Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Friday, March 24, 2017

Not right assumptions regarding Jane Austen

A report of an alarming nature has reached me,as well as many others, of late about a new set of Jane Austen admirers, with their attentions and intentions being less than admirable.

The "alt-right", as they call themselves are insistent that the works of Jane Austen validate many of their erroneous viewpoints, one of which being that she would be a proponent of "traditional marriage."

Clearly these people have not read her books or know anything of the social standards of that time period. A traditional marriage in Austen's day was one based on social and financial compatibility instead of love, a system that she clearly bucked at every turn in her novels, not only Pride and Prejudice but even in later works such as Mansfield Park and Emma.

One of the best known sections of the book has Mr. Knightley and Emma quarreling over the martial prospects of Harriet Smith and while Emma interfered with that relationship for her own selfish reasons, some of her points do make sense in regards to how women were viewed during that era:

Later on in the story, Emma declares that she has no intention of being married herself as she "neither lacks fortune or consequence", a rather revolutionary statement there.

I suspect that many of these wrong headed folk are quick to assume that because a strong portion of Austen's audience is female and her stories take place in a long ago England(during the Georgian/Regency period and not the Victorian era as an infamous lout has mistakenly claimed), that her writing is of the Mary meek and mild category.

Those of us,all around the world, I might add, who have taken the time to thoroughly read her work along side enjoying the numerous film and TV adaptations of her stories, are fully aware of the sharp jabs at society she makes under the guise of a romance, touching upon the role of women in society and abuse of power by others. Her points may be subtle ones yet they are there, if one only looks at the full picture she paints.

Also, her leading ladies, for the most part, are women who know their own mind and when push comes to shove, will stand up against unasked for aggression and hold their own. Elizabeth Bennet comes readily to mind here and as well mannered as she is, Elizabeth refuses to be bullied by anyone regardless of "rank":

In fact, Austen was such a forward thinker for her day that it's no surprise that not only have her six novels and other writings have aced the test of time but that they adapt well to modern times.

From Clueless to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Austen's themes of people being pigeonholed by social hierarchy, intolerance of others from different walks of life and disrespect of women's rights are sadly as relevant today as they were in her time.

Even her most obnoxious characters, such as Lady Catherine, Aunt Norris and the toadying Mr. Collins, seem all too true to life and much like we're doing these days, their follies were coped with through humor and holding firm when necessary:

Hopefully, some of these narrow minded people will actually read Austen's books and perhaps expand their political and social horizons there. Any truly good book can do that, if you only let it.

In the meantime, I would strongly advise against misusing the excellent name of Jane Austen by such short minded opportunists as her devoted readers will feel honor bound to #FreeJaneAusten from their clutches. Certainly any future leadership that holds true to Jane Austen's sterling examples of the greater good will be more generous to all members of society than the current one appears to be:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Some thrilling reads coming to a theater near you

As the spring into summer movie season begins, the usual batch of blockbuster fare is set to arrive at multiplexes everywhere and while many of those big budget action packed films will be worth watching, some smaller yet sinister cinema will be waiting in the wings as well.

Those thriller flicks will also offer a slow burn in their story lines as several of them are based on books such as The Dinner by Herman Koch. The plot setting is simple as two families(made up of Richard Gere,Rebecca Hall,Steve Coogan and Laura Linney) get together at a prestigious restaurant for more than just a meal.

As it turns out, each family has a teenage son,both of whom got into serious trouble that could affect not only their futures but the political aspirations of one of their fathers and the social standing of the other. With the dining atmosphere getting more toxic with each course, some ugly truths are placed on the table for all to reluctantly savor.

This novel is translated from the original Dutch and I hope that the American film version does as good of a job adapting to the big screen. We shall soon see as the movie is due to hit theaters this May and if not, the book will certainly be around for some page turning dark delights:

Next, we have Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach(best known for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) which takes us back to Amsterdam of the 1630s. The title flower is the hot ticket item amongst the well-to-do folk yet merchant Cornelius Sandvoot(Christoph Waltz) finds his young bride Sophia(Alicia Vikander) to be more of a prize worth displaying.

To that end, he commissions a portrait of her by up and coming artist Jan Van Loos(Dane DeHaan) that also features the popular flower. However, Sophia and Jan wind up falling in love and their plans to be together take a rather deadly turn. With Tom Stoppard adapting the screenplay, the tense story telling should make for a smartly steamy late summer treat:

 To go forward into more modern times, Dave Eggers' The Circle has an eager young heroine, Mae Holland(Emma Watson) who is excited to be taking her first job at a major league internet company.

That company, run by the charismatic Eamon Bailey(Tom Hanks), seems to the ideal work place that treats it's staff like family. As Mae rises through the ranks, she gets more of an inside look into how certain policies are enforced through online surveillance and cutting off actual family ties.

As Mae grows disenchanted with the company and worried that their influence could actually threaten the world, she joins forces with a fellow co-worker(John Boyega) to find a way to break the growing power of The Circle. Quite a few real world issues are touched upon here, which ought to make both the book and film a little extra eerie to say the least this spring:

While it'll be fun to watch some of our favorite superheroes(I am especially looking forward to Wonder Woman) and science fiction epics at the movies this season, it is nice to know that a few down to earth chillers will be available on the cinematic menu.

Even a remake like My Cousin Rachel is a welcome sight to see. Based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel, it was first adapted into film in 1952 and starred Richard Burton and Olivia deHavillard as the leads. The movie received several Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe win for Burton.

This new version has Sam Clafin playing Phillip, a young man who is wary of his recently deceased cousin's wife(Rachel Weisz) who may or may not have contributed to her husband's death. How well it will stand up to it's adaptation ancestor remains to be seen yet one thing is true both then and now-that the book itself is the true winner for audiences of every generation:

Monday, March 20, 2017

A look back at Disney's Beauty and the Beast

The live action remake of Disney's Beauty and the Beast opened up this past weekend to record breaking box office numbers and mostly positive reviews.

Since I'm still recovering from the surprise snow storm that hit us on the East Coast just before spring decided to show up, I thought it would be best to relax at home and have a re-watch of the animated 1991 original film instead.

Yes, I was a full fledged adult when I first saw this movie in theaters and actually got to see it for free as part of a promotion for a remake of Father of the Bride starring Steve Martin(which was fine but doesn't hold a candle to the Spencer Tracy comedy classic). Waiting until after the main feature to see the animated movie was a little awkward but in truth, that was the film I really came to see.

My patience was rewarded in abundance as  B&TB  captivated me with it's breath taking visuals, well written songs and old fashioned romance. It was nominated for Best Picture the following year at the Academy Awards and lead to the creation of Best Animated Film as an official Oscar category, not to mention winning Best Score and Best Song. It's also the first Disney animated feature to be adapted as a Broadway musical and considered by most film folk to be a modern day classic.

Upon seeing it again, a few new things pop into mind. For one, the motif of the outsider is established early on in the story and I don't just mean the backstory behind the Beast.

Belle and her father are both perceived as oddballs in their small town, with his eccentric manners being easily overlooked for the most part as "harmless". Belle, on the other hand, really doesn't have any friends,except for the local bookseller at best, and the big reason for that is her habit of reading.

Just listen to the opening song, which is the whole town singing about how "strange yet special" she is for enjoying books and how "she's nothing like the rest of us", not a typical introduction for the heroine of a Disney cartoon back then. The only one seemingly willing to look past that is Gaston yet that's due to his short sighted view of Belle as suitable arm candy:

Speaking of Gaston, it's a rather sad commentary on our times that he's as relevant a villain now as well as then. While they may not be muscle bound he-man types(except in their own minds), brutish fellas like him are still with us,with their boorish bullying and sexist attitudes and eager embrace of ignorance.

Plenty of Gaston like guys are on the internet these days, with a good number of happy to help henchmen backing them up using tweets and comments to attack those who make them feel intellectually inadequate or force others to bend to their will. Belle uses her wits and politeness to fend him off at first but then has no choice but to resort to outright confrontation when Gaston goes as far as gaslighting her father(a rather dark element for such a story back then).

In the original fairy tale, there is no Gaston. A pair of jealous sisters are the ones who get between the heroine and her love interest but I can see why Disney did some recasting there. The sisters would have been a bit too much like Cinderella, not to mention that making the standard "handsome man" as the clownishly masculine bad guy here really does add nuance to the overall point of the story:

Still, plenty of people argue over whether or not Belle is a proper role model for young women and I say this version is. Yes, she does wind up falling in love with the guy who literally forces his company on her but on her own terms.

For example, Belle stands up to Beast on more than one occasion and refuses to put up with his temper tantrums. In addition, she does make an escape attempt and only goes back when Beast is injured after saving her life from a wolf pack(which she made a valiant effort to defend herself from).

 Not to mention the most romantic moment in the movie is not the big ballroom dance but the gift of a library, which really makes Belle's heart flutter there. Don't get me wrong, the ballroom scene is lovely but the real passion in Belle's eyes was seen when Beast offered her all of those gorgeous books.

Also,unlike a number of Disney leading ladies before her, Belle gets to know her man and become his friend way before developing romantic feelings for him instead of that "love at first sight" tired trope. Believe it or not, Belle made some serious steps forward for future Disney heroines with her inner beauty and brains to match and that shouldn't be taken for granted:

 All in all, the 1991 B&TB still holds up and leaves any retelling, live action or otherwise, with much to live up to. No, it's not perfect but the themes of learning to love yourself and that true love means caring enough about the other person's needs before your own self interest to make the right choices are good ones to pass on.

I'm sure that the new version has much to offer and will probably get people to either re-watch or see for the first time the original animated movie. Whether or not it will be as valued or memorable as that first film remains to be seen.

 At the very least, we have an excuse to listen to those wonderful songs again and for my money, Angela Lansbury's rendition of the theme song is the best. One thing that won't change with the times is the grandness of the music that the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken framed this classic tale as old as time with and for that, we are all the emotionally richer for:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Some page turning TV to look forward to

With a bit more of winter to come as spring grows near, a good place to look for book based films these days is television.

After all, you don't have to worry about a sudden snowstorm hitting while at home watching a movie, plus the price of snacks would certainly be more budget friendly.

One film that is set to arrive soon on the small screen is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, adapted from the nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot, which stars Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, who is shocked to discover that her mother's cancer cells were appropriated for medical research without consent.

Those cells,known as "HeLa" were responsible for numerous breakthroughs in cancer and AIDS treatment yet neither Henrietta or her family were ever made aware of this. With the help of author Skloot(Rose Bryne), Deborah seeks compensation and more importantly, acknowledgment of her mother's unknowing contributions to medical science. HBO will be debuting this remarkable story on April 22, which sounds like a good excuse to celebrate Mother's Day a little earlier this year:

 Another advantage to TV adaptations of books is that the miniseries format works best on that medium to get the full scope of the story.

As she did with three of her other historical fiction works from her Cousin's War series, Philippa Gregory has allowed The White Princess to be turned into another Starz miniseries that follows up The White Queen. Some of the characters introduced in the previous series have been recast here but I have no doubt about the quality of story telling skills from these new actors.

The title princess  is Elizabeth of York(Jodie Comer) who is forced to marry the new King of England, Henry(Jacob Collins-Levy) a young man unswerving in his loyalty to his dementedly devoted mother(Michelle Fairley).

This is a political marriage at best, with one side determined to control Elizabeth but like her infamous mother, she knows her own mind and plays her side of the game with quiet yet steady skill. The series begins on April 16 and will have eight episodes, making those Sunday nights a royal pleasure to behold indeed:

For a full blown flight of fancy, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is planned to be more than just a miniseries. A few new characters and plot twists have been added(with the author's approval) to this version of the modern fantasy classic in order to turn it into a regular series.

Our leading man hasn't changed,however. Shadow Moon(Ricky Whittle) gets an early release from prison due to the death of his beloved wife Laura. Back out in the world, he's offered a job by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday(Ian McShane) as a bodyguard.

Soon enough, Shadow learns that his new boss is a god of old and he,along with a remaining other deities such as Easter(Kristin Chenowith) and Vulcan(Corbin Bernsen)are joining forces to do battle with the new gods born of our modern age like Media(Gillian Anderson) and Technical Boy(Bruce Langley). Fans of this book have been waiting a long time to see this well written wild ride come to cinematic life and on April 30, their wish should be well granted, to say the least:

So, plenty of good books to either reread or catch up on here, making this upcoming spring a good time to enjoy the best of pop culture in the comfort of your own home.

Nothing wrong with going out for a little fresh air and fun, of course but you may want to stay indoors on May 12 as Netflix will be streaming a new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables to be called Anne. Sounds like a good day to call in sick, if you ask me:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Taking literary shelter from the storm

Since I live within the path of the snowstorm named Stella, I went out more than once yesterday to stock up on the necessary provisions.

The important stuff,of course-milk,bread,snacks and a stack of library books. The latter was of immediate concern, as I had a return to make and a book on hold to be picked up.

That must-have read is Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney, a novel with a very NYC state of mind to it. On New Year's Eve of 1984, Lillian is bound and determined to walk all the way to a party, not an easy task considering her age(85) and the rough nature of modern Manhattan from when she started her career in advertising during the 1930s.

As she makes her way around town, encountering all sorts of folks and possibly perilous situations, Lillian thinks over the choices she's made in life and how well they went. Her night journey turns into a walk through the past not only for herself but for Manhattan.

The book is said to be inspired by real life ad-woman Margaret Fishbeck and based on the reviews I've read and heard, this story is more than an apt tribute to her. Me personally, I love reading about feisty females,especially the New York City type who never let the topsy-turvy nature of life get them down:

Speaking of feisty females, I was delightfully surprised to find that,in addition to Lillian Boxfish, another book that I had placed on hold was available for me to take home.

Talking as Fast as I Can is a set of autobiographical essays by actress Lauren Graham,aka Lorelai Gilmore. She not only chronicles the making of Gilmore Girls(both the original series and the revival) but talks about her early days in acting, dealing with Hollywood and gently mocking trends.

My nonfiction reading has been on the slow side lately, so I started this book last night,hoping to jump start that section of my TBR. Well, it's working out splendidly as Graham's writing style is as quick paced and clever as the TV role she's best known for. I haven't read her novel Someday, Someday Maybe but I think I should, as clearly her literary muse is not clad in monkey monkey underpants(watch the following clip for clarification):

Before leaving the library, I took one last look over the shelves to see what else would tide me over and wound up adding a book that I've been meaning to get to for quite some time.

Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of a family, the Whitshanks, who have been together in good times and bad for at least three generations. As their parents Abby and Red are getting on in years, conflicted siblings Amanda,Jeannie,Stem and Denny have to decide what to do about the house, along with the family business.

While the kids are working that out, Abby often flashes back to the past, remembering the days when she first fell in love as well as other Whitshank family stories. Anne Tyler is one of those writers that I've read on and off for years, enjoying her warmly written brand of story telling when I do pick up one of her works. Such readable radiance is something I really need to embrace the coming of spring:

And looking forward to spring I am, even while appreciating what is hopefully the last blast of winter. Being snowbound may not be ideal but while the flakes are flying, let's make the best of things with a good book and a warm drink or two. Remember, snow days aren't just for kids, you know!:

Friday, March 10, 2017

Packing up some paperbacks for your spring reading picnic basket

Despite the snowy weather outside of many of our windows today, I can assure you that spring is on the way. Soon enough, it will be time to pull out those lighter layers and make plans to enjoy such outdoor activities as a picnic lunch.

To me, no picnic would be complete without a book on hand and since paperbacks are bound to fit nicely inside one of those baskets, here is a trio of freshly released fiction reads to slip in beside some well wrapped sandwiches and maybe a plastic container of potato salad:

First up is Milena Busquets' This Too Shall Pass, translated from it's original Spanish edition by Valerie Miles. Our story begins in Barcelona, where Blanca is at a crossroads in her life. Her mother has just passed away and at age 40, she doesn't feel as if there are any new avenues for her to explore.

To revive her spirits, Blanca goes to the coastal town of Cadaques where the house she inherited from her mother awaits. Taking along her two former husbands, their kids and gal pals Sofia and Elisa(plus their respective kin), she plans on having a good time while reconnecting to the world.

This debut novel was a hit in Spain, where the author resides, and should make for a snappy spring and/or summer read over here. With it's mix of pathos, humor and passion, this story has the melodic vibe of a richly lived life, much like a fine wine or a vibrant painting that captures a woman of mature years in all of her glory:

Next is June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, which tells two stories for the price of one. Cassie Danvers is still getting over the death of her beloved grandmother at the family's aging mansion in Ohio,when more startling news finds her.

Legendary movie star Jack Montgomery has left his vast fortune to her, which is puzzling since she's never met the man before he passed away. While dealing with Jack's daughters over the will, Cassie learns of a possible affair between her grandmother June and Jack, back in 1955.

When he came to their small town of St Jude to make a film called Erie Canal, June found herself falling in love with him and the feeling was mutual. That romance came with a lot of complications,however, including an unexpected love that went unfulfilled. As Cassie attempts to connect the dots on that past puzzle, her present situation proves to be just as mystifying.

Beverly-Whittemore's prior novel, Bittersweet, was a solidly woven tale that held the smoky atmosphere of an old school drama and it looks as if June will be as eerily engaging as that story was, with it's family secrets and mysterious old house that knows all but tells little:

To round this trio out, we have Susan Meissner's A Bridge Across The Ocean that brings together women from different time periods via the renowned cruise ship The Queen Mary.

When Brett Caslake visits the no longer in use ship with a friend in modern times, she gets flashes of the past, particular certain passengers such as German ballerina Annalise who is running from a terrible marriage in 1946 and Simone, whose entire family was wiped out due to her father being a spy for the French Resistance.

Brett does her best to discover the truth behind the mutual tragedy that bound these women together but in doing so, could have to deal with an ability that she's deliberately ignored for years. This novel will be available by March 14, offering an engaging look at a haunting past as well as insight into the mysterious intrigue of the Queen Mary itself:

As soon as the warm breezes of spring blow in, I hope that gets us all out and about,especially to the bookstore. Although, one thing that any book buyer must try to resist doing on a shopping spree is agonizing over finding that "perfect" copy of the book you want.

 While I wouldn't want a book with a torn jacket or bent cover either, you do have to know when to say when or your whole spring time will be spent indoors(then again, is that so bad?):

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The fabulous fury of Bette & Joan's Feud

Ryan Murphy took pop culture watching to the next level with his American Crime Story miniseries, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, last year and for our shiny new year, he's launching another multimedia sensation with Feud, that looks at celebrated bouts between famous folk.

For the opening season, Feud is subtitled "Bette and Joan" as in Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who did only one movie together and clearly once was more than enough.

As played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, both former leading ladies were at a decided low point in their acting careers. Most of that was due to their growing older and the lack of quality for women of a certain age(the more things change, the more they stay the same sadly). Crawford was particularly motivated to work again as her widow's pension from Pepsi-Cola wasn't as massive as many assumed it was.

So, she went in search of a script for herself and came across the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell, a story about two sisters who were once entertainers and now at each other's throats. Crawford jumped on that property hard and fast, recruiting Robert Aldrich as the director and Davis herself as the demented title character.

While the making of the movie became a cutthroat competition between the two leading ladies, as Davis took a more of a theatrical approach to the part while Crawford wanted to maintain some of her movie star glamor, the completed film was a box office success and even earned Davis an Oscar nomination for Best Actress:

That success,however, didn't take either actress down the road towards better roles. Instead, Hollywood went with a spree of Gothic thrillers featuring older women known as "hagsploitation".

Bette Davis was able to make cinematic lemonade out of those casting call lemons,however. She was set to team back up with Crawford for another Aldrich fear flick called Hush...Hush,Sweet Charlotte but her co-star backed out at the last minute,claiming illness.

Crawford was replaced by another former diva, Olivia de Havilland, and that movie went on to critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations. Davis kept on working for many years after that, in whatever part she could, some of those parts being notable such as The Whales of August and Death on the Nile. The last movie that she did work on,Wicked Stepmother, had to use stock footage as Davis passed away during the production.

 Crawford , on the other hand, made a few low budget horror movies on her own and then did a little TV work before withdrawing from public life. A sad end for both talented women yet in the grand scheme of things, you could say that at least they did their damnest to keep that spotlight shining on them for as long as possible:

The on-set rivalry between Davis and Crawford was a key selling point for the movie and is the focus of Feud, but not in a catty camp way. Instead, the show gives a nuanced portrayal of what it meant for these women to try to revive their careers amidst sexism, ageism and their own egos.

I saw the first episode this past Sunday and am truly eager to see more. Sarandon and Lange fully embrace their performances here, bringing out the humanity as well as the diva power that these screen legends wielded like a double edge sword:

 Feud: Bette & Joan is airing in eight parts on FX and is already getting rave reviews from both audiences and critics, much like the real life cinematic collaboration that Davis and Crawford made Hollywood history with.

I do hope that this show does lead to a revival of interest in both women's careers as they did create some of the greatest film roles of all time. From Mildred Pierce to Margo Channing, these powerhouse ladies paved the way for many future film stars in their wake. It's just a shame that they never realized that together, they could have been a major force to reckon with against all who stood in their artistic way: