Book Review: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

April 16, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews

frankenstein

I admit I’ve been somewhat slack on my goal to read more books this year, but I’ve finally made an effort and finished a classic I had been meaning to get to over the last few years: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

As it was first published in 1818, I was wary that the classic could be a letdown, given the way novelists wrote and the way characters spoke back in those days. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, though it does require more focus — especially in the beginning — and readers used to more modern styles could struggle getting into a flow. Madam Bovary, for example, is supposed to be one of the best books ever written from a technical perspective, and yet the experience bored me to death.

And so I am glad to report that Frankenstein was an awesome read. It’s a magnificent idea, well thought out, intricately planned and with captivating characters. While it was quite different to what I had expected, the novel’s classic status is well deserved.

Everyone knows that the story is about a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who develops and up session with creating life as a stepping stone towards cheating death. He successively brings The Creature to life but upon seeing the abomination he has a sudden change of mind and wants nothing to do with it. Thus begins two intertwining journeys of self-destruction, filled with pain, regret, discrimination, desire, jealousy, and above all, revenge.

The brilliance of the book lies in Shelley’s depiction of The Creature. She could have made him a zombie-like monster and typical murderous villain, but instead she infused him with a brilliant mind and a complicated heart. The agony he feels is comes across as so real that you can’t help but empathise with his unnatural existence and doomed predicament. In many ways, he is much more sympathetic than his creator, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating read.

The style of the novel also impressed me. Yes, the prose and speech do take a little bit of time to get use to because they are so exaggerated by modern standards and the vocabulary is much more precise, though once you get used to it the narrative starts flowing  downstream.

One thing I didn’t expect was the intentional lack of detail in some of the key aspects of the plot. The scene where Frankenstein brings The Creature to life, for instance, is extremely vague and bereft of specifics. You know he did something amazing, but you don’t quite know how he did it. In fact, there is almost nothing concrete about how The Creature was put together at all, and there’s also no description of his exact appearance other than that he is massive (eight feet tall), has dark hair, and is unimaginably grotesque. It leaves a lot to the imagination, something many modern writers fail to do. It also helps explain why so many movie adaptations have failed because they were forced to show things audiences would complain about no matter what.

I also had no idea that the story is told through so many layers — it’s actually a series of letters to his sister from a sailor who meets Frankenstein in the Arctic. The sailor then records Frankenstein’s story, which then recounts The Creature’s narrative as told to Frankenstein. It’s a clever device that offers three first-person perspectives in one — The Creator, The Creature, and the third party bystander.

My enjoyment of the book was helped by the fact that I didn’t really know what was going to happen. The version of the story I vaguely had in my head was the 1994 movie adaptation by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro as The Creature. That one took some liberties with the plot, so it was a surprise to me when the novel began to take a different turn to what I was expecting. I know a lot of people hated the movie but I didn’t mind the alternative storyline.

In all, a fantastic reading experience and a good lesson for aspiring writers. Next up, Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

2013 Movie Blitz: Part IX

July 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

This is the last one. Seriously. The best and worst of 2013 coming right up after this!

The Family (2013)

the family

Robert De Niro may be a legend, but his career choices are inching closer and closer to Nicholas Cage territory with every mediocre film he decides to star in. The Family, on its face, should not have fallen into that category, as it’s directed by legendary Frenchman Luc Besson and features an all-star cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron. But somehow, this uneven, largely unfunny black comedy manages to turn itself into a mess that De Niro will likely want to pretend never existed.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, Mafia boss who turns to snitching after an attempt on his life. So together with his wife (Pfeiffer) and two kids (Agron and John D’Leo), they relocate to France under a witness protection program under the supervision of FBI agent Stansfield (Jones).

It’s an interesting premise brimming with potential. The central joke is that, as a Mafia family, they can’t be normal even if they tried. They’re scheming sociopaths and borderline psychopaths who just can’t play along and pretend to be a normal family. De Niro can’t stop killing people who offend him; Pfeiffer loves burning stuff down; Agron has a violent streak in her; and D’Leo is a scheming weasel who is the ultimate reconnaissance expert.

There are several key problems with The Family. The first is that Besson never gets the tone quite right. It’s a very dark comedy accompanied by over-the-top violence, but the violence itself is not funny like it is for a film like say Pulp Fiction or Fargo. It felt like the violence never found its role properly.

Secondly, all the central characters are just a little off, and as a result they don’t come across as likable. And it’s hard to root for them when you don’t like them very much. But you can tell Besson is trying to make them likable, which is why it was so strange watching them on screen.

And thirdly, and very strangely, Besson makes French people look like complete a-holes. I understand it was necessary to some extent so that the family can rain their vengeance upon them, but in my opinion it felt obligatory and unnecessary. I know the French are supposed to dislike Americans and vice versa, but this was too much. And they all spoke surprisingly good English too.

In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to like this one. Despite the strong cast, legendary director and best of intentions, The Family is a top-grade disappointment.

2 stars out of 5

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

welcome to the punch

First of all, Welcome to the Punch is a really horrible title for this movie. It makes it sound like an action comedy, when in fact it is a gritty action thriller. But apart from that, it’s actually not a bad British cops and robbers flick with some solid performances, stylish action sequences and a few interesting twists and turns.

James McAvoy is Max Lewinsky, a headstrong London cop determined to catch Icelandic criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who has surfaced after his son was involved in a heist gone wrong. It’s a complicated case that has been a major headache for the police, and so Lewinsky and his partner Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) are frequently met with internal opposition — opposition that might be intended to impede their progress, and the only person they appear to have in their corner is their superior, Thomas Geiger (The Walking Dead‘s David Morrisey).

What follows is an intriguing game of cat and mouse that features a lot of well executed gunfights. The plot is a little convoluted for my liking, and I admit McAvoy’s protagonist is somewhat douchey, but on the whole I enjoyed the friend-or-foe dynamic between him and the intense and charismatic Strong, whom I believe has a dominating’s screen presence that is second to none.

Welcome to the Punch is not a superior thriller, but it’s a damn serviceable one that can be quite enjoyable if you go in with moderate expectations. Recommended DVD rental.

3.5 stars 

Devil’s Knot (2013)

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.indd

I’m always intrigued by Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s take on grief and loss, and so I was somewhat disappointed to hear lukewarm reviews for Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the true story of the notorious West Memphis Three. Well guess what, I ended up being riveted by the movie from start to finish, so much so that I went on to devour all four documentaries made on the subject — Paradise Lost and its two sequels, and last year’s West of Memphis, made by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh.

The true story, for those unfamiliar, takes place in 1993 and begins when three young boys in West Memphis disappear one afternoon and are later found dead, naked, tied up and mutilated. Given that hysteria surrounding Satanic worship was at a peak, it came as no surprise that police targeted local “white trash” teenage outcast Damien Echols and his two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley — the trio that would later be known as the West Memphis Three.

The evidence against them is supposedly strong (Misskelley, who is borderline retarded, confesses), and the penalty is potentially death. This leads anti-capital punishment advocate and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) to lend his services to the overwhelmed defense team. Lax starts out only wanting to prevent the boys from being executed, but the more he digs, the more he becomes convinced that the teens are innocent. On the other hand, Pamela Hobbs (a frumpy Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at time of filming), the mother of one of the victims, struggles to deal with her son’s death and the subsequent media circus.

Putting aside the merits of the film, Devil’s Knot is one of those films that’s inherently compulsive to watch simply because of the subject matter. It’s a true story that’s stranger than fiction, complete with a long list of potential suspects, intriguing characters, bizarre pieces of evidence and mass hysteria. The police witch hunt and incompetence is undeniable. And yet, at the end of the day, there are no definitive answers, only suspicions.

I suppose that is why critics were harsh on the film, with many calling it a “frustrating” experience because of the lack of a genuine resolution. I do agree with that to some point, but at the same time it does point us in a certain direction and asks us to draw our own conclusions as to the guilt of the West Memphis Three and the “alternate” suspects. Maybe that was the point Egoyan was trying to get across — that is, this is perhaps a mystery we’ll never truly get to the bottom of, and many true crime stories of immense loss fall in the same category.

For me, this was fantastic filmmaking, backed up by excellent performances. The initial pain and devastating felt real. The subsequent anger and thirst for revenge felt real. And that feeling when everything you thought to be true is turned upside down was expertly delivered. My main complaint about it is how abruptly it ends and how it required a long slab of writing onscreen to explain an aftermath that would extend for another 18 years.

Now having seen all the documentaries, I sort of understand why critics say Devil’s Knot did not provide any new insight and really had nothing to add. I don’t agree. While the film only captures a fraction of all there is to tell, and dramatizes scenes that are already captured in the documentaries, I still think there is something to be gained from the viewing experience. It’s a different medium with a different style, and as a result the emotional impact is also completely different. Perhaps my opinion would be different had I watched the documentaries first, but since I did not, and did not know how things turned out in the end, I found Devil’s Knot to be one of the most haunting and engrossing films of the year. I’d definitely recommend it for people who haven’t seen the documentaries and know little of the true story.

4 stars out of 5

Homefront (2013)

homefront

Feels like we’ve seen it all before, but what the heck. A bit more ass-kicking from  Jason Statham is rarely ever a bad thing.

In Homefront, Statham plays an undercover DEA agent who relocates to a country town with his young daughter after his cover is blown. And guess what? the place is running amok with the rednecks and hillbillies, who present themselves as perfect fodder for Statham to beat the crap out of them.

But wait, there’s more. After a run in with a hillbilly woman played by Kate Bosworth and her fat bully son, Statham becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous dispute with her brother and local meth kingpin, James Franco. Yes, James Franco!

From there it’s all very predictable. A lot of danger and a lot of ass kicking. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill action thriller that reminds me of those low-budget 80s classics, though I must say I enjoyed it somewhat on a pure entertainment level. If you want to see Franco get the shit kicked out of him then this is the movie for you. The story is actually based on a book that has been adapted into a screenplay by none other than Sylvester Stallone, so you know it’s overcharged with masculinity and macho dialogue. And of course, realism is not a priority.

I was also surprised by the cast. Apart from Statham, Bosworth and Franco, there was also Winona Ryder in a strange role as Franco’s ex-girlfriend, and everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank, Clancy Brown, playing the local sheriff.

The trailers made Homefront look much more A-grade and intriguing than it really is. I’m not saying it’s bad — as I said I rather enjoyed it — though ultimately it is one of those forgettable films that don’t really matter, and without its all-star cast, it’s hard to see how this film could have gotten a cinematic release.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Last Vegas (2013)

February 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

kinopoisk.ru

The idea’s not too bad: a bunch of old friends (emphasis on “old”) catch up for one final hurrah in Las Vegas. Throw in four huge stars — Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Klein — as the leads, toss in a few old jokes (again, emphasis on “old”), and that’s Last Vegas in a nutshell.

I didn’t have a huge problem with Last Vegas, but there was really nothing to like about it either. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, National Treasure 1 & 2, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), it’s a very safe, mildly amusing comedy driven by the star power of its four leads. On the other hand, there’s not much to sustain the film apart from the gimmicky old jokes, and the result is a frequently lame, utterly forgettable experience that you’ll likely erase from your memory in a hurry. It’s a film that wouldn’t have been contemplated without its stars, and is in any case probably best reserved for the straight-to-DVD rack.

Douglas, De Niro, Freeman and Klein are childhood friends who grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn and remain in touch today as seniors dealing with their own separate problems. De Niro’s character is still mourning the loss of his wife, Freeman’s character is battling an array of physical ailments and his overbearing family, and Klein seems to have lost interest in life. In comes Douglas’s character, seemingly the most charismatic of the group, who is about to get married to a woman less than half his age, and decides to throw a bachelor party in Vegas with his three oldest friends.

So as you might have guessed, the whole fish-out-of-water scenario is designed to put four old guys in a place they’re not expected to be comfortable with, and having us watch them have fun drinking, dancing, splurging and having the time of their lives. The Hangover for Geriatrics is essentially the idea, and it’s not a bad idea, except that it doesn’t work for very long. The running joke throughout the film is that old people are clueless and not cool, a schtick that just keeps getting rehashed again and again. But given that they are the protagonists, the film then tries very hard to convince us that they are, after all, very cool indeed, and young punks who disrespect them will come to regret it. And of course, all four of our heroes will learn important life lessons when it’s all said and done.

I’ll have to be brutally honest here. After a nice setup, the film devolves into cliches and becomes painful to sit through. The jokes are obvious and repetitive, and despite the best efforts of its stars (including the adorable Mary Steenburgen as the love interest), the film is inescapably bland and predictable until its merciful conclusion. It’s not horrible, it’s just…meh.

I am probably making Last Vegas sound a lot worse than it actually is. If you are in the mood for a streamlined plot, obvious jokes and 105 minutes of stereotypical icky Hollywood feel-goodness, then Last Vegas is borderline enjoyable. If you expect more than that from a film with four screen legends, like I did, then chances are you’ll end up bitterly disappointed.

2 stars out of 5

Post-Oscars Movie Blitz: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

April 10, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

silver-linings-poster

I’m not usually a fan of romantic comedies or romantic dramedies or comedic dramas or whatever you want to call them, but Silver Linings Playbook easily tops my list of “whatever they are” for 2012. Funny and odd yet warm and heartfelt, not to mention powered by possibly the best ensemble cast of the year, it is a worthy Best Picture nominee that ticks the right boxes and pulls the right strings.

The slant of Silver Linings Playbook is mental illness, a risky angle that paid off when it could have easily backfired. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a seemingly regular dude who has lost a lot of weight while being in a mental institution after suffering a breakdown (for reasons that are later explained). He returns home to his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Aussie Jacki Weaver, and continues to hope to rekindle his relationship with estranged wife Nikki. He sees his shrink and goes about making people uncomfortable until he meets kindred spirit Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, who won the Best Actress Oscar for this role), a young woman battling her own mental demons. And so begins an unusual, quirky and volatile friendship that directs both damaged characters onto a journey of healing.

It doesn’t really sound like enthralling cinema, but the sharp script (based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick) and direction by David O Russell (The Fighter) elevates Silver Linings Playbook far above your average comedy or drama. It is a rare feat when both the jokes and the drama are spot on, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that was hilarious but not crude, dramatic but not melodramatic, sweet but not saccharine. Silver Linings Playbook achieves all of these.

This film, as is the case with all good films, is driven by its characters and their relationships. Of course, Pat and Tiffany dominate, but all the supporting characters have a story to tell as well. Pat’s father is a superstitious wreck, while Pat’s friends Ronnie and Veronica are in a struggling relationship that I’m sure will ring true to a lot of couples. Even Chris Tucker, who plays Pat’s friend from the mental institution, is an interesting fellow I wanted to see more of.

The characters and their relationships are driven by the phenomenal performances. I never thought of Bradley Cooper as much of a thespian, but he’s really convincing and makes Pat a likable protagonist you want to root for. I think it is by far the best performance of his career.

Jennifer Lawrence (sigh…). Just when I thought I couldn’t like her any more than I already do, she pulls off last year’s best performance as Tiffany, a beautiful, seductive, explosive and manipulative woman who has no idea how to deal with her pain. She’s that good, and with all due respect to the other Best Actress nominees, Lawrence is absolutely a deserving winner. Kate Winslet’s spot as my fave actress is in grave danger.

I don’t even need to mention the typically brilliant De Niro, though Weaver, whose role is smaller than I expected, struck me as a weird Best Supporting Actress nominee. Sure she’s good, but she wasn’t really given much of an opportunity to shine. This wasn’t like Animal Kingdom where she would grab you by the balls and never let go.

Anyway…I don’t need to say much more except that Silver Linings Playbook  is worthy of all the critical acclaim. Some may be put off by the mental illness aspect of it, others by the quirkiness or the more predictable elements of the plot (and I admit, there is a sense of inevitability about the outcome, especially as it draws closer to its conclusion), but it’ll be a tough task to find a better 2012 romantic comedy or romantic dramedy or comedic drama or whatever you want to call it.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Little Fockers (2010)

January 10, 2011 in Movie Reviews

Meet the Parents (released in 2000) is one of my favourite comedies.  The 2004 sequel, Meet the Fockers, was silly and disappointing, despite the added star power Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.  And so I was a little wary of the third film, Little Fockers. Any time a franchise reaches its third standalone film (ie not a planned trilogy), there’s a risk that the jokes will start wearing thin.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened here.  Even with the whole gang back (Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Tero Polo, Blythe Danner, Owen Wilson, Hoffman and Streisand) plus a surprisingly good Jessica Alba inserted (along with Harvey Keitel and Laura Dern), Little Fockers failed to capture the essence of what made the first film so good.

This one, as the title suggests, takes place several years after the second film, with Greg Focker (Stiller) and his wife Pam (Polo) raising twins, who are about to celebrate their birthdays.  Of course, Greg’s father-in-law and former CIA agent Jack (De Niro) is still around making Greg’s life hell, and the majority of the movie revolves around several subplots — Greg representing an erectile dysfunction drug (which is where Alba comes in), getting his place ready for the birthday party (enter Keitel) and the trying to get his kids into a prestigious kintergarten (enter Dern).

I won’t deny that there were some good moments and funny one liners, especially with Wilson, Alba and Dern, but on the whole there were too many stale, lame jokes.  The cleverness and the subtlety of the original have been thrown out the window in favour of unoriginal cheap laughs and sex gags, especially towards the end.

While Little Fockers is definitely a level or two better than the disaster that was Meet the Fockers, it nevertheless continues to damage the goodwill of the original.

2.5 stars out of 5