Movie Review – Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Director: Doug Atchison

Stars: Keke Palmer, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, J. R. Villarreal, Sean Michael Afable, Curtis Armstrong

Akeelah (Palmer) isn’t the best student, but the 11 year old has an unusual talent for spelling. When her principal (Armstrong) notices this he encourages her to enter the spelling bee, which will help the school get more funding. Initially she’s skeptical because her peers bully her, and her mother (Bassett) isn’t that eager for her to spend all this time on a competition when her other schoolwork is being neglected. However, with the help of Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), an English professor on sabbatical, and her new friend Javier (Villarreal), Akeelah enters the competition and things unfold from there.

Akeelah and the Bee is an AMAZING film. It’s the kind of film I want to go out into the street and tell random people to go home and watch it. The premise doesn’t even sound that special, but there’s just something about the film that works. It all clicks and creates something utterly magical. I was totally enamored with it from first to last, and was completely caught up in the drama and tension. It was uplifting and inspirational but with dramatic underpinnings that gave it some extra meat. 

The casting was superb. Keke Palmer, who played the lead character, was perfect. It used to be that young actors were weak links in films and it was always a worry if a child had to carry a film. In recent years, however, this has changed and the caliber of child acting has risen dramatically. Palmer is no exception to this, and she displays an emotional depth that is completely engaging. We’re there with her when she doubts herself. We cheer at her triumphs and we share sorrow when she falters. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne are veterans but it’s clear that they don’t treat this as an easy payday and both show their talent. The other standout performer though was J.R. Villarreal as Javier. He was hilarious and showed a warmth that was indicative of the good attitudes the film promoted. The other main character was Dylan (Afable), who was Akeelah’s fiercest competitor, and while he was distant for most of the film his character was actually quite layered too.

I found this film to be very inspiring. One of the main quotes used is one that resonated with me, and I’m going to share part of it with you here now.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? – Marianne Williamson

I loved Akeelah’s relationship with Dr. Larabee, and found the revelations about his personal life very moving. I also liked how Akeelah had to deal with her newfound celebrity status and how people’s attitudes towards her and her community changed. At the beginning of the film all she wants to do is hide away and blend into the shadows, but by the end she’s the light that shines over her community. There was a bit of social commentary on class and race but this didn’t take away from the heart of the story, which was about a girl showing off her talent to the world. 

That’s not to say the film was perfect. I thought that Akeelah’s mother was shown to be too harsh and unsympathetic early on. Couple this with the fact that Dylan’s father was very oppressive and you have a depiction of bad parenting, and we didn’t see good parents to balance that out (Javier’s weren’t shown all that much). Some of the story beats (like what happened in Larabee’s past) were predictable, and the ending was a bit of a cop out. I also thought that it was contrived; it’s a national competition yet a lot of the focus is given to three people from the same area. However, this film is so damned good at what it does that I can forgive it all that, and even though the climax is a cop out I think it was fitting with the rest of the film. 

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Akeelah and the Bee just caught me in its spell and had me completely entranced. There were parts where I was literally on the edge of my seat and I was so caught up in what was going on that I forgot this wasn’t a documentary. I think it has lessons that people of any age can learn from and I felt inspired after I watched it. Just go and watch this right now, and then go and tell everyone you know to watch it.

 

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Movie Review – Two for the Money (2005)

Director: D. J. Caruso

Stars: Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey, Rene Russo, Jeremy Piven

Two for the Money follows the story of Brandon (McConaughey), a football player who was about to hit it big when he suffered a knee injury that makes him poison to any recruiters. He ends up working for a betting pick phoneline, until a big time tout, Walter (Pacino) offers him a job, and makes him a star. He rides the crest of the wave to fame and fortune as he carves out a new life for himself, but the vices of the job are all too tempting.

Two for the Money automatically loses points because as anyone knows it’s one for the money and two for the show. But this one is pretty decent. Off the top of my head I’m not aware of too many films that explore the world of ‘pick betting’, where people call in and pay experts for their tips. It was interesting to find out about the world and all the complexities. As always in these types of stories the downfall was predictable, as anything good never lasts for long. 

Al Pacino was allowed to let loose here, and that’s always fun. I liked his relationship with Brandon, and how the pressures of the lifestyle got to the both of them. Rene Russo played Walter’s wife, Toni, and the scenes with the three of them were the highlights of the film. 

It only gave a brief glimpse of how Brandon’s actions actually affected the people who were asking him for picks, and I thought we could have seen more of these results. The film seemed to pick up some threads and then leave them dangling, like the threat of a millionaire. He seemed to just disappear from the film without much result. 

The story itself was fairly unfocused and it was comprised of a lot of snapshots. The only thing holding it together were the main three actors, and they helped to elevate the material. I was expecting Two for the Money to have more twists and turns than it did, and the twists it did have didn’t seem to reverberate with much impact. However, there were some hugely entertaining scenes, one in particular where Walter and Brandon visit a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting. 

So I’d put this in the category where I liked it and it’s an easy watch about something that I don’t think has been explored too often on screen. The main draw, however, is the three cast so if you don’t like them the strength of the story won’t be enough to make up for their presence. 

Book Review – Combat Camera: From Auntie Beeb to the Afghan Frontline by Christian Hill

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Ordinarily I shy away from hot-button issues and current events and prefer to think about things in fictional worlds, so this book isn’t something I would usually read, yet I found it to be an absorbing read. The war on terrorism and the presence of our military in the Middle East is a highly controversial subject that has perhaps left the forefront of our conscious minds. The world has moved on, but there are still many problems out there and this book is the account of one man’s experiences while he served out there as a journalist for the BBC. 

Despite all the controversy surrounding the subject, Combat Camera doesn’t stray into putting forth a political agenda and it doesn’t descend into arguing whether the war is a good or necessary thing. Instead, it’s a very human account that shows the realities of day to day life. There’s always a foreboding sense of danger pervading the book that makes the read a gripping one, as we’re never sure what danger Christian is going to find himself in next. Accompanied by field reports of injuries and many accounts of first-hand interactions with the wounded the book can sometimes be grisly, but Hill never shies away from depicting the brutality of the war. 

Combat Camera isn’t an entirely grim read though, as the horrific side of war is tempered by the wry observations of the author. It is a dry, sardonic kind of humour that may not be for everyone but I appreciated it, and enjoyed his tales of chatting with Ross Kemp, and the attitudes of some of the officers regarding journalists; the interactions between Hill and Faulkner were darkly amusing. There are many touching parts as well, so I found that it elicited a range of emotions. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of my review I tend not to keep up to date with current events, so I found Combat Camera to be very informative. I had no idea, for example, that the focus had shifted to the drug trade. Perhaps this is just a demonstration of my own ignorance, but I thought the book did a great job of showing what the political landscape is like without making it sound like propaganda. 

Above all this is a human account, and with it entails shocking material that may be hard for those with a sensitive disposition to read. However, it’s not too gruesome and I think there’s no sense in trying to avoid the realities of the situation. This is a war and there are casualties, but while we are in England it is far off, this book brings it to the forefront of our minds and gives us a view of the day-to-day lives of the people over there, and in a very touching passage at the end we also see how it has affect Christian Hill. It’s a thoroughly engaging read and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Combat Camera is written by Christian Hill and published by Alma Books. It is available now.

Movie Review – 15 Minutes (2001)

Director: John Herzfeld

Stars: Robert De Niro, Ed Burns, Kelsey Grammar, Avery Brooks, Melina Kanakaredes, Vera Farmiga, Karel Roden, Oleg Taktarov

15 Minutes is a commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture. Two Eastern Europeans Emil (Roden) and Oleg (Taktarov) go to America and they soon realize they can become rich by going on a killing spree and then pleading insanity, ensuring that they will be excused from the crimes and then having lucrative book and movie deals waiting for them. Hoping to stop them are Eddie Flemming (De Niro) a hero cop who uses his fame to help him in his investigations, and Jordy Warsaw, a fire marshal who is jealous of the celebrity status Flemming enjoys. 

Being a huge Trekkie I was excited to see Avery Brooks in a rare role, but in truth all the supporting cast was good, especially Kelsey Grammar. The subject matter of 15 Minutes is very relevant and it is awful how people can become celebrated after performing heinous deeds. There is a fascination with the macabre, and as much as we are loathe to admit it there is something about killers that inspires our curiosity, hence the popularity of so many police procedural shows and crime dramas. It gets taken to an extreme in this film, but sadly it didn’t strike me as too unbelievable.

Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov were brilliant as the criminals. At first they were bumbling and bickering with each other, but as their plan came together we saw how ruthless and menacing they could really be. I thought they actually outshone De Niro, which is saying something. Some of the film is shot through the eyes of Oleg, who uses his handheld camera to record their misdemeanors. This allows the director to indulge in some arty effects and lends the film a voyeuristic atmosphere.

It takes a while to get going, and some of the plot points rarely stray from Hollywood convention, but there is an entertaining film here. There is a strong criticism in that by depicting gory murders and violence it seems to show things that it criticizes the mass media for glorifying, and at times it seems to take these scenes to an extreme and use them for shock factor. I don’t think it breaks the trappings of the genre as much as it would want, but I think it’s a decent attempt at commentary anyway.

With the explosive action and the celebrity cameos, perhaps the point the movie tries to make is lost, but it’s a pretty good film with some inventive camera work and charismatic performances by the villains.   

Movie Review – Red Rock West (1993)

Director: John Dahl

Stars: Nicolas Cage, J.T. Walsh, Lara Flynn Boyle and Dennis Hopper

Michael (Cage) is a drifter desperately searching for a job. He ends up in a bar in the small town of Red Rock West, where he meets Wayne (Walsh), who sees his license plates and assumes that he’s Lyle, a man he hired for a job that didn’t show up. Sensing an opportunity, Michael takes the job but is then shocked when he finds out that the job is actually to take out Wayne’s wife. Finding that he can’t betray his morals he tries to skip town, but he gets into more trouble when the real Lyle shows up. 

Many people think that Nicolas Cage has lost whatever talent he has (which I disagree with) but in this early film it’s a chance to see him in the smaller pictures, rather than the big budget, action-packed ones he does nowadays. In this one his role is mostly one of befuddlement as his character never really knows what’s going on, yet everyone else assumes he does. It’s also very funny to see him try again and again to leave the town yet always be brought back due to some quirk of fate. 

The story was intriguing and there were quite a few twists that kept me engaged. Walsh was great and menacing as Wayne, and Hopper was excellent as the at-first friendly, but then quickly dangerous hitman Lyle. Boyle rounded out the cast as the target of the hit, but she perhaps has secrets of her own. All the while we’re hoping that Michael can somehow find his way out of this because he’s a basically decent guy who just can’t seem to catch a break. 

It’s one of those films that’s perfect to put on late at night just before you go to sleep. The soundtrack has the twang of the heart of America and the whole thing has a slow, atmospheric feel where the tension creeps up on you in a surprising manner. I really enjoyed this one and if you like the quiet films that take place in some backwater American town you should check it out. 

Movie Review – The Other Woman (2014)

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Stars: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton, Nicky Minaj and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Carly (Diaz) is a successful lawyer who almost always dates at least more than one guy at once, that is until she meets Mark (Coster-Waldau), who she finds herself falling for. However, when she goes to surprise him at his house she discovers that he’s married, and instantly regrets ever meeting him. She hopes to forget the whole situation but finds it impossible because his wife, Kate (Mann), finds her and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. When they discover that he’s cheating on both of them with the youthful Amber (Upton), the three of them put into motion a plan that will see the ruin of the sleazy man.

The Other Woman is a pretty good comedy with a solid plot that means it’s not just an endless stream of mindless gags. The concept is quite fresh as it concerns women joining forces rather than fighting over a man. I liked the story and how it developed. It’s not very deep or surprising but it does what it set out to do and it hits all the required beats at the right time. The casting was pretty good all-around. Cameron Diaz held the film together and without her I don’t think it would have been nearly as good. She brought her usual sparkling charm to a role that could have been too callous in the hands of a lesser performer. I thought she made a good duo with Leslie Mann and I like how their relationship transitioned from rivals to friends. 

Leslie Mann was pretty good in the role, showing the conflict of a woman who knows she’s married to a scumbag but is also frightened of what she could lose if she chooses to divorce him. At some times her character was shown to be too pathetic though, and at times this made it hard to sympathize with her, but Carly helped her to gain strength and the two of them worked in tandem to bring down Mark. Fans of Game of Thrones will of course be delighted to see Coster-Waldau, and he played the part superbly. He had the charm and the winning smile, but a hint of the underlying maliciousness was always present. He showed he has good chops for comedy and overall I thought the cast worked well together. But that brings me to Kate Upton, who I think was, again, a good performer, but I’m not sure her role was actually necessary. It felt like they needed a third woman to come in and pad out the running time, because the things she did in the film I think could have been adjusted if it was just Carly and Kate, and as a result Amber felt like a third wheel.

I enjoyed most of the humor but there was one bit in particular where they showed a dog pooping. I don’t know when it became a funny thing, but it doesn’t work for me (I think it’s just the fact that you can actually see it), but for the most part the laughs were constant and I left feeling entertained. 

So if you want a nice, stress-free film to occupy a couple of hours of your time The Other Woman is a good pick. It has a decent story, some great chemistry between the actors and a lot of laughs. 

Book Review – Fractured by Dani Atkins

In Fractured, Rachel is just about to go off to university and is wondering how the lives of her and her friends change. Then an accident happens and her life is irrevocably damaged. Five years later she has to return home for the first time since the accident, but there are so many ghosts and memories she’s unsure whether she’ll be able to handle. But in another time it’s also five years later, but things are different, she’s living her dream life and is actually happy, but she can’t shake the nagging feeling that something is wrong, but as she tries to find out the truth all the evidence points to the fact that this is her real, true life. But then how is it that she remembers details from an entirely different five year span?

I found the concept of Fractured intriguing. I really love these stories that examine the nature of reality and ones in which you’re never sure what is real or what isn’t. This is incredibly well-written and I was almost instantly invested in the protagonist and her struggles. Parts of the story were quite heartbreaking and other parts were hilarious. I like that even though it dealt with a sci-fi concept the story was given a human focus, and the real thrust of the story was Rachel’s struggle to determine what was going on. I liked most of the character interactions and a lot of the characters were well-developed. However, a few of them seemed to disappear as the story progressed and I would have liked to have seen more of them, Sarah in particular. 

While I did like the story I found the ending predictable, and I think this was in part due to the fact that it spent so much time in the ‘good’ five years. I’m a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of a split narrative where we experienced both sets, so we could compare and contrast the events in her life. I also thought the five year gap seemed a little arbitrary, and I didn’t get the sense of temporal distance that five years brings. I liked the developments of the relationships in her life as well, although sometimes she seemed a little too oblivious where certain things were concerned. She also seemed to cry a lot as well…but that’s just me nitpicking. 

The other main criticism I have is that the ending felt rushed, as if the author was moving things far too quickly in order to gain the maximum amount of emotional impact. This worked for my friend who recommended the book to me, but I’m sad to say it didn’t for me. I found it a little unrealistic and it just felt like the author was forcing things to be framed in a certain way. 

However, despite those criticisms I enjoyed it a great deal. It’s a fun, engaging read with a good voice and interesting characters. If you like this sort of concept then I’d definitely suggest checking it out. At the moment it’s only 59p for Kindles and I think that’s a very good bargain. There’s a lot of drama and tension through the story, it’s just the for me it didn’t quite carry through to the ending, but I’m still glad I read it. 

Movie Review – Transcendence (2014)

Director: Wally Pfisken

Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman 

After Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is attacked by an anti-technology group called R.I.F.T., his wife Evelyn (Hall) and colleague Max (Bettany) decide to upload his mind into an artificial intelligence. Once he’s plugged into the internet he begins to make progress in order to help the world, but other people are aware of the dangers this omniscience presence can bring. They’ve basically created a god, and is it too much power for one disembodied soul to handle? 

Transcendence is an odd film in a way. I found it quite interesting and at times it threatened to raise deep philosophical questions about the nature of our identity and personhood, yet it never fully committed to explore them. The whole film lacked a sense of urgency or peril, and I never got the sense that it knew what point it was trying to express. Was it that we’re not ready for this level of technology? Was it that it’s going to happen whether we’re ready or not and we should simply accept the inevitable? Was it that nothing should have this much power? I’m not sure. They’re all good questions to ponder, but I think the film should have decided on one core concept and explore it fully rather than having a mixture of concepts and have them briefly mentioned then discarded. 

The film meanders along at a pedestrian pace and seems to rely on the strength of the concept to create intrigue from the audience rather than trying to generate it from the cast and the plot. It feels like they had an idea, and that was enough, but it wasn’t. Most of the cast is pretty flat, aside from Hall, who gives a good performance, and Bettany has a few moments where he’s allowed to actually let loose. The rest though…they all just seem to be a part of the scenery. Even Morgan Freeman, who usually brings his patented sense of warmth, feels cold. The whole film feels cold in fact, and I’m not sure if it was a stylistic choice to complement the separation of emotion from technology, but if it was it didn’t work as I didn’t feel engaged at any point.

The main conflict is that Will, as an artificial intelligence, has invented nanites and wants to spread them to other people. This will cure diseases, heal ailments and generally make people smarter, better and stronger. However, it comes at the price of individuality as each person is brought into a network that Will is able to control in one big collective hive mind. If this sounds familiar it should, because the film struck me as being an origin story for The Borg. 

But here’s the thing. There never seems to be a sense of danger or threat. Even though Will has basically taken over the internet no-one acts like it’s a big deal. They all just plod around at a serene pace and act as if this is completely normal. And then even when they take action to stop him, which requires a very big undertaking, it’s not given any real weight and you wonder what the rest of the world thinks about this. For a film that’s trying to talk about the effect of technology on humanity there’s a real lack of focus on the wider world and the actual consequences of such a thing. As such, the whole film ends up feeling lifeless and limp and when it ends there’s just a sense of…nothing. 

I think the whole idea of sacrificing individuality for the benefits of other improvements is an interesting concept and one I think the film should have focused on as it would have given Transcendence an emotional anchor. As it is, it feels hollow, pretentious, and arrogant, and it completely falls flat. There’s just nothing here except the initial idea, and while it’s a good one it needs far more development to make it a compelling story. If you want to watch something that has an omniscient A.I., watch the television show Person of Interest. It doesn’t quite cover the same area as Transcendence attempts to, but it’s far more engaging. I wouldn’t go out of your way to watch Transcendence.

Movie Review – Hollywood Homicide (2003)

Director: Ron Shelton

Stars: Harrison Ford, Josh Hartnett, Lena Olin, Bruce Greenwood, Martin Landau, Keith David

Detectivs Joe Gavilan (Ford) and Kasey Calden (Hartnett) investigate murders in downtown L.A., however, when not solving crimes they also moonlight as a real estate agent and a yoga instructor who aspires to be an actor, respectively. When they’re investigating the murder of a rap group they delve into the murky side of the recording industry, while also looking for opportunities to broker property deals and find auditions. 

I actually enjoyed this movie a lot. It is a comedy but the humour is very dry and subtle, and I can imagine that it’s not going to appeal to some people because of that. It’s played very straight and I think if you didn’t know going in that this was a comedy you may be a little confused, and I think that’s probably why this film doesn’t have a better rating on IMDB. I really liked it though, I thought the humour was sharp and the mystery was actually engaging. The action was brutal in places (probably confusing people further as to the genre in which it should fit), but I like things that merge different genres together and I thought this did good service to both the comedy and the action genres. There were some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments as absurd situations happened, 

There was a lot of meta-commentary on the Hollywood industry as well, as everyone is self-obsessed and they all have other priorities other than their main responsibilities. It’s hilarious to see Ford’s frustration as a murder gets in the way of a real estate sale. The humour is underplayed and the actors commit to this, never straying into anything too over-the-top. 

In some senses this film is a little too clever for its own good, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think it’s a solid film in the action-comedy-buddy cop genre. It certainly deserves to be ranked high on IMDB and I can’t believe it has a lowly 5.3 score, Definitely check it out if you like the type of humour I described, I promise you won’t regret it. 

Book Review – Justice 4.1 by Jim Webster

Justice 4.1 – The Tsarina Sector Book One is written by Jim Webster. It follows the story of Haldar Drom, an investigator who is sent to try and figure out why a journalist was murdered. As he delves deeper into the investigation he finds a startling discovery that has ramifications for the political landscape. As he uncovers the truth Haldar realizes just how much danger he’s in, and he has to use all his expertise to figure out how to survive the increasingly fragile ground on which he finds himself. 

As a disclaimer I should mention that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for this honest review. 

I always like a bit of sci-fi and Justice 4.1 blends space-based action with ground-based scenes, interspersed with a lot of detective work. One thing that I loved about the book is that it’s very streamlined and focused. There is a tendency for some writers to get lost in world-building and there are a lot of sprawling passages about the history of the universe they have created which, while sometimes is interesting, is not always relevant to the story. Jim Webster manages to keep a tight grip on his plot and I never got a sense of indulgence from the narrative. Everything that was mentioned had a story reason and this gave it a fast-paced feel because there was no extraneous material. That isn’t to say there aren’t hints at the history of this universe, in fact some of my favourite passages were when the author described some of the architectural styles, hinting at a rich culture, and I hope this gets explored naturally as the series continues. 

Another thing I liked is that while the book starts off this Tsarina series, it still feels like a decent story in its own right. There are hints at a sequel and directions in which the story can go but it doesn’t feel like a cynical ploy to get readers hooked so they’ll feel forced to buy later books in the series. There is a sense of closure at the end of the book, so even if you didn’t want to continue with the series you’ll still feel like you got your money’s worth. 

I found the story good, I liked the political elements and how everything came together towards the end. I thought there was a good conspiracy and there was a good balance between action and intrigue. The tension built steadily throughout and I thought the nature of the scheme was very interesting. The main drawback for me is that the characters weren’t quite distinctive enough. I often found myself losing track of who was speaking. As a result I couldn’t form strong feelings one way or another about the characters so I couldn’t fully immerse myself in the book. Hopefully a few of them will be explored more deeply in the following books of the series. 

There are a couple of small personal things I’d like to mention as well, although these are purely superficial and do not affect the actual meat of the book. The little thing I liked is that there’s a cast of characters at the beginning, I thought this was a nice touch as it’s not something I usually see in books, and it would have been nice to perhaps have had a brief description of each character as well. It was a nice touch though, and it’s something that set it apart from other books. The other thing I want to mention is something I didn’t like, and that’s the length of the chapters. There are only seven chapters in this 200+ page book, and I tend to prefer shorter chapters as it gives things a greater sense of urgency (plus it’s easier to leave off at set points when you have to put the book down). Like I said, they’re both small things that don’t really matter much but I thought I’d mention them. 

Overall I liked Justice 4.1. I think it’s a solid sci-fi story that keeps its focus but leaves room to explore a larger world. I enjoyed the balance between action and intrigue but I feel the characters could have been given more unique characteristics in order to differentiate them. I think it’s a good opening to the series though and I’m interested to see what is going to happen in the Tsarina sector after the events of this book.