Monday, December 28, 2015

"EMMA" (1996) Review

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"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

"VANITY FAIR" (2004) Photo Gallery

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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

























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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Peach Melba

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PEACH MELBA

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:



Peach Melba

Ingredients

6 ripe, tender peaches
Sugar
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)


Directions

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.


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Sunday, December 13, 2015

"THE MUMMY" (1999) Review



"THE MUMMY" (1999) Review

As a rule, I dislike horror movies or thrillers very much. Not only do I dislike today’s slasher films, I am NOT a fan of the old horror classics that feature actors like Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., and Boris Karloff. In other words, the slasher films disgust me and the old horror classics tend to creep me out. 

One of those old horror classics happened to be the 1932 movie, "THE MUMMY", starring Karloff. It told the story of an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep that became a mummy and ended up terrorizing Cairo. Seventy-six years later, director Stephen Sommers remade the old classic into a half-horror/half-adventure tale in the style of Indiana Jones about how members of a treasure-seeking expedition in 1920s Egypt, revived Imhotep, who wrecked havoc upon the expedition camp and Cairo. I had been prepared to ignore this remake, until a relative informed me that this version had been filmed in the style of an Indiana Jones movie. Being a fan of the Lucas/Spielberg movies, I lowered my guard and saw the movie.

Looking back at my decision, eleven years later, I am glad that I had seen "THE MUMMY". My relative had been right. The movie felt more like an action-adventure film, with a touch of horror. Well, more than a touch. After all, this was a tale about an Egyptian mummy that came back to life. But I loved every minute of the film. Well . . . almost. But I believe that it was a perfect blend of action, the supernatural, adventure, comedy and romance. My two favorite sequences featured the Medjai (descendants of Pharaoh Seti I’s palace guards) attacking the Nile River steamboat conveying the heroes from Cairo to Hamunaptra, site of the treasure they sought and Imohtep’s remains; and Imohtep’s reign of terror in Cairo, as he sought the three Americans and the Egyptologist who possessed the canopic jars that held the mummy’s preserved organs. I especially enjoyed this last sequence, because I feel that it managed to evoke the surreal and mysterious atmosphere of the old 30s horror films more than any other sequence in the movie.

Another one of the movie’s major virtues turned out to be its cast. Brendan Fraser did a great job in portraying the aggressive soldier-of-fortune, Rick O’Connell. He must have been at least 30 years old around the time he shot ”THE MUMMY”. And I must say that he also managed to project a strong and masculine screen presence, with a touch of sly humor. Creating screen chemistry with Fraser was Rachel Weisz, who portrayed the inexperienced yet enthusiastic archeologist, Dr. Evelyn Carnahan. I really enjoyed how she injected a mixture of charm and spirit into the very ladylike Evelyn. And John Hannah rounded out the golden trio as Jonathan Carnahan, Evelyn’s humorous yet slightly decadent older brother. Hannah was very funny as Evelyn’s self-serving brother, who seemed more interested in making a quick buck, instead of doing hard work.

Kevin J. O’Connor, a favorite of Sommers, gave a sly and hilarious performance as the Hungarian born Beni Gabor, Rick’s amoral former Foreign Legion comrade that becomes Imohtep’s willing minion. O’Connor was especially hilarious in a scene that featured Beni’s attempts to save himself from Imohtep’s wrath by invoking God’s help in different languages. Actor Oded Fehr provided a great deal of dash and intensity as Ardeth Bay, the leader of Medjai. Actors Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, and Tuc Watkins provided plenty of their own comic relief as the three American adventurers seeking treasure from Hamunaptra. Jonathan Hyde provided a stable contrast to their lunacy as the Egyptian archeologist who serves as their expedition’s Egyptology specialist. Patricia Velásquez gave a brief, but very memorable performance as Anck-Su-Namun, the ancient Egyptian courtesan that happened to be the love of Imohtep’s life. Speaking of Imohtep, Arnold Vosloo literally made a name for himself as the imposing and ruthless high priest and future mummy, who becomes obsessed with reuniting with his love through any means possible.

Despite its vast array of virtues, ”THE MUMMY” had its share of flaws. One, some of the humor and so-called wit struck me as rather silly and sophomoric. I also found it annoying that the Rick O’Connell character seemed inclined to constantly use a gun for every situation – especially when they worked fruitlessly against supernatural beings like mummies. Costume designer John Bloomfield did a piss poor job with Rachel Weisz’s costumes. I realize that Westerners in the far reaches of the British Empire tend to dress more conservatively than their fellow citizens in Great Britain. But that was no excuse for why Evelyn wore an outfit and hairstyle dated a decade older than the movie’s 1920s setting:



However, my biggest problem with the movie happened to be the final showdown between the heroes and Imohtep inside the temple at Hamunaptra. How can I put this? Director Stephen Sommers added new meaning to the phrase ”over-the-top”. Not only did the action and special effects struck me as excessive, but it almost seemed to go on with no end in sight.

Despite my misgivings of ”THE MUMMY”, I still enjoyed the movie very much. It is a fun movie filled with memorable characters, humor, suspense and some genuine fright. For me, it turned out to be one of the better summer blockbusters of the late 1990s.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"WUTHERING HEIGHTS" (2009) Photo Gallery

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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

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