Movie Review – 42 (2013)

Director: Brian Helgeland

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Alan Tudyk, John C. McGinley

42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball. It covers the first couple of years of his career from 1945 to 1947.

I’ve never liked Baseball but it’s a sport that is probably most synonymous with America and this film deals with perhaps the most important episode in the history of the sport. Not having been a follower of Baseball I had only heard Jackie Robinson’s name in passing and wasn’t really aware of the impact he had. I do love biopics though, and sport movies, and the reviews have generally been positive so I was looking forward to giving this one a go.

Boseman gives a strong performance as Robinson. I really liked this actor and I think he’s going to have a good career ahead of him. He has a strong presence and is able to grab people’s attention in any scene he’s in, which is saying something when you’re sharing a set with Harrison Ford. The strength of Boseman’s performance was showing the suppressed rage and anger that Robinson felt as he was sledged by the crowds, the opponents and in some cases his own team mates. There was one particularly powerful scene in a tunnel where the rage was allowed to boil over, and Boseman captured the essence of pain and tragedy in that moment. Ford and Tudyk were the other stand out performers in 42 and both were on opposite sides of the spectrum, with Ford playing the man who recruited Robinson and Tudyk playing a coach who spewed vile abuse while Robinson was attempting to bat.

However, other than those three no-one else made an impact on the screen (with the exception of Meloni, but he disappeared fairly quickly). The other characters were forgettable and if I was pressed I don’t think I could tell you many of their names.

The biggest criticism I have with the movie is that it feels like I only got the highlights of the story. It feels brisk and I had no real sense of how much time had passed or how the characters were changing, I was actually surprised when the film ended because it felt like there should have been more to it. I would have liked more context in the film, because as I’m not a Baseball fan I’m not aware of the intricacies of how the season works, so a bit more effort in explaining that would have gone a long way, and a bit more about the organization as a whole would have helped. For example, the Dodgers get a new coach at one point in the film but he only has a few lines and it’s a wonder they bothered including it at all. It feels like there’s a lot that the film missed out on.

The racism is always difficult to watch and it’s horrible to hear such vitriol pour forth from people’s mouths, so the film at least conveyed the unsettling tone well. One moment that I loved was at a game where a young boy was talking with his father about seeing the players. It’s a perfectly innocent moment until Robinson takes to the field and suddenly the crowd erupts, incensed by the presence of a black man. They hurl abuse at him and the camera focuses on the child. The confusion is plain on his face but he looks around at the crowd and up to his father, and then he joins in. It shows that racism and hate is something that’s learned, and I liked the way that was shown here.

Overall, I liked the movie and it was engaging to watch but I can’t help but feel that I’m still missing some of the finer nuances of the story. It’s certainly not a bad film, but it’s lacking in some respects so I can’t tell you to go out and watch it straight away. I wouldn’t avoid it but I think there are other films that cover similar areas to greater effect.

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Book Review – White Fang by Jack London

White Fang is the saga of White Fang, a cub born into the wild. His journey teaches him the laws of nature and man, and asks the question, can a wild, bestial, brutal animal be rehabilitated into a pet? 

Just to start off I want to say that I’m more of a cat person than a dog person! I did love this book though. It starts off with a focus on two humans who are dragging a dead body along, and they’re being pursued by a pack of Wolves. I love London’s way of describing things, and the fact that he uses a capital letter when he refers to the wild gives it an ominous tone, as if it’s some entity that’s doing it’s best to drain away every ounce of life. The brutal nature of life is never shied away from and some parts are actually very difficult to read because there’s a lot of cruelty to animals (and a lot of cruelty between animals), but these things happen in nature and they are a part of life. 

One strong point is that the author doesn’t resort to an anthropomorphic depiction of White Fang. Everything the dog understands is written how I imagine a dog would understand it and this gives the narrative a somewhat unique perspective. It conveyed the struggles of life brilliantly though, and although the wild was cruel and brutal civilisation wasn’t much better. The theme of rehabilitation was strong, as it showed that the main force is how we treat these animals. If we club them and teach them through punishment they may learn, but they’ll also never develop a capacity for love, yet if you give them a warm, gentle touch you may bring out something more tender. This was contrasted with an escaped felon, who sought out vengeance rather than re-integration into society. 

I enjoyed the way the book began but just before the halfway mark it began to drag and was a bit of a slog to work through. However, after that hump it picked up again and I found that I had quickly worked my way through most of the next hundred pages or so. I really liked it, the style was great, the human characters were all different and showed the different aspects of humanity and all through it all I was rooting for White Fang to beat the odds and survive. 

Movie Review – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Stars: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Verna Bloom, Barbara Hershey, Irvin Kershner, Victor Argo, Harry Dean Stanton, Tomas Arana, David Bowie

The Last Temptation of Christ is an adaptation of a novel by the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. It tells the story of Jesus (Dafoe) but it is a fictionalized account and is not a retelling of the stories found in the Gospels. It shows Jesus’ struggles to resolve the conflict between his spirit and his flesh, and how to live with the burden of being the son of God.

It’s easy to see why this film is so controversial as it portrays Jesus as a flawed individual and shows his difficulty in trying to resist the temptations and desires of the flesh in order to follow God’s path. There are some brutal moments early on in the film when we see Jesus writhing in pain as God’s voice sears through his mind, and throughout the film this struggle is present, even when he seems to come to terms with his mission on Earth.

The majority of the film plays out like a greatest hits collection as we see him form the disciples and other famous incidents like the resurrection of Lazarus, the conflict at the temple and the last supper among other things. It was interesting to see them given new twists, but then the film deviates from the Bible in a HUGE way. I could imagine a lot of people simply walking out when the last section of the film begins, but I felt it was incredibly powerful  and really struck home the point about how fear can blind us. All through the film Jesus is portrayed as a man who is afraid, afraid of life, afraid of what might happen to him, afraid of the power and meaning bestowed upon his life. In this movie he’s like the rest of us, simply trying to figure out his place in the world and how to marry his desires with his morality and belief system.

The most significant relationship is between him and Judas (Keitel), who is reinterpreted and is shown to be stronger than Jesus in some ways. I loved the progression of his character through the film and how his motivations and philosophy clashed with Jesus’.

There’s a lot going on in this film but it didn’t feel dense or overly long. There’s a lot to think about and a lot of commentary on faith and belief and what it means to be a human. I’m an atheist and I hold a degree in Philosophy so this film is right up my street and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Scorsese has made some fantastic films and this is right up there with the best of them. It’s one of the few movies where I’ve had to sit in an awed silence as I let the credits roll and try to process everything I absorbed.

If I had one criticism it’s that the film is incredibly white-washed and there’s no diversity in the cast, and at times it can be jarring to hear some of the characters speak with very strong New York accents and dialects (the most jarring for me was when Satan appeared to Jesus in the desert). But other than that it was just amazing. Dafoe was compelling and had a wild eyed intensity as well as a raw vulnerability that properly conveyed the struggles this Jesus was going through.

There are of course some very visceral scenes, especially the nailing on the cross and there’s a lot of blood, and the subject matter as well will be off-putting to some people. I’d strongly recommend this to anyone though. It’s much more interesting than a retelling of the story we’ve heard a hundred times before and I think it provokes some very thoughtful discussion points about the nature of religion, faith, truth, sacrifice, and what it means to be human.

Movie Review – Babel (2006)

Director: Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu

Stars: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Mohamed Akhzam….loads of other people (cast list at IMDB is way to annoying and long to go through).

In Morroco two Americans get caught in a shooting. In Mexico a nanny takes two American children across the border so that she can attend her son’s funeral. In Japan a deaf girl tries to find a link to the world through sexuality but always chooses the wrong men and the wrong situations in which to express it.

Babel is a globe-spanning story that interlinks different stories in very subtle ways. It shows the differences in cultures and the way people are treated, yet it also shows similarities in the way that humans deal with loss and love. It’s a very emotional story, although it takes a while to get going as you wonder how the stories actually link together, and in once case it’s not until the end that you realize how it all ties together. It’s a very intelligent film, and in places it’s very touching.

Pitt and Blanchett will be the first names that attract people, but while they have the most star power their story is given perhaps the least attention, and they don’t really have too much to do. The strength lies with the other characters. They all had their own unique problems. I liked the relationship between the two Moroccan brothers, but I found the Japanese story to be the most captivating.

At first I was going to criticize Babel since the American couple were the only ones who had anything resembling a happy ending, and it seemed to be pandering to the Hollywood mentality that America is #1. Yet the more I thought about it the more that it comes off as a critique of that attitude, and I admire the way it was subtly done, like the contrast of the behavior of the border patrol when somebody is distressed compared with the treatment of American tourists when a shooting happened. And again, with the shooting it causes a great panic because the American assumption is that it’s a terrorist attack, yet this is shown to be a knee-jerk reaction borne of paranoia. The other main theme is that our actions, no matter how small, can have global consequences, and I really liked how the film tied together the final sequence with the beginning of the film.

It’s a deep film with a lot of substance but it doesn’t feel heavy, although it can be a little slow to get started. I really enjoyed it though and I’d recommend it if you haven’t seen it already, just don’t expect the film to focus on Brad Pitt.

Movie Review – Spring Breakers (2012)

Director: Harmony Korine

Stars: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine

What did I just watch….?

Spring Breakers is about some college students who rob a bank so they can afford to go and party on Spring Break. However, they get caught and end up being bailed out by a rapper and drug dealer who then brings them in on his life of decadence.

So this film…yeah. It’s a critique of the excesses of youth culture and the glorification of partying and boozing etc married with an arthouse style of directing that blends some hazy visuals with audio cues to create a dreamy, hallucinatory state. But I don’t think it’s a very good film. I get what the director was trying to accomplish and everything is taken to such an absurd level, I mean at one point James Franco performs fellatio on the barrels of two guns, that it becomes bizarre. Yet while it’s critiquing this time of culture it also exploits it, and so the point is lost. I can imagine a lot of people will come into this movie thinking it’s a straight up sex comedy or a raucous party film.

But basically it’s just a film about a bunch of nasty people who encounter one another and that’s about it. It’s not very fulfilling. There’s only one character that provides a counterpoint to the rest of the film, and that’s Selena Gomez’s Faith. Yet she disappears from the film and I feel that if this wanted to actually be a critique then they should have shown some more of Faith and what happened to her, to contrast what happened with the other girls.

As it is I’d say to avoid this film. The point the director is trying to make isn’t a particularly revolutionary one and the way he goes about it is confusing and not entertaining.

Book Review – The War of the Guns: Western Front 1917 and 1918 by Aubrey Wade

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The War of the Guns has a personal connection for me because it features my great-grandfather, who won a medal for his services as a signalman. This book was written by Aubrey Wade, who served with my great-grandfather and according to the book they were as close as twins. I only found out this book existed a couple of weeks ago when my grandmother said that she had lost her copy and asked me to see if I could find one on Amazon, so before I pass it onto her I thought I’d read it and give my opinion. One thing that I ought to note is that, for reasons unknown, my great-grandfather didn’t want his name used in the book, so he’s called ‘Ross’. I wish I knew why he made that decision because for me being remembered is what life is all about. It’s one of the reasons I’m a writer. I want to make a mark on the world and have my name etched into the stones upon which we build the future, so for my ancestor to decline that opportunity is curious.

At the start the publisher mentions that they included some images in the book at the expense of the prose, which I think is a shame. Although the photographs offer a wider scope to the war (as far as I could tell there are not any pictures of Aubrey Wade or the people he served with) I would have preferred more of the actual narrative.

It’s not a huge book but it is a good one. There are a lot of anecdotes both humorous and grim and the stark reality of war comes through. His writing style is excellent and at the time he was only eighteen, and I think of how I would have fared had I been in these situations. There are many amusing stories about his run ins with various Majors, and he doesn’t shy away from anything else, including the opinion that his superiors were more concerned with the state of the guns than they were with the well-being of the men. Although it’s brief you do get a good sense of the terrors they faced, and yet it’s told in such a matter-of-fact and casual tone that you have to stop and remind yourself of the magnitude of these words and experiences.

I have never been exposed to a great wealth of information about WWI because at school the area of war is dominated by WWII, so it was interesting to learn of how people perceived the war. It actually ends on an optimistic note as there’s an Armistice, and you get the sense that Aubrey thought once the war was over that would be it. Little did any of them know that another one would come along to devastate the world.

Although much of it is harrowing, Wade shows his wry sense of humour so the tone of the book never falls into a completely bleak and depressing affair. From a personal viewpoint I was hoping to learn more about my great-grandfather, but to my dismay Aubrey didn’t really talk about him too much so from his brief appearances I didn’t get much of a sense of what he was like. However, I know that he served closely with Aubrey Wade so I know that he experienced much of what Wade it, and from that I can get a sense of the kind of man he was. I don’t usually think about my lineage but it actually makes me swell with a pride a little to know that I come from such stock.

I never met my great-grandfather but I’m thankful to Aubrey Wade for writing this book, because although it was through a different name, my great-grandfather’s exploits will live on in the pages of this book, just as I hope my legacy will live on through the pages of my own books.

 

Movie Review – Chatroom (2010)

Director: Hideo Nakata

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Imogen Poots, Matthew Beard, Hannah Murray, Daniel Kaluuya, Megan Dodds, Michelle Fairley, Jacob Anderson, Richard Madden, Tuppence Middleton

If you notice the cast, this may seem like a breeding ground for Game of Thrones. Chatroom is a film about the dangers of online bullying. On a chat website William (Taylor-Johnson) sets up a group called ‘Chelsea Teens’, and four local people all around the same age join up. There’s Eva (Poots), a model who envies her co-workers, Mo (Kaluuya) who has a crush on his friend’s 11 year old sister, Emily (Murray) who feels neglected by her parents and Jim (Beard) who is struggling with depression and can’t escape his feelings of abandonment. Little do they know that they are all being manipulated by William, who is acting out his twisted desires by preying on the vulnerable psyches of lonely people looking for a friend.

The style of this film is really cool. I loved the disparity between the real world and the online chat rooms, and the way it represented how people present/perceive themselves online. Through William we also get a look at some of the other rooms of the website and there’s some disturbing stuff, which highlights the seedier aspects of the Internet (although I am sure there are worse thins out there than what is seen in this film). The acting was strong and Taylor-Johnson played the charismatic, but damaged, character well. Beard was good too and conveyed the heartbreak and difficulties of his character. The others, well, here’s the thing. At the start there are five people in the chat room and they all have their own problems, and the group is set up so they can have a refuge away from their ordinary lives and help each other out. However, Eva, Mo and Emily are basically discarded and the film becomes totally about the relationship between William and Jim.

The two of them had the strongest stories but the others had subplots that were introduced and were not given satisfactory resolutions, so although it comes to a definite conclusion Chatroom doesn’t feel finished.

I was engaged by it though and there were some parts that were very difficult to watch as I’m aware that things like that do actually happen and it did well at playing on my sensitivities. I’m disappointed that most of the characters were shunted aside, but Chatroom still has a lot going for it. The style is good, the actors are talented and I loved the portrayal of the online realm. I think it’s still a relevant film and it’s worth a watch.

Movie Review – D-Tox (2002)

Director: Jim Gillespie

Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Charles S. Dutton, Polly Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Mif, Christopher Fulford, Robert Patrick, Stephen Lang, Jeffrey Wright, Tom Berenger, Robert Prosky, Courtney B. Vance

Jake Malloy (Stallone) is a is a Federal agent on the hunt for a serial killer who targets cops. However, the killer also has a grudge against Malloy ever since he was almost caught by the agent in an investigation, so he targets people Malloy cares about, which sends Malloy into a downward spiral of drunkenness. He’s sent to a remote facility that focuses on detoxing people in law enforcement, but one by one people start dying and it’s clear that the serial killer has found his way into the facility.

When you see that this stars Stallone you might assume it’s a typical action-fest, but in fact it’s more of a subdued mystery thriller. I don’t think Stallone gets enough credit for his acting chops and here he plays a vulnerable man filled with rage and inconsolable anger. I liked his performance and the movie began well with the hunting of the serial killer.

However, it feels like two movies were smashed into one. They wanted to do a hunt for a serial killer, but they also wanted to do a film set in a closed-off rehab facility and the two settings didn’t quite gel. It’s a short movie and although there’s a recognisable cast, there’s not enough time to give the characters in the rehab center any kind of development other than the broadest characteristics. In fact, a lot of them are barely seen at all, and the only ones who are interesting are the ones who have strange tics in the place of actual personalities.

The mystery itself isn’t very deep either. There’s no real motivation given for why the killer does what he does. He mumbles something about a half-baked philosophy about us having a duty to perform but it’s never made clear, and since we don’t get to engage with the characters the revelation of who the killer actually is doesn’t have any shock value. I think it would have been better if the film had entirely taken place in the rehab center, with the background being revealed through group sessions. That way at least the characters would be developed more and there would be more of a claustrophobic setting.

As it is there’s a cathartic ending and a good performance by Stallone but not much else. It’s a forgettable watch and there’s not much action but not enough intrigue and drama to make up for it. So you’re left with a film that has the ingredients to be good but doesn’t hit the mark.

Movie Review – Frozen River (2008)

Director: Courtney Hunt

Stars: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott

Ray (Leo) is a struggling mother with a disappearing, gambling addict husband. She’s being pulled from all sides and it’s just before Christmas. Due to a chain of circumstances she finds herself involved with a smuggling operation, bringing in illegal immigrants over the border between Canada and America, via a Native American reservation. She leaves her sons at home while she earns some extra cash, but is always at the risk of being caught by the state troopers.

Frozen River is in a genre that I like to call ‘misery porn’. It’s where the film is so bleak and so depressing that it’s main goal is to try and break your human spirit. This type of film certainly isn’t for everyone because it can be unrelenting in its despair and I’d say most people watch movies for escapism and to get away from the problems of the world, so if this doesn’t sound like a movie for you then simply avoid it.

I quite liked it though. Leo gave a good performance as the determined and frustrated woman who just wants to survive. She was supported by Misty Upham, who at first seemed like a jerk but by the end she became perhaps the warmest and most likeable character. McDermott was good as Ray’s son, and the scenes between the mother and the son were filled with a raw emotional intensity.

I think it ends up being more hopeful than it could have. I feared at one point that it would veer off into a completely dark place, but glimmers of hope shone through. It definitely captured the mood it intended to and I found it captivating, so if you like this sort of film then I’d recommend it, but again if you use films as a way to escape life then it’s probably not going to be for you.

Movie Review – Water Lilies (2007)

Director: Céline Sciamma

Stars: Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachére, Adéle Haenel, Warren Jacquin

Marie (Acquart) is an awkward 15 year old girl who wants to join the synchronised swimming team because she has a crush on the captain, Floriane (Haenel), who is more mature in body and experience. Marie’s friend Anne (Blachére) has a crush on Francois (Jacquain), who is also trying  it on with Floriane.

Water Lilies is a story about the despair of teenage yearnings and the blossoming of sexual feelings. Although the film deals with mainly homosexual feelings, it’s done so in a way that feels universal, so even as a straight male I could identify with the characters and it brought back the painful memories of liking someone so much that it completely crushes the soul.

There’s a lot of visual storytelling here, so there’s minimal dialogue and we learn about the characters through their expressions and actions. Sometimes with other films this style doesn’t work for me because it feels pretentious and slow, but it’s pulled off brilliantly here and it’s so absorbing. All the actors are really good Acquart is the most girlish looking of the three main girls, and with every secret, yearning glance she perfectly highlights the vulnerability of liking someone that you know won’t feel the same. Yet through the film she grows stronger, at first she rallies against the immaturity of Anne but then sees it as a comforting retreat.

Floriane represents womanhood. She has a reputation as a slut yet she feels it is undeserved and she’s a character that you will love to hate. From the first time Marie looks at her she knows how she can manipulate Marie into doing what she wants, and throughout the film she plays on Marie’s feelings. At times it’s cruel, at times there seems to be some genuine emotion involved but you get the sense that because of who she is there’s no hope for Marie to get what she most desires. Anne has the subplot of trying to get with Francois. At first it feels disconnected from the main plot of the film but at the end it comes together and she probably has the most satisfying ending, and one that was surprising and funny.

There’s a great comment that one of the characters makes about the ceiling being the last thing most people see. I’m wondering if the director (who also wrote the film) was making a connection with sex and death, since in some of the sex scenes the girls were shown to be lying on their back, staring at the ceiling.

It seems to generalize when it comes to the male characters since they’re portrayed as solely wanting sex and not caring about anything else. I suppose though since the film is through the lens of these girls that’s how it seems, and given the type of guys that Floriane attracts and wants the attention of it’s easy to see how these guys surround them.

The soundtrack is really cool too, there’s an absence of sound through a lot of the film so when the music does come in it has a lot of impact. Overall it’s a fantastic film and I think French films are my favourite type of foreign films. They just have this elegance about them that I find so interesting. Water Lilies is one that I really enjoyed. The performances were great and although it’s a relatively short film there’s a lot of depth to it. I’m strongly recommending this one.