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Posts Tagged ‘life’

good-will-hunting

Will Hunting is a janitor in a school, but as it turns out, also a genius. Psychologist Sean is determined not to let Will’s hot temper get in the way of his future and tries to help Will find his focus in life.

Beautiful movie (unfortunately it’s a Harvey Weinstein movie which means I probably won’t watch it again) with an excellent cast. Very moving story and excellent acting by Damon and Williams. Minnie Driver was also brilliant in support.

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Year of release: 1997

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writers: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Main cast: Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgard

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friends_with_money_ver5_xlgThis 2008 film is marketed as a comedy/drama/romance, and I’m not really sure that it falls into any of those categories (well, maybe drama). I enjoyed it a lot though, in no small part due to the excellent cast.

Jennifer Aniston is Olivia, the only one of her group of friends who actually doesn’t have money -and who, having left her job as a teacher (for reasons that remain unspecified) is now working as a maid and struggling to make ends meet. She is also the only member of her group who is unmarried, although the marriages of her three best friends range from happy to hateful. There are successful co-authors Christine and David (Catherine Keener and Jason Isaacs) who not only no longer love each other, but don’t seem to even like each other. Their conversations are filed with hate and vicious barbs at each other. Then there is clothing designer Jane and body care entrepeneur Aaron (Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney) who seem generally happy with each other, although Jane is starting to feel old and angry at the world, and almost everyone Aaron encounters thinks that he is gay, and indeed this includes the viewer – well this viewer anyway. Finally there is stay at home wife Franny (who doesn’t need to work because she has a huge trust fund) and accountant Matt (Joan Cusack and Greg Germann) who do actually seem to love each other and have a happy marriage.

The friends try to helo Olivia in various ways – Franny sets her up with a personal trainer named Mike (Scott Can) who right from the beginning is quite obviously a complete swine and only gets worse, and they try to encourage her to get a better job, while being exasperated at her pot-smoking lifestyle.

And that’s more or less it. Lots of things happen, but nothing actually happens if that makes sense. This film is really an exploration of these people’s lives. The kind of scenes that we witness are totally believeable (two of three friends discussing the absent friend), Olivia mooning over a married ex-boyfriend, Christine sobbing over the realisation that she and her husband are no longer happy together…in truth, if you like a lot of action in your films, then this is not one for you. The ending itself is fairly inconclusive. It doesn’t come full circle with a neat conclusion, instead the whole movie is like a slice of life, and the ending is just the point where they’ve stopped showing these lives, but certainly the lives will continue with the little human dramas and triumph that pepper these characters’ stories.

The cast is sublime. Frances McDormand continues to demonstrate exactly why she is so highly regarded – she is one of those actresses who can convey so much with just a facial expression or simple gesture. Catherine Keener’s Christine’s sadness is almost palpable, and Joan Cusack is adorable as Franny, and so real. And if anyone has doubts about Jennifer Aniston’s acting, then there are a lot of films I might direct them to, but I would probably start with this one. She is not always likeable as Olivia, and sometimes I wanted to shake her, but she was absolutely easy to invest in, and just as people do in real life, sometimes I wanted to give her a cuddle and tell her it would all be okay, and sometimes I wanted to yell at her.

Credit also to the male actors – Jason Isaacs played a particularly unlikeable character, but he played him so well. (Isaacs is one of my favourite actors, as he has great range, and is so real in everything he does). Greg Germann was great too as Matt, but I just adored Simon McBurney, who was kind, clever and sweet as Aaron.

In all, I would say that if you like slow paced character studies, rather than high octane thrillers, give this a go. I enjoyed it a lot and hope you do too.

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Year of release: 2008

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Writer: Nicole Holofcener

Main cast: Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Simon McBurney, Jason Isaacs, Greg Germann, Scott Caan

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This four part mini-series, adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name, stars France McDormand (who also bought the rights to the novel, and was executive producer) as the titular character, and spans 25 years of Olive’s life in small town Maine.  It also stars Richard Jenkins as her husband Henry, John Gallagher Jr as her son Christopher, and a large cast of other supporting characters.

It’s not an easy watch, but my goodness, this series was so compelling that I could not bear to tear my eyes away and watched all four hour long episodes in one sitting.  Olive is not always a likeable character; in fact most of the time, she is downright rude, and often cruel to those around her, especially Henry.  Despite everything, her husband loves her dearly, and never stops trying to show his affection.  In contrast to his wife, Henry is kind, compassionate and good-hearted – as the town pharmacist, he is popular and well-loved in the community, although the same cannot be said of his wife.  Nonetheless, Olive is always, ALWAYS an interesting character.  She is capable of occasional kindness, but never of warmth, and she cites her family’s history of depression as one reason for this.

The whole cast, but particularly McDormand and Jenkins, were absolutely stunning and heartbreaking.  I really felt for poor Henry, who Olive spoke to so harshly, and also for her son Christopher, who as he grows up, finds his own way of dealing with the coldness of his mother.  Despite everything, I ended up feeling sorry for Olive, as she ends up alienating almost everyone (although she would have hated to be pitied).  The show featured other people who live in the same town as Olive, and how she and Henry interact with them – the storyline about a former student of hers named Kevin Coulson was particularly touching, and Cory Michael Smith put in a truly touching performance in the role.

This is not the show to watch if you are in need of cheering up, but if you like good drama, and outstanding acting, then please see this if you can.  It is one of the best mini series I have ever watched, and I will definitely return to it at a later date.

Year of release: 2014

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Producers: Frances McDormand, Jane Anderson, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Steve Shareshian, David Coatsworth

Writers: Elizabeth Strout, Jane Anderson

Main cast: Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, John Gallagher Jr., Peter Mullan, Zoe Kazan, Cory Michael Smith

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In 1950, Lucia Sartori is the most beautiful girl in Greenwich Village, New York.  She is a talented dressmaker at an exclusive store, but is expected to give up her job to get married and become a housewife.  However, Lucia has other ideas, and is determined to be as independent as possible.  That is until handsome and charismatic John Talbot comes into the store and sweeps her off her feet.  Lucia falls hard and falls fast, but she and John have several obstacles to overcome, not least her very traditional family.

I always enjoy Adriana Trigiani’s books, and this one was no exception.  The story is bookended by two short chapters set in the modern day, when an older Lucia tells her story to her young neighbour.  Personally I thought the book would have been better without this framing device, as the ending (of the whole book, rather than the ending of the story of events in the 1950s) seemed a bit contrived, but I really enjoyed the main body of the story.

The character of Lucia was developed well, as were those of her family and friends, especially her boss Delmarr, who I particularly liked.  It was interesting to read about Lucia’s life in a large Italian immigrant family, and to understand her conflict between what was expected of her, and what she wanted to do with her life.  There were a number of twists and turns which I did not expect, and Lucia’s story did not end the way that I expected it to, but was better because of it.  However, without wanting to reveal any spoilers, Lucia did make a decision towards the end of the book, which seemed to undermine decisions and plans which she had made earlier, which was something of a shame, although it was probably understandable under the circumstances.

It is a cosy and undemanding tale, and perfect for curling up with on the sofa.  If you are a fan of Adriana Trigiani or such books, you won’t be disappointed.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks and it’s very rare for me to think that a book is better listened to than read, but in this case, I’ll make an exception.  The Measure of a Man is narrated by Sidney Poitier himself, and he has such a beautiful voice, that it really enhanced my experience of the book.  It also worked really well as an audiobook because he is so conversational in tone – he peppers his narration with phrases like, “You follow?” or “You see?”

As for the content itself – wow!  This is a wonderful autobiography and then some.  While Poitier does tell the story of his life, it’s not necessarily a straightforward chronological account of events.  At times it comes across more as a philosophical discussion, where he uses his own life as a starting point.

His description of his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas was wonderful.  Although his family lived in poverty, he points out that living in poverty on Cat Island was very different to living in poverty in some concrete jungle.  As a child, he lived in a place with a beautiful climate, cocoa plum trees, sea grapes and wild bananas.

However, the most interesting – and in many ways upsetting – part of the book was when Poitier described his life in America which started when he moved to Florida aged 15, and then moved on to New York, and eventually started acting.  This was a a time of racial segregation, and he realised exactly what it meant to be classed as a second class citizen.  As an example – he recalled one event when he was already quite well known in films, and he went to a restaurant for a bite to eat.  The black Maitre d’ explained that he could have a table there, but they would have to put a screen around him, for the sensitivity of the white diners.  When offered jobs on certain films, he was asked to sign papers disowning those of his black friends who were campaigning for equal rights (he always refused to do so).

Throughout it all, Poitier’s dignity and strong sense of right and wrong shines through.  He speaks strongly of his love for his parents, and how they inspire him in his life – whatever work he does, he does for them as well as for himself and his own family.  He describes how he has always tried to be the best that he can be, his search for answers, his hopes for not only himself, but the world at large.  He’s honest about himself; those parts of himself that he is proud of, and the mistakes which he has made.

This is not a revealing, kiss-and-tell autobiography, and it is all the better for it.  Poitier does not delve into the subject of murky or tawdry Hollywood tales, and is respectful of those people who he does mention by name.  He does discuss some of his most famous films – which made me immediately want to go out and rewatch them – and reveals his motivation for playing certain roles, and refusing certain others.

Overall, I’d say that this is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read (or listened to).  I would strongly recommend it, not only to anyone with an interest in Hollywood or film-making, but also to anyone with an interest in the civil rights movement.

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I can’t emphasise this enough – if you are wondering what DID happen six months after the events of the preceding film Before Sunrise, and whether or not Jesse and Celine did meet up as planned, then DO NOT read this review until after watching this film.  It is pretty impossible to review this film without talking about what happened in the nine years between events of Before Sunrise and events of Before Sunset.

So as mentioned, Before Sunset takes place nine years after Before Sunrise (both in the story, and in real life; the first film was made in 1995, and this was made in 2004).  In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train in Europe, and end up spending the evening together, walking around Vienna, discussing everything they can think of, and gradually falling in love.  At the end of the film they decide to meet again in six months, at the train station in Vienna.

The sequel is set in Paris, and starts with Jesse, who is now a published author, having written a novel about an American boy and a French girl who meet on a train and spend a night together in Vienna – sound familiar? – giving an interview in the Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop.  (Note: This is a REAL bookshop in Paris.  I have visited there, and would recommend…in fact insist…that if you are a book lover and are ever in Paris, you MUST visit this shop.  Really.  It’s incredible – you literally spend all day there, reading, browsing, shopping, talking.)  Anyway, at the end of the interview, he looks up and sees Celine in the shop.  They decide to spend the time before Jesse’s flight home, walking around Paris, and catching up – because, as it transpires, they did not meet up as planned six months after meeting on the train.  It’s clear that there is still a connection and an attraction between the two, but with Jesse now married with a child, things are not as simple as they were nine years earlier.

I loved Before Sunrise, but I definitely preferred Before Sunset.  It’s a sadder film in a way – both characters are older and wiser; they have both been bruised by life, and have realised that things don’t always turn out the way you want or expect them to.  Jesse is in a loveless marriage, and Celine has been in a number of unfulfilling relationships.  They have lost hope to some extent, that life will always be good in the end.  Both of them regret not meeting up when they had arranged to (it is quickly revealed that Jesse did go to the meeting place, but Celine couldn’t as her grandmother died a few days earlier, and she was at her grandmother’s funeral).  In fact, life’s disappointments seem positively etched on Jesse’s face.  It has to be said that Ethan Hawke does not look well here because he’s just so scrawny, but somehow that fits his character who is disillusioned with his life, and cannot forget the beautiful French girl he met years before.  But for all that, there is optimism too.  As Jesse says, his problems are much bigger now than before, but he is better equipped to deal with them.  Celine is harder, more brittle, but still vulnerable and emotional.

As in Before Sunrise, the acting is wonderful.  There are other people in the film, but for the vast majority of it, it’s just Hawke and Delphy exploring Paris, and talking, reconnecting.  It plays out almost in real time (the film is just 80 minutes long, as Jesse has about that much time before he has to leave to catch a flight home), and the conversation seems so natural.  It was scripted, but it feels unscripted.  And very real and believable.

And of course, there’s Paris itself.  They don’t visit the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe for example, but instead go to perhaps lesser known places – after all Celine lives there, and Jesse isn’t really interested in sight-seeing, and it really works.  It still shows Paris off as the beautiful city it is, while leaving you free to concentrate on the two main characters.

The ending is again ambiguous (to me anyway – many viewers think that it is not so).  It doesn’t wrap things up in a neat package, but almost lets you decide for yourself what happens – at least until last year, when the third film, Before Midnight, came out, which again picks up their story another nine years later.

This is just a beautiful, romantic film, laced with poignancy and regret, as well as the anticipation that the two feel upon meeting each other again after having such an effect on each other.  If you like films with more talk than action, that make you really feel like you are there in the moment watching two people getting to know each other again, then I would definitely recommend this.  But watch the first one beforehand!

Year of release: 2004

Director: Richard Linklater

Producers: Richard Linklater, John Sloss, Anne Walker-McBay, Isabelle Coulet

Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delphy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan

Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy

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Click here for my review of Before Sunrise.

Click here for my review of Before Midnight.

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I picked this book up a few years ago in a charity shop, because (a) it was ridiculously cheap, and (b) I like Jane Austen.  I finally got around to reading it because I watched the film adaptation a few weeks ago, and really enjoyed it, and I wanted to see how the book and film compared.  Of the many reviews I’ve read of this book since finishing it myself, the vast majority are unfavourable, but while I can see what might put people off, I actually enjoyed it a lot.

Six friends start a book club which meets once a month, to discuss the novels of Jane Austen.  Each takes their turn at hosting, and while the novel does discuss their meetings, it takes much more time to describe each character’s back story, and the issues which they are facing in their current life.  The narration is quite unusual – it is as if the book club has a collective consciousness, and it is from the point of view of this consciousness that the story is told; I can see how that could irritate, but for me anyway, it worked.  I did think that the characters were pretty well drawn, although two of them – Prudie and Bernadette – seemed slightly set apart from the other four, this possibly being because the other four had connections between them that excluded Prudie and Bernadette (this may also explain why these two characters were my least favourites).

It’s a very charming book, if slightly predictable.  Not entirely predictable however – the resolutions of Sylvia’s and Allegra’s stories were not what I had expected (or at least in Sylvia’s case, it would have been unexpected, but I knew what happened, only because I had seen the film).  However, as each chapter is devoted mainly to one character (that being whoever is hosting the book club that month), it almost feels like a series of separate short stories which relate to each other through shared characters.

I wouldn’t say that you need to like, or even to have read any Austen novels to enjoy this book, as in truth, only small parts of the books are devoted to the actual book club meetings – in fact, you could probably have written this book about any author’s works (Karen Joy Fowler is clearly a big Austen fan, as she notes in her acknowledgements) – but I do think it helps, as I found myself nodding along with the assessments of certain Austen characters.  I enjoyed it a lot, but on balance, I’m not sure I would read it again, while I would certainly watch the film adaptation again.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of the 2007 film adaptation.

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This book is a basically a lifestyle and looks guide, with Audrey Hepburn as inspiration (and really, who better?).  There are also several stories from Audrey’s life (although, as is stated in the introduction, this is not a biography).  Split into sections such as clothes, home, romance, etc., the book tells us what Audrey would do (hmm…) and gives advice on how readers can be more like Audrey.  At this point, it seems fair to point out that I am a big fan of Audrey Hepburn, both as an actress, and a person.

What I liked about it: This book is adorably pretty, if unashamedly girly (but it is aimed squarely at women); it’s about Audrey, who is so adored by many, including myself; there is quite a lot of biographical info in here; some of the tips are do-able.

What I didn’t like about it: You need money (lots) to do some of the things suggested, although by no means all of them; the book encourages people to find their own style while also telling readers how to adopt Audrey’s style (!?); there is quite a lot of ‘filler’ – for example, a list on how to tell the differences between Audrey and that other great actress named Hepburn, Kate.  It’s a fair bet that anyone reading this already knows which one is which, after all; it assumes a lot about what Audrey would have liked or things she would have done, were she still with us.

Overall, it’s a nice book for fans, if for no other reason than it will look lovely on a bookshelf.  However, I think the time spent reading it would be better spent on reading a good biography of Miss Hepburn, or watching some of her films.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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One morning, mild-mannered Harold Fry receives a letter from a former colleague named Queenie, who he has not seen for some 20 years.  The letters informs him that she is in a hospice, and is dying of terminal cancer.  Harold writes a letter back, and sets out to post it, but when he gets to the postbox, he decides to keep walking on to the next one.  And then he decides to walk a bit further, and his short walk eventually turns into a journey on foot from his home in Devon, to where Queenie is, in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  Though the going gets tough, Harold knows that somehow or other he has to walk to Queenie, and that as long as he keeps walking, she will keep living.

I had heard so many good things about this book, and was really looking forward to reading it.  The story is lovely, although a little far-fetched occasionally.  Harold meets many other people en route to save Queenie, and he realises that like him, everyone has regrets and worries in their lives, and that sometimes what we see on the surface tells us nothing about a person.

For Harold, the journey is metaphorical as much- as it is physical.  He believes that his walk can save Queenie, but he also seems to be seeking redemption for himself. As his walk unfolds in the pages, so does his history, and we learn all about the tragedies he has faced, the situations which he wishes he could change, his regrets about his relationship with his son, and the cause of a rift between himself and his wife Maureen.

At times the book is achingly sad, and at other times oddly uplifting.  I liked it a lot, but I was not as taken with it as I expected to be. (I had read reviews from people saying that the story had caused them to re-evaluate their lives, and it had made them cry.)  Having read so many positive things about the book, I would say that this puts me in the minority as it did not move me to tears, and while I would certainly recommend it, I would not say it particularly moved me.

It’s still an enjoyable story though, and I will be looking out for more by Rachel Joyce.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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In 1968, in a small town in Labrador, Canada, Treadway and Jacinta Blake have a child.  But they find that their baby has both male and female genetalia, and make the difficult decision that their child should have surgery.  They raise him as their son and call him Wayne.  Only Treadway, Jacinta and a friend named Thomasina know the truth and Wayne is not told.  However, as Wayne grows, he discovers an emotional part of himself – his female character, who he calls Annabel, after Thomasina’s deceased daughter.

As Wayne grows older, he and the three adults who share the secret are all affected in different ways, and each faces their own struggle to come to terms with the truth.

When I started this book, I was not sure whether I would like it or not, but as I read on, it pulled me in, and I found compelled to read more about Wayne and his family.  The writing is spare, and very beautiful in parts, with the loneliness that the four main characters each feel reflected in the remote and sparsely populated land where they live.

Each character’s struggle manifests itself in different ways, as the book takes us through Wayne’s childhood, school years and beyond.  In many ways, very little happens, but there is so much strangeness in the normalcy of their lives, contrasted with the unusualness of Wayne’s body.  The story is haunting in parts, and I really felt that all of the characters were realistically and believably drawn; sometimes their behaviour seems questionable, but it’s hard not to wonder what any other ordinary person would do in their situation.

It’s hard to believe that this was a debut novel – it was so emotive and yet under-stated, and treated Wayne’s condition (for want of a better word) with delicacy and compassion.  A book which I would definitely recommend.

 

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