Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Dangerous Liaisons

It’s time for a classic adaptation of an even more classic book,

er-dangerousliaisonsDangerous Liaisons 

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
An adaptation of an 18th-century epistolary novel by Chorderlos Laclos. It tells a story of the corrupt aristocratic elite and their immoral sexual lives. It focuses on the corruptest of the corrupt: Madame Merteuil and viscount de Valmont, who run the game – until they don’t. The movie was made in 1988 and stars pretty much only stars, including Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, young Uma Thurman and very young Keanu Reeves – all of them outshined by John Malkovich as Valmont.

How I found it:
Well, it’s one of the classics. You don’t really have to look for those. The first time I saw it, probably in high school, it was on TV. This time I watched it after Cruel Intentions to compare the two movies.

Summary judgment:
It’s one of my favorite adaptations, managing not to ruin the book – which is great – at all.

Best things about it:
It captures the book perfectly, even managing to manoeuver around its epistolarity, which is never a good thing for a movie. The movie looks great, with the costumes and the interiors building the lavish, outlandish world of the 18th-century French aristocracy. The actors, unsurprisingly, deliver amazing performances, managing to be both dramatic and funny, when needed.
Malkovich deserves an entirely separate paragraph in this. When I watched the movie for the first time, he surprised me with his sex appeal, despite his looks. But this time I was more impressed with how sinister he is and how every sentence he says reminds the viewer that Valmont is acting all the time: all his lines are declamations.

Worst things about it:
That is hardly the movie’s fault but it’s very difficult to root for any of the protagonists. This is only an actual problem with Pfeiffer, whose character starts as an irritating prig and ends as an irritating doormat, while she should make us feel sorry for her.

Other pluses:
✤ Glenn Close. Malkovich gets perhaps a more showy part and manages to steal the show sometimes but they play off each other beautifully. The Marquise impersonates hypocrisy and deception but still remains a human being, even with a thin layer of feminism somewhere there. Her failure at the end (spoiler?) does not feel entirely triumphant for the viewer.
✤ Keanu Reeves. He comes as close as the movie has to a likeable character, even if he remains in the background.

Other minuses:
The ending leaves a bit to desire, with the somewhat heavy-handed montage and Valmont’s theatrical death (spoiler?).

How it enriched my life:
This is undoubtedly where great cinema meets viewers’ actual enjoyment and there are way too few such movies.

Fun fact:
Is it possible to watch this story or read the book and not wonder how many characters had syphilis? I’m betting all of them.

Follow-up:
I will probably re-watch it but now I feel I should return to my snaily read of the book in French, which I started a few years ago and then dropped because life.

Recommended for:
People who like period dramas and large décolletages. Fans of the original. Lovers of Rococo. Cynics with ideals still there at the bottom of their hearts.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Cruel Intentions

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Fantastic Beasts

I like most things Harry Potter and so, even though I wasn’t really waiting for it impatiently, I was quite ready to enjoy Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while it was pleasant enough to watch, I must say I expected more.

er-fantasticbeastsFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A Harry Potter movie spin-off from 2016, written by J.K. Rowling herself and directed by David Yates. Newt Scamander, the author of the fictional textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, arrives to New York with a suitcase full of fantastical animals. He plans to go to Arizona to release one of his beasts into his natural habitat but he gets sidetracked by local politics, the beasts’ escape and his own budding love – and somehow saves NY magic community, too. Ah, and it’s the 1930s so we get some allusions to the original HP series but no real players make appearances.

How I found it:
The usual way, IMDb trailers – plus all the buzz online and posters in the streets. You know, millions-worth marketing.

Summary judgment:
It looks so good but the story leaves much to desire.

Best things about it:
The visuals work great, particularly the presentation of New York: it’s very pretty in its sepia colors inspired by old photographs. I liked the look of the streets and of people (even if some of the streets looked a bit sleepy for such a huge city). The beasts didn’t excite me quite as much but that’s my personal indifference, they are probably very competently CGI-ed.

Worst things about it:
It feels like an adaptation of a book you didn’t read. But there is no book! However, the movie is created as if there is a story behind that you don’t quite follow. In other words, for a while there I wasn’t sure what – or why – was happening.

Other pluses:
Casting was partly great: Jacob and particularly Tina’s sister (I had to google her: Queenie) worked for me and I’d prefer them as focal points.
I liked glimpses of the stories that could’ve been fascinating were they in any way available to us. I feel like there is an untapped potential in the story.
I liked how real the actress who played Tina looked, much as I found her character bloodless and forced.

Other minuses:
I don’t quite get the idea behind this story. It feels like a patchwork of  different elements desperately sawn together. There’s no great reason for Newt to be the hero of the main events (other than the metro scene where the frightened boy is pictured like a wild animal?) – pretty much anyone else would have a better reason to get involved and his expertise is almost useless for the main plot, until he suddenly and unexplainably knows who the main villain really is. (I guess his knowledge of clichés told him?) All the escaped animals feel like a filler and distraction without any real bearing on the story. Many of the developments thus appear incidental and unmotivated.
And I had a real trouble understanding Eddie Redmayne’s speech, which tired me and made it impossible to relate to his character. Not the greatest character choice.

How it enriched my life:
I spent some relaxing moments watching it with R just enjoying the movie night(s) but that’s just about it.

Fun fact:
While I’ve read Harry Potter series many times (and some books in a few languages just for practice) and I even suffered through Cursed Child, so far I’ve drawn the line at Fantastic Beasts and Quidditch Through the Ages. Restraint.

Follow-up:
Even if they tap into the potential I sense here, I don’t really expect to be watching the second instalment. It would have to get some soaring reviews, I think. However, I feel another HP re-read coming on.

Recommended for:
Die-hard fans of Harry Potter (but you might be disappointed). People who like period pieces mostly for their pretty looks.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Musée Jacquemart-André

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Old Friends and New Fancies

Yes, this seems to be the year when I grow a bit obsessed with Jane Austen. Well, not truly, because I still don’t remember anything that happened in Mansfield Park (I seriously need to re-read it and see if it’s as bad as I remember) but here’s another thing inspired by the great Jane and written by someone much more obsessed than me:

er-oldfriendsandnewfanciesOld Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon if you want it in a pretty book format. Or you can download a free copy from Project Gutenberg.

What it is:
The first published Austen fan fiction! In 1913 Ms. Brinton wrote a story in which characters from Austen’s novels interact and continue to fall in love and be talked down to by lady Catherine de Bourgh. It focuses particularly on three couplings and the obstacles they face (mostly obstacles of unsuccessful communication): Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mary Crawford, Georgiana Darcy and William Price and Kitty Bennet and James Morland.

How I found it:
This one was less random than my usual book finds: I found it on two different lists of books recommended for people who like Jane Austen.

Summary judgment:
It is exactly what it claims to be: a work of overflowing love for the originals. It’s not written with as much talent as the six novels (which I never expected it to be) but it’s entertaining enough.

Best things about it:
It is skillful enough at recreating the characters and the atmosphere of the originals. The story keeps you mildly interested and some of the characters get more space than they did in the original books.

Worst things about it:
I guess it’s not exactly exciting reading? It didn’t bore me but I can see it being difficult for some people. Then again, you can say the same about Jane Austen.

Other pluses:
I liked the appearance of some of my favorites, like Elizabeth and Darcy and Mr. Knightley. Nature and places play an important part and are well recreated.

Other minuses:
Some characters were hard to bear. I don’t really remember the original Mary Crawford but for a positive heroine I found her obnoxious. Kitty didn’t get her due either: Austen tell us in Pride and Prejudice that Kitty got more serious and respectable after Lydia’s removal but Brinton chooses to ignore that. Oh, and poor Emma.
But most of all, as is, sadly, too common in romances, male characters are rather bland and unexciting.

How it enriched my life:
I liked how it put more life into Georgiana than she ever had. It also reminded me that I need to re-read at least three of Austen books.

Fun fact:
Brinton really dislikes Emma. She only seems to see the Emma from the first half of the novel, who tries to matchmake people with little thought or concern for anything. But you know, I never found Emma as annoying as most people do, maybe because my first contact with her was through Gwyneth Paltrow’s version and I quite liked her.

Follow-up:
This: Longbourn (another fan fiction, sort of). Mansfield Park. Persuasion. Sense and Sensibility. And then some other things from that list of recommendations. But it will take a while because I like to mix up my reading and not spend a few months in Regency England.

Recommended for:
If anything I wrote in the “What It Is” section sounds interesting, go for it. But it’s for pretty hardcore Austen fans or people who really like this mostly carefree, slow atmosphere.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Zootopia

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Bookworming

Queer Romance: Tipping the Velvet

er-tippingthevelvetThe first time I heard of Sarah Waters was when Atwood praised her in a review. I made a mental note to check her out and then forgot about it. Some time later I came upon her described as the author of lesbian Victoriana, which is hardly very respectful but still kind of intriguing (I love Victorian stories, did I mention that?). So when I finally got hold of her novel and it turned out to be exactly that (at least on some level), I both enjoyed that fact and wondered what else Ms. Waters had to offer.

Because if you imagine what “lesbian Victoriana” might look like, you’ve probably hit more or less on the story and feel of Tipping the Velvet. Nancy works in an oyster parlor (yes, I’ll get to that) but harbors love for music halls and it is there that she encounters Kitty, who performs dressed as a man. A pretty standard love affair follows, in which one girl joyfully embraces her new homosexual identity while the other refuses to admit to it, which obviously leads to a (quite predictable) clash – and it is only the beginning (or, you know, first half). The story itself is hardly revolutionary but interesting enough. Waters tries her hand at describing a few different environments of Victorian England: wholesome parochial community, bohemian world of music halls, debauched upper classes and poor-yet-working-for-utopia communist intellectuals. I found all these worlds sufficiently different, colorful and memorable. They also catalyze Nancy’s transformations.

Nancy’s story is a rather generic tale of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, complete with a perfect fairy-tale ending, when everyone comes together and Nancy gets to choose her perfect partner. And I’m not sophisticated enough not to love such a closed, happy ending, sorry. But the real literary wonder happens in the language. The whole story is full of seemingly innocent allusions and jokes that reference current LGBT culture. For example, once Nancy joins the act in male clothing and needs a scenic name, she, quite randomly, decides upon King. One of the characters, though not a warrior princess, is called Zena (with a Z, but still). The word queer appears many more times than statistically likely. Even the oyster parlor, though not exactly a word game, is a similar nod to the reader.

This game, however, has a second side. While modern elements of “queer” culture are, seemingly innocently, incorporated into the Victorian tale, the language of the era also appears. Because it is, I assume, meaningless to the modern reader, the appropriate expressions are explained by the characters as Nancy gets to know her new world. This includes most notably the title, which had it used a more recognizable synonym, would jump out to you from a bookshelf as rather risqué (if not downright vulgar). But because it doesn’t function in the language anymore in its Watersian meaning, we only get the joke once it’s explained by one of the characters.* Playing with slang like this is fun in its own way but also it makes an important point: homosexuality is not only a sexual orientation but also a whole culture that changes with time (even if Waters’ heroines are surprisingly modern in some of their behaviors).

I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot and am looking forward to Waters’ next novels. I have no idea how she could continue with more of “lesbian Victoriana” because Tipping the Velvet pretty much covers it all but maybe she found new ways to tell the same stories or even completely different stories to tell. If you can recommend anything, I will surely try to follow.

* Yes, I suppose you can figure out the meaning by yourself but admit, wouldn’t you, like Nancy, think rather it has something to do with the theater?

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