Tuesday, 20 December 2011

2011: A Look Back

This time last year, I decided to set up a little blog. A place for me to jot down what I thought of books and films I'd been enjoying. One year on, and the site is far more successful than I could have imagined and has turned into a place not just for my ramblings, but for everyone to share their opinions and debate to their heart's content! So as 2011 draws to a close, here are my favourite things from this past year.

What have your book and film highlights been in 2011? As always, comment away! Enjoy xxx

2011 has been an impressive year at the cinema with massive hits from comic books to classics and brilliantly original screenplays. But it all started out with The King's Speech and Black Swan back in January - two completely different films that were both staggeringly good to watch. Later in the year, there were some more arty, occasionally darker films to marvel at rather than enjoy. The violence in Tyrannosaur - Paddy Considine's directorial debut - was intense but entirely overshadowed by the phenomenal performance given by Olivia Colman. Tilda Swinton also gave a quietly torturing performance in the bloodstained We Need to Talk About Kevin.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was one of the biggest adaptations of the year - but not the only one. There was also One Day, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Help and the final Harry Potter instalment - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two. While The Help and We Need to Talk About Kevin did brilliant jobs with their original source text, it was the final Harry Potter that stood out and for all the wrong reasons. The team behind the final film opted for 3D spectacle over plot and lost all the fitting ends to the beloved characters. It was a sorry end to an incredible series.

While 2011 was the year I managed to read The Help and We Need to Talk About Kevin - two incredible books - the book of the year has to be Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton. It held its own, even given the high standards set by Lupton's staggeringly brilliant debut Sister back in 2010. It was a lot to live up to but Lupton managed to prove just how talented she is with her second book. I look forward to book number three...
Though released a few years ago, 2011 was also the year I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a brilliant piece of young adult fiction set in a dystopian future. The book has been made into a film for release in 2012 and I am hugely excited to see it on the big screen.
A piece of quality non-fiction came out in 2011 in Dani's Story by Bernie and Diane Lierow. It is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once and looks at the struggle the Lierows had in adopting Dani, a young girl who had been removed from her family home due to severe negligence.

In the last year, I have had the great pleasure of chatting to some brilliant people in the world of film and book, but the highlights have to be getting to pose my questions to two brilliant authors - Rosamund Lupton and John Grisham. Getting to hear Real Steel director Shawn Levy and star of Fright Night David Tennant talk about their films at Empire Big Screen Weekend was also brilliant fun.

Sometimes, films and books get overlooked because they are silly and not to be taken seriously - though this does not make them bad. For pure unadulterated enjoyment, highlights have to include the Hugh Jackman robot film Real Steel and hilarious romp My Sweet Saga by Brett Sills. Marvel film Thor was also suprisingly entertaining and saw newcomer Chris Hemsworth pull off arrogant, funny and charming with apparent ease. Kristen Wiig also proved her worth by starring in and writing the massive hit Bridesmaids which mixed gross-out comedy, humour, touching sentimentality and heartbreaking sadness with class. But the clear winner by a mile was the JJ Abrams/Steven Spielberg summer hit Super 8, which had me hooked from start to finish. It was an adrenaline fuelled ride with incredible young stars, amazing effects and a dark and twisted storyline to match.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

John Grisham Talks Adaptations

The lovely folks over at Tesco Books asked people to submit questions for an interview with bestselling author John Grisham. My question was picked and here's what Grisham had to say in response.

Lots of your books have been turned into films. How well do you think they represent your books and what is your favourite film?
"I have been very lucky with Hollywood. I've had nine books adapted. Eight were enjoyable. The Chamber was a bad one. I stay away from it...I try and sell film rights to people with good track records.
The best adaptation was The Rainmaker...by Francis Ford Coppola and was a very faithful adaptation from the book and my favourite movie. I also like A Time to Kill, which was my first book.
They're all fun to watch. I don't get involved in making the movies because I don't know how to make movies. I don't go to the set anymore. I don't hang out and try to tell the director how to make a film. That's not what I do. I sit back and watch it like everybody else and hope it's good."

For the full interview check out John Grisham's velvety voice at Tesco Books.

Hidden Cinematic Gems of 2011

2011 has seen some incredible blockbusters hit the big screen. The year kicked off with The King's Speech and Black Swan, the summer was spectacular with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Super 8 and two Marvel films Thor and Captain America. There was the brilliantly witty and original Bridesmaids and some incredibly successful art-house films including We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Tree of Life. Even though it was widely criticized by critics, even The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn did tremendously well at the box office thanks to its massive fan base. And the year isn't up yet - we still have the Sherlock Holmes sequel, Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to go.

But in amongst all that spectacle, a few gems have hit our screens and fizzled quietly away almost as quickly as they arrived. They may not have made millions at the box office but they deserve to be recognised as great pieces of cinema and I strongly urge you to check them out as soon as you can.

First off is Oranges and Sunshine, the true story of social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) who stumbled across one of the biggest cover-ups in recent British history. Humphreys helped a young Australian woman who was trying to track down her birth parents. What she discovered was that thousands of British children were removed from their parents, told their parents were dead (when in fact they were not) and shipped off to Australia for a better life. Many were left in care, some abused, but largely they were forgotten about. Humphreys then takes it upon herself to track down all the families she can to reunite them. The stories are heartbreaking but instead of focusing on them, the film beautifully stays with Humphreys, who divides her time between her home in the UK and a house in Australia, away from her family and dealing daily with the horrifying stories each new person tells her.

Albatross was a hilarious surprise when I saw it. I didn't really know much about it, except that Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey was in it. What I found was a brilliantly naughty and oh-so-funny script about what happens when an outspoken young girl starts her cleaning job at a B&B and gets involved in the lives of the family who run it. The film has a British cast that shine in its countryside setting. Also starring Julia Ormond and Felicity Jones, Albatross was a shining example of originality and cleverly tongue-in-cheek.

I was apprehensive about seeing Tyrannosaur as it was meant to be incredibly violent. It was even more violent than I had previously imagined but what I did discover was an incredibly powerful film about an unlikely friendship between a violent man and a woman suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. Written and directed by Paddy Considine and with a performance from Olivia Colman - known before this for her comedic roles - that blew me away, the film is flawless - if you can handle the violence. I truly hope that Colman and Considine are recognised for their work and not just in the UK.

I stumbled across Welcome to the South (Benvenuti al Sud) entirely by accident as it was part of the local Italian Cinema selection. What I found was an absolutely hilarious, laugh-out-loud film about the misconceptions of others. When a man in the north of Italy is punished for lying at work by being sent to the office nobody wants in the south, he prepares - rather comically - by putting on a bullet-proof vest. When he gets there, he finds that they may speak funny and they may have a different way of approaching things but they are still great people. He soon befriends them and starts to enjoy life their way.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 of Panem with her mother and little sister Primrose. After the death of her father and her mother's subsequent breakdown, she has had to take charge of her little family, risking the death penalty daily by entering the woods with best friend Gale to hunt for food.

Every year, one boy and one girl from each district aged between 12 and 18 are selected to take part in The Hunger Games - a fight-to-the-death reality show where there can only be one victor. Once you turn 12, your name is entered and is again with every birthday. There are also ways to buy food, which is scarce in many districts, by adding your name even more times.

For 16 year old Katniss, the odds are not in her favour. She has been getting food and supplies for her family by adding her name to the pot and for her age has been entered five times already. 12 year old sister Prim has only been entered once. But when the name for the girl Tribute in District 12 is called out, Katniss is horrified to hear that of her little sister. She immediately steps forward and volunteers as Tribute in her sister's place - becoming one of the 24 young people who will, in a few short days, be dropped into the games.

In Katniss Everdeen, Collins has created a fantastic female lead. She is flawed in her social skills, cold and harsh with her mother and does not really understand the world, romance or love. But at the heart of it all she is a survivor. She loves her sister in a protective maternal way, but other than that she looks at each day as a battle, a hunt for food, for trade, for carrying on whichever way she can.

The reality show style of the games means that she quickly becomes more a pageant show contestant than a fighting machine, trying to win the affection of sponsors who will then drop things into the game to help her along the way. Though she knows she must ultimately kill him, she is advised by her team to befriend Peeta, the boy chosen to represent District 12 alongside her. The two are the only District pair to enter the procession holding hands and they share their training time, while others work alone.

"They want a good show" she is told. And so, because she will do whatever she has to to survive, she goes along with it. She blushes, flirts and plays up the romance to the cameras. Anything to put the odds more in her favour. The relationship that develops between the two, and all its hidden understones, is a fascinating one as Katniss starts to realise that perhaps it is not all just for the cameras.

The book also has an incredibly fast pace, even for the massive stints when Katniss is alone in the games. She is always thinking, always planning, so there is always something to do, some plan to follow. When each chapter ends, you just want to keep reading to see what is around the next corner.

The book has striking parallels to Battle Royale but fans of the book and film of the Japanese hit should not be put off. The Hunger Games is an entirely different approach to the same concept. It is a young adult fiction book and set in a dystopian fantasy style reality instead of the "real world" of the Battle Royale. By doing this, it manages to be different enough that fans will not be constantly comparing the two. Battle Royale is a much darker novel and though the violence still exists in The Hunger Games, it is not nearly as terrifying. A few nasty deaths did make me wince but they are more ugly than scary.

The fantasy element is not just in the customs, clothing and names of Panem's inhabitants but in the creatures. There are genetically modified birds that mimic song, the muttations - creatures that are wolf-like in nature but also walk like humans, and tracker jackers - wasps that have an enhanced sting that can easily kill a person.

A superb, clever and imaginative book that left me dying to read the following two books in the trilogy.

I cannot WAIT for the film in March 2012!

4.5/5 FOBLES

Read my review of Book 2 in the series Catching Fire here

Thursday, 1 December 2011

My Week With Marilyn: A Cinematic Delight

My Week With Marilyn is a true account of the week when 23-year-old Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) worked on a Laurence Olivier picture back in the 1950s and got to not only meet Marilyn Monroe but fall in love with her. Monroe, played here in the performance of her career by Michelle Williams, was a demanding star - turning up late to set, fluffing her lines and always insisting on an entourage. But according to Clark's diaries, there was much more to the woman than met the eye.

A staggeringly good cinematic debut for Director Simon Curtis, this film is a delectable treat of 50s style close ups, pouts and wiggles that Williams has mastered - as seen through the eyes of both her young admirer and her rather older, and slightly more envious admirer Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). With a supporting cast of Dougray Scott as Monroe's husband Arthur Miller, Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh and other stars including Emma Watson, Zoe Wanamaker, Dominic Cooper and even a small part for Derek Jacobi, the film is a veritable who's who of acting class.

The film's setting is stunning, from the city shops to the rural houses and gorgeous 1950s cars. Shots of the sun shimmering through Autumn leaves just add to the majesty of Monroe herself. The always entertaining American vs British ideals and customs just adds to the chaos and humour of it all. 

At its heart though is a gorgeous tale of first love as the young Colin finds himself completely taken in by Monroe. She manages to be both fragile and strong in a way that must be seen to be believed. She needs love and validation all the time and never seems happy with herself, but she also loves being Marilyn Monroe and you see that she cannot even fathom leaving Hollywood behind. Knowing how her life eventually pans out just makes this all the more tragic. You don't even realise how "herself" she is being with Colin in the film until fans ask for her autograph and she turns it on. "Shall I be her?" she asks Colin. And the transformation into Monroe takes place before your very eyes.

The only niggling thing for me was the bizarre accents of some of the cast but when you're led by Branagh, Williams and BAFTA Rising Star Nominee Redmayne, the niggling things fall to the wayside.

My Week With Marilyn takes you back to all the exquisite joy and utter heartbreak of first loves. Because after all, anyone who recalls their first love with affection saw them as Colin sees Marilyn Monroe, even if they weren't the most famous face in the world.

An absolute delight. Just like Monroe herself, when Williams is on screen it is impossible to look away.

4.5/5 FOBLES