Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen

How is it that I'd never read this before?  Okay, it's because I really knew absolutely nothing about it before this year, whereas I knew the general gist of Austen's other major works, thanks to movies or articles I'd read or whatever.  But Northanger Abbey slipped through the cracks.  In my great quest to read all of Austen's novels in one year (which I have now completed, yay me!), I saved this for last because it's always nice to read something new by a beloved author.  And also, I was a little worried I wouldn't care much for it, since if people don't talk about it much, it must not be all that great, right?


Okay, it's obviously not as magnificent as Pride and Prejudice, as thought-provoking as Sense and Sensibility, etc.  Instead, it is fun.  The whole novel revolves around one long joke about how the heroine, Miss Catherine Morland, can't possibly be the heroine of a novel.  Nothing exciting happens to her, she's not beautiful, her parents and family are all alive and healthy, she's not unhappy, no one kidnaps her, no royalty fall in love with her, she never meets up with a ghost... you get the idea.  What she does do is lead a sweet, ordinary life, fall in love with a nice man, get involved in a misunderstanding or two, and wind up happy.

I laughed aloud over and over during this book, and I'm inclined to reread it already.  I love books that make me laugh aloud; they almost invariably become favorites of mine.  On that merit alone, Northanger Abbey would join Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion as my most favoritest Austen novels.  But this book also has very believable characters, the sorts that you could meet up with in real life.  No archetypes, no mysterious and wealthy strangers, no near-fatal illnesses.  Just people being people :-)  I found that especially endearing.  In fact, I believe Henry Tilney has supplanted Mr. Knightley as my second-favorite Austen hero.

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Catherine Morland visits Bath with some family friends and falls in love with Henry Tilney, a young minister with a lively sense of humor.

Particularly Good Bits:

"Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love."

"...for I will not adopt the ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"

"The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Skyfall" (2012) -- Initial Thoughts

When I got in the car to go see "Skyfall" this morning, Adele's theme song for it was playing on the car radio.  An auspicious sign, eh?  I'd really never heard it all the way through, and I quite liked it.  I haven't really jumped on the Adele bandwagon, but if anything would tempt me to, it would be this song.  (Watch the official video here.)  It harkens back to the great Bond movie themes, the ones you can belt to the rafters like "Nobody Does it Better," yet also reminds me a lot of the songs for GoldenEye and Casino Royale.   Quite the heady mix, and it got me very much ready for a sweet, adrenaline-laced ride.  I hoped I wouldn't be disappointed like I was last time around.

And I wasn't.


Skyfall is not as sleek and insouciant as Casino Royale.  However, it is also not as clunky and glitchy as Quantum of Solace.  It is cheekier than both of the previous Daniel Craig outings, but also more heartfelt.  Stop reading right here if you don't want spoilage, because I am going to spoil a whole lot of stuff, and if you haven't seen this yet and really want to, you are gonna be mad at yourself if you read the rest of this post.  Trust me, just close the browser tab and come back once you've visited the theater.

Okay, you've been duly warned.

Linger here and gaze at your own peril.  You could drown in those eyes.

Let's begin with the opening sequence, shall we?  This one is jam-packed, with a car chase, a motorcycle chase, and a good, old-fashioned fist-fight on top of a train.  Which goes on to involve an excavator -- I kept thinking how I can't wait for Dano to be old enough to watch movies like this, because he would love the whole excavator part (if it wasn't for all the shooting going on during it, I'd show him that part just cuz it'd probably make him laugh in glee).  But this opening sequence deviates in one very important way from all other 007 movies (at least, the ones I've seen), making it very clear that this movie is going some different places.  James Bond does not win.

In fact, he doesn't even come close to winning, though through no fault of his own.  He gets shot by his own teammate, thus raising the question of just who we -- and he -- can trust.

But, obviously, he can't have actually died only ten minutes or so into the movie.  When he returns, he's haggard, he's haunted, and above all, he's not entirely sure he's up to this job anymore.  In other words, he's quite delicious.

Look who needs a hug!
M tries her best to bolster his (and her) confidence, a new Q arms him (and delivers my favorite line of the movie:  "Were you expecting an exploding pen?  Because we don't really go in for those anymore."  I laughed and laughed), and dear James gets sent off to Shanghai after the guy who killed off another agent at the beginning of the movie and stole, well, basically the equivalent of the NOC list from Mission:  Impossible (1996), but hey, new MacGuffins are hard to find these days.

I knew, from reading reviews of this movie, and interviews with various people involved, that they were bringing back some of the quips and bon mots that had mostly been missing from the last two movies.  I was expecting to laugh, and I did, quite a few times.  I was not expecting, however, that I would cry.  I don't think I have ever cried during a James Bond movie.  But I cried at the end of Skyfall.  Because M dies, cradled by Bond in a sort of reverse Pieta that was hauntingly filmed and achingly well acted.

Which brings me to the subject of Sam Mendes, who directed this.  I've seen two of his previous movies, American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002).  I didn't care much for the former, but the latter is one of my favorite neo-noir movies, and it made me hope a great deal that Skyfall was not going to have the crummy camera-work and wonky pacing of Quantum of Solace.  Again, I did not hope in vain.

Remind me again why you drove me to the middle of nowhere, Bond.
I have to think that the dead guy in the bathroom at the beginning of this is a nod to the way Daniel Craig's character died in Road to Perdition, and it made me grin.  Also, the last part of the movie, where James Bond and M go on the run, just them and a car, reminded me a great deal of the father and son on the lam in Road, only with the "son" driving and protecting and planning.  Even the ending, with them confronting their pursuers in a house miles from anywhere, had echoes of Road.

Okay, anyway, Skyfall has lots of great nods and winks to the classic 007 movies, from the Aston Martin with the ejector seat and machine guns, to a bunch of Komodo Dragons circling around under a walkway, very like those sharks from Thunderball (1965).  It also as the creepiest 007 movie bad guy since... um... since Christopher Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  (And that's saying a lot, since we all know Christopher Lee = Ultra Creepy.  When he wants to be.)  Javier Bardem's Silva is creeeeeeeepy, and I don't mean just cuz he hits on Bond in the creepiest way he can manage, or because he can take out his top teeth.  He exudes creeeeeeepiness and is scary in the that-guy's-brain-is-a-bag-full-of-cats way you can't figure what he'll do next.

Only a crazy person would wear that shirt, amiright?
Actually, speaking of Loki, they put Silva in a glass prison cell that had me instantly thinking of the cage on the helicarrier where Nick Fury stashed Loki.  And also of Magneto's plastic prison in X-Men and X-2.  Hmm.

Anyway, by the end of the movie, we have a new Q, a new M, and a new Moneypenny.  But the same Bond.  Whew, cuz I like the way Daniel Craig fills Bond's tuxedo (literally and figuratively), and I'm not in any hurry to see him replaced.

Oh, and also, is Albert Finney ever anything less than delightful?  I can't believe how many UK acting heavyweights are in this movie!  Finney, Dame Judi Dench, and Ralph Feinnes... I kept expecting to see Ian McKellen pop up somewhere.  Guess I have to wait for next month for my Gandalf fix, though.

One last note -- kudos to the filmmakers for staying classy and not letting this devolve into soft porn.  All (all!) the love scenes faded to black at appropriate moments.

In sum, is this my new favorite 007 movie?  No.  I still love GoldenEye and Casino Royale best.  But I look forward to seeing this again.  (From Redbox or something, Cowboy -- stop panicking!)

Friday, November 02, 2012

"Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen

The first time I read Mansfield Park, I didn't like it much at all.  This time around, I liked it a good bit better, though it's still my least-favorite Jane Austen novel so far.  (I haven't read Northanger Abbey yet -- that's up next!)  This time, it helped that I'd just read a long discussion of this book, a conversation between A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre in the book Imagining Characters:  Six Conversations About Women Writers.  It helped me get a bit of perspective on the interplay between Fanny and the other characters, pointing out that while Fanny is extremely passive (which irritated me so much the first time through), she's also very observant, and much better at discerning a person's qualities and character than anyone else in the book.  I kept an eye out for instances of that when I read it this time, and found it much more interesting.

While I'm still frustrated with Fanny's overwhelming reticence, and have little sympathy with her "habits of ready submission," (p. 298) I've come to appreciate what I think Jane Austen was trying to say with this book.  It's a kind of morality play, really, full of archetypes more than realistic characters.  This book, to me, is a warning against excess -- each character pursues or possesses one character quality or flaw to such a degree that it unbalances them and makes them unable to be happy.  Henry Crawford is too proud of his own abilities to interest women, too attached to his own flirtatiousness.  Fanny Price has such low self-esteem that she believes herself to be unworthy of anyone's notice, affection, or interest except that of her elder brother, William.  Edmund Bertram is too fond of the idea of romantic love to listen to reason when applied to the object of his affections, Mary Crawford.  Mrs. Norris is so fond of being in charge that she not only runs her own life in the strictest manner possible, she alienates everyone around her by trying to run their lives too.  And so on, and so forth, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  The warning here, that if you lack what Edmund calls "the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire -- the knowledge of ourselves and our duty," (p384) you're going to wind up unhappy or annoying or both.

If you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where poor Fanny Price goes to live with her rich cousins, the Bertrams, and while growing up with them, falls in love with her cousin Edmund, possibly the most oblivious man ever written.

(Note:  It wasn't until about halfway through this reading that I realized that Filch's cat Mrs. Norris in the Harry Potter books is named after the Mrs. Norris in this book.  Also, both times I read this, I could clearly imagine Agnes Moorehead playing Mrs. Norris.  She would have been perfect -- too bad she never played the character.)

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Happy Halloween, Asgard-style

It's okay, Loki couldn't decide who to be for Halloween either.

(I know, it's actually a day late.  Sorry.  My life was overrun with small mice yesterday.)