Monday, September 29, 2008

Becoming Jane

Initial Reaction: Well, excuse me, but I liked it.

I'm what you may call a fan of Jane Austen. Considering the time in which she lived and what she accomplished, I find her works inspiring and comforting. I've read four of her novels, and have watched film adaptations of all of her works. I could watch the movie Pride and Prejudice (both 1995 and 2005 versions) every week, and sometimes I do. The film Becoming Jane, based on her life, exceeded my expectations.

I didn't rush out to see Becoming Jane, actually I only watched it during a late night babysitting on my laptop. I didn't really have much in the way of expectations, since a few people I know (you know who you are) saw it and didn't like it. It also didn't do well by the way of the critics, if you pay attention to that sort of thing. Ironically, I think these factors probably helped me to enjoy Becoming Jane even more.

The film has the same flavor of film adaptations of Austen's books. The plot is loosely based on Jane Austen's life, since very few details about her life are actually known. Jane lives with her parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Austen, her engaged sister Cassandra, and her brothers Henry and George. She writes for enjoyment, and surprisingly, her family seems fairly supportive of this.

Only now as I sit down to write this do I realize how little actually happened in the film. But that's something that I really appreciate about Jane Austen's much of what happens with the characters is based on social interaction and internal struggles, not depending on a lot of external events to drive the story. Anne Hathaway stars as Jane Austen herself, and James McAvoy was her love interest Thomas LeFroy. In the roles she plays, Hathaway seems to carry a bit of confidence and spark, which works here. McAvoy is thoroughly believable as Thomas LeFroy, having an interesting balance of goodness and sex appeal beneath his devil-may-care attitude.

Austen, like so many of the women she wrote about, is young and in want of a husband. Her want isn't so great, however, that she would accept the first proposal that comes her way. She refuses it, in fact, because she can't justify marrying for anything other than love. She is thrown to the lions of society and criticised for her ill-advised choice by family and acquaintances alike. In the meantime she meets Thomas LeFroy, a carefree young man studying the law under his Uncle and who is determined to enjoy himself in spite of his responsibilities. After a rocky start and some witty banter, the two become better acquainted and recognize an undeniable attraction between them. As anyone who has ever seen a film will tell you, however, all is not as simple as it initially appears, and Jane and Thomas must come to grips with some harsh realities.

Negatives? There were a few ... one being that in reality, I wouldn't necessarily see Austen and LeFroy falling for each other. Their motivation for doing so is unclear to me, unless it was only physical attraction. But the audience is led to believe there was more to it than that. Also, though I think most people assume that not everything in these "based on real people" films is true, I think that many will take away what happens in the plot as more or less true, which is the dangerous thing about these movies.

One thing I very much enjoyed was the struggle of Jane in dealing with being a female author. We know that Austen was fairly respected in society and came from decent family, and she wasn't seen as a rebel or outcast or anything like that. Yet she embraced who she was and pursued her ideals in a time when doing so had serious consequences. It added some weight and inspiration to the story mostly centered around her love for LeFroy.

Rating: 14

I'll admit: I'm extremely biased to these kinds of stories. Give me an oppressed heroine in the 19th century who falls in love with a man despite what society may say, throw in a "I bid you good day," and I'm sold. Maybe this allows me to make more concessions than most, but I don't care. I loved it! I thought the acting was extremely satisfactory, the characters interesting, and the story beautiful. Take that, nay-sayers.

Monday, September 22, 2008


When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was actually -13 years old.  I was not even a “glint in my father’s eye,” as it is said (though not in my mother’s, either, I imagine).  Suffice to say, I was not around.  But all it takes is just the right director with just the right movie to put me in the correct emotional state to feel what people where feeling on that night in 1968.  Bobby was that movie.

It starts with something very simple.  Bobby Kennedy was fatally shot in a crammed hotel kitchen right after delivering his victory speech for winning the California presidential primary.  There were 77 other people in that kitchen at the time.  Emilio Estévez, the director of Bobby, had a question to which the answer was ultimately this movie: “What about those 77 people?”

Now, the cast of this movie simply boggles the mind.  There are no less than 16 very famous faces in this movie, including two Oscar winners (Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt) and two nominees (Laurence Fishburne, Sharon Stone).  No doubt, under normal circumstances, this movie would have an astronomical budget from salaries for the actors alone.  The only explanations I can come up with for this movie getting made with so much proven talent are these:  all the actors are Estévez’s friends, or a film about Bobby Kennedy truly spoke to them, and they wanted to be a part of it.  Both are probably true.  Despite the out-of-this-world star power this movie has, no one really grabs the spotlight from anyone else.  I am astounded that this movie didn’t even get nominated for a single Oscar.  C’mon, Academy!  You love ensemble casts!

The closest things to standout performances come from Martin Sheen (the director’s daddy) and Anthony Hopkins.  Sheen plays a rich socialite who contributed to Kennedy’s campaign and who was treated for depression.  Helen Hunt plays his young wife, a very vulnerable and scared woman.  In each other, they rediscover the meaning of love.  Hopkins plays John Casey, semi-retired doorman for the Ambassador Hotel.  He and his friend Nelson (Harry Belefonte) are struggling with old age, and John deals with it by continuing to do a job that no one has required that he do in 25 years.  William H. Macy plays the hotel’s manager who is cheating with a hotel switchboard operator (Heather Graham) on his wife (Sharon Stone), who is also the hair and nail salon manager in the hotel.  Also in the mix are two high-level campaigners in the Kennedy campaign, played by Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon, the latter of which is doomed to be an angry black man till the day he dies.  Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty play low-level campaigners who skip out on their door-knocking to get high on LSD sold by Ashton Kutcher, the three of whom provide the film’s comic relief.  In the kitchen of the hotel, Freddie Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas are both working double shifts as busboys.  Rodriguez has Dodger tickets he can’t use (Don Drysdale shattered a record that night by pitching 6 consecutive shutouts) that he gives to the head cook (Laurence Fishburne).  Vargas is upset at the racial inequality in this country that is keeping Mexicans down, but Fishburne offers a different and interesting perspective.  Svetlana Metkina plays a Czechoslovakian reporter who is very determined in her quest for just 5 minutes with senator Kennedy, but is blocked by Jackson’s character because she writes for “a communist paper in a communist country allied with the Soviet Union.”  To top it off, Lindsey “Disney Druggie” Lohan plays a young woman marrying a young man (Elijah “Frodo” Wood) solely so he won’t have to go to the front lines of Vietnam. Her confusion with the war is translated into compassion for him, but morphs into love.

And that’s not even everyone.  But the film parades all the characters out in front of you in a pretty easy fashion.  Because no one character has a very big arc, no one has a lot of screen time.  Arcs do exist, however.  Notable arcs are the ones Lohan’s, Cannon’s, Macy’s, and Sheen’s characters go through.  Almost everyone makes the most of limited screen time, and the editing is such that no one has the spotlight, yet no one seemed like they were short-changed.

But all that misses what Bobby is really about, and the reason it’s a great movie.  Bobby, more than anything else, is a snapshot of a time and place.  Bobby Kennedy is not an actual character in the movie (all his appearances are stock footage of the real man), and his assassin only has two appearances and one line.  That’s not what the movie is about.  It’s really about that turbulent turning point in American history, 1968.  The movie tells you about that time not through historical instruction or exposition, but rather through empathy.  It presents you with snapshots of several people living in that time, in the hopes that at least  one of them will connect with something you’re going through yourself.

Bobby is also about what, at its bare bones, the real Bobby’s campaign was about: that underneath all the strife, division, hatred, and miscommunication, America is a great nation made up of great people.  Flawed people, yes, but that’s part of what makes them great, and the nation great in turn.  The idea that we can put aside our differences and remember that we are all brothers, even for a moment, is revolutionary, even in this day and age.

Indeed, Bobby has relevance now that it didn’t when it was made.  Like Bobby before him, we have a presidential candidate who may have a unifying ability.  Barack Obama is a politician who, against all odds, is giving people hope for the future, and possesses a lot of promise to fulfill that hope.  Let’s just hope his fate is a lot brighter than that of Bobby’s.  Now, some believe that he’s just another suit and smile, that his program of positive change can never come true, and maybe they’re right.

But maybe they’re wrong.

Iconic lines:

“Clearance sale!!!  Everything must go!!!”

“You’re more than the shoes on your feet or the designer dress on your back.  You’re more than the purse you carry or the money inside it.  You and I are more than the stuff, more than the things in our lives.  Somewhere between our things and our stuff is us.  I don’t want to lose us.”

Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

22 rating: 16

Particle Man

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Circle of Friends

When I was 12 or 13, my aunt took me to see a movie called Circle of Friends. Of course it wasn’t exactly a movie my parents would want me to see at that age, but my aunt always felt that I was more mature than everyone gave me credit for. So I sat there in the theater thinking that Chris O’Donnell was pretty dreamy and that was it. However, it was the first “grownup” movie I had seen so I was very pleased with myself. About 13 years later, I still think of the movie occasionally, so I decided to review it.
Circle of Friends tells the tale of Bernadette Hogan, Eve Malone, and Nan Mahon, who were raised in Knockglen, Ireland. The movie, set in 1957, follows these three childhood chums through their college experience (which includes love, lust, and betrayal) and how each of them comes through these experiences. The story mainly focuses on Bernadette Hogan (Minnie Driver) who is an only child who is shouldering a very unreasonable expectation. As everyone can relate to, there are times when parents think they know what is good for their children and that the children should just obey. Benny (as she known in the movie) is facing the fact that her parents think she should be with their creepy store clerk, Sean (Alan Cumming), but Benny has already fallen in love with a man she met at college, Jack Foley (Chris O’Donnell). Although Benny is obviously the heroine of the movie, we still see the lives and struggles of her two childhood friends Eve and Nan. Benny’s main struggle is that she is not classically beautiful. I would say that she is on the average to pretty side of the looks continuum. Her main problem with herself is her irrational belief that she is too fat for anyone to want her. But what girl hasn’t felt like that at one time or another?
This was an extremely hard movie to locate. I could only find it at one store around my area. This puzzled me because I remember the movie being very popular, but after having viewed it, I can somewhat understand the less than thrilling demand of this movie. The acting is average, there is nothing horrible about it, but I feel that acting didn’t wow me this second time around. I think my main issue with the acting was the Irish accents, which could have been better. It seemed like there was a constant switch between Irish and English accents.
Another problem that I had with the movie was the pacing; there were many times were I felt bored and that the pacing of the movie was too uneven. I switched from almost turning it off to being really interested in the scenes multiple times. I think that more could have been done with the story to fill in these gaps. I wasn’t expecting a fast paced car heavy shootout in the middle of an Irish village, but there was definitely room for improvement.
One interesting thing about the movie was the casting of Alan Cumming. This Scottish actor is probably most commonly known for portraying Nightcrawler in X-Men 2. Cumming played the role of the creepy store clerk with an eye for our heroine. As much as I enjoy his acting, I feel like he was type cast. He doesn’t have the conventional Hollywood look and all he had to add was a few sketchy looks and moves to transform into this creepy guy.
I like the story of this movie and did enjoy watching it for the most part. I certainly do feel that they could have done better with the acting, but it’s not like they didn’t try, like in some movies I have reviewed. Overall, I would say that the movie is worth a viewing, and Chris O’Donnell is still pretty dreamy, especially when he gets his Irish accent right. So unlike my personal circle of friends, which I would give a 22, I’ll have to give the movie Circle of Friends a 5.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Onion Movie

A few years ago, I was having a sleepless night. Rather than try to fight it, I went into my living room, grabbed a snack, and started flipping through channels. When I got to C-SPAN 2 (the least-watched channel at 4 a.m.), something caught my eye: an interview with a handful of the editors of The Onion. The Onion had been my favorite satirical news website for a few years at that point, so I stopped to watch. Of all that was said that early morning, one thing stuck with me. One of the editors (I forget who), was asked a question about some of The Onion's articles being in bad taste. He answered by saying something like: "I think there's such thing as good taste in bad taste."

That summed up The Onion perfectly for me: Sure, they'd print outrageous and inflammatory headlines (example: a picture of a janitor with the caption "Mexicans Sweeping the Nation"), but they were always irrepressibly clever or so well honed on the idiosyncrasies of our modern life that they made you double back and wonder what, really, should have been offending you in the first place.

That impossibly long intro (I'm sorry) brings me to The Onion Movie, which seems closer to "bad taste" than it is to "good taste in bad taste." The Onion Movie is primarily a series of seemingly unrelated skits, interspersed with an anchor reading random news headlines -- headlines that will seem very familiar to Onion aficionados ("8-Year-Old Accidentally Exercises Second-Amendment Rights", "Georgia Adds Swastika, Middle Finger to State Flag").

Some of the new material includes: Steven Seagal (really!) as the big-budget action hero Cockpuncher, a sultry teen singer who earnestly proclaims the innocent intentions of songs like "Take Me From Behind," and a subtle twist on a normal suburban evening when murder mystery game is replaced by a rape mystery game.

If you watched just a short glimpse, you couldn't be sure you weren't watching an example of the infernal pox that is the _____ Movies (fill in the blank with "Date" or "Epic" or "Not Another Teen"). The jokes, in general, are fairly lowest common denominator. But The Onion Movie never really tips its hand as to whether it's revelling in lampooning these easy targets or lampooning those who would lampoon. (Which, I suppose, includes themselves.) In one of the its best bits, The Onion Movie breaks from itself to get commentary from a panel of distinguished film critics, one of whom decries the film's pandering to the masses. The panel host then introduces the next commenter: The Masses (played by a frat boy wearing a "Beer F***ing Rules" shirt). "The Masses" talks about how gay the critics are and how awesome the Cockpuncher bits were, and then the movie resumes where it left off.

These brief flashes of self-awareness -- and the occassionally hilarious one-liners, such as the man who overcomes adversity to become the world's first comatose diver -- make it hard to get a real handle (a.k.a. rating) on this film. In the end, though, the pass-it-on factor seems the most fitting. With the best moments of the print version of The Onion, I eagerly pass on headlines, articles, and man-on-the-street interviews to my friends (whether they want to hear them or not). With The Onion Movie, I really wouldn't be bothered if not a single other living soul watched it. Moments of hilarity notwithstanding, that can't afford The Onion Movie any more than a -6.