31 March 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

This is the story behind one of the best-loved Disney films of all time; Mary Poppins. The film focuses on the two weeks that Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) spent with P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the woman who wrote the Mary Poppins books, and how he eventually got her to sign over the rights of the story.

First off, you should be warned that P.L. Travers was not the most likeable woman in the world, and she was very,very stubborn. If her books were going to be made into a film, they had to be absolutely right, because Mary Poppins was so close to her heart. We begin the story after 20 years of Walt Disney attempting to make the Mary Poppins film, when Mrs Travers finally agrees to go to L.A. and work with the studio on the film. She finds that the script, the casting, the songs, everything has been worked out before she gets there, and all she has to do is to sign the paperwork, but she won't give in so easily. In the meantime, we are treated to flashbacks from her early life, where we learn more of the anguish that she keeps hidden away from the world. At first, everything seems perfect, but cracks soon begin to appear and parallels between her life and her books can be drawn very neatly.

The film is brilliant storytelling; amusing, joyful, serious and heartbreaking, it has everything you could wish for in terms of substance. The reasons for Mrs Travers's haughty exterior is slowly revealed, not to us, but to Disney as well. The end result is not what really matters, as we know what happens, but how the characters get there is the most interesting part.

The acting from out two protagonists is flawless. Emma Thompson's ability as an actress is astounding, because even though the character is so prickly, we can see there is something lying under all of that, and we warm to her very quickly. Tom Hanks had the very difficult task of playing someone that everyone thinks differently about, but somehow he just made the man completely human, with the same flaws and the same understanding that we all would have. There is absolutely no bias here with either of the characters, and that is something quite difficult to do with people that are so well-known. We also had some great acting from the liked of Paul Giamatti, Ruth Wilson and Colin Farrell, who made the back-story and the offshoots so emotional.

All in all, this is a terrific film which really gives us an excellent taste of both Walt Disney and P.L. Travers as they were in that time. Saving Mr Banks is right up there with the wonderful portrayal of J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, and it is a heart-warming and entertaining story. It seems like real-life stories are making their way into the limelight now, and I sincerely hope they stay there when it comes to stories like this one.

10 out of 10, I would watch it again in a heartbeat.

30 March 2014

Broom With a View - Gayla Twist and Ted Naifeh

The casters and the vampires have always been enemies, but now war has broken out. With England no longer safe, Violet is unwillingly sent away with her Aunt Vera to the city-state of X, a haven for witches and vampires alike. Soon, the fighting crosses even those borders and Violet is flung into a world of chaos, made worse by the unwanted attentions of a sullen vampire under the influence of a love spell and those of a rich mortal. The story loosely follows that of Room With a View, but adds in a supernatural twist and a war to the mix.

Witches and vampires are really nothing new. Twilight and Beautiful Creatures have both been and gone, and there have been countless TV series and books on those two subjects that the ideas begin to run dry, that is, until you put them both together and have them fight it out. For Twilight it was werewolves, but in Broom with a View, casters are the new enemy of the vampire, and any relationship between the two is vile and dangerous. That is why the book stands out; the premise isn't the same old thing; human falls in love with supernatural being even though it's dangerous for them. No, this is more complex than that; these two are natural enemies.

The book is a third person narrative, focusing almost entirely on Violet, our leading witch. It is also a historical-type novel, presumably based in the Edwardian period, since that is when Room With a View takes place. However, it was very difficult to tell the period of the novel, and although the social etiquette added very nicely to the story, there was nothing relevant enough that it could not have been told in another time zone entirely. Maybe it is just me, but if you base something in a period of history and there is a war going on that includes England, would you not want to draw parallels with a war that England was involved with in our own history to make the story feel more real for the reader? This might be a tad pedantic of me, but I truly believe that this would have added more interest to the story.

Not to say the story was not interesting in the slightest, because I couldn't stop thinking about it when I wasn't reading. I always wanted to know how the issues would be resolved, and eagerly awaited the times when I could pick it up again. The main reason was the mess Violet gets herself into with a mortal man, Mr Wilberforce, after she agrees to marry him despite her best efforts.

As for the characters, Violet and her Aunt Vera were extremely well-drawn, along with Mr Wilberforce and his controlling mother. For such a quick book, many other characters also had more than one dimension, which was lovely to see. There was one exception; Sebastian Du Monde, who seemed quite one-sided throughout. There were no explanations to his moodiness at the beginning of the book which was quite compelling, nor any about how his motives at any point.

This book was a really enjoyable read and I would recommend it for teenagers and for adults in need of a light read. It had a good pace, a lot of humanity and a very unexpected crescendo. It gets an 8 out of 10

This book was sent to me on behalf of the authors for an honest review. Thank you for the wonderful read.

26 March 2014

Graveminder - Melissa Marr

Rebekkah Barrow didn't ever plan to come back to Claysville, but then again, neither did Byron Montgomery, and yet the town has called both of them back for a very specific purpose.

Maylene Barrow is dead, murdered by a girl who should have been in the ground; dead, buried and minded. The mystery, however, runs even deeper than that, and even though Rebekkah is grieving, she soon finds that there are more pressing matters to deal with. She is forced to come to terms with the death that haunts her to this day, to her own faults, and to her new identity as the Graveminder; a job she never knew existed.

Graveminder is a brilliant, slightly romantic take on the old classic horror of a zombie, but this time it has been taken and twisted into a tiny microcosm, where everything relies on two people, our protagonists. Clare has created a tiny world, complete with various subplots that tie in superbly at the end. The entire plot has layers on top of layers, which peel slowly back throughout the book to reveal more about the job of the Graveminder, how it came to be and why it has been given to Rebekkah.

This is very much a dual-protagonist book (if that's even the right way of saying it.. but you get the jist, right?). The Graveminder is nothing without her Undertaker, and so we see the emotional journey of both Byron and Rebekkah in this book in equal measure. This is great as we get a much clearer picture of what exactly is going on, given that we can switch to the view of both of these characters, instead of having to be told it as in a singularly first-person narrative.

The only issue with this book was the romance. For some, this is a really nice touch and people tend to appreciate the main characters having some kind of romantic entanglement, especially in a book that is aimed at teenagers. However, for me the romance didn't completely work. Rebekkah's feelings didn't quite ring true nearer the end of the book, and Byron's constant talking over the same things bored me to tears, the same way Rebekkah's tendency not to address any aspect of reality did. However, I can't say that I've been in her situation, so it really isn't my place to say what any normal person would have done in her place.

In the end, the story came to a very good conclusion, and I fully enjoyed the mystery in the story, which was hinted at, and I never really guessed right until half a page before I was told. Perfect timing. A quick, exciting and fairly powerful read that really gets you to think about the afterlife, but not in a bad way.

8 out of ten.

23 March 2014

This is The End

A group of actors find themselves in the midst of the apocalypse with now way out. They must every ounce of courage and brains that they have, and unfortunately there's not much to go around.

This movie is absolutely packed with stars; not only is there Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco and Jonah Hill as part of the main cast, there are appearances from Emma Watson, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Rihanna and Micheal Cera as well, along with many more that I can't remember. That is one of the major selling points for the movie, and the other is that they are all playing themselves, after a fashion. You seriously begin to doubt that they are all the terrible people they claim to be, and that their real reactions to the apocalypse would be to do a load of drugs and make home videos, but hey, it would pass the time.

The main plot is pretty straightforward; all the celebs are at a party in James Franco's house when the end of the world hits. Most of the guests run outside to see what is happening and are killed by the giant hole that opens up next to the house. Fires begin to blaze everywhere and our protagonists get back inside sharpish. They try to survive now, splitting rations of food and trying to save water, while outside beasts roam the earth, hunting down those who are doomed to hell.

This is a very dark kind of comedy, full of drugs, swearing, severed heads, demons and some pretty gross aspects to do with bodily fluids. Needless to say, this is definitely a film for people who like toilet humour and weirdness.

Although quite entertaining, I would not watch this again as it really is not to my taste humour-wise, so it gets a 3 out of 10.

19 March 2014

Coraline - Neil Gaiman

Caution: Quite a lot of spoilers!

Coraline Jones has just moved in to her new home and sets about exploring every part of it, but there is one very curious part of the house that she can't help but look at; the door in the drawing room. One night, Coraline is woken up by noises coming from the drawing room, and when she opens the door, there are no bricks, just a corridor, identical to the one in her own home. When she goes through it, she discovers a parallel word to her own, with good food, good toys and doting parents, so why does she feel so uncomfortable there? Coraline leaves only to find her real parents stolen, and she knows exactly who did it; her other mother. Coraline will have to use all her wits and all her courage to defeat the monster on the other side of the door, to save herself, her parents and the other children who have fallen into the spider's web.

Reading this book, you can tell that it is clearly for children. The language is fairly simple, easy to understand, full of interesting descriptions and the sentences are short, making it easy for them to read. The actual story is something else entirely. Though short, it has an awful lot packed into it, and much of it is strange and slightly disturbing. Don't let that put you off though, because kids love scary or gruesome stuff.

Neil Gaiman is doing what he does best; delivering us a quirky new fantasy, an Alice in Wonderland for a new generation. The book has already been turned into a film, a creepy one at that, and no doubt a few of his other children's stories will be next, so watch this space. Personally, I'd go with The Graveyard Book, if I were you, film-makers. As for the film, the story and the character of Coraline are depicted wonderfully, and the additional character has actually made the story richer, so well done Henry Selick (the director and screenplay writer).

There is one theme throughout this book that really resonates, and that is the love between parents and children, and the fact that even though you may get on each-other's nerves at times, it shouldn't matter. The way that Coraline is separated from her parents is a very real fear for children, and though Gaiman plays on this fear, as well as the fear of death and of being lost, he also executes an ending that will give hope to children. The ending shows how a child can be in control of a situation, no matter how terrifying, and how through that they can control their fears.

Coraline herself is such a strong, almost fearless protagonist, and she makes a likable and identifiable character for the young readers. She is a great role model for children, as she realises the morals of her own story.

I'm giving this book a 9 out of 10, and only because the short sentences are not my cup of tea, and it wasn't quite detailed enough for me.

18 March 2014

A Storm of Swords, Part 1; Steel and Snow - George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin yet again delivers the next part of this epic tale with a spirit and style that makes it impossible to stop reading.

This story begins during the battle at the end of the second book, and then details the events that follow in each character's perspective. The stories vary greatly in terms of how far and wide the characters journey, both emotionally and physically. Arya, who has grown so much in the last book, is left to wander the lands, but her story does not move on nearly as much as Sansa's or Jamie's. Each chapter ending is a cliffhanger which you absolutely have to know about, only to be faced with another from a different character. As in the previous books, there are a lot of things going on at once, and as more characters are introduced, the plot only gets more complex.

This book comes as a pair with the next one, and this is quite obvious as many events unfold that will eventually cause much larger disruptions to the lives of other characters, particularly the arrival of the Dornish prince's bloodthirsty brother to Kings Landing. There are eyebrow-raising marriages and dubious alliances forming that will almost certainly become larger plot points in the next book. A few cliffhangers at the end of this book ensure that you are craving the next one soon after.

One issue I have already raised with this series is that the complexity of the book may leave some people with an aching head. If you tend to read other books in-between, you will certainly not remember events that happened in the last one, or minor characters, and yet in some occurrences the reader seems expected to remember what happened between certain characters from what seems like an awful long time ago. A reader with a short memory would want slightly more information when little-known characters become more like protagonists.

Apart from that point, it should be said that this is an excellent read which does not disappoint. In fact, it was difficult to stop reading it at times. The next book is shaping up to be every bit as good as its' predecessors. 9 out of 10.

17 March 2014

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings begins exactly at where the last book stops off, with the shocking aftermath of King Joffreys actions. There are four Kings vying for the kingdom, the other three being Stannis Baratheon, the dead King's brother, Renly Baratheon, the younger brother, and Robb Stark, the King in the North, who seeks revenge for the death of a loved one. As more men crown themselves, death comes more quickly and in higher numbers, and no-one is safe from the carnage.

Again, the author writes in an intense and compelling manner. His characters are incredibly vast and have so many different traits you wonder how on earth he managed to imagine every single one of them, but he does. We meet new characters, too, such as Jaquen H'ghar, Margaery Tyrell, Asha Greyjoy and Brienne of Tarth, and I'm sure we shall be seeing a lot more of them in the books to come.

The story becomes more complex, and you keep wondering what on earth is going to happen to certain characters. Where will Arya go now? Will Sansa remain safe without the Hound to protect her? I can't wait to find out, and I can't wait to see what on Earth Daenerys is planning to do when she finally makes her way to the Seven Kingdoms.

This book is a little bit slower and a fair bit longer, but persevere, because I can hear a storm coming.. a Storm of Swords. 7/10.

To read my review on 'A Game of Thrones', please click this link.

9 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire - Film

300: Rise of an Empire starts where the last film left off; the King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans have fallen, and the Persian army are still invading. The widow, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headley), tells us the story of the General Thermosticles (Sullivan Stapleton) at the battle of Marathon, where he shot an arrow into the Persian ruler, King Darius, as his son watched. Then the story changes direction as we jump to a time before the 300 died, when Thermosticles is trying to unite Greece to fight the Persians but to no avail. What follows is the story of the battle of Salamis, where Thermosticles is pitted against the beautiful Commander Artemisia (Eva Green) in a bid to keep Greece's freedom.

As you might expect from the second film in the 300 franchise, there is a lot of blood and gore, and a lot of fighting, therefore if you don't like action sequences and faint at the sight of blood, you should definitely not watch this film. If you're watching this in 3D, watch out, because the blood gets literally everywhere, including all over the screen in the first action sequence. After the battle of Marathon is over, the 3D element calms down somewhat, and we get on with the main plot.

The plot is actually quite good, as it is based on real life events, if rather embellished. The way that the film shows you character's back-stories and manages to incorporate them into the plot is very nicely done, and the story flows very well from one element to the next. Of course, the main focus is on the battles, and therefore a lot of the plot is lost amongst all the fighting scenes. One impressive thing is the manner that people die, and you can't help but wonder at the inventiveness of the people who thought them up; one man gets his head smashed in by a horse, another simply gets his head cut off in two simple knife strokes. As stated before, there is an abnormal amount of blood in these scenes, try not to be sick.

As for the acting, although we have suffered the blow of having Gerard Butler's character die, we still get the acting talent of Lena Headley, Rodrigo Santoro and David Wenham, but with the added bonus of Eva Green, who is a very welcome addition. You may also recognise Jack O'Connell (Skins) and Hans Matheson (The Tudors, Les Miserables). The main character, Thermosticles, is quite well played, but given that he seems to have only one driving force, he ends up being a very one-dimensional character and so I doubt Sullivan Stapleton could have done much more to save him from scrutiny. Really, the star of the show was always going to be Eva Green, whose character is interesting, lively and reasonably multi-faceted.

One thing that was particularly stunning about the film was actually the special effects and the costumes. The beauty of the landscape and the attention to detail in the naval ships, the flowing cloaks and the spraying blood was quite acute. Eva Green's ensembles were always flawless; a perfect mix of femininity and harshness that suited her character very well.

This film, although a gorefest and a standard action-type plot, was visually stunning (in a macabre sort of way) and strangely enjoyable to watch when you want a slightly less intellectual film. The history is artfully twisted into a story that turns out to be quite watchable. On that note, it gets a 6 out of 10, and it may even get a second watch.


8 March 2014

Bitter Greens - Kate Forsyth

It's time to take another look at yet another fairytale retelling. This time, Rapunzel gets a makeover, and this time there are three tales woven into the plot. The first is that of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a French writer with an extraordinary life, exiled to a nunnery by King Louis, the second is that of Selena Leonelli, an Italian courtesan, muse to a great painter but frightened that time will take away her beauty, and the third is our Rapunzel, Margherita, a young girl taken from her family by a witch and forced to live her life in a tower with dark secrets within.

So far, so good; this book manages to combine three very well-written characters and make the story something extremely interesting. The only downside was that it starts with Charlotte-Rose's going to the nunnery and her first impressions on being there. It then tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a man and makes him fall in love with her through the help of a witch. As of yet, there is no sign of this being the story of Rapunzel, and that it where the book lets you down. The story that you would buy the book for only really gets going when you are half-way through the book. Instead, we have several strands of the story, seemingly nothing to do with each-other, and the backgrounds of characters that you never see again, such as Margherita's mother. However, once you do complete the book, you find that all of this was valuable information contributing to the character and the final few chapters, where all this comes nicely into place.

Therefore, I am unsure as to whether I liked this book or not. When I finally did get to the middle of the book, I was completely wrapped up in the story, about what happens to Selena Leonelli and Margherita, and how Margherita comes to be the witch's undoing. Also, I felt the big reveal was rather easy to decipher, as I was quite sure of the twist from the moment I began reading about the witch.

I did like the way that this story was woven in with reality so that it could be believed that all of the story were real events that have been told so many times that they have become fairytales. It is a lovely idea, and one that I enjoy seeing in many of the fairytale retellings I have read, most notably in Confessions of an Evil Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. This brings me on nicely to the fact that it included the French court of Louis XIV, and Charlotte-Rose, which steeped the story in a lovely account of a part of  history that I have not previously been exposed to.

This is certainly a Rapunzel for grown-ups, there are some quite disturbing scenes, as well as very sexual ones that a child should not be reading. The themes are also quite adult; there is so much about death, despair, anger and politics. However, along with that comes a fervour for love conquering all and a good dose of magic, though I believe that it could easily be interpreted as plain science in today's world.

I am giving this book a 7 out of 10, simply for the fact that it did not get fully into the story for some way.

6 March 2014

The Book Thief - Film

I am a huge fan of this book. I bought it years ago and it quickly became one of my favourites, so there will be many, many allusions to the book in this post.

The story sets up the premise straight away; this will not be a completely happy story, because the first voice you hear is death's, and the first scene you see, and little boy dies. From then on we follow the story of his sister, Liesel Meminger, as she is given up by their mother to live with the Hubermann's, who will be her foster parents in Germany; the thundercloud that is Rosa, and the kindly soul that is Hans. Liesel isn't very good at making friends, but she soon discovers a bond with her foster father; they both like to learn and to read stories, and, although she never meant to, she begins to steal books to feed this enthusiasm. But this is wartime Germany, and Jewish people are being threatened by the Nazi party. The Hubermann's are Jewish sympathisers, and when a young man with a connection to Hans comes to their doorstep, they hide him in their house for as long as they can.

So the main thing that really stands out in the book is the idea of death as the narrator. In the book, death tells the story of how he came to be haunted by Liesel Memminger, and it all started with a white death. The next time he saw her, the world was red, and the last time was black, three colours that were never even mentioned in the film, yet I felt they were very significant in terms of imagery. It was nice to see that the first scene was quite startling white, but it was a shame the colours were not carried through to the rest of the book.

The second thing that stands out is the period that this film is set in; Nazi Germany, and the fact that the main characters are hiding a Jew in their basement is truly compelling. The film tells this story very well, with a real sense of the friendship that develops between Max and the family, most of all with Liesel. It also shows the fear and the effect that the party had on the community, with many people being afraid of having a Jewish-sounding name, or of fraternising with sympathisers. The absolute humanity in the film is excellent, and I loved the way that relationships developed within the plot.

The acting is one thing that is both good and bad; Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are truly incredible in their parts, but for me the main character, Liesel, didn't really match up. Maybe it was the fact that Liesel, as a character, isn't particularly talkative, and is quite a normal girl, despite all her bravery and her thievery. The last scene in the book, for me, was hugely emotional, and yet that emotion did not translate into the film. Instead, we saw death and destruction, but it was all muted, and it gave way into a conclusion that was quite bland, compared to the ending that death gives in the book.

Overall, the film is very good, and if you have not read the book, it will make you want to read it. It is ideal for people who enjoy films that have a historical background and human interest, for example; The Help, The King's Speech, Pan's Labyrinth (highly recommended) or, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or Schindler's List. 8 out of 10.