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Archive for November, 2013

This (sadly little-known) drama-comedy mockumentary follows the fortunes of a travelling theatre company, who are performing a modern and subversive adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the main players, including the egotistical and rather unpleasant Greg (Ferdy Roberts), and the heavy drinking and irresponsible, but ultimately likeable ‘Oz’ Oscar (Oliver Dimsdale), who started the company.  The characters are all too believable, with the sometimes tense and claustrophobic atmosphere that one can feel when cooped up with the same people day in, day out, clearly shown.  I liked Suzie (Sandy Foster), the understudy, who despite being the only person who had to audition to join the company, is never given her chance to shine (with Greg giving his own non-actor wife a part in the play rather than offer it to Suzie), and the other understudy Tony (Alex Avery), who is given a chance to shine, despite not being up to the part.

With actors Dominic West and Romola Garai playing themselves, giving their opinion on the company and the play, the realism is heightened.  There are moments of comedy and some moments of pathos, mainly courtesy of Oscar, and it ends on a somewhat downbeat note, although that does not detract from the general enjoyment of the film.

I would say that a basic knowledge of the play Twelfth Night would help when watching this, although it is probably not a necessity.  However, do not watch it expecting to learn what Twelfth Night is about, because it probably won’t help!

This is definitely a film for fans of Shakespeare, and even more so for fans of theatre in general, and how things operate after the curtain comes down.  I really enjoyed it, and will certainly be watching it again in the future.  (I wish it were better known; with many of the cast having acted in Shakespeare productions in real life, and all of the cast doing such a great job, it deserves more exposure.  I was not even able to find a trailer for the film to post with this review, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it is well worth seeing.)

Year of release: 2012

Director: Simon Reade

Producers: Simon Reade, Guy de Beaujeu

Writers: Simon Reade, Guy de Beaujeu, William Shakespeare (play ‘Twelfth Night’)

Main cast: Oliver Dimsdale, Ferdy Roberts, Nicholas Tennant, Alex Avery, Sandy Foster, Poppy Miller, Victoria Moseley, Gemma Saunders

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This is a brilliantly readable account of what was indeed an extraordinary election in America in 2008.  It starts from the beginning, with the candidates announcing their intentions to run, thoroughly discussing the Democratic and Republican campaigns to get the nomination, and then the presidential campaign.  The Democratic nomination campaigns quickly became a two-person race, between the well-known Hillary Clinton and the newer face of Barack Obama.  (While I do think Obama is terrific and I was lucky enough to be in a blue state in America for both of his elections, this book reinforced my view that Hillary would also have done an excellent job.)  The book demonstrates how important the Iowa caucus was to both candidates, and how infighting and bad management of finances within Hillary’s campaign caused so many problems.  Barack Obama’s campaign, while certainly not without its problems and mis-steps, seemed to run much more smoothly, in the end helping to win the nomination for him instead of the Clinton powerhouse.  (I actually found Bill Clinton’s part in Hillary’s campaign to be fascinating, as it seemed to hinder her as much as help her.)

McCain’s campaign for the Republican nomination was not without its problems either, as many of the party viewed him with some suspicion.  However, he got the nomination and then faced an even tougher battle against the by this time seemingly unstoppable Obama.  The successful parts of his campaign are discussed, although at times there do not seem to be too many of them, and his bizarre choice of running mate is also examined in detail.

Sometimes I think if this was fiction and was made into a film, people would find it too unbelievable, but this is all true! The narrative is presented in an engaging tone, and it never feels dull or dry.  It also stays unbiased, and although it reports on some of the more unsavoury press which the candidates received during their campaigns, it never resorts to using the same tactics.  Overall, I would say that this is well worth a look to anybody with even a passing interest in politics or the election process.

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At a young age, the virtuous and sweet Fanny Price is sent to live with her Uncle and Aunt Bertram, and her four cousins, the feckless Tom, the moral Edmund, and their flighty sisters Maria and Julia.  Fanny falls for Edmund, but keeps her feelings hidden and has to watch as he falls for their friend Mary Crawford, while Maria and Julia are both attracted to Mary’s sister Henry Crawford.  As the Crawford and the Bertrams become closer, entanglements and complications ensue.

In all honesty, there is too much story to put into one small summary, and in many ways this is the most socially aware and least romantic novel of Austens.  It is also probably the least popular of her novels, and I can understand why, although I did enjoy it.

The thing that struck me about the characters is that none of them are particularly likeable.  Fanny is sweet and kind, and Edmund is very  moralistic and by far the most thoughtful of the Bertram children, but (for me anyway) they were both ever-so-slightly boring.  The rest of the characters don’t have much to redeem them, with Mrs Bertram seeming kind, but practically catatonic for most of the novel, and Mr Bertram being well-meaning, but cold and distant.  The other youngsters are pretty self-absorbed, and Fanny’s other aunt, Aunt Norris, is mean-spirited and never misses an opportunity to put Fanny down.

Despite this, there were moments of humour, and the plot was interesting, with a pivotal scene being the play which the youngsters hope to stage, and which is the point at which feelings and attractions start to develop.  (Edmund’s horror at the thought of something so scandalous a play taking place at Mansfield Park – even with no audience – was unintentionally funny!)  There was a lot of angsty dialogue between the characters, and some scenes were overplayed, but I did like the gradual growth in characters as Edmund tries to excuse some of Mary Crawford’s behaviour which he would have found unacceptable in anyone else, and as Fanny starts to be more confident about giving her own opinion (in the first half of the book Fanny is really little more than an onlooker through whose eyes we see the proceedings, but as the story develops she features more, and becomes more interesting to read about).

Overall, it’s well worth reading, and I didn’t think it the disappointment that some Austen fans do.  Fanny, while not the most engaging of characters – she does not have half as much personality as Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet for instance – is likeable, and eventually admirable, and the story is well told, even if the ending is predictable to anyone who has read any other of Austen’s books.

(For more information about Jane Austen, please click here.)

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This film was adapted from the novel Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, which was originally published anonymously, but was later revealed to have been written by journalist Joe Klein.

Young idealistic Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is given a job on the campaign of Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta), who is hoping to get the Democratic presidential nomination.  Burton is impressed by Stanton’s politics, but less pleased with his womanising ways.  Also working on the campaign are Stanton’s loyal and intelligent wife Susan (Emma Thompson), and his team of advisors, Richard Daisy and Howard (respectively, Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierney and Paul Guilfoyle).  Kathy Bates is in fine form as Libby, a longtime friend of the Stanton’s, who has previously received treatment for mental illness, who is also brought on board to assist.  As the campaign gathers steam, scandals about Stanton’s affairs and his previous arrest record threaten to destroy everything the team are fighting for.

Jack and Susan Stanton are VERY obviously based on Bill and Hillary Clinton, both in the book and the film – Travolta and Thompson even look like the Clintons.  It is hugely entertaining, whether or not you are interested in politics, with some genuinely funny moments, and a couple of big shocks.  Henry is ultimately divided between supporting Stanton the politician, and disagreeing with Stanton the womanising charmer.

Everyone in the cast did a great job, but I personally thought that Billy Bob Thornton stole most of his scenes.  Travolta did a good job of the sleazy but intelligent Governor, and Thompson was great as the long-suffering Susan, who is nonetheless vital to Stanton’s campaign.  Kathy Bates was unsurprisingly great as Libby.

I enjoyed the machinations of a political machine, the internal arguments (such as the question of whether to launch a negative campaign against his opponent; an idea which Stanton initially baulks at).

Overall, well worth a watch.  As mentioned earlier, an interest in politics is certainly not necessary to enjoy the film, but I think it would help.

Year of release: 1998

Director: Mike Nichols

Producers: Jonathan D Crane, Neil A Machlis, Mike Nichols, Michael Haley, Michele Imperato

Writers: Joe Klein (novel ‘Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics’), Elaine May

Main cast: John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Guilfoyle, Maura Tierney

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Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, home to the Ayres family for years, used to be a grand country house.  However, in the post-WWII era, it is dilapidated, practically falling down around the family’s ears, and the finances are such that they are struggling to maintain it at all, while coming to terms with a changing society.  Doctor Faraday – the narrator of the book – meets the family, the widow Mrs Ayres and her two grown children Roderick and Caroline, when he comes to the hall to treat their young housemaid, but he is drawn into their lives, and becomes friendly with them.  But a series of strange and unsettling events, starts to take effect on the Ayres’, and it seems that there may be something sinister within Hundreds Hall, that is taunting the family.

I have read all of Sarah Waters’ books, and without exception, have enjoyed them.  The Little Stranger was brilliantly written, with a slow, creeping atmosphere, that left me feeling unsettled a couple of times.  Waters’ writing always flows so well, and I found myself reading huge chunks at a time, just not wanting to put the book down.  It was not a light or happy read, and in truth, not all (in fact, not many) of the characters were easy to warm to, although I suspect that may have been entirely intentional.  The Hall itself was just as much a character as any of the people that lived in it, and it was vividly described, making it, and the events which took place in it, all too easy to imagine.  The Doctor’s narration too, perfectly described both the isolated life of the Ayres, and his own, somewhat lonely life as a bachelor with few real friends.

I had no clue as to how the story was going to end, and was eager to find out what would happen – and here is my only criticism of the book, because the ending was something of a let-down.  I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I certainly did not find the big twist that I felt sure must be coming at any moment, the nearer I got to the last page.  That kind of left me with a “is that it?” feeling, when I finished the book, which is something that I’m not used to feeling with Sarah Waters books.  All the time I was reading this, I thought it was going to be a 5 star book, but because of the ending, I ended up giving it 4.

Having said that however, it was still a book which was thoroughly worth reading, and which I would recommend, purely because the writing itself is so good, and Waters really knows how to ratchet up the tension.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Based on the novel of the same name by Karen Joy Fowler, this film is about six Californians – five women and one man – who start a book club to discuss Jane Austen’s novels.  The various members are facing challenges in their lives, and the club and the books themselves prove therapeutic in helping them to deal with their own problems.

I haven’t read the book that the film was adapted from, but I’m intending to make it the very next one on my pile, because I loved this gem of a movie.  It had some very funny moments, but mostly it was sweet, utterly charming and moving.  The cast had terrific chemistry, and the lifelong friendship between dog-loving control freak Jocelyn (Maria Bello) and recently separated Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) was completely believeable.  The remaining members of the cast – Maggie Grace as Sylvia’s daughter daredevil daughter Allegra, Kathy Baker as the matriarchal six-time divorcee Bernadette, Emily Blunt as the buttoned up and discontented French teacher Prudie, and Hugh Dancy as the absolutely adorable Grigg – all fitted perfectly into their roles, and the main cast is rounded out by Jimmy Smits, as Sylvia’s philandering husband Daniel, Marc Blucas as Prudie’s insensitive husband Dean (although I thought Dean was a more likeable character than Prudie!), and Kevin Zegers as a student who Prudie falls for.  Jimmy Smits was actually my main reason for wanting to see this film, as I think he is rather lovely, but I was charmed by the whole cast, and Hugh Dancy has a new fan!

I would heartily recommend this film, whether or not you are a fan of Jane Austen (you do not need to have read the novels to watch this film) – it’s a definite keeper for me, and one I shall be watching again.

Year of release: 2007

Director: Robin Swicord

Producers: Marshall Rose, John Calley, Julie Lynn, Diana Napper, Jonathan McCoy, Lisa Medwid, Kelly Thomas

Writers: Karen Joy Fowler (book), Robin Swicord

Main cast: Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Emily Blunt, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smits, Kevin Zegers, Marc Blucas

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Click here for my review of the novel.

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