Books and movies – February 2015

Books

  • Miss Pym Disposes – Josephine Tey: I was expecting a murder mystery, but this is a psychological musing, a novel of when-will-someone-murder rather than a murder investigation. The gentlest, sweetest novel of a soft-hearted person looking back on youth and high spirits ever to bear traces of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Primal Fear.
  • [a forthcoming novel]
  • And be a Villain – Rex Stout: Still loving them.
  • The Shortest Way to Hades – Sarah Caudwell: These books are the reason for my recent Gorey obsession.
  • The Sirens Sang of Murder – Sarah Caudwell: Alex Adsett pressed these books upon me and they are absolutely charming. Witty and knowing, a healthy dash of PG Wodehouse, and full of lawyerly in-jokes and asides (Alex had annotated her copies). A rather charming approach to assumptions about the behaviours of the genders, flawed lively young barristers, convoluted mysteries with convenient classical connotations… just fun.
  • Shadows – Robin McKinley: A different note for McKinley, simultaneously much more modern-YA and much more Diana Wynne Jones. Lovely, charming shadows. Also exceptionally lifelike dogs. And a sheep. This was also courtesy of Alex (I made her read Dorothy Sayers).
  • The Sibyl in Her Grave – Sarah Caudwell: Best. Cover. Ever. Also, another approach to how-to-deal-with-time-in-an-episodic-series, similar in this case to Rex Stout. We last left the chambers at 62 New Square reeling from Cantrip’s recent enthusiasm for the telex machine. Now, they are using computers. Yet no-one seems to have aged, at least in their own estimation, or that of that most energy-efficient, self-satisfied and mysterious of narrators, Professor Hilary Tamar.
Edward Gorey cover for The Sibyl in Her Grave

Edward Gorey cover for The Sibyl in Her Grave

Movies

  • Kingsman: No.
  • Jupiter Rising: Yesss.

 

 

 

Read and seen: January 2014

Books

There is a remarkable dignity and gentleness to Carolyn Morwood’s Eleanor Jones mysteries. Her Melbourne of the ’20s, and the characters in it, are much closer to the thoughtful, measured world of Dorothy Sayers’ post-WWI London than to (say) the madcap adventures of Kerry Greenwood’s Phrynne Fisher. The sort of books which move quickly and yet leave you feeling as if you’ve been immersed in them for much longer.

Movies

  • The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
  • American Hustle
  • The Book Thief
  • 47 Ronin
  • Saving Mr Banks

I’m confused by 47 Ronin. It feels like someone said, “But you can’t make that story into a movie – look at the ending!”. And someone else said, “Then we’ll put in monsters! and Keanu! and remarkably tattooed Dutch pirates who will look awesome on the poster!” but didn’t actually change the hero or the plot of the earlier script. So the movie wasn’t about Saving The World From Ultimate Evil, but did a good job of looking like it ought to be. It did do two things I liked, and which oddly paralleled Monsters University (make of that what you will). It showed actions which had Consequences, and also that a predominantly male cast can still have colourful costume design.

Special events

The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art is currently showing a remarkable program of fairytale films. In January I went to:

  • The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving animated feature film, with live accompaniment
  • Jabberwocky
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the Gilliam one), which did many things very well – most Gilliam films fall short of what I wish they were, yet no-one else would have even tried to get that close. In this, I loved the Baron (the most appropriate ageing makeup I’ve seen), the opening titles (The eighteenth century… the Age of Reason… Wednesday), the importance of illogic and of course, “Everyone lived happily ever after, at least those who had a talent for it.”

Honourable Mentions

My housemate and I were doing 20/10s – 20 minutes art or cleaning, 10 minutes watching a show. Quite a bit of our productivity may be credited to these Barbara Cartland historical melodramas on YouTube:

  • The Lady and the Highwayman (with Hugh Grant!)
  • A Ghost in Monte Carlo

I wish there were more unashamed (I won’t say shameless, as it would give the wrong impression of what are pretty chaste stories) melodramas around. They are so much fun! No-one ever stops for introspection, shocking disclosures are followed by prompt action, quiet interludes interrupted by runaway carriages, cliffs and treasonous plots lurk around every corner…

March and April Short Movie Reviews

I am using the good/bad rating system this year. It is not an objective ranking – sometimes I like terrible movies, and detest ones that I know are well made.

March

Crazy Heart: Good. Borderline – I liked it for the loving humour of the first half and not the slice-of-life realism of the second. Good music.

Daybreakers: Good. This is nothing to do with the plot or the acting (I can’t watch Sam Neil play a vampire seriously after seeing him in the Eat Red Meat (we like to boogie) commercials) but solely because it was filmed in Brisbane and I spent the movie going, “There’s my office! That’s just down the street! That’s where the cycle path goes under the bridge!”

Alice in Wonderland: Bad. It hinted at a greater story that never eventuated. Johnny Depp was, predictably, good, but I wanted more of the great romance between the Cheshire Cat and the Hat. The costumes were fabulous set-pieces, however, and there were lots of Burton spirals (TM).

Men Who Stare at Goats: Bad. Borderline – it would have been good if it finished 1 second earlier.

Green Zone: Good. Self-contained and concise, a very neatly packaged story but not one that lingers.

How to Train Your Dragon: Good. I had a blast. Wonderful dragons, gorgeous character design.

April

Kick Ass: Good. And unrecommendable. Or Bad, but raises interesting issues. Starts as crude teen comedy and ends as ultra-violent heartwarming family drama.

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang: Good. Barely on balance and Ewan McGregor’s cameo helped with that, as did the accuracy of farm children and the deployment of military nannies. But such an old fashioned movie – it’s hard to get a grip on it.

January and February Short Movie Reviews

Often, when I have seen a movie, my younger sister asks me what it was like. “Well,” I say, “I wanted to like it, but-”

“No!” she says, “Don’t say that you wanted to like it, or that it had interesting themes, or pro-imperialist undertones! Just say was it a good movie or a bad movie? Good or bad? Yes or no?”

So in that spirit, I am going to start reviewing movies again and keep the reviews very short – when all else fails, I will try to remember to use The Bucket List as a bench mark.

NB. Bad does not necessarily mean it was badly made – it’s just nine words shorter than “didn’t do anything for me but you might like it” and therefore more likely to be accepted by my sister.

Bright Star: Good. Romantic with a capital R, but then no-one does Romantic like the Poets. Great scene of individual reactions to new books (right: smell the pages). Cheryl was staying with me and we came home and read poetry after (no Romantics).

Bran Nue Dae: Good. Flimsy, but with the flimsiness with which musicals generally translate, but with bonus Ernie Dingo being awesome (worth price of entry for him).

Up in the Air: Bad. What’s it all about, Alfie? bleak.

Edge of Darkness: Bad. Almost funny. Impenetrable accents. Mel Gibson loses everyone he loves, goes mad and kills lots of people but I’ve got a theory every movie he makes ticks at least two of those three.

Invictus: Good. Music distracting. Probably problematic but very watchable and this is meant to be brief.

The Road: Good. True to the book. You have been warned. (For my money: ending is hopeful, but I am basing this purely on a beetle and the breed of dog in the final scene).

Valentines Day: Good if you read this review first: Valentines Day. Worst. Movie. Ever. But I couldn’t remember exactly what there was to like after it finished.

The Wolfman: Bad. Not bad enough to be funny. Also, I kept wanting to mutter to Deb, “Zese are Transylvanian moons – zey are zee fastest moons in zee world.”

Shutter Island: Bad. Not a horror, not a delicate psychological study, I guessed the twist from the preview (there was at least a reason for the poor acting), and although on the strength of 2.5 films I maintain DiCaprio can act, he didn’t. Or he was playing a 12 year old.

There. Done. I feel all sullied and judgemental now, but at least I can look forward to reviewing 11 books for February.

No, but it’s consistent

Back on deck soon. Meanwhile, I found the subtitles to my second favourite movie. Here is an extract (contiguous, from one scene). It’s accurate – the movie is just about as rational as this once you get sound and pictures:

Don’t nobody do nothing! – This is unheard of.
Throw down the case and the gun.
Don’t shoot me, I’m part Italian.
Button it!
Don’t kick those rocks, you Philistine!
Shut up!
Don’t you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!
Mister!
Grab his legs!
Give me that.
– Having fun? – I can’t find my rocks!
– Grab the cases. – Which ones?
All of them!
Don’t!
How many cases are there?
– I believe there’re four of them. – I’ve got three.
Wait a minute.
Stick them in here.
– How are your legs? – My legs?

February Short Movie (etc) Reviews

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.

Knowing: a review

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.