Film Review: Nightcrawler

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I’ll be honest with you – I wanted to see Nightcrawler largely because it had Jake Gyllenhaal in it. That and it was showing at the weird arthouse cinema that’s right near home/work. It’s safe to say, that my gravitating towards anything Gyllenhaal-esque is always a good idea, if only for the fact that it forces me to watch weird, but somewhat wonderful, films that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a sociopathic, mentally impaired scavenger – he desperately wants a job, and spends all day studying business online, but no one is willing to hire him. One night, Bloom comes across a group of men filming an accident on the road to sell to the morning news broadcasters – the grislier, the better, and all the more money to be made.

Bloom quickly buys a camera and a police scanner, and hires a hapless assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed) for a pittance. After filming a particularly gory carjacking, Bloom gets in touch with Nina (Rene Russo) the news director of a morning news station, and one who is willing to put ratings before ethics.

Through the combination of his emotionless nature and his strange Business 101 ideals, Bloom quickly makes his ‘nightcrawling’ into a business – but at a cost. Not only does he set up accidents for better footage, but he also threatens Nina into sleeping with him in a particularly spine-tinglingly passive aggressive manner.

What makes the film of course is Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, and I swear I’m saying that in a completely unbiased way. Not only has his appearance been dramatically altered for the role – long, lank hair and extreme weight loss being just two examples – but his mannerisms and quirks throughout the film make Bloom into a particularly complex and bone-chilling character. It is one thing to watch an actor play a sociopath unconvincingly, and quite enough to watch them do it with such skill that you become absorbed by their every movements, believing that they have, in fact, morphed into this creep.

The other standout feature of Nightcrawler was the black satire scattered throughout – some obvious, others less so. While the most apparent was the hideously accurate (if melodramatic) portrayal of today’s media – as Russo’s character states, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. While I’d like to think that this is simply dramatisation for the film, previous examples of real life media tells us otherwise. However, it is the more subtle satire – from Gyllenhaal’s deadpan rendition of Business 101, to the idea that anyone can be hired as ‘an intern’ to avoid payment – that really hits the core.

Perhaps the only downfall of Nightcrawler is that it ends somewhat in an anticlimax, and with little to no reasoning behind it. Instead of a cliffhanger, the film ends with plots hastily introduced, only to be swept aside for the big finale. Unfortunately, though the writing was good throughout the rest of the film, this bizarre lack of ‘tying loose ends’, so to speak, somewhat dampened my overall opinion of the film.

Nightcrawler is receiving rave reviews and Gyllenhaal is rumoured to be up for the ‘Best Actor’ awards in the upcoming awards season. Whether the Academy Awards would acknowledge a film so bleak and a character so dark is another question, but that’s never stopped us from watching a film, now has it?

Have you seen Nightcrawler? Are you a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal? Let me know!

Book Review: The Pigeon

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I’m not sure if it’s simply because he is European, but Patrick Suskind’s novella, The Pigeon (written after his more famous work, Perfume), reads as though it was written by someone on a bad trip. Perhaps it’s just a sign of Europe’s ability to make anything quirky (as a thoroughly boring Australian – I intend that as a compliment), but throughout Suskind’s short story all I could keep thinking was ‘What the hell am I reading?’ Once again, this is intended as a compliment.

Set in a single day in the life of Parisian Jonathan Noel, The Pigeon depicts the unravelling of a man’s life. Jonathan Noel lives a solitary life as a bank’s security guard – and although his job is boring, his hours long and his home small, it is a life that he has lovingly cultivated for himself. Intent on his retirement, Noel has created a quiet peaceful in his mind until he reaches that day. Without friends, family or a lover, it appears that no one will get in the way of his ultimate goal – that is, until he meets The Pigeon.

Located in the hallway of his boarding home, The Pigeon (I feel the capitalisation is necessary) focuses his beady eyes on Jonathan and the latter subsequently has a downfall. From what starts as an ordinary day quickly spirals into the depths of hell, as Jonathan has an existential crisis and begins to question his future in the world.

Needless to say, this book was more philosophy than it was plot. The outlines of the novel – man loses control after seeing a pigeon – seems ridiculous, but of course they all act as metaphors for something far more thought-provoking. Granted, I enjoyed The Pigeon even when I took away the philosophical context if only for the imagery of a man losing a staring contest with a pigeon. Plus, hey! Some people are terrified of birds. For example, I’m terrified of crocodiles, so if one decided to take residence in my home then there’s a highly likely chance of my refusing to return home ever again.

Surprisingly, considering the few number of characters, dialogue or plot, I enjoyed The Pigeon far more than Suskind’s more famous novel, Perfume. Perhaps because on some level I felt for poor Jonathan, he who has had his perfect peace shattered, but also because the character is Perfume creeped the hell out of me.

The Pigeon isn’t for the faint-hearted or those who can’t ‘read between the lines’ so to speak, but it is only about 90 pages and can easily be knocked off in a couple of hours. Essentially, it’s a bit of a laugh about a serious topic wrapped in a ridiculous one, so I have to give Patrick Suskind credit for successfully pulling off The Pigeon and its outrageous plot line.

Have you read The Pigeon? Are you a fan of Patrick Suskind or philosophical novels? Let me know!

the pigeon by patrick suskind

The Pigeon – (image taken from http://www.bigactive.com)

Book Review: Emma

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The 21st century adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, by Alexander McCall Smith, may have all the key components of a good love story, but somehow still managed to avoid having any heart.

As part of the Austen Project, where all six of Austen’s iconic works of fiction are re-written by popular present-day authors, Emma has been re-worked by McCall Smith, an author who is well-known for somehow being both male yet able to write highly-likeable chick lit. Who knew such a thing existed?

While this adaptation has all the main characters and storylines of Emma, it was also set in the 21st century – so there was little talk of estates and marrying for money. Hang on, that’s a lie, since apparently even in the 21st century, it’s OK to write a story about a woman who is keen to set her friends up with very wealthy men, regardless of their actual personality. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem with McCall Smith’s Emma, and perhaps the whole idea of the Austen Project altogether.

But first, the good. McCall Smith (though not always to my taste) has deftly recreated a character that is not easy to like. In Austen’s original, Emma frequently comes across as snobbish, meddlesome and immature – three traits that McCall Smith translated easily: from Emma’s aspirations of becoming an interior decorator (without ever actually being stressed about money), to her buying Harriet clothing only to regret it later on, to setting her friends up with men who are not only incompatible, but are just overall a giant bore.

However, McCall Smith has somehow, in the same way Austen successfully achieved, created Emma in a way that makes you love her nevertheless. Yes, she is meddlesome and immature and if I met her I’d probably want to whack her over the head with a stick…but all the same, I still wanted Mr Knightley to confess his feelings for her and I, alongside Emma, felt wronged and ashamed when he was disappointed in her.

However, as well as McCall Smith may have re-imagined the characters, the truth of the matter is, they have nothing on Austen’s works. While in theory the idea of recreating iconic characters in a modern setting in a good idea, the reality is that often it doesn’t translate well, particularly when the author has to stick so close to the original storyline.

150 years ago it made sense that Austen’s books were all about prestige, estate ownership, manners and trying to find a man who made enough money to support a woman – it made sense because that is how things occurred during her time (not to mention that Austen, a highly intelligent woman, was often poking fun at these ridiculous customs). However, put those storylines into the 21st century and it just makes the characters look money-obsessed and tacky, and the plot unevolved and lacking. Basically, all the wonderful things that make an Austen book an Austen book have been left out of the adaptations, simply because they are no longer relevant. While Emma is a wonderful love story, it is also so much more in the original – yet in this adaptation we’re simply left with a silly, self-absorbed girl.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think adaptations, particularly adaptations of Austen’s works, can be done splendidly. Almost twenty years on, Clueless is still a cult classic – and it is unashamedly based on Austen’s Emma. Bridget Jones’s Diary, perhaps the most famous reworking of an Austen classic, is another example, and one that arguably set off the ‘Austenmania’ that is still occurring today. Yet the reason these two adaptations were so successful was that they used the characters and the concepts of the novels, but then changed the story line to fit the agenda of their time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t occur with any of the Austen Project books so far, and while Emma was enjoyable enough, I still spent the entire novel thinking ‘CLUELESS IS BETTER’.

Overall, Emma is a relatively harmless, enjoyable read. Alexander McCall Smith is an author who knows how to make things easy and enjoyable for his reader. However, for fans of the Jane Austen’s original, I think you’ll be disappointed. Not only does it not even compare to the original, but it doesn’t even really compare to adaptations of recent years.

Have you read Emma or any of the novels in the Austen Project? Where do you stand on adaptations? Let me know!

emma by alexander mccall smith

Emma – (image taken from http://www.gr-assets.com)

Book Review: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

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Written by John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders is a surprisingly genuine novel set in the 1950s…despite the fact that it was only written ten years ago.

Told from the perspective of Horace Rumpole, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (RPBM) follow the legal case after two war heroes are found dead in their homes. The only suspect – Simon Jerold, the son of one of the victims – a man who was last seen waving a gun and threatening to kill his father if he taunted him again. Awks.

Of course, particularly with legal thrillers, nothing is ever as it seems, so Rumpole, ‘alone and without a leader’, decides to take the case and find a way to prove Simon innocent.

As far as ‘legal thrillers’ go RPBM isn’t particularly ‘legally’ or ‘thriller-y’ – rather, its a very British tongue-in-cheek at the absurdities of law and of English characters in general. Rather than provide twists and turns, or plot changes that cause the audience to gasp in amazement, a la The Sixth Sense (Bruce Willis is DEAD?! I’m sure you appreciate the 90s flashback), but it does provide notable witty examples of people in the legal field. Whether its Rumpole’s superior, who spends more time playing golf than in the office (still scarily true of some professions today), or the belief that if its too tough well, then, OBVIOUSLY he must be guilty.

Plus, aside from anything else, I have to give Mortimer credit for coming up with the term ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ a bittersweet term for a wife comparable to Basil Fawlty’s loving term ‘the dragon’ for his wife. Hmmfff. While it is just one example of the wit that surfaces throughout RPBM, a writer who successfully pulls of a character that refers to himself in the third person (although, if I were called Rumpole I’d refer to myself in the third person too), is one that understands what humour works best on the written page.

Have you read Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders or any other novels starring Horace Rumpole? Are you a fan of John Mortimer? Let me know!

rumpole and the penge bungalow murders by john mortimer

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders – (image taken from http://www.imagesbn.com)

Book Review: The House at Midnight

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The House at Midnight was the first novel from author Lucie Whitehouse, whose most recent novel, Before We Met, compelled me to delve into her other works.

Told from the perspective of Joanna, The House at Midnight follows the lives of seven friends after one of them, Lucas, inherits a stately English manor and a huge fortune from his recently deceased uncle, Patrick. Though the house appears as a wonderful addition to their friendship, with best friends Lucas and Joanna revealing their feelings for one another, things quickly turn sour.

When Lucas and his erratic friend Danny decide to move into the manor permanently, isolated from London and without any work, things go from strange to dangerous. Is it the house that they’re living in or is it their friendships? What secrets lurk in Lucas’s family’s past and were they caused by this mysterious manor?

If the plot of The House at Midnight rings a bell, you’d be right – many aspects of the novel – from references to Ancient Greek figures, a seemingly impenetrable friendship group and a cataclysmic event – all seem eerily similar to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Yet while Tartt’s novel has gone down as an epic masterpiece, unfortunately Lucie Whitehouse’s attempts were not so successful.

Granted, The Secret History did have more than double the number of pages and thus everything was explained, unfortunately in this case there were numerous aspects of The House at Midnight that neither added up, nor really held any real importance.

More so than any other type of book, a novel with a thriller plot has to contain solely information that is relevant to the conclusion, yet frequently Whitehouse would reference something in The House at Midnight only for it to end nowhere. Why was Joanna’s asthma described in such detail at the beginning of the novel, only for it to have no impact on the storyline in almost any way? Was the house haunted or was it simply a friendship group that had become spoiled over time? And were the references to Greek mythology actually relevant to the plot, or simply an example of the upper-class standings of the characters?

The House at Midnight was an enjoyable read, and I will admit that there were twists that I wasn’t expecting. In saying that, particularly in comparison to her latest book, Before We Met, it is also abundantly clear that The House of Midnight was Whitehouse’s first novel. At times the plot was rusty, the characters unlikeable and the loose ends conveniently never mentioned again. Unfortunately of course for Whitehouse the real problem is the comparison it draws with The Secret History – a highly acclaimed novel by a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, and really, not a fair comparison for any first time novelist.

If you’re a fan of intrigue and romance in a novel than I think you will enjoy The House at Midnight. However, I would recommend reading it with a grain of salt, and if you’ve read The Secret History, then maybe just reach for one of Lucie Whitehouse’s other novels instead.

Have you read The House at Midnight or The Secret History? Are you a fan of Lucie Whitehouse? Let me know!

the house at midnight by lucie whitehouse

The House at Midnight – (image taken from http://www.p.gr-assets.com)

Film Review: Interstellar

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Sorry I haven’t been around much of late, internet chums. What with overseas travel, six day working weeks and half of my friendship group apparently getting engaged and married, I haven’t had time to review anything of late (and trust me, I have a lot to review. Beach holidays make for excellent reading time). And, I mean, I considered asking my friends to put off their impending nuptials so I would have time to blog, but to be honest, that seemed a bit self-centred, you know?

Today however, I do have a corker in store, because less than an hour ago, I finished watching Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Interstellar. For a film that is about space travel, it somehow managed to deliver so much more: hints of Homer’s The Odyssey, questions about life on Earth, and to what extent a human being will do in order to survive. Phew! I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Set in a dystopian future, Interstellar shows Earth as a wasteland – although humans are currently surviving, it’s only just – space travel, the army and other ‘unnecessary’ aspects of society have been dispelled so that more people can be trained as farmers – in this future, the only thing that we need is food in order to stay alive.

When Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter stumble onto NASA’s hidden quarters (via directions from a seemingly paranormal bookshelf), McConaughey soon learns that the precarious existence that humanity has carved out for themselves will soon not be enough – and so he, alongside three other astronauts, will have to travel through space and a wormhole into another galaxy in order to find a new planet that humans can begin life on.

If Cooper succeeds in finding this planet, they have two options – either Professor Brand (Michael Caine) solves the gravity problem and entire space stations of humans can be sent through to the new planet, or humanity on Earth dies, but a secondary colony (made from frozen embryos) can begin life and continue the existence of humans.

Of course, being a Christopher Nolan film, not to mention one about space travel, things are more complicated than that. Not only does Cooper have to make the heartbreaking decision to not see his children for perhaps many, many years, but he also has to deal with relativity – after all, time is a man-made concept, and as such, time does not necessarily move at the same pace in space.

Not only does Interstellar boast a killer director, producer and writer in Christopher Nolan, but it also has a star studded cast – Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon and John Lithgrow just to name a few.  And for the most part, particularly since they essentially had to compete with one another, each of the actors excelled. Most impressive of course was Matthew McConaughey, if only for the reason that he has managed to shake off the shackles of an actor solely in terrible chick flicks (remember Failure to Launch, anyone?), but Jessica Chastain as the heartbroken daughter was also both amazing and harrowing.

What was best about Interstellar though is its original (and somehow scientifically accurate) storyline – it isn’t a remake, sequel, book or television adaptation. And though I will be the first to admit that I know very little about space time, wormholes or physics (although Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything did shed a light on the whole thing), it didn’t stop me from both enjoying the film while also actually UNDERSTANDING it. Which, considering how confusing Inception was (and I had a friend explain it to be step by step while we watched it), not to mention The Prestige, I feel like both Christopher Nolan and I deserve a pat on the back.

Lastly though, for a dystopian sci-fi, space time thriller, Interstellar was a film that tugged at the heartstrings. When one tore their mind away from the conundrum of relativity (after all – how DOES that work? For example, if you’re on a planet where each hour is 7 Earth years, what happens if you’re in contact with one another on the phone between planets? Does time get literally sucked away as you’re talking? Not to mention – how are they communicating in the first place? Wouldn’t the light years that they’ve travelled distort how long the message takes to get across? AHH, TIME AND SPACE), it is a story about humanity and love. The exchanges between Cooper and his daughter Murphy are legitimately heartbreaking, and the thought of one person having to witness – from afar – their loved ones living their lives is potentially the most torturous of all.

Interstellar had a lot to live up to but luckily it’s survived the hype. Though scientists may question parts of the storyline (how DOES spaghettification actually work?), as a member of the general public, I can say that it’s been one of the best, and most original, films of the year.

Have you seen Interstellar? Are you a fan of Christopher Nolan films? Let me know!

Book Review: Hard Times

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Facts. Is there anything more important or solid in life than facts? Well, yes. And unfortunately, when one only considers facts, rather than emotions, beliefs and personalities, than one ends up in a pickle. And by pickle I mean a daughter married to a foul older man, and a son who doesn’t give a damn about the law.

Which is practically what Charles Dickens is trying to teach us in his novel, Hard Times. Or something like that *cough cough*.

Set at the beginning of the 19th century, Hard Times follows the life of Thomas Gradgrind, a man consumed with facts and little else. He does not have time for imagination, wonderment or emotions. And thus, that is the way his children are raised. Unfortunately, his two oldest children, Tom and Louisa, both feel repressed by their father’s strictness, and each take dramatically different paths through their lives. Dutiful Louisa marries Mr Bounderby, a boastful and apparently ‘self-made’ man – yet she later pays the consequences of her marriage when she falls in love with another man; while Tom breaks the law in order to sustain a terrible habit.

Known for his commentary on social injustices of the 19th century, Charles Dickens stays true to form in Hard Times. Though there is a strong plot throughout Hard Times, alas there are multiple, and while the main focus of the novel has more to do with emotions than inequalities, his moral lessons are still weaved throughout. While some are more obvious than others – particularly poor Stephen Blackwell (a man of such a low caste that even his dialogue is rendered practically unreadable), who is stitched up as a robber simply because of his class – there are other, more subtle lessons throughout.

While at times Hard Times was a bit burdensome to read, overall, for a novel that’s 200 years old, in many ways it hasn’t dated. For example Coketown, a fictitious mining town set in England, may be pre-Industrial revolution, the inequality and stigma attached to it is scarily similar to that endured by mining towns in England during Margaret Thatcher’s reign. And though (most) women can now choose whom they want to marry, Louisa’s dutifulness to the men in her life – essentially, her true way of showing affection – is something that many women still fall back on today. And, as usual with Dicken’s characters, there is always at least one person who reminds you of an ignorant fool you know in the 21st century. Because, let’s be honest here, doesn’t everyone have a Bounderby (a blustering liar who looks down on others) in their lives?

Dickens is the epitome of English literature and is well known for his subtle wit and musings on society and culture. Hard Times is no exception to his reputation. Though at times it can be slightly hard to read, as far as classics go, Hard Times has not so much as aged as proved a point. For anyone who is a fan of literature, I would recommend this book.

Have you read Hard Times or anything by Charles Dickens? What did you think of it? Let me know!

hard times by charles dickens

Hard Times – (image taken from http://www.tower.com)

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