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Well, it is different, but it isn't one of the season's better episodes, 28 September 2016

For me, "The Performer" is one of Season 5's weaker episodes along with the very bland and just scraping average "Parasite". Not awful but not great, a brave attempt to do something different but it doesn't quite come off.

Starting with good things about "The Performer", as always with 'Criminal Minds' it looks great, psychedelic in colour and darkly atmospheric. There are a few moments of haunting music, and of the writing the standout was that terrific scene at the end between the team, that was very funny and very sweet and shows very well how strong a bond they have. Some of the in-jokes were a lot of fun and didn't feel too out of place.

Gavin Rossdale is excellent as the prime suspect, and the episode in the early stages does well in making the viewer believe it was him responsible. His relationship with his manager is touchingly depicted too. The acting is very good across the board.

However, the case does lack atmosphere, is quite slight and over-stretched-feeling and while one always welcomes a big revelation twist this one was not that surprising, in fact it's pretty easy to figure out too soon. Profiling is also always welcome, and is a large part as what makes 'Criminal Minds' so great, but there isn't quite enough here and didn't serve as much point or interest as it should have done.

Also did not buy the whole thing with JJ going to the house alone, which was not plausible in a situation that desperately required back-up straight-away and practically was a suicide move. It also takes her a long time to get there, whereas it took the rest of the team nowhere near as much time, that was contrived and the lack of explanation didn't help matters either.

'Criminal Minds' has had many times where it tries to do things differently with varying success. "The Performer" is an example of one that doesn't quite work, with the atmosphere feeling over-the-top and the methodology of the killings very strange even for the concept. The music has its moments but has a tendency to be too intrusive.

In conclusion, not one of Season 5's better episodes. For great episodes of the seasons, stick with "100", "...A Thousand Words", "The Uncanny Valley" and "Mosley Lane". 5/10 Bethany Cox

A Swedish Fanciulla with a film influence, 28 September 2016

'La Fanciulla Del West' is not one of Puccini's best operas (though not his weakest, although still interesting 'Edgar' would get my vote for that), the story is very slight with an overlong first act and the characters not always plausible.

It still has a tense Act 2 and when done right Act 3 is touching and evokes chills. Puccini's music is not continuously memorable and only Rance's "Minnie Della Mia Casa" and Johnson's "Ch'Ella Mi Creda", the latter being the most well-known part and a tenor favourite) stand out as arias, but it does have some absolutely beautiful moments with Puccini's distinctively lush and soaring sound shining through. 'La Fanciulla Del West' is mostly served very well on DVD, the 1963 Antoniella Stella, the 1982 Covent Garden and 1992 Met (the most visually beautiful, and while Sherrill Milnes is over the hill vocally his characterisation of Rance is interestingly complex and layered) productions faring best.

This production is not quite as good as those, but is definitely superior to the Eva-Maria Westbroek and later Nina Stemme (Jonas Kaufmann being the best thing about that) performances. It is a surprisingly good production, and it shouldn't have worked as Christof Loy has not always done much for me, there was the worry as to whether Nina Stemme would be suited for Minnie and the film-influenced setting could easily have swamped the drama and come over as gimmicky. But it did.

Sure it is not perfect. Act 1 of the opera is somewhat overlong, and sometimes feels it with not quite enough tension and a lot of set up and Ramirez/Dick Johnson's entrance is too casual. Also found the setting of Act 1 a little too spare and not quite having the evocativeness of the other two. But actually for a production directed by Loy, who has done some interesting productions but there have also been times where he does resort to bad taste and one is questioning whether he likes opera or not, this film-influenced take on 'La Fanciulla Del West' is very intriguing and is remarkably restrained for Loy, making one nostalgic for westerns.

The background projections, considering their dubious reputations when used in productions seen in recent years, should have been incongruous, gimmicky and pointless but was none of those things. They were used tastefully, looked good, were remarkably innovative, had a real cinematic edge and actually made the production values look more appealing. The costumes are also very nicely done. The staging doesn't resort to distaste and is not too static, with a rivetingly tense second act with an edge of your seat card scene concluding the act and a chilling and poignant denouement.

Musically, the production was near ideal. The orchestral playing is vibrant, powerful and intricate, particularly tremendous in Act 2, while the conducting brings out all the urgency and nuances needed for Puccini's score. The secondary roles are hardly neglected, with a particularly beautifully characterised Nick. Nina Stemme is much better here than in her later DVD performance, her voice lacks control at times and more Brunnhilde than Minnie (though she makes a very conscious effort to tone it down and bring different shades to the singing) and she is a little matronly.

However it is a powerful voice with nothing that indicated any over-taxing, that captures the dramatic elements as well as the intimate ones of the role. Dramatically she is a little too tough and could have played with more humour, but it is a commanding and charming performance all the same, making the most of especially Acts 2 and 3. Aleksandrs Antonenko sings with no strain and does sing with more musicianship and lyricism than when attacking heavier roles like Otello. He does also bring more dimension and complexity than usual to his acting. John Lundgren sounds great in the role of Jack Rance, and brings menace and vulnerability to the hardened sheriff role while making him much more than a standard villain.

Overall, a surprisingly good film-influenced 'La Fanciulla Del West'. 8/10 Bethany Cox

An immensely fun caricature cartoon, 27 September 2016

Although not flawlessly executed, cartoons with a lot of caricatures are potentially problematic, was still mostly very entertaining. A relatively early Looney Tunes/ Merrie Melodies effort for Fritz Freleng, this is not him at his best with his masterpieces coming much better, but there is no mistaking his style and it's hard not to like.

It is agreed that 'The CooCoo Nut Grove' is a little jumbled, it was a lot of fun guessing who was who and seeing some of them as animals (very imaginatively done and actually come off better than the caricatures not presented as animals) but others are still human, and it definitely would have been better if it was one or the other (seeing them as animals would be more inventive) which would have made things a little more focused and less strange.

Most of the caricatures for any classic film fans (count me as one) will be immediately recognisable, and misfires are very few. The caricatures are very funny and the references are of the time somewhat but hold up better today than a fair few other similar cartoons. There are a couple of less familiar ones here too, so they come off less successfully when they go over one's head.

In terms of animation quality, the cartoon is quite beautifully done, with lovingly detailed backgrounds and vibrant colours. The music brims with lively energy and luscious orchestration, not only being dynamic to the action and adding to it but enhancing it as well.

While light on story, the wild and wacky energy more than compensates, as does the voice acting, no Mel Blanc but 'The CooCoo Nut Grove' doesn't suffer in any way without him.

On the whole, immensely fun. 8/10 Bethany Cox

Half creepy, half hilarious, 27 September 2016

As a fan of Winnie the Pooh, 'The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' was always one of my favourite shows as a child. Not all childhood favourites have held up, but 'The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' is one of the strongest examples of those that have.

While the original three 60s-70s short films ('Honey Tree', 'Blustery Day' and 'Tigger Too') and the 1977 'The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' are just a little better, 'The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' is one of the Winnie the Pooh franchise's high points. "Things that Go Piglet in the Night" has a real creepiness without being too scary, while "The Masked Offender" is hilarious as well as affectionate.

The animation in both episodes is very bright, well drawn and colourful, everything looking lush, detailed and smooth, with a darker style in "Things that Go Piglet in the Night". The music is playfully jaunty and beautifully orchestrated, enhancing scarier moments with hauntingly urgent and eerie scoring, sadder moments with poignant and particularly lush and emotional scoring and the more playful moments with a jaunty touch. The theme tune is very rousing and one of the catchiest theme songs of any animated show of the late 80s.

Writing has a perfect mix of whimsy, drollness, wit, charm and childhood innocence. The childhood innocence and drollness is particularly striking in "The Masked Offender", while "Things that Go Piglet in the Night" is creepier and moodier. Highlights in the writing is the funny "Did you hear that" exchange in "Things that Go Piglet in the Night" between Pooh and Rabbit, and "thought they were all gonna crash didn't ya?" followed by the slamming of the door and the stuff breaking.

Both stories are simple but lovingly and charmingly told, with the background sounds but also with the demonic voices, the yells as Eeyore tries to swing which creeped me out as a child and Eeyore's shadow adding so much to the atmosphere. "The Masked Offender" is affectionate (everybody can find themselves in Tigger in being inspired by a character and wanting to be it) and hilarious, with Tigger's attempts to help having disastrous but hilarious consequences and it was lovely to see him face a real danger and beating it valiantly after being humiliated.

All the characters are wonderful, pessimistic but also funny and like-a-true-friend Eeyore, adorable Piglet and often hysterically funny Tigger being particularly noteworthy. The voice acting is excellent with not a weak link.

Overall, two great episode, one creepy and moody, the other affectionate and hilarious. 10/10 Bethany Cox

Good conclusion to the trilogy, if not going on a bang as much as hoped, 27 September 2016

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is truly excellent, one would be hard pressed to find a Swedish thriller better. It wasn't flawless, but it comes close.

It was followed by two follow ups and the David Fincher film, all worth a look but the original 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is the real deal. It is hard to say which is better or worse overall between 'The Girl who Played with Fire' or 'The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest', in terms of atmosphere the former is weaker but in terms of more consistency in the storytelling the former also fares stronger. Both are flawed but very decent films, could have been better but for less cinematic sequels/follow-ups they are really not too bad.

Of the three, 'The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest' fares the weakest of the three. After being so gripped by the first book, the source material for this film didn't fare as strongly. There is a lot of extraneous filler in the book, and that the film trimmed the fat was not a problem. However, whereas 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' was faithful in detail and spirit and one of not many book-to-film adaptations to treat the source material with respect, even with the not-so-problematic trimming of filler/fat what also made the book still intriguing, especially the latter chapters, doesn't quite make it in translation in the film. The conflict/tension between Section and the alliance was really powerful in the book, but barely explored here and it was shame.

What is always important though is to always judge films/TV adaptations as standalones. On its own, 'The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest' has a lot of good things as well as noticeable flaws. It does get bogged down by too much tying of loose ends, meaning that the film does feel a little bloated and both pedestrian and rushed due to cramming in a lot in a running time that contrary to some opinions could have benefited from being 20 minutes or so longer. Some of the stuff with Niedermann (played with the menace and charisma of a frozen pizza this time round) is disjointed and pointless, and while the restaurant shoot-out is exciting and suspenseful the very end is far too anti-climactic and wrapped up too conveniently.

However, while not as cinematic as 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', it does look good and makes a welcome return to the bleak atmosphere missing in 'The Girl who Played with Fire'. Daniel Alfredson's direction generally is much more confident and atmospheric, again not as chilling or as shocking as 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' but unlike in 'The Girl who Played with Fire' attempts at replicating those are made. The script while lacking polish and flow in places is still thought-provoking.

Storytelling may not be flawless, but there is a sense of doom and claustrophobia and there is tension and suspense (like in the courtroom scenes that help make Lisbeth want to succeed) that could have been more if the conflict between Section and the alliance was explored much more. The acting is very good, Michael Nyqvist is suitably determined but in a quietly dignified sense but even with much less to do Noomi Rapace nails it once again, bringing nuances and subtle command even when not speaking or even moving all that much.

All in all, disappointing but good conclusion. Could have gone out with a bang, and while with some great things it doesn't quite make it. 7/10 Bethany Cox

Better on recent re-watch, 27 September 2016

Remember not caring much for "Haunted", but gave it a willing re-watch having only having vague memories. "Haunted" actually turned out to be better on re-watch.

It has been considered a lesser Season 5 episode and while there are definitely better episodes of 'Criminal Minds' before and since it is better than "Parasite" and "The Performer" as far as Season 5 episodes go. Can definitely see why some will be disappointed, but also can understand the appeal. Hotch is out of character, lacking his usual focus and very on edge, which is somewhat of a turn off, but it is understandable considering the horrific ordeal he suffered in the previous episode.

What didn't come over as believable was him returning to work just after thirty four days, considering the ordeal it would have been more realistic to have him off for at least four times as much as that but it may not have been possible as Hotch is a favourite among fans. The episode also did focus a little too much on him, while under-using the likes of Reid (who otherwise delights with his knowledge and humour), which does somewhat hurt the dynamic. There are occasional pacing issues, parts feel stretched out and others feel rushed.

However, "Haunted" scores highly in the production values and the music is suitably haunting and also with moments of a melancholic air. The writing is taut and has a good deal of character depth and emotion, Hotch's suffering is very movingly portrayed by Thomas Gibson while the team's concern for Hotch is also believable, especially that of Prentiss, as is Rossi's nonchalance regarding Hotch's ability as a leader. The story is tense and emotional (the atmosphere and emotional impact more than making up for not doing an awful lot new with an idea of someone with a psychotic break) done to death, with flashbacks that add so much to the character development of the unsub, explaining how he came to be this way and what drove him to kill, while not overwhelming the story. The climax is scary in its suspense.

The unsub is a good one, one really feels sorry for him and it is a strong example of understanding a "villain's" point of view, in fact it is the father you hate. Direction is solid and the acting is very good. The regulars all turn in great work with not a weak link in the lot, while it is difficult to fault the guest turns. Sean Patrick Flanery occasionally overdoes it with the line delivery but is suitably disturbingly anguished. Michael Bowen also does a strong job as Tommy, though personally didn't see much point in his presence at the end (by all means it is explained but it adds little, the shoulder touch was very nicely done though).

Bjorn Johnson also nails the bare human emotions in such a terrible predicament. Don Creech and Kanin Howell are chilling at the end and in the flashbacks detailing the past respectively. Glenn Morshower makes for an entertaining cop and there is good interaction between him and the BAU with their differences in methods.

In conclusion, not a great episode but a solid one and better on re-watch. 7/10 Bethany Cox

Manon Lescaut (2014) (TV)
Tacky and vulgar production, that doesn't see either Opolais or Kaufmann at their best, 27 September 2016

'Manon Lescaut' is not one of Puccini's finest operas, have much more of a personal preference towards 'Tosca', 'La Boheme', 'Madama Butterfly' and 'Turandot'. Its story, while entertaining and moving, is implausible in places and due to so much of the original story being skipped also jumpy and not as coherent as Massenet's take on the opera.

Puccini's music however is simply gorgeous, the Intermezzo, deportation scene, Des Grieux's "Donna non vidi mai" and Manon's "Sola Perduta Abbandonata" being the highlights. This production gets my vote as the second worst production of 'Manon Lescaut' on DVD, with only the 2007 production being worse. For a better representation of 'Manon Lescaut', see the 1980 Met 1983 ROH productions instead.

There are good things here, all of it musically. The orchestra's playing throughout is impeccable, lush in tone and multifaceted, while Antonio Pappano wrings out every nuance of the beautiful music, like every good conductor should he lets the music breathe (important for a score that has a lot of intimate moments) yet ensures that the drama never loses lustre, bringing some fantastic energy when needed. The chorus are well-balanced and sound splendid, and while individuality in chorus work is always welcome their stage direction is overdone (particularly in the far too busy Act 1) and their acting comes over as gimmicky unfortunately.

Coming off best out of the performances are Maurizio Muraro's lecherously repellent Geronte with very characterful singing and Christopher Maltman's stylish Lescaut. Video directing and picture quality are good, sound unfortunately is unbalanced and not as resonant as it ought.

Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann have both given better performances. They both sing well, apart from Kaufmann sounding uncharacteristically strained and over-parted at the end of Act 3, but their characters are so poorly directed often, especially in Act 2, that their acting skills don't come through. Opolais has a gleaming dark beauty to her voice, which is used and phrased with great intelligence, and is heart-wrenching in the last two acts especially her harrowing "Sola Perduta Abbandonata". She however particularly suffers from bad stage direction, the innocence and girlish naivety are nowhere in sight and instead Manon comes over as too tawdry and tarty. Kaufmann has his usual chocolatey baritone-like warmth, but he seems rather reserved and too passive for Des Grieux.

Only in the last act do they show any chemistry, the final scene is heart-wrenching and the only scene that works staging-wise. The first act is too busy that they are practically apart, and both look uncomfortable in the very grotesquely staged Act 2.

Visually, this 'Manon Lescaut' is rather garish and ugly. Even for a supposedly deliberately ambiguous (morally) setting, it was very difficult ciphering when and where the production was meant to be set in without prior knowledge, and there is little in the staging that represents the period the production is set in. Personally also think that 'Manon Lescaut' is one of a number of operas that doesn't work well in modern dress, the period is quite specifically depicted in the libretto and Act 3 in particular would not be plausible by modern day standards.

Jonathan Kent's (responsible for a fine production of 'Tosca' just three years previously at the same house) staging is the biggest downfall. It only works in the last act, and even then it feels too little too late. Act 1 is far too busy that the focus of the drama is lost, Act 2 is grotesquely vulgar and Act 3 is just one big implausible anachronism. Like the recent Met production, not the same production but the same problems with that production's staging applies here too, there is a complete lack of emotional impact outside of Act 4, parts veer on the silly and bizarre, parts are irrelevant to the libretto and anachronistic to the setting of the production and in context to the story (which is set in a very specific time period), parts like the stage business during the deportation scene are gimmicky and pointless and nothing is done to make the story or setting clear to the audience. It's just empty, tacky and vulgar for no real reason and cohesion is definitely not a strong suit here.

All in all, a misfire of a 'Manon Lescaut' that promised a good deal, but delivered on very little. 4/10 Bethany Cox

Porky's Romance, 27 September 2016

While not one of my favourites from Porky Pig or Frank Tashlin, 'Porky's Romance' is still a good example of what makes Porky a likable character and why Tashlin is so under-appreciated.

Am not crazy about the character of Petunia, it is very clear why she's like that and it is also clear that it is intentional, but one can't help thinking that even for what the cartoon was going for with her character that she was rather too cruel. Also much prefer Mel Blanc's voice work for Porky, his voice and stutter more natural and more endearing than the overdone one provided here by Joe Dougherty.

Animation on the other hand is great. The black and white colours are lovingly done, the drawing is fluid and smooth and the backgrounds have some very nice detail. The music score by Carl Stalling is bursting with lively character, beautiful orchestration, clever instrumentation and an unmatched ability to enhance the action and elevate material to a greater level.

'Porky's Romance' is not what you call a funny cartoon, it is not that kind of cartoon. What it is though is very emotionally poignant and sweet and it is very easy, well impossible not to, to relate to Porky. One really hates the amount of hate and heartbreak he endures, which makes how he has the last laugh at the end even more satisfying. Do have to agree that 'Porky's Romance' excels at how it tells its story.

Overall, a very good cartoon if not among my favourites. 8/10 Bethany Cox

Two must watch episodes for one of Tigger's funniest lines and the Heffalumps, 27 September 2016

As a fan of Winnie the Pooh, 'The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' was always one of my favourite shows as a child. Not all childhood favourites have held up, but 'The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' is one of the strongest examples of those that have.

While the original three 60s-70s short films ('Honey Tree', 'Blustery Day' and 'Tigger Too') and the 1977 'The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' are just a little better, 'The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' is one of the Winnie the Pooh franchise's high points. "Honey for a Bunny" is one of my favourites from the show, "Trap as Trap Can" is a lot of fun but there has already been a preference, as far as the episodes featuring the Heffalump family go, for "There's No Camp Like Home".

The animation is very bright, well drawn and colourful, everything looking lush, detailed and smooth. The music is playfully jaunty and beautifully orchestrated, enhancing sadder moments with poignant and particularly lush and emotional scoring and the more playful moments with a jaunty touch. The theme tune is very rousing and one of the catchiest theme songs of any animated show of the late 80s.

Writing has a perfect mix of whimsy, drollness, wit, charm and childhood innocence, the humour and sentiment being timed to perfection in both episodes. Rabbit and Tigger's exchange regarding the shoes being double-knotted or not in "Honey for a Bunny" is one of the show's most hilarious moments, Tigger's "what's a knot?" will have anyone busting their gut with laughter. The stories are endlessly charming and clever, never feeling over-crowded or too thin, especially "Honey for a Bunny".

All the characters are wonderful, Tigger is my favourite but Piglet really shines here. Love the innocent and adorable chemistry between the characters as well, and the heffalumps are very amusing supporting characters in "Trap as Trap Can", Papa Heffalump is often riotously funny. The voice acting is excellent, particularly from Jim Cummings and the incomparable Paul Winchell.

Overall, two must watch episodes, one of them one of the classics, from a consistently great show, a rare case of a show with not a bad episode. 10/10 Bethany Cox

Worthy, if inferior, first follow up to 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', 27 September 2016

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is truly excellent, one would be hard pressed to find a Swedish thriller better. It wasn't flawless, but it comes close.

It was followed by two follow ups and the David Fincher film, all worth a look but the original 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is the real deal. 'The Girl who Played with Fire' for a sequel/follow-up is worthy, although there is no doubt which is the superior film. There is too much of a different feel somewhat, the original mesmerised in its tension and intensity and constantly chilled the bone and shocked. While there is tension and suspense, the bleak moodiness and bone-chilling shock value is not quite replicated here by director Daniel Alfredson, who directs efficiently enough but there was the need of more atmosphere.

'The Girl who Played with Fire' also feels rushed and incomplete, a longer length would have helped it and it was very clear that the film had been heavily cut. With a longer length, things would have felt more developed (something that the original did so brilliantly with a lot going on), the sex trafficking theme would have been less tame as it is a horrific situation and that didn't come through enough here and the ending (which was a shock in the book) less of a that's it feeling.

Although somewhat televisual-like, which is not a bad thing as such but it definitely would have benefited, or at least the atmosphere would have done, from a more cinematic and moody look, 'The Girl who Played with Fire' is a good-looking film, with a good amount of grit and style. The music is suitably haunting and the writing is efficient and taut enough if not as structurally tight as before. The story is definitely intriguing, and there is a lot of action dynamically choreographed and hardly bland, with some very nice twists and turns, also loved the expansion on Lisbeth's character, a fascinating character made even more interesting.

Performances are still fine. Michael Nyqvist is quietly commanding and the villains, if not as much as 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', pose a good threat...but this is mesmerising Noomi Rapace's film.

All in all, a bit of a disappointment after being so taken with 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' but still worthy and not bad by any stretch of the imagination. 7/10 Bethany Cox

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