Austenland: Leave the tea and biscuits at home

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Jane Hayes has a problem. She suffers from a severe case of Austenmania, and I mean mania. Her bedroom, littered with porcelain teacups, stuffed dolls, and a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in Darcy regalia, looks like a 5th-grader’s shrine to Pride and Prejudice. That this woman managed to go on dates boggles the mind. So it comes as no surprise that when Jane sees a commercial for Austenland, a themed British estate with period actors that promises romance with an Austen-type hero, she cashes in her life savings and flies her sad, sad self off to England.

Hayes gets a rude awakening on her arrival. The “bronze” package she bought — the cheapest available — seems reserved for Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. The management snubs her, gives her drab gowns, a tiny bedroom on the top floor, and excludes her from fun activities. To make matters worse, the Darcy-type period actor, Mr. Henry Nobley, is in the extreme pre-Elizabeth Bennet stage. still-of-jj-feild-in-austenland

Mr. Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild) looking haughty.

Luckily, Jane can vent her frustrations with Martin, the handsome stable hand. Their relationship develops quickly — a little too quickly. One minute he’s pitching hay in the barn and the next they’re making out to the strains of a cheesy 80’s pop song.

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Jane (Keri Russell) and Martin (Bret McKenzie)

None of the other relationships evolve smoothly, either. Character development in this film sacrificed itself on the altar of time in favor of farcical scenarios. I found myself thinking, “When did that happen? And why?” I assume Jerusha Hess’s book, on which the film is based, elaborates more on this and Jane’s troubled romantic past, which is mentioned but never explained.

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Austenland tries too hard, but isn’t completely lacking in charm. That’s largely due to the cast, who strove to make this a watchable film. In the end, the plot good-naturedly pokes fun at “Janeites,” only to fall short of its potential and succumb to Hollywood rom-com predictability. If you enjoyed the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, though, you may find the film’s occasional nods amusing, as I did. Also if you’re a fan of Nelly. And that’s all I’m saying.

Beaver couldn’t make it to the showing, sadly, so I’m rating it by myself: 2 carrot sticks (out of five).

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Summer Films: South Pacific

LIZ: First off, when I say South Pacific, I am referring to the 1958 movie, not the 2001 TV movie or the play, neither of which I’ve seen. Now that I’ve made that disclaimer, on to the movie.

I love the music (how could you not like a Rogers and Hammerstein collaboration?). “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” are a lot of fun and have catchy tunes.

I must admit to having sung the former with a good bit of feeling at times. “Some Enchanted Evening” is, of course, a romantic favorite.

I like the cast too. Bright, cheerful Mitzi Gaynor is perfect for the nurse in love. The sailors are a great comic relief, about a 101 pounds of fun worth actually.

Pretty much the only thing I didn’t like about the movie was the storyline … It just felt preachy. The lieutenant lost my sympathy leading Liat on when he had a girl back in the States, and I just didn’t see why Nellie had such a problem with Emile having had a Polynesian wife. Side note: The play actually won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1950. I know Carousel, Singing in the Rain, and The Sound of Music are just a few of the musicals that aren’t all laughs and giggles, but I still have a hard time putting musical and drama together in a movie description.

LIZ GOES INTO SHOCK: I did a little snooping on IMDB and discovered that most the voices in the movie were dubbed! The lip-syncing was excellent, but WHY? The scene where Emile sings (you think anyway) “Some Enchanted Evening” to Nellie loses something knowing that it’s faked. Don’t get me wrong, I like the actors, but surely there were enough singer/actors to cast people who could actually perform the role in its entirety. Mitzi Gaynor actually does her own singing, by the way.

Conclusion: It’s not my favorite Rogers and Hammerstein musical, but it has great music.

JAZ: Nellie Forbush is terribly, passionately, ditzily, hopelessly in love with Emile De Becque.

But something’s keeping her from marrying the handsome, millionaire, golden-voiced, charming French-accented man of her dreams.

Handsome, millionaire, golden-voiced, charming French-accented De Becque (The one on the left). Not crazy about the pleated khaki pants, though. 

Is it that they’ve known each other a mere two weeks? Or that he’s twenty-ish years older? Or that he killed a man in France? Or that he has two “mixed” children, which would bother most women in the WWII era?

No, it’s the fact that his long dead and gone wife was Polynesian (“I lived as I could,” he explains apologetically).

Why? Beats me.

In other racist news, Lt. Cable can’t seem to wrap his mind around marrying Liat, the beautiful Vietnamese woman he loves.

Basically South Pacific revolves around their getting over their prejudices. But for a film all about intercultural tolerance, there’s amazingly little of it going on.

Apparently De Becque’s true name is “Frenchman,” because that’s what he gets called 99% of the time. Forbush condescendingly asks the children several times if they understand her, despite the fact that they’re trilingual and she knows only one measly language. And (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) only the suitably lighter-skinned couple ends up together. Cable dies tragically in battle, thus dooming the one possible interethnic marriage. What does that say about the film’s true stance on racial prejudice?

Oh, and what’s up with all the color filters?

Yellow!

Orange!

Yellowy orange! Yeah!

Beaver liked the grass skirts. He said they made him hungry.

We give this film 3 carrot sticks out of five. For the awesome song and dance numbers.

Bibliomaniacs, Bollywood & Brits

“Too few people,” writes Eugene Fields in The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, “seem to realize that books have feelings.”

If that’s true I have a few miffed – if not positively irate – books in my possession. Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain adorns the coffee table, neglected for weeks (given the topic, I’m sure it understands). I picked up Julie Powell’s “Cleaving” two weeks ago and now it’s hidden under Breakfast at Tiffany’s and School of Rock. But The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (nonfiction, Allison Hoover Bartlett) saw eager page turning and I’m proud to say I have reached page 112. Aha!

Anyway, that’s what I started reading in May. Bartlett describes the antique book culture, bookstores, libraries, so vividly I want to rush out and buy armloads of books. Smell the pages, feel the coarse paper on my fingertips … And then I remember the books I read as a young child, books like King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, Piggins, Wednesday is Spaghetti Day, and my very own copy of Madeline my mom bought at a Houston book fair.

Piggins the mystery sleuth/butler. 

That’s when I sympathize with bibliomaniacs. But book theft? No way.

I also read the Harry Potter series voraciously over the past two months. After that I saw several film adaptations, and have this to say: they are but poor shadows of the originals. I prefer my imagination.

After that I watched the French film Le Concert (breathtaking music, moving, humorous), British film The Scapegoat (promising beginning, dull ending), Indian film Barfi! (off-beat, thought-provoking, beautiful), and started on the Japanese anime series titled One Piece (funny and weird).

Note: The Scapegoat reminded me of a Mexican telenovela called La Usurpadora: Two women who look alike switch places with not-so-unforeseen consequences. If you’re choosing between the two, I suggest checking out the telenovela.

12 Classic Films for the Bucket List (Before You Kick It)

Snap out of West Side Story. Ditch Gone with the Wind. And don’t even think about playing Casablanca. They’re already on hundreds of lists. Why rehash the obvious? It’s boring. So without further ado:

1. Lilies of the Field (1963) Based on the novel by William Edmund Barrett, the film follows the story of a wandering jack-of-all trades (Sidney Poitier) who comes across a group of German nuns convinced he’s been sent by God to build them a church. I love this film.

2. My Man Godfrey (1936). A ditzy socialite (Carole Lombard) hires a hobo living in the dump as the family’s butler, then promptly falls in love with him. Whether he returns the affections is more doubtful, especially considering the utterly irrational in-laws he would be stuck with …

 3. Bringing Up Baby (1938) A prim paleontologist (Cary Grant) wants a sponsor to donate one million dollars to his museum, but messes it all up after getting mixed up with a harebrained woman and her leopard. My first screwball favorite.

 4. Rebecca (1940). Joan Fontaine plays a young, naïve bride tortured by the lingering presence of her husband’s deceased first wife. And also by the super creepy Mrs. Danvers.

5. To Have and Have Not (1944) This was Bogart and Bacall’s first film, and smolders with chemistry. Bogart rents a charter boat to tourists in Martinique and is asked to smuggle out resistance fighters. He refuses, but then has a fateful encounter with a pickpocket. Bacall was 19 (19!) when she filmed this.

6. It (1927) Clara Bow has definitely got “it” in this silent film. She plays a strong, independent working female set on getting what she wants … one of which happens to be the company’s head honcho.

7. Interrupted Melody (1955). This film is based on the life of Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence, who was struck by polio at the height of her career. It has fantastic famous opera scenes and stars the talented and gorgeous Eleanor Parker (the evil baroness from The Sound of Music).

 8And Then There Were None (1943) Psychological thriller based on Agatha Christie’s mystery. Ten guests are invited to a house on a lonely island and are killed off one by one. It’s creepy and suspenseful.

9. Carefree (1938) What list is complete without a film starring the iconic Astaire/Rogers duo? This one involves a psychologist, hypnosis, and skeet shooting gone hilariously awry. (Shall We Dance is another good film, and features the catchy “potato, patahto” song.)

10. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Gregory Peck plays a journalist who decides to experience anti-Semitism firsthand by saying he’s Jewish for two weeks. It’s thought-provoking and gives a revealing look at anti-Semitic sentiment during the 40s.

11. Seven Chances (1925). Critics and hardcore classic film buffs rave about The General, but do you ever hear much about Keaton’s Seven Chances? It’s got great visuals, obvious when the hero runs down a canyon in the midst of rocks that look like giant meatballs. Plus he gets chased by an angry horde of wannabe brides.

 12. Naughty Marietta (1935) Another film for the opera fan, starring Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. MacDonald plays a French princess who runs away to New Orleans to avoid marrying a stuffy old Spaniard. There’s a great scene with singing marionettes (they’re cute, really).

The 10 best Jane Austen characters

Recently I read an online post by The Guardian commemorating the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Title? “The 10 Best Jane Austen Characters.” You will find the list here.

Note that the characters weren’t chosen by Guardian writers, but by Austen biographer Paula Byrne. And by “best” Byrne clearly means the most intriguing, the ones eliciting strong responses from the reader. NOT the “nicest and prettiest.”

While I found myself disagreeing with some, the list prompted me to come up with my own list of characters from Austen’s complete novels.

1. Mr. Collins is arguably Austen’s greatest comic character. Oily, pompous, hypocritical and utterly clueless and ridiculous, he simultaneously repulses and amuses. Pride and Prejudice

2. Lady Susan. Duh. She’s a cougar-homewrecker who parties hard and hates her daughter for getting in the way. Eloquent, beautiful, charming and deadly, Lady Susan is the woman every man’s mother warned about. I stayed up past midnight last night reading this scandalous short novel. Lady Susan

3. It’s impossible to omit one of literature’s greatest heroines, Elizabeth Bennet. She refuses to bend to society’s conventions, possesses an invaluable sense of humor, and admits when she’s in the wrong. Plus she exercises daily. Pride and Prejudice

4. Elinor Dashwood is poised and levelheaded in the face of calamity. She will sacrifice her time and comfort for friends and family, but will also speak out when they go too far – she’s not a doormat. Sense &Sensibility

5. A crafty fortune-seeker, Lucy Steele ingratiates herself with adults and their spoiled kids to gain their confidence and affection. In the end, she gets what she wants and gets away with it. Sense &Sensibility

6. Self-absorbed and naïve, yet generous and well intentioned, Emma makes plenty of mistakes but learns from them. She’s the kind of friend you’d go with on shopping/gossip/coffee sessions (but nothing deeper than that). Emma

 7. Lady Catherine de Bourgh spices up the novel with her self-aggrandizing comments, her love of being “useful” and her opposition to the “pollution” of Pemberly. Pride & Prejudice

 8. Captain Wentworth. He’s constant – over eight and a half years! – considerate and a successful naval captain. If nothing else, his eloquent letter to Anne grants him a spot here. “You pierce my soul.”  Persuasion

 9. Henry Tilney sets himself apart from all other Jane Austen heroes: he actually possesses a sense of humor. A minister, of all things, who makes you laugh! Talk about defying literary stereotypes. Northanger Abbey

 10. I never liked Fanny Price, but she deserves a spot here. She’s kind, loving and constant even when the object of her affection is pretty thick-skulled about the whole thing. Mansfield Park

Yes, I omitted Mr. Darcy. I wanted to give others a place first. Anyway, he’s already a given, so what’s the need?

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

Jaz on The Taming of the Shrew

 The Taming of the Shrew is a story about the death of feminism.

Or is it?

Katharina, a fiery independent beauty, is married off at the first offer to rowdy, volatile fortune seeker Petruchio and morphs into a submissive, ingratiating wife.

Or does she?

Maybe it’s just me, but Petruchio and Katharina’s first meeting came off as rather flirtatious. The zingers come one after the other in quick succession, and if Katharina truly disliked him, she would have left the room immediately – she wasn’t one to sit and take it, not even for her father.

On the other hand, suppose she truly despised him. Why did she go along with the wedding?

Perhaps Petruchio intrigued her. Perhaps Katharina decided life would be more tolerable living with a rude, straightforward male than with her heartless father and egotistical, conniving and pretentious goody-goody sister Bianca for the rest of her life. Marriage was the only way out then – since Baptista forbade Bianca from marrying before her. Sadly, Petruchio was the only one who asked … and the only one likely to ask, ever.

Imagine having to live Katharina’s life. Ignored by her father, snubbed by her sister, known to all as “that shrew.” It would drive anyone into a mad fury.

So did her decision lead to the squashing of her independent spirit? Or was she merely playing along with Petruchio’s charade?

Truth be told, I haven’t figured it out yet, although I’m inclined to lean toward the latter. I enjoyed the play: it’s splattered with humor – on and off-colour – and catchy quotes.

“Tush, tush! fear boys with bugs!”

As for Bianca’s bevy of beaus, they’re amusing but tend to blur into each other. They serve only as foils for Katharina and Petruchio.

Liz on The Taming of the Shrew

I much prefer Shakespeare’s comedies to his tragedies, and The Taming of the Shrew is quite a comedy. The wife-hunting scoundrel Petruchio is cruel enough to match the shrewish Katharina. Though I don’t care for Petruchio because of his overly harsh treatment of Katharina, I find the story entertaining and witty, and I enjoyed the 1967 movie version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Called a “battle of the sexes”, it’s certainly a battle of wits, and that’s a type of battle I relish.

The Taming of the Shrew has spawned at least two adaptations: Kiss Me Kate and Ten Things I Hate about You. If I didn’t already like The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate would give me reason to. The movie of that name, based on the Cole Porter musical and starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, is one of my favorites. In it, an arrogant stage actor puts on a production of The Taming of the Shrew and tries to win back his ex-wife, who plays the shrew—both on stage and off. In traditional Shakespeare fashion, there’s a mistaken identify in that one of the performers claimed to be a Howard Keel’s character while gambling (and losing). Two gangsters call on Howard Keel during the play’s opening performance to collect on the debt, and Howard Keel cleverly uses them to keep his ex-wife from leaving the show with hilarious results.

As the play is full of witty dialog, the musical is filled with great songs, like the beautiful “So in Love” and the amusing “Too Darn Hot” (performed by dancer Ann Miller) and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (performed by the gangsters, one of whom is Keenan Wynn, or, as I know him, “the bad, bald guy from the Fred MacMurry Absent Minded Professor”).

So, next time you’re in the mood for Shakespeare, check on The Taming of the Shrew and Kiss Me Kate.

What are your thoughts on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew?

American Authors — Huckleberry Finn — Life-Threatening Plots

Tom Sawyer gets on my nerves.

But this story isn’t about Tom — although he does try to sabotage it. Isn’t that just like him. And the brat almost succeeds. Huck Finn, on the other hand, possesses innumerable contradictory facets that when juxtaposed reveal enlightening viewpoints on ethnic prejudices and compass — Wait, where are you going? Come back!

Mark Twain saw this coming. Realizing critics and literary scholars would analyze Huck until nothing remained but used bird cage liners, he penned the following introduction:

NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Which tells you what kind of a sense of humor he had.

I got another revealing look at Twain’s quirky sense of humor while reading a compilation of the author’s witticisms. A reporter visited Mark Twain’s home for an interview and was told by his wife, Olivia Clemens, that he was still in bed (a preferred place to write), but that she would tell him. When she informed Twain of the man’s visit, he refused to get up. Instead he invited the reporter to hop into bed with him for the interview.

I never found out if he accepted the invitation.

I’d go in-depth on the novel only I’m terribly intimidated by Mr. Twain’s threats, plus I’m feeling a little lazy. Basically it’s about a boy in the mid-19th century who escapes from his abusive, alcoholic no-good father on a canoe/raft, then joins a runaway slave named Jim and they get into all sorts of adventures and mishaps on the Mississippi river. Then Tom Sawyer butts in. The End.

If you’re looking for a good movie adaptation (albeit not 100% faithful), try Huck Finn starring a young and very cute Elijah Wood. It’s funny, emotional and exciting and features Wood wearing an endearing mischievous grin.

I will only add that Huckleberry Finn is an amoral, plotless book with not a hint of a motive to it. Happy, Mr. Twain? Good.