The Avengers Endure

I’ve written before here about my enduring appreciation of The Avengers (NOT The Marvel Avengers.) On June 25th of last year, an inevitable day came to pass when series star Patrick Macnee died at age 93 of natural causes after a long and full life. I held off from viewing any episodes for four or five months after that, as I wasn’t sure if knowing that Steed (the central character) was no longer with us would affect my perception of the many episodes he left behind and continuing to watch the show.

When I did pull out the DVDs again, I deliberately chose a Steed centric episode from what many fans consider the series’ best season, its last in black and white, to honor Macnee in my mind. To my surprise, the episode endured in nearly the same way as before, and I even felt I was looking at it with fresh eyes. This could have been because of a long gap in viewing episodes, the changed circumstances without Macnee, my long-lasting appreciation of British culture on the whole, or some other reason entirely. Whatever the case, not only did the episode continue to feel like “visual comfort food” – my occasional term for watching the show – it still felt fresh in the present day, now just over 50 years after it was first transmitted.

2015 Timehop recollection of a 2007 visit to an AVENGERS filming location in England.

2015 Timehop recollection of a 2007 visit to an AVENGERS filming location in England.

In the past couple weeks, for one reason or another, that appreciation has grown into a celebration, as I’ve watched more episodes in a month-long time frame (or so) than over the past five years. They all continue to be emblematic of the 1960’s era in which they were made. However, based on certain aesthetic choices of the series producers, perhaps centered around decisions to have limited extras and not too much rooting in that same era, the episodes can come forward in time and still remain just as entertaining and relevant. If Steed and his various partners were seen dancing in Swinging London or hanging out at a Stones or Beatles concert (which they may have done in their off-screen time), the impression would be more nostalgic and arguably dated.

As it is now, the shows stand on their own terms, and they are each like little mini-films within themselves, as more than one writer about the series has come to observe. And I know I’m not the only one for whom this continuing appreciation of this series endures.


Cold Comfort Farm continues to comfort its appreciative audience

I haven’t been doing too great on the “film flashback Friday” initiative, probably due to my grad school schedule. So here is a belated entry for that series.

cold comfort farm poster

I recently reacquired a DVD copy of (what is probably) my family’s favorite movie, Cold Comfort Farm. I was delighted to watch the film again a few nights ago for the first time in too long.

Originally made for British television by well – regarded director John Schlesinger, the film premiered there in 1994 or 95 and later enjoyed a successful and long running US cinema run in the summer of 1996. My parents and I caught it at the Gloucester Cinema at the tail end of that summer, and it was a staple in our VHS and DVD players for many years afterwards. We continue to enjoy occasionally quoting lines from the film.

The film features a British dream team of actors: Kate Beckinsale in the lead role, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley, Rufus Sewell, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Freddie Jones and other performers. It’s adapted from a  1930’s era novel and proudly wears its period origins on its sleeves.

The story follows young London socialite Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale) who looks at the bright side of life, even following the death of her parents. While briefly living with an older socialite friend (Lumley), Flora solicits distant relatives on whether or not they can host her in their homes. She receives a quick response from cousin Judith Starkadder (Atkins) who tells her “there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm (and they’d be happy to host) Robert Poste’s child.”

And so Flora travels out to the farm, in Sussex, discovering a wild assortment of characters in residence, including young, servile sons Seth and Rupert, flighty Elfine, patriarch Amos, and great aunt Ada Doom, who rarely comes out of her upstairs room and has not left the property in a number of years. Ada was forever traumatized by an incident in her youth where she saw “something nasty in the woodshed” and doesn’t shy away from reminding her family of that, even though she can not remember the specifics of the event.

After an initial adjustment period, Flora takes it on herself to better the lives of the farm residents. She also navigates her own path of empowerment and an entanglement with shy yet wily London suitor Charles, and an unwanted suitor, noted author Mr. Mybug, played by Fry.

The story unfolds in a whimsical and playful style without being played for cheap humor. Each of the actors knows exactly how to play their scenes, whether dryly or broadly humorous, and contributes to the timeless feel of the comedy. As I watched it now in 2014, I still laughed at the same lines, but felt it was a natural and not anticipating reaction. They’re aided by an excellent attention to period detail and careful evocation of mood and style, with the jaunty musical score (regrettably never released in a recorded form) significantly contributing to the flair of the film.

When I had the pleasure of meeting Eileen Atkins in 2007, she appreciated my interest in the film and told me an interesting trivia detail about her role. (that experience was recapped in an entry on this blog last year.)

Watching this film again in 2014 brings up mixed feelings about Kate Beckinsale’s subsequent career trajectory. My parents and I observed with dismay as she began a sharp move away from British and independent dramas in 2001, a move that appeared to be solidified just two years later with her participation in the Underworld series. And now having recently passed age 40, noted as a difficult decade for film actresses, Beckinsale may be facing tough choices about where to go with her career. She also continues to be noted more for her beauty and cinematic ass kicking, as this blog article bluntly reinforces. I’d like to see her go back to the London stage or to a more character – based drama, but she appears to be well – settled into a Hollywood based lifestyle.

Perhaps in the present day Cold Comfort Farm has a dual role as a comedy classic and a time capsule. I will continue to appreciate it.


Catching up on Oscar Bait

My filmgoing in 2014 continues to be a catch-up on films released at the end of 2013.

I wasn’t rushing out to see the adaptation of August: Osage County, and am disappointed that I still haven’t seen a version of the original play, but a recent afternoon found me near the Michigan Theater at the time of its first matinee of the day, and so I thought, oh, why not?

As I expected, the film was mostly a case of Actors Trying Too Hard To Give A Good Performance, which might have been affected by a director unaccustomed to stage-to-film material. The director, John Wells, brought a similar bland tone to the story that he displayed in a previous film, The Company Men, which I saw in the theatre because I was living in California at the time and eager to see my home state of Massachusetts on the big screen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “lesser – known” actors delivered the more notable performances, although at this point Meryl Streep will make anything watchable and memorable. (Massachusetts native) Julianne Nicholson stood out as the middle of the three sisters in the family, evoking a sense of desperation and wanting to make something of her life. Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch delivered more sensitive turns than some of their recent work, although I wondered why British actors Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor were recruited for this very American piece, with McGregor offering an unconvincing American accent. Julia Roberts deliberately went less glam than her image, and did well, mostly, but it must be challenging for someone like her to get people to look beyond her well – known work. However it seems like she’s been successful with this effort, as seen in her ensuing Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.

The film offered two examples of the “previous couples re-appearing on screen” phenomenon that I discussed in a recent post, with Adaptation co-stars Streep and Cooper re-teaming alongside My Best Friend’s Wedding co-stars Roberts and Dermot Mulroney. (Pretty weird to realize those films are now 11 and almost 17 years old, respectively.)

And that was about it, really. I still want to see the stage play.

Last night I was in the mood for a conventional “Friday night at the movies” experience, which I enjoyed several times last summer, and infrequently since then, and so I found my way back to the Quality 16 for The Wolf of Wall Street. Easily one of the most bloated movies I have ever seen (in several ways), but… oddly compelling.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as real-life financier Jordan Belfort, who took Wall Street by storm in the 1990’s before falling from grace and later achieving a form of redemption. He’s supported by Jonah Hill, who continues his surprisingly rapid transition away from low-brow comedy as Belfort’s self-anoited but later endearing business partner. And the cast sprawls out from there, with a couple of veteran performers offering standout supporting roles, most notably Rob Reiner (returning to acting after a decade’s absence!) as DiCaprio’s loudmouth but supportive father, and one of my favorite British actresses Joanna Lumley, who I once had the honor of briefly meeting in person, shining brightly in a few scenes crucial to the story. (A minor spoiler, but the press is having fun discussing Lumley & DiCaprio’s scene together, as seen here and here.)

If the film had been tighter in its editing and story (two hours instead of three, perhaps?) I might have appreciated it more. But I did find it to be a well-made look at an often corruptive industry, told with zeal and excess appropriate for the story and setting.