Film No 23 (2014) : The Terminal

The TerminalOne of the factors I didn’t consider fully when I decided to watch 50 films and read 50 books, is the cost. In an effort to save a few quid, I have unashamedly plundered the DVD collections of several friends. ‘The Terminal’ was one of those movies I gleaned from a raid!

When Viktor Navorski’s (Tom Hanks) homeland is subject to a military coup just as his plane lands at JFK airport, his entry papers for America are no longer valid. As he could be arrested for stepping outside the Terminal building, he decides to wait. Despite the airport manager creating opportunities for him to ‘leave’, Victor waits. For over 3 months. During that time he is befriended by the staff and tries to foster a romance with Amelia, an airline worker. We also find out the purpose of his visit to America, a promise to his father.

Tom Hanks character acting is second to none. Viktor is a believable character, but there is a vague fairy-tale feel about the film, despite its contemporary setting. There is something quite innocent about Viktor, he is a moral man, driven by honest principles. However, I did think the film was over-long, it dragged a bit in places. There is only so much riveting action you can set in an airport building.

A good film, but probably not enough interest to sustain a young audience. As my own teenager observed, ‘its alright’. My sentiments exactly.

Film No 22 (2014) : We’re the Millers

the millersThis was the holiday film. You know the one. Where you rent a cottage and it chucks down with rain, so the kids are stuck indoors watching DVDs. By the end of the week, they can quote huge chunks of the dialogue, take the role of all the main characters and throw the catch phrases in to any conversation.

Starring Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts and Will Poulter, although ‘We’re the Millers’ has definite teen-appeal, it is a funny film. Dave the Drug dealer gets robbed, so is unable to pay his takings to the Brad the Boss. As payback, Brad sends him to Mexico to bring back what he euphemistically calls a ‘smidge’ of dope. Dave has no choice but to make the trip, but figures he will be less likely to arouse suspicion if travelling as part of a family taking an RV vacation. So he rounds up Kenny, (a young neighbour), Casey, (a homeless teenager) and Rose, (a stripper), to pose as his family. Collectively, they are the Millers. Together they make the trip across the border, encountering drugs barons, tarantulas and weird families en route.kenny

This film won’t change your life, but I defy anyone not to laugh! If you need to keep a few teenagers amused for a couple of hours, this will definitely do the trick. You will probably find yourself giggling, in spite of yourself. I did!

Film No 21(2014) : Philomena

philomenaUnmarried Philomena is forced into a religious institution when her pregnancy is discovered. Made to work in the laundry, she is only allowed to spend an hour a day with the son she named Anthony. When the child is three years old, he is forcibly taken from her. She has no idea where he has gone; the last she sees of him is his face in the back window of a departing car. Philomena Lee never hears from him again. All she has is a single photograph of her boy.

Years later an out-of-work BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, agrees to take up her story, help her find her son. His intention is to publish the story as a ‘human-interest’ feature. The ensuing search for Antony takes Philomena and Martin to the USA, to the White House, and back to Ireland.

It’s a heart-breaking film, but not a sad one. The dialogue between Martin (Steve Coogan) and Philomena (Judi Dench) is funny. She comes from a small Irish town and he has seen the sights of the world. She is unworldly but wise; he is experienced but pig-headed. Together they give and take. Their relationship develops into a poignant one, as Martin begins to care not just about his newspaper feature, but about the real journey.

The most devastating thing about this film is that the story is true. It is a deeply affecting portrayal of an injustice which was committed against many Philomenas. I hope the film helps to raise the profile of their dilemma, so they can sleep more peacefully at night, knowing what happened to their children. You can find out more about the ongoing work and sign a petition to make it easier for mothers and children to find one another, via the Philomena Project.

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(Philomena Lee and her daughter, Jane Libberton)

Film No 20 (2014) : We Need to Talk about Kevin

kevin shriverWith so many books to choose from, there are hardly any which I read more than once these days. ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver (who, incidentally, is a woman) is one of the rare ones. Having read it the first time, I was totally fascinated and read it again soon afterwards. The film version was released in 2011 and stars Ezra Miller as Kevin.

Kevin has committed a High School atrocity, killing students and teachers, but not himself. The book is narrated by his mother, Eva, played in the film by Tilda Swinton. She is brilliantly cast, as one of the questions about Kevin is whether he was born evil, or made that way; the Nature/Nuture debate. Tilda Swinton is not a cosy actress; she is androgynous and her interpretation of Eva is uncomfortable to watch, just as it was unsettling to read.

The film is beautifully shot, with stylish settings, minimal clutter. It has a starkness which reflects the bleak story. Kevin has it all; decent family, enough money, caring parents. What leads him to turn on his own. Is he mad? Or bad? However, the story which unfolds in the novel is told through Eva’s inner dialogue and this doesn’t translate well to the screen. There were many scenes in the film where I would simply not have understood the implications of the action, had I not read the book. As a film in its own right, ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ is artful cinema, but it doesn’t tell the story. In this instance, I’m afraid the written word wins, hands down. Bullseye.

Book No 16 (2014) : Thérèse Raquin

raquinI must have read hundreds of books in my lifetime (maybe more? I feel a bit of maths coming on!) but for some reason, scenes from ‘Thérèse Raquin’ come back to me quite regularly. I have no idea why, other than perhaps it’s because I studied the original in French and scrutinised the text in great detail. I also seem to recall there was a TV adaptation in the 1980’s?

In the rooms above a haberdashery in a dank back-street of Paris, a pair of lovers, Thérèse and Laurent, embarks upon a clandestine affair. Thérèse’s calm, almost static exterior belies her inner life as a passionate woman. Having spent her life with the pallid, sickly cousin to whom she is later married, Laurent brings about her sexual awakening. Desire drives away all reason and the pair plot to kill Thérèse’s husband, Camille, so that they can be together. On a day out at the river, Laurent drowns Camille. After a respectable period of mourning, Thérèse and Laurent are married, but their union is blighted by the ghost of Thérèse’s husband.

This is a dark, dark book. Published in 1867, it was criticised for being pornographic. Interestingly, the ensuing debate allowed Zola to answer his critics by means of a preface to the second edition of the book – which was great for sales! The setting is dark and the emotions are base. Despite being over 150 years old, this novel is a fascinating examination of the essence of humanity. It is worth knowing that Zola used the text to examine theories about Naturalism, the ideas that people are essentially ‘human beasts’, driven by the same instincts as animals. He wanted to study temperament, not character. Don’t let the notion of theories put you off – the book really has stood the test of time.

Whilst writing this review, I discovered that a new film adaptation of the novel was released in February 2014 as ‘In Secret’, an American production starring Elizabeth Olsen as Thérèse and Jessica Lange as Madame Raquin, Camille’s mother. I’ll look out for a copy.

By the way, you will be relieved to know that I am certain that the reason the book is so vivid is not that I am involved in an adulterous relationship with a man from the Railway Board, nor am I planning to dunk my husband in the Cherwell so that I can take off with my paramour. It’s just a gripping read. Honestly!

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Film No 19 (2014) : Catch me If You Can

catch meFrank Abagnale Jr is a real person. A man with a brilliant brain. He used his intelligence to master the forgery of bank cheques, getting his hands on over 2.5million fraudulent dollars! Combining this skill with his natural charm, Frank assumed a succession of false identities. ‘Catch me if You Can’ is a dramatization of his life and it’s one of my favourite films.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Jr, with Christopher Walken as Frank Abagnale Sr and Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent determined to corner the elusive trickster. Frank Jr starts learning his trade from his Dad, a failed businessman, who shows him how to blag free suit hire and a limousine for a trip to the bank manager. caprioWhen Frank Sr and his wife separate, Frank Jr is forced to change schools. On his first day of term, his formal clothes set him aside from his classmates. Rather than be made a laughing-stock, Frank pretends to be a supply teacher, taking lessons and setting work for his peers. He gets away with it for a while, which gives him the self-assurance to attempt bigger and better cons. So begins his career as an impersonator. Frank poses as a Pan-Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, not to mention a brief spell as a Special Branch officer. This disguise is so effective, it manages to deflect even Hanratty!

When you watch the film, you just can’t help marvelling at the blatant cheek of the guy! He succeeds in hood-winking the people around him through sheer effrontery and quick wits. He is clearly not a chump though; Hanratty is desperate to find out how Abagnale cheated his way into the American Bar – the answer is rather surprising. Actually, Frank does get his comeuppance, but there is a marvellous twist in the tale. Great film. Catch it if You Can.

Book No 15 (2014) : The Shock of the Fall

shockWell, everyone tries to read the big prize winners, don’t they? The ‘Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer fought off the competition to take the 2013 Costa Book of the Year Prize.

Matthew Homes is a 19-year old schizophrenic and, as he points out: ‘I’m a mental patient, not an idiot’. Told in his own words, the book describes Matthew’s attempts to live within the confines that his illness places upon him. Desperate to get away from home, Matt takes on a flat with a friend, but the arrangement doesn’t work out. Left to live independently, his Nanny Noo comes to visit him every week, and the local care in the community support tries to engage Matthew and encourage compliance with his drug regime. Later, sectioned under the Mental Health Act, he spends time confined within a psychiatric ward. This unsettled existence is played out against the backdrop of an earlier incident in his life, when a fatal accident befalls Simon, Matthew’s younger brother. Simon’s voice, and the belief that the siblings are to be reunited, is the soundtrack of Matthew’s inner life.

Although the language used to narrate the book is accessible and typical of a young person, the underlying themes of the book are disturbing. Primary amongst these is the woeful inadequacy of the care offered to Matthew as a result of his illness. I noted that the author is himself a registered mental health nurse and that one of the book’s wardcritics was Jo Brand. Although well-known as a comedienne, Ms Brand’s former career was as a mental health nurse. Her positive endorsement of the book suggests that the descriptions of the time Matthew spends in ‘hospital’ must be indicative of the truth. The days are monotonous, there are no diversions, entertainment or stimuli and he is simply fed drugs at regular intervals. This condemnation of the ‘care’ system  is damning.

The ‘Shock of the Fall’ is not a comfortable work, but I recommend it. I couldn’t understand why it had overtaken Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ in the Costa race – having read them both, I can now.

Films Nos 11 – 18 (2014) Harry Potter Series

HP & The Philosophers StoneTo coincide with a visit to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, we watched all eight of the Harry Potter movies. That is approximately 19 hours of watching a nerdy boy with glasses cast magical spells.

I doubt there are many amongst us who have not had any encounters at all with the wonderful students and staff of Hogwarts and its associated company of wizards, witches, goblins, dwarves, giants, elves and monsters – not to mention the all-powerful Dark Lord, Voldemort. Harry Potter has become part of our popular culture, a publishing and marketing phenomenon.

Watching the earliest films, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ and the ‘Chamber of Secrets’, what struck me most is that without the context of the later stories and movies, they are simply excellent films. The characters are young and the stories have more of a fairy tale, action adventure air about them. If I were a younger viewer, they would have transported me in my imagination to another world. But J.K.Rowling’s genius is the development of the plot and its cast – in particular Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Neville. The whole premise shifts almost imperceptibly from a fun idea, into something much more sinister and encompassing than sticking a wand up a troll’s nose!

The death of Cedric Diggory in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ is pivotal within the development of the plot and its players.cedric All of a sudden, the power of magic becomes more than a useful tool and its full potential is realised. As the characters move through puberty and into adolescence, their whole emotional maturity grows as they grapple with grief, guilt, responsibility, loyalty, love and jealousy. The fearless trio seem to battle as many demons inside their own minds as they do outside of them.

Excuse the terrible pun, but I was spellbound! The lure of the imaginary world and the detail of the plot are more captivating when watching the films in close succession. Occasionally I got lost in the twists and turns of the storyline and its 200+ characters, but that’s OK, nobody likes anything too simple.

emmaAt the end of the final film (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II’) I was left with just one burning question.

How did Emma Watson grow up into someone so good-looking?

And Daniel Radcliffe, well, so…not?

Incidentally, the Warner Bros Tour is amazing. You don’t have to be a raving HP fan to enjoy it, I think most people would enjoy seeing how they manipulate Computer-Generated Images and construct animatronics. The facilities are excellent, and even the refreshments are reasonably priced. Butterbeers and Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans all round!

Book No 13 (2014) : The Universe vs Alex Woods

alex woodsI suggested that my book buddies read this for our March meeting – so, if you are in my book group, look away now! It was recommended by a friend who raved about it and I have to say I agree with her view that it was one of the best things we had read in ages.

Alex Woods is a young lad who, following a freak encounter with nature, develops a form of epilepsy. This, together with his social awkwardness, leaves him isolated and without many friends of his own age. Circumstances throw him in the path (well, actually it’s the garden shed) of an elderly neighbour, Mr Peterson. The two form an unlikely friendship, despite their age difference. When Mr Peterson starts to develop some disturbing health problems, he and Alex make a controversial decision which alleviates the older man’s worries about living with a degenerative condition.

The joy of this book for me was Alex’s character. I do not want to label him, but he does display many of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. He is extremely literal, has to work hard at banal pleasantries and is disconcertingly honest. He is also compassionate, observant, intelligent and has an enquiring mind which allows him to seek out and remember facts about a wide range of topics. These vary from astronomy and neurology to Kurt Vonnegut and Alex’s diverse knowledge is the source of a great deal of the warmth and humour of the book.

One criticism I did have though, is that the novel starts with the ending of the story. I wished this had been different; although the conclusion starts to become clear, I think I would have preferred the revelation to have been at the close of the narrative.

But, to be honest, I’m being picky. I defy anyone not to enjoy this heart-warming read. Whether you like Kurt Vonnegut or not!

Book No 12 (2014) : Everything and Nothing

everythingEverything and Nothing’ is a ‘Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ plot. An efficient nanny joins the chaotic household of Ruth and Christian, to take care of Betty and Hal. Betty doesn’t sleep and Hal doesn’t eat, but Agatha manages to resolve these issues within weeks of arriving. She brings order to the household and gradually makes herself indispensable. Her employers, facing their own personal demons, take scant interest in their new helper, until her behaviour starts to cause concern – just who have they allowed into their family?

Now at this point I do not have to confess that I have never written a published novel, nor am I likely to. That fact alone should probably convince me to proceed with caution when criticising others’ efforts. But in this case, I just can’t resist quoting what must be amongst the clumsiest descriptive writing I have ever come across:

‘Her hair was as insipid as over-cooked spaghetti’spaghetti

‘She felt as see-through and inconsequential as a lace nightdress’

‘He felt as insubstantial as an evaporating puddle on the floor of a forest’

Although the plot moves along smoothly, this book lacks dynamism. It felt flat and predictable with few surprises. All of the characters were clichéd; Ruth, working mother wracked with guilt, Christian, misunderstood husband engaged in an extra-marital affair, Agatha the psychopathic nanny.

I think a better title for this book might have been ‘Something and Nothing’.