Category Archives: DVD

Renée Zellweger is incandescent in third installment of ‘Bridget Jones’ franchise

Bridget Jones's BabyIn my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than a beautiful, confident woman basking in middle-age glory. In the third installment of the Bridget Jones series, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Renée Zellweger is a glorious goddess. Beautiful, smart, and witty, this Bridget is far more self-assured than the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). And Zellweger plays her with dignity and maturity, even in the more slapstick moments (such as falling face first into a mud puddle, or being carried awkwardly by two men while in labor). While the third film is not the classic the first one was, it’s light years ahead of the mediocre stumble of the second film.

Bridget Jones fans will realize that unlike the first two films, the third isn’t based on a novel. Helen Fielding’s third Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy has a different tone and plot surprises that may alienate some fans. Instead, Fielding teams up with comedic writer Dan Mazer and Renaissance woman Emma Thompson (who has a hilarious cameo as Bridget’s dry ob/gyn) for a wholly new story that has Bridget dealing with pregnancy and romance.

Colin Firth returns as the taciturn and terse Mark Darcy, the man that seems so right for Bridget, yet so wrong. As in the first two films, Mark is often frustratingly stiff and uptight. Like Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (the inspiration for Fielding’s works), Mark hides his feelings beneath a hard shell, constructed for self-preservation.

After a chance meeting at a funeral, Bridget learns that Mark is engaged to be married. We learn that in the ensuing decade after Edge of Reason, Bridget and Mark had an on again/off again relationship which has ended sadly. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, as she would’ve done in the first film, Bridget moves on with her life, partying with her work chum, TV host Miranda (Sarah Solemani), at a music festival. It’s here that we get most of Zellweger’s flair for physical comedy, as she stomps through sodden fields of mud in inappropriate white pumps, before face planting in a field of mud, only to be rescued by handsome American Jack Qwant (Patrick Demspey, charming). The two have a one-night stand, and Bridget leaves happy.

The rom-com gods have Bridget reunite again with Mark at a christening, in which she discovers that he’s leaving his wife. The two share a magical night and make love, and it’s lovely.

That is until she finds out she’s pregnant. The big mystery of the film is who is Bridget’s baby daddy, Mark or Jack? Both men are dreamy candidates and for Bridget it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Fielding, Mazer, and Thompson put together a funny film that manages to be appealing and light, despite its potentially-appalling premise. Though the summary sounds like a British take on Maury, it’s all handled with grace and dignity. And the movie’s funny. Funny as hell. There are great one-liners and even the most absurd situations (Bridget going into labor) are written with humor that we can overlook some of the implausibility.

At the center of it all is Renée Zellweger, who is gifted with a fantastic role, and matches it with a beautiful performance. Her Bridget is slightly bruised and her maturity gives her a hard-earned gravitas. There’s also a lovely poignancy to the performance – Bridget is going through a lot, being pregnant and single (and going through a “geriatric” pregnancy as she’s reminded repeatedly throughout the film), and there’s a slight feeling of melancholy to a middle-aged Bridget. She’s lived a lot and seen a lot and is better for it.

Being a thoroughly British comedy set in contemporary times, there are gentle nods toward the current climate in the UK – most notably in the characterization of Bridget’s mum, Pamela (Gemma Jones). Running for local office as a conservative, she quickly shifts to the left when learning of her daughter’s situation, embracing diversity and becoming a liberal candidate instead. This feels a bit like wishful thinking, but it’s a good way to remind viewers that Bridget Jones is a symbol and heroine for the underdogs: for the single girls, for the heavy girls, for the queer boys, for anyone who feels a bit left out.

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Melissa McCarthy graces solid ‘The Boss’ with a wonderful performance

Melissa McCarthy’s career is a series of performances that outclass her films. With the exception of Spy and Ghostbusters, none of McCarthy’s films matched her talent, commitment, and verve. 2016’s The Boss is a solid comedic outing that works as a fun – if undemanding – vehicle for the comedienne’s vast talents. Written by McCarthy, Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s husband and the film’s director), and Steve Mallory, The Boss is a sprightly, breezy way of spending a couple hours.

McCarthy stars as Michelle Darnell, a character she created while a member of the legendary The Groundlings. Michelle is a multi-media tycoon – a lampoon amalgam of Donald Trump, Suze Orman, and Martha Stewart – who is arrested for insider trading. After serving a sinfully short sentence of merely five months, she’s left broke, alone, and homeless. With few prospects, Michelle turns to her former assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), a single mother who’s perennially overworked and exhausted. Michelle – used to the finer things in life like owning her own helicopter or skyscrapers – has trouble adjusting to the simpler life of sharing Claire’s relatively iddy bitty apartment (in what looks like Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood).

Frustrated with little outlet for her talents, Michelle eyes the local girl scout-esque troupe in which Claire’s daughter Rachel is a member of; poaching members of the troupe, Michelle births a new startup – Darnell’s Darlings – a girl scout troupe that sells Claire’s amazing brownies. Before Michelle realizes it, she falls for her former assistant and her cute little tyke and the three form a quirky family. Looming in the background is Peter Dinklage’s Renault (or Ronald), Melissa’s former lover-turned-rival who’s plotting to muscle in on Michelle’s new business venture.

The Boss is an undemanding, unambitious little film that serves dutifully as a funny entry in McCarthy’s oeuvre. The script – some of it feeling improvised – is solid, though it starts to lose its logic in the final act, where it sends its characters on a caper that culminates in a surprisingly violent sword-fighting scene between McCarthy and Dinklage. And though the screenwriters are capable of penning a solid script, it doesn’t take much time to develop Michelle’s friendship with Claire, nor does it take enough time to show the growth of their fledgling company (its huge success feels too fast and unearned).

As a director, Falone (who has a cameo as Michelle’s much-abused lawyer) doesn’t show much personality or distinction. It’s a nondescript effort, but he’s smart in that he lets McCarthy do her thing – and she does it beautifully. Even in the most mundane situation, the comedienne manages to perform movie magic. Her Michelle isn’t much of a character (and there’s some forced backstory stuff about Michelle having a wretched childhood in a series of foster homes that doesn’t feel earned or natural), but even if the role doesn’t tax McCarthy’s acting skills, she gets to show off her estimable comedy chops. As support, Bell is fine and Dinklage has some goofy fun (and in a smaller role, Kathy Bates chews up some scenery as Michelle’s mentor/mother figure). But this is clearly McCarthy’s show and she’s a whirling dervish of mugging.

At this point in her career, McCarthy has graduated from mere talented character actress to a full-fledged movie superstar. The Boss is an enjoyable effort, but one that is strikingly mediocre, which is a somewhat disappointing theme in her film career. The film did well in the box office (as do most of her films), but it would be nice if she veered more toward smart, funny, and thoughtful movies like Spy or St. Vincent or even Bridesmaids. Her box office appeal shows her having the kind of commercial legs to compete with the likes of Will Ferrell or Seth Rogan, but given how smart she is – both as a comic and an actress – it would be nice to see her avoid easy junk like this and hold out for smarter projects.

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Cult Classics Revisited: ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ is a bawdy, hilarious mess

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme: Series 1, 2 & 3 [Regions 2 & 4]Imagine if Will & Grace and Absolutely Fabulous had a baby: then you’d have Gimme Gimme Gimme a strange, but funny sitcom that ran for three series on BBC. Starring Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus, the show was at once extremely low brow and witty. Flouting all kinds of taboos and ideas of political correctness, Gimme Gimme Gimme was a loud, goofy, yet hilarious sitcom that deserves extra viewing.

Kathy Burke is Linda, a bespectacled gorgon of a woman who has no decent job prospects and is a stylized grotesque. What’s great about Linda is that despite her ridiculous appearance – a fright wig of bright orange hair and appalling fashion choices – she has an nearly indestructible self-confidence. She believes she’s the belle of the ball, and though a mirror would set her straight, she chooses to go through life thinking that everyone fancies her. This sort of self-delusion is important and necessary for Linda who doesn’t have much going for her.

Sharing her flat is Tom (James Dreyfus), a feckless wannabe thespian who is the epitome of the struggling actor. Despite his pretensions, his career goes no where and he plugs away either working as an extra on tawdry TV or doing odd jobs to supplement his income. Like Linda, his life is miserable by any objective measure, but he employs a similarly rock-hard deluded sense of entitlement and confidence, which lets him go through life without falling apart in misery and despair.

Like Patsy and Edina from AbFab, Tom and Linda lurch from one unseemly adventure to the next. Written by Jonathan Harvey (best known for the sensitive queer coming-of-age drama Beautiful Thing), Gimme Gimme Gimme revels in the decadent and debauched way the characters live their lives. They are both indiscriminate in their sexuality – and proudly so, eschewing respectability politics. They also do away with any sort of sense of politeness or propriety – like Donald Trump, they say the firs thing that pops in their heard, regardless of how awful or ridiculous it sounds.

As with most British sitcoms, Gimme Gimme Gimme has very short seasons – six episodes, and the plots are pretty thin. There’s some variation on Linda or Tom trying to move forward in either their careers or their social lives, but some kind of obstacle messes up their plans. Like lots of British sitcoms, there’s a strange rhythm and speed to the plots, and often the endings feel rushed, with a lack of a satisfying resolution (it’s as if  Harvey wrote and wrote the plot and then realized, “Oh shit, I need to end this, and simply wrote ‘The End'”). But that’s okay because the plots aren’t important – the show is really a chance to see Burke and Dreyfus spar with each other.

Many people have credited Will & Grace with being ground breaking and revolutionary – our vice president even credited it with the passing of marriage equality in the United States. A decade after its end makes it clear that a lot of the praise for the show is unearned. But the template – straight girl who lives with gay guy – works well with Gimme Gimme Gimme, and thankfully, Harvey chose to go in a wildly different direction. Instead of sweet episodes with fun, quirky jokes, we got two horrible monsters of selfishness who don’t think twice about screwing over the people around them. The jokes are an extravagant mix of queer jokes, sex gags, and large doses of scatological humor. And Harvey seems interested in smashing every taboo  he can imagine: in one episode, Linda’s long-estranged son returns, but quickly the relationship sours and so, inspired by Oedipus Rex (see what I mean by high culture and low brow humor mixing?), Tom urges Linda to seduce her son. In another episode, Tom and Linda compete for the affections of a convicted murderer.

Much of the success of the show is owed to Harvey’s writing, but Burke and Dreyfus are also very important. Burke – known to many as the fast-talking Magda in Absolutely Fabulous – has a ball playing the repellent Linda. It’s a broad performance with no nuance or subtlety, but that’s okay, because it’s a lot of fun. She’s able to modulate her voice to match Linda’s mood – it’s sweet and cloying when she’s playing the coquette, but it turns into a horrible growl when she’s angry or defiant. Like Burke, Dreyfus is also having a lot of fun with a role that doesn’t tax his acting skills too much – he’s also a crack physical comedian and can throw his lanky, pipe cleaner body around, and performs as much with his limbs as he does with his expressive, rubbery face. Though other shows like AbFabFawlty Towers, or The Office have more sterling reputations (deserved, I might add), Gimme Gimme Gimme is a fun – if minor – entry in British cult comedy.

Click here to buy Gimme Gimme Gimme on amazon.com.

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Melissa McCarthy charms in ‘Spy’

Spy (fka Susan Cooper)Recently it was announced that the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly was being canceled. Though it still pulled respectable ratings, it was clear that its star, Melissa McCarthy was slumming it, co-starring in a middling sitcom (for which she won an Emmy in its premier season). Instead of being a TV star, though, something far more interesting happened: Melissa McCarthy became a bonafide, box-office superstar. More than any other female comic in recent years, McCarthy has racked up a list of box-office smashes (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat, Tammy) and is going to star in the remake of Ghostbusters. With this impressive track record, she’s joined the ranks of Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and Ben Stiller. And like Sandler, Carrey, Apatow, and Stiller, the quality of the films – despite their financial success – ebbs and flows.

But Spy is an excellent outlier in the otherwise mediocre film oeuvre of Melissa McCarthy. It’s a spoof on the action film, but doesn’t rely on parody to tell its story. Instead, it’s that strange rare popcorn film that is smart, broad, funny, and progressive.

McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who must jump into the field as an undercover agent to stop the black market sale of a nuclear bomb. The plot sounds ridiculously far-fetched written down, but writer/director Paul Feig (reunited with McCarthy after Bridesmaids) has crafted a fantastic story. Susan could’ve easily been a joke, but instead, he writes a character that is smart, wise, and resourceful. When all of the CIA’s top agents’ identities have been compromised, it’s the normally-invisible Susan that is called on by her boss, Elaine Crocker (a snarky Allison Janney) to go undercover and tail Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, McCarthy’s costar from Bridesmaids), who may know where and when the nuke sale will take place.

Credit must be given to Feig, who creates a solid action caper. He sends his heroine to some ritzy locales in Paris, and poor old Susan has to don some pretty hideous wigs and costumes to pass as an assuming frumpy American tourist. As a director, Feig also handles the action sequences well – though it must be said, that for a mainstream comedy, it’s shockingly violent, and there are a lot of deaths – some of them quite graphic. The fight sequences are beautifully choreographed: there is one brilliant fight scene, in particular, set in a kitchen between McCarthy and Nargis Fakhri (who plays a henchman) that benefits from some spectacular choreography, fantastic staging, and some nifty use of kitchen equipment as the two women go head-to-toe, brandishing cleavers, knives, and using skillets as shields.

Though not explicitly feminist, Spy has a great message and uses its star wisely. It’s tempting to use a comedienne like McCarthy for sight gags and physical comedy, particularly because of her weight – and in the past, McCarthy herself has leaned on that as a crutch. She’s great at playing very broad characters, but she’s always managed to imbue even the most cartoonish character with flecks of personality. In Spy, she’s finally gifted with a script that allows for her to make use of her considerable slapstick prowess, but yet, still build a character. She employs well-placed pauses and verbal inflections, and has an understated way of delivering her lines, which is a perfect balance for her more raucous moments of falling over, crashing through doors, or face planting on the ground.

And though McCarthy is the star, she gets some fantastic support from a well-cast supporting ensemble. Byrne, not most people’s first choice for comedienne, does bitchy very well, and is great as a straight man to McCarthy – the two, though adversaries in the film, make for a great comic duo – she serves up some deliciously cruel one-liners and the two bounce off each other well. And as Susan’s best girlfriend, stand-up comic Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) blesses the film with her ebullient presence. And as the male leads, Jason Stratham and Jude Law both show wiley, hidden comic chops – the former, especially, steals his scenes, as a disgruntled CIA agent, disgusted at Susan’s sudden professional ascent.

As a spoof, Spy works because it gently tweaks at the conventions of the spy genre, but it also transcends the film parody genre. Film parody is difficult to pull off because even if the jokes work, if the film serves merely as a way to make fun of something, without bothering to be any good, then the film ages quickly and doesn’t work after repeated viewing. What makes Spy so engaging is that though it makes fun of the spy genre, it’s also a legitimate entry, as well. It has all of the ingredients: a heroic lead, beautiful women, handsome men, luxurious locales.

But more importantly, along with the funny, we also get an important message about self-confidence and hard work. Susan is great at her job because she works hard and studies hard. She knows her shit. The only problem is that because she’s a woman and because she’s a woman of size, she’s marginalized by her colleagues. That is one of the reasons why as an undercover agent, she’d be a choice pick: who is more invisible than women of size? And the early scenes in which Susan pines for Law’s dashing agent are sad because she’s clearly under the mistaken assumption that because of his looks, Law’s character is out of her league.

And so Spy works on a deeper level because Susan learns about self-confidence and gains it as she gets better at her job. Quickly those who dismiss her or underestimate her regret doing so. Feig and McCarthy also take care to ensure that Susan isn’t the joke. There are no fat jokes, nor do we think Susan is anything less than gorgeous when she’s not done up in undercover frump drag. When she wants to infiltrate a fancy casino party, she ditches her drab gear and instead shows up in a sexy, open neck black dress, and owns the room. Later on, she gets done up in a sexy blazer and sports a chic bob (looking remarkably similar to fellow comedienne Dawn French). And it all feels right, and not of it feels condescending or pandering. Susan’s a catch. She’s dashing. She’s funny. She’s gorgeous. She’s brave. And she kicks ass.

Aspiring filmmakers should watch Spy to learn how to make a successful, compelling mainstream comedy that doesn’t talk down to its audiences, doesn’t punch down, or pander to the lowest common denominator.

Click here to buy Spy on DVD from amazon.com.

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‘The Help’ is a messy jumble of a couple good movies and a lot more bad ones

The HelpThe Help is the kind of movie about the Civil Rights Movement that mainstream white audiences love, because that complicated and difficult time is spoon fed to viewers with the kind of optimistic that lets people think that a) racial discrimination is over, a thing of the past and b) wow, weren’t those white people nasty, I’m glad I’m not like one of them. Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is yet another in a long line of movies about the Civil Rights Movement in which a white protagonist takes center stage. We get to see the horrors of Jim Crow as well as the glimmers of hope through progress from the POV of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who aspires to be a journalist.

And that’s The Help‘s first problem. If we need another Civil Rights Era narrative film, then why do we need another one the centers on the experiences of a white protagonist? In the film Skeeter is the liberal conscious of the film’s white liberal viewers. She treats the maids kindly and is contemptuous of her racist friends. Viewers are meant to watch the film through Skeeter’s eyes and feel smug, like she, that they are not like the bad white people who wreak some awful havoc on the lives of the black characters.

As a character, Skeeter acts merely as a refreshing antidote to the bigoted atmosphere created by the other white characters, namely Hilly Walters Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the leader of the society of young southern belles. She rules in her kingdom with a cruel fist, casting anyone whom she feels is deserving adrift into social isolation. Her treatment of her friends is terrible, but her treatment of the black women in the town is criminal. And because she’s so powerful (though the source of her power is ephemeral), her legion of housewives dutifully follow suit. All except Skeeter, who remains the white moral center of the film.

But because this is about the Civil Rights Movement, we also are privy to the lives of the black characters – but not nearly enough. When we focus on Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), then we have the kernel of a good film. Aibileen and Minny are best friends who support each other. And they need the support because they both work hard as maids: Aibileen for Elizabeth Leefoit (Ahna O’Reilly), a neglectful mother whose young daughter adores Aibileen; Minny, on the other hand, has trouble finding permanent employment because of her temper but eventually finds work with the town’s social pariah, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) – more on that later.

When Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are on screen, there’s some movie magic, namely due to the actress’ skills. The writing often lets them down: they’re tropes and little more, but the two women have a chemistry that transcends the limits of the film, and they create a beautiful friendship. I wish more of their lives together was explored because a film about how two women support and take care of each other during difficult times filled with social unrest would be an interesting one to watch. But we don’t get to sit and watch Davis and Spencer interact because the film is far more interesting in how white folks saw Civil Rights.

The plot has Skeeter cook up a dangerous scheme of documenting the lives of the maids in town. She convinces Aibileen and Minny to tell her their stories – unvarnished stories of subjugation, humiliation, and class stratification. The risk is huge – the women could lose their jobs, even be victims of violence. Of course, Skeeter’s risk is low and that’s another problem with the film – the stakes are so low for Skeeter that though she’s supposed to be seen as a brave and inspiring figure, she merely comes off as privileged and a little opportunistic. When Hilly gets a black woman falsely arrested for theft, the other maids in town convene at Aibileen’s house and agree to have their lives chronicled, in hopes of exposing just how gross a life of servitude can be. We’re gifted with the briefest of montages in which the maids speak, but again, the film is more interested in Skeeter’s growth and development, so we don’t understand, see, or hear the indignities that countless black women had to shoulder just to ensure a better life for their children. We don’t get a sense of the violence or violation. It’s all skimming at the surface, enough to have most decent people offended, but not enough to really examine just how dysfunctional this kind of society really is.

Screenwriter Tate Taylor must’ve had a notebook bursting with ideas, because along with the Skeeter plot, the Aibileen and Minny plot, we also get the Celia and Minny show. In what is clearly meant to be a show of “love knows no color,” The Help also includes a story line that has Minny working for Celia, a beautiful, yet blowsy housewife who cannot seem to do anything. Plagued with a series of miscarriages, Celia is a pathetic soul – gorgeous, but dim. Kind, but naive. The women in the town eye her warily because she wears low cut dresses and totters around on high heels, and is married to Hilly’s ex, so naturally, she’s labeled a maneater, and the women guard their husbands jealously anytime poor Celia stumbles into the scene.

Minny arrives and  manages to shape things up, and predictably the two women overcome their racial, social, and economic differences to understand that they’re more alike than different. Minny becomes a surrogate big sister and mother to Celia because Tate Taylor doesn’t think there are enough black maids playing surrogate mothers to rich white women in film. The scenes between Minny and Celia all ring of treacle and feel contrived. Again, the only thing that elevates this to anything is the mighty work of Spencer as well as the beautifully-layered performance of Jessica Chastain, who channels a near-death Marilyn Monroe. Like her scenes with Davis, Spencer creates a solid bond with Chastain, though the writing is cliched with their scenes, that no amount of expert emoting manages to wrench their work free from the sap.

All of this happens with the Civil Rights Movement playing in the background. Taylor uses the events of the 1960s as a way to frame the story as well as to give the film some forward momentum. But little is done to engage with the event, nor do the characters have any meaningful connection to the events. When Medgar Evars is assassinated, we get a glimpse of what could’ve been. Aibilieen is ordered off a bus and fearfully flees in the night to get home. As a director Taylor crafted a solid sequence of scenes that end in Minny’s house. The two women grieve privately, shielding their young children from the brutal realities of the world, and whisper their fears to each other. For The Help to function as a serious film about these times, we need more of this, instead of a pouting Skeeter giving side eye to Hilly after the latter spouts off another string of racial expletives.

When The Help came out in 2011, it got some great reviews and made over $200 million in the box office. Spencer (deservedly) won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while Chastain and Davis were nominated (and the film was up for Best Picture, for some reason). It’s understandable that the film mainly was praised for its actors but the performances are impeccable. That is one of the many frustrating things about the film – along with its tone-deaf approach to race relations and history, the film wastes a very talented cast.

Click here to buy The Help on amazon.com.

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‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ – a worthy successor to Austen

Masterpiece: Death Comes to PemberleyJane Austen’s work has seen many revivals, revisions, adaptations, and spin-offs. Her oeuvre has become a cottage industry in itself – romantic novels, queer fiction, graphic novels, even horror stories have found their way into Austen lore. Most of the work is just high-end fan fiction, but P.D. James’ 2011 thriller Death Comes to Pemberley was a notable exception. A finely crafted novel that uses Austen’s flawless Pride and Prejudice as a backstory, Death Comes to Pemberley unsurprisingly makes for an excellent TV drama, as well. Austen purists may scoff and be wary at the idea of a murder mystery starring Elizabeth Bennet, but viewers should give this series a try, as it delivers an immensely enjoyable and thrilling story.

The plot takes place six years after Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet (Anna Maxwell Martin) is married to Mr. Darcy (Matthew Rhys), and is Lady of Pemberley. The estate is in a hubbub because a grand ball is taking place and Elizabeth is in charge. Unbeknownst to her,  estranged sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman) is en route to Pemberley, planning to crash the ball with her rascal of a husband, Wickham (Matthew Goode). Along with the Wickhams, is Captain Denny (Tom Canton), who is rowing with Wickham. Their argument reaches a feverish peak in the woods of Pemberley, and Denny alights from the carriage and dashes off into the forest, with Wickham close at his heels. Lydia is left alone in the carriage, only to hear two gun shots. Screaming, she reaches Pemberely and reports what she heard, and Darcy sends out a search party, only to discover a distraught Wickham dragging Denny’s body, blaming himself for his friend’s death.

What then unfurls is an intriguing drama that has Darcy and Elizabeth try to unravel what happened on their grounds. As with Austen’s original work, Death Comes to Pemberley also looks at class and societal hierarchies, and class stratification plays a huge part in the conflict. Those who are familiar with Pride and Prejudice will remember that Wickham has been a major source of pain and embarrassment for Darcy – the two were raised as brothers, though Wickham squandered his inherited wealth and opportunities, only to become a lech. After a failed attempt at seducing Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson), Wickham was married off to Lydia to save the younger Bennet’s reputation after a night of sin. Because Darcy is so disgusted with Wickham, he resents having to get involved in such a tawdry affair as a murder. He begins to make noise about class differences, urging that Georgiana marry in her class – this, of course, hurts Elizabeth, who is of a much lower social class than her husband. Because Wickham is Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, he’s forever tied to the Darcys and to Pemberley, and she’s worried that her husband will regret their marriage.

It’s not necessary to be familiar with Pride and Prejudice to enjoy Death Comes to Pemberley. There are brief flashbacks to actions that took place during the book – and these passages give context to some of the characters and their relationships, without handcuffing the film to the book (or the popular A&E miniseries with Colin Firth). In fact, it’s best to view Death Comes to Pemberley as a separate work of art. And as Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Maxwell Martin does a tremendous job. Her interpretation is different than the famed works of Jennifer Ehle, Greer Garson, or Kiera Knightly. Martin’s Elizabeth is just as funny and witty, but there’s also a pervasive sadness and melancholy – her Elizabeth is older and wiser, and there are hints that the Darcy marriage, while a happy one, isn’t free from blemishes as one would expect once Pride and Prejudice ends. As Darcy, Matthew Rhys has the unenviable task of toiling in the shadow of Colin Firth – and no, not once does Mr. Darcy emerge from a lagoon soaking wet. But Rhys more than delivers in portraying a conflicted Darcy, who like Elizabeth, has changed in the ensuing years. Other characters from the novel appear such as Jane (Alexandra Moen), Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), and Mrs. Reynolds (Joanna Scanlan). Some favorites also return – Mr. and Mrs. Bennet visit the Darcys, and true to Austen’s work, Mrs. Bennett is as vexing, superficial, and ridiculous as always, while Mr. Bennet is as sarcastic and useless. Both Rebecca Front and James Fleet are great in the roles and provide the series with some much-needed comic relief. And as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, legendary comedienne Penelope Keith steals her scenes in a very funny cameo.

In the wrong hands, Death Comes to Pemberley could have been gimmicky and ridiculous. Having Darcy and Elizabeth cast as a Nick and Nora or a Tommy and Tuppence would’ve been awful. Instead, when Elizabeth and Darcy engage in amateur sleuthing, it’s done with a heavy heart, and with a grave knowledge that they aren’t engaging in some fun, escapist mystery. Because script writer Juliette Towhidi is unflinching in detailing the harsh realities of Georgian England, Death Comes to Pemberley remains urgent and vital, steering away from the bubbly interpretations that mark most of the adaptations of Austen’s work. The early 19th century was grueling for a lot of people in England, particularly the poor – there are scenes that document the various indignities and injustices that befall on the less fortunate, including bouts of tuberculosis, stigmatizing out-of-wedlock births, kangaroo courts, even the execution of children. With Death Comes to Pemberely, Austen’s world is widened, to include these devastating elements, as well. It may not be as fun as some other Pride and Prejudice-inspired works, but it’s still an excellent and worthy addition to the Austen-inspired canon.

Click here to buy Death Comes to Pemberley on DVD from amazon.com.

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‘The Peanuts Movie’ is great, nostalgic fun

PeanutsWhen I heard that there was going to be a new Peanuts movie, I was worried. I was worried that the folks who have taken over Charles Schulz’s creation would do their best to modernize it, peppering the film with cynical and crass nods to contemporary times (which would then age the film quickly). I’m thinking of the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks movie series that has the chipmunks attended raves and shaking their furry, tailed butts. I was worried that the new Peanuts movie would have Charlie Brown and his pals gab away on their i Phones or scoot around on hoverboards while playing with their drones. It was an unappealing thought.

But I was wrong. The Peanuts Movie is utterly charming. It captures much of the melancholy that is associated with the characters. The episodic plot has Charlie Brown pining for the Little Red-Haired Girl, but feeling he’s just not good enough. His low self-esteem can be attributed, at least in part, to his friendship with Lucy van Pelt, the bossy a frenemy who perennially swipes the football away at just the moment when Charlie’s about to kick it. It could also be because Charlie Brown doesn’t really know just how special he is. Every child feels this, only cartoons aimed at children tend to gloss over feelings of angst or worry, hoping to distract them with bright colors, raucous music, and potty humor.

But The Peanuts Movie is fine moving at a leisurely pace, establishing the characters and their relationships. Any excitable action comes primarily from Snoopy’s subplot, in which he imagines himself being the Flying Ace, saving the lovely Fifi (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth, who primarily yelps and yips during the film) from the Red Baron during WWI. The script is written by Cornelius Uliano, along with Shulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan. It doesn’t aim for anything than humor and emotion. There’s nary a nod to its 21st century, and that shows just how timeless Charlie Brown and his pals are. It’s nostalgic, but it doesn’t feel weirdly anachronistic. The major concession to contemporary times is the animation – done by Blue Sky Studios (responsible for the Ice Age movies). The new animation lifts the familiar 2-dimenional world of the Peanuts into 3-D, and it’s not an intrusive change. Using 3-D animation can often render characters zombie-like and off-putting (I still have nightmares from Polar Express), but with The Peanuts Movie, the film’s director, Steve Martino, employs his technology with an even hand – he lets the animation tell the story as opposed to trying to wow his audiences with what he can do (which is a lot of what kids movies do now). The animation is great, but not dazzling – but it’s not supposed to be. The only time it really is put to some use is during Snoopy’s Flying Ace sequences. Otherwise, the animation has little effect on the story. But that’s okay. The main charm of Charlie Brown is how low-key it is.

And though the movie’s targeted at the younguns, there’s a lot for grownups, too. There are nods to the classic strip and the iconic TV specials – as well as acknowledgements of the legendary Vince Guaraldi soundtrack. And some of the sadder themes of alienation and pining will strike a chord with the adults. The ending is suitably happy and victorious for our hero, and leaves the viewers with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

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