Movie review: Joy (2015)

The recently-released movie, Joy, is the third collaboration between director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Loosely based on truth, it tells the story of Joy Mangano, a struggling single mother who became an entrepreneur and founded a business empire worth millions of dollars.

Sounds glamorous? When I first heard about this movie, I had no idea who Joy Mangano was or what this invention, now worth so much, entailed. The trailer doesn’t give anything away, but on closer inspection it turns out that Mangano achieved her wealth by inventing….a self-wringing mop.

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Movie review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Before you read this post, there’s a spoiler warning: I discuss scenes from the book and the movie, including the ending. These scenes are discussed in detail. If you want to be completely surprised, stop reading now! But if you’ve read the book and/or you don’t mind spoilers, read on….


In true movie franchise style, the adaptation of the final Hunger Games book was split into two movies: Mockingjay – Part 1 and Mockingjay – Part 2. I finally got round to seeing Part 2 last week, and it was almost exactly as I had expected. While I’ve been a fan of the series since I read the books in 2011, the last book is arguably the weakest and splitting it into two movies was a mistake. In my opinion, Mockingjay – Part 2 lacked the suspense, grittiness and plot strength (including the political symbolism) of the first two movies.

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Serena: an Appalachian tale of love, obsession and revenge

Serena by Ron Rash, a novel which has recently been made into a film adaptation, begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his new wife set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees the logging empire of the Pemberton Lumber Company and this provides the backdrop to the story. But the title of the novel is the key to its plot: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice: she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story is interwoven with the young woman’s, Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth, in that she works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor with her. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other (Macbeth, act 1, scene VII)

In the novel, neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it difficult to empathize with them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the logging camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic and Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever. It will be interesting to see what changes have been made in the movie adaptation, which I haven’t seen yet. I expect Serena and Pemberton will be softened somewhat, as audiences tend to dislike movies where they cannot relate at all to the principal characters. It is certainly unusual for protagonists to be entirely unsympathetic or unlikable.

The trailer for Serena:

Although the craziness of the two protagonists is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds dryly:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed […] You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened in the end. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility, such as the character of the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecies.

By the time I finished reading Serena, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top, with little character development. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives. For me, this is a major weakness in the plot. Again, it will be interesting to see how/whether this is elaborated on by the scriptwriter in the movie adaptation.

Have you read any of Ron Rash’s novels? His new short story collection, Something Rich and Strange, is getting good reviews.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – part 1

I took some time out of my busy schedule this weekend to go and see the latest installment in The Hunger Games movies: Mockingjay (part 1). Before you read this post, there’s a spoiler warning: I discuss scenes from the book and the movie, so if you want to be completely surprised, stop reading now! But if you’ve read the book and don’t mind a few spoilers, read on….

Firstly, I think that Jennifer Lawrence is the perfect Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence has become one of my favourite actresses, thanks to her powerful performances on screen. In The Hunger Games series, she portrays the many facets of Katniss’s character with great expressiveness: her devotion to her mother and sister, her courage and the way she becomes a reluctant heroine, warily playing along with the story of the star-crossed lovers to please Capitol audiences, before realizing that she is in love with Peeta for real.

One of the reasons why I like The Hunger Games is because of the strong female protagonist. Although Katniss values the friendship of Gale, she is fiercely independent and doesn’t need a male sidekick to help her out. Mockingjay: Part 1 does play on the Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle, but then so does the book. Katniss is less independent and less of her own person: she is being molded to be the poster-girl of the rebellion. There are a few moments of comic relief, notably when she is instructed to act for the propos: Jennifer Lawrence does an excellent job of acting as though she is a person who cannot act!

Mockingjay: the symbol of the rebellion

Mockingjay: the symbol of the rebellion

The majority of the movie takes place in District 13, with occasional forays to District 12 (Katniss returns to see the devastation wrought by the Capitol bombs), other districts and the Capitol. The claustrophobia of living underground in District 13 is vividly portrayed; as a viewer, I found myself searching for greenery and fresh air, the same way Katniss does. Unlike the first two movies, there are hardly any scenes outside in nature, apart from a peaceful scene where Katniss and Gale go hunting above ground and another scene when Katniss sings The Hanging Tree.

Mockingjay – Part 1 has attracted criticism for being low on action and high on talking and strategizing. Many people, including myself, feel that Mockingjay is the weakest book in the series. Even if it means being more faithful to the books, I do think it was unnecessary to break it into two movies. This has become a habit of major movie franchises habit: breaking the last book in a series into two movies, e.g., Harry Potter and The Hobbit, which has split one book into not one, not two, but three separate movies. It is such a blatant way of bringing in more money to the box office. That being said, I enjoyed the movie and it was suspenseful enough for me; I’m not a huge fan of action-packed movies. Part 1 ends shortly after the captured tributes, Peeta, Johanna and Annie, have been rescued from the Capitol. There’s a jolting moment when Peeta and Katniss are reunited that makes viewers jump, even though I knew what was coming. It made me jump when I read the scene in the book!

I’m light-headed with giddiness […] Peeta’s awake already, sitting on the other side of the bed,looking bewildered as a trio of doctors reassure him, flash lights in his eyes, check his pulse. I’m disappointed that mine was not the first face he saw when he woke, but he sees it now. His features register disbelief and something more intense that I can’t quite place. Desire? Desperation? Surely both, for he sweeps the doctors aside, leaps to his feet and moves towards me […] My lips are just forming his name when his fingers lock around my throat (Mockingjay, 2010, p. 206)

Despite a few criticisms, I’m looking forward to the finale of Mockingjay in November 2015. I read the last few pages of the book in feverish anticipation and the ending in the Capitol truly shocked me. You’d better take a packet of Kleenex to the movies next year!

Did you go to see Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (to give it its full title!) this weekend? What do you think of it?

In August, I read…

Now that we are in the last few days of August, it is time for my literary round-up of the month. This month, I read two very different but equally gripping novels. My August reading material began with a trip to Spain and then to Morocco in The Seamstress by María Dueñas.

Note: You can also find María Dueñas’s novel under the title The Time In Between (click here to see its Amazon page). It is identical to The Seamstress, just with a different title.

“Born in the summer of 1911”, Sira Quiroga grows up in Madrid. From the age of twelve, she works as an apprentice to a dressmaker in the same workshop where her mother worked. Her life is simple, predictable, stable. “My ambitions remained close to home, almost domestic, consistent with the coordinates of the place and time in which I happened to live” (p. 3). But when she is seduced by a man who persuades her to run away with him to Morocco, her life begins to change. Her suitor betrays her and steals her money, leaving her alone in a country of which she knows nothing. This is when the novel really starts to pick up the pace. The first few chapters laid the groundwork and the background for Sira’s character but the chapters in Morocco are the ones I enjoyed most.

By now, the Civil War is raging in Spain and Sira can’t go back to Madrid, as much as she longs to return home and to see her mother, who she has no way of contacting. She is stuck in Morocco, she has no money and her duplicitous lover left her with a large debt to pay. So, Sira turns to the only trade she knows: dressmaking. Her years spent sewing dresses in a Madrid shop meant that she is an expert at her trade.

Between 1912 and 1956 in Morocco, the Spanish established the Protectorado español en Marruecos (the Spanish Protectorate) and during the Spanish Civil War many expat Spaniards and their Nazi German friends lived there. Sira manages to achieve success by setting up an atelier and sewing dresses for the Spanish and German women. “Bit by bit the business began to flourish, word began to spread” (p. 173).

The novel spans a wide arc from pre-Civil War Spain, to Morocco during the Civil War and finally to Franco’s Spain during the time of World War II. The Seamstress is full of detail and at 600+ pages (609, to be exact) I read it slowly, enjoying a few chapters each day. María Dueñas has a PhD in English philology and teaches at the University of Murcia, in the south-east of Spain. Her academic expertise and research skills are evident in the novel. She includes a lengthy bibliography of the sources and texts she consulted while writing. The historical detail is wonderful and the plot is constantly developing. Despite having studied the Spanish Civil War, I knew nothing about the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and its role during the Guerra Civil. The Seamstress made me want to find out more. Although the protagonist is a fictional character, many of the other people who appear in the novel were real people, including Rosalinda Fox, who had a fascinating life.

There are some areas where the novel dragged a little. The detail is wonderful and really sets the scene but there is a lot of it and I think some skilful editing would make a difference. On the whole, though, I can’t really fault this book. The plot is engaging, the setting is atmospheric and I liked the central character. Some reviews I read called Sira a shallow character but personally, I disagree with that judgement. She is an enterprising, resolute young woman and it is a credit to Dueñas’s proficient writing that Sira matures and develops throughout the novel. It is a great, memorable novel and I look forward to reading more from Maria Dueñas.

My second August read was Serena by Ron Rash. I have just finished reading it and it is in sharp contrast, both in setting and in characters, to my first August read. It begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his wife, Serena, set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees a logging empire: the Pemberton Lumber Company. But the title of the novel is really the key to its contents: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice; she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story interweaves with the young woman’s, whose name is Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth. Like Lady Macbeth, Serena works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

Neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it very hard to get close to them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of murder and destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic. Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever.

Although the craziness of Pemberton and Serena is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the fanatical lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds with dry humor:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed,” Ross noted. “You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility such as the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecy.

By the time I finished reading the novel, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives.

A movie adaptation of Serena (Serena at IMDB) is currently in post-production. Jennifer Lawrence plays Serena and Bradley Cooper is Pemberton. At the time of writing this, there is no US release date but it will most likely be released at some point in 2014.

What did you read in August?

In the spirit of the season…

…here is a list of 2012’s best movies (IMHO). It’s the end of another year and it wouldn’t be New Year’s Eve without umpteen lists everywhere you look, reviewing and recapping the year’s news, politics, mindless gaffes by D-list celebrities etc. So here is my list of my top 5 movies of 2012! Happy New Year’s Eve.

#5 – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – a thematic choice, considering the world was supposed to end in 2012 (but I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t end after all).

#4 – Anna Karenina – I didn’t like Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Anna but this movie deserves to win awards for its beautiful costume design and spectacular jewels.

#3 – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – humorous and ultimately very moving. And the cast of actors is fantastic: talent personified.

#2 – Silver Linings Playbook – Talking of talent, this movie isn’t running low on it either. I went to see it a week ago (you can read my review of it here) and it is one of the best movies I have seen all year. It is so much better than the trailer makes it look. In fact, if you haven’t seen the trailer yet, don’t! Just go see the movie. Silver Linings Playbook is a beautifully directed piece of cinema and it deserves to win all four of its Golden Globe nominations.

#1 – The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games official theatrical poster - all rights remain with original owner(s).

The Hunger Games official theatrical poster – all rights remain with original owner(s).


I am a fan of the books and, for the most part, the movie did not disappoint. For a detailed critique, see my review of it here.

Silver Linings Playbook: a movie review

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster -- all rights remain with the originator(s)

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster — all intellectual property rights remain with the originator(s)

A few nights ago, I headed off to see Silver Linings Playbook (2012), based on the début novel (2008) by Matthew Quick. For the IMDb page for the movie, click here. I watched the trailer and a few publicity clips on YouTube a few weeks ago and it caught my interest, specifically because of the cast. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a former teacher who lost his job after problems caused by undiagnosed bipolar disorder. At the beginning of the movie, we see him move back in with his parents after leaving a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore. The move back home does not come without its problems as Pat attempts to rebuild his life and return to his wife, who has cut off their relationship. The complications increase when he meets young widow, Tiffany Maxwell, played by Jennifer Lawrence, at a friend’s dinner party.

Silver Linings Playbook is punctuated with sharp outbursts and flare-ups between characters; the sudden ups and downs of the drama reflect Pat’s bipolar swings. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence proficiently portray their characters with performances that keep viewers gripped. I had a few doubts about whether Lawrence would be too young to succeed in a competent performance opposite the much older Cooper (she was twenty-one when the movie was filmed and he was more than a decade older) but my doubt dissolved when I watched it. Both actors deliver performances which are believable and emotional to watch.

The IMDb keywords for the genre of the film are “comedy”, “drama” and “romance”. Although it is true that it contains all of these to a certain extent, I am very hesitant to label it as a rom-com, as I have seen many other reviews describe. It is a drama containing many complexities and “rom-com” is too sappy a word to describe it. There are a few laughs in between the bittersweet moments but if you are looking for a movie which is a 100% fluffy feel-good film (as I would personally expect a rom-com to be), this is not it.

It is sensitively directed by David O. Russell and does not exploit the subject matter of bipolar disorder and mental health issues. Although the ending was perhaps not as realistic as I would have liked, that did not detract one bit from my opinion or enjoyment. If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it.

October

So, it is October already and nearly a month has gone by since my last blog post! How did that happen?

Despite my busy life, I am planning a few book and movie reviews. On my pile of books to read is the magnificently lengthy Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzkho. A review of the aforementioned book will appear in time but the novel is over 600 pages and is quite weighty stuff! I am enjoying it though but need to read it in small chunks.

Also coming soon is my review of Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Some of you may have seen the 2010-released movie, as it won awards at Sundance in 2010 and Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was Oscar-nominated. I have not seen the movie, however, but it is on my to-watch list. I wanted to read the book before I saw the the screen adaptation of it but I will watch the movie soon and write a review of both book and film.

Finally, I recently joined Twitter! My Twitter handle is @cultureblogger Follow me!

I hope you have a wonderful weekend! Until next time, goodbye.