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      22.09.2010 18:57
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      My favourite album of the year!

      With an off-centre name like 'I Am Arrows' and an abstract album cover, you're all set for the standard debut album of 'out there' bands. We've never heard of them, and one of their songs was included on that notoriously querky i-tunes feature 'free single of the week'. You can't help but expect that flimsy accoustic style, with intellectual lyrics and unmemorable melodies. And perhaps the occasional sitar thrown in there for good measure. But this couldn't be further from the actual content of 'Sun Comes Up Again', I Am Arrows' debut album.

      A little bit of background first: I Am Arrows was formed by the former Razorlight drummer, Andy Burrows. He wrote all the songs on this album, and Green Grass, one of the songs, was record of the week for Radio 2, XFm, and 6 music. I Am Arrows have supported Muse on their recent tour, and have recently confirmed their own first UK tour. The genre of this album can best be described as Indie-pop, and to me, it characterises the kind of old-fashioned pop song that was invented in the 60's by the Beatles. Recent comparisons might be Ok Go, The Feeling, Razorlight (for obvious reasons) and Radiohead. The key point to make is that the songs are just the right medium between 'just catchy' and 'highly developed'. None of us like songs that are only good for the first few listens, and then they become annoying. Similarly, we don't like songs which are all intellectual and take ages to grow on you. So this album is the perfect medium. They are really good tunes, and they're very well recorded, with a marked lack of the depressing lean that many new bands inevitably take.

      NUN - This song was iTunes' single of the week fairly recently, and it's a great start to the album. Upbeat and with a very complete sound, it catches the listener's attention and marks them as a band very comfortable with their own sound. There is no amateurish (but trying to be obtuse) recording here, it sounds like a band that have been around for a while, probably due to Burrows' experience.

      GREEN GRASS - This song is the most popular on the album, and has been a big favourite on the radio stations. This is due to its instant likability and catchiness. This is the song that I heard about a line of on a Spotify advert and immediately loved. That's quite impressive, and it's not the kind of song that gets boring either. The balance of sound is flawless, and the rhythm and melodic preciseness of the last song is developed here. It's incredibly cheery and tuneful, with proper harmonies (gasp!) yet without any hint of cheesiness. It's built up perfectly so that when you get to the fantastic chorus, it becomes your favourite song ever. Seriously.

      NICE TRY - Any song might be a let down after Green Grass, but after a few listens, you realise how brilliant this song is too. The double tracking becomes a very noticeable feature here, and the short intro followed by the brilliant key melody in the piece is catchy and bouncy. The plonk plonk piano accompaniment is wonderfully accentuated by simple but perfect kit work. Another unusually well-written song!

      FAR ENOUGH AWAY - This song is noticeably less upbeat than the previous three, "Am I far enough away, for you, today?" but it's still beautiful. It's relaxing and yet rhythmic. I wouldn't say it was one of the brilliant songs on the album, but it grows on you.

      MONSTER'S DASH - This one minute interlude is not a happy one, and yet it's a very good intro to the next song. Its weird and serious tone leads you perfectly into 'No Wonder' and makes you appreciate the happiness of it a lot more. While you're pining after major keys, though, notice the really expressive singing and harmonisation of this mini-song.

      NO WONDER - Starting with a quiet and uplifting intro, we're given lots of suspense before the drum beat and glockenspiel kicks in for the heart soaring tune of the unconventional chorus. I'd go for a run to this song, and it takes a lot to make me go for a run. It's not ridiculously upbeat, but it's one of the most uplifting songs on the album. Yes, I love this one too. I particularly like its longer than usual bridge section with guitar solos that show us I Am Arrows' indie rock potential.

      SO LONG AGO - Call me crazy, but I love pieces in triple time. How many pop bands attempt waltzes? This one is perfect, with the drum beat leading the fast and bouncy verse, and the prominent vocals leading the chorus. This has a very bright and catchy tune, and is, again, well balanced and with enough pauses to feel very complete. "Unassisted we learned, it was so long ago." It's just very nice to listen to.

      THE US - This song again makes you wait for the chorus, and I like that it's not hurriedly put together. But even from the beginning sections, you can tell it's going to be a good song. It features a good driving tempo in the chorus and it's another good tune. I know you're getting bored of me saying that, but it's entirely true, and I appreciate good tunes. "Is this the Us you've fallen for? If it is, then we're done for."

      ANOTHER PICTURE OF YOU - Less good than the previous song, but still brilliant, this song features some stirring lyrics to a hasty beat, and begins to make you think: "I have had more than my fair share of upbeat songs here." Somehow, it's not at all sickly though, because each song is different, and stands on its own two feet.

      HURRICANE - A good song which one reviewer singled out as the only song on the album with frank and direct lyrics: "If I don't feel your love again, then I'm over." This in contrast with the "lovelorn yet vague" sentiments of the other songs. And I agree; this song isn't just nice to listen to, it's about something. I wouldn't say it was one of the best on the album, however. [By the way, some websites, and indeed, the editorial notes inside the album, call this song '50 feet high'. No idea why.]

      BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS - This is the only song on the album that I would consider skipping, if only for the reason that it's rather sad and has no bounce. The tune is still good (can these guys help it?) and the folksy accompaniment rather charming, but I don't particularly like it otherwise.

      PARK SLOPEY - I might also skip it because of the sheer excitement at reaching Park Slopey, a minor yet scrumptious song with a spine-tingling riff and a heart-wrenching tune. "This year I've been stealing from my brother, this year I'm alone". Another band solo in the middle to lead us into a triumphant bridge section is more than we deserve, by now, and your subwoofer ought to be turned up loud for this one.

      BRUISES - The long verse tinged with melancholy is sadly boring after the previous song, but the soaring melody of the chorus is worth waiting for, and later, the song improves to build up into the last section of glorious choruses.

      YOU'VE FOUND LOVE - This song is heartbreakingly short. It's 1 minute 43 of absolute joy, with the best harmonies on the whole album and simplistic charm. Just to improve matters, I'm a sucker for compound time signatures! What a brilliant end to the album.


      And there we go - too good to be true isn't it? Well, to some extent, almost certainly. I'm sure that this album just happens to be my idea of near perfection, but that can't be the case with everyone. However, it has won many awards, and is getting a lot of love already. They're a charming set of songs that are all very well written and brilliantly recorded to make an album of cheeriness and harmonic perfection!

      Things that stand out are the band's capacity for togetherness and rhythmic excellence, especially. This is because it was all invented by a drummer, surely! Another key feature is the double tracking almost throughout. The vocals aren't Frank Sinatra, but the double tracking lends a Beatles-esque fullness which the voice might need.

      Goodness' knows what the lyrics are about, if, indeed, they're about anything; but that doesn't take much away from this wonderfully complete and enjoyable album. It's worth saying that the lyrics are inoffensive: this might not sound very important, but it is! You can give this album to your grandchild, or to your grandparent, for that matter, with no cause to blush, and that's unusual in this day and age!

      Other people I've played Sun Comes Up Again to haven't necessarily commented at the time, but have certainly remembered it as a 'nice' album, and have been happy to listen to it again. Others have been more enthusiastic, especially those who sampled their style on Single Of the Week. In my own experience, I Am Arrows has appealed to people who prefer heavy metal, who prefer folk and easy listening, and people who don't know anything about music!

      So are they middle of the road pop halfway between Ok Go and The Feeling? Or are they the best thing since Oasis? Well, buy Sun Comes Up Again and make your own decision, but I highly recommend them, and look forward to more albums to come.

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        21.09.2010 12:05
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        The Biblical approach to standing out from the crowd. Recommended.

        Distinctives is a book for Christians about 'daring to be different in an indifferent world'. Christians are called to be 'in the world but not of the world', and that's easily said, but how can members of the modern church practically stand out from society? And how can they stop themselves from falling into worldly pitfalls? This book addresses those questions, and looks at seven specific ways that you should be distinctive if you have a real faith in Jesus Christ. It's not a book for those who want to find out more about Christianity, or for explaining what a Christian is. But that's not to say it isn't about the Gospel. It is in fact very important application of our faith in ordinary lives.

        The book starts with a striking introduction about a social study on teenagers and their reactions to peer pressure. It describes that study that you've probably heard about before, where ten teenagers are asked which of two lines is the longer, and nine of them have been prepared beforehand to vote for the wrong line. The tenth invariably follows them despite knowing that they are wrong. So we are introduced to one of the biggest problems of our race, that we crave popularity and 'fitting in' and that we are terrified of being different.

        Bear with me while I summarise the chapters!

        Chapter 1 - Perspective in a world that lives for the moment

        This chapter explains how where most people in the world live for the present, Christians must have a very different perspective. Roberts urges us to look up to God and the reality of his existence, look back through history to see what his son has done on the cross, and look forward to his coming again and the new eternal world he brings. This underpins all the following chapters.

        Chapter 2 - Service in a world that looks after number one

        Here, Roberts makes another interesting social point by describing the change in people's identity. Once, he argues, people had more of a sense of corporate identity: they belonged to a family, local community or nation. Now, there is an increasing sense of individualism: every man for himself. And this inevitably increases our selfishness. We are screamed at from every quarter to "love yourself, cherish yourself", "be true to yourself", "follow your dream", "do whatever feels good". Roberts draws our attention to Mark 10 and shows us that Jesus says "authentic Christianity is not marked by self-fulfilment and self-promotion, but rather by suffering and service."

        Chapter 3 - Contentment in a world that never has enough

        So there are heaps of self-help books that tell us how wonderful we are. There are as many self-help books that explain how to get rich quick, but Jesus says in Matthew 6 that you cannot serve both God and money. Therefore "do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven." Roberts makes the point in this chapter that materialism does not satisfy, but that our heavenly father is generous, and we can be content with the hope of heaven.

        Chapter 4 - Purity in a world obsessed with sex

        Christians have managed to give the impression over the years that they are against sex, perhaps in reaction to the changing view of sex since, say the 1960s. However, Roberts urges Christians to accept these truths: 1) sex is a precious gift of God 2) sex is the means of procreation 3) sex expresses and strengthens love and commitment 4) sex is for marriage.

        Chapter 5 - Certainty in a world in which everything is relative

        Describing the strange post-modern relativism that has crept into today's philosophy is a difficult task. Dealing with quite complex philosophical issues is necessary, and yet Roberts manages to explain the problem of post-modern ideologies with a simple analogy, of several disagreeing philosophers in a locked room, that they've never been out of. Is there 1) absolutely no way of knowing what's outside 2) giants and pygmies outside 3) absolutely nothing outside? He addresses the question of whether we actually can know there's a God, why believing Christianity is not arrogance.

        Chapter 6 - Holiness in a world where anything goes

        The problem that politicians are finding as they try to address social problems like teenage pregnancy rates, crime, anti-social behaviour and abortion rates, to name a few, is that society isn't increasingly immoral, it's increasingly amoral. No-one can decide what the 'basics' as John Major called them, should be. 'Everything is permissible if God does not exist'. So what do Christians do with this? The answer that Roberts gives is that we must recognise that we are rebels, and are 'rotten to the core'; that we must depend on God to change us; yet that we must not be passive in trying to shake off the old self.

        Chapter 7 - Wholeheartedness in a world that can't be bothered

        This may seem a weak ending to the book, but in fact it sums up how Christians should apply the gospel: because of our different perspective, live a life of faith and sacrifice, not being distracted by prestige or pleasure. He gives us the example of Moses to show us how living for God means sacrificing a great deal of what we want and preparing to be very different. Roberts urges us to remember that what we lose in this short life will be gain in the life to come.

        Got there in the end. So you can see that not only does Roberts identify 7 important areas of our lives that we're bound to fall short in, he also gives us ways to practically apply the gospel. He doesn't just say: "you should be certain of the gospel", in chapter 5, he says "here's how you can be certain, practically: 1) know the truth 2) live the truth 3) contend for the truth 4) proclaim the truth." It's not wishy-washy spiritual mess, it's to do with Godly living.

        As well as this, he shows us the sociological background to each problem and explain why, therefore, we ought to be distinctive. It's very logically approached, and every chapter catches your interest because of the sociological and Biblical start that Roberts makes.

        If you're thinking, this isn't for me, I'm not a Christian, you're absolutely right. If you're looking to find out more about Christianity, this probably isn't the book you should start with. But it is for you if you're an active Christian wondering how you can better glorify God in your life. I read it as a prospective student, particularly with the tough areas of university life in mind. Although Roberts never says it's for students and young people, I do think it's aimed at that age group, and really helps people leaving home. Now your parents aren't breathing down your neck and being your religious mentors, how can you be a Christian living it out on your own two feet? I believe that's one of the questions this book addresses, and very thoroughly.

        It's an extremely easy read, with short sections and a methodical approach, which I really appreciate from Christian books, which can be a bit hard going. It even has some funny illustrations, just to help you along the way! Importantly, it manages not to fill you with guilt because of your not living up to Christ's image for believers, but to inspire you to think more about how distinctive you are, and how good a witness you're being to your non-Christian friends.

        As well as that, it makes a pretty good gift, because it's a short book, and not the hefty theological manual that we all fear receiving. It's far more interesting than my review of it is, and importantly, it doesn't contain any religious jargon. Roberts explains everything in very clear and simple English, without being patronizing, which is very impressive for the vicar of one of the most intellectual churches in England: St. Ebbe's Oxford. You can read it very quickly, and yet it will make an impression on your life, and you will see standing out from the crowd as a not insurmountable task!

        Congratulations for making your way to the end, you've done well.

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          16.08.2010 11:26
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          Wodehouse at his best!

          If there's anything that beats a glass of Tesco value orange juice and a DVD when you're down, it's a P.G. Wodehouse. There is simply nothing like it to perk you up and make you forget your troubles. We're all familiar with the wonderful world of Jeeves and Wooster, but have you discovered the treasure trove that is at your fingertips by delving into any of his other books? The author wrote a range of literature, from school stories to thrillers, but they all have a similar tone: lighthearted, neatly written, and absolutely hilarious.

          I read 'Mike and Psmith' first, and was captivated by the brilliantly humorous and linguistically perfect style. It's the story of two very different schoolboys who meet, become friends and have many adventures at the school that both of them hate. 'Mike at Wrykyn' comes before this book chronologically, and 'Leave it to Psmith' comes afterward. Mike at Wrykyn is about Mike, Leave it to Psmith is mostly about Psmith, and Mike and Psmith is about both of them, neatly.

          By 'Leave it to Psmith', our heroes have grown up and left school, but what path will they take? Mike Jackson, the quietly brilliant cricketer has married a wonderful woman, but is short in the pocket. And Psmith is desperate to get out of the fish business and make his own fortune. But what can he turn his unusual skills to? Meanwhile, at Blandings Castle, bumbling Freddie Threepwood needs £5000 and his Uncle Joe thinks he knows a way to get it. But is Freddie up to the task, or will he need to employ the services of Psmith? Will the whimsical Miss Peavey notice that her hero isn't a poet after all, but Psmith in disguise? When all of our characters' paths converge (in neat Wodehouse style), the question will be asked: just how many guests at Blandings Castle are after Aunt Connie's diamonds?

          Firstly, Psmith (not Peasmith, the P is silent), isn't just the hero of this book, he's the star. Psmith is the most brilliantly crafted character since....well, since Jeeves. He is sharp-witted, manipulative, and he never stops talking.
          "'What could any many worthy of the name do but go down to the cloak-room and pinch the best umbrella in sight and take it to her? Yours was easily the best. There was absolutely no comparison. I gave it to her, and she has gone off with it, happy once more. This explanation,' said Psmith, 'will, I am sure, sensibly diminish your natural chagrin. You have lost your umbrella, Comrade Walderwick, but in what a cause! In what a cause, Comrade Walderwick! You are now entitled to rank with Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Ralegh. The latter is perhaps the closer historical parallel...'"

          He effortlessly waves off every problem that comes his way by such cunning that he is instantly lovable, and he dominates the book, as a result. We love Mike, but we love Psmith more. That is perhaps why Wodehouse wrote many more books about Psmith (such as Psmith in the city, Psmith the Journalist etc.). Everything he says is funny, and that makes for very good reading I'm sure you'll agree.

          "Freddie! I had forgotten all about him!"
          "The right spirit," said Psmith, "Quite the right spirit."

          You don't need much more to make the book wholly adorable, but Wodehouse adds a series of other brilliant characters just to make sure. Lord Emsworth is an absent-minded old chatterbox, who grumbles about his gardener and has a memory like a sieve. Eve Halliday is the beautiful and spirited young woman hired to catalogue the library at Blandings. The Efficient Baxter is the shrewd clerk of his Lordship, who won't tolerate any funny business. Of course, all of them get caught up in the adventure, and there are misunderstandings, lies, suspicions, schemes, and ultimately, hilarity, as it all ends up in Psmith's hands. And he really is the only capable person to leave it to.

          The story is told so light-heartedly that you tend not to realise the plot catching you by surprise. It's not as simple as Wodehouse would fool you into thinking: it's well crafted, and there are twists and turns. Yet, it is not a serious book on any level. Every potentially tense scene is usually interspersed with outrageous comments from Psmith, or frustrated outbursts from the Efficient Baxter, who can't make head nor tail of the goings on at Blandings. Chapters are given headings such as: "Sensational Occurrence at a Poetry Reading" and "Almost Entirely About Flower-pots." And we know throughout that despite the stupidity and meddling of the rest of humanity, Psmith (much like Jeeves) will untangle it all, in true style, and get the girl.

          It's difficult to fault. Wodehouse is certainly one of the most skilled writers of our time, and his characterisation and above all dialogue are perfection. If you've read it before, you might remember some of the surprises, but I continue enjoying it nevertheless. If you've read any of Wodehouse's school stories, you should definitely read Mike at Wrykyn and then the best (in my opinion), Mike and Psmith, first. But there is no better way to make yourself giggle and take your mind of things than to read Leave it to Psmith. Buy it from amazon.co.uk for £5.99.

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            14.08.2010 19:14
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            Well, he might improve.

            Since John Grisham's brilliant thrillers were what made my brother start reading novels obsessively as an eleven year old, I was very pleased to see that the renowned author was writing a law thriller for young teens. I don't care if it was just another way to make money, I appreciate literature for the 'new generation of readers', and think more good authors should try and stretch their talents that far.

            If you see the latest John Grisham on the shelves of Waterstones and don't read its back cover, hopefully you'll notice its tagline: 'Half the man, twice the lawyer'. Otherwise, you may be expecting the next 'Pelican Brief'. The American edition looks slightly more teenage (helpfully, perhaps), with a kid and his bicycle silhouetted and the tagline: 'young lawyer'. What people may miss from the English edition, therefore, is that the hero of the story is only thirteen years old. Theodore Boone, the son of two lawyers in the small city of Strattenburg, knows a great deal about the law, and is fascinated by all the inner workings of the court. So when an apparently straightforward murder trial comes to his local court, Theo is an unexpected match for the adults involved.

            Theodore Boone is an easy read, even for young teens, I would say, and this is a point in its favour. There's a story, and you do want to know the ending. There's interesting realism in the way court and education is portrayed, and parts of it, even, are exciting. Idealistic characters are always lovable, if a bit flat, and simplicity like this can be good for young readers. However, there are a few flaws to the book, ones which make me hope Grisham's writing for children can improve.

            Firstly, the back cover contains the kind of catchy tags that you'd expect from a Grisham thriller: "A perfect murder. A faceless witness. One person knows the truth....And he's only thirteen years old. Meet Theodore Boone." If you're an adult, this might lure you in under false pretences. It's not as immediately thrilling as it may seem, sadly. Grisham may have deigned to write books for children, but he's not throwing them into so many thrillingly dangerous situations as he would his ordinary heros. He's being realistic about children's lives.

            This makes the book less fun, undoubtedly, because instead of our character fearing for his life around every corner, he's wondering whether or not to tell his parents of his discoveries. And instead of being the man responsible for saving his defendant from death row, he's watching the trial from the court gallery and cycling away afterwards to feed his dog. Yes, they're ordinary teenage events, but for a novel, it's a bit boring! To add to this, the bad guys (if indeed there are any) seem distant, and not particularly dangerous. There are many things Grisham could have done to make Theo's life more extraordinary, but he hasn't bothered, for some reason. I wonder if the answer lies in the sequel, which I anticipate from the nature of this book's ending, but I can't be sure.

            And if our hero were a rebellious, daredevil kind of teenager, he might grip the reader, but Theo is annoyingly well-behaved. He loves his parents, he cares for his fellow students, he's a teacher's pet, and he does his homework. Yes, he's just like a boy should be, but he's a bit two-dimensional for a novel! On top of this, you get the feeling throughout that John Grisham hasn't really met many thirteen year olds. The character of Theo is undefined enough to be rather hazy around the edges, but when you do glimpse a personality, it's that of a bright nine year old, not a bright teenager.

            In terms of the story, it's an interesting one, when it gets going. It certainly educated me about the American law system, and how fallible it is, I suppose. However, educating is not necessarily what a young reader wants from their novels. They want a book more like that of Anthony Horowitz's spy series about the fourteen year old Alex Rider, who is forced to be an agent for MI6. Or that of J.K. Rowling's series about Harry Potter, who is forced to fight the evil wizard Lord Voldemort, to prevent the end of the world! In comparison, all Theo Boone does is observe trials, offer his peers advice about divorce lawyers etc. and then run to his parents when he's out of his depth. I found this disappointing, in some respect, but I can't be sure everyone would.

            Comparing it with other similar books, therefore, it's not as exciting. However, I must repent of these comparisons because it is about the law, not spying or magic. The law is necessarily more factual and methodical, and it's a good idea to interest readers in what law is really like, not a 'Hollywooded' version of it. Theo is an ordinary kid, and to some extent, that's refreshing. You still have the fun elements present: the intensity of the trial, that he has a moral responsibility to do the right thing, and that his opponents have no idea what they're up against. How will Theo fight to make sure the trial goes fairly when he knows something no-one else does?

            The key point to make about this book is that it seems the prelude to something much bigger. Grisham has established his young hero, and whetted our apetite as to what is to come. There are enemies out there, and he clearly plans to make a series revolving around Theo. The thing is, this first novel doesn't seem quite good enough to merit that. If I were Grisham, I would have condensed this tale into the beginning of a more exciting story. He could have waffled less and it would make a brilliant introducing plot for a bigger story. Theo has cheated the justice system, now they want revenge! But instead, it ends rather abruptly, and disappointingly. Readers of this age can cope with more complex plots than this; in fact, they need it from their books!

            I am certainly not in the centre of Grisham's target audience, and must apologise for assuming that role, but I can remember wanting exciting books as a young teen, and hope this one is the start of a much more promising series. Grisham's slightly lazy lack of character development is all very well when that character is buzzing around shooting people and throwing himself into incredibly tight spots with people who won't stop at anything, but here it just makes the novel even flatter.

            I am sorry to have ripped this book apart; when I was actually reading it, it was passably enjoyable. Only on reflection have I found it to be fairly boring. Therefore, do give it to your kids, if only because I am hoping Grisham may turn it into a stunning series. But if they're quite bright, and hungry for fully written books, give them Northern Lights or even an adult John Grisham (if you've checked it first) instead.

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              16.07.2010 19:13
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              "I can hear music, sweet, sweet, music...."

              If you are a fan of sunshine, the sixties, or just good singing (oh how sibilant), then you ought to be a fan of the Beach Boys, without a doubt. With definite influences from artists like the Four Freshmen, their sound is incredibly harmonious and cheerful, yet with a much more modern sound that characterises the sixties. However, their signature sound was adaptable, and it did change throughout their career, so simply buying one of their albums arguably won't give you the full picture.

              That's why I'd recommend the Platinum Collection, a sort of Greatest Hits of the Beach Boys; which gives you, in 3 discs, the very best of their songs from all three "eras" of their songwriting career. The forty songs included are a collection of their very best songs, and are well chosen, in my opinion.

              I find that the three discs actually divide the Beach Boys' music quite neatly into their three very different identifiable sounds. The first I would describe as teenage surf tunes, the second more noisy classics, and the third as a highly developed and more subtle musical style. This might sound a bit arbitrary, but I hope to persuade you that the band really did develop in this way, just as every musical group ought.

              I'm not going to go through every single track and weigh up its merits, because let's be honest, you'd die of boredom. Instead, I've picked a few favourites from each disc to give you a picture of the compilation.

              DISC 1

              The twenty songs on this disc are a set of quite early singles, but many of them are what we know the Beach Boys for. Most of them surfing-based, they are bound to give you an incredibly summery vibe, or at least make you think of prom night. They are filled with teenage emotions, and amazingly high-pitched singing, which can get a bit tedious if you listen to it all at once. However, the range of topics which the early Beach Boys would write songs about is astounding, and rather amusing: from their favourite cars (little deuce coupe, little honda) to school loyalty (be true to your school). Some of the lyrics sound quite hilariously dodgy as well: "the girls on the beach, are all within reach, if you know what to do". Steady on, lads.
              Here are some of my favourites from disc 1:
              I GET AROUND - the Beach Boys' first number one, containing their signature mixture of fun, falsetto singing, and big harmonies. Also a bit of car banter thrown in there for good measure!
              SURFIN' SAFARI - there are four songs with 'surf' in the title on this disc, but this is probably their most famous. Totally trivial and very rock and roll, it's what you should be playing in your little deuce coupe on the way to the South of France. A tribute to Brian Wilson's amazing songwriting.
              IN MY ROOM - beautiful song with flawless harmonies that epitomises the Beach Boys' easy and soaring style of this period.

              DISC 2

              If you don't know the Beach Boys for their surfing-themed era, you'll probably know them from their most popular era, the peak of their songwriting, arguably. There's a little less very high singing here, and the recording of their songs has improved in leaps and bounds. It sounds a bit less like a prom playlist, and more like very carefully made hits. By now, Brian Wilson was becoming increasingly innovative with song structure, sound, and instrumentation. The close vocal harmonies and infectiously cheery melodies are still there, but the most popular of the Beach Boys songs just sound less trivial than before. They sound like they've grown up, and so has their audience.
              GOOD VIBRATIONS - probably the most famous Beach Boys song, it's a tribute to their incredible singing skills, and improving recording techniques, including strings, synths and more.
              GOD ONLY KNOWS - orchestral and soaring, this song shows off the lads' singing so well that you'll be echoing it in the shower. The chords and lyrics are quite moving, yet the song still remains fun and cheery, which is typical Beach Boys, really.
              WOULDN'T IT BE NICE - still popular with teenagers today, 'wouldn't it be nice' charms you from the very start. The tinkling sound of the "ice-cream van esque" beginning makes your heart soar, and it's probably the most romantic of the Beach Boys' songs.
              BREAKAWAY - this song is one of my favourites by the Beach Boys, and it has such a mature sound that it might have belonged to the last era. However, it's still a winning song, with a catchy and rhythmic chorus that you'll have in your head all day.

              DISC 3

              By now, the Beach Boys had transformed into America's most popular rock band, and their songs are much more varied and interesting. They're not just catchy like their earlier songs, they're also growers, which means they're highly developed musically. Or in geek terms, there are enough surprising chord changes and interesting instrument choices to keep your attention for much longer. So, combining their infectious harmonious singing with a modern rocky sound, they've found a form which really suits them, and I actually think these songs are their best written, despite them being their least popular.

              If you don't recognise these song names, make sure you hunt them down and download them, because they're absolute gems. You might have heard them, but not realised they're Beach Boys, since there is a great deal more solo singing on this disc, by voices that you might not immediately recognise when they're not singing in falsetto!

              TEARS IN THE MORNING - this amazing song is so well performed that it's heart-wretchingly beautiful, and contains some of their more mature song features, such as including a string section to make the bridge even more atmospheric.
              DISNEY GIRLS (1957) - another beautiful song that is a brave step away from the ensemble singing that we've come to expect from the Beach Boys. The bridge then surprises us with some of the most gorgeous harmonies ever written (or it seems that way to me anyway!). It's typical of the later era of the band, because it's a longer and more developed song, perhaps following the Beatles' innovative example in this direction.
              LADY LYNDA - definitely my favourite Beach Boys song, and also my Mum's favourite song of all time! So, a winner then. It deserves a little more detail, because it's a masterpiece of a song. Starting with a harpsichord intro from Jesu Joy of Man Desiring by Bach, Lady Lynda has a nice melody on the verses, and contains some brilliant backing singing which can't help making you happy. The climactic chorus is then probably the best thing you've ever heard, and the song is basically variations on the Bach. It's so well written and romantic that it promises to be the kind of thing you play at your wedding, but it's also the kind of singing that reminds you of the band's early cheery sound, and includes everything they do well.

              The rest of the songs on all discs are good, and in case you're worrying, classics like 'Surfin' USA', 'Fun, fun, fun', 'Sloop John B', 'California Girls', 'Barbara Ann', 'Help Me, Rhonda', 'I can hear music' and 'Kokomo' are included! I just had so many to choose from, I couldn't discuss all of them. Be careful, with this compilation, not to get Beach Boys overload, which is possible considering their signature sound being fairly constant and the falsetto getting to your insides if you're in a bad mood.

              The Wilson brothers (Brian, Carl and Dennis) were, as a songwriting team, very skilled musicians, but they were also remarkable singers, as is very clear when listening to their songs. All this came together to make them America's favourite rock band of all time (and the bestselling), with thirty-six top 40 hits, and four number one singles.

              The platinum collection also contains a few interesting songs such as a medley containing some of their most popular songs from the middle era on disc 2, and collaboration tracks with the Fat Boys and with Status Quo, to name a few.

              There are several compilations that aim to be a kind of 'Greatest Hits of the Beach Boys'. However, none of them are particularly satisfying, because they are too short, simply! If you try and make a single-disc 'best of', you're bound to exclude a number of favourites that people will miss. By putting almost every hit that the band had on three discs, this compilation has succeeded in being a satisfying Beach Boys heaven. There aren't any songs that I miss, and you truly get an overview of their career, this way. That's why I'd recommend you purchase this collection if you are a Beach Boys fan or you want to become one!

              It's £10.93 on amazon.co.uk, which is the cheapest I've found it, comparing it with prices on hmv.com and play.com, quite reasonable for a three-disc compilation.

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              • The Longest Day (DVD) / DVD / 35 Readings / 35 Ratings
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                12.07.2010 10:55
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                Don't miss it.

                If you have any interest in World War Two, you ought to understand the Normandy landings of 1944, where allied forces finally invaded Germany. They are an incredibly significant part of our past, because if they hadn't worked, we may have lost the war. I'm a bit of a history junkie, but even if you're not, this story is fascinating. The Longest Day is a film made in 1962 about the one day when the allies finally landed on the Normandy coast, and sets up the story for the rest of the war.

                This is an interesting film because we don't have a group of main characters, and certainly not one main character. We explore the experiences of many groups of people before, during and after the landings. This ranges from French resistance fighters and American commanders to German strategists, trying to work out where and when the allies will invade. At first, this gives the film a slightly confusing air, since you don't know who to sympathise with. However, every scene is so well acted that the tension is immense.

                THE STORY

                Most of the plot is setting up for the landings themselves. This includes watching the incredible fear and apprehension in the allied camps as they wait to see whether the rumours are true about the plans being for tonight, and if the weather will be good enough, and how long they have to spend all their money.

                We also see the French resistance listening for special messages on the radio which will tell them to blow up the telegraph wires or blow up a troop-carrying train.

                Much of the action in the first part of the film is of parachutists preparing to land in Normandy after they've created a diversion of dummy soldiers being dropped somewhere else, and of allies gliding into France to secure the invasion route. One unit, scarily, has to gain control of, and hold, a bridge which is vital to the allies' route into Caen.

                The German commander who works out the "war games" is an amazingly interesting character. He decides where he thinks the allies will attack and when. Obviously, he reasons, they ought to cross the shortest part of the channel on a fine day. However, he believes that that's too obvious. He was right, as things went, but he had persuaded himself that Eisenhower didn't have the guts to do something so unexpected. Therefore we see the Germans almost completely unprepared for the attack, and that leads us to the awe-inspiring moment when the German look-out says "I'll just have one more look", and eventually sees 5000 ships on the horizon "headed straight for me!"

                Then there are the landings themselves, which are terrifying due to how far out the soldiers landed. There were mines all over the beaches, so they had to jump into the sea and wade onto the coast, incredibly exposed, and being shot out by German machine guns. Saving Private Ryan makes this seem like quite a blood bath, and it may have been, but the Longest Day isn't quite so gory, although the tension is still there, especially as the camera shots are wide enough to show many thousands of soldiers wading out of the landing craft and into oblivion. However, you can see that the violence is not entirely authentic in that the film is only rated PG, so it has been quite sanitised, but not in an obvious way.

                You may be surprised by how soon it ends: you want to see the allies win the war! But the film is literally just about 'the longest day', when we landed, so you won't see much more than that! I think it's a good thing that the story is not wallowing in our victory so much as exploring the British strategy (and the lack of German strategy!) without being boring in the least.

                The screenplay is something to be admired furthermore, because it truly allows us to understand all of the fears of every man in the story. In addition, there is a refreshing feature in the foreign scripting. Too often, German characters just speak English with a phoney German accent in war films, but in the Longest Day, the French speak French and the Germans speak German, with amazing fluency. Of course, this is because the actors are German and French, but the foreign script has not been skipped over. It's lengthy and developed, and the subtitles don't tell us everything. I think that makes it deeply authentic, and truly an international film, due to the actors.

                THE ACTING

                This is something really of note, because this film famously has a universally all-star cast. Considering how many characters there are, this is quite impressive. It feels like every famous actor of the sixties is featured somewhere, and you get an idea of how big that is by considering that I didn't even notice that Sean Connery was in it. As well as him, there are stars including Richard Burton, John Wayne, Peter Lawford, Norman Rossington, Kenneth Moore and Henry Fonda, to name but a few. This makes every scene feel important, because every line is dealt with deliberation and skill.

                OVERALL OPINION

                In comparison to other WWII films, this one has more of an international feel, as I mentioned before. In the German scenes, it really feels like a German film: there is no slow talking to aid our understanding. The viewer sympathises with every angle, and the German soldiers are portrayed as ordinary people, which is refreshing. Hitler is asleep for most of the film, and the rest of the German army are not portrayed as evil, or anything but militarily experts really.

                Another feature is the development and tension. We are used to war films having a great deal of action in them, but this one sets up for the action with a great deal more conversation and strategy discussion. So by the time we've got there, tension is very high, and this makes the film exciting.

                However, it does take a LONG time to get there, and at first, the film may seem unbearably slow. But that just takes a bit of getting used to, and once you realise it's not slow, just tense, it gets a lot more enjoyable. But the length of the film is still a disadvantage, perhaps. It's nearly three hours long, so you probably won't want to watch it all in one sitting. But the fantastic cast, production and development do merit a long play time, and you won't be bored. When you're two hours through, you won't be thinking: "it should be over by now", because it FEELS like it needs that long.

                The Longest Day was made in 1962, so some of the features are not as up to date as we're used to. Often, you can tell at a glance that people are stuck on to a beach background, but that just adds to the charm. Despite that, it won the oscar for best special effects, and rightly so because the landings, explosions, gunfire, and sheer number of extras swarming onto the coast must have taken a lot of work to perfect, and the finished product does look spectacular. The film is in black and white too, which I know some people can't cope with, but remember that this is when black and white was at its best, so you don't lose any quality with that. In fact, there is a colour version available, but the film-makers decided that black and white looked better, so don't be complaining.

                The length of the film also allows for imaginative scripting. Despite the terrible things going on and the amazing fear on both sides, there is still room for humour. Whether it be the US parachutist practising his French: "bonjour, mademoiselle, j'ai suis...Americain!" or the French farmer who's overjoyed to see the allies land and bomb his house.

                One possible weakness is that this film simply glorifies our kick-ass army, and that none of the allies are portrayed as bad people. However, neither are the Germans, to be fair, and you get the impression that all of these people are caught up in a conflict they don't deserve. Furthermore, the bravery of the allied troops should not be diminished, particularly not so soon after the war ended. Any film which helps us to understand war better, and remember what the allied troops did for us, is well worth watching, and this is enjoyable on top of that. You'll want to sit there with a map of the French coast so you can find out where all the beaches are, and with imdb on so you can work out what you've seen Norman Rossington in before! But with humour, action, and fantastic dialogue, there are few better war films out there.

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                • More +
                  09.07.2010 17:00
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                  A beautiful true story with wit and character, impossible to dislike.

                  William Woodruff had an extraordinary life. He was born in 1916 in the carding room of a cotton mill in Blackburn, and grew up in the slums of industrial Britain in immense poverty. However, as this book tells, when "Billy boy" turned 16, he managed to escape to London, and thence to Oxford, where he started an education that led to him becoming a world-renowned historian and author. The first part of his autobiography, the Road to Nab End, tells the story of Woodruff's childhood in Blackburn, and this sequel tells the story of his miraculous escape and the stimulation of his love of learning. Both books became worldwide phenomena, and are important works to remember the deprivation that those times brought.

                  Beyond Nab End starts where the last book leaves off, with Billy (16) leaving Blackburn on the back of a lorry to make his fortune in London. It then tells the remarkable tale of how working in an iron foundry made him crave an education, how night school made him want to be a politician, and how his friends helped him gain a scholarship to study a diploma in politics and economic science in Oxford University. That is by no means an easy climb, particularly considering his humble beginnings explained so clearly in the first book, but Woodruff's writing is always both honest and humble.

                  The story is, therefore, not a sentimental story of "one man's incredible journey", because Woodruff does not allow it to be so. He wrote the books after he retired in order to understand something more of the history of the industrial background to his life (the industrial revolution and its effects), but as well as doing this, he emphasises the importance of luck, friendship and hard work in getting somewhere you're not destined for.

                  The intense difficulties he faced in being a working class northern lad in the highest intellectual institution in Britain are not diminished, yet he makes it difficult for the reader to imagine how clever Woodruff must have been. He paints himself as lucky, rather than brilliant, which highlights how exceedingly modest he was.

                  Despite the hardships along the way and the constant nods to his dark beginnings, the book is in no way depressing or low, as the first might have been. In fact, Woodruff tells his stories in a funny and lighthearted way, and every experience is tinged with memories of friendships and loves that he had. It is uplifting, but not in a stupid way. He is far too clever to be writing "feel good" trash; it's a true story, and instantly lovable.

                  The main reason that this is the case is that the character is portrayed so honestly as a naive yet curious young man that you can't help coming back to the book. Indeed, he and all his friends are endearing so that the book is automatically enjoyable.

                  Another incredibly important feature of the book is how easy it is to read. It is written extremely naturally and with no pretensions. This is something that ought to be seen more often among historians and biographers. Woodruff had every reason to think himself most important and clever, yet he writes with amazing clarity and with a lack of literary baggage. That makes the entire story refreshing and a joy to read.

                  If you enjoyed the Road to Nab End, you will certainly enjoy this; in fact you must read it. I haven't read the first book, but I have seen the play adaptation at the Oldham Coliseum, and found it so good I was anxious to know what happened next. If you haven't read the first book, you may want to read that first, to understand the context of Woodruff's victory. However, if you are easily fed up by true stories of 1920s hardship, there's no shame in skipping to this one.

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                • More +
                  09.07.2010 14:52
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                  A unique Ancoats hotel with every luxury.

                  The senior prefects in my school booked the Place Apartment Hotel on Ducie Street, Ancoats, Manchester for our Leavers' Dinner this year. It was probably chosen so that groups of students could save money on rooms there by booking a family apartment and staying together. Being able to sleep at the venue makes teenagers' parties a lot more convenient and safer, to a large degree. The hotel is a "luxury" and four star establishment with a range of functions and quite a convenient location.

                  THE BUILDING
                  The seven-storey building itself used to be a warehouse when Manchester was key for British cotton trade. It was built in 1867 which, if you want a bit of perspective, was the first year that members of the skilled working class were enfranchised! There you go, little fact for you. Now, it's a Grade II listed building, which means the hotel is limited in what it can change about the building's structure and decor. Therefore what you're left with is what the website describes as a "distinct architectural mix: old and new". They're right, in that the modern features blend very well with the original Victorian railings and imposing iron beams. It's surprisingly pleasing, and does make the Place Hotel unique for a luxury hotel.

                  THE APARTMENTS
                  The rooms/apartments themselves are situated in an incredibly spacious ringed tower, which you can see right down the middle of, scarily. I only experienced the family suites in my stay, but there are other options including:
                  1) One Bedroom Apartments
                  2) Two Bedroom Apartments
                  3) Deluxe Apartments
                  4) Family Apartments
                  5) Penthouse Apartments
                  The family apartment sleeps six people on three double beds in two rooms. This isn't necessarily ideal even for three couples, but the apartment is very comfortable and fully equipped. There is an ensuite shower and toilet off the master bedroom and another bathroom for the other four guests. Both contain free (albeit extremely poor) shampoo, conditioner, showergel and mouthwash! The facilities are brilliant, but on a hot day the fans aren't really adequate. The kitchen and lounge room is comfortable and contains a dining table as well as a dishwasher, TV, DVD player and music player. There is a laundry room containing a washer/dryer and ironing set as well. As well as the modernity and cleanliness about the apartment, it was well lit due to a large window out of the lounge/diner and a ceiling of skylights. However, on a hot day, this feature can and did make the room unbearably hot, rather like a greenhouse. There is a fan in the lounge, but it wasn't really adequate for temperatures that extreme, and the windows (due to safety regulations) are very difficult to keep open. But, since that was an unusual heatwave for Manchester, you probably won't have the same experience. The view over this area of Manchester is a bit grim, but I'm told the views from the Penthouse apartments are spectacular.

                  OTHER FUNCTIONS
                  The Place Hotel can also be used for banqueting or conferences since it contains three well equipped meeting rooms and a banqueting suite. We used the banqueting suite for our dinner, and were very impressed by the dance floor, bar, and dining area. It was brilliantly convenient for what we wanted, and I must say that the food was excellent. I was absolutely staggered by all three courses, especially considering how many people they were catering for. I should imagine this is a large part of what makes the hotel a 4 star establishment. Because of the heat, we often needed a bit of fresh air, but that was readily available because of the extra seating outside.

                  LOCATION
                  In terms of the location, the hotel is very convenient if the nearby cocktail bars and nightlife catch your eye, however it gets quite noisy at night, and is more useful for being 100m from Piccadilly station. I personally am a big fan of Ancoats, especially in terms of its historic memories, however it's not the most exciting area of Manchester by any means, and may be considered to be a little out of it. However, the renovation scheme going on here is very progressive, and I look forward to it becoming a great cultural centre in coming years.

                  SERVICE
                  We were obliged to call room service in order to get the correct remote control to work the TV with a nintendo wii attached (I know, we're teenagers). The man who came was very helpful and gave us a remote control that worked immediately. The waiters in the banqueting suite were brilliantly efficient, and extremely patient with the members of our party who were not at their best. They all deserved a medal for their endurance and politeness, and so did the cooks. The bar staff and bouncer were equally helpful, and the DJ hired was extremely friendly and professional. We couldn't have asked for better.

                  However, one of the staff on reception scared us a bit when we asked for another key for our room. I was off to bed early, and we'd only been issued one key out of the three we were entitled to. When the bloke on reception checked our room and said all three keys had been issued, our response was "that's a bit worrying, since we only have one." He didn't do much to alleviate our concerns, and if I hadn't had my stern friend with me, I may not have been given another key at all, since the system said all were gone. However, all's well that ends well, she says doubtfully.

                  OVERALL EXPERIENCE
                  It's difficult for me to say my overall experience was anything but a very hot one, but I enjoyed the hotel's layout and innovative design particularly, and found the room well furnished and comfortable. The meal and service were especially outstanding, and for this alone, the hotel deserves its luxury status. Do visit the website for more detail and for price packages and special offers information, but try and ignore some of the more exaggerating descriptions of the hotel's timeless decor.

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                  • More +
                    06.07.2010 10:32
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                    You might be desperate to add this to your Katie Fforde collection, but I wouldn't bother.

                    I love reading Katie Fforde's books. They're fun, fast paced, and good escapism. She's written lots of very formulaic romantic books which are great fun to read and about nice people. Surely you can't go wrong. A Perfect Proposal is the story of Sophie Apperly, a waitress who wants to be a tailor, but with many obstacles in her way, not least of which is her tiresome family, her dear Uncle Eric with his haphazard finances and the mission set her by a new friend. It apparently takes a while to get going compared to other Katie Fforde books, and has a surprising start, telling us all about her large and "fiercely academic" family and introducing Sophie as a slightly pathetic daughter.

                    Unfortunately, as I read on, I found that it didn't just take a while to get going, it never did. I found the book entirely lacking in momentum, which is very unusual for a Katie Fforde. In fact, I would go so far as to say the book was utterly boring, and will explain why.

                    By the time Sophie has gone to New York to live with her friend Milly, what you're hoping is that here will be introduced the usual "arrogant but devastatingly handsome" male character with a monosyllabic name such as Ben or Tom and Sophie's quest, e.g. renovate a stately home, rescue the family business, or set up home on a barge. These are the usual missions of our awfully kind and terribly well-spoken characters. However, neither of those things are really established.

                    In New York Sophie meets the wondrous Matilda, an excessively rich but fun pensioner, whom she becomes fast friends with, and her bolshy grandson Luke. Alas, although there is no doubt that Luke fulfills the criteria of being good-looking, rich and arrogant, he is an entirely flat character. He just isn't interesting: he barely says anything, for goodness' sake, and there doesn't seem to be any chemistry between him and Sophie. This isn't something that we would expect Katie Fforde to neglect, really, so I don't know why that seems to be missing. Perhaps the big differences between them is supposed to make the book more interesting, and perhaps it does, but I wasn't interested, I'm afraid.

                    Furthermore, what is Sophie's quest? It may be one of various things: to get away from her family so that they can understand how much they rely on her, to make her family's fortune by discovering the drilling rights they may be entitled to in America, to find a house in Cornwall that Matilda grew up in or to set up a tailoring business so she doesn't have to carry on being a waitress all her life. And where is this quest set? In New York, in Cornwall, in her home?

                    So which is it? I can honestly say I have no idea which Katie Fforde intended to be the main plot. They all feel like sub-plots to something big. The whole way through, you're expecting Luke to say "I need you to run a literary festival for me", or Matilda to say "this house looks nice but in fact it's falling apart at the seams, perhaps you could renovate it for me", or Uncle Eric to say "set up a tailoring business in my home, and I'll buy you a narrow boat". But none of these things happen, unfortunately, and all that you're left with is a series of sub-plots which are subordinate to absolutely nothing. They all feel as unimportant as each other, and none interests the reader enough to make it a book that you'll come back to excited.

                    I'm speculating here, but I can only imagine that Katie Fforde's publishers asked for another book, but she didn't have any ideas. So someone just suggested that she set it in New York like every other chick-lit author does, and when she tried, she found that it wasn't really working for her. She's better at writing books set in the country, usually accompanied by a rugged bloke and a cosy Rayburn. So she tried to make the book set in both, but I think that just made it worse. She obviously tried to make something of Luke being an American in a strange country when he visits Cornwall, but we get a bit tired of the "oh he doesn't know what tomato ketchup is, bless him".

                    Thus, the reader doesn't really have any firm idea of setting or plot or character, perhaps because the writer doesn't either. You may get an idea of this from its rather unspecific title and cover. This may seem harsh, and the book isn't as terrible as I might be making it sound, but I'm trying to account for why A Perfect Proposal is a disjointed and slow read compared to Katie Fforde's other books.

                    There are good things about it, such as the character Uncle Eric who is very funny and adorable, and the character Matilda who is spirited enough to keep the story going. Fforde did manage to throw a Rayburn in there as well, bless her, and the books is markedly better when Sophie's back in England. I think that Katie Fforde was brave to break with her mold, and parts of it were interesting, therefore. However, I was disappointed by the book in general, and hope that she thinks of something more interesting to write about next time. I'm sorry, I really am, I just didn't like it.

                    You can buy this book for £7 in tesco, or £5.99 on amazon.co.uk. Its RRP is £14.99 so don't be going to Waterstones!

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                    • Love Happens (DVD) / DVD / 30 Readings / 29 Ratings
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                      26.06.2010 23:04
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                      If you're looking for a Romance or a Drama, this film is neither of those things. Stay away.

                      'Love happens...when you least expect it' proclaims the DVD case for this "warm-hearted romance" starring Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston. Combine this with the upbeat trailer and the classic rom-com blurb and you're ready for a cheerful night-in with an easy romance. Unfortunately, 'Love Happens' isn't really a romance, so catching their unwitting audience out in this way isn't the best start. It's the story of a celebrity self-help author, Burke (Eckhart) who helps people come to terms with losing a loved one, with the incidental help of a florist, Eloise. I'm afraid that I couldn't call it a Drama, however, despite it being about serious matters, because frankly it's not even slightly convincing, which is a shame given its cast.

                      We know that Aaron Eckhart can act in serious roles, such as the challenging character Harvey Dent in 'the Dark Knight', but in this film, despite his character being a pitiful one, we do not sympathise a bit, because he is rude, destructive and slightly pathetic. We also know that Jennifer Aniston is brilliant at playing lovable and often funny roles, but as Eloise she is wasted and ultimately, the audience is left with no clue why she likes Burke. We know that Judy Greer who plays Eloise's friend Marty is perfect as the 'Iknowwhat'sbestforyou' best friend of rom-coms such as she plays in '27 dresses', but there is honestly no point in her character's existence. And finally, we know that Martin Sheen is a remarkable actor, but I've no idea how they landed him for such a trivial role. So with these let-downs in mind, is there anything good about the story?

                      Love Happens tells the tale of a man who's lost his wife, and decides to help people who've suffered similarly by giving them lists of steps they can take; such as taking 5 minutes a day to smile, until it becomes habitual. This is, we understand, due to his belief that happiness is a state of mind. He also has a rather unnerving method of trying to force his victims to 'confront their fear' (in general) because fear is just a state of mind. Therefore he makes them walk over hot coals in order to confront their loss. How this helps I've no idea, and these 'steps' are either petty or insulting. What's awful is that they're not supposed to be. They're supposed to be positive. Have we missed something?

                      The blurb tells us that when he happens to meet Eloise in the hotel their lives are turned upside down. Eloise is quite likable as a character once she's stopped pretending to be deaf, although she does have a peculiar habit of writing words behind pictures, which is never really explained. But the mystery remains, what does she see in this rather offensive self-help guru who seems to be cashing in on his wife's death and at the same time pretending to be incredibly "A-Okay"?

                      You may think that this is all the conflict of the exceedingly complex and meaningful story, but in fact, that would be to misunderstand the film's purpose. We spend the whole film hating Burke's methods, but in the end, instead of his changing his methods, he just learns to 'confront his own fear' where he was denying it before. We also spend the whole film wanting to punch him, but Eloise tells him that he doesn't deserve the pain he's putting himself through. We spend the whole film hoping to our very soul that the poor people going to this conference save themselves and he realises that the whole self-help thing is a total sham from him. But no, he makes even more money by the end and helps so many people to get on with their lives from a new perspective, such as Walter, an ex-contractor who's lost his son.

                      I must be honest, the whole thing made me want to vomit, and I don't think that it's just a culture shock for a Brit to watch an entire film saturated with American sentimentality. I genuinely think that the script is poor, and the production is worse. There were many instances when all my fellow viewers said: "That doesn't make sense". Burke had just completely misunderstood Eloise again, and it wasn't in an 'oh poor guy he's losing it, how powerful' way, but in a 'this script is absolutely potty, why is he such a phony?' way.

                      By about half way through, you've well and truly got the measure of it, and can therefore guess everything that's going to happen. He's opened his heart and starts crying, so you know that Walter is going to be the first guy to stand up and clap. She's in her shop looking mournful, so the door opens and you know that it's going to be him and that they'll whisper hi to each other, and he'll stammer something sweet and then they'll make out. He needs to go back to his room so this time, you know that he'll confront his fear and take the lift. Oh what a brave boy.

                      There are conditions under which I might have enjoyed this film: if I had sympathised with his character, if I believed his methods were the right ones to generalise with, if I were sentimental about people acting like idiots. But I didn't, I don't, and I'm not, and that's why I would strongly recommend you to avoid this film if you possibly can.

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                      • More +
                        09.06.2010 16:28
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                        What to buy if you want a NICE book, like ordinary people.

                        There's nothing like a bit of escapism from your sad sad life. You could drink a glass of tesco value orange juice from concentrate, watch a romantic comedy or, if you want to stretch it out a bit, read a romantic comedy. If you were me. The humble pink trash novel is the cheapest product on offer for this kind of escapism, and is easily available from tesco, helpfully. I recommend The Finishing Touches by Hester Brown as chick literature at its best. Despite its being a bit too well-written to qualify as escapist pink "trash", it is pink, and it is escapist, therefore it's well worth buying.

                        Finishing Touches tells the story of Betsy, whose rather romantic adoption as a baby by the owner of a Finishing School in London leads her to all kinds of adventure. In 1980, she was discovered on the school's steps in a marmalade box with the note: 'Please look after my baby. I want her to grow up to be a proper lady. Thank you.' Lady Frances Tallimore, the school's headmistress, was absolutely smitten, and in the present day, Betsy has grown up to love 'Franny' as her mother, and the Tallimore Academy as her home. The story really begins with Franny's death: who will look after the nearly bankrupt school and its four impossible pupils now that the perfect Lady Tallimore has passed away? Will Betsy ever be able to persuade the staff that the curriculum needs updating in order to get twenty-first century girls to stand on their own two feet? And will Betsy ever discover who her real mother was?

                        The story is an original one for the pink trash genre, and it's a difficult one to tell, because those of us who are inclined to hate anything approaching private education even, are unlikely to sympathise with those trying to save the last finishing school in London. However, because the main character wasn't 'finished' herself, and is therefore simply an ordinary young woman with surprisingly good manners and a maths degree, the reader does immediately love her, especially because of her many endearing characteristics and the challenges with which she is presented. The poshness is satirised and the old-fashioned lessons like 'table arrangements' are ridiculed, so that the reader finds the whole thing rather quaint, in a good way.

                        The rest of the characters are also interesting ones, especially due to the air of mystery surrounding many of them. What is the tarty pupil Venetia getting up to in her private lessons with manipulative Adele Buchanan? Is Betsy's childhood crush Jamie a changed man, or is he still a player with something to hide? Is Mark, the academy's bursar, a nice man deep down? Is Betsy's adopted father, Lord Tallimore, already over his wife? Which pupil in the class of 1980 could Betsy's mother possibly be? It's unusual to find such a collection of mysterious characters in pink trash, and even more unusual to have a plot line that isn't entirely predictable. The reader really doesn't know whether Betsy is going to end up with: her best friend's flirty brother, Jamie, or with awkward yet increasingly handsome Mark. Until the end, we're still unsure, because both men seem really rather nice, and that's got to be a good point.

                        This is how Browne keeps the plot interesting, and you won't feel yourself skimming over the boring bits, because there really aren't many! You want her to succeed, and every scene brings a new challenge, from inventing new lessons to help modern women cope with every situation, to stopping Adele from winding Lord Tallimore around her finger. You feel for her, and you really want her to end up with the right man, find her family, and save the school from ruin.

                        An aspect of the book which I must congratulate is the way it is interspersed with Finishing School secrets. It sort of encapsulates the whole novel. Every chapter begins with a tip that Betsy has learnt over her life in the Academy and from her mother, mainly.
                        'Find your stopcock and your fusebox and tape the number of your nearest plumber and electrician to them before you have an emergency.'
                        'Never ask a man his starsign, salary or his age.'
                        'Everyone should have one fabulous karaoke song; practise it so you can belt it out on demand, then retire modestly.'
                        'Never trust a man with a ready-made bow tie.'
                        And the book itself is stuffed full of Betsy's ladylike lists: the BLT check - buttons, lipstick, teeth; the handshake test - three firm shakes and good eye contact; and the posture check - head up, shoulders back, chest out. You feel well advised by the end, and determined to improve the manners of all around you! I think that's quite funny, but I can see that some people might find it trivial and slightly annoying, so be prepared!

                        I think that this book is perfect in terms of romantic escapism, but there are problems with it. The 'filling in the gaps' that the school intends to provide for its pupils is very much something that parents ought to do for their children, and occasionally, you don't really sympathise with the school's aims therefore, since spending extortionate amounts of money per term to learn how to walk in high heels and how to introduce yourself, etc. seems a little excessive. The other problem is that the men of the book are really a sub-plot, and because the author keeps us in suspense about which man Betsy will end up with, the reader is bound to be disappointed at the end, since they'll like both tremendously!

                        These are two minor problems, but it is refreshing to find a book which will include those aspects, and I think Hester Browne very brave because of it. In fact, this book is well written, and it flows remarkably well, with an intriguing plot and sympathetic characterisation. We love everybody, and we want them to end happily, and overcome every obstacle in their path. It makes for a stunningly cheerful book, therefore, and very enjoyable to read. You can't really go wrong with it, unless you're one of these people who don't particularly like happy books and would prefer the book to be about how dreadful Betsy's childhood was, and the ensuing identity crisis of her adulthood. You know the books I mean, they're on sale at the front of Smith's. Buy this book instead - it's better; don't be fooled by the happy ending and don't be a literature snob! It will help you get to sleep at night, in the best possible way.

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                        • spotify.com / Internet Site / 34 Readings / 32 Ratings
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                          25.05.2010 22:59
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                          One of the things that will dominate your life. It does deserve to.

                          Spotify is a music-streaming programme that is fast becoming a phenomenon. 'Spotify free' allows you to play music that you don't own by paying for it through advertising, any time. This means you can search for music (from a truly extensive database), and play it all the way through for free, with an advert every four or five songs. Most people choose to use Spotify by adding their favourite songs or albums to playlists which they can access at any time, and connecting their laptop to a pair of very good speakers and a subwoofer!

                          Spotify free is the version that those of us who are lucky have. There are other versions: Spotify Open, Spotify Unlimited and Spotify Premium, which I will explain below. Spotify free is an absolutely legal way to stream music for free. This is an infinitely preferable way to listen to your favourite songs than, say, youtube or an illegal site. It is better quality, and you know that the artists are receiving money for the songs.

                          There are many other features which make Spotify free an absolute joy: the fact that the song database is very large and allows you to find new music very easily and in different ways; the play queue which allows you to queue songs and to see what you've been listening to; and the biographies about artists you're interested in, to name but a few. In fact, the disadvantages of Spotify free are few. The adverts are very short and far less annoying than ones on the radio, although more repetitive. The connection is dependent on the quality of your internet, unlike, say itunes, but this can be overcome with the paid versions.

                          Important features:
                          - Day Pass - for £1.99, you can get ad-free music for 24 hours - perfect for parties!
                          - Share - you can connect to your friends' playlists by being on facebook, and thereby share and compare songs.
                          - Search - you can search for a song by its title, its artist, its album or its label; very useful for all of those hardcore music fanatics.
                          - Library - with this, you can upload songs from on your computer (e.g. from itunes) and 'star' songs.

                          Of course, this all sounds too good to be true, and that's because Spotify has become so popular that in order to use it free, you now have to have an invite (which can only be issued by Premium users). This brings me to the other versions of Spotify you may wish to consider, the first two of which are brand spanking new:

                          1) Spotify Open - this is a free version of Spotify, with adverts, that doesn't require an invite, but you can only use it for twenty hours per month, and I don't know about you, but this is not long enough for me. You still have access to the millions of tracks in the entire database, however, and can still add local files and use the share feature, for example.
                          2) Spotify Unlimited - for £4.99 per month, you can have ad-free music all the time. It doesn't have every feature that Premium has, but it has no adverts ever, which is a significant advantage.
                          3) Spotify Premium - this is the one Spotify want you to buy, because it has all the fancy features like offline mode (so your internet connection doesn't matter), enhanced sound quality (close to CD quality, so they say), and exclusive content (i.e. they get recent releases faster than the great unwashed do). It costs £9.99 per month, and has no advertising on it.
                          There is a full run down of each version's features on the Spotify website.

                          General opinion

                          All of these versions have fabulous features. The programme's name and design are both sleek, for example, and it is remarkably easy to use. I actually think it works faster than itunes and crashes less, but I may be wrong there, and itunes is a much bigger application. I must stress that the advertising doesn't bother me much, and I really hate adverts usually. If there's one particularly annoying, you can mute it and press play, or just turn down your speakers. Furthermore, Spotify find out your age and gender when you sign up, so that you're not "bombarded with ads not meant for you". Supposedly.

                          There are some weaknesses of the programme. It's a small thing, but it drives me mad: when artists are alphabetised, the beach boys would be under T for 'the'. I don't think I would find this so annoying were it not for itunes and ipods getting us used to not having to worry about whether the arctic monkeys are 'the arctic monkeys' or 'arctic monkeys', but there it is. Another issue is that not all artists have allowed Spotify to buy their music. Most notable is the absence of Beatles songs, of course, and I know a lot of users feel that loss. Another massive weakness that I have to mention is the gender/age aimed adverts. I know I said before that they were an advantage, but as a seventeen-year old girl, I was getting driven mad by 'don't put up with abuse' and 'take a condom' and 'come to Edinburgh Penrier university'. Conversely, one of my male seventeen-year old friends had 'don't abuse girls' and 'use a condom' ads thrown at him. Since Spotify ads have a rather repetitive nature, you can understand our irritation.

                          Despite this, I would not hesitate to say that Spotify has changed my life. Sad, I know, but it has introduced me to countless new artists, allowed me to enjoy songs I haven't heard since year 5 and entertained me for probably thousands of hours, for free. If you want to understand the mind-blowing nature of this fantastic music player, visit the Spotify website and watch the short video about the Spotify Story. I read recently that Spotify hopes to be able to replace itunes, and I can honestly see this happening if there isn't too much backlash from artists (Spotify means less money for them), because it has improved so much recently and in a very large way. When I joined, you didn't need an invite for Spotify free, and there were many issues with the application. Now, however, it is a music machine, and I hope lots of people are buying Unlimited and Premium. It seems to me that if it can draw people away from youtube and illegal download sites, it is a very good thing, and once you're on it, it's amazingly addictive. I have become used to a musical soundtrack to everything I do, and I can honestly say it never gets boring. Download Spotify as soon as humanly possible!

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                          • More +
                            06.05.2010 23:17
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                            One to treasure!

                            D.E. Stevenson was an incredibly successful wartime author whose books are now quite difficult to find. She wrote very well, with pleasing characters and touching stories, but I believe her best is Miss Buncle's Book, a novel that I have and will read again and again to make me smile.

                            The story itself is a charming one: Miss Barbara Buncle, a quiet, middle-aged spinster, has diminishing dividends. She decides to write 'Chronicles of an English Village' under an assumed name, John Smith, in order to improve her situation. She's never written before, and she hasn't any imagination, so she simply writes a novel about the village she lives in, and the people in it. Her intentions are entirely innocent, since she is a rather naive and incredibly gentle woman, but the book that she ends up writing is softly ironic, and frankly accurate in its descriptions. The man who publishes it, Mr Abbot (whom she chose simply because he was first alphabetically), thinks it's a masterpiece in satire, and loves its truthful and believable characterisation. He changes its name to 'Disturber of the peace', and Miss Buncle imagines that no harm can be done, since the novel uses fake names and places.

                            However, she has no idea what a stir it will cause. From every corner of the village there is surprise and in some cases outrage at this "John Smith's" effrontery! Yet no-one thinks for a minute that it could be quiet Miss Buncle who has painted their pictures so perfectly. The excitement that ensues is captivating, and the beauty of the story is that all of the characters Miss Buncle has unwittingly assassinated in her book may come to see the error of their ways as a result! But will Miss Buncle escape from the quiet village's brand new crusade?

                            The story is lovely, and very sympathetically told. It couldn't be a simpler yet more touching idea, and it will therefore keep you glued to its pages throughout, without being thrilling. The writing isn't challenging, but it's not boring either, and therefore it strikes exactly the right tone, and is the kind of novel it won't take you long to read. Therefore it can be read as a bedtime book, since it's completely inoffensive and gentle. It will make you laugh, and it will keep you cheerful, so it couldn't be better from this point of view.

                            The only weakness I would note is the occasionally patronising way in which Miss Buncle is painted. She is meant to be a simple lady, of course, but Mr Abbot's affection for her is perhaps a little sexist, according to today's standards. Nevertheless, we find the characters beautifully painted, and we sympathise with each of them to the very end.

                            D.E. Stevenson writes wonderfully harmless novels with gentle stories and funny characters. Miss Buncle's Book is largely considered her best work, and it is certainly one of my favourite books of all time. Simple, yet amusing and touching, you can't go wrong! I would recommend it to anyone who needs cheering up, and also to young readers, since it's simple enough to read very easily, and a good length.

                            On Amazon.co.uk, this book is quite expensive even in paperback, so you might want to try hunting it down in a second-hand bookshop, but it is worth the money anyway - a classic that will stay on your shelf and be passed on to your children!

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                            • Addicted To Love (DVD) / DVD / 19 Readings / 19 Ratings
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                              06.05.2010 22:41
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                              I'm not a romantic comedy snob, but this is a pretty bad film.

                              FILM ONLY REVIEW

                              Addicted to Love is not one of those famous chick flicks that are always on the shelves and are loved by all. In fact, I only have it on DVD because it's part of a Meg Ryan set. There are reasons why this film deserves to be on the list of cheering, inoffensive romantic comedies that you can watch for purposes of escapism, but it's not really good enough to be a favourite.

                              The first aspect of Addicted to Love is its silliness. As soon as you start watching the film, you can tell it's going to be slightly annoying, if a bit funny. Sam (Matthew Broderick), a naive astronomer, is turning his telescope so that it faces the field outside the observatory, in order for him to see his beautiful blonde girlfriend waving at him. Linda (Kelly Preston), is the perfect doll-faced partner, but when she announces she's leaving him to live in New York, we're not overly surprised. It was too good to be true, and he idolises her like a puppy dog to show us that the relationship won't go far. Naturally, being a pathetic and sentimental kind of guy, he follows her to New York to win her back, only to find she has found a new man, the exotic Anton (Tcheky Karyo).

                              This is the premise to the story, and so far there isn't much interesting or unpredictable. Now that the silliness has been established, the film introduces its next aspect: weirdness. Because (bizarrely) when Sam tried to ring their doorbell it got stuck, he has now fled to spy on the couple from across the road, in a dilapidated building with a cockroach infestation. Utilising his skills with telescopes and demonstrating his adoration for Linda, he watches patterns in their relationship (such as Linda's irritation at Anton's perfectionism) ready to step in when it all falls apart. Cue Maggie (Meg Ryan), the mysterious and slightly scary ex-girlfriend of Anton, who is eager to help Sam spy on the couple - bring her bugging equipment with her - but with more retribution in mind than Sam has. Or, as she puts it: "I don't want him back, I just want him vaporized, extinguished! When I'm done with him, he'll be just a twitching little stain on the floor."

                              What's good about the story is that at the beginning, Sam thinks Maggie is tapped, and Maggie thinks Sam is pathetic, but they end up working together, and even though they're very different they fall in love. (I don't think I'm spoiling anything here!) But that's just me being nice: you don't have to look far to see that the plot is deeply flawed. We're supposed to sympathise with Maggie and Sam for having to live in a pigsty because they've been dumped, but we end up wondering why he doesn't just go and try the doorbell again, or give up on Linda and get a life, and why Maggie doesn't stop trying to make Anton suffer, the cow, and start her own life. The characters are not easy to relate to, on the whole, and the plot seems a little contrived, therefore.

                              On top of this, what humour there is is largely slapstick, and the kind that just bores you. People falling over, people getting bad allergic reactions, people eating cockroaches: it's just a bit cringey and annoying. However, some of the script is funny when combined with the impossible situation that Maggie and Sam are in. For example, when they sit together, watching Anton and Linda and making up what they're saying, it's really very funny, and you can forgive their bitterness for a moment. "Look my darling, I wanted to show you how well my hands fit on top of my knees."

                              This brings me to describe the acting. First of all, Meg Ryan is a very skilled actor, and queen of the Rom-coms (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally), so she really doesn't struggle in this film, and she's one of the best things about it, but it can get a little sickly for her, and that's a shame. Secondly, Matthew Broderick, whom we know from the Producers (2005) where he plays Leo, is a pretty unconvincing actor. In a comedic part, like that of the Producers, he is very funny, but in a part like this, you just want to slap him. He's one-dimensional, and Maggie could do much better, if she weren't such a psycho. I don't know if I'm the only one, too, who gets supremely irritated by over the top French accents. Most French people do not say "ze 'ole werrld 'ates me" if they've been living in America for as long as Anton has. Since Linda is a completely flat character too, there isn't much there to congratulate, I'm afraid.

                              I don't want to make this film sound absolutely terrible, because I'm sure it can be enjoyable; and it is, believe it or not, a funny idea, if you can suspend disbelief for a bit. It's a nice ending too, because despite both relationships having holes picked in them all the way through, they end up happily, and love triumphs! However, the characters and the plot are both unconvincing, and if it weren't for some funny lines, it would be largely bad. I wouldn't waste an evening on it if I were you, there is much better escapism out there!

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                            • Hello Dolly (DVD) / DVD / 27 Readings / 26 Ratings
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                              24.04.2010 20:24
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                              With such an exceptional cast and director, it ought to be good, but it truly is a supermusical

                              FILM ONLY REVIEW

                              Hello Dolly is not one of the musicals people usually rate among those like 'singing in the rain' or 'sound of music'. Its characters are annoying, it only has one song that most people will know and it's not romantic in the conventional sense. And yet, I think it's one of the best 'supermusicals' ever made, and I watch it again and again with endless enjoyment.

                              The film revolves around Mrs Dolly Levi, a matchmaking widow with a mischievous streak, who always gets her own way. She is a very difficult part to play because she's so easy to hate: almost any stage production you see of this show will inevitably lead the audience to that conclusion. However, the film version captures her fantastic personality perfectly, and Dolly becomes lovable, hilarious, manipulative, yet wondrous. Whenever anything is going wrong, you find yourself wishing that Dolly were there, because she inevitably fixes every problem in her own special way. Barbra Streisand seems born to play this beguiling role: her acting is faultless, her presence is awesome and she has one of the best singing voices of this century.

                              Dolly is contrasted with the impossibly selfish and grumpy Mr Horace Vandergelder, "the well-known UNmarried half-a-millionaire." He is not supposed to be liked, and this is one of the criticisms of the story: that Dolly deserves someone better than mean old Mr Vandergelder. However, he is played humorously by Walter Matthau, and somehow, we trust Dolly's judgement. After all, she had the man she deserved in her first husband Mr Ephraim Levi.

                              Dolly's character is one of the best inventions in the world of musicals, in my opinion. She is a shameless matchmaker, who manipulates everyone she meets. The story begins with her giving out her cards over New York: "If you want your sister courted, brother wed or cheese imported, just leave everything to me!" But when she finds out that Horace plans to marry the woman she's set up for him, Irene, Dolly hastily sends his two clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby to New York before him. That way, they can fall in love with Irene and her milliner's assistant, Millie, before Horace can propose. Meanwhile, she sends off Horace's lovesick niece Ermengarde with her 'penniless artist' fiance in order to seek their fortune in the Big Apple. At the same time, she attempts to undermine Horace's wife-seeking by throwing a pretend heiress into his path. Of course, despite the complications and because of Dolly's meddling, everyone is happily paired off.

                              The acting is significantly superior to most musicals, perhaps because it was produced in 1969, when even musicals now demanded proper acting. Streisand is absolutely stunning, but grumpy Walter Matthau and awkward Michael Crawford are also perfect for their roles. The singing and dancing are flawless, and because Gene Kelly directed, the dancing is particularly extraordinary.

                              There are ten songs in Hello Dolly, and most are either pretty boring or absolutely spectacular. The best songs in the musical are:
                              Put On Your Sunday Clothes - you may know it from the Wall-E soundtrack, but it is the ideal happy song and brilliantly choreographed.
                              Just Leave Everything to Me - Dolly's selling techniques "I have always been a woman who arranges things, like furniture...and daffodils...and lives!"
                              So Long Dearie - hilarious song where Dolly lets Horace know what he's missing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7qSgTFsGCU
                              Hello, Dolly! - one of the most exciting musical numbers in history, Hello Dolly includes a troupe of gymnastic waiters, a cameo from Louis Armstrong and some of the best singing in the entire show.
                              There are many more!

                              The film would be worth watching just for Barbra Streisand, or just for the Hello, Dolly! number in the Harmonia gardens, but it really is excellently made, full of dramatic musical sequences and hilarious acting. Most importantly, it is an innocent, old-fashioned musical, which deserves a much greater reputation than it has.

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