Thursday, December 31, 2009

the lovely bones

When Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones came out in 2002, it was a hard sell. I read it and adored it, but when you hand someone the book the conversation inevitably goes, “It’s about a girl who gets raped and murdered and then narrates the rest of the book from heaven as she watches her family cope with her loss, but really heaven’s not as lame as that sounds and also it’s not as depressing as the start makes it out to be and excuse me why are you running speedily towards Matthew Reilly?” Which was always a shame, as the book was truly wonderful. Luckily, word of mouth eventually caught on and it became a bestseller, along with the rerelease of Sebold’s memoir Lucky. Good for Alice.

When Peter Jackson’s movie The Lovely Bones came out in 2009, it was an easy sell. Directed by the man behind the obscure Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on a fantastic book, filled with a fantastic cast and with CGI supplied by WETA, you could suggest to anyone, “Let’s go see The Lovely Bones!” and everyone would say, “Hurrah! Let’s!” Which is a shame, really, because the movie is utterly terrible and should immediately be put in a box so we can move on to other things and pretend it never happened.

So, what is wrong with The Lovely Bones? Well, if you ignore the quality cast—Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, and adorable actor-statue Marky Mark Wahlberg—then, everything’s wrong. After an excruciatingly long beginning, where you know Susie Salmon’s going to die but she seems to take forever to get around to it, she is killed by authentically terrifying Stanley Tucci as the neighbourly Mr Harvey in an unseen, PG kind of way and then finds herself in an otherworldly place, not quite heaven but not quite Earth. What follows is her family’s vain search for her and their eventual realisation that Susie is not coming home, all told in a ridiculous, clichéd way and with a confusing-to-nonexistent timeline. Susie’s father, played by Wahlberg, agonises over his daughter’s disappearance while his wife whines, “We have to move on with our lives!” In the book, this makes sense, but in the movie so little time appears to have passed that she appears callous and horrible. Susie’s siblings, little brother Buckley and not-so-little sister Lindsay, have a sad, contemplative moment or two, then Buckley vanishes altogether while Lindsay starts to get suspicious about her neighbour in the green house.

Susie’s mother Abigail is said to be not coping very well with the situation, a fact that is not shown but just discussed, and her own mother Lynn comes into the scene swathed in smoke and eyeliner, by all appearances to lift the film but in fact doing nothing but participating in a couple of playful scenes of cleaning tomfoolery. She seems like she should be there to teach them lessons about living, or something; but, like everyone else, she doesn’t have sufficient screen time to do anything but taunt you with what may have been had anyone bothered to try.

It pains me that the family, so lovable in their flaws in Sebold’s novel, have barely any chance to be interesting. Wahlberg gets the best amount of time, pining for his beloved daughter and doing all he can to assist police in their search. Weisz’ Abigail is so distraught that she takes a dramatic step that would alter everything—but I was never convinced of any anguish and no one seems to care. Susie herself, so lovely and omnipotent in the book, gets a large amount of time, but therein lies the problem.

Narrative devices in books and movies differ, no doubt. Susie’s voice in the book was natural, as she observes her family and shows us what the world goes through without her. In the movie, it’s painful and distracting, as Susie has occasional voiceover narration and pulls you out of the story to remind you that she is part of the tale too: oh, look who I am, look at me frolicking, tra-la-la. We don’t know how much time has passed on the occasions we turn up in Susie’s world, where she is sometimes joined by a young girl named Holly who keeps a secret of her own (and is there to assist in a corny and frankly appalling ending). Worse still, Susie’s plane of existence is so poorly rendered—by WETA, which is unbelievable—that it almost seems authentically 1970s, when the story is set. Some scenes are executed quite nicely, like when the bottled boats Susie and her father made together float life-size in Susie’s sea and crash into rocks as her father smashes them in reality after he realises his daughter will not return. The rest of it is so painful and twee that it feels a telemovie. Expanses of water reflect moody expressions, mountains move, but it looks like an amateur effort. Perhaps with a few days and a graphics tablet, I could have had a stab at making something more entertaining and saved Jackson a couple of million. (Not that I come cheap.) And you’re frequently dragged into this dull world, when the story back home was what you are really there to see.

Another problem lies in the decision to make the film’s content so mild. There is nothing mild about the world Sebold created, because it is real and adult and awful. Making this into what is almost a family movie was a bold decision and ultimately the wrong one; The Lovely Bones becomes far more saccharine than a tale about the rape and murder of a young girl should be. As it is, the r word is not mentioned once during the film, and apart from a bloody sack and an unsettling scene in a bathtub, nothing more is given. I’m not saying I wanted poor Saoirse to have to suffer through any awful scenes at only fourteen, but I wanted more of something. Scenes between her underexplained classmate Ruth and the alarmingly older-looking (but cute) Ray, and a beautiful moment between Lindsay and her boyfriend, are dulled of their sensuality and ruin the charged reality of the book.

I could spend much longer than the two hours the movie went for banging on about how awful this movie is, but if you want a good way to spend that time, read the book of The Lovely Bones; you won’t regret it. However, do everything in your power to avoid this movie. This is a heartbreaking lesson that despite a great cast, a brilliant director, a fabulous source novel and all the volume and beauty they could put into Mark Wahlberg’s hair, by the end, you’ll wish someone had murdered you in the first hour too.

Monday, December 28, 2009

sherlock holmes

In an annoying but impossible to overcome state of affairs, I’ve often been turned away from art in general (music, artworks, acting, writing) when I find that the mind behind the art is a git. One of my friends told me that either Gary Crew or Garry Disher (I now cannot remember which) said that women are terrible writers; I now don’t read either, or any other Garries just in case. Musicians with extreme drug problems piss me off, but I figure if I stop listening to musicians who take any drugs at all I’ll be stuck listening to people like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus and I may as well just fling myself off a bridge now. Actors who have affairs and let their egos run their lives mean there are movies I can’t always be bothered with. I’m a prude. What can you do?

All this means that Sherlock Holmes and its two tabloid-headline stars should have been something I’d be getting on my soapbox and whining about. Jude Law has long been someone I didn’t like, because he always seemed smarmy and annoying even before it turned out he’d been bonking the nanny of his eleven thousand children. Robert Downey Jr had some high-profile drug problems, but, luckily for him, they were mostly when I was a lot younger and I’m vague on the facts, and also he made Iron Man which was a surprisingly brilliant movie. So we had two maybes, but the name that tipped me into seeing the movie—apart from Holmes, of course—was Guy Ritchie. Sure, his most recent outings haven’t been well received, but I love Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, sensibly never saw Swept Away and really didn’t mind RocknRolla. He makes it, I’ll be there.

And as always, his casting is flawless. Downey Jr is brilliant as the flawed genius Sherlock Holmes, and Jude Law is finally cast properly as the moustachioed Dr Watson. Watson is intelligent, reserved, wants to live a stable life but can’t bear his friend getting into scrapes without him, and the British Jude plays him perfectly. Eddie Marsan, recently alarming as the batshit driving instructor from Happy-Go-Lucky, plays bumbling Inspector Lestrade and is frequently made a fool of by Holmes. Rachel McAdams continues to be wonderful as Irene Adler, Holmes’ love interest and adversary, but is being controlled by a character who is always in shadow and mysterious unless you have a basic knowledge of Holmes lore. Period actor Hans Matheson froths with power as the hilariously titled Lord Coward, and Sunshine crazy Mark Strong’s slicked-back hair frightens admirably atop nemesis Lord Blackwood.

Another of Ritchie’s talents lies in sound design and music; while this movie doesn’t having the banging sixties-plus music that his other soundtracks have, the raucous organ pieces suit the movie perfectly and the dulled effects after someone gets hit in the ear or have an explosion happen near their head (surprisingly frequent) make the entire film really quite immersive. The sets are gritty and expansive; the shenanigans uproarious, the fight scenes bloody and the whole thing a great Boxing Day antidote to Christmas.

Unlike the deductive reasoning of smartypants Poirot, a lot of the clues to this were chemistry-based and not that easy for the audience to figure out. It wallowed in cliché a little when the final fisticuffs occur atop a London landmark and end in an injury convenient to comments made seconds earlier; also, the secret society plotline hovered somewhere between From Hell and Da Vinci Code. But the amicable chemistry between the two leads, who squabbled amusingly like brothers, was great fun to witness, despite the immaturity. In one scene Sherlock points a violin bow at Watson; Watson says, “Get that thing out of my face” and Holmes replies, “It’s not in your face, it’s in my hand.” The audience giggles. Anachronistic perhaps, but fun all the same.

The movie doesn’t really need me to give a summary. There’s Holmes, there’s Watson, there’s a mystery. Fighting and girls and bangs, disguises and rolling about in carriages and pipe-smoking and steam-powered boating down the Thames. A bad guy in a big coat and criminal sidekicks with daft expressions.

And to make the purists giddy with glee, as in the books there is not any moment in the movie when Holmes says, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Recently, while looking over my list of labels on this blog, I wondered if I should scrap the “zombies” tag. After all, it had only been used once, and was a bit specific for my liking, and could be merged into the label “paranormal”. I didn’t change it, partly because I fear that in editing an old post I will accidentally delete it entirely, and partly because I am quite lazy. And then, after an invitation to the theatre on Saturday night, I had something else to write up and label as “zombies”, as, from the title, you’ve probably deducted all on your own.

I was a tad apprehensive going into the cinema, worrying that Zombieland, despite the positive noises I’d heard about it, was going to to terrible. Would it be clichéd? Too gory? Not gory enough? Populated by cheerleaders you want to see get eaten? The verdict: no, it is not any of those bad things, and it is in fact an EXCELLENT movie.

Jesse Eisenberg, aka “Columbus”, channelling Michael Cera-type awkwardness but (in my opinion) with less cringing and more swooning on my part, plays the movie’s main protagonist, a cute young thing who has found himself one of the only survivors of a zombie apocalypse due to the stringent rules he abides by. Rule number one is Cardio, and we see him outrun a couple of blood-spewing zombies in a petrol station car park in a hilarious little scene where he races to his car, fumbles his keys in the lock, drops them on the ground, swears and leads the zombies in a second lap around the car park as he gets back to his car, grabs his keys only to discover he’d left the car open. This straight away sets the scene for a whole bunch of slapstick comedy, genuinely funny lines and characters you desperately want to survive to the end.

Our unnamed hero bumps into cocky redneck Woody Harrelson, aka “Tallahassee”, who has much less strict rules (more along the lines of “nut up or shut up”) and desires nothing else but an elusive Twinkie. Soon after, they are swindled by sisters Wichita and Little Rock, because Wichita is totally hot and Little Rock is young and innocent and Abigail Breslin. Hijinks ensue, as does one of the most fantastic cameos you’ll ever come across. I won’t ruin it for you here, because it was completely fun when Tallahassee suggests they go invade celebrity homes and the one he picks is more populated than they expect.

There’s a bunch of amusing zombie squishing, like when a grandma drops a booby-trapped grand piano on one, and Tallahassee makes an art of it throughout the whole movie. To counter that, there’s a perfect amount of character development; enough so you care about the fates of all four, but not enough so that you find yourself yawning. The pace of Zombieland is virtually spot-on, and the finale big and silly enough to make me want to run up and hug the screen for making going to the movies a blast, like they’re supposed to be.

Oh, it’s not perfect; nothing is. You are left wondering how such a sparsely-populated world has working electricity, but because they do fun things with it, you don’t care. Wichita complains about never having a shower but is never anything but perfectly made up, yet because she’s so great-looking, you don’t mind that either. Occasionally the characters do something that makes you want to slap them upside the head; however, as I’ve never been in a zombie apocalypse, I can’t guarantee how sensible I would be in such situations either. Whatever its flaws, you’ll still end up walking out of the movie quoting Columbus’ rules: “Double tap!” “Beware of bathrooms!” and giggling until you start to choke on popcorn kernels.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Twelve-ish years ago I saw the movie Titanic about four times at the cinema. In my defence, I was only about fifteen and it was big, blockbustery, sappy and had a bit of nudity, and I’d promised a couple of different friends I’d seen it with them. Titanic has long been a source of anger between me and Chris, as he detests the movie and I think it’s okay. (These are the things we fight about. “It sucks!” “No, it’s passable.” “No, it’s terrible!” “Not that terrible.” etc etc.)

Last night I saw Avatar. Will I see it four times? I don’t think so. But then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it all, as I thought the ads made it look quite boring. Still, when someone invited us to see it, I wasn’t opposed enough to say no, despite the ridiculous prices. Do you know how many theatres charge an extra dollar for the 3D glasses? I think it’s a bit early in the scene to presume the audience has a pair just lying around. Though, uh, we do now.

Part of me wishes I’d written a review as soon as I came home, though as it was a three-hour movie that we saw in the city at nine fifteen we didn’t actually get home until after midnight and I was not in the mood for making any kind of grammatical sense. My initial feelings towards Avatar were quite glowing, much more so than I expected. The ads cannot in any way convey just how beautiful this movie is; it’s embarrassing to admit, but there were times when the phosphorescent land lit up in front of me and I actually became quite emotional. The effects are flawless and the world James Cameron has created is absolutely stunning, realistic where it needs to be and fantastical in parts. I’m a big fan of fairy lights, and this movie was like a gigantic festival of them. It’s gorgeous. There’s no doubt about it: Avatar is the prettiest movie made this year, if not this decade, and the 3D is amazing. That was the impression I had when I left the theatre, basically, where I wanted to spin around the dark, empty streets and flap my arms in a giddy way.

Then of course I slept on it. When I woke the initial adoration had worn off, creatures weren’t flying just in front of my nose and the lights were no longer clear in my mind. I started to think harder about the movie, which I should never do.

Our Sam Worthington plays an emotionally void Marine called Jake Sully who joins the crew of a ship flying to the planet Pandora. Jake’s brother was a scientist who had a lot invested in the trip, but was inconveniently killed, leaving Jake the one to fill his shoes. For his brother had an avatar created; a version of himself made with the DNA of Pandora’s natives, the Smurf-coloured Na’vi. Sharing the same genomes as his brother, he can take over the avatar without any hassle. So far so flimsy, but it’s a blockbuster so you just kind of go with it.

The Na’vi are an uncomfortably beautiful master race; they’re all tall, ripped, skinny brunettes with adorably expressive kitty ears that go flat when they are having a Big Emotion, which is of course a lot. Jake expects to go in, help out his two fellow scientists, and get out. Shockingly, things don’t go as planned, and he finds himself involved more in the life of the locals than he ever expected. (You’re aghast that I ruined that twist, aren’t you?) What follows is an extended montage of him adapting to the Na’vi life, becoming entranced with hottie-slash-clan-leader’s-daughter Neytiri, played by scifi sexpot Zoe Saldana, recently seen as Uhura and smooching human Scrabble high-score Zachary Quinto as Spock in the super great Star Trek. Jake realises how close to the planet the Na’vi really are, which is upsetting as the people he’s there with have some less Kyoto Protocol-type ideas for the mineral rich planet. Will he side with the clichéd and cranky military man, or with the beautiful blue hippies?

Avatar feels a little like Aliens; bad-ass Marines, Sigourney Weaver waking up out of a stasis pod, mech suits that are used for battle, and, you know, actual aliens (though there’s less chest-bursting in Avatar.) As they share the same director, it’s hardly plagiarism, but amusing nonetheless. Mostly, however, Avatar suffers from having characters with no back story. Jake’s initial motivations are never really made clear, apart from that he wants to walk again, so when he goes from browfurrowed Marine to Gaia-worshipping Na’vi you don’t know if it was much of a leap at all. None of the humans are fleshed out at all, apart from excellent R Lee Emery impersonator Stephen Lang, playing the enjoyably hammy Colonel Miles Quaritch and basically personifying all that is evil about soldiers. Giovanni Ribisi plays against type to be an unethical corporate villain, in charge of mining the planet, playing golf in the office and joining the emotionally void. The Na’vi fare better, in that they are all new-age literal tree-huggers with obvious motivation, i.e. “Can you not destroy our home, please? Cheers.” Still, they remain mostly clichéd characters within that group. Also, at the beginning of the movie, you are shown about a dozen other Na’vi avatars that oddly never appear again, despite the big expensive fuss made of them. It’s a shame that the entire movie’s plotline is a bit stupid, with a heroic white man coming to save the natives in an unrealistic manner, and, alas, the unpleasant idea that a lot of people are heartless enough to kill the native population for the minerals they are on top of, the laughably named “unobtanium”. There’s a distinct lack of blood, despite the vast amount of violence, and an unscandalous sex scene (not least because they are pretty much nude all the time) that made me wonder if Jake had tried anything with Neytiri and had her say, “Whoa, what the hell are you doing with that thing? We hold hands to mate here, freako.”

Surprisingly, the movie’s length wasn’t an issue; I never felt bored, and it could have used another ten minutes of character development. All in all, it’s a blockbuster: big, silly, fun. It gains points for how amazing it looks, loses them for being pretty ridiculous, and rounds out as a pretty passable way to spend twenty bucks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

irene pepperberg, alex & me

It’s not often a book can make me cry within four pages, but this one achieved it for me, on a crowded train no less. But I am a known crybaby when it comes to animals dying and people being sad about it, and as this book started with the death of the titular Alex—a thirty-one year old African Grey Parrot—and the emotional outpourings his death caused, I could hardly be blamed for getting all sniffly on the 1:42 to Flinders Street.

Author Irene Pepperberg suffered through a painful upbringing, her cold mother ignoring her and her classmates taunting her. Solace was found in a series of companion animals in the form of birds, and that, paired with a love of science, meant that after a rocky beginning she found her calling: studying bird linguistics. It’s old news that parrots can talk, mostly in pirate speak or about crackers, but can their brains—the size of a walnut—comprehend more than repeating what swear words we teach them?

To summarise: yes. Alex learns fast, and develops amazing abilities. He can match colours to objects, for instance, calling a red block of wood a “four corner rose” (rose being easier for a parrot to say), but then develops further again. When shown piles of objects—a pile of one green object, two blue objects, etc—he could be asked, “what number green?” and answer “one” correctly. Well, like most test subjects, he answers correctly most of the time. What makes Alex so endearing is that he gets bored, yells “wanna go back!” if he’s done, or throws things on the ground, or answers incorrectly. Sometimes he even outsmarts his teachers: during one great scene, with the coloured objects in piles, Irene is asking him a question, and Alex keeps answering, “Five”. With only four piles—of one, two, three and four objects—Irene is confused why Alex is so completely wrong. Eventually, she says, “All right, smart alec—what colour five?” and Alex triumphantly answers, “None!” A parrot, with its teeny brain, has just come up with the concept of zero.

Irene is honest about the problems she faced. A broken marriage, long days, repeating experiments a hundred times to get the correct data, and, worst of all, the difficulties of funding her project. Universities toss her back and forth; she wins grants that can’t afford to give her the money she won; mostly, she relies on the friendly volunteers who help her with her training or donate to the Alex Foundation to keep it all going.

It’s a fascinating story, to be sure, but I found the actual writing a little...lacking. It feels, in a way, as if it’s written for older children; it’s pretty simply explained, there’s not much in the way of scandals or swears (I bookmarked a page where Irene is “pissed off”, but that was it) and it didn’t take me very long to read at all. Alex’s shenanigans with Irene, plane travel, his other teachers, and his newly introduced parrot buddies, are all a bit of fun but still smack of pausing for the delighted shrieks of children. The timeline confused the hell out of me, and made me wish I’d noted down where she was and when, because I didn’t always feel her portrayal was accurate. Irene would struggle to get funding for a single year, but then the next vignette would be from five years later, with Alex eating her proposal papers or similar tomfoolery. “How will I survive?” she will lament in 2000, then, in 2004, will jet around the world. This lack of explanation, along with not enough science behind Alex’s abilities, and not enough of Irene’s personal life, meant the book felt like an extended proposal; not fleshed out enough, just the bones of an interesting story. Irene’s own unwillingness to share what she thinks the conclusion of Alex’s results are, and her flippant remarks about how animals are still clearly second-tier, are written as if they are trying not to ruffle any feathers (see how I am hilarious with my puns) even if she truly believes that. It’s a frustrating, empty conclusion to a long experiment.

As someone opposed to the majority of animal testing, I at least enjoyed the fact that Alex and his parrot friends were well cared for, and not punished for being naughty or giving the incorrect answer. And as someone convinced that animals don’t deserve what we, as a planet, do to them, it is good to see an animal prove that those we eat for dinner are capable of more than we think they are. When Alex says his final words to Irene: “You be good. I love you,” you can’t help but be affected.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

animal collective at the forum

Well. So we just got home from the Animal Collective gig and Chris is having a shower to wash off the smell of tightly-packed hipsters and has commanded me to write a review of it. So, here it is, even though I hadn’t expected to be writing gig reviews here.

Electronica gigs always bring out the whiner in me, no matter how obsessed I am with the band. “What are you DOING to my favourite song? Why can you not sing CLEARER? Can you please turn down the FEEDBACK so I can hear the rest of the song? Who made the people standing in front of me so TALL? Why is the music not LOUDER, I have not imploded yet and demand to!” etc etc. This was pretty much the same. After scoring what was possibly the greatest car park in the history of attending gigs - about ten metres down the road and, glory be, FREE - we went in at the stated time of eight o’clock to find everything running on time and support act Bachelorette just about to dive into her set. She is too adorable and, frankly, quite awesome. I think I will put her album on my xmas wish list.

Animal Collective itself was scheduled to start at nine fifteen, a respectable time for the elderly to attend on a Monday night. They started barely fifteen minutes later than that, in front of a giant banner with a wacky-eyed woman staring out at the crowd. Some inconsiderate [barrage of swear words] pushed me out of the way so they could stand in front of me and completely block the view I'd spent an hour and a half cultivating, but Chris whisked me away to another angle where I could see one and a half of the three band members. They launched almost immediately into Summertime Clothes, otherwise known as My Favourite Song In The History Of Ever, and embarrassingly I almost shed a tear, so thrilled was I to be standing in front of the band I’ve been obsessively banging on about for months.

And? AND? (You ask.) Well, much like other obsessed-over electronica outfit El Guincho, I was, um, kind of let down. NOOOO! (You wail.) It was still good, and I bopped along like a dork to the songs I knew and loved, espcially the divine Brother Sport. Alas, I feel they completely killed my beloved My Girls, kicking it and stomping it into an out-of-tune repetitive blather that left me a bit surprised and probably set the scene for my later crankiness.

The Forum’s a great venue, redone since we were last there seeing Nick Cave at the beginning of the year, and the lighting was fantastic and the sound lovely. The crowd was into it, the man in front of me appearing to emulate some kind of washing-machine and the dude next to me holding one hand out like he was doing The Swan (which is a dance, no?) The band didn't indulge in much banter with the audience, fair enough as they were busy blending the tunes together, sometimes successfully and sometimes in a way that made you feel like they just hit you in the face with a brick.

Well, I’m sounding like this evening was some kind of torture; really, it wasn’t. Chris has long accused me of always seeing the negative straight after a movie/band/so on, and as usual he is correct. (Like he was tonight when I said, “Just go into that paid parking there! Right there!” and he said, “Nah, I'll drive around the block and see what's there.” Bastard.) I don’t know why I do this, but I find it hard to get myself out of the mindset of pessimism straight away. It was still a good show, and Chris said it was much as he expected; I think I just need to learn that electronica gigs never live up to the expectations I put upon them, and next time I'll spend the hundred-plus dollars I spent on tickets on a ridiculously expensive set of headphones and listen to the band up real loud playing the songs correctly, which is clearly all I desire. This isn’t how I feel about all bands - ones that are all (or mostly) instruments can make me completely giddy live, but when it’s a person or three and a bunch of machines, I just can’t get into the spirit.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

neil gaiman, the graveyard book

For years now I’ve been asked—nay, HARRASSED—by various friends to pick up a Neil Gaiman book. Author of such famed books as comic Sandman, novel American Gods (amongst many others), and kid’s books coming out the wazoo, he’s a prolific writer of many talents, a man of good looks, great to his fans (get a tattoo, post it online, he’ll love you forever and tell you so) and an all-round fantastic guy who supports important political views and charities.

The readership of The Graveyard Book probably doesn’t give a toss about his politics, however. Aimed squarely at the nine-plus market, but, as with the rest of his books, undeniably readable for grown-ups, this book was where I started finally reading Neil Gaiman. If you’re going to start somewhere with a new author, may as well make it something you can finish in a couple of hours, so if it’s terrible you haven’t wasted to much of your precious life. Good news: it ain’t terrible! His enormous fan base is probaby unsurprised to hear this.

The book begins in a very gloomy way, as a man makes his way through an English home with a blood-soaked knife by his side. He has come to this house to kill a family, and has succeeded, mostly—except for one member, a young baby who toddles his way out of the house to the graveyard on the hill. There, aware of the horrors his family endured, the occupants of the graveyard take him into their care. One such occupant, the mysterious Silas, distracts the boy’s would-be murder who leaves, confused about why he was there in the first place. Thus starts the boy’s new life in his skewed new world.

And what happens over the course of the book is a series of fantastic vignettes that introduce you to characters as Bod—short for Nobody—grows up and meets new people. From the real-life Scarlett, who stops by to play in the park and becomes Bod’s first real-life pal; to the so-called witch Liza Hempstock, tucked away in the unhallowed ground at the end of the graveyard, who is mostly ignored by the other ghosts. Bod goes through all the shenanigans you’d expect of a child, travelling through ghoul gates and avoiding someone intent on murdering him. I remember when I had to deal with the same ballyhoo during my own childhood, and it’s wearing
Bod stays good-natured throughout, and is an appealing character. During his brief stay at school, he can’t help his goodness coming through, despite it bringing about more problems for him. When Silas, his guardian and teacher, leaves him in the care of another woman who, in a terrifying turn of events, feeds him beets—BEETS, seriously, this is the stuff of nightmares—he starts off an arrogant child who you would advocate the return of corporal punishment for and then, after a rollicking and unnerving adventure, sees the error of his ways. He’s a good kid, in all, and you don’t want him to die in a horrible stabby way like his poor family did.

The ending is a little sad, but mostly hopeful; everything is neatly tied up and my opinion of Neil Gaiman raised. Perhaps I will try to finally read all the books I have of his dotted around my home: the graphic novel Marvel 1602, and American Gods. Why do I have these around? Dude, I can’t remember how I accumulated all this stuff either. I can only assume, now, that it’s ghosts.

(I would also be interested to hear if anyone else was confused about what the cover shows apart from a beat-up gravestone. It took me two weeks of it lying about the couch area before tonight, when I yelled unexpectedly, “Oh, it’s his face in profile!” This is why I am not a designer.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

anna goldsworthy, piano lessons

In reading Piano Lessons, the memoir of award-winning classical pianist Anna Goldsworthy, I discovered a few harsh truths about myself. One, I have a dislike of reading about those who succeed; and two, I have a dislike of those who through no fault of their own are related to other people who I dislike. Anna, alas, suffers from both of these maladies. Due to hard work, often at the expense of those around her, she has become a brilliant musician; due to genetics, she is the daughter of Peter Goldsworthy, writer of great repute and recipient of one of my patented Longstanding Grudges of now mostly forgotten foundations. Peter, author of Maestro, a book based loosely on Anna’s own piano lessons and studied by me for high school English, came to our library to give a talk halfway through the year. I was thrilled: a real live author, in my school grounds, ready to impart wisdom! He cracked jokes and was fairly affable, but all I can really recall is that he talked about his other books, and mentioned Wish, saying, “It’s a story about a monkey...who learns sign language,” with a faux-embarrassed laugh. I promptly checked it out of the library and rushed home, only to discover that perhaps he could have mentioned that the sign language aspect is mostly pushed aside by the rather more alarming bestiality aspect of the plot. I felt betrayed and a little horrified, was sick of Maestro and the pick-up line “peel me a grape” (which to this day I really cannot understand), and therefore put Peter Goldsworthy on my grudge list. Then, ten or so years later, I picked up Piano Lessons and was enjoying it until I connected the two, then felt bad because of it. And deservedly so.

The book begins when Anna is nine, having just received an A in her First Grade piano exam and in need of a new teacher. Her determined grandfather finds one for her: Mrs Sivan, formerly of the Leningrad Conservatorium of Music, part of the Liszt list, and full of musical wisdom. We then follow Anna through the next ten or so years of her life, as the endearing Mrs Sivan guides her through wins and losses, insults and praise, humility and expanding ego. It is a credit to Anna that she can look back on her life so honestly; sometimes her younger self could be fairly insufferable, smug and full of entitlement. Despite this, she is never a truly unlikeable character. Hell, everyone’s a brat as a kid, obviously apart from myself. And discord in her life—when Mrs Sivan declares Anna will never be a concert pianist; when she realises her father is writing her beloved teacher into a book; the performance where she believes the audience are mocking her—make your heart ache for her. High school is not a glorious time for Anna socially, despite winning a scholarship to go to the same school as her beloved best friend Sophia. Intelligent and otherwise occupied, she is considered an outcast, and the two of them grow apart. Anna finds a hero in older pianist Kate Stevens, and looks to other musicians, finding closer bonds with them, as she grows up and changes her approaches to music, practise, and life.

One thing that often bothers me about non-fiction is that it’s, well, real. Anna does not really suffer through any catastrophic events; really, her only enemy is herself, and can be easily defeated. Dux of her high school with a perfect graduating score, along with winner of the Don Maynard Prize for best music student and the Tennyson Prize; winner of 1990 Adelaide Eisteddfod Yamaha Medallion for Most Promising Pianist, amongst more others than I could find again in the book’s pages; also, she is beautiful. Her parents are doctors and writers, her childhood home big enough for a grand piano, her family there with love and support. Apart from an almost comedic run of bad luck with cars, no external forces can stop her. Much like the movie Ponyo, there was just not enough conflict for me in this book, and a horrible, nasty part of me, begrudges so much luck for one single person, no matter that she worked hard for much of her success. Look, my own memoir would be much the same. Life’s hasn’t always buttercups and kittens, but I’ve never had to suffer through war, or extreme poverty, or my parents refusing to let me see Chris because he was a Montague and I was a Capulet. In the same vein, Anna never had to practise the piano on a piece of butcher’s paper with the keys drawn on in texta, or fight her family to let her play.

Still, it’s a lovely book, beautifully written, and not too overwhelming for those, like me, who know absolutely nothing about classical music apart from the movie Amadeus and Telstra’s call waiting music. I have a new appreciation for those, like my flautist friend Kate, who make playing music their lives, and how much dedication they must put in to achieve the life they want.

By the end, I was not more enamoured with her father. Sure, he looks after her, calls her Pie (my father has no such nicknames for me, which I am fine with), but this one line just triggered my whole grudge all over again: “Now that I had my driver’s licence, my father no longer accompanied me to lessons. Mrs Sivan asked after him, a little wistfully, but he was writing a novel about bestiality and had moved on to new obsessions.” AUGH.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

where the wild things are

I must be one of, oh, three kids who did not read Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are as a kid. (I do, however, remember reading his picture book In the Night Kitchen repeatedly, mostly because there was an illustration of the young boy falling naked into a pile of dough and as one of three sisters the picture was an entirely surprising revelation.) So I headed into the cinema not expecting my memories to be ruined or anything of the sort. And my evening was ruined instead.

Okay, perhaps I made that dramatic statement for pun value. Still, I wasn’t as enamoured with Where the Wild Things Are as I’d hoped to be. It’s a relentlessly depressing film, plagued by sadness and dark and the horrors of childhood. Perhaps I should nod appreciatively and make declarations about how it deals with the same problems facing many of the kids out there today: loneliness, brattiness, the inability to be heard, discovering you’re not the centre of everyone’s world, having a hot mother like Catherine Keener. It’s true, the movie does discuss these things, but it doesn’t give you enough of a break to laugh and ground yourself. The film’s never-ending barrage of all that’s wrong with the world and how hopeless it is to try and fix it is, well, awful.

Youngster Max, played by the alarmingly-named Max Records, is living an everychild existence: his father isn’t around, his sister doesn’t have time for him, his mother has a new boyfriend (portrayed as the asshole in one simple sentence), friends are nowhere to be seen. He acts out against his mother, who shouts at him; in terror, he flees to the bush, which like a Narnia wardrobe, leads to a lake and a boat where he paddles off and is eventually washed up in Flinders, I mean, the island of the Wild Things. There, he spies the Things mid-fight, with one Thing acting out and the rest tsk-tsking around him. Max runs into the fracas, and in an effort to dissuade the Things from their new mission of munching on his bones, proclaims himself king and promises to fix all their problems. Of course, he can’t, because a) he’s, like, ten and b) it’s pretty much impossible even if you are three-score-and-ten. Thus follows brief, dirty moments of happiness until it all goes to pot ten seconds in. Rinse, repeat.

I wish I could say the scenery was enough of a break with its natural, haunting beauty and otherworldliness; after all, it was filmed here in ol’ Melbourne Town and surrounds, and I should get all puffed-up and patriotic. But it couldn’t get a reaction out of me. Perhaps the fact that I was used to it, that the dead leaves looked like those near my sister’s place, was the problem. Perhaps the real problem is that I’m not eight, and I like some brightness and humour to alleviate the suffering in movies. I know not to presume it in everything—I won’t be expecting much knee-slapping in The Road, for example—but in a kid’s movie, of all, a light touch here and there wouldn’t have gone astray.

The few moments of humour are swift and unsettling. At one point, a character commits an appalling act of violence against another; I actually cried out in horror, but later the damage is used for comedy value. I felt like standing up on my soapbox/chair and telling everyone that violence is not funny. I would also lecture them on what happened after the downbeat ending that I did not like, Black Books-style: “And they all drank lemonade. The End!

I’m probably missing something, or everything, here. Chris liked it fine, and most reviews have been glowing. The last thing I want to do is agree with ineffectual haircut Richard Wilkins on his take on the film, but alas, I do. Perhaps I am too much of a delicate flower, not enjoying dirt-clod fights and clucking over Max’s suit going all damp and giving him colds. I did appreciate the CG, which was amazing; and the soundtrack, which I’d already been listening to for weeks; and the fact that it is bringing up issues close to the heart of kids. I think it’s aimed squarely at the eight-plus kid market—no younger, my own nephews would burst into tears—and I hope they enjoy it. Whatever has happened with this film, and my usual loves Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, is just not for me. I’ll illustrate it here:

the point

my head

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

harry potter and the half-blood prince

Otherwise known as Ron Weasley and the Incidental Other Characters due to my fierce adoration for Rupert Grint, this, the newest and penultimate-book-yet-third-last-movie is now out on DVD. Praise be! We now have all six movies on DVD, lined up in a neat row with unmatching covers, much to my anal-retentive horror. I’m sure in a few years when all of the movies are out there will be some luscious boxed set that I will be forever coveting but unable to bring myself to buy.

To be upfront about it: I really enjoyed this movie. It’s quite long, and because most of the movie seems to think it’s a comedy the last twenty minutes appear to be a completely different, much more depressing film. Most of you know how it ends, and in a shocking piece of news, I didn’t cry (but then, I knew it was going to happen and have read the final book with the character’s short, er, return, too.)

The movie begins with Harry reluctantly leaving a potential new love with a beautiful young girl to return to Hogwarts. The next two hours are taken up mostly with relationship laughs, as Harry and Ginny are thwarted by the handsome Dean (and Ginny’s newfound few inches on Harry), and the series’ will-they-won’t-they is hindered by hilarious groper Cormac’s lust for Hermione and the nauseating Lavender’s fixation on Ron. Clearly I’m biased, but this really is a Ron-heavy film, with him sweeping me off my feet with lines like: “The Sorting Hat urged us all to be brave and strong in these troubled times. Easy for it to say, though. It’s a hat, innit?” Or when they’re spying on Draco Malfoy in Borgin and Burke’s and Harry wonders why Malfoy would be there, to get the reply from Ron: “It’s a creepy shop; he’s a creepy bloke.” Stick him with his two equally hotter-than-chips brothers and you get one of my favourite scenes, when Harry, Ron and Hermione are in Fred and George’s stunning magic shop, as he asks his brothers: “How much is this?” “Five galleons.” “How much for me?” “Five galleons.” “I’m your brother!” “Ten galleons.”

More hijinks follow, with Ron being the unwitting recipient of a love potion, Harry beaming his way through a scene involving a whole lot of luck and the death of a character nobody will miss, and Hermione avoiding the affections of a deluded Cormac, whose seductive eating of an ice-cream at Professor Slughorn’s party is one of the funnier parts of the movie.

Speaking of Slughorn, I feel I must mention here that there is a very creepy underlying part to this movie. Slughorn, played by the ever-roundy Jim Broadbent, is a new addition; Dumbledore explains to Harry how Slughorn likes to “collect” talented or famous students. Slughorn, however, knows more about the young Tom Riddle than he lets on. The only way to find this out is for Harry to become close to him, and in a slimy scene, Harry asks Dumbledore, “You said Professor Slughorn will try to collect me.” Dumbledore says, “I did,” and Harry asks, “Do you want me to let him?” Dumbledore replies, in a low voice, “Yes.” And the audience shudders. Later, after helping Ron out with a potion, Slughorn gives he and Harry a “pick-me-up” in his chambers in the form of mead—clearly in the wizarding world serving alcohol to students is completely kosher and not at all a giant red flag.

On the shallow side, while the boys don’t all have the glorious long locks they did in the fourth movie, I at least appreciate Snape’s new feathery ’do, which makes him look slightly less greasy. I adore Draco Malfoy’s new emo look, replete with dark, well-cut suits, hysterical sobbing and a permanent look of angst. There are a few characters who I wished to see more of: Hagrid is only in it for about two minutes, apart from lurking in the background of a few scenes; the divine Neville Longbottom does not get the time he deserves up the front; and the absolutely gorgeous Luna Lovegood needs a much bigger part than she currently gets, with the actor playing her perfectly as a girl who is tormented by everyone but always comes through unscathed. When Luna discovers an injured and hidden Harry in the train at the beginning of the film, he apologises for their delay and they have the following heartbreaking exchange: “Sorry I made you miss the carriages, by the way, Luna.” “That’s all right. It was like being with a friend.” “Oh, I am your friend, Luna!” “That’s nice.” Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort is not in it at all—you only see the Dark Lord in a couple of flashbacks as a young, truly creepy Tom Riddle.

Whoever was in charge of CGI must have recently purchased the program How To Make a Swirly Ink Effect because it’s a vastly used image in this film, which is fine. As usual, the effects are flawless and gorgeous, though not heavily required in this movie until the final dramatic scenes, where Harry and Dumbledore are questing in dangerous and inky places for something important and deadly to Voldemort. The best, which I’ve already mentioned, is George and Fred’s magic shop; much like the Troll Market in Hellboy II The Golden Army, it just took you into the kind of beautiful otherworldly place that really made you believe in magic and monsters. The first Harry Potter movie had scenes like this in spades, and I miss them.

I’m desperate for the seventh and eighth movies to come out; I have my tissues ready for all the carnage and am hoping for more jokes than I remember being in the book. I also don’t understand why they’re bothering to split a book with an utterly dull middle into two, but that’s a vent for when the next movie comes out, hey?