Beginning and Ending a Year of Books

Last year I blogged about reading lists and enjoying the curl-up-in-bed book All the Light We Cannot See http://bit.ly/2CuB8vJ by Anthony Doerr. I mentioned being surprised at how many books I’d read in just a few weeks. Keeping lists can do that for you.

I start 2018 similarly surprised by how many books I managed to read last year.

Some of those include: Bloodlines by John Piper, Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Gospel Boldness by Rod Thomas. Rod is a Christian missionary in Japan and it is clear that his book Gospel Boldness flows from his work in that country. He encourages Christians to confidently share the gospel, saying that clarity in this area is ennabled by God’s Spirit and is something that can be cultivated. Bloodlines by John Piper is an honest and thought-provoking discussion on the gospel of Jesus Christ and racism. ‘The achievement of the cross [on which Jesus died],’ says Piper ‘in reconciling all ethnic groups through faith in Christ is part of how the work of Christ on the cross magnifies the greatness of God’s grace.’ Piper urges Christians to abstain from partiality and to support God’s plan to gather a diverse and unified redeemed people.

I appreciated Questioning Evangelism for its fresh approach to engaging people in respectful, intelligent discussions about Jesus. Newman is funny and supports genuineness, caring and listening – the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all, in-out, disrespecting sales pitch approach to people I have seen in the past.

But my favourite (and only fiction) book on this list has to be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005). This is my second reading and I relished it perhaps more the second time around. The narrator (death) is well-developed, the characters perfectly individual, the descriptions unusual, and the subject matter (Germans who didn’t support what the Fuhrer was doing in WWII) deeply touching. The style is such that you simply cannot get lost, or confused. The short sentences and chapters make for easy reading, and even though the narrator explains what is to come before it happens, these revelations don’t spoil the story. I cried as my eyes raced across the pages and as my heart ached for Papa, Mama, Rudy, Max and Liesel. The Book Thief is on the shelf of my bookcase reserved for lifetime favourites.

The Book Thief was my last read of 2017, All the Light We Cannot See my first. How interesting that both had WWII as their subject, and children as their protagonists.

I look forward to my 2018 reading material. Here’s to a fruitful 2018 of books!

Their Finest Has a Good Dig at the Moviemaking Industry

Their Finest is a delightful and funny drama about one woman’s break into the male-centric world of screenwriting in Britain in the 1940s. Set against the backdrop of WWII, Catrin Cole (a lovely Gemma Arterton with a Welsh accent), goes against the female norm and starts working for a London scriptwriting company. She and fellow writer Tom Buckley (an annoyingly smarmy Sam Claflin) develop an argumentative, bantering friendship that leads to, well I’m sure you can guess where it leads to.

Picture supplied by Ster Kinekor

The wartime film created by the screenwriters was to be about twin girls who heroically rescued soldiers in their small boat during the Battle of Dunkirk. Their Finest revolves around the film’s making from start to finish. When scriptwriter Catrin initially interviews the twins she discovers that the newspaper reports about their ‘rescue of soldiers’ was in fact untrue. They had never reached Dunkirk because their boat had broken down, and they had only taken on soldiers when they were towed back to England by a bigger ship.

No matter. Catrin sets about creating a story that would appeal to female viewers. Her fellow writers get involved and throw in their ideas, casting men as the hero. The Ministry department responsible for the product add their political requirements. The actors, headed by Ambrose Hilliard (a hilarious, pompous Bill Nighy), bring their demands to bear. And then to top it all off the people responsible for promoting the film to an American audience insist that an American actor be added. (Never mind that there were no Americans in Dunkirk). Although good to look at the American, Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy), is completely useless as an actor, and the team is forced to do what it can to ensure he is more seen than heard.

Their Finest has a good dig against toothy, dim Americans, against the ridiculousness of war time propaganda, and against the malleability of ‘truth’ in movies. It portrays the making of the Dunkirk rescue film in parallel with the relationship between its creators Catrin and Tom. Interestingly, these two aspects of Their Finest‘s story show how human intervention can manipulate outcomes to suit taste.

Their Finest opens at cinemas in South Africa on 2 June 2017.

Miss Peregrine is Scary and Clever

This children’s movie, which opened in South Africa on Friday 7 October, carries an age restriction of 10. Parents should consider this a good guideline as younger children would certainly be frightened of the story’s long-legged monsters that pluck out people’s eyes, most especially those of children…

Age 10 to early teens is also a suitable-enough age to understand the intricacies and setting of this tale. The adventure revolves around Jake (Asa Butterfield) who is an awkward, modern-day teenager without friends. Jake is quite attached to his grandad (Terence Stamp) who tells him fascinating, true “bedtime” stories. When Jake’s grandad is murdered under mysterious circumstances the old man manages to pass on to the boy an important message before he breathes his last. Jake, accompanied by his unbelieving dad (Chris O’Dowd), travels from Florida to Wales, to try and fathom the cryptic message’s meaning. What follows is an enthralling account of time-travel, children endowed with peculiar, yet special, gifts, and a carer called Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who keeps her wards safe in a time loop. Jake is welcomed into the crowd of odd children because he, too, has a peculiar and indispensable gift, one he uses to protect the children later in the story. The villain presents himself as Barron (a glassy-eyed Samuel L. Jackson) who seeks immortality through slurping up eyeballs.

I think young viewers may not relate to the World War II setting (Miss Peregrine and her children are stuck in a time loop in Wales that dates back to 1943). Also, some of the action, especially in the beginning, is a little dull. Things improve, though, as the story progresses. Messages of acceptance, the value of loyalty, and finding one’s place in the world come through easily enough. And the cleverness of this child-led story will certainly captivate some imaginative young viewers.

The film is being screened in 2D and 3D.

 

Labyrinth of Lies is more than a story of history

A few years ago I visited Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. My husband and I travelled just 32-odd kilometres to get there from Munich. I remember walking back into the small town after the English tour. Only a few hundred metres down the road we turned a corner and bright, summery shrubbery obscured the site of many deaths from view. I think this is what it was like for many Germans during WWII. An extermination camp operated, mere kilometres from where ordinary Germans lived. And residents either chose to ignore its existence or were unaware of it.

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Alexander Fehling in the subtly and brilliantly acted Labyrinth of Lies. Image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-fine/the-week-in-movies-labyri_b_8182496.html

Decades later of course the world has enough information about what went on in these camps to be appalled. Perpetrators have been prosecuted. Camps like Dachau have been made into museums so that we can’t escape history. But it wasn’t always like this. The film Labyrinth of Lies makes that clear. Set in Frankfurt less than two decades after the war viewers of this movie are confronted with a Germany of silence. Victims hesitant to speak up. Nazis living and working as bakers, mechanics, teachers in towns alongside their victims, not revealing what they did. Officials unwilling to share what they knew. Finding the criminals was a mission, exacerbated by laws for their prosecution that didn’t yet exist, and reams and reams of paperwork and red tape.

One young prosecutor, instilled with a sense of justice, “stumbles” across a victim, and a journalist passionate to tell the truth. And so together they begin what would lead to the first large trial in Germany of SS officers who were responsible for the deaths of thousands in Auschwitz. Alexander Fehling as the prosecutor Johann Radmann is outstanding in his role. Subtleties of facial expression and body language reveal more than words as the actor moves his character from ignorance, through duty then horror, to passion, despair and determination.

Labyrinth of Lies is more than a film about history. It reveals the human heart and poses the question that, had we been in the position of those Nazi officers, would we have behaved any differently?

Labyrinth of Lies is in German with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau in South Africa on Friday 30 September 2016.

The Imitation Game will possibly be the best movie of 2015

A review by Brenda Daniels

With 2015 only a month old it might be a little early to say this, but here goes: if you watch one movie this year, watch The Imitation Game. The film tells the fascinating story of how mathematician Alan Turing helped to crack the German Enigma code machine during World War II. His work had enormous ramifications for the war and beyond, forming the foundations for the development of the modern computer.

His struggle to relate on an interpersonal level, and to find acceptance in a society which outlawed homosexuality, forms a backdrop to the main plot. This latter is portrayed with sensitivity and levity, leaving the viewer with nothing but sympathy for the brilliant but lonely Turing.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the part of Turing with such finesse and depth and is eminently worthy of his Best Actor Oscar nomination.

The plot is an exciting one with Turing and his team (including Keira Knightley as the intelligent, pragmatic Joan Clarke) working against the clock. As this group of Britain’s “best mathematicians” experiment with Turing’s code-cracking machine, soldiers and civilians on the front line are dying.

MI6 agent Stewart Menzies, a character played by Mark Strong, introduces the element of espionage or game playing, a theme which runs throughout the film, even after the code is cracked.

The year 2015 marks 70 years since the end of World War II (visit World War II 70th Anniversary on Facebook). Perhaps this accounts for the timing of this war-time release. In any event, if The Imitation Game is anything to go by, certain aspects of this story were only recently revealed.

Viewed from the vantage point of seven decades later, The Imitation Game has much to teach us about war and human nature.

The Imitation Game released in South Africa on 23 January and is currently showing at Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the role of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. He has been nominated for Best Actor for the 2015 Oscars. Photo: Creative Commons

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the role of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. He has been nominated for Best Actor for the 2015 Oscars. Photo: Creative Commons

Message in The Monuments Men meanders vaguely

A review by Brenda Daniels

The Monuments Men is a World War II drama based on a true story. It recounts how artworks in the form of paintings and sculptures, stolen by the Nazis during the war, were recovered. The film features a cast of big names including George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Bill Murray.

Seven men, previously unconscripted because of age, are handpicked by Frank Stokes (Clooney) for their art expertise. They don uniforms right near the end of the war and set out on their mission to find the artworks and return them to their rightful owners.

There are no flashy heroics in this film. The characters are old and ordinary. And their mission of saving artworks seems silly when compared to saving human lives. But, argues their leader Stokes, preserving art is preserving culture. And culture reflects the importance of a people and their achievements.

What the group did recover is indeed staggering. What they helped prevent is monumental. Hitler had plans to build his own Führer Museum. He needed art, books and other treasures to fill it so stole what he needed, storing it up in hiding places. This ragtag bunch of chaps was instrumental in putting an end to his dreams.

Unfortunately The Monuments Men meanders through a vague plot, throwing in some sentimentality and personal suffering just for good measure. This makes what promised to be a fine film slow and unnecessarily long.

The actors do a good job, particularly Cate Blanchett as a sour but helpful source of intelligence. As a group they don’t leave a lasting impression nor do they capitalise on some potential for humour. Although The Monuments Men fails to make more of its noble message, the message does get through and is worth watching just for this.

The Monuments Men opens at NuMetro Theatres in South Africa on 14 February.

MFAA soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle               (Source: Creative Commons)

MFAA soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle (Source: Creative Commons)

The Book Thief moves, teaches, impresses

A review by Brenda Daniels

The Book Thief is the story of young Liesel Meminger who lives in Germany during World War II. Unable to keep her children, Liesel’s mother sends Liesel and her younger brother by train to a village in Germany to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa.

In the opening moments of the film, Liesel’s brother inexplicably dies leaving only Liesel to start a new life with strangers. During a quiet burial ceremony beside the train tracks the cleric drops a book which Liesel picks up and keeps.  It’s title? “The Gravedigger’s Handbook”. This introduction sets the scene for the film: a film about death, about book theft, and about the relationships forged by a young girl through and around those books.

Based on the book of the same title by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief depicts the desperately sad effects of war – and death – on real, small people. Death surprises its victims – depicted in the film by juxtaposing beautiful music and calm narration with violent content. But somehow the subject of death is not morbid and by the end viewers are simply left with a sense of how close death is to each of us. Relationships in The Book Thief are acted with depth and finesse, especially by Geoffrey Rush (Hans), Emily Watson (Rosa) and Sophie Nélisse (Liesel). And it is the relationships that are forefronted; Germany and WWII form only the backdrop.

The film follows the same lyrical quality as the book. It is a beautiful portrayal of how important relationships are in the face of suffering. It is a film that teaches, that moves, that leaves a lasting impression. I will treasure it along with my copy of the book.

The Book Thief opens at NuMetro cinemas in South Africa on 24 January. It carries an age restriction of 10PGV.

Illustrated page from The Book Thief  (Source: Creative Commons)

Illustrated page from The Book Thief (Source: Creative Commons)