Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Woman in Black: a Review

This movie should be retitled: A House that Creaks, A Ghost that Screams, and a Protagonist that does Incredibly Stupid Things, with a disclaimer stating that it's not scary at all. It's mainly scary how bad it is. Even Dan Radcliffe's performance fails to deliver; it's bland, unvarying, and very much like the film itself.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer raising a 4-year-old son (his wife died in childbirth) during the Edwardian era. He is sent to finalize the last will and testament of posh lady Alice Drablow, who owned the creepy estate in question. If the film were to receive an award, the house would probably get an award for Best Actor. It creaks and thuds, it blares disembodied music from music boxes, and it hides people that appear and disappear. It's clearly haunted.

Yes, I'm being very sarcastic, but this movie warrants it. I was extremely puzzled by the lack of logical explanations for almost all of Arthur Kipps' actions. When Lord Byron said that truth is stranger than fiction, I'm sure he meant that fiction must have enough reason to tie it together. This film doesn't. Kipps is your typical horror movie character, characterized by bravery to the point of stupidity. The house is clearly haunted from the start; he hears footsteps and even sees a woman in black who isn't there the next time he looks. Any normal person would have gotten the hell out of there.

The ghost does nothing but screams and kills children. Thank goodness there's neither blood nor gore. Again, it puzzles me that Kipps doesn't leave the town after he's seen the ghost in a fire that killed several kids. None of it makes sense, so you're left thinking about these technicalities while you're supposed to be cowering under the seats in fear.

The only aspects of the film that try to convey terror are the retro-effect cameras that make everything rather dark, and the crescendos in the film score that swell to a deadly silence. The plot consists mostly of tension and release, tension and release, tension and...JUMP SCARE!!! Of course, the jump scares hardly ever prove to be that terrifying. So much for a horror movie.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Upcoming Posts!

I'm going to have quite a bit of free time in the next week or so--free time to write blog posts that no one reads! Yay! I'm also planning to see a few movies, so get ready for that!

Movie list:
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy -- As a devout Colin Firth fangirl, I'm already excited!
  • The Woman in Black -- I'm usually the one hiding underneath the blankets during horror movies, so I can't say I'm too pumped for this one...At least it's set in the Edwardian era. And Daniel Radcliffe's in it...
  • I'm also going to do a short piece about why I think Midnight in Paris deserves the screenplay Oscar this year.

  • How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein 
  • Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The American Downtonian

As an anglophile, the TV takeover of Downton Abbey absolutely thrills me. I can think of nothing better than a period drama written by the marvelous Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park and The Young Victoria) about early 20th century England. I won't focus on Fellowes too much in this post. I've recently read both his novels, and I'll certainly devote another post to those works, Past Imperfect and Snobs.

I'm an extremely prejudiced critic when it comes to Downton Abbey. But really, how can anyone with a heart not be? I could watch the scenery alone for seven episodes. As for the ensemble of characters that Fellowes depicts so adeptly, everyone is a distinct personality; their relationships are so true to life. You really start to develop feelings for the Crawleys and their staff. At least I did. But that's probably because I'm a romantic-relationship-starved blogger.

If I had a shilling for every time I cried over this couple...

Some critics call Downton Abbey a "soap opera" for sophisticated viewers; I don't agree. Just because this miniseries has an exciting plot, that doesn't make it a "soap opera." Some high-brow intellectual writers de-emphasize the plot too much; they think that an intriguing plotline and real literary merit are mutually exclusive, save in Mark Twain or something. Fellowes may be a snobbish aristocrat, but he's also a brilliant screenwriter.

Season 2 is what many a TV journal calls an "emotional rollercoaster." I prefer "catharsis." After each of the first four episodes, I cried like a premature newborn baby. As such, I only have a few criticisms.

Season 2 was slightly less brilliant than Season 1. A few plotlines seem curiously out of place. For instance, when the defigured former heir Patrick Gordon/Crawley comes back to try and steal Matthew's inheritance, there never is a resolution, except that Edith is left heartbroken.

Another thing that isn't quite to my taste is Fellowes' extreme lauding of the English peerage, sometimes at the expense of the other classes. Sir Richard Carlisle, a self-made man who probably rose from a middle class family, is depicted as a money- and power-hungry maniac who torments Mary. His character was well-acted by the marvelous Iain Glen, but not at all dynamic.

The icing on the Downton cake is, hands down, Dame Maggie Smith. Need I say more? No, I shan't. My opinions are too middle class for the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

Your explanation is invalid.

As a devout Downton fan living in America, I find the five month long wait for the "PBS version" to air utterly unbearable. I watched Season 1 on Masterpiece Theatre, and fell in love with the series. This time around, for Season 2, I couldn't stand to wait so long. I freely admit, at the risk of incurring Lord Hugh Bonneville's displeasure, that I watched pseudo-legal uploads of Season 2 long before their US air date, thanks to livestreams supplied by my lovely British friends.

I have several reasons for my "criminal" actions. The first is that PBS cuts the episodes short to accommodate American TV times. Second, all my internet friends are British; listening to their gloating for five months--no, just NO. Honestly, I don't think this kind of "piracy" damages the revenue earned by Downton Abbey and related merchandise. I bought Season 2 DVDs and a Downton Abbey calendar, all imported from the UK, because I had watched the episodes online.

One thing I do love about the American Downton is the viewer interaction. If you're not watching the Super Bowl tonight (I mean, why would you? Downon Abbey is on at the same time!), tune in to the Twitter hashtag #DowntonPBS and make sure you follow @Austenprose@VanityFair, @tomandlorenzo and @pattonoswalt. They live tweet the Downton episodes. Sample tweets include "@Austenprose: "Hisssss. Mrs. Bates flies into Downton on her broom" and "@pattonoswalt: That long-handled shoehorn was the iPhone 4S of 1916."

If you still don't think Downton Abbey is cool, go read this article titled Downton. Muthafu--kin' Abbey. Damn right.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm

This is the title of a book by Juliet Nicolson. I'm about halfway through reading it. Strictly speaking, it's a history book, but it's more of a sketch; a novel without a real plot, just a series of interconnected stories that all happened during one elegant Edwardian London season. I believe "social history" is the term that categorizes this book and its stories about different people from the 1911 social hierarchy. Each chapter is devoted to a different topic/person, including Queen Mary, the odd friendship between Winston Churchill and F.E. Smith, debutante Lady Diana Manners, etc.

The truth is, I picked up this book along with several others that were recommended to me by the "If You Love Downton Abbey..." book lists. I'm so glad that fate (or rather, the small circulation of books available in our city library) led me to this marvelous book. This is literally the first time I've read a "history book" that I figuratively couldn't put down.

If you're looking for a substitute for a European History textbook, however, you're definitely out of luck. Ms. Nicolson is a cataloguer of trivial, but fascinating details. For instance, I learned the origin of using "the loo" to mean the bathroom. This isn't an anecdote that I'm likely to forget any time soon. Apparently, Lady Louisa Anson was a guest at a friend's country estate. An intimidating lady, she frightened the children of the house, who sought retribution by placing her name card on the door of the water closet. It took several days of undelivered breakfast trays for Lady Louisa to figure out something wasn't quite right. By then, this harmless little prank had become a societal joke. When people wanted to go to the bathroom, they would laugh that they were going to visit Lady Louisa--"Lady Loo."

But there are traces of more serious issues, if you look hard enough. After all, if one lived during the summer of 1911, the swan was only restless under the water. A few labor strikes are discussed, and an interesting portrait of Winston Churchill personally quelling a riot is painted. Politics is depicted along with society. The focus on Churchil and F.E. Smith is scintillating. This unlikely pair (Churchill was a sworn Liberal and Smith a staunch Conservative) formed an even more unlikely friendship that withstood antipodal political ideals and countless conflicts in the House of Commons.

If you're attending a cocktail party, this may be a good book to have in your repertoire of entertaining anecdotes, particularly if it's a theme role-play Edwardian party set in June of 1911, hosted especially for anglophiles.

The Artist and Old Hollywood

I'm a little bit ashamed when I say that The Artist was the first silent film I've ever seen. Actually, it's not even a real silent film because Jean Dujardin says "With pleasure" in his lovely French accent at the end; but, in spirit, it was one hell of a silent movie.

As an avid film junkie and Awards Season follower, I tend to overanalyze the trends in popular films. For instance, I'm thoroughly convinced that the popularity of The King's Speech and The Iron Lady shows an underlying anglophilia that's spreading like wildfire around the world. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but I really do think The Artist sums up the nostalgic standpoint that the film industry has embraced in the past few years.

Old Hollywood is all glamor and perfection because, supposedly, back then the stars were truly talented, the films were so original, and simplicity was magnetic. The Artist certainly conforms to several of the stereotypes of films depicting that era; there's Geoge's marriage to a beautiful but vain woman, I think The Artist is marvelous because the ending was so unexpected. I thought George Valentin would die a romantic and tragic death and Peppy would lament him and realize how much she loved him. Speaking of love, I also loved the lack of an explicitly stated romance between the two main characters. The elusive nature of their relationship made me see the film as more than a typical story of success and failure cemented within a supporting romance.

I hate generally formularic films, especially the ones labelled "inspiring," "thought-provoking," or "heart-wrenching." I can't say exactly what makes a film un-formularic. Some of them are unconventional, like Inception or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Others simply put a new twist on a theme everyone thinks of as hackneyed to death--Midnight in Paris and The Kids are All Right. I mean, who hasn't seen movies that talk about writers suffering wanderlust or angsty lesbians? And that's only from the last two years. Of course, there are formularic films that are simply marvelous, i.e. The King's Speech: obstacle (speech impediment), unlikely friendship, a little success, some failure, more failure, ultimate success. Not to mention, older films like Titanic or even Breakfast at Tiffany's.

I digress. I think The Artist is partly formularic. After all, what movie isn't? It usually takes a film with an easily accessible plot to reach the apex of the Academy anyways. That's why movies like A Single Man or Inception got nominated but never won Best Picture. 

When I'm watching the movie, I'm not analytical. I dissect it afterwards. My emotions while watching The Artist consisted mostly of excitement, delight, tearful sadness, and pure joy. By the end, I was crying and laughing hysterically. And I've come up with a money-making scheme for the producers. I think they should organize a few screenings in the true silent movie style: a huge auditorium with The Artist reeling on mute and a live orchestra playing the soundtrack. That's what I'd call a real retrospect.