Friday 24 March 2017

Ten Things I Love About Beauty And The Beast (2017)

This post contains spoilers for the new film.

Beauty and the Beast has always had a special place in my heart, since I was a little girl. Maybe it's the recognition of a heroine just as much of a dreamer and a bookworm as myself, perhaps it's the songs, the snappy dialogue, the humour. I'm pretty sure a lot of it comes from memories of my younger sister singing the opening number "Belle" and about Gaston's worrying egg habits, with great energy and glee. Whatever the reasons, I love that film, and so when I found out there would be a live-action adaptation, my wariness of remakes instantly became a thing of the past. 

I didn't quite count on just how much I was going to love the new film, though. I don't consider myself a particularly romantic person, especially when it comes to fairy tales and Disney Princesses. I knew I would enjoy the film - how could I not? I was not counting on how happy Beauty and the Beast would make me. Quite aside from the nostalgia factor came the joy of seeing a fresh take on an old favourite, adding new depth and colour to the familiar tale. I fear the new - and the old - Beauty and the Beast will become my latest obsession; I could quite happily move into the cinema for the next month or so, just to keep watching that movie. 

1. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the bookish Belle was always my favourite Disney character. Emma Watson's portrayal plays up not only her academic intelligence, but also her practical, down-to-earth nature and her stubborn independence. She sounds like a believable person, not an actress or a fluttery princess. (although that might be bias on my part, having a similar accent.)  I particularly appreciated her scenes with Gaston, when she turns down his advances with no excuses, no flattery, but a simple "no." Bravo, that girl!

2. Also, who knew Emma Watson could sing? And I don't just mean she has a pretty voice. She knows how to use it - and I think it's actually quite rare to hear such clean, clear diction, without a hint of warble or sliding from one note to another. (Actually, that goes for most of the performers, come to think of it.)

3. Many of the plot holes, continuity errors and flaws of logic that have puzzled me from the animated film are corrected in the update. Originally, we learn that the Prince was given until his twenty-first birthday to break the spell, but Lumiere sings "ten years we've been rusting..." - what kind of enchantress curses a bratty preteen like that? This time around, the time is kept vague. And then consider Belle's puzzling arrangement with the bookseller. How does he stay in business when the only reader in town treats his shop as a library? The new film sees Belle borrowing her books from the priest, Pere Robert, instead.

4. I'm aware this is maybe a controversial one - but I really appreciated LeFou's storyline. A lot of people were unhappy about the unfortunate implications of making the villain's buffoonish henchman Disney's first officially gay character, or felt that because he plays a pretty minor role it was a case of too little, too late, and fair enough. But I thought that after Belle and the the Beast, his was the most interesting subplot - yes, the slapstick sidekick gets a subplot of his own! LeFou is still a comic character - funnier, in fact, in his own right - but gets some wonderful character development in this version, as he gradually comes to realise the friend he adores is a dangerous man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. LeFou's lines in "The Mob Song" gave me the shivers: "There's a beast running wild, there's no question/But I fear the wrong monster's released..."

5. The new film re-introduced some elements from the original fairy tale that were omitted from the animated tale, notably the rose that kicked off the whole plot. No, not the enchanted rose in the West Wing. The other rose. Also of note was the naming of Belle's village as Villeneuve - after Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, writer of the original "La Belle et la Bete."

6. I enjoyed the details that set Beauty and the Beast firmly in mid-eighteenth century France, complete with powdered wigs and make-up (even if the setting and dancing at the beginning made me think of nothing so much as the BBC's 2005 Casanova series.)

7. More was given over to the Beast's backstory; what made him the spoilt, selfish, loveless prince that he was, and why the household staff were punished (or, at least, felt as though they deserved to be punished) as well. He still doesn't get a name though.

8. There was an added element of poignancy for the enchanted servants, who stand to lose not only their chance of being human again if the Beast fails to break the spell, but also what little freedom they still retain, as they are becoming more and more like the objects whose forms they have taken.

9. Beauty and the Beast was always the most Musical with a capital M of all the Disney animations, with such glorious set pieces as "Be Our Guest" and ensemble numbers like "Belle," "Gaston" and "The Mob Song." Seeing the actors and sets brings home that this is more than just "the live-action version of a Disney film complete with songs. It is a musical - and there are a couple more epic ballads added to the film. I've been listening to the soundtrack on repeat since leaving the cinema yesterday.

10. Call me shallow, but I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the Prince Formerly Known As Beast a little disappointing once the spell is lifted and he is transformed. With Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens in the role, there is no such disappointment.

Monday 13 March 2017

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis

An anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue runs for President of the United States
 - and wins. It can't happen here. Right?
Written in the mid-1930s, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here tells the fictional account of the rise of President Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, an ignorant, small-town nobody who, by playing on the fears and insecurities of white working-class America and by dividing loyalties to his opposition, manages to worm his way into the White House. And once he's in, it is a matter of weeks before he reveals himself to be an apparently unstoppable dictator.

The land of the free becomes a state of terror. Within days, the President gives himself absolute power to enact whatever legislation he sees fit, no opposition allowed. He gives guns and a uniform to his most fervent supporters and sends them back to their communities as his defenders. The press is censored and any dissenters imprisoned under terrible conditions. It's written as a satire, and is clearly intended to be very shocking - and the violence of it is. (The rapid timescale - not so much. Not in 2017. Just look at how quick another president was to sign his Executive Orders in the week after his inauguration.)

Looking at the context of the time Lewis was writing, and once more you can draw parallels. Of course, this was written in response to Hitler's rise to power in Germany - and I'm quite sure that most ordinary Germans would have thought their country too civilised for anything like that to happen, just as much as Americans. In America, and around the world, this was the time of the Great Depression. It Can't Happen Here gives a little insight into why desperate people might consider democracy and freedom a fair exchange for a bit more money, better job security and a more comfortable lifestyle. More comfortable, that is, as long as you don't make a fuss.

All this is seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, an aging newspaper editor who lives in comfortable circumstances in the region formerly known as Vermont. He's a liberal-minded man, wary of Windrip from the start, and gradually is drawn into an underground resistance. But what is the best way to use his power in such circumstances? If he draws attention to himself, he'll be locked up or killed, and what use is that to anyone? But if he stays safe, he's just allowing the regime to be normalised. It's a fine line.

Lewis makes it quite clear that liberal complacency is just as much to blame as the ignorance and malice that actively brings a tyrant into power. By saying "Oh, it can't happen here," people don't bother doing anything to prevent it from happening. And by then, it's too late.

And so, It Can't Happen Here is as relevant a warning today as it was when it was written; we can already see some of our nations taking the steps towards towards a future like the one represented in the book. I'd say this is an extreme version, but it's that sort of complacency that enables such systems to take hold. It can't happen here? It's up to all of us to make sure it doesn't.

Thursday 2 March 2017

February in review

I'm not promising to do a monthly round-up every month, but as I've stopped keeping track of every single book I read, buy and borrow on the blog (because life is too short and who's going to scroll through that list except me?) and as I've actually had a really good bookish month after about three months of reading slump, I thought I'd give a quick summary of what fictional (and real) worlds I've been inhabiting lately.

So I left my job at the beginning of the month, which coincided with the re-readathon, two very excellent things to re-kindle my love of reading. Then on the 18th, was the second London Bookshop Crawl, which was a much bigger affair than last year's. Bex did a wonderful job of organising the day, and although it was a little crazy, it was a great time once more. It was good to catch up with Ellie W, Louise and Elena again, though they were in different groups; Laura was there with her tall boyfriend, and Hanna and Charlotte came down from Leeds (so I've now met all the members of our little circle.) I tried to be more restrained this year, but somehow, with loans, swaps and purchases, I still managed to bring ten books home at the end of the weekend.

I've been dabbling a bit in the Marvel comics universe, borrowing a selection from my sister's best friend: Civil War, Avengers Versus X-Men, and the very excellent 1602. I picked up the first issue of a new Avengers series, Occupy Avengers on the bookshop crawl, which followed on from some huge changes to the Marvel universe in Civil War 2, so of course I had to work backwards and borrow that one from the library to find out just what had been going on. It's all been happening in Marvel!

In February alone I read five 5-star books in quick succession (not that I usually remember to give star ratings, it's not that kind of blog.) 2 of which I have reviewed: the aforementioned 1602 and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Aliens, a non-fiction book edited by Jim Al-Khalili in which a load of very clever scientists hypothesise about whether there might be life on other planets, what it might be like, where it might live and if there are any circumstances under which we might discover each other. I've forgotten most of my GCSE chemistry and biology, but I half-understood most of it, and although, realistically, I'm quite sceptical about the existence of aliens (other than maybe bugs) it made a fascinating read (and very useful should I venture into writing hard science fiction.)

Then there was Terry Pratchett's The Last Hero, which I read as part of Bex's Discworldathon, one of only (I think) three Discworld books I'd never read before. I'd been putting it off for years, because I'm not a big fan of the wizards and Rincewind sub-series, and this one essentially follows after Interesting Times, the only book I've read by Pratchett that I actively disliked. So it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy it. It's a short novel with full-colour illustrations by Paul Kidby, and its story - an elderly band of barbarian heroes seeking revenge on the gods for allowing age, decay and death - had an added poignancy after Pratchett's own demise in 2015. Plus, there was the Discworld's own twist on space travel - rocket wizardry with dragons! - and of course Pratchett's inimitable wit and truth. I reached the end feeling quite bereft: only twice more will I read a Discworld book for the first time (though I am sure I will reread my favourites many, many times over, and I haven't touched his Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter.)

And I bought a comic anthology called Love is Love from Orbital, after not buying it on the Bookshop Crawl because I thought I'd find it elsewhere. It's a collaboration of short one- and two-page stories, poems and artwork written in honour of the victims of the Orlando massacre last year, and it was very powerful stuff. A very slim volume, but it took me a while to get through because each page was beautiful and devastating. I think it broke me a little bit.

I've just finished Juno Dawson's latest book for teenagers, Margot and Me, in which Fliss, a teenager from London moves to Wales to live with her stern grandmother Margot. Fliss finds Margot's diary from the Second World War, and comes to realise that her 15-year-old self in the 1990s, and 16-year-old Margot in the 1940s had a lot more in common than she initially realised. It's a powerful book, two stories in one, and in the 400 pages, Dawson deals with bullying, being a young carer, teen pregnancy, sexuality, romantic love and practical love, compassion, grief and loss. It could so easily be an "issues" book, but instead it is all about how messy life can be, with rounded and lovable characters, and an emotional heart. It is very different from her previous book, All of the Above, and yet Juno Dawson has a distinctive narrative style that stands out from similar books in the contemporary Young Adult scene.

All in all, I've had an outstanding reading month.What about you? Have you read any of these books? What did you think?
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