Sunday, May 30, 2010

paul harding, tinkers

Confronted with the looming reality of his death, George Washington Crosby lies in the middle of his living room, on a rented hospital bed, surrounded by his family. With the medication taking hold and his body failing him, time becomes a loose construct and the life he has lived—as well as the life of his father before him—become as immediate as reality.

In the unforgiving landscape of rural late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth-century Northern America, Howard Crosby sells goods, his mule pulling a cart full of life’s necessities; pins, coffee, tobacco. In a place where winter brings no income because his neighbours become reclusive and hunker down for it, it is a difficult living, his own violent epileptic seizures sometimes hindering his route. Howard’s observations of the landscape around him make for incredible reading; eloquent and as convincing as if Paul Harding was there seeing it for himself, and looking remarkably young now for someone pushing a hundred and fifty. Later, Howard’s son George will tinker with clocks, his relationship with his father and time always close at hand. Interspersed with beautiful meditations on Latin phrases and notations on the workings and history of clocks, to whittle it down to a story of a man and his father is to miss the beauty of this novel, which is the writing itself. Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is an original, captivating book that deserves its accolades.

One of the most astounding aspects of this book was the relationships between fathers and sons, not only between George and Howard, but between Howard and his own mentally declining father. Generally, when you read books or see movies set in such a time and place, guidance usually involves a whupping, or a disowning, or getting killed with your daddy’s shotgun, or perhaps all three, as the mother stands by feeling sad but unable to convey her emotions because of the general fear surrounding The Patriarch. In this, the fathers suffered from illnesses, but were good men, kind to their families and only wanting the best for their children. Until this book (admittedly not a true story) I had assumed that Nice Dads only appeared when beating your children started to seem more like picking on those unable to fight back, which didn’t seem to happen until the late twentieth century (and still hasn’t seeped into everyday consciousness, alas.) Possibly a meditation on how only men considered weak were able to show their children tenderness and affection, it was truly touching.

I was originally going to say that the one flaw of the book was that it was so mired in Harding’s elaborate language that I sometimes got a little overwhelmed by what was possibly hallucination, possibly symbolism, likely both, and kind of skipped over it. I’m usually in a hurry to get to the end of the book, where they all live happily ever after or die in a big explosion or what have you, so I don’t give some writing the time it deserves. I feel that the best books are those that work on two levels: a good, entertaining read for those like me who find speed reading a competition with no other competitors, and something with depth and beard-stroking metaphors for those who enjoy a ponder, or for me to think about later. I thought it possibly failed on the first front, because the hallucinatory nature of the language meant I got impatient very quickly with what was happening. Having said that, without even trying I’ve written about what I interpreted it saying about fathers, and he might have meant nothing by it. But it got me thinking and pretending to be analytical, didn’t it? So instead I’ll say the flaw of this particular edition was that I found at least three typos. And now I’m off to do my duty and type up my letter explaining why that is enough to strip Harding of his Pulitzer and give it to Jeff Kinney for the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.

Monday, May 24, 2010

harry brown

You know you’re seeing a movie aimed at an older demographic when the overwhelming smell that hits you when you walk in the cinema is Dencorub. Starring septuagenarian Michael Caine, continuing to be the coolest person in any movie he’s in, Harry Brown portrays the gritty fantasy world many people desire, where everyday people—senior citizens or no—turn vigilante to stop the rise of crime on the streets.

Harry Brown lives a lonely life; his wife is seriously ill in hospital, and his only friend is Len, a man bitter about the thugs in their council estate and who moonlights as a caretaker in a local school for the differently abled. (Not really; but as soon as actor David Bradley appears onscreen, I defy you not to stage-whisper “It’s Filch from Harry Potter!” I mean, they even gave him the same hair.) When Harry’s beloved wife passes on, he is anguished; Len consoles him, but still retains his anger for the hooligans, revealing he is now carrying a weapon to fight with. That night, Len is killed in the estate’s pedestrian underpass, as ominous a place as the tunnel in Inglourious Basterds.

Now alone in the world, Harry is determined to wreak vengeance on those he knows killed his friend. An ex-marine, he knows how to keep calm in the face of the enemy. And so he does, the police—next to useless in the fight against these kids—vaguely on his trail.

Like Harry himself, you should probably bring your inhaler along for this, because you may forget to breathe. Tense from the devastating opening scene to the last moment, director Daniel Barber’s gripping style is immediate, shocking and emotional. Silent, heartbreaking scenes are played along with moments of shuddering brutality scored with ominous perfection by Ruth Barrett and Martin Phipps. I’d enjoy saying the movie was cut through with dashes of humour but really, it’s not. It isn’t a hopeless movie, but it’s no comedy; there is little humour to be leached from the subject matter of the decline of council estate security. There may have been a joke once. I mean, I must have been able to relax enough to breathe at some point; the idea that I held my breath for the entire 110 minutes is preposterous, but 55 minutes seems feasible.

When Harry sees the ruffians getting up to their shifty business practices in the underpass from his newfound viewpoint in Len’s ransacked home, you feel like you’re right there with him, watching with teeth-clenching apprehension for something terrible to happen. Drugs are sold, people are beaten; Harry watches it all with the same horror the viewers feel. You’ll be reaching for your phone, wanting desperately to call the police, but knowing their track record in the estate, you are as helpless as Harry is. Of course, you’re probably not an ex-Marine with no family or friends and nothing to lose, so you might not choose the same path that Harry does.

So does Harry Brown idealise vigilantism? It’s hard to say. You can’t argue that stabbing someone to death will stop them from viciously assaulting people, selling drugs in your neighbourhood and pushing burning dogshit through your mailbox. That’s not how society is supposed to work, of course, but if the police are no help, what choices will people feel they have? Of course, because this is real life, Harry doesn’t skip around building traps like Gerard Butler does in Law Abiding Citizen; he gets himself into awkward situations and isn’t immune to injury or ageing. There is a very real sense of danger in this film, with no guarantee of everyone likeable surviving.

Along with Alfie and Filch, the movie also stars Emily Mortimer as the one police officer trying to catch the killers—whoever they may be—in a business where single cases of estate violence are considered a low priority in the seemingly unsolvable bigger picture. She is superb, as are the actors playing the criminals, who are as real as anyone you’ve avoided on the street and will scare the pants off you. One scene, with a strung-out arms dealer who scratches his scalp incessantly and offers his unconscious and overdosing girlfriend to Harry for fifty quid, is especially unsettling.

With enough blood and bodies to satisfy Tarantino’s bloodlust yet never stray into ridiculousness, it’s a movie that isn’t for those with nervous dispositions. It’s not violent to sate the needs of a hungry cinemagoer, but violent to prove a point. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking, with some of the saddest moments you’ll see in cinema; also, word is it’s Michael Caine’s final leading role. So go see it and give him the retirement fund payout he so richly deserves. And, of course, to hear ol’ Caine refer to his wife Kath as “Kaff”.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

john layman & rob guillory, chew volume one

The world is thrilled by a big disaster. See the unpronouncable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, spurting out ash and stranding travellers all over Europe. And a pandemic—well, everyone gets into a frenzy about those, like last year’s swine flu, which threatened to take on Spanish flu proportions but essentially had a lesser fatality rate (though any fatality rate is terrible) than the normal flu. Before that, the panic was avian flu. But what would have happened in a world where avian flu was actually an international disaster? The comic Chew is here to tell you.

23 million Americans have died of bird flu. Chicken is, predictably, banned, but there is a flourishing black market for it. Detective Tony Chu is on the case, staking out such organisations with his partner. But Chu isn’t just your everyday cop (who is in the world of comics?) but is, in fact, Cibopathic. What is that? you ask, scrambling for your medical dictionary. Well, you won’t find it in there, so put it down and get back to reading this. Cibopaths can get impressions from what they eat on the history of where their food came from. Eating an apple will tell Cibopaths where the orchard was that it grew from and what pesticides were used. Eating a steak is accompanied by the unpleasant knowledge of how said steak got on the plate. The only food that Chu doesn’t react to is beets. And if anything will make me personally feel empathy for a character, it’s the knowledge they can only eat beetroot. Nightmarish stuff.

When a stakeout of an underground chicken restaurant turns into a much more dramatic discovery, Chu’s talent is discovered by higher powers: the Food and Drug Agency. He is recruited by the FDA as an agent with the special crimes division, and finds out he’s not the only Cibopath in the team. Also able to eat and detect is Mason Savoy, the size of a house, ridiculously tough, and, with his particular distinguished talking style whilst causing mayhem, aching to be played in my imaginary movie version by Vinnie Jones in a fatsuit. The team is rounded out by Mike Applebee, in charge of both men and a raging jerk. And together, they fight crime. And how do they do that? Well, to get a sense of their final moments (and earlier), occasionally they snack on bits of dead or dying people. Also a dog, at one point. It’s not pleasant.

It’s a novel way of crimefighting and will put you off your dinner if you’re thinking of eating anything with a possibly turbulent past. (I was eating popcorn while I read it and tried not to imagine that the kernels were in the saucepan crying out as I gleefully caused them to turn inside out.) The entire comic is great fun, the story arc for this volume, Taster’s Choice, involving yakuza, Arctic telescope stations, dismembered fingers, Russian girls in their underpants with machine guns, betrayal, possible aliens and even a little bit of love. Serious when need be, Guillory’s drawing style is angular, full of expression, and makes every scene exciting and—my favourite part—clear. In other comics, so much can be going on in a page that I spend far too long figuring out and even then being a bit confused, but this manages to have a sufficient amount of action and still be absolutely understandable. Action’s not entirely what this comic is about, however, with our Tony just trying to figure out what he’s doing in this new world, dominated with people cynical of the bird flu and out to tell the world no matter what the cost. And why he’s suddenly chomping down on the cremated remains of a Senator.

There to capture Tony’s heart is the lovely Amelia Mintz, who also has a word you’ll want to look up (but don’t bother): she’s a Saboscrivner. She can write about food so vividly that those who hear or read her words can taste the food she’s talking about just as clearly as if they were eating it. And for someone who can’t eat anything without collapsing into angst, she’s the woman of his dreams. Trouble is, he’s been sent by Applebee to do something about her, after she took to writing about less than pleasant restaurants and dragged the city’s population there with her.

It’s wonderfully rendered, with Rob Guillory’s excellent illustration perfectly matching John Layman’s rollicking storytelling. (I should be commended here for my overuse of the double-l in that last sentence.) The colour is sharp, the people of all shapes and sizes, the line between caricature and realism made blurry. It’s as enjoyable to look at as it is to read. As long as you have a relatively strong stomach for some gore.

This has been sitting for far too long on my shelf untouched by me, and while I’m partly angry at myself for waiting to get into something that’s this entertaining, I’m pleased that Volume Two, International Flavor, has just been released, collecting issues #6 to #10. I’m going to get my grubby paws on a copy as soon as I can.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Since telling people I have seen the new Jean-Pierre Jeunet film Micmacs, a strange species of human have emerged; those who did not like Amelie. This was on par with friends telling me they have wings tucked under their shirts: I simply never considered the possibility. And honestly, if you didn’t like Amelie (insert disbelieving sigh here), then you probably won’t dig Micmacs.

Jeunet’s worlds are a quaint, endearing niche of France where the humour is bawdy, the violence painless, and revenge not swift but definitely sweet. Micmacs tells the story of Bazil (Dany Boon), who at his videostore workplace one day becomes the unfortunate recipient of a stray bullet to the head. Instead of killing him, it just leaves him with a scar and an occasional need to concentrate to slow his heart rate. Alas, his stay in hospital has left him with his position replaced and with his flat rented out, so now, homeless and unemployed, he takes up a series of amusing busking jobs (standing on the other side of a pole where a beautiful woman is singing and miming to her is a marvellously fun turn.) Eventually, he is discovered by Placard, a kindly man who knows where someone with Bazil’s level of ingenuity may come in handy.

Bazil is led to a world located beyond a tunnel of garbage, where a group of people has come together to subsist on the items people throw away. It’s a beautiful world of gadgets and puppets, little engineered displays of robotics done by resident inventor Petit Pierre. An enthralling cast of characters follows, including the Amelie-meek Calculette nearby to supply measurements and all similar knowledge off the top of her head, and the tense and sensitive La Môme Caoutchouc, a contortionist who likes to surprise people by hiding in fridge shelves. With his new friends, Bazil decides to do something about the weapons manufacturers who not only supplied the bullet that deprived him of his original existence, but the land mine that killed his father many years before.

Much is left unsaid in Micmacs; brute emotion and long backstories are eschewed for what is happening now. A man of few words anyway, once entrenched in his new happy world Bazil never reflects sadly upon his lost past. Short, amusing flashbacks are occasionally given for a couple of other characters, but mostly Micmacs is the tale of fun and complicated revenge that Bazil and co launch upon the manufacturers. It’s as cartoonish and entertaining as you could hope, with them spying on the offending men—Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet and François Marconi—by pretending to be window-washers or hiding in boxes. There’s a bit of sex, with randy characters going at it in fully-clothed, Carry-On-style shrieking delight. Somehow, it tackles the serious issue of taking down people indulging in the misery of others with a light touch; possibly because it’s something many people desire but know is an unrealistic achievement. The final outcome is satisfying, moreso because of the genuine hints of danger throughout the film.

Adding to the fun is self-referential hints, as the characters pass billboards for the movie Micmacs with the scene advertised being the very one you are watching. Jeunet is a fan of casting many of his actors from his previous movies, but all are great; Dany Boon, with his 4/4 name, starts almost bland as he wanders blankly through a post-disability world and then becomes completely endearing; old Jeunet hat Dominique Pinon is his usual volatile self, determined to prove he won a Guinness World Record and then beat it; Julie Ferrier as contortionist and potential tetchy love interest La Môme Caoutchouc is something to behold (and be jealous of); Yolande Moreau appears yet again in a motherly role as Tambouille, there to cook dinner and give anyone what-for if they need it.

As sometimes happens when I get caught up in the movie and miss a sentence of subtitles, I was occasionally confused about what was happening. With such an agreeable bunch of friends, there wasn’t always an exposition-filled discussion about what was happening in the film. No matter; it’s enough to just get swept away. Micmacs is a small delight, something not eternally memorable but impossible not to like. Unless you didn’t like Amelie. Pffft. You’re just saying that, right?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

iron man 2

I may not have been in the right frame of mind when I saw this. My beloved grandmother passed away in hospital recently, my mother and sister there holding her hands; I saw this the next night, with Chris and his mother, as both an early Mother’s Day present for her and a bid to distract myself from my emotions. I thought: it’s Iron Man 2. There’s not going to be much in the way of grandmother-related materials in here for me to get sad about.

The very first scene of Jon Favreau’s sequel has Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke, at his elderly father’s deathbed. They’re watching Tony Stark on television making the astonishing declaration from the end of the first film: “I am Iron Man.” Anton Vanko says to his son, “That should have been you,” then draws his last breath and dies. Ivan screams to the heavens. I am in my cinema chair covering my eyes with my hands thinking: this is a bad start.

I really enjoyed the first Iron Man movie. It was fun and funny, Robert Downey Jr just the right amount of smug and endearing, but with too much eyeliner. This movie had less eyeliner, but unfortunately, less action. It had more characters, but was less interesting.

After being the big obnoxious hero of the first movie, Tony Stark is now in a bad place. While he is still loaded, launching the famed Stark Expo, and surrounded by cheerleaders in his first scene, things aren’t all so great. The US Senate wants him to give them his suit, and is accusing him of having a military weapon at his disposal. Their star witness?
Stark’s best friend, Rhodey. To top it off, Stark’s new heart is not capable of sustaining him long-term. Can he come up with something better, or will he die, along with the option of a sequel or ten? Will the business fall apart while he tries, despite Pepper Potts’ best efforts? And are they going to finally make out or what?

And to the character list. First we have Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, out to get revenge on Iron Man for Stark Snr’s faults. We also have arms dealer Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell (and, unnervingly, someone who could tie in with his Moon character quite well). And then we have Natalie Rushman, played mysteriously and with repressed bosoms by Scarlett Johanssen. Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine, aka Don Cheadle, turns up as Stark’s bestest pal but—if you were working with knowledge from this movie alone—it would be confusing as to why they were friends, as they only fight and appear to have nothing in common. Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts is there too, innocent and red-haired and tempting me to colour my hair as it worked pretty well for Gwyneth Paltrow. Favreau himself rolls up as Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan, mostly useless but there to be available for a later gag with Johanssen. Also in the mix are Stark’s computer Jarvis, voiced by Paul Bettany; Garry Shandling creeping it up as Senator Shem, one of the more realistic villains who wants Stark to give up his tech secrets; some of Nick Fury’s henchmen out to look after an ailing Stark; and some old footage of John Slattery as Stark’s deceased father Howard, because apparently we needed some poignancy and the other thirty thousand characters couldn’t cut it. To be honest, all those people became exhausting, especially when all I ultimately wanted to see was Tony Stark hand out some knuckle sandwiches for an hour and a half.

Which brings us to the action. It’s an action movie, right? Well, I know I shouldn’t pigeonhole, and movies should be whatever they want, and an action movie with no heart is usually not as good, and so on, but generally you’d put this in the action shelf in your DVD collection, wouldn’t you, if you hadn’t seen it first? Well, there was almost more heart-stopping mech-suit action in Ladies in Lavender. Favreau would set the scene—Monaco Grand Prix, for example—and stick Iron Man in a racecar and Whiplash on the circuit. He has a superpowered whip that can slice metal in half. How thrilling! And it was, for a few seconds, until it all ended and our pulse rates had barely risen. The ending suffered the same fate: a lot of smoke and not much fire.

While not a terrible movie, because the acting talent is really quite wonderful, it is packing far too much into a single film and it does suffer for it. If we’d just not had to worry about the army, maybe we could have had some more scenes with Tony Stark ’sploding some heads. Less Nick Fury (possibly just there to promote the coming Avengers movie anyway) could have meant more Scarlett in a catsuit. And so on and so forth involving my personal preferences.

If it’s worth seeing anywhere, it’s probably on the big screen, which gives what dramatic scenes we have the proper treatment. It’s still a fun movie, and Downey Jr makes for a very human and fallible rich superhero. It’s been getting fairly good reviews, too, so take what I say here—due to the fact that I might not have been on top of my reviewing game—with a grain of salt. I do, however, stand by my opinion that Mickey Rourke needs to get a haircut; between his greasy locks here and in The Wrestler, I am beginning to consider directing my adoration elsewhere. Got that, Mickey? Great.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

daniel clowes, wilson

What’s your favourite insult? Calling someone a “maroon” a la Bugs Bunny has always been a favourite of mine, but what about when you meet someone truly reprehensible and need to crack out the big guns? I’m thinking of ditching the perennial favourite “asshole” and notifying the dictionary that the new word for an awful person is now “Wilson”. As in, “Why did you just set my house on fire? God, you’re such a Wilson!”

Wilson is Daniel Clowes’ most recent graphic novel and the titular character is truly something to behold. Lacking any kind of self-censorship or even, apparently, an interior monologue, he spends the book being an insufferable bastard to just about everyone he meets. When he walks his beloved dog Pepper in the park, three people remark on Pepper’s cuteness, and a fourth just walks by in silence. Wilson reacts by turning around and yelling, “Fucking asshole!” Yes, surely this man is a thorn among roses.

As he gets older and more vitriolic, Wilson ponders his life—his wife left him sixteen years ago, he doesn
t know what became of the baby his wife was carrying when she left, and he hasnt spoken to his father in a long time. He is still bitter about the former and confused regarding the latter, wondering if he should call his old man. His father beats him to it, ringing him to tell him the bad news—he is very, very unwell.

So Wilson returns back to his home town. (And, for another example of this fine man, he asks the guy who has had the misfortune to sit next to him on the plane what he does for a living and the reply is, “I work for Qualcom, I.T. stuff.” Wilson says, “No shit! I’m with Data-Tech!” and goes on with, “In fact, I usually like to T.Y.Z.C.M.Z.Q. when I’m not V.J.B.D.T.L.J.X-ing! I mean, Christ—do you realise how ridiculous you sound?”) He visits his father and then mourns his loss, realising how alone he is in the world. He makes an effort to track down his ex-wife, Pippi, and find out what happened when she left him, pregnant, all those years ago. Together they bond again, in the same awkward and painful manner their fictional courtship probably went the first time, and try to track down the daughter that was adopted out.

Wilson is a terrible person. There is no denying it. He doesn’t have a job and is horrible to everyone he encounters, leading you to wonder if this graphic story will end in a superhero-style explosion where Wilson gets blown to pieces and the world cheers and holds a tickertape parade. Of course, this isn’t that kind of story, it’s a much more realistic one. Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World, specialises in the mundane yet interesting, taking fascinating characters and putting them in the commonplace situations we all deal with. Sure, if you or I were sitting in a playground feeling sorry for ourselves and there was a kid playing and shouting, we’d probably deal with it or move, huh? Well, in the same scene, Wilson yells, “Hey, can you get that brat to shut up for two fucking seconds?” Ah, Wilson, you crazy kid.

He will surprise you, however, with a couple of poignant moments. Reflecting upon his mother’s death, he ponders, “ was actually kind of a relief at first. But was what if I told you tomorrow you’ll never see the ocean again? You can live your life and do whatever the hell you want, but you can’t see the may not even like the damn ocean but it’s just...oh, Christ...” Moments like that do pull the reader back into the book’s heartbreaking reality.

Each page in the A4-sized, full-colour hardback is a story on its own, with their own titles and rendered in a myriad of artistic techniques. Clowes is a fantastic illustrator, and he uses his own recognisable style and then mixes it up, having an entire page in shadow, or drawn in a more cartoonish way with big round noses, or with more simplicity, losing the detail of sweat and wrinkles he is such a master of. This is why I love graphic novels so much; you can change things to suit the mood; the lighting, the colour, whatever you like. Wilson is visually appealing, funny, and painful. Does Wilson get what he deserves in the end? It’s possible. It’s an interesting and amusing story, and how you feel about it at the end likely depends on whether you know someone like Wilson in reality. If you do, it’s probably a painful reminder, but if, like me, your friends’ worst flaw is that they never have soy milk in their fridges, you’ll be happy to step into the life of a Wilson for a moment.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

brady udall, the lonely polygamist

What a title, huh? Makes you think to yourself, “A lonely polygamist? I call shenanigans!” But here we have it: forty-five year old Golden Richards, husband to four wives and twenty-eight children, alone with his emotions amongst his enormous, distracted family, spread over his three homes and his construction business, working out of town building something he has not been entirely honest about. He is still battling with the grief of losing his beloved daughter, Glory, and is now facing an entirely unexpected set of circumstances: not-so-holy emotions towards his boss’ wife.

I adore a good dysfunctional family drama, and having the family be of this scale made me almost delirious with anticipation. Luckily, Udall did not disappoint, and The Lonely Polygamist is excellent; the book as vast in size as the family therein, but you’ll still finish it wanting more of the Richards clan. There are Golden’s wives: terrifying “witchy-woman” Beverly; the ever laughing Nola; Rose-of-Sharon, who deals with the noise and clamour of the family by wearing earmuffs and teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown; and the most recent wife, Trish, young and beautiful and bewildered by her circumstances. Then there are the children, from ages seventeen to three, neatly listed in a family tree in the front of the book, and spoken as a mantra by Golden so he can remember them: Em, Nephi, Helaman, Josephine, Naomi, Pauline, Novella, Parley, Sybil, Deeanne, Gale, Alvin, Rusty, Clifton, Glory, Herschel, Martin, Boo, Wayne, Faye, Teague, Louise, Fig Newton, Darling, Sariah, Jame-o, Ferris, Pet. Udall, like Golden, does not have time to fully get to know each child, but we can feel them in the book, a roaring wave of siblings all clamouring for attention from their father and mothers.

Surprisingly for a book about Mormon families following a fundamentalist philosophy, there is very little of God in the book. For our main characters, Golden, Trish, and Rusty (son #5, and otherwise known as “The Family Terrorist”), their lifestyles weren’t something they came to by fervent religion but by accident or birth: Golden finds that the father that ran away during his youth has joined the church, and stays rather than return to his angry mother; Trish is running with her daughter from her old husband and craves the life of her childhood, with family members spilling out of every room; Rusty is born into this life, and, at eleven, doesn’t have much choice, despite being desperate to escape.

In Rusty’s sneaky journeys away from his overwhelming family, he meets June Haymaker, twenty-seven, maker of explosives and fireworks and builder of his own bomb shelter. And in Golden’s clandestine new job, he meets his untrustworthy boss, the unstable Ted Leo. June and Ted unwittingly change the life of the Richards clan and send this oversized and fantastic book into dangerous territory.

It’s difficult to condense this book into a short explanation. Golden abandons his family for his new interstate job and stays there in his trailer hiding from the world; he can’t even pretend to deal with his wives and children anymore; he is contemplating an affair. Even so, he remains somehow endearing, enormous and goofy, helpless in the face of all the stronger personalities around him. Trish lives with her only biological daughter, Faye, in a duplex away from the rest of the family, and waits impatiently for the time she has allocated with her husband, which he inevitably won’t turn up for. Rusty channels Holden Caulfield, his portions of the book told from the point of view of an angry and neglected mid-seventies child: he is in a frenzy of sexual tension, aimed mostly at his beloved mother-aunt Trish; he says What a gyp! as much as Holden spouts off about phoneys. He invents a new life for himself for June, calling himself Lance and keeping quiet about his, ahem, different lifestyle. He wishes desperately for his mother, Rose-of-Sharon, to get past her mental illness and show him some affection. Your heart will ache for all of them as they cope poorly with their lives, living on small shreds of hope: that they will be able to make the right decision; that they will be able to spend time with their husband; that they will be loved.

With an ominous backdrop of nuclear explosions in the Nevada desert, The Lonely Polygamist is really just a fantastic read; I enjoyed it more than I can express. I am waiting, despite all logic, for the twenty-seven sequels that delve into the lives of each child. Why is Ferris so intent on nuding up all the time? Why does Jame-o have such a helpless love for the Hoover, which he takes everywhere with them? I would gladly read six hundred pages on every single child if Brady Udall was the one wielding the pen. Don’t let the size of the book overwhelm you like it almost did to me; I’m going to be annoying everyone I know (or don’t) into reading it, and if we’re on a present-giving basis with each other, don’t be surprised to find it on your doorstep for your next birthday.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

hot tub time machine

Recently, I’ve been hiring “classic” movies that I never saw in my youth for one reason or another. A few weeks ago, Poltergeist. (Actually pretty good; special effects alas did not stand test of time.) The day before I saw Hot Tub Time Machine, I hired Back to the Future. I’ve never seen any of the trilogy, but felt I had because the films are referenced all the time. And none more so than Hot Tub Time Machine, alarmingly making it two mid-eighties-based time-travel films starring Crispin Glover I had seen in the space of sixteen hours.

Hot Tub Time Machine has one of those titles that has the plus of being fairly self-explanatory along with the negative of sending a portion of the population into pained sighs as soon as the title is uttered. Another time travel movie? Another buddy movie? It is both of those, and so much less.

Three friends—Adam, Nick, and Lou—are reunited after an accident, appearing to be a suicide attempt, sends Lou to hospital. In an attempt to make him feel better, his old pals take him, along with Adam’s socially awkward nephew Jacob, back to the holiday destination of their youth: the ski resort of Kodiak Falls. It isn’t the same as it was in their 1986 heyday, however, and everything is rundown, leaving them desolate until they pile into their room’s hot tub, get completely trashed and, as you do, time travel back twenty-four years.

I almost feel like this movie should have been made four years ago. With 80s retro fashion tearing its way through the city streets, Alf repeats on channel 99 and Spandau Ballet touring two weeks ago, I don’t think that if I was in that situation I’d make the connection that I’d time travelled unless I brought up a conversation about the Melbourne Storm drama and everyone asked me who the hell I was talking about. Now, with everyone digging big hair and leggings, the hilarity of everyone’s outfits is actually pretty mild. Frankly, it looks more like a 2010 interpretation of the eighties than a convincing eighties set. The four guys don’t pick up on it for a while either, and when they do, they realise they have to replay everything the same as they did that time twenty-four years ago, to sustain their future lives, and that of Jacob, yet to be born and already flickering in and out of reality a la Michael J Fox’s siblings in Back to the Future. Adam has to break up again with the beautiful Jennie, despite just splitting with his modern-day girlfriend; Lou has to suffer an ass-kicking; Nick has to sleep with one of his faltering band’s groupies despite his undying love for modern-day wife Courtney. Appearing, conveniently, as their 1986 selves to everyone but each other (and us, unless they’re looking in the mirror), can they repeat all of these acts, knowing how crappy life ended up afterwards?

Unsurprisingly for anyone who has read the title, this film isn’t great. The time travel premise is handled poorly, and every scene that revolved around the hot tub and the concept behind travel made me want to cringe. Time travel is a difficult concept to buy at the best of times, but with Chevy Chase turning up as possibly some kind of time machine mechanic or possibly someone just there to spout nonsense and be representative of mid-eighties movies, it leaves a lot to be desired. I’m aware it’s the kind of ridiculous buddy movie where the brain should be left at the counter, but I still couldn’t buy it, especially when it begins with a scene in the hot tub where our heroes are joined by a strange cast of characters that are unexplained and rarely seen again. Ignoring that, it was otherwise one of those comedies that meandered along in that kind of relaxed, passable way that mainstream comedies have. It wasn’t terrible, but it sure wasn’t original; less a Back to the Future homage and more straight rip-off. There was a fair whack of gross-out humour, mostly from Rob Corddry as general failure Lou, though he also supplies some of the movie’s most hilarious scenes, if you can get past all his aggressively offensive ones. What he yells out during his unromantic sex scene is priceless. I guess, as he is the one yelling most often, there had to be some hits along with the misses.

As far as the movie’s heart goes, the friendship between them isn’t really discussed. Where did they meet? What is this Cincinnati stuff they talk about? Why did their friendship fall apart? Am I emotionally invested in any of them? The little background we get on them is, to be honest, not enough. If they had all died in a fiery explosion I probably wouldn’t have really cared, as long as it was funny. John Cusack is Adam, insurance salesman and a legitimate star of the eighties who, after the horror of 2012, is an okay dude, but mostly still coasting on previous acting goodwill. Rob Corddry is perfect as Lou, but still mostly an asshole. Craig Robinson, buddy-movie veteran from the likes of Knocked Up et al, is sappy Nick, whose final lesson regarding surnames struck a misogynistic chord. Clark Duke is Jacob, Adam’s nephew and pretty much playing the exact same character he was in Kick-Ass, and with the same hair. Also hailing from Kick-Ass’ cast is big-haired Jennie, played with a terrifying amount of bounce by Lyndsy Fonseca (Katie from the previous movie). Throwing out the timeline is April, Mean Girls’ Lizzy Kaplan, there to steal Adam’s heart but only participating in nonsense conversations where Adam comes across as a deluded and frantic moron. Perhaps that was the cool thing to be in the eighties; I forget.

There aren’t enough eighties/future jokes, and some of them feel forced. Jacob is in a frenzy trying to locate everyone at one point, and then we cut to him seconds later having a relaxed conversation with a girl about how to contact her. “Can I text you? What’s your email?” When she is confused, he says, “How will I find you?” and she replies, “Come find me!” to which he says, “But that just sounds...exhausting.” Funny, and true, but shoehorned in for the gag.

Am I taking this too seriously? It appears so. I’m someone who can abandon reality for a movie that is witty enough, but this wasn’t one of them. It’s not that bad, but it’s not excellent. I could say it would be funnier for those partying in 1986 (I was four at the time), but I’m not sure of that either, and I don’t know if many 80s teens will be seeing it anyway as we were in the very small proportion of the over-eighteens in the cinema. All I can say is: don’t see it too soon after a rewatch of Back to the Future, otherwise you’ll notice nothing but similarities, like how both Marty McFly and Adam are even wearing the same outfits—puffer vests—for the duration. Though Marty’s pants are tighter.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

rose tremain, trespass

Rose Tremain’s new novel, Trespass, is not an upbeat tale. However, it revels in the joy of being alive; the beauty of nature, land, and your own space in the world, until someone dares to trespass upon it. It is also the kind of novel that is serious and makes it hard for me to crack jokes.

For one-time antiques and art superstar Anthony Verey, time is the culprit. Once envied by all of London, he has aged, and the sales of his antique wares are few and far between. He lives trapped in a perfect past where he was adored by beautiful young men and women alike, and where he could create a flawless space that he now wants to try recreating again. His sister, V, lives in the south of France with her partner Kitty, the two of them working on their garden and creating a flourishing landscaping business. Kitty loves the home they have made for themselves, and does not want anyone—least of all Veronica’s condescending brother, Anthony—to impose upon it. Nearby in France, Audrun lives in a bungalow on the edge of the land that once belonged to her family and is now owned by her despised and unhinged brother, Aramon. Aramon is feeling the pull of old age and wants to sell the property, the kind of glorious French home that foreigners so desperately want to own, and live a smaller, cleaner life. His sister is devastated at the idea of losing her beloved home, especially to her horrendous sibling. And as a lonely little girl trips her way along a lush wood path, she sees in the adjoining river a body, but whose?

Books set in France can often suffer from trying too hard to appeal to Francophiles with descriptions of a flawless landscape filled with endearing characters; they can feel like thinly veiled French tourism board propaganda. In Trespass, I felt none of this. France was a character in the book, but just as beautiful, dark and complicated as anyone else, and never overwhelming the human characters in the book. It even showed a neat little concern about foreigners buying property in rural France and making it impossible for young locals to move into homes their own towns. I was utterly pleased by this, I’ve never been particularly interested in France myself, probably because I was terrible at French for the few years I studied it in high school (and in the first year it was an elective subject, there were mostly girls in the class, which completely defeated the purpose for me even being at school at the time, which was: stare at boys and sigh.)

Trespass is an evocative story about time, regrets, and letting go of the past. The characters are flawed but realistic, human and aware of their own luck and misery. Trespass is the kind of book which will have you reaching towards Rose Tremain’s earlier novels, wondering what other worlds she can create.