There's also a quick review of the graphic novel The Grave Doug Freshley by Josh Hechinger and mpMann.
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
There's also a quick review of the graphic novel The Grave Doug Freshley by Josh Hechinger and mpMann.
Monday, April 27, 2020
Who's in it?: Frances Dee (I Walked with a Zombie), Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), Jean Parker (The Gunfighter), Joan Bennett (Bulldog Drummond), Spring Byington (Werewolf of London), Samuel S Hinds (Rhythm on the Range), Douglass Montgomery (Mystery of Edwin Drood), Henry Stephenson (Tarzan Finds a Son), John Lodge (Bulldog Drummond at Bay), and Paul Lukas (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)
What's it about?: The first major adaptation of the novel, but also a vehicle for rising star Katherine Hepburn.
How is it?: George Cukor's version leaves out some story points that I miss, particularly in the rivalry between Jo (Katharine Hepburn) and Amy (Joan Bennett) and Amy's burning Jo's writing. As a writer who's sometimes had to start manuscripts over due to computer crashes or whatnot, I understand Jo's horror and frustration over that in the book. And it's especially heinous to think that Amy did it on purpose. But Amy is still a self-absorbed brat at that point, and it sets a bottom level that she's able to rise from as she grows up. Without that - or really any special conflict between Amy and Jo - the story loses impact when the sisters are not only able to get past their differences, but Jo can sincerely be happy when Laurie marries Amy.
Cukor's version also fails the Amy/Laurie story by having it develop mostly off camera. Their story is one of my favorite things about the novel, so this is disappointing. But the '33 Little Women is all about Katherine Hepburn and Jo.
That would be okay, I guess, if there weren't other, later versions that manage to balance Jo's story with the other characters'. If you have to pick one character to focus on though, Jo is it. And she's a great character, don't get me wrong. She's just not my favorite, so Cukor's movie is already going to have limited appeal to me. It's made worse though, by the way that Jo is portrayed.
Jo should be ungraceful, but Hepburn exaggerates her voice and movements to make a lumbering, boisterous oaf. She mellows out over the course of the film, but she's hard for me to watch in the early scenes. I also don't see any chemistry between her and Laurie (Douglass Montgomery).
Montgomery is heavily made up with eyeliner and lip rouge (the only male in the cast to get that treatment), so while Montgomery plays him just fine, he comes across like a dandy. He's also an angrier character than I want Laurie to be, though I respect the choice to make him that way. In the novel, Laurie has been through a lot and his relationship with his grandfather is strained at first (something they both have to grow out of), so there's reason for him to have some anger at his core. And I don't think Montgomery goes too far with it. My biggest problem is that I just never feel any heat between his Laurie and Hepburn's Jo. Both of them are good-looking, but neither is the least bit attractive, if that makes sense.
I have the same problem with Jo and Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), but that's always going to be the hardest relationship to sell in the story. In the novel, Bhaer comes in late and he's kind of pitiable and there's an age difference, so it's hard work getting me to root for them, even if you're Louisa May Alcott. She pulls it off by making the professor charming, the age gap vague, and by surrounding the relationship with a lot of other, more compelling activity. If we're mostly focused on Jo, like this version is, that relationship becomes hyper important. I never get into it, though. Partly because I associate Paul Lukas most with kindly, old Professor Aronnax in 20,000 Leagues and he's not doing much different in Little Women. It's also unhelpful that he constantly refers to Jo as "my little friend," emphasizing the age difference even more.
But my complaints about the Jo parts aren't to say that everyone else is completely sidelined. The other characters may not get as many great moments as they deserve, but they do all get moments. Joan Bennett is a particularly good Amy and there's a nice scene where the sisters each get a dollar for Christmas and choose to spend it on their mother. At first, Amy decides to split the dollar between some perfume for mom and some drawing pencils for herself, but later returns the pencils and buys a larger bottle of the perfume. That's the essence of Amy right there and Bennett is lovely with it.
Frances Dee's Meg is beautiful and subtly resentful about the March family's reduced finances. She doesn't outright complain, but she makes comments that are clues to how she's feeling, especially if you know her from the book. And her romance with Laurie's tutor, Mr Brooke (John Lodge) is sweet. They're a handsome couple and get a nice scene together, even though mostly the movie cares about how their romance affects Jo.
Jean Parker's Beth has a couple of great moments with Laurie's grandfather (Henry Stephenson), as it should be. Their relationship is one of the sweetest, especially in the Greta Gerwig movie, but also here, although this one's more subtle. I love the escalating gift-giving between the two of them. Mr Laurence invites Beth to come play the piano at his house (paying off a wonderful scene earlier where Beth is playing the March family's piano and frustrated because one of the keys doesn't work), then Beth thanks him with a gift of handmade slippers, which he responds to by giving her his piano, and she goes to thank him for that, can't really find the words, and just sits on his lap and hugs him. It's beautiful and heartbreaking, especially knowing what's going to happen to her later in the story.
A second moment just has Mr Laurence, but it's all about his relationship with Beth. It's when she's sick the first time and no one expects her to live. He's by himself in the Marches' sitting room and just sort of pacing. At one point, he walks over to his old piano and puts a hand on it before wandering away again. Understated and lovely.
Samuel S Hinds is barely present as the girls' father, but Spring Byington is a lovely, matronly Marmee. She's noble and convincing as a woman who's struggling in the absence of her husband, but also quite adept at supporting and raising her daughters and holding the household together.
I almost forgot to mention Mabel Colcord as Hannah, the Marches' domestic helper. She's fine as a stereotypical Irish housekeeper, but not really memorable. I only bring her up, because I'm curious to compare her with other versions and see how the character might be given more life. I feel the same way about Edna May Oliver's Aunt March. She's a grumpy old woman, but nothing more than that. Definitely room for other actors to do more with that role.
So to sum up, there are exquisite elements in Cukor's adaptation, but I wish that the film focused on providing more of those and less of Jo just being loud and awkward, especially in the early parts of the film.
Rating: Three out of five Amys.
Thursday, April 23, 2020
Erik picks some creepy house movies that also have another, mysterious connection. We got clowns, cul-de-sacs, and cameos in this episode.
00:01:45 - Review of Poltergeist (1982)
00:21:28 - Review of The 'Burbs (1989)
00:33:20 - Review of Casper (1995)
00:53:03 - Guessing the Connection
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
On the most recent episode of the Nerd Lunch Fourth Chair Army Invasion, I pitched an idea for turning John Hughes' teen movies into a TV show. I titled my imaginary show Pretty in Pink, but it's really about all the characters from Hughes' fictional Shermer High in Shermer, Illinois. Hughes set his teen movies there, but never tried to create a serious, shared universe. So that's what I tried to do.
I'm a huge fan of these movies and a huge fan of shared universes and making connections between things, so I've always thought this would be a fun experiment. The podcast finally gave me the motivation to figure out how it could work. And while I'm really happy with how the podcast episode turned out, I didn't have time to flesh out the idea as much as I wanted to. Which brings me to this first in a series of posts where I try to do just that.
John Hughes made six teen movies between the years of 1984 and 1987: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful. That's a span of four years, which serendipitously turns out to be a high school career. So it's pretty easy to imagine someone starting at Shermer High as a freshman in the 1983-84 school year, who was there during the events of all six movies that took place over the next four years, and then graduated in the Spring of 1987.
My original thought was to call the series Shermer High, since that's what ties all of these movies and characters together. But imagining it as an actual TV series, I decided that Shermer High doesn't have enough name recognition. It's better marketing to name it after one of Hughes' films.
I eliminated The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller for being too specific about a particular group of characters. Weird Science gives the wrong impression about what the series is. And Sixteen Candles is too specific to one year of the student's life; it won't work for all four years. That left Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, which are both broad enough to work. And I chose Pretty in Pink as being the more iconic of the two. In a minute, I'll get to how that affects the show. I don't want the name to be meaningless.
As I hinted above, it would be a four-season TV series chronicling the high school journey of a group of characters. Those who start the series as freshmen will graduate in the final season. I love the idea of limiting it that way, which is what Felicity did with the college career of its main character. That way, we don't have a bunch of characters hanging around their high school long after they should have graduated. If the show became super popular, the broadness of the title would let us follow the main character to college, but my idea is to end it after four seasons.
If this existed, I think that network TV would be the best place for it, as opposed to cable or streaming. It feels like the kind of thing the CW might air. Having it on network TV means that its seasons would start just as school is starting for the year, with a break at Christmas, and then ending the season just as school is getting out for summer vacation.
We'd have to do 20+ episodes a season that way, but our cast is going to be big enough that there's plenty of drama to make that work without feeling like we're spinning wheels or doing filler episodes.
It's also important to me that the show be set in the '80s and feature a lot of music from that time period, especially New Wave and Alternative. Music was super important to John Hughes and all six of these soundtracks are good. But the Pretty in Pink soundtrack was especially important to me. It let me know that I wasn't the only person listening to The Psychedelic Furs and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, while also introducing me to The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen. That music needs to be a big part of this show.
Since we're calling it Pretty in Pink, the main character has to be Andie Walsh, who was played by Molly Ringwald in the movie. And that's great. Andie's one of my favorite characters in any John Hughes movie. She's smart, talented, conflicted, and has a lot of drama not just at school, but also in her home life and with her best friend. She's a great person to build the show around.
Casting her is easy, too. It can only be Sophia Lillis, who was in the recent couple of It movies as well as last year's Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase and this year's Gretel and Hansel.
That's plenty long for this post, so in the next post I'll talk about the various locations where characters will hang out, as well as the main adult cast members who'll be with the show all four years.
Friday, April 17, 2020
As I mentioned earlier, Isabel Greenberg's Glass Town got me wanting to read Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary's version of the story, which also explores the Brontë siblings' obsession with the fictional world they created as kids. I read the first part when it was released back in 2004 and was fascinated by it. It was my first exposure to the Brontës childhood creations and I was curious to learn more. It took a while for Hurd-McKenney and Geary to finish the story though (no judgment; graphic novels are monsters to produce), so I'd forgotten all about it until Glass Town reminded me. Thankfully, Infernal Agria was finished a couple of years ago and was all ready for me to dig in.
It's a cool companion to Glass Town. The art style is very different with Geary being perfect for nineteenth century atmosphere and details. It doesn't have the maps or clear geography that Greenberg provides in Glass Town though, so the versions compliment each other. They're doing different things.
Hurd-McKenney and Geary's story also makes Angria/Glass Town a real (though fantastical) place. It's like Wonderland, Narnia, or Oz in that it's separate from the real world, but fairly easy for the kids to access. But like Greenberg's story, Hurd-McKenney and Geary's take focuses on the obsession that the Brontë kids had with the place. Not just Charlotte - who's the focus for Greenberg - but all of them. Infernal Agria argues that this obsession was heightened by tragedies in the Brontë family, and the obsession itself becomes its own kind of tragedy piled onto past ones. It's a bleak take that I didn't enjoy as much as Greenberg's more universal one. I don't always agree with the actions of Greenberg's Charlotte Brontë, but I understand them and see myself in a lot of what she does and thinks. I mostly just feel really bad for Infernal Agria's Brontë kids.
I'm absolutely glad I read it though. I'd love to see the story and world expanded even further and am super curious now about seeing the 2016 biopic, Walk Invisible.
Thursday, April 16, 2020
On the new Hellbent for Letterbox, Pax continues his series of Westerns Starring People Not Necessarily Known for Westerns, with Donna Reed in Gun Fury. Also starring Rock Hudson.
I talk about some of the Zorro adaptations I've been watching and Pax makes progress with his reading of Xavier Dorison and Ralph Meyer's Undertaker comics.
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
Who's in it?: The voices of Henry Darrow (a prolific character actor in the '70s and '80s who went on to play Zorro again in the short-lived CBS live-action comedy Zorro and Son - which I won't be covering - and also played Zorro's dad in the much longer '90s live-action series), Julio Medina (another busy character actor on TV in the '70s), and Don Diamond (I know him best as Corporal Reyes on Disney's live-action Zorro show in the '50s).
What's it about?: Filmation's animated version, originally ran alongside their Saturday-morning Tarzan and Lone Ranger cartoons on The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.
How is it?: I expected it be similar to Filmation's other adventure cartoons like Tarzan, Lone Ranger, and Star Trek, but Zorro is actually a bit different from those. It's the only one Filmation farmed out to another animation studio, which happened to be in Japan. The anime influences are really apparent, especially in the look and comedy antics of Sergeant Gonzalez (Don Diamond). And while the budget is kept under control with reusable action animation, it's not the same animation that I'm used to seeing in the other Filmation cartoons where Tarzan, Lone Ranger, Captain Kirk, and Flash Gordon all run in exactly the same way. The most noticeable reused animation is in the sword fights, but there are lots of different stock moves that the studio rearranges enough to keep interesting. And they're good, creative moves. Sometimes fights last a little longer than my older, short-attention brain wants them to, but when I was a kid, this is what I showed up for.
New Adventures of Zorro also uses some of the same music from those other Filmation shows (which I love, by the way; it's part of the soundtrack of my childhood), but it's rare. Most of the Zorro soundtrack is made of Spanish guitar and other Latin-inspired music. It's exciting and good.
The mythology is mostly the same as previous versions with one, huge exception that I'll get to in a minute. It's heavily inspired by the Disney show which played up the secret identity and Zorro cave to basically turn Zorro into a Western superhero.
Most versions have a female character that Don Diego is either engaged to or interested in, but Filmation's is remarkably chaste. Diego (Henry Darrow) hangs out with a woman named Maria whom I think is the daughter of the local governor. They may have said for sure and I missed it, but that's what I think I've figured out. At any rate, their relationship seems to be purely Platonic.
Like other versions, Diego lives at home with his father, but his dad isn't as exasperated with Diego's apparent laziness as he is in other versions. There's a certain amount of eye-rolling, but he seems to have mostly accepted Diego's flaws.
And like other versions, Zorro's chief adversary is the captain of the local guard who collects taxes for the greedy, selfish governor. The captain also has a fat sergeant, named Gonzalez. That character is right out of the original Johnston McCulley stories and appears in most adaptations. He was renamed Garcia in the Disney series, but Filmation uses the original name. And they have Don Diamond provide the voice in sort of a promotion from his role as Garcia's sidekick in the Disney show.
The big change to all earlier versions is that Zorro's sidekick is no longer a mute servant, but a bona fide costumed adventurer named Miguel (Julio Medina). Zorro frequently calls him Amigo in battle and I wondered whether that's his official superhero name. I don't think it is; I think Zorro's just not calling him Miguel when they're both in costume. But I wish that Amigo was his superhero name, so bad guys could say, "Oh no! It's Zorro and Amigo!"
It sounds silly, but it's no sillier than Miguel's pastel-colored costume, which looks like it was inspired by Zorro, the Gay Blade. He just needs little dingle-ball tassels hanging off the brim of his hat.
There are only 13 episodes of the series and they're all pretty good. The plots are generally Robin Hood style stories where the governor and Captain Ramon overtax the people, so Zorro and Miguel steal the taxes back. But there are always fun twists like Ramon hiring his own Zorro to defeat the real one, or natural disasters like flash floods and earthquakes complicating everyone's missions. There's also a great recurring character, Lucia, a swashbuckling pirate captain who uses her crew to either help Zorro or oppose him depending on her needs at the time.
Rating: Four out of five Miguels.
Tuesday, April 14, 2020
Mike Westfall, Michael DiGiovanni, Annaliese Trammel, and Paxton Holley join me for another round of the classic Nerd Lunch feature: "Turning Movies into TV Shows." After a discussion of what movie-based TV shows have worked (and which haven't), we pitch TV shows based on A League of Their Own, Gremlins, Xanadu, Tomorrowland, and Pretty in Pink.
Monday, April 13, 2020
Glass Town is an immersive look at the young lives of the Brontë siblings: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. As children, they created a fictional world together and populated it with their individual, but interacting characters in a shared storytelling exercise. Greenberg chronicles some of those stories while also helping readers get to know the Brontës themselves.
All the kids get some attention, but Greenberg focuses primarily on Charlotte and her growing obsession with the fictional world. It threatens to consume her to the point where she's not only ignoring real-world responsibilities, but is also seeing physical manifestations of her characters and having conversations with them. There's a powerful parallel to the allure of modern world-building video game simulations and the potential for addiction. But it's also a commentary on the act of storytelling itself and the nature of fictional characters who sometimes do surprising things quite outside their creators' control.
Greenberg has an art style that I struggle to describe. There's a naïf quality about it (especially the characters) that I don't always connect with, but she's a master at storytelling and page composition. She also includes great, period details and amazing maps and architectural structures. I felt pulled into the Brontës' world.
I'm eager to dig into their literary work, but before I do that I want to spend more time with them as characters themselves. There's another graphic novel that I read the first part of a few years ago. The Brontes: Infernal Angria by Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary was originally going to be serialized and the first installment was published in 2004. It was finally finished a couple of years ago and I'm going to revisit it now. I remember being rather confused by it at the time (not being familiar with the Brontës or their Angria/Glass Town concept), but Greenberg has primed me for another go. There's also a 2016 biopic called Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters that I'll be taking a look at.
Wednesday, April 08, 2020
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 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
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