Archive for the ‘ 3 Star Reviews ’ Category

REVIEW: “Maurice” (film)

Maurice

Directed by James Ivory
1987

CHALLENGE(S): Read the Movie Challenge

Let me begin this review with a frank and potentially hypocritical remark that summarises my initial reaction to certain parts of the film: HOLY GRATUITOUS NEKKID MEN, BATMAN. No, really. If you thought Brokeback Mountain was pushing boundaries, you have obviously not seen this movie.

This is not, I hasten to add, a prurient response (or at least, not merely), so much as one of complete surprise. It was not something I was expecting, in spite of the M rating (you know they’d have put that there just because the main character was gay, even if there had been no naked men involved whatsoever). To be honest, one tends to forget that men exist below the waist in movies generally, and after I got over my initial double-take I immediately found myself faced with the question of why it should be so surprising. I was under the impression that I had outgrown the prudish part of my nature some time ago, yet here I was, recoiling as if it were so completely shocking that oh my god, men were actually showing their naughty bits on-screen. Had either, or even both of them been a woman I probably wouldn’t even have thought twice about it. But in this case, it was like some kind of invisible line had been crossed and suddenly I was sitting back going, what am I watching?!

Talk about walking smack into your own subliminated prejudices. If there ever was a clearer demonstration of how the gendered gaze in cinema can structure your expectations…

In point of fact, though, I wouldn’t have brought it up except that it struck me as closely related to the main theme of the story itself. As I mentioned in my review of the novel on which it is based, Maurice is very much about the conflict between conventionality and personal liberation, and (perhaps because this is inextricably intertwined) about the gulf between words and actions, both of which I think played a significant part in the director’s choices when it came to creating the film. Most specifically, the story deals implicitly with ideas of masculinity and gender conformity as the titular Maurice grapples with society’s (and his own) disgust at his sexuality and the love that ultimately defines him, until he is forced to embrace exile and transcend that disgust to find happiness. Somewhat similarly, the director seems to have necessarily taken a step outside of the traditional, (heterosexual, white, middle-class, privileged, masculine…?) viewpoint in so much of mainstream cinema in order to shake up the viewer’s expectations and underscore this point.

Of course, James Ivory also directed A Room With a View which, if I recall correctly, had a brief scene in it which also shocked me at the time, so perhaps this is just his particular style of unvarnished, unalloyed filmmaking: in which case, more power to him. On the other hand, there were instances in the first half (during Maurice’s relationship with Clive) that there were opportunities to do this if that was his sole intention, and he chose to refrain. It was because most of the nekkid men scenes came in in the second half (after the split with Clive, and particularly during his relationship with Alec) that I made the connection between the two aspects in the first place.

However. Setting my personal reactions and speculations aside for the moment, I will say that it wasn’t exactly what I’d call a good film. I blame Hugh Grant, although not so much because of his acting (or lack thereof) as by virtue of the fact that he was Hugh Grant, causing me to realise holy crap that’s what Hugh Grant looked like the year I was born, which was followed by the charmingly self-centered holy crap people really did exist before I was born, that is so weird and thus so distracted me to the point where I completely failed to be able to see him as anyone else, let alone the intellectual and weak-natured Clive Durham. His “romance” with Maurice (played by James Wilby) was wooden at best, and downright embarrassing at worst, which made it quite difficult for me to sit through the first half of the story. This unsatisfactory beginning was made up for, however, by the fact that viewing the movie helped me to fully process my thoughts about the novel and come to a place where I felt I actually understood it for the first time. Connections were made. Relationships dawned. I began to realise just how deviously, deliciously subtle good old straight-forward Forster could be.

And that, I think, was the chief delight of this film. It brought the novel to life for me, not least because it quoted virtually every other page. Wilby was perfectly cast, even if Grant was not, and a great deal of the symbolism was included or embellished upon, giving a person who has read the book a number of those in-jokes and moments of “Oh, I know what he’s doing there…” which so greatly flatter the intellect. The direction is perhaps a little too self-conscious and heavy-handed in parts – one might even call it overwrought: it is obvious when he wishes to make a point, for instance, or to impress upon the audience that this particular moment is poignant, and emotional, but the highlights of the novel were handled adequately (and the ending, where Maurice rubs Clive’s nose in the fact that he is over him now, thanks, is perfectly done) and as an adaptation it was not too shoddy – though I would love to see it remade and shiny for a new and perhaps more appreciative audience.

Definitely recommended. But read the book first, and, ahem, beware unexpected!naked!men…

RATING:

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REVIEW: “Maurice” by E. M. Forster

Maurice

E. M. Forster
Penguin Books, UK, 1995

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

Finished 27 Jun 2010

I only really picked this book up because I got the movie out and thought it would make a good addition to the “Read the Movie” Challenge. The premise sounded interesting, but so much like Brideshead Revisited that I was sure it would suffer by comparison, and in some respects it did. However, as I should probably have expected by now, Maurice proved to be utterly different than I anticipated, and ultimately the better for it.

Set in Edwardian England, the novel follows the life of Maurice Hall, every inch an “average” English gentleman, who is being relentlessly groomed to take the place of his dead father as an average stockbroker with an average and thoroughly respectable life. Were it not for a chance meeting with Clive Durham at Cambridge, he would likely have taken his place in society without a qualm. But his love affair with Clive begins to break through the stultifying normality of his everyday life, introducing Maurice to feelings of joy he had never imagined, and spurring him to dream that two men together might just be able to defy the world.

I have conflicting feelings about this novel. E. M. Forster is an old favourite of mine; A Room With a View blew me away when I first read it several years ago, so I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. I love the way he approaches things. His prose is direct, objective, and the detached detail with which he analyses his characters, their actions and interactions, the decisions they make and the way their lives plan out makes for curiously compelling reading. He is also extremely empathetic and skilled at dissembling psychological impulses and complexities.

At the same time, I felt somewhat distanced from the characters – at times I even actively disliked them. There were passages of prose which were fantastic (in particular, the brief scene in which Clive admits he loves Maurice was extremely moving) but others which were so obfuscating as to bewilder me completely. It is definitely a book which will require re-reading several times before it sinks in, and fortunately it is of a type which I would not mind picking up and perusing for new meaning from time to time.

There were some things I did pick up on, however, which enhanced the reading experience considerably. When I first closed the covers, the ending bewildered me: I had been lead to expect a (spoiler!) happy reunion between Maurice and Clive, and had no idea why Alec was even involved. Clive’s attitude confused me, too, since he was the first to be so open about his homosexuality. It wasn’t until I referred back to an earlier passage in the book that some comprehension dawned:

“Everything I say is serious.” And somehow Maurice knew this to be true. It had struck him at once that Risley was serious. “And are you serious?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Then talk until you become so.”
“Rubbish,” growled the Dean.
Chapman laughed tempestuously.
“Rubbish?” He questioned Maurice, who, when he grasped the point, was understood to reply that deeds are more important than words.
“What’s the difference? Words are deeds. Do you mean to say that these five minutes in Cornwallis’s rooms have done nothing for you? Will you ever forget you have met me, for instance?”
Chapman grunted.
“But he will not, nor will you. And then I am told we ought to be doing something.”
The Dean came to the rescue of the two Sunningtonians. He said to his young cousin, “You’re unsound about memory. You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive. No doubt Chapman and Hall always will remember they’ve met you – ”
“And forget this is a cutlet. Quite so.”
“But the cutlet does some good them, and you none.”
“Obscurantist!”
“This is just like a book,” said Chapman. “Eh, Hall?”
“I mean,” said Risley, “oh how clearly I mean that the cutlet influences your subconscious lives, and I your conscious, and so I am not only more impressive than the cutlet but more important.”

— pp. 32-33

The way I see it, Clive is all about words: he insists that their relationship may only be “excused” if it remains platonic – that is, unconsummated, in the realm of words and emotions only. Maurice accepts this because not only does Clive seem to know far more about it than he does but he is, as Forster puts it, “at this stage…humble and inexperienced and adoring, he is the soul released from prison, and if asked by his deliverer to remain chaste he obeys” (p.314). But the major difference between them, and that which ultimately destroys their relationship, is that Maurice is as much about deeds as he is about words, as evidenced by the excerpt above. He is not content to remain as a “friend” in name but not in action. As he repeatedly complains after their separation, Clive is willing to do anything for him except be with him, and he is incapable of reconciling the inherent contradictions this entails. He breaks away; acts, in this case by sleeping with Alec, and in doing so finally comes to accept himself and his true position in society, rather than that which he has been pretending to for so long.

As you can probably see, Maurice is a complicated novel that makes you work for comprehension, and is not what I would call a comfortable read. However, it is definitely worth it and ultimately I think one which should be recommended, if only for its unusual insight into a world seldom expressed in the prose of this era.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage

Beth Kephart
W.W. Norton & Co. , 1998

CHALLENGE(S): Beth Kephart Challenge

Finished 25 Jun 2010

Wow, it’s been ages since I’ve posted a review. Sorry about that! I guess I’ve been a bit busy, as I haven’t finished many books lately either.

I chose A Slant of Sun as the final book for the Beth Kephart Challenge for the most arbitrary of reasons: it was the only other book of hers that our library currently possessed. I was hesitant to read it at first. Memoirs, like most non-fiction, do not tend to hold my attention with any kind of reliability, and as I expected it actually took me over a month to finish. However, once I got stuck in, the book surprised me.

A Slant of Sun is the story, as the title indicates, of a child: specifically, Beth Kephart’s son, Jeremy, a wonderful little boy who is diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) at a very young age. What this means for his parents is what Kephart attempts to show us throughout her book. Special schools; obsessions; social phobias; language disorders; lack of interaction or interest. It is extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking, and the way Kephart tells the story is both honest and elegantly written. Her love of and commitment to her son is obvious from the very first page and sustains what might otherwise be a painful and distressing narrative.

While I can’t say that I loved the book or even really engaged with it to a great degree, this was not for any real fault on the writer’s part. I was impressed both by Kephart’s honesty and with Jeremy, who by all accounts was an amazing child in spite of his differences. This is one memoir I can happily recommend to others and feel enriched for having read.

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REVIEW: “Saving Rafael” by Leslie Erika Wilson

Saving Rafael

Leslie Erika Wilson
Andersen Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 14 May 2010

I have to confess, I love books like this. Forbidden romance with a side of (inter)national conflict? Yes please. That said, I wasn’t entirely impressed with Saving Rafael in the beginning. It is a Young Adult novel, and you can definitely tell: the writing makes no attempt at artistry, it’s just pure storytelling, and at times it felt a little simplistic for me. However, I persevered, and after a few chapters I found myself unwillingly charmed by the characters and completely hooked by the vivid setting.

The book revolves around the life of Jenny Friedemann and her family in World War II Germany. The Friedemanns are ordinary people, close friends with their neighbours, the Jakobys,  who happen to be Jewish. As the jaws of war close over the country, however, anti-Semitic laws and restrictions make it harder and harder for them to maintain that friendship without putting themselves in serious danger. Then, in the midst of bombing raids and rationing, Jenny and Rafael Jakoby fall in love, and suddenly things get much harder. We follow them as they struggle to survive Nazi Berlin and – eventually – the labour camps, without losing each other or their hope for freedom.

As I said, initially I didn’t think much of the writing and figured this would be a quick and forgettable read. I was wrong. I was soon swept up in the danger of it all, rooting for the young couple as they faced each new challenge together. The novel has a refreshing approach to sex – matter of fact without being explicit – which I thought wonderful to see in YA fiction, and builds a believable picture of Berlin in those troubled times. I did feel that a few of the characters’ motivations were rather thin, and the ending annoyed me as it was somewhat melodramatic (followed by a complete anticlimax), but aside from these minor issues, it was a great read. Highly recommended for young history lovers who enjoy a bit of romance!

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REVIEW: “A Kiss in Time” by Alex Finn

A Kiss in Time

Alex Finn
HarperTeen, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 12 May 2010

I seem to be getting a bit behind in my reviews, so I thought I really ought to write this one up today while I had the time. A Kiss in Time is essentially a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in a modern setting. The story follows Princess Talia of Euphrasia, a forgotten kingdom in long-ago Belgium, who pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep for three hundred years. She is finally awoken by Jack, a bratty American teenager who has wandered off from his tour group, and must learn to cope not only with the modern world but with the evil witch who is still stalking her every move.

Kiss alternates between Talia and Jack’s points of view, which can at times be a little annoying. So, too, are the characters themselves: Talia is very convincing as a spoiled, if well-intentioned princess, and Jack, as I said, is the quintessential brat-with-a-heart-of-gold. In spite of this, however, the story manages to be fresh and endearing. It is, of course, a love story, and in that sense is a little trite, but Flinn allows this to develop on its own time while focusing largely on the characters’ personal development, something I greatly appreciated. The supporting cast is also fantastically drawn, and I cheered along with them as they fought their way to the climax of the novel.

I will say that there were some things which felt a little artificial – Jack’s dad’s sudden change of heart at the end, for one thing – but this could perhaps be explained as Jack imputing more evil to his father’s motives than actually existed, and in spite of my reservations about the writing style I found myself quite charmed. Kiss is nothing if not sweet (the exact word I used was “cute”) and surprisingly uplifting in spite of tackling some weighty topics; the sort of book that warms the heart. I will look forward to reading more work from this author.

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REVIEW: “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” (Vol. 1) by Darwyn Cooke

Will Eisner’s The Spirit

Darwyn Cooke
DC Comics, 2007

Finished 3 May 2010

I was reading a book on the history of graphic novels (specifically, comics of the “Golden Age”) and when I read the synopsis for Will Eisner’s The Spirit I thought it sounded like another series I would really enjoy. So when I saw this book at the library I had to pick it up. Of course, it’s not the original, but I didn’t know that to begin with, and in any case it was still quite enjoyable. From the Goodreads summary:

Darwyn Cooke – the visionary creator of the acclaimed DC: THE NEW FRONTIER — turns his attention to the classic Will Eisner creation The Spirit in this amazing hardcover collecting the first six issues of the new series from DC Comics plus the BATMAN/THE SPIRIT special! In these thrilling tales. Cooke maintains the “spirit” of Eisner’s creation but brings his own original sensibilities to the character. The Spirit, a.k.a. Denny Colt, Commissioner Dolan, and his Daughter Ellen are reintroduced in this go-for-broke, shoot-the-lights-out collection of crime stories filled with action, adventure, humor and sexy girls!

It’s pretty much a superhero-type story, except in this case the main character, Denny Colt, is presumed dead after an accident, shoved in a tomb and forgotten about. Except for the fact that he’s not actually dead: the ‘poison’ he ingested simply made it look like he was. So, he comes back to life and takes advantage of his deceased status in order to fight crime as the vigilante “The Spirit.”

The art was somewhat – simplistic, shall we say, but the stories were engaging and I enjoyed the book. It definitely helps to know the back story before you start reading, as the author apparently presumes his readers are all male comic book fans from way back (don’t you hate it when authors do that?). I wouldn’t really count this as a “Graphic Novel” per se since it’s actually a collection of comic books, but it needs a category so that’s where it’s going for the time being.

When it comes down to it, it was kind of blah. A fun, quick read, but not one that left a lasting impression or about which I have much to say. I’m still interested in tracking down the original, though, so it wasn’t all bad!

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REVIEW: “The Woman Who Walked into Doors” by Roddy Doyle

The Woman Who Walked into Doors

Roddy Doyle
Penguin, 1997

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

Finished 15 April 2010

It took me a long time to finish this book, even though it’s only around 200 pages long, and there’s a good reason for it. It is not the sort of novel that you read for entertainment or enjoyment – it’s the sort of thing you read because you really want to know what it’s like to live with domestic violence.

The main story is about Paula Spencer, who grew up with an abusive father and married an abusive husband. We follow her as she meets Charlo, falls in love with him, and as their relationship gradually falls apart we feel every blow. And we experience Paula’s guilt and triumph as she finally gets the strength to kick him out and move on – sort of.

It was, I think, not what I would call a good book in the usual sense. It was well written, but not in a lyrical way: I have frequently described it to others as like crawling over glass because it’s so brutal, honest, unflinching and absolutely one of the most painful things I’ve ever read. I have seldom been so involved with a character’s emotions, so the author has to be doing something right. At the same time, the stylistic choices (e.g. the use of dashes instead of speech marks) and the unrelenting sadness of it all made it hard for me to read much at a time, and even harder for me to come back and persist with my reading.

Overall, I think it’s worth three stars. It’s not brilliant, but anything that can make you truly experience the character’s inner life in that manner deserves praise, and as a book on domestic violence it is invaluable for opening people’s eyes. Just not one I’d recommend if you want a light, enjoyable read!

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