Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)

Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)
Oh, to be in England...

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Help- Great flick, now I have to read the book!

The Help movie based on the book by Kathryn Stockett
Apparently I am one of the few North American women who have not read The Help. I did however get a chance to see the film on the weekend. I absolutely loved it! It was nice for a change not to know the plot of the film and simply lose myself in the story. For anyone who doesn't know the basic premise of the film, this synopsis is from the film's IMDb page:

Emma Stone as Skeeter, Octavia Spencer as Minny and Viola Davis as Aibileen

Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, Skeeter (Stone) is a southern society girl who returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends' lives -- and a Mississippi town -- upside down when she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families. Aibileen (Davis), Skeeter's best friend's housekeeper, is the first to open up -- to the dismay of her friends in the tight-knit black community. Despite Skeeter's life-long friendships hanging in the balance, she and Aibileen continue their collaboration and soon more women come forward to tell their stories -- and as it turns out, they have a lot to say. Along the way, unlikely friendships are forged and a new sisterhood emerges, but not before everyone in town has a thing or two to say themselves when they become unwittingly -- and unwillingly -- caught up in the changing times.

Emma Stone as Skeeter a modern woman in a backwards 1960s Southern town
I have heard some criticism of the book and the film because it was a story about "black women" written by a "white woman". I really don't like white and black as labels. Particularly since the line between the two gets blurrier every year (thankfully). How dark skinned do  you have to be before you are considered black?  If Halle Berry is considered black, is her daughter also black? Halle's daughter has 3 white grandparents and one black grandparent. At what point is a person considered white or black? My kids were raised to understand that skin colour is a spectrum from very dark to very light with everything in between and we never use the terms white and black for skin tone in our house. OK, now I'll get off my soapbox!

The Help movie is both funny and serious
The point is that this film seems to fairly accurately portray many sides of  a complicated history of the Southern US in the 1960s. I learned the term "Jim Crow Laws" in my research. These are the supposed "separate but equal" segregation laws enacted between 1876 and 1965.

The fact that someone (whatever colour their skin) thought that this was an important enough topic to write about is the important thing. That the descendants of the oppressed minorities of the Deep South need to tell this story too is self evident. In fact, some of these women are still alive and perhaps they would like to tell the story in their own words. I suggest the title "The Real Help" and it will probably sell millions of copies!

Bryce Dallas Howard and Sissy Spacek clash wonderfully as mother and daughter (and Octavia Spencer's pie is a star too!)
And the really important point is that The Help is an entertaining film (it'll have you laughing and dabbing tears) and it's heart is in the right place. A film covering sensitive topics will always hit a raw nerve somewhere, but this one is two thumbs up for me. I'd love to see it again...but I'll likely read the book first!

P.S. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the antagonist, Hilly, in the film and the resemblance to her father Ron Howard is remarkable. She did such a great job playing the meanie that it made me cringe!

P.P.S. Sissy Spacek is solid gold!

The HelpThe Help

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dame Maggie Smith- Actor of the Week

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey
Maggie Smith can entertain me like few other actresses of any age. Whether she is firing off hilarious acerbic one liners in Downton Abbey as Violet the Dowager Countess ("What is a weekend?") or when she does witchcraft as Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter with a twinkle in her eye ("I've always wanted to use that spell").

Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter series
"It's true I don't tolerate fools but then they don't tolerate me, so I am spiky. Maybe that's why I'm quite good at playing spiky elderly ladies."

Maggie Smith as Constance Countess of Trentham and her maid Mary from Gosford Park
As for her role as Violet, the Dowager Countess, Maggie Smith remarks, "It is very satisfying to play a character such as Violet...Julian (Fellowes) is good at those sorts of ladies. This is the third old lady I've played for him, so I am getting the hang of it now," Smith laughs.

Maggie Smith in her Oscar winning performance with Michael Caine in California Suite 1978
This wonderful actress has won 2 Academy Awards (for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 1969 and for California Suite 1978) and has been nominated for 3 more as well as being made a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1990. She has two sons by her first marriage to actor Robert Stephens (one of whom is the yummy Toby Stephens from Jane Eyre) and had a very happy second marriage to playwright Beverley Cross who died in 1998.

Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench in A Room with a View
I remember her first for her spate of Agatha Christie mysteries (or spoof of same by Neil Simon) from the 1970s (Murder by Death, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun) but one of her best will always be as prim passive-aggressive chaperone Charlotte Bartlett from A Room with a View.

Charlotte Bartlett: I shall never forgive myself.
Lucy Honeychurch: You always say that, Charlotte. And then you always do forgive yourself.

Maggie Smith surprises Rupert Grint with a kiss at the London premiere of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince 2009
She may be spiky but that's OK. We adore you Maggie!!!!

I don't know about you but I can't wait for season 2 of Downton Abbey!

Keeping MumThe Prime of Miss Jean BrodieMy House in UmbriaGosford ParkTea With MussoliniMasterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey (Original UK Unedited Edition)Washington SquareLadies in LavenderNeil Simon's California SuiteBecoming JaneA Room With a View (Two-Disc Special Edition)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gorgeous but disappointing films- Marie Antoinette and Girl With a Pearl Earring

Kirsten Dunst as the iconic Marie Antoinette

Scarlett Johansson as Vermeer's iconic Girl With a Pearl Earring
As my regular readers well know, there are few period dramas I don't like (or love!) and even these two have many redeeming qualities, but I have to say that they were both gorgeous disappointments for me. Both Marie Antoinette and Girl With a Pearl Earring are based on books (the former on a biography by Antonia Fraser and the latter a work of fiction by Tracy Chevalier) and both could have been great films. But alas they are not great. More like so-so films with some pretty breathtaking cinematography.

Am I the only one creeped out by Colin Firth's wig?!

As I have recently arrived home from a trip to Paris and Amsterdam/Delft, I was scouring my DVD collection for films with either French or Dutch influences to watch and write about. These two leapt out at me. As we had actually just been to Delft, the quaint historic town where Vermeer spent his entire life, I pulled out Girl With a Pearl Earring first. I mean, how can you miss with Colin Firth, ScarJo, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parfitt?

Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parfitt as Vermeer's patron and mother-in-law are truly wonderful

The indoor sets and the artistic quality of the lighting were lovely, although the outdoor shots were more like Venice than Delft, largely because they reused a set in Luxembourg where a film set in Venice was shot. Sigh. The real canals as they are just as they would have been in Vermeer's time but I guess filming on location is difficult. And although the acting seems to be good, they just didn't lose me in their characters. I still felt I was watching Colin Firth in a bad wig (although the one on Cillian Murphy was worse!) and ScarJo in a bonnet.

Cillian Murphy in a fright wig and Scarlett Johansson in a bonnet

Judy Parfitt as Vermeer's mother-in-law and Tom Wilkinson as his lecherous patron were spot on however. So, I can still recommend watching it to learn about Vermeer and his amazing works, of which only 34 now survive. And watch it because it is gorgeous and sumptuous in it's scenery, costumes and cinematography.

Sumptuous and colourful, this could also be a painting!
And now on to Marie Antoinette. Filmed almost entirely in France (and director Sofia Coppola even got permission to film in the Palace of Versailles!) there is no doubt that this film is one of the most visually pleasing I have ever seen. That alone is reason to watch it. Eye candy is probably the most often used term to describe Marie Antoinette.

Not surprising that they were guillotined by the poor starving peasants!

There is a lot of great historical content in this film too and although not perfectly correct, it is probably closer to the truth than most bio pics. So what was it that bugged me about this film? Was it the weird mix of accents, from American to British to French (real and faked)?

OK, the costumes alone make the film worth watching

If I compare it to Shakespeare in Love, which is one of my absolute "can't do without" films, there is just a lack of heart and soul to the film. I just didn't care whether they got their heads chopped off at the end. And that is never a good sign in a film...

Mmmmmmm.....Marie Antoinette shoes from the film. Manolo Blahnik made hundreds....
So watch this film for the costumes, the shoes, the food, the scenery, the furniture and even the history....just don't watch it to be swept away by the story. 

Marie AntoinetteGirl With a Pearl Earring



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