This Week in Mormon Literature, August 17, 2013

This is an abbreviated Week in Review, mainly collecting Austenland movie reviews, and passing on a few news pieces, like more OSC controversy, some SF and comic news, and a preview of Plan-B Theatre’s “Year of Eric Samuelsen”. I am saving new books and reviews for next time. For updates and corrections, write me at mormonlit AT gmail DOT com.

Austenland and other film news

Austenland was released in New York and Los Angeles on August 16th. It will open in many other theatres over the next four weeks. See the link for theatres. Austenland was made by a trio of talented Mormon artists: director and co-writer Jerusha Hess, original story (a novel) and co-writer Shannon Hale, and producer Stephenie Meyer. It stars Keri Russel, Jennifer Coolidge, and Bret McKenzie.

Reviews have been mixed, with mediocre totals at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

Rotten Tomatoes average: 34% fresh.

Metacritic average grade: 47%.

Shannon Hale commented, “Bad reviews are always hard. But I remind myself that humor is so personal. I’ve never laughed in a so-called frat boy comedy.”

The positive

Salon: “Austenland is at once a standard-issue romantic comedy and a warm send-up of literary fando . . . Hess has an easy flair for the lingua franca of nerds, and a slapstick touch for depicting their awkward interactions with members of the conventional world. Jane’s ardent desire to steep herself in a simpler, more refined era contrasts with the broader, baser pursuits of her fellow guests – including the wealthy, just-in-it-for-a-lark Miss Charming (Jennifer Coolidge, doing her standard dimwitted, oversexed vulgarian role and doing it with her usual finesse) . . . Jane may be a borderline tragic dork, but she’s also, embodied by the smart, simmering Keri Russell, a full-blooded heroine who just needs to figure out how to write her own messy, unbuttoned story. It ain’t PBS “Masterpiece,” and that, for once, is a good thing . . . And like Jane Austen herself, “Austenland” scoffs at the hypocrites and celebrates the sweet social misfits. It says weirdos deserve romance too, and that Austenland isn’t so much a page in a book or a place on a map, but a corner of your heart.”

The Village Voice: “The young woman is played by Keri Russell, whose easy radiance remains a pleasure even when some sequences flag—the actress is fashioned from that mystery clay that makes the true stars both ridiculously beautiful while also seeming like humble, everyday folks who could really use us rooting along from our theater seats. Russell plays the usual unmarried, just-turned-30 heroine who can’t get through three scenes without someone mentioning her biological clock. She also has a best friend whose job in life is to deliver exposition through mock incredulity: “Wait, you’re telling me that you’re going to blah blah blah?” The twist: Russell’s Jane is a geek for Jane Austen in a way that combines familiar hardcore fandom—collectibles, a trophy room, the ability to recite chapter-and-verse canonical materials—with the zeal of a bonkers Etsy artist. Her Regency dollhouse and needlepoint throw pillows are the funniest set dressing this side of a Wes Anderson picture—and they look like a person put them there rather than an installation artist . . . It is, in short, a parody of everything superficial in Austen and the films based on her works, a burlesque of the novels’ surfaces that is to the warm, brittle heart of the books themselves what fishsticks are to fresh mahi mahi . . . Being a romantic comedy lead, Jane meets a surrogate BFF as soon as she arrives in London; being in a much better-than-average romantic comedy, that new friend is played by Jennifer Coolidge in something like horny toddler mode. Her Miss Charming is loud, dumb, crude, insulting, and so filthy rich she gets away with anything—she’s a wide-eyed, big-hearted, terrifically funny spin on the Rodney Dangerfield type. Russel, too, is strong, especially when Jane musters some resolve and takes charge of her Austen-camp role-playing in the third act. It’s like watching sugar will itself into steel . . . The ending is a bit of an audience-pleasing cop-out, a retreat into formula after 80 minutes or so of upending it. But those upendings are memorable, the cast dishy fun, and Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale‘s breeze of a script (based on Hale’s novel) is smart about the allure of fictional romances. Austenland the place is built upon a Harlequin paperback’s idea of love, all frills and bric-a-brac and glistening hunks who whisper impossible flattery; Austenland the movie is built on the understanding that fantasy is healthy until you elect to live in it—and that sometimes a chase to the airport isn’t something you should bother with in the real world. Too bad the director and writer don’t stick the landing.”

Entertainment Weekly: B- “There’s a bit of that same affection for wacked losers in the tone that Hess strikes here. Austenland itself comes off as an absurd institution with just enough reality that we can actually believe such a place exists . . . Austenland is kind of a one-joke movie, and the film’s rhythm is a bit flaccid, but the joke, at least, has a twinge of wit . . . This glorified romcom choice has very little weight. Maybe that’s because the only question in Austenland with a trace of comic friction is whether Jane can ever exit her cocoon of petticoat escapism and join the real world.”

USA Today: 2.5 stars. “A genial, low-key comedy set in a British vacation idyll where Jane Austen fanatics can live out their romantic fantasies. It features a likable cast, headed by the radiant Keri Russell . . . An empowering climactic twist leads to a rather predictable but satisfying romantic conclusion. A humorous chick flick for well-read audiences, Austenland is a novel concept.”

The Mediocre

Variety: ““Austenland” doesn’t really satirize Austen’s world (or fans) so much as use them as a pretext for a mixture of middling burlesque and routine romantic comedy. That it remains watchable is a testament to brisk pacing, a game cast, numerous throwaway chuckles (the intended big laughs tend to miss), a good-natured air and nice visual packaging. Production values present just the right attractive yet slightly garish, pandering vision of the past you’d get if a Regency estate were designed by Laura Ashley.”

New York Post: 2 stars. “Unfortunately, this scattershot comedy only occasionally hits the mark . . . the timing feels off, and none of the period humor really works. Most scenes are stolen by Coolidge and James Callis, as her campy suitor; Russell’s usual spark seems to have gotten lost under her character’s dowdy dresses.”

NPR (Ella Taylor): “Austenland, a clunky broadside aimed at the cult of Jane Austen, is worth seeing primarily for its end credits, a mix of pop oil and water so joyfully dippy it might have produced a stifled giggle even in Herself. Other than those few precious moments, though, the only virtues of this lumbering farce are those of the much livelier novel from which it’s adapted. Author Shannon Hale’s cheeky wit shone bright in her romp through Austen country and the burgeoning industry it has spawned — an industry that mostly targets Darcy-worshipping American women. Hale co-wrote the screenplay with director Jerusha Hess, but the novelist’s sprightly dialogue seems not to have survived the heavier hand that wrote Napoleon Dynamite . . . Austenland wheezed from one chortling piece of bedroom-farce filler to the next; the script is replete with leering innuendo, feverish needlepoint and the cute but entirely superfluous birth of a foal . . . Hale’s novel itself gooses the cult of Austen with fond affection for its victims. Hess, to her credit, strives to retain that affection, but she has an elephant’s tread and fatally little sense of how much is too much. If reading Austenland the novel was a guilty pleasure, watching Austenland the movie is like standing around at a deadly cocktail party where the hostess is laughing so hard at her own joke that she can’t finish telling it.

The Bad:

Eric D. Snider. D+. “Well, not to be one of those “the book is better than the movie” people, but holy crap, what an insufferable load the “Austenland” movie is . . . what was once a reasonably charming story has been turned into a broad, clumsy, and embarrassing romantic comedy. Hess’ screenplay adaptation (Hale gets co-writer credit) makes the story dumber and shallower – and it was not very smart or deep to begin with! . . . Why DID she come here? What did she hope to get out of it? The movie gives us no clue. Hess stripped the book of its characterization and exposition, which were rudimentary but serviceable, and instead gives us an inscrutable protagonist who can’t be said to achieve or not achieve her goals because we don’t know what they were. Hess prefers to convey information by way of montage set to an ’80s pop song. I was keeping track of how many such montages there were, but I lost count after one trillion. Comedy-wise, there are many forced references to Jane’s accommodations and overall experience being less than the others’ because she couldn’t afford the better package, and some business “backstage” at the manor when the actors are on break. Most of the gags fail to land; many don’t even launch. Nearly all of the laughs that do occur come from Miss Charming’s dim but enthusiastic attempts to speak the King’s English. Bless you, Jennifer Coolidge, but there’s even too much of you. The one advantage this has over the typical romantic comedy is that there’s no obvious answer to the question of how it will end. Jane could wind up with sweet Martin the stable boy, dull Mr. Nobley or one of the other suitors, or nobody. Naturally, the film botches it: the choice she eventually makes is unsatisfying, not to mention carried out in a hurried, implausible manner. Maybe it’s fitting that a movie about an emotionally stunted woman is nearly devoid of any recognizable human behavior.”

The New York Times: “Keri Russell’s neck does most of the heavy lifting in “Austenland,” and if you pay attention to its many undulations, you might just make it through this embarrassingly juvenile comedy without groaning aloud. Whether tilting delicately upward to allow its owner to converse with her towering co-star, Jennifer Coolidge, or contracting in tendon-tightening shame at each new insult suffered by Ms. Russell’s put-upon character, Jane Hayes, that neck — ruthlessly exposed by Regency frocks and updos — is a gift . . . Advancing without a single original idea or surprising moment, “Austenland” seems torn between poking fun at the British and lampooning Austen’s many American fanatics. Either way, this costumed blunder opts for crass over clever and slapstick over satire.”

The AV Club: D. “If Austenland is any indication, filmmaker Jerusha Hess is neither fan nor aficionado; it’s not even clear that she’s cracked one of the author’s books. The writing and producing partner of husband Jared Hess, Jerusha specializes in merciless mockery, with jokes made at the expense of Idaho farm boys (Napoleon Dynamite), Mexican wrestlers (Nacho Libre), fantasy novelists (Gentlemen Broncos), and other easy-target eccentrics. In Austenland, her directorial debut, Hess adapts a 2007 beach book into another broad comedy of caricature. It’s a truly half-assed satire, one whose senseless sensibility seems less informed by the best of English literature than the worst of Saturday Night Live . . . By refusing to let its characters commit to their role-playing, Austenland squanders the promise of its premise: Had the element of performance been taken seriously, it’d be possible to see Jane as a modern Austen protagonist, attempting to detect the man behind the artifice. Instead, Hess offers a “hilariously” gay aristocrat (James Callis) and a scandalizing piano performance of “Hot In Herre.” Besides a climactic costume ball and an early hunting scene, the movie can’t even be bothered to play with the Masterpiece Theatre clichés it’s allegedly spoofing. No one here emerges unscathed—not Jennifer Coolidge, whose lusty, Austen-illiterate tourist tries out an increasingly ludicrous array of accents, and not Russell, whose effervescent charm is wasted on the most blasé of heroines. Her Jane never invests in the fantasy of Austenland—she seems bored upon arrival—so why should the audience? Indifference is woven into the fabric of the film; Hess couldn’t care less about what makes a true Austen fan tick or why a modern woman might pine for the mores and manners of yesteryear. To tweak the novelist’s famous words, this lady’s imagination is very vapid.”

New York Daily News: 1 star. “While this chintzy-looking romantic comedy thinks just a few sight gags are enough, a sneakier satire would have gone further . . . Between the squealing giddiness demonstrated at the mere thought of a submersive Austen-world and the way almost every moment is overplayed, the film wears out its welcome faster than a poor cousin in the country guesthouse . . . As it is, “Austenland” is as thin as a doily. Russell, who has more presence in small works (“Waitress”) than in larger ones (“Mission: Impossible 3”), gives it her all, but if not for Coolidge’s occasionally inspired outbursts, the movie would wilt even faster than it does.”

Here are a few articles about Stephenie Meyer as producer (Variety interview), (AP feature), (Next Movie interview). When asked, “What about a return to Twilight?”, she answered, “I get further away every day. I am so over it. For me, it’s not a happy place to be . . . I’m interested in spending time in other worlds, like Middle-Earth.”

Pretty Darn Funny, Season 2 begins Aug. 19. The Mormon comic web series is produced by Deseret Book, and stars Lisa Valentine Clark.

Orson Scott Card controversy

The media and Orson Scott Card critics have recently brought up an May 2013 anti-Obama column that Card wrote for his political blog The Ornery American called “Unlikely Events”. It started with Slate last week, and then The AV Club. Entertainment Weekly: ‘Ender’s Game’ author Orson Scott Card compares Obama to Hitler in inflammatory essay. EW: “Card indulges in a “thought experiment” that paints Obama as “a president whose faith in the good will of Muslim leaders is touching but groundless, whose threats and promises mean nothing, and whose ignorance of history is terrifying.” He goes on to call Obama “the dumbest president in American history” and a “dictator” who “demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press.” Later, he tries to “spin a plausible scenario” about how Obama could become the United States’ lifetime dictator, along the lines of Augustus Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte — and Adolph Hitler.”

Eric Samuelson replies with OSC, and the end of civilization. “I like Orson Scott Card. And I owe him.  Many years ago, he taught an undergrad playwriting class at BYU; as a student in that class, I learned a lot, probably more than from any other playwriting teacher I ever studied with . . . And I will see Ender’s Game. OSC and I, uh, differ politically.  Nowhere do we differ more than in the politics of gay marriage.  But I do know him well enough to defend him against the charge of homophobia.  He finds himself, I think, in that gray area occupied by a lot of Mormons, who have gay friends and gay family members, and feel conflicted by a Church policy they nonetheless feel they need to defend.  I get where he’s coming from, while disagreeing pretty strenuously, and I do not plan to join the boycott against the film . . . Back when I was in grad school, I remember studying the theatrical theories of Richard Wagner.  Later, I taught Wagner to grad students of my own.  Great composer of course, and also a genuine theatrical innovator.  And a man with political ideas that were both silly and dangerous.  Ideology blinds us . . . OSC is a fine writer, a genuinely interesting sci-fi/fantasy author.  He’s not an interesting political thinker.”

Mahonri Stewart on OSC. Malice Towards None: Orson Scott Card, Gay Marriage, and the “Ender’s Game” Film Controversy, Part One. “I’m a little like Card in that I believe the writing is on the wall now… gay marriage is going to happen for most, if not all, of the States and territories in the US. The momentum is going in that direction and it would take a great deal to stop it. The Rainbow is reaching steadily across the country. And when that happens, the gay community will have a choice. Will the majority choose to punish the leaders of their “enemies,” people like Card, with their equivalent cultural sanctions (for that is the kind of motivation that, at least on the surface, seems to motivate the boycott). Or will they be gracious in victory like Dustin Lance Black, who only pushes forward activism that has a quantifiable purpose, and thus cutting out the fat of all other acts of vengeance. Such attitudes of mercy, forgiveness, and grace will hopefully inspire greater tolerance on both sides and usher in the healing that inevitably is needed after every major conflict.”

Malice Towards None, Part Two.

Speculative fiction and comic book news

Brandon Sanderson’s THE EMPEROR’S SOUL was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novella.

Lee Allred’s “Nice Timestream Youse Got Here” headlines the newest volume of Dean Wesley Smith’s and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Fiction River short fiction anthology series, released Aug 13. Lee’s comedic short story about a “Temporal Protection Agency” putting the squeeze on the little guy appears in Time Streams (Fiction River Vol. 3). Sharp-eyed LDS readers might recognize a cameo appearance by a certain celebrated ballplayer.

Marvel Comics announced that current writer Matt Fraction will be stepping down from the monthly FF (Future Foundation) title and that Lee Allred, brother of FF artist Michael Allred, has been brought on board as the new writer as of issue #12. FF (Future Foundation) is an all-ages monthly spin-off of Marvel’s flagship Fantastic Four comic book, and is less a book about superheroes than it is a book about family. The Future Foundation is a school for brilliantly-gifted young children created to “better serve humanity’s future.” The Allred family (Lee, Mike, and colorist Laura, Mike’s wife) will be shepherding the FF family through the conclusion of the current story arc . This may mark the first time that an all-Mormon creative team – Allred/Allred/Allred — will be credited on the cover of a monthly mainstream comic by one of the big two (Marvel and DC). The Allred brothers have previously collaborated on Michael Allred’s landmark  issue of SOLO (DC Comics) as well as an upcoming Batman Black & White story.

Michael Collings’ story “Space Opera,” published last year in SPACE ELDRITCH, has been included in Wildside Press’s SEVENTH SCIENCE FICTION MEGAPACK.

Theater

Plan-B Theatre Company offers a staged reading of Eric Samuelsen’s translation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” Sunday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m. Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City. Samuelsen will participate with playwrights Matthew Ivan Bennett and Debora Threedy in a Cultural Conversation on Saturday, Aug. 31, during “The Rose Exposed.”

‘Ghosts’ kicks off Plan-B’s season dedicated to Utah playwright:Plan B Theatre Company » Eric Samuelsen’s plays focus on history and LDS women. (Salt Lake Tribune). “The long-term relationship between Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen and Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company started with one 10-minute play . . . The “season of Eric,” as Rapier likes to call it, gets under way next weekend with a staged reading of Samuelsen’s translation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” Samuelsen is fluent in Norwegian and wrote his doctoral dissertation on this groundbreaking playwright, called the father of modern drama for his explorations of controversial issues. Although Ibsen comes across in most translations as dark and gloomy, Samuelsen says there is a lot of humor in the original Norwegian . . . Next Plan-B will do a reading of “Miasma,” the play that started it all, as part of “The Rose Exposed” on Labor Day weekend. The play features two actors from the original production, April Fossen and Joe Debevc, along with Bob Nelson and Stephanie Howell . . . The actual season begins Oct. 24 with “Nothing Personal,” Samuelsen’s portrait of the persecution and imprisonment of Susan McDougal. In the mid-1990s, McDougal was jailed for contempt of court when she refused to testify about Whitewater before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury during the Clinton administration. The play explores the loss of civil liberties and violations of human rights that have become increasingly prevalent in American political life. “Clearing Bombs,” Plan-B’s February production, also has its roots in history. Here Samuelsen recounts what he imagines happened during World War II when opposing economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek spent a night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, charged with extinguishing fires from German incendiary bombs . . . Between these two productions, Plan-B presents its annual radio collaboration with KUER on Dec. 3. Samuelsen has adapted his play “Fairyana” into a radio play for the occasion. The play is a comic depiction of the very dysfunctional writers of the popular children’s television show “The Magical Land of Fairyana.” Rapier describes it as “a radio show about happy, frolicking bunnies and froggies and the hardened cynics who write them.” Samuelsen got very excited about the challenge of turning a show about children’s television into a radio play. “It gave him permission to try some things a little bit differently,” Rapier observes. The final show in Plan-B’s Season of Eric is a trio of short plays focused on Mormon women, appropriately called “3.” Rapier thinks it’s a nice change of pace since Plan-B hasn’t done a collection of short plays for a long time. Samuelsen wrote and produced “3″ eight years ago for the Little Brown Theatre in Springville, but he discarded one of the plays that he disliked and created a new one. “Bar and Kell” is about two women who feel compelled to makeover another woman in their neighborhood. In “Community Standard,” a woman serving on the jury of an indecency trial is forced to confront issues in her marriage. And “Duets,” the new play, depicts what happens when a woman marries a gay man thinking she can change him and learns she can’t. The production opens March 27. Rapier comments that “3″ reveals “what Eric does amazingly well, which is dissect his own religious culture. … What I find so intriguing about ‘3’ is that it is written by someone from the inside who’s willing to look critically at the most important component of his life, which is his faith, and how it’s imperfect. … What Eric does in this play is show us that the more these women embrace and discuss their flaws, the stronger they are.” Mormon or non-Mormon, “everyone in the audience will know these women.” Rapier believes that the season selections display the range in Samuelsen’s work: “What I didn’t want to do putting the season together is present Eric the Mormon playwright,” he says. “I wanted to present Eric the playwright who happens to be Mormon. … I think it will be exciting for people to see that Eric isn’t just writing about contemporary Utah.” Especially in the two historical plays, “he’s looking back to look forward.” Two years ago, Samuelsen retired from a 20-year teaching career at Brigham Young University because of a muscular degenerative disease called polymyositis or Ricky Bell’s disease. His more open schedule and the current remission of his illness made it possible for him to complete the writing for a full season of plays.”

Poetry

Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-First Century Mormon Poets, edited by Tyler Chadwick. Angela Hallstrom review in BYU Studies. “In the foreword to the poetry anthology Fire in the Pasture, poet and BYU English professor Susan Elizabeth Howe explains that a poet’s desire is “to make readers see what they did not see before, to offer insight, to create empathy, to provoke thought, or to express beauty, soundness, depth.” Editor Tyler Chadwick, a poet and doctoral candidate in English at Idaho State University, has gathered into one substantial volume the work of eighty-two contemporary Mormon poets, and the majority succeed in conjuring the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic rewards Howe describes . . . It is encouraging that Fire in the Pasture collects and preserves many of Mormonism’s most potent poetic voices from the early twenty-first century, making them available for generations to come . . . For those who erroneously believe that LDS poetry is primarily comprised of sentimental rhymed verses or charming couplets, this anthology is proof that the complexity and beauty of Mormon life can, and should, be rendered in powerful, sophisticated poetic expression.”

And remember to vote in the ongoing August Insanity tournament at the Mormon Lit Blitz Facebook page.

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One Response to This Week in Mormon Literature, August 17, 2013

  1. Th. says:

    .

    The AV Club so grossly misunderstood the rest of the Hess oeuvre that their review makes me only more certain that I want to see Austenland.

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