Friday, 18 January 2013

A Street Cat Named Bob

Yes, it sounds like a children's book; no, it's not. I really liked this book, I expected a lot and it was so uplifting. It's also left me seriously tempted to trek to London through all the snow to hunt down 'Bob the Big Issue cat'. I'm not joking.
The basic premise of the story is: "When James Bowen found an injured  ginger street cat curled up in the hallway of his sheltered accommodation he had no idea just how much his life was about to change. James was living hand to mouth on the streets of London and the last thing he needed was a pet. Yet James couldn't resist the strikingly intelligent tom cat, whom he quickly christened Bob. Soon the two were inseparable and their diverse, comic and occasionally dangerous adventures would transform both their lives, slowly healing the scars of each other's troubled pasts."
This is the first non-fiction book I've ever managed to finish, which I think says something about it. It really feels like more of a fiction book, only told in the first person. For me this was a positive, and I'm not sure if other non-fiction books are written like this, but I suppose some might find it a little annoying. I also noticed one reviewer commented that "the word 'I' was used far too much", but to be honest I think that's a little harsh; the author and owner of Bob, James, is an inexperienced writer, and he tells the story in an endearing manner, at least in the case of Bob, which, for me, really works well.
I must admit that I wouldn't have picked this book up if my Godfather hadn't suggested it, and the great Amazon reviews helped too. I am glad I did though, although you can tell that Bowen hasn't really written before; in places the book does drag, particularly the beginning, and it is a little repetitive at times. 
Overall, what I think makes this book a success is simply Bob, the cat. Without Bob, firstly there wouldn't be a book at all, but to be honest I don't think Bowen is really that likable when not portrayed through his own eyes. Just looking at some of the YouTube videos (just type in 'Bob the Big Issue cat' to find a load) Bowen comes across as being very pushy and rude, although this is probably needed when on the streets, I don't really think it's fair to charge people for a photo with Bob as Bowen has now started doing. He even states in the book that he doesn't think this would be the right course of action, yet he does it anyway. It kind of makes me question how much he is adapting the truth throughout the book to make the reader warm to him. 
I have gone on about the negatives of 'A Street Cat Named Bob' a bit which I didn't intend to do, especially since I really enjoyed the book. But the more I think about it, the more the negatives are jumping out at me. That's probably the point though; this isn't a book that needs, or benefits from, deep thought. It really is the definition of light-reading. It's a book I could see many people taking on holiday, just to take a break from everything. And in this it does well, it's just so uplifting and really makes you feel that anything is possible. As much as I'm not all that keen on Bowen his story really is inspiring, and what he's overcome in life is fantastic. That Bob made this possible is brilliant and the street cat really has captured the hearts of Londoners and Britons alike. 
I'm going to post a link of Bowen and Bob on 'This Morning' below. In this clip Bowen actually presents himself as much nicer than in other videos and he gets across the story quite well, although it is a bit annoying that the interviewers keep interrupting, but ahh well it's not the end of the world. You also get to see Bob giving high fives at the end. He's so cute! 7/10.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Les Miserables

I've just been to see this film for the second time since it was released on Friday and I thought I would wait until now to write my review of it. This is likely to be quite long so, I'm sorry, but it needs to be done. Also this post will contain **SPOILERS**.
Hugh Jackman was absolutely amazing! Although not vocally as talented as Alfie Boe he definitely had all the emotion needed to play Valjean and finally, a convict who is scary, not saintly! Jackman's journey was acted so well and it really felt like the character had changed so much by the end - some actors portray Valjean as good at the beginning which just doesn't work for me. I was sightly concerned when I heard the audio of 'Bring Him Home' as there is no doubt that he has to strain to make the notes, but when combined with the visuals it was stunning - although the addition of an eye of Valjean's shoulder throughout the scene, presumably meant to represent the eye of God, wasn't quite subtle enough for my taste, but some might like it.
Russell Crowe really doesn't deserve the criticism he's getting at all. I went into the cinema having read reviews and was expecting to hate him, but, actually, he was one of my favourite parts about this movie. I loved that there were similarities between 'Stars' and 'Javert's Suicide' and I'm so happy Hooper thought to include the Notre Dame and Palaice de Justice on either side of the screen as Javert jumped off the bridge as it really shows his struggle between morality and duty as Hugo intended it. He really was brilliant and the emotion constantly in his eyes was fantastic.
Anne Hathaway so deserves all the credit she's getting for her Fantine. 'I dreamed a dream' was heartbreaking, but the song that hit me more was 'Come to me' in which Fantine dies and hallucinates about Cosette, her daughter. Actually having little Cosette 'present' in that scene made it all the more powerful and touching. It was just so good and she really left a lasting impression.
Eddie Redmayne broke my heart during 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables'. At first I really missed the spirits of his dead friends but when I think about it his loneliness was really emphasised by their absence. Additionally his stutters in "A Heart Full of Love", and jumping through the street throughout "In My Life", were brilliant touches. Finally a Marius who could stand up for himself as well as having that tender side!
Amanda Seyfried was definitely the weak point for me. Although her singing was more like book Cosette, it still wasn't quite there and I found myself regretting that little Cosette had grown up (Isabelle Allan was a brilliant young Cosette and was so cute with Valjean). However, Seyfried's scenes with Jackman were brilliant and her reaction to Valjean's death was one of the best I've seen.
Samantha Barks: of course she was amazing, we couldn't really expect anything less with the experience she has of playing Eponine. But she really did step it up for the movie and every time she was on screen you could just tell the whole audience's hearts were breaking for her. 'On My Own' was particularly good.
Fra Fee, Alastair Brammer and Killian Donneley were my favourite parts of the whole film; they were incredible! Particularly Fee and Donneley's reaction to Gavroche's going over the barricade and getting shot. Yeah, that just about broke me in two... at least until Hadley Fraser appeared on screen two seconds later. Ahh that face! Proving no part is small, Hadley's reaction to Gavroche's death and shooting the students was basically perfect, and for the first time it actually seemed like the National Guard were sorry for what they were having to do. Finally!
Daniel Huttlestone was a fantastic Gavroche and completely in line with Hugo's creation. I still haven't quite recovered from his death, but at all other times he was hilarious. Hopefully he'll be one to look out for in the West End in the future.
The opening chords gave me chills and I didn't stop trembling for quite a while into the film when I first saw it - I actually had to physically make myself sit still, it was becoming a little embarrassing. The orchestra the whole way through is amazing, and although it will always be considered secondary to the singing, I think it deserves a mention.
The Epilogue absolutely floored me and I couldn't actually see through tears for half of it (I'm not really a crier so this is saying something!). Colm Wilkinson not only coming back as the bishop but also as a ghost to take Valjean to Heaven was just too perfect and emphasised Valjean's journey from a resentful convict seeking revenge to an honorable man. Ahh I can't cope...
Overall this is without doubt the best film I've ever seen and probably ever will see - I think I ran out of superlatives to describe it a long time ago. Even the weak points are better than any movie I've witnessed before and I just loved it. Everything was perfect and it was the little things more than anything else that completely made the film. I adored that Hooper thought to include so much from the book that just wouldn't make sense on stage to give the film so much more scope and meaning. Many people have said that the film has made them understand the story better than the stage show did, and I can see why that would be since the detail included just wouldn't be feasible on stage. I'm so happy that this film has made Les Mis more widely available and the songs will be stuck in you're head for weeks after you see it. 10/10.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Phantom of the Opera

This book is absolutely amazing. There, I said it. I really wasn't expecting a lot from 'The Phantom of the Opera' since many critics are of the opinion that the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical made something good  out of bad source material. However, having now read the book, I would strongly disagree with this, and looking at the Amazon reviews it seems that other people feel the same way. 
For those who don't know 'The Phantom of the Opera' tells the story of a mysterious 'Opera Ghost' who haunts the Paris Opera and becomes obsessed with beautiful singer Christine Daae. Under the Phantom's tuition Christine's singing reaches new heights. However, Christine is also loved by Raoul the Viscount de Chagny and it soon comes to light that the Phantom is a lot more dangerous than he at first seemed.
There is a huge difference between the book and the musical; the end result is the same but the way each story gets there is completely different. The minor characters are also different and I would say perhaps more interesting in the show; Leroux focuses all his energy on the Phantom, Christine and Raoul and so the other characters do suffer. However, I don't think this affects the story at all because, presumably, these characters' parts were only enlarged because a musical with just three characters might have been a little boring. It works very well in the novel.
Erik - 'The Phantom'
'The Phantom of the Opera' is the first book I have read in a long time that I haven't been able to put down, and when I had to, I couldn't wait to pick it up again and find out what happened. At only 278 pages, this book never goes off on tangents - lines such as "perhaps the reader might find it useful to know how the bottom and sides of this structure had been built" had me worried that Leroux would turn the next 10 pages of the book into something Victor Hugo-esque, but it was okay, the diversion only lasted four lines.
I also appreciated Leroux's use of cliff-hangers, especially towards the end of the novel - it's a technique that's been strangely lacking in many of the books I've read recently. Lines such as "we've landed in his torture chamber" definitely added to the 'unputdownable' nature of this book. 
However, some of the phrases used by Leroux were perhaps overused and I got annoyed by the way characters all too frequently "burst out laughing" at completely inappropriate moments. This may have just been a problem with translation, however, as it is possible that this is phrased a lot better in the french language. There was also repetition of Raoul being told to "[not] forget!... keep one hand up" at the level of his eyes to stop being strangled by the Phantom. Although the latter was actually quite clever as it appears that it is foreshadowing the ending which is in fact very inventive and not what I was expecting at all. 
Christine and Raoul
Simultaneously to being a great story, 'The Phantom of the Opera' also makes you think about your perceptions of others and how what you say and do can have a lasting effect on them. Leroux cleverly takes the reader through each characters' story in a way that makes you understand and sympathise with each of them in turn; in the space of ten pages it becomes clear why the Phantom acted as he did throughout the novel and why he did what he did to Christine and Raoul. 
I would recommend 'The Phantom of the Opera' to anyone, especially fans of the musical, as the book gives far more understanding of the characters and their motivations. I also liked that it was clear in the book who Christine was in love with as this is not made clear in the musical; always having thought Christine loves Raoul I was happy that it was this way in the novel. I wasn't at all keen on Raoul to begin with - he comes across as a grumpy teenager who assumes he is in love with a woman who has recently shot to fame - but he really grew on me as the book went on and by the end he was definitely my favourite character. 'Phantom' examines the shallowness of human nature and is summed up in the quotation: "If Erik [the Phantom] was handsome, Christine, would you love me?" 10/10.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Life of Pi Movie (2012)

So I went to see this movie with a few friends this afternoon (you can find my review of the book below or in December 2012 in the archive to the right) and I was really quite impressed. Our first thoughts as the lights went up were that it was worth seeing in 3D and that the film was visually stunning.
The plot of the film stayed pretty close to that of the book: 16-year-old Pi's family decide to relocate to Canada from India and sell the animals from their zoo to make money for this move. However, on the journey the ship sinks, leaving Pi as the lone survivor on a lifeboat with only a 450-pound Bengal tiger (interestingly named Richard Parker) for company. Director Ang Lee understandably cut plot lines that clearly wouldn't have worked for film - for example, when both Pi and Richard Parker go blind. 
Right from the beginning I was intrigued to know how they would portray the ending of the book, considering the film is a PG  you could be pretty certain that they wouldn't show it as a flash back as the rest of the film had been. Instead the camera zoomed in on Suraj Sharma, playing the young Pi, and showed him against a white background as he tells his other story. This scene actually reminded me a lot of the scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 when Harry is attacked by Voldemort and wakes up to meet Dumbledore in a deserted, bright white imitation of King's Cross station. I quite liked that there was a similarity between these two scenes as it showed that Pi was in another world when telling this story and the white was clearly meant to show his closeness with God. This part of the book was tenderly dealt with, meaning the film is accessible to all ages; if this part of the film had been acted out I think it would have probably been too gory and violent for younger audiences.
I was a little concerned about the lead, Suraj Sharma, before viewing this film as many people had commented that his dialogue is a little difficult to understand. However, I didn't find this a problem and I actually thought he was very, very good in the title role - especially when the fact that he is on screen alone for the majority of the film is taken into account. How on earth he managed to react so well and with such reality to a tiger that wasn't there is beyond me. 
The CGI in this film was absolutely sensational and made the whole thing so beautiful to look at; without this I think the film would have suffered and definitely wouldn't have had the same impact on viewers come the end of the movie. Although my friend thought the tiger was unrealistic, I was actually quite impressed at how life-like they made it look, especially when he was jumping or moving about the boat. This brings me on to another point about the tiger, and I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but the near constant lunging of the tiger towards the beginning of the film made many of us jump about 5 ft out of our seats. Personally, I think this added to the enjoyment of the movie as it enabled the viewer to feel just a tiny amount of what Pi was feeling at the time, which is quite a difficult thing to do with such an unusual plot.
However, there were a few things that I wasn't that happy with in the 'Life of Pi' movie. Although Pi's childhood and background is interesting and in some areas necessary, I think this part of the film went on a little bit too long - I would guess it took up at least a quarter of the two hours. I was also a little bit unsure about the addition of a relationship in Pi's life before his family's move as this wasn't in the book and I didn't think it was really necessary at first. However, as this short part of the film went on it grew on me and it did add to Pi's sense of loss at having to leave Pondicherry and his family's zoo. Also, although I do think it was worth paying extra for 3D in the case of this film, surprisingly I'm not sure this addition was used to it's full extent; I frequently found myself forgetting that it was in 3D at all which, in my opinion, shouldn't happen in a 3D movie. 
So, overall this film was really very good and it was also nice to see actors such as Gerard Depardieu in cameo roles on the ship before the rest of the film was left in the hands of the fantastic Suraj Sharma. The acting was brilliant from all and the scenes flowed very well between the past and present, with the adult Pi, Irrfan Khan, and the writer, Rafe Spall, providing some welcome comic relief, as well as some very wise words at times: "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye", for example. The only other thing I would have liked to have seen would be Yann Martel (the original author of life of Pi) playing the writer in the film; it would have been a nice touch and almost as if the story had come full circle. But never mind, the actor playing the writer was also very good and the film really brought the book to life. 8/10.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

I imagine like most people, I was first drawn to this book due to the unusual but brilliant title. It just immediately sounds like a fun and interesting book. And thank god it was - to be honest, after a while the endless depressing books that are available now-a-days become ridiculously tiresome, so it was nice to read something cheerful for a change. Although that's not to say that this book is without its action - there are a few murders along the way, but they're handled with in such a way that makes the book light and fun. 
The basic premise of this book is of 100-year-old swede Allan Karlsson who one day, minutes before his 100th birthday party, decides that his life without vodka in an old people's home is not worth staying for, and so he climbs out of the window and, well, he disappears. He then goes on to steal a suit case which leads to his being hunted down by an infamous criminal gang and the police. Every other chapter goes back in time to chart Allan's incredible life, in which he mixed closely with President Harry Truman, Stalin and Churchill to name a few, as well as being a key figure in some of the most momentous events of the 20th Century.
A great thing about this book is that the protagonist Allan Karlsson is so relatable, although perhaps not to my own generation, but there are elements of Allan in anybody over the age of, say, 75. Personally, I found the book funnier because I could see so much of my grandpa in the main character. The author Jonas Jonasson just presents his protagonist in such a likable, if at times unrealistic, light. 
However, a problem I did have was this book was that it was a bit repetitive in places as Allan just kept on meeting world leaders over and over again, and the situation always resulted in the same thing. So, yes it did get a little boring in places. And, to tell the truth, I couldn't wait until it finished because I wanted to get on and read other books. So perhaps, as some other readers have suggested, the One Hundred-Year-Old man is just that little bit too long and lacking in ideas; although the overall idea is very original and, personally, I've never read anything like it before, perhaps the only new idea is the main plot as all the sub-plots are repeated a little too often. 
This book is basically 'Forrest Gump' fast-forwarded a few decades and with more emphasis on global events. There's also the fact that the plot is constantly switching between the past and the present which has the potential to make the reader feel a little uneasy but Jonasson handles this well and so the plot flows as naturally as is possible. Although I would say that both the past and present elements of the story are written so well that, when it was again time to switch between the two, I was a little disappointed and annoyed about the diversion until I got a few pages into the new chapter. 
I think what made the book for me, though, was the fantastic ending; it completely brings you back down to earth again after the slightly strange story, but not in a bad way. The ending is happy and I think the quotation printed at the beginning sums up the whole book pretty well: "Things are what they are, and what ever will be will be". This is really such a cheerful book and  it's definitely worth a read just for that; I think Jonasson was trying to leave the reader with the thought that, when the next opportunity comes, we too should try climbing out of the window to see where it takes us. And in this, Jonasson succeeded. 7/10.