TFFF17: Planetarium

Every year Palace Cinemas holds a French Film Festival and every year I tell my friends and family we'll have to go. We never do.

This year my sisters's and I finally broke the cycle and attended a session of the film Planetarium. It was … not what we were expecting.

Planetarium is described as the story of two American sisters, Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate (Lily-Rose Depp), 'who earn their living through clairvoyance'. They meet Andre Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), a movie-producer determined to capture proof of the supernatural on film, and the sisters' find themselves drawn in to this enterprise.

The problem is Planetarium can't decide exactly what it wants to be. Is it the story of Laura, losing herself in her acting roles? Yes, for awhile. Or is about a rivalry between two sisters? Briefly. Not really. Perhaps it's an exploration of anti-Semitic paranoia in 1930s Paris? Sort of. Or the tale of a predator, obsessed with a teenage girl? Not exactly.

The film, directed by Rebecca Zlotowski and co-written by Zlotowski and Robin Campillo, introduces all these story-lines and more, jumping from one to another, interested only in the ideas at the the surface level, sometimes abandoning them altogether. For example, in the first séance between Kate, Laura, and Korben we meet a faceless man. Who is he? Korben calls him his brother. Kate tells Laura he's not. We never find out the truth. After a few more scenes with the man the film simply moves on.

Where Zlotowski and Campillo do succeed is in the story of Korben's obsession with spiritualism, exploring the effect it has on his friendships, his career, and his mental health. It's interesting to watch Laura and Kate's different roles in this endeavour, as Kate willing gets drawn into Korben's research while Laura just wants to move on from that stage of their life.

And where the screenplay falters, the cinematography of George Lechaptois shines, such as the motif of stars in the night sky, the gorgeous visuals book-ending Planetarium and subtly repeating throughout the film.

If you're a fan of the look of a film, if you're less concerned with story, Planetarium is worth your time. As well as Lechaptois's arresting visuals, editor Julien Lacheray uses dissolves and other scene transitions to give the film the feel of an Old Hollywood movie. My favourite scenes involved the process of 1930s film-making, such as the techniques Korben's team use to depict séances on screen. If, however, you're more interested in plot I'd skip this one entirely. The jumble of story-lines will leave you frustrated.

Until next time,
Miss Fif

Competitive Streaks and Reading Slumps

I have a competitive streak. I think this would surprise some people, but to my family it's a well known fact, a trait exhibited throughout the years, usually where card or board games were concerned.

I have a particular talent for games of chance, and less of one for those involving strategy. My battle tactic for chess is basically just kill them all. I'm also terrible at scrabble. I hate scrabble. And boggle. All the word games really. I'm well aware of the irony.

In contrast, my twin sister is very skilled at word games. She also doesn't get annoyed when she loses and she's never flipped a chessboard over in frustration. Not that I've ever done that … I believe there's an extra level of competitiveness involved when your opponents are also your siblings. And when one of those siblings happens to be your twin … well, let's just say that competitive feeling is amplified.

Lately this feeling has extended beyond games to our individual reading lists. While my twin powers through book after book, I'm having trouble finishing just one.

Yep, I've hit a reading slump.

At present I'm half-way through two books, 'Paris Letters' by Janice MacLeod and 'A Conjuring of Light' by V. E. Schwab. While I'm having no problems reading a range of articles I haven't been able to concentrate long enough to finish either book, reading and rereading the same paragraphs over and over until the information sinks in. It's incredibly frustrating. The ridiculous thing is I'm enjoying both stories. 'Paris Letters' is an engaging and illuminating memoir and 'ACOL' is the conclusion to my favourite trilogy.

The last time I hit a reading slump it went on for months and was only broken once I found a new series to hold my focus (Sergei Lukyanenko's 'Night Watch' trilogy, except it's no longer a trilogy. Douglas Adams would approve). But this time I'm reading a book ('ACOL') I desperately want to finish ( I need to know how it all ends! I have this horrible feeling someone is going to die. Please don't let it be Kell. Or Lila. Or Rhy. Or … just anybody) and so I'm trying a different approach.

Yesterday I had an epiphany: buy the eBook.

I know this might sound odd. My reasoning is this–I only have a couple of paragraphs to read per page and, in theory, this means my mind won't be able to fixate on previous paragraphs quite as much purely I can't see them on the page. I also won't have a physical representation of all the pages I still have to read.

Of course it's only early days, but I think this might just work. I might beat this reading slump (and my sister–just a bit of healthy competition!) yet.

Until next time,
Miss Fif

Podcasts: Soundtracking with Edith Bowman

I'm not musically gifted. Sure, I can sing aloud without bursting the eardrums of those around me (usually just my flat mate), but that's about it. I'm particularly inept at humming, something my twin sister will readily attest to. I have (on a good day) around a fifty per cent accuracy. I can manage the classic themes–Star Wars, James Bond, Doctor Who ... well, most of the theme to Doctor Who.

And I did once learn to play Greensleeves on my friend's keyboard, an accomplishment I was very proud of at the time–for the few hours I could remember how to play it (sorry Don, you were a very patient teacher).

In spite of all this I do like music–from indie rock to hip hop to film scores–and I like listening to other people talk about music. I only discovered this latter fact late last year after I stumbled upon a newer edition to the podcast scene, Soundtracking with Edith Bowman.

Soundtracking is a bi-weekly podcast about music in film (and sometimes television and theatre), hosted by broadcaster and writer Edith Bowman. Each week Bowman chats with a different person working in the film and television industry (usually a director) about their own relationship  with music, and the use of music in their films and other works. An affable interviewer and true music aficionado, Bowman asks interesting questions which her guests readily respond to, offering up music-related anecdotes from both their personal and professional lives.

Boasting a strong back catalogue of interviews, Soundtracking is well worth your time if you enjoy all things music and/or film and television. My favourite instalment is Episode 1 with Ben Wheatley but other highlights include Episode 22 (J. A. Bayona), Episode 11 (Andrea Arnold) and Episode 26 (Danny Boyle). It's also the most professional podcast I've come across so far. The sound quality and editing is always excellent, the music mentioned by Bowman and her guests seamlessly woven into each episode. 

That's all for now. Until next time,
Miss Fif

Audio Plays, The Lion King, and the Chestburster

I like stories. Stories of the past, and stories of the future. Stories of real worlds and of fictional ones. Of flawed heroes and complex villains. As a child I experienced these stories through the books I read and the films and television shows I watched. Then, in my early teens I was introduced to yet another kind of storytelling–the audio play.

Audio plays are an aural form of storytelling that have been around since the 1920s. They were originally broadcast on the radio (they're also referred to as radio plays, audio dramas etc.) and were immensely popular in the pre-television eras of the 1930s and 40s. In an audio play stories are conveyed through sound alone i.e. through narration, dialogue, and sound effects. The rest is up to your imagination.

My first encounter with audio plays came via my friend Hannah. You know how in high school you have that friend? The one whose childhood was, in many ways, different to yours? Hannah was that friend. For example, when I was five years old I fell asleep at the cinema watching The Lion King. When Han was five years old she saw Alien for the first time. While I was being terrorised by an evil cartoon lion Hannah was witnessing the infamous chestburster scene. Like I said, slightly different experiences.

As our friendship developed she became my go-to friend for all things sci-fi, specifically the sci-fi of the 1970s and 80s, from Blake's 7 to Red Dwarf. One day she decided to introduce my sister and I to Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, an adaptation of the classic H. G. Wells novel (the official website calls it an 'album' but in my mind it will always be an audio play). It's a bizarre, fun concoction of progressive and symphonic rock, narrated by Richard Burton. Yes, that Richard Burton.

It would be another ten years before I encountered my next audio play–but once I was reintroduced I became hooked. Maybe you will too. Keep reading for some tips and recommendations for getting started.

First of all, BBC Radio 4* (and Radio 4 extra) is your new best friend. Their plays are available to stream free from their website (within a specific time period, often thirty days), and can be streamed from anywhere in the world. They have a range of categories, from period drama to science fiction to crime, all of which can be played on compatible smart phones, laptops, and tablets. There is currently a small range of Doctor Who episodes (starring the Fourth Doctor) available for streaming. They're also midway through a mini-series adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Eric (episodes one and two are currently available).

If you want to try the paid options, I recommend starting with Big Finish Productions,, and iTunes**.

Big Finish produce both original and adapted content (including the previously mentioned Doctor Who episodes. They have a license to produce Doctor Who plays featuring many different incarnations of the Doctor). My favourite range is The Confessions of Dorian Gray, a series of plays based around the premise: what if Dorian Gray was a real (immortal) man whose life was the basis for his friend Oscar Wilde's famous novel? Some series feature Dorian recollecting select stories from his past–sometimes featuring famous fictional or historical figures–while others follow a serialised, present-day narrative.

If you think you like the sound of this series you can sample the range by purchasing individual episodes from the Big Finish website. I recommend the fan-favourite 'The Heart That Lives Alone' and, one of my personal favourites, 'Murder On 81st street', featuring the writer Dorothy Parker.

For a more conventional adaptation, you could try Neverwhere, How The Marquis Got His Coat Back, or Good Omens. All three were adapted by Dirk Maggs and are hugely enjoyable and impeccably produced works featuring star-studded casts. You can buy them from Audible or iTunes.

Finally, if you're a Pride and Prejudice fan you must(!) keep an eye out for the Radio 4 adaptation. Jamie Parker (the adult Harry Potter of The Cursed Child fame) makes for a swoon-worthy Darcy. Trust me (you can thank me later).

If none of these recommendations sound like they're for you don't be discouraged, there's a huge variety out there–just remember the golden rule, Radio 4 is your best friend.

Until next time,
Miss Fif


* Sadly (for the author), this post is not sponsored by BBC Radio 4.
** It's also not sponsored by Big Finish Productions,, or iTunes.