Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Me Before You

I cannot for the life of me explain how it is that I missed this gem last year. An incredibly funny, heartbreaking and thought-provoking read, Me Before You is a nearly perfect love story that movingly deals with issues of life, love and death. Written by British author Jojo Moyes, Me Before You is set in the small English village of Stortfold where quirky 26-year old Louisa (Lou) Clark has always lived a small life; never venturing outside her tiny village, she knows its every nook and cranny to the extent that she even knows how many steps it takes from the bus stop to her home (158 steps). Lou is happy and safe in the cramped home that she shares with her mom, dad, grandfather, sister Treena and 5-year old nephew Thomas.

Louisa loved her simple life – she loved her boyfriend Patrick; she loved her job, especially the motley crew of regulars and tourists that stopped into the Buttered Bun on the way to the nearby castle but sadly that part of her life changed when her boss decided to close up shop. After a brief stint at a chicken processing factory and a couple fast food chains, Lou’s luck changes when the job placement office sends her on an interview for a temporary six month position of care assistant to Will Traynor, an attractive, wealthy and angry 34-year old trapped in a wheelchair since a motorbike accident left him a quadriplegic.

First introductions leave much to be desired as Lou is awarded with a Christy Brown (think Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot) impersonation from Will that scares the bejeezus out of her, with things progressively getting worst from there until the day she treats Will like a man, not an invalid and calls him out on his shabby treatment of her. Slowly a bond of friendship is formed that eventually becomes so much more, as Lou slowly realizes Will’s happiness has becomes intrinsically linked with her own, but then she overhears a shocking secret about Will’s plans for the future that make her question her believes and ultimately resets the course of her life.

Tormented by her newfound knowledge Lou is torn whether or not to continue her job, but with her sister’s guidance decides not only to stay on but to change Will’s mind on life and love by showing him how much beauty and joy there is in this world even in his present condition. Will had a dream life, big and bold, before the accident and is intent on expanding Lou’s horizons by helping her to live her life to the fullest, telling her “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.” Set on her mission, Lou is determined to come out victorious in her battle for Will’s future for losing isn’t an option, especially since she’s already given Will her heart.

Me Before You is an unforgettable book that hauntingly lingers in your heart and mind with the warmth of its humor and the poignancy of its tale of friendship and love. While the narrative offers all of the sentimentality of a romance novel, Will and Lou’s connection goes deeper than any steamy love scene (of which there are none) or soul-stirring kisses. In fact, the book has wrapped a profound and complex discussion of life and death issues and loving someone even when doing so will break your heart, into what at first glance seems your typical chick-lit romance novel.

I was enchanted by Lou’s quirkiness and warmth from the beginning. Her vulnerabilities and self-doubt were endearing and in the face of Will’s contemptuous attitude at the start of their relationship made her compassion and understanding all the more praiseworthy. My heart went out to Will and I empathized with every bit of his frustration and pain at the suffering and indignities he now lived with due to his condition. The characters are well-developed, flawed and real, but truly the best part of the book is the slowly evolving friendship between these two people from different worlds who come to understand each other better than anyone else and bring out the best in one another; their connection is both sweet and touching without being sappy or overly sentimental so that the romance when it blossomed seemed a natural organic response to all the moments that preceded it.

The depiction of Will’s struggles was wonderfully written with compassion and integrity so as to offer an insightful and at times heartbreaking look at the thoughts and feelings of someone disabled, whom like Will faces an uncertain future where their health will only deteriorate, where they will always be reliant on someone else for their care – unable to eat, dress, or communicate with the outside world without help. Beyond the obvious loss of movement and freedom, Will faced aches from loss of muscle, stomach ulcers from countless pills, pressure sores from being seated in the same position and the utter unfairness of living with the pain and discomfort from extremities he cannot use or feel. It is a grim and tragic look that helps us to more fully grasp the sense of helplessness that makes Will and others like him want to take control of their lives and live them (or not) as they see fit.

Anger, sadness, heartbreak and joy; those are but a few of the feelings you’ll experience when reading Me Before You. A must-read complex story on what it really means to love someone selflessly and unconditionally.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I will preface this movie review by confessing that I read the novel of the same name when it was originally published and absolutely loved it. Like most unabashed bookworms watching film adaptations of favorite books, I went into this film both hopeful and doubtful that they could come close to capturing on film the profound beauty I found in the book’s pages, but let me tell all ye of little faith like me, do not be fearful my children, for The Fault in Our Stars (the movie) is as phenomenally moving, heartbreaking and beautiful as the book.

For all those of you who did not read John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars focuses on the epic love story of one Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters; and I mean epic, think Romeo and Juliet, Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, or Tony and Maria in West Side Story. Hazel Grace is your typical teenager, except for the fact that she has cancer; initially thyroid cancer it has now localized in her lungs and the only thing keeping her alive is an experimental drug and her trusty oxygen tank and breathing tube which she carries everywhere. Hazel reluctantly attends a cancer support group at her mother and doctor’s request, which is where she meets Augustus (Gus), whom despite having lost his leg to the illness is now cancer free, quite cheeky and there to support his friend Isaac.

Despite her initial wariness, Hazel cannot resist Gus’ winsome charm and impish grin, plus he calls her beautiful (how could you not cave?), and that as they say is history as the two become first friends and confidants and then ultimately fall in love (Hazel later saying “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”; aww, sniff, sniff). The two share laughs, tales of their cancer and bond over Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, which Gus reads. Equally flummoxed and obsessively curious about the book’s lack of ending, Gus reaches out on Hazel's behalf to the reclusive author living in Amsterdam and after further communication she receives a passing invitation to visit him in person to get her much desired answers. Thanks to Gus’ determination and an unredeemed final wish, the two find a way despite some health-related obstacles to make the trip.

The trip proves a mixed bag of goods for Hazel and Gus; from the disappointment of a poisonous meeting with an idol that proves to be no more than a drunken lout, to the pure joy and magic of fully embracing their love despite all its uncertainties, to the unexpected news that breaks their (and our) hearts but also brings them even closer together and ready to face life’s incertitude and unfairness. Braver and wiser than most adults twice their age, our star-crossed lovers prove the immutable fact that love can’t always conquer all, but it can survive all and that a life doesn’t have to be big in accomplishments or long in years to be great.

OMG…this was such a great film and I loved everything about it, except for the hot mess I looked like as I walked out of the theater. I loved that the filmmakers stayed so true to the book, I loved the casting, and I loved the soundtrack. Sadly, as I said I was a snot-nosed, blotchy-faced, red-eyed mess for the whole last third of the movie; I’m sure I scared a couple moviegoers as I walked out of the darkened theater. My only consolation is that I managed out of sheer will power to suppress my sobs during the worst of it and that everyone around me was in the same boat, if not worse.

The acting by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, as Hazel Grace and Gus, respectively, was pure brilliance. They offered the perfect balance of light-hearted optimism and witty banter, with all the sage wisdom you’d expect from individuals that have faced death in the past and are all the braver, eloquent and profound because of it. In Hazel, Woodley conveys the wholesome innocence and simple beauty of a girl next door while also imbuing the performance with equal measures of strength and vulnerability. I had seen Woodley before in the film The Descendants with George Clooney, so her acting chops weren’t as much of a discovery to me as Elgort’s. He was so charismatic and funny and sweet, that I can honestly say from the aww’s! coming from the teenage girls around me in the theater – and my own – I think moviegoers fell under his spell as deeply as Hazel; and while the light romantic scenes were charming, it was his acting in the more poignant and tear-jerking moments where his performance shined with true integrity.

The Fault in Our Stars is this youngest generation’s Love Story (but so much better); a tale of love and woe that touches hearts and minds no matter the age.

Friday, June 6, 2014


Maleficent is the lastest fairy tale classic to get the Wicked-style treatment; a reimagination of Disney's Sleeping Beauty which offers us the supposed "truth" behind Disney's most well-known villain. This newest version doesn't clear Maleficent of all guilt - she's not quiet lily white at its end but it offers a searing and heartbreaking justification for her rage. Disney has once again worked their limitless magic and brought to life on the screen a world of ethereal beauty, fairies, and goodness and evil where the darkest heart isn't Maleficent's but one borne of greed.

Once upon a time there were two kingdoms - one ruled by a greedy king and one which had no need for king or queen for its occupants relied on one another. In this realm, Maleficent, a young and beautiful fairy is the de facto leader and beloved by all its inhabitants. One day a human boy, Stefan, comes into their peaceful kingdom intent on stealing riches and instead ends up stealing Maleficent's heart. Their friendship grows over the years until the day Stefan ceases to come, instead focused on his ambitions to one day occupy the stately royal castle which was part of his kingdom.

Years later, with both Maleficent and Stefan adults, the king and his army decide to lay claim to the moors that comprise the fairy kingdom but Maleficent along with nature's own guardians thwart their endeavors, humiliating the vain ruler and thereby inspiring his wrath. On his deathbed the king offers the kingdom itself to whomever will avenge him, and Stefan now a manservant to the king, upon hearing this has his greed and dreams of grandeur reawakened. Stefan goes to Maleficent with the pretext of warning her of impending harm but instead drugs her to sleep, and though the coward loses his nerve to kill her, he instead takes from her what she most values and brings it back to the king as proof of her death.

Beset with pain, grief and rage, Maleficent vows revenge and relying on the help of a new companion, a black crow named Diaval, which she shape-shifts to man, beast or creature to suit her needs, she plots and patiently waits for the day when Stefan - now king - can feel her wrath. This part of the story you known, as Maleficient hears of the christening of Stefan's child, Aurora, and appears at the castle uninvited to bestow a special "gift" on the child, a sleeping curse that will take effect on her 16th birthday and whose only antidote is true love's kiss. But here's where it gets good, because the rest of this story's "truth" is so much better than we were ever told as children, for this isn't just a story of a prince's kiss or a sleeping beauty but one of hope and redemption.

This was such a great film; truly one of Disney's best and I just loved it. A truly sweet, funny and moving retelling which takes a great story and makes it even better. The narrative has real substance and because of that Maleficent becomes more than just a story of a cookie-cutter villain, but instead a two-dimensional look at a complex being with real emotions - love, pain, anger, hope. Maleficent's portrayal of good and evil and darkness and light offers a cautionary tale on greed and blind ambition unencumbered by conscience.

Despite the incredible special effects found throughout the film, which are obviously integral in creating this magical world of fairies and dragons and all sort of spry mythical creatures that are part of Maleficent's world, the plot and character development aren't sacrificed on the altar of CGI. With that said, the special effects are amazing; from Maleficent's glorious wings, to the army of trees and roots that she brings to life in an epic battle scene, to Diaval's numerous transformations from crow, to human, to fire-breathing dragon. Being a live-action film instead of a cartoon, has in no way diminished the filmmaker's capacity to portray the surreal beauty and awe-inspiring power of Maleficient's bewitching world.

The truth is the weight of this entire film lies on one person's shoulders, and that is those of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent; a weight that she carries beautifully and masterfully. Jolie has imbued so much heart into this role; she made the character strong, funny, witty, and most importantly sympathetic. Sure she's scary at times, but Jolie managed to somehow always show a glimmer of Maleficent's goodness shining just beneath the surface, so that you're never in doubt that when push comes to shove, she'll do the right thing. Elle Fanning was wonderful in the role of Aurora; sweet, charming and endearing and of course beautiful; it is Sleeping Beauty after all.

Maleficent has brought us a new fairy tale and a new truth to believe in; one in which love in all its forms, not just romantic love, can heal even the most broken of hearts and goodness as always wins the day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tell No One (Ne Le Dis À Personne)

Tell No One (in French with English subtitles) is a taut and gripping thriller based on the best-selling novel of the same name from American author Harlan Coben. Dr. Alexandre Beck is a Paris pediatrician whose wife Margot is murdered at the film’s onset after the two go skinny dipping in the secluded lake where they fell in love as children. Alex is left unconscious during the attack and wakes to find himself in the hospital and to the news that Margot was murdered by a local serial killer and her body found and identified by her retired Police Chief father.

Eight years later, Alex has moved on from the police’s original suspicions of him and become a caring doctor though still haunted by his love and loss. On the eve of the anniversary date of Margot’s death the police notify him that two male bodies were found buried near the lake forcing the police to reopen the case and raise once again lingering unanswered questions from the night of Margot’s death such as who placed the anonymous 911 call for help and if Alex was knocked unconscious and thrown back in the lake during his failed attempt to rescue Margot how did he make it out of the water and onto the dock.

As if this wasn’t enough, Alex makes another earth rattling discovery when he receives an email with a subject line that only Margot would’ve known. The message provides simple instructions to click on the provided link on the anniversary date at 6:15 pm and when he does the image shocks him to the core for there on the screen is footage from a surveillance camera showing a woman with a remarkable resemblance to Margot. Additional instructions warn of telling no one, with an ominous warning that they’re watching. Is the woman Margot and if so, how is she alive?

As Alex begins to ask questions and dig into his wife’s final days, the police are hot on his heels for one of the bodies held a key to a safe deposit box which held pictures of a bruised and battered Margot as well as a gun previously belonging to Alex’s father. When a friend of Margot which Alex had recently questioned turns up dead, he becomes a wanted man running from the police. Has he admitted his guilt in running or is he merely a man desperate for answers and determined to find the truth?

I absolutely loved this film! It was a brilliant, riveting and edge of your seat thrill ride. From the first scene to near the last, the filmmaker laid before us an intricate puzzle to solve and masterfully and meticulously revealed the puzzle piece locations on the board so that by the end of the film every piece fit seamlessly together; no loose threads, no questions unanswered; and with enough twists and turns in this spellbinding tale to both shock and awe.

Tell No One is a psychological thriller and mystery but the action doesn’t fall far behind with one particularly heart-pounding, adrenaline fueling foot chase sequence that absolutely takes your breath away. The revelations and twists abound so that like Dr. Beck the viewer is always in doubt of the current narrator’s honesty. The plot is airtight and like vital cogs in a wheel each and every character in the tale, lead or supporting, add the perfect measure of substance and weight to keep the story moving forward to its utterly satisfying conclusion.

While the storytelling, casting and filming are of the highest caliber, it’s the brilliant acting from French actor François Cluzet in the main role of Dr. Beck which gives the tale heart and humanity. Cluzet’s performance is pivotal to our (we the viewers) belief that this man would move heaven and earth to find the love of his life and he totally delivers. His handsome face and every nuance of his performance movingly convey his feelings (heartache, love, devotion, hope and anger). It came as no surprise to learn after I viewed the film that Cluzet won the César Award (equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Actor for this role.

On the caliber of some of Hitchcock’s best suspense films, Tell No One is a film that in its brilliance demands that you tell everyone about it, because not doing so would be criminal.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Worst. Person. Ever.

Worst. Person. Ever. is Douglas Coupland's filthy satirical novel based on morally-bankrupt and poor excuse for a human being Raymond Gunt. Raymond likes to think he's a decent enough guy (he would be mistaken) who usually tries to do the right thing, in actuality he is what more than one character in this less than stellar novel calls him, the worst person ever. He is foul-mouthed mysoginist, actually he's more of a misanthrope since he seems to scorn all of humankind, who idolizes Jason Bourne and hates Mr. Bean. Raymond is out of work when he weasels from his ex-wife Fiona a cameraman job on a reality TV show being filmed on Kiribati, an obscure island in the Pacific.

Informed of the fact that he can hire his own personal assistant or as he likes to think "slave" for his assignment, Raymond selects none other than Neal, a homeless man with whom he'd earlier gotten in a physical altercation after kicking him in the shins without provocation. The two unlikely pair set off on their journey, traveling from London to Hawaii to Los Angeles and finally on through to Kiribati. Along the way, Raymond manages to offend, shock and utterly disgust most of those around him; while in the midst of hospitals, jails and at the center of a nuclear war, Raymond shares with us readers his skewed and perverse observations on life and those he meets along the way.

It would be trite and unoriginal to call Worst. Person. Ever. the Worst. Book. Ever but it would probably be the most accurate description of this short but dragging novel. Yes, I laughed once or twice while reading, but the laughs were few and far between. While I'm not a prude, I can enjoy a good dirty joke like the rest, I must say that the degree of filth in this book was so over the top and so utterly repetitive and in your face that at some point I became numb and indifferent to it. Raymond's base language and inflammatory topics, including the benefits of bestiality, seemed merely intent on shocking for shock's sake.

Honestly, I could forgive the profanity, offensive behavior or even the protagonist's utter contempt for all human beings no matter race or creed; I could even admire the author's lack of political correctness especially in today's day and age, but the nail in this book's coffin is that it has no plot or truly distinguishable characters; I dare you to name a character you care enough to remember long after you've read the book. Worst. Person. Ever is a forgettable and disappointing black comedy that fell flat for me.


Believe it or not, I hadn't beeen to the movies since the start of the New Year when I finally saw this film last month, and whether from the sheer pleasure of being in a theater again, a popcorn induced high, or more likely the film's enchanting sweetness and breathtaking beauty (or a combo of all 3), I thoroughly loved this movie. Disneynature's Bears is a nature documentary filmed in the Alaskan peninsula that focuses on a year in the life of an Alaskan brown bear, for purposes of the tale named Sky by narrator John C. Reilly, and her two cubs named Amber and Scout.

At its onset the film movingly captures the tenderness of a mother's love as Sky nurses her two fragile newborns in their den. You can't help but ooh and ahh over the cubs adorable squeaks or the sight of the delicate pink pads of their tiny cub paws, while simultaneously pondering how the heck the filmmakers even managed to get the shots we were being privileged to witness. As the cubs finally grow a little stronger, it becomes time to finally make the perilous journey from the snow-covered mountain top location of Sky's den, specificially selected to be away from any kind of predators, down to sea level in order to forage for food and fish for salmon. The trek is a sight to behold with sweeping shots showing the beauty of mountains covered in glistening snow, while perfectly demonstrating the counterbalance of beauty and mother nature's power as Sky and her cubs come dangerously close to an avalanche.

Dangers come in all shapes and sizes as Sky and her young arrive at a beautiful meadow already inhabited by others of their kind, including menacing Magnus, the local alpha-male who's not above eating a bear cub if hungry enough. Sky vigilantly watches over Amber and Scout, who at such a tender age are still vulnerable to wolves and other prey starving after a long and harsh winter. Through Reilly's charming and folksy narration each one of this bear family is bestowed with a personality of their own; Amber is a mama's girl and never strays from her mother's sight, while adventurous Scout is another story, always trailing behind in order to investigate and on more than one occasion ending up in trouble, and Sky, well what can you say other than that she's a mom and has all the characteristics that this title entails - for humans or in this case bears - she's dedicated, brave, and selfless.

As with all bears, the ever-pressing need is to build up their fat reserves in the spring, summer and fall in order to last through the long winter's hibernation. As the seasons pass and the start of winter draws closer, Sky is starving and weak, since she's still nursing Amber and Scout, but she doesn't give up as she valiantly fights other bears, a wily and ever-lurking wolf named Tikaani intent on doing in her cubs, as well as her own hunger and desperation in order to save her young as they search for the golden pond; the promised land for bears where salmon are plentiful and they can eat to their hearts content.

The film really is incredible. The magnitude and awe-inspiring majesty of the Alaskan landscape is reason enough to watch this film, but it is Sky, Amber and Scout's tale which makes it gripping as there is real suspense in their struggles for survival. The cinematography is masterful; as you witness and marvel at the jaw-dropping skill and dedication it must have taken to film each picture-perfect shot.

M & M Addicted

"Meryl and Maks, M&M, sweet and delicious" those words are from the Dancemaster himself, Dancing with the Stars judge Len Goodman, but I couldn't agree more with the old curmudgeon. As soon as I learned that the big sexy Russian aka Maksim Chmerkovskiy aka Maks was finally being rewarded with an honest to goodness contender as his partner, the beautiful gold medal winning Olympian Meryl Davis, I was sold on Season 18 and promptly dumped all thoughts of The Voice and dedicated my Monday evenings to watching Meryl and Maks wow America with one amazing routine after another.

The dancing all season was phenomenal not just from M&M, but also from Meryl's ice dancing partner Charlie White, Disney star and boy bander James Maslow, and paralympian Amy Purdy (reason alone to make it an extraordinary season) to name a few. Of course in my completely biased opinion Meryl and Maks were by far the best, from their romantic Foxtrot, to their sexy Tango, to their breathtaking Rumba, and don't even get me started on their altogether amazing Contemporary freestyle from the finale; but what fascinated and left me utterly enraptured was the ever-growing and evolving chemistry between the two.

As Carrie Ann said there was an undefinable magic to their partnership, whether friendship or the stirrings of love (yes, please!), which proved to be like catnip for romantic saps like myself. From week to week it seemed Meryl enchanted Maks, mellowing his at times fiery temper and bringing out an endearing vulnerability that gave fans a real life tale of Beauty and the Beast. Man, oh man, it was like watching one of my romance novels play out on national TV and each week I waited with bated breath for Monday evening's to not only see them dance, but more importantly to see the behind the scenes rehearsal packages that gave us just a few more glimpses of the budding relationship and the sweet vibe between the two.

Now that the season is over, my only saving grace from serious M&M withdrawal has been YouTube and OnDemand which the week after the finale was running a continuous loop of those final dances and the tantalizing last moments when we watched Meryl and Maks finally hold that gaudy mirrorball trophy over their victorious heads, and we fans with a small tear in our eye were left to wonder what now.

Of course the cynics will say it was all manufactured for great television, others that it was just a warm friendship, but me, well I'm holding out hope that we were just lucky and privileged enough to see true love at work (a rare sight in the best of circumstances, the equivalent of a unicorn sighting on reality TV) and that we'll get a real happily ever after that shows love's redeeming and life-affirming power.