Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

After seeing and loving Greta Gerwig's adaptation last year, I was excited to finally read Alcott's novel. It did not disappoint.

I've seen a bunch of other adaptations of it and like all of them to various degrees. The baseline of enjoyment for me on a Little Women adaptation is high and that's thanks to Alcott's characters and the tone created by their relationships. These are people who are by no means perfect, but are completely dedicated to loving and being kind to each other. They sometimes fail, but their response to that failure is always helpful. That applies to how they respond to their own failings as well as how they confront and ultimately forgive the failings of others.

It's deeply profound and inspirational. More so in the novel than in any adaptation I've seen (though Gerwig's gets super close), simply because we get to peek into heads and hear Alcott's commentary about things. There's parenting advice and marriage advice and simple getting-along-with-your-friends advice. But all of it is offered with humility and awareness that the advisor is just as flawed as the advisee. There's not a whiff of self-righteousness in the whole book. If you've seen the Gerwig film and remember the scene where Laura Dern talks to Saoirse Ronan about anger, you'll know what I'm talking about. And what's also amazing is that every bit of this is as applicable today as it was 150 years ago. Being kind and doing good are timeless exercises and Little Women is here to encourage us.

From a plot and character standpoint, I was surprised that I got so invested in Amy. Jo is always presented as the main character, because she's so clearly analogous to Alcott herself, but Amy is a very close second. Gerwig's version probably pointed me in Amy's direction with some new dialogue and by casting Florence Pugh, but I might have got there on my own just with Alcott's book. All four March sisters have character arcs, but Amy's is the one I most connect with for some reason.

Maybe it's because she's the youngest and has the most to learn. When the book opens, Meg and Jo are already aware of their biggest flaws and are working on them. For Meg, it's lack of contentment. As oldest, she's the only one who remembers when the March family was wealthy and she misses it. It doesn't help that she's still friends with people from that crowd, though no one ever suggests that there's anything wrong with that. It just makes it harder for her to appreciate what she does have when all of her friends have so many luxuries. She's trying though. Likewise, Jo's biggest flaw is her anger, but we see her work on controlling it almost from the beginning.

Beth is the quiet one, but even though she doesn't get into a lot of trouble, she struggles with laziness. When she famously goes to visit the family with the sick baby and contracts scarlet fever, she does it selflessly, but it's the result of some intentional discipline that she's been working to implement in her life. It's not super dramatic, though. She's always been a good, thoughtful person who cares about others; she just sometimes needs a nudge to get her away from her dolls and kittens. Curiously, Beth is the character I'm most like, so it's a little surprising that I don't connect with her more. But it's also kind of not.

Amy starts the novel wanting attention from her family and also her friends at school. And one of my own character flaws is that when someone demands my attention, my instinct is to not give it to them. So Amy irritates me in the early part of the book, but she gradually grows out of it to become self-aware and confident. It's a dramatic change and it's easy for me to get behind and cheer for her as she makes it. It's also helpful that her story is most like a Jane Austen novel in that she marries for love, but gets money as well. Only, unlike Austen's most famous heroes, we get to see Amy actually grow and develop the attitude that love is what she's really after.

I have more thoughts, but I'll save them. I'm going to write about some of the movie and TV adaptations, so other things (like Professor Bhaer) will come up as I do that.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I didn't get it. I went in expecting a good, but straightforward gothic story where I relate to and root for the governess as she tries to find her place in a spooky, old mansion. But I got quickly frustrated with the unnamed hero of James' story. She makes wild assumptions, jumps to conclusions, and makes everything worse with her horrible lack of communication. I didn't realize that that's exactly the point.

I knew that I had to be missing something though, so I looked at some other criticism of the novella and learned about the theory that the ghosts are all in the governess' head. Whether or not that's what's really going on, it was helpful for at least questioning the reliability of her as a narrator. It introduced me to an essential subtext of the story that I wasn't even looking for on my first reading.

Rather than go back to the book right away, I watched some film adaptations to see how they handled the ambiguity. The most useful of them was Jack Clayton's The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr. Or to be fair: it was Christopher Frayling's commentary on the Criterion edition that most helped me find the balance I wanted between ghost story and psychological thriller. Frayling points out that Clayton worked hard to avoid making a definite statement about the reality of the ghosts. He wanted viewers to be able to have it either way.

That opened up a third way of thinking about the story. Instead of having to decide whether the ghosts are real or all in the governess' mind, it's possible that they're real, but that her psychological condition is also playing a big role. With that in mind, I went back to Henry James and enjoyed his story a lot more.

For the record: I think the ghosts have to be real in the novella. The governess sees and describes them to the housekeeper Mrs Grose, who then confirms that the descriptions match deceased employees of the estate. The Innocents preserves ambiguity by having the governess see a picture of one of the employees before seeing his ghost, but that's not in the book. It could have happened behind-the-scenes, but that's reading more into the text than James puts there.

So as far as I'm concerned, the only explanation is that the ghosts exist. But the governess absolutely makes the situation worse through her actions, caused by her own, distressing hangups about the children. That's a horrifying balance I can get my head around, so with that in mind, I'm going to be watching and re-watching some adaptations again.

My volume of The Turn of the Screw also includes James' short story, "Owen Wingrave." It's more straightforward than Turn of the Screw, but ironically even more ambiguous about whether there's really a ghost. I enjoyed it a lot.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Sparrows (1926)

Who's in it?: Mary Pickford (she has cameos in a couple of my silent favorites - Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and The Black Pirate - but the actual Pickford movies I've seen are "What the Daisy Said" and Daddy-Long-Legs)

What's it about?: A bunch of kids in slavery to an evil dude in the middle of a swamp are led and cared for by the oldest in their group (Pickford) who attempts to keep them well and hopeful about deliverance.

How is it?: I was interested in the swamp setting and Southern Gothic feel, but wasn't prepared for how harrowing the story is. The danger for the kids is real, both under the abuse of their captor and his family and in the swamp itself once the kids try to escape. And through all of it is Pickford's characteristically charming performance as Molly, the one bright spot in their world.

But even Molly and her service are complicated. She tries to keep the kids' spirits up through faith in the providence of God, but some of the group are beginning to doubt. Molly refers a lot to a quote by Jesus Christ about God's caring for valueless creatures like sparrows: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29-31). But if that's true, some of the children wonder, then why hasn't God rescued them?

Christ's statement and the movie both raise a lot of questions about providence and Sparrows doesn't offer any pat answers. It ultimately encourages accompanying faith with action, and you can build a whole other theological discussion around the implications of that. I loved the film.

Metaphysical themes aside, it's also just a gripping survival movie that had me tense in all the right moments.

Rating: Five out of five swamp escapes

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | Adiós, Sabata (1970)

Pax and I check out the sequel to 1969's Sabata (which we covered three years ago; how time does fly). Lee Van Cleef's character is played by Yul Brynner this time, so we talk about that and other changes between the films, and attempt to reconcile the two.

Also, I watch Errol Flynn play General Custer in They Died With Their Boots On.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981)

Who's in it?: George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), Lauren Hutton (Lassiter, Once Bitten), Donovan Scott (Police Academy), and Ron Leibman (Friends)

What's it about?: A comedy sequel in which the original Zorro has died and his two sons have to carry on the legend. The first tries to do it in a straightforward way, but injures himself, leaving the job to his flamboyantly gay twin.

How is it?: Very silly and often very funny. George Hamilton is always a pleasure and I appreciate that (some stereotypes and the villain's bigotry aside) the gay character is every bit as heroic and awesome as his straight brother. Actually, he's more awesome with his colorful variations of the traditional costume and his preference for the whip over the sword. He uses the whip to carve his full name - not just his initial - onto walls and he also doesn't hurt himself.

Donovan Scott is hilarious as Don Diego's deaf-and-mute servant. He's clearly riffing on Gene Sheldon's character from the Disney TV show, who would communicate with Don Diego through pantomime, but Scott takes the charades game to ridiculous levels.

Ron Leibman plays the evil mayor in need of overthrowing and it's a bit much when he screams all of his lines, but even that leads to some really funny stuff. Brenda Vaccaro (whom I recognize, but I don't where from) is also great as Leibman's wife. I'm surprised how much I enjoyed this.

Rating: Four out of five smooth operators.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Mystery Movie Night | Gaslight (1944), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Deathtrap (1982)

Dave, David, Erik, Evan, and I muse about manipulation, money, and manuscripts, but mostly... murder!

00:02:01 - Review of Gaslight (1944)
00:15:24 - Review of Dial M for Murder (1954)
00:32:22 - Review of Deathtrap (1982)
00:48:33 - Guessing the Connection

Friday, March 27, 2020

Zorro (1975)

Who's in it?: Alain Delon (Le Samouraï, Red Sun)

What's it about?: Zorro as a Spaghetti Western

How is it?: As great as I hoped as Spaghetti Western Zorro would be. It crosses over into slapstick and other general silliness a few more times than I'd like, but mostly it's very cool.

Alain Delon is an excellent, suave and dashing Zorro. This version of the story replaces the California West with a larger South American city called Nueva Aragón. (There's a current Nueva Aragón that's a suburb of Mexico City, but if I interpret the map in the movie correctly, the film version is not in Mexico.) Alain Delon's Don Diego is a friend of the new governor of Nueva Aragón, but when his pal is assassinated on the way to taking control of his post, Diego replaces him.

True to the mythology of Zorro, Diego pretends to be a frivolous fop while adopting the Zorro persona to fight the city's true power, the evil Colonel Huerta. This spices up the story with some cool variety while keeping true to the elements of Zorro that really matter. And Ottavia Piccolo is wonderful as an aristocratic woman who's much more than just a love interest for Zorro, but is also a badass revolutionary herself.

Rating: Four out of five bullwhips.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Filthy Horrors | Letters from Whitechapel

Would you like to play a game? Darla, Jessica, and I did and chose Fantasy Flight Games' Letters from Whitechapel. One player takes the role of Jack the Ripper as the other players' detectives attempt to catch him over a series of four nights.

We also talked about other horror-related and -adjacent things we've been watching and reading:
  • Harper's Island (2009 TV series)
  • A Christmas Carol (2019 TV mini-series)
  • Doctor Sleep (book and film)
  • Dracula (2020 TV mini-series)
  • Mindhunter (2017 TV series)
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
  • Marvel Comics Tomb of Dracula series
  • Sweetheart (2019)
  • Underwater (2020)
  • The Turning (2020)
And some things we've been looking forward to:
  • The Lodge (2019)
  • Run (2020)
  • The Invisible Man (2020)
  • The New Mutants (2020)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | Charro! (1969)

Pax and I discuss the world's prettiest cowboy, Elvis Presley in the Spaghetti-inspired Charro!.

We also watch Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West, a 1968 remake of The Paleface.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Emma. (2020)

Who's in it?: Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split, Marrowbone), Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness, Marrowbone, Suspiria), Bill Nighy (Underworld, Love Actually, Pirates of the Caribbean), Rupert Graves (A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Sherlock, The White Queen), and Miranda Hart (Spy)

What's it about?: An adaptation of Jane Austen's novel about a well-meaning rich girl in need of humility and learning to mind her own business.

How is it?: Dee. Lightful.

I went in a little concerned that it would take too lighthearted an approach to the story, but while it's quite funny (Bill Nighy's hypochondria and his long-suffering servants being especially hilarious), it also values the emotional pieces and themes that make this my favorite Austen story. Of all of Austen's characters, Emma Woodhouse is the one I relate to most. She has good intentions, but thinks she knows best what's good for people and can be controlling about their welfare. She needs taking down a peg or two, but to do it requires someone who loves her enough to risk their relationship with her by challenging her to change. I might have gotten a bit misty there a couple of times.

It deserves to be seen on the big screen for Taylor-Joy's eyes alone, both in terms of sheer beauty and how she uses them in her acting. It's a lovely, captivating performance.

Mia Goth is also wonderful as the current object of Emma's efforts. Rupert Graves plays the beneficiary of one of her past schemes. And Miranda Hart is pricelessly buffoonish as an irritating neighbor who adores Emma, but rubs her the wrong way.

Rating: Five out of five scheming socialites.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Mark of Zorro (1974)

Who's in it?: Frank Langella (Dracula), Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Anne Archer (Patriot Games), and Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters).

What's it about?: A TV remake of the 1940 Tyrone Power version.

How is it?: Poor Frank Langella can't catch a break on costumes. Between Dracula and this, he's a captivating romantic lead, but keeps getting stuck in outfits pulled off the Halloween aisle at K-Mart.

This is a very close remake of the 1940 Mark of Zorro. It feels weird that that's the one they went to, but by the '70s it was the definitive film version, not the old Douglas Fairbanks silent. The Disney show was also iconic at that point, but it a) would have been harder to adapt to a feature length and b) was already readily available on a lot of TV stations in reruns.

The production quality on the Langella version drops a lot from the original, being made for TV, but it tries to make up for that by putting Don Diego in costume as Zorro a lot more than Power's version ever was, including during the final sword fight.

And it's got some cool actors in the cast. Ricardo Montalban is the main villain (played by Basil Rathbone in the original), Anne Archer plays Diego's love interest, and Yvonne De Carlo is his mom.

It's not a classic by any stretch, but I enjoyed comparing it to the Power version and Montalban is especially enjoyable. I recommend it for fans of his.

Rating: Three out of five really sad masks.


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