Posted on August 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm

austenland2Edward Arlington Robinson wrote a poem about a man named Miniver Cheevy who wished so much that he could have lived in the days of knights and ladies that he refused to participate in the life before him.  Author Shannon Hale wrote Austenland about a young woman named Jane who is so in love with the romance and elegance of Jane Austen’s Regency-era romances that no real-life modern relationship can ever measure up.  She has a lifesize cardboard photo of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy from “Pride and Prejudice” and her bedroom is like a deranged bed and breakfast version explosion of 19th century fantasy.

So she spends all of her money going to an immersive theme park called Austenland, where fans of Austen’s classic novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and the swooningly romantic movie versions can pretend to thaw the hearts of proud men in wearing breeches who would never think of addressing them by their first name or presuming to try a kiss.

“Napoleon Dynamite” co-author Jerusha Hess wrote and directed the film adaptation, with “Twilight’s” Stephenie Meyer as producer.  A radiant Keri Russell (“Waitress”) plays Jane, who is taken aback when she arrives at the 18th Century Italianate mansion (played by the historic Wycombe estate, also seen in “Downton Abbey”).  It is presided over by the redoubtable Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who crisply informs Jane that as the purchaser of the “Copper Package,” she will be known as the fortuneless “Jane Erstwhile” and live in a small room near the servants’ quarters.  (Janeites, think Fanny Price.)  Also visiting Austenland are the wealthy “Miss Elizabeth Charming” (Jennifer Coolidge, hilarious as always), who has no idea who Jane Austen is but thinks she will look good in Regency dresses, and Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgina King) (Janites: think Jane Fairfax with a touch of Crawford).  Having paid for the premium package, Charming and Heartwright have luxurious rooms and clothes.  And, apparently, first choice of the very handsome men who are there to provide the full Austen experience, or at least the simulation/stimulation thereof.

As a full-on Janeite who has read all of the books several times, I laughed out loud at some of the references and variations on Austen’s themes and at the silliness of the juxtaposition between the 18th century period details and the intrusion of the present day.  At one point, Jane is left out in the rain and romantically rescued by the severe Mr. Nobley (J.J. Feild, whose Austen credentials include playing Mr. Tilney in a “Northanger Abbey” television movie).  (Janeites, think “Emma.”)

At first, Jane plays along as though she was really in the Regency era.  But then, around the time that her soaking wet dress splits up to the hip, she cannot help reacting like the 21st century young woman she is.  And how very un-Fanny Price for her to decide that it is time to depart from Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s directions and write her own story, starting with getting rid of the dowdy hairstyle and clothes she has been assigned and moving on to spending quality time with the groundskeeper.  This is less Lady Susan than Lady Chatterly.

Like all Austen heroines, Jane has some lessons to learn.  And a very happy ending, including a hilarious final credit sequence.  Hess manages to both send up and pay tribute to the core conventions of romantic comedy, and for fans of the genre that has been all but absent from theaters in 2013, that is a very happy ending indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and situations, some bawdy and crude, some strong language, and drinking.

Family discussion:  What was it about Austen’s books that was so important to Jane?  If you could visit any fictional place, what would it be?

If you like this, try: Any of the many movie and television versions of Jane Austen’s novels, especially “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson and “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth

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Based on a book Comedy Romance

Interview: Jerusha Hess and J.J. Feild of “Austenland”

Posted on August 22, 2013 at 8:00 am

austenlandNo movie this year made me laugh more than “Austenland,” based on the novel by Shannon Hale. The film has Keri Russell as a Jane Austen fan who visits an immersive Jane Austen theme park/experience.  It was a lot of fun to talk to writer-director Jerusha Hess and actor J.J. Feild, who plays the brooding but dashing Mr. Nobley — and who played Mr. Tilney in the version of Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” that was shown in the US on Masterpiece Theatre.  This is the first directing gig for Hess, who co-wrote “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Nacho Libre,” and “Gentlemen Broncos” with her husband, director Jared Hess.

Tell me a little bit about the place where the movie was filmed and what it was like to be there?

JJ: It’s one of the great British estates.  I’ve filmed there three times!

Jerusha: It’s called West Wycombe. And there’s even a lord named Lord Dashwood . It’s very steeped in Austen.  It’s been used in many films, but not in its entirety and we shot the inside and the outside and used every nook and cranny.  The inside is very gaudy. It’s a little naughty inside. There’s a lot of portraiture.

JJ:  Slight sexual innuendo with the portraits there, but that’s the home of something called the Hellfire Club, which is a very, very old society in Britain, that was known in Charles II’s time, but it goes back beyond that and who knows what else.  It’s the home of that society that supposedly no longer exists, but I have heard that Prime Ministers and Cabinet members are still members.

Jerusha: We used that gaudiness to our benefit.

Tell me a little bit about the wardrobe.

Jerusha: The costume designer, her name is Anne Hardinge. She’s done “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” She’s really comedic costume designer, which was right up my alley. She was a joy to work with. She was like fabulous Geena Davis. She was just floating with her red lip and kind of fabulous.

JJ: Mostly with her costume designed just looked good.

Jerusha: She just couldn’t wait to get her hands on Jennifer Coolidge and design these gowns that matched the curtains and the bedspread. Yes, she had a lot of fun with it and we all did, because a lot of just a very straight regency costumes that we just rented from the houses, but some of it we got to make and have fun with.

The dress that her friend made was very funny, the idea of someone who really does not know the period and is just piecing something together, with good intentions but awful results.

Jerusha: The cheap, renaissance get on that.

I also loved it when Keri Russell’s outfit just felt apart when you were carrying her around there. I thought that was very well done and surprisingly shocking.

Jerusha: It was shocking to see a leg! You’ve never seen a leg in these stories. We made it a little saloon girl. We played up on many elements because everything is just very covered and the tights are very thick and heavy. And then to have it  all fell apart, absolutely, we wanted to see the leg!

It was also very shocking to see the scenes by the pool, where you see some of the men in modern clothes, but Nobley was still in his full period dress.

Jerusha: Yes, absolutely and Martin because we couldn’t reveal too much. That was really fun to just have guys in the pool with the wig on.

How did you and “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer, who produced, and this book by Shannon Hale all come together?  Tell me about Stephenie Meyer and how she got to be involved.

Jerusha: Stephenie was a friend of Shannon Hale previously, because they’re both girls in the writing world and Mormon girls to add to that. They were buddies and they always talked about making a movie together. Apparently, when I came on it became real which I laughed at. I was just another girl adding to the mix. There was a time where we went on a little trip together and we just like giggled, like, “It’s going to be so fun to make this movie and think about all about the handsome men.” We were just such chicks making a movie. She was great. She’s powerful woman. I met Shannon Hale through some friends and family.  I was interested in her book called Princess Academy, which is just a very sweet, Newbery-nominated fairy tale for young readers. She was like, “Oh, actually I have something else for you.” She gave me Austenland. The next morning, I’m sure I called her and I was like, “Let’s make this movie.” It is so fun. It just felt so girly and great and a great vehicle for the weird Hess comedy.

The weird Hess comedy has mostly been more boy-oriented.

Jerusha: Absolutely and very young boys. I was just ready to make a movie for the girls.  It was just really fun to write for a girl. It was really indulgent and sweet. The whole movie feels indulgent, doesn’t it? It’s such a romp in England.  And our experience in England was that. It was a delight. I had never even been to England and I got to spend five months there in a beautiful estate and just party with these gorgeous men and women and poke fun at their beloved genre, which they all loved. We teased it, but it’s so gentle, that you’re still swept away the whole time.

What’s the difference between playing a real Austen character and a fake Austen character?

JJ: One is a comedy and one is not. Playing this part in “Austenland,” for me it’s the man who doesn’t want to be there, who’s there by accident and he’s feeling deeply embarrassed.

Which is very Darcy.

JJ: Exactly. Then you just take the world of British costume drama and trying to send up as much of it as you can.

Why is that such a perpetual romantic fantasy?

JJ: It’s the outspoken, funny, poor thinking woman who can actually soften and tame someone like Mr. Darcy. It’s the fantasy that perhaps some men are misunderstood.

What was the biggest challenge that you had as a first time director?

Jerusha: It was just so cushy — like the time frame. I had 41 days to shoot. I had amazing comedians at my fingertips. I had this very cool Director of Cinematography who shot all the Stanley Kubrick films. I had all the staff at my fingertips, amazing talent and I’m like a nice to a fault whoever wanted to raising me up, like, ‘We’re going to make you look really good.’ I don’t have to do much. What I was surprised at and the challenge was that dealing with an ensemble cast who are in scenes together everyday all day, that is a challenge. It’s a challenge to make sure everyone get as much coverage and attention, it got just kind of competitive. I loved it because it made it funnier, but the improv went nuts. People were like, “Oh wait. I have something better to say.” “Now, I’m going to say…”

JJ: We needed six cameras.

Jerusha: It got hard to juggle the funny on set and then even harder in post-production.

Fortunately you had the credit sequence where you could throw in some of that stuff, which was great, great fun. I thought that was just too sweet. What about you, what was the biggest challenge of doing it for you?

JJ: Keeping a straight face. It’s not easy to have a grouchy face in front of Jennifer Coolidge and Bret McKenzie and Georgia King and it’s just hilarious. Jennifer Coolidge’s improvisation could be very physical or one line. James Callis when he started talking, he would talk an entire roll of film out. I don’t know how you can extemporize that amount of dialog, because he doesn’t prepare it. It’s just sort of flows. He’s extraordinary.

If you could enter a theme park of a book, what book would you pick?

Jerusha: I would do Winnie the Pooh. We would live in the tree house. We would hunt for honey.
JJ: I just got a new son and my childhood was made magical by Narnia, so if I could take my son to a wardrobe that would be it.

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Gentlemen Broncos

Posted on November 9, 2009 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some rude humor
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy violence, comic violence including darts and lasers
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2009

“Gentlemen Broncos” is about the fantasies of a 15 year old boy and it has some of the charm but all of the failings of those stories. The charm is its unguarded purity of emotion and unchecked enthusiasm for its powers of imagination. The failings are all of that plus the resulting incoherence and absence of insight.
Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is a shy, repressed boy who lives with his single mother (Jennifer Coolidge). He writes elaborate fantasy sci-fi stories filled with flying battle stags, aliens, and drastic body functions and fluids. Breasts emit laser beams. Projectile vomit erupts like a volcano. And a hero has to sew back is own body part after it was removed for examination by his captors.
At an overnight writing workshop, Benjamin meets his idol, Chevalier (Jermaine Clement of “Flight of the Concords”), a massively self-important author who wears a Bluetooth earpiece like an accessory. And he meets Tabatha, (Halley Feiffer) a supremely confident girl who has mastered the art of mastering shy boys. Both end up appropriating Benjamin’s story, and the movie’s best moments are the variations reflecting each of their perspectives and abilities. Chevalier steals the story and publishes it under his own name. And Tabitha gets Benjamin to agree to let her sidekick film the story. As many an author has learned before him, Benjamin finds that the translation to film distorts his original vision.
Of course, the original vision may not be such a good idea, and that is the problem here. The Hesses are trying to make fun of juvenile behavior but there’s a very fine line between the level of humor they are portraying and the level of humor in the way they portray it. It is the very essence of juvenile humor to overestimate the comedic value of bodily fluids and functions, to go for the knowing snicker rather than the more-knowing laugh.


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