Friday, February 26, 2010


J T Rogers’ play was our second of the year, and I had high hopes for it as I’d been stuck on a tram with a bunch of rabid teenagers on Orientation Week for uni on my way to the theatre. It quite got me in the mood for some serious, poignant theatre whereupon I could ponder life’s worth in a quiet and dignified manner instead of being squashed up against a girl with a megaphone leading the entire tram in sweary song. It was pretty fun when the tram driver joined in by chanting “off the step, off the step, off the step”, though.

Madagascar had a cast of three: Noni Hazelhurst, who brought me to tears in our first MTC play, Grace; thoroughly enjoyable quasi-villain Nicholas Bell from the likes of Bad Eggs and The Games (and Mission Impossible II for those who have not been paying proper attention to Australian film and TV circa 1999-2003, and I’m just assuming he’s a villain in that because he does it so very well); and Asher Keddie, who has turned up in just about every Australian TV show running, most recently Rush. The set was built with windows to look despondently out of, a bed to fling oneself on in a fit of hysteria, and a desk with a drawer that made a satisfying bang when thrown shut after a dramatic sentence. Unexpectedly, things get damp in the second act. But I won’t tell you how.

Three people are telling their stories, one that centres around a particular person, and all at separate times: Gideon, known to all but his mother as Paul, who has gone missing after detaching himself from his upper-class family and abandoning himself to the wilds of Madagascar. Noni plays his mother, Lily, waiting for Paul to arrive in Rome to meet with her for the first time after their falling-out six months earlier, unaware that he will never get off the plane from New York. Asher wallows in a silky white nightgown as Paul’s twin sister June, in the same room her mother awaited her son, lamenting the loss of her brother and unable to bear her family’s reactions. Nicholas, alas, tones down the evil to play Nathan, colleague of Paul’s father and someone who finds himself tied to the family before and after their loss, and who tells his tale long afterwards.

They are all three American; you can tell because they say “Madagascarrrrr” and not “Madagaskah”, unafraid as they are of the letter “r” at the end of words. (In Australia, it’s at the top of the terrorist threats. Look it up.) I wasn’t entirely sold on their accents, I have to say, but due to my lack of American accent nuance knowledge it’s hard to tell if it’s that because it was too much like watching old friends imitate actors after seeing them speak normally before. Lily and June are from the upper echelons of society, speaking in refined tones opposed to Nathan’s rougher Bronx voice, not helped by a confusing and violent opening scene which apparently was a dream but I took as fact until Chris pointed it out after the play.

While problems are not left only to the poor, much like last year’s play The Year of Magical Thinking, I spent much of the performance getting quietly annoyed at Lily, who can afford to escape to her Swiss chalet when the weather is nice, who takes her children on holidays overseas and who apparently suffers from the loathsome boredom that arises when there is nothing pressing to do but be upset about something. The rich are just as welcome to being upset as others, but I find myself thinking in these situations what if you couldn’t just leave? What if you couldn’t afford to follow that train of thought all over the world? And so on. That is perhaps a fault in myself and not in the play, but it’s always been the same for me: I’m not interested in the television shows where the rich lie around being rich and having affairs to spice things up, or the books where people sit in their enormous apartments and watch their sad lives reflected in their stainless-steel appliances. Of course money doesn’t buy happiness. But it buys houses and medical bills, and some people are not so lucky.

In the play’s favour, the lighting and music were utterly evocative, and I sometimes found myself completely transported to the places they described and the emotions that accompanied it. It could be haunting and beautiful at times, and when those moments came it was all I want in a play (or any form of media): the ability to be completely transported. It is always a wondrous thing.

But I can’t say I loved the play. Some of the monologues went on for so long that I got a bit distracted and started looking at the audience and playing “What Occupation Do You Have?” in my head, and then would come back to the play and hope I hadn’t missed something important. And to be honest, it ended like that: June was saying something, I got bored, imagined the man in front of me with his jumper around his shoulders as a drama teacher, then the lights went on and everyone burst into applause and I was clapping along and wondering, “Hmmm, did she just say ‘the butler did it’ or something equally important?” (Chris tells me no.) Another irritating thing—and I blame the director for this, as all three actors did it, and I don’t believe they would otherwise—was the inability of any of the actors to insert a pause for dramatic effect. When you are having a train of thought, and it gets interrupted with another line of thinking, there is a pause to indicate the change. I am the Queen Mother of Thought Trains so I know that even at my speediest changes of topic there is still the time where I have to switch, er, tracks (yes, I’m aware I am completely overdoing the train analogy here) and you can hear it. When actors onstage run sentences along together, it doesn’t strike you as much that they are speaking their thoughts aloud as fast as they can as much as they are just reading through the script too fast. It was frustratingly amateur and no sir, I don’t like it.

Despite all this, I can’t say I hated it either. It was surprisingly funny, with Noni getting all the best lines, only one of which I managed to note down through the giggles: “One of the things I didn’t realise about being opinionated is what happens when you pass that trait on.” The love she has for her children, which they occasionally cannot see and which she is occasionally quite poor at showing, is well shown through her tears. Only this time, unlike Grace, I didn’t cry along. Madagascar is an interesting play that perhaps I would have understood better with a more than limited knowledge of the Roman myths referenced the whole way through, but I won’t entreat you to see it. Go watch the drunk O-week kids create real drama at the pub instead.

Monday, February 22, 2010

xinran, message from an unknown chinese mother

Having read and sobbed my way through previous Xinran books China Witness, What Chinese People Eat and festival of depression The Good Women of China, I could not resist reading her most recent book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother. With a title like that, it wasn’t much of a leap to suspect that it wasn’t going to be a cheerful tome. And, like the rest of her books, it wasn’t—but you are left with hope for the future, all the same.

In the nineties Xinran had a radio program called Words on the Night Breeze. It was a program for women and about them, and really struck a chord with its audience, one that felt it was going unheard. The stories she was given for this program, in letters and calls and interviews, often lead to bigger tales that are retold in her books. And it is lucky for us that they are. In a country so censored by its government and changing so quickly, to have a record like Xinran’s is an important thing.

In 2004 Xinran started her own charity, the Mothers’ Bridge of Love, for those who have adopted Chinese girls and for the mothers who had to give them up in the first place. It’s a subject close to Xinran’s heart, after the distant relationship she had with her own mother and other, more complicated reasons that are outlined in the last chapter of her newest book. Other chapters are filled with the stories of other families, and are all heartbreaking tales. From how some Chinese peasants treat their newborns if they are girls (in a scene Xinran saw firsthand, and which will leave you devastated) to one woman whose daughter was kidnapped on the banks of a river, from the women who became pregnant unexpectedly and hid their pregnancies due to the shame it would bring upon their families to the parents who have to give up their beloved daughter—the fourth—because of China’s stringent one-child policy, the stories Xinran unearths are ones that strike close to your heart. While I am fervently pro-choice, there are many doubts about whether choice was a factor in some of these decisions, and that is what makes them so hard, yet necessary, to read.

China’s tangled history means that paperwork and records are something that are rarely kept, if ever written. Mothers who give up their babies will come back to check on them, only to find that their daughters have been given to another orphanage, or away altogether, but authorities could not tell them where or to whom they went. Xinran’s own wrenching experience trying to help a fledgling orphanage only to return from a story to find the building empty of all she had loved and cared for is indicative of just one story when the same thing happens all over the country. The quality of the orphanages are poor and the staff untrained; there is no way to trace the babies back to their original parents or sometimes even the place they were found. Tokens of love left with the babies for them to remember their parents by are thrown away. By the end of the book, you will want to throw it on the floor, stamp your feet and yell, “It’s not fair.” And it’s not. Xinran’s charity is set up to help those on either side of the divide—mothers, children, adoptive parents—find their roots if possible, or, if anything, know that there was once a mother out there for them who very possibly loved them with all her heart but was unable to care for them.

Nothing is really mentioned of mothers who are not interested in their children at all, but that isn’t really the point of the book. It’s for children out there who wonder what the reasoning was behind their abandonment, and it’s there to give them some explanations of what certain women went through, from the point of view of women who think of their lost daughters every day. The translation and Xinran’s casual writing style is, like with other Xinran books, is more about telling the tale than reaching for the literary stars. Not to say it’s terribly written—it isn’t—but she is first and foremost a journalist who wants to get the stories out to the people who need to hear them, not someone who needs to pretty up her statements for more impact.

Ending on appendices relating Chinese adoption laws, a humorous list of the 18 wonders of Chengdu, the shocking suicide rates amongst women in China and some letters Xinran has received from adoptive mothers, it’s another of Xinran’s fascinating journeys into a culture we can sometimes be barred from learning the truth of, and yet another brutal but essential read. If you haven’t yet read any of Xinran’s books, I would still advise the Good Women of China as your first look for its portrayal of women and what they have suffered. And if you have any inclination, you can donate or read more about Xinran’s charity The Mothers’ Bridge of Love here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

the road

If I have learned anything from my fortnight immersed in all The Road-related materials, it is that you should not read a book right before seeing the movie. John Hillcoat’s adaptation is so faithful to the book that I spent the entire experience whining about how salty my popcorn was and saying, “He’s totally going to go in that house” and “no, don’t speak to him that way! Ooooh, I knew he was going to say that”, etc.

After seeing Hillcoat’s godawful (but good) The Proposition, similarly soundtracked by my secret boyfriend Nick Cave and walking beard Warren Ellis, I was expecting this movie to pull no punches, horrify me, be good, and unbearable for repeat viewings. Maybe it was the fact that I’d just read the book and experienced the horror in my imagination—much of the book is implied horror instead of actual horror, though there’s plenty of that too—but the movie wasn’t as horrifying as I expected. Some of the remnants of the post-apocalyptic civilisation are turning to cannibalism, and you see it in dark shadows, wailing voices, and the occasional desiccated human. It should be the stuff of nightmares, making me shriek and bury my head in my beloved’s manly chest, but I kind of sighed and thought that the half-chewed humans all looked a little like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings and couldn’t quite bring myself to be convinced. As is with the book, the movie is so even-toned, through all that goes on, that it can numb you to the appalling scenes so instead of screams and tears you just say “oh” and look a bit sad. Again, shocking to all known to me, I didn’t cry in the final scenes. And believe me, I was trying to squeeze those tears out.

Viggo Mortenson continues his trend of not being pin-up material and is starved and haggard as the movie’s unnamed protagonist. He sported a terrible moustache in the flashback scenes that made me doubt he was a character I could relate to, and despite his efforts at being a supportive and educational father he is a terrifying character, barely balancing along the line of good and evil. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as his son, is just fine. He adopts a mostly vacant stare but I am not sure if it’s just how you would be in such a grey and awful world. Top-billed actors Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce (sporting the worst wig in the history of film and pretty much phoning it in) are only in the movie for a minute or two, as is far-too-beautiful Charlize Theron. Missing are a few extra people that belonged in scenes of horror that, while grotesque, might have packed the punch I was expecting and added depth to the horrors they were avoiding. Added are an entire forty seconds of unexpected new footage that got me briefly thrilled and then let me down again as it barrelled straight into the next, unbearably familiar scene.

The cinematography is excellent, and the world is exactly how you would imagine it: unerringly grey, dismal, quiet. It is portrayed in the book as unbearably cold yet I missed it in the movie; not enough (or any) snow, not enough chattering of teeth and knocking of knees a la Warner Bros, perhaps.

Frankly, it is too hard for me to be subjective about this movie because I had read the book so recently and it held so absolutely close to the book that I just felt I was rereading it. It could be an excellent movie. I regret reading the book so soon before seeing it; I wish now I’d watched the movie first and saved the book for later. As it is, all I can say is: he didn’t let McCarthy down, and I now understand why other directors are so keen to change things around. Because using the novel as a script doesn’t always lead you to explore new ground, apart from what Viggo’s bottom looks like after he’s gone hungry for months. And it’s not pretty.

Monday, February 8, 2010

cormac mccarthy, the road

With the movie showing in cinemas and depressing people worldwide, I thought it was about time I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning original book. I debated over whether or not I should read the book first or see the film first, but frankly, I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to whisper, “Well, that’s not how it went in the book,” or, “In my professional opinion, the leading man should have been played by Rupert Grint and the leading lady would have been much better if she were me, and also I would put in extra sex scenes.” So, to the book I went, in a hurry so I could catch the movie early in its run.

From the start, it’s obvious why McCarthy won a Pulitzer. He has an absolutely amazing writing style, rendering his bleak post-apocalyptic world clearly and beautifully and, somehow, different every time he describes it. Not to say the word “gray” (uh-mericans, honestly, it’s “grey”) doesn’t get bandied about generously, but he does amazingly with the world he gives you. Which is, really, just grey.

The Road tells the story of a man and his son as they venture forth in this newly defined Earth to find, well, hope. Their ultimate destination is the coast, but they do not know what they will find there. The man has hope for the beaches he remembers, but his son knows nothing of the world he describes. When, early in the book, they find a can of Coca Cola, the man is thrilled he has something to share with his son from the world as it was, as it is now to us.

Vegetation is dead; all that is left is cans of food, trolleys as transportation, and not nearly enough clothes or shoes. For those who are not interested in peaches and Spam, there is one, more unsavoury food option of the Soylent Green variety. Those on the road who ticked this box in the lifestyle choice section are the reason that the man and the boy are so cautious; the reason that the man has a gun in his pocket with two bullets left.

While the idea of two men on a road trip to the beach usually calls to mind catchy tunes and hilarious shenanigans, this is an unrelenting tale of what you could become in a world where you are starving, where you wonder at night if you could bring yourself to kill your only child if the circumstances called for it. Where you tell yourself and others that you are the good guys, but when faced with the worst, is it possible to remain good?

The odd punctuation, where the man and the boy hadnt and couldnt do this or that but I’ll do this and you’ll do something else, is strange but remains appealing and signifies the skewed world the man (and therefore the reader) now inhabit. Despite how awful the subject matter is, it remains a beautiful book, as the rest of the world—who already appears to have read it—and the Pulitzer committee have already said. McCarthy’s dry style of writing, and the appalling conditions of the world and the people, becomes almost numbing after a while; so that when horrific scenes are played out you sit quietly on the tram and think, “oh”, rather than fall to the floor in tears as I am wont to do in certain tearjerking books.

Flaws were few and far between: only two jarring sentences made me fold over the page corners. “The snow fell nor did it cease to fall” threw me out of the book due to the strange syntax, and towards the end the boy—who, by all appearances, has learned exclusively from his well-spoken father—says, when asked if he remembers something, “I’m not a retard.” Notwithstanding my dislike for the word in that context, it was out of character and I could not quite establish how he came to know it. These are little things, and I could probably be convinced of why they are in the book; it doesn’t matter, as any novel that has only two (debatable) problems still deserves to be heaped with accolades.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

cold war kids, behave yourself ep

This year I bought a more expensive diary than usual. By “more expensive” I don’t mean gold-plated, leather-bound and with accompanying mahogany fountain pen, just a step up from the usual one I get from the newsagency at half-price mid year when the original cost had been all of $2.95. I was determined to write things in this diary. I have been recording important upcoming events—birthdays, a hens night, a wedding. And written on January 21st was the release date for the new Cold War Kids EP, Behave Yourself.

Cold War Kids are an easily identifiable band. Lead singer Nathan Willett’s voice is undeniably original; it’s almost like he’s just a man who lives in your cd player and shouts at you, but he carries each tune remarkably well. It often means that the singing is at the forefront of each track, and the music is incidental to him belting out another tale of woe and breaking your heart. Not to say the music is in any way bad—it isn’t—but that the piano and guitar and drums are secondary to the vocals, but not in an Australian-Idol-money-note kind of way, just like it is a beautiful instrument on its own. This, their newest EP, has tracks written previous to the last release but that felt special enough to get released on their own; it’s four songs that deserve to be heard.

“Audience” starts off reliably, as I’ve come to expect from Cold War Kids, a band that has yet to let me down. It builds from relative softness and then gets a little harder and grittier, evoking earlier tracks like “Saint John”, where you can feel despair through the piano’s rough notes and lead singer Nathan Willett’s singing “windshield wipers waving for an audience of one”. The bridge is quite lovely, a sweet, melodic segue that for once is allowed to shine over the vocals. It’s a great track that leaves me all upset that EP releases usually mean a band can dawdle on releasing a full-length album for a bit longer. I imagine them scheming, “Haha! Let us release an EP and fool the world!”

“Coffee Spoon” is a warm, full track that relies more heavily on guitar than many other CWK tracks, along with a steady drum beat and some delicate crooning in the background. Keyboards are soft in this song, but they have found enough with the instruments they chose to fill out this song, so it does give you a cosy, enclosed coffee bar kind of feel.

“Santa Ana Winds” is a more similar throwback to older tracks, not quite as raucous as some but still building into something. It’s a short track and a shout out to a place they must love; if you lived where you could feel Santa Ana winds you would probably get a bit giddy from the familiarity: “Take the elevator to the Getty’s highest place, see the cliffs fall to sea, do an about face. Easter on Olvera Street...” and so on.

If it weren’t for the star power of the previous three songs, I could have been a bit stern-faced regarding “Sermons”. Not that it’s not a good track—of course it is—but it is a pared-back version of the track “Sermon vs the Gospel”, a hidden track from their album Robbers and Cowards, so it’s verging on cheating. As he croons, “Lord have mercy on me”, I assume he’s really talking about his listeners. And despite being familiar with the song—we did have Robbers and Cowards on high rotation for a while there—this version still held up, and felt legitimate on its own, so much so that it took me a while to recognise it beyond a faint feeling of familiarity and happiness. It’s not a rocking track, for sure; it’s more the kind of pace you would imagine from a song called “Sermons” where the Lord is mentioned. You can imagine that the Lord’s probably up there grumbling that at least they weren’t so damn loud and angry with this track but could they keep it down anyway, these cold war kids of today etc. The lyrics “I believe the words will change the heart” are sung during this song; a sentiment I really quite adore, and if I was the kind of person who tattooed lyrics upon myself I could see them there (right next to ones I would now regret, like “Won’t you take me to a Funky Town?” and “Mmmmmm Mmmmm” and, for kicks, the All Saints’ most beautifully poetic lyrics, “The way I’m feeling yeah you got me feeling really bad”.)

This indie rock band will continue to be played in this house, and forthcoming albums to be written in my diary (should I continue to use one and not just lose it one day when I am searching through my handbag for that last five cents for my tram ticket, as usually happens.) The scratchiness of the lead singer may turn you off at first, but don’t give up; they are a great, clever band that deserve much fame and love, especially lead singer Nathan as, let’s face it, he’s cute.

Monday, February 1, 2010

law abiding citizen

*stretch* Well, the holidays are well and truly over now, and therefore I am back to wielding a pen keyboard and writing reviews in a frenzy. Hopefully. While I always expect my holidays to entail much relaxing on the beach and reading tremendously clever books and watching desperately anguished movies about Important Things, I found there was some going to the beach (mostly to splash about and giggle) and a little too much sleeping, but mostly eating. Maybe I should change this blog to read, watch, listen, scoff. In lieu of reviews of all of my meals (“Walked to service station, bought a bag of Red Rock Deli chips for tea, regret followed), here is a blockbuster to begin the new year with properly.

Sometimes, your fellow audience at the cinema plays quite a part in the movie you watch. They can yap all the way through a deeply poignant picture with many scenes of quiet contemplation. They can open packets of chips when someone’s whispering an important line. They can be tall and sitting in front of you—the most abominable of all cinema tomfoolery. During our viewing of entertaining action frenzy Law Abiding Citizen, I felt like someone should have been recording audience reaction.

When something gory happened—and it wasn’t just once—everyone joined in a moving chorus of “ewwww”. When something surprising happened, the entire audience would rock back, gasping in shock. If something was funny, the theatre next door knew about it too. Someone kindly brought their small baby into this 9:30pm session, and occasionally said child would also participate in the reactions, though usually off-cue and with more of a “waahhh”, which I translated as “Hey mum and dad, I know you aren’t aware of this but you just let me witness a dismembering and I am now traumatised forever, thank you very much.”

It was the kind of movie that demanded a visceral reaction. With a startling opening scene that doesn’t beat around the bush—just around Gerard Butler’s head—you are firmly on the side of Butler’s Clyde Shelton, who witnesses the senseless murder of his wife and daughter while completely powerless to stop it. Attorney Nick Rice, played by Eric Bishop (otherwise known as Jamie “I am so awesome that one X can’t explain it alone” Foxx), is hoping to keep his 96% conviction rate, and makes a deal with one of the murderers so that he testifies against the other (and arguably more blameless) one and gets a light sentence while the other gets the death penalty. Clyde is understandably upset that Rice won’t stand up for him, but as Foxx points out with complete lack of any emotion or charisma, with the damaged evidence they have, it’s better to get some conviction that none.

Ten years pass. Rice is going up in the world; you can tell because his appearance is identical but his wife’s hair is nicer. Played by Regina Hall, until now known mostly for screeching and giving one of the Jigsaw villains a sexually transmitted disease as Brenda in the Scary Movie franchise, she is Rice’s missing moral compass and unimpressed by the fact he has yet to turn up to one of his daughter’s cello recitals. We join Rice as he escorts his protégé Sarah to witness the execution of one of the Shelton family murderers. What should have been a nice day out at a death scene turns into unspeakable horror when the execution does not go to plan. And at this point you strap yourself in and watch Clyde Shelton as he turns the tables on an entire city, from the two pathetic killers to everyone who let his family down by allowing the justice system to dictate what common sense says was wrong.

When Clyde, arrested for the murders of the two murderers, explains to a shocked courtroom exactly why the system is wrong, it’s one of the most entertaining scenes I’ve seen. He berates them for planning to let him go due to lack of evidence and is sent back to prison where—despite being behind bars—nothing stops him from killing off the people who let him down. And at first, you’re cheering for him. His family didn’t receive justice. You don’t feel bad for the murderers’ painful deaths; instead, you revel in it like you can only in fiction. But he walks a thin line from the start, and barely halfway through the film, pretty much jumps over it and does a little dance. His methods of killing remain fascinating in a repulsive way—and will scare you away from your mobile phone forever—and are a large part of what keeps you watching this movie, which is essentially a big stupid blockbuster.

One of the movie’s major flaws is Foxx himself, who, despite winning an Oscar for Ray, is absolutely unappealing in this movie as ice. From his unflagging arrogance to his lack of anguish regarding the death of those around him, it appears he took this role for the money and didn’t bother to invest his character with any depth. The rest of the cast holds up well, with Butler filled with calculated blind rage and occasionally abandoning himself to a moment of grief; Regina Hall devastated at Foxx’s terrible acting; their daughter, played by Emerald-Angel Young, filled with adoration for her father even though he is completely useless; and Rice’s protégés all realistic, mostly because they wonder if perhaps they brought this upon themselves, when Foxx blusters about declaring he has never done a thing wrong. I’m not advocating mass murder for revenge, but Foxx’s lack of remorse just renders him completely unlikeable. As a result, you’re not quite sure who you’re supposed to be siding with—Butler’s wronged but clearly overreacting victim? Foxx’s permanently cranky lawyer with nothing but nice ties to redeem him? The only likeable character who gets exploded about two-thirds of the way through the movie?

The biggest problem with this movie, overpowering even Foxx—or perhaps because of him—is the ending. Up until the last ten minutes you’ve been enjoying the ride, covering your eyes from the icky parts, having moments of quiet reflection regarding the fairness of the justice system in regards to the victim, and laughing maniacally when someone gets their overdone comeuppance. Then the ending comes—altogether ridiculous even in this movie’s reality, with a lack of police backup in a highly secure area, then a move by Foxx that baffles all notion of time and, well, sanity, and will surely have made for a mass of awkward paperwork for whoever deals with such dramatic and violent happenings.

In summary, go see it for kicks—then leave just as Foxx and the much better named Colm Meaney are speeding to town hall, and paste the ending of Bernard and Manny’s kids story from Black Books on instead: “Then they all drank lemonade. The End!”