March 2009


Slum Dog Millionaire – A clever, well-strung together film which was thrilling to watch and had a great soundtrack. Occasionally violent, often joyful, and more entertaining than educational, I suspect, but very good at that. Obviously, I enjoyed it, but it hasn’t really stuck with me and I’m not sure yet why.

Cressida Campbell exhibition – My aunt took us to see this and the works were very lovely: large scale, bold and delicate watercolour woodcuts. The technique Campbell uses is to draw the picture onto the wood, carve out the lines, colour it directly with thick watercolour, then dampen the block and take a print off it. Several prints were displayed with their blocks, and there was such an architectural/design quality to them. Beautiful Australian scenes. I can’t afford the exhibition book, but it is lovely and printed on thick textured paper (although it can’t capture the scale and light of the exhibition).

Gran Torino – One of the few movies where the purpose-written song over the credits didn’t offend. As for whether the rest of the movie did… I was wondering. On one level I enjoyed it, especially the acting which at first seemed amateurish and became really compelling (the casting and simplicity of the movie were good and daring choices), but the sheer quantity of vitriol that Eastwood’s character was capable of seemed so excessive it was caricatured. The movie was meant to be a critique of racism, but I wasn’t always sure it worked, and wanted to get the point of view of someone more nearly affected.  And I found this really great review, and lost the link. It might have been this one from reappropriate, who found it nauseating. By contrast, here’s a review from Geo on Racialicious, who found positives. Whether or not you see the movie (and I did like that song), the reviews are worth reading.

He’s Just Not That Into You – I… liked this. It wasn’t brilliant, and certainly the morality was occasionally absent, occasionally odd and often confused. But it managed to do what most romantic comedies don’t: a well-handled ensemble cast not overshadowed by the bigger stars; a satisfyingly but not excessively intricate plot; and humour that wasn’t (a) crass or (b) all in the preview and left out of the movie. Faint praise, maybe, but pretty high for the genre.

Rachel’s Getting Married – A painful, odd and occasionally excessively self-indulgent film, but with some remarkable performances, a good treatment of the love and nastiness in sibling relationships and some really touching/quirky family scenes: the musicians annoying everyone by playing, the planning of table settings and the dishwasher race were particularly memorable.

Also, music:

Washington Square Serenade “City of Immigrants” was playing on the radio a lot, and I loved it and it turned out to be by Steve Earle (“Copperhead Road”). I’m glad I bought the album. It’s country seguing into a folky/ballad style which I love – parts of some songs reminded me of Bright Eyes (go figure) and Chumbawumba-not-I-get-knocked-down-again-but-their-folk/political/protest-stuff (this is now how I refer to that band). It weakened in the middle, but there were some stand-outs: “Tennessee Blues”; “Down Here Below”, a Tom Waites/Tom Petty-esque song of New York from the point of view of a red tailed hawk; “City Of Immigrants”  –  “I don’t need to go travellin’, open the door and the world walks in”; “Days Aren’t Long Enough” – a love song which I didn’t like the first time, and then began to listen to on repeat. But obviously my views on the weaker songs aren’t shared, because I see the album won a Grammy for best folk/americana album.

War Child – Heroes – I’m a sucker for rewrites, covers, reimaginings, allusions, spoofs and updates, so I was looking forward to this album of old(er) songs covered by young(er) artists. Nothing stood out like Cat Empire singing “Hotel California” in French reggae-style on Triple J’s Like a Version, but it was still pretty good to hear some of these covers.

Illustration Friday: Subtract 1/3

In some versions of the fairytale, Cinderella’s sisters cut off parts of their own feet in order to fit the shoe. And then they get their eyes pecked out at the wedding. This is pen and india ink and Photoshop.

It was late, and I didn’t want to put the pen away, so here are two more illustrations for this week’s topic (again, coloured/treated in Photoshop):

Illustration Friday: Subtract 2/3

We were discussing at work today whether chocolate chip cookies are best cooked or raw. No contest in my mind. If it was up to me, none of the dough would make it to the oven.

And a shooting gallery:

Illustration Friday: Subtract 3/3

I missed the movies last night, so went home and went for a walk/run which was wonderful, and the reason I am wearing a singlet and have my hair all over the place in the picture below.

This is my contribution to Remi’s moleskine for the first portrait party exchange (http://mxportraits1.blogspot.com/). This is part of the international moleskine exchange (http://www.flickr.com/groups/moly_x/).

Portrait party: Remi's moleskine

It is sepia ink executed with a dip pen and crow quill nib, which I love, although I don’t usually carry them around the country with me. I kept breaking old nibs when cleaning them or drying them on my skirt, so bought new nibs and a holder on Thursday and flew to Canberra. They do, however, make impressive props when I demonstrate how many pens I carry in my handbag.

Here is the sign-in page to date with my contribution:

Portrait Party: Remi's sign in page

As usual, you can see more detail by clicking on the picture which will take you to its Flickr page, and then clicking on “all sizes” just above it.

When a time capsule is opened at his son’s school’s 50th anniversary, Nicholas Cage, a professor at MIT who has given up the search for meaning in life after his wife’s death and become estranged from his father (a minister), discovers that a piece of paper covered with numbers by a schoolgirl 50 years before in fact predicts major global disasters since it was buried. There are only three left, and the last one may be the end of the world.

Knowing was visually lovely: the observatory white over autumn foliage, the floating stones, the quality of light in the 1959 classroom, the little details of life. Visual beauty cannot always save a speculative/philosophical film (c.f. What Dreams May Come, Dreamcatcher), but it can make it a pleasure to watch with the sound off. What seemed ultimately hollow was the loss of that beauty.

It was also remarkably restrained. There was a surprising amount of hugging (I’d be interested to get a final tally), but no love interest. What promised to be an awkward blind date never eventuated. The major female characters were Cage’s sister and a drawn and haunted Rose Byrne who never was the subject of a romance (she got hugged, but no-one will escape). Considering the final role of the children, the child characters never took centre stage. Necessary graphic violence was not accompanied by gratuitous gore. Anguish and heartbreak and terror, while visible, were not dwelt on, and there were scenes and histories and possible side-stories which were alluded to but not pursued. That same restraint, however, ultimately cheapened all those lives.
The restraint did make the movie occasionally creepy. We knew we were being played – the light, the music, the placement of windows in a scene – but the audience, to its own amusement, yelped more than once. The sudden contrast of the full-on scenes of destruction were also (variably) effective. I quite like epic, world-destroying cinematography, and although the scenes were not always believable and sometimes over the top, they weren’t flinching, and the devastation seemed appropriately devastating. It’s just a shame that the destruction was more interesting than what was being destroyed.

The lack of connection may be Nicholas Cage’s fault, because I don’t watch him to see him emote. It’s not that he can’t. I could see the emotions he was going for quite clearly. I wanted to feel for the man, but I kept giggling, or worrying he was accidentally going to do the splits. Of course, it may not be all Cage’s fault – I noted at the very beginning that I wished the X-Files movie had started like this one, and all to the end I kept thinking that a few tweaks would have made this a passable X-File, and in that case we could have watched David Duchovny while not thinking about the science or the plot (which were so aerated I’m not going to go into them).

In the end, there was no-one else to think about except Cage. No-one did anything. Well, Rose Byrne stole a car, and we approved of that, but most characters stagnated and were odd, or off-screen and I didn’t care about them one way or the other enough to be particularly concerned with their fates. Not even the animals. Not even the rabbits. Especially not the rabbits. As a result I did not find the ending hopeful or tragic or appropriate or anything I thought it might be meant to be. Disturbing and peculiar and odd, yes. With alien-angel beings and religious references which didn’t prove anything or go anywhere, and vaguely prehensile-looking grass.

Without the philosophical/religious underpinnings, this might have been just another end of the world, but the movie’s allusions and questions and conclusion didn’t make me think or twist my view of reality or raise or answer any questions. They seemed to me to be so shallow, gratuitous and wrong that ultimately my reaction to the movie was not “whoa” but “huh”. Or possibly, “Huh?”.

Disclosure: I received the pass in return for doing a review.

If you like one-line reviews: It was Deep Impact meets a Watchtower tract (purely for the visual impact of the final scenes).

Further thoughts: Lately I’ve been thinking about whether and how religion and philosophy combine with science fiction (or fiction at all). For example, if you level the playing field as far as research and characterisation, I have big (literary) issues with a lot of ‘Christian fiction’ and barely any with secular fiction which happens to have Christians in it, even if one is as orthodox as the other. It may be a difference between being hit over the head with something and observing someone else live out what they believe, but I’m still refining those thoughts.

I’m in Canberra on a flying visit to my older sister’s family (lots of junior athletics and fireworks) and for the launch of CSFG’s latest anthology Masques on Friday night. It was a good launch – lots of food and a chance to catch up with authors and committee and fans, with a very pleasant dinner afterwards (linguistics, 19thc frosting and European giants). I can recommend travelling to book launches.

I’ve only read four of the stories so far, and possibly not the final edits of those, but there is a very good line up (see the link above for the contents) and I am looking forward to reading the rest. But while I did not even submit a story, I did illustrate these three:

Monica Carroll’s ‘Marked from Birth’, a story of the eye of the beholder (scratchboard):

Marked from Birth

RJ Astruc’s ‘Four Parties’, cocktail parties and myths and twilight (pen and ink with grey added in Photoshop):

Four Parties

And Valerie Toh’s ‘Innuendo’, the dance of relationships and the strands of fate (scratchboard):

Innuendo

Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer. This did not suffer at all from my not having read its predecessor (These Old Shades) and was improved by the parents of the main characters all having their own extremely lively backstories which, while often only alluded to, made everyone more interesting and twice as large as life. Abductions, compromising situations, concealed identities, everyone defending everyone else’s honour with a different understanding of what that means, character A shooting character B (non-fatal) after B says A won’t (this reminds me of my family – never dare my mother to do something, by the way). Lots of fun.

The Corinthian – Georgette Heyer. Not as outrageous as Devil’s Cub, but with occasionally startling, how-can-this-not-be-intentional subtext (and having now read some of her non-historical fiction I think it was intentional), theft and murder and assumed identities coming back to bite the people who thought they were a good idea to start with.

The Talisman Ring – Georgette Heyer. I didn’t expect to enjoy this little murdery/theft/mystery/romance as much as I did, but then the second-fiddle silly heroine turned out to be deliberately pretending to be silly, which led to some hilarious asides between her and the people who know she hasn’t really fainted, etc. Also, smugglers and secret passages and hidden cellars and daring adventurers.

The Narrow Road to the Interior – Bashō. A quiet little pause of a book, in the midst of all these others – the tranquil, poetic account of the author/poet’s journey through 17th century Japan.

Space Train – Terrence Haile. I posted extracts and initial thoughts here. It was an experience. A consistently horrific experience.

Young Miles – Lois McMaster Bujold. This is an omnibus (‘by, to, from, for or with everybody’) of two novels and a novella: The Warrior’s Apprentice, ‘The Mountains of Mourning’ and The Vor Game, so I’m claiming it as two novels for the purposes of this year’s book count. I had been evading Bujold and regret that now. They were wonderful – adventure/mystery/detective/military-procedural/comedy-of-manners/jurisprudential/concealed-identities/missing-emperor/clash-of-cultures/clash-of-eras/cumulative-disaster stories which move at a flying pace, full of wonderful characters, irresistible forward momentum, hope, disappointments, reverses, surprises – they were like Hornblower and Jack Ryan and Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, but with space battles and situations which make the thought of writing an SOS in macramé seem plausible until 3 weeks after finishing the book when you realise it is brilliantly ridiculous.

The Amazing, Remarkable Monsier Leotard – Eddie Campbell and Dan Best (graphic novel). Self-indulgent, but not in a bad way. I felt like I was reading something the author and illustrator had made not with ‘the audience’ in mind, but for their own pleasure. A gentle, episodic, odd, humorous, sad series of vignettes of circus life and adventures and aging and fading, with beautiful soft sketchy images. Also with fortitudinous bowels, unlikely deaths and a cameo by ‘Lord’ George Sanger, whose autobiography I have just started reading.

Penhallow – Georgette Heyer. The only reason I wanted a happy ending for any of these appalling characters was so that I didn’t have to close the book thinking of them living out their horrible lives in self-inflicted misery. The cover billed it as a murder mystery, but it wasn’t a who-done-it at all. It was a why-haven’t-they-done-it-yet. When the victim was murdered, at last, I knew who had done it (you saw it happen, and also the blurb was completely wrong) and didn’t really mind if the murderer was caught. The characterisation was very thorough (I often enjoyed the descriptions) – I just disliked all the characters.

Flowers for Mrs Harris – Paul Gallico. The only Gallico novel I had read was heart-rending, lyrical The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk. I only realised when the last movie version came out that he also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, which was… unexpected. Flowers for Mrs Harris is like neither. It is a short, cheerful, hopeful and unlikely story of Mrs Harris, a cleaning lady, who saves to buy a Dior dress and goes to Paris to buy it. It tips between characterising some things as having particular appeal to the feminine brain (I think that may have been Terrence Haile’s term rather than Gallico’s), and praising an unvarnished, unromantic life of hard work and independence. It is sentimental, comic and lightly tragic but always pragmatically so (it reminded me a little of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I have seen but not read), and is a short, cheerful read.

Also: Genesis, Esther, Mark and Romans.

Illustration Friday: Legendary

I spent the weekend cooking (snow cake, and maple spice cake with fluffy maple icing, since you asked) and working on an illustration project (all sent off now, so I hope to be able to tell more about it soon). The project involved a dip pen and sepia ink, and once I start with those I find it very difficult to put them away. The byproduct is the Monster of the Smog above, executed in brush, pen and sepia ink and tinted in photoshop.

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