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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.

Sometimes I miss that British way of saying things

Just received a form email from British Airways, and their distinct phrasing caught my eye. Wouldn’t it be nice if USA organizations sent emails as straightforward (yet stylish) as this.

Dear JP,

You have previously confirmed you would like to receive information about the latest offers, products and services from British Airways.

We are currently carrying out some housekeeping on our database and we’d like to ensure you are still happy to receive this information.

If you wish to continue receiving communications from British Airways, you need do nothing further. If you no longer wish to hear from us, you can unsubscribe here

Yours sincerely,
Customer Services

London Cinema becomes a Sneak Preview Opportunity

My time in London is now in the rearview mirror and I hope to be back there again soon. Or at least sooner than 7 years from now!

As befitting a world class cultural center, my visit allowed for taking in of two films not yet released in the USA.

The first, Ex Machina, was an excellent and positive example of mismarketing. I recall the film’s trailer promising an explosive and somewhat action packed adventure and suggesting that the movie would be a familiar “rise of the machines” type action drama.

But the real film turned out to be a surprisingly intimate and provocative drama, with a few traces of action, that asks timely questions about the nature of intelligence and humanity. While the debate between man and machine is also covered along the lines of Blade Runner or some other of its cinematic cousins, this film also adds a gendered element where the machine is considered a female, while (her) observers and makers are male. In its use of an artificial or foreign female protagonist, the film recalls last year’s Under the Skin and could be seen as a continuation of that same story.

Domnhall Gleeson stars as a young prodigy seemingly randomly picked to spend a week at the secluded lab of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who is a senior ranking member of his unnamed software and computer development company. The film drops us right in to the arrival and meeting of the minds, and wastes little time on unnecessary exposition. What follows stays in the realm of eerie plausibility as Gleeson meets Isaac’s latest artificial intelligence creation, the mysterious and inquisitive Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Ava presents as female, leading to an eventual attraction between the two characters.

Although Isaac’s role could easily descend into a Dr. Frankenstein – ish extreme, his subtle portrayal, with several modern touches, ensures that the audience continues to think of him as an equal and not maniacal player in the equation between the central trio. Sonoya Mizuno also joins the fray in a minimalistic supporting turn, with one great out of left field moment.

The film eventually forces itself into a dramatic denouement along the lines of what one might suspect as the story goes on. But it never loses its initial air of intrigue and thoughtful (and somewhat plausible) integrity.

My Rating: ***1/2

The second film, I Am Michael, has attracted modest attention in the US press, from what I have seen, and seems to be awaiting an official release date as it slowly makes the festival rounds. It features a trio of well – known actors in the leading roles, with James Franco tackling the central role – and real person – Michael Glatze, a former gay activist who dramatically renounced his homosexuality and instead turned to a life as a Christian pastor in Wyoming, complete with bible school education. Zachary Quinto costars as Glatze’s long-term partner, with Emma Roberts appearing late in the film as a woman who becomes Glatze’s heterosexual partner.

I was not familiar with Glatze’s story, which was described in a New York Times article a few years back that served as the basis for this film. At some point I learned that Glatze had spent time at a Buddhist meditation center in Colorado where I have also spent time, and I might have met him, so that curiosity drew me in to see the film.

Franco appears to renounce his recent run of comedic (self-parodying) performances, which likely reached its peak or nadir with the Christmas spectacle The Interview, in this role. Instead of a smirking and self-satisfied attempt to channel a person, I again saw a real acting performance, with close attention paid to conveying Glatze’s internal struggle of how to define himself in the world.

Though Roberts and Qunito’s screen time is limited, both actors maintain the drama of the story arc. I haven’t seen much of Roberts’ work in other films, but did feel that she was particularly successful here in playing a more adult-oriented character, also presumably based on a real person.

The Buddhist connection that made me curious about the film is given limited exploration, and features primarily in a section of the film that feels like it rushes through what happens next in Glatze’s life after he breaks from his gay lifestyle. Veteran actress Daryl Hannah, who seems to have disappeared from films in recent years, appears briefly as the mediation center’s director.

The integrity and commitment of the performers felt somewhat let down by a poorly thought out script, which drew several (presumably) unintentional laughs from the audience in response to multiple instances of cliched dialogue. It seems inevitable that biopics also devolve into a run of greatest hits of the particular person’s lives.

Nonetheless, I hope this film finds an audience when it does reach the USA, if only for a closer look at several hardworking actors and a dramatic look at sexual identity, which remains a topic that is rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

My Rating: ***

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.