Friday, April 16, 2021

Monday, April 12, 2021

AfterLUNCH | After Dinner Lounge, Apr 2021 (Jughead's Hat)

Rob, Evan, Pax, and I gather for another after dinner conversation sparked by what we've been listening to, reading, watching, and thinking about. Discussions start from the following topics, but meander:
  • Podcasts like The Classic Tales, Writers/Blockbusters, Judge John Hodgman, and The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.
  • The poetry of Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes
  • Books like The Exploits of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, the Darth Bane trilogy by Drew Karpyshyn, and Marvel Classic Novels - X-Men and the Avengers: The Gamma Quest Omnibus by Greg Cox.
  • Comics like the Thor Eternals saga, A Silent Voice, Vol. 1 by Yoshitoki Ōima, and Star Trek:Year Five.
  • Movies like April Fool's Day, A Star is Born, and Godzilla vs Kong.
  • TV series like Lovecraft Country, Bleak House, Resident Alien, and The Haunting of Hill House.
  • And real talk about wedding rings, racism, pets, and staying young.
Download or listen to the episode here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Hellbent for Letterbox Episode 100: The Searchers (1956)

Pax and I celebrate the 100th episode of Hellbent for Letterbox with a long-requested classic: John Ford's The Searchers starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood.

Monday, April 05, 2021

AfterLUNCH | Making Muppet Movies

Rob and I steal a popular Twitter meme with the help of both fresh and familiar voices. My college pal Faith Regn makes her podcast debut alongside our good friend Kay and the Muppetational return of Carlin Trammel! Our sensational, inspirational, celebrational panel creates five new Muppet movies by picking existing non-Muppet films, keeping one or two human actors, and replacing the rest of the cast with Muppets. Tune in for new Muppet capers and mysteries and maybe even some Muppets in space. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

AfterLUNCH | Mystery Movie Night - Planes, Puns, and Paramedics

Mystery Movie Night moves to AfterLUNCH! For this inaugural episode on the new feed, Evan picked Empire of the Sun (1987), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), and Sacro Gra (2013). 

A reminder for listeners who haven't seen all the movies and want to avoid spoilers, here are the time stamps for each review, including the guessing part in case you want to skip straight to that: 

00:05:37 - Review of Empire of the Sun (1987) 
00:23:18 - Review of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) 
00:36:32 - Review of Sacro Gra (2013)
00:49:49 - Guessing the Connection 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Turning (2020)

Finally wrapping up this Turn of the Screw project with the movie that started me on it in the first place. The Turning was one of the last movies I saw in the theater before lockdown and I wasn't sure what to make of it. That got me wanting to re-read James' book and see some other adaptations so that I could figure out if I was missing something. And whether or not the project helped me understand The Turning, I knew it would be fun.

When I saw The Turning, it had been a couple of years since I'd read and grown fascinated with the book, so all I really remembered was that it was ambiguous about the actual existence of the ghosts. I was curious about whether The Turning would interpret it as a straight-up ghost story or mundane psychological horror. And I left the theater disappointed that The Turning apparently tried to have it both ways with a couple of conflicting endings: one supernatural and one psychological. Rewatching it, I'm less confused about the ending (it's not actually two endings, but a fake out and then the real one), but it still doesn't work. I'll come back to that in a second.

The Turning updates the setting from the Victorian English countryside to the United States in the 1990s. The time period was something else that confused me when I first watched this, because I couldn't figure out what difference it made. This time, I went searching for an interview with director Floria Sigismondi and found this one she did with Collider where Tommy Cook asks her not only about the setting, but also tries to dig as much as he can out of her about the ending. Cook seems to be as confused by the ending as I was.

Sigismondi's response about the time period is basically that she wanted to modernize the story without having 21st century technology create questions she didn't want to answer. She also kind of came into her own creatively during the '90s, so that period seems to hold a lot of nostalgia for her. I don't think it's the best reason to pick that decade, but it's fair enough.

Besides the setting, the biggest change The Turning makes is shifting the focus of the story slightly so that it's very much about how the experience affects the governess (named Kate and played by Mackenzie Davis). The governess goes through a lot in the book and the story is all from her point of view, but at the end it's really about how her reaction to the experience affects the children. The Turning, on the other hand, is about toxic masculinity, how it's passed from one generation to the next (Quint to Miles, in this case), and what affect that has on women like Kate and the late Miss Jessel, or even little girls like Flora. 

For the record, I think that's not only a valid take, but a very cool one. And Sigismondi and Davis are excellent at pulling me into Kate's gradual deterioration into paranoia. It's mostly an effective, spooky thriller. The ghosts are clearly real, but that makes Quint's lingering presence even more threatening. 

What doesn't work is the suggestion that Kate's mental illness may be inherited from her mother (as nice as it is to see Joely Richardson in that role). The film is plenty capable of driving Kate nuts just with ghosts and and a highly frustrating household (Mrs Grose is no ally to Kate in this version). There's no need for an additional explanation or the twisty, ambiguous ending that Sigismondi settled on.

Two out of five frazzled faculty.

Monday, March 22, 2021

AfterLUNCH | After Dinner Lounge, Mar 2021

Rob, Evan, Pax, and I gather for another after dinner conversation sparked by what we've been reading, watching, thinking about, and - new with this episode - listening to. Discussions start from the following topics, but meander:
  • Relationships with music
  • Books like the Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Gerserchi, the Jane Austen detective series by Stephanie Barron, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, and The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.
  • Comics like Aster of Pan by Merwan Chabane and Joshua Williamson’s Flash run.
  • Godzilla: King of the Monsters and movies about Queen Elizabeth I.
  • TV shows like The Clone Wars, The Expanse Season 2, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy, Queen’s Gambit, WandaVision, and the 90s Flash series.
  • And finally, real talk about Family, Loss, Identity, and Spring.
Download or listen to the episode here.

Monday, March 15, 2021

AfterLUNCH | Enterprise, Season 1

Having discussed humanity's first contact with the Vulcans, our Star Trek Trek panel reconvenes to talk about the souring of that relationship and how it affects Earth's first human-populated mission into deep space. Delaney, Evan, Rob, and I talk about how the first season of Enterprise fits into continuity while also getting around to what we think of the various characters and episodes. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Hellbent for Letterbox | The Long Riders (1980)

Pax and I discuss Walter Hill's Jesse James biopic featuring three families of brothers playing the real life James, Younger, and Ford brothers.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Através da Sombra (2015)

Através da Sombra is a Brazilian adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. The literal translation of the title is Through the Shadow, which I guess sort of describes the journey the governess goes on. "Through" implies that she comes out of the shadow on the other side, though, and I'm not so sure she does that in any version. The only one that spends any time exploring her life after Bly is the 2009 one with Michelle Dockery and she's still in pretty rough shape even then. On the other hand, I don't guess "through" actually implies that she comes out unscathed, so it could be an accurate, evocative title.

Através da Sombra is pretty straightforward except for its relocating the setting from England to Brazil so that Bly is now a large coffee plantation. Virginia Cavendish's governess is named Laura and her backstory is tweaked a bit so that she grew up an orphan in a convent, but the result is the same as other versions. She's been sheltered and the combination of her naivety and her strict, religious upbringing makes her overconfident and unprepared to deal with the trauma in the house that she's walking into.

This one really plays up the overconfidence and she's quite convincing for a while; almost Mary Poppins-like in her poise. But she's also visibly affected during the interview with the kids' uncle when he touches her hand and persuades her to take the job in spite of his requirement that she not contact him for any reason. (Incidentally, there's a lot of hand touching in the recent adaptations of this scene that I've watched. It's a subtle, intimate way for the uncle to influence the governess and I've almost come to expect it now when I watch a new version.)

Anyway, cracks continue to show in the governess' façade, especially when she thinks about her employer. She frequently imagines and even practices conversations with him. At first I thought it was just a cheap writing tactic to allow the audience into her head, but as it continued and intensified, it became apparent that the film is methodically revealing her to be unhinged.

As for the children, it's clear earlier on in this version that they've suffered some kind of trauma. In other versions, it takes a while for the governess to see past their sweet exteriors, but Elisa (this version's Flora) is painfully shy and distant right away even though the Mrs Grose character (everyone is renamed) insists that Elisa has been excited for the governess to arrive. She eventually warms up, but both she and her brother Antonio are always a bit off.

I've stopped trying to figure out if the ghosts are real from one version to the next. I no longer think that's important. I've settled my mind that they're always real and a threat to the kids, but that the greater danger to the children is the governess' attempt to save them. It's just a horrible situation and a powerful metaphor for how complicated it can be to minister to someone who's been through severe mental or physical pain. 

That's why I prefer movie adaptations that have the governess be directly responsible for Miles' death. The book is vague about what exactly happens, but it's thematically beautiful for her to literally smother him while trying to protect him. Sadly, Através da Sombra doesn't go that route. Instead, it has Antonio drop dead while running away from the governess, implying that Bento (the Peter Quint character) is responsible. It still works - he's running from Laura who's kind of madly pursuing him - but it also kind of lets her off the hook a little. The story's more powerful when she's directly responsible.

Three out of five sad schoolteachers.

Monday, March 08, 2021

AfterLUNCH | Greetings from SciFi World!

Rob and I are joined by Joanna from Bloody Popcorn and my frequent podcasting partner Dan Taylor to create a science-fiction-themed amusement park with lands devoted to Twilight ZoneFirefly, the works of Philip K Dick, and Planet of the Apes

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The Turn of the Screw (2009)

The BBC's 2009 Turn of the Screw adaptation came out a year before the premiere of Downton Abbey, but has a surprising lot in common with it. Most noticeable of course is Michelle Dockery as the governess, but Turn of the Screw also features Sue Johnston (aka Miss Denker, Maggie Smith's lady's maid) as Mrs Grose. And there's even a brief, but important role for Dan Stevens as a doctor who tries to determine whether the governess is sane after her experiences at Bly. As a big fan of Mary and Matthew Crawley, it was lovely seeing Dockery and Stevens in scenes together again, even if they predate what I know them from.

Bly itself may not be the same scale of grandeur as Downton, but it's still an impressive estate with lots of servants. And then there's the resetting of the story to the 1920s, a time period also covered by Downton, so the clothing styles and technology look very familiar to Downton fans. It's kind of amazing to me that the Turn of the Screw adaptation came first.

Putting the story in the '20s isn't the only change this version makes. It fully embraces the ghost story aspects of Henry James' novella, so that as soon as governess Ann enters Bly, she starts hearing and seeing things. The kids are played up to maximum creepiness from their Village of the Damned light blonde hair to the sinister looks they give behind Ann's back. They're not just affected by past trauma, they're almost certainly literally possessed. 

It's not as interesting or deep an issue as the book or other adaptations deals with, but it's a fun, exciting take. Having the governess' sanity under evaluation is a nice framing device, too, since it lets her and her doctor speculate about and interpret what she's seen. 

But even though its being a straight ghost story is a nice change of pace from the usual heavy darkness of implied or explicit abuse, this version doesn't particularly stand out as a great ghost story. Having seen a lot of spectral Quints and Jessels so far, my favorites are the ones with the least special effects. That approach usually supports the story best, since the governess isn't sure what she's seeing and it helps not to have any visual cues that she's definitely witnessing something supernatural. But just from an aesthetic standpoint, I'm creeped out much more when I'm just seeing a person standing unnaturally still off in the distance, staring at me, than I am when that person is transparent with a computer-generated blue aura around them. 

Three out of five Downton denizens.

Monday, March 01, 2021

AfterLUNCH | Chatting with Kelly Thompson

Rob and I talk with one of our favorite writers. Kelly Thompson has written novels like Storykiller and The Girl Who Would Be King, but she's most known for great, funny, character-driven comics like Marvel's A-Force, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Captain Marvel as well as series featuring popular characters like Jem and the Holograms, the Pink Power Ranger, Nancy Drew, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Kelly shares huge aspects of her writing process, but also geeks out about other things that she's enjoying watching and reading.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

In a Dark Place (2006)

Spoilers and various triggers below

Last year's The Turning wasn't the first film to update The Turn of the Screw with a contemporary setting. As far as I can tell, that was 2006's In a Dark Place starring Leelee Sobieski as the governess, named Anna Veigh in this version.

It would be fairly easy to reset James' novella in modern times without changing much about the relationships, but In a Dark Place takes the opportunity to do a couple of things. First, it sidelines the already minor, but important character of the uncle who hires the governess. In this version, he sees her on someone else's recommendation and spends all of ten seconds looking her over before hiring her. All other contact between him and her is handled through his assistant, Miss Grose (Game of Thrones' Tara Fitzgerald).

In the novella and other adaptations, Grose runs the house, but has no authority over the governess or anything involving the children. She's Anna's boss in In a Dark Place and that power shift makes a big difference. For one thing, it's now very important whether or not she believes Anna's claims about seeing the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. In the novella, Grose could only affect the governess' state of mind by supporting her or not. In this film, Anna could lose her job if Grose decides she's crazy.

More importantly though, it's eventually revealed that Grose is lesbian and - early coolness towards Anna notwithstanding - attracted to her new employee. Anna makes it clear early on that she's fascinated by Grose and wants to be her friend, but Grose crosses a professional boundary by initiating an actual physical relationship. And by the time she does, it's already very clear that she's just one in a long line of people who have behaved inappropriately towards Anna.

The movie opens with her being harassed and then fired by the headmaster of a school where she's teaching, but he then recommends her for the governess job. In addition to him and Miss Grose, the movie gradually reveals that Anna was also sexually assaulted as a child. And then there are Miles and Flora's hints at their own abuse by Quint and Jessel and that they possibly expect the same kind of treatment from Anna. 

This kind of abuse is heavy subtext in the book, but In a Dark Place pulls it into the overt text and shines a spotlight on it. Anna causes trouble for the children not because she's naively inexperienced as in the novella, but because her own, actual experiences of abuse by multiple people in her life, including her current employer, cause an incredibly strong reaction when she suspects that Miles and Flora suffered the same thing by the living Quint and Jessel, and are in danger of continued abuse by their ghosts. Anna gets so caught up in trying to protect the children that she becomes a monster herself and the final scenes of her chasing Miles through the mansion (insisting that she's trying to save him) reminded me a lot of Jack Nicholson's hunting Shelley Duvall in The Shining.

It's a fascinating twist that still stays quite true to the spirit of the book. If the film were better directed, I'd probably love it, but Donato Rotunno uses a lot of weird camera angles and points of view and long periods of silence that distracted me rather than enhancing anything. 

Three-and-a-half out of five troubled teachers.   

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Writing is Hard: Humans are humans

After the last After Dinner Lounge episode, Erik Johnson made a comment on Twitter that reminded me of something I want to drop here. Jack Kirby came up in the podcast thanks to Evan's reading The Eternals, which led Erik to write, "I’m foaming at the mouth with excitement hearing your Jack Kirby discussion being such a big fan of the man’s work, but I will admit my knowledge dips off after Silver Age years. His visuals are still great but the writing is a bit out there."

Thinking about Kirby's writing reminded me of a piece of writing advice he gave that's stuck with me ever since I read it. I've reinterpreted it and probably misquoted it through the years, so I want to document it here in case I need to refer to it again. 

In an interview posted at the Jack Kirby Museum, Kirby said that "Superheroes may be superhuman in stature but inside they’re human beings and they act and react as human beings [...] It  doesn’t matter whether you’re doing legendary characters like Hercules or modern characters, you’ll find that humans are humans and they’ll react the same way in certain situations."

That's profound and like I said, it's always stuck with me. You can put characters into all kinds of crazy, outlandish situations, but as long as they act like real people, as a writer you'll always be okay.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Hellbent for Letterbox | El Dorado (1966)

After loving Rio Bravo, Pax and I come back for more with the similarly plotted Howard Hawks / John Wayne / Leigh Brackett classic El Dorado. Robert Mitchum steps in for Dean Martin, James Caan subs for Ricky Nelson, and Charlene Holt replaces Angie Dickinson, but how do the films compare?

Download or listen to the episode here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Turn of the Screw: The Opera by Benjamin Britten

In 1954, composer Benjamin Britten debuted his operatic version of The Turn of the Screw. I watched a performance directed by Katie Mitchell with music by City of London Sinfonia. I've had a hard time verifying when it was recorded, but that's not important anyway. It's sometime within the last couple of decades and Mitchell's given the production a stark, modern quality with minimalist sets. I've seen photos of other productions that embrace the story's period, gothic atmosphere and I wish those were available to watch. Even though I don't love the version I saw, I'd be interested in a live production with a more opulent look.

It's impossible to tell how many of the changes to James' story are Britten's and how many are Mitchell's, but whoever's responsible, the performance I watched is explicit about the existence of the ghosts. They not only appear to Miles and Flora when the governess isn't around, but they also appear in one scene together alone with no mortal humans to witness them. This emphasizes what I've decided for myself lately: that whether or not the ghosts are real, their power in the story is what they did to the children while still alive. The haunting can be literal or figurative, but it's the same result either way. The kids are screwed up, the governess senses it, and because of her inexperience and delusion that she's capable of handling the situation, she screws the kids up even more. 

While I don't care for Mitchell's spartan set, I do quite like the look of her ghosts. Both are dressed in unnatural, electric blue fabric and have blue coloring in their hair. Peter Quint (Mark Padmore) also has an ugly, red wound on the back of his head, relating to how he died. And Miss Jessel's (Catrin Wyn Davies) hair is wild and her dress is hanging loose, perhaps suggesting her drowning, but also giving her a disordered, abandoned look. That could be related to her general nature or to her victimhood by Quint, neither the opera nor James' novella give enough detail to know. But it works both ways and the ghosts are plenty striking. They're my favorite thing about this production.

Sadly, the other characters can't compete, even though the actors are all good. Operatic acting is different from film acting, but Lisa Milne is especially excellent as the governess, always looking around in curiosity, awe, or terror. But the production doesn't focus much on her. It's more interested in the ghosts and their influence over Miles (Nicholas Kirby Johnson) and Flora (Caroline Wise). The kids are close in age in this version, so the story loses the horror of Miles' adding his own manipulative influence over Flora, but that element isn't crucial in this version. Quint has targeted Miles and Jessel has targeted Flora and the unnamed governess has to try to rescue both.

Unfortunately, a side effect of the increased attention to the ghosts - both in how great they look and the amount of time they're on stage - is that the governess becomes dull in comparison. Britten's lyrics give her plenty to moan about and struggle with, but she can't compete with the ghosts. And she really needs to for the story to work. It has to be her versus the spirits with the kids at stake. And since the kids in this version can't really compete with the ghosts either, the consequences of the ghosts' winning aren't as dire and the whole production is off balance.

Two out of five apparitions of alarming associates. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

AfterLUNCH | After Dinner Lounge, Feb 2021

Evan, Pax, Rob, and I reconvene to talk about what we've been reading, watching, and thinking about. As always with the After Dinner Lounge, the conversation meanders, but topics begin with:
  • Books like Carthage Must be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Mediterranean Civilization by Richard Miles, Redwall by Brian Jacques, the Horatio Hornblower series by CS Forester, The Tournament by Matthew Reilly, and Storykiller by Kelly Thompson.
  • Comics like The Eternals by Jack Kirby and Marvel's Killraven series.
  • Movies like Mank, the Schwarzenegger Conan series, and Legendary Pictures' Godzilla and Kong MonsterVerse.
  • TV shows like Ted Lasso.
  • And real talk about Heist Stories, Separating Art from Artist, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Truffles.
Download or listen to the episode here.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Mystery Movie Night | Treasure Island (1950), Kelly's Heroes (1970), and Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

It was 5 years ago this month that the first episode of Mystery Movie Night came out. 50 episodes later, Dave, David, Erik, Evan, and I are still making connections between movies: this time about pirates, privates, and puddle-booted primates. And there's a special announcement about the future of the show.

00:02:15 - Review of Treasure Island (1950)
00:15:40 - Review of Kelly's Heroes (1970)
00:32:46 - Review of Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)
00:50:22 - Guessing the Connection

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Presence of Mind (1999)

I wrote about Presence of Mind about this time last year shortly after watching The Turning, which is what got me interested in The Turn of the Screw again. At the time, I hadn't yet reread the novella, but based on my memory of it, I judged Presence of Mind to be a faithful adaptation except for some changes in location and characters' names. Now that I'm better able to compare it with the novella and some other versions, I realize that while it's certainly closer to the book than The Turning is, it still takes some big liberties.

I do still really like it though. Sadie Frost's version of the governess is young and naive like in the novella, but Presence of Mind comes at her from a slightly different angle from Henry James or even Ben Bolt's adaptation also from 1999. In Bolt's version, Jodhi May beautifully pulls out the intensity and paranoia of the governess. Presence's director Antoni Aloy seems more interested in the character's sexual awakening.

The movie includes some prologue scenes that aren't in the book, showing the death of the governess' father and suggesting that he was an oppressive figure in her life, even after his death. When she interviews with Miles and Flora's uncle (Harvey Keitel), he's charming, but unapologetic about his inability to look after his niece and nephew. He leads a lazy, luxurious life and can't be bothered to manage children, but what's important is his effect on the governess. His habits are so different from the austere, repressed existence she's used to and she can't help but be curious and attracted to him. When she visits his secret rooms at the estate, she learns that he's maybe even more wanton than she realized. But it doesn't stifle her interest in him.

He's exactly the sort of fellow who would tolerate a man like Peter Quint running the estate. And while the Mrs Grose character in this version (played by Lauren Bacall and renamed Mado Remei) is strict in her own way, she's also supportive of the Master. The governess is going to have to explore and awaken without support from anyone else.

The setting for the story is relocated from the English countryside to a sumptuous, Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain. Everything about the story is designed to arouse the governess, including - unfortunately - the children. It's clear in the book that Miles and Flora have been somehow abused by Quint and Miss Jessel, the previous governess, but the extent and exact nature of that abuse is vague. At the very least, the kids have seen and heard things that they shouldn't have seen or heard. It's affected them and Miles in particular has begun repeating some words - and possibly actions - that have gotten him expelled from school and that make his new governess very uncomfortable. 

Miles is experienced beyond his age and eager to experiment and experience even more. That's all in the book, but the extent of his "maturity" and experimentation is open for interpretation. Dan Curtis' Miles is pretty far gone and irredeemable, for instance. Ben Bolt's Miles struggles a lot more, as does Aloy's. Miles is a good, sweet kid, but in Aloy's version especially he can't unsee or unthink what he's experienced and that leads him to want to experiment with the governess. And because of her own interest in emerging from past repression, she's not equipped to resist Miles' invitation. She wants to though and that's the central conflict of this version. (Flora isn't a temptation to the governess in the same way that Miles is, but she's still affected by her environment and the film makes it clear that she and Miles are experimenting with each other.)

Meanwhile, the ghosts are very real in this one. It's Quint's specter who kills Miles at the end, not the governess' accidental smothering of him. Maybe that's because Miles has been more in control through the rest of the story. The governess has made an attempt to keep herself and Miles (and Flora, to a lesser extent) under control, but she's mostly failed. The more versions I watch though, the less interested I am in whether or not the ghosts are real. They can or can't be; it doesn't affect the real drama of the story either way. My favorite versions - this one and Bolt's - are about the governess' inexperience and complete lack of equipment for dealing with even the non-supernatural horrors of the household. 

I still love the ambiguity and certainly the filmmaking of The Innocents (with its older governess), but I love even more the boldness of Bolt and Aloy to deal frankly with the disturbing implications of James' story. From a sheer craft perspective, The Innocents has Presence of Mind beat. But as a piece of art that's trying to communicate something very specific (though disturbing), Presence of Mind is excellent.

Four out of five inappropriate instructors.

Monday, February 15, 2021

AfterLUNCH | Star Trek Trek 1 - First Contact

Rob, his daughter Delaney, Evan, and I begin a journey through the various movies and TV shows of Star Trek, in chronological order. In this first episode, we discuss humanity's introduction to the larger galaxy in First Contact

It's a controversial place to start since it's neither the first adventure of the time travelers who are trying to protect the historic meeting, nor is it the earliest time period that these travelers have visited. So we also discuss other Star Trek movies and TV episodes in which Starfleet crews (and the occasional Ferengi) go back in time.

Download or listen to the episode here.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Turn of the Screw (1999)

I first noticed Jodhi May as Madeleine Stowe's younger sister in the 1992 Last of the Mohicans. Her last name of course stood out to me, but I also thought she did a great job with a mostly thankless character whose main purpose is to motivate other characters. Anyway, I was excited to find out that she also played the governess in a 1999 Masterpiece Theatre version of The Turn of the Screw.

And it's excellent. It also has Colin Firth as the young, handsome gentleman who hires May's character to take care of his niece and nephew. And right away, I knew that director Ben Bolt was on the right track by having May's character be clearly smitten with Firth's. This is something that the novella is subtle about, but The Innocents emphasizes and I think it's crucial to explaining some of the governess' future decisions.

I didn't mention it when I wrote about Dan Curtis' adaptation, but its more experienced governess was hired by a stern, no-nonsense master who gruffly ordered her never to contact him. The lack of contact between master and governess is crucial to the plot, but I like it even better when it's not just a professional arrangement. Firth is kind with May and when he emphasizes that she'll be on her own with the children, it's not just a contractual arrangement. She's emotionally invested in pleasing him.

Her intense desire to do a good job affects everything. She becomes immediately, deeply attached to the kids, so when she starts seeing ghosts and learns that Quint and Jessel were past threats to the children and still may not be leaving them alone, she gets protective to the point of paranoia. She's nervous about the ghosts and suspicious of the children who seem to be under the ghosts' influence. May is amazing with all of this, showing her character's emotional and mental vulnerability right away and then allowing it to grow into something frightening and dangerous. 

The film is so good at the psychological stuff that it doesn't even really matter whether the ghosts are real are not. Either way, the effect is the same, which is the perfect way to think about them. It's the same in the novella. I like believing that the ghosts are real, but they don't mean anything if I don't understand and feel their effect on the governess. 

Miles and Flora are great in this version, played mostly as sweet by Joe Sowerbutts and Grace Robinson, but with occasional periods of mischievousness. In Curtis' version, the kids have been corrupted by Quint and Jessel and are now mostly naughty under a thin veil of sweetness. In Bolt's version, their natural inclination is to be good, but Miles especially is haunted by dark thoughts put into his head by Quint. That struggle affects Flora, too, and the two of them occasionally act out as a way of testing themselves and their governess to see if their relationships can survive the misdoings.

Jason Salkey's Peter Quint isn't a particularly shocking ghost, but he's none the less terrifying. Even without scary makeup, he's an imposing, brutal figure. Caroline Pegg's Miss Jessel is more conventionally frightening in her black dress and malign stare. She's a great, gothic ghost and maybe my favorite interpretation of the specter so far.

This version is so well done. Its interpretation of the story is well thought out and easy to follow, all the way up to its explanation for Miles' death at the end. 

Five out of five disturbed duennas.   

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Turn of the Screw (1974)

After enjoying what I've seen so far of Dan Curtis' Dark Shadows and his Dracula adaptation, I was looking forward to seeing what he did with his TV movie version of The Turn of the Screw (aired the same year as his Dracula). Curtis' gothic sensibilities seem perfect for the story.

And he certainly had a top notch lead actor in Lynn Redgrave. The house he shot in is cool, too. It's not exactly the sprawling mansion I imagine from the book (and that appears in other adaptations), but it looks authentic and has all the nooks and corners needed for a good, spooky story.

There are a few things keeping me from loving the movie though. First is just the cheap look of it. It was shot on video tape which does weird things to candle flames (an essential part of any gothic atmosphere) besides just giving a soap opera feel to the whole thing. It was also clearly structured for television, with dramatic pauses on characters' reactions as scenes fade to black for commercial breaks. 

That's a nitpick though and I can't imagine that I'd have felt the same if I'd watched it on TV in the '70s. The bigger issues for me are what it does to the governess (named Miss Cubberly in this version) and Miles. 

Miss Cubberly isn't the first time the governess has been aged for an adaptation, but The Innocents balanced Deborah Kerr's age with questionable experience and a lot of ambiguity that cast doubt on her mental state. Redgrave's character is almost Mary Poppins-like in her experience and competence. And when we first see the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, there's little doubt that they're real ghosts. So the movie has a harder time when it begins to suggest late in the game that maybe something else is going on.

To be fair, Miles and Flora give Miss Cubberly an especially hard time in this one. Miles is older than usual and extra creepy and cruel. The actors who play him and Flora had to have been hired for their ability to smile sinisterly whenever Miss Cubberly's back is turned. So I can believe that they and the ghosts wear her down so that she becomes paranoid and that her resulting bad behavior begins to feedback on theirs and create a dangerous situation. It's a reasonable approach to the story, but it's not very subtle. I prefer Miles and Flora and their governess to be more complicated and nuanced. Miles is downright nasty in this one. He has some fleeting moments of remorse, but there are very few of those that don't feel like an act he's playing to fool Miss Cubberly.

I do kind of like the ending though. By the time the story's wrapping up, it doesn't really matter if Quint and Jessel are actual ghosts or just symbols of the legacy of abuse that their living counterparts have left on the children. I think it's harder to read them as symbols, but Miss Cubberly's final confrontation with Miles does allow it. She shouts encouragement at Miles to overcome Quint's influence and it seems to work. Miles becomes penitent and they both hug, but in a last minute shock, Miss Cubberly looks at Quint's ghost and see that it's actually Miles. Then she looks at who she's hugging and sees that it's Quint. She instinctively shoves him away, he falls over a bannister and crashes to the floor below... and of course when she looks again, it's Miles whom she's thrown to his death. 

Thanks to some great acting by Redgrave, Miss Cubberly's reaction is heartbreaking and the whole thing feels satisfying until I realize that I'm still confused about what just happened. Why did Miss Cubberly see Peter Quint in her arms? Is it symbolic that Miles was still somewhat under Quint's influence and Miss Cubberly felt it and reacted viscerally? Or is it a literal transformation as a last effort by Quint's ghost to do harm? 

I prefer the symbolic reading, but that's true of the entire story. And since I feel that way about the novella as well, I've figured out that my favorite versions are going to be the ones that leave the most room for that interpretation. Curtis' adaptation is mostly literal, to the point that I wonder if he's actually left room for a symbolic explanation or if I'm forcing that on the movie simply because I prefer it.

Two out of five creepy kids.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The Nightcomers (1971)

Now that I've finally finished the Little Women project, it's time to get back to adaptations of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. I hadn't got very far in it. I wrote about the novella and two movie adaptations: the classic 1961 film The Innocents and an okay 1999 version re-titled Presence of Mind. Getting back to this series of posts properly, it's fitting to start with a prequel to James' novel. 

Director Michael Winner is probably best known for Charles Bronson action thrillers like The Mechanic and the Death Wish series. That helps explain some things about The Nightcomers, which stars Marlon Brando as groundskeeper Peter Quint. In Turn of the Screw, Quint is long gone and may or may not be haunting the home of two kids named Miles and Flora. If his ghost is real, then the ghost of the kids' former governess Miss Jessel is probably real, too. But there's a lot of ambiguity about how much of this is all in the head of the children's current governess.

Part of what makes The Turn of the Screw fun to revisit is its refusal to explain exactly what's going on. That leaves it wide open for interpretation by various adaptations as they use the story to address a variety of different themes. And a big part of this is the mysterious backstory of what happened to Miss Jessel and her abusive lover and what relationship they had with the children she was in charge of. Peter Quint clearly had a powerful, negative effect on Miles, but was the abuse purely psychological or was it physical as well? 

The Nightcomers takes a stab at answering these questions by showcasing the gardener's perverse ideas about the relationships between love and hate, pleasure and pain, and life and death. His point of view has a horrible effect on Miss Jessel and the kids, creating a dark, disturbing take on James' story. But it's also a valid and fascinating one.

As a fan of the novella, though, I was sorry to see some details from the book changed or ignored. Flora's age is a big difference. She's older in The Nightcomers and closer in age to Miles. I presume that's to mitigate the super creepy relationship between the siblings as they imitate the abusively sexual relationship of their older role models. It's bad enough as it is in the movie, but it would be even more horrific if Flora were the age she is in the novel.

A smaller change is the new governess who shows up near the end (and will be the protagonist in James' story). She's only there briefly, but comes across as more experienced and confident tham she probably should be. In the book, she's so excited about her new post that she gets out of the carriage once it arrives on the estate's grounds so that she can walk the rest of the way and explore. There's no such foolishness in The Nightcomers, which has her simply take the carriage all the way to the house.

These aren't really important changes though (even Flora's age) and they serve the story that the movie is here to tell. But they do get in the way of my thinking of it as a proper prequel. It's a compelling story, but also feels like an indulgent one with Winner highlighting the same unpleasantly gritty themes as in his other films.

Three out of five fake moustaches.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Little Women (2019)

And so we're back to the movie that started me on this journey. Greta Gerwig's adaptation was my favorite film of 2019 and sent me to finally reading the book and watching all the other versions I could get my eyes on. I was curious and eager to watch it again now that I know the story much, much better.

I gotta admit though, after re-watching and loving Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, I was a little afraid that I wouldn't love Gerwig's adaptation as much in comparison. But that's not the case. This project did reveal that some of Gerwig's techniques aren't original to her, but even though they're important to my enjoyment of it, Gerwig lays a tone over the story that makes it distinctly hers and so heart-warming.

Armstrong was the first to infuse the story with overtly feminist commentary. The 2017 BBC miniseries added shots of Jo's school at the end, giving viewers a peek at the futures of the characters. And surprisingly, it was the 2018 modern-day retelling that innovated starting the story with Jo in New York and using flashbacks to bring the earlier story up to speed. Gerwig repeats all of these tricks and does them super well. 

The 2018 movie uses heavy visual cues to denote the transitions between the present-day narrative and the flashbacks, but Gerwig is more subtle. She lets memory and the present flow naturally together and then trusts the viewer to keep up with some help from color filters, hairstyles, and other context clues. She also doesn't just insert the flashbacks in the order they happened in the book, but puts them at relevant spots that are connected to whatever's going on in the present.

I especially love Gerwig's feminism, because it's so heart-felt and natural and never didactic. Jo's speech always tears me up when she talks about how women are so much more than just beauty and love, but that doesn't help the fact that she's profoundly lonely. And then there's Meg's insistence that feminism isn't about rejecting marriage, if marriage is truly what a woman wants. And Amy's defense of marriage as an economic proposition, because that's the deal that society has given her. And I'm in awe at how Gerwig eats her cake and still has it too with the romcom trope of Jo's chasing Friedrich Bhaer to the train station, commenting on and subverting it while still delivering it in a crazy satisfying way. 

As she builds on these approaches from other films, Gerwig also adds completely new touches. Her March sisters are gloriously lively and rambunctious. They wrestle and run and talk over each other. It's no wonder that Laurie, alone in his own home with only his quiet grandfather and the household staff for company, longs to be next door. 

Speaking of Laurie's grandfather, Chris Cooper is easily my favorite iteration of that character. In a lot of these adaptations, I've enjoyed identifying MVPs who bring various non-Jo characters to life in surprising ways. Claire Danes' Beth in 1994, for instance. Or Emily Watson's Marmee in 2017. Gerwig's movie has several stand-outs, but the older Mr Laurence deserves extra mention because that character often doesn't have a lot to do. 

Gerwig's script and Cooper's performance make me feel how much Mr Laurence misses his daughter and how much he relishes Beth's filling that spot in his heart... only to have her ripped out of it again. It's so tragic and Cooper lets me see just how horrifying it is, and yet the character doesn't give into despair, but allows the rest of the family to comfort him even as they're suffering under their own grief. The two households love and support each other and not just after Beth is gone. It's a lovely picture of what neighbors can and should be for each other.

(Speaking of which, I adore the scene when the March women take their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels and tramp past a church as people are gathering for worship. I can cynically read that as an indictment of a certain kind of religion that elevates ritual above actually putting one's faith into practice. Or I can more generously see it just as a statement that what the Marches are doing is worship. I prefer the latter, because we don't know any of those people gathering for church or what their motivations might be or how they are or aren't practicing their beliefs in the rest of their lives. But the symbolism works both ways and either reading is valid and powerful.)

Another thing Gerwig does remarkably well is Amy and Laurie's relationship. It helps that Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet are amazing actors, but the script fully embraces the novel's scenes of Amy and Laurie in Europe, helping each other to grow up and mature through some things that are holding both of them back. And then there's maybe my favorite scene in the movie where Laurie tells Amy that she shouldn't marry Fred Vaughn and hints that she knows why he objects and she stops him cold. 

"That's mean, it's just mean of you," she says. "I've been second to Jo my whole life in everything and I will not be the person you settle for just because you can't have her. I won't do it. Not when I've spent my entire life loving you." I fully believe her and it murders me.

So, yeah. I can say with certainty now - having seen all the other major adaptations - that this is still my favorite with 1994 being a close second and the 2017 BBC miniseries close behind that.

Five out of five letters from Father.   

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Little Women (2018)

Adapting Little Women to a modern setting sounds complicated and possibly ill-advised, but I looked forward to the experiment for the same reason that I don't complain about remakes and reboots. I'm always curious to see what artists choose to keep and what they change. And that's especially true in a story where the Civil War, small pox, and Nineteenth Century women's roles play such huge parts. 

Director Clare Niederpruem and her co-writer Kristi Shimek do a great job of updating the historical elements. Pa March is now a military surgeon deployed in the Middle East. Amy falls from a horse instead of through thin ice. Instead of catching small pox from a neighbor family, Beth contracts leukemia that goes into remission before eventually coming back. Instead of balls, there are high school parties and proms. That all works really well and I was fascinated by the modernizations. The only thing I scratch my head about is Jo's relationship with Professor Bhaer who appears to be her actual college professor? If that's right, there are some ethical questions that the movie never addresses.

What really doesn't work though is the extreme focus on Jo to the point that the film is only interested in how the other characters affect her. Laurie's grandfather only spends time with Beth in a quick montage and the whole Amy/Laurie romance happens completely offscreen. I would have loved to see Lea Thompson do a lot more with Marmee (weird that the movie keeps that outdated nickname), but she never gets the chance. 

Even more frustrating, as obsessed as the movie is with Jo, it doesn't think about her nearly as much as she thinks about herself. This Jo is completely self-absorbed, mean, destructively angry, and has a laughably juvenile concept of what it means to Write (capital W; back of hand to forehead) that she carries well into her college years where she should have learned better. 

The point of the film is to watch her grow out of that, but I still think it takes the character too far. The book's Jo matures from writing pulp to creating personal stories with artistic merit, but she's also always aware of the difference between the two. She just prefers pulp and has to grow into appreciating literature. In this movie, Jo believes that her 400-page YA mythopoetic epic (or whatever she calls it) is Literature and it's embarrassing to watch her finally realize the truth about that. Especially after she's been such a stubborn jerk about it for so long.

On the other hand, the cast is pretty great. Sarah Davenport brings out Jo's feistiness, but also her eventual regret and desire to change. Allie Jennings is super cute as homebody Beth who fights to keep her humor even when she's really sick. Elise Jones plays the younger version of Amy as an obnoxious preteen and I really like the hints early on that she has a crush on Laurie. It makes it a bit easier to believe their later relationship, even though there's less reason to understand why he's fallen in love with her. Lucas Grabeel is charmingly nerdly as Laurie, a kid who'd get picked on at school if he wasn't so stinking rich and self-confident. I liked him a lot and wish the film had a kinder Jo for him to fall in love with.

One final note as I head towards Greta Gerwig's adaptation: unless I'm forgetting something, this is the first version to start the story with Jo in New York and reveal the previous events in flashback. I think that's a smart way to remix the story and keep it interesting for modern viewers. Gerwig does it too and gets even better results.

Three out of five Skypes from Father.   

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Little Women (2017)

I liked this second BBC adaptation much more than the first. I wasn't sure about it after the opening scene in which the four sisters cut off locks of hair to send to Father, but director Vanessa Caswill shoots them in extremely intimate close-ups, giving the activity an off-putting, seductive quality. Caswill and cinematographer Piers McGrail love focusing on warm, sensual details all through the mini-series and it reminded me of Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. But The Age of Innocence is all about seduction and sensuality. Little Women is about compassion and wisdom. Especially in that opening scene (but also a later one when Meg's friends are getting her ready for a ball), the sumptuous focus on hands and hair and ribbons and undergarments are out of place.

Caswill also uses the technique on household items and nature photography and other places where it's not as jarring and I was able to just enjoy the beauty of the images. The look of the production is gorgeous.

Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) is maybe my favorite Jo so far. She's certainly up there with Winona Ryder and Saoirse Ronan. She's natural in the role and never feels like she's merely acting boyish or hot-tempered. She struggles to control her tongue, but not because anyone wants her to be modest and quiet. She struggles the same way a character like Han Solo does: because when she speaks without thinking, she alienates or even hurts people without meaning to. Hawke is wonderfully convincing in her struggle to control that.

Willa Fitzgerald and Annes Elwy are good as Meg and Beth. And Kathryn Newton is perfectly beautiful as teenaged Amy. She also plays the younger version of Amy though and that doesn't work as well. After seeing how nice it was to let Amy be a child in the anime series and the 1994 version, I've sort of lost patience with watching older actors play the spoiled, self-absorbed child. I'm kind of scared about how that will effect my enjoyment of Florence Pugh in the role when I re-watch that.

This adaptation doesn't really belong to Amy though, so I learned not to care so much about how it handles her. Her eventual romance with Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) just sort of goes through the motions without showing the couple's love and support for each other in Europe or even hinting at a deeper attraction until its time for them to get engaged.

In contrast, I deeply believed Laurie's feelings for Jo. The series has a few scenes that show him clearly in love with her and wanting to talk to her about it, but she keeps putting him off. She tries to be gentle about it, but he persists until it finally comes to a head and he ends up sitting in the grass, bawling, the only version of Laurie I've seen do that. It's heartbreaking and real and I loved it.

This version pays a little more attention to Beth than most (with the exception of the 1994 movie) and deals with her realization that she's dying and her reluctance to burden anyone else with that information. There's still no beating Claire Danes' version, but this one is especially tragic.

It's even more tragic thanks to the MVP of the series, Emily Watson as Marmee. More than any other version so far, Watson's Marmee struggles hard with raising these girls by herself. She's not equipped for it, neither with the support structure she needs nor even with the inner resources. As she tells Jo in the book, she herself struggles with anger every single day and that comes out in Watson's performance. But what also comes out is her deep, deep love for her daughters and her husband and her perseverance to keep her anger and despair under control for their sakes. She's inspiring. 

Dylan Baker is good as Mr March and the script even gives him some nice, extra conversations with Jo where he tries to mentor her on writing (he's been working on a book of his own for a couple of decades) and she ends up mentoring him instead. Baker also gets to show Dad's grief over Beth, which is lovely. Mr March is often very stoic through all of that in other versions. (I did have a little trouble accepting Baker in the part just because I love his hilariously evil character in The Good Wife and this was such a different role, but that's not his fault. He's great as both characters and I have new respect for him as an actor watching this and The Good Wife so close together.)

The two most famous actors in this don't get a lot to do. Michael Gambon is Laurie's grandfather and he's great as always, but the script doesn't go too deeply into his relationship with Beth. They have a nice scene or two together, but a more touching scene is with Laurie when the elder Mr Laurence offers to accompany his grandson to Europe as an escape from Jo.

Angela Lansbury is Aunt March, but she's underused, too. It's always nice to see Lansbury and she does a fine job with Aunt March's mood swings between snobbishly overbearing and surprisingly compassionate. I just wish there was more of her.

Finally, Mark Stanley plays Professor Bhaer and he's fine, too. He's ten years older than Maya Hawke, so the relationship isn't creepy. But Gillian Armstrong spoiled me with the 1994 version by having Bhaer be such a positive influence on Jo's transformation from dreaming child to functioning adult. 2017 Bhaer is handsome and gentle and supportive (when he insults Jo's sensationalist stories, it's an accident, because he's only seen them in print and doesn't know she's the writer). Armstrong showed me that Bhaer can be even more than that, though, so it's hard to go back to even a merely adequate interpretation of the character.

But while I pick on some of the characters that this version has made minor, I also adore the characters it puts in the spotlight: Jo, Marmee, and to a slightly lesser extent, Laurie. Jo carried me on her journey every step of the way and I ached for Marmee like I never have before. And I ached pretty hard for Laura Dern's version.

Four out of five letters from Father.

Monday, February 01, 2021

AfterLUNCH | The Expendables of Period Movies

Lizzie Twachtman, John Vanover, and Jeeg join Rob and I to create an historical period film with an all-star cast of actors known for their historical period films. And if that's not enough for ya, stay tuned to the end for Real Talk about New Math and Arrested Development.

Download or listen to the episode here.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Hellbent for Letterbox | The Tall Men (1955)

Pax and I join Clark Gable, Jane Russell, and Robert Ryan on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana and figure out which Tall Man Russell should choose.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Little Men (1998)

I've never read either of Louisa May Alcott's sequels to Little Women, so I hadn't intended to watch any of the adaptations for this project. But when I saw that there was a Little Men movie only a few years after Winona Ryder's Little Women, I decided to add it to my list. It made it even better that it stars Chris Sarandon, former husband of Susan Sarandon, who played Marmee in 1994.

Chris Sarandon plays Professor Bhaer who is now married to Jo March, played by Mariel Hemingway. They run a boys school out of Aunt March's old house, which is now located out on a farm in the middle of nowhere for some reason. Not at all where I usually imagine Aunt March living, though the end of Greta Gerwig's Little Women also shows the school and has it uncluttered by surrounding buildings. Still, this version is very rural.

Sarandon is good as Bhaer, though I had to overcome the initial distrust I automatically have for all Chris Sarandon characters (thank you, Fright Night and Princess Bride). Hemingway is a perfectly fine Jo, matured and mellowed out from her feisty youth, but still with a spirit that rebels against convention. She's fiercely compassionate, which puts her into conflict with her husband during the events of this film. Bhaer is also gentle and loving, but he reaches his limit with an especially troublesome student before Jo does.

The plot has to do with the arrival of a couple of orphans at the school. One is named Nat, sponsored by Meg's husband John Brooke (who seems a lot wealthier now than he was in Little Women, but maybe business has just been that good). John met the homeless boy on the streets of Boston and offered to pay his tuition at Jo's school. There's some initial conflict over Nat's lying, but the boy quickly fits in with the other kids until a friend of his from Boston shows up, too. 

The new kid's name is Dan and he's basically the Artful Dodger to Nat's Oliver Twist. Against Bhaer's better judgment, he and Jo allow Dan to attend the school for free, but Dan soon begins influencing the other boys with drinking, smoking, fighting, cursing, and gambling. It goes about how you'd expect and resolves almost as predictably.

Frankly, the plot and the setting reminded me of watching Little House on the Prairie. It's sweet and competently made enough that I grew to like the characters even though they weren't doing anything original. So while I don't recommend anyone rush out to see the movie, it got me curious to read Alcott's version and see if it's more powerful. 

And I like the students enough (not just Nat and Dan, but Meg's two kids and a couple of the other boys and a late-arriving girl named Nan who very much reminds Jo of herself at that age) that I want to follow them into the events of Alcott's final book in the series. The trilogy concludes with Jo's Boys, which was adapted into a TV series also in 1998. Instead of calling it Jo's Boys, though, I imagine it was a marketing decision to call it Little Men as well to make the Little Women connection more clear. But it starts with the death of Professor Bhaer and has a different actor playing Jo. 

I'm not going to hold up the rest of the Little Women movies to watch the TV show, but I'm very interested in it. Jo's Boys includes Amy and Laurie and their kids (a group that I sorely missed in Little Men), so that's cool. And thanks to the pleasant, if predictable way that 1998's Little Men handles itself, I'm invested enough in the students that I want to see what happens to them next. 

Three out of five violin recitals.   

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Little Women (1994)

I watched Gillian Armstrong's version of Little Women in 1994 without knowing anything about the story. The '90s were a great time for lushly filmed period movies and I was there for as many as I could get to.

And I loved this one for many of the same reasons that I still love it now. It looks great with the highest production values of any adaptation so far. The locations and sets are marvelous and I want to live in them. And the acting is amazing, but I'll get deeper into that in a second.

Being familiar with the story now, I appreciate this one even more. It brings out feminist themes without dramatically changing Alcott's story or characters, mostly through the character of Marmee, played by Susan Sarandon. Pa March does show up at the end, but the movie makes great use of his absence by emphasizing Marmee's single-parenting and underlining that this is a household entirely made up of women without any of the traditional structure or protection that would be present with a patriarch there. I'm a little sad that the script gets rid of Christianity as the motivation for self-improvement (replacing it with Kant's transcendental idealism), but given the current state of popular Christianity, I understand the desire to go with something different.

Winona Ryder is an amazing Jo. She's clearly out of step with cultural expectations for her gender, but doesn't have to be cartoonishly masculine to show it. And she's the only Jo so far to actually get her hair styled into a super cute bob when she sells most of it for Marmee's trip money. 

It was a smart move to cast very young Kirsten Dunst as Amy in the first half of the film. It's a little jarring when she becomes Samantha Mathis in the second half after only four years have passed (and none of the other actors change), but it very much helps to have a young actor playing Amy when she's a selfish, spoiled child and an older actor playing her once she's both physically and spiritually matured.

Shockingly though, the MVP of this adaptation is Claire Danes as Beth. Beth can sometimes be more plot device than character, just there for everyone else to comment on or feed sad about. The best adaptations do lovely things with her relationship with Laurie's grandfather, but even then she's not much on her own. Danes makes me feel for Beth and relate to her like I never do in other versions. I'm pretty sure she was hired for her lip quiver, which she uses to rip my heart out in a couple of scenes. And the script also gives her a heartbreaking speech on her deathbed where she talks about always feeling left behind her sisters, but now she's going to be the one to go first. So poignant and painful.

Christian Bale is a great Laurie and I love the attention the movie gives to setting the foundation of his relationship with Amy. There's a scene when he's taking Amy to live with Aunt March while Beth is sick and Amy is thinking about her own potential death. She says that she doesn't want to go without ever being kissed and Laurie kindly (and innocently) sets her at ease by promising to kiss her before she dies. It foreshadows their eventual romance, but it's also just a lovely example of Laurie taking her childish concerns seriously when not a lot of other people do.

A big challenge for Little Women adaptations is to make Amy and Laurie's romance convincing when it finally happens. If it's not carefully handled, it can seem like Laurie is settling for Amy since Jo is unavailable. Armstrong's version manages it with a couple of scenes.

The first addresses the elephant in the room by giving Amy and Laurie a conversation about whom they want to marry. Laurie says something about wanting to be part of the March family and Amy calls him on it. She asks if he thinks any of the sisters would want to be loved for their family instead of for themselves. And since she's been pursuing the wealthy Fred Vaughn, Laurie turns it back on her and asks if she thinks Fred wants to be loved for his money.

The question sits unanswered until a later scene when Jo writes to Laurie in England after Beth dies. She begs him to come home to the States and be with the family (but mostly with her). But instead of doing that, Laurie immediately goes to Amy in France to comfort her, proving that she's more important to him than her family, including Jo.

The other big challenge in adapting Little Women is the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer. Gabriel Byrne is twenty years older than Winona Ryder, so the age difference is intact. It's actually greater than the difference between Katharine Hepburn and Paul Lukas, who were only 12 years apart, but Hepburn played Jo a lot younger and Lukas was suave and worldly and kept calling her his "little friend." Consistent with the feminist tone of the film, Byrne's Bhaer treats Jo like an equal. He never directly criticizes her writing, but acknowledges her freedom to write whatever she wants (or feels the need to, because of commercial concerns). When she presses him, he asks if she truly likes what she's writing - and that question bothers her - but he's merely holding up a mirror so that she can evaluate the work herself.

In all things, this Professor Bhaer is there to gently usher Jo into maturity, both in how she thinks about her work and in how she thinks about romantic relationships. She was never able to take Laurie seriously, because their relationship was never serious. They were deeply fond of each other and connected in that way, but they were playmates, not true partners. Bhaer shows Jo a whole other way of relating to someone. It's healthy, it's mature, and his being older becomes an asset, not something creepy to have to work around.

Five out of five letters from Father.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Little Women (1987)

In the '80s, Japanese studio Nippon Animation adapted Little Women into a four-season TV series. Nippon made their name adapting classic English literature for Japanese audiences, also producing versions of Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer, so Little Women was right up their alley.

I'm not naturally drawn to all anime, but I have a nostalgic spot for its vibe thanks to shows like Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion that I watched as a kid, as well as US companies like Rankin Bass' occasionally outsourcing to Japanese studios. Whenever I'm watching anime, especially from this time period, those childhood memories kick in and help me through any speed bumps in the translation for English audiences. But with Little Women, those speed bumps are pretty minor anyway.

The English dub was created by Japanese actors who are all extremely talented with American English. That helps a lot. But even with that level of skill, there are some inherent things about transitioning from Japanese to English that are impossible to get around. The Japanese language has a different cadence from English and calls for different body language to help communicate it. So dubbing it well is harder than just having someone read a translation. The words audiences hear have to match the movements of the characters' mouths, which means that characters sometimes interrupt each other at odd times, or their cadence can sound a little unnatural, or they can be smiling sweetly while saying something very sad, or the dialogue can sound overly formal. That seems like a petty criticism though for an adaptation as thoughtful and well made as this one.

One of my favorite things about the series is that it has so much room to fill in details that Alcott wasn't concerned with. In fact, the entire first season takes place before the novel even begins, setting up the March family's life in another town before the Confederate Army invades. Alcott tells us that the Marches were well off before the Civil War and other misfortunes took their wealth. In this series, we get to see them in their big home before Father goes to war. Meg and Jo are both looking forward to new dresses for fancy balls. Well, maybe Meg more so than Jo. But then Father has to march south and isn't there when the town is occupied. Things are peaceful enough at first until a battle breaks out, setting fire to much of the town, including the Marches' home and Father's business. The now-homeless family goes to another town to live with Father's aunt until they can get back on their feet. Meg gets a job as governess to a couple of rich kids, Jo becomes Aunt March's paid companion, and Marmee helps distribute aid to the families of Union soldiers. By the end of the season, the family has saved enough to buy their own house and move in.

Seasons two through four adapt the first half of Alcott's novel, so there's a lot of room for embellishment there, too. Alcott's novel was originally published in two volumes with the first volume concluding with Meg's agreeing to marry Mr Brooke, Laurie's going off to college, and Father's returning home from the war. That's all that this TV series covers, so there's none of the second-volume stuff about Meg's married life, Jo's in New York, Beth's second illness, or Amy and Laurie's engagement. 

Instead, Season Two opens with the girls meeting Laurie and ends with Beth's being invited to play Mr Laurence's piano at his house. Season Three covers Beth's making slippers for Mr Laurence to Jo's getting her first story published. Season Four begins with Marmee's leaving home to go be with Father, who's very sick in Washington DC; it wraps up of course with Father's coming home and Meg's agreeing to marry Brooke. Each episode is a half-hour, giving them plenty of time to flesh out vignettes from the novel, so there's a whole episode about Laurie and Brooke's inviting Jo and Meg to a play, but Amy can't go, so she burns Jo's novel in revenge. The next episode then deals with the fallout of that, with Jo's being angry with Amy for most of the episode until Amy falls through the ice at the end while skating.

There's so much room for the characters to breathe that I couldn't help but get invested in them. They're well designed too and well acted. Even though Meg isn't the only sister who remembers being wealthy in this version, her job as a governess puts her in contact with a wealthy group of peers and she still has to struggle with her reduced finances. Jo is impulsive and has a temper, but she's also aware of these faults and tries to correct them. 

Beth is drawn to look small and pale and of course her personality is very quiet. Instead of a host of dolls and kittens for her to play with though, the series gives her one kitten named Milky Ann who's almost as fully developed a character as anyone else in the family.

A huge advantage of animation is that Amy can be drawn to look as young as she acts. She's as selfish and attention-seeking as she is in the book, but she's also kind of adorable and impossible to dislike. It's easy to see why people spoil her, but just as easy to see why they're constantly losing patience and correcting her. One really weird change in this version though is that it's all narrated by Amy, rather than Jo. I'm not sure why that is, except that maybe Amy's youth makes her more open about how she feels about the events we're seeing.

Another big change, but a welcome one, is that Hannah is Black in this version. When I read the novel last year, I noticed that Alcott gives Hannah a distinct dialect that sounds rural and possibly Southern. I wondered if Hannah could be a former slave, but Alcott eventually reveals enough about Hannah's Irish background to contradict that idea. I enjoy that the series not only goes there, but also includes storylines about slavery and what the Union army (including father Frederic March) are fighting for. In one particularly powerful episode in the first season, a slave deserts from the Confederate Army that's forced him to fight for them. He hides out in the Marches' shed until Beth accidentally discovers him. Terrified, he takes her hostage, but Marmee is able to not only talk him into releasing Beth, but immediately forgives him and offers him a place to hide in the house. It's a beautiful example of the kindness that Marmee not only teaches, but exemplifies in her own actions. That's a huge part of the book and it permeates the series as well.

Even Aunt March is kinder here than she is in the book. She's still old and cranky, but when she offers Jo a job as her companion, it's out of genuine affection for Jo. Aunt March is generous whenever the Marches need financial help, though of course they're careful never to exploit her. The kinder Aunt March makes it a bit weird when she initially dislikes Mr Brookes, as demanded by the book's plot. But she has enough of a stubborn streak all throughout the series that it also doesn't seem completely out of character.

The series adds a couple of new characters, one of whom is another nephew of Aunt March to rival Frederic March and his family. The new guy's name is David and he's a lazy sponge who's constantly borrowing money from Aunt March. She sees right through him, but has more or less given him what he wants since he's been her only relative in town. With Marmee and the girls' arrival though - and their genuine kindness toward Aunt March - David feels threatened and constantly looks for ways to undermine the newcomers' relationship with their great aunt.

Laurie and his grandfather are pretty much like Alcott wrote them. They butt heads over Laurie's future, but it's also clear that they love each other. One weird thing about Laurie though is that the series leaves open the possibility of Jo's eventually marrying him. His feelings for her begin to heat up toward the end of the series, especially as things are getting more serious between Meg and Brooke. But Jo also makes a comment to the effect that she could see herself one day being romantically involved with Laurie. That's a big change from the book.

Related to that is a final big change in the form of another new character. Since we'll never got to New York or meet Professor Bhaer, the series gives Jo someone else to criticize her work and encourage her creative growth. Sadly, the character is pretty annoying. 

His name is Anthony and he works as a reporter at the local newspaper in town. When Jo approaches the paper's editor about publishing some of her writing, Anthony has an immediate, negative reaction about her work, either because she's young or a woman or both. Whatever his reasons, he's super rude about it and he continues to be abrasive and blunt for the rest of the series. He occasionally helps Jo out, to be fair. He's the one who finds the house that the Marches buy and move into, for example. And he eventually seems to come around to really liking Jo and wanting good things for her. By the end of the series, he's moving to New York and encouraging Jo to do the same. But he's such a surly know-it-all about everything that I bristle whenever he's in a scene.

I don't want to leave this on a bad note though. It took me a long time to finish the series, but I enjoyed spending all that time with it. The attention paid to the history of the Civil War as a backdrop for the story is excellent. And the four sisters, especially Jo and Amy, are among the best versions of the characters that I've seen so far. 

Four out of five Milky Anns.


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