Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why You Should Be Watching Web Series If You Love Books

I admit that a little more than a year ago, web series were a bit of a mystery to me. I saw people tweeting and posting about various ones with names I did not understand, and I only had a vague awareness of their existence.

At some point during my unfocused internet browsing I saw someone mention "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries". I cannot remember who this earthly messenger was, so I cannot give my grateful thanks to them. I only know one day I watched an episode, and I kept watching, delighted that I could keep following the path of this story, familiar yet unfamiliar and then.....well this explains it best:

``I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.''

A web series is basically a set of videos posted on the internet which tell a story. "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" is  in the form of a vlog (i.e. a video blog or journal which allows people to spout off, rant, chat or communicate in whatever way they like on the internet.) The difference with "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" (or "The LBD" as it is affectionately called . See I'm hip! Do people still say "hip"?) is that the vlog is not about a real person; it tells the story of a particular literary character who should be familiar to many of you if you've ever read this blog. If you're feeling a bit slow today, think Pride and Prejudice and you should be fine. The result was one hundred videos of roughly four to five minutes in length which gained a record number of fans and recognition and gained the creators an Emmy.

The incredibly creative team behind the series produced an addictive entertaining series which modernized the story of Pride and Prejudice, reproducing most of the characters and themes in an engaging way and making alterations where necessary that enhanced the story instead of diluting it as some modern adaptations have done in the past.  I truly had a eureka experience with them. The series had already been running for some time when I found them. After watching one or two of the videos, I was drawn into a feast of the existing twenty-five episodes which I ploughed through with vigor. Afterward I was reduced to the predicament of the fans who were with the series from the beginning and who had to wait for each of the two short episodes per week to be uploaded. Anticipation is a strange phenomenon: you both enjoy it and hate it. In building suspense and keeping the enthusiasm of the fans flaring, the series' showrunners vastly succeeded.

The whole experience was enhanced by the use of transmedia, another concept I was not very familiar with before. (Really this series has proven to be very educational.)  While the main story played out on the blog, the story was also continuing in other platforms. Most of the characters had twitter accounts. Crazy Lydia decided to do her own vlog. When Darcy was revealed to be the CEO of a thriving company called Pemberley, a professional looking website with a company profile and all the trimmings came into existence. Talk about an all inclusive experience. I loved it.

The quality of the series was also excellent. Despite all the modern media, the art of storytelling really was evident throughout the series. The series' Lizzie (Ashley Clement) can tell a captivating story, enhanced by her ability to do some hilarious impressions, and it astonished me how engrossed I was even when it was just her talking about her Lizzie Bennet life.

 The characters are also a delight. In particular, all the sisters were well done. I have to commend the actress who played Lydia who proved to be very obnoxious and rather overwhelming (as she should be) but yet didn't make me dislike her, and that is a difficult task. Her part in the story is the most altered, and as usual I wasn't overjoyed when her situation encroached on Lizzie's story, but I found myself invested in the changes and more concerned about Lydia than I have ever been. Sister Jane is such a strange creature. Usually characters with unfailing optimism are universally disliked, but from my limited observations, Jane rarely is. A good Jane inspires empathy not dislike and this Jane manages it.

Of course Darcy is a major factor in any Pride and Prejudice adaptation, and here he is portrayed by the impossibly good looking Daniel Vincent Gordh. By the time, the series ended I had decided that he is one of my favourite Darcys in adaptations. I realize that there are not a lot of Darcys out there, but that's still a huge endorsement from me. Trust me. DVG is not perfect in his portrayal, but by the end of the series I was completely invested in him and his many positives overwhelmed his few negatives.

I can't stop to go into how much I liked this series' Charlotte, Mary, Bingley, Georgiana etc. etc, but there's a good chance that your favourite characters from the book will bring you joy.

So yes, if you like Pride and Prejudice , you should feel obligated to look this one up.

One of the other great outcomes of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries are the inevitable "copy cats". After seeing how well "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" was received, others have started dreaming of what other classical adaptations could appear in short video chunks. From the same team has come an adaptation of Jane Austen's unfinished novel "Sanditon" and I have seen passing mention of an adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" and "Phantom of the Opera". I choose to recommend "The Autobiography of Jane Eyre" which has managed to duplicate my wild anticipation for new video instalments each week. It's terribly compelling and features another great lead actress. As Jane Eyre, Alysson Hall often has to give poignant and sad monologues which are consistently touching and real. The story also plays with the format more than the Lizzie Bennet Diaries which filmed in limited locations. For example, sometimes Jane goes outside. Sometimes she only films what she wants others to see and has little screen time herself. 

This series has not ended yet, and we are currently embroiled somewhere in the middle of the novel, and I cannot wait for the next video after I see the current one. Rochester is also a younger version of the book with funky men's socks and tattoos and who is at present clearly smitten with Jane. Again his portrayal is not perfect, but the overall impression he's left on me is strong. I long to see him again, and if you start to watch, you will too.


Because of the success of "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries", one of the most anticipated series out there is The LBD team's official full length follow up to it: "Emma Approved". This modern adaptation of another of Jane Austen's more famous novels looks beautiful and polished and features some great acting by series star Joanna Sotomura who embodies a bossy, rather egotistical Emma.  She is so in control and sure of herself, it will be interesting seeing her begin to lose her edge as Emma's many plans begin to lose their structural integrity. I don't feel as invested in this series as in the other two as yet. Even Mr. Knightley (though tolerant, cheerful, practical and firm as he ought to be) doesn't have a hold on me as yet, but I am willing to keep watching, and I feel safe in recommending it.

Even if any of these ultimately disappoint, it is clear that I have many other options out there to consider. While looking through an article about these web series, I saw comments about series about William Shakespeare and another about fairy tale characters set in universities just to name a few. The possibilities for amusement are endless.

What do you think of this trend?  If you're a fan of any of these series, feel free to express your opinion of them in the comments and please, please recommend any other literary-like web series, so we can explore!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Saving a House of Secrets

I don't think I've ever watched any of the the animated films at the annual European Film Festival here, so when I read the description for "Eleanor's Secret" and saw that it went on at a convenient time, I was happy to go see it. I've often heard that non-American animated films can be very unusual experiences, and those can be hard to come by. (Before anyone mentions it, I've been exposed to quite a lot of anime, but with some exceptions, I don't care for the genre....I know....I know....)

"Eleanor's Secret" or "Kérity, la maison des contes" (Love the English name, but the French one sounds so lovely) begins as a little boy named Nathaniel and his sister Angelica arrive with their parents at the seaside home of their Aunt Eleanor who has died. Nathaniel has fond memories of his aunt and all the stories she would read to him. The little cottage is clearly a much loved place with a friendly neighbour to visit, a quiet beach for flying kites and Eleanor's secret room upstairs, but Nathaniel has his own troubles. As his rather obnoxious sister keeps pointing out, he can't read - not out loud anyway. When confronted with the words, he is filled with a crippling anxiety. In addition, his family is in danger of losing the house which needs very expensive repairs which they cannot afford. Lastly Nathaniel finds himself entrusted to keep his Aunt Eleanor's secret well hidden, and this becomes one of his greatest challenges of all. What follows is a very exciting, magical adventure.

The animation looks lovely with a soft vintage feel to it. The characters have sweet often friendly faces. If you're used to the bolder vibrant look of American animation, you might be lulled into thinking that this will be a slower kind of story. What actually happens however is suspenseful and emotional as Nathaniel struggles against physical and emotional obstacles as he goes on a quest he must finish before it is too late. It doesn't have the darkness and heart tugging pain of "The Last Unicorn" or "Watership Down", but it definitely has feeling to it. It's a film a child could enjoy and relate to, and it was an interesting change from the typical animation which are easily accessible.

If you've seen the movie or don't mind being spoiled for key plot points, read on:
"SPOILERY"                  THOUGHTS!!!!!!

I think the only plot point of the movie that bothered me a bit was that a movie about a love of books should have utilized the attributes of the well known characters more. If you've read "Alice in Wonderland", you know Alice had experience with getting bigger and smaller from drinking and eating magical things during her travels. I really expected her to retrieve one of her bottles and help Nathaniel grow when they needed it.  How about this: on such a dangerous trip, it might have been useful to bring along someone who could fly not so? Someone like maybe.....Peter Pan who we often saw floating about among the anxious book characters. I guess since there were endless characters, you could end up with endless solutions to Nathaniel's problems, but I don't think the story would have been hurt at all by adding some of those elements.

One of the most captivating parts of the film for me was centred on the secret itself. How amazing that Eleanor was entrusted with this amazing library. Did anyone else think that her own story would have made a fascinating movie as well? You can clearly see why she is loved so much in the flashbacks of the film. She was obviously very intelligent and resourceful - a guardian of such precious treasure would have to be both, and she proves it in the gifts she gives to the two children and how they are revealed to them. It makes sense that Nathaniel would have to start developing some of the requisite skills for the job. Just as he had to learn to be a hero, Eleanor was one as well, ensuring that readers and future readers will always have their worlds to escape to and guarding the truth all readers know deep down: 

"Just because they are stories, does not mean they are not real."

(The final movie I will discuss from the film festival is the widely different "2 Days in Paris, so don't forget to come back and join the discussion)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Cheerful" Visit to the European Film Festival

I look forward to the European Film Festival (EFF) every year here in Trinidad. The European diplomatic missions in this country - France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom - get together to show films from the European Union. For me, it's a time to see lots of movies which would not normally be shown here, and which I am unlikely to see on cable. I have seen some really odd movies, some really unusual ones, and I've come away with amazing experiences and some favourite movies (e.g. "The Secret Life of Words" which is so affecting yet uplifting. SEE IT!) Usually the showcase takes place in my birthday month for October, but the organizers moved it to May this year, and I must say that I was most pleased. We just came through the beginning-of-the-year movie dry spell, and it was such a long wait to the next EFF, this was a sudden and nice surprise. I don't even mind that because May is our local movie theatre's busy month, loyal patrons of the EFF have to pay TT$30 instead of the usual TT$15 for admission. That's still far cheaper than a regular movie around these parts, so it's not stopping me. 

The first movie I've seen for the festival was a British one called Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.  If you read this blog long enough, you'll see I am naturally drawn to British things - I can't control it. It's a weakness. It just happens. Other selling points was that it was billed as a comedy and had the pixie-like Felicity Jones who I found mesmerizing in Northanger Abbey. She seems so childlike and otherworldly; she is fascinating to look at. The story is set in England in the 1930's - a setting featuring slender women languidly smoking, rowing, picnics on the river and sudden bursts of rain. The sort of era and place where someone would name their daughters Dolly and Kitty. Felicity Jones plays Dolly who wakes up on the morning of her wedding and dawdles upstairs an obscenely long time while her family waits for her and wonders what's keeping her. You can feel the potential for drama building as her mother tries to act like nothing seems amiss and that it's not strange at all that Dolly has also invited a former boyfriend to celebrate the big day. Joseph looks like a thinner Dan Stevens (from Downton Abbey - which I haven't seen and Sense and Sensibility - which I have and loved), and he is very uncertain and confused about why he is there in the first place. 

If you're expecting a subtle British comedy with witty dialogue with some darker emotion worked into it for this movie, you're right. You get drawn into watching the characters dance around each other,and all the time you're waiting for something to spark and cause the drama brewing to surge to the fore. The humour is good too. I grinned at the clever remarks and the quirky characters which are inevitable in all weddings - especially in weddings in British comedies. Some of my favourites were Elizabeth McGovern as Dolly's mother who tries so hard to make sure everything goes well that she seems blind to everything that is wrong. As Dolly's sister Kitty, Ellie Kendrick feels left out and awkward and devoid of romance in her life. She even looks as if she doesn't quite fit beside her assured, elegant sister.

If you're interested you should watched the trailer and head out and take a look at it.

If you've seen the movie or don't mind being spoiled for key plot points, read on:

 HERE                                     THERE                                      BE                             SPOILERS

I admired how the plot moved back and forth to the golden, perfect summer when Kitty and Joseph meet and become closer. There is a scene between them which is shown more than once and which changes subtly every time it was shown. I liked how it built up the anticipation of what had happened and slowly revealed clues of Kitty's situation. I wonder if it's supposed to reflect the different ways each felt about the encounter.

I waited curiously for the ending wondering how it would come to a close and thinking that there was no way the lovers would be separated. Did anyone else hope/expect Kitty to come back at the end - even when she had driven out of sight with her new husband in the car? I thought she would for a long time, probably because I am used to American romantic comedies. I think if the movie had been one of those, there was no way it would have ended in this melancholy way. While Kitty's mother can pretend that everything really was "cheerful", the viewer is more likely to remember the grey landscape and the cold draft of rain as everyone morosely took the wedding photo in front of the camera. 

I recommend this film, and suggest fans of this type of movie should go see it. If for some incomprehensible reason, you don't like this type of movie, the EFF features a variety of genres: thrillers, drama, documentaries. Check out their schedule to find out more: http://www.ttfilmfestival.com/eff/

My next film on my "To See List" is "Eleanor's Secret", a French animated film. The synopsis states:

Seven-year-old Nathaniel goes with his parents to spend the summer in the villa that belonged to his aunt Eleanor. Nathaniel has inherited his aunt’s library of old books, but he has no interest in them. That is until he discovers the books are alive with characters from classic fairy tales!
This is clearly a movie which was made especially with me in mind.....or I hope it is. I shall post my thoughts next week, so be sure and visit the Crossroads again.

Post below and let me know what movies you've seen for the film festival, and share what you think about "Cheerful Weather for the Wedding" if you saw it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Goodbye Roger Ebert

Iconic film reviewer and journalist Roger Ebert passed away today. Hurrying around my office on an errand today, I glanced at my phone and saw that someone had tweeted, "Roger Ebert R.I.P." and I had to pause for a second to register my shock and sadness. I had only heard yesterday that he was taking a "leave of presence" to deal with a reoccurence of the cancer which has afflicted him for many years. I admire his volume of work and the intelligence and clarity of his reviews. He's the type of person I would like to emulate in my own writing. I am not sure if I ever shall. He and reviewer Gene Siskel added a new dimension to movie viewing for me in a way that no trite 3D treatment ever could. For better or worse, after watching their views and considering their viewpoints, I could not think of movies in the same way again. It prompted me to write a blog post about them a few years ago.


I am very grateful to Roger Ebert for expanding my ideas about my movie viewing. I don't consider myself a real cinephile, but he definitely taught me to consider movies from a different angle and think a bit differently. He was a true teacher.

Goodbye sir......

Read more about Mr. Ebert from the paper where he got his start in his long and prolific career:

The Sun-Times on Roger Ebert