‘Dreams from My Father’ & ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Dreams_from_my_father

My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.

Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.

For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.

It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.

Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.

It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.

True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.

And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.

But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.

Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.

So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.

Ratings:

Dreams from My Father – 3/5

The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5

Battle of the found-footage horrors: Devil’s Due (2014) vs Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

May 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

My disdain for found footage horror films is well documented. But as often is the case, I am gullible and always get sucked into watching more because people tell me “This one’s good”.

Apparently, two new ones released this year, Devil’s Due — basically a found footage version of Rosemary’s Baby — and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — the gazillionth entry in the worst movie franchise of all time, are “good”, or at least “better” than the other ones, given the trash we’ve seen in recent years. To me, that’s like asking which animal’s turd smells the best.

And so I am surprised to say, both of these films are actually, genuinely, “better” than most found footage horrors I’ve seen over the years. Not to say they are good, but they’re not hair-pulling terrible for once. I’ve decided to pit the two against each other to see which one is less bad.

Devils Due (2014)

devil's due

I don’t agree with the idea that you can’t remake a classic like Rosemary’s Baby, and  I don’t have a problem with a semi-remake in the more contemporary found footage style. After all, I’ve seen the new Zoe Saldana mini-series remake that was released recently and it was atrocious, so I’m not against taking a fresher approach.

The premise is fairly typical — a young married couple head to the Dominican Republic for their honeymoon and are tricked/drugged by locals before participating in some kind of satanic ritual. And boom, the wife is pregnant, and the rest of the film plays out plot points that are eerily similar to Rosemary’s Baby, complete with the paranoia and the raw meat eating. The ending, to the filmmakers’ credit, is different, going for the sensational climax as opposed to Rosemary’s Baby’s muted horror. But it’s not better, with the special effects on the low-budget end, and the final scenes are about as cliched as they come.

If you haven’t seen Rosemary’s Baby then there might be something to take away from this film, even though the ending is nowhere near as chilling. The acting is not bad and there are some genuinely creepy moments that are by and large better than the scares you get from the Paranormal Activity franchise. And while it is strictly speaking a straight-up horror flick there is a sense of fun and humour injected throughout.

But my two main problems with the film are: (1) the story is too derivative; and (2) it struggles, like most found-footage films do, to justify the constant use of hand-held cameras. I liked the idea of splicing the footage with CCTV and security cameras, etc, but there’s just no logical explanation why anyone would keep filming in circumstances the characters find themselves in. It takes away the realism the film is trying so hard to achieve.

2.5 stars out of 5

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

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I don’t know what’s more frightening: the fact that they’ve made yet another Paranormal Activity movie or that the franchise is so successful that they are now making spin-offs. Either way, we’ve got one, and it’s arguably better than all the other ones.

As I understand it, The Marked Ones is the first in the franchise that departs from the same old “haunted house” formula, but it still could not help itself from being somehow tied to the convoluted storyline that involves the woman with the big boobs (Katie Featherston) from all the other entries in the series. The reason they made it was to appeal to the Latin American market, but the vast majority of the film is in English.

The plot focuses on a bunch of Latino teenagers in California who break into a neighbour’s apartment following a murder. In there they find some weird shit, including VHS tapes and journals containing spells. Of course, strange things start to happen to the characters from there, including superhuman strength, behavioural abnormalities and other paranormal activity ripped straight from the X-Files. They investigate, stuff gets escalated, and eventually the shit hits the fan. What a surprise.

The reason I liked it a little more than the others is because it feels different. I never found the original Paranormal Activity all that scary, but there were at least some decent moments. By the time you got to the second, third and fourth films, there was never anything new. It was always the boring formula of filler, filler filler, false alarm scare, filler, filler filler filler, false alarm scare, filler filler filler, crazy screaming ending. Always.

The Marked Ones throws a bit more of a curved ball at audiences, with hints of witchcraft and occurrences that take place outside of the usual confined space of the family home. The tricks are not all that creative — it’s the typical gradual “possession” narrative — but at least they breathe life into a franchise that never really had much to begin with. There were a few more unexpected scares as well, plus the occasional successful attempt at generating a creepy atmosphere, though on the whole I still feel like I wasted 84 minutes of my life.

It’s not clear why the kids had to film everything even when they are scared out of their pants, but by this stage it’s pointless to ask.

2 stars out of 5

PS: I’d avoid both, but if I had to make a decision I’d say Devil’s Due gets the nod over The Marked Ones (but at least it still earned the best rating I’ve ever given to a Paranormal Activity film).

Movie Review: White House Down (2013)

July 10, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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We all knew it was coming, so let’s not pretend to be surprised to see another film about terrorists attacking the White House. Less than four months after Olympus Has Fallen, we now have White House Down, which has basically the same premise and even some of the same plot points and characters.

But is it better?

It probably should have been. Olympus Has Fallen was made for US$70m, while White House Down had more than double that budget with US$150m. Olympus Has Fallen starred Gerard Butler as the hero and Aaron Eckhart as the president, while White House Down features Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx — a closer race won by the latter duo because of their wider recognition and appeal. Lastly, Olympus Has Fallen was directed by Antoine Fuqua, known more for gritty crime dramas like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest, while White House Down has Roland Emerich, who has more experience with epic, special effects-laden blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Take those factors into consideration and White House Down looked like the more promising film — on paper.

That said, I prefer Olympus Has Fallen, and by a not insignificant margin. All things considered, it’s just better. More action packed, less ambitious and less pretentious. Olympus Has Fallen knew its limitations and stuck to its “Die Hard in the White House” routine, whereas White House Down wanted to be more diverse than just an enjoyable popcorn movie but stretched itself thin by trying too hard.

The plot is straightforward: Channing Tatum plays a capable ex-military guy who wants to get into the Secret Service. His daughter is a White House geek for some reason and they visit the White House on a day where terrorists attack and get a hold of the president, Jamie Foxx. Guess who is the only man that can save the day?

For the most part, White House Down is a perfectly adequate. Tatum is a fine action hero who appears more out of his depth than Butler was in Olympus Has Fallen, making him also more vulnerable. The majority of the action sequences are explosive and creative, though the attempts at mixing them with humour don’t always turn out effective.

My first problem with the film is the casting. As I said, Tatum can do action, but he can’t act. Whenever he’s not running around and has to engage in a conversation he becomes silly. The jokes and one-liners that come out of his mouth feel flat and forced. I like him but I hate him. I have complex feelings for this man.

Even worse than Tatum is Jamie Foxx. He may be an Oscar winner, but he’s not POTUS material. Most of the time he looks like he’s about to break into a rap or start trying to sell me something, especially when he’s talking politics. He’s just 50 shades of wrong for this role. Worse still, he has a much bigger role than Aaron Eckhart in Olympus Has Fallen so we are constantly reminded of how wrong he is for this film.

But hey, at least he had fairly good chemistry with Tatum.

As for the villain, Aussie Jason Clark — he’s good, but the character’s not terribly interesting. Maggie Gyllenhaal is not bad, Richard Jenkins is pretty good, and James Woods is excellent — but when the two leads don’t work the best supporting cast in the world isn’t going to be enough.

Another issue I had with the film was the lack of believability and logic. When I reviewed Olympus Has Fallen I noted how outrageous it was, but at the same time it passed my smell test because there was so much stuff happening that I wasn’t given enough time to process my scepticism. I kept thinking, “I guess that could work.”

With White House Down, however, I kept thinking, “Well that was too easy.” And it did seem too easy how a few guys, who clearly aren’t that skilled because they can’t even take down Channing Tatum, could take control of the White House just like that, and then for the rest of the US government to just sit around and do basically nothing for almost the rest of the film? Often I found myself asking, “Couldn’t they hear that?” or “Surely they should have felt that explosion?” My smell test was severely challenged.

I sound harsh, but that’s only because I’m placing White House Down side by side with Olympus Has Fallen, which I enjoyed more. There are positive elements to White House Down, including a few spectacular set pieces on the White House lawn and the aerial scenes with the helicopters. Some of the humour worked, and despite the excessive running time of 137 minutes, I did find most of the film engaging.

But it was still the inferior of the two White House films this year.

3 stars out of 5

PS: It’s not uncommon for Hollywood studios to green light a similar idea at the same time. The most recent in my memory being Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman last year and No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits in 2011. And of course, there was Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998. Strangely, the film that came out second usually did just as good if not better than the first. Doesn’t look like that will be the case here.

Mirror Mirror (2012) vs Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

June 8, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

As I have foreshadowed, my movie reviews are a little backed up, so why not kill two birds with one stone with this double-barreled review of two new films based around the same premise, Julia Roberts’ Mirror Mirror and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman?

To be honest, I didn’t have much an interest in either film, but as usual, I watched both. What can I do? I’m a film buff.

First up, Mirror Mirror, which should have been more aptly titled “Lily Collin’s Eyebrows.” Since the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, Collin’s eyebrows have been elevated to a whole new level. I was so distracted by the eyebrows that I often forgot to focus on the film. Which is easy, by the way, because it sucked donkey balls.

The majority of Mirror Mirror’s plot follows the original fairytale. Collins is Snow White and her stepmother and the Queen, Julia Roberts, is trying to get rid of her so she can remain the fairest of them all. Yes, there is a prince and yes, there are dwarves. No surprises.

Theoretically, Mirror Mirror should have been the better film. Just about everyone’s impression of Snow White comes from the Disney cartoon, which made it naturally more suitable for a family comedy as opposed to Snow White and the Huntsman’s “re-imagining.” While it was admittedly trying to be fun, Mirror Mirror suffered from a complete lack of freshness and laughs. The majority of the jokes were what I would call “family humour”, which is code for unfunny. There may have been a couple of good ones here and there, largely thanks to the charming wit of Winklevii star Armie Hammer as the prince, but for the most part the jokes hopscotched between obvious, lame and unimaginative. I can see children enjoying it, but I must say I cringed more than I laughed.

Mirror Mirror was more this

To be fair, the film was not badly made. Director Tarsem Singh, who last worked on Immortals, infuses flair into the art direction, and the costumes, especially those donned by Roberts, were all quite brilliant. The performances were strong and, thankfully, no one took themselves too seriously.

But in the end, I just couldn’t force myself to like or enjoy Mirror Mirror. Some might think the final Bollywood tribute sing-song was a redeeming feature but I found it totally bizarre and somewhat uncomfortable. If the film had lifted my spirits prior to this point I might have felt differently, but alas, it did not.

This brings me to the second Snow White film, Snow White and the Huntsman, which I thought would stink even before I caught the first trailer. Surprisingly, while I also struggled with it, I found it to be the better motion picture overall.

The Huntsman (let’s just call it that for short), is in the vein of last year’s Red Riding Hood, you know, that Amanda Seyfried “re-imagining” of another popular fairytale. It takes the basic plot and essentially does whatever it wants with it. In Red Riding Hood’s case, it was obviously inspired by the love triangle and teenage angst from Twilight, which doomed it to suckiness from the outset. In The Huntsman’s case, it’s a lot more complicated. This one takes “inspiration” from a lot of movies, from Lord of the Rings (or some might say Game of Thrones), Joan of Arc, Braveheart, Alice in Wonderland, Kingdom of Heaven, just to name a few. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

In this one, Snow White is imprisoned by the evil Queen for years before a daring escape into the enchanted forest, and a new character, known only as the Huntsman, is tasked with tracking her down. To me, even though the script was pretty muddled, it was by far more interesting because there were characters and plot points I didn’t expect. Sure, the story takes some questionably wild turns and spirals into absurdity on more than one occasion, but at least it kept me wondering what was going to happen next (for the most part, because at 127 minutes it was way too long and lost my interest for a while).

The final act of the film, the supposed climax, was crap and predictable. Anyone that has seen the trailers or the poster will know that Snow White, who has been imprisoned in a tiny cell since she was a child, mind you, suddenly becomes a sword-wielding badass for some reason. Her obligatory Braveheart-style motivation speech (which has become a staple of every movie with a big battle scene these days) was probably the most WTF moment I have seen on the big screen in years.

The standout character in the whole film has to be Charlize Theron as the crazy bitch/witch of a Queen. She’s fascinating despite the shortcomings of her character and Theron does an amazing job of portraying the seductive nutjob notwithstanding the sometimes trite dialogue she has to spew out.

Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman is also an interesting character and he fits the role well, but there were too many loose ends when it came to his relationship with the princess.

Snow White and the Huntsman was more this

Speaking of which, if there is an Oscar for unexplained/exaggerated heavy breathing, Kristen Stewart would win it every year. She’s not bad in this but her act is wearing thin on me. I became a massive fan of hers after watching Into the Wild back in 2007 (one of my favourite films of all time), and sadly my affection for her has dwindled with every subsequent film she has been in (well, Adventureland is an exception). By the time I watch Breaking Dawn: Part II, I might very well find myself despising her.

Visually, the film is stunning, with the scenes involving Theron’s spells and the enchanted forest exemplifying what movie magic is all about. Amazingly, this is the first feature of director Rupert Sanders, who was previously best known for his advertisement of the video game HALO. I’d be very interested to see what he comes up with next.

Although it’s very difficult to compare two such different films, ultimately, The Huntsman is the better movie. That’s not saying a lot, considering how disappointed I was in Snow White, but as pieces of entertainment, it’s not much of a contest.

Mirror Mirror: 1.5 stars

Snow White and the Huntsman: 3 stars

PS: Ray Winstone must be the only guy in Hollywood who can play Beowulf and one of the Seven Dwarves. Just sayin’.

Classic Movie Review: Battle Royale (2000)

April 10, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

I understand I have it backwards. I watched The Hunger Games, which I thoroughly enjoyed, then decided to check out its Japanese predecessor, which many say Suzanne Collins’ novel takes from quite liberally.

I must admit, for the longest time I thought Battle Royale, the movie, was based on the manga (of which I had read chunks) as opposed to the novel written by Koushun Takami. In fact, I didn’t really even know the novel existed.

Nonetheless, the premise is strikingly similar to that of The Hunger Games. Set in a fictional Japan where the structure of society has more or less broken down, a class of junior high school students find themselves in a contest called Battle Royale, created under the BR Act, which forces the 42 students to kill each other until only one remains. Each contestant is fitted with an electronic tracking collar, and anyone who resists the contest or walks into a randomly designated “death zone” (added as the game progresses) will have their collar detonated. Students are each given a bag of necessities and a weapon. Sounds familiar?

I don’t intend to get into a debate about whether Collins (who claims she never heard of the book until her publisher told her) copied Battle Royale, but I will say that both film versions stand up rather well independently of the other.

Battle Royale’s strength is in its relentless brutality, which starts right from the beginning and doesn’t ease until the very end, making The Hunger Games somewhat mild by comparison. Unlike the American film, which takes a long time to set up the contest, Battle Royale gets into it very quickly and efficiently.

The most amazing thing about the 114-minute film (there is also a 122-minute extended version) was how tight the script was. The story may have focused on handful of the 42 students but almost every single one had their own personality and served a different purpose. In fact, I found it incredibly easy to identify each of the characters despite the film jumping a fair bit, and this was notwithstanding that all the names were in Japanese!

Compared to The Hunger Games, Battle Royale had a much wider range of identifiable characters, which is quite a remarkable achievement considering the latter’s contestants are all from a single class, whereas the former’s are from various districts scattered across the nation.

Battle Royale’s lead protagonist would have to be Shuya Nanahara, who is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara (as soon as I saw him I was like, “Isn’t that Light from Death Note?”). The standout characters would have to be the sexually provocative Mitsuko and the psychotic Kazuo, both of whom are the main antagonists of the film.

Despite the similar ideas, I found Battle Royale to be a very different experience to The Hunger Games. The Japanese film was relentless its carnage all the way through, even though some of the violence appeared somewhat (and perhaps intentionally) fake, whereas the American film was more measured in its depiction of visceral violence and had a brooding kind of tension. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the different cultures, but the Japanese film also had some totally WTF moments (that bordered on horror or comedy or both) that underscored its “surreal” feel.

I guess that’s the way I would describe Battle Royale – terrifying in a “surreal” kind of way. While The Hunger Games was arguably more “realistic” from a technical perspective and in feel, I found the films to be equally satisfying but vastly different experiences. I’d definitely recommend the other film for those who have seen one of the two.

As for a rating, I suppose it would only be fair if I gave Battle Royale the same, though if I had watched it first, I think I might have given it a higher score.

 4.25 stars out of 5!