Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It's Easy to Eat Up Downton Abbey

Early last year, I began seeing a lot of references the Masterpiece Theatre program Downton Abbey on Facebook. I’d heard of it from watching award shows and had even caught bits of an episode that my brother was watching, but I knew it was a show I’d have to watch from the beginning, and despite my love of Maggie Smith, I wasn’t sure it was my cup of tea. Still, all the passionate posts intrigued me, as did a charming Sesame Street parody, so when I received the first season as an early birthday gift, it didn’t take long for this surprise hit to become a viewing priority. While it took me a few episodes to become fully enthralled with this tale of an aristocratic family in early 20th-century England and the many servants who attend to them, by the end of the first season I was thoroughly hooked.

The series follows the old-fashioned Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his more forward-thinking American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and their three daughters: aloof Mary (Michelle Dockery), awkward Edith (Laura Carmichael) and idealistic Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). In the first episode, the household is thrown into a tizzy by the death of the heir to Robert’s title, who is also Mary’s intended. They are forced to find a new heir, as Robert’s daughters are not allowed to inherit, and that leads to the arrival of distant cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and his widowed mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton). Also part of the family is Robert’s tart-tongued mother Violet (Smith), who gets most of the best one-liners in the show, and meddlesome sister Rosamund (Samantha Bond), who is seen only occasionally.

This family is part of a dying tradition of expansive estates that function as self-sustaining communities, employing numerous people to work in various types of service throughout the household. At the top of the pecking order at Downton is the dignified Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who is stern and demanding but fundamentally decent, and maternal Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who brings a soft touch and a wry sense of humor to balance out Carson’s stiff demeanor.

The warmth and respect, as well as occasional teasing, between the two makes them an enjoyable foundation for the “downstairs” portion of the group, which also includes the frequently frazzled cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and her sweetly blundering apprentice Daisy (Sophie McShera), as well as schemers Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and passionate Irish chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech). There’s also the efficient and stout-hearted Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who is unfailingly kind and courageous, and Robert’s old war chum John Bates (Brendan Coyle), an honorable man with a limp and a shrouded past.

Each of these characters, as well as several others who come into the picture, is richly drawn, becoming more complex by the episode. Adding to the appeal of the show is creator and writer Julian Fellowes’ tendency toward incredibly twisty plots, as well as the general fascination with the era and this particular way of living. Historical events have significant impacts on what happens to these characters; this first season begins with the sinking of the Titanic and ends with the start of World War I, both of which throw the house into turmoil. Long arcs involving family scandal, potential romances and the continued economic viability of the abbey emerge, continuing on into later seasons.

Since our first time through the series a year ago, my fiancé Will and I have re-watched many of the episodes multiple times with my mom, our friend Crissy and most recently my dad, who finally got lured into the series once we started watching season four along with the rest of America. There’s a high rewatchability factor, and going back to catch clues foreshadowing later developments is a lot of fun. It’s also a kick to scour each episode for lines that make good stand-alone quotes, with the understanding that nearly every word out of snarky Violet’s mouth is pure gold. It took us a little while to catch onto this craze, but once we checked in, we knew Downton Abbey was a destination we would want to visit many more times.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Freshman Felicity Porter Navigates the Complexities of College

Watching television series together has been a staple of my relationship with my fiancé Will. The first we tackled was The Wonder Years, mostly long-distance. It was about a year later that we began diving into Felicity, another series about young people finding their way in the world. My only prior familiarity with the show was as a result of Art Garfunkel, who debuted two of his songs from the album Everything Waits to be Noticed on the series. I remember making a point to watch those episodes, but I don’t remember anything about them except for the songs. Still, between that and the fact that it was created by J. J. Abrams, the prolific producer who got the ball rolling on LOST, I was game when Will suggested we watch that next. Nonetheless, I was surprised at how quickly and fully I was drawn into the drama of this sheltered, intelligent young woman navigating life away from her parents for the first time.

Keri Russell stars as Felicity Porter, who makes a life-changing decision on the day that she graduates from high school. When Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), the long-time crush she has never spoken to, leaves an affirming note in her yearbook, she ditches her plans to attend college close to home and instead moves across the country to follow him to the University of New York. Her parents are displeased with her decision, but they come to accept it, and Felicity begins to carve out a very different life for herself in the Big Apple. Her indecisive nature haunts her as she struggles to forge a genuine bond with Ben and finds herself constantly confiding in the sensitive Noel Crane (Scott Foley), her RA. A lifelong loner, she also makes her first real friends, quiet aspiring musician Julie Emrick (Amy Jo Johnson) and sassy, studious pre-med student Elena Tyler (Tangi Miller).

I commuted to college, and I never had much desire to soak up dorm life, but watching this, I can certainly see that it might have had its benefits as well. There’s a definite sense of community among the students who live on campus. Ben is a bit of an oddball in that way because he does not live on campus, but he still is very much a part of the activities of the others. His roommate, Sean Blumberg, is one of the most enjoyable side characters, and he becomes more prominent as the season wears on. Played by Greg Grunberg, who has appeared in most of Abrams’ projects over the years, he is an eccentric in his late 20s who is constantly coming up with bizarre inventions. Initially a source of comic relief, he eventually becomes more heavily involved in the main storylines.

One enjoyable aspect of the series is the artful narration that arises from the correspondence Felicity enjoys with her former French teacher. They send each other tapes, and while we occasionally hear her friend’s responses, it’s mostly Felicity that we hear. These tapes give her the opportunity to reflect on the confusing events that are swirling around her. One of the definitions for “felicity” is “the ability to find appropriate expression for one’s thoughts,” and while Felicity often fails to express herself well in the moment, she never fails to have an eloquent way of describing her experiences and their significance on these tapes. The other definition of “felicity,” “intense happiness,” is what Felicity seeks so earnestly and finds so elusive. She latches onto perfect moments of happiness, but then she destroys them by over-thinking the situation. As someone whose own contentment has often been damaged by dwelling too much on troubling possibilities, I find myself both sympathetic toward and frustrated by this tendency.

College is a great time of self-discovery for Felicity, and she begins to question all of the plans that she made for her life, particularly her father’s expectation that she would become a doctor. While she applies herself very well to her studies, she comes to realize that her true passion is for art, a pursuit she had all but abandoned in recent years. The pressures of trying to decide on a major that may well set the course of one’s life are often front and center, particularly the tug of war between the expectations of others and one’s own deepest desires.

Few specific professors are highlighted on the show; while Felicity and her friends are often seen studying – to hilarious effect in one episode depicting the frenzy of pre-finals panic – little time is generally spent in the classroom. The show does tackle the issue of academic integrity as Felicity’s attempt to help Ben with a paper leads them both into hot water, and roommate dynamics are always a concern, as Felicity shares her room with an aggressively snarky goth girl named Meghan Rotundi (Amanda Foreman) who strives to make her life difficult as often as possible. Even she is endearing in her own way, though, as is Richard Coad (Rob Benedict), Noel’s most irksome advisee. More attention is given to Felicity’s job; she works at a coffee shop under the supervision of the flamboyant Javier (Ian Gomez), a very sweet and funny character.

Felicity tackles a lot of tough subjects, particularly dealing with the complexities of relationships. The ever-more-complicated love triangle with Felicity, Noel and Ben gets wearying, but aside from a few slightly contrived situations surrounding their relationships, the struggles and frustrations feel very authentic. We’re on the second season now, and I have no doubt that I will continue to enjoy Felicity’s adventures through the end of her college years.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Woody Allen Is Likable But Exhausting in Play It Again, Sam

Thanks to the wonders of Netflix and Amazon Prime, watching streaming movies is a regular pastime for my fiancé and me. Our first of the year was Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam. Aside from clips of other movies, my experience of Woody Allen has been mostly limited to Annie Hall, which I didn’t much like. While some of the same elements are present in this film, I generally found it to be fairly enjoyable.

Allen stars as Allan in this Herbert Ross-directed movie based on a play, both of which Allen wrote. Allan is a film critic whose world falls apart in the beginning of the movie after his wife ditches him. They’ve only been married a couple years, and she’s been miserable most of that time. At this point, I wanted to feel sorry for Allan, but it wasn’t hard to see why Nancy left him. He’s a total drip who neurotic rambling throughout the movie is absolutely exhausting.

Still, he’s managed to retain two very devoted friends, the married couple Linda (Diane Keaton) and Dick (Tony Roberts). As soon as they hear of his troubles, they are at his side, and they remain that way for much of the movie. However, Dick is preoccupied with work, and toward the end of the movie, he goes on a business trip, leaving Allan and Linda alone together. While Allan attempts a couple of disastrous dates with women his friends select for him as possibilities, the only woman he has any real rapport with is Linda herself.

Their relationship is interesting to watch here. As stressful and complicated as the relationship between the central characters in Annie Hall is, this one is warm and friendly throughout, and Allan even manages to relax a bit while he’s around Linda. It turns out that when he is not so busy trying to win someone over, he’s actually rather charming in his own eccentric way, though the mental traps that cause him such trouble in his dating life rear their ugly heads when he begins to consider the prospect of an affair with Linda.

The most distinctive feature of this movie is the way it uses Humphrey Bogart as a foil and sort of coach for Allan. As he is a big Bogart fan with a particular fondness for Casablanca, Allan manufactures his own personal Bogey (Jerry Lacy), who advises him to follow in his own acerbic footsteps. Occasionally, an imaginary version of Nancy pops up as well to advise Allan in a softer direction. The movie abounds with quotes and references to Bogart movies, making it particularly fun for film buffs.

Play It Again, Sam has a bittersweet quality to it, and while some of Allan’s conversations with Bogey and Walter Mitty-esque daydreams are entertaining, his endless self-questioning prattle left me quite worn out. As I am prone to anxiety myself, watching him served as a reminder for me to rein myself in lest I drive others batty. Dick and Linda are affable and loyal, and the dynamics of their relationship add complexity to Allan’s struggle to figure himself out. He may make the journey more difficult than it needs to be, but it’s easy to hope that he will find his way eventually.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

George Donaldson in The Harp and Fiddle Pub, Pittsburgh, PA, 12-8-13

It’s been five years since my dad turned on PBS just in time to hear Scottish balladeer George Donaldson singing the touching tribute The Old Man, which served as his introduction to the group Celtic Thunder, whose music quickly took my family by storm. On December 8th, we had the opportunity to see George in concert in the intimate setting of the Harp and Fiddle pub in Pittsburgh. My parents, my fiancé Will and I made the trek, stopping along the way for lunch with the dear friends responsible for my meeting Will. As the only member of our quartet not intimately familiar with George’s music, he looked forward to becoming better acquainted with this accomplished singer-songwriter.

The concert was set to start at 7:30 p.m., but we arrived shortly before 5, and shortly after 5, we were allowed to go in. We were led to a table for four right up against the stage; Will had managed to secure the best seats in the house. Shortly after we arrived, George took the stage for a sound check and performed a shortened version of I Wish I Were Back Home in Derry, which shares its melody with Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. At that point, we were left to order off the special George Donaldson Concert menu that had been drawn up, so the four of us shared pretzels, shepherd’s pie and fish and chips and awaited the beginning of the concert.

Having previously seen Celtic Thunder’s Ryan Kelly and Neil Byrne together in a similar format, I expected that George’s concert would proceed in a similar fashion. It basically did, except that, as there was no one onstage for him to banter with, he interacted directly with audience members more often. He also had a general narrative scope to his concert, though he made several joking comments to encourage the appearance of complete spontaneity. While he did take some audience requests and probably made some last-minute song decisions, several of his selections flowed together naturally, particularly the segment chronicling a life-changing experience for him as a performer.

He detailed a time when he had started working for the money rather than the passion of performing. He had recently seen Saving Private Ryan, so when he sang The Green Fields of France - a ballad about the futility of war later recorded by Celtic Thunder as one of its most moving ensemble pieces – it really struck a chord with him, and he felt his passion returning. Later that night, he got into a conversation with one of the few people present for his concert, and the audience member requested he sing a Harry Chapin song. Upon learning that George didn’t know who that was, he begged him to buy one of his albums and even gave him the money to pay for it. George later did just that and was transfixed by the storytelling genius of this singer-songwriter whose songs were usually too long to be heard on the radio.

This story was punctuated by his performances of Green Fields of France and A Song for Harry Chapin, his lengthy and touching tribute to the late singer. I was particularly hoping he would sing that song, since Harry is Will’s all-time favorite singer and I knew he would especially appreciate it. He followed it up with a performance of two of Harry’s songs, starting with the tender Tangled Up Puppet, a touching address to Harry’s growing daughter that is particularly meaningful for George, whose only child is a daughter, as well as for me, especially with my dad right across the table. He also performed Harry’s most widely known song, Cat’s in the Cradle, another bittersweet song about parent-child relationships.

The deeply personal thread that tied these songs together was present throughout the evening as he casually chatted in that rumbling brogue, laughter in his eyes even as he filled the set with tragic tunes prompting him to say, “If you came here to be cheered up, you’ve come to the wrong place.” Of course, that was an exaggeration, and uplifting or cheerful songs were not in short supply. He sang several songs of his own composition, including a tribute to his beloved wife Carrie, a recollection about his early days as a musician in Burlington, a speculative ode inspired by an autistic fan and the title song of his second album.

He also covered many well-known folk-rock and pop songs, starting with James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. Others included Elton John’s Your Song, Simon and Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound and John Denver’s Leavin’ on a Jet Plane. None of these included much in the way of background, but he performed The Who’s Pinball Wizard as a demonstration that he could rock with the best of them, and he expressed his admiration for Jim Croce, another musician who, like Harry Chapin, specialized in story-songs and died young in a tragic accident. Croce merited two songs, Time in a Bottle and Bad Bad Leroy Brown, which Ryan performed as part of Celtic Thunder’s It’s Entertainment.

Other more folk-oriented selections included Peter Hames’ Ordinary Man, the song of an enraged and disenfranchised worker and Ralph McTell’s Grand Affair, as well as several songs he had performed, either solo or as a group song with Celtic Thunder, including Rita McNeil’s Working Man, the first song of the night on which he openly encouraged the audience to sing along; Caledonia, a traditional tribute to Scotland; The Old Man; Galway Girl; the gentle Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair); the Piano Man-esque Red Rose Café; and his always-rousing cover of The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), which ended the concert.

Throughout the whole concert, it was just him and his guitar, and he took no breaks except for the occasional pause for a sip of Diet Coke. He was warm and personable and occasionally snarky, and the music of his accent was pure magic, even if he often joked that we probably couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. Everyone in the audience of perhaps a hundred or so seemed to be having a wonderful time as he shared his anecdotes and insights and the rippling majesty of his resonant singing voice and superior guitar-playing.

While the only thing available for sale after the show was George’s first album, which we already have, he graciously stayed long enough that anyone who wanted an autograph or a photo with him could get one. We opted for the latter, giving us a wonderful memento of an evening of superlative musicianship and balladry. It was a wonderful opportunity for my parents and me, who have treasured George’s artistry for years, and a perfect way for Will to immerse himself in his work. In fact, toward the end of the concert, he passed me a note to say that he’d never enjoyed a concert more than this one. It really is the most personal way to experience a great musician, and I’m so glad that the lads of Celtic Thunder have begun to branch out into these more intimate side-projects. If you love songs that tell a story and musicians who pour their souls into their performances, I hope you will have the chance to see one of George’s pub concerts. He doesn’t do many of them in the United States, but for a very reasonable price, you can get an evening of warm fellowship and exceptional music.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hyacinth's Attempts at Sophistication Wreak Havoc in Keeping Up Appearances

Earlier this year, when we were searching Netflix for sit-coms that my boyfriend, my mom and I could enjoy together, we settled on Keeping Up Appearances, which we’d caught on occasion on PBS. It didn’t take us long to discover that if you’ve seen one episode of this 90s Brit-com, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Nonetheless, there is enough humor packed into each episode that we didn’t mind seeing the same jokes over and over again. In fact, it was fun anticipating the repeated gags; the consistency just adds to the cozy feel of the series. We watched all the episodes and enjoyed each one, while appreciating the fact that we didn’t have to watch too intently. It made for perfect comfort viewing.

Keeping Up Appearances bears some resemblance to Frasier in that it revolves around a character who is obsessed with being perceived as sophisticated and well-to-do, little realizing how ridiculous her efforts appear to nearly everyone around her. Patricia Routledge plays Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Boo-KAY” on her insistence), a middle-class homemaker who delights in buying fancy furniture, showing off her Royal Doulton tea set with the hand-painted periwinkles, holding elegant candlelight suppers and lending her dubious expertise to as many church and community functions as possible. She is shamelessly self-aggrandizing, yet there is a sweetness to her demeanor that makes her difficult to truly despise, especially when the biggest victim of her schemes is so often herself.

One of Hyacinth’s greatest sources of mortification is the ramshackle household of her frumpy sister Daisy (Judy Cornwell) and frumpier brother-in-law Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes), to which her flirtatious sister Rose (Shirley Stelfox in the first season, Mary Millar in the rest) and demented father (George Webb) also belong. While Rose is constantly in a melodramatic uproar over her latest romantic fling and Daddy keeps wandering off on some absurd adventure, Daisy and Onslow are generally content, though the former is constantly angling for more amorous attention from the latter, who is always absorbed in staticky TV shows or books on quantum mechanics.

However, their low-class mannerisms and rickety possessions deeply embarrass Hyacinth, so she spends much of her time trying to hide the fact that they are related to her. By contrast, she often brags about her wealthy sister Violet (Anna Dawson), but the antics of her cross-dressing husband are further cause for humiliation. Despite all this, she remains devoted to her family, and whenever a crisis arises, she is on hand to assist – or at least, she makes sure that her husband Richard (Clive Swift) is, no matter how inconvenient that may be to him.

Swift gives a masterfully understated performance as the perpetually put-upon Richard. Whether he is enduring a constant stream of confusing instructions from Hyacinth on his driving or gritting his teeth while she agrees over the phone to send yet another chunk of cash to their never-seen son Sheridan, he constantly appears quietly bedraggled and exasperated. His mild-mannered decency makes him an object of profound sympathy for many in Hyacinth’s inner circle, particularly free-spirited Onslow and the Buckets’ next-door neighbor Elizabeth (Josephine Tewson), who understands all too well the stress of keeping Hyacinth placated. A gentle people pleaser who sees little choice but to indulge Hyacinth’s every whim, Elizabeth is at her funniest and most pitiable when attempting to get through one of her neighbor’s coffee get-togethers without dropping anything. Elizabeth’s brother Emmet (David Griffin), who joins the cast in the second season, has less patience for Hyacinth but finds himself equally unable to escape her attentions, particularly since he directs local musicals and she fancies herself a talented performer.

After watching the show for a season or two, it would be fun to make a list of all the running jokes and repeated elements and put them on Bingo cards to add an extra element of entertainment to a group viewing of this show. For instance: Hyacinth mentions her tea set. Hyacinth demands that a guest remove his or her shoes. Rose starts a new relationship. Daisy reads a romance novel. Richard warns Hyacinth not to give Sheridan any more money. Hyacinth tells Richard to “mind the pedestrian” who is nowhere near their vehicle. Onslow’s dog knocks Hyacinth over when she walks past his car. The mailman tries to hide from Hyacinth. These are just a few examples of the dozens of gags that are recycled throughout the series, yet they’re mixed up in just the right way so that watching a new episode feels familiar but not onerous.

This is most definitely an episodic show, and rarely are there any ongoing storylines. It’s a pretty fair bet that you can watch any episode in isolation and understand the show’s dynamics by the end of it. While it’s certainly not necessary to watch the show from beginning to end to appreciate it, each of the 44 episodes makes for very pleasant viewing.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mike and Sulley Meet in Monsters University

The folks at Pixar are known for crafting films that tell wonderful stories full of humor and heart. Rarely has the mix been better than in Monsters, Inc., the 2001 movie set in a world in which monsters power their city by collecting the screams of children in our world. These monsters, while wildly diverse in physical traits, are largely average Joes, particularly the huge, blue-haired James Sullivan (John Goodman) and the short, one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). An unusually close encounter with a toddler challenges their world-view and ultimately deepens their friendship, with far-reaching consequences for their society at large.

While I did not expect Monsters University to have the emotional and spiritual depth of the film that preceded it, I was excited to hear that more than a decade after they first appeared, these unconventional buddies would be gracing the big screen again, this time in a prequel. From a purely visual standpoint, I knew it would be great fun, since this particular world offers so many opportunities to exercise artistic creativity. I also relished the thought of seeing these fantastic friends in action again. While I don’t think this will attain the classic status that Toy Story 2 has, I found it a very enjoyable return to familiar territory.

While I would consider Sulley the slightly more main character in Monsters, Inc., Mike moves into greater prominence here. In fact, the movie begins with him as an adorable youngster rejected by his classmates for his small size, braces and overall nerdiness. A trip to the scare factory gives him a sense of direction, and his arrival at Monsters University is the result of intensive study. His passion for the material knows no bounds, but can this rather goofy fellow actually be scary? How will he stand a chance against the raw talent of someone like fellow freshman James Sullivan, a true jock among monsters?

In many ways, this is a typical college comedy about a nerd and a popular person learning from each other. Many of the jokes borrow from other films in that genre, but the creators put a fun Pixar spin on them that makes the movie great fun to watch. As in the first movie, the monsters display all sorts of creative characteristics, and here, the emphasis is on teamwork – finding ways to make those traits come together in productive ways. This is best demonstrated in the members of Oozma Kappa, the uber-dorky fraternity of misfits that Mike and Sulley join so they can enter a campus-wide contest to prove to the austere university headmistress, a dragon voiced by Helen Mirren, that they deserve to be students there.

At first, Mike and Sulley are rivals too blinded by their own pride to form a useful partnership, while their teammates are merely ineffective and lacking in proper leadership. Eventually, however, they learn to develop their strengths and use them to everyone’s benefit. Two-headed Terri and Terry and super-flexible Art are fun, but particularly prominent are the beautifully bland Squishy, his sweetly overbearing mother (in whose home the fraternity is housed) and Don, the fraternity’s middle-aged founder. Together, they make a lovable bunch of underdogs.

While there’s at least one line in the original movie that seems to clash with the storyline presented here, the film generally does a good job of meshing believably with Monsters, Inc., and the nods to that movie are fun, particularly running jokes like Mike’s tendency to get obscured in photographs. Not only do we see the evolution of Mike and Sulley’s friendship, but of their rivalry with Randall (Steve Buscemi), the sneaky chameleon-like lizard who causes them no end of trouble at the factory. His progression is an interesting study in the dark side of desiring popularity.

While neither the movie nor the charming short involving a blue umbrella’s quest to find happiness are the most memorable of Pixar’s efforts, they are thoroughly enjoyable, and the visual spectacle of the film is more pronounced than ever. The backdrops are particularly impressive. While many of the jokes seem to aim more at an adult audience as they draw on previous films, there’s nothing objectionable for parents to worry about, and there’s plenty of slapstick to keep the youngest kids entertained. A tribute to friendship and the value of hard work and overcoming prejudices, Monsters University is a fun and colorful summer flick.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Killer Shark Makes for a Killer Movie

Last month, my dear friend Crissy moved from southern California to my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. My fiancé Will and I eagerly welcomed her, and one of our first quintessential Erie outings was to Tinseltown, our local multiplex, for its Wednesday classic movie showing. The film of the day was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the summery flick that made swimming at the beach a rather terrifying prospect.

As I’ve never been fond of man-eating sharks, I’d managed to go three decades without seeing this blockbuster, so I didn’t realize the breach of hospitality I was making by having our new fellow Pennsylvanian see this particular movie on her second day in Erie. Alas, how was I to know that a girl sharing her name would be the first to fall victim to those powerful teeth?

Happily, not only is Crissy made of stronger stuff than I am, but she’d already watched her name-twin get ripped to shreds before, so she survived the cinematic trauma beautifully. In fact, I was the only one of the three venturing into new movie territory. I was also the one eager to stick the popcorn box over my head every time John Williams’ helpfully unsubtle shark theme began to play. However, I am glad I can finally say that I watched this monster of a disaster flick.

Jaws takes place in a small island town preparing for its lavish 4th of July celebration. Amity has a friendly name, but a dark threat has made it a less than ideal destination. Conscientious sheriff Martin Brody, played by a sympathetic Roy Scheider, wants to close the beaches as soon as evidence of the first shark attack washes up on shore, but he faces opposition in the form of the cheerfully oblivious Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who can only see dollar signs from the island’s booming tourist industry, which depends mostly on the beaches.

The first half of the movie is a battle of wills between these two men, with Brody finding an eccentric ally in the form of disheveled shark expert Hooper, endearingly played by Richard Dreyfuss. It is during this portion that the beach scenes I’d always associated with the movie occur. The mass hysteria that immediately ensues when a shark attacks on a hot July day is chilling to watch, particularly as Spielberg allows us to linger for a moment on individual reactions.

I’d always found it a bit odd that a movie could sustain this premise for long; with no one in the water to attack, there’s not much harm a shark can do, and why would anyone be foolish enough to venture out into shark-infested waters? The first half of the movie keeps that tension up believably, though, partly because of the stubborn mayor’s actions that mask the threat to the public and partly because of a fierce shark hunt, the results of which produce a false sense of security among the townspeople and visitors.

What I didn’t realize is that half the movie takes place out at sea in the claustrophobic quarters of a small ship on which Brody and Hooper are under the command of eerie sea captain Quint, played with grizzled menace by Robert Shaw. This accomplished seafarer has more than a dash of Captain Ahab in him, with his thirst for revenge stemming from a chilling incident that he relates late at night when a comical comparison of “war wounds” turns unsettling.

The sense of isolation in the latter half of the movie makes it bleaker, but it also allows the trio to develop, particularly Brody and Hooper, each of whom has seen considerable unpleasantness but remains rather sheltered. This portion is marked by male bonding and an omnipresent threat of calamity as a rather rickety boat is all that stands between these hunters and their enormous prey.

While there are many startling moments throughout the movie, the humor is also plentiful. Hooper is a particularly funny character who is frequently ready with a wisecrack, but the film is full of little moments, some of them purely visual, that elicit a laugh. That makes it as fun as it is frightening, particularly since the violent bits are mostly spread out.

Will also postulated that it’s the ideal date movie, since the squeamish viewer will frequently seek comfort in the arms of the braver party. While I thwarted that notion by simply blinding myself with popcorn at the critical moments, it’s certainly a fun movie for chums to see together… just not too soon before a trip to the beach.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Little Women Celebrates Stories, Sisterhood and Their Intersections

Ten years ago, someone made a decision that would ultimately have an enormous impact on both of our lives. That someone was my very dear friend Beth, who joined Epinions ten years ago today under the name Befus. She had no idea when she typed that initial review that it would be the first of more than a thousand, but she has poured her heart and soul into upwards of 1200 reviews here, each a well-crafted gem that reveals her gentle spirit and hearty humor along with her incisive insights.

While we encountered each other occasionally beforehand, my friendship with Beth began in earnest in October of 2005 thanks to our shared passion for J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and poetry, and though I’d been on the site five years at that point, it wasn’t until then that Epinions truly felt like home. In the seven and a half years since, we have ruminated over countless tales that ignite our souls, warm our hearts and reflect the Love of our great Creator. We reread the Harry Potter series together in anticipation of the final installment, volleyed e-mails back and forth as we puzzled over the conundrums of LOST, shared our enthusiasm over easy reader masters like Arnold Lobel and Cynthia Rylant, and gave each other an endless stream of recommendations.

Together, we’ve witnessed enormous changes in our families, particularly the growth of her highly creative and compassionate daughter, now on the cusp of 11, and the graduations and relocations of my very different but equally accomplished brothers. We’ve shared our deepest dreams and fears, spurred each other to new creative heights, comforted each other in the midst of our darkest lows and giggled madly over absurd IM conversations well past midnight. We share the sort of bond enjoyed by Jo and Beth, the two middle sisters in the Louisa May Alcott novel Little Women. As I pondered what to review in order to mark Beth’s Epi-versary – which also coincides with my 3333rd post here – my boyfriend Will, to whom Beth introduced me, suggested the 1994 film adaptation of this classic, one of the dearest stories to Beth’s heart.

I saw this version when it first came out, one of the few movies I watched in the theater with my paternal grandma, and aside from an Alcott biography I’d read that touched on the novel, it served as my introduction to the story, though it’s funny I hadn’t read the book, since Little Women was the first novel my dad ever read. Certainly it has an appeal that transcends gender and generational divides. The tale involves the four March sisters – upright Meg, spunky Jo, angelic Beth and tempestuous Amy – who grow up amid the backdrop of the Civil War with a father on the front lines and a tough but graceful mother who raises them to be kind, moral young ladies of intelligence and resourcefulness.

As I watched, I was struck again by the similarities between protagonist Jo and Anne Shirley, the heroine of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. Both are aspiring writers who are drawn to the melodramatic and fanciful and only meet with widespread literary success when they take the initially infuriating advice of a love interest and write instead from their personal experience. Both are non-conformists who display extremes of generosity and pettiness. Both are horrified when a dear chum proposes marriage, and both struggle mightily with the idea of growing up and accepting the changes that separate them from cherished friends and family. Winona Ryder captures the swirling emotions of this dynamic character perfectly. While the girls are often together throughout the movie, we get to know Jo much more intimately, and she feels very real, both flawed and extraordinary.

As appealing as Jo is, I’ve always been particularly drawn to the sweet, sickly Beth, who, like me, is rather shy and enjoys playing the piano. Claire Danes conveys her hesitance and gentleness well, and her scenes involving her illnesses are particularly affecting. I found myself wishing we would see a bit more of her, but when she is a central character, she makes a powerful impact. Trini Alvarado also seems to embody Meg well, though she gets even less attention than Beth and at times seems a little lost in the shuffle. The trilling, motor-mouthed young Kirsten Dunst is a little dynamo as Amy, the youngest sister, and she frequently steals the spotlight with her precocious mischief. In contrast, Samantha Mathis seems listless as the older Amy; if we’d only seen her at this age, it might feel like a more fitting performance, but as it is I just found myself missing that spit and vinegar.

This adaptation was written by Robin Swicord and directed by Gillian Armstrong, who both seem to have great affection for the source material. The movie is beautifully filmed, especially the winter scenes full of gently falling snow and festive expanses. It also makes one feel good about humanity; while everyone has foibles, there’s a real sense of goodness throughout, and even ornery old cranks like Mary Wickes’ Aunt March and John Neville’s Mr. Laurence display moments of exuberance and grace. While I always felt bad for Christian Bale’s boyish Laurie, who remains frozen in time by the woman he so desperately loves, the more seasoned sweetness of Gabriel Byrne’s German professor Friedrich Bhaer is equally endearing, if not so steeped in shared history.

Little Women might not be a perfect adaptation – so few of those exist – but then, as it was my starting point, I don’t much mind the omissions and departures. I find it a lovely family film that celebrates inventiveness, companionship and a deep love of the written word, all hallmarks of my friendship with Beth. For the ways in which superlative stories have brought us together, I am deeply grateful; my life would be woefully bereft were she not a part of it. Here’s to you, Beth!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Spielberg's War Horse Pays Tribute to Four-Legged Soldiers

I’ve always been a sucker for a good horse movie, and anything directed by Steven Spielberg usually piques my interest, so even though I generally avoid war movies, 2011’s War Horse had been on my radar for a while. I got to watch it this week after my aunt gave it to us, proclaiming it an excellent film, and while there were moments I couldn’t watch what was unfolding on the screen, I would have to agree.

The movie begins in rural England, where stubborn farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) spends more money than he has on a horse unlikely to be suited to the crucial task of plowing his field. The animal is beautiful, however, and had already been admired as a colt by Ted’s gentle, idealistic son Albert (Jeremy Irvine). The boy vows to train the horse and teach him to plow the field, the harvest from which is the only thing standing between the Narracotts and financial ruin. The horse, who he names Joey, is wild and restless, but he and the boy bond deeply and spend a blissful summer together. Then, disaster strikes, and the adventure begins.

Nearly the first hour of the movie is placid and fairly light-hearted, marked by gorgeous expanses of green English land and tender moments of companionship between boy and horse. However, when a failed harvest leads Ted to sell Joey to the cavalry in the early days of World War I, much to Albert’s fury, the tone changes – not instantly, but after a few minutes, with the charge of a German camp. From that point forward, the movie becomes much darker, with moments of light as Joey meets with various kind-hearted individuals who recognize his superlative spirit.

Albert is the main human protagonist, though we leave him for long stretches of time while we follow Joey’s progress as he keeps changing hands and witnesses the horrors of war from a horse’s-eye view. Irvine, starring in his first feature film, makes Albert deeply sympathetic, and Emily Watson brings a no-nonsense but compassionate edge to the role of his mother Rose. Mullan is by turns endearingly daft and frighteningly cold, while David Thewlis evokes ire as his obnoxious long-time rival. Other characters come and go fairly quickly, each leaving a significant mark, particularly Niels Arestrup as a doting grandfather who encounters Joey midway through the movie.

The film is beautifully shot and directed, and we truly feel the plight of the countless horses conscripted into service and made to face barrages of bullets and backbreaking labor tugging artillery. We see this especially through the first horse Joey meets in the army, a black stallion who isn’t nearly as clever or strong as Joey, who looks after him. Even as we root for Joey to defy all the odds to reunite with Albert and return home in peace after the war, the carnage of human and horse alike that swirls around him is devastating.

The movie has a slightly fanciful quality to it as Joey has so many close brushes with calamity in the most hostile of environments, but Spielberg still shows the ugliness of war quite plainly. Several scenes are downright heartbreaking, and as Joey finds himself on both sides of the conflict at various points, we feel the Germans’ pain just as acutely and see their humanity. As the movie is rated PG-13, the violence is toned down somewhat, but there are still grotesque moments aplenty, even if they aren’t as graphic as Saving Private Ryan. He certainly couldn’t be accused of making war look glamorous.

This isn’t the kind of movie I’d be likely to watch repeatedly, but it is an excellent film that is both touching and horrifying. While it’s not based on a true story, it is rooted in a very specific historical situation and therefore has educational as well as entertainment value. Though it covers rougher territory than many films exploring the bond between human and animal, the journey Spielberg asks viewers to take is an important one with a bittersweet conclusion emphasizing the power of love in the midst of unbearable pain.

One Was Johnny, Who Just Wanted Some Time to Read

It’s always fun to stumble upon a new-to-me book by a beloved author, especially when that writer is deceased. Such was the case for me with One Was Johnny, a counting book written by Maurice Sendak in 1962. At half a century old, the book is fairly simplistic and doesn’t quite reflect the inventive brilliance of which Sendak was capable, but the illustration style is recognizably his, as is his fondness for mayhem.

The book is small, about seven inches tall and five inches wide, and contains 42 pages of story, though only about half of those pages contain text. The rarely-broken pattern finds a picture covering two pages, with two lines of text on the right page. The first page rhymes with the second, and so on. Additionally, nearly every page with text begins with a number – first 1 through 10, then 9 through 1. The number 10 is a bit of a cheat, since every other number correlates to how many living beings are in the room. However, it makes an effective mid-point to the story.

Sendak seems to have been having fun with this book, despite the ornery attitude of the main character, a solitary boy named Johnny. All of the animals in this book are up to some sort of mischief, so things have gotten pretty wild by the time Johnny decides he needs to put a stop to it. Sendak also comes up with some rather inventive rhymes such as “Havana” and “banana.”

As is typical of books from this time period, One Was Johnny includes some color, but it still has a fairly drab look to it. Mostly, he uses shades of blue and yellow to augment the black and white drawings. One might think all the blue in Johnny’s house could be indicative of a sad spirit, but watching his facial expressions change from page to page, it’s quite evident that he is perfectly happy with his life as it is and the only thing that brings him misery is too much company.

I suppose one could say, then, that the tone of the tale is a bit anti-social, but any introvert can appreciate this young man’s need for alone time. As a man who spent much of his life writing and drawing in some degree of seclusion, I imagine that Sendak would have been annoyed by such a barrage of uninvited guests too. It’s probably worth noting that when the book begins, Johnny is reading, truly an endeavor worthy of a little space.

There are other counting books that I prefer to this, but if you’re looking for something simple yet entertaining, this quick romp through a little room filled with a boy and eight interlopers is an enjoyable option.