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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 30, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Jane Austen Movies, suburbia, rice chips, Ruby Woo, Idol

PBS's Masterpiece has been running a series of adaptations -- in high definition -- of all the Jane Austen novels.

The Pride and Prejudice in this series is merely the three-part BBC production starring Colin Firth and adapted by Andrew Davies. Despite the excellence of the Keira Knightly version of a couple of years ago, this remains the definitive version, and not just because it had so many more hours in which to tell the story.

The other productions, however, are new. Including a biographical film about Jane Austen called Miss Austen Regrets.

I have already praised the recent theatrical movie Becoming Jane (starring Anne Hathaway). I didn't mind the liberties the writers took in that movie; it was true to Austen's books.

But Miss Austen Regrets, written by Gwyneth Hughes and using actual letters by Jane Austen, is true to Austen's life -- and it's also a beautifully filmed and acted movie, worth seeing in its own right.

I especially was moved by the absolutely real and beautiful portrayal of Jane Austen by Olivia Williams; Greta Scacchi is also wonderful as Jane's sister Cassandra. I'm glad both films exist.

All the movies in this Austen project that I've seen so far are so perfectly written and so beautifully acted and filmed that I have high hopes for the ones that haven't aired yet.

Of course, Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones's Diary, Circle of Friends, Time After Time, The Tailor of Panama) wouldn't have had to try very hard to do a better job of writing Emma than the badly botched film starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

I am only skeptical of the new version of Sense and Sensibility. Emma Thompson's perfect script for her 1995 version, combined with outstanding performances by Thompson herself, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and, to tell the truth, everyone else in the movie, make it one of the greatest movies of all time.

But with nearly twice as many minutes to play with in the new Masterpiece version (produced, like all the others, by BBC Studios), writer Andrew Davies may well have found a way to create another version worthy to stand beside Thompson's. (And I'm thrilled to know Davies has written scripts for upcoming films of Brideshead Revisited and Middlemarch.)

Besides Sense, Emma, and Pride, Andrew Davies also wrote the script for Northanger Abbey. This is a slight book, almost juvenilia; Austen seemed more interested in poking fun at the conventions of gothic romance than in the story she was telling. But Davies wisely played the story straight, making the gothic elements important but still in second place to a much richer version of Austen's simple morality tale.

Felicity Jones is delightful in the rold of Catherine Morland, the country girl who has been so caught up in gothic romances that she humiliates herself in front of the man she loves, Henry Tilney, by assuming that Henry's father murdered his mother.

But Jones is blown off the screen whenever she shares it with Carey Mulligan, who did the same to Keira Knightley when Mulligan played Kitty Bennet in that version of Pride and Prejudice. If my novel Enchantment is ever filmed, I'd love to see Mulligan in the leading role.

Hugh O'Conor is so sweet in his brief moments on screen as James Morland that I was left hoping he'll show up later in a film where he can really do something.

And JJ Feild (not a typo -- he really spells it with the e before the i) is so perfect as Henry Tilney that I'm eager to see the forthcoming theatrical film Telstar just so I can watch him again. Unfortunately, his other upcoming films are obvious trash-to-be: Goal! III and Blood: The Last Vampire. I'm hoping some director realizes that this actor can out-Hugh Hugh Grant, so he can get the starring roles he deserves.

There exists a fine film version of Persuasion, directed by Roger Michell and starring Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, and Corin Redgrave. It was done with natural lighting and was long my favorite Austen-based film (until Thompson's Sense & Sensibility displaced it).

It is still a masterpiece -- but you can't find it on DVD; it only exists on VHS tape. And when you search for it on IMDB, it is called a "TV movie," even though I saw it in a movie theater -- so it had a theatrical release.

So by default the new version of Persuasion, written by Simon Burke, will become the best-known.

Mansfield Park, scripted by Maggie Wadey (who, ironically, wrote a 1986 version of Northanger Abbey), will have little competition to become the best-loved adaptation of that difficult novel.

Since, in my opinion, Jane Austen is the finest novelist ever to work in the English language -- her work needs no translation or explanation to capture hearts and minds after two centuries -- it is most pleasing that the British have put their finest talents into creating definitive film adaptations.

*

For those who are as tired as I am of the inhuman design of our current cities -- isolated neighborhoods, nothing within walking distance, brutal parking-lot landscapes -- James Howard Kunstler is one of the leading prophets of doom.

But if you don't have the patience or time to read books like Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere, you can get the gist of it by going online and watching Kunstler's short lecture called "The Tragedy of Suburbia."

It's on a website called TED.com, with the slogan "ideas worth spreading." Just search for the name Kunstler and his talk will come up; or use this link:

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/121

Though Kunstler's language is often crude enough to be annoying (I guess he doesn't trust his ideas to make him look cool and so resorts to the F-word), he uses slides to illustrate his points.

When he shows an example -- from Europe -- of a liveable city space, he says, "You don't have to have a crafts fair to get people to come here, they come because they like it."

Then I go to downtown Greensboro, where I see a phony new park surrounded by boring or dead street frontage, and, a few blocks away, a neighborhood-killing baseball stadium -- every single one of them absolutely known to be the kind of thing that kills downtowns, and yet all of them constructed with the stated purpose of trying to revive ours.

Don't our city planners even try to keep up? I'd buy copies of the pertinent books for our city council, but they don't actually govern our city, and it's clear that our city manager, who does govern it, doesn't know how to read. Maybe, though, some of them will try watching Kunstler's talk and get a new idea of what makes a city work.

OK, you're right, I'm not holding my breath.

*

For those interested in a nice break from corn or potato chips, Lundberg has come out with a line of organic rice chips that are delicious and won't poison you. You can find them at Earth Fare, or order them online at http://lundberg.elsstore.com/.

I admit I have no interest in flavors like "Sesame Seaweed," but all the others that I've tried -- Santa Fe BBQ, Original with Sea Salt, Pico de Gallo, Fiesta Lime, Nacho Cheese -- were excellent. And I'm working up my courage to try Wasabi.

*

I don't know about you, but I loved Bette Midler's early work, with her insanely inspired takes on "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and other old songs.

Let me tell you about a great album called The Rise & Fall of Ruby Woo by the Puppini Sisters. Though they had a previous album, Betcha Bottom Dollar, I had never heard of them. I bought Ruby Woo because the cover art suggested the same kind of sensibility I loved in Bette Midler.

This album is a slam dunk. I've been listening to it over and over for the past two hours because I can't get enough of it.

It's hard to describe what they do. They have perfect close harmonies so the music is actually pretty. And yet their song choice ranges from eclectic to strange to nostalgic. "We Have All the Time in the World" is haunting; but so is their version of "Walk Like an Egyptian."

There are standards like "Old Cape Cod" and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," done with a 1940s sensibility. But their downtempo "Could It Be Magic" is delightfully weird; it's impossible to decide whether it's satiric or sincere.

There's no question that "I Can't Believe I'm Not a Millionaire" is intentionally funny, and "It's Not Over (Death or the Toy Piano)" is so perky you want to dance.

Look, either this sounds good to you or it doesn't. If it does, you're going to love this album -- it instantly became one of my favorites. And if it doesn't sound interesting, you still might want to download a cut or two and try them out, because you never know what strange new thing might delight you.

*

OK, it's been three minutes since I wrote that review of Ruby Woo. In that time, I went to Amazon.com and bought the download of Betcha Bottom Dollar and a couple of Christmas Songs under the title Jingle Bells. The first sone -- "Sisters" -- is a fairly straight version of the old song, but without a lot of life.

Moving through the album, "Mr. Sandman" is fine, but it made me nostalgic for the Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris trio that had some radio airplay back in 1978. Unfortunately, you can't get that version -- contract problems made it impossible for it to be released as a single.

But Emmylou Harris rerecorded it, singing all three parts herself, and that version is also quite good. I downloaded that from Amazon as well -- but it was much harder to find. If you search on Amazon for "Emmylou Harris Mr. Sandman" you'll get nothing. You have to search for "Emmylou Harris Sandman" and, without the "Mr." in the search criteria, you get four choices, all of them correct.

All in all, Betcha is like Ruby Woo, but a shade less weird -- and less inspired. I'm still glad to own it.

No ... I take it back. Their versions of the disco hit "I Will Survive" and the standard "In the Mood" on Betcha are every bit as weird and inspired as anything on Ruby Woo.

*

I also have to say that Amazon's download service is smooth as silk. And, unlike iTunes, it saves the files as .mp3s rather than a proprietary iTunes file format. That means that any .mp3 player can use them. With iTunes, you have to burn a CD first, then rip that CD into .mp3s using other software. Amazon therefore works a lot better for me.

Here's where things start getting insane, though. I decided to go on a nostalgia trip on Amazon's .mp3 downloads area. I thought back to a song I loved back in 1960 or 1961 -- "Pretty Blue Eyes."

I knew it was quintessential white-singer rock and roll, but I have a sentimental attachment to it. (My first dance, in a friend's basement at a birthday party, and I danced to it with Kathy Brown, my first serious crush. I was in fourth grade.)

A half dozen versions came up. Aside from karaoke versions, there were three versions of the right tune. One was by Billy Fury. I assume that one's the original, because the recording quality is so very bad. Back in those days they didn't record pop singles in stereo or even, apparently, in a studio. This one sounds like a garage recording using a condenser mike from a boom box -- but on the poor quality record players we had then, who could tell the difference? Everything sounded like that.

Then there's the cover by The Jays in their album Unforgettable Times. It keeps the spirit of the original, but it's recorded using much better equipment. The whole album is actually a fun trip back in time.

The best version, though, was covered by a group called "the Elvis Presley Tribute Band" and it's an Elvis impersonation. Not a great one -- too crisp on the ends of lines -- but it's really quite enjoyable. For what it is.

And now I spent three bucks downloading all three versions, and how often will I really put any of them into rotation on one of my .mp3 players?

Probably a lot. Plus, one thing leads to another, and somehow I also ended up downloading a couple of compilations with other old-favorite singles on them and ... this can get expensive. You have been warned.

*

American Idol Update

I have to eat a little crow.

Last week I said that Brooke White had a weakish voice and that I had yet to hear her give a performance I wanted to own a recording of. Technically, that statement is true. But that's because at that point I had never heard a studio recording of her singing.

This year, for the first time, American Idol is having the contestants make studio recordings of full versions of the songs they sing in competition. These recordings are not released until a few days after the voting, and can only be downloaded as singles from iTunes.com.

I went to iTunes, to which, because I have a teenager in the house, I already pay monthly tribute. I downloaded a selection of songs by the contestants. Not only do they have the studio recordings of the last two weeks' performances, they also have recordings of earlier live performances.

What I said about Brooke White's on-air performances is true. But in the studio, it's a completely different story.

Her voice is warm and lush. The quavering tremolo becomes a much-better-controlled vibrato, and there's depth and power.

The conclusion is obvious: Brooke White suffers from horrible stage fright! I've seen it before in other singers. Practicing, or in front of friends, they sing wonderfully; then they get up on the stage and their voices go wacko -- in just the ways that Brooke's voice does.

Unlike many of the other contestants, Brooke White has not been performing in clubs, where she could learn to overcome her stage fright. She is years behind the others in this one area.

She and, to a lesser degree, Michael Johns, cannot be understood until you listen to their studio recordings.

None of the others became markedly better, however. Kristy Lee Cook, in fact, was worse in the studio -- she really doesn't hear it when she goes off pitch.

Based on the studio recordings alone, there are only four singers in this competition, in this order: David Cook, David Archuleta, Brooke White, Michael Johns.

I know that the judges are dying to record Carly Smithson, but as far as I can tell she sings without heart, and the studio versions are no better.

Meanwhile, I also listened again to Amanda Overmyer, David Hernandez, and Chikezie, who are already off the show. Much as I loved watching Amanda sing, the recording reveals weaknesses I ignored while watching. Still, I think she could do a great album of Joplinesque songs.

Chikezie, too, even with his two good performances, was carried along by his enthusiasm. The recordings don't hold up. He really isn't ready yet, and while he was not the worst in the week he left, he wouldn't have lasted much longer.

David Hernandez, however -- even with the supposedly "bad" performance that got him booted -- was simply outstanding. I would buy an album of his right now. And I'm bummed that perhaps it was because of some bad employment experience in his past that this remarkably talented performer should be off the show. I think he's ready to record right now and I want his album. Though I'll be happy if the cover art shows him fully clothed.

Meanwhile, because of the new iTunes release program, I can already listen to some great Idol performances, professionally recorded.

Too bad they didn't have that going when Fantasia did her brilliant live performance of Gershwin's "Summertime." The studio version that was eventually released was not as good: It was vocally overdecorated. She had lost the simplicity that made it so moving and beautiful.

David Cook's "Billie Jean" performance was praised by the judges as creative and original. Though it was announced by Ryan Seacrest as being the "Chris Cornell version," some people thought that the judges were wrong to praise David Cook's originality, and that David should have "corrected" them when they did so.

I don't think these critics are right on either point. I have downloaded and listened to the Chris Cornell version. It's very good, and indeed David Cook, as announced, was covering that version, and not the Michael Jackson version.

But it was still quite daring of David Cook to perform a radically different version of a song that Michael Jackson made so familiar to American audiences.

More importantly, Cook's version was not identical with Cornell's. Cook's was orchestrated. And Cook's was performed with vocal power and intensity that move it into a different league from Cornell's.

Cornell's version was good, but low-key. Understated. Cook's was hot, high-powered, and far more emotional. When you hear them both, you'll see what I mean. Even using Cornell's arrangement lick for lick, Cook's cover is not identical. Cook gets the credit for hearing the Cornell version and discovering what he could do with it -- and doing it.

And let's remember that Michael Jackson wrote the words and the music out of his own personal experience with a woman who claimed he fathered a child of hers. So it's almost ludicrous for fans of Cornell to claim that Cook was not original and Cornell was. Michael Jackson was original. The other two did variations on the song. And Cook's debt to Cornell was publicly acknowledged. Nuff said. Case closed.

Meanwhile, I have recently listened to the studio recordings of Cook's, Cornell's, and Jackson's versions, and enjoy them all.


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