Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Life of Pi

I am a big fan of the Booker Prize winning novel as Yann Martel manages to weave humour, shock, wonder, despair, hope and fear into a huge novel of adventure and discovery. His writing provides you with vivid images of what Pi sees and I was worried that as with many films, what would be translated on screen would not be my interpretation. But Ang Lee does a wonderful job and obviously loves and understands the novel inside out. Apart from a couple of moments, it is pretty much identical and perfectly captures Pi’s changing emotions as he spends hundreds of days at sea.

The zoo scenes at the beginning of the film are beautiful and there is some stunning scenery of India as Pi grows up. The laughs come as he attempts to follow three different religions and does not see why he should choose just one, but his faith will save his life in later events. After an idyllic life growing up in his parents’ zoo, his father drops the bombshell that the family are selling all the animals and moving to Canada. They will all travel together across the ocean on a huge ship. The ship never makes it and Pi finds himself the only survivor on a lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orang-utan and a tiger called Richard Parker for company.
The film thoroughly deserves its many award nominations for Cinematography and Production Design, with Pi’s days at sea a stunning mix of intense storms and beautiful orange and pink skies, plus of course the sea-life he encounters with flying fish, dolphins and a huge whale making dramatic entrances. The only downside, was that seeing this film in 3D did make me feel a little seasick and as so much of the film is set at sea, there is no escape from that queasy feeling.
The CGI character of Richard Parker is stunning to watch and his emotions are captured perfectly from feeling seasick, being a fierce predator, wanting to escape the boat and eventually becoming so weak that Pi can eventually stroke him. Suraj Sharma is brilliant in his debut role and is able to hold the film on his own as the only actor on screen for a large part of the film. The duo’s stop at a strange island inhabited by thousands of meerkats provides some comic relief, but does look a little too 'CGI’d' and is very brief compared with the book. It is also not as chilling as the novel when Pi discovers the truth about the lush island.
While the film has been made for a family audience and is not as gruesome at the book, Pi’s interview with the men from an insurance company at the end still packs an emotional punch and I found the final scene very moving. Overall, this is possibly one of the best novel to film adaptations I have seen, and while I may not necessarily watch it again, I really enjoyed sharing in the adventure with Pi and Richard Parker.
Trailer for Life of Pi: 
One of my favoruite scenes, which is exactly like the book!


Sunday, 27 January 2013

Les Miserables

Last night I eventually went to see the new Les Mis film and for somebody who is usually described as 'well hard' at watching weepy films (I never even sniffed during Titanic or The Notebook, although anything with animals is a completely different story), during the final scene I was literally sobbing, with many teary moments throughout the film and it got me wondering why this musical has such an effect on the majority of people who watch it.

I work in theatre, so have always found this medium emotional and effective, but I wasn't sure if it would translate to film. I'm still not sure if Tom Hooper's film is a great one, or if the amazing music is enough to please audiences. Although I don't mind 'sung-through' musicals, it would have had nice to have had a little more additional dialogue for us to connect to the characters and explain the French Revolution a bit more. I think it relies on audiences knowing the story and already loving the characters.

So to the cast. Hugh Jackman is outstanding and provided me with the first teary moment when he breaks down in church after being saved from arrest by the Bishop. He changes physically throughout the film and is completely believable as Jean Valjean, with an amazing singing performance. The other stand-out star is of course Anne Hathaway who becomes unrecognisable in her role as Fantine. The scene of her singing I Dreamed A Dream with cropped hair and a swollen, bruised face is an amazing piece of cinema - nobody seemed to move in the screening I was in, just completely transfixed, with lots of sniffing and blowing of noses once the song was over. Other highlights for me were Samantha Barks who is fantastic as Eponine and Aaron Tveit who plays Enjolras with attitude. Eddie Redmayne was a pleasant surprise, as in previous roles I have found him quite bland, but he brings real passion to his role of Marius. Amanda Seyfried also puts in a good performance and proves she can really sing. The only disappointment was Russell Crowe, who seems to play Javert very one-dimensionally and unfortunately his singing remains quite flat throughout the film. His scenes with Valjean don't seem to have the intensity they could have. I also didn't really find the 'light relief' of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenardiers very funny, although the rest of the cinema were laughing away. I have always found their parts odd when the rest of the story is so intense and tragic. We have seen Helena Bonham Carter do these kind of roles so many times before and I have never found Sacha Baron Cohen funny (apart from in Madagascar!) It all felt a bit 'Sweeny Todd!'

Now the production. I wasn't entirely convinced by Tom Hooper's direction or the production design. A lot of the scenes looked too 'blue screen' and it also felt to me far too British to be a film about the French Revolution. The iconic and familiar English scenery of Greenwich (how many films are going to be made there?!) and Bath, plus the mainly British cast does not make the film authentic at all, especially the brilliant young boy who plays Gavroche, but sounds like he should be in Oliver!  For me, the barricade scene still felt on quite a small stage, when they could have made it so much bigger and the fighting did not feel real or 'gritty' enough. The chance meeting between Marius and Cossette resulting in them falling in love was also far too brief and unbelievable, although A Heart Full of Love is beautifully done, with a butterfly stealing the scene flapping its wings in time to the music. The scenes for me were hit and miss, with One Day More being a particular disappointment with quick editing between characters making it have less of an impact.

The main success in this film lies in the wonderful cast who all have musical theatre backgrounds, The idea of having the actors sing live to a piano accompaniment in an ear piece gives them the freedom to interpret songs and have an orchestra play to their version. This provides some raw, wonderful performances, particularly from Jackman and Hathaway who both thoroughly deserve every award they are nominated for. There was a point in the film where I thought I couldn't take any more and didn't think I would get upset as I knew exactly what was coming, but the final scene just hits you halfway through, and although I found it hard at times to really care about the characters, the wonderful music is just so emotional and passionate and leaves you a sobbing mess, so I guess the music is the real star of this heartbreaking film.

Let me know what you thought of the film version and if you have read the mammonth novel by Victor Hugo.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Dead Man's Land

What better place to get away with murder than on bloody battlefields, surrounded by death. This is the challenge that meets Dr. John Watson while he is teaching about blood transfusions at the front line of WWI. He just has the simple task of finding out who, how and why, can his skills picked up from his cases with estranged friend Sherlock Holmes, help him with solving this sensitive mystery?

The book opens with Watson arriving in a balloon flight, with the slow, gentle ride in contrast to the violence and horrors of war on the ground below. The landscape is far removed from Conan Doyle's foggy Victorian London and it takes a short while to get used to Watson in this new location, as a much older man and away from his consulting detective companion. Watson is in France to carry out blood transfusions and causes a stir immediately by choosing two VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment 'nurses'), Mrs Gregson and Miss Pippery, to accompany him to the field hospital, which is frowned upon by the matron.

On a routine round, Watson discovers a body with strange injuries and his suspicions are raised. When more bodies turn up, Watson begins his own investigation with Mrs Gregson (who has a secret past of her own) and a violent revenge plot is uncovered... 

I am a fan of Conan Doyle's work and have been unsure whether to read new 'spin-offs', but as with Anthony Horowitz's House of Silk, I really enjoyed this new story about Waston, as well as a smidgen of Holmes. I particularly found it interesting that this book is set in the pairs' 'twilight years' giving an idea of how they both cope without the excitement of their previous existance in London and with their bodies (and occasionally minds) not as strong as they used to be, although the desire to solve crimes is still there. 

There are some interesting new characters in the form of ex-suffragete Mrs Gregson, the cast-out American Dr. Myles and the caring Nurse Spence. There is a link to Watson's London past with Winston Churchill making an appearance and some mentions of familiar characters and cases for fans of the orginal stories. As with Horowitz's House of Silk, there are also hints of some unpublished stories which readers of the time may not have been ready for...

The consulting detective himself makes some brief appearances, initially as some imagined asides in Watson's head and later, helping in his own way in his countryside cottage back in England. I felt the essence of the characters of Watson and Holmes are captured very well, with an added dimension of age and liked the fact that although they are no longer speaking, they are still thinking of each other and working on the same case.  

Dead Man's Land would appeal to fans of crime thrillers and WWI literature as well as Conan Doyle fans. As someone who has an interest in WWI, I found the work and relationships of VADs and nurses very interesting, as well as the medical advancements during that time.

I was very lucky to be able to ask Robert Ryan some questions about these novel, which you can read here.

Robert Ryan

I am so excited to have my very first author interview below. The excellent Dead Man's Land was released last week and I was thrilled when I was offered the chance to ask the author, Robert Ryan, some questions about the novel.

Dead Man's Land sees Dr. John Watson in the limelight, as visits war grounds of WWI to teach about blood tranfusion. Soon, he becomes suspicious of some strange deaths and with memory of his detective work with estranged friend Sherlock Holmes, he begins investigating and finds out that the place with so much death around is the perfect place to commit murder... You can read my review of this book here.

Did you find it a responsibility working with such iconic and much-loved characters as Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes?

To be honest I considered pitching Watson’s War (as I thought of it) several years ago, but I was wary of tackling such a well-established figure. In my novel Early One Morning I dealt with SIS (MI6) in WW2 and with Bugatti. I thought Bugatti owners would love the novel and MI6 hate it. Quite the reverse, I got to know a couple of ex-spies through the process. The Bugatti people were less welcoming. So I knew you could easily upset those who felt ‘ownership’ of a topic or a personality and Holmes obviously has fiercely protective fans. But when I talked with Simon & Schuster I realised it fitted in with exactly what they were looking for and (I think) the first series of Sherlock was being trailed, so I thought: why not give it a go? However, I do believe that, like James Bond or Batman, you can stretch and bend these characters out of shape and they always ping back to the original, allowing other writers to start all over. In Holmes’s case it is, of course, those 56 short stories and four novels that form the ACD canon. But I did pepper the text with references to those stories that I hope the aficionados enjoy.

I enjoyed the fact that Watson was in the forefront and using skills picked up from Holmes. Did you feel that you added any other dimensions to their characters?
Some of the areas I wanted to explore were Watson as an unreliable narrator of the stories who bolstered Holmes’s reputation somewhat, the fact they would both be growing older – the fear of mental capacity diminishing must be even greater for a man like Holmes – and Watson’s way with what Holmes called ‘the fair sex’. Interestingly ACD said that Holmes was simply a calculating machine and that to add anything else was to diminish the character, but I thought the twilight years of such a detective held some interest. There is one thing I would like to add – I didn’t intend for Holmes to be in the novel at all. He just barged in and wouldn’t leave.

What is the process in gaining permission to use the characters from the Conan Doyle Estate and how long did it take?

As my agent explained patiently when I told him the idea, although the Conan Doyle canon is out of copyright, Dr. Watson has been trademarked (the way Disney trademark Mickey Mouse etc.) by the Conan Doyle Estate, along with Holmes, Moriarty and Professor Challenger. Would this really stand up to legal scrutiny? I wasn’t sure. But the whole Holmes copyright issue is murky – not here but in the USA, where the situation is blurred because of various Holmes movies. The legal representatives of the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insist that as The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes is still in copyright, which means Holmes himself (and Watson) is protected until 2023. The New York Times described the situation as ‘a tangled web’. I had no desire to get caught up in it. So, it seemed worth getting the estate's blessing to proceed and, after a nervy pitch on the phone and a couple of emails outlining plot and characters, permission was granted (after a tense couple of weeks) to say that Dead Man's Land was officially sanctioned worldwide (including the USA) by Andrea Plunket, Administrator of Conan Doyle Copyrights. It might have been unnecessary, legally and strictly speaking, but it made me sleep easier.

Why do you think there has been a resurgence in popularity of the characters over the last few years?
The duo is endlessly malleable but somehow remain above all the re-inventions. Some fans loved Jeremy Brett, before that it was Basil Rathbone, now it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr – you can re-cast Holmes for every generation (much as Bond has been) and keep the essence intact. But also the Watson/Holmes partnership is the blueprint for every detective/sidekick pair you can think of, so even though they are Victorian characters, there is a modernity about their relationship. Plus, ACD’s writing is surprisingly fresh and engaging – again, every generation can re-discover the original source material.

Have you always been a fan of the characters?

Lapsed I would say. The stories and Hound were among the first thing I read (sadly, the second was Mickey Spillane, which might explain a lot). But over the years I have picked up the short stories and enjoyed them. I can’t claim to be one of those obsessive fans – you find me choosing the Holmes canon as a Mastermind subject.

You mention in your notes that found a particular blog (This Intrepid Band http://greatwarnurses.blogspot.com) helpful in your research of WWI. How useful do you find blogs and social media in your research and also in finding out readers responses to your work?

Increasingly so. Compared to the slog of researching something like Early One Morning, which wasn’t pre-internet but was pre-blogging/twitter/facebook, researching WWI was much more straightforward. I have always gone of the basis of ‘first find an expert’ for my research. Tracking down an expert has never been easier. I am not sure about readers’ response through social media. It is two years since my last novel Signal Red and the landscape has changed enormously. Like most authors, I tweet and I blog now, so I await developments with interest.

Do you find it difficult to remain historically accurate?
Not in the big picture, but sometimes precise dates are very inconvenient – like Watson being slightly ahead of the curve in blood transfusion. He is probably six months before his time. But it is a work of fiction, you can’t tie yourself in knots. And as a rule I try and apologise at the end for any liberties taken!

What other research did you do for the novel?

There were three stages. Speak to my nurse/blogger about medical matters. Read the annotated Sherlock Holmes, which dissects the stories in forensic details. Read everything I could on WWI and spend an unhealthy amount of time in the Imperial War Museum. Then just write, trying not to let all that get in the way.

You have set a lot of your work during WWI and WWII, how important do you think it is to keep the memory of these wars alive?
I think there are historians who can do a better job that me (I’m thinking Max Hasting and Anthony Beevor) of dissecting those wars. What I feel is that both conflicts remain amazing backdrops for (often true) stories when everyday men and women did remarkable things in a manner we simply can’t envisage now.

What personal links do you have to these historical events? 

There are no family links left now – but because of the books I have a great friend who was in both SOE and MI6. His history of secret service for this country goes back to the Russo-Finnish war in 1939-40. After he told me his story, I wrote to the Finnish Embassy explaining that he had undertaken secret missions to help the Finns, and the government re-struck the Finnish Winter War medal. So, at the age of ninety plus, he finally got the award two years ago. He is a great source of information and wisdom about men and women in wartime

What further reading would you suggest for those interested in learning more about WWI?
Well, Birdsong did it for me when I first read it and I recently read and enjoyed Andrew Martin’s The Somme Station (which I avoided while I was finishing off DML, because the subject matter was too similar). But of non-fiction I found The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell useful and insightful and Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel both fascinating and moving.

You can find out more about Robert Ryan at www.robtryan.com or follow him on Twitter @robtryan

Thank you to Jamie Groves at Simon & Schuster UK for arranging this interview.