(On Cable TV, February 2018) Is it possible for a film to be so good as to become invisible? The 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility has, in adapting Jane Austen’s novel so well, become part of the fabric of pop culture. It launched an Austen revival that continues even today, it solidified the career of its director Ang Lee, netted Emma Thompson an Oscar-winning reputation as an actress and screenwriter and became a strong calling card for other actors such as Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. It cleverly alters the plot and themes of the original novel for modern sensibilities, and delivers everything with an appropriate atmosphere of period detail. In short, it succeeds at being what it wanted to be. Alas, I was surprisingly bored through it all, and I suspect that much of the problem lies in the film’s own success. Since 1995, there have been an explosion of Austen-inspired material, and many of my favourite ones have remixed the material in ever-stranger ways, from Los Angeles-set From Prada to Nada, to Canadian-Indian musical Bride and Prejudice, to the unlikely mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies … and the list goes on. Going back to the unadulterated source material at a time when it has become such an inspiration isn’t necessarily dull … but it does feel overly familiar. I will also note that Sense and Sensibility is the film of film uniquely affected by mood—it doesn’t make much an effort to draw audiences in (the beginning is notably in media res), but rather relies on pre-existing sympathies and goodwill. If it so happens that you’re distracted or otherwise less than receptive … this may also be an issue. So: Good movie, muted impact—by creating an incredible legacy for itself, Sense and Sensibility may have dulled its own reception twenty years later.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I didn’t exactly approach Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with the most enthusiastic expectations. The zombie craze peaked a long time ago, I’ve never been able to fully embrace Jane Austin’s work (despite my best intentions) and the idea of mashing up the undead within the framework of an Austin novel never seemed like anything but a novelty. This lack of enthusiasm may end up explaining my modestly good reaction to the result. I’m perhaps most impressed at the breadth of the zombie story that original novel author Seth Grahame-Smith has managed to sneak in-between the Austen narrative framework, with an apocalyptic vision of a zombie-infested Great Britain split in zones, four horsemen of the Apocalypse and antagonists actively working for the other side. Portraying Mister Darcy and the Bennett sisters as effective action heroes is amusing (such as when a mild-mannered conversation is portrayed through a waiting room combat, or when blades are sheathed next to lingerie.), while the historical production values are just as credible as any BBC drama. The flip side of such a mash-up, though, are that the surprisingly short film barely has time to race through its twin strands of plotting. The elements kept intact from the Austen novel are covered as if viewers already knew about that (a good but imperfect assumption), while the horror sequences have to live in-between other mandatory elements. The result may be entertaining, but the better it gets the more frustrating it becomes: While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is good enough to avoid being a mere curio, it shows more than a glimmer of the much better film it could have been under other circumstances. Lily James and Sam Riley are fine in the two main roles, but read the list of actors and directors initially considered for the project and weep at the thought of the versions that alternate universes got to see. It’s probably best to keep expectations in check and wonder at the oddity that did make it on-screen: It’s remarkably easy to watch, amusing in its willingness to blend two different genres together and more ambitious than your run-of-the-mill zombie movie.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Nearly everything about From Prada to Nada‘s marketing (title, poster, premise) can lead anyone to expect a sub-par brainless comedy not far away from superficial dreck such as The Hottie and the Nottie. The surprise is in finding out that this is a textured look at Los Angeles’ Latino community based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It starts on a rough note, as two sisters are expelled from their house after the death of their insolvent father. Forced to an exile in East L.A., they find that… oh, let’s face it: surprising plotting really isn’t one of From Prada to Nada‘s strong points. This romantic comedy is almost entirely predictable even if you haven’t read Austen, and much of the charm of the film lies in how well it hits the expected plot points. Camilla Belle is adorable as the sensible sister, and while it take a while for Alexa Vega’s Lindsey Lohan-lookalike to develop some audience sympathy, events eventually manage to win her over to the audience’s side. Otherwise, the real strength of the film is in its upbeat look at the South Californian Mexican-American sub-culture (The fact that the Latina protagonists don’t initially speak Spanish is one of the film’s running gags.) The dialogue isn’t anything special, the jokes are lazy, the character are stock figures and the direction is rarely inspired, but the film is nonetheless quite a bit warmer than expected. Austen fans will like the flavour given to this adaptation, while those looking for a middle-of-the-road romantic comedy won’t be too disappointed.