Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Waiting for "Superman" (2010)

★★½

Usually, watching a documentary involves me learning lots of new things with a reaction like, "Really?! Wow! I didn't know that!" But in this case, as a former high school teacher, I actually have inside knowledge about the public education system, the topic of the documentary. Armed with additional information, I've decided that this film is a skewed presentation of only some of the facts, and it does not provide all sides of the story.

This documentary highlights some of the problems faced by public schools - mostly inner city schools in poor neighborhoods - and it paints a pretty depressing picture. While it poses the question of whether bad neighborhoods create failing schools, or if failing schools create bad neighborhoods, it doesn't actually make much of an effort to answer that question. Instead, it makes a pretty bold conclusion that bad teachers are the problem, and charter schools are the panacea. The documentary holds up Michelle Rhee as a positive figure, but for me, this film simply reinforced the reasons why I'm not a fan.

In regards to teachers: There was no mention of how these bad teachers came to be. There was no discussion about the lack of good mentoring programs for new teachers, the lack of on-going professional development for experienced teachers, the lack of sufficient evaluation processes, or why school administrators allowed these poor teachers to stay on in the first place. The fact that 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years - a fact that this documentary leaves out - says a lot about the working conditions, and begs the questions, "Are the good teachers leaving or staying? And why is that?"

In regards to charter schools: This documentary - like many sources that put charter schools on pedestals - conveniently neglects to point out that charter school students, though selected at random from an applicant pool, are a self-selected subgroup made up of motivated kids with involved parents. When quoting the numbers that indicate success, the film also overlooks the fact that in many cases, the size of a particular class is smaller than what it started as; perhaps some students voluntarily transferred to other schools, but it's worth noting that charter schools are allowed to kick out or force out students based on whether or not they meet the standards of the school.

The documentary showcases a handful of families in which very concerned parents enter their kids into lotteries for acceptance into charter schools. As a viewer, you certainly get the feeling that these kids might not "make it" unless they get accepted; you get the impression that if they are forced to enter the public school system, they will fall through the cracks and will be doomed never to succeed. Though I certainly felt disappointed for the families that did not win the charter school lottery, I still couldn't help but feel that because these families were the ones in which the parents do care, because these kids do want an education, they would probably turn out okay (I hope).

To the documentary's credit, I do agree with its portrayal of tenure - it is too easily obtained, it provides excessive job security, and it makes it nearly impossible to get rid of an ineffective teacher.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jane Austen Roundup

I have now read every Jane Austen novel and watched every Jane Austen screen adaptation I could find!

Here's a list of her books in order of my preference, and under each book, a list of all the screen adaptations I watched, in order of my preference. The links take you to my "reviews" - and I put that in quotes because I know I didn't actually review each movie/mini-series entirely on its own merits; how well it represented the book was a large factor in how much I liked it.

  1. Pride and Prejudice ★★★★★
    1. 1995 BBC Mini-Series with Colin Firth ★★★★★
    2. 1980 BBC Mini-Series ★★★★½
    3. 1940 Film with Laurence Olivier ★★★★
    4. 2005 Film with Keira Knightley ★★★

  2. Emma ★★★★★
    1. 1996 TV Movie with Kate Beckinsale ★★★★★
    2. 1996 Film with Gwenyth Paltrow ★★★★
    3. 2009 BBC Mini-Series ★★★½
    4. 1972 BBC Mini-Series ★★★½

  3. Mansfield Park ★★★★½
    1. 1983 BBC Mini-Series ★★★★
    2. 2007 TV Movie ★★★
    3. 1999 Film ★★★

  4. Sense & Sensibility ★★★★
    1. 1995 Film with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet ★★★★★
    2. 1981 BBC Mini-Series ★★★★
    3. 2008 BBC Mini-Series ★★★
    4. 1971 BBC Mini-Series ★★★

  5. Northanger Abbey ★★★★
    1. 2007 TV Movie ★★★★
    2. 1987 TV Movie ★★½

  6. Persuasion ★★★★
    1. 1971 BBC Mini-Series ★★★★★
    2. 1995 TV Movie ★★★★
    3. 2007 TV Movie ★★★

The book Emma was a very close second behind Pride and Prejudice. I found Emma overall more entertaining, but Pride and Prejudice did have more wit, though less humor. And the fact that Emma was a bit of a snob - a charming and endearing snob, but a snob nonetheless - was a little off-putting sometimes.

I also really enjoyed Mansfield Park, and I don't know if it's really fair to dock it half a star just because it wasn't quite as entertaining. I thought its characters were the most complex of all Jane Austen novels.

And even though Persuasion is listed last, and given the place of "least favored Jane Austen novel", that's not to say that I didn't enjoy it. It is, after all, still rated four stars!

Persuasion (1971 TV Mini-Series)

★★★★★

What a delightful surprise! I admit, I didn't have very high expectations for this adaptation, what with having already been less than impressed with the other mini-series from the early 1970s. This is the last Jane Austen adaptation on my list, and I'm glad to end my viewing project on a high note.

Every character was very well-cast, and Mrs. Clay and Lady Russell had more significant roles than in other adaptations. I was especially pleased to see that this production went so far as to try to explain why Lady Russell persuaded Anne not to marry Capt. Wentworth so long ago, and why Anne let herself be persuaded.

The adaptation was extremely faithful, and many excellent details were included. The ending even did a good job closing out the Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay storyline. Only one major scene was noticeably absent - the one in which Mary's son has an accident, and Anne nurses him through dinner to avoid meeting Capt. Wentworth. But - oh, well! Anne had to see Capt. Wentworth sometime, Mary's indignant nature was well-depicted in many other scenes, and Anne's reluctance to see Capt. Wentworth again was also made clear in other ways.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Road (2009)

★★★★

A well-made and thought-provoking film, but it's kind of slow and a real downer. I'm with Charlize Theron - what's the point of living in a world like that? Good guys turning bad, even when they don't mean to, is pretty depressing. I suppose the uplifting message is supposed to be that goodness can prevail, and that one should always keep a little room in one's heart for hope and trust. Then again, I thought the ending was pretty lucky - the boy could just as well have been overtaken by bad guys.

I'm kind of surprised I rated this one so highly. All through the movie, I kept thinking I should go to bed. And who needs to spend valuable free time feeling depressed? I guess part of the reason for my high rating is that despite the fact that I wanted to stop watching it, I couldn't actually tear myself away.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sense and Sensibility (1971 TV Mini-Series)

★★★

This adaptation was kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, I thought pretty much all the characters were well-cast. I did not mind at all that Margaret was entirely omitted (she was only a marginal character in the book, after all), and only Willoughby was not quite as charming as he should have been. On the other hand, I kept feeling disappointed. Some events, particularly towards the beginning, were a bit jumbled. Bizarrely, Elinor and Marianne were often dressed alike, like twin children. In another odd production decision, there is a scene in which Lucy Steele and Elinor are talking, but the sound of Marianne playing the pianoforte in the background is loud and distracting.

This adaptation's interpretation of Lucy was a bit harsh, I think. It was accurate in that Lucy's actions were always selfishly motivated, as in the book, but the mini-series took it one step further by making her transparently insincere.

What really baffled me, though, was why the adaptation bothered changing Colonel Brandon's background story. When he explains to Elinor why he had to rush off to London so many months ago, it's a story that is entirely told in words - no additional scenes are required. To change the story coming out of his mouth seemed to be a change for change's sake.

I liked the fourth and final episode the best. The scene in which Willoughby confesses to Elinor, when he thought Marianne was dying, was well-done. It also did a good job portraying Marianne's growing regard for Colonel Brandon. One drawback, though, is that when Edward showed up at Barton Cottage at the end, he did not adequately explain how or why Lucy's affections were transferred to his brother Robert.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz

★★★½

When Ken first mentioned this book to me, I admit I was a bit indignant. Being just in the middle of reading all six of Jane Austen's novels, and thoroughly enjoying the experience, I thought, "I am getting so much out of these books, do I really need to read what some other random person got out of them?"

To my surprise, my cousin Shan mailed me this book a couple days after I finished Northanger Abbey, the last of her novels that I read. I was just starting to feel a bit of Jane Austen withdrawal, and now having the book in hand, I jumped at the chance to read it. (Thank you, Shan!)

I was immediately impressed upon realizing that the author is a man! Throughout all my readings, I totally pigeon-holed Jane Austen as the chick lit of the classics, what with her topics of love and friendship and relationships in general, her study of human nature, personal growth, and character. Approaching the book from a man's point of view would certainly give me a fresh perspective on the novels.

Secondly, the author turned out to be not a completely random person, but a former professor of English with a PhD in literature. So, he could offer legitimate literary analyses of the books, which I had not attempted myself.

Overall, this book is a quick and pleasant read. It is an excellent companion to the novels. I would suggest, however, that you should first read all six novels yourself before reading this book. Even though the author tries not to give away the endings, he does reveal quite a bit about characters and plot development. Also, because he frequently makes passing mention of characters from all the books no matter what book he is focused on at the time, I think readers would be better able to appreciate the author's discussion if they, too, were familiar with all the characters.

I especially liked that the author provided bits and pieces about Jane Austen herself. He even included several excerpts from her letters, and filled in the major details of her life. In fact, before reading this book, I was thinking of reading a Jane Austen biography, but now I think my curiosity on that front might already be satisfied!

He even made a small mention of some of the screen adaptations, which I also particularly liked because seeing all of them (and I mean all of them!) is also part of my own personal Jane Austen Project.

The only drawback, I think, is that the author seems to stretch a bit when he tried to relate the lessons of Jane Austen to his own life. The memoir portions are kind of quaint, and I can't fault him for trying, since his learning applicable life lessons from Jane Austen was basically the whole premise of the book. Also, since he focuses on the lessons he learned, I feel like he left out quite a bit about lessons that other people might be able to learn from Jane Austen.

All said, I think any Jane Austen fan would find this book enjoyable. If nothing else, it serves to praise Jane Austen and her works.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

★★★★

This movie was light-hearted and fun, and I was surprised by how much I liked it!

Of all the Jane Austen screen adaptations, this one deviated the most from the novel - in dialogue, scenes, and character introductions and omissions. At times it didn't even try to condense the story, but rather, it created new scenes entirely. Interestingly, though, it seems to me now that deviations from the original source are most unforgivable when the adaptation for the most part tries to adhere to the book, but then veers away drastically for brief moments. On the other hand, it appears that I don't really seem to mind when a movie as a whole is interpreted differently, as long as it stays true to the spirit of the original story and characters - and then, in that case, any time the movie does briefly adhere closely to the book, I am pleasantly surprised.

The movie is well-acted and well-cast. At first the women's costumes (which were more in the style of antebellum American South than British Regency) were distracting, but once I got past that, it was a pleasure to watch.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Emma (1972 TV Mini-Series)

★★★½

This mini-series, made in 1972, had the same production quality as other BBC mini-series made in the 1980s. I'm glad I decided to go back and watch all screen adaptations, regardless of their year of release. (Originally I planned only to watch screen adaptations made no earlier than 1980.)

While Mrs. Weston seemed a bit young for her role, several other characters were very well-cast. Specifically, I really enjoyed Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, Harriet Smith, Mrs. Elton, and Frank Churchill. I rather think Frank Churchill's cheery and relaxed demeanor stole every scene he was in, especially since the production as a whole was kind of serious and slow. In both the mini-series and the book, everyone good-naturedly humored Mr. Woodhouse's fretting, but in the mini-series, unfortunately, people seemed to lose patience with him, and many scenes ended by having someone walk out on Mr. Woodhouse while he was in mid-sentence! Poor Mr. Woodhouse.

This production might have gotten four stars, but I subtracted half a star specifically because it altered the Box Hill picnic scene too much. I can live with some of the liberties a screen adaptation is bound to take - condensing several scenes into one, moving a conversation from one scene to another, or introducing some character in a more abbreviated way - but by leaving Mr. Elton and Jane Fairfax out of the picnic altogether, the scene lost quite a bit of its significance. In the book, the fact that Frank and Emma's flirtations took place in Jane's presence gave the entire scene more meaning, and Jane finally broke her reservedness by responding - with her longest speech in the book - to observations of Mr. and Mrs. Elton's quick marriage. Those parts of the picnic scene are so central to the Jane and Frank storyline that I just can't forgive this production for leaving it out - especially since, as a mini-series, they had plenty of time to be able to work it in. It seemed almost as if they dawdled so much in the first several episodes that they then had to squeeze too much into the last couple.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Northanger Abbey (1987 TV Movie)

★★½

This movie was, disappointingly, the least well-done screen adaptation of a Jane Austen novel I've seen yet.

I do think most of the characters were well-cast, though both John Thorpe and General Tilney (who perhaps overacted) were made out to be worse than they were in the book. Catherine was okay, but appeared to be as young and naive at the end of the movie as in the beginning.

Liberties of all kinds were taken. The way in which characters were introduced was quite different from the book, and events were a bit jumbled. Catherine and Isabella's friendship seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Sometimes, even as dialogue was taken from the book, the scenes were entirely changed; in significant deviations from the book, characters go to public baths, they row on a lake, and the Tilneys have visitors at Northanger Abbey. Strangely, a mysterious French woman was inexplicably added to the cast, and the Tilney men were all made to take snuff. And what was with the black servant/slave boy!? Finally, as if the filmmakers were running out of time, Catherine's departure from Northanger Abbey was practically glossed over.

The fantasy sequences adequately showed Catherine's preoccupation with Gothic romance novels, but the music was a bit overdone. Amusingly, the music in the last scene - which deviated from the book significantly - was so clearly from the 1980s.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Northanger Abbey (2007 TV Movie)

★★★★

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit! Almost all characters were perfectly cast, save John Thorpe, who looked even more lecherous than expected. The fantasy sequences did a good job portraying Catherine's fondness for Gothic romance novels, and the production as a whole was well-done. Even the music was a good fit.

Unfortunately, besides the usual shortcuts taken to introduce characters or condense the story, and a few omitted scenes, the movie also took some liberties. In the book, Henry Tilney is so perfectly the gentleman that he takes pains to ease Catherine's mind about a folly over which she is mortified, and when she leaves Northanger Abbey, it is clear that no fault lies with her. In the movie, however, Henry's reaction is more severe, to the point that we aren't sure if maybe Catherine's behavior might have had something to do with her departure. The book's ending also allows for some reconciliation between Henry and General Tilney, which the movie does not incorporate.

Despite these discrepancies, and even with the movie's splash of 21st century dramatization, I was pretty well-satisfied with this screen adaptation.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

★★★★

My only disappointment in finishing this book is that it marks the end of my project to read all six of Jane Austen's completed novels. I have no more Jane Austen books to look forward to!

This one reads more like a young adult novel, and in some ways it is a coming-of-age story. Catherine Morland is young and naive, but we see her grow and mature as she navigates new friendships and learns from her mistakes. While Catherine's relationship with Isabella is deftly crafted, perhaps her friendship with Eleanor Tilney could have been elaborated upon a bit more. Henry fits the bill perfectly as the object of desire, and his speech on the over-use of the word "nice" is exactly as I have always thought myself!

Without having read any of the Gothic romance novels of which this book is a satire, it's easy to imagine what those books must be like. For the first time in a Jane Austen novel, however, I found myself losing interest as the author expounded upon a topic - in this case, some aspect of Gothic romance novels. But since even those accounts lasted only a mere paragraph or so, they weren't so much a detraction.

As usual, the story is tied up rather nicely, and quickly, in the last few pages. And I don't care what anyone says - I love Jane Austen's "happily ever after" endings!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Helen's - Concord, MA

★★★


Cash-only establishment. Casual diner with usual breakfast fare. My glass of orange juice was rather small, and the melons (honeydew and cantaloupe) in the side of fruit (which also included grapes) were not yet ripe. Overall, decent food, but nothing remarkable.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mansfield Park (1999)

★★★

I liked the casting for this movie so much that it's a real shame that the story deviated so much from the novel. Every character was well-acted and physically well-cast, even if the characters themselves were not true to the book. The actor who played Edmund also played Mr. Knightley in Emma, but I much preferred him in this role.

Fanny was spirited and lively, an imaginative writer of fanciful stories - a far cry from the timid and fearful creature in the book. Eldest brother Tom Bertram was made to be even more disgraceful than in the book (though he was given the moral high ground in the movie), but the real liberties were taken with Lady Bertram - made to be an opium addict! - and Sir Thomas, who, in the movie, had a morally reprehensible role in the slave trade.

Great liberties were taken with the story as well, though I have to admit that the movie managed to faithfully incorporate a lot of dialogue - even if, rather frequently, words were attributed to different characters. Very surprisingly, beloved brother William was entirely left out! His role was more or less replaced by sister Susan. Of course, without him, other elements of the story had to change as well. Many scenes were based on scenes in the book, but were in some way twisted around. One major deviation from the book involving Fanny and Henry Crawford had Fanny acting entirely out of character - basically negating the very principles by which her character was defined in the book. Another very flagrant alteration was in regards to Henry Crawford and Maria's relationship towards the end - the movie sensationalized their behavior, as if assuming the audience would not be entertained enough by early 19th century sensibilities.

All told, the movie was well-made and well-paced, but not a very accurate representation of the book. I should, however, cut it some slack because the credits themselves say the movie is based not only on Mansfield Park but also on Jane Austen's "letters and early journals". It's as if they tried to fit Jane Austen into Fanny's role, which, I dare say, makes me want to find out more about Jane Austen herself.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mansfield Park (1983 TV Mini-Series)

★★★★

Having now seen so many other BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels made into TV mini-series, I've become rather used to the play-like production quality.

The casting - which I now consider perhaps the most important part of a screen adaptation of a book - was a mixed bag. I thought Fanny was very well portrayed, but I never did get used to swarthy Edmund. Henry Crawford was too stiff and had too much of an air of arrogance; he was not at all as easy going as I expected. A fine job was done with Aunt Norris and poor Mr. Rushworth, but Mr. Yates bordered on ridiculous, and Lady Bertram was downright so.

The first episode of the mini-series depicted the childhood years well, and I liked the way the series used Fanny's letters to William to move the story along.

After doing such a great job with the rest of the book in the first five episodes, the sixth and final episode was a little disappointing. The conclusion seemed to come about suddenly and without much basis, and we didn't see Sir Thomas's reflections on parenting, nor his ultimate satisfaction in Fanny in light of his disappointments elsewhere.