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45 Years is a British film, about a couple named Geoff and Kate Mercer, who have been married for 45 years. The story takes place over the week leading up to their anniversary party.At the beginning of the week Geoff receives a letter telling him that the body of his former girlfriend Katya, from before he ever met Kate, has been found perfectly preserved in a mountain glacier.

The news has a profound effect on Geoff, making him angry and frustrated, and in turn upsetting his wife – although he is largely oblivious to the effect it has on Kate.

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling are outstanding in this understated film about a seemingly happy marriage which is thrown into a quiet and civilised crisis. It actually focuses more on the effect that Geoff’s behaviour has on Kate, than the news of Katya’s discovery upon Geoff, and Rampling’s acting is such that it is hard not to empathise with her pain and jealousy.

This is certainly not an action packed film – in one sense, not a lot happens, but so MUCH happens on Kate’s face, in her thoughts – which we sense through her expressions. It’s weirdly compelling and hard to tear your eyes away from – at least that was how I found it. So it’s bleak and sad, but also the actions of both main characters are so utterly understandable.

If you don’t need lots of action and special effects in your films, but enjoy a thoughtful character study, give this little known gem a try, and revel in acting at it’s finest.

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This novel is set over the course of one day, and it starts with Nathan Clark being a witness at his own funeral. His wife, father, children and best friend are all there, along with two people who he can’t identify. Unable to remember how he died, and unable to rest until he can remember, Nathan watches his family from some kind of afterlife, and remembers fragments of their life together while he tries to piece together exactly what has happened to him.

I loved the premise of this book, but I think I was expecting it to be more of a mystery or psychological thriller than it actually was. Instead it’s more of a slow burner – the first part in particular is very fragmented with Nathan being thrown from one scene or memory into another. Sentences end halfway through to reflect half remembered scenes from Nathan’s life, and suddenly he is flung to another time, another place.

There is no doubt that the writing is very elegant, and occasionally exquisite. I loved the idea behind the novel, but somehow despite this I never quite became enthralled by it. I was interested enough to keep reading, and like Nathan, I wanted to find out how he died but in the end, that wasn’t really the point. We find out early on that his youngest daughter Lois died some time before, and although initially Nathan can’t remember how she died, the answer to this particular question is revealed – and that’s when pennies drop and things start falling into place.

I did find this book an easy read despite the heavy subject matter, but I never quite managed to connect with any of the characters. Nathan’s wife Cheryl may have been the love of his life, but for my money she was downright unlikeable – same goes for his best friend Adrian, and his father Frank. I did quite like his two children Gina and Luke, but I never felt that we really got to know them well enough – especially not Luke, who is relegated to something of a background character.

Overall though, while I can’t give this book a definite thumbs up, it’s also not a thumbs down. I would be intrigued to read more by this author.

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Adrian Wolfe seems to have the perfect life. Although he has two ex-wives with whom he has five children altogether, everybody gets along well, and even all go on holiday gather with Adrian and his third wife Maya.

But when Maya steps in front of a bus and dies, after an evening spent getting uncharacteristically drunk, Adrian’s world falls apart. A mysterious woman named Jane appears to be stalking him, his children all seem to be going through personal crises, and then he makes a discovery which causes him to question whether Maya’s death was really the accident he had thought it was, or whether she might have done it deliberately.

As the story moves between present day and flashbacks, secrets are revealed, and the veneer of the perfect extended family starts to crack.

I really enjoyed this book, and read it in two sittings. I thought the storyline seemed believable, even the unconventional relationship between the family. The characters were also very well drawn, and although I didn’t particularly like some of them (Adrian himself seemed charming but ultimately irresponsible, always leaving one woman when someone better came along, but somehow managing to keep relations harmonious), they were certainly easy to find interest in.

The mystery part of the novel – without revealing spoilers all I can say about it is that it revolved around whether Maya killed herself deliberately or not, and what might have driven her to consider it – also added an element of tension, which kept me turning the pages. I was genuinely surprised by the ending, and it’s always pleasant when that happens.

The story segues perfectly from a family drama to a psychological thriller and back again, and it was one of the few books which I didn’t want to put down and kept thinking about going back to to read some more.

Very highly recommended.

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Author’s website can be found here.

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Well, it worked for Baz Luhrmann, when he updated Romeo and Juliet to a modern day setting.  In this film, director Michael Almereyda updates Hamlet and shifts the action to corporate New York in 2000.  Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is mourning the loss of his father, who was the CEO of The Denmark Corporation.  He believes that his father was in fact murdered by his Uncle Claudius (Kyle McLachlan) who has gone on to marry Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Diane Verona) in distasteful haste, and is also the new CEO of the corporation.

Hamlet is determined to avenge his father’s death.  Meanwhile, he struggles with his own loose grip on sanity, as does his former girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles).

I’m not completely sure what to make of this adaptation.  I like the idea – I like Shakespeare’s plays in their own settings, but I do like to see them in new and unfamiliar settings, which may entice other people to try them out.  This version comes in just shy of two hours, which is pretty short, considering that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play (the very faithful Kenneth Branagh adaptation is four hours long).  Certain parts have been cut out, but the essence of the story remains intact, and Shakespeare’s original language is used throughout, although not in its entirety.  The cast overall were strong – Ethan Hawke is an under-rated actor, and he captures Hamlet’s fine line between grief and insanity very well.  I also liked Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber as Ophelia and Laertes respectively.  Kyle MacLachlan did a fine job as Claudius, while Diane Verona was excellent as Gertrude, and really captured the character.  Hamlet’s ‘friends’ (if you have seen the play, you will understand why I use the term loosely) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman – who is the brother of Ethan Hawke’s then wife Uma Thurman – and Zahn in particular shone in his role.  I also really liked Karl Geary as Horatio, Hamlet’s true friend until the end.

The cast was not perfect however – unfortunately, the usually excellent Bill Murray seemed lost as Polonius.  I’ve seen Murray in straight roles before and he is normally great in them, but I didn’t think he suited this particular character at all, and just seemed to be reading his lines with no inflection or meaning whatsoever.  It’s a shame – Polonius could have been great with a different actor, but overall this did not detract from my enjoyment of the film.

What did occur to me however was that if I didn’t know the story of Hamlet, I think I would have had trouble following what was happening.  It’s not the language; it was more that scenes seemed particularly disjointed from one another, and it seemed to me that it was jumping about a bit – first concentrating on this, then concentrating on that.  On that basis, I would definitely recommend that anyone planning on watching this familiarises themselves with the story first.

On a positive note, New York City is actually a very good backdrop for the story…aesthetically it looks perfect, and I also loved the music.  I’m not sure that I can forgive the famous To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy being recited in voice-over while our hero roams a Blockbuster video store.  There was probably some symbolism there, but it escaped me.

Overall, if you are looking for an adaptation of Hamlet, this is not the best one to start with.  However, if you are a fan of the play and want to see this version for that reason, you might find more to enjoy than you expect.

Year of release: 2000

Director: Michael Almereyda

Producers: Jason Blum, John Sloss, Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby, Callum Greene

Writers: William Shakespeare (play), Michael Almereyda

Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Verona, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Karl Geary, Steve Zahn, Dechen Thurman

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Click here for my review of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2013 production of Hamlet.

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Sex and Death 101 stars a pre-The Mentalist (just – this came out the year before The Mentalist started) Simon Baker, as Roderick Blank, a man who is about to marry his girlfriend Fiona (Julie Bowen) and thinks that his life is just about perfect.  But then he receives a mysterious email, which lists all the women he’s slept with – with Fiona correctly occupying the number 29 slot – but then goes on to list lots more, totalling 101.  Not surprisingly he is somewhat shocked – who has sent the list?  How can he be going to have sex with more than 70 more women, when he is about to marry the woman he loves?!  Roderick’s obsession with the list starts to ruin his life, and pretty much all aspects of it.  Meanwhile, a woman (Winona Ryder) nicknamed Death Nell by the media, is going round murdering men who have treated women badly, and it looks as though Roderick and Nell’s paths are going to cross at some point.

I’m not entirely sure how to categorise this film.  It’s part sci-fi, part romantic comedy, part black comedy – there’s certainly a lot going on, and maybe a bit too much at times.  But….I actually really enjoyed it.  There were some VERY funny moments – and some very adult comedy –  as Roderick initially finds the list intriguing, but then finds that it’s taking over his life.  Simon Baker is wonderful at comedy, and keeps the audience on his side.  Roderick is sometimes lovely, and sometimes pretty damned obnoxious, but it’s difficult not to like him.  Winona Ryder gets surprisingly less screen time than you might expect, given that at the time, she was probably the most famous cast member.  She’s great in her role though – perfect for the part.  Robert Wisdom is great as the leader of a mysterious trio who are behind the list of names that was sent to Roderick, and Patton Oswalt gets a few funny line.  However, as far as the supporting cast goes, nobody betters Mindy Cohn as Roderick’s PA and friend Trixie.

The film got mainly negative reviews on release, and I can see why people might not like it – it sometimes seems as though it’s not quite sure what it’s trying to be, but I did really enjoy it.  A lot of this was because of the gorgeous Simon Baker; he’s a great lead, who for me, perfect for this kind of part, and as mentioned, the supporting cast were all great as well.

If you like quirky comedy, I’d recommend giving this a go.  It’s brash and colourful, and for my money, very entertaining.

Year of release: 2007

Director: Daniel Waters

Producers: Aaron Geller, Cary Brokaw, Elizabeth Zox Friendman, Jerry P. Jacobs, Greg Little

Writer: Daniel Waters

Main cast: Simon Baker, Winona Ryder, Robert Wisdom, Patton Oswalt, Mindy Cohn, Neil Flynn, Leslie Bibb

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Ralph Fiennes is Heathcliff in this adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and Juliette Binoche is Cathy.  The story is well known, but in essence, Heathcliff is an orphan rescued by Cathy’s father, and they grow up together and fall in love.  However, Heathcliff is treated like a servant by Cathy’s brother, and Cathy ends up marrying Edgar Linton, a decent man, who she unfortunately does not live.  Heathcliff is both furious and devastated, and wreaks a revenge that will last well into the next generation.

The problem with Wuthering Heights, for me anyway, is that Cathy and Heathcliff are basically horrible, selfish people. He runs off for two years without a word to Cathy, and then gets a huff on when she marries someone else.  She cuckolds the man she marries, and is incredibly disrespectful to him, especially when Heathcliff takes it upon himself to return, and declare it all her fault.  He gets married himself, but treats his wife terribly, beating her up, amongst other things.  Obviously, that is essentially the way the characters are written in Bronte’s novel (sorry, but I don’t buy into all that tragic, undying love story – they both just wanted what they couldn’t have and didn’t care two hoots about who they hurt in their selfishness), and there is only so much that an adaptation can do to make the characters sympathetic.  That all said, there have been enjoyable adaptations of this book, but this was not one of them.

Ralph Fiennes is a fine actor, and does a reasonably good job as Heathcliff.  He is quite menacing, and pretty hateful.  Juliette Binoche however, seems wildly miscast as Cathy.  Her French accent can often be heard, and while she does have a lovely voice, she is very unconvincing as the Yorkshire born-and-bred Cathy.  Also, the point at which Heathcliff strops off and Cathy decides to ruin Edgar’s life (sorry, can you tell that these characters annoy me?) by marrying him, comes far too early in the film, so this great love that supposedly exists between Cathy and Heathcliff does not really seem to be all that deep, or great (or lovely).  Also, there is an annoying, but thankfully only occasional voiceover which narrates part of the story (in particular the parts where there is a jump in the timeline), which is supposed to be that of Emily Bronte.  Bronte herself actually appears as a character, played by Sinead O’Connor, bookending the film, by appearing at the beginning and ending of it.  Her narration at the beginning actually serves to remind the viewer that this is a fictional story.

On the positive side, Simon Shepherd did a great job as Edgar Linton, and Sophie Ward was very good in her minor role as Isabella.  However, the standout performance for me was Ellen, Cathy’s maid, played by Janet McTeer, who shone in every scene that she was in.

I think maybe there is a bit too much story to fit into a film of one hour and 45 minutes, and some of the storyline does seem a bit rushed.  Overall, I would say that this is not a terrible film, but it’s not brilliant.  Worth seeing for McTeer and Shepherd’s performance, but be prepared to want to throw things at the screen every time Heathcliff or Cathy bemoans their lot.

Year of release: 1992

Director: Peter Kosminsky

Producers: Simon Bosanquet, Mary Selway, Chris Thompson

Writers: Emily Bronte (novel), Anne Devlin

Main cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Janet McTeer, Sophie Ward, Simon Shepherd, Jeremy Northam, Jason Riddington

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In 1525, Simonetta di Saronno is a young widow who has lost her husband Lorenzo to the Italian wars.  After his death, she discovers that Lorenzo has spent all their money, and she must find a way to make more if she wants to keep hold of her grand home.

Bernardino Luini is a highly talented apprentice of Leonardo da Vinci, who is hired to decorate a church, and offers to pay Simonetta if she will be his model for the Madonna.  Although they initially feel hostility towards one another, they soon end up falling in love,  but their love brings disgrace upon them, as people feel that she has disrespected the memory of her husband.

In a further bid to save her home, Simonetta enlists the help of Manodorata, a Jewish money lender, who helps her to create a drink from the almond trees that grow on her estate.

Will Simonetta and Bernardino ever find happiness together, and will Simonetta manage to save her home?  And what effect can a mute, almost dead soldier have on Simonetta’s future?

I was not sure what to make of this book.  Initially I thought I was going to struggle with it, but I did start to enjoy it.  However, I never felt that the characters were particularly well drawn, and I was not able to connect on any level with them.  The story was interesting enough to hold my attention, but I did guess the twist very early on.

The most interesting and shocking part of the story was the ill-treatment of Jews by the Christians at the time.  Although this was something that I was aware of, it is portrayed very strongly in this book, and for me, this was far more effective than the romantic aspect.

I think most fans of historical fiction would probably enjoy this book, and although I wasn’t as captivated by it as I might have hoped, I would probably read more by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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