Friday, 28 October 2011

Les Miserables (Stage Musical)

Although I've reviewed Hugo's novel I haven't yet got round to discussing my favourite adaptation of the story, the famous musical which got me into the story in the first place. Les Miserables is my favourite musical ever (and I like more than a few!) I've seen it live and I frequently watch and listen to the 10th anniversary concert. I'm just going to explain why I love the musical so much. As with my recent Love Never Dies post this will probably be long and rambling - but the tone will be gushy instead of angry and slightly psychotic!

Les Miserables has been running since 1985 and is the longest-running West End show ever. Many will tell you that the 1980s was a bad decade for music but it certainly wasn't when it comes to musical theatre. This was the time when the mega-musicals started to rock the West End. These were the big-budget epic shows like Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Many of these shows were produced by British producer and theatrical legend Sir Cameron Mackintosh. However, the Les Miserables musical was actually written by two French men, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil. Their show opened in Paris for a three month run in 1980. The show didn't do badly and 500,000 people attended the performances. However, the French - unlike Brits, Americans and Germans - aren't known for being great lovers of musical theatre. When the show ended there wasn't exactly a big demand to bring it back on stage again. Fortunately, Mackintosh happened to be listening to the French recording of Les Miserables one day, and, loving the music, decided to bring it over to London. Once Mackintosh got his hands on it the lyrics were re-written into English by Herbert Kretzmer, new songs were added, Royal Shakespeare Company director Trevor Nunn was brought in to direct, and the entire show was revamped and brought to the West End in 1985.

Les Mis received mostly negative reviews at first. The tabloids complained that it was depressing and argued that West End musicals should be more fun. The broadsheets complained that Hugo's classic novel had been transformed into a "mere musical". Thankfully the public ignored the reviews and it became a massive success. Nowadays most critics acknowledge that they got the show wrong. Interestingly, when the book was first published, many of Hugo's contemporaries such as Gustave Flaubert were very critical of it. But the public didn't listen and it became a bestseller. So I suppose it's only fitting really that the musical had a similar reception.

Les Miserables is based on the book of the same name by the author Victor Hugo. I won't go into the plot too much since it's very dense and has quite a few subplots but basically it chronicles the lives of several different characters over a 20 year old period and culminates in the French Revolution. No, not the French Revolution that many people think of. This Revolution is the lesser-known Student Revolution of 1832.
You really do have to admire Schonberg, Boublil and Mackintosh for deciding to adapt Hugo's book. It's one of the longest novels ever written and poses numerous challenges for anyone who'd want to adapt it. There's an enormous amount of characters, a large amount of settings, decades pass and the characters age. Most film adaptations of the book try to get around this by leaving huge chunks of the story out or by making wild changes from the source material. This means that most film adaptations of the book are rubbish. The most recent film adaptation of the book (the 1998 movie) is certainly awful but I've already reviewed that movie and I really don't want to bring up the painful time I had watching it! I can't go back there!

The musical is vastly superior and is by far and away the most famous adaptation of Hugo's book. But what exactly is it about the musical format that allowed them to adapt the book so successfully? Well, I personally put it down to the fact that the format allows you to put a lot of information into it whilst still maintaining the emotional intensity of the story. Also, the fact that the show is almost three hours long means that they're able to cover much more of Hugo's novel than many film adaptations would be allowed to show. The musical keeps to the spirit of Hugo's book and then some. It really is a fantastic adaptation of Hugo's book. The music and lyrics are wonderful. Almost every song in the show is beautiful, memorable and heartfelt. The story is rich and multi-layered and the characters are interesting and sympathetic. You really care about them.

The show is very well-staged too. It's much less simplistic and less elaborate than, say, Phantom of the Opera, but it's still very well-designed and makes excellent use of a giant turntable. I especially love the massive Barricade too. The one in the 1998 movie was tiny! Les Mis is a fantastic musical and shows just how fantastic West End theatre can be.
Yes, the show does take a few liberties with Hugo's book. It leaves some things out, it condenses the plot, and it simplifies some of Hugo's ideas. But for the most part the musical sticks to the plot fairly faithfully and is much more accurate than you might expect. The only major changes that I can think of are to do with some of the characters. The Thenardiers, for example, are much more humorous in the musical than they are in Hugo's book and are used as comic relief. In the book they're vile and selfish, true scum-of-the-earth types. However, the musical still clearly shows that these two characters are lacking in morals. Their daughter Eponine is different too. Although she's still ragged in appearance her character is considerably softened in the musical in order her to make her more sympathetic, and to make heartstrings pull at her tragic death.

There is very little that I can criticise about the show. Oh, I do think the show has one or two faults but these aren't major faults at all. I'm just nitpicking. I'm not so keen on the song Turning for example. It's by no means a bad song and it has pretty harmonies. But the song is completely pointless and irrelevant. It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't develop the characters who are singing the song in any way, and it's the only song in the show where I dislike the lyrics. The only reason for its inclusion is because Cameron Mackinstosh felt he needed to give the female ensemble another song to perform to justify their wages, and also to provide a bridge between Javert's Suicide and Empty Chairs and Empty Tables. If Tom Hooper has any sense he'll leave this song out completely or will severely shorten it when he finally gets round to directing his film adaptation. I'm not so keen on the song Dog Eat Dog either but I still think it sounds decent if the Thenardier who's singing is good enough.

Another issue that I have with the show is due to how it presents some of the characters. The musical leaves out quite a bit of Marius's backstory and as a result he's blander and less interesting than he is in the book. Cosette could have done with more character development too and I think it's a shame that her solo song I Saw Him Once was taken out of the show. Also all of the student revolutionaries (apart from Enjolras, Marius and Grantaire) are rather one-note and aren't developed properly. You don't get a real sense of their personalities. But in Hugo's book they're all really cool characters and they're all unique. It would have been really nice if we'd gotten more information on Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Feuilly and the rest. In fact none of the characters in the musical are as well-developed as they are in Hugo's novel, but to be fair there really isn't time to develop them all in the same amount of depth as the book and the main characters' personalities still come across. Again, they're still sympathetic and you still care about them. I mean, yes it would have been nice if they'd mentioned that Gavroche is Eponine's brother. And it would have been nice if they'd kept Marius's grandfather in the musical. And it would have been nice if they'd kept Montparnasse in the show * Oh, wow! I would have loved to have seen his dark, sexy, murderous self on stage and if his his relationship with Eponine in the musical.* And it would have been cool if they'd given us a bit more information about the Bishop. However, the musical would probably need to be an extra three hours long to accommodate all of this stuff and I completely understand why the changes had to be made. I still love the show obsessively and love it to death. Best musical ever!

So hopefully this review will have made you quite curious about Les Mis if you're not already familiar with it. But you might be thinking: should I read the book first or should I check out the musical? Well, I would personally recommend checking out the musical first. I know that there will be many people out there who will disagree with me for saying that and would say "No! You MUST read the book first!" I can understand why some would think this because I do think it's generally better to read books before you check out their adaptations. However, I still think that the musical can make for an excellent introduction to the story. It certainly worked for me. I don't think I would have been nearly as keen to read Hugo's book - let's face it, the size is daunting - if I hadn't watched the musical first.
Before I wrap this review up I thought I'd like to include my Top 5 favourite songs from the show. You will notice that the song I Dreamed a Dream is not on my list and I must say I'm a bit confused as to why the song is so popular. Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a great song but there are much better songs in the show! I think it's because of the Susan Boyle factor. It's difficult for me to pick a Top 5 since I love pretty much every song in the show but there are songs that I listen to more often than others.

5. Do You Hear the People Sing? (sung by Enjolras and the revolutionary students). I had a very hard time trying to choose between this and the big ensemble song One Day More. In the end I choose this song since I really both versions of it, the one that's sung by the students and the one that's sung right at the end of the show.

4. The Confrontation (sung by Jean Valjean and Javert)

3. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables (sung by Marius)

2. Bring Him Home (sung by Jean Valjean)

1. On My Own (sung by Eponine)

Ha! I wasn't on about the infamous Dawson's Creek abomination! I had this version in mind (see below):

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Phantom (Yeston and Kopit version)

After my recent Love Never Dies rant I thought I'd do a more positive Phantomy review! This time I'm reviewing the Yeston and Kopit musical, its full title being Phantom: the American Musical Sensation. Erm, why? Why an American Musical? It isn't even set in America! The Andrew Lloyd Webber version isn't called Phantom of the Opera: an English Musical because Andrew Lloyd Webber is English. Les Mis isn't called Les Miserables: a French Musical because Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil are French. So, yeah, I don't know why they did that : S

The Y&K musical was written at around the same time as the ALW version but it wasn't released in time. As soon as the ALW version became a smash-hit the investors of the Y&K version got cold feet and withdrew so the project got cancelled. In an attempt to cut their losses Yeston and Kopit then took all of the songs out of their show and re-wrote it as a television miniseries, which became the much-loved Charles Dance version. They then earned enough money through that to eventually bring out their musical a few years later but it never made it to Broadway.

 I've already reviewed the Charles Dance version if anyone would like to check my review out and find out more about it. If you have already seen the miniseries though then you'll already have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this musical. It has pretty much the same plot as the miniseries - with Erik being raised beneath the opera manager by Gerard Carriere, his father and the former manager of the opera house. As a result this show doesn't bear all that much resemblance to Gaston Leroux's novel or the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which takes a few liberties with the book but sticks to its main plot-points and is a mostly faithful adaptation. The Y&K musical is more light-hearted than Leroux's novel and the ALW musical. It also leaves out the Angel of Music and any mentions of Christine's father.

The dialogue in the musical is almost word-for-word the same as the Charles Dance version. Having said that, every now and again there are some interesting differences between the Charles Dance version and this musical. To list some of these differences...
  • They don't use any music from the opera Faust in this musical, instead they use something called The Faerie Queen. Or is it The Fairy Queen?
  • The chandelier crash happens in both the Charles Dance version and this musical but it's far more exciting and dramatic in the Dance version.
  • In the Charles Dance version there was a flashback about Erik's parents and his birth. In this musical the subplot about Erik's parents and birth is told through a ballet sequence.
  • In the Charles Dance version there was a scene where Erik took Christine for a picnic in his lair. He takes her to a room that he's filled with trees and stuffed animals. This scene is very weird and bizarre : S The musical has this scene as well but, instead of Erik planting trees and putting in stuffed animals, he's simply painted the walls to look like a forest glade. This is a lot more believable than the forest glade in the Charles Dance version.
  • At the end of the picnic scene in the Charles Dance version, Erik took off his mask (after much pleading and begging from Christine) only for Christine to faint when she saw Erik's face. When Erik takes off his mask in the musical, Christine runs away and is clearly trying not to vomit! Poor Erik!
  • My favourite change from the Charles Dance version though is the scene in which Erik gets his revenge on Carlotta for giving Christine that drink which ruined her debut. In the Charles Dance version Erik gets his revenge on her by tipping a box of rats on her. But in this version he does something much nastier! He electrocutes her! Yep, he fries her vocal chords! : D
There's no official DVD recording of this musical apart from a weird Japanese cross-dressing version which I haven't seen and, to be honest, don't really want to see. Thankfully though I have this musical's cast recording and I've seen a bootleg of the show on YouTube. A very kind YouTube user called "PhantomoftheOperaOG" has uploaded this musical on the site. You just need to search for Yeston/Kopit "Phantom". I'd definitely recommend checking it out because it's very hard to get a hold of this musical otherwise.

I don't think the songs in this musical are as good as the songs in the ALW musical but they're very well-written none the less. My favourite song in the show by far is You Are Music. It's an absolutely beautiful song and has some really heartfelt and touching lyrics: "You are music, beautiful music, and you are light to me." You can hear the song below (the images are from the 2004 movie though).

Other great songs in the musical are Where in the World, Home and My Mother Bore Me (the latter is based on the William Blake poem The Little Black Boy). Melodie de Paris is also a pretty tune. You Are My Own, the song where Carriere reveals that he's Erik's father, I actually quite like too. I must admit that I really didn't like the subplot about Erik's birth and father in the Charles Dance version, but since you get a really good and touching song out of it in this version I'm more forgiving. The overture for this musical rips off the overture from Sweeney Todd though as you can hear below:

One or two of the songs in this musical are a bit meh too and have poor lyrics. Take these lyrics for example:

Phantom, the opera's been invaded by a Phantom
Phantom, the opera's been invaded by a Phantom (a Phantom)
the opera's been invaded by a ghooo-ooo-st
By a ghost! By a ghost! By a ghost! By a ghost!

Oh, come on! Couldn't they have come up with better lyrics than that?! I bet it took them a really long time to come up with those lyrics! *sarcasm alert * There's also a song that rhymes "leading role" with "toilet bowl". Eew!

The Phantom in this musical is played by Richard White. Now if you've seen the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast then it's likely that his voice will sound very familiar to you. For good reason. Richard White played Gaston in that film. He's a magnificent baritone and makes for a surprisingly excellent Phantom. I love his voice! His interpretation of the character is quite different to Charles Dance's take on the character too. His Phantom is edgier, more menacing and more mentally unstable. He's a lot more badass too. I would have loved to have seen him perform as the Phantom live. Unfortunately I'm not so keen on either Glory Crampton (who plays Christine on the official cast recording) or Lauren Hathaway (who plays Christine on the bootleg). Both of their voices sound rather shrill. One of my very favourite Broadway singers though is the awesome Kristin Chenoweth. She played Christine Daae in this musical early on in her career and you can hear her below:

Even on this poor quality recording you can still hear how good her voice is!

And as for the character of Philippe in this musical, well, if you think he's annoying in the Charles Dance version then you should be warned that he's a million times worse in this! I didn't actually mind Philippe in the Charles Dance version but I could have given him a good slap in this! He's smarmy and arrogant and he uses silly big words! Like when he says to Christine "You made the night effervescent... it was beyond incandescent". I mean, come on! What self-respecting bloke would use these words when trying to pull someone?! Oh, you're ever so effervescent!

On the whole though I think this musical is really good and I can't help but love it. Yes, some of the plot changes from the book are silly and nonsensical (like the Charles Dance version) and the songs aren't as good as the ones that ALW wrote in his musical. But most of the songs are very good, Richard White is a great singer, and it does make for an interesting (and even refreshing) alternative to the ALW version. You actually get to see Erik and Christine meet and it's really nice that we actually get to hear Erik giving Christine a singing lesson in this show. There's also a lot more dialogue in this musical than in the ALW version (which is almost entirely sung-through) and it feels like a play at times. My feelings on the Charles Dance and the Y&K musical are pretty much the same: despite their many, many, flaws I really do love them both.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

Decades before Peter Jackson ever got the go-ahead to make a live action Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the director Ralph Bakshi made a serious attempt to adapt Tolkien's novel into a two-part animated feature. Unfortunately for him, the first part did poorly at the box office and got a lukewarm reception so the second part never materialised. As a result this film ends halfway through The Two Towers, right after the Battle of Helm's Deep. Judging from articles and reviews that I've read online I get the impression that this is a film that Tolkien fans either really like or really dislike.

I was expecting this film to be awful and I doubt I'll ever watch it again. Having said that the film does have its moments. The music is quite good in places and there's some nice voice acting, especially from John Hurt (Aragorn) and Anthony Daniels (Legolas). Those LOTR fans who are also Star Wars fans will know that Daniels also did the voice of C-3PO in those films : ) Another aspect that I did like about this film is that much of the dialogue is taken directly from Tolkien's novel and you can tell that the people who made this film had an affection for the story... but this affection for the story still didn't stop them from making a bad film though! This movie might not be awful but it's by no means a good adaptation.

I might as well start with the animation since that's probably the first thing that you'll notice about this movie. Bakshi combines traditional hand-drawn animation with rotoscoping - which is when animation is layered on top of scenes that use real life actors. Well, it's not done well. The rotoscoping is distracting and most of the characters look nothing like how they're supposed to in this movie. Just look at these pictures! Boromir looks like a Viking and Aragorn looks Native American! Elrond looks like a Roman! The Balrog looks totally stupid too and the Orcs look like the Sand People from Star Wars. And the Ringwraiths stagger around like zombies whenever they get off their horses. And Gimli is the same height as Legolas!

Aragorn and Boromir

There's some very choppy editing in this movie too. We get very rapid jumps from scene to scene and setting to setting. It moves at a much faster pace than the Jackson films. In fact I find it very odd that some LOTR fans think that this film is more accurate than the Peter Jackson films. Yes, some scenes in this film are more accurate but there's much less character development and they still leave out loads from the book. And Tolkien fans will want to scream when they continually mispronounce Saruman's name as "Aruman". His name is Saruman! The 'S' isn't silent! Apparently, the reason for Saruman's name change was because the film-makers were afraid that audience members might get his character confused with Sauron's. I suppose this is fair enough but why do they call him "Aruman" in some scenes and "Saruman" in others?! Have some consistency for goodness' sake!

I've already mentioned that there's little character development but I'll say it again. Not only do many of the characters look silly, the way that the film-makers have changed their character's personalities is silly too. The only characters that they manage to get right in this movie (in terms of appearance and personality) are Gollum, Legolas and Frodo. In fact I will admit that the way that they handle Frodo's character is, for me, the single redeeming feature of the movie. Don't get me wrong, I think Elijah Wood was perfectly cast in Jackson's LOTR trilogy and did a great job with the character. He was brave, innocent, kind and vulnerable. The only problem is that because of the script he was a little bit too vulnerable at times. In the scene where the Ringwraiths attack Weathertop, Wood's Frodo just drops his sword on the ground helplessly. When he gets chased by the Ringwraiths later on it's Arwen who saves him. In Bakshi's version, Frodo is slightly tougher and is therefore closer to Tolkien's book. He fights back in the Weathertop scene, and he actually tries to intimidate the Ringwraiths when he crosses the Ford of Bruinen despite being dangerously ill. Legolas looks as he should too and has an ethereal air about him. Gollum is done well in this version too although the character is better portrayed in Jackson's movies. Bakshi's version hints at Gollum's madness but Jackson's films did a much better job at showing the whole Smeagol-Gollum split personality thing.

Apart from these examples though, the film gets most of the characters wrong. Gandalf is far too manic and theatrical. They give him crazy, over-the-top hand gestures. Merry and Pippin's characters are cardboard cut-outs and have little to no personality. And oh Sam what did they do to you?! Samwise Gamgee is supposed to be brave, loyal and full of common sense. He's one of the most popular characters in the book. In this film he's extremely annoying and comes across as a complete weirdo! Treebeard's brief appearance in this film will also be very confusing to anyone who hasn't read the book. Oh, and the fight scenes are boring in this movie too.

Basically, Bakshi's film is watchable as a curiosity and if you're a die-hard LOTR fan then you might want to check it out. However, it's severely lacking in the quality of the Peter Jackson films - let alone Tolkien's book!

Rating: 2/5

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber stage version)

I managed to watch a really high-quality recording of the recent 25th anniversary concert of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall last night and it was amazing : ) The acting and singing was fantastic, Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess were the standouts of course (making up for Love Never Dies) but everyone was on top form. It was a vastly superior adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber stageshow than the 2004 movie (which I've already reviewed) and a much better anniversary concert than the recent Les Miserables 25th anniversary concert at the O2 Arena. If you still aren't familiar with the musical then I would seriously suggest getting the DVD when it comes out because it would make for a brilliant introduction to the show!

I've been meaning to write a review of Love Never Dies for a while but I figured that I couldn't really do that without reviewing the original musical first, because to understand how bad the sequel is you really need to have an understanding of how good the original musical is. I've seen the ALW stageshow live once before but seeing the 25th anniversary concert last night reminded me of just how great the show is.

Phantom of the Opera was one of the first musicals that properly got me into musicals in the first place so I'm always going to defend it. I'd already read Gaston Leroux's novel and loved it so I was eager to see the musical. The story of the ALW musical is noticeably different to Leroux's novel in a lot of ways (and I believe I've already mentioned some of these differences in other POTO reviews that I've done). However, I still consider the ALW musical to be a mostly faithful adaptation of Leroux's novel. It's certainly a lot more accurate than many other versions I've seen! Most of the major events and plot-points of Leroux's book feature in the musical and it's true to the spirit of the book.

So how good is the show? Well, since it's a musical, I think I can start with the music. It's beautiful, the best all round score that ALW has ever written in my opinion. No matter how fashionable it is to knock ALW musicals these days, and no matter how much some of his more recent shows may suck (*cough Love Never Dies cough*), I think you'd have to be silly if you said that the score for Phantom of the Opera isn't really high-quality stuff. My personal favourite songs are Phantom of the Opera, Music of the Night, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again and Wandering Child. However, almost every song in the show is beautiful and memorable. Richard Stilgoe's lyrics are witty and clever and Charles Hart's lyrics are passionate and heartfelt.

The set design and staging for the show is absolutely fantastic too, with the Phantom and Christine's journey to the lair across an underground lake being an unforgettable experience. It's great, great theatre. The Masquerade ball scene is much better in the stage version than it is in the 2004 movie too. The choreography is much better. The costumes are far better, especially the Phantom's Red Death outfit. Look at the difference between Gerard Butler's prettyboy costume and the monstrous demon from Hell outfit from the stage version.

The characters are entertaining too. The Phantom is obviously the show's most fascinating and best-developed character and it's an iconic role. I do really like the managers though as well. They're conceited, pompous and completely clueless as to how to run an opera house but they're pretty funny. Carlotta and Piangi also provide some laughs. Madame Giry is stern and mysterious but is ultimately kind and compassionate. Christine Daae is naive but an innocent and lovely girl and I really like Raoul too. I know this will be controversial but I actually prefer Musical Raoul over Leroux Raoul. The finale is fantastic too and is possibly the best finale to a musical ever. Although Les Miserables is still my favourite musical, ALW's Phantom of the Opera is a very, very close second.

The reason that POTO doesn't quite measure up to Les Mis is down to two reasons.

  1. Because as great as POTO is it doesn't quite measure up to Les Mis as the characters and plot have more depth in that show.
  2. Because I do have one or two criticisms of the stage version. There are a few things that I'm not so keen on in the stage version. These aren't major faults though and I still really love the stageshow. I guess I'm just nitpicking.
First of all, the prologue where we have Raoul as an old man at the auction house just isn't very interesting. It's not creepy and its only real function seems to be as a means of getting the chandelier up at the beginning of the first act. The 2004 movie gave this scene a bit more purpose by including a few extra scenes of Old Raoul making his pilgrimage to Christine's grave. But in the stage version we never see Old Raoul again. So what's the point? The scene where the characters are rehearsing a scene from an opera after the prologue is a bit boring too. At this point I can easily imagine blokes who know nothing about the show, and have been dragged along to see it by their wives/girlfriends, sitting there and thinking "Is this what the whole show is going to be like?! Kill me now!"

Now one of the common criticisms against the 2004 movie is that it removes the elements of magic and mystery about the Phantom - but I don't agree. The 2004 movie actually fixed one of the things that I'm not so keen on in the stage version. From Gaston Leroux's novel we know that the Phantom is a magician, a ventriloquist, an inventor and an illusionist. But he's NOT a ghost and he has no supernatural powers whatsoever. So how come he gets to do all this magical stuff in the stage version? The first time I saw the show I just assumed that these were just magic tricks that were never explained to the audience but it is quite strange the more I think about. How can he laugh maniacally and throw his voice at the same time? How can he magically make a piano play all by itself? If it's a trick then why would he go to all that trouble? And how does he vanish into thin air at the end when Meg Giry enters his lair? Did he set up a complex illusion just in case anyone ever managed to get down to his lair and he wanted to impress them with his magic skills? And the fact that the Phantom shoots fireballs from a staff at Christine and Raoul in the cemetery scene doesn't make any sense either. He's not Gandalf the Grey or Professor Dumbledore, he's a human being. At least in the 2004 movie they obviously realised that this scene would look silly and changed it to the Phantom and Raoul having a swordfight instead. It is more believable although this scene ended up looking silly too. The organ music is annoying and the fact that Raoul actually beats the Phantom in the swordfight removes all the menace out of the Phantom's character, when he's pretty much an emo wussy in that version anyway. How can Raoul beat the freakin' Phantom of the Opera anyway?! But I'm getting sidetracked.

So to sum up: the stage version is awesome and you should definitely see it live at least once if you consider yourself a POTO fan. You'd definitely enjoy it and it makes for a great day/night out.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 2 October 2011

'My Cousin Rachel' by Daphne du Maurier (1951)

Synopsis: Philip Ambrose was orphaned as a child and was then brought up by his wealthy, older cousin Ambrose. Ambrose then leaves the family estate in Cornwall to go travelling in Italy for his health. Philip then learns that Ambrose has married a woman called Rachel, the widow of an Italian count. Philip is devoted to his older cousin and feels jealous and put out by this. But just months after the marriage, Philip receives some very strange and unsettling letters from Ambrose. Philip heads off to Florence on impulse only to find that Ambrose has died and Rachel is nowhere to be found. Philip grows suspicious of Rachel and believes that she is to blame for Ambrose's death. However, Rachel then travels to England to meet Philip and turns out to be very different from what Philip had expected her to be. Philip ends up falling in love with her but the evidence that she may have been behind Ambrose's death continues to grow.

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a masterpiece. Yet, it would be a shame if she was remembered for just that book alone. My Cousin Rachel is a very good book as well. It has a very brooding and mysterious atmosphere, has an interesting story, and is a very well written page-turner. There's plenty of suspense too and I thought du Maurier did a really good job writing from a male POV. Her narrator, Phillip Ambrose, felt very believable. What's also interesting about My Cousin Rachel is that it's one of those books that can be read in multiple ways: Is Rachel a sweet, charming and misunderstood woman? Or is she really a cold-hearted, manipulative bitch who murdered her husband for financial gain?

My Cousin Rachel certainly doesn't equal Rebecca by any stretch of the imagination. The ending was a bit too abrupt and convenient for my liking. Also, the question of Rachel's guilt is never entirely answered even by the end of the book - which made the story intriguing but also quite frustrating at the same time. However, although My Cousin Rachel is definitely no Rebecca but it's still an excellent book and is definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 1 October 2011

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

A Very Long Engagment, or if you prefer, Un Long Dimanche de Fiancialles reunites Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet with that film's leading actress Audrey Tautou. Tautou plays Mathilde - a beautiful, young girl who was crippled by polio as a child and was brought up by her uncle and aunt in rural Brittany. She falls in love with a boy called Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) and he proposes to her, but Manech is then sent off to fight in World War I and is never heard of again. He's presumed to have been killed in battle but Mathilde doesn't give up on the hope that he may still be alive somewhere. In 1920, three years later, Mathilde then learns some shocking news from an ex-army Sergeant who is dying of Spanish Influenza: Manech wasn't killed in battle like everyone else assumed but was instead sentenced to die, unarmed, in No Man's Land with four other soldiers for self-mutilation. Manech may still be alive. Mathilde then begins a desperate search to try to find her fiance.

A Very Long Engagement is Jeunet and Tautou's follow-up to Amelie and its tone is generally darker and more bittersweet than that film; which isn't surprising when you consider that it's set during WWI. A Very Long Engagement has a wider scope than Amelie too. It's part moving romance, part war film and part mystery movie. It also has plenty of comedy, drama and tragedy thrown in.

The acting is superb in this movie and everyone acts so well that it seems almost harsh to single actors out. Audrey Tautou though is just as good in this movie as she was in Amelie and gives an excellent performance. Her character in this movie is quite similar to Amelie in that they both come across as sweet and childlike but Mathilde seems tougher and more self-confident. You will like her. Gaspard Ulliel is absolutely adorable and charming as Manech and is equally as good as Tautou. Marion Cotillard has a role in this movie too and is as excellent as always. Even Jodie Foster has a nice cameo. I can't speak French but the film reviews I've read from people who do all say that her French is faultless. The film is visually stunning too. The cinematography is excellent and we get some gorgeous shots of the French countryside. There's also some very nice CGI to recreate 1920s era Paris.
Audrey Tautou as Mathilde
Gaspard Ulliel as Manech
Marion Cotillard as Tina Lombardi
Jodie Foster as Elodie Gordes
I didn't realise it when I first watched this film but A Very Long Engagement is actually based on a novel of the same name by a French writer called Sebastien Japrisot. Reviews that I've read of the book say that there is more comedy in the movie and I especially enjoyed the quirky characters and the exchanges between Mathilde's uncle and the postman : ) Another thing that I found very interesting is that it deals with WWI when most movies these days tend to deal with WWII. The war scenes are sad and brutal. The film makes the point that war is tragic and horrible but it doesn't constantly bash you over the head with it.
A Very Long Engagement is an excellent film and proves that Amelie was no fluke. It's such a shame that it wasn't even nominated for Best Foreign Language Movie at the Oscars. I don't think this movie is quite as good as Amelie I must admit. I can't help wishing that Marion Cotillard had gotten a bit more to do and the film is a bit confusing on a first viewing as you try to follow the different characters and sub-plots. However, these are only small criticisms. The film is still brilliant and I love it.

Rating: 5/5