Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pixar's Brave: The New Trailer

I love the looks of the new Pixar flick Brave! Not only is it the first film with a female lead from the great computer animators who brought us Toy Story and Wall-E, but the heroine's red frizzy hair, beautiful animation and wonderful score make me think that this is going to be one of the best films of the summer.

Brave is coming out June 22. Can't wait!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TV Crush: A Hazard of Hearts

A Hazard of Hearts is a guilty pleasure. It's so wonderfully ludicrous, over-saturated with every possible cliché and chock-full of such horrendous acting and dialogue that it's impossible not to love it. It's so bad, it's good.
This title card makes my heart bleed
A made-for-TV movie, this 1987 adaptation of Barbara Cartland's romance novel of the same name tells the story of Serena Staverley (played by young Helena Bonham-Carter), our plucky heroine, whose father (played by Christopher Plummer), a compulsive gambler, loses everything he owns, including Serena, in a game of cards to the diabolical Lord Harry Wrotham (Edward Fox), who in turn loses Serena to the dangerous and enigmatic Lord Justin Vulcan (Marcus Gilbert). The father promptly commits suicide and Lord Vulcan must marry Serena or at least take responsibility for her. He takes her to his family home, Mandrake, and puts her in the care of his scheming, overbearing and ambitious mother.

The story unfolds in the usual style of Gothic romance - there are hidden passages, mysterious rooms, family secrets, smugglers, highwaymen, duels, poisoning, kidnapping, attempted rape, a brooding hero and dastardly villains.

Hi, I'll be your plucky and cute ingenue for the duration of this film
Helena Bonham-Carter is adorable as the young ingenue. It's hard to believe that this actress, known for her gaunt looks, strange fashion choices and dark quirky roles, used to play sweet, round-cheeked spunky heroines.

I'm rich and handsome, and tortured, oh, so tortured 
Marcus Gilbert as the brooding Lord Justin, Marquess Vulcan is doing his best Darcy impression. Most of his lines are cheesy and the delivery is wooden. But he is rather easy on the eyes.

Even in 1820s the 80s refused to die 
Diana Rigg, best known for her role as Emma Peel of The Avengers, plays Lord Justin's mother. She mostly just goes around chewing the scenery and hitting every wicked step-mother cliché in the book.

I am so evil; I wish I had an evil mustache to twirl in an evil way 
But the lord and master of scenery chewing is Edward Fox, our main villain. He is one of those single-minded, evil characters that can only exist in really bad romance novels. Christopher Plummer as Serena's father is charming, but he disappears from the movie withing the first 10 minutes.

It's not easy having a good time 
The film is set during the late Regency period. If I had to guess, I would say the styles look like they are from the 1820s. The production values aren't very high and some costumes look cheap. The film suffers greatly from the 80s aesthetic and often looks very dated. Some of Lady Vulcan's costumes are not easy on the eyes and the amount of blush on her cheekbones is, frankly, alarming.

Judgmental is the new mauve 
As far as mindless entertainment goes, A Hazard of Hearts is pretty harmless. The plot is sufficiently silly and the main heroine is compelling. There are, however,some dubious moments and elements. First, there are no positive female characters except the heroine. All the other women, except her maid, are shown as Serena's rivals or adversaries. Even the unnamed wife of the highwayman who comes to Serena's rescue is claimed to be a brazen hussy. The men, on the other hand, except the main villain and possibly the smugglers, are universally good. They are all sympathetic towards Serena and try to help her.

The narrative about masculinity and what it means to be a real man is also slightly disturbing. Nicholas, Serena's cousin, is a pleasant and quiet young man, desperately in love with the haughty Lady Isabel Gillingham, who is after Lord Vulcan. She spends most of the film ignoring Nicholas or being mean to him. The rational thing to do would be to avoid her, instead Nicholas seems to follow her around and gets upset when he is overlooked or ignored. Finally, when Isabel delivers yet another taunt, he becomes violent, grabs her and smashes things. He ends this temper tantrum by forcibly kissing her. This is played  up for laughs and is meant to show that Nicholas is very masculine, indeed, and that now that he's been aggressive and abusive, Isabel will see what a catch he is. Mind you, this scene is preceded by an attempted rape of our heroine. It seems to suggest that violence is only bad when it's the villain abusing the heroine. When a good guy is violent, he is just being manly. But of course, one should not expect too much in the way of progressive gender dynamics from a film based on a novel written in 1949.

All in all, if you love historical romances or just want to be entertained for an hour and half, this is a great film to watch.

Watch A Hazard of Hearts on YouTube:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Maslenitsa: Blinis and a Bit of Culture

Maslenitsa (Ма́сленица), loosely translated as Butter Week, is a popular religious and folk holiday, celebrated in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It's the last week when you can eat butter, milk and eggs before the beginning of Lent.

The holiday has very ancient roots. It's believed to go back all the way to the pagan times when it coincided with the Spring equinox and was a celebration of renewal, life and fertility. One of the central elements of the celebration is blinis - thin pancakes that actually look more like the French crêpes than the traditional American pancakes.

Maslenitsa with an Ural Tray by Tatiana Tarasova
Blinis can be eaten with everything and anything, sweet or savory and are one of the most popular Maslenitsa dishes, but all fatty and buttery food is encouraged. Some believe that blinis symbolize the Sun god, sometimes known as Jarilo, but others are certain that it's associated with the cult of the dead. The later explanation seems plausible - even today people eat blinis at traditional wakes.

Storm of Snow Fortress by Vasily Surikov
The other part of the holiday is the general merriment. This is when the young and the old take part in snowball fights, sledding, singing, dancing,  riding on swings, sleigh rides, mock battles and building of snow forts.

Maslenitsa by Boris Kustodiev 
At the end of the week, on Sunday, the people burn Maslenitsa effigy made of straw and old rags and then bury the ashes to insure a good harvest. It's meant to symbolize the death of Winter and the coming of Spring.

This is my modest attempt at celebrating this wonderful holiday of Spring and new life. But I don't think I'll be burning any effigies.

Happy Maslenitsa, everyone!  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

TV Crush: Garrow's Law

Here I am, back from a long hiatus with a new post about one of the best shows I've seen in ages. 

I discovered Garrow's Law while reading Madame Guillotine and it instantly struck my fancy. Naturally, a show that combines two of my great passions - 18th century history and court drama - could not do otherwise.

Garrow's Law is a BBC period drama about an 18th-century lawyer, William Garrow, who was a real historical figure, though slightly less impressive than his fictional counterpart, and was involved in reforming the advocacy system of the corrupt and socially unjust Georgian England. The episodes are based on real legal cases from the time, but the series, naturally, takes some liberties with historical facts and conventions, yet it makes up for it with excellent writing and wonderful characters.

Garrow is played by Andrew Buchan, whom we all know and love as Jem Hearne from Cranfrod. 

Alun Armstrong (Aristocrats, Little Dorrit) plays Garrow's mentor, John Southouse. Lady Sarah, Garrow's love interest, is Lyndsey Marshal (HBO's Rome). Lady Sarah's husband, politician and all round unpleasant guy, Sir Arthur Hill, is played by Rupert Graves (Sherlock). And, finally, the role of Silvester, Garrow's court nemesis, is taken by Aidan McArdle (The Duchess, Ella Enchanted).

The show only had three season, which is a real shame. I would have loved to see more of Garrow and his team tackling some legal problems of a time period which wasn't high on social justice.  

Interesting Fact: Judge Buller (played by Michael Culkin) became infamous for allegedly creating the so-called rule of thumb, which stated that a husband could beat his wife as long as the stick was no bigger than his thumb. However, there is no proof that such rule ever existed in English common law. And equally doubtful is whether Judge Buller ever made this statement in court.

Interesting Fact: Garrow did, in fact, have an 'irregular' relationship with woman named Sarah, though she was not Lady Sarah. Her real name was Sarah Dore. She had previously had a child with Arthur Hill, Viscount Fairford. Some sources seem to say that she was his wife, others that she was his mistress. Nonetheless, she began a relationship with Garrow and had two children with him.  

Watch a wonderful documentary about the real William Garrow here.
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