Reviews

Is Jack Reacher signalling a new type of action flick?

Jack Reacher Never Go BackI recently watched Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and had high hopes because I rather liked the first one. And there’s there’s always the appeal of watching Tom Cruise; regardless of how he lives privately, he is an immensely likeable screen presence.

The first film in this series established Cruise’s broken hero Jack Reacher as an emotionally-driven righter-of-wrongs. An ex-military Robin Hood who keeps a low profile and, presumably, wrestles with his own conscience for actions he’s committed in his own life. It had a moral spine, tenuously linked to war and the mental cost of military service.

In the sequel, the military is the story, with Reacher on a conspiracy trail, trying to help wrongly-imprisoned army major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Like the rest of Cruise’s action films of late, the male-female dynamic is generous and deeper than your standard Bond film (admittedly not a high bar to reach, but still). This might please a lot of people who are tired of the very worn-out cliche of damsels in distress etc.

But what really struck me about the film was its focus on war. Cruise is getting older, and his character shows a similar fatigue; he’s worn down by life, but he’s also, quite simply, older. Having a moral compass can excuse Reacher’s violence, but it doesn’t make him a happier person. And nor does war create a happier nation. And is it really safe if its inhabitants live in fear?

Depending on how deeply you look into them, action films rarely transcend their limitations as popcorn flicks. The film is certainly an action flick, but rather than take the well-trodden route of proving the US’ honour in foreign affairs, Reacher questions these things.

This isn’t a highly suspenseful film; it’s not even fast-paced. We know who the bad guys are and Reacher has no real investment in the outcome. It’s not the journey to discovery that’s strongest here, it’s the acknowledgement that war has casualties long after a tour of service has ended. It seems quietly to suggest that sometimes the enemy is within.

Reacher’s nemesis in the film – ‘The Hunter’ – is, like Reacher, ex-military. At one point Reacher asks him when he got back from service, clearly recognising that he’s a damaged man who is unable to separate himself from violence. “I don’t think I ever did,” The Hunter responds.

Another line: “We hurt people.”

I talked about the insidiousness of Hollywood’s cliched Bad Guys from foreign countries over at Junkee when London Has Fallen came out. I’ve criticised American Sniper for the way it glorified the US’ presence in the Middle East and reduced Arabs to dirty, bloodthirsty enemies abroad. But the latest Reacher indicates that Hollywood might just be recognising that audiences are not necessarily seeking more of the same US versus The World narrative. While the film isn’t as good as the original, here’s hoping this instalment is the beginning of a more refreshing, thoughtful narrative when it comes to war.

Will Hollywood Ever Stop White Dudes Gunning Down Random Arab Baddies?

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Amy review

Fame seems to have lost its elusiveness in recent times. As the swarm of reality TV shows engulfs us, it’s easy to think that being well-known has lost some of its lustre – not because being famous isn’t a lucrative deal, but rather, because it’s ubiquitous.

Then you watch Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary on the short life of jazz singer Amy Winehouse, and realise that there is celebrity… and there is celebrity. Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations of this moving documentary is that celebrity can still be a cruel – and in some cases, unwanted – outcome.

It’s an undeniably sad portrait of a woman whose talent and natural goodness were burdened by buried grief. A child of divorced parents, Winehouse appears a long-troubled figure, who longs for male approval – starting with her estranged father.

It’s a good film. You won’t be bored. But it’s also hopeless. There is no happy ending to be found in the two-plus hours of what is essentially a young woman’s gradual but sure downfall. And this is what makes it harrowing and heartbreaking.

It’s clear that Amy is looking to point fingers, and it’s a point on which the alleged culprits have taken the makers to task. More specifically, Winehouse’s ‘great love’, Blake Fielder Civil, who broke her heart a couple of times; and Winehouse’s father, who seems to reappear when she becomes famous.

Sure, they’re not sympathetic characters. They don’t redeem themselves in their interviews; the footage of them throughout does too much damage. Certainly, they were cognisant of Winehouse’s instability and inability to stay away from alcohol and drugs. At one point, a doctor soberly explains that Winehouse’s alcohol and drug abuse, in combination with years of bulimia, placed extreme pressure on her body. Ticking time bomb, if you will.

But it’s also a bit simplistic to suggest these “bad guys” are the cause. Like any manifestation of depression, drug abuse and alcoholism (Winehouse succumbed to all three), I would argue that they are symptoms. Like I said, they’re not likeable, but Winehouse must also be recognised as the ultimate owner of her fate. She was, clearly, someone who was not comfortable with fame, more than once declaring that the idea of it frightened her, and that it would destroy her. You believe her when she says she just likes to sing jazz, particularly in front of an intimate audience, rather than a stadium of screaming fans.

But perhaps the key revelation in this film is not that she had an ex-manager and childhood friends who genuinely tried to help her or that she had her once estranged father and a troublesome boyfriend then husband who led her down much darker pathways. It’s when a childhood friend Juliette recounts a sober Winehouse telling her post-Grammys victory that being sober isn’t fun. It’s not a lighthearted moment. It’s one steeped in agonising desperation.

Here is a woman who never asked for fame, but her ridiculous amount of talent got her bundles of it anyway. And an already lost person diminished further into her tiny frame. At one point she seems truly not to live but to exist; a shell of a human, seeking refuge in others.

Which brings me to the other major villain in this tragedy – the media. They were, it appears, quick to celebrate her voice and talent but just as fast to mock Winehouse at her most vulnerable. There’s no denying that they bombarded her. The footage is disturbing – Winehouse, looking a wreck, couldn’t walk down the street without being pounded by the loud demands and blinding flashes of a bloodthirsty media pack. It’s shameful and sad.

Once again, though, it’s but one factor of an increasingly grim whole. Winehouse needed more than rehab. And while there is its share of loving “good guys”, including devoted music producer Salaam Remi and good friend Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), they weren’t enough to save someone who seemed at odds with her earthly existence.

Amy is out on July 2.

Review: Imagine by Lydia Ievleva

Imagine book coverThe full title is ‘Imagine – Using mental imagery to reach your full potential’, and it had me at the colourful cover. The author is Lydia Ievleva and her credentials are set out with the ‘PhD’ after her name.

Ievleva covers everything from mindfulness to using mental imagery to chart a new course for your life. This, she argues, helps to break bad habits and patterns. Interestingly, she includes a section on creating a “soundtrack to your life”. Music has an impact on our health and wellbeing. I’m in total agreement with that.

It’s actually an easy read, but it’s long and dense. Importantly though, it’s designed to be a practical guide that can be read out of order if, like just about every cyberwebs user, you have a slowly receding attention span.

I’d recommend this for those who dig guided visualisation meditation, or find themselves manifesting using colour and the like.

Find out more about the book here, and Ievleva has a blog here.

Review: The Happiness Trap Pocketbook

The Happiness Trap PocketbookLast year, Dr Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett released ‘The Happiness Trap Pocketbook – An illustrated guide on how to stop struggling and start living’. It’s a simplified version of Harris’ international bestseller The Happiness Trap.

I love the title. It’s one of those book titles that has the extraordinary outcome of telling you what the book is about, while making you want to read it. That is hard to get right.

The pocketbook is a bit simplistic for me – it literally has cartoons in it – but I think it’s perfect for the time poor who need a bit of a kick in motivation on occasion.

See here for more information on the books.