Monday 26 September 2011

Movie Monday: Sweeney Todd

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Ah, don’t you love a good musical? Jolly-jolly, feel-good fun-and games, full of cheery cockneys bursting into song at the slightest provocation; fun for all the family! No? Perhaps not. In 2007, Tim Burton took on the challenge of adapting Stephen Sondheim’s classic tale of madness, revenge and pies; a bleak and blood-soaked, yet darkly comic masterpiece, with murders you can really hum.*
sweeney todd and lovett poster
I confess, my initial reaction to hearing about this film was to groan and roll my eyes at the casting. Nothing against either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter, both of whom I have a great respect for, but I felt that the Burton/Depp/Bonham-Carter collaborations were getting a bit beyond a joke. There are other actors in the world, you know. And the trailer didn’t help matters. Depp’s mockney accent was disconcertingly reminiscent of his role as Captain Jack Sparrow. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to shake the loveable rogue from my mind, but his first appearance allayed my fears. The characters may share the accent and cheekbones, but there the resemblance ends. The hatred and sarcasm that infuses every word as he sneers, “There’s no place like London!” is as far from the irrepressible pirate as you can get. In fact, when I saw a clip of a Pirates film recently, it took me a moment to remind myself that it actually was the same actor. Todd’s mind is a dark, bitter place, seen through dead-looking eyes occasionally animated by a crazed spark.

Yet Sondheim’s version of Sweeney Todd is more than just a pantomime psychopath, but a man driven over the edge by injustice, grief and an obsession with revenge. His backstory helps the viewer to understand his motivation and not quite disapprove as much as one might expect. After all: It’s man devouring man, my dear/and who are we to deny it in here?” I have to say, I agree with Discworld's Sam Vimes, and can't see why anyone would want someone else waving a sharp blade anywhere near their neck in the first place. Especially if one is a creep and a villain who makes enemies like Mrs Lovett makes pies.

There is a stellar cast featuring many Harry Potter veterans – perhaps not surprising as most British actors have featured in that series – all Death Eaters, former Death Eaters or other Dark Wizards. As well as Helena Bonham Carter, we have a gloriously disturbing performance from Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin, and Timothy “Wormtail” Spall as the crawling yes-man Beadle Bamford. Finally, newcomer Jamie Campbell Bower (Gellert Grindelwald) appears as the young romantic hero, whose name refuses to stick in my head and so therefore will be called Pretty Boy forever and always. Campbell Bower had a lovely tenor singing voice, but his facial acting was, shall we say, not quite there yet. I discussed this with my sister during the scenes in which he was caught “gandering” at Sweeney’s daughter by her guardian Judge Turpin.
Me: If Alan Rickman’s Voice was doing that to me, I wouldn’t be looking mildly curious. I wouldn’t need to act; I’d actually be terrified.
Jen: I don’t know; I think this is his "”I’m peeing myself and trying not to look cold and damp” look.
Maybe my heart is as black as Sweeney’s, but I found the love story between Johanna and Pretty Boy rather silly, if not downright Twilight-creepy. Either Pretty Boy is lacking some of his wits, or has a misplaced sense of chivalry, but after being beaten and thrown from the house, he’s promising to steal you/Johanna! One wonders whether Johanna is fated to exchange a creepy stalker of sixty for one of sixteen…
sweeney todd deppApparently Johnny Depp was nervous about taking a singing role, but he does an admirable job. His singing voice is unpolished, a bit harsh, but full of emotion and always true to the character. He is, after all, an actor first and foremost. Depp leads the cast well, and his voice contrasts nicely with Jamie Campbell Bower’s pure, soaring tenor, and Alan Rickman’s menacing bass.

Helena Bonham Carter playing a messy-haired madwoman might sound very familiar to Harry Potter fans, but her Mrs Lovett is a much more subtle character than Bellatrix Lestrange, motherly and down-to-earth, darkly comic in her deadpan, practical manner after her initial shock at discovering that her lodger has just killed a man. “Seems an awful waste//I mean, with the price of meat what it is when you get it/if you get it…” “Ah!” “Good, you’ve got it…!”

Yes, Sweeney Todd is gory and gruesome, but what can you expect with the subject matter? Despite preparing myself I was quite horrified on my first viewing, but after the first murder, one seems to become somewhat desensitised to most of the blood, right until the final murders which become shocking again. But Sweeney Todd is more than an unashamed splatter-fest, and even the messy moments are quite emotional in their way. Musically, my favourite part is the reprise of “Johanna,” when Sweeney and the Pretty Boy are singing two separate melodies. This song charts Sweeney’s descent into madness, and if you listen to the lyrics – wow, they are heartrending! While he mechanically slashes his way through his clients, he seems to be aware that he is becoming disconnected and out of control, vaguely conscious of his loss of self and purpose and his inevitable fate.
“I think we shall not meet again/my little dove/my sweet/Johanna”
“And though I’ll think of you, I guess, until the day I die/I think I miss you less and less as every day goes by/Johanna!”
Curse you, Stephen Sondheim, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for a barber who murders his clients and turns them into pies!

5 buttons

I’m off to see the stage show in Chichester this week. No Death Eaters in this version, but another Harry Potter veteran whose character was actually even more unpleasant! This version will star Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd and Imelda Staunton playing Mrs Lovett. I can’t wait.

*Maskerade, Terry Pratchett

Sunday 25 September 2011

Paranormalcy, Kiersten White

I'd been vaguely aware of Paranormalcy for a while, from other people's "mailbox" and review posts, but I'll be honest, it really didn't jump out and grab me, probably because of the title. I'd been coming to think the word "paranormal" to be a bit overused, an easy categorisation of an entire genre of books, without anything to say what makes this one different. Also, as a Brit, the word "normalcy" just doesn't sound right, and that, too, might have turned me off. But then, I happened upon author Kiersten White's blog, and after reading a few posts, decided I wanted to see more, went out and bought the book.

Yesterday, I was sorting through my books, picked up Paranormalcy to add to my to-read pile, then flicked it open. I was going to pick up and reread The Princess Bride, but upon opening Paranormalcy, literally from the first line or two, I could not put this book down.

The first chapter was called, "Oh, Bite Me!"
"Wait- did you- You just yawned!" The vampire's arms, raised over his head in the classic Dracula pose, dropped to his sides. He pulled his exaggerated white fangs back behind his lips. "What, imminent death isn't exciting enough for you?""Oh, stop pouting. But really,the widow's peak? The pale skin? The black cape? Where did you even get that thing, a costume store?"
I had to read more. Just one more sentence, to see if it was as funny as the last, and another, to find out what exactly was going on. It didn't take very long to get a clear picture of narrator Evie: Sassy, snarky, exuding attitude, but a girly-girl at heart. She might be employed by the International Paranormal Containment Agency to track down supernatural creatures - vampires, werewolves, faeries, you name it - for monitoring, but despite her unusual life, Evie herself is just a normal teenage girl, who would like nothing better than to be an ordinary high school student with a driving license and a locker. Just because she has the unique ability to see beneath the glamours - magical disguises and illusions - of "paranormals" - doesn't mean she herself is anything but normal.

But then immortal creatures start dropping dead by the dozen, and the person responsible is somehow connected to Evie. They seem to have more in common with each other than any of the other weird and wonderful creatures IPCA is keeping tabs on. Perhaps Evie's not as normal as she thought.

I'm usually wary of fantasy stories set in the real world which have too many different species of impossible creatures, preferring to stick to just one. But Paranormalcy really worked. Although "paranormals" aren't known to most humans, to Evie they're just differently normal. Her best friend is a mermaid, her ex-boyfriend a faerie, many of her colleagues werewolves, and her new crush Lend is something no one quite knows how to classify. It had a bit of an Eyre Affair feel to me, with its humour and matter-of-fact acceptance of the bizarre. The book launches straight into the action, the world-building being done by immersion rather than exposition, but it is easily picked up and understood.

At first I was a bit surprised that Evie was only sixteen; her bag-and-tag job seemed far too dangerous for one so young. But as we get to know her, she is a very realistic teenager, sometimes a bit bratty but basically likable, funny, obsessed with all things pink and sparkly and her favourite high school soap opera. I found her fascination with all things high school very understandable - I'd have loved to go to an American high school, or a boarding school, just to see how different it was from my own school experience!

Kiersten White has a refreshing take on various different "paranormals" from myth and literature. Her vampires may look suave and seductive, but all Evie sees is walking corpses. Sexy(!) Her friend Lish, the mermaid, lives in a tank of water and can't speak English, so has a computer translate her speech for her. But some of her more imaginative language translates to "bleep," something that Evie picked up. I'm not sure whether "bleep" necessarily worked in this book all the time. I liked the idea of it as an in-joke that turned into a habit, and I certainly think that less is more when it comes to swearing, but it sometimes jarred, if it was at a point of high tension - I'd rather nothing at all than a substitute-swear. But that's a small criticism.

Evie's double, Vivian, was an interesting antagonist that constantly kept me questioning the morality of Evie's world. She was a villain who evoked pity and caused me to wonder whether she was really all that bad, or if there was something in her reasoning. There wasn't a clear-cut black-and-white solution to this tale, which I appreciated.

I've read on other people's reviews that, despite its title, Paranormalcy is more an Urban Fantasy than a Paranormal Romance (which I've translated as meaning that plot and character come first, rather than just being an excuse for the IMBC* mushy stuff.) It is a fun, fast-paced story that had me grinning and turning the pages right the way through. And there was a wonderful jab at Twilight and the like:
Arianna snorted. "Why on earth would a vampire go to high school?"
Why indeed?

*Interchangeable Magical Boyfriend Creature

Friday 23 September 2011

Persuasion, Jane Austen

There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.
I discovered the works of Jane Austen when I was in my late teens: first Northanger Abbey when I was in the sixth form, followed quickly by the rest through the first year or so at university. Persuasion was my least favourite at first, although I've come to appreciate it more now I'm older. The last of Austen's novels, not published until after her death, Persuasion is a more grown-up tale than her usual social and romantic satires. The cast is older than Austen's usual 17- to 22-year-old heroines; Anne Eliot is twenty-seven and considered by all an old maid. She has experienced life, been disappointed in her dreams and is now making the best of things.

As a young woman, Anne Eliot experienced a whirlwind romance with Frederick Wentworth, an officer in the navy. Advised by a trusted friend that the marriage would be imprudent, Anne broke the engagement, Wentworth's heart and her own. Wentworth went to sea where he made a name and a fortune for himself, while Anne stayed at home with her intolerably snobbish family, putting all the effort in keeping the household running smoothly, and receiving none of the credit. Eight years later, despite Anne's attempt to stop her father and sister from living beyond their means, the Eliots are forced to let out their home, and the new tenants are Captain Wentworth's sister and brother-in-law. Both parties put off their reunion as long as they can, but the inevitable meeting is confirmation for Anne that the passing years have not cooled her love for Captain Wentworth. But what of his feelings? Is this a second chance for the couple to receive their happily-ever-after?

Of course. This is Jane Austen after all. Yet this time the ending doesn't have the usual feel of being a foregone conclusion, and my best friend actually didn't expect it to end well on her first reading. The obstacles between the young lovers are more internal than usual. The first time around, it was the friends' and family's objections that came between Anne and Frederick, which we have seen before in Austen with the Tilneys, the Ferrars, Lady Catherine de Bourgh... you get the picture. The outright snobbery of "NO COMMONER LIKE YOU WILL MARRY MY OFFSPRING," is relatively easily resolved compared with the well-intentioned, "I'm not so sure this is a good idea," of Emma's amateur matchmaking, and here, Lady Russell, Anne's mentor and substitute mother-figure. The difference here is that Lady Russell was successful in her persuasion, and the lovers have to deal with the consequences of this: eight years of anger and hurt on Wentworth's side, and eight years of doubt and regret on Anne's. Most of the scenes containing the former lovers feature very little interaction between them, and yet the tension is palpable. There is a sort of claustrophobia in Anne's acute awareness of Wentworth's every word, every action, and that he, too, is watching her just as closely. The resolution, when at last it comes, is all the sweeter for the book-long wait, and the eight years that preceded the first chapter.
"You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. I have loved none but you." 
I loudly declare myself to be immune to "the mushy stuff," but Persuasion is a romance that makes me feel swoony, a true, deep and constant love that goes above and beyond most of the stories that are labelled as romance. Persuasion used to be my least favourite Austen novel, but now I suspect it is the best.

Thursday 15 September 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Today I bring to you another selection from the Richard and Judy Book Club. This week's review title has been on my to-read pile for a while.

Jusst before her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers she can taste the emotions of everyone who has had a hand in making her food - a weird quirk that is much more of a curse than it sounds, because like food, humans are a complex creation with far more going on inside them than it appears on the outside. The worst thing for Rose is when she eats homemade food as she finds out far more than she ought about her closest loved ones. The lemon cake of the title, baked by her jolly and creative mother, tastes empty. Incomplete. 

The book follows Rose through her childhood as she tries to live a normal life with this curse. Too many people   contribute towards the simplest sandwich, which means every bite Rose eats is a whirlwind of conflicting feelings. It's heartbreaking to see such an essential and normally enjoyable part of life being a burden to a small girl. She also has to deal with her family's secrets. To an outsider, they are a rather average family, each member having their "little ways" but nothing out of the ordinary. Her dad is a very normal, all-American family man and businessman, her brother Joseph showing signs of something like Autism/Asberger's - a scientific genius who has no social skills and does not get the recognition at school he deserves. Mom, the main cook of the family, despite her cheerful exterior, is unfulfilled, disappointed, and Rose can tell instantly from the taste of her cooking when she embarks upon an affair with a colleague. 

I found the first half of the novel to be very readable magic realism, a fascinating concept that was written in such a way as to make you really appreciate food, family and feelings. These things are portrayed as varied, sometimes contradictory, all mixed up together to give a great impression of the unique way in which Rose views the world - an impressive feat. 
In part two of the novel, when our characters are several years older, Bender focuses more upon Joseph, Rose's elder brother. He is still unsocial to the point of reclusiveness, and now he has his own apartment, gives the family much cause for concern by frequently disappearing without explanation. When his mystery is solved, I felt that the book became something else, moving away from the magical realism to become just plain surreal, and I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief. I came to understand what Aimee Bender was aiming for, but did not think she was entirely successful.

Still, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a fascinating, original concept which explores what it means to be human. The small cast is brought to life well, leaving me really feeling that I had got to know Rose, her family and friends inside out. The writing is beautiful and rich, but I was left feeling as though something was missing from the story, that I couldn't quite place.

Monday 12 September 2011

Movie Monday: Coraline

I've been thinking about it, and I really can't come to a conclusion on how strange Coraline really is.
  1. A bit weird
  2. Very weird indeed
  3. Downright twisted
Given that this film is based upon a book by Neil Gaiman, I would be inclined towards the "twisted" explanation, and yet somehow this manages to be a children's film. And it starts off as a fairly standard kids' fantasy in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland or the Chronicles of Narnia. A little girl moves to a new home with her parents, is bored, goes exploring, and finds a little door into another world; a world like and yet not quite like the one she calls home.

In the real world, her parents are far too busy to play with her. In the real world, her dad cooks the dinner - and it's disgusting. In the real world, her parents are intending to plant a beautiful garden, but they hate dirt, and it's raining.

In this world, her parents have nothing better to do than to shower Coraline with the love and attention she craves. In this world, Mother cooks up a feast for every meal, and Father has planted a garden just for Coraline. And they like nothing better than playing outside in the rain and the dirt. Their apartment is just like the one in the real world, but nicer.

Just try not to worry about the buttons...

Coraline draws on the grand old tradition of fairy tales - not the Disneyfied version that we're used to these days, but the darker, stranger originals. I noticed plenty of fairyland motifs throughout the book - the fairy ring of mushrooms, the glass with the hole in it that reveals "Bad things!" "No! Lost things!" (or removes all glamour to show things as they really are.) The first time I watched Coraline I shouted at her "DON'T EAT IT!" when she was at the dinner table with her Other Mother and Other Father, afraid that, like fairy food, it would mean that she would never be able to leave...

Coraline is a stop-motion animation directed by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame. It's not a style of film I usually watch, but it is perfect for this story, with a rather twisty-looking, surreal style that complements the spooky atmosphere of the tale. (A live-action Coraline would be far too disturbing for a kids' film!) I think if this film had existed when I was small, I would have been terrified by the button-eyed characters before their sinister intentions were even revealed, and as such there's a small part of me that shouts "HOW CAN THIS POSSIBLY BE SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN?!" Yet kids love it. (When my colleague's daughter was nine, she was constantly watching this film or reading the book.) And in fact, Coraline is one of those rare stories written by someone who hasn't forgotten what is the right amount of scary for children. Like the works of Roald Dahl, this is far more disturbing for adults than for children. I believe Gaiman deliberately wrote a story that plays upon the worst adult fears - if you ignore your kids, you could lose them forever! - while children read or watch this as an exciting adventure quest.

Sunday 11 September 2011

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

I always feel very inadequate trying to review anything by Neil Gaiman, which may explain why, with the exception of The Graveyard Book, I've always had to read (or watch) his work at least twice before attempting to write about it. Mr Gaiman tackles enormous themes with a deceptive appearance of simplicity, writing with such poetry and beauty that you have to read a passage more than once. I said it of Neverwhere, and I said it of his Doctor Who episode - Neil Gaiman uses fantasy to make the real world make a bit more sense.

American Gods is without doubt Gaiman's masterpiece so far, doing for the whole of the United States of America (or as much of it as will fit within 650-odd pages) what he did for London in Neverwhere. It is a big, sprawling, messy novel, as befits the nation whose story it tells, a country whose identity is made from bits of all other cultures, mixed together to create something unique and unlike any of them.
"This is the only country in the world," said Wednesday, into the stillness, "that worries about what it is.""What?""The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are."
But what exactly is American Gods? What kind of novel is it? It's a cocktail of mythologies combined to make a new mythology. It's a road novel. A journey of self-discovery. A history of a nation, if not a conventional one. There are elements of the thriller. It's not really a fantasy, though it is full of the fantastic. It's not a horror, though there are horrifying elements. It's a hodgepodge of story elements that can't be pigeonholed, don't always fit together and yet it would be a lesser piece of writing without any of the parts. 

The basic premise is this:  What happened to the gods, the folklore, the mythical heroes, when the people who brought them to America have died, or abandoned them, or stopped believing? 
The protagonist is a man known only as Shadow, a huge, quiet man with a Past, released from prison three days early due to the death of his wife. He meets Mr Wednesday, a stranger who knows his name, and who gives him a job, so that he gets mixed up in the affairs of the old gods, who are preparing for a war with the new: Media, Technology, et al. Still grieving his wife - who doesn't let being dead keep her from him - and adjusting to life outside the prison walls, everything Shadow thought he knew about the world is turned upside down.

American Gods is very different in tone from Neverwhere, more challenging, darker and less comic. It is said that Gaiman fans either really like or really dislike this novel. This isn't quite true of me. I prefer Neverwhere, which is one of my favourite novels of all time. Still, I recognise that American Gods might be a better book, is certainly a bigger book (and I don't just mean in the number of pages) and is one to be savoured. It lingers in the mind long after you close the pages, and is one to be read more than once to get the most out of it. I've just finished reading number 2, and feel as though I've only just scratched the surface of what this book is about, or what it's trying to say. My review was never going to do the book justice, so I'll let Mr Ibis have the last word:
"One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.
The tale is the map that is the territory.
You must remember this."

    Friday 2 September 2011

    Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

    With its simple cover illustrated with an old black-and-white photograph, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children can be immediately identified as a strange, spooky book. Apart from the lack of fancy artwork or graphics, there seems to be something a bit uncanny about the girl. Perhaps it's just the obvious oldness of the picture, being blurry, unfocused, not sharp like modern photography. Maybe it's the title. Perhaps it's the fact that the little girl's feet are not quite touching the ground...

    Miss Peregrine is a unique book in that author Ransom Riggs has illustrated his eerie fantasy story with real vintage photographs found and rescued by collectors; photographs that, like the girl on the cover, seem not quite right. The photographs themselves are fascinating, and I would have happily bought this book for them alone. But around the photo collection, Riggs has woven a dark, twisted narrative based around an orphanage that is not as it seems.

    After the death of his beloved grandfather, American teenager Jacob goes to an island off Wales. He hopes to see the children's home where his grandfather spent the war years after his escape from the Nazis in mainland Europe. What Jacob discovers, at first, is a ruin. No one has lived in Miss Peregrine's Home for decades. As he explores deeper, he discovers stranger truths about Miss Peregrine and the children in her care than he could ever have dreamed of.

    This book drew me in straight away, with a strong character in Jacob's grandfather, and the mystery of his death, and his past life. The ruined orphanage is a classic gothic ruined house, thick with atmosphere and unfinished business, on the borderline between uncanny-unexplained and fantasy. I felt that the book was at its best at this point, before the secret of Miss Peregrine's was made clear. Even when the truth began to unfold, I was impressed with the originality and unexpected explanation of a ghostly situation.

    However, once the scene had been set and the story started to get under way, I confess I found myself losing interest. I felt that Miss Peregrine became less remarkable when the danger, the villains and monsters, were identified. The genre seemed to switch from atmospheric ghost story (of a sort) to a much more generic teen fantasy adventure, and it lost its grip on me. It is set up for the possibility of a sequel, but I feel it would be more effective if it were kept concise and unique.
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