Friday, March 29, 2013

What is a Safe Haven?

Before I get crucified by any of Nicholas Sparks's die hard fans, I have to up front admit that in my opinion he had his one shot in The Notebook. That was an amazing book which turned into a very good movie (with the help of the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, of course) and it opened the door for him. Many doors, actually. Dubbed often as the most romantic movie of modern times, The Notebook paved the way for him to get more movies made, more books published and (at least in my opinion) all of those are in pursuit of what The Notebook was. So far? Not very successful.
I was drawn to this story in particular because I thought this was Sparks's opportunity to tap into another serious issue. He tends to be walking this thin line between wanting to be Jodi Picoult and trying to be Jane Austen (set in modern era). Okay, okay, maybe I'm being a little harsh. But I'm a very difficult audience for romance novels so when someone said he's like Bryan Adams in the literary world (i.e. he *really* understands women), I set my goal to discover this bryanadamsness inside him. So I read more than just The Notebook. In fact, I read Dear John (and rolled my eyes and just barely finished the book), The Choice (and rolled my eyes at the end), The Lucky One (and liked the main character), The Best Of Me (and rolled my eyes a little more at the huge coincidence in the end which I smelled from a far and was almost praying for it not to come, especially since the title is actually a title of a Bryan Adams song!) and lastly I dived into Safe Haven. And I am yet to uncover this greatness that he apparently has inside him. Yes, I should probably have given up. But I have a friend who swears by him and each and every time she persuades me this will be a very good book. And like I said, this topic seemed to hit the nerve with me so I gave it a go.
This was too good to pass up. A comparison of Sparks' movie posters.
Nicholas Sparks can write. There is no question. He knows how to roll the sentences and spin the story. His yarn is really really good. What's lacking is the gist of the story. That little extra something. But then again, if romantic is what you're after, the surprises, twists and shocks are pretty limited, I guess. So Safe Haven is about this mysterious girl Katie who appears in a small town and draws the attention of a young widowed shop owner Alex (with two kids). He is interested in her and gently pursues her but she keeps him at bay, living on the outskirts of the small town and keeping very much to herself. She clearly has a secret and he is more than determined to find it out. Without much of a spoiler alert I can say that Katie had fled an abusive husband and hid from him in the small North Carolina (as always, fantastically romantic) town. *That's* what I was interested in. And I have to give Sparks credit where credit is due. The story of how Katie ran away from her husband was amazing. How she managed to slip from under his controlling ever-present gaze was very well described, beautifully planned and had absolutely no plot holes. I found myself applauding there. So while Katie is learning to trust Alex and is getting attached to his kids, you just know that the ex will come barging in from somewhere. His kind of men always find her kind of women once more. So that is where the plot thickens, right? Well my complain is about the ending. By now I should probably add "of course". So here's the "spoiler" if you will, although it's not really, cause in Sparks's books *****spoiler***** someone (almost) always dies. This time it's her ex husband. And when he dies, Katie weeps and mourns him. What the HELL?! What self-respecting woman who has enough strength to flee from the man who abused and hit her as often as he could possibly raise his hand, would cry when the bastard is finally stopped? So basically that one little bit spoiled it for me and pissed me off. Okay, this time Sparks justified it with how she wept for the man he was and she fell in love with and wept for the marriage that could have been etc. But by then I was already angry. 
Still I think after The Notebook this might be my favorite of his (if I can even pick favorites) - but for a few alterations. I didn't like Alex as much as I liked the former Marine Logan in The Lucky One but I liked how the story unfolded. Unlike what the movie shows, Katie never slept with Alex during the course of the book. There were no passionate jumps into his arms and wrapping her legs around his waist, the steamy nights and romantic mornings together. A bruised woman needs way more time than a week or two to get to that level of intimacy. Also Katie used to be a natural blonde and dyed her hair blonde to hide from her husband. In the movie it was vice versa. Maybe because Julianne Hough's eyebrows are so dark that she passes off for a former brunette. But it's common knowledge blonde hair is noticed faster, so why would Katie want to expose herself after she so meticulously planned her escape? The movie was directed by Lasse Hallström, who had directed a masterpiece or two before. Can't really say what went wrong here except that he had a very bad screenwriter and that Sparks was blindly agreeing to everything while he produced (?) the movie. How to ruin a good book? Make it into a movie and take out the best part about it - how the smart woman finally escaped her torturer. Let me give you a hint - she didn't stab him.
And of course if he had skipped Katie's "friend" Jo and the letter in the end (you actually gotta read it/see it to believe it, it's THAT far fetched), Sparks would maybe even earn 4 stars from me. But he fell short. Too much mushiness and obvious tearjerkers. And to show you how a good book on this subject should actually have been written... Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Rendition (2007)

"Honey, this is nasty business. There are upwards of 7,000 people in central London alive tonight, because of information that we elicited just this way. So maybe you can put your head on your pillow and feel proud for saving one man while 7,000 perish, but I got grand kids in London, so I'm glad I'm doing this job... and you're not."

National security is of prime importance for any nation, but should there be a limit on the ways to achieve it? The CIA's infamous extraordinary rendition practice makes me think of how the so-called safety measures in interest of a nation's security are not fool proof at all. Rendition (2007) is a movie based on a tale of a man who is a victim of CIA's suspicion and their practice.
It's a story of an Egyptian born Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer who lives in Chicago with his American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and their son, along with Anwar's mother. While at a conference in Cape Town he gets a missed call on his cell phone and his life is about to change after that. A CIA agent is killed somewhere in North Africa in a failed suicide bomb attempt which was targeted at a highly placed local police official Abasi Nawal (Yigal Naor). After getting information that El-Ibrahimi had a connection with the incident, the CIA detains him just as he lands in the US. Thereafter he is flown to an undisclosed location where he is inhumanly tortured by Nawal so that he would confess to being involved in the blast and provide them with more information.

Douglas Freeman: "This is my first torture."
This movie deals with a very strong subject which in many ways is perceived as the negative side of the US inteligence policies. However, a strong subject needs to be complemented by equally strong performances which this movie is short on in my opinion. CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gylenhall) who observes El-Ibrahimi's torture finds himself highly under-prepared for the acts he has to witness. His performance lacks character and it doesn't attract much attention throughout the movie. Isabella is clueless about her husband's whereabouts and after failed attempts to get any information from the flight operators she starts to investigate on her own. Witherspoon delivers a decent performance playing a distraught wife who does everything possible to find her husband. As she succeeds in finding out the truth she doesn't manage to get through the head of the CIA Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) who refuses to help her. Streep like Gylenhall fails to impress and is rather two dimensional. Being such immensely talented actors their roles didn't really make the impact that they should have and I thought their abilities were not full utilized. There are however, some good performances by Abasi who is ruthless as a high ranked police officer dealing with criminals and a strict family man and Metwally who plays the role of a desperate man who has no clue how he landed on the CIA suspect list. The movie also shows the life of Abasi's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) and her boyfriend Khalid (Moa Khouas) who fall in love and want to be together against all odds. Their vital connection to the entire plot unfolds only in the end.  

"We have a saying, 'Beat your woman every morning.
If you don't know why, she does.'"
This movie is an eye opener in many ways when it comes to the CIA's unreasonable tactics to counter terrorism. It shows how easy it was for them to just pick a suspect and transfer him to a different part of the world without notifying his family or giving him a proper interrogation first. The fact that the CIA didn't want to believe that El-Ibrahimi was clean even after screening his background is indicative of how much they trusted their information no matter if it was right or wrong. On the other hand, when it comes to the overall performances and screenplay, it lags behind. I expected more from it with such a powerful subject and an impressive cast but it disappointed. The subject line of this letter is much better than its contents.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The God Of Small Things

"Change is one thing. Acceptance is another."
"That's what careless words do.
They make people love you a little less."
Arundhati Roy received The Booker Prize for her first and only novel. They still call it her debut novel and despite writing many other things since then, none were fictional or in the shape of a novel. It is also semi-autobiographical, it seems, and it is discussing the coming-of-age and growing up of two twins. 
The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt).
When Chacko's English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that Things Can Change in a Day. That lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river....
The story jumps around back and forth in time and it is quite confusing at first before you get used to the time-jumping and nicknames within the Indian family. I am familiar with the Indian families and still sometimes it was difficult to follow who did what to whom and why. But once you get a grasp of the characters, the story is like a river. Flowing, floating, whooshing, running, twirling and twisting, running around a bend and over an obstacle. It pulls you deep within itself and you feel the horrors coming and despite not being able to stop them you long for it, you yearn to stop the craziness that you know will happen.

"It really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.

And how much."

This is a story of a family. Of familiar breakdowns, of love and loss, of heartbreak and sadness, of naïvety and secrets, of leaving and being left, of favorism, of hate and grudge. It is a story of how small things turn people's lives and they (or we) don't even know it. The story and little stories within it tell how things have changed for these people. What led to the ultimate ending and how the horror of what happened in the end is something that you will not forget. It's the kind of book you could talk about for hours on end but only with those who have already read it. Why? Because it speaks of small things. That twist and turn the life. And a river runs through it. Like a real, liquid, unattainable story that you only fathom once you're at the end of it and you're watching it, as it descends into a waterfall.
"If you're happy in a dream, does that count?"

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Great Daniel Day-Lewis

What do Christy Brown, Daniel Plainview and Abraham Lincoln have in common? There is no proof that Brown and Lincoln were related in any way nor were they in the same profession. Plainview being a fictional character doesn't stand any chance either. What connects them is the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis who has played those characters on the screen in such a magnificent way that he won an oscar for each one of his performances.

Lewis is what some of us know as a method actor. He doesn't merely adapt a character and play it but he lives, thinks and behaves like it. It's safe to say that he has taken method acting to another level with his astonishing performances. Well, to be honest I didn't know much about him until I watched There Will Be Blood. The fact that he has been around for a long time and has just a handful of movies under his sleeve shows how particular he is about choosing what he wants to do. The main character Daniel Plainview, played by Lewis left a permanent mark on my mind. I was amazed by his performance and couldn't help marvel at it over and over again. There is a certain aura which he creates with his roles that overflows the viewer's mind with admiration. Be it the brave Christy Brown, the strong and greedy Daniel Plainview or the iconic Abraham Lincoln, he has captured the core of those characters and executed each one of them with unmatched consistency. Not having back to back releases might be his way of doing utmost justice to the roles he chooses and he often ends up being praised for his performance.

Let's talk about his first oscar winning performance in My Left Foot (1989). It's the story of the Irish writer and painter Christy Brown who suffered from cerebral palsy and was able to write and paint with just his left foot. Lewis delivered a strong performance and considering he was playing a character born with such a handicap it was quite a challenging one. Look at it this way: to suffer from a disorder like that means leading a very difficult life and it had been like that for Christy Brown as Lewis managed to make you see and feel the helplessness Christy must have felt. The inevitable struggle, the will to fight and the courage to make something out of that life as Brown did is where the method acting comes into the picture; to live the life of the character in order to portray it and bring out the exact same emotions. It's hard not to notice the wide smile on the face of the great Morgan Freeman who was a fellow nominee after Lewis' name was announced as the winner at the Oscars, while the legendary Robin Williams who defines perfection was applauding with joy. It speaks great volumes of Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor. 

"There's no great mystery. I'm an
oilman, ladies and gentlemen."
As an actor Lewis is a perfectionist. "You use yourself up, that's what you're there to do," he said while discussing his role in There Will Be Blood (2007). He continued: "You've absorbed, you've taken, you've nourished yourself, fulfilled yourself with the possibility of something and then when you're shooting your job is to disgorge that, to use it up, to play it out." He plays the character of Daniel Plainview, an opportunistic oil man who doesn't care about others when it comes to doing his business. Lewis left no stone unturned with his brilliant performance and has left Plainview as an unforgettable character in the history of cinema. It happens many times that after witnessing a great performance by an actor one can't imagine any other actor being capable of matching it, if there was an option of choosing someone else for that role. I think of Daniel Plainview and I stand firm in my belief that no one else could bring out his character in such an impeccable fashion as Lewis did. For an artist like Daniel Day-Lewis finishing the whole process of acting is the most difficult part. He explains: "Because once unleashed, that curiosity which first allows you to entertain even the idea that you might create a whole world cannot easily be put back to sleep again." His commitment to his characters is what separates him from the others. 

Reports say that initially Lewis had refused to play the role of Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012). Spielberg had moved on to the extent of signing Liam Neeson but for some reason things didn't work out. It was Leonardo DiCaprio who managed to convince Lewis to give it a second thought and the rest is history. The way he studied Lincoln, explored his life and personality comes out admirably in his role. He said that he needed a year to study him, one can only imagine how deep he got into knowing and living him in order to play this man. After watching Lewis' performance I came to know Abraham Lincoln better and I must admit that in many ways he introduced me to the great leader and his personality. During his speech after winning the oscar for Lincoln he thanked his wife Rebecca and mentioned that since they got married sixteen years ago she has lived with some very strange men, an indication that only she knows how much he involves himself in the character which he plays. 

Daniel Day-Lewis is the only actor in the history who has won three Academy Awards for Best Actor. As memorable as his roles are he is one actor who will forever reign in the film industry. His constant strive for perfection and consistent relentlessness to push the boundaries make sure that he sets new standards with every role that he picks. When you watch his movies, you forget that you're watching Daniel Day-Lewis. All you see is the character he's portraying. While addressing the press after winning his third oscar he said that he needs to have a lie down for a couple of years after this one and it's really hard to imagine doing anything after it. I hope he said that "out of character" and will be back under a different personality soon to mesmerize us with his brilliance.

Monday, March 11, 2013

No clouds in my storm

Let me start off by saying I've never read any Harry Potter books. It's just not my cup of tea. I've tried, I've also watched one movie and after the craze decided to try watching another one but just couldn't get through. So I gave up. But a glimpse was enough to know that this is a lady who can write and is not just a bored housewife with a desire for the other side. So when the announcement of the adult fiction came up, I decided to give it a go. Now, after coming to the end of this tale, I can only say one monosyllabic word: Meh.
If I were a ten year old and interested in magic, Harry Potter would definitely be my bible, so I understand why people are crazy about Harry. Don't necessarily understand why adults go bonkers over it, though. I do, however, respect the amount of imagination this lady must have to conjure up such magical details and the mind it takes to come up with them. And despite lacking the magical, her fictional town of Pagford is just as full of details as Harry (probably) is. I say probably because I am not a well-Harry-read person.
Here's the official, short description: When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? 
The first feeling I got was that Ms. Rowling has trouble staying under 500 page mark. She's used to taking characters and giving them a space of seven books in which we can get to know them and their history and in which they can develop and unroll like a magic carpet. Here she had one book and (just like her fantasy series) many characters. Those characters needed stories and traits which she felt could only be displayed with background stories. Countless background stories told in brackets and retrospect. And if it isn't an epic historical novel in the likes of Ken Follett, it really has no business being so long. And giving us countless petty little problems that we actually encounter daily in our lives.
What Pagford could look like, at least in my mind. (image via
She is a master of the craft. There is no denying that. She is fantastic at telling a story. I could see the little town of Pagford as vividly as you can possibly imagine a small English town with "just the right amount" (basically about 20 too many) of weirdos, sluts, cheats, self-absorbed men and ice-cold women, hateful mothers-in-law, acne-prone teenagers pining for the prettiest new girl in town and life-saving social workers as a small town can possibly handle without spontaneously combusting. There's even a(n almost) Bollywood star thrown in for good measure. No wonder I needed a guide for all the characters and a chart to go with it. 
But every chapter of every part of the book is well written. I was only truly bored and my mind was happily fleeting when she was explaining the Pagford-Fields-Yarvil connection. Pagford thinks it's better than Fields where the methadone clinic and the poor people live so they want it to be officially part of Yarvil. There. I did it in one sentence. The problem, however, was, that at the end of each of these chapters I wasn't sure whether I had gained something from them. Was what I just read crucial to the story? Did I have to know that? There were so many of these little tellings that in the end I didn't know what to think. Is she stringing me along, is she stretching it, was she trying to make it into a tv series? I don't have a definite answer, except that Rihanna's Umbrella will never be the same for me again. I also have a favorite character, despite the fact that I didn't quite like her, I too, wanted to hug her. I think Krystal is the reason I give this book 3 stars, despite absolutely loathing the white trash British English. Made me shudder. It's even worse than the white trash American English.
There are so many things in this book that I can't possibly write a short review although I am highly and extensively disappointed in the book. Most of the characters I did not give a tiny rat's ass about (forgive my language), I wasn't biting nails to see what will happen to them. And after wrapping up the story, I have two concerns. First is that this book does not have equally distributed cliff hangers (and not that many in the first place) to make a gripping TV show. Second is that despite its description this book is still young adult oriented. And possibly even meant for young adults. The people who push, pull and turn this story are the teenagers, not their parents. Not the election or the casual vacancy but the delinquency and imagination of the kids and the negligence of their parents. So basically it's Harry Potters for those who hate magic, witchcraft and fantasy.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

If flowers could talk

The cover of my Kindle edition
There is a certain way of communication in symbolism. I've always been a big fan of it so maybe it isn't surprising those were the classes I was particularly good at during my studies. The meaning of words, names, rituals, symbolism in paintings, sculptures, even gardening were always fascinating. And I have to admit this book didn't make the cut for book club for the very poor description on its jacket. 
"The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable young woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past."
Prognosis: I yawn and fall asleep before I finish the description of the book. Indeed.
But then the love of symbolism got the better of me and I still read this bugger. I cannot possibly say it was the best book ever written but I can say that it was not by far what I expected it to be. I thought it'll be more like one of those novels where nothing ever really happens and there's no peak of the story. To keep those novels fresh and entertaining throughout the whole story is nothing short of a masterpiece. Ask John Irving (how it's done)! He is one of those rare ones who can make it happen no matter what. Vanessa Diffenbaugh is no John Irving (yet) but she is no E. L. James, either. For starters, she can write. And spell. And make sense. And write an enticing But this isn't about the horror that is being passed around in the form of bound papers that desecrate the wonderful term "a book". (Yes, I'm talking about the very few shades, there aren't fifty in a million years.) The story in itself  in The Language of Flowers is written very interestingly. The best part about Victoria who is promised to be very interesting is that I didn't like her one bit. And still I was interested in what will happen to her, what she has done and what the flower story really is about. That's a tough task to achieve. 
The story flows back and forth and alternates between the past and the present. The past is hooking in a way that you have no idea what it's bringing and the present is presenting itself just enough to keep you luring until the next chapter of the past which will lure you into the next chapter of the present and so on and on. I liked for example that very beautiful discovery of the yellow rose and its meaning. Because I was a little upset at the wrong meaning first (the meaning of yellow rose was one of the first meanings of flowers I've learned and have kept me completely baffled as to why would anyone gift this flower to another person as a sign of love) but after things became clearer, I decided to be less sceptical. Turns out Ms. Diffenbaugh did her research well and even included a flower dictionary in the end.
The book itself did not change my outlook on anything really. It did a very good portrayal of what an unsteady family environment and numerous foster homes can do to a person and how this can haunt them for the rest of their lives. How terrible it is for them to trust and even be trusted, how they are not used to sharing their life with anyone and would most of the time rather live like a stray cat who just gets fed through the kindness of strangers. (And not the Blanche Dubois kind of kindness either.) Which is a subject very, very close to the author's heart. It's a wonderful story of love, hate, forgiveness and coming of age through all of that. And despite always loving hydrangeas I will never look at them the same way. Here's a short snippet into Victoria's life as told by Vanessa herself.

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