TV on DVD: Alvin and the Chipmunks -- The Very First Alvin Show

New Titles Now Available

Photo Slideshow

I've always had a fondness for the Chipmunks, whether they were touching our heartstrings with their famous rendition of their "Christmas Song," taking part in memorable holiday specials, or entertaining fellow 1980s babies like yours truly who grew up watching Alvin and the Chipmunks in the various evolutions of their Saturday morning cartoon series including their reenactments of popular movies such as in Paramount's recent Star Wreck release.

Having reviewed numerous Chipmunks titles in the past, I was especially thrilled to go back further in history of the Ross Bagdasarian created characters to explore The Very First Alvin Show which was broadcast back in 1961 especially considering that the television premiere had never been previously released in any format including VHS.

Remastering the 35mm film print that aired almost fifty years ago in high definition before transferring it to DVD, Paramount devoted great attention to the soundtrack as well by redistributing the original mono track to a crisp and beautiful stereo balance to accentuate the music we'd come to know and love. Although format-wise, it's very 1960s and the plot is all over the place, two musical highlights include songs I'd never heard before as the Chipmunks put their own spin on "O Sole Mio" in Italy and Alvin tries to use musical "ooh la la" to seduce gorgeous French women.

While the musical creativity is at an all time high, most of the humor comes from the Rocky and Bullwinkle-esque yet pre Pinky and the Brain version of pompous television personality Clyde Crashcup and his long-suffering miniature assistant Leonardo as they "invent" baseball. Moreover, the characters are so unique that the DVD comes with an insert featuring those two alone which made me wonder if there was ever a spinoff or if they'll be used in anything down the road.

Production wise, the DVD release opted to stick with the same mono sound that was utilized for the broadcast in the two bonus episodes of the roughly 74 minute work. And although it's a nice trip back to era of Fresh Prince as Will Smith hosts a celeb-filled, dated look at five decades of music with the Chipmunks in 1991's "The Chipmunks Present Rockin' Through The Decades" that shows Alvin, Simon and Theodore's take on everyone from Elvis to Springsteen, it's a rather weak mixture of music videos and celebrity footage.

However, much like the original Alvin Show, it's worth a peek just to glimpse the far too brief footage of the Chipmunks in puppet form on The Ed Sullivan Show in a nice set-up gag to perform their signature tune. Going right back into the familiar warmth of the '80s style animation with a sweet middle 1985 episode titled "A Chipmunk Reunion," the three assert their independence and disappear in the middle of the night to track down their birth mother to find out when exactly their birthday is and why she came to leave them on Dave's doorstep.

Horrified that something will happen to them, despite the fact that Alvin and the boys asked their female counterparts to look after Dave while they're gone, Dave ventures out into the forest to track down his family in a nice episode that could also serve as an allegory about adoption and a child's desire to know their true origins.

Admittedly the selection of episodes make an unlikely trio as thematically they don't have much holding them together aside from a very loose thread about the history of the series and characters. And although I would've preferred a longer and more in-depth look at the vintage Alvin Show to hear more songs with which I am unfamiliar and view more wacky shenanigans of Clyde Crashcup and the adorable Leonardo, overall I was grateful that so much care, dedication, and love was taken in ensuring the very best presentation of the world's first introduction to the Chipmunks as TV stars.

As Paramount keeps unveiling more quality releases of the Chipmunks line that are sure to appeal to Generation X and now the Baby Boomers as well, I remain hopeful that along with other Paramount titles debuting in tandem with Nickelodeon such as SpongeBob SquarePants, the next generation will latch onto the red, blue, and turquoise singers for many years to come.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.

TV on DVD: The Big Bang Theory -- The Complete Second Season (2008-2009)

Photo Slideshow

Now Available on DVD

One of the sweetest yet sharpest situation comedies in years, creator Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady's The Big Bang Theory impressively manages to entertain us while at the same time remaining true to their refreshingly original thesis that nice, likable people can be funny too.

Kicking off its third season on CBS in the coveted Monday night time slot as the lead in series to Lorre's smash hit Two and a Half Men, the show about two physicists and their beautiful neighbor managed to score the highest ratings of the night when it returned on the 21st.

And the credit for the success goes primarily to the talented team of writers who wisely leave the snarky anger where it belongs on Two and a Half Men in their intriguing development of misfit characters who-- a few annoyances aside-- genuinely like each other instead of the miserable dynamic we witnessed via CBS' former ratings blockbuster Everybody Loves Raymond.

Additionally, Bang is perfectly cast and amazingly inventive in the way that it moves beyond what could've been a one-joke premise of turning the physicists into dorks without feelings and the beautiful girl into a self-absorbed bimbo who wouldn't give them the time of day. And although the talented trio of Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, and Kaley Cuoco seemed to visibly bond by the time the middle of season one rolled around, season two finds them with a much greater handle on not only who their respective characters are but also how to bring out the best in each other.

Likewise, Prady, Lorre and their writing staff have managed to avoid the sophomore slump of taking a safe route or falling into the old network comedy traps of building up a "will they or won't they" question for so long that by the time it occurs, its audience is no longer interested (Frasier) or patronizing the characters we've come to know and love by turning them into punchline ready machines (The Office, Friends) or depending upon A-list actors for "must see" cameos (Will & Grace).

To this end, the characters refuse to stay the same "types" they were when the series began when we encountered Ph.D Caltech physicists Dr. Leonard Hofstadter (Galecki) and his arrogant child prodigy turned obsessive compulsive
best friend and roommate, Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Parsons) as they met their guileless, beautiful blonde neighbor Penny (Cuoco) who'd moved to California to become an actress but is currently employed as a waitress at a nearby Cheesecake Factory.

In the first season, a majority of the humor revolved around the higher functioning genius Leonard's inability to romantically connect with the woman for whom he'd fallen head over sneakers in the opening episode. Yet overall the series and its characters evolve along with the physicists' Caltech colleague friends including the painfully shy Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and clueless aspiring player Howard (Simon Helberg) into an unlikely makeshift family.

Of course, the sexual tension and failed attempts at romance between Leonard and Penny still continue throughout and the two are set to become involved officially within the beginning of season three but it's hardly the driving force of the series overall. Furthermore for Bang, it's been great to see the impact the group has had on each other as Penny helps get them outside their apartment and comfort zone and as evidenced in season two, she's officially become one of the guys.

Obviously Sheldon's unease with everything hasn't gone away and Penny's attempts to challenge him lead to some of the season's strongest episodes as even the writers reveal in a behind-the-scenes featurette that anytime Penny and Sheldon are put together, it makes for some truly funny moments. Early on in the season, Sheldon tries to comfort a frustrated Penny by introducing her to the world of medieval gaming online and she becomes hooked morphing from the hot friend to a fellow dork even more at risk than the rest until Sheldon and Leonard have to intervene.

Yet one of the best Penny/Sheldon concoctions of the season occurs in the standout "The Panty Pinata Polarization" when Sheldon ejects Penny from the apartment for violating his endless, illogical rules and she decides to get even to increasing levels of neighborly war. Of course, Leonard usually acts as the mediator or rule-breaker to ensure Penny comes out as the victor but the two respond to each other so well that it's adorable to see Sheldon go out of his way to bring baked goods over or use slang to try and casually ask Penny for advice.

Moreover, Parsons has the most difficult role by spouting off a whirlwind of tongue twisting physicist meets Star Trek dialogue that takes him hours to prepare to deliver in his rapid fire screwball meets Gilmore Girl fashion (befitting Prady's former gig on Girls). And cleverly Entertainment Weekly revealed that the episode that was submitted to Emmy voters in consideration of Parsons' well-deserved Best Actor nomination was the Christmas one wherein Penny presents Sheldon with an unexpectedly perfect present that prompts him to hug instead of ramble in a decidedly un-Sheldon like maneuver.

Of course the dynamic between Galecki and Parsons and the rest of their nerdy entourage garners the most laughs by far especially when the guys use science on a quest for love as sex is always the only thing on the mind of scene-stealing hornball Howard. If Charlie on Two and a Half Men were all talk and no action and with a much higher IQ, he'd be Bang's Howard who uses his access to governmental programs to try and locate the home where the contestants of America's Next Top Model reside and when he gets the Mars Rover stuck in a ditch in pursuit of seducing a doctor who surprisingly becomes Leonard's new girlfriend.

Likewise, it's always a treat to see Galecki reunite with his Roseanne costars who are given excellent material including Sara Gilbert as one of Big Bang Theory's best comedic weapons as the Kryptonite to the men for her mind and the fact that she's always willing to play the "friends with benefits" card when she desires. Along with Gilbert's semi-recurring role, Roseanne's Laurie Metcalfe shows up as Sheldon's Kryptonite whom Penny and Leonard call once in each season when her son Sheldon is out of control.

Aside from the pointless cameo of fellow WB produced series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles actress Summer Glau which led to a a dead-end subplot and a few episodes that felt a bit structurally repetitive, admirably the season fails to include a genuine dud in this hilarious four disc set. However, in addition to the fact that I'm still puzzled as to why the writers continue describing Penny as a waitress at The Cheesecake Factory when the restaurant's set clearly has nothing in common with the actual chain, I also think the series would benefit if Howard and Raj had a chance to develop a bit more as characters which we saw slightly in Howard's case after Penny took an insulting joke a little too far.

Yet with the recent announcement that the award-winning, popular comedy series has been renewed at least for a fourth season, I'm confident that the talented staff will continue to have positive results in their irresistible formula and inspired experiments regarding which ingredients produce the best comedic fodder.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.


DVD Review: Easy Virtue (2009)

Now Available

All film buff allegiance to Alfred Hitchcock aside but on an enjoyment scale, the idea of watching a silent version of a Noel Coward play is roughly on par with being presented a single crayon to use for an extraordinarily detailed coloring book. Of course, if the stimuli is interesting enough, you’ll make due with what you have and thus, since in the ‘20s sound wasn’t readily available when Hitch filmed Coward’s 1924 play Easy Virtue four years later in ’28 during his London years, he did so silently.

However, I'm sure that those who've read the playwright's work or seen it before will no doubt agree that Coward was a man worth waiting for the new technology to fully appreciate his daring plays which were filled rich witticisms and his penchant for ridiculing social conventions like marriage and child rearing which were filtered-- as in the case of Virtue-- via the culture clash of an American feminist who finds herself in the stuffy England countryside.

And indeed this exceptionally well-made adaptation co-written and directed by Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Eye of the Beholder Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott is just the right proof one will need to come to that same conclusion. Likely to entertain not just Coward devotees and also those who’ve enjoyed studying all things relating to the Master of Suspense, Elliott's Easy Virtue is doubly fascinating in the latter respect when you consider Hitch's affinity for Coward's work. To explain, by viewing Virtue, it helps retroactively foreshadow the type of unconventional humor that Hitchcock would seek out throughout his eventual career post his own '28 Virtue in films such as The Lady Vanishes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Trouble With Harry and others.

In Jessica Biel's best role and performance since the one that first bewitched many film lovers in The Illusionist, she plays a character we are quick to ascertain is slightly older than Ms. Biel in reality and one whom additionally is much wiser than her years. A widowed feminist race car driver from Detroit who's fresh off the high of winning the Grand Prix, Biel's Larita finds herself caught up in the excitement in Monaco when she waves to a thunderously applauding crowd and her eyes stop on the attentive eyes of the young handsome John (Ben Barnes) whom we gather is more than a little smitten with Larita by the time she appeared before her fans.

Using the old love-at-first-sight romantic comedy staple of marrying first and discovering each other's backgrounds later, Larita and John visit his dysfunctional family in the English countryside where even before they arrive and as opposed to John's initial adoration, his mother Mrs. Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) is predisposed to loathe the feisty, uncouth American on sight.

Scott Thomas perfectly embodies an icy wicked witch complete with a "yippy" dog too in the form of a Chihuahua named Poppy whose picture takes up more space in Mrs. Whitaker's home than the portraits of her equally offbeat daughters, Marion (Katherine Parkinson) and Hilda (Kimberley Nixon). Larita-- the new Mrs. Whitaker-- and Scott Thomas' firm main Mrs. Whitaker clash almost right from the start as despite her kind attempts to fit in with her new in-laws, Larita fails at every turn whether mildly due to an uncontrollable allergy to the woman's flowers or majorly by an unfortunate and macabre accident with the dog.

Although John initially tries to stay on his new wife's side, we quickly realize he's still unable to clip the apron strings that bind him to his mother especially when she uses guilt, familial obligation, an old neighbor sweetheart he'd been expected to marry, and financial woes to keep him in line, deftly playing these cards at precisely the right times. As John is too weak, his long-suffering, unhappily married father Jim is too strong for Mrs. Whitaker and Kristen Scott Thomas and Colin Firth fall into an easy banter like the parents in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, no doubt also aided by the fact they'd worked together previously playing a married couple in The English Patient which helped launch both of their careers internationally.

And throughout the obvious culture clash that intriguingly presents the English countryside as even more gossip hungry and cliquish than London since in contrast to the acres of land, the people make it seem as claustrophobic as a rowdy boarding house, Larita finds an important ally via the elder Jim Whitaker. Therefore, soon the two bond over Firth's passion for an old motorcycle he's restoring which reminds Larita of life back in Motor City as well as their pasts that are filled with battle scars when we learn more about Larita's former husband and Jim's survivor guilt as the only man his age still alive in the community after the first World War.

Intelligent and inventive yet still identifiable with modern audiences since Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins ensured their script went beyond Meet the Parents like gags to play up issues to which we can relate today concerning the pasts of Larita and Jim while still not venturing so far from Coward's original source material in the period film that it calls too much attention to itself a la the awkward reinterpretation of Oliver Parker's 2002 Oscar Wilde adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Nonetheless the decision to incorporate modern songs like "Car Wash" and "Sex Bomb" and orchestrate them in the style of Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin struck me as peculiar initially. And although I do feel it's still something of a flaw overall, the saving grace of Elliott's decision was to make sure the music never overpowered the scene by making the film's action our focal point and handling the selections carefully to make sure the period music was far more prominent and echoed in dialogue along with song and dance moments throughout that just felt right.

Moreover, as opposed to staging Moulin Rouge-esque production numbers (aside from the funniest and most unfortunate display of American sarcasm and joke delivery just not translating overseas in a Can-Can crisis), I was stunned to learn after the film ended that Barnes and Biel had actually performed some of the songs on the soundtrack.

Traditionally, this would've been a major marketing push in a Hollywood production to sell the soundtracks or by placing showstopping sequences in the film yet Elliott underplays the musical accompaniment and the most breathtaking scene of the film isn't even sung as Firth and Biel dance a tango at the end of the picture that replaces Coward's banter with action in telling the story yet still in a way that couldn't have had the same impact in the silent production.

While I'm unsure how the film played overseas, sadly Easy Virtue was a blink-and-you-missed-it release here in the states as it was overpowered by testosterone popcorn movies. However, thankfully given Sony Pictures Classics' beautiful transfer to DVD and Blu-ray, I'm hopeful the work will move beyond appealing to the Coward and Hitchcock crowd and garner more interest on disc. Additionally in the same turn, it's sure to remind admirers of Biel who suffered through Powder Blue along with those who've been unimpressed with her choices since The Illusionist just how much she's capable of as an actress who can walk the dramedy fine line and go toe-to-toe with Firth and quip-to-quip with Scott Thomas.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.


TV on DVD: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 (1971)

Shop AcornOnline.com

Now on DVD

Bookmark this on Delicious
submit to reddit
Print Page


MovieBlips: vote it up!

I'm just going to go ahead and write what I secretly know that everyone is thinking and that is, if you transport Victorian British detectives to Generation X sitcoms of the 1970s, then Sherlock Holmes is totally Marcia Brady.

And now, courtesy of those intellectual and artistic geniuses at Acorn Media who would never dream of comparing literature's most famous detective to a self-obsessed girl who always had no shortage of dates to the prom, we're given the opportunity to meet several different versions of Jan Brady via the title, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1.

Taken from the first thirteen episode season of the 1971 ITV Network series produced by Thames which garnered the artistic design department a BAFTA for their impressive recreation of forensic laboratories, eerie manors, drawing rooms, shady boarding houses, and intricate costumes from London's Victorian era, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was eventually followed by a second and final season which also ran for thirteen episodes two years later in 1973.

With the upcoming holiday release of the big screen adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr., timing couldn't be better for British mystery lovers to celebrate all things remotely Holmes related. And although I must confess that I did find more than half of this series entirely too predictable and downright snooze-worthy, it was a great deal of fun to relish in what has become essentially the UK's most prolific output aside from the Bard given their fondness for a wicked, bloody whodunnit.

Obviously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is the most respected, heavily influential and analyzed character of the fictitious detectives who would've been his colleagues or "contemporaries" we witness herein, yet the diversity in the style of sleuthing and personality of the various detectives included is definitely worth investigating.

Despite the faded look of the most likely video-captured '70s low-budget series, Rivals benefits immensely by memorable turns from esteemed and iconic acting veterans such as Halloween's Donald Pleasence, John Neville, Jeremy Irons (in his first official onscreen role), Donald Sinden and Peter Vaughan who brought characters including Guy Boothby's Simon Carne, Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados, R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke to life.

Inspired by the work from author Graham Greene's older brother and BBC director-general Hugh Greene who'd published anthologies that showcased the lesser-explored detectives in a series of works that shared the same title Rivals creators would employ, the slim-packaged four-disc set gets off to a smart if rocky start with "A Message from the Deep Sea."

Despite the boldness in their decision in selecting a character of whom most readers are at the very least aware and playing with the classic "locked door" structure, "Sea" is bogged down by Dr. Thorndyke himself as his obnoxious God-complex is far too much to handle when presented with it on disc instead of on the page.

Still, despite my dislike of the insufferably smug and egotistical Dr. Thorndyke, Rivals' opener nonetheless manages to establish the same theme that will run throughout the series as the characters upstage the bumbling official investigators at Scotland Yard with their dogged determination to avoid pinning a murder on an individual just because it's the most convenient solution.

Yet ego is one thing, swindling those who hire detective is something else altogether as we encounter a few detectives who steal incriminating documents being held over a client's head and them sell them back to the individuals to avoid larger blackmail (and give themselves double the money with half the ethics) and another character who double crosses everyone in a magician level hoax involving diamonds and other priceless items.

While it's amusing to see the way that private investigators who spend so much time studying deception become masters of the art of manipulation themselves, throughout the set we realize that several stories seemed like they were missing at least one or two vital twists that would've enabled us to-- if not empathize or approve-- then at least feel like we were somehow invested in the experience that otherwise keeps us at an arm's length.

Overall, the series seemed coolly detached and as vain as the individuals characterized at its worst and incredibly fascinating at its best. However, special mention must be given to the standout episode "The Missing Witness Sensation" as our blind amateur detective Max Carrados goes from accidental witness to hostage in a true nail-biter.

In the end while I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet numerous versions of Jan Brady including a few that did inspire me to explore the true source material in literary form, ultimately, Marcia Brady doesn't have a thing to worry about since the Rivals don't come close to the real Sherlock Holmes.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.

TV on DVD: The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987)

Shop AcornOnline.com

Now Available on DVD

Bookmark this on Delicious
submit to reddit
Print Page


MovieBlips: vote it up!

Being that Headmaster Wheeler (Keith Smith) assumes that Greenpeace is a new drug hitting Yorkshire' San Quentin High School in the late 1980s, you can't really blame the man's illogical decision to punish popular schoolteachers Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn) and Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) for living in sin by sending them to Holland.

Of course, the lure of the far more sinful Amsterdam isn't simply a vacation but a penance concocted by Wheeler to pack off San Quentin's English teacher Jill and woodshop department's Trevor as school chaperones when it becomes common knowledge that the feminist and environmentalist Jill has let Trevor move into her place when his flat was torn down in the name of progress (or, rather, a motorway).

While at first our wisecracking, screwball romantic comedy descendants are irritated by the assignment, when once again Jill and Trevor become unwittingly involved in another high level case of governmental corruption and conspiracy, a change of scenery becomes much more inviting.

Similar to award-winning playwright, creator, and screenwriter Oliver Plater's first work in the Trevor and Jill-centric trilogy-- The Beiderbecke Affair-- The Beiderbecke Tapes finds the two schoolteachers turned unlikely amateur sleuths in an increasingly convoluted plot when once again Trevor's passion for jazz and especially the music of Bix Beiderbecke provides the impetus for the dangerous mayhem and comedic fodder that follows.

Although Trevor has packed along his two thousand tapes and thousands of records to Jill's place, shortly after visiting a strange local pub with zero customers, Trevor bonds with a barman over Beiderbecke who delivers him nine hours worth of jazz on a stack of cassette tapes the very next day. While Trevor can't wait to dive in, Jill becomes suspicious and annoyed by her lover and sure enough, her antennae is set off even more when one of the tapes segues from jazz to what sounds like a high level, governmental conversation surrounding nuclear waste. Curious, they revisit the pub, only to find the barman dead, and later shockingly very much alive when Trevor attends the stranger's funeral.

Strangers who aren't what they seem, Beiderbecke obsession, international conspiracies, menacing agents, those who go from dead to alive and vice versa would normally make for one downright bizarre miniseries but given the craziness that Jill and Trevor faced in the original, amusing, yet far too long Affair, they're much more equipped to handle danger this time around. In doing so, the duo battle threats with rapid fire jokes, problems with puns, and physical confrontations with the reliance upon some new friends such as a rowdy group of senior Scottish bagpipers.

While Affair lost me before the halfway point of the miniseries, I was delighted that I was able to keep up with the intricate nonsensical plot twists and humor far more effectively in Tapes... at least until Plater's second volume ultimately morphed into something that made about as much sense as Howard Hawks' filmed version of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep.

However, similar to Sleep, you honestly realize that it doesn't much matter since we couldn't care less about the red herrings and mysterious men who follow Trevor and Jill across the pond. And while this would be unacceptable in most mysteries or works of amateur wacky sleuthing, that isn't what Plater's series are about since the main mission of Beiderbecke is to entertain which it does tremendously in a sequel I enjoyed even more than the original, most likely because we've already been through the wild ride once before and realize that it's best to avoid obsessing about plot-holes or logic too much.

Yet another reason it feels more successful along with an enhanced video quality that makes the '87 production feel fresher than the otherwise outstanding '85 one may be due to its brevity of the much shorter 154 minute work as opposed to the original 320 minute opus that perhaps demanded too much intellectually with its wide-ranging subplots, characters and confusion. However, whatever the case may be, the wondrous chemistry of Flynn and Bolam, a truly witty screenplay, and terrific Beiderbecke modeled jazz music to give it a nostalgic feel make this a truly engaging find for those looking for an irresistible "they just don't make 'em like they used to" mix of jazz, screwball comedy, and film noir.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.


Movie Review: Bright Star (2009)

Photo Slideshow

Check Out Our Trailer & Photo Gallery

Bookmark this on Delicious
submit to reddit
Print Page


MovieBlips: vote it up!

As the last of the great pre-Victorian era Romantic poets, John Keats wrote in the oft-quoted "Ode to a Grecian Urn," "Beauty is truth, truth beauty-- that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Keats was sensitive, passionate, contradictory and daring both in his life and his work. And even if John Keats hadn't have been officially labeled as a Romantic poet or if you consider his poems "a strain to work out" as his sweetheart Fanny Brawne admitted, his ability to transform words into an impressionistic literary painting of love make it easy to understand why filmmaker Jane Campion would gravitate towards Keats for her long-anticipated return to filmmaking.

Much like Keats (Brideshead Revisited actor Ben Whishaw) would confess to feeling as though he was "dissolving" in his love for seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) who lived next door, Campion creates a sensuous feast of a film to dissolve in as well. Although on the surface, Campion's ongoing experimental quest to use nature as subtext to address the feelings her characters cannot share verbally may seem ill-suited for a film about a poet whose phrases have become part of our culture. Yet, it's a surprisingly effective technique for Bright Star.

For, while poetry and discussion of the process is used throughout the work, Campion's film goes against what is expected in a traditional biopic by centering her film purely on the chaste but all-consuming ill-fated three year romance between Brawne and Keats before his untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five.

Instead of trying to add to history's ongoing study of Keats, Campion remains in the realm of her expertise by investing the most time and attention in the point-of-view of strong women. To this end, Australian actress Abbie Cornish who'd already impressed me with turns in Candy, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Stop-Loss is as intensely passionate as The Piano's Holly Hunter and driven to the same level of extremes in her emotions as Kate Winslet was in Campion's Holy Smoke.

And despite the fact that she smolders alongside a beautiful Ben Whishaw, she easily overpowers him with her skill and intensity in every scene. Although this could've possibly been a direction made by Campion to illustrate Brawne's effect on the poet, the only actor who's routinely able to hold their own opposite Cornish is Paul Schneider. Sure to be in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, Schneider, who is usually given sidelined but effective supporting roles in movies like The Assassination of Jesse James... and Lars and the Real Girl finally reminded me just why he commanded my attention opposite Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls.

In Bright Star, he creates a riveting, endlessly complicated portrait of Keats' best friend, his Scottish collaborator Charles Brown who openly accuses Brawne of being nothing but a flirt and tries to prevent their infatuation since he views the woman as either unworthy, a drain on his friend's talent, or a rival for Keats' affection.

Drawing from Andrew Motion's 1997 biography Keats, writer/director Campion's Bright Star is at once her strongest yet most subtle film since The Piano by using character driven emotion as the driving force for the entire plot and therefore breaking down the usually stuffy walls of period pieces like Whishaw's Brideshead Revisited to make us feel as though we're in the midst of the all-consuming love affair as well.

Thankfully avoiding the same Avant-garde interpretation which ruined her adaptation of Portrait of a Lady, she's made an inviting yet intoxicating reverie about an unlikely human connection between an early nineteenth century pre-feminist fashionista and the penniless poet who-- thinking himself a failure-- was therefore an unsuitable marital match for the woman he adored which made them both miserable in love.

Employing the gifted cinematographer Greig Fraser and editor Alexandre de Franceschi for some bold and intoxicating sequences that may test the patience of audience members who are still dizzy from the rollercoaster of flashy CGI summer movies with cuts that only last for two seconds at a time, Bright Star contains some of the most unabashedly sincere and genuine sequences of true romance brought to life in years.

Without removing a single article of clothing and most of the time, never away from the watchful eyes of Fanny's younger brother and sister who accompany her as makeshift chaperones, Campion reminds us that sexuality and sensuality is the most effective when it's withheld. Thus, since she refuses to change the important facts, Campion won't rewrite history and manages to make us swoon along with characters who refuse to go against the social mores of the time and have to find other ways to express their desire such as placing their hands on the opposite side of the same wall at night, Keats requesting that Brawne kiss thoroughly a letter so that he can feel her lips, sleeping with a handwritten "good night" note under his pillow, or the Brawnes' turning Fanny's room into a butterfly museum after a letter he writes inspires their quest.

Although further research reveals that there's an ongoing debate as to how one or two-sided their relationship may have been or what exactly transpired, Campion's Bright Star which is named after the poem that Keats had written for Fanny Brawne (which is referenced in the film) is a gorgeous, naturalistic, and seductive piece of filmmaking wherein "beauty is truth" indeed and that's "all ye need to know."

Jane Campion

John Keats

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.