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Tag Archive: Charles Dickens


Review by C.J. Bunce

Family of Humming-birds, completed in six volumes in 1887, was the culmination of a fifty-year career of John Gould, one of the earliest and most renowned ornithologists.  A publication of 418 hand-colored illustrations representing all the known species of hummingbirds of the day, it was considered the definitive scientific reference of the era on the subject.  The volume also reflected one of the most attractive species of animal that would appeal to some of the world’s most elite collectors, scientists, and educators.   With 39 pages of introductory information written by Joel and Laura Oppenheimer, Rizzoli Electa is reprinting the entirety of Gould’s six volumes of prints in the new publication The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould, to be released at the end of this month.

When the HMS Beagle naturalist Charles Darwin returned to England in 1836 from the Galapagos with crates of samples of animal life for scientific study, under special dispensation from the Crown he was allowed to determine which scientists received what families of animals for study, instead of depositing them all with the British Museum as was common practice.  For the bird collection, he selected John Gould, a rising star of both avian study, taxidermy, and illustration.  Darwin’s theory of the transmutation of species and later his theory on natural selection in part came from findings shared by Gould.  The third volume of Darwin’s findings from his exploration included 50 illustrations by Gould’s wife Elizabeth and text written by Gould.  Nearly 20 years before Darwin’s landmark text On the Origin of Species, this earlier work provided some of the ground work for the theory of evolution, despite Gould not publicly endorsing Darwin’s theories.  After his wife passed away on their expedition to chronicle birds and mammals in Australia, Mr. Gould would continue publishing folios on the birds of the world, ultimately amassing several publications covering birds, as well as other animals, across the globe.

 

Nearest to Gould’s heart was the fascinating hummingbird, which he referred to as “this family of living gems.”  According to the foreword in The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould provided by naturalist and historian Robert McCracken Peck, Family of Humming-birds “represented a family of birds of remarkable grace and beauty that lived in exotic habitats unlikely to be seen even by collectors wealthy enough to afford the book Gould devoted to them.”  Artist H.C Richter would expand upon John Gould’s sketches and ideas for plates–Gould would first draw a male and female of each species with a plant native to its habitat, ultimately creating all 360 plates in the book’s first five volumes, released piecemeal via subscriptions ultimately with the recipients to have the completed work formally bound.

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That Miller and Lord cut of Solo you were hoping for?  You already saw it.

I was always sold on his father, Lawrence Kasdan for writing The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and writing and directing Silverado (and his superb work on non-blockbuster films like Continental Divide and Mumford), but Jonathan Kasdan (who co-wrote the screenplay to Solo: A Star Wars Story with his father) has filled in the remaining gap in what is probably the year’s best home video special features package.  That would be the extra features that accompany the home release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, available now.  The included features have key deleted scenes, most of which would have served the movie well were they included in the theatrical release (like Han’s fall from the Imperial Navy), and the least of which is plain fun that every Star Wars fan should love (like a snowball fight between Han and Chewbacca)–eight deleted scenes in all.  The home release also contains insightful featurettes that demonstrate the love for the saga and the vision, skill, and craftmanship that came together to create the film.  But it’s missing an audio commentary.  More on that in a minute.

Director Ron Howard, production designer Neil Lamont, special creature effects designer Neal Scanlan, director of photography Bradford Young, and the Kasdans, along with other members of the crew, provide fantastic insight into the influences and experience of creating the movie.  The best features include Team Chewie, with interviews and footage of Joonas Suotamo in and out of costume, and Scoundrels, Droids, Creatures and Cards: Welcome to Fort Ypso, where we see the historical art influence on the Sabacc card game scene, and Solo: The Director and Cast Roundtable, a a refreshing and eye-opening look at how Howard and the key actors came together.  Also included are short featurettes Kasdan on Kasdan, Remaking the Millennium Falcon, Escape From Corellia, The Train Heist, Becoming a Droid: L3-37, and Into the Maelstrom: The Kessel RunAcross all these, keep an eye out for Tim Nielsen, supervising sound editor and sound designer for Skywalker Sound, whose creativity is the kind of effort that caused Ben Burtt to get the Oscar for his work on the original Star Wars.  Watch these features and see why Nielsen and his team should be in the running for Oscar for his work on Solo: A Star Wars Story this year.

Director Ron Howard on the Millennium Falcon set of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Director Ron Howard, who replaced Christopher Miller and Phil Lord late in production of the film, bent over backwards to treat the departure of the two prior directors with grace and respect, which means he hasn’t discussed much detail about his work on the film.  We never thought we’d learn “who contributed what” to the film, but that is where Kasdan’s notes come into play.  Released in advance of the home video release this past week, they shed some light on what went on behind the scenes, what could easily be Kasdan’s personal, unrecorded, audio commentary notes–had Lucasfilm included one in the features.  From a certain point of view, the inclusion of so many scenes developed by the initial director duo reflect the theme of the saga: Miller and Lord–seemingly two rebels against Lucasfilm/Disney who had a vision for Star Wars and for whatever reason were sidelined–were able to have much of their vision survive in the final cut of the film.  Howard’s role seems to have been both Fixer and Closer, in addition to giving his personal touch to certain scenes, something addressed well in the features.  Kasdan’s notes (not included with the home release but reproduced below) are the ultimate backstage pass into all the creative minds behind what must have been a difficult film to make (Star Wars plus Star Wars fandom sometimes reflects the Dark Side of the movies all too well).

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Arsenic and Old Lace?  Truth is often stranger, darker, and more insidious than fiction.  Where the classic horror comedy dramaticized the historic use of arsenic as poison via elderberry wine, a routine use of the substance killed an incalculable number of people, probably at least in the tens of thousands, over the course of a little more than a century.  Imagine everything around you right now that is printed in the color green is printed with an ink which, if you brush against it, inhale it, touch it, or ingest even a minute amount of it, would kill you violently?  A recent scholarly account weaves together a tale of 18th-19th century science and psychology, beauty, style, and design, products liability and corporate greed, political cartoonists and iconic leaders of art history, and a scholarly account of an artform and staple of the arts and crafts movement in the most unlikely of collisions with day-to-day life.  Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home is a book about wallpaper.  And it could be the most surprising and intriguing book you read this year.

At one level Bitten by Witch Fever could be a useful tool–included in its pages are facsimiles, and thankfully only facsimiles, of 275 color wallpapers from the 19th century.  It’s almost unprecedented and an ideal sourcebook for the period, for local or commercial set decorators, or for any artists and designers attempting to recreate in any medium the average household of the day or the most opulent business setting.  Yet each of the papers represented was tested by current scientists to include arsenic.  Predominantly tied to greens of a century of wallpaper style and taste, ultimately arsenic would be worked by designers into a broad spectrum of the color palette.  But mankind has known the harm of arsenic going back to ancient times, right?  It’s the complexity of the “Why?” that art and social historian (and Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter) Hawksley wrestles with in revisiting the use of arsenic in all its forms: as domestic poison, as health tonic, as pigment enhancer, and as murder weapon, and its rise in production with the rise of fashion of decorative wallpaper.  But why “witch fever”?  That reference in the title was from a comment by apologist William Morris–the arts and crafts movement innovator artiste–who also inherited from his father one of the few mines that produced arsenic.  To brush off arsenic safety scaremongers, he had responded, “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  In part, the realities were fuzzy: many people lived with wallpaper with no ill effects, and yet others sleeping in a closed room with wall-to-wall arsenic coated papers would become violently ill.  Hawksley identifies cases of alleged crimes, court cases, alleged murders, and attempts to halt arsenic use.  Throughout the 19th century political cartoonists drew cartoons mocking the public’s continuing use of the poison in daily life.  Many of these cartoons are also included in the book.

The horrors were real:  young siblings die after pulling wallpaper off their walls and licking off the strange flavor.  From an ancient Greek physician using arsenic as an antiseptic to Nero using arsenic to murder Britannicus, to Napoleon rumored to have died in exile from arsenic poisoning, to the death of a Swedish king and the Borgias, the history of the substance crosses borders and social strata.  A few countries were quick to ban its commercial use, while factories where it was used were slow to address safety issues for workers.  In 1775 chemist Carl Scheele’s new green was so vibrant that the real fever was very much public fascination with new, beautiful colors.  It was used on walls, but also in flypaper, flocked papers, rodent and insect poison, asthma and eczema cream, as a Victorian aphrodisiac, face creams and soaps, artificial decorative fruits and vegetables, dress fabrics, mail labels, playing cards, all sorts of product packaging, and (gulp) cake icing coloring, candy, and lickable postage stamps.

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This one looks like it could be the next holiday classic.

Although he’s had theatrical roles in 2013’s The Fifth Estate, 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, 2016’s Colossal, and this year’s Beauty and the Beast remake, Dan Stevens is better known for his British TV roles like Matthew Crawley throughout the run of Downton Abbey.  But the genre world really took notice of Stevens this year when he headlined a new X-Men TV series, playing David Haller, a crazed wielder of superpowers on FX’s new series Legion.  His next role takes him back to jolly old England and a character that can’t possibly be more classic and British: Charles Dickens himself.

Although the last time we saw someone play the part of Charles Dickens in a major film it was Gonzo in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Stevens’ off-kilter, frenetic kinetic sense, and quizzical expressions make for an intriguing take on Dickens in the first preview for The Man Who Invented Christmas.  Stevens looks like he’s channeling Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein in one scene from the movie’s first trailer.

And we get to see Academy Award-winning actor and Shakespearean great Christopher Plummer (Twelve Monkeys, Up, Wolf, Dragnet, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Somewhere in Time, Return of the Pink Panther, The Sound of Music) join the likes of Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, and Bill Murray as Ebenezer Scrooge.  This take on Scrooge focuses on Dickens writing the novel A Christmas Carol and getting a spell of writer’s block.  And speaking of Finney, the view of the film in the preview looks like a mash-up of style from the comedies Tom Jones and Shakespeare in Love

Here’s a fun preview for The Man Who Invented Christmas:

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Kermit in A Muppet Christmas Carol

By Elizabeth C. Bunce

Audiences have loved Charles Dickens’s yuletide ghost story, A Christmas Carol, for 171 years, and it’s been committed to film at least 50 times.  It’s hard to dispute the status of 1951’s Scrooge starring Alastair Sim, or surpass Patrick Stewart’s masterly performance as the cruel miser in the 1999 television adaptation.   But for annual, feel-good holiday fun, our money is on The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Released in 1992 and representing the first of several retellings produced by the zany puppets & crew, The Muppet Christmas Carol also boasts a strong human cast.  Most notable, of course, is Michael Caine (Batman Begins, Get Carter) as Ebenezer Scrooge, in a turn that is just the right balance of humbug and humor.

Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge

The Muppet version brings all the elements you expect from A Christmas Carol, from dead-as-a-doornail business partner Marley, to Tiny Tim asking God to bless us, everyone… but with wonderful Muppet twists.  All your favorite Muppets are here, as well, in their expected roles: Kermit the Frog as put-upon clerk Bob Cratchitt (with nephew Robin in the roll of Tim); Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchitt, naturally; and even 1990’s standard duo Gonzo and Rizzo, taking a meta-fiction approach as tour-guide-to-the-tale Charles Dickens and a skeptical sidekick.

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By Elizabeth C. Bunce

I’m a big fan of retellings–fairy tales with a twist, new angles on old myths, the reinvention of familiar stories–and I’ve written my share of them as well.  So I was very excited to read Lee Bermejo’s (Joker) new Batman: Noelespecially after a look at the teaser pages in several of the #2 issues of DC Comics New 52 a few weeks ago hinted that it might be a Batman twist on everybody’s favorite reworked Christmas story, A Christmas Carol.

First, the art in Noel is gorgeous, and particularly evocative are Bermejo’s wintery cityscapes.  Gotham (at least the way Lee Bermejo draws it) is a natural fit for Christmastime in the City, and the whole book has a bittersweet air of urban nostalgia–It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, with a haunting, decayed edge.  It’s a perfect fit for an update of Dickens’s Victorian London.  Colorist Barbara Ciardo’s muted, misty colors only enhance the gothic mood of the art and are equally beautiful.  Likewise, Bermejo’s rendering of classic characters is lush and satisfying–particularly noteworthy here are his images of Robin and Catwoman.  It’s a physically beautiful book, and it’s a pleasure just to look at it.

Less satisfying for me was the story.  Granted, with a property as familiar as A Christmas Carol, reinventing it–and doing it really well–is a tremendous challenge.  And, in a lot of ways, Bermejo succeeds.  The Batman-Scrooge mashup is surprising at first, but in that take-notice way, and, in Bermejo’s hands, turns out to seem quite natural.  Seeing our hero Batman/Bruce Wayne cast as the villain in need of redemption is an inventive twist on the theme.  The Batman mythos is so rich and already steeped in backstory, and Bermejo has a lot to work with here, and, on the whole, does it pretty well.  Casting canon standbys as Dickens’s classic spirits is part of the fun of a retelling like this, and Bermejo clearly enjoyed playing with this aspect of the tale (especially clever is his choice for Spirit of Christmas Present).  It’s clear Bermejo understands both his source material and his current Batman toolbox, and has no trouble blending them.

So what doesn’t work?  Well, for me, the book is almost killed by the heavy-handed narration, which matches neither the subtlety or inventiveness of the rest of the book.  It’s as if Bermejo was concerned that we wouldn’t get it, unless he reminded us on every page that Batman = Scrooge (and, even worse, “Scroogey”).  I’m typically a fan of this sort of conceit, and the Dear Reader touch certainly evokes the Victorian classic, not to mention the legacy of hard-boiled detective noir of the Dark Knight himself.  But in Noel it just detracts from a story we already know, and from the artful execution of the retelling.

Still, a second flip through the book was just as enjoyable as the first journey, and Bermejo gets high marks for ambition.  Although I didn’t love it like I wanted to, Noel is a clever and worthy addition to the Christmas Carol tradition, and a great gift for the Batman fan on your list who already has Hush: Unwrapped.