I’ve got to maintain my blog silence in order to finish writing this damn book, but I saw Testament of Youth last night and have been spluttering ever since.
Now, this is a very pretty and very sad film. And the first part of the film follows the real-life Vera Brittain’s memoir nicely — in which she fights her way into Oxford University against her father’s wishes, and along the way (against her own wishes) falls in love with her brother’s friend Roland — only to have war break out in 1914. As she remembered it later, the war initially “came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” She spent the war’s aftermath trying to come to terms with the meaning of that war and the multiple tragedies it unleashed. Testament of Youth remains one of the most powerful and important feminist/pacifist/intellectual reckonings of that era and that generation.
But this film focuses, instead, on how pretty these people were, and how sad it is when someone dies. Other than a brief moment at the end when Brittain (Alicia Vikander) speaks up on behalf of peace and postwar reconciliation at a raucous political meeting, the film skims over or skips everything that really mattered to the real-life Brittain — her relationship with Winifred Holtby, her agonizing efforts to make sense of the war, her political and feminist work — to a postscript that assures us that she found someone else and married in 1925.
Oh, no no no, this film is all heartbreaking scenes at railway stations and all manner of men gazing at Vera longingly. That’s right: instead of a powerful political assessment, this film is simply a woman’s weeper, made for repetition on the Lifetime channel.
You can say that I was ruined for this film because I’d read the book. In fact, my very first induction into the magic of the BBC world of miniseries came in the early 80s when my mom and I sat ourselves down every Sunday night to watch the 275-minute version of Testament of Youth starring Cheryl Campbell. (Does anyone know how I can get that series on a region-1 DVD?) But even if I was a total novice to the subject matter, this film is empty of anything but aesthetic pleasure and pathos.
This should have been the movie for me: a female lead! based on a feminist text! a period drama with great clothes! But no matter how many tears I shed during the screening, I found myself increasingly exasperated during the film’s final third to the point that my jaw dropped when it ended before any of what mattered to the real-life Brittain made it in.
Okay, back to writing things that result in book contracts, promotion, etc. Apologies for going AWOL, friends, but I’ve got to get some work done!
At first she seems like she’s going to be just another part of the kitschy Minnesota social landscape as created by the writers of Fargo — a series that uses the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film as a jumping-off point (and visual touchstone) for a different story, which they assert is true. The show tricks you: at first, the character of Molly Solverson seems neither as central nor as astute a detective as she becomes by episode 2 or 3. But by that time, you’ve sort of fallen in love with her.
Tolman is heavier than most TV actresses — by which, god knows, she probably wears a women’s size 10 (gasp!) — and prone to opening her gorgeous blue eyes just about as wide as they’ll go. She alternates observing a scene with an open mouth, and pursing that mouth in thought and perhaps a little judgment. All of which means that as you start to fall in love with her, her modesty, and her obsessive, perceptive views of the people and crimes around her, you realize that Tolman is not playing this for laughs even as she is trained as a comedian. Rather, we enter into the series via those beautiful eyes and connect to it through her combination of shyness, naïveté, and determination. She brings a soft persuasion to all her scenes, which is hard to do in a room full of Big Actors. The show is getting attention for all its male stars — Billy Bob Thornton as the riveting, mercurial hit man (really: he’s wonderful here); Martin Freeman hamming it up with an implausible Minnesota accent as the hapless Lester Nygaard; the terrific Bob Odenkirk as the dense new chief of police; Colin Hanks as a singularly unlucky Duluth police officer; and Adam Goldberg as a competing hit man who memorably delivers half his lines in American Sign Language.
What I’m saying is that our attention is — and should be — directed at Tolman, who is the real reason why the series works. Freeman’s acting is starting to grow on me, even though I still think he overacts his way through every scene; I don’t understand why Colin Hanks gets so many great roles (well, maybe I do understand); and I feel slightly peeved at the show’s insistence on getting so many yuks from Minnesota lingo and way too many characters with low IQs. But I’ll keep watching for Allison Tolman alone. She is a major discovery, and a major talent. Damn.
4 June 2014
I loved Veronica Mars, that So-Cal noir series that ran between 2004 and 2007. (Especially the first two seasons.) Her bitterness was so vividly explained. The class battles between the haves and have-nots always peppered the show, even as it cynically reminded us (as good noir does) that the wealthy and privileged have the means to insulate themselves against justice no matter how much Veronica tried to fix it. The series was also funny, with wonderful characters (Vinnie Van Lowe, the comic genius of Dick Casablancas). It ended too soon, and remains worthy of re-watching even now.
Veronica (Kristen Bell) was razor-sharp — that nose, that jawline, that cutting sense of humor — but the show was always fundamentally about her sadness, her loneliness. Perfect noir. Perfect for those of us for whom high school remains weirdly mythopoeic.
Considering that sharpness, you couldn’t be surprised by Bell’s post-Veronica career as Veronica’s opposite: a privileged mean girl (Heroes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Parks and Recreation, the narrator’s voice in Gossip Girl). Which made me realize that her capacity for bitchiness always underlay her success as Veronica, too — Veronica was the girl who directed her meanness at the mean girls, overprivileged douchebags, and corrupt cops who made it so hard for the rest of us.
Now that we have a full-length feature film — made nine years later, and famously with millions of fan-driven Kickstarter dollars — does it still work?
Is this the kind of movie that anyone can enjoy, not just fans of the series?
I doubt it, especially if you’re paying for it. Wait till it’s on TV and, who knows? Maybe it’ll propel you to the series after all.
Will fans of the series be happy with this film?
Absolutely (more details below). But it feels like a TV show, not a film.
This film offers many pleasures — not least the way it managed to find every relevant actor to reprise his/her role from the series. The awful Madison Sinclair (Amanda Noret), the queen mean girl; the stoner Corny (Jonathan Chesner, whose appearance made me squeal with delight); even Veronica’s temporary flame on the force, Leo D’Amato (Max Greenfield) — not to mention the most crucial people, including Veronica’s father (Enrico Colantoni), Weevil (Francis Capra), and of course Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino). Lucky that the plots pivots around Neptune High’s 10-year high school reunion, because otherwise you’d shake your head at the crazy confluence of familiar faces.
But the real reason Veronica has returned to town is that once again, Logan (Jason Dohring) finds himself accused of murder. They haven’t seen each other for nine years, and Veronica has remained with her public-radio boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) ever since. On the verge of landing her first post-law school job in New York as a corporate lawyer, she agrees to help Logan find a defense lawyer. Like, for one weekend only. Like she has that kind of self-control.
To his credit, Logan seems to have changed. He claims it’s his duty in the Navy — whatever it is, he seems unusually soft-spoken and lacking in the sociopathic tendencies that peppered his long history with Veronica. He now seems so self-possessed, almost like a stand-up guy. On the other hand, because of his past, no one really doubts that he might have the capacity to murder someone.
No wonder Wallace and Mac can see trouble around the corner. “In case it slipped your mind, Piz is the one without the baggage and the drama,” Wallace tells her, while Mac chimes in: “I will say this for him, he almost never gets charged with murder.”
“Just one of the things I love about Piz: no drama,” Veronica throws back at them. No one believes her.
Sure enough, before too long she has dug out her old dark, high-school era clothing for nighttime sleuthing, has scented out good reasons to believe a conspiracy is afoot, and she finds herself in Logan’s convertible, lit by the water and the neon and the jonesing for that crazy connection — the relationship that was epic, spanning years and continents, lives ruined, bloodshed….
As she tries to resist, she likens Logan’s appeal to an addiction she has broken. Or maybe she’s still in recovery. “Do I get a chip for this? Pouring the drink, swishing it, smelling it, leaving the bar without taking a sip. Is this what getting clean feels like?”
Serious question: will this calm version of Logan still be as good a kisser? That was a primary reason to enjoy his appearance all those years ago, and I have my doubts about this one. Tag line: he may have been a sociopath, but a damn good kisser.
I have only one complaint about this film (besides the kissing question): that it is a film and not a two-hour pilot for a briefly revamped series with a clear end date (say, 12 episodes). Director Rob Thomas certainly left enough openings for future work — the corrupt police force, etc. And with her knowledge of the law, this Veronica might be even more of a force to be reckoned with.
But I also have a lingering sense that this Veronica won’t take, and the important problem is the mythopoeic nature of high school in TV series. Something about a teen detective navigating poisonous social politics and corruption works in a way that a 30-year-old who’s passed the bar will not. As much as I enjoyed every minute of this film, with its cameos and repartee and that revived thing between Veronica and Logan: maybe it’s time to let it go, to let this be our swan song, that one-night/ high school reunion return to old friends, old flames.
Seriously, though: Piz? surely she could have found someone else by now. That’s just sheer laziness, Veronica. Think about the kissing.
30 May 2014
It is 1982 in Stockholm, these girls are 13 years old, and they refuse to believe that punk is dead. What a great idea for a film.
I haven’t seen it yet, of course (foreign/independent films take approximately a month to make it to my city from movie centers in New York and LA), but today’s rave NYT review is through the roof, so I’m going to do my best to turn We are the Best! into a new cult movie about female rockers. (One of their songs is called “Hate the Sport.”)
So put it on your lists, friends.
The ladies are coming over tomorrow for the conflict of social and economic mores that is North and South, and I’m planning to win over new converts. This has happened before.
(Because it is four hours long.)
So by the time the ending arrives, and fortunes have shifted, and new reconciliations made, we’ll all be full and happy and less inclined to think that the moody Thornton will likely make a difficult husband for Margaret, and that the stern and judgmental Margaret will closely resemble her mother-in-law.
We’ll just focus on that kiss. Ahh. Summer is here.
29 April 2014
And speaking of busy nothings, the academic conference. I returned from one, and frankly, the very best part was sharing a room with one of my besties from grad school — and watching Mansfield Park (1999) together.
Keeping this blog has allowed me to see a pattern in my life: when April rolls around and the semester gets tough, the not-so-tough (me) watch period drama. Even better if it’s Jane Austen, because she’s so playful and hopelessly romantic that it takes me out of the semester at its worst.
It’s been so long since I saw this version of Mansfield Park that I’d forgotten the ways that it finesses the original Austen novel. Mostly for the better, as far as I’m concerned. Fanny (Frances O’Connor) isn’t painfully shy, sickly, and insipid like she is in the book, and the script by director Patricia Rozema lifts extensively from Austen’s letters and papers as a way to imagine Fanny’s lifelong correspondence with her younger sister Susie as well as her wordy, playful relationship with her cousin Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller). Fanny seems all the more appealing because of her gift for words — and less moralistic, as I sometimes found her character in the book. Other aspects don’t work as well, like the film’s elaboration of a complicated slaveholding backstory for the Bertrams, but that seems less important to me.
Clearly, if you’re going to like this film, you can’t be overly dedicated to the novel. I wouldn’t put up with that nonsense if it were Pride and Prejudice, but I’m willing to let Rozema improve on the less perfect Mansfield Park.
It doesn’t hurt that it starts with an eminently appealing little-girl version of Fanny. Taken away from her impoverished family to live with wealthy cousins at a young age, she has never been treated as an equal in the family — except by her cousin Edmund, the Bertrams’ younger son. From the cold little garret the Bertrams provided for her, she busies herself with the pleasures of her own imagination — rollicking gothic tales mailed off to her sister Susie, and an irreverent “History of England” for Edmund. In this respect, this version is far superior to the 2007 BBC/ Masterpiece version.
She might be shy, but Fanny has a wonderful inner life. One wants to be friends with her. As they grow up, she and Edmund develop a bond beyond words.
And it might all have turned out differently, I suppose … until the family receives a visit from the fashionable new neighbors, a brother and sister named Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz).
The film plays the Crawfords’ appearance to great effect — everything about them screams “danger!” so I wanted to clap my hands with delight, because you know the real story is about to begin.
Mary Crawford looks just like a spider, with her self-satisfied smile and ruffled collar. This is no idle comparison; Mary is a spider, and the target for her paralyzing bite is the impressionable Edmund — to Fanny’s horror.
Henry Crawford is a beast of a different sort. If his sister appears laser-focused, his own inclination is a vaguer kind of troublemaking. Pushed by Mrs. Bertram toward her younger daughter, Julia, he keeps his options open, flirting with the newly engaged Maria Bertram instead. Maria, engaged to an idiot, is happy to reciprocate.
The Crawfords entrance the entire Bertram clan. These two seem to flaunt every ordinary social convention. Which is all well and good while Fanny can withdraw to the background and observe their machinations — but everything changes when Henry turns his attention away from Maria and fixes his gaze, for the first time in his life, like a laser on Fanny.
She knows him too well to accept his offer of marriage. She cannot trust him. She knows his rakish character too well. But Rozema’s film toys with us, leads us to second-guess Henry’s motives. Does he not, suddenly, appear sincere? Does he not appear to love her? When her uncle sends her back home to live in her parents’ squalid home in Portsmouth, Henry follows and woos her, showing little alarm at her parents’ poverty and misery.
He’s charming and wonderful. He appears completely in love with her. And in a hasty moment, she accepts his proposal of marriage.
Only to change her mind. How can she marry him, even if Edmund is due to marry Mary Crawford?
And yet the film does a lovely job of making Henry seem like a true lover. He really has fallen for her, we believe — and even after things go sour, I continue to believe it. It’s such a nice spin on the story, for it shows (perhaps) his ability to change, and Fanny’s willingness to change her mind.
My grad school bestie pointed out that Edmund is a bit overly judgmental — as a wannabe clergyman, perhaps this comes naturally. But considering how much he has fallen for the mostly-immoral Mary Crawford, the judgy sternness seems a bit out of place.
Out of curiosity, which Edmund do you prefer? I’m inclined to find both adorable, but are they too obviously adorable? As in, am I getting fed an easy pair of soulful eyes here by a crass casting director? (Ritson has particularly soulful eyes, obvs.) I’m not sure that either one is as perfectly matched with his co-star as much as he ought to be. I mean, a true Austen tale ought to have a perfectly matched heroine and swain, amiright?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
If you’re wondering which is the superior production, there’s no question: the 2007 may be a teensy bit more faithful to the book, but the 1999 wins hands down for the inclusion of all those delicious bits of Austen’s writing. Besides, Frances O’Connor makes a much better Fanny than Billie Piper. Most of all, the 2007 ITv production feels a bit as if everyone is acting solo before a green screen, with no sense of chemistry or drama between characters.
Sigh. This is one of those posts that rambles around. My attention is divided — and I keep staring at that stack of papers that I ought to have finished grading a week ago.
But perhaps this is all the more an endorsement of taking a look at the film as balm for the soul in these sad days of the late semester. Especially if you find yourself blissfully sharing a room with a bestie at a tedious conference of academics.
15 February 2014
This is not my favorite of David Thomson’s books (his New Biographical Dictionary of Film is endlessly pleasurable) but it’s certainly the most beautiful. And what an excuse to flip through these gorgeous photographs, cooing over your favorites, putting all the others on your Netflix queue.
Have I mentioned I’m grading papers this weekend?
The book also makes me want to find images of my own, exemplary of those breathtaking little moments in film that stop you short.
As a result of reading his bit about my favorite film of all time, The Third Man (1949), I found myself scrolling through images online. Thomson loves that last scene, in which the beautiful and enigmatic Alida Valli walks toward the camera and past poor Joseph Cotten, who wants her to love him. The zither music plays unrelentingly.
Tell me: do you have a favorite moment from a favorite film — a crystalline, perfect, deeply pleasurable moment that somehow brings forth all manner of emotion when you recall it?