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Mireille (2009) (TV)
Sublime production of an unjustly forgotten opera, 17 April 2014

Gounod is no stranger to opera, Faust and Romeo et Juliette have great stories(what do you expect since they come from Goethe and Shakespeare?) and their best moments are some of the best of French opera. Mireille deserves more credit than it does, maybe the story is not quite as compelling as the ones for Faust and Romeo et Juliette but the music is glorious. This production is a more than great way to get familiar with it. The costumes and sets are colourful and tastefully detailed as well as being effective in how simple they are, with the lighting giving off a feel that is sultry and pastoral. The staging grips you from the get go to the end, the pastoral scenes are truly charming and the scene in the Crau dessert will really tug at the heart-strings. You actually feel that you are in Provence, which is a great thing. The videography is neither too simple or too much, neither static or intrusive, it is just right. And the sound is fine, basically a great-looking and sounding Blu-Ray. The orchestra play buoyantly yet also with the emotional depth needed when the drama unfolds, the sound the players make is beautiful. The chorus sing incisively and act in a way that is very evocative of peasant life in Provence, and it's all deftly handled by Marc Minkowski who shows sensitivity to the drama as well as energy. Inva Mula sounds radiant and makes for a Mireille that is poised and genuinely affecting. Charles Castronovo has the right amount of lyricism and heft without overdoing either, and he is a convincing actor here. All the cast are without complaint though. In conclusion, sublime production. 10/10 Bethany Cox

As far as the Daffy/Speedy cartoons go, Swing Ding Amigo is one of the better ones, 17 April 2014

The Daffy/Speedy cartoons get a lot of hate, a lot of the criticisms being understandable and ones I myself share. Personal feelings for the Daffy/Speedy cartoons lean towards indifference rather than hate, but there are some decent ones in the series. Swing Ding Amigo is one of the best in the bunch. The weak link is the animation, which is very rudimentary and looks limited. Much of it looks sparse, colours are flat and some of the drawings look as though they were done in a hurry. The story is much improved over most stories in the Daffy/Speedy cartoons, but it is rather standard and could have done with more energy. The dialogue also isn't terrible, in fact it does amuse but for personal tastes it could have been sharper and funnier. The music is full of character and more than makes up for the energy that the pacing could have had more of, while the gags are more than decent especially the ending and with the grenade. Gags that thankfully didn't feel like they were recycled from Speedy and Sylvester like some cartoons in the series have been prone to. Daffy is funny and is a great presence on screen and Speedy is not too annoying either. Swing Ding Amigo is one of few Daffy/Speedy cartoons where the chemistry between the two gels and of all the cartoons in the series Daffy's anger towards Speedy and his pursuit of him gets my vote is at its most logical in Swing Ding Amigo, for anybody with noisy neighbours or dislikes loud music at night etc. will find it easy to relate to Daffy's situation, something that doesn't happen an awful lot when it comes to Daffy and Speedy. Mel Blanc doesn't disappoint either, can't think of an occasion where he particularly did. To conclude, one of the better entries in the Daffy/Speedy cartoons. 7/10 Bethany Cox

Diana (2013)
Not one of the year's worst, but one of the year's most disappointing- Diana deserved much better, 17 April 2014

This did have the potential to be good. The subject matter was an interesting one, Naomi Watts is a very good actress, Naveen Andrews was great on LOST and while Downfall needs a re-watch I seem to remember that it did show a director with some talent in Oliver Hirschbiegel. Despite this potential, personally Diana was disappointing, and not just as a biopic or a story based on Diana's life but as a film in general. In fact you don't even need to know much about Diana or the Royal Family to see how much Diana fails outside of historical value. The lovely scenery and interiors(Diana's fashions are nice too), Naveen Andrews' appealing performance- though in an underwritten and not very likable role- and the moving ending did save the film somewhat, other than that Diana for me didn't work. Naomi Watts does a valiant job in the difficult title role and gets the mannerisms down pat and has charisma, but her performance did seem mannerisms-heavy and I never felt that Watts quite disappeared into the role. It's not her fault though as she doesn't have much material of note to work with. Diana as a character is very underwritten and also comes across as doe-eyed and shallow, in fact none of the characters are written well at all which was why other talented actors like Douglas Hodge, Geraldine James and Juliet Stevenson(Stevenson's sincere performance was the most memorable of the supporting cast) were criminally underused. The story was an interesting subject, on film though it never engages. Iconic scenes are there but are little more than "slide shows" compared to everything else, and some like Diana's controversial interview came across as one-sided and skimmed over.

That was the effect a lot of the film had, it is dominated by the romance of Diana and Hasnat while Diana's family other than in some iconic moments the film captures or in reference we learn little of, Dodi Fayad is introduced far too late and the Royal Family are almost completely side lined. Worse, the romance is not written well at all, despite the commendable efforts of the two leads you have a hard time investing emotionally in either Diana or Hasnat. The storytelling on the most part is too skimmed over with no real substance, has too many scenes that have little or no meaning or relevance, is often repetitive especially the falling into bed even after an argument, and parts are paced tediously. As clumsy some of the exposition is, the worst of the dialogue is in the romance, the first half of Diana is incredibly awkward in its writing, the sort you'd hear on a first date when you don't know what to say with the pauses and all. It gets a tad better in the second half but is still stilted and half-baked. In short, the writing in Diana in personal opinion was dire. Hirschbiegel's directing is little improvement either, very little flair and the scenes focused on the romance are given little sympathy or momentum. No matter how good the scenery and interiors are they are not matched by the photography which was reminiscent of a Lifetime movie, think of 2011's William and Kate except not quite as badly edited or shot. Some shots had a dizzying effect and others a pedestrian effect or in artsy style(a style that I have no negative bias at all towards, quite the contrary) that looked very out of place within the film. The music was at best forgettable, which was the feeling Diana as a film overall had. In conclusion, not a complete disaster but very disappointing. It tried to be careful not to offend but instead it was awkwardly written, underdeveloped and dull as a result, and actually to me how Diana was written would be insulting to many people. 3/10 Bethany Cox

Scoop (2006)
Much better than initially thought, 17 April 2014

Admittedly on first viewing I didn't care for Scoop, finding it weirdly plotted and not very funny. Seeing it again as part of a Woody Allen film marathon and being much more used to his style(that I wasn't at the time on first viewing must have a lot to do with not caring for it in the first place), Scoop was far better than initially remembered. It is a long way from Allen's best films, see Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Hannah and her Sisters and Husbands and Wives to see him at his best, but it is better than Cassandra's Dream and From Rome with Love. Scoop is not without imperfections, the story is very far-fetched at times with some convolutions and scenes that don't add to very much, Hugh Jackman is very underused and Scarlett Johansson looks uncomfortable, she's much better in Match Point. Scoop is photographed with style and atmosphere and there is great use of locations. The classical music score is a good fit and will be a delight for any classical music fan, while Allen's directing is as adroit as ever. Allen's writing has been much more insightful and thought-provoking, but the script is still very clever and funny(and in distinctive Woody Allen style), Allen and Ian McShane have the best lines, and while the story is not completely successful the blend of comedy and mystery has enough moments where it works(it has been done far better before though, notably Crimes and Misdemeanours). Allen is hilarious and witty- knowing exactly how to say and time his lines- though with a character that had a danger of falling into the trap of mugging. Ian McShane is wonderfully mysterious and says his lines, and as said before he has the best of them alongside Allen, in a sardonically sly fashion, you just wish he had more screen time. And while Hugh Jackman is underused when you do see him he is dashing and charismatic. All in all, it is easy to see why people won't like Scoop, initially I didn't but on re-watch while problematic it was much better than expected considering the rep it has among a fair few people that consider it as one of Allen's worst. 7/10 Bethany Cox

Incredibly compelling, musically, emotionally and dramatically, 17 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

La Boheme is not just an opera masterpiece, a very close second to Tosca as far as Puccini operas go, but an all-time favourite too. The music is some of Puccini's best and most beautiful, the story is entertaining and poignant and the ending is one of the most heart-rending endings in all of opera, the ending to Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites is the only ending to an opera that affects me more. This production promised a fair bit, especially that it was a revival of the classic Zeffirelli production from 1982, and delivers, it is wonderful in almost every single way. The only things that didn't come across as quite to me were that the Act 3 staging-wise could have been more intimate with just the four of them and without the additional stage business, and Oren Gradus personally was a little stiff as Colline, he sings without major complaint though apart from Vecchio Zimarra needing more resonance.

Visually, this La Boheme is very handsome to look at with an opulent Act 2, a hauntingly lit Act 3 and the Acts 1 and Act 4 garret setting as beautifully mounted as it is authentically cold(as it should). The costumes suit the characters' personalities and they look Bohemian at least with tasteful colours and the lighting is neither too bright or too dark. It doesn't just look striking but there is a real eye for detail, then again it is Zeffirelli so that shouldn't come too much of a surprise. The production may be 30+ years old but it doesn't show its age at all, the spirit of the opera remains but it feels fresh too with the most entertaining Act 2 I've seen in a while. The staging is rarely too busy, nor is it ever static(even in the chorus, there have been a fair amount of productions seen with badly directed choruses), the scenes between the Bohemians are a joy especially the end of Act 2 and there is plenty of emotional wallop when needed. The ending does not disappoint.

Musically, it's outstanding. The orchestra play fabulously, the tone in the strings especially is full of warmth and it's alive to nuances and lyrical style. The chorus are very animated, they are only present in Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3- with a lot to do though in the former- but they are committed in the drama. As ever they sound great, very well rehearsed and well-balanced. Stefano Ranzani's conducting is stylish and colourful, he brings out the poetry of the score while keeping the momentum tempo wise. On top of that he is sympathetic to the drama and the singers while not making it dull. It is a shame about Anita Hartig falling ill, from her rehearsal footage from the recent Met HD production of Werther and excerpts from Youtube she sounded absolutely great as Mimi and showed a beautiful tone, a singer I'd be happy to see again. Her last minute replacement Kristine Opolais did a remarkable job, her rich, rounded mezzo-like quality of her voice is really striking yet she shows no problems with the high register. Her Mimi is incredibly moving, you had no trouble recognising how much she meant every word and note she sang, delicate and surprisingly sensual in places. She did look tired but considering Mimi's condition you'd think if you didn't the behind-the-scenes story that it was part of the show).

As Rodolfo Vittorio Grigolo is a very good match, showing clear chemistry with Opolais and a bright ringing tenor voice. He is youthful, sympathetic and ardent dramatically, any reservations were with occasional lack of musicianship and occasions where he was ahead of the orchestra(notably the start of O Soave Fanciulla). Massimo Cavaletti's Marcello is impressive too, he is very amusing in his rapport with the rest of the Bohemians and his love-hate relationship with Susanna Phillips' Musetta, yet he shows a great loyal friendship to Rodolfo as well. His voice isn't a powerful one, but it is robust and warm and he doesn't resort to pushing. Susanna Phillips sounded completely natural as Musetta and she is very funny and sexy while her compassionate side later on is most touching. Patrick Carfizzi makes the most with Schaunard and Donald Maxwell is very characterful as both Benoit and Alcindoro(not the first time both roles are played by the same singer).

The production is very well shot with the videography matching the production's every nuance with a never too-stage-bound, reliant-on-close-ups or can't-locate-a-singer look, all three potential problems(apart from us seeing Mimi breathing at one point once she's dead) are solved here. The sound is appropriately resonant without anywhere on stage sounding like it's coming from a bathroom, and Joyce DiDonato hosts warmly and invitingly, being very friendly in her interviews. Overall, an incredibly compelling, beautifully sung and emotional production. 8.5/10 Bethany Cox

Foodfight! (2012)
Insultingly execrable, 11 April 2014

There is not much to add to what has already been said, and so well by everybody else here. As a lifelong animation fan, Foodfight! is one of the few that I deem completely unwatchable and it is certainly one of the worst animated films ever made. The animation is unspeakably awful, not just the worst computer-animation in an animated film(excluding Video Brinquedo's and Spark Plug Entertainment's output, seriously the animation here makes Animals United seem like Toy Story in comparison) but some of the worst-looking animation ever. Everything looks so flat and stiff, no vibrant colours, technical invention or easy movements, and you'd be hard pressed to find creepier and more nightmare-inducing character designs. The music is generic and completely unmemorable, often it is placed in an irrelevant and over-used way too. The story was not a very good idea to begin with, but everything is so contrived and predictable it actually hurts, there is little momentum in the pacing and the story meanders a lot while being simplistic at the same time. In short you are never engaged or emotionally invested. There is not a single decent character either, they are either annoying or insignificant and their creepy designs(especially the villains) further add to this. The voice cast on paper are talented, but the voice work is poor here with only Christopher Lloyd trying, Charlie Sheen sounds very detached and bored and there is a lot of overdone hyperactivity and wasted talent everywhere else. Harvey Fienstein is the only other voice actor along with Lloyd who sounds immediately distinctive, the bad news is that I didn't see the point of his very brief role. The script was the worst culprit though, not in a long time has there been a script in an animated film this abominably bad, the bad-taste bathroom humour, out-of-place and inappropriate innuendo, Nazi overtones and equally crude one-liners and catchphrases that are enough to make anyone cringe taken to offensive levels. To conclude, cheap and intelligence-insulting, Foodfight! is execrable, not just one of the worst animated films ever but one of the worst films in general that I've seen in some time. 0/10 Bethany Cox

Kurosawa's second film, also one of his weakest..., 11 April 2014

That doesn't mean that The Most Beautiful is a terrible film, because it isn't(in fact I haven't seen a terrible Akira Kurosawa film, and this is trying not to be biased). It just falls short compared to a lot of Kurosawa's- one of my favourite directors- best work, Seven Samurai, Ran and Ikiru being my favourites. For an early Kurosawa film it looks great and is strikingly shot, if a little ordinary-looking compared to what Kurosawa did later. The music is appropriately rousing and patriotic and the acting is very good indeed, particularly from Yoko Yagushi. The cast do work very well together which makes the women's plight more relatable, and there are agreed a number of touching scenes. Kurosawa's direction is mixed here, it is competent but with a sense that he was still finding his feet understandably. The technical skill is there if not the story compared to later. The story is very well-intended but could have been much more compelling, some of the pacing plods which can make the story dull. The film also does a far better job in the more sensitive parts than the intense ones, the latter of which getting rather heavy-handed mainly with having one main theme that repeats itself a lot that it feels too much. The script is not as tightly structured or as easy-to-fully-comprehend than most Kurosawas, far from bad but with not as much of an emotional core as one would want. And it's not helped by the subtitles, that are stilted and with a sense of them being written afterwards without always fitting very well. Lastly, it was sad to see one of Japan's finest actors Takashi Shimura being given so little to do. In conclusion, nowhere near among Kurosawa's best but still should be seen at least for interest value. 5/10 Bethany Cox

As Mary Poppins would say: "supercalafragalisticexpialidocious", 11 April 2014

One of my personal favourite films of the year for sure. Whether it plays loose with the facts(at the end and with the portrayal of Walt Disney) makes little difference to me, regardless of any inaccuracy it is much more important whether the film in question is well-made, well-acted and has emotional and entertainment value. Saving Mr Banks has all of those. The film is beautifully photographed and the period detail is colourful and in the flashbacks evocative. The music is not inappropriate in style and fits with the tone of the script very well, also when you find yourself singing along to the songs included you know something's right. The story is incredibly engrossing, the cleverly interwoven flashbacks are incredibly poignant especially the latter ones, the backstage business with Travers' battles with the production crew and Walt Disney are informative and entertaining and all the references to Mary Poppins- in how the film was made and Travers' opinions on some aspects, in the songs and what the characters and their behaviour were inspired from(especially with Travers' father and Aunt Ellie)- are easy to spot and make you feel very nostalgic. John Lee Hancock's direction is spit spot, I never found myself bored for a second and the acting is great. Tom Hanks is a joy as Walt Disney and his chemistry with Emma Thompson is more than believable, especially in the scene in her house. Paul Giamatti is incredibly endearing as well, the standout of the supporting cast, though Colin Farrell and Annie Rose Buckley also give very good performances. The best assets of Saving Mr Banks are the script and especially Emma Thompson. The script is very witty comedically and is sharply observant, as well as the constant entertainment it also packs an emotional wallop especially towards the end. Mr Banks' redemption always resonated with me in Mary Poppins especially from an adult perspective, and the same happened in the ending scene(it also compelled me to watch Mary Poppins again, still is one of my favourite films regardless of what Travers thought of it). Thompson is outstanding, Travers is a more interesting character than Walt here but this is her film really so that wasn't an issue, she pitches Travers' stubbornness and cantankerous personality perfectly and there is a melancholic vulnerability in her performance too. Travers doesn't behave at all like a nice person here, but from the flashbacks you can really relate to her and understand why she's the way she is, which aside from context struck me as the reason for why they were included in the first place. Overall, a truly great film and one of the little gems of 2013. 10/10 Bethany Cox

Slight but very charming and entertaining, 11 April 2014

There is not much actually that's wrong with Pennies from Heaven, other than that the story is very slight and you have no trouble figuring out how it's all going to end and that Madge Evans would have seemed more comfortable if she had more to do. Pennies from Heaven is not a lavish-looking film, nor was that needed. Besides the production values do look lovely, the Haunted House setting is inspired and it is most competently shot and directed. The score has the right amount of whimsy and energy, and the songs will definitely warm your heart. Pennies from Heaven's Oscar-nomination was more than justified as it is a truly appealing song in all respects and is heavenly sung by Bing Crosby. But my personal favourite goes to Skeleton in the Closet, which managed to be hilarious and spooky. The script is appropriately snappy with a lot of heart that doesn't resort to mawkishness. No matter how slight and predictable the story is, it still moves swiftly, it's coherent and the warmth and heart the film has is most endearing. Admittedly, yes it is sentimental, but it knows that and the sentiment is not overly-so. Bing Crosby is reason enough to see any film, and he certainly doesn't disappoint, giving a charismatic and (incredibly) appealingly heart-warming performance and singing beautifully as always. Especially in Pennies from Heaven, which he also gives a very moving quality to. He shares convincing chemistry with Edith Fellows, who does a great job being cute and sassy, she didn't seem that much of a brat to me. Donald Meek is typically wonderful, and seeing early-career Louis Armstrong in Skeleton in the Closet was surprising in a pleasant way. All in all, very charming and entertaining, great for Bing fans. 8/10 Bethany Cox

The best Pink Panther cartoon since 1971's The Pink Flea, 30 March 2014

The Pink Panther cartoons are always entertaining, most of them so far seen(now on the 1975 batch) have entertained, there are a fair number of classics or near-classics and a few missteps(though not catastrophically, the worst so far has been Pink-In and that was more pointless than disastrous). Salmon Pink is one of the classics and as the review summary says it is the best of the Pink Panther cartoons since The Pink Flea. The animation is very colourful and while it's relatively simple the cartoon doesn't make the mistake of making it too hurried or sparse. The music is similarly great, from the jazzy scoring to the timeless theme tune. The gags are indeed absurd- not in a bad way at all- but also truly hilarious with not a single bad gag, the animation helps. Not since Psychedelic Pink perhaps has there been a more unique story in any Pink Panther cartoon or a delightfully bizarre one, it also moves efficiently and is one of by far the least predictable stories of the Pink Panther cartoons. It has a lot of heart too. Pinky has great comic timing and has no difficulty being cool and likable, and he doesn't do anything that stops us from feeling that. In fact he's very sympathetic here, which is what gives Salmon Pink its heart. Pinky works brilliantly with the fish, who is possibly one of the funniest and most engaging supporting characters in any Pink Panther cartoon, certainly a personal favourite at least. Overall, a Pink Panther classic and one of my personal favourites of the series. 10/10 Bethany Cox

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