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Shame & Immortals

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Shame

Brandon is a 30-something man living in New York who is unable to manage his sex life. After his wayward younger sister moves into his apartment, Brandon’s world spirals out of control. From director Steve McQueen (Hunger), Shame is a compelling and timely examination of the nature of need, how we live our lives and the experiences that shape us. (Taken from imdb.com)

Taking these plot summaries from imdb are a double-edged sword. They’re usually poorly written and either too simplistic or too verbose. On the other hand, I don’t have to come up with a plot summary by myself. Score. Anyways, I wanted to see Shame mostly because one of my acting crushes of the moment is in it. Michael Fassbender has been in everything recently it seems, Inglorious Basterds, Centurion, X-Men: First Class, Haywire, A Dangerous Method. Now that I think about it, I didn’t really like any of those movies, but that doesn’t change the fact that I like Fassbender.

The movie’s director, Steve McQueen (lol), had collaborated with Fassbender on a film from 2008 called Hunger, which depicted young Irish republican Bobby Sands who is imprisoned by the British and goes on a hunger strike to protest conditions and political imprisonment in general. That movie was difficult to watch, to put it mildly, so I was expecting a certain degree of unsettlement from Shame. I also went with three female friends from University, so the promise of  lots of awkward, naked, sexual moments meant it wouldn’t be a dull evening.

The centerpiece of Shame is Fassbender’s performance, which is nothing short of incredible. The fact that he didn’t win the Oscar this year, that he wasn’t even nominated, is a crime. He goes from a man who, although engaging in activities that are deemed outside the social norm, he is content in his routine. However, when his sister (Carey Mulligan) comes to visit, problems from the past arise that makes him question why he does what he does. His slow descent into oblivion is portrayed so beautifully by Fassbender that you can’t help but feel for him when he’s throwing out his piles of porn magazines (another crime).

The film definitely doesn’t fit the mold of today’s usual movie. It doesn’t have much of a plot, and leaves quite a few questions unanswered in the end, but isn’t that the standard of art-house movies anyway? Great performance by Fassbender, interesting movie, not for everyone.

Immortals

Mad with power, King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) has declared war against humanity. Amassing a bloodthirsty army of soldiers disfigured by his own hand, Hyperion has scorched Greece in search of the legendary Epirus Bow, a weapon of unimaginable power forged in the heavens by Ares. The gods and mankind remain powerless to stop Hyperion…until a peasant named Theseus (Henry Cavill) comes forth as their only hope.

I was tempted to have this review be one word: crap. That’s what this movie is, complete and utter horse shit. The director, Tarsem Singh I had heard of from his previous movies, The Fall and The Cell. Those films can be summed up in one line, style without substance. The Cell, depicting Jennifer Lopez as some kind of law-enforcement officer, travelling into the mind of a comatose serial killer to find his last victim. Cool idea, and insanely awesome visuals, but as a movie it wasn’t any good at all. The Fall was set in a hospital in 1920’s Los Angeles, where a patient tells a little girl a story about far-away lands, epic deeds and mysterious strangers. Again, a very cool premise, and intensely great visuals, but not a very fun movie.

Immortals doesn’t have a cool premise, and its visuals seem to be a rehash from the film 300. The acting is atrocious, the plot is worse, and even the action, which should have been the saving grace of the film (as it was for 300), was dull and repetitive. Henry Cavill, who has been cast in the new reboot of the Superman franchise is bland, Stephen Dorff is terrible as usual, and Freido Pinto, while a gorgeous girl, really can’t act. John Hurt, fulfilling his 30-film cameo deal (it seems), doesn’t really bring anything to the table either. I guess the only good thing I can say about it is that Luke Evans as Zeus, bare-chested with a golden cape, was quite nice to look at. Avoid at all costs.

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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This is one of my favourite kinds of books. It’s a book that has a whimsical quality about it that incorporates magical realism, historical fiction, and a slight touch of romance. Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, is a work of great imagination and carefully crafted detail. The night circus, or Le Cirque des Rêves, is described as such:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

I loved the way the author told the story. As I was slowly drawn into the magic of this book, a movie began to play in my head and narrating it was this deep, booming voice that added to the fairytale atmosphere. The story begins in the late 1800s with a 6-year-old girl being delivered to her father, Hector “Prospero” Bowen, after her mother commits suicide. It is discovered that she has inherited her father’s gift of real magic which they cleverly conceal as fake magic to perform in front of audiences worldwide. Prospero is a cold man who has no love for his daughter, Celia, and immediately thrusts her into a game she has no choice but to play against an unnamed opponent that will last decades into the future.

I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this book. If I were to finish writing the book I’ve always wanted to write, I would probably want it to end up being something like The Night Circus. It’s not a book everyone will love but for those that do it is the stuff of dreams and fairytales that enchants and delights at every turn of the page. Every character we encounter plays an equal part in this story but the main attraction is the circus itself. From the intricate details of the inner workings of the clock and the magic of the burning bonfire to the colour scheme of black and white and the magnificent gowns no expense was spared to make this the ultimate circus experience.

While we grow up with Celia and her opponent Marco from childhood to adulthood, the entire tale is timeless. Everything revolves around Le Cirque des Rêves and the love story between Celia and Marco is effortlessly intertwined within it in such a natural and subtle way that you don’t realize how beautiful of a story it really is until after and then it all kind of sinks in and you realize what a gem of a book this is.

The woman wears a dress something akin to a bridal gown constructed for a ballerina, white and frothy and laced with black ribbons that flutter in the night air. Her legs are encased in striped stockings, her feet in tall black button-up boots. Her dark hair is piled in waves upon her head, adorned with sprays of white feathers. Her companion is a handsome man, somewhat taller than she, in an impeccably tailored black pinstriped suit. His shirt is a crisp white, his tie black and pristinely knotted. A black bowler hat sits upon his head. They stand entwined but not touching, their heads tilted toward each other. Lips frozen in the moment before (or after) the kiss. Though you watch them for some time they do not move. No stirring of fingertips or eyelashes. No indication that they are even breathing. “They cannot be real,” someone nearby remarks.

Many patrons only glance at them before moving on, but the longer you watch, the more you can detect the subtlest of motions. The change in the curve of a hand as it hovers near an arm. The shifting angle of a perfectly balanced leg. Each of them always gravitating toward the other. Yet still they do not touch.

– The Night Circus

Subtle. That’s probably the best word to describe this book. It sneaks up on you because you don’t realize how captivated you are until you reach the last page and discover that it’s over and there is no more. If you’re expecting adrenaline-filled sparring matches pitting magician against magician then you will be disappointed. The underlying premise of the book is that of a duel between two talented magicians, their battleground being a traveling circus. But the real story is so much more than that and yet not that at all. I highly recommend this book as reading it simply made me happy. I say, read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and prepare to be enchanted.

The Devil’s Double & Footloose (2011)

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The Devil’s Double

Baghdad, the playground for the rich and infamous, where anything can be bought – but for a price. This is Uday Hussein’s world and with his depraved lust for debauchery and immorality, he helps himself to whatever turns him on. When army lieutenant Latif Yahia is summoned to Saddam’s palace, he is faced with an impossible request – to be Uday’s ‘fiday’ – his body double, or have his family condemned to death. In a world entrenched in betrayal and corruption, knowing who to trust becomes a matter of life or death for Latif, as he battles to escape from his forced existence. (Taken from imdb.com)

To begin with, I decided to watch this movie because of a misunderstanding. I had heard incredible things about Dominic Cooper’s performance in this film, playing both Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia. For some reason I thought he was the guy from The Wire (Dominic West), who is awesome. However, even after my initial disappointment, I managed to settle in and enjoy the experience. The critics were definitely right in lauding Cooper’s performance, as the film would’ve been much less interesting with a worse performance. The whole film centers on the two different men and how they change and evolve through near limitless power and corruption.

I thought the story very refreshing, as it was a topic I didn’t really know much about. I lived in the US at the time of the first Iraq war, and I remember watching green-tinted warfare on the news each night. Uday Hussein had grown up almost in the same manner as princes in medieval times, with carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Spoiled, sociopathic and buck-toothed, Uday is shown as a complete monster, while Latif is his opposite in almost every way. Having to witness such horrible things every day takes its toll on him, and it’s interesting to watch him cope with his increasingly guilty conscience over failing to act. Good movie if you’re interested in that part of history, and great performance by Cooper, but still doesn’t rise above ‘ok.’

Footloose (2011)

When teenager Ren moves from big-city Chicago to a small town in the West, he’s in for a real case of culture shock. Though he tries hard to fit in, the streetwise Ren can’t quite believe he’s living in a place where rock music and dancing are illegal. There is one small pleasure, however: Ariel, a troubled but lovely blonde with a minister for a father, who is responsible for keeping the town dance-free. Ren and his classmates want to do away with this ordinance, especially since the senior prom is around the corner, but only Ren has the courage to initiate a battle to abolish the outmoded ban and revitalize the spirit of the repressed townspeople.  (Taken from imdb.com)

I hadn’t seen the 1984 version of Footloose until recently, and I quite enjoyed it as a throwback to the 80s. This new version sounded like a horrible idea when I heard about it, as nobody can fill the shoes of the great Kevin Bacon. Just a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. As a story, it can be just as fitting today, with infringement of civil liberties and the role of religion in government still being hot topics. The music has been updated to a certain degree, with some hip hop numbers thrown in, and the Kenny Loggins classic that the film is named after is slightly revamped. They remained mostly true to the original storyline and feeling of the ’84 version, even having a “learning to dance” montage that was a great throwback to the simpler films of yesteryear.

While nothing about this film is very good; the acting is mostly bland, the story is clichéd and no risks are taken at any point of the production process, it’s still fun. I might be a bit biased because I like musicals/dance movies, but for 113 odd minutes I turned off my brain and just plain enjoyed myself. Movies shouldn’t always be intellectual challenges, sometimes they should be unadulterated entertainment. Kenny Wormald is no Kevin Bacon, but Julianne Hough is a whole lot hotter than Lori Singer. Yes please.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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I’ll always remember The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield as a book I devoted an entire Sunday to. I had originally checked this book out from the library for myself to read but ended up giving it to my sister instead. She read it and immediately told me I just had to read the book so she could discuss it with me. Luckily, I checked the book out for that very reason so I did.

Although reading this book led to a very lengthy discussion afterwards, I can’t say it was an excellent read. It was a good book and an intriguing mystery with a very gothic feel to it, not unlike Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, a book that was mentioned quite a few times throughout this novel. If you are a lover of books then I think you would find a lot to relate to. I understood Margaret Lea’s passion for books and her joy of having touched every book in her father’s antique book store and felt the pleasure of the physical, solid, weighty presence of a book in the hand.

As the story goes, Margaret is somewhat of a biographer and is requested unexpectedly to write the biography of the most famous writer in England, a woman by the name of Vida Winter who wishes to tell the real story of her life before she dies. The request comes out of nowhere as Margaret wasn’t aware that Vida Winter knew that she existed. Miss Winter is infamous for lying in interviews when it comes to her personal life and instead of giving true information she tells stories instead. Piqued by the aura of mystery that surrounds the reclusive author, Margaret agrees to hear the truth and write her life story.

Miss Winter and Margaret share a secret — they are both twins. The story that Miss Winter tells is mostly about herself and Emmeline growing up at the Angelfield Estate. All in all, the subject of  twins is very much like clowns in that these innocent beings can become downright creepy under the right light and in the right circumstances. Diane Setterfield succeeds in creating a very creepy atmosphere surrounding the Angelfield twins and the reader doesn’t really know what the big mystery is going to be until the very end when at last it is revealed and it’s one of those endings where you have to re-evaluate everything you’ve just read.

Exhibit A: Cute Twins

Exhibit B: Creepy Twins

See the difference?

This is a strange book in that no dates are given. We know that there are telephones and taxis but no cell phones or computers. Correspondence is all done by post. I believe the general consensus is that the story takes place in the 50s or the 60s. For me, it was an unwelcome distraction in the back of my mind while reading trying to figure out when this story takes place. 

While the conclusion of the story still plagues my sister who goes back and forth between the different ways to perceive the ending, I am content to believe what I think the author wants us to believe. My sister, however, feels that little niggle of doubt that she can’t quite escape and she simply wishes the author would just tell us what is right rather than having us decide for ourself. Any book that can baffle my sister is cause for applause and The Thirteenth Tale itself is worth a read I think, maybe even a re-read. I found, however, that a lot of things could have been cut out while still preserving the spirit of the book so I won’t be picking it up again but I would still recommend it if you’re looking for a good modern gothic tale.


N.B.: I read this book as part of the Smooth Criminals Reading Challenge and this is my entry for the category of “Gothic Novel”. I decided to go for something modern as I’m not much for reading early classics.. I think I’ll leave that up to Oli who did a review of the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, a few months ago.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

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Overview

The first half of this book divides itself between the present and the past. This is the story of a 10-year-old Jewish girl in Paris, 1942 named Sarah who locks her 4-year-old brother in a cupboard and promises to return for him in a few hours as she and her parents are led away by the French police. It is a story of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup that is a significant historical event that took place on July 16 and 17 of 1942. The Jewish families rounded up by French police and were shipped by train to Auschwitz to be murdered. The story of Sarah intertwines with that of Julia Jarmond in the year 2002 as she is tasked with writing a piece on the Vel d’Hiv Roundup as the sixtieth anniversary is coming up. She discovers a connection with Sarah and that of her husband’s family and as the book progresses Julia tries to bridge the gap of sixty years and fill in the blanks to remember Sarah and understand how all of their lives were affected by the events of the past.

My Thoughts

From reading the description of this book I was immediately hooked. I can’t even begin to imagine what that little girl could be thinking as she was dragged away to the Vel d’Hiv with her parents knowing that she had locked her brother up in a cupboard that only she had the key to fully expecting to be back to unlock him. Absolutely horrifying thoughts, especially as the hours turn into days.

I thought the book was well written and that the feelings and emotions exhibited by the characters with respect to the situations in the book were authentic. I was a bit dizzy going back and forth between the past and the present but I thought each chapter was well-timed and helped keep the reader wanting to read more and more.

The other part of the book that we get to read about besides the historical aspect is Julia’s marriage and family life. While I don’t think this at all detracted from the book, I thought — as many readers did I’m sure — that Bertrand, Julia’s husband, was a complete and utter jerk. He’s arrogant and charming (apparently) and speaks to Julia in such a condescending and antagonizing way I wanted to slap him for her. Note to future self: don’t marry an asshole.

I am happy that Tatiana de Rosnay decided to write about this piece of history that the French government refused to apologize for or publicly admit that they knowingly sent these Jewish men, women, and children to their deaths until French president Jacques Chirac acknowledged the fact on July 16, 1995.

Overall, it’s a very good book and a fairly short read at just shy of 300 pages. We spend most of our time in Paris and I felt very at home there almost as if I could see, hear, and smell all that current day France might have to offer. Sarah’s Key is a story of how the past and the future are connected and always will be no matter how hard we might try to forget about the things we don’t wish to remember. But I think we’re always going to need those memories to learn from and teach future generations in the hope that that part of history will never be repeated. I enjoyed reading this book as a piece of historical fiction and would definitely recommend it.