Movie Review: The Two Faces of January (2014)

November 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

two faces

First the mirror, now January. Seems like everyone has two faces these days.

The Two Faces of January is an intriguing and elegant thriller set in the early 1960s featuring an A-list cast. It’s based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mrs Ripley), about a young con man (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis) working as a tour guide in Athens who gets involved with a seemingly wealthy American tourist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst).

It’s one of those classy yet twisted tales where interesting and complex characters who are not who they seem keep falling deeper and deeper and into a mess they can’t get out of. The fun comes from not knowing who is telling the truth and who is ultimately playing whom. There are twists and turns galore, but the progression of the narrative is subtle and deliberately low-key. Rather than a series of ups and downs, the film begins on low heat and gradually simmers all the way to the end without ever boiling over.

All three leads are phenomenal, as you would expect. Viggo, in particular, always one of my fave actors, shows again why he perhaps the most versatile and underrated performer of his generation.

The confident, controlled direction of debut director Hossein Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, is enviably stylish, creating a constant sense of tension and paranoia that’s hard to shake. Amini also wrote the screenplay for Drive, one of the slickest films of 2011, and the talents he demonstrated in that adaptation are in full bloom here.

The problem with the Two Faces of January, however, is that despite its look and feel of a top-shelf, A-grade thriller, the film’s story doesn’t quite live up to everything else. When you boil it down, the plot is actually quite mediocre and over-reliant on coincidences, resulting in a limp payoff that disappoints following the spectacular set-up. It’s one of those films that comes across as much better than it really is, and the more you think about it the less impressive it becomes.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the build up a lot and have feeling that Amini will go on to bigger and better projects. While it may fall short of potential, I’d still recommend The Two Faces of January for those with a taste for old-fashioned, character-driven thrillers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

November 9, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

walk

You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Unofficial, modified NaNoWiMo starts now!

November 5, 2014 in Novel, On Writing

NaNoWriMo

The excuses have finally run out. After “strongly suggesting” that I will take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for at least a couple of years, I have decided to put my foot down and join in the fun –unofficially — for the first time.

This is more a kick up the backside for myself than anything else. My writing projects have lay dormant for way too long and the months and years have been slipping by right in front of my eyes notwithstanding multiple self-promises to get them moving again.

So from today, I am going to commence an unofficial (in that I have not signed up for NaNoWriMo) writing spree that will be tweaked to suit my unique situation. I’m starting a few days late because I was busy polishing off my basket of outstanding movie reviews (pun intended), and I will be gradually releasing them over the next few weeks so that this blog does not become inactive.

However, as I am usually completely tied up by kids and family over the weekends, I’m basically restricted to writing five times a week during work hours, which means I just need to be super efficient. Moreover, I’m heading overseas for a three-week holiday that will run from the end of this month to mid-December, and I doubt I’ll be able to do any real writing during that time.

To account for all these issues, I’m going to be stretching NaNoWriMo over November and December. If my calculations are correct, I’ll have about 15 writing days this month before I go on vacation, and about 12 writing days from my return to the end of the year. The goal is to get to about 100,000 words, which is insane for someone who already writes for a living, so I’m going to temper expectations down to about 80,000 words.

If everything goes according to plan I should have a shitty first draft of something or at least a part of something done by the end of the year, like I promised myself during my optimistic “New Years resolution” period. It’s going to be hard as I still need to update my Pacers blog on occasion and I just can’t refrain from watching more movies and TV series, plus I’m on a special diet and exercise regiment this month. But frankly, I’m sick of being an unmotivated bum while everyone else is reaching for the stars.

So here goes. I’ll be providing weekly updates right here.

Book Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green

August 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

The-Fault-In-Our-Stars

It’s almost always a dilemma for me when a film adaptation of a popular novel is released. Do I read the book first or watch the movie first? I’m pretty sure this is something I have posted about on this blog many moons ago, and I still don’t know the answer.

This time, when faced with the agonizing decision between movie or novel version of The Fault in Our Stars by award-winning young adult writer John Green, I went with the novel first, partly out of necessity because I didn’t have enough time to watch movies not named Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I’m serious).

I’m not much of a romance reader and I’m rarely emotionally gripped by a novel, but I admit The Fault in Our Stars got to me. Not right away, but slowly and gradually, and by the end of it all I was a bit of a mess. I can usually see through when I’m being manipulated by the author, so I thought I would be able to handle the book’s cancer-ridden themes, though in this case Green’s writing was so crafty that by the time I realized what was happening it was already too late.

The story itself is not groundbreaking in any way. Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster is a thyroid cancer patient who is already living on borrowed time after being miraculously but temporarily spared from death. She begrudgingly attends support group, where she meets young amputee Augustus Waters. And so begins a courtship of two teenagers, one that’s strangely normal, typically awkward, but also incredibly sweet. A notable aspect of the tale is their shared love for a (fictional) novel called An Imperial Affliction, which sparks a search for the book’s reclusive writer halfway around the world.

So what is it that makes the fault in our stars a good read? Well, for starters, Hazel and Augustus are really likable people. They’re smart, they’re genuine and they have a great sense of humor. There are other — arguably more important — reasons too: Hazel supposedly looks like a young Natalie Portman, while Augustus is a former basketball star who happens to have an Indiana Pacers Rik Smits jersey. And if you have any idea how I feel about Natalie, Rik and the Pacers, you’ll understand why I enjoyed their company so much, and why I was perhaps a little biased.

The legend himself

The legend himself

Far from the beautiful, flawless protagonists from Twilight, Hazel carries around an oxygen tank with her at all times and is rarely seen without a tube under her nose, and Augustus of course has a prosthetic leg. They make a great couple.

And it’s not just them either. The minor characters, while generally in the background, are also well developed, especially the parents and the fellow cancer patients down at the support group. My favourite has to be Augustus’s best friend, Isaac, who is about to lose his eyesight and has the same wry humour as our star-crossed lovers.

What really surprised me about The Fault in Our Stars is that, as a book about cancer and death, it has a distinct lack of sappy melodrama. The way Green goes about the story is candid, realistic, with no trite sense of self pity (though even the most stoic of cancer sufferers have their moments). His prose is full of wit, just like his main characters, who, despite being teenagers, are incredibly level-headed and self-aware.

This is not to say Green makes light of cancer or cancer sufferers. But here, they are not heroes or warriors, nor are they weaklings — they are just ordinary people cursed with something they can’t control, doing whatever they can to cope. As a result, there is a subtle charm about this book that creeps up on you. I didn’t start off thinking, “Wow, what a great book, what great writing!” I actually recall early on thinking that it was pretty good, though I didn’t get what the fuss was all about. But at some stage I began to realize that I was emotionally involved in these characters’ lives, and I badly wanted them to make it against the odds.

I thought this was going to be quite a simple love story. On some levels, it is, but there are also many thought-provoking themes that will make you question what life is all about, what it means to be alive, and the legacies — whether big or small — that each of us leave behind when we die.

I was deeply touched by The Fault in Our Stars. I laughed, I (nearly) cried, and I thought about it a lot, even long after turning the last page. It’s a book I would recommend not only to young adults, but all readers.

4.5/5

PS: Can’t wait to see the movie.

Book Review: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams

January 9, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

stoner

It could very well be that the first book I read in 2014 might be the best book I’ll read all year.

Stoner is an unusual book. It has a fairly “meh” title. It’s written by an American academic and poet by the name of John Williams, who only published four books during his career and died in 1994. It was first published in 1965 and enjoyed little, if any success. But now, after being reissued in 2006 by the New York Review Classics, it has become a bestseller, primarily through word of mouth (apparently after a French translation gained traction). It recently won the Waterstones’ book of the year for 2013, with celebrity endorsements coming from all directions, and it has been called by the New Yorker as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.”

So what is it about this 50-year-old book that has everyone so excited? On its face, Stoner is simply a biography of the eponymous protagonist, William Stoner, focusing predominantly on the time he enters the University of Missouri as a student in 1910 and stretching until his death as a teacher there in 1956 (none of these are spoilers).

It’s difficult to find a less spectacular premise for a novel, and yet it is one of the most emotionally affecting books I have read in a long time. It’s also one of the most melancholic novels I’ve ever read. The tone is doused in melancholy. Drenched in melancholy. Steeped in it. But it’s not exactly depressing. There is a poignancy that is buried beneath the words and the pages that is beautiful, moving and painful.

Stoner is essentially the tragedy of William Stoner’s life, or rather, his failures from going through life without a sense of its meaning or purpose. It’s not a tragic life in that horrific things keep happening to Stoner — far from it. On paper, Stoner’s life is better than most people from that era, but there is an understated sadness about his forgotten existence. From the cold relationship with his farmer parents and his hastily entered marriage, to the touching but fractured relationship with his daughter and the doomed affair with his one true love, Stoner goes through life taking things as they come, never expecting things and seemingly accepting the hand dealt to him with stoicism and a quiet dignity. Teaching literature is his profession, and while he occasionally exhibits passion for it there is little enthusiasm or love. And yet, without it, Stoner wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

He is an odd but wonderfully constructed character — distant, almost removed from himself — but you understand who he is. He feels real; you feel like you know him. He accepts life for what it is, and yet he has a stubborn streak inside him that makes him difficult to grasp. I found myself rooting for Stoner, feeling the pain that he feels but doesn’t express, and longing for the happiness that eludes him.

The two main arcs in the novel that stood out for me were his relationships with wife Edith and his crippled university nemesis Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s relationship with Edith is so incredibly sad but masterfully depicted. She’s just a young and naive girl who married a stranger because she understood from her upbringing that it was her duty, and yet throughout the novel we watch her deteriorate into someone who silently and wrist-slittingly (though not literally) loathed her husband — who never mistreated her outwardly — in ways she could never explain in words. It breaks your heart; it broke mine many times.

The Lomax arc is a fascinating and exciting one about a bitter disagreement between two academics over a brilliant but arrogant and manipulative student. Both are biased in their own way, but neither see it; for Lomax, it becomes deeply personal, whereas for Stoner, it’s simply about principle. It’s an excellent insight into university politics and how a petty quarrel can develop into a lifelong feud.

I never thought I would be so mesmerized by a 1960s novel about the life of a bland university professor, and yet I could not stop turning the pages to see what would happen to Stoner next. I didn’t have the opportunity to read it in a single sitting, but it’s the kind of book that could pull you in and immerse you in its world. It’s a testament to William’s writing, which utilises clean, unpretentious prose that is deliberately lacking in exaggerated adjectives and manufactured melodrama. After reading a lot of modern novels where everything is stuffed down the reader’s throat, everything in Stoner comes across as subtle and nuanced, and it’s a delight.

I will conclude this review with what John Williams said about his own novel in a latter to his agent in 1963. When he was told by his agent not to get his hopes up over Stoner, Williams replied: “I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. Oh, I have no illusions that it will be a ‘bestseller’ or anything like that; but if it is handled right (there’s always that out) – that is, if it is not treated as just another ‘academic novel’ by the publisher, as Butcher’s Crossing [his second novel] was treated as a ‘western’, it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”

He couldn’t have been more right about that.

5/5

 
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