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The Complete Black Books
The Complete Black Books
DVD ~ Dylan Moran
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 655.52
8 used & new from CDN$ 254.11

5.0 out of 5 stars The pay's not great, but the work is hard, Jan. 11 2015
Ce commentaire est de: The Complete Black Books (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 -- "The Complete Black Books" 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.

And after a bizarre situation involving taxes, skinheads and "The Little Book of Calm," Bernard drunkenly offers a job to mild-mannered ex-accountant Manny (Bill Bailey). But this sparks off a bunch of new problems for the odd little trio -- beard prostitution, papal wine, being locked out, mysterious injuries, piano lessons, "Dave's Syndrome," illiteracy, cheap holidays, yoga and veganism, invisible critters, a chain bookstore, Manny's parents, gambling and an attempt to assassinate a cat.

"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, vacations, writing a children's book -- and explodes it into absurdity. In fact, the life of the main characters gets progressively weirder as the series goes on, especially when it makes an effort to address the surreal wonderland that is Manny and Bernard's home. When Fran decides to sleep in Bernard's bed, Manny hands her some bananas. Why? "Oh no, they're not for you, just chuck them under the bed... We just call it... The Thing."

It doesn't hurt that the dialogue is gutsplittingly funny ("Yes, it'll be some time before I want to sacrifice another monkey." "WE SAID WE SHOULDN'T TALK ABOUT CANADA!"). 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 ("Get your own human play-thing, you quartz-brained little cream puff!").

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, Simon Pegg, Rob Brydon and Nick Frost.

"The Complete Black Books" 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.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 2.88
108 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard, and my soul sickened at it, Jan. 11 2015
In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson had a vivid dream about one man transforming into another, which was interrupted when his wife woke him up.

That dream inspired "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," a haunting novella about a man and his dark alter ego -- and while the big twist is known to everyone (sort of like "Psycho" and the identity of Luke's father), it is a pretty harrowing story. Despite the dry 19th-century prose, Stevenson injects a real sense of looming evil -- a grotesque, malevolent shadow that looms over every scene, even if Mr. Hyde isn't present.

The lawyer Mr. Utterson is concerned about a strange person he encountered in the street one day -- the grotesque, cruel Mr. Hyde, who tramples a child and has to be railroaded into paying off the kid's family. What he finds especially troubling is that Mr. Hyde has a connection to his old friend Henry Jekyll. Jekyll pays money to Hyde, and even made a will leaving everything to Hyde if Jekyll should vanish for more than a couple months.

Utterson unsurprisingly thinks that Hyde is blackmailing him over some misdeed in his wild youth. So he's determined to save his friend from Hyde. But when Utterson brings up the subject, Jekyll is weirdly defensive of Hyde.

A year passes, and a maidservant witnesses an elderly gentleman being clubbed to death by Mr. Hyde -- and Utterson recognizes the murder weapon as a cane he once gave to Jekyll. Jekyll claims to have severed his friendship with Hyde, but his behavior over the following weeks becomes increasingly erratic. When Jekyll's butler begs Utterson to help him save his employer, they uncover the bizarre and grotesque connection between Jekyll and Hyde...

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is one of those stories that is so well known, everyone knows the twist even if they haven't read it. It's even become the shorthand phrase for a person with an evil alter ego, or a split personality. But it was written as a sort of bizarre mystery of sorts -- Stevenson weaves around a bunch of questions about Hyde and Jekyll, which are only explained at the shocking climax.Then we get the final letter from Jekyll, which explains the entire scenario.

Interestingly, this novella was the second version of the story. Stevenson originally wrote a different version, then burned it in favor of a more "allegorical" retelling -- the duality of human nature, and the secret underbelly of Victorian society. Jekyll admits to having "pleasures" that society would frown on (probably prostitutes), but he also wants to be the super-respectable doctor whom everyone admires.

Stevenson's writing here is a bit dry at times, but the way he writes Hyde is incredibly creepy. He's a dark, grotesque presence even in scenes that he's not in -- an oozing sore that infects everything around him.

In Hyde's shadow, it's pretty obvious that something is not kosher with Jekyll. He's a little too respectable and "perfect," except for his weird connection to Hyde. Considering this was Victorian England (where you could do whatever you wanted as long as you were "discreet"), it's obvious he has something horrible going on. Utterson is the flipside of Jekyll/Hyde -- while he's not exactly friendly and outgoing, he's a genuinely good person who wants to help Jekyll.

Nobody today will be surprised by the Epic Twist of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but it remains a very chilling, tragic little novella, and definitely one of Stevenson's best works. A bit dry at times, but a deserving horror classic.

The Vicar of Dibley: The Complete Series One
The Vicar of Dibley: The Complete Series One
DVD ~ Dawn French
Price: CDN$ 24.98
24 used & new from CDN$ 12.74

4.0 out of 5 stars A babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom, Jan. 11 2015
Most of the Church of England has accepted women's ordination by now, but I assume that the practice ruffled some feathers at first.

And it becomes a source of comedy in "The Vicar of Dibley - The Complete Series 1," where a quaint little village ends up with a bawdy, busty woman as their new cleric. While the character of David feels Flanderized at times, it's a genuinely funny little show that doesn't get too preachy with its religious content... although it's too nice and friendly to become an English "Father Ted."

When the ancient Reverend Pottle expires during services, the people of Dibley are given a brand-new vicar: Geraldine Granger (Dawn French), who is very much female ("These are such a giveaway, aren't they?"). This initially shocks the parish council -- especially stuffy and wealthy David Horton (Gary Waldhorn) -- but her friendly , jokey approach to her job quickly endears her to the locals.

And she immediately has a bunch of problems to deal with, along with her dim-witted verger Alice (Emma Chambers) -- a BBC show about churches wants to film Gerry at work (as Alice struggles with a new Bible); a village festival that needs to be opened by a celebrity; a storm smashes a stained-glass window that they can't afford to replace; a political election that Gerry uses against David; and a controversial service to bless animals, which might wreck Gerry's reputation.

Thankfully, "The Vicar of Dibley" spends relatively little time preaching about what religion should be, although it lays it heavy on the political cliches (David is super-conservative, rich, fusty, a golfer and doesn't care about common people -- in other words, he might as well be a cartoon). Honestly, the story would have been just as entertaining had she been a man -- a bouncy, irreverent breath of fresh air surrounded by kooky village eccentrics.

About half of the comedy comes from Gerry and the hapless Alice, and the other half from the rest of the village council (consider Mrs Cropley, an elderly woman with strange cooking habits and a penchant for sex and nudity). Creator Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer pepper it with lots of absurd situations and wacky, satirical dialogue ("Stop writing, Frank! 'Can't' isn't in the Christian Vocabulary!" "Yes it is! You can't commit adultery, you can't steal..." "You can't even covet your neighbour's ass. Even if it is very alluring!").

And amidst all the comedy, they manage to put in some heartwarming stuff, like the burgeoning romance between Alice and David's equally-dim son Hugo. And the conclusion to the whole stained-glass-window debacle is rather touching, as is the whole situation with the animal-blessings.

One thing that hasn't aged well is the pop culture/sociopolitical references. As I was a young child in the early nineties, I was forced to google many of the the then-contemporary references just to figure out who they were talking about. It kind of kills the jokes.

The central role was made for Dawn French, and it shows -- she steals every scene with robust fervor and sly irreverence, but you can see that Gerry is a genuinely kind and pleasant person. And she plays well opposite the various actors, especially Chambers as the dippy Alice (who never understands jokes, and goes into long rants about I Can't Believe It's Not Butter). And then there's Trevor Peacock as a weird guy who prefaces everything with "nononono...", Liz Smith as a raunch old lady, Roger Lloyd-Pack as a farmer with a lovely voice and dodgy colon, and so on.

As mentioned before, David is presented basically as a Labour political cartoon, and doesn't develop much depth until the final episode. It's a little jarring, because the rest of the characters are depicted as pretty neutral sociopolitically.

"The Vicar of Dibley - The Complete Series 1" is a fun, frothy little Britcom, especially for anyone who enjoys religious comedy and/or Dawn French. I just wish I understood half the pop culture references.

The Moonstone (1972)
The Moonstone (1972)
DVD ~ Vivien Heilbron
Price: CDN$ 32.44
8 used & new from CDN$ 24.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Mysterious Moonstone, Jan. 11 2015
Ce commentaire est de: The Moonstone (1972) (DVD)
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," Wilkie Collins' long and twisting Victorian tale that is considered the first mystery novel in the English language. And the 1972 miniseries adaptation is a pretty faithful one, interlacing a love quadrangle with a mystery about a stolen diamond said to be cursed -- while it slows down somewhat in the middle, it's a pretty suspenseful little story.

After ten years in continental Europe, Franklin Blake (Robin Ellis) returns to England to bring his cousin Rachel Verinder (Vivien Heilbron) 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 (Martin Jarvis). And a timid, lame young maid named Rosanna (Anna Cropper) 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 (John Welsh) 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 (in fact, barely a suspect at all), 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.

It's presented in the same way as every 1970s British historical miniseries: rather stagy sets, paired with dramatic acting and very accurate hairstyles and costumes. While some of Collins' quirkiness is lost in translation, the writers maintain some of the humorous subplots -- such as Miss Clack's hyperpious ramblings that nobody listens to, or Godfrey's "Awkward. Very awkward." Strangely enough, they also keep in the subtle hint of a same-sex relationship AS WELL AS the drugs.

The third episode kind of gets bogged down -- due to a year, two deaths and a brief engagement happening between the theft and the crime-solving -- before lurching back into the main plot. Most of that middle section is devoted to all the personal turmoil in Rachel's life because of the Moonstone's theft, as well as a subplot involving a money-lender.

It should be noted that this DVD release is... not very good. The volume is set low, the picture sometimes becomes a bit wobbly and has not been remastered at all, and there are no subtitles. Honestly, they should remaster this and release it with other historical adaptations.

However, the actors all do a pretty good job -- Ellis gives a very passionate, strong performance, and Heilbron is likable and charismatic despite playing a rather hostile character at times. Lady, if a guy stops smoking and spends days painting a DOOR for you, he's not just toying with your affections. And Cropper captures the poignant longing of a woman who has no actual hopes of being loved, and just wants the man she adores to notice her.

"The Moonstone" is a pretty decent adaptation of the classic mystery, with some solid acting and a third episode that drags a bit. But what it really needs is a new remastered edition.

The Moonstone: A Novel
The Moonstone: A Novel
by Wilkie Collins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.44
33 used & new from CDN$ 17.25

5.0 out of 5 stars The mystery of the Moonstone, Jan. 11 2015
Ce commentaire est de: The Moonstone: A Novel (Hardcover)
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.

DVD ~ Various
Price: CDN$ 24.98
28 used & new from CDN$ 15.91

2.0 out of 5 stars Persuaded not to persuade, Jan. 11 2015
Ce commentaire est de: Persuasion (DVD)
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 Special Edition
Bleak House Special Edition
DVD ~ Various
Price: CDN$ 40.33
30 used & new from CDN$ 32.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Bleak and secretive, Jan. 11 2015
Ce commentaire est de: Bleak House Special Edition (DVD)
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.

by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.12
31 used & new from CDN$ 8.62

4.0 out of 5 stars With thy grim looks, Jan. 11 2015
Ce commentaire est de: Coriolanus (Paperback)
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 Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.24
34 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A comedy of twin-switching, Jan. 11 2015
Ce commentaire est de: The Comedy of Errors (Paperback)
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.

Masterpiece: Death Comes to Pemberley
Masterpiece: Death Comes to Pemberley
Price: CDN$ 18.97
23 used & new from CDN$ 15.22

3.0 out of 5 stars Murder at the Darcys', Jan. 11 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.

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