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Archive for February, 2014

This book features two timelines, which eventually connect.  In 1980, five friends fresh out of university, find an abandoned old cottage in the Peak District, and decide to stay there for a year, living off the land, and being self-sufficient.  The group includes Kat, an insecure young woman who is hopelessly in love with another of the group, Simon, a charismatic but arrogant young man, who assumes the role of leader within the group.  In the present day, Lila and her husband Tom are struggling with the death of their baby daughter.  When an old cottage is bequeathed to Lila by an anonymous benefactor, she is puzzled but decides to renovate the property as a way of helping her work through her grief.

I have mixed feelings about this book, although generally speaking, I enjoyed it.  The writing was pacey and easy to read, and I particularly liked the character of Lila (she was one of only two characters who I really cared about throughout the story).  The 1980 storyline almost was also quite compelling, especially when the friends’ happiness almost inevitably turned to misery and tension as winter set in, and they found their self-sufficieny harder to maintain.  An unexpected arrival at the cottage creates further tension, and that was when the (1980) storyline really picked up pace.

However, I guessed the connection between the timelines and the twists to the story fairly early on; in fact they seemed so obvious that I wasn’t really sure if they were intended to be twists, as they were pretty well signposted.  This didn’t necessarily spoil my enjoyment, but if you like a lot of surprises in your novels, this might leave you feeling slightly disappointed.  (Having read other reviews of the book, I see that I was far from being alone in guessing what would happen).

Also, I got very annoyed with two of the characters.  It’s not spoilerish to say that Kat was a complete doormat when it came to Simon, but the way she is written with regard to her lack of self-respect just made her irritating rather than sympathetic.  And as for Simon himself – don’t get me started!  If ever there was a character who needed someone to just stand up to him, it was Simon.

I think if you are a fan of psychological thrillers, and don’t really mind the twists being easy to work out, you would probably enjoy this book.

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Sex and Death 101 stars a pre-The Mentalist (just – this came out the year before The Mentalist started) Simon Baker, as Roderick Blank, a man who is about to marry his girlfriend Fiona (Julie Bowen) and thinks that his life is just about perfect.  But then he receives a mysterious email, which lists all the women he’s slept with – with Fiona correctly occupying the number 29 slot – but then goes on to list lots more, totalling 101.  Not surprisingly he is somewhat shocked – who has sent the list?  How can he be going to have sex with more than 70 more women, when he is about to marry the woman he loves?!  Roderick’s obsession with the list starts to ruin his life, and pretty much all aspects of it.  Meanwhile, a woman (Winona Ryder) nicknamed Death Nell by the media, is going round murdering men who have treated women badly, and it looks as though Roderick and Nell’s paths are going to cross at some point.

I’m not entirely sure how to categorise this film.  It’s part sci-fi, part romantic comedy, part black comedy – there’s certainly a lot going on, and maybe a bit too much at times.  But….I actually really enjoyed it.  There were some VERY funny moments – and some very adult comedy –  as Roderick initially finds the list intriguing, but then finds that it’s taking over his life.  Simon Baker is wonderful at comedy, and keeps the audience on his side.  Roderick is sometimes lovely, and sometimes pretty damned obnoxious, but it’s difficult not to like him.  Winona Ryder gets surprisingly less screen time than you might expect, given that at the time, she was probably the most famous cast member.  She’s great in her role though – perfect for the part.  Robert Wisdom is great as the leader of a mysterious trio who are behind the list of names that was sent to Roderick, and Patton Oswalt gets a few funny line.  However, as far as the supporting cast goes, nobody betters Mindy Cohn as Roderick’s PA and friend Trixie.

The film got mainly negative reviews on release, and I can see why people might not like it – it sometimes seems as though it’s not quite sure what it’s trying to be, but I did really enjoy it.  A lot of this was because of the gorgeous Simon Baker; he’s a great lead, who for me, perfect for this kind of part, and as mentioned, the supporting cast were all great as well.

If you like quirky comedy, I’d recommend giving this a go.  It’s brash and colourful, and for my money, very entertaining.

Year of release: 2007

Director: Daniel Waters

Producers: Aaron Geller, Cary Brokaw, Elizabeth Zox Friendman, Jerry P. Jacobs, Greg Little

Writer: Daniel Waters

Main cast: Simon Baker, Winona Ryder, Robert Wisdom, Patton Oswalt, Mindy Cohn, Neil Flynn, Leslie Bibb

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Take two physicists and one mathematician, add in some good natured ribbing with each other, and some impressive looking experiments, and you have Festival of the Spoken Nerd.  Steve Mould, Helen Arney (the two physicists) and Matt Parker (the mathematician) present an evening of good humour, science-inspired songs, and fascinating facts – and it’s hugely enjoyable.

The music came courtesy of Arney, whose songs have actually been credited as a learning tool by the Open University, and it’s easy to see why.  They’re catchy, and because of the humorous lyrics, easy to remember – and let’s be honest, it’s not often you get songs about cryogenic freezing, or the condition of synesthesia (where you feel one sense when another is stimulated; for example, you might hear music as colour).  She also attempted to break a wine glass with her voice – although on this occasion, it took a member of the audience’s voice for this to actually work!

Mould did an amazing trick (sort of: it’s not a trick, more of a natural phenomenon which still looks pretty nifty) with a beaker of string beads, as well as creating fire tornados, and electrocuting a pickle (honestly, that is MUCH better than it sounds). He also explained how we perceive colours, even when they’re not actually there.  Kind of.

Parker had the unenviable task of making maths fun, but he does it.  He explained how to turn any picture into a spreadsheet, and had lots of fun with air vortices.  Even though I knew how they worked, it was still great to watch, and Parker’s enthusiasm was infectious.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the three hosts – I imagine that the show was pretty scripted, but despite that, the jokes felt fresh and spontaneous.  Audience participation is encouraged with some of the experiments, and also via Twitter, throughout the show.

You don’t need to be into science or maths to enjoy this show (I never enjoyed either subject when I was at school), but it might awaken an interest in the subjects, and even if it doesn’t, the show is so good natured, and the three hosts are just so likeable, that a few hours watching full frontal nerdity turns out to be a perfect way to spend an evening.  if you get chance to see this show, I definitely recommend it.

(For more information about Festival of the Spoken Nerd, please click here.)

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Sabrina Fairchild (Julia Ormond) is the gawky daughter of the chauffeur to the wealthy Larrabee family, in Long Island.  For years, she has been secretly in love with youngest Larrabee son David (Greg Kinnear), but he doesn’t seem to notice her, instead choosing to drift from one woman to another.  Sabrina goes to Paris for two years to work for Vogue magazine, and when she gets back, David cannot even recognise the beautiful and sophisticated young woman.  But he is engaged to Elizabeth (Lauren Holly), with whose father’s company, David’s career driven brother Linus (Harrison Ford) hopes to effect a merger.  Linus is determined to keep Sabrina away from David – if David does not marry Elizabeth, the merger will not go ahead – so he starts spending time with Sabrina himself.  But then Linus finds his own feelings towards Sabrina starting to change.

This is an updated remake of the 1954 Billy Wilder film of the same name, which in turn was adapted from Samuel Taylor’s play.  Remakes are often met with derision, and remaking a film which was directed by the great Billy Wilder, and which starred three of the most loved film stars of the time – Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart – is no mean feat.  I loved the 1954 film, and really only wanted to see the 1995 version to see how it compared.  I’ll be honest – I expected to be disappointed.  I love Holden, I love Hepburn, and Sabrina (1954) was such a sparkly, romantic film.  So I was quite surprised by how much I actually did enjoy this remake.  True, Julia Ormond is no Audrey Hepburn, but Hepburn was in a class of her own.  Julia does a pretty good job of playing the titular character though.  Greg Kinnear played the part of David well, although again, he can’t compete with William Holden’s portrayal.  But Harrison Ford was wonderful as Linus.  I actually preferred him to Bogart (maybe because Bogart did not get on with his co-stars or his director in the original film, and Sabrina is not one of his better performances, with many people thinking that he was mis-cast).  Ford brings more depth to the role, and makes Linus sympathetic, even as he is plotting to save his proposed merger, at the expense of Sabrina’s feelings.

I did think it sagged slightly in the middle – after Sabrina returned from Paris and was met with amazement by David and everybody else at the Larrabee mansion, there seemed to be a period of not a lot happening – but overall it was entertaining enough, and the ending was satisfying, even though I knew what was coming.

Special mentions to Nancy Marchand as Maude Larrabee, the matriarch of the family, and Lauren Holly, as Elizabeth – David’s fiancee (who is probably too good for him), who both were excellent in their supporting roles.

Overall, this is a film worth seeing if you like romantic, old-fashioned comedy, or just want something easy going and undemanding to watch for a couple of hours.  I’d recommend it on it’s own merits, but if I absolutely had to pick between this version and the 1954 film, the 1954 film would still come out on top.

Year of release: 1995

Director: Sydney Pollack

Producers: Sydney Pollack, Lindsay Doran, Scott Rudin, Ronald L. Schwary

Writers: Samuel A. Taylor (play and earlier screenplay), Billy Wilder (earlier screenplay), Ernest Lehman (earlier screenplay), Barbara Benedek, David Rayfiel

Main cast: Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear, Nancy Marchand, Lauren Holly, Angie Dickinson, Richard Crenna, Dana Ivey, John Wood

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Click here for my review of the 1954 adaptation.

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This book examines whether there really are – as is so often claimed – innate and immutable differences between males and females, in the way that they feel, think and empathise with others.  The author is of the belief that sex differences (which is the term generally used throughout the book) are learned, not innate (or as my old psychology tutor would say, nurtured not natural), and discusses the evidence to support her belief, as well as examining in detail experiments which would suggest the contrary.  The book also takes a special interest in how the belief that men and women brains work differently, leads to sexism in the home, workplace and society in general.

The book is divided into three parts – (1) measured differences between the sexes and how best to explain them (2) an ascorbic take-down of many experiments which suggest that sex differences are formed within the brain and are not learned, and (3) how sex/gender differences are learned in early childhood, despite some parents’ best efforts to give ‘gender neutral’ parenting.

I enjoyed the book a lot – it is quite science-y, but Fine does a great job of breaking everything down so that it is understandable and relatable in real terms (which is just as well for me, as I – perhaps unwittingly reinforcing the stereotypes which she talks about! – sometimes find very technical scientific terms hard to wrap my head around).

Fine is also a witty, wry and sarcastic writer, and her strong opinions certainly come through in her writing.  My favourite section was where she pointed out the flaws in some studies which concluded that sex differences are innate, and (basically) we should all just accept them, and not worry about it.  Some of the methodology was very shoddy – for example, it is hardly fair to draw a comparison between males and females in one test, when only females were examined for it!  I also thought it fascinating how, although by and large, people try not to push males and females into one bracket or another, we still end up unconsciously doing it.  (Example: if you go onto any maternity ward, you will instantly know from the colours of the cards and presents, whether that mother has had a boy or a girl.  Girls will almost certainly be exposed to more pink colours during childhood, and boys more blue.  Is it therefore that much of a shock when at a slightly older age, girls gravitate towards pink and boys towards blue?)

This was definitely a book which required concentration, and for the first part I could not read more than about 20 pages a day, to make sure I was taking it in.  But by the end, I was racing through it, because it was just such a fascinating read.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the differences between male and female brains, in sexism in today’s society, and/or the issue of feminism.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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I can’t emphasise this enough – if you are wondering what DID happen six months after the events of the preceding film Before Sunrise, and whether or not Jesse and Celine did meet up as planned, then DO NOT read this review until after watching this film.  It is pretty impossible to review this film without talking about what happened in the nine years between events of Before Sunrise and events of Before Sunset.

So as mentioned, Before Sunset takes place nine years after Before Sunrise (both in the story, and in real life; the first film was made in 1995, and this was made in 2004).  In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train in Europe, and end up spending the evening together, walking around Vienna, discussing everything they can think of, and gradually falling in love.  At the end of the film they decide to meet again in six months, at the train station in Vienna.

The sequel is set in Paris, and starts with Jesse, who is now a published author, having written a novel about an American boy and a French girl who meet on a train and spend a night together in Vienna – sound familiar? – giving an interview in the Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop.  (Note: This is a REAL bookshop in Paris.  I have visited there, and would recommend…in fact insist…that if you are a book lover and are ever in Paris, you MUST visit this shop.  Really.  It’s incredible – you literally spend all day there, reading, browsing, shopping, talking.)  Anyway, at the end of the interview, he looks up and sees Celine in the shop.  They decide to spend the time before Jesse’s flight home, walking around Paris, and catching up – because, as it transpires, they did not meet up as planned six months after meeting on the train.  It’s clear that there is still a connection and an attraction between the two, but with Jesse now married with a child, things are not as simple as they were nine years earlier.

I loved Before Sunrise, but I definitely preferred Before Sunset.  It’s a sadder film in a way – both characters are older and wiser; they have both been bruised by life, and have realised that things don’t always turn out the way you want or expect them to.  Jesse is in a loveless marriage, and Celine has been in a number of unfulfilling relationships.  They have lost hope to some extent, that life will always be good in the end.  Both of them regret not meeting up when they had arranged to (it is quickly revealed that Jesse did go to the meeting place, but Celine couldn’t as her grandmother died a few days earlier, and she was at her grandmother’s funeral).  In fact, life’s disappointments seem positively etched on Jesse’s face.  It has to be said that Ethan Hawke does not look well here because he’s just so scrawny, but somehow that fits his character who is disillusioned with his life, and cannot forget the beautiful French girl he met years before.  But for all that, there is optimism too.  As Jesse says, his problems are much bigger now than before, but he is better equipped to deal with them.  Celine is harder, more brittle, but still vulnerable and emotional.

As in Before Sunrise, the acting is wonderful.  There are other people in the film, but for the vast majority of it, it’s just Hawke and Delphy exploring Paris, and talking, reconnecting.  It plays out almost in real time (the film is just 80 minutes long, as Jesse has about that much time before he has to leave to catch a flight home), and the conversation seems so natural.  It was scripted, but it feels unscripted.  And very real and believable.

And of course, there’s Paris itself.  They don’t visit the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe for example, but instead go to perhaps lesser known places – after all Celine lives there, and Jesse isn’t really interested in sight-seeing, and it really works.  It still shows Paris off as the beautiful city it is, while leaving you free to concentrate on the two main characters.

The ending is again ambiguous (to me anyway – many viewers think that it is not so).  It doesn’t wrap things up in a neat package, but almost lets you decide for yourself what happens – at least until last year, when the third film, Before Midnight, came out, which again picks up their story another nine years later.

This is just a beautiful, romantic film, laced with poignancy and regret, as well as the anticipation that the two feel upon meeting each other again after having such an effect on each other.  If you like films with more talk than action, that make you really feel like you are there in the moment watching two people getting to know each other again, then I would definitely recommend this.  But watch the first one beforehand!

Year of release: 2004

Director: Richard Linklater

Producers: Richard Linklater, John Sloss, Anne Walker-McBay, Isabelle Coulet

Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delphy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan

Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy

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Click here for my review of Before Sunrise.

Click here for my review of Before Midnight.

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This production by Middle Ground Theatre Company, features two short, spooky plays.  Both plays star Jack Shepherd and Terrence Hardiman in the main roles, with a small supporting cast.  In ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ based on a short story by M R James, Shepherd plays Professor Parkins, a somewhat stuffy academic, who is stopping a small hotel on the East Coast, for a golfing holiday.  He finds an old whistle at a graveyard of the Templar Saints, and while showing it to a fellow guest, he blows it and a huge gale starts.  Parkins is sceptical about the existence of ghosts, but is soon driven to terror by whatever malevolent force he appears to have summoned up with the whistle.

The play was very enjoyable, with some unexpected moments of humour.  I wouldn’t describe it as an out-and-out horror, but it was spine-tingling, and had one moment of complete shock, which certainly made me (and those sitting around me) jump!  The performances by Shepherd and Hardiman (as the fellow guest) were excellent, and Dicken Ashworth was also on form as the hotel owner.

The second play, ‘The Signalman’ was based on a short story by Charles Dickens (not one I’d heard of, but one I’d like to read).  Shepherd is the titular character, an isolated signalman who is responsible for a who is haunted by an apparition which seems to warn him of an impending disaster on the lonely stretch of railway for which he is responsible.  As he explains to a traveller who he befriends (Hardiman), he has seen the ghost twice before, and after each sighting, there was a disaster on a train travelling on the line.  The traveller attempts to allay his fears, and believes that the signalman is hallucinating, but is there something in what the signalman says?

Although I enjoyed Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad very much, I think this was my favourite of the two plays.  The conversation between the two characters felt spontaneous and unscripted – and for most of the play, it WAS just these two characters talking – indeed Shepherd was on stage throughout – so there was a fair bit of dialogue, and it was performed seamlessly.  Again, it was not a horror story, but it was the kind of story that plays on your mind and keeps you thinking about it afterward.

The sound effects for both plays – especially the gales in the first play – added to the eerie atmosphere, and the acting was top-notch.  I also loved the simple but effective sets.  An excellent production in every sense, and well worth seeing.

(For more information about Middle Ground Theatre Company, or this production, please click here.)

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