Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wives and Daughters (Elizabeth Gaskell) - BBC miniseries

Who is Elizabeth Gaskell? I'd never heard of her until Netflix recommended the BBC's renditions of her stories based on my interest in Jane Austen's tales. Elizabeth Gaskell was a British novelist born in 1810, near the end of Austen's life. I can't say I've ever heard of her novels except through Netflix, but now I've had the pleasure to view two four-episode miniseries based on her novels North and South and Wives and Daughters. While Austen's works deal more often with the top levels of society, what I've seen of Gaskell's stories deals more with the working middle class.

I saw North and South first and gave it three stars. I liked it, but I couldn't get over how it seemed like another Pride and Prejudice, only for the working class. I like Pride and Prejudice a lot, and North and South didn't quite match it, though the BBC did a fine job and the story was full of the conflicts between the aristocracy of the working class and the poor laborers. It was intriguing. The romance, however, was somewhat baffling. The man seemed very cold, almost never smiling (I tell you, it was like Pride and Prejudice!), and I couldn't quite understand what the heroine saw in him, besides his good looks. Perhaps the book does the romance more justice. Also, the story ends with a very tender, romantic kiss, which I've been told is very unlikely for the times (any kiss at all), but perhaps Gaskell's times were more advanced than Austen's, or perhaps it was more appropriate for the working class (or maybe the BBC just took artistic license, which I didn't really mind; the kiss is sweet).

Having enjoyed one Gaskell story, I decided to try another, Wives and Daughters. While it is a romance, it is more about the relationships 17-year-old Mollie Gibson, daughter of her small town's doctor, forms with her new stepmother, stepsister, and the other townspeople. It was a beautiful, heart-wrenching story with a lovely ending. I cried at parts. And I gave it four stars. Elizabeth Gaskell never finished the novel, so I don't know exactly how much liberty the BBC took to give the tale an ending. Sadly, but perhaps more in line with the times, there is no kiss between the hero and heroine. Nonetheless, it's a moving love story, a lot about not seeing that the person right in front of you who shares your passions is actually your soul mate. Some say Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's best work. I was pleased with it myself, and if you have the time to spend watching four 75-minute episodes, I think you will enjoy it too.

I just thought I'd pass on this surprising find. Am I the only one who knows nothing about Elizabeth Gaskell?

Friday, May 20, 2011

How the Movie Rating System has Failed You

A friend of mine recently suggested I blog about my opinions on the current movie rating system, and I thought that would be perfect for the purposes of this blog. I grew up very conservatively when it came to movie watching, and I'm glad I did. My parents didn't watch R-rated movies, even when I wasn't around, and they watched PG-13 very cautiously, always ready to either fast forward (this was before DVDs) or turn off the TV if there was anything objectionable. Objectionable usually meant sexual. I don't remember my parents being too concerned about violence or even language. If I heard the F-word as a child, I had no idea it was even a curse word. But I'm sure my parents were careful about that too. I remember watching parts of The Mission and Dances With Wolves, both movies with violence in them. Of course, I remember watching only parts, so even violence was monitored for my age. But sex in movies was completely out, even for my parents, with or without me.

My views, tastes, and watching have become more mature, but at heart, these rules are still important to me. I once heard a father say he'd let his children watch sex over violence. I'm glad he wasn't mine. Our culture would most definitely say sex is safer than violence. That's reflected right in our rating system. Here's why I don't agree.

Violence is more physically harmful than sex, in most cases, yes. But extramarital sex is emotionally harmful in such a way that most people don't even realize they are being harmed. Sex pervades our culture's movies, books, and thoughts so much that our homes are filled with divorce and single parents, our schools are filled with pregnant teens, our leaders are caught in immorality and scandal. We've treated it so lightly for so long that it doesn't mean anything anymore. But just look around you and you can't tell me it's harmless.

As for violence, there are relatively few instances where teens commit violence because they watch it on TV or because they play violent video games. In fact, a young friend of mine had a rude awakening in the army when a gun was placed in his hands and he was told he was going to have to shoot people. It didn't seem real to him until then. Usually, when we hear about violent teens, the causes are numerous and more complex: family neglect or abuse, social ineptitude. A healthy kid doesn't want to go kill people, but he or she might easily be convinced that sex is no big deal.

The truth is sex is a huge deal. It's good and special and not meant for people who haven't already given each other everything else in marriage. It's the dessert, the icing on the cake, and it is the most vulnerable part of ourselves we give away. Of course, that's emotionally damaging when taken so lightly and carelessly.

My argument, then, is for a rating system that tells you exactly what you're getting. The MPAA might tell you a movie is rated such and such for this and that, but it's not an accurate picture. For example, The King's Speech is a brilliant movie, rated R. Unless your kid is home-schooled (and even then sometimes), I guarantee you he or she has heard the F-word by the age of 13. This movie could easily be rated PG-13. There's nothing more than a long string of curse words spoken in frustration by a man trying to learn how to speak publicly so that he can be a good prince and king. If you don't want your child to hear curse words like that at the age of 13, you're still allowed to use your own judgment and not let them go to the movie, but an R-rating is hardly necessary.

Then there's despicably graphic movies like Black Swan, another movie of the year. It's rated R, but I'm embarrassed to say I watched it. It definitely deserves a higher rating. The self-violence was creepy, but that was rated appropriately enough. The lesbian sex scene was sheer pornography. If it had been a man and woman, it would have been just as awful and disgusting. People really need to be warned about this stuff, and a simple R rating isn't enough. The King's Speech and Black Swan cannot possibly be rated the same, you would think, but they are.

It's no wonder my parents avoided R-rated movies, and I can understand why they avoid PG-13. Just about every romantic comedy out now is rated PG-13 and features a sexual relationship between two people, even if it isn't shown in detail. Sometimes, unfortunately, more detail is given. Since when is 13 a good age to expose teens to sex? I guess, since sex became part of teenagers' lives.

I'm definitely not accusing the rating system of creating the society we live in today. That would be ridiculous. But hey, it's sure not helping, is it? Just something to think about.

My parents would say this proves their stance right, and I don't knock them for that. Sometimes the best way to go is complete removal of the things that could tempt us. Fleeing temptation is always right. On the other hand, my artistic senses find lots of value in certain movies or books, despite the errant views and representations here and there. Will I cease to watch all R-rated movies? No. I don't feel that conviction. But I will watch carefully, moderately, with an awareness that I could be getting more than I bargained for.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Night Circus

A circus is supposed to be magical and is often a little bit scary (clowns, hello!). The Night Circus is unlike any other circus in the world, but magical it is, and if its performers knew the true nature of their stage, they would be scared, and with good reason. But as you read The Night Circus, a novel by Erin Morgenstern (adult fiction, for once!), it is nothing but pure magic, in both the literal and figurative senses. Sometimes you enter the circus as an outsider, enjoying the scents and miracles within, but most often, you get front row seats to the inner happenings, a backstage pass.

In The Night Circus, two old magicians with real magic each select a student to compete against the other in a challenge. It's not immediately clear what the rules are or how the winner will be determined. Hector chooses his daughter Celia, and Alexander chooses a random orphan named Marco. They train them in very different ways from childhood through their teens and then place them on their "stage," a unique circus especially designed for the challenge and with higher stakes than any challenge before as this one is public and involves a great number of outsiders.

The circus is a huge success from the beginning. Everything about it is designed to be intimate and spectacular. Only performers with unique shows and talents can participate, and the circus is open to audiences only from sundown to dawn, appearing out of nowhere, leaving without a trace. But the circus is truly magical because of the influences of Celia and Marco, each leaving their mark, creating more and more illusions as the years progress, neither quite understanding how to compete against the other, each beginning to love the other's work...and eventually each other. Gentle souls that they are, they keep the circus in balance, protecting it and the other performers.

But they are bound by magic, and in the end, there can be only one winner.

Magical, magical, magical to the very last page! How could you not love this book? It fascinates you with the best parts of the circus and draws you in with its mystery. In certain ways, it is very like a mystery as you discover more and more of the secrets of the circus and learn, together with the competing magicians, just what their challenge involves. The circus is also a complete mystery to its audience, which the reader is sometimes made to feel a part of even though we often have the inside scoop, and we can identify with audience characters, especially those who become attached to the circus in a deeper way than the average paying customer. It's a cleverly written book, making the reader feel as though opening its pages is entering through the gates of the circus itself. A normal circus is intriguing enough but often somewhat in-your-face and scary. Thankfully, there are no clowns in this book, and even the circus tents are set up intimately so that no performer is haggling anyone or persuading anyone to visit his tent. Visitors get to visit the tents they want at their own pace. The circus is inviting, enticing, and as a reader, you completely feel its pull and warmth.

The only other book I can think of to compare The Night Circus to is The Prestige (also a movie), though I couldn't say for sure, only ever having seen the movie and not having read the book. In The Prestige, however, the explanations are all scientific (though in the realm of science fiction). In The Night Circus, everything is real magic. For all of you who are more into movies than books, there is another similarity between the two. Summit Entertainment has purchased the film rights to this book, and I wouldn't be surprised to find the movie out within a couple years.

My short word of caution on this book involves, unsurprisingly, magic itself. In a book like this, no form of magic bothers me. Tarot card reading is mixed in with the ability to disappear or heal oneself. Obviously, in the real world, people can't disappear, but they do read tarot cards, and I would normally discourage a person from being involved with something like that. In this book, it's all on the same level, impossible magic next to real-world "magic," lending the real-world magic an air of fantasy, putting it all in the realm of fiction. In such a case, I don't have a problem with tarot cards, because they aren't meant to be believed any more than any other magic in the story. But if a conscience-abiding reader cannot, or does not want to, separate real-world magic from fiction like that, I would advise against reading this story. That's my only disclaimer.

I can't imagine the movie capturing even half the book, but I do look forward to visiting the circus again in that way one day. Probably by then, I will have forgotten enough of the book to be captured all over again by the magic. I can only hope!

Look for The Night Circus in hardcover in September of this year.

The King's Speech on DVD (2011)

The King's Speech is one R-rated movie that is well worth seeing. It's rated R only for language, and although the F-word is used, it is not upsetting, and if there ever were a time to use it, the way it is used in this movie is one of those times.

Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter star in this true-to-life tale of King George VI, the father of the current Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. Known as Bertie to his family, Prince Albert later chose the name George to be his royal name and carry on the legacy of his own father. At the beginning of The King's Speech, Bertie is not yet king, and in fact, his older brother is in line to be king before him. The problem is, that brother loves a divorced woman, an American, and he cannot be king and marry her. His brother abdicates for love, but Bertie is not considered a much better choice since he cannot speak publicly. He can barely speak to his own children without a stutter. He's hired physicians, but they have not helped, counseling him even to smoke to relax his lungs. Then his wife (played by Carter) finds a speech therapist (Rush) with unconventional but proven methods, and after some persuasion, Bertie goes to see him.

The rest of the story details the efforts they go through to help him speak in public, leading through his coronation and up to an all important speech to the country as they enter war against the Germans. It's mesmerizing and beautiful, even with all the cursing, which somehow only makes it feel real, rather than dirty. Colin Firth does an amazing job as the king, his frustration so palpable and heart-wrenching, and Helena Bonham Carter is perfect and believable in her counter-stereotype role as his loving, supportive wife. Most of all, the movie presents a moving tale of the friendship of two men, one a king and one not even a proper doctor but a man who believed in a king.

This movie deserves its title for Best Picture of 2010, and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

There's a New Name in School (The Ashleys, Book 1)

NOTICE (July 7, 2012): The following review remains the same as when I originally wrote it, but for my opinion now on the way I wrote this review, please read "Would You Say That to My Face?," which can also be found under the tab "Musings."

Dumbest. Book. Ever. Okay, so maybe it's not, but it is the most worthless piece of fiction I've read in a long time. Why did I keep it on my shelf for three years?

There's a New Name in School (The Ashleys, Book 1) is a middle school novel by Melissa de la Cruz. There are three Ashleys in the seventh grade at Miss Gamble's Preparatory School for Girls. And there's one Lauren. The Ashleys are a club, and they have always tormented Lauren. But over the summer, Lauren's family got super rich, and Lauren got super beautiful. So, now, Lauren is going to try to become one of the Ashleys in order to take them down from the inside. The only problem is she's desperate for their approval. It's hard to take something down when all you want to do is be a part of it.

In the end, the Ashleys live on, and Lauren ruins her chances at anything. There's nothing happy or positive about this book, and I felt near sick reading about how shallow and cruel people can be. I suppose middle school is the epitome of this sometimes, but who wants to read about it if there's not going to be a happy ending? I guess this is why I've never heard of the book except for my own advance reader's copy after it came out in 2008. It's supposed to be Book 1, too. I wonder how that went?

One star. Absolute waste of time.