Persuasion Characters Over 36 Years

I have now seen Persuasion (1971), Persuasion (1995), and Persuasion (2007). Here are my comparisons of how the characters in these versions are portrayed:


I think Persuasion (1971) is unfairly criticized. Yes, it is stilted and mannered. Yes, it painstakingly keeps to the plot (although the camera work isn't totally unimaginative).

But Ann Firbank as Anne is perfect. Anne is supposed to be a quiet but not timid person. She is supposed to be intelligent with an astute understanding of the people around her. She has good sense, good taste and, when called upon to do so, speaks her mind. She is the perfect companion for the incredibly straight-forward but somewhat more impetuous Captain Wentworth.

Ann Firbank presents this persona perfectly. She has a nice alto voice, an elegant bearing, and the ability to speak straight to the point without being aggressive. She also, more importantly, has the ability to hold her peace without looking put upon. Yes, her family ignores and slights her, but Anne has confidence in herself. In the book, many people compare Anne to her mother, a self-possessed and elegant woman. The book also makes numerous references to Anne's superiority. One is not supposed to suggest such things in this day and age but "superiority" (re: Jane Austen) means that Anne is not only more educated than, say, Louisa Musgrove but that she has a better mind. It is not a matter of SAT scores but a matter of what Jane Austen sometimes calls "understanding." We would call it insight although that implies Myers-Briggs intuition silliness. "Discernment" might be the best word--a person who can distinguish what is worthwhile from what isn't; a person who is not taken in by flashiness or gaudiness but doesn't automatically dismiss them either.

Ann Firbank does this perfectly. I quite like Amanda Root (1995), who manages to retain her dignity despite her portrayal of Anne as incredibly shy and retiring. I'm afraid I didn't care for Sally Hawkins' (2007) portrayal at all.

Captain Wentworth

I couldn't warm to Bryan Marshall (1971). He doesn't have the charisma of either Ciaran Hinds (1995) or Rupert Penry-Jones (2007). I think Captain Wentworth is a difficult character to cast. Unlike Darcy, who is given specific actions to indicate definite characteristics, Captain Wentworth's character is defined mostly in his reactions to Anne. His reactions are realistic. I am not an advocate of the idea that a writer can only write what she knows (oh, Jane Austen must have had a similar experience), but Jane Austen did have brothers, and her depiction of Wentworth's anger towards Anne (an anger that is neither excessively hostile nor excessively sappy) is about as accurate a depiction of thwarted male pride as one is apt to find in classic literature.

But how to portray him? Rupert Penry-Jones captures the strong feelings Wentworth has for Anne. Ciaran Hinds captures the authoritative bearing of a leader. Bryan Marshall is, well, rather blank (although he does have a sense of humor).

Any suggestions for the perfect Captain Wentworth? Is there an actor out there who can pull it off?


I consider the 1995 Musgroves the best version of the Musgroves. They are happy, buoyant, funny, kind, not exactly intellectual but full of activity. Mary (1995) is also right on the money. She does the poor-me-all-I-can-talk-about-are-my-ailments (despite actual fine health) act very well. She and Charles are also a more believable couple than in the other versions. You can believe that when Mary isn't swooning about trying to attract attention, she and Charles actually get on fairly well. They share an interest in gossip and have similar viewpoints.

The Crofts

I adore the 1995 Crofts. They are down-to-earth and friendly and yet, like Anne, superior in their understanding of the world. One of my favorite scenes from 1995 is Mrs. Croft's speech at the dinner table where she explains how the only time she "imagined herself ill" was when she was separated from her husband; while she speaks, her husband, listening attentively in the background, smiles to himself. It helps that Mrs. Croft is played by the excellent Fiona Shaw and Admiral Croft by the wonderful John Woodvine.

Sir Walter Elliot and Elizabeth Elliot

I love Anthony Head (Sir Walter, 2007), but I think he plays the part campy, and it needs to be played seriously. This is a seriously vain man who doesn't realize how ridiculous he is. He isn't angry, storming guy; he is vacillating, self-involved guy. We, the audience, find him amusing, but he doesn't find himself amusing or play himself up. Basil Dingman (1971) is actually quite good and very funny. Corin Redgrave (1995) is so good, he makes you wince. I actually think Anne's 1995 family is too horrible. You start wondering why they don't just get eaten by sharks or show up in a CSI episode dead. We, the readers and audience, need to believe that Anne can care for these people. If they have no redeeming characteristics, you start to think Anne is a bit of an idiot.

Mr. Elliot

Again, 1995 Persuasion does it best. Good old Samuel West can do anything, and he delivers a believable portrayal of a charming but ultimately shallow and worthless person. Tobias Menzies (2007) is far too smarmy. His Mr. Elliot would never take in Lady Russell; he makes your skin crawl. 1971 Mr. Elliott is rather a non-entity (which, in a way, is kind of the point of Mr. Elliott).

Lady Russell

The 1995 Lady Russell is well-done. I can believe in her influence over Anne. She also has a modern (for Jane Austen's time) appearance and attitude. However, she is so overbearing, it is hard to feel that Anne was right to trust her seven years earlier. 1971 Lady Russell, while still being forthright and opinionated, is much more motherly and gentle. It is believable that Anne would have listened to this person who had her best interests at heart. Okay, okay, so 2007 Lady Russell IS Alice Krige (the Borg Queen for you Voyager fans), but, like most of the 2007 Jane Austens, the action goes by so quickly, you don't really get to know her.

Captain Harville and Others

The trying-to-fit-all-of-Austen-into-90-minutes 2007 versions give the minor characters short shrift. The 1971 and 1995 versions are much better in this regard. I prefer the 1995 Captain Harville, but I must mention Michael Culver who plays Captain Harville in the 1971 version. He is one of my favorite actors; he plays Prior Roberts in the Brother Cadfael series and shows up in the occasional PBS mystery.

The Benwicks are fairly interchangeable. The one aspect of Persuasion (1971) I really like is that Louisa flirts with Benwick—we are given some warning of Louisa and Benwick's later romance. On the other hand, Jane Austen's explanation for the romance is completely, and hilariously, believable:
Where could be the attraction [between Louisa and Benwick]? The answer soon presented itself. It had been in [the] situation. They had been thrown together several weeks; they had been living in the same family party. [Anne] was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for [Benwick], would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody.
Both 1971 and 1995 Mrs. Smiths are lovable. The 2007 Mrs. Smith bears little resemblance to the book and is totally misused plot-wise. Speaking of Mrs. Smith, I must give Jane Austen's description of her:
[Mrs. Smith] had moments only of languor and depression [compared to] hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? [T]his was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more. Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone.
And one can see why Jane Austen is the great mistress of characterization and should always be respected as such, especially by film makers.

Ratatouille as a Lesson in Non-Elitism

I just finished watching Ratatouille on DVD. This is the second time I've seen the movie (the first time was in the theatre). It usually takes me two to three viewings before I feel comfortable declaring a definite opinion on a movie which is why you will never see me as a New York Times movie critic (and why I haven't reviewed Caspian on my blog yet).

I have boundless respect for Pixar and for John Lasseter (head of Pixar) in particular. Every production Pixar creates is thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing and although some are better than others, none of them, in my view, are actually bad. However, although I enjoyed Ratatouille the first time, I can't say I was bowled over by it.

The second viewing gave me a chance to reflect more on the plot and theme of the movie. First of all, I would be surprised that Pixar marketed the movie specifically to children if it wasn't for the fact that in the United States (as opposed to Japan), animation is automatically (and erroneously) equated with a juvenile audience. In any case, I think Ratatouille deserves a broader audience.

The plot of Ratatouille is complex as is the dialog. There is NO attempt to "talk down" the dialog or even, as in Toy Story and Shrek, to keep the plot dialog basic while throwing in funny and more complex subtext. All of Ratatouille's dialog demands close attention. Still, it is possible that for young children, the images carry most of the story. And I happen to believe that while a child may get bored with an overly complex work (i.e., War & Peace), complexity doesn't automatically hurt a child's appreciation of a film or book: even if the child doesn't understand every plot point, innuendo, or theme, the child still responds to the film or book's created world and the human tensions within it.

Likewise, I think a child can appreciate the rather complex theme of Ratatouille, especially since the theme has multiple levels. When I first saw the movie, my English-teacher's brain was mislead by Gusteau's slogan, "Everyone can cook." I jumped to the conclusion that the movie was another one of those Disney films about someone trying and trying and trying until he or she achieves her goal! The Little Engine That Could, version 3,025.

But really, Gusteau's slogan should be "Everyone may cook" or, rather, "Everyone with talent should have the right to cook." In other words, Gusteau's point is not "hey, if you just try, try, try again, you can make it" (after all, Linguini freely admits at the end of the movie that he has absolutely no talent); rather, Gusteau is challenging the position of elitists.

"Everyone can cook" as in EVERYONE. Although Remy is the ultimate example of this, there are constant and sometimes subtle references to Gusteau's slogan throughout the entire movie: Colette challenges Linguini to doubt her talent (and her chutzpah) because she is a woman in a "man's world"; Skinner deplores Linguini's achievements because he is (1) a garbage boy and (2) untrained. Elitism--specifically the elitism that claims superiority for reasons other than talent (I have the right schooling; I know the right people; I belong to the right class/clique/political party)--is being attacked. In this context, Ego's name, of course, is a dead giveaway. His critiques (until the very end of the movie) aren't about enjoyment, pleasure, the fun of the thing; they are all about ego.

What makes Ratatouille, like so many Pixar films, unusual is that the issue of anti-elitism is not allowed to stop there. Yes, attacking elitism is great, but the writers force Remy to examine his budding anti-elitism. Will it (like it has for so many angsty college graduates) simply make Remy an anti-elitist elitist? Because Remy's family doesn't really understand or care about his talent does that mean they are stupid, capitalist, thieving philistines who should be shoved out of his life as quickly as possible?

Not at all. Remy's brother Emile will never lose his taste for Ramen noodles, tater tots, and Hostess cupcakes. The guy just isn't a gourmet. But he loves his brother, and his brother loves him, so . . . what does it matter? In fact, Brad Bird, the writer and director of Ratatouille, attempts to answer that question: Why does Remy's talent matter (if not for elitist reasons)? His answer: Remy's talent isn't about being better than other people; it's about doing something that will add to the world.

I like that because it bypasses the whole elitist versus self-esteem-for-everyone argument. (I dislike the first position and consider the second counter-productive.) In my thesis, I argue that people enjoy artistic works because those works enable them to use their creativity, but I also argue that creativity is a very broad desire. Speaking of those college grads, creativity does not (necessarily) mean "feeling angst and staring at my navel." Here's what I wrote in the second chapter of my thesis:
Creativity is not a specialized right-brained activity, reserved for artists, poets, and performers. People want to create all kinds of things: loving families, good filing systems, decent web sites, tasty treats, well-groomed animals, a trusty lesson plan. How that desire plays out may very well be influenced by social, cultural environments and institutions but votary theory [my theory that I present in my thesis] postulates its existence regardless of external frameworks. The creative desire like any human desire (envy, hate, love) exists throughout time and history. The modes of its expression are influenced by context but context does not determine the desire. A contemporary Shakespeare would not, perhaps, write plays (unless he teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber); that a contemporary Shakespeare would have creative impulses I have no doubt.
In any case, all this thought about what constitutes talent and how it should be handled is extremely impressive for a movie that is, ostensibly, a light children's film, but then I have always found designations for films and books to be more confining than truthful. (I have to be careful about this as a teacher, however; I am perfectly willing to bring any writing to the table if I think it is good and will help my students. My students are not so broad-minded, and I have to explain to them that I'm not using children's literature because I think they aren't smart enough to handle "adult" material; I am using children's literature because it is usually better written than so-called adult material. "You can fake out an adult with big words and highfalutin' sounding sentences," I say. "You can't do that with kids. If you can't communicate clearly with kids, your writing just won't work.")

Back to Ratatouille: I think movies have exhibited a shift in perspective over the past few years, starting with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the protagonist's desire to grow is not immediately (and inevitably) pitted against the protagonist's family or culture. Compromises are presented, and the protagonist usually ends not by riding off, alone and self-satisfied, into the sunset but remaining, though changed, within the family/cultural circle. Which solution is, whether in a movie for children or for adults, far more mature.


Northanger Abbey 2007

Northanger Abbey is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, so I've looked forward (with some trepidation) to Masterpiece Theatre's latest version.

Trepidation because when it comes to favorites, the result often doesn't live up to the expectation.

It should be stated immediately that 2007 Northanger is far superior to the 1986 version. Peter Firth did an excellent job as Henry Tilney in the 1986 version, but he was far too worldly-wise (more about this later). And collectively, the 1986 version didn't get the joke.

The joke is that Catherine Morland loves "horrid" novels (more about this later) and enjoys imagining potential gothic horrors, but her own life is fearfully prosaic. So prosaic, in fact, that when she finds herself in the middle of a classic adventure story, she fails to recognize herself as the thwarted romance heroine.

The 1986 version instead presented Northanger Abbey as straightforward gothic romance--which completely and totally missed Jane Austen's point.

Unfortunately, the 2007 version kind of missed it too (they did miss is less). I think Catherine's "prosaic" adventure is just too tempting: script writers and filmmakers can't resist it. They can't resist underscoring parts of the plot with thudding music. They can't resist making Northanger Abbey a huge, rambling building with dozens of towers (no, it isn't that way in the book: that's part of the joke). They can't resist making John Thorpe far more villainous than he actually is. And consequently, they miss how truly funny the novel is.

Watching the 2007 version, it occured to me that perhaps the novel isn't translatable to film. If you moved the whole thing into modern times, Jane Austen would be the smart, introverted, withdrawn high school student who decided to spoof not JUST the antics of the jocks but also (and this is important) the antics of the arty-self-important crowd. In other words, nobody is spared. There's Isabella who complains about men looking at her and then insists on strutting past every man in sight. There's John Thorpe who brags about on fast he drives his "car" and then brags about how safe a driver he is and then brags about how he got into an awful wreck just last week (all in the same conversation). There's Mrs. Allen who says placidly to Catherine, "Oh, yes, dear, I wish someone was here in Bath to talk to you" and then does absolutely nothing about it.

Basically, Northanger Abbey is Heathers.

But the thing that makes it outrageously funny is how completely matter-of-fact it is. No thudding music. No gothic ramparts. Everything is down-to-earth and ordinary. The horrors don't stand out the way they do in a "horrid" novel and in a movie. When Catherine travels home by herself, she doesn't even realize she has behaved heroically.

This hum-dum quality is hard to translate into film: instead of asking you to sympathize with the main characters, the audience would have to be taken into a conspiracy with the narrator against all the characters. The downside of such a conspiracy is that the audience would have a hard time sympathizing with Catherine and, possibly, a hard time understanding Henry.

Catherine is the original innocent. She is so artless, she is clueless; her love of "horrid" novels does not translate into, for instance, a Jane Austen type of imagination. Catherine would never spoof anyone. And a complete innocent, who is also likable, is hard to pull off. (Hence the 1999 Mansfield Park where innocent Fanny becomes instead a combination of Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Austen.)

2007 Catherine, played by Felicity Jones, is not Elizabeth Bennett and does a good job as an innocent, but she is not quite as gullible as the book's Catherine. (In the book, our high school Jane Austen isn't spoofing Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) as much as Mandy Moore (Walk to Remember). And she isn't really spoofing; she's just being cryptic. Rolling her eyes a bit, perhaps.) Without some hint of reserve or suspicion, a film Catherine would, I'm afraid, come across as an airhead which doesn't invite sympathy, especially since Jane Austen fans tend towards the Elizabeth Bennett model.

The second main character is Henry Tilney and here 2007 Northanger hit the money bag. The actor is JJ Feild, who is a PBS classic workaholic
(Railway Children, Death on the Nile, Pullman novels). The character of Henry Tilney--working off our high school model--is the stereotypical smart, semi-arty type who sees through the arty pretense but doesn't have the confidence to be completely himself. So he turns sardonic. This pretty much sums up every guy I knew in High School. I should have hung out with the AV guys, who really didn't care what anyone thought. Instead, I hung out with the arty guys who couldn't stand to be thought pretentious, so they watched lots of Monty-Python. THIS is Henry Tilney.

And he is entirely lovable. He is funny, first of all, and he is flawed. The 2007 Northanger won my heart because although the writer and director fell down when it came to capturing Austen's caustic purpose, they entirely captured the unstable dynamics of the Tilney household. Henry is an unhappy and vulnerable young man. He isn't unhappy because his father is a gothic villain; he is unhappy because his father is an overbearing jerk. There's mundane and prosaic for you.

The 1986 Northanger made Henry much too confident and wise to the ways of the world; one never had any doubts that that Henry would fix everything. But 2007 Northanger gives Henry much more complexity; he may not fix everything; he isn't masterful like Darcy; he isn't accustom to authority like Mr. Knightly; he may not be as heroic as we wish him to be.

Okay, it's Jane Austen, and she may have been caustic but she wasn't cynical: Henry does achieve a level of heroism, but one suspects that this Henry, at least, is just relieved that someone loves him at all. Which is sweet in a very ordinary, human way.

Psychoanalysis--Hollywood Style

Starting with Spellbound in 1945, Hollywood became a factory of psychological/"that-darn-childhood-trauma" thrillers.

Okay, I don't know if it started with Spellbound, but Spellbound is a very good example of the basic plot of these psychological thrillers; the plot's premise goes something like "Person X suffers terrible experience as child/young adult. If person X is forced to confront terrible experience, person X will be instantly cured."

It's the premise of the movie The Three Faces of Eve and of the movie, Marnie, which I watched this weekend for the first time.

Now, Marnie deserves a few kudos.

(1) Marnie's terrible experience is what I thought it should be but didn't believe Hitchcock would actually present: sexual abuse.

(2) There's no indication at the end of the movie that Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is "cured." Her last comment to her husband/amateur psychiatrist is, "I'd rather stay with you than go to jail." Well, yes, I think most people would rather live a life of comparative luxury than go to jail.

(3) The husband/amateur psychiatrist (Sean Connery) is a bundle of weirdness himself for voluntarily marrying a woman who lies, steals, and won't let him near her. Marnie states this during the movie, and the point is never really refuted; in fact, based on the beginning of the movie, the husband is carrying out his dysfunction when he married Marnie--although he does give great lines while he is doing it:
When we get home, I'll explain that we had a lover's quarrel... That you ran away... That I went after you and brought you back. That'll please Dad. He admires action. Then I'll explain that we're gonna be married before the week is out... That I can't bear to have you out of my sight. He also admires wholesome animal lust.
You're very sexy with your face clean.
However, the movie still depends on a really silly idea--that Marnie is troubled and messed up but fundamentally, in her core, normal: there is a normal person in her fighting to get out. Or, at least, a person who still has the right instincts even if said instincts are covered up by trauma.

Marnie isn't a normal person fighting to get out--she's a freaking sociopath.

Basically, the character gets positions of trust in small companies by telling incredible lies that play off people's emotions. She then becomes friendly with the staff. And finally, robs the company blind. This isn't a nice person who just can't help herself. Or even a nice person who due to her terrible childhood is doing things that in her heart of hearts she knows are wrong. This isn't even a cat burglar who steals from acquaintances or unknown victims--this is a person without conscience manipulating the people around her, so she can get what she wants.

And interestingly enough, Tippi Hedren plays the role that way--she is completely believable. Grace Kelly was originally slated for the role, and I think she could have pulled it off, but I think she would have brought more pathos to the character. Hedren has a coolness, even deviousness, which makes the role far more modern than perhaps Hitchcock intended.

Still, the fact that Hitchcock (and many other directors of the time) presented extreme psychosis as a veneer to otherwise good and normal desires tells you a lot about the time period and psychoanalysis in that time period.* I'm not sure if the idea stems from nurture (we can undo the bad environment!) or nature (the basic personality is still intact!), but the theorists of the day seemed to have completely missed the reality that a lifetime of behaviors, no matter how repented of, don't simply vanish. Marnie might feel repentent; she may recognize her childhood trauma; she may wish to be a wonderful wife and mother to her darling husband/amateur psychiatrist. But it's doubtful that robbing five companies through sheer manipulative cunning and hatred leaves a person with a lot of conscience to cling to. Not to mention that her flight responses are pretty well-trained; ten to one, the next time she panics, she's outtathere.

*Granted, Spielberg did more or less the same thing with Catch Me If You Can. According to Abagnale, nothing in his childhood accounts for the thefts he pulled off. However, Catch Me If You Can has several points in its favor; Christopher Walken does a fabulous job as the father who kind of knows what is going on but can offer no refuge to his son; Leonardo DiCaprio's character (Frank, Jr.) commits all of his thefts before, I believe, the age of 21. And lastly, Frank, Jr.'s flight responses, not his character, are tested at the end of the movie.

And finally, Catch Me If You Can, like Marnie and all psychological thrillers, is a whole bunch of fun!

Just Like Heaven

Chick flicks run the gambit from great to cute to ehhh to horrible. In general, I tend to trust the masses when it comes to movies, so if a chick flick comes and goes quickly, it was probably horrible.

But every once in awhile, a really cute flick comes out and then vanishes without much fanfare. This is true of Just Like Heaven, starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. I recommend it!

The plot is very, very basic. No frills. The payoff is very, very obvious. No twists. There isn't a huge supporting cast. There's barely a bad guy.

But the story works. And the characters are likable. I happen to like Reese Witherspoon, and I recently became acquainted with Mark Ruffalo through Due South (okay, recent for me!). Both are respectable actors for their level, and a decent chick flick is well within their ballpark.

More than that, Just Like Heaven doesn't use the BIG MISUNDERSTANDING--WE WILL SPEND THE LAST HALF HOUR OF THE FILM MAD AT EACH OTHER BEFORE WE TOTALLY MAKE UP which always makes you think, "Would this relationship really survive long-term?" ("No" is the answer.)

For example, I agree with Ebert who thinks the ending of 10 Ways to Lose a Guy on the First Date is totally stupid. If two grown-ups realized that their friends had tricked them into dating each other and hey, what do you know, it worked out, those grown-up people would be thrilled! Only adolescents would be all "Oooooh, your trickery was worse than mine. Ooooh, I'm SOOO mad."


Granted, there is a built-in 10 minutes of "Will it work out?" in Just Like Heaven. But it's a natural "Will it work out?" It isn't the result of mutual sulking.

(The only exception to my rule against stupid MAD AT EACH OTHER endings is Two Weeks Notice with Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock. It isn't a favorite chick flick of mine--I kind of detest films that use the OTHER woman or the OTHER man as the twist--but I think that Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock play so well off each other, I'm willing to overlook a great deal of stupid plotting.)

Near Miss: The Illusionist

I'm always fascinated by near misses, movies that almost become huge artistic or cultural successes but don't. I consider The Illusionist to be a near miss, and I've been trying to figure out why. It has all the right ingredients: a love story, a mystery, adequate acting on the part of Norton and Biel and very good acting indeed by Giamatti. Wonderful atmosphere. Great effects. So why did it leave me cold? And why, although people tend to prefer it to the Prestige, did it not take off in a big way?


I think the main reason is that the movie asks us to sympathize with the lovers (Norton and Biel). I think this was a huge mistake. If the story had remained Giamatti's completely (as I think the short story must be), the film might have been artistically, if not popularly, acclaimed. Most of the story is Giamatti's but the powers-that-be couldn't stop themselves from giving us the lovers' point of view and hoping we would commiserate.

Well, I didn't. I'm sorry; I don't care how horrible the prince was supposed to be (and I never got any real proof of his horribleness), setting up a guy to take the blame for something he didn't do is still, well, setting up a guy to take the blame for something he didn't do. It was, in fact, a murder plot worthy of Agatha Christie since if the prince didn't kill himself, his father or the people would.

Yuck. I couldn't feel any sympathy for the lovers. I didn't care. I hoped she would die of consumption within a year--take that, you mindless, self-indulgent, murdering jerks.

BUT if the story had remained Giamatti's entirely--if the whole object had been the chief inspector's reaction to the illusion; if, that is, the audience had not been asked to care whether the lovers got away or not but only if the chief inspector came through with his dignity, I think the movie would have been far more creatively satisfying.

This approach could have worked since Giamatti and Sewell (the prince) played very well off each other. (And with the new approach, the chief inspector and the prince would have become the core of the story.) Sewell is one of those scene-chewing actors, and Giamatti handled the scene-chewing with aplomb. In fact, the final scene between them before Sewell kills himself was so awesome, I sat there going, "Why couldn't we get more of this? It isn't Sewell's fault he can outact everyone in sight!" (Although, in fairness, I think the acting, Giamatti apart, was fairly even; Biel may be the weakest link, but she's lovely enough that it doesn't matter, and Norton isn't so outrageously talented that he looks odd next to her. I realized, after the movie started, that I'd gotten Norton confused with Jeremy Northam, who probably would have outacted Biel. I don't require great acting in my movies, but I do require balance.)

Lady in the Water had its own near-miss problems, but at least Shyamalan let Giamatti carry the story. Point of view really is everything.

Two Towers Extended

For the second holiday of the fall, I watched LOTR: Two Towers, Extended Version. I consider the extended version of Fellowship better than the cut version. Not so with Two Towers. I consider the cut version (with one exception) to be far superior to the extended version.

I've seen the cut version of Two Towers several times, and I've always considered it pretty straightforward and streamlined. After seeing the extended version, I must congratulate Peter Jackson on making such intelligent cuts. The extended version is downright convoluted. Talk about confusing! And I'm fairly well-versed in Tolkien lore.

The extended scenes do carry some interest. There's an entire section between Boromir and Faramir which gives you insight into the brothers and their father, Denethor. A line is used which is echoed in the cut version: "Now is a chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality"; when you realize that the line was originally spoken by Faramir's father, it lends the line (spoken the second time by Faramir) some pathos.

And it's nice to see Sean Bean again. But, still, the scene is very confusing. It's a backflash, coming at a point in the narrative when we have cut away from the main action (Rohan) to Frodo. It's too many balls in the air and consequently, gives the extended version a clunky feel.

Likewise, all the extended Aragorn scenes don't really work. There are a number of scenes in the extended version that underscore Aragorn's identity as Isildur's heir (and subsequently, Sauron and Saruman's discovery that Aragorn in coming to Gondor). In the books, this is terrifically important. One reason Sauron gets so freaked out--if one can use that phrase about a big, evil eye--regarding the resistance of Gondor is that he believes that Aragorn is coming to reclaim his throne and that Aragorn has the ring.

But in order to make this clear in the movies, Jackson would have had to make the whole Isildur/Gondor/Aragorn-as-Boromir's-boss thing just a tad clearer in the first movie than he did. So I think cutting it in the second made a lot of sense.

Because, really, the Two Towers is about Rohan and the battle with Saruman's forces. Some of the best performances of the movie come out of this storyline (excluding the remarkable Andy Serkis whose involvement and voice make Gollum one of the most appealing lisping creatures in the history of film). Bernard Hill as Theoden is nuanced far beyond what the role calls for, and he has some of best lines in the movie (hey, I have a yen for weighty dialog). Miranda Otto is marvelous. Karl Urban is totally underused but at least he shows up. And Brad Dourif as Grima is just about as good an ambiguous bad guy as a character can get.

Tangent on Brad Dourif/Grima: There's a point near the end of Two Towers where Grima is standing behind Saruman as Saruman sends the orcs out to trash Helm's Deep, and Grima begins to cry; it is so poignant, it rips at your heart. Here is a self-serving, nasty-minded fellow who believed that his self-serving nasty-mindedness was limited--he wanted a girl, he wanted a little bit of power. And then he discovers that the little bit of power he wanted to yield is going to be totally wiped out because Saruman isn't interested in playing power politics with Grima; Saruman is interested in destroying every human being on the planet. It's a huge miscalculation based on evil intent. It's one of Tolkien's subtler moments (he didn't have many, but he had some--the crying isn't in the book but Grima's ambiguity is).

For you Voyager fans, Brad Dourif plays Suder, the sociopath who tries to control his sociopathy with Tuvok's help. There's a 2-parter where Suder--who has laid off the killing due to Tuvok's influence--must help save Voyager by killing intruders. The despair with which he agrees is wrenching; he knows that once he starts killing again, there is no going back. The Voyager series was lucky to get Dourif.

Back to Two Towers: the only scene I regret Jackson cutting is a scene where Faramir eulogizes (four line eulogy) a dead soldier of Sauron's. In both the book and the movie, some rather generalized soldiers from the south stomp up north to help Sauron. Tolkien doesn't say much about them although he gives them "Oliphants." Both Lewis and Tolkien have been accused of insularity in their use of bad guys from the south who bear about them hints of Arabia. From today's perspective, it is hard not to assume both Lewis and Tolkien are responding to modern terrorism. In fact, however, their insularity is a tad older. They are responding to medieval attitudes towards Arabs which extended back to Hannibal's elephants climbing the Alps to attack Rome.

Which doesn't make it any less insular, of course.

In any case, in the extended version, Faramir gives this nice little speech where he pities one of the dead soldiers and says, in effect, to Frodo, "Why is his honor any less than mine?"

Lewis would have approved.

It's nice because first of all, it makes clear that Faramir is the more thoughtful of the two brothers and therefore, prepares the viewer for Faramir's rejection of the ring. It's also nice because second of all, I get tired of orcs (BAD GUYS, BAD GUYS, BAD GUYS) and their residences (BAD PLACES, BAD PLACES, BAD PLACES). I mean, really, what kind of civilization is Mordor? It is one big desolation; what do this people eat? I assume even orcs eat meat and carbohydrates. At least, I assume they don't just eat each other and rocks.

I don't have a problem with this most of the time because Tolkien was writing world fantasy without much ambiguity and the bad guys aren't supposed to be Grimas (ambiguous and undecided villains). They are supposed to just be bad. But I thought it was a nice touch to point out that badness has its own agendas and its own ways of garnering support. No way those guys from the south were stomping north because of some big eye. They're thinking, "What will we get out of this?" and Faramir's speech pointed that out.

However, Jackson may have thought he was cutting it close to the PC line with the "Oliphants" anyway, so the speech got cut.

He left in, however, one of the best lines of the movie given by Bernard Hill. "What can men do," Theoden says to Aragorn, "against such reckless hate?" What indeed?

My second favorite line comes at the end of the speech Theoden gives right before the battle starts:
Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?
Give Tolkien credit--Two Towers is one of the few war movies I've seen where people spend a large percentage of the time feeling hopeless and wondering how things got so bad. Which is how good people usually respond to terror and war and reckless hate.

To end: in terms of weighty speeches, I don't even mind Sam's speech, but I confess that what I really like is the beginning portion--from Tolkien's point of view, there is no return, no going back to Exactly The Way Things Were. It's a principle fantasy writers should never forget:
It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
And Frodo's end is foreshadowed. But I'll leave that for the NEXT holiday.

Bourne Ultimatum

I've been a big fan of Bourne since the first movie. I went with zero expectations and came out going, "Holy cow!" Both the first two movies have held up very well in subsequent rewatches. So I was excited for Bourne Ultimatum but also wary. Third movies tend to awful (witness Return of the Jedi and the third Spiderman).

Well, it wasn't awful. But it wasn't great either. After much pondering, I reached the conclusion that the reason wasn't the plot or the action sequences or Matt Damon. The problem was the lack of a strong antagonist and a strong alter-ego.

In both the first and second movies, Bourne has both a strong antagonist and a strong alter-ego. The antagonist is the mastermind behind the current movie's CIA operation. The alter-ego is what or who Bourne would be if he hadn't woken up/broken his training.

In the first movie, the antagonist is Chris Cooper, one of my favorite actors, and a guy with effortless charisma. He has a number of factors in his favor, including his grim resolve, his investment in Treadstone, his disgust towards his superiors, and his lack of fear (he doesn't fear Bourne, for one thing). Bourne's alter-ego is Clive Owen, who also bubbles over with charisma. His scene in the field outside the farmhouse with Bourne is powerful. His characterization as the "hit man" that Bourne used to be is vital to this and the later movies, especially since the Professor (Owen) is willing to give Bourne information.

In the second movie, the antagonists are the cool Joan Allen and self-protective Brian Cox. Together they create a tense-filled opposition to Bourne's endeavors. His alter-ego is the utterly talented Karl Urban. Karl Urban as Bourne's alter-ego is interesting. He is what Bourne would be without the drug enhancements and extra special military training. He is as smart as Bourne and as quick-witted. Bourne's decision at the end to not finish Kirill (Urban) off in the car is his acknowledgement that Kirill is as much a professional as Bourne was supposed to be (although I have to admit, I don't really understand "good" guys who have car chases where an unbelievable number of people might get hurt). Karl Urban is also charismatic.

But the third movie has neither a strong protagonist or a strong alter-ego. Joan Allen has been reduced to playing Bourne's second. David Stratharin does a masterly job as a self-contained, nasty character, but Bourne really needs an antagonist who can chew up the scenery, not live inside his part. The two actors who actually could chew up the scenery--Finney and Glenn--are given very minor scenes.("Why?" one asks. "Why? Why? Why?")

And there is no one alter-ego, just a number of possibles.

The movie proves that unless you've got a decent bad guy, you are reduced to a lot of cool action scenes and some good dialog. The good guy can't carry the movie alone, no matter how hard he tries. It isn't that the bad guy and good guy must be in constant communication (a la Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman), just that the bad guy must be out there making life difficult for the hero. Joan Allen never meets Bourne in Supremacy, but her cool intellect is there, searching for him. The hero must matter to the villain. Otherwise, the hero ceases to matter to us.

Thoughts on Fellowship Extended

Labor Day is one of my favorite holidays. It is the lull before the storm, the last relaxing day before the semester goes beserk. As a consequence, I always allow myself a non-work/all movie experience on Labor Day.

It didn't quite work out that way this time around, since I teach an online class, but I did set aside time to watch the full extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Following are my thoughts:

1. Extended scenes--The extended scenes do add a lot. I think the beginning scene with Bilbo's explanation of hobbits is far more effective than the original beginning although I can understand why it was cut.

The one editing choice I have never understood is in Moria. There's an extra scene in there (it's not in the book) with a collapsing bridge. It goes on for about five minutes, and it is completely unnecessary. Jackson left it in the release-to-theatre version and cut out almost all of the extra Lothlorian scenes.

I think that was a huge mistake. Most of the women I've talked to, both those who like Tolkien and those who got dragged to the theatre, wish there had been more Lothlorian stuff in the release-to-theatre version. It would have been very easy for Jackson to cut the completely unnecessary bridge scene and add a little more of Lothlorian.

Yes, I know the movie was probably aimed at young men, but studies show that most successful movies attract both sexes, and it would have been such an easy substitution to make.

2. Continuity--it's all over the place, even with the extended scenes. There's a scene at the very beginning when Gandalf rides to the White City to find out about the ring. I've never had any problem with the content (alright, so nobody else is doing ring research, but everybody, including Gandalf up till recently, thought the ring permanently lost), but the continuity really bugs me. There is absolutely no way to know where he is, e.g., that we have suddenly moved something like 3,000 miles to the south. The classic Tolkien map could have been used so easily here.

3. Lighting--Jackson's lighting is the weirdest thing in the world. I actually like it; it has a staged/picture quality to it. But it is strange. One minute everything is dark with cool, glowing lights all over the place. The next minute everything is in full sunlight with everything glinting. The whole thing is like watching CSI episodes over and over and over. Cool. But startling.

4. Casting--I still consider the Lord of the Rings movies the best cast movies of, oh, the last 100 years or so. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but there are few book-to-movie films I've seen that completely and totally and without misstep catch the characters exactly the way I picture them. Except for Elrond, and I like Hugo Weaving so much, I don't care.

Interesting note about Hugo Weaving. In earlier non-Jackson productions (and in the books), the elves are portrayed much the way the Vulcans used to be portrayed before Enterprise came along: good and pure and wise and wonderful. And then Hugo Weaving showed up, and suddenly the elves (like the Vulcans) got edgy and a little annoyed and somewhat sarcastic. Which is frankly more interesting.

About the hobbits, I know people confused Merry and Pippin. I never did. Partly, this is because I'd run across Dominic Monaghan before Fellowship came out (Hetty Wainthrop mysteries). He isn't portrayed exactly as Merry is in the book, but he is given enough lines to make clear that he is the more perceptive and the more mature of the duo (Merry and Pippin).

Sean Astin and Elijah Wood are perfect. I happen to think Elijah Wood's range of emotion was greater than Jackson pulled out of him. By the end of the first film, Frodo has been reduced to (1) scared and (2) more scared. If you watch the beginning of Fellowship, Wood displayed a much broader range. Frankly, I don't think Frodo interested Jackson much, OR Frodo represented a type to Jackson. He gave all the ambiguity to Aragorn and Boromir.

I quite like Viggo Mortenson as Aragorn. The book makes clear that Aragorn is supposed to be completely unattractive at first glance--a rangy Ranger with absolutely no appeal to civilized folk like Butterbur, the Prancing Pony owner. I think Viggo pulled this off. He isn't as fine an actor as either McClellan (hard competition) or Sean Bean, but like Keanu Reeves, he knows how to act physically (which is pretty important). The scene at the end of Fellowship where Mortensen walks down the hill towards the cast of thousands, De Mille crowd of orcs is very, very cool (more on this later).

McClellan of course occupies his own class of perfection. And Sean Bean is so phenomenal that I hold him personally responsible for the cohesiveness of the latter half of the movie.

Which brings us to subplots.

5. Subplots--This is the third or fourth time I've seen the movie; the second time I've watched the extended version. The subplot with Aragorn is a lot clearer after that many viewings, but I don't think it was as clear as it could have been. The tension between him and Boromir, the (real) issue of Aragorn's allegiance, Boromir's (legitimate) concern for his people, and Aragorn's reluctance to test his rights to leadership are great themes and could have been emphasized. Not expanded because, okay, the movie is really long, but pointed to more clearly. There's lots and lots of implied dialog, delivered mostly by the masterly McClellan and Weaving, and the last scenes between Aragorn and Boromir are very effective, but the release-to-movie version really fell down here. (The extended version makes these themes much clearer. Even with the extended version, though, I think they could have been emphasized. I think Jackson, who I like, is rather like Shyamalan, who I also like: throw enough stuff at the screen, and you'll get a good movie. Which is sort of true. But sort of not.)

6. Speaking of the final scene--First of all, I never thought the whole Boromir being shot full of arrows scene funny. I can see why some people rolled their eyes, but I've got a C.S. Lewis-medieval knights-Beowulf fan inside me, and I've always thought it utterly chivalrous and honourable and gosh darn heroic! I don't think it improbable. The human body can take an amazing amount of damage before it shuts down, as one realizes when one watches Civil War documentaries.

In fact, that whole last scene is one of my absolute favorite battle scenes in all the trilogy. It's exactly like a Civil War documentary, only with the added bonus of really old statues and much cooler armour.

And I love the chivalrous, heroic stuff. I don't think anyone but Sean Bean could have pulled off that last scene, but he is Sean Bean, and he did. His confession to Aragorn and his plea for his people, Aragorn's promise and his kiss on Boromir's forehead all hit a note of high medieval romance (not in the boy loves girl sense, but in the knights owe loyalty to their king sense). It's better than King Arthur because stupid Launcelot isn't there to drip excuses all over the place.

In conclusion, tangent-time: Questions have been posed (many by my brother) about why teenage girls get into stuff like yaoi and vampire gangs and such--that is, why do teenage girls and women like me get into male to male dedication/loyalty/devotion? And I think the reason is that these types of relationships don't imply subordination in the sense of weakness (Boromir is not weak for, finally, professing loyalty to Aragorn) and also because the relationship allows for objectivity. It isn't oh-now-I'm-in-love-I-must-immediately-lose-my-ability-to reason (and therefore get together with a guy who will beat me because I luuuuuv him so much). Both parties are allowed to retain their dignity. I think this is possible for female/male relationships, by the way, there just isn't a whole set of classical literature out there that deals with it. (Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen all by themselves do not constitute a class; George Eliot wrote about the desire of women for this type of relationship, but she didn't actually try to create one on paper: Dorothea marries a gasbag and then a self-promoting politician--a nice self-promoting politician but still--)


Spiderman, Angst, Redemption and All That Good Stuff

As a devotee of Spiderman 1 & 2, I went to see Spiderman 3 for my birthday, and I'm sorry to say I was disappointed.

It was basically me and a bunch of twenty-year-old males who also don't have to work on a Friday afternoon. They were disappointed as well. "Geez," one complained as we left the theatre, "they killed off the two best villains in one movie!"

I agreed although my complaint has more to do with Spiderman's, aka Peter Parker's, response to that killing. Or, to be more precise, Peter Parker's response to his bad side. Which is, to sum it up, not that much.

I'll give Tobey Maguire a pass on this one since I think he is a very talented actor, and I think he "got" the jerk part of the script very well. That is, I think he understood how to make Peter Parker a jerk without making him over-the-top villainous.

Here's the problem--he never really pays for being a jerk and hurting his friends and basically enabling one villain into existence. It's one of those "Well, he learned his lesson, he's sorry, hey, really, really bad things happened to him too, ya know, let's just let the whole thing drop" treatments. And that just doesn't work in terms of good storytelling.

I've been rewatching some Buffy and have been struck (again) by how much Whedon, whatever his personal theology, understands the concept of redemption in both a human and a literary sense. The fact is that "paying for it" or "feeling bad about it" or "being forgiven for it" or "accepting one's part in it" is a major theme is most of history's great literature, and it simply doesn't work to ignore that as a literary and a human reality. (A thorough introduction to the letters of Paul never did any writer any harm.)

In a purely technical sense, Angel is not Angelus, but he inhabits the same body, and therefore still pays for that body's crimes. (Additionally, there is a ton of evidence within the show itself that the type of harm a vampire does is based on the worst aspects of the original personality. So Spike becomes a passionate obsessive and Angel becomes a sadist and Willow and Xander form a weird sort of incestuous relationship where they torture Cordelia. In other words, in Whedon's universe, how you lived your life as a human will be reflected in exactly how awful or creepy you are as a vampire.)

Not only does redemption work on a literary and human level, but it also works on an emotional one. And I think that the powers-that-be for Spiderman 3 made a huge mistake here. The audience is willing to let the hero suffer. Really. I got the feeling with Spiderman 3 that the writers were trying to protect Peter Parker from the worst effects of his bad behavior. Why????? It doesn't hurt the hero in the audience's eyes if he/she is forced to pay/be sorry/make up for being a jerk.

Take, for example, Edmund from C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. I've read some rather silly tut-tutting articles (by adults) who think that Edmund was a victim, poor little boy. Yet Edmund remains the favorite of many readers, both young and old (and including me). First of all, Lewis (and Paul) understood what the silly adults and Spiderman 3 writers failed to grasp: sin--once you've defined it--is sin, whatever the extenuating circumstances. Second of all, Lewis understood, as does Whedon (intuitively, I think), that in order to take someone seriously, you have to take their actions seriously as well as the consequences of those actions. Lewis takes his children protagonists seriously--which must be very refreshing to your average child.

To return to Spiderman 3, it's worth watching on a large screen, but not at full price. Wait for the $1 theatre.


Lady in the Water Review

First, I should mention that Shyamalan is a virtuoso of atmosphere. It is not simply that one or two or three scenes in his films have atmosphere but that each film leaves one with a definite impression--of fear, apprehension, loneliness. The result is that his films feel whole; they hang together. It is a nice change from the "then this happens, then this happens" feeling of so many movies and books (although Shymalan comes pretty close to that approach in Lady). He also has a tremendous ability to command strong and unusual performances from a range of actors.

I came to the movie with zero expectations. This was a good thing. If I had watched the movie expecting, well, the movie that was previewed, I would have been sorely disappointing. There are so many great mermaid myths out there, why not utilize them? But the movie isn't really about mermaids or merpeople or merlore. About a half hour into the film, I decided that Shyamalan is really talking about writing. Or rather, the process of writing. Or, to be specific, Shyamalan's process of writing.

How does one create a story? How does one determine the purpose of the characters, their influence on each other and on the plot? Naturally, the film arrives at the conclusion so often used by Shyamalan himself: the purpose of the characters can never be determined until the very end, where it will reveal itself in unexpected ways. Personally, I think Shyamalan overuses this approach, but I found the process by which he arrives at that particular writing choice to be fascinating. His tendency to use "trick" endings is built into his understanding of story itself. (And it is no mistake that Story's name is "story.")

Considering Shyamalan's proclivity for unexpected endings, I was touched that he saved for himself the role of the writer. Wrapped up in this role is, of course, the wish of every writer that his or her work will be profound, remembered, influential. But Shyamalan (who is, by the way, eminently photographable) saves the role from too much back-patting with the writer's final question to Story. With stammering incoherence, the writer acknowledges the improbability that words alone change the world; he knows how fragile or ill-remembered words can be. Language only becomes a risk when the writer risks himself.

And that willingness to risk is applauded over the critic's pithy deconstructions (however hilarious). Although I did wonder if Shyamalan was indulging himself a bit there. Well, it's his film; he can do what he likes.

At the risk of being eaten, I will indulge in some of my own criticisms. Like all of Shyamalan's work, I am not sure how much I see in his work compared to how much Shyamlan intended. Granted, work with substance is preferable to work without substance. But in order to move Shyamalan from good filmmaker to classic filmmaker, I think he needs more purpose: a sense of direction. Like The Village, Lady in the Water seems to have so many great ideas without focus. The ideas are engaging; Shyamalan has a lot to say. But the form or structure behind the "lots of something to say" is missing.

Still, I recommend Lady in the Water; I advise only no expectations.

Howl's Moving Castle

In general, I've never been a big fan of scenery. It remains one of the biggest weaknesses in my writing (specifically, using scenery to create atmosphere) and when I do read books or watch movies, more than not I am absorbed by the dialog and the relationships, not the background.

One huge exception to this is Hayao Miyazaki. Hayao Miyazaki is the producer/director of My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and others. Recently, and for the second time, I watched Howl's Moving Castle. I was struck, once again, by how gorgeous the setting is. Yeah, the story is creative; the characterizations and theme are intelligent; the action is rollicking and fun. But oh my, oh my, the settings just blow your mind.

Howl's Moving Castle is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones; for people who get upset about this sort of thing, DWJ was Rowlings long before Rowlings was Rowlings. She wrote young-magicians-dealing-with-life stuff starting back, I believe, in the 80's. (If you can ever get a hold of Tony Robinson [from Blackadder] reading Charmed Life, get it and keep it! Or get it and sell it to me!)* In any case, the book Howl's Moving Castle and the movie are not exactly alike. Miyazaki used a large number of Jones' ideas and some of her overall plot structures; however, he also excised several plot lines and added an overarching problem (a war). *For a closer look at Rowlings & Jones, check out my brother Eugene's blog post Chrestomanci vs Harry Potter.

I actually don't see Miyazaki's changes as either in line with Jones' vision or out of sync with Jones' vision (this is usually my criteria for judging movies made from books). Rather, the book and the movie complement each other--almost like two different visions of the same place. It's quite effective to watch the movie and then read the book. Or vice versa. It doesn't ruin the experience of either. (As is so often the case.)

And one reason for this lack of comparison is that while you are watching the movie, you are being fed Miyazaki's stunning visions. His image of Howl's castle is effective, but the thing that blows you away is the countryside through which the castle trundles. You are given not only lake and mountain scenes, but lake and mountain scenes at their most quinessential. They draw forth an emotional reaction, a catch at the heart. Miyazaki also gives you (in this movie and others) these great quasi-European, quasi-fantasy towns with cobblestones and trains and trolleys and flying boats. Marvelous stuff.

When I was little, before I stopped believing in magic (and I did believe in it, in a rather practical way--that is, I didn't believe it was impossible), I thought how neat it would be to transport myself into certain pictures, illustrations. I even half believed it would be possible if I cared enough to try. And then I got all old and 10+ years and realized that one had to take cars and spend money to do stuff like that. But Miyazaki comes pretty close to instilling that magical sense of "Yes, I could exist there. I could go there, in reality, any time."

It's amazing to think that animation can do this, but Miyazaki does. As well as scenery, the movie Howl's Moving Castle is great in other respects--one of these is the choice of Jean Simmons for the voice of Sophie. Sophie is a young girl who is enchanted, or thinks she's been enchanted, into an old woman. Jean Simmons plays the older Sophie (Emily Mortimer plays the younger Sophie). It is marvelous casting since Jean Simmons' voice, despite her age, has the lightness, the freshness of a young girl.

Christian Bale plays Howl (by the way, this is the English dub, sponsored by Walt Disney but really brought about by the head of Pixar). For a skinny, English dude, Bale has the loveliest baritone. And Billy Crystal plays the voice of Calcifar. He is very funny, right on the mark, without the movie becoming, as it so often does with Robin Williams, the Billy Crystal show.

Moreover, the movie proves what I've suspected for several years now--Keats and Byron aside, the most romantic people in the world are the Japanese.

Recommendation: It will probably end up on my wish-list for Christmas; you should at least rent it!


Superman Stuff

The movie Superman Returns is a piece of artistry. It wasn't at all what I expected. It is a tribute to Christopher Reeves and the original Supermans. Not only is the music/intro the same, not only do they use the Marlon Brando footage but the star (Routh) does an uncanny embodiment of Reeves as Clark Kent. Apparently, he was a huge Superman fan as a kid. Well, it certainly rubbed off. In his stills, he doesn't really look like Reeves, but as the character, the resemblance is so close, it is somewhat disturbing.

Kevin Spacey does not exactly embody Gene Hackman but he conveys the same ham-it-up villainy. He strikes me as more dangerous than Hackman's Luther, which I think is to the good. And he also has his Miss Kowalski.

But the thing that struck me the most is that the movie isn't really about the villainy. It is really about Superman or, to be more precise, the vision of Superman as conveyed in those early movies. And here I think Routh parted company from Reeves. Routh's Superman is possibly the most introverted Superman on the screen. (Dean Cain being the least, which is the most amusing thing about Lois & Clark: that the most normal, all-American guy in the world, of which Cain is one despite his penchant for bleached hair, turns out to be Superman.) Reeves' Superman was rather charming, even flirtatious. Routh's Superman is remote, self-contained, untouchable. The sense of him as "Other" is much stronger.

As a result, the movie relies much more on show than it does on tell. Which means a complete lack of exposition. We never get inside Superman's head. We are supposed to see Superman, not experience the story from his perspective. At first, I thought this was a failing of the movie, but now, I'm not so sure. I think the movie is supposed to be a visual tribute, and in that it absolutely succeeds.

On to more Superman. I have become a Smallville watcher. I needed a fantasy show! (I love my CSI and my House, but still.) And, okay, I like it. Except for Lana Lang, who is possibly the most useless character ever created. I want to like her since she will keep showing up. But she is thoroughly annoying. She does nothing. Clark does stuff. The Kents do stuff. Chloe does stuff. Lex is always doing stuff. Lana . . . sits around and mopes. Or complains about her boyfriend. Or her life. She has more angst than anybody on Buffy ever did, and they had more reason. (Since dead parents are awful but dead parents and monster boyfriend and vampires trump that any day.)

I think the really bothersome thing though is her lack of humor. She has none of Buffy's one-liners, Cordelia's eye-rolling or Willow's whimsy. Granted, the show isn't really geared towards Whedon's type of humor. But it reduces the character of Lana to mere eye candy.

Now, according to several male acquaintances, Kreuk pulls off her eye candy duties very well. But this show is supposed to be about Clark Kent/Superman. His long-term soul mate is Lois Lane, who also fulfills eye candy duties but does them while being smart, competitive and independent. Why is he wasting his time on this pretty but pointless girl?

Granted, teenagers can be a bit dim about long-term relationships. It would be nice to believe that the creators of Smallville are establishing Clark's disillusionment with Lana's ethereal but ultimately boring personality.

It would be nice to believe that.

In any case, I must give extra kudos to Michael Rosenbaum. I think he ranks up there with Faith as disturbed young person who goes progressively from bad to worse. That is, his villainy is entirely human and understandable. He does a magnificent job of conveying overweening ambition at a disturbingly young age. But then, if you think about it, Alexander the Great and Caesar probably did the same. Of course, we the audience know he goes bad, but I think it is an indication of real ability on Rosenbaum's part that although Lex's offers to protect the Kents are probably sincere, we don't want the Kents to accept. That is, Rosenbaum manages to do what James Marsters did: convey ambiguity (sincerity and intimidation) without weakening either sensation and without making the character just kind of bland. The sincerity and intimidation are both are work at the same time.

I was also mucho impressed by the last episode I saw, the one where a vision of Lex's future kills the woman in the old folks home. Rosenbaum played the scene perfectly: his surprise, then horror followed by a stumbling retreat were more than believable and took him from budding arch-enemy back into disturbed young man territory.

Am I Getting Old or Is It Just Buffy?

When I was in college, I must have seen the movie Buffy about twenty times. I loved it. So, when our library bought it recently, I checked it out. And I hate to say it, but it was kind of dull.

The screenplay was written by Joss Whedon, but the film wasn't produced or directed by him; I think this makes a difference. Whedon is the American TV version of Kenneth Branagh; both have the ability to draw from actors a kind of transcendence. Unfortunately, in the movie Buffy, only Donald Sutherland (a wonderful pre-Giles) and, oddly enough, Luke Perry, seemed to have a clue how their characters should be played. Everyone else either hammed it up or played teen movie angst (á la Pretty in Pink). The point with Buffy is that it has to be played seriously humorous.

This means that first of all, the world of Buffy has to be accepted as absolutely real with real consequences. When the director said, "The movie isn't about vampires. That's just the milieu," I thought, "Lady, you have so missed the point." It is real. It has to be real. When, in the show, Buffy says to Jonathan, "My life sometimes sucks beyond the telling of it," you have to believe that she isn't just hamming it up. This is a world where teeny-boppy-dom meets eschatological world-dom and works.*

The solution isn't angst or hamminess. The solution is whimsy, the slide-by-and-miss-it humor that Whedon constantly employed. The movie has its moments but in general it feels surprisingly non-Whedon-like.

Second of all, Buffy has to stay Buffy. I gained an immense appreciation for Sarah Michelle Geller while watching the movie. Kristy Swanson starts out as a kind of Cordelia character, but as soon as she becomes a vampire slayer, she turns into tom-boy jock girl. And that isn't Buffy. The point with Buffy is that she never does turn into the proper image of the slayer (only in alternate universes). Not only does Buffy herself preserve her ultra-feminine Buffy-ness, her intrinsic personality is protected by Giles. I'm rewatching Season 2 right now, and I was struck by how, despite his many many complaints, Giles resisted turning Buffy into a friendless, fighting machine. It bothers him when she becomes obsessed. This, I think, is fantastically important. The reason this vampire slayer matters is because this time, the tale went different. (Despite my loathing for the new-age-women-have-power ending to the show, I think there was a kind of a metaphysical pay-off: Buffy got what she wanted--she got to be ordinary, one slayer amongst many.)

So why did I love the movie so much when I was young? Well, it’s a teeny-bopper film, and I was just out of my teens. But I think, too, that I loved it because it was early Whedon. After all, I hadn't been spoiled yet by the show and Angel and Firefly, etc. etc. When you don't have the real thing, you take what you can get.

*One of my favorite episodes with that transcendent, eschatological feel is the one where Cordelia wishes Buffy had never come to Sunnyvale. Her wish is granted by the to-be Anya. When Giles figures out how what has happened, he decides to smash Anya's amulet. She sneers at him: "How do you know that other world will be any better?"

"Because it has to be," Giles says, and I swear, I always tear-up at that point. There's so much pathos in Giles' desperation. And he is serious. Like I wrote, the Buffy universe must be taken seriously but not dead-seriously (ha ha), or rather not earnestly--yuck--which is why the whole new-age thing bugged me. It was so look look we're making a relevant statement about important stuff look! I hate that sort of thing. (And that was even before grad school.)

I think the difference between seriousness and earnestness is that when Giles says, "Because it has to be," he is talking within his world, his perspective. The viewer is satisfied, but it doesn't matter what the viewer thinks. It seemed like the end of the show got way too obsessed with what the viewer might be thinking and therefore became pitiably earnest.


Not So Bad: I, Robot and Nanny McPhee

When I first saw I, Robot I was very, very disappointed. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite books. I prefer his robot books to his Foundation series, and I love the format of I, Robot (a reporter eliciting robot stories from Susan Calvin; it is actually a collection of stories Asimov wrote earlier).

Now I've spoken elsewhere, and at length, about how books need to be changed in order to work as movies. What burns me, as I'm sure it burns others, is when a book is used (or ostensibly used) but not taken advantage of. My favorite example of this is The Robe, which is a rather dull movie but didn't need to be. The book upon which it is based is quite exciting, full of chase scenes and such. I can understand screenwriters coming up with dull material on their own. But it really confuses me when screenwriters produce boring material despite having the copyright to exciting material. I mean, huh?

I, Robot (the movie) is not boring, but I, Robot (the book) has some stellar plots, and why, why, why, I asked myself, didn't they use them? However, I later learned (this could be rumor, but it makes sense) that the I, Robot people had a robot movie and then, the copyright for Asimov's I, Robot became available so they decided to use the title (as well as a few Asimovy ideas). I understand their thinking, but I'm not sure it was wise. If I'd seen the movie, sans Asimov's name, I would have thought, Hey, they borrowed a bunch of stuff from Asimov; I wouldn't have thought, Why isn't this more Asimovy?

In any case, the movie is far closer in feel to Caves of Steel by Asimov (which copyright is probably not available yet). Which I also like. And, in fact, I enjoyed the movie very much the second time around. Will Smith is a favorite, the movie has a good plot, not to mention James Cromwell (another favorite). The stunts are a little over-digitalized but still cool. Asimov was more of a pro-technology guy than the movie implies; he stated once that there are two robot plots: evil robots taking over the world; good robots saving everyone. Viki and first Hal (2001) fall into category one. Sonny and Data fall into category two. Asimov favored category two; he believed that in the long run, science was better than no science. However, I think he probably would have appreciated I, Robot, the movie (Asimov, if nothing else, was an author capable of taking advantage of an opportunity). And finally, there is the movie's simple, yet always profound, concept: goodness cannot survive the loss of agency. Unless we have the freedom to not be good, we can never be good. So, I really enjoyed it.

I also recently saw Nanny McPhee. It was advertised as the next Mary Poppins, but didn't last long, and I was a little suspicious, despite admiring Emma Thompson and Colin Firth. Well, it is wonderful. It isn't Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins, which I also admire, is very American. Nanny McPhee is very British (think E. Nesbit). Consequently, I think the director made a mistake by cutting a number of comedic scenes. All the scenes that he cut had this Monty-Python feel to them--extremely hilarious stuff. He says he did it to streamline the plot. Personally, I think he did it to give Nanny McPhee a more American feel. I think he should have trusted us viewers more. We love British TV over here, and I think Nanny McPhee would have found a following. As it is, it is still funny, with a sly humor to it, but it isn't as outrageous as it could be and hence, has a slightly uneven tone. (For one thing, it isn't a sweet kiddy type of movie. It's more Pixar/Wallace & Gromit than My Little Pony, but it was advertised as more like the latter than the former.)

However, the cut version is still worth watching, the children are fantastic, the adult actors (including Derek Jacobi!) are great. Colin Firth is quite a good comedic actor (despite being type cast forever as the only slightly humorous Darcy. However, even in Pride & Prejudice, he managed to work in some eye-rolling, and the fact that Firth could get away with such subtle Austenish eye-rolling is much to his credit).

Those With An Oscar's Thumb

I watched Splash recently which I never saw all the way through when I was younger. I can't say it's my favorite Tom Hanks movie. In the "Making Of" segment--which was better than many "Making Of" segments*--Tom Hanks mentions how he had just come off Bosom Buddies. He was more or less an unknown TV actor, and he delivered his lines á la Bosom Buddies--going for the laughs--since that was where his skills lay. That is, until Ron Howard instructed him that John Candy would take care of the comedy, thank you very much, all Tom Hanks had to do was love the girl. The result is a somewhat uneven Tom Hanks' performance. He is still good, he just doesn't have that smooth combination of comedy, romance and decency that he achieves later in You've Got Mail (and in Sleepless in Seattle, but I don't much like Sleepless).

What struck me, despite my ho-hum reaction to the film, is that I don't think Tom Hanks has ever picked a dud. I haven't liked (or seen) all of his movies, but he seems to have an instinctual ability for picking films that end up being big hits. I don't just mean The Da VinciCode, which is practically slated for big hit-dom, but movies like Splash and Big. Even films like The Terminal and Castaway have a solid, kind-of-film-you'd-add-to-your-resume feel to them. He doesn't have many (if any) utterly embarrassing flops.

It really impresses me because I don't think all stars have this ability--like Sandra Bullock, for instance, who I really like (and While You Were Sleeping is one of the sweetest movies ever) but who seems to end up in more or less the same kind of film every time, and it is never, really, all that successful. Hugh Jackman is another example of an actor I really like but has made some downright damaging choices--I'm talking Van Helsing rather than X-Men--and there's even actors like Sean Connery and Denzel Washington, who you'd think would be able to walk into anything they wanted (and don't). But having that "Oscar thumb" ("I can add this movie to my resume") proves to be quite the handy gift. Now, there are the occasional stars like Julie Andrews and Ian McKellan and Morgan Freeman who give any movie they are in gravitas simply because they are in it. But most stars' careers are affected (however temporarily) by the quality (ballast) of the movies they choose.

Other actors with Oscar thumbs:

Tobey Maguire
Christian Bale (odd films but usually reputable ones)
Ed Harris (who I think deserves an Oscar for being the industry's best supporting actor)
Bill Paxton (who has the oddest tastes but never seems to fall on his face)
Julia Roberts (who despite some not-so-good films always seems to remain undamaged by them)
Cary Elwes (oddly enough; I'm not saying he doesn't pick duds but since he always plays himself having a good time, it doesn't matter much; that is, he never picks the wrong film for his range; Keanu Reeves does but Reeves is an icon and can't be hurt by anything)
Kate Winslet

Actors without Oscar thumbs:

Leonardo DiCaprio
Ben Affleck
Brad Pitt (no real proof, I just don't think he does)
Denzel Washington (I adore Denzel Washingon; he is a fabulous actor, but his films are all over the place)
Orlando Bloom
Sean Connery (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a lot to answer for in terms of actors' careers)
Emma Thompson (bizarrely enough; I just get this feeling that her career is a bit haphazard)
Halle Berry

*I detest--detest!--"Making Of" segments where the actors sum up the plot and then you are shown clips from the movie WHICH YOU HAVE JUST SEEN. The "Making Of" for Henry VIII was like this, and I would have thrown something at the TV if it hadn't cost so much. I've seen the movie. I don't need to hear the actors' (historically inaccurate) summaries of their characters. What I do want with "Making Of" segments is insight into the craft. The other stuff is just window dressing. Tom Hanks, by the way, usually gives a good interview.