it, we’re doomed to be stuck with strings of physically beautiful movies with no substance where it counts.

Stay tuned for our next episode of When Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas....