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The Moonstone (Wordsworth Classics)
The Moonstone (Wordsworth Classics)
by Wilkie Collins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The mystery of the Moonstone, 11 Jan. 2015
Before there was Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, there was a tale of drugs, suicide, a stolen Indian diamond and a reported curse.

Specifically, there was "The Moonstone," a long and twisting Victorian tale that is considered the first mystery novel in the English language. Wilkie Collins's writing can be a bit dense at times (well, it IS a Victorian story) but it also has a cast of quirky characters in a very colorful story, and an unusually forward-thinking approach to class. How many other novels of this type have the BUTLER as the narrator?

After ten years in continental Europe, Franklin Blake returns to England to bring his cousin Rachel Verinder her eighteenth birthday present: a massive diamond called the Moonstone. It was left to her by her vile uncle, possibly as a malicious act -- three Hindu priests are lurking nearby, hoping to reclaim the sacred gem stolen from them long ago. Everyone except Rachel really wants the diamond split up, so it will no longer be a danger.

At the same time, Rachel is being wooed by two men -- the somewhat irresponsible young Franklin, and the prosperous but less attractive Godfrey Ablewhite. And a timid, deformed young maid named Rosanna has fallen desperately in love with Franklin (though he's completely oblivious to this).

Then after a dinner party, the Moonstone vanishes, leaving a smudge on a newly-painted door as the only clue. It seems that only someone in the house could have stolen it. But it doesn't turn up in any police sweeps, the priests have alibis, and Rachel flatly refuses to let Sergeant Cuff investigate further. She also refuses to speak to Franklin again. And after several months, Franklin learns of some new clues that could reveal who stole the Moonstone. With the now-retired Cuff and a disgraced doctor's assistant helping him, he sets out to unravel the mystery once and for all.

"The Moonstone" contains a lot of the tropes that later detective novels would use -- reenactment of the crime, red herrings, the culprit being the least likely suspect, and an English country house where you wouldn't expect a theft to take place. It even has TWO detectives -- a quirky police sergeant with plenty of brains, and a gentleman who is bright but kind of inexperienced.

Collins' prose can be a bit bloated at times, but he keeps it moving fast with lots of romantic drama and a hefty dose of humor (the insufferably pious Miss Clack: "Oh, be morally tidy. Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stockings as your faith"). He also switches between different perspectives throughout the book -- part is from the butler Mr. Betteridge, part is from Miss Clack, part is from Franklin Blake himself, and there are little snatches of text from various other people.

And it's quirky. Very quirky. At times it feels like the Victorian equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie, between Betteridge's fanboy preoccupation with Robinson Crusoe (which he uses for EVERYTHING) or Cuff's love of roses (which you wouldn't immediately associate with an elite police detective).

But there is a serious side to Collins' writing as well. Yes, "The Moonstone" has some uncomfortably sexist or racist moments, but he was never afraid to take a jab at the foibles of his own society -- hypocritical piety, stainable reputations or then-legal drug addiction. He also takes an unusually compassionate approach to the servant class in the character of Rosanna Spearman -- though she is plain, deformed and has a checkered history, Collins never mocks her or her hopeless love of Franklin.

He also provides us with a wide range of characters -- from wild young men to stately ladies, from a genial butler to the mysterious priests who are the likeliest suspects... but didn't actually do it. Rachel's melodrama can be a bit irritating at times (why didn't she confront Franklin?), but Franklin grows into a more responsible, thoughtful young man over the story, and he's balanced out nicely by the age and experience of the quirky Cuff and Betteridge.

"The Moonstone" is still a delightful read -- a powerful and sometimes tragic mystery, tempered with quirky humor and a likable cast of characters. While a bit overlong at times, it's still an outstanding little whodunnit.

Persuasion : Complete ITV Adaptation [2007] [DVD]
Persuasion : Complete ITV Adaptation [2007] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Sally Hawkins
Price: £4.79

2.0 out of 5 stars Persuaded not to persuade, 11 Jan. 2015
Out of all Jane Austen's novels, "Persuasion" is probably the hardest one to adapt -- especially since Anne Elliott is a quiet, understated heroine.

So it's not much of a surprise that the 2007 adaptation of "Persuasion" is... well, a bellyflop. The story is strangely pallid and colorless, without any moments of actual passion or intensity -- and despite being simplified and streamlined for Austen noobs, it feels very rushed. And it's hard to tell if the limp, weepy depiction of Anne is due to the direction or actress Sally Hawkins.

Eight years ago, Anne Elliott (Hawkins) was engaged to the handsome, intelligent and impoverished sailor Frederick Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones), but was persuaded to dump him by the family friend Lady Russell (Alice Krige). Now she's twenty-seven (ancient by the time's standards), and her vain father Sir Walter (Anthony Stewart Head) is facing financial ruin.

So Lady Russell convinces Sir Walter to relocate to Bath and rent out the vast family estate -- and it turns out that the new tenant is Frederick's brother-in-law. Of course, Anne still loves Frederick, but he doesn't seem to feel the same, especially since he's rumored to be interested in some younger, flirtier girls.

And Anne's worries increase when she joins her family in Bath, where her concerns clash with her shallow father and sister. Furthermore, her father's entailed heir William (Tobias Menzies) recently reestablished contact with his relatives -- and he seems very interested in Anne. But Anne suspects that he has ulterior motives... even if she doesn't realize how Frederick truly feels about her.

"Persuasion" feels like it was directed by a depressed person -- everything is filmed in a wobbly, pallid way that makes me think of a Regency-era found footage movie. There's no sense of passion here, except for the all-too-frequent scenes where Anne goes to her room to blubber over Frederick seemingly being in love with someone else. When people are injured, or angry, or happy... there's just a sense of grey flatness, underscored by slow violins.

Admittedly it's not a bad way to be introduced to the plot of "Persuasion," especially since the scenery is breathtakingly pretty in the pale light -- the beaches, the forests, the rambling stone houses. The story is rather simplified here... but it still feels rushed. For instance, Mrs. Smith randomly pops up on the street to breathlessly blurt out exposition to Anne, even though Anne supposedly visited her earlier in the movie. It feels overstuffed and stripped-down at the same time.

And the climax is unintentionally absurd. First Anne goes on a wild "Run Lola Run" sprint through Bath twice (which, in Regency dress, looks completely silly). Then she has the world's least sexy kissing scene with Wentworth, where she keeps opening and closing her mouth pre-kiss -- it's like watching a hungry fish trying to reach a hook.

I'll give Hawkins and Penry-Jones credit -- they do pretty well with their characters, although Penry-Jones looks a bit pale to be a professional sailor. Unfortunately, Anne is... kind of spineless and gormless here. She cries a lot, and never shows even a flicker of spirit where Wentworth is concerned -- it's hard to see why a strong sea-captain would be attracted to her. And the movie wastes Krige and Stewart-Head, neither of whom get to do much -- she flutters around anxiously, and he fusses. That's it.

But I'm... simply mesmerized by Amanda Hale's performance. It is possibly the most bizarre performance I have ever seen in a movie -- her Mary honestly comes across as mentally disabled sometimes. It just left me wondering... whose idea was that?

"Persuasion" is a decent introduction to Jane Austen's story if you've never read the book or seen any other adaptation... but for those familiar with Austen's works, this rushed, joyless version will fail to persuade.

Bleak House - BBC (3 Disc Special Edition) [DVD] [2005]
Bleak House - BBC (3 Disc Special Edition) [DVD] [2005]
Dvd ~ Gillian Anderson
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Bleak and secretive, 11 Jan. 2015
Out of all Charles Dickens' novels, "Bleak House" is the most daunting to adapt -- a complicated book with many characters and multiple storylines.

And the latest BBC adaptation of that novel more or less captures the story: a grey, misty experience where unpleasant secrets are buried just under the surface. Some of the details are trimmed off, but the story is compelling and dramatic and the talented cast -- with Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson and Denis Lawson in the spotlight -- are more than enough to drive it forward.

The bizarre case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce has been dragging on for years, and the latest claimants are a pair of orphans, Richard (Patrick Kennedy) and Ada (Carey Mulligan). An unrelated orphan, Esther Summerson (Martin) is hired to be Ada's companion, and all three are moved into the home of the wealthy John Jarndyce (Lawson). Richard and Ada fall in love, but his aimless ways throw their future into doubt, especially when he runs through three potential careers in a matter of weeks.

At the same time, wealthy and bored Lady Dedlock (Anderson) recognizes the handwriting of a mysterious opium addict known only as Nemo (whose actual name turns out to be Captain Hawdon), and begins making inquiries about the circumstances of his life and death. Her husband's sinister lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance) notices her interest, and begins gathering information about whatever she's keeping secret.

That secret involves Esther, who is struggling with a one-two punch of losing the man she loves (to the navy, not to death) and disfiguring smallpox. And after Tulkinghorn threatens to reveal Lady Dedlock's secret, he's found dead -- and Lady Dedlock soon finds herself the primary suspect.

Even though "Bleak House" is a pared-down version of the novel, there is still a wealth of important characters and subplots that are hard to summarize -- there's Caddy and her quest to escape her mom, her marriage and baby; the weird old lady with the dozens of birds and the creepy landlord; and the whole odd situation with Lady Dedlock and her two maids -- one of whom she seems to see as a surrogate daughter.

While the story initially seems cluttered with lots of extra subplots, they all slowly wind together into the main ones, which are on the orphans/Jarndyce Vs. Jarndyce, and Esther's secret connection to Lady Dedlock. Even small scenes and characters are often a part of this. Perhaps "Bleak House's" biggest problem is that it's... well, bleak. Everything is grey and shadowy, which sometimes makes it hard to see what's going on. The only well-lit scenes -- perhaps symbolically -- are at Bleak House when Jarndyce is around.

The acting in this is quite good, especially from the three lead characters. Martin is well-cast as the quiet, rather downtrodden Esther, whose purity acts like a candle to moths -- at least three guys develop feelings for her, ranging from Guppy's temporary stalker-crush to Jarndyce's sweet self-sacrificing love. Lawson also adds some dimension to Dickens' stock kindly-uncle figure -- Jarndyce is a genuinely good man, but also somewhat moody and awkward.

And of course, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. She's kind of wooden when she complains about boredom, but is pretty excellent when she has something to work with -- icy and haughty, but with deep currents under her alabaster face. Mulligan and Kennedy do acceptable jobs, but at times their characters feel like naive annoyances to the characters who have actual problems.

"Bleak House" strips down a bit of the story, but the complicated core of Dickens' novel is intact -- complicated subplots, a solid cast and a dramatic period-soap-opera presentation. Just pop a LOT of popcorn, because this is a long, long series.

Coriolanus: Donmar Warehouse (Modern Plays)
Coriolanus: Donmar Warehouse (Modern Plays)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.27

4.0 out of 5 stars With thy grim looks, 11 Jan. 2015
Politicians and/or military generals get in trouble for all sorts of reasons -- corruption, sex scandals, treachery, being a crack addict, etc.

But you don't often hear about them getting in trouble for being brutally honest about what they think... partly because it never happens. Yet this is what happens in "Coriolanus," Shakespeare's gritty tragedy about a great but unlikeable man who is manipulated into exile, and whose loyalties must be stoked back to Rome. The biggest problem is perhaps that NOBODY in this play is really likable.

Roman general Caius Coriolanus is leading a war against the Volscians, led by his nemesis Tullus Aufidius. After he wins a decisive victory against Aufidius, and gains the city of Corioles for Rome, he's welcomed back as a hero and given the official name of "Coriolanus." His glory-hungry mother encourages him to strike while the iron is hot, and run for consul.

Here's the problem: Coriolanus has a lot of contempt for the common people, and when his political enemies Brutus and Sicinius arrange for the crowds to be filled with... well, the sort of gullible idiots you're confronted with at every election. You know, the people who are shocked when politicians turn out to be liars, and whose convictions are so deep that one heckler can change their minds.

So when the crowds are swayed against him, Coriolanus ends up having a massive public outburst that not only kills his political career, but gets him exiled. He ends up going to the Volscians to serve under his beloved enemy Aufidius (the foe yay between these two is very textually-supported), turning the tide of the war against Rome. Is there any way to bring his old loyalties back?

"Coriolanus" is not one of Shakespeare's better-known tragedies -- compare to "Othello," "Macbeth" or "Hamlet" -- and that may be because it doesn't really have a relatable protagonist. Coriolanus is just not a very likable guy. He's a man whose outer armor is so thickened that only rage and bitterness can seep through, partly because of the way his mother has always encouraged him to fight and die for Rome.

And it becomes obvious early on why he is that way: Volumnia, a stalwart Roman woman whose only interest in life seems to be what glory her son can capture ("Had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country, than one voluptuously surfeit out of action"). She's the strongest force in the plot besides Coriolanus himself -- she's so obsessed with her son that she tries to insert herself in his marriage.

But if Coriolanus is not a likable person, then at least he spits out constant, impassioned speeches ("My throat to thee and to thy ancient malice/Which not to cut would show thee but a fool/Since I have ever follow'd thee with hate..."). There is a raw power into Shakespeare's verse, which gives it a blade-sharp intensity whenever one of the more passionate people opens their mouths.

And the tragedy of Coriolanus' downfall is perhaps that it's tied in with the aggressive, resentful attitude that has made him a great leader. His loyalty to Rome is easily turned on its head when the people he despises turn on him, and only revived in time to destroy him once and for all.

"Coriolanus" is not the easiest to read of Shakespeare's tragedies, merely because the titular character is just not as complex as Shakespeare's best. But it's nevertheless a powerful, passionate piece of work.

The Comedy of Errors: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
The Comedy of Errors: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.35

4.0 out of 5 stars A comedy of twin-switching, 11 Jan. 2015
Identical twins have only one purpose in movies and plays: to cause mass confusion when people mix them up.

So the mayhem is doubled in "The Comedy of Errors," which has not one but TWO sets of identical twins who are totally unaware of each other's existence. Shakespeare's adaptation of a Plautus play is basically non-stop wackiness and slapstick, without much plot besides the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios constantly being mistaken (and sometimes mistaking each other) for their twin brothers.

The Syracusan merchant Egeon is condemned to death in Ephesus for entering the city, for... some reason that's never very well explained. He can only be saved if he pays one thousand marks within one day. So he tells the Ephesian Duke his tale of woe -- his wide Aemilia gave birth to identical twin boys, on the same day a poor woman also produced identical twin boys to be their slaves. But then his wife, one baby and one slave baby were lost in a shipwreck, leaving Egeon with the other twins. Now Antipholus has gone out in search of his lost twin, accompanied by his slave Dromio.

Got that? It's pretty much the setup for the whole plot. Here's the problem: the missing twins are actually in Ephesus, and are also named Antipholus and Dromio. Even better, neither of them has any weight, scars, haircuts or fashion eccentricities that keep them from being mistaken for each other. What wackiness!

So when Dromio (Ephesus) mistakes Antipholus (Syracuse) for his master, he ends up getting his butt kicked -- and even worse, Antipholus' (Ephesus) wife Adriana mistakes Antipholus (Syracuse) for her husband and thinks he's cheating on her. But her unknown brother-in-law-mistaken-for-her-husband instead falls in love with her sister. Oh, and Dromio (Ephesus) also has a comically unattractive wife, whom Dromio (Syracuse) is desperate to get away from. Wackiness!

While she dines with his identical twin, Antipholus (Ephesus) is irritated at being locked out his house, dines with a courtesan and orders a gold chain... all of which causes even more madcap antics: arrests, accusations of theft, the Dromios getting their butts kicked again, and Adriana thinking her husband is cheating, crazy and/or possessed.

As evidenced by the summary, "The Comedy of Errors" doesn't have much actual plot. It has exactly three things going on:
A) Other people mistake one Antipholus/Dromio set for the other;
B) Either Antipholus or Dromio (either one) mistakes the other for his brother (or vice versa).
C) Either Antipholus/Dromio pair gets in trouble for something the other ones did.

So our dear Willie Shakespeare frolicks in farce, skips through slapstick and cavorts through comedy. This isn't exactly his wittiest or subtlest play he wrote (Dromio compares his sister-in-law's butt to Ireland because of the... um, peat bogs), but it shows his considerable skill at juggling a complicated plot, lots of accusations and misunderstandings, which all ultimately culminates in a massive goofy confrontation between all the characters. In fact, I'm shocked Hollywood has not adapted this yet.

A lot of the comedy comes from Shakespeare's many silly word puns, topical jokes (Nell's forehead is France, because it is "armed and reverted, making war against her heir"), and the Antipholuses constantly beating up the Dromios. There is some occasional pretty verbal wooing ("Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs/And as a bed I'll take them and there lie"), but it's mostly reliant on puns and gags.

The one problem? This is one of those stories that requires the entire cast to be idiots. Admittedly there wouldn't be a plot if they WEREN'T idiots, but none of them ever make the connection of "missing identical twins" with "people claiming I did and said things I didn't do."

It's genuinely amazing that Hollywood hasn't yet adapted "The Comedy of Errors," because Shakespeare's fluffiest comedy is perfectly suited -- mistaken identities, mayhem, gags and slapstick.

Mirrormask/Labyrinth/The Dark Crystal [DVD]
Mirrormask/Labyrinth/The Dark Crystal [DVD]
Dvd ~ Jason Barry

5.0 out of 5 stars Light and magic, 11 Jan. 2015
Of course, we all remember Jim Henson for bringing us those fuzzy, adorable animal puppets and their variety show. But Henson also produced some very memorable, intriguing fantasy films, and after his death his production company has continued that tradition. "The Jim Henson Fantasy Film Collection" brings together three classic films from Henson and his company.

"Labyrinth" becomes a problem for teenage Sarah, who is stuck babysitting her crying baby stepbrother. But when she idly wished that the goblins would steal him, she never expected it to happen -- or that the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) would challenge her if she tries to get her brother back.

Now Sarah has only thirteen hours to navigate a changing, hazardous maze, with Jareth's castle at the center of it. To find her way, she will have to befriend strange creatures and avoid lethal bogs, nasty fairies, head-jugglers, and finally Jareth himself -- or her brother will be turned into a goblin himself.

"The Dark Crystal" is the heart of this movie, where on another world, there are two strange races -- the enormous, gentle, peaceful Mystics, and the nasty, vulture-like, vicious Skekses. They are somehow connected to a massive crystal that was broken long ago, and now a shard is missing from it. What's more, three suns are about to come into conjunction, and the shard has to be back in place.

The Mystics have cared for one of the last Gelflings, an orphan named Jen. As the conjunction approaches, they send him out to find the lost shard. Along the way, Jen finds new friends who assist him in his quest, including another Gelfling. But can they avoid the Skekses? And what will happen when the suns line up, and the crystal is completed?

These movies were created in whole by Jim Henson, and even in the darker moments, they have his unmistakeable stamp. More recent -- and quite different in tone -- is "Mirrormask," which instead has the stamp of writer Neil Gaiman, and seems like a warped "Alice in Wonderland." But Henson's production company does a great job with all the weird special effects.

In "Mirrormask," we're introduced to Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a young circus girl who longs for a "normal" life, and makes elaborate, otherworldly drawings. But one night her mother collapses, and needs life-saving surgery. The guilt-ridden Helena is suddenly whisked into a world that looks very like her drawings, where everyone has a mask -- and the beautiful queen of light (who looks a lot like Helena's mom) is in a coma.

Helena is determined to wake the queen, and gets juggler Valentine (Jason Barry) to accompany her on her quest for the mysterious Mirrormask. But the stakes become higher when the forces of darkness -- and their eerie queen -- target Helena, and she finds that a dark duplicate of herself has taken over her life. Now Helena must somehow defeat the dark forces, with her mother's life -- and her own -- hanging in the balance.

While all three films are very different kinds of fantasy, they are all coming-of-age stories, whether for a teenage girl or a Muppet Gelfling -- they all focus on someone pursuing something that can save what is important to them, and growing as a person along the way. Sometimes they can be a bit goofy -- the self-dismembering Fireys -- but each film is filled with a genuine sense of wonder, erupting with magical worlds and bizarre characters.

What's more, the styles of each movie change: "Dark Crystal" is very fantastical and serious, even with some gross, dark parts, while "Labyrinth" is more kiddy-friendly and Muppety, with the little chivalrous fox (though Bowie's tight pants are a BIG distraction). And "Mirrormask" has a different style altogether, with lots of shadowy buildings, eerie lighting, fleshy masks, wide bodies and tentacle-like limbs.

The "Jim Henson Fantasy Films" are a good collection of films, showing off the more fantastical side of Henson's company -- from dark fantasy to whimsical Muppety stuff.

Death Comes to Pemberley [DVD]
Death Comes to Pemberley [DVD]
Dvd ~ Matthew Rhys
Price: £3.70

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Murder at the Darcys', 11 Jan. 2015
Out of all the Jane Austen fanfictions, P.D. James' "Death Comes to Pemberley" is probably the most successful.

So it's not that surprising that the BBC decided to turn this murder-mystery sequel to "Pride and Prejudice" into a miniseries. And it's a fairly decent little whodunnit, with beautiful visuals, a socially awkward love triangle and a lot of familiar faces... and the major downside is some less-than-ideal casting for the main characters, Lizzie and Darcy.

On the eve of a ball, Pemberley is thrown into an uproar when a hysterical Lydia (Jenna Coleman) comes charging in -- and Wickham (Matthew Goode) is found with the corpse of his old friend, Captain Denny. Someone whacked Denny on the head, and Wickham is sobbing that he killed him.

Darcy (Matthew Rhys) is reluctant to believe that Wickham could have committed the murder, especially since it would bring a wave of scandal to Pemberley. But the magistrate Hardcastle (Trevor Eve) has no other suspects, and between Wickham's hysterical confession and being alone in the woods with Denny, he's sort of the perfect culprit.

Meanwhile, Lizzie (Anna Maxwell Martin) is perplexed by a series of odd occurrences -- a mysterious woman in the woods near Pemberley, a baby with an unknown father, and a love triangle between Georgiana Darcy (Eleanor Tomlinson) and two suitors. As she struggles to deal with the scandal's effects on her marriage, she begins to realize that there's a connection between these three problems, which may be the key to solving the murder.

"Death Comes to Pemberley" is pretty lightweight as a murder mystery -- I figured out the murderer's identity before the murder even took place. Furthermore, not a lot of actual detective work takes place. Darcy deals with the comedic court goings-on (most of the audience seems there for the LOLs) while Lizzie collects random clues that eventually gel together.

It's more enjoyable as a Regency drama, and as one of the few competent sequels to "Pride and Prejudice" -- it's told with respect to the original story, and fleshes out some of the storylines (Mrs. Younge, Wickham's ongoing caddishness) from that novel. It's also beautifully filmed, set in an exquisite mansion, sprawling manicured grounds and some truly lovely forests -- it's almost a shame when the attention is drawn to nearby towns.

Unfortunately, the main characters aren't well-cast. Rhys seems stiff and stodgy as Darcy, rather than the passionate, sometimes grim figure he should be. And Martin... well, she seems a bit too old and plain for the role of Lizzie, and she doesn't really have the witty charisma that you would expect. In fact, Lizzie spends most of her time just floating around Pemberley and arguing with people.

It's a shame, because most of the casting is spot-on -- the Bennetts, Coleman as the pert and shallow Lydia, Tomlinson as a dewy-eyed Georgiana, Mariah Gale as Mrs. Younge, and so on. Gale gives a particularly good performance as the perennial wastrel Wickham, who has caused yet another scandal; however, we do see Wickham scared and desperate. Tom Ward does a pretty passable job as Colonel Fitzwilliam, but it's never made clear when or why he became an untrustworthy, manipulative jerk.

"Death Comes to Pemberley" is fairly flat as a mystery and has some lackluster lead actors, but it's an acceptable sequel to the immortal Austen novel. And if nothing else, enjoy the superb supporting cast.

The Audrey Hepburn Collection (Breakfast At Tiffany's / Funny Face / Sabrina) [DVD]
The Audrey Hepburn Collection (Breakfast At Tiffany's / Funny Face / Sabrina) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Audrey Hepburn
Price: £10.25

5.0 out of 5 stars I love your funny face, 11 Jan. 2015
Audrey Hepburn is one of those rare actresses who remains untarnished by time. A lot of actresses have tried to imitate her look, but they couldn't manage the same onscreen grace and skill.

She also was absurdly good at romantic comedies of all kinds, whether playing a polished ingenue, a damaged party girl or an earnest nerd-turned-model. "The Audrey Hepburn Collection" brings together three of her most beloved comedic turns -- "Funny Face," "Sabrina" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" -- which show Hepburn at her most charming and enchanting. The clothes aren't bad either.

"Sabrina" (Hepburn) is the daughter of the chauffeur at the palatial Larabee estate. She's also in love with the ne'er-do-well second son, David (William Holden), but is sent away to Paris to attend a cooking school. And with the help of a fairy godcount, she gains sophistication, ambition, and confidence... as well as the ability to make a souffle properly ("A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven!").

When she returns to the Larabees' estate, David is instantly smitten with the poised young lady. But even if marrying a chauffeur's daughter were okay with his family, his brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) has arranged a business marriage for David to finance a newly-patented glass formula. And to make sure David doesn't run off with Sabrina, Linus begins wooing her too... and falling in love for real.

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a daily ritual for Holly Golightly (Hepburn), a social butterfly who hosts parties, entertains drunken men every evening, and dreams of owning a horse farm in Mexico. When Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into a neighboring apartment -- courtesy of his rich "patroness" (Patricia Neal) -- he is instantly enchanted by the ditzy, sweet-natured Holly.

But for all Holly's fun, Paul starts to realize that all is not well with her. She's desperate to marry rich to fulfill her fantasies, visits a notorious gangster, and hides that she was an illiterate teen bride whose first husband is still skulking around the place. As Holly's life starts to deteriorate, Paul sets out to show her what her life will be like without real love.

And finally, "Funny Face" finds a place in high fashion when fashion queen Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) decides that the new look (aside from pink) will be highbrow and intellectual. So she and her gang invade a pretentious little bookstore for the shoot and leave it in shambles. Photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) has a brief discussion with the nerdy bookstore owner Jo (Hepburn) -- and decides that she would make a perfect model.

Jo hates the fashion industry ("It is chichi, and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics!") but is willing to be their new model if it gets her to Paris, so she can meet philosopher Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). Of course, Dick and Jo begin to fall in love -- but his irreverence towards the milieu that she adores might drive a wedge between them, especially the not-so-intellectual Flostre.

Each one of these movies is pure fantasy -- of being a real-life Cinderella (with no approaching midnight), of being scooped up to be a model, and of being the glamorous Holly Golightley (with the assurance that you'll find REAL love by the movie's end). There's nothing deep or serious about any of these movies, except whatever complicating action might get in the way of the romantic ending.

And Audrey Hepburn is, oddly enough, perfectly suited to all three of them -- elegant, quirky and beautiful, but not in an obvious way. And while her "transformation" as Sabrina is... well, mostly a new hairstyle and wardrobe, she works well as all three -- a dancing bohemian, a chic young cook, and a sprightly socialite. Admittedly Jo's pseudo-philosophical gibberish sounds a bit clunky in her mouth, but she pulls off the slightly awkward smart-girl thing as well as she does singing "Moon River."

The "Audrey Hepburn Collection" brings together three frothy little romantic comedies, with Hepburn pulling off three different chic fantasies. A pleasant way to pass an afternoon.

Only Lovers Left Alive [DVD] [2014]
Only Lovers Left Alive [DVD] [2014]
Dvd ~ Tilda Swinton
Price: £5.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Oh my darling, why don't you just come here and kiss me?", 11 Jan. 2015
The premise of this movie might make the more jaded moviegoer roll their eyes. Another story of thin, pale, artistic vampires angsting over their immortality?

But consider: Jim Jarmusch is the director, and it stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton.

Yep. Even though the vampire craze burned itself out a year or two ago, "Only Lovers Left Alive" shows that it will never truly die. This is no teen romance starring gel-haired models -- this is a melancholy, bittersweet tale of love, blood and rock'n'roll, drifting in its own little moonlit world. Swinton and Hiddleston are truly sublime as longtime loves who draw strength from each other, but have trouble with the visiting relatives.

Adam (Hiddleston) is a standard vampire -- he's lived for many centuries, and now he's depressed by the way the world is turning out. He spends all his time hiding in a decrepit Detroit house, recording shoegazer music and uploading it anonymously onto the Internet. His only contact with the outside world is when he buys blood donations from a hospital, and when his "zombie" Ian (Anton Yelchin) brings him new vintage guitars.

So he pays Ian to make him a wooden bullet, planning to commit suicide by shooting himself in the heart. But his wife Eve (Swinton), who has been living in Tangiers for some years, senses his despair and decides to come visit him.

The two lovers reunite, and Eve manages to pull Adam from his stupor -- talking, dancing, chess, blood popsicles, lovemaking (implied) and late-night meanderings through the empty streets. But then Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) makes herself at home in Adam's house, disrupting their lives with her reckless behavior. And when she does something unforgivable, she may force Adam and Eve to leave as well.

The vampires of "Only Lovers Left Alive" are very different from the sleek kind you find in most movies -- they have wild untamed hair, odd clothing, and live in shadowy houses cluttered with whatever they love. Mostly they drift around the night, having odd elliptical conversations that subtly hint at how different they from humans ("I just feel like all the sand is at the bottom of the hour glass or something").

The first half of the movie is about Eve and Adam reconnecting, and how she gradually drags him out of his self-indulgent torpor. But the second half is sparked off by the presence of Ava -- she's pretty clearly going to cause problems right from the start, which sends the lovers spiraling off into the night.

I know, it sounds tedious... but the mixture of vampires, rock'n'roll and romance is strangely hypnotic. Jarmusch's direction is dreamlike and languid here, drifting over the vampire's faces as they lose themselves in their dances and blood ecstasy. Grittiness, decay, pale golden light in the streets. But he sharpens his focus in the latter half, as the lovers encounter a real problem that they have to deal with.

Also, Christopher Marlowe (as played by John Hurt) appears in this for... some reason. I think it's just to awkwardly air Jarmusch's anti-Stratfordian sentiments, but the significance of this character is... completely unknown.

It's hard to imagine two better actors for this movie than Swinton and Hiddleston. They LOOK like vampires -- tall, slender, androgynous and pale as the moon. Swinton plays Eve as a roaming bibliophile who soaks up knowledge like a sponge, delighting in the many things she's seen and done; Hiddleston's Adam is a moody, melancholy mess who hides away from the problems -- and the joys -- of life. They beautifully exude the air of a couple who has been together literally for ages; after years apart, they reunite with a warmth devoid of awkwardness, as if Eve had only left for a weekend.

"Only Lovers Left Alive" is a vampire romance for the people sick of vampire romances -- a languid, rock'n'roll-infused tale of joie-de-vivre lost and regained. A work of art, and worth it alone for the performances by Swinton and Hiddleston.

Black Books: Series 1 [DVD]
Black Books: Series 1 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Dylan Moran
Offered by E-SEO Ltd
Price: £2.96

5.0 out of 5 stars The pay's not great, but the work is hard, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Black Books: Series 1 [DVD] (DVD)
Somewhere in London, there is a tiny indie bookstore run by the rudest and most misanthropic Irishman since Father Jack Hackett.

Nobody in their right mind would actually shop at Black Books. But watching it? That's a whole other story -- "Black Books - The Complete First Series" is one of the funniest and most underrated Britcoms in history, mixing gloriously wacky dialogue ("I ate all your bees!") with characters so dysfunctional that it is amazing they can even stay alive. This is one of those rare shows that is practically perfect in every way.

Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) runs Black Books in the heart of London... except he seems to have started his business without the awareness that PEOPLE come to bookstores. As a result, he does whatever he can to avoid selling or buying books because that would be work he doesn't want to do. His only friend is Fran (Tamsin Greig) who owns a pretentious junk store two doors down.

But when his accountant runs from the police, Bernard has to do his own taxes -- and after failing miserably, he tries to find a way around it. Self-mutilation and hanging out with door-to-door missionaries are some of his options. His saving grace might be Manny (Bill Bailey), an overstressed accountant who accidentally swallowed and absorbed "The Little Book of Calm," turning him into a holy avatar of relaxation advice.

Bernard drunkenly asks Manny to work at his store, and with some violent intervention by Fran, Manny settles into the filthy little apartment behind the bookstore. Of course, there's immediately lots of comedic mayhem -- they must recreate a bottle of unique wine for the pope, Manny becomes a 70s cop and a beard-prostitute, Bernard ends up wandering the streets all night, and Bernard and Fran swap stories about how he broke his arm (drunken dinner party) and she broke her neck (relationship drama).

"Black Books" was co-created by Graham Linehan, who also made "Father Ted" and "The IT Crowd. It's honestly a shame that it hasn't gotten the widespread love that those shows have -- this is one of those comedies where everything is just RIGHT. The cast, the characters, the writing, the mundane situations blossoming into sheer absurdity -- this is comic gold in every vein.

This is one of those shows that takes something mundane -- house-sitting, taxes, dinner parties, getting locked out -- and explodes it into absurdity. For instance, Bernard's attempt to do his taxes leads to him shrieking "What? What?" and gibbering about his mother. To avoid doing them, he ends up entertaining door-to-door evangelists, tries to get a customer to kneecap him, and eventually starts provoking skinheads in the street. And this isn't even the weirdest thing he and Manny get up to -- they practically act out the whole Frankenstein scenario while trying to create a wine out of household items.

It doesn't hurt that the dialogue is gutsplittingly funny ("Right now I'm eating scrambled eggs, with a comb, from a shoe!"). Every scene and subplot is packed with this sort of interplay, like Bernard hanging out in a porn shop asking for the most obscure kind he can think of ("Senior Administrative Nurses"), just so he won't have to pennilessly wander the cold wet streets for a few more minutes.

But the real crowning gem is the cast. All three of them have superb chemistry with each other, and they fill their roles out nicely -- the hardcore misanthrope, the nice guy, and the sensible person who deals with them both. Series co-creator/star Moran is absolutely hysterical, with his mad-scientist hair and his constant efforts to keep people out of his store, but there's something weirdly endearing about Bernard's grumpy-cat face and constant complaints. Maybe he just voices some of the less-tolerable thoughts we all have ("You know what you are? You're a beard with an idiot hanging off it").

But don't downplay how much Greig and Bailey bring to it -- Bailey plays a sweet innocent guy who balances out Bernard's sourness while sometimes living in his own little world, while Greig plays a hilarious woman who has a disastrous love life and a shop full of useless gadgets she can't even identify. And if you squint, you can find early appearances by pre-fame Martin Freeman and Nick Frost.

"Black Books - The Complete First Series" is one of those rarest of sitcoms: the ones that are actually good and funny almost all the time. No one can truly call themselves a Britcom fan unless they've seen this one.

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