PREVIEW: February 2021

Well, after 193 days of January we are now about to enter the first ever February to have more than 29 days. I have managed to get a reasonable number of posts published this month and have a few in the pipeline – unfortunately a busy fortnight means that I have been unable to dedicate as much time to the blog as I would like.

I will endeavour to get as much published in February as I can, time permitting, and thank you as always to everyone who visits this blog, and I wish you Happy Reading for the month ahead. Most of all though, I hope that you and your loved ones stay healthy and safe!

LITERATURE: A Storm of Swords (George R.R. Martin, 2000)

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In the UK, Ireland, Australasia and Israel, A Storm of Swords – the third in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire – was divided into two books. Why? Because…we Brits cannot cope with 1,100 pages plus in one book…? Yah, I cannot be bothered finding out why either. Anyway, I have reviewed both parts, and below are the links to my two reviews:

  1. Steel and Snow
  2. Blood and Gold

FILM: August 32nd on Earth (1998, Denis Villeneuve)

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French-Canadian drama film August 32nd on Earth was distributed in the UK by Momentum Pictures, following its premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Following a car accident, model Simone (Pascale Bussières) decides that becoming a parent will give her life the meaning and direction which she craves, and asks her best friend Philippe (Emmanuel Bilodeau) to be the father. He agrees, on condition that they conceive the child in the desert of Salt Lake City.

PROS

  • Denis Villeneuve’s direction is nuanced, showing attention to artistic detail and awareness of his filmmaking strengths with his debut feature, keeping the focus on the characters and fleshing them out through his good execution of a slow-burn narrative.
  • Simone and Philippe are used to engage with themes of friendship and looking for meaning, with Pascale Bussières and Emmanuel Bilodeau giving good performances and sharing an engaging chemistry.
  • André Turpin’s cinematography is outstanding, every single frame having a very deliberate, painterly quality, particularly the scenes in the desert, which are absolutely breathtaking to look at and boast a wonderful colour palette.

CONS

  • Denis Villeneuve has a lot of ideas in his screenplay, but does not see all of them through to fruition, which is reflective of the fact that the narrative as a whole is unfocused.
  • A subplot involving a taxi driver (Richard S. Hamilton) serves solely as plot device, and is both contrived and of unclear genre intent.
  • The title and dates of events suggest that it will be a science-fiction film, but it is not, while the dating system is never explained or boasting of any actual significance.

VERDICT: 6/10

ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: this was Denis Villeneuve’s debut feature and, while it is his worst film, we see many of the traits which are prevalent in his subsequent filmmaking here. Although they are less refined here than they subsequently became, they are among the good aspects of the film, testifying to his intelligence as a filmmaker as it shows that he recognised where the strengths of both the film and his filmmaking style lay and nurtured those going forwards.

FILM: You Only Live Once (1937, Fritz Lang)

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Film-noir You Only Live Once was inspired by Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us and originally distributed by United Artists. Ex-convict Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is determined to reintegrate into society and stay on the straight-and-narrow for the sake of his new wife Jo (Sylvia Sidney) and unborn child, but his lack of finances after losing his job leaves him contemplating returning to robbery as a one-off. A few days later, a bank robbery leaves six dead and Eddie as prime suspect. He insists that he is innocent, but with the electric chair looking evermore likely, will evidence that his is telling the truth be unearthed after all?

PROS

  • Excellent direction from Fritz Lang, who is just as comfortable and successful at directing suspenseful, slow-burn scenes as he is at helming fast-paced and intense action sequences.
  • The narrative gives nuanced and mature discussions about a plethora of issues and considerations regarding reformation, reintegration in society and reconciling two opposing forces.
  • An excellent sense of mystery, as the narrative and direction are crafted so that we are uncertain if Eddie is actually telling the truth, as there is plenty of evidence that he is not, but enough that he is to cast doubt in our minds.
  • Cinematographer Leon Shamroy crafts a wonderful example of how beautiful the imagery of black-and-white films can truly be, utilising low lighting, shadows and fog magnificently to craft some truly haunting visuals.
  • Strong leads in Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney, who bring plenty of emotional weight to their roles and have a good chemistry with each other, meaning that we invest in them early on.

CONS

  • The fact that the film had to be cut by at least 15 minutes due to the extent of the violence shows in several scenes which feel cut, and the fact that Fritz Lang was so restricted by the Hays Code is clearly felt in these moments.
  • The ending does feel a tad abrupt, although to what extent that is due to the noticeable cuts which happened I cannot say for certain.
  • While the supporting cast are perfectly good, none of them are especially memorable, and that ultimately comes down to their roles receiving much less characterisation, with some of them existing solely as plot devices.

VERDICT: 8/10

LITERATURE: Fences (August Wilson, 1985)

NOTE: This is a review of the script that was published and sold in bookshops, NOT a final stage production, ergo I will not be discussing things like props or costumes.

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Fences is a two-Act American dramatic play and part of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” – a collection of ten plays which depicted the black experience in Pittsburgh during different decades of the 20th Century. Set in 1957, Troy Maxson is a 53-year-old garbageman who is just about making ends meet, but feels ashamed and bitter that he has been unable to provide his family with a better life, and angry that he lives in a systemically racist country where his skin tone prevented him from achieving his sporting dreams. Although he loves his family, his outlook and general attitude towards life have led to his relationships suffering some enormous strains, and revelations made on both his part and that of his teenage son Cory may just be the catalyst for relational strains which cannot be recovered from.

PROS

  • A well-paced narrative, the majority of which takes place during a period of 6-7 months, the excellent sense of continuity achieved by the fact that the characters and events in later scenes are clearly informed by those of earlier scenes.
  • The sense that this play had a personal feeling of importance close to August Wilson’s heart comes through in the fact that he does not downplay the difficulties of the working-class black experience of the 1950s (the decade he grew up in), and also emphasises the importance of family and community.
  • The play has seven characters, each of whom have well-realised relationships with others, serve a purpose and function in the narrative, and have a backstory which wonderfully informs their multi-layered characters. We resultantly become invested in them and have reasons to sympathise for each of them – even Troy during some of his unkinder moments in Act One.
  • It is in the aforementioned points that we see August Wilson’s natural gift as a playwright, which is even more apparent in the dialogue, which feels very naturalistic due to it boasting the vernacular one has come to expect from African-American characters thanks to film and television, but never feels exaggerated in the way that it might were the playwright white.
  • The play not only depicts the black experience for working-class American families of the 1950s, but August Wilson uses Troy’s backstory to give readers/viewers a better understanding of what it was like in previous decades, without it feeling like a history or sociology lesson.
  • August Wilson makes very effective use of a single location (the Maxson family home), and with so much of the play taking place in the backyard, he successfully gives the title Fences both a literal meaning and a plethora of allegories regarding familial relationships and the security of one’s home.

CONS

  • Once specific revelations are made in Act Two, it becomes impossible to sympathise with Troy as the sense that he is ultimately a decent and moralistic family man (despite his poor behaviour and decisions) is significantly lessened.
  • A typo (which is easily done, in August Wilson’s defence) causes a continuity error in the final scene (fortunately it is one which a theatre director could easily avoid).

VERDICT: 9/10

LITERATURE: A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold (George R.R. Martin, 2000)

NOTE: in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Israel, A Storm of Swords – the third instalment of the American epic-fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire series – was split into two books, and Blood and Gold is the second part. Apparently us Brits cannot cope with 1100 page long books…what a load of nonsense.

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A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold was published in the UK by Voyager Books. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros remain locked into the War of the Five Kings but, after so much battle, the respective forces of Houses Stark, Lannister and Baratheon have each suffered heavy losses. Overseas, Daenerys Targaryen grows her army as she continues to plot to take the Iron Throne but, for the Seven Kingdoms, the threat is much closer to home as Mance Rayder leads the wildling armies to the wall and battle with the Night’s Watch.

PROS

  • George R.R. Martin boasts great imagination with his writing, cleverly using characters and locations to expand Westeros and bring further detail to its cultures, geography, history, families, and the political relations found therein.
  • This book has the most intense narrative of yet, with two deadly weddings, a trial and a long-running battle changing the political face and relations of Westeros forever, all of which are penned with vivid details that make them quite easy for the reader to picture in their mind’s eye…in all of their shocking glory.
  • George R.R. Martin once again pulls off the daring shift in focus between multiple parallel narratives, and even depicts some events from multiple perspectives, meaning that we easily remember what has already gone before.
  • The narrative is told is told in third-person with multiple different viewpoint characters, and George R.R. Martin describes things as the viewpoint character perceives them, meaning that we have a good understanding of their views whilst being spectators ourselves. Furthermore, by seeing perspectives from all sides of the political divides, we get to understand all political positions very well.
  • Excellent characterisation, with very good development of the viewpoint characters (some have been changed forever by events of the previous novels, others are changed forever by the events in this one), and the events of their arcs increase anticipation for what could and would happen to them in the next instalment.

CONS

  • Having so much intensity and darkness with no humour makes result in this book being a much slower read than the previous ones.
  • An unnecessary and slightly contrived epilogue manages to rob the Red Wedding of some of its emotional weight.
  • George R.R. Martin’s use of expletives as slang terms is unnecessary and comes across as a tad immature.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: Farewell Amor (2020, Ekwa Msangi)

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Following its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, drama film Farewell Amor is distributed in the UK by MUBI. Having lived and worked in New York for 17 years, Angolan immigrant Walter (Ntare Mwine) is finally joined by his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). Esther struggles to adjust to the vastly different culture of the Big Apple, and matters are further complicated by the fact that she and Walter are finding it difficult to adjust to living together again after so many years. Meanwhile, although initially their relationship is strained, Walter and Sylvia start to bond over their mutual love for dance.

PROS

  • The narrative is told in the form of 3 perspective stories (those of Walter, Esther and Sylvia), which are deftly handled by director/screenwriter Ekwa Msangi, who cleverly intertwines them, showing the events from different perspectives and providing richer characterisation for it.
  • A very different take on the immigrant in New York story than you would find in a Hollywood film, due to the concept of a family arriving so many years apart and thereby having different understandings of the culture and having to overcome the extra strain caused by so many years apart.
  • Three excellent central performances from Ntare Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson, each of whom gives a sensitive and nuanced performance that is suitably subdued and reflects a deep understanding of their characters.
  • Ekwa Msangi manages to criticise the American Dream and the promises it represents to immigrants in a manner far more subtle than many other filmmakers would.

CONS

  • The narrative does address issues of race, but it does feel quite restrained and very cliched in its attempts to do so (particularly in the scenes where Sylvia tries to settle into a new school), and it does ultimately feel like Ekwa Msangi wanted to play it safe, rather than address such a sensitive topic with intensity.
  • Although it makes for an effective use of a minute budget, by keeping the majority of the narrative confined to the family’s tiny apartment, there is a lot of wasted potential as we do not see in that much depth or variety the means by which Esther struggles to adjust.
  • Several supporting characters are given the minimal characterisation, their performers getting very little to work with and ultimately being quite forgettable.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: The King of Staten Island (2020, Judd Apatow)

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Comedy-drama The King of Staten Island is distributed by Universal. Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) is a 24-year-old high school dropout, living with his mother (Marisa Tomei) on Staten Island and refusing to get his life on track. Having lost his father – a firefighter – at aged 7, Scott has struggled with grief, addiction and mental illness for a number of years. He is furious when his mother starts dating again after 17 years, particularly as her new boyfriend Ray (Bill Burr) is a firefighter. Along with his mother, Ray starts pushing Scott to get his act together, but will Scott listen to this new presence in his life?

PROS

  • Co-writer Pete Davidson draws upon his own experiences of losing his firefighter father on 9/11 when he 7-years-old and his own struggles with mental health and addiction, giving the film a real sense of raw authenticity which no other writer could have done.
  • The screenplay deftly blends comedy and drama, with the near-consistently funny humour being of a more mature and dark nature than most other Judd Apatow films, yet never to the point where it feels inaccessible. The dramatic scenes have a lot of emotional weight and are highly engaging due to this and their character-driven nature.
  • As leading star, Pete Davidson takes his aforementioned experiences and channels them into the dramatic scenes with raw emotion, yet also shows himself to be a gifted comedic actor in the humorous moments with his excellent dry delivery and comic timing – a highly memorable performance.
  • As well as emphasising the importance of family, the film also celebrates the creative arts and how they can be more than just a hobby or a passion. Speaking of which – the make-up department do a fantastic job in creating a plethora of interesting and quirky tattoos for the characters.

CONS

  • Although the supporting cast are good – not a weak performance amongst them – a number of the supporting characters are quite one-dimensional and (for the most part) only memorable because of the set-ups which they provide for Scott.
  • There are a few predictable scenes here and there, while the final third of the film features several moments of quite juvenile physical comedy which is not really in-keeping with the rest of the film’s humour.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: Blithe Spirit (2020, Edward Hall)

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Comedy Blithe Spirit is adapted from Noël Coward’s play, and went straight to the streaming service Now TV in the UK, following its premiere at the 2020 Mill Valley Film Festival. In 1937, novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is suffering from writer’s block as he tries to adapt one of his novels for film. For inspiration, he decides to invite disgraced medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) to his house to conduct a séance. However, this leads to the ghost of first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann) returning, but only he can see her. Jealous that Charles is now married to Ruth (Isla Fisher), Elvira starts to get up to all sorts of mischief to drive a wedge between them.

PROS

  • A few amusing moments, thanks to Dan Stevens’s sheer energy and commitment to the farcical narrative, which reflects the fact that he gives the only even semi-memorable performance.
  • Good attention-to-detail by the costume and production design departments gives the film a sense of period authenticity, while there are also some good practical effects.

CONS

  • The dialogue regularly feels quite clunky and is delivered in an over-sincere manner with little pause to express emotion between lines, and the physical comedy feeling overly rehearsed, which reflects that Edward Hall approached directing the film as though it were a play.
  • A generally poor cast, not only because they deliver their lines in such a cringe-worthy manner, but because they lack chemistry with each other. Isla Fisher is sadly an especially weak link, as her natural Australian accent comes through every now and then.
  • At times the physical comedy feels just a bit too restrained, whereas at other times it is a little frantic, whereas the general pacing fluctuates from very fast to a slow plod, which makes it a hard film to be engaged by.
  • The epilogue’s dark subject matter is approached in a saccharine manner which stops it from having either comedy (which it should not in the first place, but was clearly aimed for) or dramatic heft. Oh, and there are some blatant continuity errors in said epilogue.

VERDICT: 3/10

FILM: Becky (2020, Jonathan Milott/Cary Murnion)

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Home invasion horror Becky is co-distributed by Quiver Distribution/Redbox Entertainment. When angsty 13-year-old Becky (Lulu Wilson) learns that her widowed father (Joel McHale) is now engaged to his girlfriend (Amanda Brugel), she storms off in a mood. Later that day, the house is broken in to by a group of Neo-Nazis who have escaped prison. Their leader (Kevin James) wants to find a key hidden on the property, which Becky has discovered, and when she sees him torturing her father, she makes some improvised weapons and sets out to kill the gang in revenge.

PROS

  • A concise, well-paced and mostly engaging narrative, the First Act being used to establish the characters, the latter two for intense action and horror.
  • An excellent and intense leading turn from Lulu Wilson, while the other most memorable turn is from Kevin James, who does some intense drama and some excellent comic delivery of dark humour.
  • Excellently shot and edited action scenes make for engaging viewing, while the vivid make-up (namely fake blood) and injury detail makes for some quite gruesome imagery and reflects good use of the low budget.

CONS

  • An unnecessary prologue and epilogue, which is more frustrating to sit through due to the poor pacing and very clunky dialogue.
  • The narrative feels quite contrived and implausible, as Becky goes from a typical moody teenager to a cold-blooded killer with no sense of remorse, fearfulness or desperation.
  • Mostly one-dimensional supporting characters, while one interesting subplot involving Apex (Robert Maillet) ends up being wasted potential.

VERDICT: 6/10