Monday, December 28, 2015
"EMMA" (1996) Review
There are times that I find it hard to believe I have seen at least four adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel, "Emma", in the past year-and-a-half. Four adaptations. There have been a good deal more than four adaptations. But I have yet to watch any of them. The last adaptation I watched turned out to be writer/director Douglas McGrath's 1996 film, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow.
Although the actress had been working for a few years, it was her performance as Emma Woodhouse that put her on the map to stardom. In fact, I would say that "EMMA" also proved to be a professional milestone for co-stars Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. "EMMA" turned out to be the second movie that featured both Paltrow and Collette as co-stars. And the movie also proved to be the directorial debut of Douglas McGrath. Was the movie worth the importance in the careers of the four mentioned? Perhaps.
I would never claim that "EMMA" was the best adaptation of Austen's 1815 novel. There were aspects of it that I found unappealing or troubling. McGrath's use of the Jane Fairfax character struck me as rather minimal. In fact, poor Polly Walker was barely able to speak more than five or six lines during her entire appearance in the movie. I got the feeling that the director/writer was not particularly interested in the character. And his limited use of poor Jane made me wonder why Emma would harbor any jealousy toward her in the first place. The characters of Isabella and John Knightley were barely used as well. I found this disappointing, since both have proved to be very interesting in other adaptations - especially the slightly rude John Knightley. Another problem I had with "EMMA" proved to be Ewan McGregor's portrayal of Frank Churchill. I do not if the problem was the actor or McGrath's writing. But the portrayal of the character seemed . . . off. Frank seemed more busy trying to hide his feelings for Jane, instead of forming any kind of connection to Emma. In other words, this movie did not do justice to the characters of Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and the John Knightleys.
But despite these flaws, I must admit that "EMMA" turned out to be a very entertaining and first-rate movie. Personally, I believe that the movie's top-notch owned a great deal to McGrath's direction. The director shot "EMMA" with a steady pace that allowed the audience to enjoy the greater details of Austen's tale. This is really a well paced movie, despite the few nips and tuck McGrath inflicted into the story. "EMMA" could never bore me with a slow pacing. Yet, at the same time, it did not race by with the speed of a comet. Another aspect that contributed greatly to "EMMA" proved to be its comic timing. I honestly have to say that the 1996 film might be the funniest adaptation of Austen's novel. This was especially apparent in two particular scenes - the Westons' Christmas party, Emma and Mr. Knightley's conversation about Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, and a specific moment during the Coles' supper party that I cannot really explain with words.
There were changes to Austen's novel that many have protested against, but did not bother me one whit. Some have pointed out that Sophie Thompson had been too young in 1995-96 to portray the middle-aged Miss Bates. She was in her early 30s at the time. Even McGrath had initially rejected her for the role when she first auditioned. But once Thompson donned a pair of glasses that made her seem several years older. And the age range for middle-age is pretty uncertain - even to this day. One range stretches from the mid-30s to the mid-60s, in which Miss Bates would fit. Besides . . . Thompson's portrayal of the chatty Miss Bates is so deliciously funny that in the end, I am glad that McGrath had cast her in the role. Other changes include both Harriet Smithand Emma being rescued from the gypsies by Frank Churchill, the location of Emma's first meeting with Frank, and the convergence of both the strawberry picking and the Box Hill picnic into one outing.
Two of the bigger changes proved to be Harriet's reaction to Emma's engagement to Mr. Knightley and the circumstances that surrounded Emma's insult to Miss Bates. I found these last two changes somewhat of an improvement to Austen's story. I have always thought that Austen had glossed over Harriet's reaction to Emma and Mr. Knightley's engagement. After allowing Harriet to develop a crush over Donwell Abbey's master, Austen went out of her way to avoid or evade how Harriet might have reacted to the news. McGrath, on the other hand, approached the matter with a little more realism by allowing Harriet to react with tears. The other change featured Emma's insult to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In the novel and other versions, Emma's insult regarding Miss Bates' intelligence had been laced with humor. Emma's insult was tinged with malice in this version, due to her anger over the Eltons' cold reaction to Frank's regard for her. And instead of Jane Fairfax refusing to see Emma during the latter's visit to the Bates' home following the picnic, it was Miss Bates who refused to see her. Now many "purists" might have a problem with these changes. I did not. As far as I am concerned, these changes did not harm the story.
I can say this about "EMMA" . . . it proved to be one of the most beautiful looking Austen adaptations I have ever seen. I am not familiar with Ian Wilson's work, other than his photography for the 1981 miniseries, "THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA". And I have not laid eyes on that particular production in many years. I only hope that it looks as beautiful and lush as Wilson's photography in"EMMA". My God, I never thought that such lush and sharp colors could look so elegant. The look and style of Wilson's photography seemed to match Ruth Meyer's costume designs. The light elegance and pastel coloring featured in Meyer's costumes almost gave them an ethereal vision - especially those costumes for the female cast. Meyer had received criticism from those who claimed that her costumes did not accurately reflect the Regency decade or English fashion. I was too busy enjoying Meyer's costume designs to really care.
"EMMA" provided some first-rate performances from the cast. Well . . . let me rephrase that statement. From most of the cast. Poor Ewan McGregor was nearly defeated by McGrath's written portrayal of Frank Churchill and that damn wig he was forced to wear. The London Film Critics' Circle gave him the British Actor of the Year award. I am sorry, but I do believe he did not deserve this award. And he would be the first to agree with me, considering his past criticism of his performance. And poor Polly Walker was damn near wasted in her role as Jane Fairfax, due to McGrath's failure to give her any depth. And lines. There were times I felt that McGrath was more interested in Emma's reaction to Jane's "perfections" than in the character. But the rest of the cast fared just fine. Both Greta Scacchi and James Cosmo gave solid performances as Mrs. and Mr. Weston (Emma's former governess and Frank's father). I could say the same for Phyllida Law's silent portrayal of the defeated Mrs. Bates. Denys Hawthorne gave a charmingly humorous portrayal of Emma's father, Mr. Woodhouse. But I did not find his performance as memorable as some of the other actors who have portrayed the character. But there were performances that really knocked the wind out of me. Juliet Stevenson was hilarious as the verbose and vulgar Mrs. Augusta Elton. She was so perfect (and annoying) in the role that I found myself wishing someone would bash her over the head to stop her prattling. However, I could stand and listen to Sophie Thompson's prattling all day. I really enjoyed her portrayal as the equally verbose and pitiful verbose Miss Bates. I especially enjoyed her habit of loudly repeating a word or line in order for her silent mother to hear. Alan Cummings struck me as deliciously insidious as the fortune seeking Reverend Philip Elton. What I found amazing about his performance was his transformation from the slimy courtier to Mrs. Elton's henpecked and dominated husband.
The three performances that really caught my attention came from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. The latter gave one of the best comic performances I have ever seen in an Austen production. Her portrayal of the easily manipulated Harriet Smith reminded me of Debbie Bowen's portrayal in the 1972 miniseries. But I believe Collette injected more comic skill into the role. Although Jeremy Northam was slightly younger than the literary George Knightley, he easily conveyed the character's dignity and wisdom . . . and at the same time injected a great deal of wit and excellent comic timing into his performance. One of my favorite Northam moments turned out to be Knightley's silent reaction to Emma's duet with Frank Churchill at the Coles' party. Northam's Mr. Knightley looked as if he had found a worm in his salad and his expression had me shaking with laughter. Gwyneth Paltrow's portrayal of the well-meaning, yet snobbish Emma Woodhouse projected her into stardom. And I can see why. She not only gave one of the best performances in her early career, but I also believe that she proved to be the funniest Emma I have yet to see in any adaptation. Yet, at the same time, Paltrow did a great job in conveying Emma's more dramatic moments and character development.
Although I do not consider "EMMA" to be the best adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel, I have to admit that Douglas McGrath both wrote and directed an excellent film. He was ably supported by Ian Wilson's beautiful photography, Ruth Meyer's gorgeous costumes and a first-rate cast led by the excellent Gwyneth Paltrow. McGrath's body of work may not have been that perfect, but I believe he can look back on his work for "EMMA" with great pride.
Friday, December 25, 2015
Below is a gallery featuring photos from the 2004 version of William Makepeace Thackeray's epic novel, "VANITY FAIR". The movie stars Reese Witherspoon and James Purefoy:
"VANITY FAIR" (2004) Photo Gallery
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Below is a small article about a famous dessert created around the end of the 19th century at a restaurant in London. It is called Peach Melba. I first learned about this dish from the BBC's "EDWARDIAN SUPERSIZE ME" episode.
The Peach Melba is an ice cream dessert that includes peaches and raspberry sauce by the French born chef, Auguste Escoffier in honor of the famous Australian sorprano, Nellie Melba. In 1892, Melba was performing in Richard Wagner's opera called Lohengrin at Covent Garden in London. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy Hotel to celebrate her triumph. Chef Escoffier, who ran the kitchens at the Savoy, created a new dessert for the occasion.
Escoffier used an ice sculpture of a swan that was featured in the opera. Ice cream rested on the bed of the ice sculpture. Escoffier then topped the ice cream with peaches and spun sugar. Eight years later, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert to celebrate the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he had become head chef. Escoffier used dishes, instead of ice swan sculptures. And he topped the peaches with raspberry purée. Other versions of this dessert over the years have use pears, apricots, or strawberries, instead of peaches; and/or the use raspberry sauce or melted red currant jelly, instead of raspberry purée.
Below is a recipe for Peach Melba from the PBS website:
6 ripe, tender peaches
1 ½ pints vanilla ice cream (fresh homemade is best)
1 heaping cup fresh ripe raspberries
1 heaping cup powdered sugar
6 tbsp blanched raw almond slivers (optional)
Boil a medium pot of water. Keep a large bowl of ice water close by. Gently place a peach into the boiling water. Let the peach simmer for 15-20 seconds, making sure all surfaces of the peach are submerged. Remove the peach from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge it into the ice water for a few seconds to cool. Take the peach out of the ice water and place it on a plate. Repeat the process for the remaining peaches. When all of the peaches have been submerged, peel them. Their skin should come off easily if they are ripe, thanks to the short boiling process. Discard the skins. Halve the peeled peaches and discard the pits.
Optional Step: Place the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water mixed with 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or ascorbic acid powder. Let the peach halves soak for 10 minutes. Drain off the water and gently pat the peach halves dry with a paper towel. This step will help to keep the peaches from oxidizing and turning brown. Sprinkle the peach halves with sugar on all exposed surfaces. Place them on a plate in a single layer, then place them in the refrigerator for 1 hour to chill.
Meanwhile, make the raspberry purée. Place the raspberries into a blender and pulse for a few seconds to create a purée. Strain purée into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on the solid ingredients and agitating the mixture with a metal spoon to extract as much syrupy juice as possible. It will take a few minutes to extract all of the juice from the solids. When finished, you should only have seeds and a bit of pulp left in the strainer. Dispose of the solids.
Sift the powdered sugar into the raspberry purée, adding a little powdered sugar at a time, and whisking in stages till the sugar is fully incorporated into the syrup. It will take several minutes of vigorous whisking to fully integrate the powdered sugar into the syrup. Refrigerate the raspberry syrup for 1 hour, or until chilled.
Assemble six serving dishes. Scoop ½ cup of vanilla ice cream into each serving dish. Place two of the sugared peach halves on top of each serving of ice cream. Divide the raspberry sauce between the six dishes, drizzling the sauce over the top of the peaches and ice cream. Top each serving with a tablespoon of raw almond slivers, if desired. Serve immediately.
Sunday, December 13, 2015
"THE MUMMY RETURNS" (2001) Review
"THE MUMMY", the 1999 remake of the 1932 horror film proved to be a major success for filmmaker Stephen Sommers and Universal Studios. Two years later, both the director and the studio reunited its major stars for a sequel set a decade later. In doing so, Sommers and Universal created a four-movie franchise.
Like the first film, "THE MUMMY RETURNS" began thousands of years ago, in ancient Egypt. However, this flashback focused on an Egyptian mercenary named Mathayus, who makes an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the land. He and his army is exiled to the desert of Ahm Sher, where most of them die from heat exhaustion, except for Mathayus. The latter offers his soul to the god Anubis for the power to defeat his enemies. The latter creates an oasis called Ahm Shere to hide the newly dubbed Scorpion King's pyramid and gives the latter a legion of humanoid jackal warriors to seek revenge. The Army of Anubis sweeps across Egypt, destroying everything in its path. But once their task is finished, Anubis claims the Scorpion King's soul and his army.
The movie jumps to the year 1933, which finds the O'Connell family - Rick, Evelyn ("Evie") and their son Alex - exploring the ruins of Thebes. Evie and Rick discover the bracelet of Anubis, unaware that Alex has stumbled across a trio of mercenaries attempting to take the bracelet for themselves. The family returns home to England, and unbeknownst to his parents, Alex tries on the bracelet and experiences a vision with directions to the Oasis of Ahm Shere. Unfortunately, a group of Egyptian cultists, who had hired the three thugs, invades the O'Connell estate and kidnaps Evie. The O'Connells' old comrade, the Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay, arrives to help, but is unable to prevent Evie's kidnapping. The cultists take her to the British Museum, where they resurrect the body of Egyptian high priest and sorcerer Imhotep. They plan to use his power to defeat the Sorcerer King. Rick, his brother-in-law Jonathan Carnahan, Alex and Ardeth arrive at the museum to rescue Evie. After the O’Connells, Jonathan and Ardeth manage to escape the army of mummified soldiers, Alex – who is still wearing the Anubis bracelet - is kidnapped by the cultists. The four adults track him to Egypt, where they recruit the help of Rick’s old World War I friend, Izzy Buttons, to rescue Alex from Imhotep and the cultists and prevent them from reviving the Army of Anubis.
I usually dislike horror films. But I noticed that the 1999 movie, "THE MUMMY" seemed more like an adventure film in the style of the INDIANA JONES movie franchise. I could say the same about " THE MUMMY RETURNS". And considering my dislike of horror films, I say “thank God”. However, the movie has enough elements to satisfy those who love this particular genre. This was especially apparent in the scenes that featured Imohtep’s murder of the three mercenaries, the O’Connells’ battle against the high priests mummified soldiers during the bus ride through London and during the finale sequence inside the Scorpion King’s pyramid at Ahm Shere. The sight of the Scorpion King as a transformed centaurid (or scorpion-monster) was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. But if I had to select the one sequence that truly captured aspects of the horror genre, it was the one that featured the O’Connells’ attack upon the cultists in the Ahm Shere jungle that I found particularly off putting. Not only did the movie’s heroes have to attack the cultists in order to save Alex, both sides of the conflict had to deal the pygmy mummies that attacked and killed anyone or any army that marched through the jungle. What can I say? Those pygmies really freaked me out.
"THE MUMMY RETURNS" did feature a good deal of action sequences that seemed more like an adventure than a horror story – thank goodness. The O’Connells’ escape from the flooding of the Thebes pyramid, their escape from Imohtep’s attempt to drown them with a tsunami wave, their escape from the destruction of the Ahm Shere pyramid and various hand-to-hand fight sequences thankfully reminded me that "THE MUMMY RETURNS" was more of an adventure story. Also, Stephen Sommers provided a great deal of rich characterization and humor in his screenwriter. Like the 1999 film, "THE MUMMY", "THE MUMMY RETURNS" featured some sophomoric humor. But if I must be honest, a good deal of the humor seemed sharper and wittier this particular film – especially in the hands of one particular character, Izzy Buttons. In fact, my favorite line in the film came him:
"Whatever it is, whatever you need, I don't care. Forget it, O'Connell. Every time I hook up with you, I get shot. Last time, I got shot in the ass. I'm in mourning for my ass!"
I never mentioned this in my review of "THE MUMMY", but I was also impressed by Sommers’ handling of the sequence featuring Imohtep’s background and introduction at the beginning of the film. The opening sequence featuring the Scorpion King’s introduction struck me as mediocre. But I was very impressed by the flashback sequence about Evelyn’s past life in the form of the Princess Nefertiri and her witness of her father, Pharaoh Seti I. Sommers has a real talent for costumed melodrama and it would be nice to see him exploit it in the fullest in his career. This sequence also featured a first-rate fight scene between Rachel Weisz’s Nefertiri and Patricia Velásquez’s Anck-Su-Namun.
Of course, one cannot talk about "THE MUMMY RETURNS" without bringing up its visual effects. First of all, kudos to cinematographer Adrian Biddle for continuing the beautiful photography for which he was responsible in the first film. I especially enjoyed his work in the sequence that featured the parallel journeys across Egypt by both the O'Connell and Imohtep parties. Allan Cameron and his crew did an excellent job in re-creating not only England and Egypt of the early 1930s, but also ancient Egypt. The team of Ahmed Abounouom, Giles Masters and Tony Reading added a great deal to Cameron's work with their beautiful and colorful art designs. I have always enjoyed Alan Silvestri's music in past movies. But I must admit that I really appreciated his use of Middle Eastern or North African-style in the movie's score. I do admire the special effects created by the movie's visual effects team. I was especially impressed by their work in the Ahm Shere jungle sequence. However, there were times I found it a bit over-the-top. I noticed that Sommers hired his costume designer from the last film, John Bloomfield, to design the costumes for this film. And I wish to God he had hired someone else. I had no problem with Bloomfield's costumes for the ancient Egypt sequences. His costume designs for the 1933 scenes - namely the costumes for the female characters - were another matter. Honestly, they sucked. I was far from impressed by Bloomfield's re-creation of 1920s fashion for Evelyn's character in the 1999 movie. His re-creation of early 1930s fashions for the female characters were just as bad - as shown in the images below:
I can only shake my head in disbelief. The above were Bloomfield's idea of 1932-33 women's fashion? Really? They looked more like a modern-day take on the fashions of that particular era. The fact that both Weisz and Velásquez are sporting modern hairstyles does not help.
At least I cannot complain about the acting. An episode of "STAR TREK VOYAGER" featured the first project in which Dwayne Johnson portrayed a character other than himself. He had nothing to do but engage in a fight scene. "THE MUMMY RETURNS" featured his second role in which he portrayed another character. Again, he had no lines. At least Sommers managed to effectively direct him into expressing his character via body language. The other cast members, on the other hand, had speaking lines. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Bruce Byron, Joe Dixon and Tom Fisher as the three thugs hired by the cultists to assist them. Alun Armstrong gave a surprisingly effective performance as Mr. Hafez, the leader of the Egyptian cultists. Unlike most Western actors, Armstrong managed to portray a non-Western villain without resorting to theatrical acting. My favorite performance came from Shaun Parkes, who was both hysterically witty as O'Connell's old friend, Izzy Buttons. I usually have mixed feelings about child actors. But I must admit that I enjoyed Freddie Boath's engaging performance as Rick and Evelyn's boisterous son, Alex. "THE MUMMY RETURNS" was the first movie or television production I had noticed Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. And his performance as Mr. Hafez's chief enforcer, Lock-Nah, was . . . well, magnificent. In fact, I could say the same about his screen presence.
Patricia Velásquez may not have been the world's greatest actress. And there were times I found her verbal performance as femme fatale Meela Nais and ancient Egyptian courtesan Anck-Su-Namun a bit limited. She more than made up this flaw with a strong ability for silent acting and a very impressive screen presence. Again, she proved to have a great screen chemistry with Arnold Vasloo, who returned as the Egyptian high priest, Imohtep. What can I say about Vasloo's performance? The man is Imohtep - both in presence and performance. He did a marvelous job in conveying both the frightening aspects of his character and the latter's passionate love for Anck-Su-Namun. Happily, Oded Fehr reprised his role as Medjai warrior Ardeth Bey. And not only was he great, as always. For the first time, I became aware of Fehr's talent for comedic acting. John Hannah was as funny as ever as Evelyn's ne'er do well older brother, Jonathan Carnahan. I found him especially funny in his scenes with Boath and Parkes.
Rachel Weisz reprised her role as Evelyn "Evie" Carnahan O'Connell and I was surprised by the level of development in her character. Weisz did an excellent job in conveying the mature development of Evie and maintaining the character's familiar quirks at the same. Weisz was also excellent as the Princess Nefertiri, who was not only fervently protective of her father, but also suspicious of Anck-Su-Namun. The character of Rick O'Connell also struck me as surprisingly different in this movie. Like Evelyn, marriage and parenthood had developed him into a more mature personality. And like Evelyn, he also maintained some of his personality quirks. And Brendan Fraser did an excellent job in conveying both the familiar and different aspects of Rick's character.
"THE MUMMY RETURNS" effectively continued the exciting adventure and horror of the 1999 film, thanks to Stephen Sommers' writing and direction. And I enjoyed it very much, along with the entertaining performances of the cast led by Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. But as much as I continue to enjoy it, there is a part of me that wished Sommers had not been so over-the-top with some of his direction and the special effects featured in the movie. It seemed as if he was trying to outdo his work in the first film. And sometimes, that is not a good thing.
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Below are images from "WUTHERING HEIGHTS", the 2009 adaptation of Emily Bronte's 1847 novel. Directed by Coky Giedroyc, the two-part television drama starred Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley:
"WUTHERING HEIGHTS" (2009) Photo Gallery