Thursday, January 31, 2013

"SYLVIA" (2003) Review

"SYLVIA" (2003) Review
I finally watched "SYLVIA", the 2003 biography on poet Sylvia Plath, on DVD. After all I have heard about the movie, I had expected to be disappointed by it. To be truthful, I found it quite interesting biopic that was especially enhanced by the leads' performances. But . . . "SYLVIA" was not a perfect film.

Set between the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, "SYLVIA" told the story of Plath's marriage to fellow poet, British-born Ted Hughes, their tumultuous relationship and her struggles to maintain a career. The movie's revelation of the Plath/Hughes courtship, followed by their marriage turned out to be very interesting and rather intense. "SYLVIA" also did an excellent job in re-capturing the literary and academic world in both the United States and Great Britain that Plath and Hughes interacted with during the 1950s and early 1960s.

I suspect that many had expected John Brownlow's screenplay to take sides in its portrayal of the couple's problems and eventual breakup. To Brownlow and director Christine Jeffs' credit, the movie avoided this route. There were no heroes/heroines and villains/villainesses in their story . . . just two people who had failed to create a successful marriage. "SYLVIA" revealed that Hughes' infidelity with married writer and poet, Assia Wevill, the critical indifference of the male-dominated literary world and her own bouts with depression made life difficult for Plath during her last years. At the same time, the movie made it clear that Hughes struggled to deal with a depressed and suicidal wife. In the end, the movie presented the possibility that both Plath and Hughes had contributed their breakup.

To be honest, I think that Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig's performances as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had more to do with the movie's main virtue than Jeffs' direction or Brownlow's script. director, Christine Jeffs or the screenwriter, John Brownlow. Also, the movie featured some first-rate performances from the supporting cast. All of them - Jared Harris as poet/literary critic Al Alvarez; Blythe Danner as Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother; Amira Casar as Wevill; and Michael Gambon as Teacher Thomas, a neighbor of Sylvia's; gave able support. But it is obvious that this movie belonged to Paltrow and Craig, who conveyed the intensity of the Plath/Hughes marriage with an honesty and rawness that I sometimes found hard to bear.

But even those two were not able to save the movie's last half hour from almost sinking into an abyss of unrelenting boredom. I suspect that Jeffs and Brownlow wanted to give moviegoers an in-depth look at Plath's emotional descent into suicide, following the break-up of her marriage to Hughes. But I wish they could have paced the movie's ending a little better than what had been shown in the finale. The movie's last half hour nearly dragged the story to a standstill.

Despite the last half hour, I would still recommend "SYLVIA". In the end, it turned out to be a pretty interesting look into the marriage of the two famous poets, thanks to director Christine Jeffs, John Brownlow's screenplay and a first-rate cast. But I believe that performances of both Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig proved to be the best aspects of the film.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"MAD MEN" RETROSPECT: (1.07) "Red in the Face"

"MAD MEN" RETROSPECT: (1.07) "Red in the Face"

Due to some sense of nostalgia, I decided to break out my "MAD MEN" Season One DVD set and watch an episode. The episode in question turned out to be the seventh one, (1.07) "Red in the Face"

After watching "Red in the Face", it occurred to me that its main theme centered around some of the main characters' childish behavior. I say "some of the characters", because only a few managed to refrain from such behavior - Sterling Cooper's co-owner Bert Cooper; Office Manager Joan Holloway; and Helen Bishop, a divorcée that happens to be a neighbor of the Drapers. I do not recall Cooper behaving childishly during the series' last four seasons. Helen Bishop merely reacted as any neighbor would when faced with a situation regarding her nine year-old son and a neighbor. As for Joan, she had displayed her own brand of childishness (of the vindictive nature) in episodes before and after "Red in the Face". But in this episode, she managed to refrain herself.

I cannot deny that I found this episode entertaining. And I believe it was mainly due John Slattery's performance as Roger Sterling, Sterling-Cooper's other owner. In scene after scene, Slattery conveyed Roger's penchant for childishness - proposing an illicit weekend to Joan, resentment toward the female attention that Don Draper managed to attract at a Manhattan bar, making snipes at the younger man's background during an impromptu dinner with the Drapers, making sexual advances at Betty Draper, and gorging on a very unhealthy lunch. That is a lot for one episode. Roger's behavior served to convey a middle-aged man stuck in personal stagnation. Even worse, he has remained in this situation up to the latest season. And Slattery managed to convey these tragic aspects of Roger's character with his usual fine skills.

Jon Hamm fared just as well with another first-rate performance as the series' protagonist, Don Draper. In "Red in the Face", Hamm revealed Don's immature and bullying nature behind his usual smooth, charismatic and secretive personality. This was especially apparent in a scene that Hamm shared with January Jones, in which Don accused his wife Betty of flirting with Roger. And Don's less admirable nature was also apparent in the joke that he pulled on Roger in the episode's final scenes. Speaking of Betty, January Jones also did a top-notch job in those scenes with Hamm. She also gave an excellent performance in Betty's confrontation with Don, following the dinner with Roger; and her conversation with neighbor Francine about her desire to attract attention. I have noticed that most of the series' fans seemed to regard Betty as a child in a woman's body. Granted, Betty had her childish moments in the episode - especially during her confrontation with neighbor Helen Bishop at a local grocery store. But I have always harbored the opinion that she is no more or less childish than the other main characters. This episode seemed to prove it. One last performance that stood out came from Vincent Kartheiser as the young Accounts executive Pete Campbell. To this day, I do not understand why he is the only major cast member who has never received an acting nomination for an Emmy or Golden Globe. Because Kartheiser does such a terrific job as the ambiguous Pete. His complexity seemed apparent in "Red in the Face". In one scene, he tried to exchange a rather ugly wedding gift for something more dear to his heart - a rifle. His attempt to exchange the gift seemed to feature Pete as his most childish. Yet, he also seemed to be the only Sterling Cooper executive who understood the advertising value of John F. Kennedy's youthful persona during the 1960 Presidential election.

Earlier, I had commented on how screenwriter Bridget Bedard's use of childish behavior by some of the main characters as a major theme for "Red in the Face". I have noticed that once this behavior is apparent; Roger, Don, Betty and Pete are left humiliated or "red in the face" after being exposed. Betty's decision to give a lock of hair to Helen Bishop's nine year-old son in (1.04) "New Amsterdam" led to a confrontation between the two women at a grocery store and a slap delivered by Betty after being humiliated by Helen. If I had been Betty, I would have admitted that giving young Glen a lock of her hair was a mistake, before pointing out Glen's habit of entering a private bathroom already in use. And Pete's decision to trade the ugly-looking chip-and-dip for a rifle led to being berated over the telephone by his new wife, Trudy. Only a conversation with Peggy Olson, Don's secretary, about his fantasies as a hunter could alleviate his humiliation. During the Drapers' dinner party with Roger, the latter noted that Don's habit of slipping his "Gs" indicated a rural upbringing - a revelation that left Don feeling slightly humiliated. And after accusing Betty of flirting with Roger, she retaliated with a snide comment about his masculinity. Don tried to retaliate by calling her a child, but Betty's stoic lack of response only fed his humiliation even more. However, he did get even with Roger by setting up the latter with a cruel practical joke that involved a falsely inoperative elevator and a heavy lunch that included oysters and cheesecake. Although the joke left Don feeling smug and vindicated, I was left more convinced than ever of his penchant for childish behavior. Aside from feeling humiliated by a pair of young females' attention toward Don, Roger managed to coast through most of the episode without paying a price for his behavior. In the end, he suffered the biggest humiliation via his reaction to Don's joke - by vomiting in front of prospective clients.

"Red in the Face" featured many scenes that I found entertaining - especially the impromptu dinner party given by the Drapers for Roger Sterling. But if I must be honest, I did not find it particularly impressive. Although "Red in the Face" offered viewers a negative aspects of four of the main characters, I do not believe it did nothing to advance any of the stories that began at the beginning of the season. I must also add that Betty's confrontation with Helen Bishop seemed out of place in this episode. While watching it, I had the distinct impression that this scene, along with Betty and Francine's conversation, should have been added near the end of "New Amsterdam". By including it in "Red in the Face", it almost seemed out of place.

I could never regard "Red in the Face" as one of the best episodes of Season One or the series. But I cannot deny that thanks to performances by John Slattery, Jon Hamm, January Jones and Vincent Kartheiser, I found it entertaining.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"THE AVENGERS" (2012) Photo Gallery

Below are images from "THE AVENGERS", the new movie featuring Marvel Comics superheroes.  The movie was directed by Joss Whedon:

"THE AVENGERS" (2012) Photo Gallery

Friday, January 25, 2013

"EMMA" (1972) Review

"EMMA" (1972) Review

I am aware of at least four adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel, "Emma". But I have noticed that the one adaptation that rarely attracts the attention of the novelist's fans is the 1972 BBC miniseries, "EMMA".  

Directed by John Glenister and adapted by Denis Constanduros, "EMMA" told the story of the precocious younger daughter of a wealthy landowner that resides near the village of Highbury. Emma Woodhouse imagines herself to be naturally gifted matchmaker, following her self-declared success in arranging a love match between her governess and Mr. Weston, a village widower. Following their marriage, Emma takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, a young woman named Harriet Smith.  However, Emma's efforts to match Harriet with Highbury's vicar, Mr. Elton, end in disaster. Also the return of two former Highbury residents, Jane Fairfax and Mr. Weston's son, Frank Churchill, and her continuing efforts to find a husband for Harriet leads Emma to question her talents as a matchmaker and her feelings for long time neighbor and friend, George Knightley.

Aired in six episodes, this "EMMA" was given the opportunity to be a lot more faithful to Austen's novel. Many critics and fans would view this as an example of the miniseries' ability to delve deeper into the story's plots and characterizations. I do not know if I would agree. The 1815 novel seems such a strong piece of work that even a 90 to 120 minute film could do justice to the story by adhering to the main aspects of the plot. Mind you, I have complained about Andrew Davies' adaptation of the novel in the 1996-97 television movie. But even I cannot consider that a failure.

I do have a few complaints about "EMMA". The majority of my complaints have to do with the casting. But there were some aspects of the production that I found less than satisfying. Director John Glenister's direction of major scenes such as the Westons' Christmas party and the Crown Inn ball failed to impress me.  The sequence featuring the Westons' Christmas party lacked the holiday atmosphere that I found in the other versions. And I failed to noticed any sense of a change in the weather that led the Woodhouses and the Knightleys to depart from Randalls (the Westons' estate) earlier than they had intended. As for the Crown Inn ball, it struck me as somewhat rushed. Dialogue seemed to dominate the entire sequence . . . to the point where only one dance was featured to the tune of the miniseries' theme song. Both Glenister and screenwriter Denis Constanduros made such a big effort in building up the ball in the previous episode or two. But when it came to the actual execution of the event, the sequence simply fell flat and rushed for me. Even worse, they failed to provide the audience with the Emma/Knightley dance, which could have provided the first real hint of romantic feelings between the pair. And what happened to Jane Fairfax and Mr. Elton at the Box Hill picnic? Where were they? Frank Churchill's flirting with Emma during the picnic had led to Jane's eventual breakdown and observations of the Eltons' quick marriage. The Box Hill sequence also played an important part in Jane and Frank's relationship. But without Jane in the scene, the importance of their storyline was somewhat robbed.

And there were performances, or should I say . . . casting that seemed rather off to me. Fiona Walker made an interesting Mrs. Augusta Elton. In fact, she was downright memorable. However, her Mrs. Elton came off as rather heavy-handed . . . to the point that she seemed more like an over-the-top 1970s divorcee, instead of a vicar's pushy and ambitious wife from Regency England. She seemed to lack both Juliet Stevenson and Christina Cole's talent for sly and subtle humor. Belinda Tighe gave a solid performance as Emma's older sister, Isabella Knightley. But she seemed at least a decade-and-a-half older than Doran Godwin's Emma, instead of someone who should have been at least seven to ten years older. Donald Eccles would have made a perfect Mr. Woodhouse, if he had not come off as slightly cold in a few scenes. I find it odd that many Austen fans had complained of Godwin's occasionally chilly performance. But Eccles seemed even more chilly at times, which is how I never would describe Mr. Woodhouse. At least Godwin's Emma became warmer and slightly funnier in the miniseries' second half. It seemed as if the arrival of Augusta Elton allowed Godwin to inject more warmth and humor into the role. I also had a problem with Ania Marson as the reserved Jane Fairfax. I understand that Jane went through a great deal of stress and fear, while awaiting for a chance to finally marry Frank. But Marson's performance struck me as . . . odd. The intense look in her eyes and frozen expression made her resemble a budding serial killer.

I really enjoyed Robert East's portrayal of the mercurial Frank Churchill. Although I felt that East did not seem effective in his portrayal of Frank's penchant for cruel humor.  And at times, it seemed East's handling of the character's many traits seemed a bit off balanced.  I still believe that his performance was overall, first-rate. Timothy Peters was excellent as Mr. Elton. In fact, he was spot on. Of all the characters featured in Austen's novel, Mr. Elton seemed to be the only that has been perfectly cast in all four productions I have seen. I really enjoyed Debbie Bowen's performance as the slightly naive Harriet Smith. In fact, I believe she was the perfect embodiment of Harriet. One of the funniest scenes in the entire miniseries featured Harriet's efforts to make up her mind on which color ribbons she wanted to purchase. And Constance Chapman made an excellent Miss Bates. She perfectly conveyed all of the character's likeability and verbosity that made her irritable to Emma. And the scene that featured Emma's attempt to apologize for the insult during the Box Hill picnic was beautifully acted by Chapman.

But I was very impressed by John Carson's performance as George Knightley. Perhaps he seemed a bit old for the role at age 45. But he perfectly conveyed all of Mr. Knightley's warmth, dry humor and love for Emma. And surprisingly, he and Doran Godwin had a strong screen chemistry. I also have to give credit to Doran Godwin for her first-rate portrayal of Emma Woodhouse. Mind you, there were times in the first three episodes when she seemed a bit too chilly for the gregarious Emma. But Godwin did an excellent job in developing the character into a more mature young woman, who became mindful of her flaws. And as I had stated earlier, her Emma also became warmer and slightly funnier upon the introduction of Augusta Elton.

There were also aspects of the miniseries' production that I enjoyed.  I was very impressed by Tim Harvey's production designs. The miniseries' photography seemed crisp and colorful, even after 39 years. I found this impressive, considering that most BBC television miniseries between 1971 and 1986 seemed to fade over the years. I also liked Joan Ellacott's costume designs - especially for Emma and Jane. However, I noticed that the high lace featured in some of Emma's dresses seemed a bit theatrical and cheap . . . as if they came off outfits found in some minor costume warehouse.

Yes, I do have some quibbles regarding the production and casting for "EMMA". After all, there is no such thing as perfect. But the good definitely outweighed the bad. And for a miniseries with six episodes, I can happily say that it failed to bore me. Personally, I think it is the best Jane Austen adaptation from the 1970s and 1980s I have ever seen.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"AUSTRALIA" (2008) Photo Gallery

Here is a gallery featuring photos from Baz Luhrmann's 2008 epic about Australia in the late 1930s and early 1940s called "AUSTRALIA". Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman star:

"AUSTRALIA" (2008) Photo Gallery