Reviews

Links to all my latest book reviews for various publications can be found on the Blog page.

Below are some of the most popular reviews from my blog, The Culture Vulture.

For many more like this, go to http://www.lovelifefoodart.blogspot.com

HOLLYWOOD COSTUME AT THE V&A

“Costume is the most important element of my films.”

This is the assertion made by legendary director, Martin Scorsese, in an interview featured as part of the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition, Hollywood Costume.  Quite a bold pronouncement, even by Scorsese’s standards – and one I was initially tempted to take with a rather large pinch of proverbial salt.  Surely there are other parts of the film-making process which are equally, if not more, important than costume design?  Like casting perhaps, or script-writing, or maybe the all-encompassing process of directing?

However, a few hours spent wandering around the exhibition (or, rather, elbowing my way around – the gallery was packed to capacity) was enough to win me over to Scorsese’s view.  Featuring over 130 costumes from a century of film-making, and guest-curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose design credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blues Brothers, Coming to America, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video), Hollywood Costume is an exercise in promoting the often-overlooked role of costume designers in the movie-making process – an exercise in which it wholly succeeds.

But why the need for an exhibition to underscore the talent of Hollywood costumiers in the first place?  Surely, they already receive ample recognition and credit for their achievements?  Well, perhaps this is the case these days – but it wasn’t always thus.  In those halcyon days of early Hollywood, the role of the costume designer was not so much under-appreciated as ignored completely.  Often disregarded as being ‘women’s work’, costume design was, more often than not, referred to dismissively as ‘wardrobe’.  Tellingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only deigned to create an award category for costume design in 1948, despite handing out its first gold ‘Oscar’ statuettes in 21years earlier, in 1927 – and only then after extensive lobbying from people like the pioneering designer Edith Head.  This meant that, unbelievably, costume designers of such classic films as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind (both made in 1939) never received Oscar nominations in recognition of their efforts.

And while attitudes have improved markedly in the intervening decades, costume designers were still being paid up to 33% less than their counterparts in production design as recently as the early 2000s.  Again, this differential seems to run along gender lines – the poorer paid costumiers still tend to be women, while production design is a predominantly male-dominated area.  (Incidentally, Landis succeeded in redressing this inequity when she became President of the Costume Designers Guild in 2001.)

The secret of this exhibition’s success lies in its three-part structure: Act 1, or ‘Deconstruction’, takes us back to basics by examining the beginning of the designers’ creative process and the research necessary to bring a costume to life.  Act 2, or ‘Dialogue’, focuses on the collaboration between the designer, the director and the actors who will eventually inhabit the costumes.  This section features video interviews with the likes of Tim Burton, the aforementioned Scorsese, and those perennial chameleons Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep.

And last, but certainly not least, comes Act 3 or the ‘Finale’.  This is the blockbusting part of this blockbuster exhibition featuring as it does a mind-blowing selection of some of the most celebrated costumes ever to have graced the silver screen. Uma Thurman’s yellow Kill Bill cat suit, Harry Potter’s cloak, Keanu Reeves’s full-length Matrix coat, Rose’s gigantic hat from her first scene in Titanic, Holly Golightly’s black dress and pearls, Dorothy’s simple blue pinafore from The Wizard of Oz – they all take their place in this awe-inspiring costume Hall of Fame.

Indeed, the sheer number of weird and wonderful costumes included in this exhibition leaves one in little doubt as to the integral role these outfits have played in the creation of an iconic movie character.  Would Marilyn’s infamous subway scene have succeeded if it wasn’t for her white billowing dress?  What about Dorothy’s jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road – would it have been quite so memorable without her ruby slippers?  And as for Charlie Chaplin’s tramp – that character has now become inextricably linked to his bowler hat and cane.

Hollywood Costume also brings into stark relief the quality of the workmanship that goes into film costumes.  While some of the exhibits have, inevitably, faded over time (Vivien Leigh’s green curtain dress comes to mind here – so much colour has drained from the fabric that curators have been forced to illuminate it with a green spotlight), others have remained in remarkably good conditions.  In particular, the wonderful sequinned fuchsia creation worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1944 film, Lady In The Dark, remains as vibrant today as it did 70 years ago – so much so, I initially mistook it as a piece worn by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.

There was always a danger with an exhibition of this sort that the costumes, displayed without their famous erstwhile inhabitants, would look flat and lifeless – after all, Brad Pitt’s Fight Club costume would inevitably look better if Brad Pitt was still in it.  However, the curators have cleverly overcome this problem by displaying the actors’ faces on strategically-place television screens above the headless mannequins –instantly bestowing a semblance of life to the overall image.

But for all its triumphs, this exhibition is not without its faults.

The lighting of the exhibits is surprisingly hit-and-miss.  In some cases, light has been used to great effect in order to enhance the costume (like Leigh’s green Gone With The Wind curtains), but there are too many instances where the illumination detracts from the effect.  In particular, Johnny Depp’s Demon Barber ensemble is so poorly lit, it is difficult to even recognise the costume, let alone appreciate any of the detail.  Similarly, the choice of black mannequins works well in some cases but not in others, namely when the costume itself was black.  Natalie Portman’s black tutu from Black Swan, for example, is indistinguishable from the black mannequin upon which it displayed (a problem accentuated by the darkness of the gallery).

And finally, why on God’s good earth did the curators decide to mount the superhero costumes in such elevated positions?  Yes, I know that Spiderman likes to scale high buildings, but was it really necessary to re-enact the scene? Ditto for Superman (flying near the ceiling), and Batman and Catwoman (both perched in improbably vertiginous positions).  Such staging eliminates any chance of examining the detail of these hugely influential costume designs.

Which is a great shame – because I doubt we will get such a chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent creations again.

High Points: Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp ensemble.  Low Points: Inaccessible superheroes, dodgy lighting.

Hollywood Costume is sponsored by Harry Winston (for reasons which will become clear at the end). It runs from 20 Oct to 27 January at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Tickets £15.50 (Concessions and group discounts available). Booking fees apply.

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THE FIRST THIRTY MINUTES OF ANNA KARENINA – A REVIEW

I don’t go to the cinema much anymore.   The reason for this is two-fold.

Firstly, I find that most movies coming out of Hollywood these days tend to have quite a limited target market, of which I am emphatically not a member (nor, it seems, is anyone other than teenage males with violent sociopathic tendencies).

Secondly, the older I get, the more misanthropic I become – and therefore less enthusiastic about the prospect of spending two hours of my dwindling life penned up in a dark, uncomfortable, claustrophobic room with OTHER PEOPLE.

However, every once in a while, a movie comes along which simply cannot wait to be viewed on Sky Box Office.  And if there was ever a film to force me off the sofa and into the movie theatre, it was Anna Karenina, the new blockbuster adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel of the same name.

Directed by Joe Wright (whose previous credits include Atonement and Pride and Prejudice), and with a screenplay written by Tom Stoppard, this is a movie that promised much.  Add to this an all-star cast – which includes Keira Knightley as the eponymous heroine, Jude Law as her cuckolded husband, and the up-and-coming Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the dastardly Count Vronsky – and one would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the movie event of 2012.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot, actually…

Alarm bells were ringing from the outset.  Fully expecting to be dazzled by fabulous location shots of Moscow and St Petersburg, I was rather puzzled when the opening sequences instead showed a rather grungy theatre set.  Instead of vast marble staircases, there were rickety wooden ones. Scenes that should have been set in stunning mansions took place on a stage, completed with wobbly backdrops.  Extras stumbled clumsily into scenes, as if the actors on the stage were merely rehearsing their lines, as opposed to being filmed.

Some reviewers have praised this theatrical approach, which no doubt saved the producers a fortune in location costs, and which will probably earn innumerable technical gongs come awards season. I, however, found it only succeeded in making the film visually confusing, not least because these rather dodgy sets were combined with some breathtakingly magnificent costumes, as well as some ‘normal’ outdoor scenes.

And I wasn’t the only one confused – so, I believe, were the actors.  With the exception of Jude Law, the other main players seemed to forget they were making a film, and instead performed in that over-emphasising way common the stage actors.  Movements were exaggerated, and voices were raised as if they were trying to be heard in the nose-bleed seats of a Shaftesbury Avenue theatre.  Matthew Macfayden, in particular, was guilty of this – his court-jester type portrayal of Oblonsky, a serious character in the novel, verged on the ridiculous.

But for all my misgivings, I was still prepared to stick it out.  Surely, it could only get better.  But then, some 30 minutes in, after another absurd Oblonsky scene, my husband (who has never read Tolstoy) leaned across and whispered “I didn’t realise Anna Karenina was a comedy”.  Anna Karenina, one of the masterpieces of 19th century Russian literature, a comedy?  That was it – we were outta there.

So there you have it – my review of the first thirty minutes of Anna Karenina. Maybe the movie improved in the hour-and-thirty-minutes I missed – but I doubt.

The short version: A very Baz Luhrmann-like production, except Luhrmann would probably have pulled it off.  Tolstoy purists will hate it.  Flouncy frock lovers and theatre luvvies will simply adore it, daaahling.

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SHERLOCK HOLMES: A TRIUMPHANT RETURN

Early last year, the literary world (this blog included) was abuzz with the news that the Conan Doyle Estate had, at last, commissioned a new, full-length Sherlock Holmes murder mystery.

The decision, which was a significant departure for the executors of great author’s estate, came as a surprise to many. Up to now, the Estate trustees had jealously guarded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy, steadfastly refusing to sanction any of the unofficial Holmesian tales that had been penned since his death (of which there have been many).

And, in another surprising (and not altogether uncontroversial) move, the man entrusted to follow in Conan Doyle’s footsteps was none other than Anthony Horowitz. Although a prolific author with a number of highly successful children’s detective stories under his belt (including the The Power of Five and the Alex Rider series), Horowitz could hardly be described as a literary heavyweight – and many, myself included, questioned the wisdom of the choice.

And so, now that the book, intriguing titled The House of Silk, has finally been published, did the gamble pay off?

In short – yes. Exceedingly so.

The story, like all of Conan Doyle’s offerings, is narrated by Dr Watson, Holmes’s long-time friend and collaborator. By now, the famous detective has been dead for over a year, and the good doctor is putting pen to paper one last time in an attempt to chronicle the most sensational and disturbing case that Holmes had ever been called upon to investigate.

Indeed, so disquieting are the details of this case that Watson is taking great pains to ensure that the account is held under lock and key for one hundred years, in the hope that, when such a time has elapsed, society will be better equipped to contend with startling revelations contained within his narrative.

As a back-story, it’s a rather good one, conveniently giving Horowitz licence to take the classic Sherlock Holmes mystery to altogether different level by allowing him to update the story for a modern audience.

And, thankfully, this unique opportunity is not wasted. In The House of Silk, Horowitz has successfully captured not only the voice of Conan Doyle, but also the very essence of Sherlock Holmes. Characterisations are pitch-perfect, while descriptions of Victorian London (and its seedy underbelly) are as believable as they are disturbing.

And, as for the story itself, the plot is as convoluted and confusing as any of the classic mysteries, if not more so, and keeps the reader guessing right to the very end.

In fact, in every aspect, the transition from Conan Doyle to Horowitz is simply seamless.  Horowitz has indeed proved himself a worthy successor. The doubters have been silenced.

‘The House of Silk’ by Anthony Horowitz is published by Orion Books.

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THE PERFECT CURE FOR DICKENS FATIGUE

So far, 2012 has been a big year for fans of Charles Dickens. Barely six weeks into the great author’s bicentennial year and we have already been treated to a dizzying array of TV and radio adaptations of his works, not to mention innumerable newspaper and magazine articles analyzing everything from his characters and plots to his enduring influence in our 21st century world.

 

In fact, so saturated has the media become with all things Dickensian, you would, dear reader, be forgiven for feeling just a little bit tired of it all. (Personally, I’m expecting the phrase ‘Dickens fatigue’ to enter the OED any day now.)

 

But, before you take the rash step of swearing off Charles-bloody-Dickens for the sake of your mental health, I urge you to pick up a copy of Lynn Shepherd’s wonderful new book, Tom-All-Alone’s – because if you are indeed suffering from this particular literary malaise, Tom-All-Alone’s provides the perfect antidote by breathing new life into one of Dickens’ most famous novels.

Set in 1850, Tom-All-Alone’s is a Victorian murder mystery which cleverly uses many of the characters and locations from the classic Bleak House and weaves them into an entirely new, but equally compelling, story. However, unlike Bleak House, Tom-All-Alone’s is narrated by a 21st century observer – a device which allows the author to expose many of the darker realities of Victorian London, realities Dickens could only hint at or, indeed, ignore altogether.

And Lynn Shepherd certainly doesn’t shy away from the task in hand. She is unflinching in her re-creation of the seedy, squalid and the downright disgusting underbelly of mid-19th century London. Nothing is off limits in this book, whether it be child prostitution, gruesome Ripper-style murders, or nauseating descriptions of the goings-on in the infamous Bermondsey tanneries. However, all this only serves to bring the slums of Victorian London authentically and vividly to life, and the reader is left under no illusions as to what life was really like for many Londoners forced to eek out an existence in such wretched conditions.

If you are not familiar with Bleak House, fear not –a prior knowledge of the Dickens masterpiece is certainly not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of this book. In fact, with its intricately-woven plot, meticulously researched historical detail and wonderful writing, Tom-All-Alone’s doesn’t need the Dickens connection to make this a thoroughly good book – as a stand-alone story, it will appeal to anyone who enjoys a classic Victorian murder mystery.

A must-read!

Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd is published in the UK by Corsair.  It will be released in the US under the title The Solitary House on May 1st.  For more information, including a great video introduction by the author, go to http://www.lynn-shepherd.com/

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