"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Film: Brave by Mark Andrews

Set in the wild, mysterious highlands of ancient Scotland, Brave is Pixar’s first film to feature a female heroine. Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the complete opposite of her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). While the one is strong willed, tomboyish and a skilled archer, the other is prim and polite, and yearns for her daughter to learn to act like a proper princess. The pair have thus far managed to live with their stark differences, but when Elinor announces that Merida must soon choose a son from one of their rival clans to wed, the rebellious teenaged princess decides that enough is enough. She flees the castle on her trusty steed Angus, and led by ethereal woodland sprites - the will-o’-the-wisps - she stumbles upon the cottage of an old eccentric witch (Julie Walters) from whom she seeks a spell to change her mother’s mind about her fate...

This film has a lot of heart and explores the heavily tested bond between mother and daughter which a lot of women will be able to relate to, as Elinor and Merida learn that they can benefit from being a little like one another, and come to terms with their differences. Much of the plot is rooted in Celtic folklore - such as the will-o’-the-wisps, which in legend are supposed to lead people to their fate, as well as magic and an ancient curse. However I did think that Merida’s fate would hang on something more life altering and interesting than who she marries; I was under the impression that the fate of the realm would rest on her shoulders. It was here where the plot disappointed me and conformed to more traditional Disney princess tales, which in turn makes Brave Pixar’s most unambitious film so far in terms of story.

Aside from the more serious and sentimental side to the plot, the film is very funny, with slapstick humour as well as more adult remarks. Merida’s young brothers are very mischievous, constantly causing chaos throughout the castle, and they brought a smile to my face. The kids in the cinema were howling with laughter, but the older members of the audience were laughing at multiple moments as well, so this is a film most age groups will be able to enjoy.

The characters are well drawn and entertaining. Merida is refreshing as the princess who despises her life as a royal and yearns for adventure and to shoot arrows all day long.

Queen Elinor is a great example of the typical stern mother, constantly bossing Merida about and rolling her eyes at her daughter, her three naughty sons and her jolly husband. Fergus (Billy Connolly), the vengeful King who lost his leg to the vicious bear Mordu, is a laugh riot, and understands his daughter much better than Elinor does.

Brave is visually stunning. All Pixar films look beautiful, but I think this one is my favourite. The film crew toured round Scotland in order to get the scenery just right, and the extra time and effort they put in really shows; the shots of the Scottish highlands are breathtaking, atmospheric and realistic. Another feature of the visuals I loved was Merida’s wild mane of fiery red curls - the attention to detail put into her tresses is amazing and reflects her untamed character.

In conclusion, Brave is not your average princess movie - Merida is a fiery tomboy who hates being forced to act like a lady and longs to roam the wilds of Scotland with her bow and loyal stallion. At its core it is a heartfelt study of the mother / daughter relationship, but with plenty of humour thrown in, as well as magic and tidbits from Celtic legend, it is a film that most people will find endearing and enjoyable.

Rating: 7/10

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Fluffs by Daniel I. Russell

Fluffs is an odd short story of around 50 pages long, and is about a drug abuser named Shaun who thinks that multi-coloured things he calls ‘fluffs’ are trying to kill him. The doctors are convinced it’s his drug-muddled mind that is causing hallucinations of the cuddly creatures, but as the carnage escalates Shaun is arrested on suspicion of murder - can he convince the officials that the ‘fluffs’ exist and are the culprits behind the violence before it’s too late?

Admittedly the premise sounds a little silly - live fluffy things of all colours of the rainbow with piranha style teeth trying to eat people (and animals) - but it’s executed very well, is beautifully written and succeeds in being quite scary, as well as having an element of dark humour. It reminds me a little of some of Stephen King’s earlier short stories, and this writer certainly shows promise in his writing style and imagination. The interesting and unusual premise is carried out in such a way that it makes for an intriguing and quirky read rather than a weird and stupid one, which could easily have happened considering the author's peculiar choice of villain.

Although Fluffs is an odd mélange of silliness and horror, the gore factor should be considered by the squeamish or those who are unaccustomed to the horror genre, particularly by animal lovers. The level of bloodshed means that this short story will not be for everyone, but its brilliant writing, unusual premise, extremely quick pace and good level of horror means that I highly recommended it for those who can endure a bit of blood.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Film: The Dark Knight Rises by Christopher Nolan

I love Christopher Nolan’s work, particularly Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; I have been excited for the finale to this amazing trilogy for about two years, when it was first announced. The day finally came when I could watch it and I was so impressed that I paid to see it again later that same day. The question that was at the forefront of my mind was whether Nolan would manage to top The Dark Knight, which is generally agreed to be one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. Unfortunately The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t quite manage to trump the exceedingly high standards set by its predecessor, but it comes oh so tantalisingly close.

Set eight years on from The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse and even walks with a stick, claiming to have retired from Batman. When the formidable villain Bane threatens Gotham with his brutish terrorism however, Bruce decides to face the world and resume the role of Batman once more.

Bane (Tom Hardy) is a great villain, and I’m glad that Nolan chose such a different type of foe from the Joker. Bane is not interested in chaos like the Joker was - he has a plan, and what’s more he is giant, extremely built and proves to be more than a match for Batman physically - as a distinct contrast to Batman’s match of wits with the Joker, in Rises Batman faces a match of strength. Tom Hardy is undoubtedly a phenomenal actor - he does so much with his eyes alone due to the limitations of his mask. Hardy succeeds in portraying Bane as a terrifying terrorist and the character has immense presence in every scene he appears in.

Like most Batman fans, I was initially sceptical about Nolan’s choice of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, considering her previous girly roles. She was brilliant however; she was serious and sultry, portraying Selina Kyle as someone with more depth than I have seen previously, and I think she’s the best Catwoman yet. I really like the distinct variation from the traditional ‘Catwoman’ image that was projected in Rises; there are no cats, no cheesy Michelle Pfeiffer style ‘miaow’, and she is always called Selina, never ‘Catwoman’. Even her ‘costume’ is not overtly feline either - Selina Kyle is a cat burglar, not a superhero, and she dresses as such. Her burglars goggles cleverly sit upon her head to resemble cat ears, and her suit befits what a stealthy thief would wear - all in all her costume design was very imaginatively thought up. These changes to Catwoman/Selina Kyle suit the more realistic trend that runs through the Dark Knight trilogy and makes the distinction between reality and the comic book world which older Batman movies have adhered to much more closely than Nolan.

Despite the film being close to 3 hours in length, it really does not feel that long at all; the pace was quick and there was constant action to keep things moving. The plot also required a little suspension of disbelief, as all of the events were not as grounded in realism as the first two films. As in the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the music was sensational. There is a scene that completely lacked music and it was really effective and demonstrates Nolan’s brilliant creativity.

The plot is good and involves a few twists, although if you know the comics at all you might be able to predict them easily enough. The last 10-15 minutes took me on such a rollercoaster of emotions that I felt drained afterwards; the ending was very intense and emotional and I defy anyone not to be on the edge of their seat!

In conclusion, although The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t quite have the same ‘wow’ factor as The Dark Knight, it’s an amazing film and is so close to being perfect. Bane is not as exciting a villain as the Joker, but I don’t think any villain could have topped the sheer charisma of the Joker, so I think this slight inferiority was to be expected - plus the sheer contrast between the two gives each film a very different feel which is a positive thing. The acting is great, the music is great and the story is great. An excellent film and I am already eagerly awaiting Nolan’s next project.

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Just before midnight, the Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a heavy snow drift and by morning one of its passengers is found brutally stabbed to death in their cabin. Untrodden snow outside the carriage indicates that the murderer is on board the train, and it is up to famous detective Hercule Poirot to solve the mystery before the killer decides to strike again...

This mystery is very cleverly written and so meticulously planned that it is surprising that Agatha Christie herself was not a criminal mastermind. For example some of the questions Poirot asks the passengers in the earlier stages of the investigation which seem to be completely innocuous in fact turn out to be incredibly revealing inquiries, and it is little details like this that cause me to marvel at Christie’s imagination and make this novel so brilliantly executed.

This is an enjoyable detective novel which will keep you constantly guessing, although I did have a few small gripes. Firstly, the main bulk of the novel consists of a string of interrogations, which although are very important to the plot, didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat in the way that And Then There Were None did, which was much more action packed.  Secondly, arriving at a conclusion to the case seemed to rely a great deal on Poirot ‘guessing’ correctly, which for me doesn’t completely sit right in a detective novel:
If you confront anyone who has lied with the truth, he will usually admit it - often out of sheer surprise. It is only necessary to guess right to produce your effect.”
‘Murder on the Orient Express was my first encounter with the detective Hercule Poirot, and I didn’t find him very likeable, although some things he says are quite humourous, for example:
‘“If you will forgive me for being personal - I do not like your face, M. Ratchett,’ he said.”
Poirot is investigating the murder along with two others and he keeps them in the dark about his ideas on the case throughout, concealing information he has discovered about passengers until late on in the case. It is flourishes like this that reveal Poirot is all too aware of his own cleverness, making for quite an arrogant character.

The fact that there are 12 murder suspects means that I sometimes got confused as to who was talking or being discussed, especially since they are not always referred to by name but by a moniker, for example ‘the Englishman’ or ‘the Italian’. The international cast of suspects also allows a certain degree of racism which I suppose is reflective of the time when the story was published (1934), and may offend some readers, with the Italian passenger being high up on the suspect list due to his heritage alone, and the Italians as a people are described as “nasty, murdering Italians” by one of the characters.

This probably seems like a very negative review, but the positives certainly outweigh my minor quibbles and Murder on the Orient Express is an excellent mystery novel; it is well thought out, written beautifully, intriguing and with Poirot’s dry wit and pompous attitude is also highly entertaining. Having said this, it is weaker than the superior And Then There Were None, with a less than satisfying conclusion and lacking the pace which made the latter such an exciting page turner.

Rating: 8/10

My other Agatha Christie reviews:

And Then There Were None

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Piercing by Ryu Murakami

There are two famous ‘Murakami’ authors in Japan, but in the rest of the world Haruki is generally the better known with his works that are usually grounded in magical realism while Ryu writes pulp horror fiction, and is often known in the western world as the ‘other’ Murakami.

Piercing is a good example of gritty, gory, unsettling horror. The story opens with our protagonist - Kawashima Masayuki - standing over his baby daughter’s crib with an ice pick, barely able to suppress the desire to use it on her soft, smooth skin. His inner voices urge him to seek out someone to murder with the weapon, in order to overcome his unspeakable desire. He focuses his impulses on an unsuspecting prostitute - Chiaki - but as he begins to execute his meticulous plan, things begin to unravel as it turns out that Chiaki is about as sane as he is.

The novel is well written and disturbing, and being under 200 pages long it really packs a punch. However, the novel’s focus is on the exploration of the extreme consequences of child abuse, which can make for difficult reading. Some people consider Murakami’s work to be outdated - Piercing was originally published in Japan in 1994, so arguably his books are not as shocking when they finally get round to being translated into English - for Piercing, this was 2008. However I personally think that Murakami’s work is so extreme that I am always shocked; the violence and psychotic elements that are so vivid in his works are well executed and leave me feeling cold.

Although the novel begins with Kawashima, once he meets Chiaki the narrative switches between the two of them, giving the reader unique insight into each protagonists’ thoughts and character. From this the reader can see that each character is heavily misinterpreting the situation and what the other is thinking and doing which not only creates dramatic irony but also transforms the novel into something of a dark comedy.

If I have a significant gripe about Piercing it’s the ending, which was abrupt and disappointing in comparison to the fast paced and exciting tone of the rest of the novel, and it almost felt as though the book hadn’t been finished.

Murakami tends to enjoy highlighting Tokyo’s dark underbelly in his novels - often exploring the red light district Kabukicho and painting a grisly picture of Japan which is likely to deter some travellers from visiting. Piercing is no exception to this rule, and is not advisable for those with weak stomachs, or who are about to embark on a trip to Tokyo! All in all though, Piercing is a good little horror story, but its frank and distressing subject matter combined with the high gore-factor make it a tough read. It is inferior to the two other novels by Murakami that I have read - In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies - so I would suggest giving one of those a read first, as they are more reflective of Murakami’s talent than Piercing.  

Rating: 7/10

My other Ryu Murakami reviews:
Almost Transparent Blue