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This book is a collection of short stories, the first (and best) being The Snows of Kilimanjaro.  In this sad, wistful tale, a man lies at the base of Kilimanjaro, having developed gangrene in his leg, and being unable to get proper treatment for it.  He is accompanied by his wife, but as he lies dying and we witness his conversations with his wife and his own private thoughts, it becomes clear that his life is full of regret, missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams.  This story hooked me in, and gave me hope for the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy the rest of stories – to the extent that I actually put the book down and read some others before continuing.  It’s only that I feel unable to leave a book finished once it’s started that I picked it up again.  Many of the stories are about Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical character Nick Adams, who I found myself unable to warm to.

It’s true that some of the descriptive passages are beautiful, and the dialogue is believable, but the over-riding themes of rugged, macho men doing rugged manly things, and the women who often seem little more than an annoyance to said men, did not appeal to me.

However, apart from the story which lends its title to the book, I did enjoy the story about a young man returning home from war and finding himself unable (and unwilling) to forge a connection with anyone, including family, friends and girlfriends.  On the whole however, while I wouldn’t deny Hemingway’s talent to use words wonderfully at times, his stories were just not a good fit for me.

 

 

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In the late 1600s, Carlo Demirco’s skill at creating ice creams has brought him from lowly beginnings in Italy, to the court of King Louis XIV of France.   There he meets the intriguing Louise de Keroualle, a lady-in-waiting from a noble but penniless French family.

From there, Carlo is sent to London, to work as confectioner to King Charles II.  Louise is sent as well, to become the mistress of Charles, thus furthering France’s political aims.  But while Louise works on seducing Charles, Carlo finds himself increasingly drawn to her, and is faced with the unpleasant situation of encouraging the relationship between the object of his desire and the English King.

I was looking forward to reading this, as I had previously thoroughly enjoyed The Various Flavours of Coffee, by the same author.  While I did like The Empress of Ice Cream, it did not captivate me in the same way.  The writing is descriptive and evocative, and the machinations and dealings of ministers both in France and England were well described.  The politics of the story were interesting, and made me want to learn more about the period, but I found I could not warm to Carlo or Louise.  Louise in particular always seemed like a distant character, and although the book is narrated by both Carlo and Louise, she never seemed fully fleshed out (although she was in fact a real person; Carlo is fictional, but has his basis in reality).  However, I did like the gradual change in her character – from the point of view of an observer, it was interesting to see her priorities change, and see how she justified her own actions to herself.

On balance, I think I would recommend this book, mainly for the political intrigue, and the descriptions of Carlo’s ice desserts, which are liberally scattered throughout the book.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Shakespeare’s goriest play is by no means his most popular one, and I can imagine that some people would find it too distasteful to watch (I had my reservations, initially), but as this production, directed by Michael Fentiman proves, it can be successfully brought to the stage.

Briefly the storyline concerns the titular character who has returned triumphant from the war against the Goths in Rome.  He slays a son of Tamora, queen of the goths, in revenge for his fallen soldiers.  She in turn urges her two remaining sons to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia (which they do in the most horrific fashion, also cutting out her tongue and cutting off her hands so that she cannot identify her attackers).  Titus’s sons are then framed for this grievous crime, and executed.  When Titus discovers the truth, he swears revenge on Tamora and her sons, and – well, it’s safe to say he gets it, although it’s also safe to say that there are no real victors in this play, which ends in a bloodbath (a bloodbath that is as uncomfortably amusing as it is wince-inducing).  Sounds bloodthirsty?  It was, and at the time that it was written, there was a great public appetite for such plays, and Shakespeare was obviously happy to provide one.

This production certainly made me grimace on occasion, but it was extremely compelling and watchable, and even managed to include some dark humour – no mean feat in such a gory play.

Stephen Boxer made an excellent world-weary Titus, whose descent into madness is clear to the audience.  The rest of the cast were also superb in their roles, especially Katy Stephens as the vengeful Tamora, John Hopkins as a very amusing Saturninus, and Kevin Harvey as Aaron – a truly detestable, and strangely charismatic character!  Rose Reynolds was also heartbreaking as the tortured Lavinia, who never finds the happiness she is owed after her brutal attack, and the murder of her husband.

Titus Andronicus is not a play for everyone, and I would recommend that people are aware of the storyline before going to see it.  However, I found it extremely watchable (even if I watched some parts through my fingers!) with excellent performances all round.

(For more information about the Royal Shakespeare Company, or this production, please click here.)

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This story is based on a graphic novel, which in turn was based on the Spartan battle against the Persians in 480 BC. Gerard Butler played King Leonidas, who leads his 300 Spartan warriors against a Persian army of thousands upon thousands.  Lena Headey plays Leonidas’s wife, Queen Gorgo, who stays behind while her husband goes to battle, and attempts to rally the council into sending reinforcements to help him.  Dominic West plays Theron, a corrupt councilman who is Spartan, but who is really in cahoots with the Persians.

I didn’t really expect to enjoy this film, and I only really watched it because Dominic West is in it, but I found myself totally drawn in, and really liked it.  It is quite obvious that the film is based on a graphic novel; it still has that ‘look’ about it.  All of the cast do a fine job, and I don’t want to even think about how hard Butler must have trained to get himself into such incredible shape for this film.  Dominic West, one of my favourite actors, plays a distinctly unsavoury character in this film, but as ever, I thought he was great in it.

It’s certainly quite bloodthirsty, and there are a few scenes of nudity also, which did not bother me, but might be worth bearing in mind for some viewers.  Most of the action is centred around the actual fighting itself, but it’s so artistically done, that it never gets boring.

I liked it.  I liked it so much that I would definitely watch it again, and would recommend it to others.

Year of release: 2006

Director: Zack Snyder

Producers: William Fay, Craig J. Flores, Scott Mednick, Frank Miller, Deborah Snyder, Thomas Tull, Ben Waisbren, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Gianni Nunnari, Jeffrey Silver, Wesley Coller, Nathalie Peter-Contesse, Silenn Thomas, Steve Barnett, Josette Perrotta

Writers: Frank Miller (graphic novel), Lynn Varley (graphic novel), Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon

Main cast: Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Tom Wisdom, Rodrigo Santoro

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William Holden, Frederic March, Grace Kelly and Mickey Rooney head up the cast in this film set during the Korean War, and based on actual events.  Holden is Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, a naval reservist, who has been called away from his civilian life to serve in the US Navy during the war.  Brubaker is unhappy about fighting a war which he doesn’t necessarily believe in, and is bitter about having to leave his wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) and their two daughters behind.  Nancy does however join him when he has a week’s leave in Tokyo, but duty calls, and he has to return to the war.  Frederic March is Holden’s Admiral, who has suffered the loss of his two sons to war, and Mickey Rooney is Mike Forney, a helicopter pilot who saves Brubaker’s life at the beginning of the film.

I’m so glad I watched this film – had it not starred William Holden, I doubt I would have bothered, as war films are not a genre I particularly enjoy, but I found it utterly compelling.  Holden is excellent as ever as the brave Brubaker; he is brave because he has to be, but his fear and longing to be back with his family are all too believable.  Kelly is also good as the wife who is frightened for her husband but determines to be brave and supportive.  Frederic March, as always, is superb, giving an air of gravitas and genuine sadness at the situation in which he finds himself and his men, knowing the losses that families are suffering every day.

The scenes when the men launch their attack on the titular bridges are action packed and very tense (the film won the Academy Award for special effects), and the moments where Brubaker spends quality time with his family are perfectly placed, and show the two worlds between which Brubaker and men like him are torn.

This is definitely a film worth watching, showing the men not just as heroes, but also as people, making a sacrifice for their country.  It is emotional and satisfying, and all in glorious Technicolor.  Highly recommended.

Year of release: 1954

Director: Mark Robson

Producers: George Seaton, William Perlberg

Writers: James Michener (novel), Valentine Davies

Main cast: William Holden, Grace Kelly, Frederic March, Mickey Rooney

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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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This is the second book in Paullina Simons’ trilogy about young couple Alexander and Tatiana.  The spoilers I mention in the title of this post refer to both this book and the previous book, ‘The Bronze Horseman’.

The two title characters are actually not physically together for most of this book; Tatiana having escaped to America at the end of The Bronze Horseman, believing her husband Alexander to be dead; and Alexander still in Russia and forced to lead a penal battalion in war, with not enough soldiers, not enough ammunition and certainly not enough support from his country’s leader.

While Tatiana attempts to make something of her life – she becomes a nurse at Ellis Island, makes friends, raises her and Alexander’s son Anthony, and even considers dating again – she can never escape the possibility that her husband, the love of her life just might be alive.  Alexander meanwhile has no idea where in the world Tatiana might be, or even if she is still alive.

I enjoyed this book, just as I enjoyed The Bronze Horseman.  In this instalment of the story, Alexander’s back story, including how he came to be living in the Soviet Union, and his life before he met Tatiana, is covered, with the result that he is a much more sympathetic and rounded character.  I thought the parts which detailed him fighting for a war he was no longer sure he believed in, under horrific conditions, to be absolutely compelling.  The contrast between the lives which husband and wife led during this period were very marked – while Tatiana has found comfort and luxury, Alexander is barely surviving, and watches his fellow soldiers die on a daily basis.

The ending was superb – the last 100 pages or so are genuinely unputdownable!  There is a third instalment in this series, which I certainly look forward to reading very soon.

Highly recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of The Bronze Horseman.

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1996, Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and certainly a very famous love story, was given the Baz Luhrmann treatment. The setting was moved to Florida in the current day, although the original Shakespearean text was retained.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Romeo, and Claire Danes is Juliet. Support is provided by – amongst others – John Leguizamo, as Tybalt (and he very nearly steals the movie), Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, and Paul Sorvino and Brian Dennehy as Juliet’s father and Romeo’s father respectively.

The story is well enough known for me not to write a very lengthy synopsis here, but in effect, it is the tale of Romeo and Juliet, the children of warring families, who fall in love and secretly marry. I don’t think it’s too spoilerish to say that things don’t end well!

I have seen this film before, and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it had been so long since I watched it that I decided to revisit it, and being a big fan of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (also starring Leguizamo in a scene stealing role), I expected that Romeo + Juliet would be a big hit for me. Unfortunately I came away thinking that sometimes it’s best not to revisit films you loved years earlier! In this instance, I felt that the film was a triumph of style over substance. It certainly looks fantastic, and for the most part, the Shakespearean language manages not to feel out of place in the present day setting.

As one might expect from a Baz Luhrmann film, this picture is full of colour and flamboyance, and it boasts an impressive soundtrack (the Des’ree song, ‘Kissing You’ which plays over Romeo + Juliet’s first meeting, is particularly lovely). Some of the acting is terrific – the aforementioned Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite and Mariam Margolyes are all excellent – and Sorvino and Dennehy are fine as the warring heads of the two families. In truth, the weak links in the cast are DiCaprio and Danes. DiCaprio is a gifted actor, but I don’t think he was right for the part of Romeo, and Claire Danes was fine as Juliet in the beginning, but as things got worse for her character, I lost interest in her portrayal.

On balance, I would say that this film is worth seeing, purely for the different take on Shakespeare’s work (there are SO many ways in which his plays can be performed and interpreted), but I prefer the more classic telling of this love story, rather than the modernised flashy version. Still, if it gets anybody interested in learning more about William Shakespeare, that can only be a good thing.

Year of release: 1996

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Producers: Baz Luhrmann, Jill Bilcock, Martin Brown, Catherine Martin, Gabriella Martinelli

Writers: William Shakespeare (play), Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann

Main cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Harold Perrineau, John Leguizamo, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy

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I’m not sure whether this is a World War II movie with a romantic backdrop, or a romance with a World War II backdrop. Either way, it is thoroughly entertaining. William Holden is Joe ‘Pete’ Peterson, a Sergeant in the American Army, stationed in the Italian mountains. While on leave in Naples, he meets WAC Eleanor MacKay (Nancy Olson) and a romance develops. However, Joe still has obligations to the army, and it becomes doubtful whether he will return alive or not…

William Holden and Nancy Olson made four films together, including the brilliant Sunset Boulevard. They obviously had chemistry on-screen, and it comes into play here. Holden – an under-rated actor – is superb as Joe, combining bravery and heroics with vulnerability and hesitation, that makes for a fully rounded and believeable character. Holden was also one of the most beautiful actors around at the time that this was filmed (and before his looks were sadly ravaged by alcohol, although alcohol certainly never affected his talent for his craft). Nancy Olson also does a great job as Eleanor, somehow bringing both warmth and coolness to the role!

The romantic aspect – if slightly rushed (as often seems to be the case in films from this era) – is luscious and I did care for both characters. The war scenes are disturbing, as soldiers get picked off arbitrarily, and men see their friends dying all around them.

The blending of the two genres works well here. The film is very tender and sweet, with a perfect ending (which I won’t spoil). Definitely recommended – in fact, it has jumped straight into my top ten films of all time.

Year of release: 1951

Director: Michael Curtiz

Producer: Anthony Veiller

Writers: Orin Jannings, Richard Tregaskis

Main cast: William Holden, Nancy Olson

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This British made film stars Gregory Peck as Squadron Leader Bill Forrester, stationed in Burma in World War II. Forrester no longer cares whether he lives or dies, after his wife died in a bombing raid. When he visits a missionary’s house in Burma, he feels a connection to a young Burmese woman who lives there. Shortly afterwards however, Forrester, his navigator Carrington and another colleague named Blore, crash land in Japanese territory, badly injuring Carrington in the process. A long walk across hostile and unforgiving territory is the only possible chance of escape.

I wasn’t too sure whether I would enjoy this film. War movies are not a favourite genre of mine, and I wouldn’t have considered watching it, if Gregory Peck hadn’t been in this film. However, I’m glad I did. The Purple Plain is less a war movie, and more a film about the human condition with the war as a backdrop.

Gregory Peck was at his most beautiful in the early-mid 50s, and he certainly looks stunning here. His looks do not detract from his excellent performance however, and he really captures the two sides of Forrester – the lost and hopeless side we see at the beginning of the film, and the somewhat more optimistic side of him that develops. Having found a reason to live, Forrester has to face the very real possibility that he might die, and this is all shown very well.

Win Min Than plays Anna, the young Burmese girl who Forrester falls for. She is luminous in the part, and very appealing. (This was the first and last film that the actress ever made – she had not previously pursued a career in acting, and had fallen into the role almost by chance. She decided against a career as an actress, in order to concentrate on her marriage.) Maurice Denham is also good as the irritating but well-meaning Blore. The only patchy acting was down to Brenda de Banzie, who played the missionary at whose house Anna lived. De Banzie plays the part with a Scottish (I think) accent, which is pretty bad, and ended up distracting me whenever she was on screen.

Overall though, this is a great little-known film, and one that is definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.

Year of release: 1954

Director: Robert Parris

Writers: H.E. Bates (novel), Eric Ambler

Main cast: Gregory Peck, Win Min Than, Bernard Lee, Maurice Denham, Brenda de Banzie

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