Sunday, 26 February 2012

DVD review: Welcome to the Rileys, starring Kristen Stewart, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo

When Kristen Stewart isn't moodily pining after a vampire, she's a compelling actress, and lucky for us Welcome to the Rileys is as far from Twilight as she can possibly get.

Stewart's teenage, runaway stripper Mallory, real name Alison, forms an unlikely - completely platonic - relationship with James Gandolfini's Doug, who lost his teenage daughter when she died in a car accident.

Since then Doug has spent four years having an affair with a waitress, while his wife Lois (Melissa Leo) hasn't stepped outside of their house.

When Doug goes to New Orleans on a business trip, following the death of the woman he has been having an affair with, and meets Mallory, he finds his fatherly instincts coming to the fore, and tells Lois he won't be coming back to their home for a while.

It's the trigger Lois needs to finally step outside, and while she drives to New Orleans Doug makes an effort to improve Mallory's living conditions, and teach her some basic life skills (making a bed, doing laundry regularly).

The father-daughter bond which grows between the two is sweet to watch, and I found myself liking both Doug and Mallory, even though the former is clearly running away from his problems at home and the latter is too stubborn to see how kind Doug is being.

Lois also draws our sympathies as the woman who locked herself inside her house because the last time she went out it ended in tragedy for her family. It takes a few scenes to realise that Lois hasn't been outside in so long, and despite the quiet and serious nature of the film, the scenes where she tries to adjust the car seat, and then drives into a rubbish bin and a lamppost, are lighthearted, laugh out loud moments. Her reaction to what Doug has been doing in New Orleans is understandable, but she quickly comes to care for Mallory as much as he does, and slips back into the role of mother figure with ease.

The cast of Welcome to the Rileys is exquisite. All three actors convey a wealth of emotions on their faces. Leo looks like a woman who's been blaming herself for the death of her daughter, Gandolfini like the father and husband who's been trying so hard to maintain a sense of normalcy, Stewart like a little girl who has seen so much more than someone of her years should. There are few moments of high drama in Welcome to the Rileys, the pain of three people desperately in need of a path out of the darkness is enough. 

Welcome to the Rileys isn't afraid to take its time revealing the characters' pasts. There is no mad rush to get it all in the open, just a slow burn, a feeling that there is something more behind the surface, and patient viewers are rewarded when those secrets eventually come out.

Bravely, there is no miracle rescue for Mallory - she makes it clear she is not a substitute for Doug and Lois' lost daughter, and despite the pair's efforts to help her, they know exactly the same thing. It's brave because it would be so easy to have Mallory go back with Doug and Lois and live a happy, carefree life. Instead, and much more satisfying for the viewer, Mallory has to learn to stand on her own two feet, and that's what the Rileys have given her the grounding to do. Rather than rescue her, they've helped her to start rescuing herself.

For Doug and Lois there is a happy ending, with the pair reconciling. There are many questions left to be answered, but from everything seen on screen, I felt comfortable knowing Lois and Doug had discussed, or would discuss, the rest of their problems off screen, and I didn't need to see those discussions.

Welcome to the Rileys is a well-crafted, emotional film, packed with punch and three performances from three very talented actors. And not a glittering vampire in sight.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Reporting tips: photographers and photographs

What's that? You're a reporter and photographs don't concern you? Think again. However great your story is, however many hundreds of words you write, nine times out of 10 a photograph is going to make it better. And the best of those photographs will be taken by the photographers in your newsroom (and not by you on whatever digital the newsroom can afford). Here's a quick guide to ensuring you get the best pictures to accompany your work. This is just from a newsdesk's point of view, so photographers, if you've got something to add leave it in the comments below.

Treat photographers well
This is such a basic rule, but it's so ignored in newsrooms. Photographers are just as essential to the work of a newspaper as reporters. In fact, they're probably slightly more essential, since no one will read a paper devoid of images. Bear that in mind, and make sure you don't make unnecessary demands, are rude or dismissive, and say thank you.

Give a good brief
A photographer turning up to a job blind won't get photos as good as those done by a photographer turning up informed. Photographers don't need to know every word you're writing, but do give them all the information they need to take a photograph that is relevant to your story. 

Think about how many pictures you'll use
Following on from the point above, if you need a page of pictures, ask for a page of pictures. If you need just a couple, ask for a couple. Don't just assume the photographer will know. It's frustrating for you if you were expecting the photographer to come back with eight pictures and they've only come back with one, and frustrating for them if they submit 20 pictures to you and you only ever intended to use one. 

Share your ideas 
Photographers are the experts when it comes to visuals, but if you've got an idea in mind don't be afraid to share it. Discuss any ideas for visuals to accompany a story with the photographer, and chances are they'll be able to work with that and come up with something even better incorporating your ideas.

Think about stock pics
There are certain people you're going to need to use photographs of often - police officers, councillors etc. Plan in advance and ask for a range of stock pics of these people. Ask photographers to get pictures of people behind their desk, on the phone, at the computer, outside their office building, by a police car (if they're in the police) etc. In the long run this saves the photographer from having to keep going back to get pictures of these people, prevents the paper from having to use the same picture every time, and also saves time for the person who is in the picture, as you'll only have to take up their time once.

Don't expect miracles
Sometimes it rains, or the subject isn't comfortable being photographed, or something else goes wrong. In the same way jobs will change on photographers despite the best intentions of reporters when they're booking something, photographers won't always be able to get the photographs you want because circumstances dictate it to be so. 

If you feel you're not getting the photographs you want, take a look at yourself and check whether you're doing all the right things when booking a job (see all the points above). If you are and the photos are still not what you want, sit down and talk to the photographer and see if there's a better way the two of you can do things. In a similar way, if you see something you really like that the photographer has done, let them know. Everyone likes to know they're appreciated now and then.

Glee: On My Way recap/review

Glee is a bit like the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl in her hair - when it's bad, it's horrid, but when it's good, it's very, very good.

On My Way was one of those very, very good episodes of Glee. Granted, it had its faults (lots of them), but overall it was an episode that dealt well with some very serious issues, and was focused on regret, responsibility and redemption. I've had enough time to think about the episode since I watched it - and it's the episode of Glee that's stayed with me the longest after viewing.

The most compelling plot and the most heartbreaking of the episode, and perhaps of Glee, was Karofsky trying to take his own life. Karofsky found the tables turned - after years of tormenting Kurt for his sexuality Karofsky found the same happening to him. Unlike Kurt, he couldn't cope and tried to take his own life. Scenes of Karofsky crying, laying out a suit and preparing to hang himself were intercut with Blaine singing Cough Syrup to Kurt. The Karofsky scenes were so tough to watch - particularly his dad finding him - but I think Glee handled them really well. It may have been a speeded up version of the things some people go through, but that's the dramatic licence a television programme gets to take, and it was probably more powerful because of the speed at which it happened.

Karofsky's attempted suicide raised questions of who was responsible. The teachers, for once on Glee, behaved like teachers. Mr Schue, Sue, and even Figgins (eventually) realised that they should have been looking deeper at the reasons why Karofsky bullied Kurt when the pair were both at McKinley. They largely failed in their duty of care towards Kurt, and towards Karofsky.

Kurt also blamed himself, saying he should have answered Karofsky's calls. While that may have helped, I think Kurt has done more than anyone else to help Karofsky, even though Karofsky threatened to kill him and made his life a misery.

Surprisingly, we also saw guilt from Sebastian, who had a massive turnaround this episode. His teasing of Karofsky and the knowledge of what Karofsky tried to do have made Sebastian sit up and realise his words can hurt deeply. While I don't think Sebastian had much to do with Karofsky's attempted suicide, it was good to see him show some self-awareness. How long this new Sebastian will last is anyone's guess.

So who is to blame? A lot of characters felt responsible, but the ones really to blame were not just Karofsky's new school mates who bullied him, but also society as a whole for not being accepting of its children.

But responsibility and regret were not where it ended for Karofsky in this episode and we did see a happy ending of sorts. For him there was redemption. The scene where Kurt visits him in hospital, where the two talk about just how bad things can be but just how good they can get - and the flash forward to Karofsky's future - were beautifully done. Chris Colfer and Max Adler acted their socks off, and a large part of the reason this storyline worked so well was down to them.

The Karofsky storyline and all its various links would have been enough for one episode of Glee, but being Glee it wanted to cram in more.

First, there was regionals. One day Glee may be brave enough to not show most of regionals, and just have the action from the competition off screen. That wasn't the case this time around, so we were treated to two numbers from the Warblers, three from New Directions and some faffing around with the judges. I didn't feel, in an episode in which there was an attempted suicide and possibly a death (more on that later), that it was appropriate to balance it with some comedy about a judge dressed as a vampire, which resulted in him leaping out of a coffin to give the results. There's black humour, and then there's trying to convey dark humour in a really amateur way.

Also strange was the choice of New Directions/the Troubletones singing What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger). I'm not sure if the song choice was intentional. In a way it's an appropriate message, but in a way the word kill isn't appropriate.

While I loved the other numbers, I wasn't sure we needed to see Rachel singing yet another sappy number at Finn. Also, did these two not learn anything from Nationals and the ill-advised kiss? Displaying such overt personal emotions during a performance is not professional show choir behaviour. Jesse St James would be appalled.

This episode featured a lot of Rachel and Finn, mostly so the final scene with Quinn could be played out, I suspect. Still, there could have been some stuff cut from there as well - Finn and Rachel arguing was not necessary because we all know the argument will only last a few seconds. To be honest, Sebastian's amateur attempt at blackmailing Rachel could also have been cut. He's done enough bad things that we didn't need him to do another just so he could then have a change of heart.

On the other hand, Rachel's dads were a win, trying to work out how to stop the wedding. When Glee comes back it'll be interesting to see if Finn and Rachel are married. I think not, I think somehow the message about Quinn will have got through before they can tie the knot.

Sue's pregnancy was not needed at all in this episode, and although I like Sue, I found myself struggling to care about her storyline, because there was so much stuff going on in this episode that was more important. They could have saved this for the next part of the season, and just left in the scene where Sue lets Quinn come back to the Cheerios to help set up the Quinn storyline.

And so to Quinn and Glee's most shocking finale to an episode yet. Even though you knew it was coming from the moment Rachel said Quinn had gone home to get her bridesmaid's dress, that final moment where Quinn's car was hit by another still made jaws drop. There's a lesson here about texting and driving, which was handled in a clumsy way, but overall it was pretty powerful. It'll be interesting to see what happens to Quinn in the last section of this series. 

The music
Being the regionals episode, there were plenty of songs. I know Glee is a show about a glee club, but it's not always necessary to include masses of numbers.

The best was the only non-regionals number, Blaine singing Young the Giant's Cough Syrup. It was partially good because of what you saw on screen while he was singing it, and partially good because of the raw emotion Blaine sang the song with.

The Warblers did good with their two numbers, and despite my concerns with What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger) it was still a well done song. 

Glee releases sneak peaks of its songs before the episode airs, and I rarely listen to them. This episode made me glad I don't, because when Santana and Blaine started rapping during the mash-up of Fly/I Believe I Can Fly, I was genuinely surprised and it put a smile on my face. Rapping isn't Glee's strong suit, but it's always fun. 

Here's To Us was a traditional Rachel number, vocally perfect, but I just didn't love it that much. 

What Glee did well
Teen suicide is a tough subject, and I thought Glee handled it really sensitively, sent a really powerful message and hopefully made people sit up and take notice. Despite there being plenty included in On My Way that wasn't needed, and that could have meant the core Karofsky storyline wasn't done as well, this was not the case.

Next week
Nothing, there's a really long hiatus -boo. And then we're back with an episode featuring Matt Bomer as Blaine's brother - yay.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

In memory of Marie Colvin

Journalism has a bad reputation, but one look at Marie Colvin and her work and anyone can see that it can be a honourable profession. I have a huge respect for war reporters, and for Marie, who put herself in danger time and time again, until it eventually cost her her life.

Today journalism lost Marie, who was more than just a war reporter. She was a reporter on the human condition, and her reporting brought home to the privileged and the free how others in the world were suffering.

In a speech two years ago about the importance of war reporting (full text here), she said:
Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.
We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.
She bore witness, and exposed the truth, and there will be people out there who will get away with things now that she is no longer here to shine a light on the injustices they are taking part in.

In one of her final posts from Baba Amr in Syria she wrote:
Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless. As well as cold! Will keep trying to get out the information.
Marie was not the only person to die in the attack in Syria. Photographer Remi Ochlik was also killed, and dozens of others died as Syria continued its bombardment in Homs, while masses more have been killed over the past months. I never met Marie, but from everything of hers that I have read and heard and seen, she would want those who died in Syria to be remembered just as much as she is.

So, we must ask ourselves, in memory of Marie Colvin and because she no longer can, how can we stand by and watch as injustice rages across the world?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Cooking with Sarah: Mexican bean wraps

These wraps make a great light lunch, particularly served with a mixed salad. I took inspiration from a Jamie Oliver recipe I found online, but replaced or added a lot of my own ingredients and made a lot of stuff up. It worked pretty well though!

1. Slice one onion and fry in olive oil until soft and starting to turn brown. Add a crushed clove of garlic, around a level tsp of chilli powder (depending on how spicy you want it), and some cumin. Mix.
2. Add in a tin of baked beans and around 150g of tinned tomatoes. Top up with some fresh tomatoes. Cook for around 10 minutes (lid off the pan) until the mixture begins to thicken.
3. Take a third of the mix and blend in a food processor until smooth to make a paste.
4. In a frying pan, cook some sliced red peppers in a little oil. I also added some vegetarian mince and cooked that as well. Once this is ready (should only take a few minutes) add to the rest of the bean mix that you haven't blended.
5. Take a tortilla wrap, spread some of the paste across all of one side. Spread some of the bean/pepper/mince mixture on one half. Grate some cheese on top, then roll and place in a baking dish. Do the same until you've run out of paste and mixture (should make four wraps).
6. Grate a little more cheese over the top, then stick in the oven for around 20 minutes, until the wraps start to crisp slightly at the edges.
7. Serve, eat and enjoy.

Reading challenge book five: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Book five in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

It's no exaggeration for me to say that after reading the book I am now obsessed by The Hunger Games. Collins' story is brilliant, her characters fascinating if not always likeable, and her writing is pretty good.

The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen, tribute for District 12 as she goes to the 74th annual Hunger Games.

Held every year, the Hunger Games are a show of power by the Capitol, reminding the 12 districts that make up what was once America of the Capitol's power. Each year one boy and one girl aged between 12 and 18 are picked from each of the 12 districts to take part in the Hunger Games -  a sporting and entertainment event in which the 24 participants must kill each other until the last one left alive is crowned the victor. 

The Hunger Games is a book written for teenagers, but its themes of life and death make it a good read for adults.

Katniss Everdeen is a three-dimensional character, and we see her flaws - occasional selfishness, single-mindedness, cynicism - as well as her good points - loyal to friends and family, a sense of what is right. Her flaws only make us like her more.

However, Katniss is not my favourite character. That honour goes to Peeta Mellark, the male tribute from District 12, who is kind and loving, but has a steely determination and a willingness to do whatever it takes to keep Katniss alive, even though she may not like it and she may not want him to.

Secondary characters are also well-formed - Cinna, Katniss' stylist who has a rebellious side; Haymitch, District 12's drunk mentor who can still be sharp as a pin; Gale, Katniss' best friend and the other romantic interest in her life; Rue, the sweet tribute from District 11.

Even the characters we only see briefly are written well by Collins. I particularly like Caesar Flickerman, the interviewer who presents the tributes to viewers every year.

The concept of the story is interesting, and Collins says she came up with it while channel surfing, flicking between reality television and scenes of war on the news. The Hunger Games themselves are a horrific idea, but fit perfectly with the new world order Collins has created, of a government so powerful it can order citizens to enjoy watching the death of its own children. It's a chilling idea, but that's what makes it so interesting.

Above everything else, The Hunger Games is just a brilliant story. It's dark (could children killing each other be anything but?) but it's a compelling tale. I really would recommend everyone go and read this, you will love it. Thank goodness there are sequels (and a film due soon), or otherwise I'd be left wanting more.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Glee: Heart recap/review

The Valentine's Day special of Glee was an episode about tolerance, acceptance, and most importantly, love. Was it also an episode about religion? Maybe, but I think it was more an episode about faith, in yourself, in each other, in doing the right thing, and, if that's what you believe, in God.

So let's talk about faith, religion, tolerance and acceptance in Heart first. New character Joe Hart (Hart - geddit?!) was introduced through his membership of the God Squad, and has never met a gay person before. So when Santana asks the God Squad to sing a song to Brittany from her, Joe needs some time to think about whether his faith precludes him from singing to a same-sex couple. The discussion which follows is mature, and it's refreshing that religion isn't just dismissed or looked down upon. The other three members of the God Squad - Mercedes, Sam and Quinn - acknowledge that Joe needs time to think. Quinn's description of other things the Bible says are abomination reminds me a little of an episode of The West Wing where President Bartlett has a go at a heinous radio producer. While not as dramatic, the God Squad's discussion is as thought-provoking, particularly Quinn's final thought: "You have to look at the hard topics and dilemmas and be honest and truthful. If you ask me, that's what being Christian is really about."

Meanwhile Santana is battling against an unseen enemy - someone has complained to Principal Figgins about her and Brittany kissing in the hallway. While Figgins attempts to convey his reluctance to let the couple kiss as a quest against public displays of affection in general, Santana points out his hypocrisy - Rachel and Finn manage to slobber all over each other in the hallway to their heart's content, without anyone saying anything.

It's worth pointing out, this hypocrisy is something that's been getting the nerves of Glee fans for a while. The lack of screen time and romantic interaction between Santana and Brittany and between Kurt and Blaine compared to the constant contact between Rachel and Finn is argued about frequently in fandom. With Heart, Glee is addressing those concerns, and perhaps even showing it's been playing a long game, that it's fully aware of how different characters are treated differently, and that it is simply reflecting society by treating the straight couples differently to the gay couples in a bid to expose the hypocrisy.

This storyline has a partially happy ending in Heart. While the double standard of public displays of affection at school is not resolved (hopefully in the future), new boy Joe does accept Santana and Brittany's relationship in spite of, or perhaps because of, his religion. As he says: "Love is love, man." And, just for the fans, Santana and Brittany do get to indulge in a very public display of affection.

Talking of Rachel and Finn, they're still getting married. And now their families know. So comes our introduction, at last, to Rachel's two dads, hilariously played by Jeff Goldblum and Brian Stokes Mitchell. They are seemingly accepting of the couple's decision to tie the knot, as are Carol and Burt. Luckily (and I guessed right here) it's all a clever ruse to get Rachel and Finn to realise they're not ready for marriage. Unluckily, it backfires. Still, hopefully this means we'll get to see more of the musical Mr Berry and Mr Berry.

Since this is an episode about love, it's only right that Sam and Mercedes get some screen time. I've loved the development of their storyline over the last few episodes, and Heart carries this on beautifully, if heartbreakingly. Taking Quinn's words about honesty to heart, Mercedes tells Shane she and Sam kissed, and tells Sam she can't be with him because she feels horrible about herself. The discussion, where you can visibly see Mercedes and Sam's hearts breaking, is followed by more tear-jerking, as Mercedes sings a gorgeous version of I Will Always Love You, which is of course particularly poignant coming just days after Whitney Houston's death (the episode is also dedicated to Whitney Houston).

If you thought all the drama so far was enough seriousness for one episode of Glee, think again, there's more before we get to the fun stuff. Kurt's storyline starts off fun. He's receiving Valentine's cards from a secret admirer, who he believes to be Blaine, still in his sick bed after Sebastian's slushie attack. But it turns out his secret admirer is Dave Karofsky. I admit, I didn't really see this coming. Someone in fandom joked about how they would throw something if Karofsky turned up this episode, but I never actually thought it would happen.

Karofsky confesses he thinks he's in love with Kurt, and that he may be ready to come out eventually. Kurt turns him down, explaining that he's in love with Blaine, that there's no way he'd ever be with Karofsky after everything he's done, and that Karofsky is just in love with the idea of Kurt. It's a sad moment, because even after all Karofsky's done to Kurt, I still felt sorry for him because he's so clueless, he really thinks there's a chance for him and a boy whose life he made pretty much unbearable. And I felt even more sorry for Karofsky when he realised one of the boys at his new school had seen everything. It seems this may not be the last time we see Karofsky.

On the lighter side, Blaine did come back this episode, and in a rather spectacular way, singing Love Shack with Kurt and the rest of the gang. It was fun to see Kurt and Blaine actually interacting with each other, instead of just sitting next to each other (or a few seats away from each other) - usually you can't even tell they're a couple, so at least this episode we actually saw them together. Still, would it have hurt Glee to have both Santana and Brittany and Kurt and Blaine indulging in a little affection in one episode?

On the lighter side, Sugar is facing a tough decision between Artie and Rory. Both are vying for her attention, and the trio provide the episode's comic relief, with a cute montage of scenes of each boy trying to outdo the other, two musical performances to win Sugar's heart, and then the inevitable dirty looks between the victor and the loser. Still, Rory's win is going to come back to bit him on the arse, as it was dependant on a lie.

The music
This week's glee club assignment was about singing the greatest love songs, so the musical choices were a little disappointing. I loved I Will Always Love You, which IS one of the world's greatest love songs, and Love Shack was a fun number that rally suited the moment.

The other songs were done well, but I didn't feel any of them could be included in the pantheon of great love songs.

What Glee did well
A surprisingly plot-heavy, feelings-heavy episode that dealt with some big issues, started dealing with others, and still managed to have a lighter side.

Also, special mention to Quinn, who has recovered from her ridiculous plotline at the start of series three and morphed into the voice of reason and wisdom. Brava.

Next week

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Great Harry Potter Rewatch: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and (yes, I'm a geek) I've probably read them hundreds of times. Having purchased the box set of films, I've decided to have a Harry Potter rewatch (until we get to the last two films, which will just be a watch as I've not seen them), to see if I can learn to love the films as much as the books (doubtful, but I'll try).

Up next is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which has always been my least favourite book of the seven. I don't know why, but I don't find it as enthralling as the rest. Still, with seven books, there's bound to be one that's less loved than the others.

Despite not loving Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as much as the other books, I did find myself quite enjoying the film.

The Weasley's house is exactly as I picture it in my head, a bit like a cake with too many layers that's still holding on to its structure, just about. Inside, it's as cluttered and homely as I always imagine it to be, although if there's one thing that doesn't live up to my imagination it's Mrs Weasley's clock, which in the books is clearly a clock that can be carried around, and not a grandfather clock.

I also loved Harry's journey by floo powder to "Diagonilly". That moment makes me laugh out loud every time, and it's done really well. As do the Weasley twins, whose brief appearances in this film make me love them as much as I do in the books.

Kenneth Branagh is brilliant as the arrogant yet clueless Professor Lockheart. His look is spot on, as is the scene at Hogwarts where he lets the pixies loose. Branagh continues to be great throughout, going from full of himself to angry to losing his memory flawlessly. This is definitely one of the best acting jobs of the Harry Potter series, and he's got some serious competition, even in this film. Jason Issacs is suitably mean as Lucius Malfoy, while Shirley Henderson's simpering and sulky Moaning Myrtle is as good as she is in the books.

Harry and Tom Riddle's final showdown is kind of creepy and poignant at the same time, and I enjoyed watching the interaction between the two, especially knowing what will happen next time the pair meet.

Knowing how Harry will interact with Dobby in the future also made seeing scenes between the two characters interesting. A good base is set for the two, and I'm bound to need to grab the tissues for their final encounter towards the end of the films.

The most terrifying part of the film for me (arachnophobe that I am) was the encounter between Harry, Ron and the spiders in the forest. I remember seeing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at the cinema, and having to sit in one of the rows closest to the screen because the place was packed. When Aragog, and then his children, appeared, I actually shrank back in my seat. They still have the same effect on me, even though I'm watching on a much smaller screen.

The same can't be said of the Basilisk, which I found distinctly unscary. I felt it was a clumsy puppet that looked a bit ridiculous flailing around.

Also disappointing in this film is the lack of interaction between Harry and Ginny, which is not only important in the telling of this particular story, but also sets the foundations for the way the two interact in books to come.

As in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, I found the Quidditch matches really boring to watch even though I love reading play-by-plays in the books. I think dragging them out makes them unbearable. Additionally, although the Harry Potter stories are all about suspending reality, I found myself distracted in the Quidditch scenes - wondering how on earth the stands didn't collapse as Dobby's rogue bludger smashed away at their foundations. It's a silly thing to focus on, but something the filmmakers should have been paying more attention to.

Also annoying was the clumsy exposition, found mostly at the beginning of the film i.e. "Why, Harry, you've never travelled by floo powder. Let me explain it to you in a slightly patronising manner so the viewers can understand what it is." Luckily it didn't carry on throughout, otherwise it would have been grating.

Overall though, I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the same way I've come to love the book (although still not as much as the others) I've come to love this film, which definitely has more positive points than negative ones.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Reading challenge book four: Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Book four in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. 

Brick Lane is a bit of a modern classic, and one of those novels that's been on my list to read for years. I was compelled to finally get round to buying a copy when I started working on an area in Tower Hamlets, although I still haven't been to the actual Brick Lane. 

I found Brick Lane a painful read, but in a good way. That may sound oxymoronic, but it's difficult to explain in other terms. What I mean is that my heart ached every step of Nazneen's journey, from when she was a baby to when we leave her at the end of the novel. Even then, happy as she is, my heart still ached for her, a happy ache, but nonetheless one that I could feel.

For a novel that is set largely in one flat, Brick Lane is all about journeys. Thousands of miles are travelled in this book, maybe more, as Nazneen goes on a journey to find herself, only to realise she was where she wanted to be all along. 

It's a novel about strong women, the strongest kind of women. Mothers, who just get on with life. There's Nazneen, who takes on a mothering role with her sister as well as her own two daughters, and the son she loses towards the beginning of the novel. There's Razia, who builds a life for her children when her husband dies, so focused on the material that it causes her to ignore the plight of her son because she loves him so much she is blind to his faults. But when she finally faces the truth about Tariq, Razia is all mother, letting no one get in the way of her son's recovery.

Another reason Brick Lane is so heartbreaking yet so powerful is that it is full of lonely characters. Nazneen, who feels isolated in a strange country; Chanu, who never quite finds his place despite all his efforts and ends up calling the place he left years ago home; Razia, who soldiers on despite others looking down on her; Dr Azad, who discovers love is not enough; Karim, who doesn't know what he wants.

There are many fascinating characters in Brick Lane, but perhaps Karim is one of the most interesting, since we know as little about him as he knows about himself. Although he helps Nazneen to break down her own barriers and learn more about herself, he is unable to let go of the artificial images he creates for himself. He flits from image to image, trying to be the perfect whatever he is trying to be at that time. By the end of the novel we're unsure of his location, a metaphor perhaps for the way Karim disappears a little more every time he tries to be something he's not. 

Brick Lane is a beautifully crafted novel, all feelings and emotions wrapped in a setting that reflects the lives of its characters. It has a charming ending, one that left me sighing in bittersweet happiness, and it's a novel I'm sure I'll visit again.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Glee: The Spanish Teacher recap/review

One of the writers of Glee - I can't remember which - has been quoted as saying this middle block of episodes in season three are all about fun.

And I definitely had fun this episode. Not just because The Spanish Teacher was funny, but also because it was one of those well-crafted episodes of Glee where so much happens while on screen not much seems to happen.

Let's start with the fun stuff. Ricky Martin as the Spanish teacher was fun to watch, as was his interaction with Will and the glee club kids. The reactions when he walked into the room were stunning (I've missed you Sugar!) and his version of Sexy and I Know It had my head bopping.

Also funny were Sue's pronouncement she wanted to have a child (but more on that later), the scene in the locker room (more on Emma later), and tons of other things. I spent much of this episode laughing, and it felt good.

But despite all the fun I had, there were lots of serious moments dotted in between the jollier stuff.

While it was initially funny to hear Sue announce she wanted a child, the whole plot soon became touching, as she revealed she knows how mean she is, that she vibrates with rage all the time, and that she would never want to subject a child to those behaviours. But it was Sue's honesty, with Emma and with herself, that I think would make Sue a good mother. And it's that honesty displayed in the scene between Sue and Becky - another excellent moment between the two to follow on from the one in Yes/No - that makes Becky say as much to Sue. Mean as Sue is, she has acted as a mother figure to Becky, and to an extent all the Cheerios she has taught.

Easier to see as a mother is Emma, but this week she acted as a mentor and  as one of the voices of the programme's voices of wisdom (along with Sue and Kurt). She shows that passion and determination can carry a person a long way, and that she has bucketloads of both, despite all the difficulties she faces with her OCD and her strange parents. Emma may seem like a timid mouse, but she's actually more of a sage or a mentor, there to guide people on the path they need (with fun leaflets). It's brilliantly shown in her words to Will ("I don't need you to take care of me") and her advice to Mercedes and Sam to stop talking and start listening.

Our final voice of wisdom was Kurt, who has been through more than his fair share of hardship in his life. Kurt, out of all the teenagers in Glee (and many of the adults as well) is, I think, the character who knows himself best. His confidence has grown hugely since the first series, and he's in a good position to talk to Finn about the importance of living your life, believing in yourself and not being afraid. He's lived it all, and is practising what he preaches.

Essentially, these three more serious moments were just that - moments. They weren't grand proclamations, there were no signs hanging over them saying: "Major plot development here!" Glee showed a subtlety this week that's missing from all of its worst episodes. Kurt, Emma and Sue's words of wisdom and honesty weren't delivered in a heavy-handed manner. Instead, they were quite moments among the larger chaos of Glee. It was chaos that really worked this week, and meant those quieter moments will stay with us for a long time. 

Glee's playing the long game with its storylines. There's no sudden blow-up over Rachel and Finn's engagement, it's a storyline that I'm actually coming to enjoy because of the slow development. Also notable this week was the Mercedes and Sam storyline, the slow burn of which just makes me anticipate what is going to happen there more. I hope Glee continues in this vein. 

The music
This might be controversial, but I felt the music wasn't that great this week. That's no bad thing, since Glee, while a programme about a glee club, is first and foremost a programme about people, and I would rather the music be a by-product of the storyline than have the storyline revolve around getting a certain song in.

That said, I did enjoy Sexy and I Know It, and I thought Mercedes sang Don't Wanna Lose You beautifully. The boys doing Bamboleo and Hero was fun, although the constant need Glee has for mash-ups annoys me.

Ricky Martin's teacher doing La Isla Bonita with Santana was hot, and Mr Schue's A Little Less Conversation made me laugh in horror. Santana had a real point when she berated Mr Schue. 

What Glee did well
The mix of laugh-out-loud moments and quieter conversations was really well done. 

Next week
Valentine's Day, and we get to meet Rachel's dads.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Reading challenge book three: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Book three in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Shiver  by Maggie Stiefvater.

This was actually meant to be book five, as I'm half way through what was meant to be book three and had book four lined up. But when this was sent to me I could only resist for a few days before cracking it open, and once I'd started it was difficult to stop.

Comparisons to Twilight are inevitable, although this has werewolves and there are no vampires in sight. It is, however, a love story, where the female protagonist, whose parents aren't the most observant of people, falls for the otherworldly male protagonist. And of course, Stiefvater is tapping in to the insatiable need pop culture has for other beings, be they vampires, werewolves or something else. But that's where the similarities with Twilight end.

Even though Shiver's target audience is probably teenagers, this is altogether a much more adult book than any in the Twilight series, and I felt comfortable reading it. Characters are well-rounded, the development of the main relationship in the book feels like development, and the emotions are all too human.

The protagonist, Grace, was bitten by wolves as a child. She recovered from her injuries with no side effects (she thinks), but is now fascinated by the wolf pack behind her home. In particular, she is drawn to a wolf with intriguing yellow eyes.

When a boy at her school is "killed" by the wolves some of the townsfolk head into the woods to shoot the wolves. Which is when Grace, running home, finds a boy with hauntingly familiar yellow eyes in her garden.

Taking him in, Grace learns more about the boy, Sam, and his life as a werewolf. Their relationship is, for them and for readers, a slow burn - both go into it knowing pain, physical and emotional, lies ahead. But because both are aware of each other's shortcomings, it's a decidedly adult relationship, something missing from Twilight with the weak Bella constantly pining after Edward.

The mythology here is well crafted, using simple tools. Stiefvater chooses the weather to act as the catalyst for why the werewolves change (guess that's sort of a similarity with Twilight, where the weather also has an influence on some things). Cold makes the humans turn into werewolves, and they stay that way until the weather is warm enough. Grace has spent her summers up until meeting Sam missing the werewolves, without knowing why. 

To add a twist, eventually all the werewolves remain werewolves, no matter what the weather. It's a concept which adds a sense of doom to the whole proceedings, and the tension builds throughout the book.

Stiefvater's secondary characters are well developed. Grace's friends Olivia and Rachel are mysterious and fun respectively, and Olivia especially plays a crucial role in some of the proceedings, although Stiefvater chooses to keep this behind the scenes until near the end. Other characters, such as Sam's mentor/father figure Beck and Grace's frenemy Isabel, are likeable despite their very, very huge faults, but that's because Stiefvater isn't afraid to show the negative parts of their personality.

Shiver is a well-crafted teen novel, which actually deserves some of the attention the poorly written Twilight received. Lucky for me, there are sequels, and I can't wait to read them.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Great Harry Potter Rewatch: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and (yes, I'm a geek) I've probably read them hundreds of times. Having purchased the box set of films, I've decided to have a Harry Potter rewatch (until we get to the last two films, which will just be a watch as I've not seen them), to see if I can learn to love the films as much as the books (doubtful, but I'll try).

Up first is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which contains dolls playing the parts of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Oops, sorry, not dolls, they're just the very young, extremely tiny Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. Let's get this out of the way, the three of them are sweet, and they all look the part, but they can't act for all the chocolate frogs in the world in this film.

The best child actor in this film is Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. From that perfect sneer on his face when he encounters Harry for the first time to his indignation at being given detention by McGonagall to his fear in the Forbidden Forest, Felton's pretty good at embodying the horrid Malfoy.

I love the pre-Hogwarts scenes in this film, because what I loved most about the first book was finding out all about the wizard world. Diagon Alley is one of my favourite fictional places in the world, and this film gets pretty close to how I see it in my head - busy, with surprises in every shopfront, full of strange people. It's like Oxford Street, but with magic.

Also pretty good are the Dursleys, who are just as contemptible as they are in the book, and Molly Weasley, who is just as lovely, even though we only see her briefly. All the Weasleys are pretty cool, and they'll definitely be welcomed in further films.

Hagrid, although I find the scaling odd - sometimes he's massive, sometimes he just looks normal - is played well by Robbie Coltrane (although I'll never stop associating him with Cracker). He's the perfect mix of protective and funny.

Once we get to Hogwarts, I don't feel the film quite lives up to the book. I think the film missed a trick by not including one of Dumbledore's best lines ever: "Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!"

I was a little bored by the film's Quidditch scene, which I was also bored with the first time I saw this film. Unfortunately, time has done nothing to improve it. Somehow, seeing almost six minutes of high-speed Quidditch played out on screen is less exciting than reading about it.

More exciting are the final scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione trying to get to the philosopher's stone. The chess scene, in particular, is tense and builds brilliantly to the moment Ron makes his final move. Quirrell turning to ash every time he touches Harry, although not quite the way it's done in the book, is powerful, and seeing the hideous face of Voldemort is actually scary.

There are some essential parts, things I consider essential in the book anyway, missing from the film. I love a bit of angst, so everyone disliking Harry because of the whole Norbert incident is one of my favourite parts of the book, but instead we just get our gang of three getting in trouble for going to see Hagrid. Also not in the film is Hermione solving Snape's logical quiz to get Harry to the philosopher's stone, but maybe this was because the writers of the film didn't understand which bottle got Harry through the fire.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a decent adaptation of the first book. It's light on the darker plots that surface later in the series, and heavy on exposition, but in that way it's exactly like the book.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Glee: Michael recap/review

This highly anticipated episode was called Michael, which I personally believe was a shortened version of its working title - Let's see how many Michael Jackson songs we can cram into one episode.

Nine, it turns out. I won't discuss them all, because we'll be here forever, but needless to say this episode was heavy on the music, light on the plot.

There were two main plot strands - Sebastian and the Warblers doing battle with the New Directions, and Rachel deciding whether or not to marry Finn. Most of the other things that happened in this episode can largely be tied in to these two plot points.

Let's take Rachel and Finn first, mostly to get it out of the way. When we left them in the last episode Finn had just proposed to Rachel. She was about as shocked as I was annoyed by this development. Like the 'Quinn wants to steal her baby back plot', teenagers getting married on a whim is a plot that should stay firmly in the realm of trashy soaps.

What I really wanted Rachel to say when we saw her and Finn again this episode was: "No, are you crazy? We're 17, you've just found out your father died an addict not a war hero, and you're trying to fill the hole in your life with me. I love you, but we are too young to get married."

Instead, she thought about it, and then when she thought she'd been completely rejected from NYADA she decided to talk Finn up on his offer, seemingly charmed by his rendition of I Just Can't Stop Loving You (not the best number for his voice we've heard Finn do). I wanted to shake Rachel when she said yes. Not only is it a stupid decision, it doesn't take a genius to work out it's going to end in disaster. Which it will, since Rachel was accepted into NYADA at the end of the episode and now faces the choice between her man and her career.

Talking of NYADA, after all Kurt has been through this season and, oh, every season, it was lovely to see him being accepted (I'm taking being a finalist as being accepted) into the university of his choice. He deserves some happiness, especially in light of what happened to his boyfriend this episode.

Which brings us neatly to the other main plot point of this episode - Warblers vs New Directions. This faux rivalry, orchestrated entirely by the rather nasty Sebastian, was simply an excuse to do a lot of Michael Jackson numbers. Both groups want to sing the King of Pop's songs for regionals (what's the betting neither will?), so a war to see who does Michael best ensues.

The episode opens with the New Directions singing Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' - setting the tone for the battle ahead - before we head to the Lima Bean, where Sebastian drops the bomb that he's got the Warblers to agree to change their set list to MJ tunes.

So follows a showdown in a dark car park, where Blaine and Santana look like the kick arse besties I've always wanted them to be. Alas, despite Blaine rocking the line "it's time to see who's bad" before the start of the number, by the end he's on the floor is a screaming heap, the victim of a slushie laced with rock salt thrown by Sebastian (public school kids, or private, should I say, since it's an American programme).

Horrid as Sebastian is (truly horrid), his injuring of Blaine leads the latter to wear my favourite outfit of the series so far (yes, including the leather jumpsuit Kurt sports at the beginning of the episode) - pyjamas and an eyepatch. Seriously, pyjamas and an eyepatch. Imagine Darren Criss turning up to work that day and being handed pyjamas and an eyepatch to wear. Genius.

Unfortunately, it also leads to Kurt, Rachel and Finn singing Ben at Blaine, which is a bit weird. It would have been fine if it was just Kurt (although a love song would have been more appropriate), but I'm not seeing the need for Rachel and Finn to get involved with this.

Blaine's injury also leads to a sing-off between Santana and Sebastian, who rock Smooth Criminal with the help of a pair of phenomenally talented cellists. In my opinion, Santana wins, and not just because the dictaphone she taped to her "underboob" caught Sebastian confessing to tampering with the slushie.

Santana is brilliant in this episode. Her wit and cruelty are pointed firmly in the direction of Sebastian, and she shows that as bitchy as she is, she will come through for her friends. Her and Kurt have some cute moments, and if I can't get Santana and Blaine as BFFs, I'll happily settle for Santana and Kurt.

There were, however, some disappointing moments in this episode. For one, I found it hard to believe that the Warblers, who go to a school famous for its no tolerance bullying policy, would suddenly start assisting in the slushying of people. Secondly, Dalton is meant to be a good school, so I find it difficult to believe a group of clever teenagers would be taken in by Sebastian so much that they pretty much turn on a good friend, especially because at the end they realise the error of their ways (cheesy).

Also strange for me was Artie's outburst. Granted, his and Mike's recreation of Scream and its video was brilliant, but the lead up to it was clumsy. We've seen so little of Artie this season - some appearances as director of West Side Story, which gave him the opportunity to give a speech about how responsibility and trust made him feel like a man; his friendship/relationship/thing with Becky, which gave him the chance to berate the others for not looking more than skin deep (only to turn around and do the same thing himself); and now this, making an angry speech about the glee club standing up for themselves and fighting back. I feel like Artie is the big speech guy, like the writers say: "Ooh, we've got a lesson disguised as a speech, let's get Artie to do it." They wheel him out, literally, and then once he's done they shuffle him to the back again. I love Artie, I'd just like to see him more often with a more consistent plot (although he got to sing a lot this episode - yay!). He did a good speech, but I was a little bit: "Where did that come from?"

Overall, I thought this was a pretty solid episode, although it has to be taken very much as a tribute episode to Michael Jackson, and not compared to some of the plot heavy and better structured episodes of Glee. Like the Madonna episode, it was all about shoehorning the music in, but the writers did a good job of moving the NYADA and Rachel/Finn stories along, even if I don't think Rachel should have said yes. 

The music
Well, lots of Michael Jackson. My personal favourites were Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', Bad and Smooth Criminal.

I also loved Quinn's version of Never Can Say Goodbye, as she seemed really connected to the song and it fit well with her plot of finally learning to let go and doing something for herself.

I thought Black or White could have been stronger, although I loved the Warblers (particularly Trent) getting up on stage with the New Directions to bust some moves.

EDIT - I forgot about Mercedes and Sam. I liked Human Nature, but that kiss was lost in the middle of this episode. I'd completely forgotten about it when I got to the end.

What Glee did well
Doing Michael Jackson numbers is a tall order, but props to Glee for trying, and for pretty much pulling it off. 

Next week
Ricky Martin as the Spanish teacher.


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