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Archive for March, 2014

Reginald Perrin is going through something of a mid-life crisis.  Sick of the minutiae of his job at Sunshine Desserts, he is driven to desperate measures, and decides to steal a giant lorry shaped like a jelly, fake his own death, and start a new life.  This book – the first in a series of three – tells of Reggie’s adventures as he tries to find a meaning to this life.

The very first line – “When Reginald Iolanthe Perrin set out for work on the Thursday morning, he had no intention of calling his mother-in-law a hippopotamus” – gave me a clue that this book was going to be funny, and somewhat surreal.  What I didn’t expect was that it would actually be tinged with melancholy too.  It’s easy to sympathise with Reggie’s frustration at his colleagues and his job, although the measures he took to find something more to live for were admittedly drastic and ridiculous.

Nobbs balances the melancholy out with lots of laughter though.  During the first part of the book, I was amused on several occasions, but not enough to make me really laugh.  However, then came the scene describing the funniest dinner party I have ever read about, which actually gave me a stomach ache from laughing so hard.

The book takes a bizarre turn towards the end, and and while it was supposed to be satirical, it didn’t strike quite the right note with me, because it was just TOO unbelievable.  However, I did enjoy it overall, and certainly intend to read the next two books in the series.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

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Harriet Beecher Stowe was a staunch advocate for the abolishment of slavery in the mid-1800s, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is her most famous book, was a novel about the evils of slavery and the slave trade.  It is said that when Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he said to her, “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war in reference to the American Civil War.  However, while is it certainly true that the two met, it has never been confirmed that Lincoln said such a thing, although I can see why the book would have caused a large stir when it was released.

The titular character starts the novel as a slave owned by Mr and Mrs Shelby.  He has lived for several years on their plantation, and has a wife and children there.  Due to financial woes, Mr Shelby sells him to a slave trader, and the novel follows Tom’s life through two more owners.  It talks about the other people he meets, some benevolent, such as Augustine St Clare, who determines to give Tom his freedom, and others not so.

Because of the historical and political significance of this book, I really really wanted to like it.  I had meant to read it for ages, and finally picked it up after a friend told me she had enjoyed it.  And the thing is…I came away a bit disappointed.  The main thing that hit me about this book was just how preachy it is.  There’s a lot of religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  A LOT.  And people are divided into one of three categories.  If you are a Christian, you are a good person.  If you are not a Christian, you are an evil person.  If you are not a Christian but are striving to be, you will probably be a good person in the end.  I understand that books have to be read in context; it’s important to remember when this novel was written, but whereas some classics age well, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has aged badly (well, it’s just my little opinion of course).  It’s overwhelming preachiness – which appears without fail on at least one out of every two pages – got somewhat tiring after a while.  It’s a shame, because when Beecher Stowe stepped away from the religious aspect, her writing could be quite enjoyable and even amusing.  I’m not a religious person, but I don’t have anything against religion.  I just don’t need it ramming down my throat quite so often, or to be told that anybody who is not a Christian is inherently bad.

Also, for a book which strives so hard to point out that slaves are just as much people as anyone else (which sounds obvious in today’s world, but again remembering when this was written – slaves were seen as commodities or possessions, nothing more), it is a shame that the slaves themselves are spoken about in broad stereotypes (several times, Beecher Stowe makes reference to a trait that is common “to their race.”), and rather patronisingly.

Although there is little characterisation, the story itself was a quite enthralling one, and would have been much more enjoyable if it had been told as a more straightforward narrative without the religious lecturing part.  My favourite part was the section of the book where Tom was living with the St Clare family, and within the confines of his situation was happy.  The ending contained a ridiculous amount of coincidence, which made the last few pages hard to take seriously, but I cannot deny that the book did make me cry on a couple of occasions.

I think I would probably recommend this book, but more because of its significance, rather than because I especially enjoyed it.  At times, it was enjoyable, but I found it hard going at times.  Nonetheless, it did help to change the widely held view that slavery was acceptable, and it’s worth reading the book that managed to do such a thing.

(For more information about Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, please click here.)

 

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In 1956, Marilyn Monroe came to England to make a film with Sir Laurence Olivier.  The film was The Prince and the Showgirl, based on the Terence Rattigan play The Sleeping Prince.  Monroe wanted to work with Olivier, who directed and starred in the movie, because she thought it would give her credibility as an actress, and Olivier was initially equally as keen – so much so that Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh was worried that her husband would have an affair with Marilyn.  She needn’t have worried as it turns out; the most overwhelming feeling that Marilyn roused in Olivier was that of annoyance – at her lateness, her constant fluffing of lines, her moods on set…it’s safe to say that making the film was probably not an enjoyable experience for either of them.  (The Prince and the Showgirl is regarded as far from the best thing that either actor worked on, although I personally really liked it).

During filming, Marilyn’s recent marriage to playwright Arthur Miller already seems to be crumbling, and when Miller flies back to America, Marilyn turns to third director Colin Clark, for comfort.  The two end up spending the titular week together.  Colin Clark wrote two books about the making of the film – one of which excluded the week with Marilyn, and one of which concentrated solely on that week.  The second book is the basis of this film.  I have no idea how much of the book is truthful, and I was – perhaps unfairly – sceptical about some of the things he wrote, which made their way into this film – but nevertheless I found the film enjoyable from start to finish.

Playing Marilyn Monroe is a tall order for any actress, but fortunately Michelle Williams was up to the task.  She captures Marilyn’s mannerisms and voice very well, and more importantly, shows Marilyn as more than just the dumb blonde which she was often portrayed as.  She also demonstrates Marilyn’s extreme vulnerability and need to be liked (“Shall I be her?” she asks Colin, when they are surrounded by fans while on a day out, before breaking out Marilyn’s sexy poses and million dollar smile).

Kenneth Branagh was also brilliant as Laurence Olivier – in a cast full of brilliant actors, he stole the film for me.  I loved every one of his scenes; his exasperation at Monroe was entirely understandable – I adore her, but frankly she must have been a nightmare to work with – but he is not incapable of sympathy for her.  He also shows Olivier’s fear that he himself is getting too old for this business, and that his popularity belongs to days gone by.  I always enjoy watching Kenneth Branagh, and this is one of my favourite performances of his.

As Colin Clark, Eddie Redmayne had the unenviable task of making the audience care about someone who they had likely never heard of, when there were two characters in the film who were international stars.  I think Redmayne pulled it off.  There are other actors who probably could have done as good a job, but he was great – especially when you consider that other actors on this film included the aforementioned Branagh and Williams, as well as Dame Judi Dench (wonderful and absolutely adorable as Dame Sybil Thorndike, who also starred in The Prince and the Showgirl) and Zoe Wannaker (in a flawless performance as Marilyn’s acting coach Paula Strasberg, wife of Lee Strasberg, who is known as the father of method acting.  Strasberg’s constant presence on the set, and her undermining of Olivier’s direction proved to be another bone of contention between the two stars).

I really enjoyed seeing the scenes from The Prince and the Showgirl being acted out, and My Week With Marilyn acts as a nice sort of companion piece to that film.  Overall, great performances throughout and an interesting and touching story make My Week With Marilyn a film well worth watching.

Year of release: 2011

Director: Simon Curtis

Producers: Simon Curtis, Kelly Carmichael, Christine Langan, Jamie Laurenson, Ivan Mactaggart, Cleone Clark, Mark Cooper, David Parfitt, Colin Vaines, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein

Writers: Colin Clark (books ‘My Week With Marilyn’ and ‘The Prince, The Showgirl and Me’) Adrian Hodges

Main cast: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Richard Clifford

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Click here for my review of The Prince and the Showgirl.

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Sage Singer is a 25 year old baker, from New Hampshire, who wants to hide away from the world, because of the scars, both physical and psychological that she has, resulting from an accident three years earlier.  She is in a relationship with a married man, which is going nowhere, and does a job that allows her to work at night, without contact with others..  When she befriends 95 year old Josef Weber at her grief group, she is able to open up to him in a way that she hasn’t been able to with anyone else, so when Josef tells her that he is a former Nazi, responsible for countless deaths, and requests that she helps him to die, her world is turned upside down.

(Don’t worry, all of the above happens very early in the book, so there are no spoilers here.)  I have always found Jodi Picoult’s novels to be compelling and thought-provoking, and this one was no exception.  It is stated early on that Sage’s grandmother Minka was a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II, and a large part of the book is given over to her description of life during that time.  This may be a fictional story, but Picoult spoke with Holocaust survivors while researching this book, and while Minka may not really exist, the horrors described are all too real, and I was moved to tears while reading about them.

I liked and sympathised with Sage – she was a well rounded character, with flaws and insecurities that made her very believable.  The main theme of the book is forgiveness, and Sage’s dilemma in this regard was fascinating.  Her struggle to reconcile the elderly pillar of the community who she had become friends with, with the former war criminal who killed indiscriminately, was interesting and well described.  Can we ever forgive on behalf of someone else?  Does Sage have the right to forgive Josef’s sins – as he asks her to do – when it was not her who was personally sinned against?  All of this crops up throughout the book.

I also adored and admired Minka.  I would have liked to have seen more of Leo, the agent who has made a career out of tracking down war criminals and bringing them to justice – while he was immensely likeable, I didn’t feel that he was as well drawn as some of the others in the book.  This is only a slight niggle though, as for the most part, this book was truly hard to put down.

The ending was a surprise, and I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it left me feeling slightly unsatisfied.  However, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of what had gone before, and overall, even though it’s not my favourite by Jodi Picoult (that would probably be Nineteen Minutes) I would certainly recommend this book.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Set in London in 1870, and based on the novel by Michael Faber, this mini-series tells the story of Sugar (Romola Garai), an East End prostitute who becomes the obsession of entrepreneur William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd).  William’s wife Agnes (Amanda Hale) is suffering with her mental health, and he finds solace in Sugar’s company, to the point of paying for exclusive use of her services.  As the series progresses, William and Sugar’s relationship becomes more complicated.  Meanwhile, Agnes is desperate to escape the abuse she is suffering at home at the hands of her husband and her doctor (Richard E. Grant), and comes to believe that Sugar is her guardian angel.

I love period drama, and this one certainly did not disappoint, but be warned – Downton Abbey it isn’t!  The seedy side of Sugar’s life, where she makes her home amongst the prostitutes and drunks of London is extremely well depicted, and you can almost smell the urine and vomit.  There is also some graphic nudity (Chris O’Dowd leaves nothing to the imagination in one scene), and some fairly explicit sex scenes.

If that doesn’t bother you and you are a fan of period drama, then you should really watch this series.  The acting is wonderful – Romola Garai continues to prove her versatility, showing Sugar as tough, intelligent, and also compassionate despite her circumstances.  Chris O’Dowd turns in an unexpectedly wonderful performance (unexpected only because it is so unlike anything else I have seen him do).  Gillian Anderson is a minor character in the story, but certainly makes the most of her part as the madam of the brothel where Sugar works.  She was virtually unrecognisable, and a thousand times removed from some of her more famous roles, such as Scully in The X-Files.  As the tragic Agnes Rackham, Amanda Hale is heartbreakingly fantastic.

The story is complex with loads of twists and turns – more happens in each one hour episode than often happens in films twice the length, but it is easy to follow, and certainly never boring.  Sometimes it makes for uncomfortable viewing, but it is always compelling.

Year of release: 2011

Director: Marc Munden

Producers: Daniel Proulx, Lorraine Richard, Lucy Richer, Ed Rubin, Joanie Blaikie, Julie Clark, Greg Dummett, Martha Fernandez, Steve Lightfoot, David M. Thompson

Writers: Michael Faber (book), Lucinda Coxon

Main cast: Romola Garai, Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Hale, Shirley Henderson, Katie Lyons, Richard E. Grant, Gillian Anderson

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I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks and it’s very rare for me to think that a book is better listened to than read, but in this case, I’ll make an exception.  The Measure of a Man is narrated by Sidney Poitier himself, and he has such a beautiful voice, that it really enhanced my experience of the book.  It also worked really well as an audiobook because he is so conversational in tone – he peppers his narration with phrases like, “You follow?” or “You see?”

As for the content itself – wow!  This is a wonderful autobiography and then some.  While Poitier does tell the story of his life, it’s not necessarily a straightforward chronological account of events.  At times it comes across more as a philosophical discussion, where he uses his own life as a starting point.

His description of his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas was wonderful.  Although his family lived in poverty, he points out that living in poverty on Cat Island was very different to living in poverty in some concrete jungle.  As a child, he lived in a place with a beautiful climate, cocoa plum trees, sea grapes and wild bananas.

However, the most interesting – and in many ways upsetting – part of the book was when Poitier described his life in America which started when he moved to Florida aged 15, and then moved on to New York, and eventually started acting.  This was a a time of racial segregation, and he realised exactly what it meant to be classed as a second class citizen.  As an example – he recalled one event when he was already quite well known in films, and he went to a restaurant for a bite to eat.  The black Maitre d’ explained that he could have a table there, but they would have to put a screen around him, for the sensitivity of the white diners.  When offered jobs on certain films, he was asked to sign papers disowning those of his black friends who were campaigning for equal rights (he always refused to do so).

Throughout it all, Poitier’s dignity and strong sense of right and wrong shines through.  He speaks strongly of his love for his parents, and how they inspire him in his life – whatever work he does, he does for them as well as for himself and his own family.  He describes how he has always tried to be the best that he can be, his search for answers, his hopes for not only himself, but the world at large.  He’s honest about himself; those parts of himself that he is proud of, and the mistakes which he has made.

This is not a revealing, kiss-and-tell autobiography, and it is all the better for it.  Poitier does not delve into the subject of murky or tawdry Hollywood tales, and is respectful of those people who he does mention by name.  He does discuss some of his most famous films – which made me immediately want to go out and rewatch them – and reveals his motivation for playing certain roles, and refusing certain others.

Overall, I’d say that this is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read (or listened to).  I would strongly recommend it, not only to anyone with an interest in Hollywood or film-making, but also to anyone with an interest in the civil rights movement.

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This is the third (and maybe last?) film in the series that started with Before Sunrise, and continued with Before Sunset.  Just as Before Sunset was set nine years after Before Sunrise, both in the story and in real life, so Before Midnight was made and set nine years after Before Sunset.  This review contains MAJOR spoilers for Before Midnight, and minor spoilers for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Jesse and Celine have been a couple since the events of the previous film, and have twin seven year old daughters.  They live in Paris, but for this film is set in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, where they have been staying for six weeks.  It starts with Jesse at the airport with his son Henry (Hank).  Hank has been spending the summer with Jesse and Celine and is now heading home to Chicago, and Jesse is concerned that he is not more available for his son, and that he does not see Hank as much as he would like.  Meanwhile Celine is at a career crossroads – she has been offered a job with the French government, and is considering taking it.

Like the two preceding films, Before Midnight is very dialogue heavy, and the acting is superb, with the two leads perfectly portraying all the frustrations, concerns and observations of their situation(s).  Unlike the other two films however, there is quite a lot of interaction with other characters, especially in the first half of this film.  There is one scene where they eat dinner with their hosts in Greece, and other people who are also stopping there, where they all talk about love, life and relationships.  It’s wonderfully acted and enjoyable viewing, but it does feel slightly unusual to see Jesse and Celine interacting with other people (particularly in some scenes where they are separately interacting with others).

It moves into more familiar territory when Jesse and Celine walk around the city together, and talk about what the future might hold for them.  They then go to a hotel room which has been booked for them, and this is where the tension which has been bubbling under the surface for so much of the film, breaks free, and their relationship really seems to be under threat.

I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy this film, and if you have seen the other two, you kind of HAVE to watch this one.  However, whereas the others left me with a feeling of optimism and possibility, this one was a bit of a downer.  Obviously Jesse and Celine have been together for a long time and have the day-to-day responsibility of looking after their daughters, as well as Celine’s job worries and Jesse’s concerns about his son.  In short – things are no longer all hearts and flowers, because reality has well and truly set in.  That’s normal and expected.  But I came away from Before Midnight thinking that if there is a fourth film, I cannot see them still being a couple another nine years down the road. There are accusations of infidelity, signs that neither is really happy with their life together, and the very real possibility that the dream is over and they perhaps should break up.  The ending is less ambiguous than the ending for either Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, but long-term prospects for Jesse and Celine do not seem certain.

I’m certainly glad I watched it – the setting is gorgeous, and as mentioned before, the acting is perfect – but if I’m watching Jesse and Celine’s story in future, I think I’ll stop after Before Sunset.

Year of release: 2013

Director: Richard Linklater

Producers: Richard Linklater, Liz Glotzer, Jacob Pechenik, Martin Shafer, Lelia Andronikou, Kostas Kefalas, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Vincent Palmo Jr., John Sloss, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Sara Woodhatch

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

Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis, Walter Lassally

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Click here for my review of Before Sunrise.

Click here for my review of Before Sunset.

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