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Archive for May, 2012

In 1994, Michael Moore (subsequently best known for Fahrenheit 911, Bowling for Columbine, and being a general pain in the butt to the Republican Party) produced, with others, a television show called TV Nation.  The idea behind the show was to raise awareness of injustice and corruption in America, and to do so in a humorous style.  Less than 20 episodes were made (although Moore went on to do another similar show called The Awful Truth), but durng its short run, it was highly acclaimed.

This books covers just some of the pieces which the show did –  including Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken, the CEO challenge (can the highly paid CEO’s of various companies, actually do the lesser paid jobs which their employees do?),  and finding work for former KGB operatives (to name just a few).

The book, like the TV show, is all done in Moore’s familiar irreverent style, and does set out to achieve it’s aim, in that it provides laughs, but also deals with serious subjects.  It also shows the compromises that had to be made in order to get certain segments on air, and the sometimes dangerous situations that Moore and his crew found themselves in.  (There were actually some segments that never made it to air, or were severely edited before they were shown.)

I do tend to agree with Michael Moore on many issues, but don’t always agree with the way he reports them, as his reporting can be heavily biased and edited to make things look the way he wants them to watch.  Nevertheless, he highlights the hypocrisy of the media and the people that run it, as well as certain politicians, and he manages to make serious issues watchable and interesting to read about.

Overall, this is an easy and enjoyable read, and I would recommend it.  It’s also worth mentioning that you do not need to have seen any episodes of TV Nation – or indeed any other of Moore’s work – to fully enjoy this book.

(Michael Moore’s website can be found here.)

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Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) is an amiable prizefighter, whose plane crashes, and his soul is plucked out of the aircraft by a messenger from the afterlife (whose job it is to collect the souls of the dead). When Joe ends up in the afterlife, it is discovered that he has been taken there 50 years too early; he would in fact have survived the crash. The head of operations in the great beyond -a kindly man named Mr Jordan (Claude Rains) says that Joe must be returned to earth, but there’s one problem – Joe’s body has been cremated. Mr Jordan lets Joe inhabit the body of a man named Farnsworth, who has been murdered by his wife and her lover. When Farnsworth ‘comes back to life’, his wife is most surprised! As Farnsworth, Joe falls for a young woman named Bette Logan, but she is unaware of his real identity.

This film was one of many released in the 40s, which looked at the issue of life after death, and it reminded me somewhat of A Matter Of Life and Death, which starred David Niven, and which explored similar themes. I actually prefered A Matter Of Life and Death, but that is not to say that Here comes Mr Jordan is not a great film. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite the fact that the storyline deals with death and murder, it is actually very funny in parts, and sweetly romantic in others.

The pacing is tight, and the whole film comes in at about an hour and a half, which means that it never gets dull. It is helped along by an excellent cast – as well as Montgomery, who is perfect as Pendleton, and Rains, who brings a calmness to his role which balances out the over-excitement of other characters, the over-zealous messenger who plucked Pendleton from the plane is played by Edward Everett Horton; the exchanges between the Messenger and Joe provide a lot of laughs. James Gleason is outstanding as Max Corkle, Joe’s former manager (both Gleason and Montgomery were nominated for Oscars for their roles).

Overall, I would highly recommend this film – it really is lovely, and packed with charm. Highly recommended!

Year of release: 1941

Director: Alexander Hall

Producer: Everett Riskin

Writers: Harry Segall (play:’Heaven Can Wait’), Sidney Buchman, Seton I. Miller

Main cast: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, James Gleason, Evelyn Keyes, Edward Everett Horton

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For anyone who is not familiar with the story of Jane Austen’s most celebrated novel, there are far better synopses on-line than I can provide here. In essence though, the story concerns the five Bennet sisters, who are searching for love and marriage in Regency England. When second oldest sister Elizabeth (Lizzie) (played by Keira Knightley in this adaptation) meets rich and single Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew McFayden), there is disdain on both sides. She thinks he is aloof and rude, and he considers her to be beneath him socially. Can they overcome their pride – and prejudices – when they realise that they do care for each other?

In 1995, the BBC did an excellent six-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It was a huge success, and helped to propel Colin Firth, as Darcy, to stardom. Firth’s portrayal of Darcy also unwittingly became the standard by which all future Darcy’s in various adaptations, would be measured (sadly McFayden fell short here, for reasons I will come to later). I mention this because when the adaptation subject of this review came out 10 years later, it was often compared unfavourably with the 1995 version.

To be fair, it’s a lot easier to tell a story when you have six hours to do it (as in the mini-series), than when you have two hours (as in the film). Unfortunately, in the film, a lot of plot points were glossed over; Wickham for instance, was an important, and much larger character in the book – in the film he appears only a couple of times, and the relevance of his character is skipped over.

Anyway, I do not intend this review to be a comparison between two versions of the same story, but I can’t deny that while this film had some enjoyable moments, and it wasn’t exactly a chore to watch, there were several things that didn’t work for me.

The main problem for me was that there was absolutely NO chemistry between Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden. I never felt the attraction between them, or even the initial resentment. There were some great actors among the cast (Judi Dench for example, was superb as the snobbish Catherine De Bourg, and Brenda Blethyn did well as Mrs Bennet). However, there were also some instances of woeful miscasting – with the two main actors leading the way. I feel bad for saying it, because I’m sure that Keira Knightley is a lovely girl, but honestly I don’t think she’s a very good actress, and certainly was not right for Elizabeth Bennet. And Matthew McFayden was just not a believeable Darcy. Simon Woods seemed a bit unsure how to play Bingley, and the character came across as a bit of a schoolboy (and nowhere near good enough for Jane Bennet). Most puzzling of all was Donald Sutherland, as Mr Bennet. Why? Why?? Sutherland is a fine actor, who has played many excellent roles, but I couldn’t help wondering how he had ended up in this part!

Despite my problems with this adaptation, I still took some pleasure in watching it. When you are familiar with a story, it’s always interesting to see different interpretations of it. I don’t think the time constraints helped, but overall, while I wouldn’t bother watching this film again, I’m happy that I did see it.

Year of release: 2005

Director: Joe Wright

Producers: Tim Bevan, Liza Chasin, Eric Fellner, Jane Frazer, Debra Hayward, Paul Webster

Writers: Jane Austen (novel), Deborah Moggach, Emma Thompson

Main cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew McFayden, Rosamund Pike, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Simon Woods

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Click here for my review of the novel.

Click here for my review of the 1996 mini series adaptation.

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Towner Whitney moved away from Salem, Massachusetts, years ago, after her twin sister Lyndley died.  Now Towner’s great-aunt Eva has gone missing, and Towner goes back to the place where she said she would never return.  The town is shaken by her arrival, and as Towner investigates both the disappearance of her great-aunt, and a young girl who her great-aunt was helping, the secrets of Towner’s own past start to unravel…

I enjoyed this book – on the whole.  I did like the character of Towner, and although I thought I had worked the ending out, as it transpired, I was off the mark.  While it’s always nice to be surprised by an ending of a book, I actually felt that the book fell apart slightly in the last 30 or so pages, and the ending, while satisfactory, was not as good as I had hoped or expected.

Much of the book is narrated by Towner, but at times it switched to a third person narrative – probably in order to tell events from the view of Rafferty, a Policeman who helps Towner, and who himself is searching for the truth behind the mysterious disappearances.  There is also a chunk of about 60 pages which is told by Towner, in the form of a short story she wrote when she was a teenager.  For me, these shifts in perspective did not really help the storyline, and I would have preferred the whole story to have been in either the first or third person, rather than changing between the two.

However, there were plenty of things to like about the book.  I very much enjoyed reading about Salem, and found it especially interesting as I will be visiting Salem later this year.  I loved reading about the traditions, stemming from the witch trials of the 1600s, and I thought that the author did an excellent job of describing the place, so that I could really get a sense of the atmosphere and setting of the story.

There was a definite undercurrent of tension throughout the book, which simmers nicely and adds an edge to the story.  Overall, I would describe this book as an interesting read, and would be interested in seeking out more books by Brunonia Barry.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Desk Set is a comedy from 1957, starring legendary screen (and off-screen) couple, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  Despite looking somewhat dated, it still has plenty of crisp humour, great acting by the major and minor characters, and a storyline that has relevance today.

Hepburn is Bunny(!) Watson, who runs the research department of a television company, aided by her friends and colleagues Peg (Joan Blondell, who gives an excellent performance), Sylvia (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie (Sue Randall).  Spencer Tracy is Richard Sumner, a computer expert called in to modernise the department.  Despite their professional conflicts – and Bunny’s relationship with smarmy Mike Cutler  (Gig Young) Bunny and Richard are drawn to each other.

I really liked this film – far more than I expected to, in fact.  There were lots of genuinely funny moments, but the theme of the film – people scared of losing their job to time and money saving technology – was ahead of its time.

Hepburn and Tracy have terrific chemistry together – no doubt probably because of their real life relationship – and both are at the top of their game here.  Desk Set is not one of the more popular comedies featuring these two fine actors, and is not as well known as say, Adam’s Rib, but it is definitely worth checking out.  There are some real zingy one-liners, and it’s also nice to see Katharine Hepburn – who can sometimes seem a little hard – play a more relaxed, fun-loving character.  Spencer Tracy meanwhile, shows all the talent that made him a respected and esteemed actor.

Highly recommended for anyone wanting a feel-good movie that provides plenty of laughs!

Year of release: 1957

Director: Walter Lang

Producer: Henry Ephron

Writers: William Marchant (play), Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron

Main cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, Dina Merrill

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Gregory Peck stars as Tom Rath, the ‘man in the gray flannel suit’ of the title. The title was a metaphor for the corporate culture in America post-World War 2, and Rath is just such a man. A veteran of the war which finished ten years earlier, Rath has trouble coping with his life as a white collar office worker, and with a wife who wants him to be more ambitious and earn more money. He suffers with flashbacks to his time in the war, and memories of the Italian woman he fell in love with when he was a soldier – and their romance may have lasting repercussions.

About twenty minutes after I started watching the film, I considered turning it off, because I was expecting it to be boring. I did stick with it though, and I’m glad. Gregory Peck is one of my favourite actors, but it could be said that he didn’t have a great deal of range. He’s pretty perfect for this role though, and you could feel his frustration at trying to satisfy a demanding wife, connect with his uninterested children, hold down a good job (while coping with a colleague who seemed determined to put him down), deal with his past coming back to haunt him, and on top of all that solve a dispute regarding his late grandmother’s estate. Jennifer Jones was good as Tom’s wife Betsy, although I didn’t thnk she was a particularly sympathetic character.

There was quite a lot going on, and I felt that at least one subplot – where Tom is trying to settle his grandmother’s estate and is challenged by a former member of her staff, who claims that the old lady left the house to him – was probably unnecessary. Nonetheless, it was worth watching these few scenes if only for the excellent role played by Lee J. Cobb, as a sympathetic Judge who helps Tom (and later features again, helping with another problem). If Cobb had had a bigger part, he might well have stolen the whole film! Frederic March also played a superb part as Tom’s new boss, who has family problems of his own – a wife who he barely sees, and a daughter who is ashamed of him.

The ending does perhaps wrap things up a little too conveniently, but it was nice to see a clear resolution to the story.

Overall, while the film is slightly overlong (2 and a half hours), and possibly could have benefitted from some editing, it is definitely worth watching, especially for fans of Peck or March. I wouldn’t exactly call it enjoyable – it’s not supposed to be a happy film – but it did get under my skin somehow, and I would recommend it (it certainly made me think).

Year of release: 1956

Director: Nunnally Johnson

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck

Writers: Sloan Wilson (book), Nunnally Johnson

Main cast: Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Frederic March

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In 1960, Jay Bernstein came to Hollywood, hoping to make his fortune.  He had no idea what he was going to do, and no idea how he was going to do it.  But he did have determination, confidence and the ability to work as hard as it took.  With guts and grit, he became a publicist to many stars, including Farrah Fawcett and her then husband Lee Majors, and The Rat Pack.  He later branched out into managing stars, and producing, directing and writing for movies and television.  This book is his memoir of his long career in Hollywood, with the highs and lows, triumphs and let-downs, and of course, what life was like with such icons of the day.

I enjoyed the book a lot.  Bernstein is an engaging and very witty narrator; he’s also very frank, not only about the people who he worked with, but also about himself, being more than willing to admit when he made mistakes and bad decisions.  He also pulls no punches when it comes to his opinions on others (Frank Sinatra does NOT come out of this book well!!)

The book concentrates mainly on Bernstein’s work for Farrah Fawcett (the story of her rise to stardom, thanks to the hard work of Bernstein, is fascinating), Suzanne Somers, The Rat Pack, and Stacey Keach on the Mike Hammer television productions (based on Mickey Spillane’s books about Hammer).  Sadly, Jay Bernstein passed away while the book was being written, and a note at the end points out that there were far more stories he wanted to share, but his death meant that they are not in the book.

For anyone who is interested in movies or television, and the truth behind the glamorous facade of the industry, this book is enjoyable, easy to read, eye-opening and funny.  I highly recommend it!

(For more information about Jay Bernstein, please click here.)

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