Friday, 28 December 2012

Emma (2009)

After receiving an HMV gift voucher for Christmas from my aunt and uncle, I decided that I would replenish my period drama collection (not the 'coolest' thing I've ever done, but then I'm not really) and first on my list was the 2009 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's 'Emma'.
The basic plot of 'Emma' is this: "Emma Woodhouse, beautiful, clever, and rich, has very little to concern her. When her governess marries advantageously, Emma congratulates herself on her great success as a matchmaker. So, when she meets the pretty, naive, and socially inferior Harriet, Emma is ready to practise her skills again - ignoring warnings of the harm she could cause from friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley.
As she sets about meddling with the affairs of the village of Highbury, Emma carves a trail of confusion, disappointment and disaster that risks Harriet’s happiness, and much to her surprise, her own happiness too. As our heroine embarks on a journey that challenges her naivety and her social preconceptions it leads her to realise that she has become so focused on the lives of others that she has failed to see what’s in front of her own eyes.." (Amazon)
Since buying it yesterday, I've watched this 4-hour-long mini-series twice the whole way through, and it's brilliant. I just love it. Although, in general, I'm not much of an Austen fan - I can't abide the book 'Pride and Prejudice', although I enjoyed the 1995 Colin Firth adaptation, and I found 'Sense and Sensibility' really quite boring. However, after watching this version of 'Emma', I'm strongly considering giving the book a go. 
One of the greatest things about this adaptation is that it's absolutely hilarious. The humour is subtle in places and more obvious in others, providing a nice mix which makes it watchable for all. Mostly, the comic moments are making fun of the society of Austen's time and so what makes it funnier is that the characters in the series aren't supposed to know that they're being made fun of.
Another factor that I loved about this adaptation was the almost constant presence of beautiful men in this series. Mr Knightly, Mr Elton and Frank Churchill all completely make the series for me, and the parts are so brilliantly acted. Jonny Lee Miller as Knightly was particularly brilliant and basically I'm going to spend my life waiting for my very own Mr Knightly, as much of a long shot as that is. The dancing scene (shown below) is just complete perfection and the tiny adjustments of facial expressions from both Miller and Romola Garai (playing Emma) say so much. The music in the scene is also absolutely beautiful, and the whole scene put together never fails to make me smile and cheer me up when I'm feeling down. 
Emma's hypochondriac father is played in this series by the fantastic Michael Gambon (from Harry Potter). However, it was odd at times to hear the fearless Dumbledore worrying about who might catch a cold if they went to the seaside. I suppose this added to the comedy in some ways and was a testament to Gambon's ability to act diverse characters. 
If I had to find a problem with this series - it's hard to find one - I did find the ending a little contradictory as, one moment Harriet is proclaiming her love for one man, and the next she has completely forgotten him and marries another man, whom she, only a few minutes before, said she could never contemplate being with. I'm not sure if this is a fault in the book, or simply a problem of lack of time in the series resulting in cuts having to be made and stories not being explained as well as they could have been. Either way, this doesn't really detract that much from the story as the ending is so beautiful. I just love it.
I will admit though, this story is quite 'girly' since it's a romance and I'm not sure if many men would be that keen on it - at least they probably would't admit to liking it. But, for me, this is pretty much as good as period drama gets and it was absolutely fantastic; I would recommend it to any of my friends, and the series has the ability to cheer you up, even when you're feeling at your lowest. 9/10.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Downton Abbey: A Journey to the Highlands

I'll start with the warning that there will be **SPOILERS** in this post because I can't really write this review without them; some very significant things happened which I don't want to just gloss over. 
On the whole I was thoroughly disappointed with this Downton episode, especially when compared to the epic that was last years Christmas special. I think one of the major problems was the simple fact that it was set at the height of summer, not Christmas. Part of the beauty of last years episode was that it was seasonal and there was an enormous Christmas tree; everything was festive and happy and there were so many more issues to be addressed so the story could be developed. In comparison, this year the family and some servants journeyed to Scotland to stay with the Earl of Grantham's friend, 'Shrimpie' (really Downton, 'Shrimpie'?). Meanwhile, the majority of the servants stayed home at Downton abbey, using the two hour episode to go to  the fair. Yay. Allotting two hours (actually much less than that considering there was one minute of adverts for every three minutes of Downton yesterday, seriously ITV?) to the show was absolutely fine with me, in fact, I was thrilled. But when it came to it, absolutely nothing happened in the whole show before the final three minutes, which then left me so depressed I wished I hadn't bothered.
This is Christmassy...
And why did this Christmas special leave me so depressed? Matthew died. Julian Fellowes killed off the main character. What are they playing at? I mean, I respect that Dan Stevens (the actor who played Matthew) had decided to end his contract after three series, but did they really have to kill him off in such a dramatic manner, not a minute after meeting his son and heir for the first, and last, time. And at Christmas? Throughout series 3 it would appear that Downton has turned into an upper-class Eastenders - a child can't be born without one of their parents dying minutes later. My point is that last years episode left me happy and contented at the end of Christmas day, whereas, this year, I was left numb and in shock, with only a box of Quality Street to cheer me up. Even Fellowes' attempt to add Christmas cheer with the birth of Mary and Matthew's first child (I think he was attempting to go for the juxtaposition of this scene with the birth of Jesus) fell flat due to the death of the father immediately afterwards. Viewers were barely allowed to enjoy the scene of the happy family together for a minute before foreshadowing comments began pouring in and everybody immediately knew what was going to happen. Great. Very Christmassy.
... This is not.
Another problem I have is that Fellowes' writing of the series has become almost painful. The most cringe-worthy lines in the past series including Matthew's lines that "now [he and Mary] can start making babies", to a comment in the Christmas special: "I know you're nice because I've seen you naked". I mean really? How much more cheesy can the writing get? And since when has seeing someone naked been a good way to judge how nice a person is?
I feel I should mention some of the positives of the episode though: the setting was beautiful, although perhaps lacking in that very little of the episode was shot at Highclere Castle (the location of Downton Abbey); the costumes were, as always, stunning and exactly on period. I also feel I should mention Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) and Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) for their fantastic acting in this episode - the scenes they shared were brilliant and very funny. This actually brings me on to another disappointment with this episode: there was very little from Dame Maggie Smith. The usually hilarious Dowager Countess was barely used and, as a result, this episode was hugely lacking in the comedy aspect which, considering the lack of action and bleak ending, was sorely missed.
The 2011 Christmas Special... more of this please
I'm going to stop now because this post has basically been one long rant. But, the point I'm trying to make is this, since when did Christmas specials turn into bleak, depressing shows that make you want to go and die in a hole, rather than programmes that make you happy and contented? Quiet honestly, I would take a 'Vicar of Dibley' box set over these depressing new Downton episodes any day (luckily a Christmas special of the former show was programmed after the latter to cheer me up again). I just don't understand why, as the series has gone on, the story lines have become more and more bleak; what was once a relaxing escapism has now become more like an episode of Casualty. Although, as I saw somebody mention earlier today, the blood used was very realistic, which of course makes up for everything. 
Don't get me wrong, I adore Downton. It's been my favourite show for a while now, but I don't know if I can take much more of the empty plot lines before a dramatic death in the last minutes. So, considering how great I know Downton can be (last years Christmas special I'm looking at you), I'm going to be harsh: 5/10.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Hugo (2011)

Sitting today wrapping Christmas presents I decided I needed a distraction, and what did Sky Anytime have in store for me? Martin Scorsese's 2011 movie 'Hugo'. Starring 'The Boy in Striped Pajamas'' Asa Butterfield, 'Hugo' was adapted from Brian Selznick's novel 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret', which is, I believe, based on the true story of Georges Melies, a french pioneer filmmaker. The summary given of the film on Amazon is this: "Hugo is the astonishing adventure of a wily and resourceful orphan boy whose quest to unlock a secret left to him by his father will transform Hugo and all those around him". I would say that's a pretty good description as there are quite a few layers to the story - reflected in the rather long run time of 126 minutes - however, I was very disappointed to see the film has only reached 3.5 stars on the website as I would say it was worth far more than this.
Butterfield puts in another fantastic performance and it always strikes me that he can act far beyond his years, easily and tactfully tackling tender subjects, such as the Holocaust in 'The Boy in Striped Pajamas' and orphanage in 'Hugo'. He really is a fantastic actor and I hope he'll continue to be brilliant in all of his future projects. 
Another great actor in the film came in the form of  the hilarious and incredibly versatile Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector. Cohen appears to have an unerring ability to act any role thrown at him, from the comical character of the Station Inspector in 'Hugo' (although he is also given tender moments, for example when explaining to Lisette how he came to have a permanently injured leg) to the evil Pirelli in 'Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' and Thenardier in the upcoming 'Les Miserables' film.
This film is absolutely full of fantastic actors, Ben Kingsley, Jude Law and Ray Winstone are among those in addition to the above mentioned. And, despite having a relatively minor role, Jude Law's character has a huge influence on the story as Hugo's father; this element of the story is also absolutely heart breaking and, as always, Law is fantastic. 
However, some people have said that this film shouldn't have been rated a U as some elements of it are a little scary. For example, a major part of the story are figures called automatons (shown below), basically miniature human figures made out of metal, kind of a cross between the robots in 'I-robot' and a Svengali doll, whose staring eyes are actually quite scary and, I imagine, could frighten any children watching the film without an adult. There are also a couple of scenes in which Hugo is dreaming which could scare younger viewers, and actually had me jumping out of my seat and yelling at the television, so perhaps it would have been better if the film was rated PG. But, if I'm honest, I think this is an unimportant detail.
Hugo's automaton
The cinematography in this film was fantastic; scenes inside and outside clocks and panoramic views of Paris jump out at me as those which were the best scenic shots. It really is a beautiful film that was brilliantly put together, flowing seamlessly between different scenes, often following a running Hugo through the station or streets of Paris, which I really liked as it allows the viewer to feel as though they are part of the film. I suppose setting the film in a train station was also a key element in this as it would be entirely plausible to see the audience as passing strangers on their own journeys, simply taking a moment to stop and watch the events going on around them. 
So basically, this is a fantastic film which I would highly recommend to anyone - don't be put off by the fact that it's a U if you're 'not into' kids films, this one really is brilliant and actually surprisingly complex for a children's movie. I was also very pleasantly surprised at the sneaky 'Les Mis' mention when young girl Isabelle announces "I feel like Jean Valjean" when on her way to the clock tower with Hugo; this pretty much made the film for me as I'm such a huge 'Les Miserables' fan. 
I have decided since my last review that it would make sense for me to start rating the things I review out of ten as well, so for Hugo: 9/10.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Life of Pi

I decided to read this book before seeing the new Ang Lee film, scheduled for release on 20 December 2012 here in the UK. I was really excited to read it after the high praise given by reviewers on Amazon and the proclamation that "this book will make you believe in God" - with a statement like that it's got to be a good book right?
And it was a good book, it really was, if a little confusing, and not only in terms of plot. The basic premise is of a boy, Pi Patel (so called due to teasing when he was a child) who's ship sinks when his family are moving their zoo from India to Canada. The rest of the story is that of Pi on a life boat for almost 300 days.. with a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger, interestingly named Richard Parker., for company. (It may sound stupid but I didn't actually realise tigers were as dangerous as is made out in the book, but as it turns out, they are - and it's quite an important element of the story, so, yes, tigers are dangerous). From the plot alone you can see that, at over 450 pages long, the book has the potential to get very boring in places, and it did, but what confused me most was that there was always something pulling me in and drawing me back to carry on with the book. There's something about this book that just won't let you put it down.
Yann Martel's writing was certainly a factor in urging me to continue reading; it was clear he was writing about something he truly believes in, his writing has reason and purpose and Martel just comes across as being really quite wise. Some of the most inspirational quotes include "if there's only one nation in the sky, shouldn't all passports be valid for it?" and "love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?" I should also mention, as you can probably see from the quotes, this book is very religious so if your not into that kind of thing, maybe this book isn't for you, although I would still strongly recommend it. 
The ending to 'Life of Pi' is one of the best I have ever read. Unlike most books, the story doesn't just end - there's an enormous twist which, if you've invested in the story, could completely change the way you think about life. However, that's the thing with this book. You have to go into it wanting it to be more than just a nice story, you need to completely invest in the characters and open yourself up to Yann Martel's narrative. You have to want to be caught up in the story, and, I'm afraid, this is something I didn't do - I didn't particularly want to be preached to. Supposedly Pi's story is meant to seem irrational and unreliable, but this thought never even occurred to me - at times I supposed, due to lack of food, he must be a little delirious but, other than that, I had absolute trust in him and his narration. Apparently this affects interpretation of the ending of the story - which is supposed to pack a punch but, in all honesty, it left me completely baffled. It took until I googled 'Life of Pi ending' and read some discussion on the topic for me to really understand the message Martel was trying to get across and, once I understood, the book still managed to pack that punch. I look at that as another great thing about this book: perhaps it's supposed to leave you utterly bewildered to begin with, before shedding a little light after extra thought on the subject. I guess this also means that, based on interpretation, the book can be different for every single reader but still resonate. It's universal.
Surprisingly, considering the subject matter, 'Life of Pi' also had some quite amusing moments. For example the story of how Pi came to be known as Pi, and the closing chapters which feature a Japanese comedy duo. In this way Martel cleverly changes the mood between bleak and cheerful almost seamlessly. 
So, overall, 'Life of Pi' is a good book, perhaps with some less riveting bits, but it makes you think. Although I'm not sure it will stay with me as long as it promised to, it was definitely worth the read. I would also agree with the statement that it's an "unfilmable" story, so the film should be an interesting one - it definitely looks like it'll be visually stunning.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Phantom of the Opera Movie (2004)

I should probably say, I started watching this film with an already biased opinion that the 25th anniversary performance of 'The Phantom of the Opera' would be better than this film - and it was - but I'll try to overlook this while I'm writing the review and look at the film as if it was my first experience of Phantom. Incidentally, I'm very glad it wasn't because I found the movie plot so confusing, if I didn't know the story I would have absolutely no clue what was going on - this is probably true of when I watched the 25th as well but I don't remember being quite as confused back then. Another major problem for me was the Phantom's deformity, if you can call it that. It just wasn't there, he wasn't deformed at all, it just looked like he had a bad sunburn on half of his face - compare this to Ramin's deformity in the 25th anniversary and it becomes more obvious why Christine feels the need for Raoul's protection and love, which isn't really made obvious in the movie since, until the finale, Butler's Phantom is far more attractive than Raoul ever is. 
Gerard Butler unmasked
One thing I was disappointed by which I didn't expect to be was the sets and the scenery. Despite at times helping to explain events in the story better than the stage show can - due to the fact that the sets can easily be moved between and characters do not have to stay the same for large periods of time, I constantly found myself wishing more had been made of the ability to have beautiful sets because, well, they were pretty average, especially the Opera House and the Phantom's Lair, which could have been stunning.
One of my first thoughts at the beginning of the film was that it was quite good. I loved that the first scene was in black and white and, oddly, the older Raoul was the best actor in the whole film (he has less than 5 minutes screen time) as he could actually act and his pain was obvious his face and eyes alone.
Ramin Karimloo unmasked
Another thing I really liked was that Ramin Karimloo (the Phantom in the 25th anniversary performance and one of the best ones ever) was Christine's dad in this film. Although his 'part' was literally being in a photo - if you're getting someone as good as Ramin to be in the film, they could have at least expanded his role - maybe Christine could have had one of those flashbacks the director seemed so keen on, or something? And considering Andrew Lloyd Webber was involved in the production of the film, I don't see why writing another song in would have been such a problem. 
A little song from Ramin would have been especially welcome in this film since the singing was pretty awful, really - and the miming along with it terrible, particularly Emmy Rossum as Christine. Most of the time I thought they were having the singing as background whilst she acted, but then I realised she was supposed to be miming. Her voice wasn't that great either, with absolutely no feeling coming through in the majority of her scenes. You would also think the singing would be better since they had the chance to perfect it in the recording rooms and could sing it a number of times, whereas in the stage show it's once or nothing - but, no, it really was bad. Gerard Butler was also clearly only cast for his looks - ironic since he's playing the Phantom. In the book, the main thing about the Phantom is his amazing tone and the wonderful quality in his voice, but with Butler he was just shouting the entire time. And most annoyingly, he was shouting on the notes that were supposed to be big and powerfully sung. But then, at times when he was supposed to be shouting for emphasis, he ended up either singing weakly or speaking the lines. Gahh, it's so annoying!
Another problem I had with the singing and speaking of different lines was mainly when Meg said "it's the Phantom of the Opera..." This made me angry beyond belief - the Phantom is supposed to be absolutely terrifying, which then makes Christine and Raoul's relationship deeper because he becomes her 'protector'. In the film it comes across that the Phantom is like a slightly interesting next door neighbour who comes out sometimes, that old women like to talk about in their spare time. It really is like they're just talking about someone who's a bit odd - not the Phantom of the Opera. Another moment where Meg was disappointing was during 'Angel of Music' when her and Christine are singing at the same time whilst walking down a corridor. It's hilarious. Due to Christine's overly large dress and the fact that the pair are trying to walk down the corridor next to each other, they kind of waddle along trying to fit in the tiny space.
Masquerade was another disappointment - in film why on earth did they choose to dress the whole company in black and white!? There was the opportunity for so much more but this was just overlooked. Also in this scene the main cast members were not part of THE dance. The masquerade dance. They just weren't part of it, with Christine and Raoul taking this one bit further by kissing through some of it - they should be joining in and being a part of the opera company, otherwise they just come across as being detached and excluded from the whole thing.
Skipping out the whole of the middle of the movie - the majority of which was completely underwhelming, and the rest just average - my main problem with this movie was the finale in the Phantom's lair. This scene usually has the capacity to make me cry (in fact, every time I see it I feel myself welling up). But in this case it was so bad. The Phantom is trying to kill the man Christine is 'in love with' and she just stands there on the bank not wanting to get her feet wet, if you were to read her thoughts it comes across that she would be saying "I love you, I really do, but, you're in the water and it looks so cold!" Emmy Rossum also decided to kiss the Phantom from the angle that looks like she really wanted to - I personally wasn't particularly keen on this since I've always been a Raoul supporter, but anyone can she why she would rather be with the Phantom in this version, Patrick Wilson plays such a weak Raoul - many people have described him as 'wet', which I would agree with. 
Also, the way Butler delivered some of his lines in the finale really disappointed me. The words "a face which earned a mother's fear and loathing, a mask my first unfeeling scrap of clothing" always, always make me cry when Ramin sings them, but here they were rushed and just didn't have the same effect. He also delivered the line "Christine I love you" with the "love" stretching across only one syllable - it's so much more powerful when it's delivered across three ("lo-o-ove"), it's so beautiful when it's done like that. 
I'm going to stop now because this has become way too long, but I had a lot to say about this that annoyed me. Honestly, if you want to see the sensational 'Phantom of the Opera' please watch the 25th anniversary production at the Royal Albert Hall (a video link to the finale of this version is above) instead of the movie. My favourite song in the musical - 'All I ask of you' - can show you the difference straight away, while in the movie having very little emotion and really not standing out at all (video left), in the 25th anniversary (video above) it gave me chills and stayed with me for weeks after I'd first seen it. Hadley Fraser and Sierra Boggess (Raoul and Christine in the latter production) also became huge favourites of mine afterwards. Seriously, watch the 25th instead, it's amazing. I also realise I've clogged this post with a load of videos and pictures, most of which are not from the actual film I'm supposed to be reviewing, but I love the 25th anniversary production so much I just had to put them in.