Tuesday, 26 February 2013

'Jamaica Inn' by Daphne du Maurier (1936)

Synopsis: the young Cornishwoman Mary Yellan honours her mother's deathbed request by going to live with her relatives at their inn on Bodmin Moor. At Jamaica Inn, Mary meets her timid Aunt Patience and her aunt's abusive husband, Joss Merlyn. Mary then becomes involved, against her will, in her uncle's villainous schemes and finds herself falling in love with Joss's handsome, mysterious, younger brother.

I love Daphne du Maurier when she's on good form but she wasn't on good form with this book. I was really disappointed with Jamaica Inn. The book has a decent premise and a promising opening but the story quickly becomes boring, tedious and predictable with a "twist" that you can spot coming a mile off. I couldn't stand the heroine, Mary Yellan, either. She's supposed to be plucky and independent but instead I just found her annoying, obnoxious and one-dimensional. Her stupid decisions and actions infuriated me. All of the other characters in the book are underdeveloped and the romance aspect of the story is unsatisfying because there's zero passion or love between Mary and Jem Merlyn. I wouldn't recommend Jamaica Inn, instead I'd recommend other du Maurier books: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel and The Scapegoat (and in that order). They have far more mystery, intrigue and suspense .

Rating: 2/5

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Les Miserables (Complete Symphonic Recording)

The Complete Symphonic Recording is the only cast recording of Les Miserables that is completely uncut. It contains every single song and every single note of the musical. This is in direct contrast to other cast recordings which tend to leave out the "minor" songs from the show like Javert's Intervention, Eponine's Errand and Little People. This recording was produced in 1988 and it features a truly international cast, with performers drawn from various Les Miserables productions from all over the world: London, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and even Tokyo. It's a very ambitious project and I'd recommend it to die-hard fans of the musical. However I wouldn't really recommend it to non-Les Mis fans because the quality of the cast is patchy. There are some excellent performances on this album but quite a few bad ones on it as well. I'll start with the performances I enjoyed.

Philip Quast plays Javert on this album and he's widely regarded as being one of the best ever Javerts, often the best. Quast is great on this album even though he does sound better on the 10th anniversary concert. Michael Ball plays Marius on this album and he's still - by a considerable distance - the best Marius I've ever heard from the stage musical. His singing is better on the 10th anniversary concert and original London cast albums but he's still great too. Anthony Warlow is really good as Enjolras. He did sound bored at times and I do think Michael Maguire puts a lot more passion into the role - but Warlow's voice still sounds great and I loved his deliveries of "Grantaire, put that bottle down!" and "Let others riiiiiise to take our place". Kaho Shimida plays Eponine on this album and she tends to divide Les Mis fans with her performance but I really liked her, a lot more than I thought I would actually. Shimida is Japanese and she had to learn all of her lines phonetically for this recording because she couldn't speak any English. Her pronunciation is a bit weird at times but her Japanese accent was nowhere near as distracting as I thought it was going to be. Also, her singing voice is lovely and her interpretation of the character is interesting. Whereas Lea Salonga plays Eponine as being very strong, defiant, frustrated and feisty on the 10th anniversary concert recording; Shimida's Eponine is much quieter, more mournful, and is very shy, sweet and sad. Shimida isn't my favourite Eponine - I prefer Salonga and Samantha Barks - but she gives an interesting take on the character and I liked her. Barry James gives an interesting take on Thenardier as well. As I'd found him really funny as Monsieur Fermin in Phantom of the Opera I thought James would make for quite a funny Thenardier - but no. He's the only Thenardier I've heard who isn't trying to be funny at all. Instead of being comical, James's Thenardier is much more sinister and obviously evil. This is of course much closer to the Thenardier of Victor Hugo's novel and it made for a very interesting alternative to how Thenardier is usually played in the musical. The kids who played Gavroche and Young Cosette were good on this album too.

Unfortunately there are some really weak performances on this cast album as well though. Gary Morris makes for a very poor Valjean. He's a country singer and his voice just isn't right for this musical theatre role. I didn't really like his acting either (or at least the acting that he gave through his voice). Tracy Shayne as Cosette is even worse! Her voice sounds very grating and shrieky at times! I'd take Hugh Jackman and Amanda Seyfried over these two any day! Debbie Byrne isn't bad as Fantine but she isn't very memorable and Gay Soper's Madame Thenardier didn't leave much of an impression on me either. Also, I really didn't like Kenny D'Aquila's Grantaire! I think he was trying to make his voice sound like a heavy drinker's because he puts on a very rough-sounding voice! He sounds like a man who drinks a bottle of whisky and smokes a pack of cigarettes a day! Of course this is quite accurate to Victor Hugo's Grantaire but this isn't the book, it's the musical! His voice was unpleasant to listen too but when D'Aquila actually sings properly in Drink with Me he sounds nice. Another problem that I have with this album is that most of these performers never actually met face-to-face because they recorded their parts in different studios from across the world. As a result there's no real chemistry or interaction going on between the characters. This is especially apparent during The Confrontation, there's no tension whatsoever.

Completists will want to listen to this album because it's the most complete and it features a few things that were later cut out of the show in the early 90s to tighten up the running time. For example: in Attack at Rue Plumet Montparnasse arrives before the rest of the gang and has a brief conversation with Eponine. This should please book fans! Also, Eponine's initial response to the attack - and I'm paraphrasing here - is "Oh no! If I let the gang rob the house then Marius will think I was in on it! He'll think I planned the whole thing!" Also, in Beggars at the Feast, when Marius is criticising the Thenardiers, he accuses them of being terrible parents to Eponine and abuses them for not being upset that she's dead. I really wish these moments hadn't been taken out of the show and I was glad to hear them. However I'd suggest listening to this album on YouTube, as I did, because the cast isn't the best ever. Obviously if you've never heard Les Miserables at all then any cast recording is of course better than none but this wouldn't be the one I'd especially recommend, even if it is the most complete. The 10th anniversary concert is much better. It may not be the most complete but it has a much stronger, all-round cast than the CSR; and because it was actually recorded live the performances are more emotional and intense and there's more chemistry going on between the performers. No-one in that cast is bad and most of the performers are excellent. It features the very best performers on this album too: Philip Quast and Michael Ball. I'm glad I heard the CSR but I prefer the TAC and the movie.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The BBC's Atlantis

There are quite a few BBC productions I'm really looking forward to at the moment: the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, Sherlock series three, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and also Atlantis. This is the BBC's recently announced replacement for Merlin. It's going to be airing in the autumn and will be taking the same Saturday-night time-slot as Merlin. Just like Doctor Who and Merlin, it will be a family-friendly show. Its episodes will be about 45 minutes long and it will be a 13 episode series. But whereas Merlin dealt with Arthurian mythology, Atlantis will be dealing with Greek mythology. The hero of the show is going to be called Jason but they haven't yet announced if this is going to be the same Jason as the one of the Argonauts story. I'd imagine so. The official synopsis for the show is this:

"The city of Atlantis is a mysterious, ancient place; a world of bull leaping, of snake haired goddesses and of palaces so vast it was said they were built by giants. It’s into this strange, compelling realm that the young Jason arrives and an amazing adventure begins, bringing to life the vast store of Greek myths and legends re-imagined for a new generation in an action packed 13-part series."

The filming for Atlantis is going to start in April and it will be filmed in Wales and Morocco; presumably with all of the interior scenes being filmed at some studio set in Cardiff and with all of the exterior scenes being filmed in Morocco. Atlantis is also being produced by the exact same people who made Merlin. Merlin's co-creators, Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps, will be its Executive Producers along with Howard Overman. Overman created E4's Misfits - which I haven't seen but know is well-regarded. He also wrote some of the very best episodes of Merlin: like The Beginning of the End, The Sins of the Father and The Death Song of Uther Pendragon. OK, he also wrote Goblin's Gold but since his good stuff outweighed the bad I'll let him off!

Atlantis sounds very interesting and I'm quite looking forward to it. I'm grateful to the makers of Merlin and I wish them luck with Atlantis. I'm not expecting it to get off to an amazing start since Merlin did take a little while to find its feet, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if a naff CGI Cyclops or Minotaur showed up at some point, but I am feeling optimistic. The fact that it's being made by the exact same people is making me hopeful. Obviously there are going to be differences between the two shows but I'm guessing they're going to have a similar tone and feel. It would have been really nice if they could have actually done filming in Greece rather than Morocco but oh well.

Since the filming is due to start in April I'm guessing that casting news is likely to be on the way soon. I imagine the cast is likely to be a mixture of talented, relatively unknown actors - of the Colin Morgan/Bradley James/Angel Coulby/Katie McGrath variety - and famous, veteran actors of the Anthony Stewart Head/Richard Wilson/John Hurt variety. I really hope they do a great job with the casting because that was one of Merlin's biggest strengths. It managed to pull in some very impressive guest stars, it had a terrific ensemble cast, and getting Colin Morgan to star as Merlin in particular was a stroke of genius. It would be really nice if they managed to get some Merlin actors to guest-star in Atlantis actually - especially Alexander Vlahos because he's great and is even half-Greek. We'll just have to wait and see!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for the BBC!

I'm actually ashamed of myself that I didn't find out about this sooner! Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my all-time favourite books and it's going to be adapted by BBC One later this year! I'll be looking forward to this for the whole of 2013!

So far not all that much has been announced about this BBC adaptation but I'm feeling very optimistic. I know there was an attempt to adapt the book as a movie adaptation previously back in 2005/6 but the project fell apart. New Line Cinema bought the rights to the book on a 3 year deal and Christopher Hampton and Julian Fellowes both wrote scripts for this proposed adaptation. However New Line Cinema collapsed, they lost the rights, and the project was abandoned. To be honest a BBC miniseries is by far the best way to adapt the book so I'm glad it didn't get turned into a movie. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a very big book and although a movie budget would be bigger and would allow for better special effects, the size of the novel means that you'd have to leave out so much from it to make it fit into a two hour movie. This BBC miniseries is going to be in six-parts so it should be about six hours long. That's so much better! The book is so very English that the BBC is the perfect fit and they have an excellent track record when it comes to literary adaptations. Some talented people are directly behind this project as well. It's going to be directed by Toby Haynes who's directed a number of episodes for Doctor Who, including the brilliant The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang finale of series five. The best finale of all of New Who! Haynes also directed the absolutely brilliant Sherlock finale of series two, The Reichenbach Fall. The writer behind this adaptation is Peter Harness. I don't know very much about him but he's written for Kenneth Branagh's Wallender and that show has been very well-reviewed. If they're faithful to the book and get the casting right for this miniseries then it should be fantastic! I'm also hoping that they'll actually go to Spain/Portugal and Venice to film Strange's travels abroad. I hope they won't remove all of the footnotes either. The miniseries is probably going to be more straightforward in terms of narrative than the book, and will probably just stick to the main plot, but it would be a shame to loose the footnotes altogether. What if they included some of the footnotes about the Raven King as flashbacks?

As this adaptation was only announced fairly recently - in November last year - it will probably be a good few months before we get any concrete casting information for it. I have a few ideas on who I'd like to be in it though. For Mr Norrell I think Toby Jones, Hugh Bonneville and Anthony Stewart Head could all be great choices. I know that John Hurt and Ian Holm are popular choices with other fans of the book but they're just too old for the role. Hurt is 73 and Holm is 81. Mr Norrell is only about 50 when the book starts so his character isn't that old! As for Jonathan Strange, the first time I read the book back in 2007(ish) I kept picturing David Tennant in the role. If Tennant were just a few years younger he'd still be my top choice to play the character. Sadly I think he's slightly too old for the role now but I'd love him to be in this adaptation somewhere. I love this girl's suggestion that he could play The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair!:http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/12/lets-cast-jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrell. Yes, Tennant has definitely got the charm for the role and I think he'd have a lot of fun playing someone evil. And I would love to see him dance! I think Damian Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch are the most popular fan choices for Jonathan Strange these days but Lewis would probably be busy with Homeland and Cumberbatch is very busy these days as well. They had to delay the filming of Sherlock series three by a month so it fitted in with his schedule. Eddie Redmayne could make a great Jonathan Strange now. He's about the right age. He's got ginger-ish hair anyway and they could always dye it to make it bright red like they did in Pillars of the Earth. Tom Hiddleston would be excellent as well but I think he's pretty busy these days as well. I shall have to wait and see!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Camelot (Season One)

This post is going to be a review of Camelot. No, I won't be talking about the Broadway musical or its film adaptation. I'll be talking about a 10 episode TV series that was based on Arthurian legend and produced by the American channel Starz in 2011. If you take a look at the DVD cover on the left you'll notice that it says "The Complete First Season" and that might leave you with the impression that there are more seasons of Camelot. No, the DVD cover is actually quite misleading. Camelot only has one season because it got cancelled. Some shows, like Firefly and Pushing Daisies, get cancelled unfairly but not Camelot. It was rubbish! But before I start my rant please don't accuse me of being biased. If you've read my blog before then you might realise that I'm a massive fan of the TV show Merlin. I think it's vastly superior to Camelot. However, I'd hate for anyone to accuse me of disliking Camelot just because I'm narrow-minded and can't appreciate more than one Arthurian show. No, I dislike Camelot simply because it's a crappy show. In fact I saw a couple of Camelot episodes (and disliked them) back when I still thought Merlin was a bad show!

Camelot begins with the princess Morgan (Eva Green) arriving at Castle Pendragon. Morgan is seriously hacked off with her father King Uther because he murdered her mother, swiftly remarried another woman, and banished Morgan to a convent for 10 years. Yet Morgan is still willing to forgive her father if he only says "Sorry" and returns her to the line of succession. That's really quite generous of her I must say! However, Uther fails to take advantage of Morgan's generous offer and gives her a punch in the face for her trouble - so Morgan kills Uther, banishes her stepmother Igraine (Claire Forlani), and allies herself with her dad's sworn enemy King Lot (James Purefoy). But Uther's mate Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) is having none of this so he goes off to find Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower). Arthur is Uther and Igraine's secret, illegitimate son. He's been raised out in the countryside by his adoptive family and has no idea of his true origins. Merlin has Arthur pull the sword from the stone and then has him crowned King at Camelot. Morgan is furious that some bastard half-brother of hers that no-one even bothered to tell her about has claimed her birthright and snatched the crown, but she pretends to come around to the idea so she can undermine Arthur's reign in secret. There's also a subplot about Arthur falling in love with Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton).

To be fair, the idea behind Camelot isn't a bad one at all and as its tone is completely different to Merlin's it can't really be accused of being a rip-off of that show. Although Merlin did get progressively darker with each series it was fundamentally a family-friendly show in the style of Doctor Who. However Camelot is far grittier and darker and is much more adult. The set-up of Camelot is a bit more faithful to the traditional Arthurian legends than Merlin's too. Camelot does have some other things going for it as well. The show was filmed in Ireland and there are some gorgeous location shots of the Irish countryside and some really nice cinematography. It has some pretty good sets and I really liked that their Camelot was a ruined castle by the sea. It made for a nice contrast to the fairytale-like castle of Merlin's Chateau du Pierrefonds. I really liked the title credits for Camelot and the theme music. I really liked some of the costumes in the show; with Morgan, Igraine and Guinevere all getting some very pretty dresses.

Unfortunately, there are far more bad things about Camelot than there are good. For one thing the show is just so gratuitous. It's full of full-frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes that are completely pointless, and are clearly just there for the sake of it and to provide some cheap titillation. As an example, there's a scene in one episode where Morgan goes off wandering in the woods in a very see-through nightie and then flashes her breasts at a wolf for NO REASON AT ALL!

The acting in the show is a mixed bag. Peter Mooney (who plays Arthur's brother Kay) gives a strong performance on the show. He has charisma, an engaging screen presence, and he makes Kay very likeable. The same goes for the actor Philip Winchester who plays the character of Leontes. James Purefoy gives an extremely entertaining performance as King Lot in this show too. In fact I was so entertained by his bellowing, roaring and general scenery chewing that I was actually really disappointed that they killed his character off so early into the season! He was so much fun!

Finally, Eva Green does a terrific job as Morgan. The Morgan of Camelot and the Morgana of Merlin have quite a bit in common actually. They both have major father issues. They both have magic. They both wear fabulous costumes and flawless eye make-up. They're both played by beautiful dark-haired actresses. But who's the better villain? Well... as much as I love Katie McGrath I'm going to have to go with Morgan. She's still evil but is much more three-dimensionally so than Morgana ever was and Green gives a great performance. I was impressed that she was able to conceal her French accent so well and her character even comes across as quite likeable at times... too likeable in fact! It really can't be a good thing when you find yourself rooting for Arthur's evil half-sister to take the throne! However Arthur is just so annoying, incompetent and inept that Morgan really makes you convinced that her becoming Queen is in everyone's best interests! She's intelligent! She's got political knowledge! She's got great PR skills! She has ambition! She actually gets things done! Morgan would be a much more kick-ass monarch than Arthur!

The very worst thing about Camelot is probably Arthur himself who is both badly-acted and badly-written. This is, you know, kind of a major problem for a show that's based on Arthurian mythology! Even if Camelot had been a masterclass in every other department the portrayal of Arthur would have still ruined the show. Jamie Campbell Bower is terrribly miscast as Arthur! What were they thinking?! Jamie Campbell Bower is just so skinny and effeminate-looking that no matter how hard they try to make him look badass he just ends up looking ridiculous! It really doesn't help matters that they have him wear his hair in a little ponytail at times! Also, he looks and talks like someone who's just wandered off the set of Made in Chelsea! With his incredibly posh accent Arthur certainly doesn't talk like someone who's been brought up on a farm all his life! Campbell Bower's acting itself is really bad too. I thought Campbell Bower was a bit wooden in Sweeney Todd but he's terrible in this and Eva Green acts him off the screen. Campbell Bower has no charisma, no screen presence, no authoritative air. His Arthur never shows any leadership skills and he never comes across as noble or kingly or even likeable. It's really made me appreciate the acting talent and hotness of Merlin's Bradley James even more!

It's not entirely Campbell Bower's fault though because the writing really doesn't help matters or give him much to work with. There's the way Arthur is introduced in the show for example. He's always been portrayed as a noble leader of men so how do the writers try to get the audience to like Arthur and root for him? Well they have him... shagging his brother's girlfriend under a tree. No, I'm not joking! He doesn't even feel guilty and remorseful about it afterwards either! He immediately comes across as a selfish, womanising dick! In fact Arthur only decides to become king so he can pull even more women! Even early on in the first series of Merlin, when Arthur was being arrogant and rude, he was still far more likeable than this twerp! We never see Camelot's Arthur become more mature and likeable over the course of the season either. I really wasn't buying his supposed love for Guinevere for either. So he has a few pleasantly erotic dreams about her and speaks to her twice and now he's in love? *sigh* I haven't even come to the Arthur-Guinevere romance in this show yet...

Right, you know everyone knows that Guinevere cheated on Arthur with Lancelot in the legends? Well, in this show it's reversed, er, sort of. In this show Guinevere is engaged to a knight called Leontes and she cheats on him with Arthur! On the day of her wedding! Why?! Why would they DO that?! The only explanation that I can think of is that they wanted to make Arthur look like less of a cuckolded victim but it was so, so, so stupid! It makes Guinevere look like a slut, Arthur look like even more of an asshole, and it makes you care about their characters even less. Why would Guinevere cheat on Leontes anyway?! She's been engaged to him for three years and he was her childhood sweetheart for eight years before that. He's clearly a really nice person and he obviously adores her. Also he is sooo much hotter and manlier than Arthur! Are we really supposed to believe that Guinevere - simply out of pre-wedding jitters - is now willing to lose her virginity and cheat on her really attractive fiancĂ© with a skinny dude who she's only met twice and flirted with a bit on a balcony?! Yes, Arthur's the king but still! And if you're going to reverse the love triangle then at least do it properly! Is Leontes supposed to be Lancelot? Because if he is then call him Lancelot! Don't try to be clever by giving him a Roman name! Anyway, in the legends the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle is a tragic love affair that destroyed a friendship and marriage and contributed to the downfall of an entire kingdom. Here it's so soap opera-esque that I often felt like I was watching an episode of Hollyoaks!

There are other actors in Camelot that struggle to give good performances as well. Tamsin Egerton is very poor. Yes she's beautiful but she's also painfully wooden and awkward and she really struggles - especially in the more dramatic scenes she has to do. Claire Forlani is very bland as Igraine but she does do a decent job in that one episode where she gets to play Morgan. Even Joseph Fiennes isn't very good in this show. I think he was trying to portray Merlin as being a mysterious, machiavellian sort of character but he's much too intense and far too over-the-top. And why did he feel the need to speak about 90% of his lines in hoarse whispers?! Does Merlin have a permanently sore throat?!

There are even more things I haven't mentioned that contribute to Camelot being an extremely rubbish show indeed. One of the most frustrating things about the show is that the characters do some absolutely moronic things from time to time. For example: why does Arthur needlessly risk his life to pull the sword from the stone? Instead of rockclimbing to the top of the waterfall why doesn't he just go off and find a nice, gentle walk up to the top and swim across? And why does he still pull the sword out when he must realise that it's all that's keeping him from plummeting? And then there's Merlin and Igraine trying to arrest Morgan at Castle Pendragon when Merlin realises that he slept with Morgan after she kidnapped Igraine and supernaturally shapeshifted into her body. Merlin and Igraine then storm off to confront Morgan and don't even take any knights with them as backup! And once there Merlin completely ignores the blatantly obvious fact that the local people all love Morgan by attempting to perform a citizen's arrest on her! Combine this with the fact that Merlin is a known warlock with a dangerous reputation, and the fact that Igraine is babbling away like a mad woman, then it's no wonder that no-one believes him! He and Igraine get promptly put in chains and are sent straight back to Camelot - and they completely deserved it for their own moronity! Didn't Merlin think it was best to obtain some kind of evidence before he accused everyone's favourite princess of kidnap and sorcery?! And why did Merlin feel it was so important to arrest Morgan anyway? There's a battle going on and the possibility that the king could get killed by one of his own knights. If he thinks that Leontes is having regicidal thoughts then why doesn't he think that his presence might come in handy at the battle? Not only that, Guinevere makes an absolutely moronic decision in the very same episode as well. She makes an absolute nuisance of herself by riding into battle and having to get rescued! Arthur and Leontes end up risking their own lives to save her! Why couldn't the writers have just kept Guinevere in Camelot? She served no purpose at all by being at the battle. Sure her arrival acted as final confirmation to the knights that she'd slept with Arthur but Kay was already on the verge of working that out because of Leontes being all moody and silent. And Gawain must have suspected that something was going on already because of Merlin telling him to protect Arthur from Leontes.

Anyone who's hoping for some exciting scenes involving magic in the show is going to be disappointed too because there's barely any magic in Camelot at all. This is down to Merlin being a complete wimp! He's too scared to use his magic because he fears giving in to his dark side, and as a result he's always getting his ass handed to him by Morgan and/or her men. The only magic that Merlin does use in this show is to make a fire bigger and to freeze a lake. And why should I be impressed by this when this is just something that a gust of wind and winter could do? Even Morgan doesn't use all that magic in this show actually. She'd rather use her political knowledge to undermine Arthur and the only magic that she really makes use of is shapeshifting. And why should I be impressed by that when this is something that the British public has seen Nick Clegg do? Now in Merlin they used proper magic! They used hand gestures, words in old English, glowing golden eyes! Oh sure, Merlin and Morgana mostly relied on knocking people over with their magic but at least they put more effort in! My final problem with Camelot is that it takes itself so damn seriously! There's barely any humour in it! The only humour in Camelot was provided by King Lot but as I've mentioned they killed him off far too early.

Camelot was deservedly cancelled and I don't think there'll ever be people signing mass petitions and clamouring for it to return. I certainly won't miss it, although I must confess that a teeny tiny small part of me will always wonder how Morgan would have used Mordred to manipulate Arthur in the second season that never was. It's obvious by the end of this season that Morgan is now pregnant after having had sex with Arthur in Guinevere's form. Oh well, I can certainly live with that! Merlin really is a vastly superior Arthurian TV show and I'd recommend it to anyone over Camelot. Sure Merlin was more inspired by than directly based on the legends and the show had its faults. But Merlin is by far the better show because - unlike Camelot - it had genuinely loveable characters that you cared about, plenty of heart, plenty of humour, and never took itself too seriously. It could still be very emotional when it needed to be though and its final episode is really quite beautiful. The actors were great in Merlin too and they had genuine chemistry with each other. And it was fun!

Rating: 1/5
Film Certificate Rating: 15

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Mousetrap (60th Anniversary UK Tour)

The Mousetrap is the longest running play in the history of theatre. It's been running for 60 years and 2013 is its diamond anniversary. It's weird to think that it's been around for as long as our Queen Elizabeth has reigned! To celebrate the play has now gone on tour for the first time ever and I saw it in Birmingham last weekend. I really like Agatha Christie and even though I've only read about 5 or 6 of her books I do plan on reading a lot more of her works. Also, I figured that since this play has been running for 60 years that it must be doing something right! Agatha Christie thought it would only last 8 months! I did like The Mousetrap. I wouldn't say it's the best and most enjoyable piece of theatre I've ever seen but I still really liked it. It's clever and has a well-plotted and well-written murder-mystery story. There's some really good comedy in it as well. Sadly one of my seminar teachers at Uni gave away who the murderer was a few years back but I still really liked it and it didn't spoil the play for me. I wouldn't dream of giving away who the murderer was in in this review though! The play had a few other twists in it as well and some of those I didn't get so that was good.

The play takes place entirely at a recently converted country guest house called Monkswell Manor, which is about 30 miles outside of London. The Manor is being run by a young married couple called the Ralstons. Four guests then arrive at the Manor. There's an outrageously camp, flamboyant man called Christopher Wren. There's a demanding woman called Mrs Boyle. There's a nice man who's recently retired from the army called Major Metcalf. There's a mysterious woman called Miss Casewell who seems to have had a deeply unhappy childhood, and a man from Italy called Mr Paravicini. As you'd expect from an Agatha Christie work, all of these guests has a secret and no-one is quite what they seem. This includes the Ralstons. Everyone then becomes snowed-in at Monskwell Manor because of a huge snow storm that is battering the south of England. However, a police officer called Detective Sergeant Trotter is able to get to the Manor on skis. He announces that there's been a murder in London and that he believes the murderer is planning to kill two people at the Manor, as an act of revenge for a famous child abuse case.

I thought most of the actors in the play were really good. The standouts for me were Bob Saul as Sergeant Trotter, Elizabeth Power as Mrs Boyle (the only actor in this production who'd been in The Mousetrap before) and Steven France as Mr Wren. Even Bruno Langley was decent in this! I couldn't stand him in Doctor Who but that's probably my dislike of his character Adam coming through! The only actors who weren't so good in this play were Karl Howman as Mr Paravicini and Jemma Walker as Mollie Ralston. Howman was funny but his Italian accent was a bit, er, all over the place! He was able to get away with that though because the character was supposed to be duplicitous and possibly in disguise. Jemma Walker was by no means horrible but she was a bit over-the-top in places.

The play also had some really good costumes and excellent lighting. The set was great. There's only one set for the entire play but it's a really good set! I recommend The Mousetrap. I can't see it being a play that I'd want to see over and over again but it's good fun and enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, 4 February 2013

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White and the Huntsman is absolutely nothing like the classic Disney film and it doesn't even have that that much in common with the Brothers Grimm fairytale despite a few token elements. Instead Snow White and the Huntsman is clearly trying to be a Lord of the Rings-esque film; an epic fantasy movie with plenty of drama and adventure.

The Evil Queen in this film (Charlize Theron) is a bitter and evil witch called Ravenna, who feeds off the beauty and youth of other women in order to keep herself looking young and beautiful. After marrying Snow White's father, she murders him, claims the throne for herself, and has Snow White (Kristen Stewart) locked up in a tower for 10 years. However, the Queen's magic mirror then warns her that the innocent and pure Snow White has finally come of age and will be Ravenna's downfall. Ravenna then tries to have Snow White killed but she escapes from the tower and disappears into a dark, sinister and enchanted forest. Ravenna's magical powers are useless in this forest so she recruits the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to find Snow for her. The Huntsman is also a drunkard and a widower in this film. He spares Snow White - as he does in the fairytale - but he decides to go on the run with her as well. Along the way the pair of them also encounter the Dwarves, who are the last of their kind in this film due to persecution by Queen Ravenna. They also encounter a young man called William (Sam Claflin), who's the son of a Duke and Snow White's childhood sweetheart.

Again, Snow White and the Huntsman is very different to the Disney film. It has a very sombre, serious atmosphere and there's very little humour. This is even reflected in the colour scheme! The skies are always grey, there's lots of mud and dirt, and the characters - with the notable exception of the Queen - tend to wear greens and browns. Snow White and the Huntsman really is a film that is taking itself very seriously indeed, which wouldn't have bothered me at all if the film had been engaging and thrilling. Unfortunately it's not. Despite a brilliant-looking trailer, and the presence of Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, this film is a huge let-down.

Snow White and the Huntsman
 is only two hours long but because of the pacing it feels much longer than that. The film really drags in the middle section with the main characters visiting places and meeting people that add barely anything to the story, like that village full of scarred women for example. That whole section could have easily been edited out! And Snow White's childhood sweetheart William was a completely pointless character. Why did they even feel the need to have a love triangle if they were trying to do something edgy and different with the fairytale? There are many, many plot holes in this film as well! Firstly, why did Ravenna lock Snow White up? Why didn't she just kill her when she was still a child? It really doesn't make sense! Even if it's a fairytale they should have still provided a valid, believable reason for the Queen keeping Snow White alive for all these years! What was the Queen gaining by keeping her alive? Did she feel sorry for her? And how can Ravenna's creepy brother still be alive in this film? It's established that Ravenna has been able to keep herself alive for all these years by feeding on the beauty and youth of other women, and at one point she mentions that she's lived 20 lifetimes. Yet her brother doesn't have any magical powers so how come he's still alive?! Why did Ravenna's brother kill the Huntsman's wife anyway? That was never really explained. Why didn't Ravenna just go in straight for the kill when she finally finds herself alone with Snow White whilst disguised as William? Why does she waste time by kissing her? Does she have a secret lesbian crush on Snow White that she wanted to fulfil?! Ah ha! So that's why Ravenna kept Snow White alive after all! And finally, wouldn't it have been better if Snow White had actually used her inner beauty and kindness to defeat the Queen instead of that limp final battle? Changing Snow White's character into a badass, warrior woman wasn't remotely convincing and it was inconsistent with what had gone on before. So the Huntsman gives Snow White a 10 second lesson on how to stab things and suddenly she's a kickass fighter?! I don't think so! They didn't even throw in a training montage!

Another big problem with the film is its leading actress. Yes, Kristen Stewart does look the part of Snow White. Many have pointed out that Charlize Theron is more attractive than Kristen Stewart - my brother for one - but in fairness the film does stress that Snow White has inner beauty. However, Stewart's acting is bad! Really bad!

Stewart showed some potential in Panic Room all those years ago but it seems like she's actually gotten worse with more experience! She was painfully wooden and awkward in Twilight and now she's painfully wooden and awkward in this! If you've read my review of 2004's Phantom of the Opera film then you might recall me saying that Emmy Rossum only uses four facial expressions in the entire film. Well, in this film Kristen Stewart only uses two! The only emotions that Stewart is able to express in this film are "Concerned" and "Amazed". That's it! Judging from how other characters responded to Snow White it's clear that the character is supposed to be an exceptionally innocent, pure, gentle, virtuous, kind-hearted, courageous young woman - the "fairest of them all". Animals seem to love her and one of the Dwarves even calls Snow White "life itself" at one point. But this never comes across at all! It really doesn't help matters that there's a love triangle in this film either. Once again Kristen Stewart is playing a girl that two men both fall head-over-heels in love with, despite that fact that she's given the audience no reason to suggest why that might be the case. Also, Stewart has no chemistry with Chris Hemsworth or Sam Claflin so there's no real romantic or sexual tension. This film really needed a strong actress for the role with a lot of charisma and a likeable screen presence - and Stewart just wasn't right for it. The scene where Stewart's Snow White makes a "rousing" speech to her troops had me cringing with embarrassment. There's another especially embarrassing scene in this film I can think of as well. In one scene the Huntsman hacks Snow White's dress because he seems to think it's getting in her way. Snow White stares blankly at him and then the Huntsman says "Don't flatter yourself". It's only then I realised that Snow White was supposed to be looking at him with chaste shock and embarrassment! It's obvious that the only reason why Stewart was cast as Snow White was because the film-makers wanted to cash in on her Twilight fanbase!

Then there's the supporting cast. Sam Claflin is also very wooden and flat so I'm extremely annoyed that he's been cast as Finnick Odair in the Hunger Games' sequel Catching Fire. Finnick is one of my favourite characters! Even Chris Hemsworth isn't that great in this film sadly. Hemsworth wasn't even the first choice to play the Huntsman either. He was only cast after Viggo Mortensen and Hugh Jackman both turned the role down. Now I love Chris Hemsworth and I really don't want to criticise him. He was brilliant as Kirk's dad in Star Trek despite only being on screen for about 5-10 minutes. He was also excellent in Thor and The Avengers Assemble - especially when he had to be funny - and he pulled off a good English accent. But in this film Hemsworth isn't at his best. He really struggles with his character's Scottish accent and he's saddled with an unnecessary backstory. The only time when he really shines is in the scene where the Huntsman thinks Snow White is dead. The Dwarves - despite being made up of a bunch of talented actors such as Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and, er, Nick Frost - are barely in this film. Their talents are wasted! They should have removed that unnecessary female village section and devoted more time to their characters! In fact the only actor in this film who genuinely gives a great performance is Charlize Theron as Ravenna. Yes, Theron shouts half her lines and is too over-the-top at times but she still manages to give the best performance in the whole film and is believably evil and menacing. But where was Ravenna?! She doesn't get nearly enough screentime!

Snow White and the Huntsman isn't all bad. The opening 20 minutes are great - purely because of Charlize Theron - and Snow White's escape from the tower is genuinely suspenseful. Who'd have thought Snow White could be such a good runner and swimmer despite being locked up for most of her life and being pursued by trained guards?! There are some really nice costumes in this film. For me though, the best things about the film are the special effects and the Florence and the Machine song that's played over the end credits. I have to admit that Snow White and the Huntsman is a visually stunning film. There are some amazing special effects in it! In fact I would even argue that the special effects in this film rival Avatar's at times. And considering that Avatar cost almost twice as much to make that's a huge achievement!  The special effects are outstanding in this film. I especially enjoyed the scene where Snow White is hallucinating in the forest - very trippy! - and the scene where Ravenna is turning back into a human after magically transforming herself into a flock of ravens. The Florence and the Machine song that's played over the end credits, Breath of Life, is awesome too. I'm a big Florence and the Machine fan and I think it's one of the best songs that Florence Welch has yet written. I'll end the review with that song : )

Rating: 2/5 (for Charlize Theron, the CGI and Breath of Life)

Friday, 1 February 2013

'Agnes Grey' by Anne Bronte (1847)

Synopsis: Agnes Grey is a semi-autobiographical tale that draws upon Anne Bronte's own experiences as a governess. The heroine, Agnes, decides to become a governess so she can save some money up for her family who are struggling financially. Agnes works for two different families in the book. The first family that she works for are the Bloomfields whose children are spoilt brats, completely unmanageable, and serial killers in the making. The second family that she works for, the Murrays, aren't quite as abusive but the daughters are selfish and manipulative and Agnes's situation isn't that much better than before. One of the few people who is at all kind and considerate towards Agnes is the local curate Mr Weston.

I was very keen to read this book after reading Anne Bronte's other novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I think that book is criminally underrated. Agnes Grey is a very different novel though as I soon discovered. It's a very short novel, at just under 200 pages, and the plot is much more simple and straightforward. It's also very predictable and because of that the book is a disappointment. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the other great Bronte novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are all much better. They're so much more dramatic and suspenseful. Agnes Grey is a more realistic account of a 19th century governess's life than Jane Eyre though, and I did have quite a lot of sympathy for Agnes for being expected to discipline children without actually being allowed to punish them. The plot is simple but enjoyable and I did like the happy ending. Anne's talent as a writer is much more obvious in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall but this is is still worth a read.

Rating: 3/5