Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A Quick Note about My 'Doctor Who' Reviews

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time then you might have noticed that I've been going through the New Who series of the show and reviewing them. I would write an overview of the series and then I would put up separate posts where I would review the episodes in more depth. So far I've done reviews for series one to four of the show. But I've decided to stop reviewing the episodes for the other series. Oh, I might for the specials boxset because there aren't that many episodes but after that I'm stopping. Reviewing all of the episodes takes up a lot of my time and quite simply I've got fed up with it! So I've removed the episode reviews on my blog. You'll still see some of the episode reviews again though. After my review of The Complete Specials I'm going to do some kind of Top 10 episodes from the Russell T Davies era. You can expect to see my reviews of Human Nature/Family of Blood, Blink, etc. I'm also going to write very quick summaries of the episodes at the bottom of the series reviews. I've already done that for series four. Now I just need to do that for series one to three. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Doctor Who (Series Four)

After series three of Doctor Who there was a special 70 minute Christmas episode called Voyage of the Damned (that was shown in 2007) and then a fourth series that was shown in 2008. Catherine Tate, who had previously appeared in the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride, would return to the show as the Doctor's new companion Donna Noble.

Series four is the beginning of the end for the Russell T Davies era. It would be RTD's last full-length series as the Doctor Who showrunner and it would also be the final full-length series for David Tennant. After series four Tennant starred in a few "one-off" specials that were shown throughout 2009 and is now coming back for the show's 50th anniversary episode. I am so excited about this! Anyway, series four is my favourite of the RTD era. My favourite episodes from his era are actually Human Nature/Family of Blood and Blink - which are both from series three - but I love series four for its overall consistency. It's still flawed of course. The series finale The Stolen Earth/Journey's End is a complete mess. There's far too much going on, most of the guest actors get barely anything to do, and Donna's exit from the show makes me furious. The Doctor's Daughter is rubbish as well. Jenny is an extremely bland character and Martha's story is dreadful. Why did this story have to be her last proper adventure on the show?! There aren't that many bad episodes in series four though and it also features my favourite companion from the RTD era. I love the 10th Doctor's relationship with Donna! It's so fun and well-written and Tennant and Tate have such great chemistry between them. They make for a fantastic partnership! There are some terrific episodes in series four as well. The Unicorn and the Wasp is great fun. The Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is brilliant and it has the introduction of River Song, who would later becomes a very important character under the Steven Moffat era. Midnight is very tense and scary. The Fires of Pompeii is very emotional and Catherine Tate delivers a fantastic performance in Turn Left.

The Doctor
 I don't think I really need to mention that David Tennant is a fantastic actor and Doctor by now do I? Well, he is. Series four is Tennant's last full-length series on the show and he gives fantastic performances in each episode. His best performances in this series are probably in The Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead and Midnight. The 10th Doctor also spends far less time pining after Rose in series four than he did in series three. I think he only mentions her twice: once in Voyage of the Damned and once in Partners in Crime. I love the Doctor's relationship with Donna. It's so fun and well-written and the Doctor is never as insensitive towards Donna as he sometimes was with Martha. I love Tennant and Tate's chemistry too! Although David Tennant did have chemistry with Billie Piper and Freema Agyeman, he and Catherine Tate had an amazing chemistry! You can really tell that they loved working with each other and the pair of them would later act together in a production of Much Ado About Nothing (which they were both brilliant in!)

The Companion
It might seem funny to think about now but when it was announced that Donna Noble would be coming back to the show as the Doctor's full-time companion it caused much controversy. Catherine Tate's casting was highly controversial and many fans were making dire predictions that she would destroy the show. This was down to several reasons. Firstly, because many fans had been hoping that Sally Sparrow from Blink would come back as the Doctor's new companion. They were very disappointed that this didn't happen. Many fans also questioned Catherine Tate's acting ability. At the time Tate was still better known as a sketch-show actress and many thought she wouldn't be able to handle the show's more dramatic scenes. Many fans had also hated Tate's character. Donna Noble had been very annoying, shouty and obnoxious in The Runaway Bride and many fans couldn't bear the thought of seeing more of her. But by the end of series four many fans who had been vehemently opposed to Donna Noble/Catherine Tate had become big fans.

Donna's character is fleshed out brilliantly in series four and she's never, ever as annoying as she was in The Runaway Bride. Donna is a deeply insecure woman who suffers from a crippling lack of self-confidence (this is more than likely down to her having such an awful mother). She attempts to cover this up by being abrasive and sarcastic. But Donna's character is toned down considerably in series four and she's nowhere near as OTT as she was in The Runaway Bride. You find out that she's really a kind, brave, compassionate and funny woman. And her relationship with the 10th Doctor is a joy to watch. Unlike Rose and Martha, Donna has absolutely no romantic interest in the Doctor. Oh, she has a huge amount of love and respect for the Doctor of course but only in the platonic sense. What they have is pure friendship and it makes for a much better dynamic. They're just friends having fun and - again! - Tennant and Tate have brilliant chemistry between them. Donna is also much more willing to question and challenge the Doctor's decisions than Rose and Martha were when they were travelling with him but she never does it in an obnoxious way. Donna never lets the Doctor treat her like he treated Martha in series three either. Back in series three the Doctor often had this attitude with Martha:

But this is what would have probably happened if the Doctor had treated Donna in the same way!

Catherine Tate is also given plenty of material to show that she's more than just a sketch-show actress. She never gives a bad performance in series four and in many of her episodes she's absolutely fantastic. When you watch her acting her heart out in episodes like The Fires of Pompeii and Turn Left it makes you want to laugh at those who said she wasn't a good enough actress to play the show's companion. As you can probably tell I'm a huge fan of Donna and I love her. I love all of the New Who companions - with the exception of Rose - but Donna is probably my favourite because she's a great character and I love her relationship with Ten so much. Her exit from the show makes me want to cry because it was so awful but I won't comment on that now : (

Recurring Characters
In series four we get to see quite a bit of the Donna's family in the episodes that are set in the modern-day, just like we did with Rose and Martha's families when they were still travelling with the Doctor. In series four we see Donna's mother Sylvia Noble and her grandfather Wilfred "Wilf" Mott. Sylvia is an awful character and I hated her! Sylvia thinks Donna is completely useless and she constantly puts her down. She's horrible to Donna and in Turn Left she even tells her that she's been a disappointment. Rose and Martha may have had annoying mothers but at least they were clearly loving and affectionate towards their daughters! Hang on a minute, how come all of the companion's mothers were so whiny and annoying in the RTD era? OK, Jackie was alright by the end but just remember how annoying she was back in series one! Someone's got issues! However Wilf is as loveable as Sylvia is irritating. He's an allotment holder, has a keen interest in astronomy, and has always wanted to travel to the stars. When Donna gets to do this he couldn't be more thrilled because she's living the dream for both of them. Wilf is full of warmth and charm and is brilliantly acted by Bernard Cribbins. Interestingly, Cribbins also played a companion of the Doctor's in the Peter Cushing films from the 1960s (which aren't canon).

We also get the return of former Doctor Who companions in series four. Rose and Martha are the ones we see the most of. We get brief glimpses of Rose in Partners in Crime, The Poison Sky and Midnight before she comes back properly in Turn Left and sticks around for the series finale The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. Martha shows up in The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky, gets one last adventure with the Doctor and Donna in The Doctor's Daughter, and is then brought back for The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. We get even more former companions in the series finale. Sarah Jane Smith, Captain Jack Harkness and Mickey Smith all make appearances. Jack's Torchwood buddies Gwen and Ianto show up and we also see Sarah Jane's son Luke. This finale is a big multi-companion story and is the only time Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures all crossed over. We even get to see some recurring characters in this story. We see Donna's family, Rose and Martha's mothers, and Harriet Jones. Now seeing all of these characters in one story probably sounds like an amazing idea but these episodes are really hugely disappointing. There's just far too many characters and in the end no-one gets the screentime they deserve. The characters - and the actors themselves - are wasted. Even Rose and Martha are let down. Rose doesn't get a huge amount to do in the series finale and it's obvious that the only reason RTD brought her back was so he could give her a happy ending with the Doctor. Er, sort of. I'll get to that in the episode review! Martha's appearances in the Sontaran two-parter and The Doctor's Daughter are also pointless and Freema Agyeman gets very poor material. These episodes make Martha look weak and helpless - the exact opposite of what she was in series three. It's very disappointing.

Favourite episodes:
  • The Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (written by Steven Moffat)
  • The Fires of Pompeii (written by James Moran)
  • Midnight (written by Russell T Davis)
  • The Unicorn and the Wasp (written by Gareth Roberts)
Least Favourite episodes:
  • The Doctor's Daughter (written by Stephen Greenhorn)
  • The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (written by Russell T Davies)
Favourite Guest Stars:
  • Alex Kingston in The Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead
  • Fenella Woolger in The Unicorn and the Wasp
  • Lesley Sharp and Colin Morgan in Midnight
  • Phil Davis in The Fires of Pompeii

Timecrash (written by Steven Moffat).
Timecrash is a mini-episode and was written for the 2007 Children in Need special by Steven Moffat. It's set in-between the Doctor's final goodbye to Martha in The Last of the Time Lords and the beginning of The Voyage of the Damned. I love this mini-episode! All of the charity specials that Doctor Who has done so far have been of decent quality but this is by far the best! Even though this mini-episode is only 7 1/2 minutes long it's still very entertaining, lovely and charming. There are some nice references to the classic series but there aren't so many that newer fans would be confused and alienated. Timecrash is brilliantly-written by Moffat and it even manages to have a plot: the 5th and 10th Doctors meet, they bicker a bit, solve a problem together, and have a touching farewell scene. It's great to see David Tennant acting alongside the man who would become his father-in-law too. Both Tennant and Davison are excellent in this mini-episode. You can really sense their mutual respect and admiration for each other but they never break character. Tennant delivers the "You were my Doctor" line with complete sincerity, and I love his Doctor's joy and enthusiasm when he sees his younger self. Davison is clearly older and heavier than he was back in the 1980s but he's still definitely the Doctor and slips right back into character again. Moffat also provide a quick explanation for why his appearance has changed. I love Davison's Doctor. Admittedly the only Davison story I've seen is The Caves of Androzani but on the strength of that serial alone I love him. It's an amazing serial and is often voted the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Watch it and you'll understand why! Timecrash was also directed by Graeme Harper, the very same man who directed Caves of Androzani.

This mini-episode gives me very high hopes for David Tennant and Matt Smith's scenes together in the upcoming 50th anniversary and I'm ridiculously excited at seeing the two of them act alongside each other. One thing that I do find funny about this multiple-Doctor story though is that the Doctor calls himself "Doctor" and doesn't use his real name. OK, I know the Doctor's real name is a closely-guarded secret and must never ever be revealed and all that but surely it's OK for the Doctor to use it on himself?! Unless he's worried about the TARDIS overhearing?

The episodes of series four summarised:

0. Voyage of the Damned (written by Russell T Davies) - the 2007 Christmas special. Kylie Minogue stars as Astrid and she can't act. The story is boring and the angel villains are repetitive (did RTD think we'd forget Blink?) We get more The-Doctor-is-Jesus metaphors and an Evil Capitalist villain. But David Tennant is still great, some of the guest stars are good, and there are some nice special effects.
1. Partners in Crime (written by Russell T Davies) - the series four opener. It's not as good a series opener as last year's Smith and Jones. There's another Evil Capitalist villain. The storyline and the cute and cuddly Adipose are more suited to The Sarah Jane Adventures than Doctor Who. But overall it's still an OK episode. Donna's return is handled really well and her mime scene with the Doctor is hilarious. It's a classic scene and you can already see Tennant and Tate's chemistry. 
2. The Fires of Pompeii (written by James Moran). The first brilliant episode of the series. It has very high production values with amazing sets and costumes - the episode was actually filmed in Italy. It has a great script with the right blend of comedy and emotion. Catherine Tate is fantastic and Tennant is excellent as well. Phil Davis is very creepy and Karen Gillan makes her first appearance on the show. She has a minor role as a soothsayer. Two years later she would play the 11th Doctor's companion Amy Pond. I love this episode.
3. Planet of the Ood (written by Keith Temple). An OK episode - not terrible but not very interesting either. There's yet another Evil Capitalist villain. But it's nice to see the Ood again and Catherine Tate is excellent.
4-5. The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky (written by Helen Raynor). A triple whammy. The Classic Who villains the Sontarans return, UNIT returns, and we see Martha Jones again. It's a  really fun two-parter and a big improvement on the Dalek two-parter from series three, which Raynor also wrote. Donna and Martha get on really well which is nice. Tennant is brilliant. The Doctor says "Are you my mummy?" - which is hilarious and was apparently improvised by Tennant! The only downsides are that Martha doesn't get much to do and the actor playing Rattigan has a pretty ropey American accent. 
6. The Doctor's Daughter (written by Stephen Greenhorn). It's rubbish! Georgia Moffet is good but Jenny is an extremely bland character. The Hath are crap aliens. It's another pointless episode for Martha - she gets captured in less than 5 minutes and does nothing for the whole episode. Martha/Freema Agyeman deserves much better material than this! Donna gets some good lines and Tennant's acting in Jenny's "death" scene is great -  but it's still not enough to save the episode. 
7. The Unicorn and the Wasp (written by Gareth Roberts). It's really funny and entertaining until the last 10 minutes. The Doctor's charades scene with Donna is hilarious. It really shows off Tennant and Tate's chemistry and their comedy skills. Fenella Woolger is brilliant as Agatha Christie (apparently Tennant suggested her for the role). Felicity Jones and Christopher Benjamin (from Talons of Weng Chiang) are also in this episode and are very good. The Doctor's flashbacking scene is pointless though and the episode loses its way in last 10 minutes. The attempt to explain why a giant alien killer wasp is killing people in the manner of an Agatha Christie story is very silly. The episode would have been better as a pure historical story with no alien at all - like those serials from the William Hartnell era.
8-9. The Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (written by Steven Moffat). Amazing!  I love it! My favourite story of series four and Moffat does it again! This story is suspenseful, big, imaginative, creepy, moving, funny, sad, clever and thought-provoking. It's got great dialogue. It;'s full of fascinating hints about the future of the show. The mystery about Charlotte is really well-maintained. I love the idea of a planet-sized library. The Vashta Nerada are fantastic villains. It's also a huge gamechanger story - we get our first appearance of River Song who would become a very important character in the Steven Moffat era. Alex Kingston is also brilliant. Tennant and Tate are both brilliant and it's a great episode for their characters. Josh Dallas from Once Upon a Time even shows up as a head on a robot!
10. Midnight (written by Russell T Davies). A companion-lite episode with Donna being barely in it. It's a very dark, scary and tense episode. Lesley Sharp is genuinely very creepy. This episode also features Colin Morgan of Merlin fame and David Troughton (son of 2nd Doctor Patrick Troughton). Midnight is brilliant but very hard to watch. The scenes where the passengers all turn on the Doctor and try to kill him are genuinely upsetting and make for uncomfortable viewing. 
11. Turn Left (written by Russell T Davies). The Doctor-lite episode of series four. It's nowhere near as brilliant as Blink but much better than Love & Monsters. Apparently this episode was inspired by the Buffy episode The Wish. It has a very dark story as well. Catherine Tate is fantastic in it. Bernard Cribbins and Billie Piper are both very good as well. 
12-13. The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (written by Russell T Davies). The series finale and a big Doctor Who/Torchwood/The Sarah Jane Adventures crossover story. It's rubbish! The Daleks show up yet again only this time with Davros (RTD running out of ideas?) It has pointless celebrity cameos from Paul O'Grady and Richard Dawkins. There's far too much going on with the story - this story brings back all of the RTD companions and some recurring characters but most of them get barely anything to do. They're there just for the sake of it. The characters and the actors themselves are wasted. No-one gets the screentime they deserve. Rose also gets very jealous and bitchy towards Martha when she finds out Martha was a companion of the Doctor's. *Shut up, Rose! The Doctor had over 30 companions before you and one of them was his own granddaughter! You are not special!* Rose also kisses the human Doctor in front of THE Doctor, which clearly upsets the Doctor. Donna becoming part Time Lord is ridiculous. It's a deux ex machina and a cheap way to magically solve everything. Donna's fate is awful and she loses all of her memories of the Doctor. I HATE this! The scene where Donna realises what's about to happen to her is heartbreaking. She then goes back to the annoying woman she was from The Runaway Bride - and she goes back to her old unfulfilling life and a mother who thinks she's completely useless. RTD should have had Donna die a glorious, heroic death saving the universe instead! What point is Davros trying to make about the Doctor's companions? Yes Martha's plan to blow up Earth is a bit mental but she and all the companions were willing to sacrifice themselves if it meant stopping the Daleks and saving the universe. Why is this a bad thing? The Doctor would do it himself! Why is it a bad thing that the human Doctor kills the Daleks? The Doctor already did it himself in the Time War! The only saving graces of this finale are the German Daleks and the acting. But overall it's a massive disappointment.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Why I Want an 'Emma' Vlog

Even though I was initially very sceptical about it I absolutely loved The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I usually have a lot of sceptism about modern-day updates but the LBD is fantastic! Not only has it become one of my favourite Jane Austen adaptations it might even be my favourite Pride and Prejudice adaptation now (gasp!) However I'm really not feeling Hank Green and Bernie Su's new adaptation of Sanditon. There's been barely any plot and there have been far too many boring fan videos. Thankfully this is only supposed to be a short series to keep us going until the next web series comes along - whatever that might be. In this short post I just want to say why I think Jane Austen's Emma should be their next adaptation.

I know, I know, I know. There have been lots of Emma adaptations already and the last Emma adaptation only came out four years ago. I adore both the Gwyneth Paltrow and the Romola Garai versions and if I heard that there was going to be a new period drama of the book I'd be really annoyed. But Emma could work so brilliantly as a web series and out of all of Austen's books it seems by far the obvious choice to me. Emma might not be as famous as Pride and Prejudice but it's still one of Austen's most popular and beloved novels. Emma has a very similar tone to Pride and Prejudice in that they're both mostly light-hearted and funny. Emma Woodhouse is very similar to Elizabeth Bennet in that they're both witty, self-confident and feisty - and I can very easily imagine Emma as a vlogger! It would be very easy to adapt the story into the modern-day. In fact it's already been done twice. A Bollywood film version called Aisha came out in 2010 and of course there's the film Clueless. I'm actually not a fan of Clueless but Hank Green and Bernie Su could very easily do Emma justice without making it anything like that film. After all the LBD is nothing like Bride and PrejudiceBridget Jones' Diary or Lost in Austen. And a web series of Emma could include characters from the book that Clueless left out. We could actually see Miss Taylor and Mr Weston, Miss and Mrs Bates, Jane Fairfax, Mrs Elton, John and Isabella Knightley and their children! Emma has also got enough of a plot for them to tell the story over a year like they did with Pride and Prejudice. There's even room for spin-off vlogs! Jane Fairfax could get a vlog of her own perhaps. If Green and Su adapted Emma it would be a brilliant choice and I'd be really excited about watching it.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

'Austenland' by Shannon Hale (2007)

Synopsis: Jane Hayes is a single, 30-something New Yorker who is obsessed with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and with Colin Firth's Mr Darcy. Jane can't meet a single man who compares and she fears that this obsession is ruining her love life. But then Jane's rich great-aunt dies; and she discovers that her great-aunt has left her with the money to go on a Jane Austen-themed manor house holiday in England. This manor house is called Pembrook Park and it's a place where Jane can be completely immersed in Austen's world for three weeks. Jane sees this as the perfect opportunity to exorcise her Mr Darcy obsession. I don't get this either.

I chose to read this book because I wanted some light-reading after going through the epic tome that is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I wasn't expecting Austenland to be a work of genius but I thought it might be reasonably entertaining. It sounded a bit like ITV's Lost in Austen only better. I liked the idea of a book set in New York and a Regency-themed manor house. However I ended up really disliking Austenland. It's insipid and very chick lit/rom com-ish. It isn't particularly well-written. The romance is lukewarm and is lacking in any real passion. The secondary characters are all flat and poorly-developed, and Jane comes across as a ditsy idiot most of the time. She thinks that immersing herself into Austen's world is actually going to help her get over her Mr Darcy obsession which is just bizarre. What's also very confusing is that Jane repeatedly claims to be "obsessed" with Pride and Prejudice but she doesn't seem to have the slightest interest in the story apart from the romance aspect of it and Colin Firth's Mr Darcy. She doesn't seem to know the first thing about Regency manners, customs, language or anything either.

To be fair there are some amusing moments in Austenland and the ending does have a few twists. But hang on a minute, is that really such a good thing? In every single Austen novel the heroine goes on a journey of self-discovery, and the reader knows well before the end what the happy ending should be for that particular heroine. We know which man is going to make the heroine happy and which man we should be rooting for. So the fact that I wasn't sure which guy Jane would actually end up with and make her happy shows a weakness in character development. It's not really a skilful plot twist.

Rating: 1.5/5

Monday, 17 June 2013

'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy (1877)

Synopsis: Stepan Oblonsky's house is in turmoil. His wife Dolly has found out about his affair with their children's former governess and now wants nothing more to do with him - so Oblonsky invites his sister Anna to stay with them. Dolly adores Anna and Oblonsky hopes that Anna will be able to convince her to forgive him. Anna has a son and has been married for almost 10 years to a wealthy husband (albeit one she doesn't love). However when Anna gets off the train at Moscow she happens to meet the handsome and charming cavalry officer Count Vronsky; the man whom Dolly's younger sister Kitty is besotted with. After they flirt and dance together at a ball, Vronsky follows Anna back to St Petersburg and they embark on a passionate affair. Anna even becomes pregnant by Vronsky. This affair scandalises their families and upper-class St Petersburg and Moscow society. Anna's friends no longer want anything to do with her and she can no longer go out without being treated with derision and scorn. This makes her increasingly bored, bitter and resentful and it ultimately leads to tragedy. Meanwhile Oblonsky's friend Levin - who is in love with Kitty - embarks on a quest for contentment, spiritual fulfilment and meaning. This is a semi-autobiographical story that mirrors Tolstoy's courtship of his wife Sophia and his conversion to Christianity.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". 

This famous opening line sets the tone for Tolstoy's novel about various families in 19th century Russia. I loved Anna Karenina and it's one of the best books I've ever read. I'd been kind of apprehensive about reading Tolstoy because for some reason I'd always got the impression that his writing would be really dry and stuffy - but that wasn't the case at all. This book wasn't at all dry and I absolutely loved Tolstoy's writing style. Anna Karenina is brilliantly-written and it's moving, deep and fascinating. Yes, that regional election in Part Six is pretty boring and I ended up skim-reading it. Yes, those multiple Russian names can be a bit confusing at first. Yes, Anna and Vronsky are annoying. But none of these things take away from the brilliance of the book and I'd still definitely recommend it.

I feel I should talk about Anna now since the book is named after her. Well, I didn't actually like her for most of the book. Don't get me wrong, as I say I loved the book. I just didn't like Anna herself and I don't think Tolstoy liked her very much either. In fact I consider it proof of Tolstoy's sheer ability as a writer that I was able to love this book as much as I did even though I couldn't stand Anna. Anna isn't always unlikeable though and Tolstoy does give her some good qualities. At the beginning of the book Anna is vivacious, kind and warm. I really liked and sympathised with her. But then Anna began her affair with Vronsky and I became so disappointed and annoyed with her. That wasn't because of her being an adulteress. Oblonsky cheats on his wife but he still seems like he'd be great fun to hang out with. We're told that Levin slept around before he met Kitty but I still loved his character. No, the reason why I stopped liking Anna was because she becomes so whiny! She gets everything she wants but she still whines all the time about everything! As soon as Anna begins her affair with Vronsky she becomes incredibly cruel and bitchy towards her husband Karenin. One moment Anna will be complaining that Karenin is cruel to her and then she'll be complaining that he's too nice to her! The man can't do anything right! It's hugely unfair. Karenin has never abused Anna in any way or cheated on her. Even though Anna isn't the love of his life he's always treated her well and with respect. Anna then selfishly chooses to abandon her son by running off to Italy with Vronsky (which I was appalled by). She shows barely any interest in her daughter. She moans when she and Vronsky are living in the city and she moans when they're living in the countryside. She becomes clingy, paranoid and irrational when she thinks Vronsky is losing interest in her. She whines that she's whining. She complains endlessly about her position in society. OK, yes, Anna does have some cause to be upset there. It is horribly unfair that Vronsky can still go out and she can't. Having said that Anna knew that would be the case. Towards the end of the book I was actually feeling quite sorry for Vronsky for having to put up with her and it's not like he's a likeable character himself! Thankfully though Anna Karenina isn't just about Anna - despite her name being the title of the book. Tolstoy gives the reader plenty of insight into what other more likeable characters are thinking. At one point we even get a sentence that's told from the POV of Levin's dog! And, as aggravating as Anna becomes, I still found her story interesting and I still felt sorry for her when she goes mental and completely loses it towards the end of the book.

By far my favourite character in the book was Levin. I was under the impression that the Levin storyline was just going to be a subplot when I first started the book but in fact he gets just as much pagetime as Anna does. Tolstoy could have very easily called the book Konstantin Levin instead. I absolutely loved Levin's character and I enjoyed his story much more than Anna's. Levin is far from perfect but he's still an extremely likeable character. In fact he's now one of my favourite characters of all time. He's just so earnest and passionate and socially awkward and sweet that I couldn't help but love him. And his romance with Kitty is just adorable. Their romance was a lovely foil to the Anna-Vronsky stuff. Also, when Levin finally reaches the conclusion that God really does exist in the final few chapters of the book, it's extremely beautiful and uplifting.

I also loved Anna Karenina for its fascinating social commentary. I learnt so much about 19th century Russian culture! I learnt things about Moscow and St Petersburg, countryside life, Russian government, Orthodox weddings, the military, etc. Tolstoy makes some scathing criticisms of the hypocrisy of Russian high society and the lack of education available to women and the peasantry too. And even though Anna Karenina might sound quite bleak and depressing - since a lot of it is about adultery and its consequences - the ending is very uplifting and there's still plenty of wit and humour in the book.

I really want to read War and Peace now and I'm planning on reading it either at the end of this year or at the beginning of the next. This is mostly down to the brilliance of this book but there's also a new BBC adaptation due next year and I want to read the book before then.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Wicked Movie Musical Musings

There's no doubt in my mind that the stage musical of Wicked will eventually get adapted into a film at some point. In fact Wicked was originally planned as a movie musical by Universal Studios but they decided to make it into a stage musical first. However, despite my love of Wicked, I'm much less excited about the thought of a movie adaptation than I was about a Les Miserables filmI think I'd rather they simply filmed the stage version of Wicked in front of a live audience. They could simultaneously screen it live into cinemas and then release it on DVD a few months later, similar to what they did with the 25th anniversary concerts of Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera. 2013 is actually the 10th anniversary of Wicked so it would be a great time to do it! There are a few reasons why I'm apprehensive about a film adaptation. Here's why:
  1. Oz the Great and Powerful came out very recently and I think the general public might see another Wizard of Oz prequel as being Oz-overkill.
  2. The choice of director. Stephen Daldry has apparently been approached to direct Wicked and I'm kind of anxious about that. Whether Daldry actually ends up directing I don't know but he seems like a really odd and bizarre choice for Wicked. I hope I'm wrong but I just can't imagine him being able to pull it off. All of Daldry's films seem like serious, realistic dramas and Wicked isn't like that. Yes it does have its serious and sad moments but it's a fantasy, it's a lot of fun and it has quite a bit of humour. And Wicked needs to be directed by someone who can handle special effects and spectacle. There are a lot of scenes in the stage musical that have the potential to look stupid in a film adaptation if they're not done well, like any scene with Elphaba and Glinda flying. Joss Whedon would be a far better choice to direct Wicked than Stephen Daldry. He's proved that he can handle special effects and spectacle with The Avengers. He's also a massive fan of musicals. He directed the Buffy episode Once More, With FeelingDr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and an episode of Glee. J.J. Abrams would have been a much better choice to Wicked as well. It was even rumoured that he was interested in directing Wicked for a while. 
  3. The cast. They need strong singers and this is especially important for Elphaba and Glinda. They're challenging, vocally demanding roles and should only be played by actresses who are trained singers and have musical theatre experience. Now at the risk of annoying other Wicked fans I have to say that I'm not one of those fans who thinks that Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth should reprise their roles as Elphaba and Glinda. As brilliant as they both were when they originated the roles on Broadway, they're just too old to play the characters now. Elphaba and Glinda are supposed to be university students in their 20s. Idina Menzel is now 42 and Kristin Chenoweth is 44! On stage the age gap doesn't matter as much but casting the two of them in a film adaptation just wouldn't work at all. It would be really nice if they could be given cameos somewhere in the film though, like they did with Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle in the Les Mis film. They could play Elphaba and Glinda's mothers perhaps.
But despite my reservations I do have ideas on the cast I'd like to see for a Wicked movie. I think Samantha Barks should play Elphaba. She's got the right vocal range for it and she's even said in the past that Elphaba is one of her dream roles. I can definitely see her being considered for the role too. The Les Mis film was a huge hit, her Eponine was very well received, and she even got to perform at the Oscars. I think I'd rather see her play Elphaba in the stage version but it would be great if she got the role in the film. I think she'd make a great Elphaba, and as she's so attractive she would probably still look beautiful even with green skin! Barks also sang Defying Gravity when she was on the BBC's I'd Do Anything and she does a really good job.

I don't think her version of this song is amazing but considering that she was only 17 at the time, and didn't have very much musical theatre experience, I think she sings it really well. Now she's 22, she's been in Les Mis and Oliver!, and her voice has really improved since then. I know I'd much rather see Barks play Elphaba than Lea Michele, who has been the rumoured favourite to play Elphaba on film for the last few years. I do think Lea Michele is a great singer but I wasn't that impressed with her versions of Defying Gravity and For Good when she sang them on Glee. I find it really hard to imagine her acting the role as well. Michele certainly wouldn't be the worst choice to play Elphaba though.

I also want Aaron Tveit to play Fiyero. I really loved his Enjolras in Les Mis and I think he may even be my favourite now : ) He's also gorgeous and he's actually played Fiyero before on Broadway. You can hear him singing with Kerry Ellis here:

And you can see Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit both singing here when the cast from the Les Mis film performed One Day More at the Oscars. I love this performance! I love how everyone is in character and how Tveit strides out and then completely owns the stage! And you can see Ramin Karimloo standing behind Hugh Jackman at one point! My only small complaint is that you can't really hear Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter that well.

As for the rest of the Wicked cast...  Boq and Nessarose are both fairly small roles and will probably be played by stage actors or talented unknowns. I'm not too bothered about who plays them. I'd be really happy if Anthony Stewart Head got to play the Wizard. This would be a brilliant casting choice. He's a great singer, a great actor and he can be very funny. I'd also love Imelda Staunton to play Madame Morrible because she was so brilliant when I saw her in Sweeney Todd. By far the toughest role to cast is Glinda.
I'd argue that this is the most vocally challenging role in Wicked because an actress playing her has got to be able to belt and sing legit soprano, whereas all an actress playing Elphaba has to do is belt. Glinda is a really tough one to cast because I can't really think of any big-name actresses with a good enough soprano for the part. Anne Hathaway is now slightly too old for the role. I really liked Amanda Seyfried as Cosette but she still wouldn't be ideal casting. They should probably go for a stage actress to play Glinda. Gina Beck is one of my favourite Glindas and she'd be a great choice. Katie Hall would also be a great choice. I saw her play Christine again in Phantom of the Opera recently and she was fantastic. She was even better than when I first saw her. And Hall also played Cosette in the 25th anniversary concert of Les Mis so she'd have picked up some more fame because of that. Argh! This is hard! Again I keep coming back to the idea that they should just film the stage version of Wicked.

What do you think?

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel and I was really excited when I heard that Baz Luhrmann was doing an adaptation of it. I'm a big fan of his and I've loved all of his films apart from Australia. I do realise that Luhrmann is one of those "love him or hate him" directors and I can understand why some wouldn't like his over-the-top style - but I personally find his films unique, vibrant and entertaining. The Great Gatsby is now my favourite Luhrmann film and I'm really saddened by this film's mixed reviews. The film has done well at the box office but it currently has a 51% "rotten" rating on and some of its reviews have been really harsh. The general consensus seems to be that there's far too much spectacle, that the messages and themes of the book are lost, and that it's lacking in the heart and passion of the book. To which I say "what the heck is wrong with you people?!"

Over the past year I've been feeling some frustration with film critics. This started with the reception of The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey. Even though I'm not sure if the decision to split Tolkien's book into three parts will ultimately pay off, I was delighted with that film and was completely pulled back into Middle-earth again. Yet a lot of critics complained that the film's first act was too slow. You hypocrites! Critics are always complaining about blockbusters never having enough character development - but when a blockbuster finally comes out which actually devotes quite a bit of time into establishing the characters' personalities and the reason for their adventure they moan that the film is too slow! It's especially unfair because The Avengers actually devoted quite a bit of time to character development at the start as well and just look at that film's rotten tomatoes rating. It actually makes me really angry that the freakin' Fast & Furious 6 has picked up a higher rating than The Great GatsbyLes Miserables and The Hobbit! Have I gone off-topic? Anyway, back to The Great Gatsby. I completely disagree with those who are saying that the themes and messages the book are lost underneath all the glitz and glamour. Of course Fitzgerald presented them better but Luhrmann still does a great job and the film is full of emotion. Yes there is quite a lot of spectacle in the film's first half-hour. It's loud, lavish, flamboyant, full of excitement, colourful, and over-the-top. But that's only fitting. It's not like the roaring 20s didn't have any glitz and glamour and the film is just showing us the world these characters are living in. However once Gatsby is introduced the film calms down and Luhrmann shows a lot more restraint than you might think.

The film is very faithful to its source material too. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the book and there are only a few minor changes. One of these changes is that the film makes use of a framing device. At the start of the film the book's narrator Nick Carraway is in a mental institution after falling into depression after Gatsby's death. He tries to talk about Gatsby to his psychiatrist but he has trouble articulating his thoughts. The psychiatrist then suggests that Nick should write it all down in a journal since writing brings him comfort. The rest of the film then goes back to 1922 with voiceovers from Nick. The film also gives a bit more focus on Gatsby's shady business dealings. We get a few flashbacks of Gatsby's relationship with Daisy when he was still a soldier. Nick's relationship with Jordan is almost completely removed too. I think some might not like that particular change but it didn't bother me. I thought all of the changes actually worked really well and made sense.

The acting in The Great Gatsby is also stunning. Leonardo DiCaprio is one of my favourite actors and he gives a tremendous performance. He was surely born to play Gatsby! Gatsby's hopeful and romantic side, his determination, his passion... it's all there in DiCaprio's performance. He gives a deeply moving and beautifully-acted performance in this film. As Gatsby he's also full of charisma and very likeable. I completely believed in his love for Daisy and DiCaprio definitely had chemistry with Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire. Some critics have said that it's obvious that DiCaprio is acting at times but that's completely missing the point. Gatsby is a fraud and is never really comfortable in his own skin so of course DiCaprio has got to play him as self-conscious and obviously acting at times. It just shows how much he understands the character. I was dreading Gatsby's death scene in this film and when it finally came it broke my heart. DiCaprio gives a flawless performance in this film and he is the Gatsby of the novel brought to life. He even looks great in suits! Someone give that man a damn Oscar already! Carey Mulligan gave an amazing performance as Daisy Buchanan in this film as well and she's becoming one of my favourite actresses. Numerous other Hollywood actresses auditioned for this role including Keira Knightley, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Seyfried, Blake Lively, Abbie Cornish, Michelle Williams and Scarlett Johansson. But Mulligan won the role and I can definitely see why. Carey Mulligan is fantastic in this film and she even makes Daisy slightly more sympathetic. They don't make any changes to her character and they still make it clear that she's shallow and horribly selfish - but unlike her book counterpart I didn't want to inflict physical harm on her at any point. The scene where Daisy cries on the morning of her wedding is actually quite moving which is a huge achievement given how much I despise Book Daisy. Mulligan is beautiful, she nails the accent, and she gives Daisy a very young and innocent air. I could see why Gatsby fell in love with her. I'm really pleased that Mulligan's film career has taken off so well even though that makes it increasingly unlikely that she'll ever play Sally Sparrow again. Even Tobey Maguire was really good in this film too. I've never been a Tobey Maguire fan and I always found him really irritating in his Spiderman films but he was actually really good in this film. Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and the up-and-coming Australian actress Elizabeth Debecki all gave really good performances as well.

Another thing that I really loved about this film was its soundtrack. A lot of the music in this film is very modern and isn't generally like the sort of jazz music that people would have actually listened to back then. Apparently the reason why they went with this approach is because they wanted to get across how new and edgy this kind of music was back then. I didn't think I'd like modern-sounding music being in The Great Gatsby but it was incorporated into the film surprisingly well and didn't feel anywhere near as jarring as the post-punk/new wave music that was used in Marie Antoinette. Even Beyonce's cover of Back to Black - which I didn't like the first time I heard it - I liked more in context. My favourite songs in this film came from Emeli Sande and Lana del Rey. Emeli Sande does a great cover of Crazy in Love and Lana del Rey's Young and Beautiful is very haunting and lovely. I really liked that it was reprised several times throughout the film.

Finally, before I wrap up this review, I have to mention that the film has great cinematography and amazing costumes and sets. The costumes and sets in this film are absolutely gorgeous and Catherine Martin deserves to win more Oscars for them. The Great Gatsby looks stunning. Apparently the film went way over budget and the entire production almost got shut down as a result. I'm not surprised! There is some humour in this film too. I loved how hilariously awkward Gatsby is when he's at Nick's cottage and waiting for Daisy to arrive. 

I definitely recommend this film. It's faithful to the book and a beautiful adaptation. It has an all-star cast giving fantastic performances. It has stunning costumes and sets. It's still a very moving and emotional film no matter what the critics are saying. Sure this film isn't as good as the book but very, very few films are. I loved this film and I'd urge people to see it. I know that not everyone will like it but I still suggest seeing it for yourself and making up your own mind. I have only two real complaints about this film. Firstly, why did no-one dance the Charleston in this film?! My other more serious complaint is that we never see Gatsby's father attend his son's funeral. That really bothered me. But overall I loved this film. I'd love it to gain Oscar recognition but I fear the mixed reviews and the May release date have probably killed its chances (Oscar season doesn't usually start until November). Hopefully this film will turn out to be one of those films that becomes more popular over time. 

Rating: 4.5/5
Film Certificate Rating: 12A

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

In 2004 Walt Disney Studios announced that they were would no longer be making traditional, hand-drawn films. This was down to their last few hand-drawn films not being huge financial hits. A lot of those films weren't even critical hits either. In the five years that followed Disney focused on live-action, their Pixar films, and their own computer-animated films. However - since their computer-animated films Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt didn't exactly set the world alight - Disney decided to return to their roots. They would make a hand-drawn, musical film based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale - The Princess and the Frog. They would also get Ron Clements and John Musker to direct this film. This duo directed The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

The Princess and the Frog is about a young woman called Tiana who lives in 1920s' New Orleans. Tiana grew up with her father telling her about his dream of opening up a restaurant. Tiana shares her father's dream and passion for cooking. When her father dies she wants to make the dream come true for both of them. Tiana, now an adult, is working two jobs to save up as much money as she can to buy a restaurant. Whilst this is going on, Prince Naveen from the far-off land Maldonia arrives into the city. Naveen's parents have disinherited him due to his party-animal ways and now he's looking for a rich wife to support him. Naveen then meets a mysterious man called Dr Facilier who turns out to be a voodoo-practising "shadow man". Facilier tricks Naveen by turning him into a frog. Facilier then gives Naveen's servant the appearance of Naveen so the servant can work for him and help him take over New Orleans. At a fancy-dress party Frog Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess and asks her to kiss him in the hope that he'll get turned back into a prince again. Tiana agrees when Naveen tells her that he'll cough up the rest of the cash needed for Tiana to get her restaurant started. But it turns out that since Tiana isn't a real princess she gets turned into a frog as well. The rest of the film has the two of them trying to break the curse and stop the evil Facilier.

The Princess and the Frog is a great film and a really nice, clever update of the fairytale. Whilst it doesn't hit the heights of Disney's best films from the 1990s it's still a big step in the right direction! I really enjoy this film. The animation is gorgeous. The film has a very old-fashioned, traditional Disney feel. I love the setting. What better city to set The Princess and the Frog than New Orleans, a city that's surrounded by swamps?! The film has great characters too. Tiana made history as being Disney's first African-American heroine and she's a brilliant character. She's really engaging and is easily the best Disney heroine since Mulan. She's bright, she's optimistic, she's full of energy, and she's ambitious and driven. She's a great role model. Naveen is arrogant and lazy to start off with but he's quite good fun and a good foil to Tiana. She teaches him about the importance of responsibility and working hard and he teaches her that it's OK to lighten up and have fun. There are a lot of memorable, comic sidekicks in this film as well. Tiana's best friend Charlotte is really funny. She's pretty ditsy but she's very sweet and I loved that they didn't make her two-faced and bitchy. There are animal sidekicks in this film too! We get an alligator who wants to be a jazz musician and a Cajun-accented firefly who's in love with a star in the sky. The villain is great too. He's brilliantly-voiced by Keith David and is scary, charming and sinister.

The only thing that lets this film down is its music which is a real shame. The songs in this film were written by Randy Newman, who has written the music for many of the Pixar films. To be fair Newman's songs do fit in with the time period and the New Orleans setting but most of his (many) songs in this film are boring and unmemorable. And the Ne-Yo song that's played over the final credits is rubbish! In fact there are only two genuinely great songs in this film. Friends on the Other Side is the best Disney villain song since Hellfire and Almost There is a really catchy, feel-good song and is very well sung by Aniki Noni Rose (who also starred in Dreamgirls). However even these songs can't match up to A Whole New World, Beauty and the Beast, Circle of Life, etc, etc...

The Princess and the Frog is still a great film though and it seems to have kickstarted a new Disney Renaissance. Since this film we've had Tangled, Winnie the Pooh and Wreck-It Ralph. I still haven't seen Winnie the Pooh and Wreck-It Ralph yet but I know they were very well-received. I've seen Tangled though and that film is awesome!

Rating: 4/5