Monday, 31 December 2012

TV Miniseries Review: The Pillars of the Earth

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Director: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Year Released: 2010
Running Time: ~60 minutes per episode
Episodes: 8
Status: Complete; followed by World Without End
Classification: MA
Genre: Historical drama

Based on Ken Follett's book of the same name, The Pillars of the Earth is a historical saga set in the 12th century, with the action kicking off upon the death of Henry I's son and the ensuing succession crisis between the king's daughter and nephew. The series is a veritable soup of players and plots. After the first episode, I rubbed my hands together in glee at the promise of meatiness and soapiness to come.

The drama centres on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Knightsbridge. It is a project started by Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), continued by his sons Jack (Eddie Redmayne) and Alfred (Liam Garrigan), and supported throughout by Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen, who you may remember as 2005's Mr Darcy). Making life hard, however, are the evil, power-hungry bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane) and the evil power-hungry Hamleigh clan, who want the priory's resources for themselves. These villains must also contend with plucky noblewoman Aliena (Hayley Atwell) and her brother Richard (Sam Claflin) in their power struggle over the lands of Shiring.

It's hard to describe the plot in any more detail without spoiling it all, so I'll leave it at that. I think, however, that you get the idea that this drama is a knotty plotty thing. I really enjoyed that – it was fun seeing what would happen, where things would go next, how one event would affect another and so on. It's the kind of show where half the fun lies in guessing the twists and turns.

Another pleasure is the cast, but for me it was mostly because I was able to cry “hey, it's that guy!” at almost everyone who walked on-screen. Some characters were distracting, but I'll admit this is probably entirely my own fault. For example, shallow old me had my attention diverted by stupid thoughts half the time Jack appeared – I couldn't decide if he was too pretty and whether he was creepy or mysterious. Also somewhat cringe-inducing was his method of seduction, which involved talking about architecture and then suddenly swooping in for a kiss. Though he was a “good” character, I wasn't sure if I liked him. By far the most distracting though was David Oakes as the vile William Hamleigh. The actor bears an uncanny resemblance to weedy shy guy Bret of Flight of the Conchords fame and there were many times I'd see William's horrible rape-y actions and clutch at my proverbial pearls, thinking “Brett would never!

Left: David Oakes; Right: Bret McKenzie
I just had to show you the two of them, brought together by the magic of MS Paint. The resemblance is uncanny, I tell you. Uncanny!

That aside, there are some (legitimate) problems with the drama, and these mostly involve characterisation. The good characters are clearly good and the evil ones are clearly evil; a few greyer characters are thrown in the mix, but they're only side characters. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – after all, sometimes you want to watch something where you can just cheer for the good guys and boo at the baddies. In this case, however, it detracts from the quality of the show overall. The villains are so determinedly villainous that some of the conflicts seem contrived and repetitive: while watching, I struggled with trying to remember exactly why certain (good) characters were so hated and why the villains would go to such lengths to make them suffer. Also, Willaim Hamleigh attacks Knightsbridge so many times that you come to dread the scenes where this happens. The battles also seem to blend in with one another. By the second last episode, everything becomes pretty predictable and (spoiler alert) the baddies get their comeuppance (hurrah!).

Another nitpick involves historical accuracy and general sense-making, which this drama sort of lacks. Most prominent is the character of Aliena, who, though likeable, embodies the modern “action girl” beloved of our times. 12th century class and gender norms don't really seem to matter for some reason. Further, the means by which Aliena comes into money really beggars belief. Still, this is a nitpick, so it's not a major issue but I'm sure it'd put some people off.

Oh, another thing that might annoy people is the supernatural element (in terms of visions, etc), but this aspect remains sort of ambiguous in terms of whether they're “real” or not and they're very minor. There are also some sex scenes and nudity, though they aren't nearly as gratuitous as in other shows (lookin' at you, Game of Thrones).

I enjoyed this miniseries. It looked good and it was fun and it was full of plotting and drama. Worth a go if you're feeling in the mood for something rich and historical and a wee bit trashy.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

(On another note, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Book review: 50 Shades of Grey

Book Review: Fifty Shades Trilogy
  1. Fifty Shades of Grey
  2. Fifty Shades Darker
  3. Fifty Shades Freed
Author: E.L. James
Year Published: 2011
Genre: Erotica, Romance

To a friend who asked us to do this review.

After some long months, I have finally finished the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Yay for me.
There is a reason for the long months. I had to force myself to read it. This trilogy is what it is, fan fiction. Written by someone who got lucky. If you have read 50 Shades and you love it, good for you and you might want to stop reading this review. If you haven’t read it, most likely you are thinking the same thing as I did before I read the trilogy. “I want to know what the fuss is about but I know I will not like the book”. 
Yes, you will be very, very disappointed.  

Then again I’m not a romantic person, I don’t like erotic books and I’m not a big fan of female writers.  Also I cannot tolerate poor writing. Your thought might be different. (I know, E.L. James' first trilogy be nice. I won't. I will be truthful and blunt, pay back for wasting those long months.)

The story centers on Anastasia Steele. She meets the rich, handsome Christian Grey. They basically hit it off from the start. What she doesn’t know is his troubled past and his ‘demands' in the bedroom.

Nothing happens in these books but sex! I wish I could have put that more delicately. I know it's a erotic book (although no one told me how erotic it is) but at least have some kind of storyline. Anything to keep the book interesting. There are parts of the trilogy where problematic situations arise but none are centered in the main story except for Christian's and Ana's sex life. The only thing worth noting is Christian's past and why he is the way he is... (*cough*a creep*cough) ... which was dragged through 3 books!!! By the end, his issues weren't even solved.

What I really dislike about 50 Shades is the'character development.' Anastasia  for example. She is meant to be a nice, innocent average girl. Of course every guy in the book is in love with her. That is typical in most romantic novels. What makes Ana annoying is from a college graduate, her IQ drops to 'ooo I love Christian Grey. Christian this and Christian's butt that.'. (Must have studied Christian Grey 101 in college). The only thing she develops is how to be irritating. Not to mention she does things purposely to annoy Christian just because she can. After her defiance she will beg for forgiveness and wait for her 'punishment'. Its a vicious cycle that repeats throughout the books.
Christian is no doubt much more complex. However besides from a whole lot of Ana describing his past and problems, he remains pretty much the same... (A controlling sex addict.)

On that note, am I the only girl on the planet who thinks Christian Grey is an extremely troubled person and if you were to pull his boundaries too far he will snap and ‘kill’?

The writing. Definitely not the best. This is the author's first novel so I won't go in depth with the repeating of words and the horrible attempts of steaming up the more erotic parts of the book and failing. (But like I said, I don't like erotic books so this might be me being biased..... I highly doubt it though).

One last point I have to make. 50 Shades is written in Anastasia's prospective so everything that runs through her head goes on the pages of the book. I have never read such a (lack of a better word) stupid girl's mind before. I understand she is meant to be young and naive but most people grow out of it. E.L.James has tried to give Anastasia some sort of selfless personality but she then lets it get lost in the story. Let me put it this way. Anastasia, being a average girl is meant to be relatable to the average female audience. I pray that there is nothing of me that resembles Anastasia Steele and I stress that Ana is NOT the typical average female!

Don’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. It is not worth anyone’s time unless you want to read something brainless. This craze will blow over and hopefully a ‘good’ book will take its place as the must read very soon…. Please…. Very soon….

Terri's Rating: 0.5/5

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Book Review: Virgin with Butterflies

Title: Virgin with Butterflies
Author: Tom Powers
Year Published: 2009 (originally 1945)
Genre: Adventure, General and literary fiction

(I apologise in advance for the length of this review.)

Look at the cover.

Just look at it.

When a dear friend pressed Virgin with Butterflies into my hands, I knew I held something special. Sure, virgins are a dime a dozen when it comes to fiction, especially when paired with the words “bride”, “mistress”, “boss's” and “billionaire's”, but here we have a virgin who is not defined by a man. Here we have a virgin who sits – as a queen – with a bunch of man-butterflies as her subjects (admittedly, it may seem that “butterflies” is a euphemism for men, but at least they're not men who own her). Upon flipping the book over, I discovered that the blurb only added to the book's mystery – the heroine is described as a blonde (!!) who collects rich men and has (magic?) butterflies that warn her when danger approaches. How could I resist?

I had two hopes: either the book would be hilariously bad or surprisingly good.

In the end, it was just so-so.

So what's it about? Well, at the brink of WWII, a down-to-earth American gal helps out a visiting Indian prince in a bar fight. For some reason she then accompanies him as he flies around the world selling jewels. In the process, she is admired by many men and receives many gifts. That's it. It's never explained why the heroine agrees to go in the first place, especially since she seems so surprised about it all and I can only assume it was because she wanted to be safe from the petty criminals who attacked the prince. It doesn't make sense, but there you go.

The narration is done in a really casual first person. Just imagine those old black and white American movies where a woman goes “so I says to Darlene, I says” and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the entire book reads like. I'm not entirely sure what to make of the heroine. She has the Mary Sue-esque trait of being obliviously but obviously gorgeous and every man she meets comes to admire her in one way or another. Still, she's somewhat likeable, being good and kind and decent. She's also practical and surprisingly culturally sensitive, but the thing that stands out is how simple she is.

Her cluelessness at times almost beggars belief, especially when it comes to how she even gets to flying about with the prince in the first place. She's a grown woman, not a child, and I can't quite decide whether she's irritating or charming or both, for instance, when she says things like “some other Japanese that sure was no gentlemen, they came over to a place that's called Pearl Harbour and they blew it right up. And they oughtn't to of done that, so there was a war.” (p78-9 for those playing at home).

For a book that was written in the 40s, it's pretty non-racist. In fact, I'd probably go so far as to say it's almost the opposite, promoting cultural and religious tolerance. There's a number of racial stereotypes, but they're fairly mild and apply equally to everyone, including the British, who say things like (p159) “Quite a bit of a neat show, what?” and so on. The worst of it is probably the depiction of the Sudanese king, who is shown to value a sewing machine above several sacks of gold, because somehow no one had ever thought to sell him another sewing machine or something. Be ye warned.

As for the actual story, it's not very well told. The narration jumps back and forth in time, and the main plot of travelling is further interwoven with a story about the heroine's family – namely her brother's arrest and her uncle's evilness. While such a style of storytelling might have worked with a different narrator or writer, it's just annoying here. All the jumping about destroys suspense and serves only to baffle and disappoint. The narrator will mention some future ~exciting event~, and then when we actually get to the ~exciting event~, it's just glossed over or blandly described. It's almost like watching a movie and realising that you've already seen all the good bits in the trailer. The style matches the heroine's character, so I guess the heroine just isn't a very good storyteller.

The same goes for the descriptions. The heroine visits many exotic locales, but it feels like the countries are name-dropped rather than explored. The worst part I can pinpoint is the non-description of an Indian temple on p169: 
“Well, it's no use trying to tell all about it, because if anybody's been to the movies enough you don't have to describe nothing much. They know what it looks like. And that's just what it did.” 
This is after the temple is described as “a huge big church with no windows and no pews and no Stations of the Cross or anything”. Thanks for that, narrator!

In summary, I didn't really enjoy this book. If you were thinking of reading this for the lulz, you'll probably be disappointed for the most part. If, however, you really enjoyed the excerpts I posted, then you'll probably find it very funny indeed. Personally, I found it a little on the boring side, the poor story outweighing what lulz there is. The heroine's voice is easy to read and there's a good sense of her character, but I can't decide if she's annoying or sweet and at any rate, the story and its telling aren't the greatest. The cover and title are the best thing about this book and they (along with the blurb) are misleading – other than the Indian prince, I can only guess at who the other heads are supposed to be. And FYI, the titular butterflies refer to stomach flutters (how disappointing, am I right?). I had maybe been hoping for some kind of mystery story where the heroine, by reason of her virginity, can control some magic butterflies that are actually spirits of men and she must escape pursuers who want the butterflies for their own nefarious purposes or something. But yeah. I was wrong. Still, take my dismissal with more than a grain of salt, for though I say there isn't much to this book, I have somehow managed to write this freaking essay on it (with quotes, no less).

Alex's Rating: 2.5/5