Film No 44 (2014) : There Will Be Blood

Daniel Day-Lewis won ‘Best Actor’ Oscar and several other major film awards for his 2007 portrayal of Daniel Plainview, a silver miner turned oil prospector in 1910s America. It is true that his performance is stunning; it was the main reason that we sought out ‘There will be Blood‘ on Netflix – who am I to argue with the critics?

Paul Sunday knows there is oil on his land, and Plainview offers him a price. But Paul’s twin, Eli, holds out for the $5,000 he knows the farm and its land to be worth. Plainview starts drilling, promising the local people that the profits from oil will bring schools, bread, and opportunity to the area, which will thrive as a result of its new-found wealth. Plainview doesn’t deliver on his promises, which brings him into conflict with Eli Sunday, a religious zealot. Over time, Plainview gets richer, his ruthlessness is unchecked until he is eventually alienated from all those around him, including his adopted son. He sinks into alcoholism and the film ends following a confrontation between him and Eli.

This is a man’s world; women make virtually no appearance at all other than as subservients. There are precious few splashes of colour, the landscape is desolate and unforgiving. It’s all about the oil and the money. There isn’t just blood, there is also dirt and grime, swearing, men getting squashed under machinery, fighting and fire. Oh, and also murder and alcoholism, fanaticism and humiliation. This is a bloody, horrible film. Actually, to be honest, it’s just a bloody horrible film.

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Film No 43 (2014) : The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

Hunger Games 2Having been selected at the annual Reaping as the Tribute to compete for District 12 in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) came through her first Games. ‘Catching Fire‘ is the second Hunger Games movie and begins with Katniss and her fellow survivor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), taking part in a Victory Tour of the Districts. Katniss has a part to play but she won’t abide by the rules; she deviates from the prepared scripts and planned appearances, revealing a rebellious streak which soon makes her a symbol of hope for the repressed people of the Districts. As a threat to the Capitol, she must be eliminated in the next Games, the 75th. But Katniss has allies, both within the arena of the Games and beyond. Can her compatriots ensure her survival?

This is a full-on action movie, with thrilling, unexpected plot twists and futuristic special effects. The Tributes crashing through the rainforest to escape an encroaching cloud of poisonous gas, which gains on them with every panicked stride, is the stuff of my nightmares. Vicious mandrills, dehydration and electric shocks all conspire to defeat the young warriors, but from my seat in the living room, I was rooting for Katniss and Peeta at every turn.

There is something at the heart of this dystopian story which terrifies me; the possibility of it all, world politics and corrupt power coupled with money and weapons, dividing us all into factions, haves and have nots. One part of me knows it’s a story, but if I were to believe at least some of what is written and reported from militarized societies in the world today, Suzanne Collins and her imaginative ilk may be more prophetic than we care to acknowledge. Best not to think too deeply, just enjoy the movie!

(Whilst the books form a trilogy, the final instalment has been divided into two films. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 was released on 20 November 2014  in the UK and is still showing in some cinemas.)

 

Book No 45 (2014) : All the Light We Cannot See

all the lightIf it wasn’t for the fact that I fell asleep at 2.00am, holding this paperback until the words were swimming on the page, I would have read Anthony Doerr‘s ‘All the Light We Cannot See‘ in one sitting. Considering the novel is 530 pages long, that is saying something, and my tenacity was not just because of my 50-book target for the year. This is one of the best books I have read in 2014. It was top of my Christmas list and I got started on Boxing Day!

The blurb focuses on the two central characters in the novel; Marie-Laure Leblanc is a young blind girl living with her locksmith father in Paris. Werner Pfennig is a German orphan with a feverish interest in science and a natural knack for fixing radios; his talent affords him the opportunity to enter a National Political Institute of Education, a military academy. When war breaks out, the Leblanc  leave the city to make for firstly Evreux, then St Malo on the Northern coast of France. Werner continues his training and is sent to war, using mathematical and practical skills to track down enemy broadcasters. The teenagers’ lives intersect for a short, but unforgettable space in time.

Although I penned that sketchy synopsis, you could have discovered one for yourself online; but what a book-jacket can’t convey as well is how Doerr’s writing draws you in, as if you are a fly caught in an intricate web. There are threads which lead you further and further into the centre of the story, nothing is insignificant, no details are wasted, until everything pulls together into a tight pattern. Doerr evokes the magic of childhood imagination as Etienne flies with Marie-Laure on the Magical Couch, the courage of resistance as Mme Manec joins with other Malouins to undermine the enemy, the pull of the sea, humour, comradeship and so much more.

And what about the title? What are the lights we cannot see? Both Marie-Laure and Werner find themselves trapped in darkness but are inspired and courageous nevertheless. The beacons which guide them through the blackness cannot be seen, but still shine brightly; love, hope, friendship, belief, bravery – all of these can lead us out of the gloom.

Writing about this book has focused my mind more carefully on what I am doing here on this blog than probably any of  the other works I have reviewed. If you want to know what a book is about, probably best to look on Waterstones website and read a synopsis, but if you are looking for a recommendation for a book you might enjoy – read this one!

 

Film No 42 (2014) : That Day We Sang

day we sangI wasn’t sure whether including ‘That Day We Sang‘ as a film was allowed, but as it’s my blog, I figured I can make the rules! To be fair, it was promoted as a ‘TV movie’ and has earned  a place in the International Movie Database (IMDb) so I think I’m safe.

Written by renowned comic Victoria Wood, this musical film is an adaptation of Woods’ stage play. It tells the story of ‘Tubby’ Baker (Michael Ball) and Enid (Imelda Staunton) who are reunited in 1969 by a TV programme which documents the making of a record made in 1929 by a Manchester children’s choir of which they were both a part. Now in their fifties, Enid and Tubby are both single and have the feeling that life has passed them by. Although attracted to one another, they have to overcome a number of challenges before deciding to take a chance on love.

Ball and Staunton have worked on a number of projects, including co-hosting the Olivier Awards at the Royal Opera House and starring together in the West End, in ‘Sweeney Todd – The Musical‘. Although Ball’s musical prowess is well-known, I had no idea that Staunton, immortalised in my mind as the essentially pink Dolores Umbridge, could sing. It’s a sentimental film, but the performances were exquisite. Michael Ball, unrecognisable since his Phantom/Aspects of Love days, is no less charming. His portrayal of the gentle but staid Baker, who has retained a boyish sense of innocence, was perfect. Imelda Staunton’s awakening to the possibilities of love (and fulfilling sex!) in middle age, is empowering and uplifting.

The detail within the film was fantastic – no doubt some nerd will spot anachronisms in the colour of the gutter pipes or the shape of a car headlight, but to the everyday viewer, the setting was amazing. From the handbags to the cereal packets in the cupboards, to the design of the radio and Enid’s typewriter, the pleasing whole was of authentic late 60s life.

You can still see ‘That Day We Sang’ on BBC iPlayer until 22:30 on 25 Jnuary 2015 (running time 90 mins). Give it a look – I think it will make your heart sing.

Film No 41 (2014) : Frozen

frozenI do realise that I am the last person in civilisation to see ‘Frozen’ for the first time, but Santa brought a copy on DVD to our house. We watched as a family, boys and all!

Princesses Elsa and Anna are sisters, but Elsa possesses a power which her younger sibling doesn’t; she can magically create ice and snow. When Elsa accidentally strikes Anna in the head with an ice-bolt, benevolent trolls are able to undo the damage. But their cure comes with a warning that a strike to the heart would have been more difficult to rectify. The princesses’ parents are not prepared to take that risk and so they shut Elsa away until she can learn to contain her destructive impulses. Years later, when Anna incurs her sister’s wrath, Queen Elsa unleashes a perpetual winter and flees from her palace. Setting off on the quest to find Elsa, Anna is joined by Olaf the snowman and Kristoff the ice-cutter, with his reindeer side-kick, Sven. When they finally encounter Elsa in her frozen palace, the ensuing confrontation leaves Anna with an icy wound in the heart; only an act of true love can save her from a glacial demise.

‘Frozen’ is captivating to watch; the special effects as snowflakes materialise, icicles appear and crackling ice sheets form are all beautiful, the screen glitters with silver, blue and turquoise. The soundtrack is uplifting, in particular the ‘air-grabbing’ opportunities offered by Idina Menzel’s powerful ballad ‘Let it Go‘. The characters are all beautiful, there is action and humour. ‘Frozen’ champions the concepts of family bonds and sisterly love. As the eldest of two girls, I know that I would certainly go to any lengths to protect my younger sister, and although we both have romantic love in our lives, our sibling relationship is a constant on which we both rely.

But…but, something niggled about me whilst I was watching ‘Frozen’ and it took me overnight to crystallize my concern. It was this; I was uncomfortable with the notion that Elsa, a beautiful woman, has some power inside her that can harm other people, and the only antidote to this is for her to build an emotional barricade to keep others out, lest she cause irreversible damage. What this power might be is unclear to me; sexuality, beauty, deception? My family has reminded me that ‘it’s only a film’ but these productions, with their associated marketing and merchandise, have a huge influence.  The subliminal messages are just that, they are insidious, creeping under the radar. Films such as ‘Frozen’ have enormous power and with that comes responsibility; little girls all over the world will be aspiring to be Elsa and Anna; they may not need a man to save them, but they have been introduced to the concept of keeping people out in order to protect them from danger.

Frozen ranks as the highest-grossing animated film of all time, which is a liberating situation for an amateur blogger, because no-one is actually going to give a brass monkeys what I think, as the film’s success has already spoken for itself. To my mind though, emotional isolation is just not cool.

Film No 40 (2014) : Paddington

paddingtonWith a few hours to kill in town, teenage son and I opted to watch ‘Paddington’ whilst we waited for his sister to finish work. A friend had recommended it as a fun movie and I was a bit sceptical, but she was absolutely right, it is a fantastic family film. Funny and exciting, it has something for everyone.

No doubt you know the story of the bear who travels from Darkest Peru with an emergency sandwich under his hat, only to find himself stranded and lonely at Paddington station. He is taken in by the kindly Mr and Mrs Brown, whereupon he finds himself embroiled in many adventures. The first original Paddington Bear story was written by Michael Bond in 1958 and the author’s early creations feature in this screen adaptation; Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), the neighbour, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), the housekeeper and Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent) who owns the antique shop on the Portobello Road. I am not sure whether Mr Bond also penned a wicked taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who wants to stuff the young bear as a specimen for her collection in the Natural History Museum, but that is what happens in the film!

Two elements of the film intrigued me; firstly, I love the juxtaposition of the CGI/animatronic Paddington against the ‘real’ world. Although these computer-generated images must make acting extremely difficult for the cast, the technological  combinations have come along way since Bob Hoskins and Jessica in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘. After a while, I just completely forgot that Paddington was just a furry bundle of pixels!

The other interesting effect was the colour scheme. Particularly obvious within the Brown’s house but running throughout the film, the colours used are primarily rust/mustard and blue. Paddington’s hat, the interior of the house in Windsor Gardens and Mrs Brown clothes, are gold and burgundy, Mr Brown’s things are blue – the duffle coat he gives Paddington, his motorbike, his jumpers. It’s effective in giving the film not only visual appeal but also cohesion. The same kind of muted red/yellow/green were also used as the colour scheme in ‘Stuart Little 2‘ back in 2002, but I can’t find any links between the two movies.

If you get a chance while it’s still on in the cinema, go and see this film. Take a child or two as cover, but don’t bother with the marmalade sandwich – you will be far too busy to need it!

(Paddington fans could also use the Christmas holiday break to head up to London to search for bears on The Paddington Trail – but, be quick, as they are disappearing back to Peru on 30th December 2014!)

Film No 39 (2014) : The Butler

The ButlerEugene Allen‘s wife, Helene, died the day before the US elections which saw Barack Obama claim his place at the first Arican American President. Eugene and his wife had been married for 65 years and had long been planning the day when they would vote together, for Obama. Eugene himself had enjoyed a long association with the White House, having worked there as a butler for 34 years and served eight presidents. His story was reported in an article entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” in The Washington Post in 2008. The piece inspired Danny Strong’s screenplay for ‘The Butler’, in which Eugene is represented by the fictional Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).

The film features a number of highly rated actors, drawn from both sides of the pond, from Oprah Winfrey to Robin Williams, Jane Fonda to Alan Rickman (they were my favourite Presidential couple, as Ronald and Nancy Reagan), Vanessa Redgrave to Lenny Kravitz. This varied cast is indicative of the wide scope of the film.

There is no doubt that this was a great idea for a movie, but for me the realisation somehow missed the mark. As it moves through the decades, the film attempts to chronicle the main events in the American human rights movement – mainly through the active involvement of the butler’s own son. This story is interleaved with those of the butler’s own family life and also the histories of the successive presidents. It is too tall an order, too much to cram in to one film in any meaningful way. As a result, I found the film just skimmed across the surface, never really getting to grips with the issues.  It was like watching someone panning across a huge vista with a pair of binoculars, but never focussing in. No-one gives a bad performance, but no-one is especially memorable.

In my humble opinion, the film-makers could have taken some hints from Forrest Gump, whose run through modern history is far more engaging than that of The Butler.

 

Film No 38 (2014) : Love Actually

love actualyChoosing Christmas presents? I love it. Shopping? Love that even more. Parting with the cash is sometimes painful, but  I can cope. Wrapping up all the gifts? I hate it. Absolutely bloody hate it. It’s an annual battle, me against the Clinton roll wrap. So, whilst I barricaded myself in the bedroom and stuck a ‘Keep Out – Elf at Work’ sign on the door, ‘Love Actually’ was a great choice to distract me from the disobedient sticky tape.

The film interweaves twelve love stories, which take place in the 5 weeks leading up to Christmas. Written and directed by comic genius Richard Curtis, the film is gentle and thought-provoking, exploring love in its many guises. Watching the film for the first time is probably the best, as the links between the characters are gradually revealed; David the Prime Minister is Karen the Mum’s brother, and Natalie, who is David’s secretary, turns out to live next door to Mia, who is Karen’s husband’s (Harry) secretary and in love with him and so on. It sounds complicated and in some ways it is, but so is modern life; we are all inter-connected by links of romantic love, parental love, friendship, familial love. The film is saved from being corny by its robust script and strong cast, as almost anyone who is everyone in British acting puts in an appearance: Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Martin Freeman, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy …..and more. Even Rowan Atkinson pops up as an over-attentive shop assistant. Rodrigo Santoro, one of Brazil’s most talented and famous actors also stars, as Karl, with whom Sarah is in love. Santoro does not have a big role, but deserves a mention simply because he is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, especially when he takes his shirt off!

‘Love Actually’ has probably become part of the UK Christmas viewing landscape, together with ‘Its a Wonderful Life‘, ‘The Snowman‘ and the ‘The Sound of Music‘. The film is showing pretty much back to back on Sky over the Christmas holiday, or the DVD is only £3 on Amazon so would fit into your stocking. I suppose the fact that I could watch the film whilst multi-tasking probably says something about its watchability; it’s mental floss. But that doesn’t make me like it any less!

 

Film No 37 (2014) : The Polar Express

polar expressTV dinners are a rarity in our house. I am a bit of a stickler for sitting at the table and Talking Properly. I made an exception though, for an hour or so of magical escapism shared with my teenage son to watch ‘The Polar Express‘ on ITV2. Sure, he did it to humour me, but I appreciated the gesture.

Tom Hanks plays several main characters in this motion-capture generated movie, which looks on the screen rather like computer drawings – each eyebrow, bird feather, snowflake is stylized yet detailed. I like the finished product, it adds to the make-believe atmosphere of the movie.

It’s Christmas Eve and a small boy is laying awake, listening for Santa, when he hears the sound of a steam train outside. The conductor seems to be expecting him, and despite his initial reluctance, the boy boards the train. Destination : North Pole, where all the Doubters are confronted by the big man himself, resplendent in red and just about to set off on his magical present-dropping sky-ride. A sleigh-bell falls from the reindeers’ reins and the hero gets to keep it, savouring its sweet jingle as a reminder of the truth of the Spirit of Christmas. When he gets the bell home though, and his parents think it is broken, it becomes obvious that only those who Believe, can hear its tinkling.

Some parents take the view that there is no Santa Claus and to pretend to our children that he is real, is tantamount to a gross dishonesty. How can we impress the importance of telling the truth upon the kids, at the same time as lying to them about Father Christmas (and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy…)? Rubbish. I cannot recall ever having met a single adult whose life has been blighted by the myth of St Nick. On the other hand, I know many, many people whose recollections of hanging stockings and leaving a carrot for the reindeer, form the bedrock of a lifetime of happy memories. Long live the Spirit of Christmas.

If the Polar Express passes through your town this Christmas, have your ticket ready.

Book No 44 (2014) : The Crimson Petal and the White

Tcrimson petalackling Michel Faber’s 800-page doorstop as the 44th book out of 50 in a year, was not my wisest move. It was a bit like stopping at the 23rd mile of the London Marathon to fill my pockets with rocks.

Set in mid 1870’s London, the novel seems Dickensian but, unlike Dickens, Faber’s novel has a comparatively small cast of characters. ‘The Crimson Petal and the White‘ tells the tale of, Sugar, a prostitute. Sugar is initially hampered by her lowly upbringing and harsh beginnings, pimped by her mother. However, her fortunes appear to change when she is taken from ‘Mrs Castaway’s’ backstreet brothel by a client who adopts her as his mistress. But that is not to say that Sugar is ‘saved’ by William Rackham; she is just enslaved to him in a different way; one which, she comes to realise, compromises her freedom and her choices just as much as when she was a common street-walker. Installed in a beautiful flat with a proper bath, Sugar has to keep her wits about her in order to guarantee her place in William’s affections. As well as being Sugar’s patron, William is also juggling a flourishing perfumery business, a sick wife, a gaggle of female servants and a withdrawn child. As Mrs Rackham’s health deteriorates, Sugar makes an attempt to save her from incarceration.

The skill of the book is in the detail (the devil is always in the detail). Faber is unsentimental; his depiction of bodily functions – be they fornication, contraception, defecation, mastication or ejaculation, are stark and almost factual. It is clear that he has thoroughly researched the practicalities of life in Victorian London, which were harsh and filthy, despite the rapid advance of improvements in sanitation and technology. Whilst the outline of the novel’s plot would fit on a postcard, the intricacies of the characters’ daily lives and dilemmas form the basis of the book’s readability.

To return to my opening analogy, my experience of long-distance running is quite limited (well, non-existent actually) but there were times during the reading of this novel when I really, really wanted to give up. It was only the thought of how much time I had already invested that kept me pushing on to the tape and then I would get a second wind and feel spurred on to read a bit more. I’d say this is a winter, curl-up-by-the-fire-with-a-hot-chocolate book rather than a beach read, as it does require some concentration to really explore and appreciate the nuance and detail.

If you start it now, you might get it finished by the time the clocks go forward again! (But if you are really short of time, you could watch the adaptation on DVD, starring Romola Garai as Sugar)