Tuesday, August 17, 2010

scott pilgrim vs the world

So I’ve read and loved all the Scott Pilgrim comics, and I’ve seen and loved Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which means that when I heard this excellent, hilarious comic series was being made into a film by SotD’s excellent, hilarious director Edgar Wright, I just about tore apart my copy of Empire magazine with squeaking excitement. And since I heard about it, I’ve been waiting anxiously for August 12 to just goddamn hurry up already so I could watch it. (Though it turns out the film was showing at MIFF, knowledge of which eluded me despite my degree in Googlology.)

Scott Pilgrim is twenty-three years old, and a lazy, fairly useless but also amusing member of society who plays bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb. He is also dating a high-school girl named Knives Chau, and everyone is scandalised. (As drummer Kim Pine says, “If your life had a face, I’d punch you in it.”) Everything is going wonderfully for our Mr Pilgrim until one day he is sleeping and a girl with purple hair rollerskates through his dreams. And to Scott’s surprise, she’s real, and at a party he’s also attending—she’s Ramona Flowers, amazon.ca delivery girl and the woman he is now in love with. Problem is, to win the right to date Ramona, he has to battle her seven evil exes. Which is pretty dramatic. Chris only had four I had to defeat.

Wright held remarkably true to the feel of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics; he kept its video-game roots, bubbly bursts into song and pop-culture asides. As is often true with comic adaptations, some panels were used as storyboards on many occasions, with scenes portrayed exactly to the pose. Everyone’s hair and clothes were the same as they were supposed to be, the sets matching, the jokes the same—kudos, seriously, to Wright, who obviously loved the source material and wanted to share it with the world. The fights are full of action, with people flying into the sky and through walls in delightfully over-the-top smackdowns.

The problem for me (because I’m whiny, and there’s always a problem) lies in the fact that I’ve read the comics. With Wright cracking the same jokes I’d read again just a few weeks before, nothing really surprised me. Whenever someone made a non-comic joke, I laughed and spilled my popcorn, but when they made one I’d heard, well, I thought, “It was funnier in the tone I heard in my head.” And it is funny. Seriously, I can’t tell you how much Scott Pilgrim hits all my favourite chortle buttons. Scott himself is hilarious, in that he is a bit of an asshole yet strangely appealing, mostly because he’s funny and a bit dense (he asks roommate Wallace Wells at one point,
Whats the website for amazon.ca?”). All the characters have cracking one-liners, or fantastically awkward comebacks like normal people do. It’s lit-up and doesn’t take itself seriously and stars my secret boyfriend, Chris Evans.

But it tries to fit six comic paperbacks’ worth of material into less than two hours, and it shows. While Wright did a good job of making it clear what was happening, and shifted some things around to get all the fights in and all the relationship dramas, the fact was you were never given enough time to particularly care about anyone. I’d read and enjoyed the comics but still didn’t care about Scott or Ramona in their Michael Cera/Mary Elizabeth Winstead personas. Cera’s the new awkward It-boy, but it doesn’t make him instantly perfect for every role that involves stumbling your lines. I just don’t think he was right as Scott Pilgrim. Winstead was serviceable as Ramona, but is undoubtedly beautiful in a role destined for someone who looks more—I don’t know—quirky? Funny People’s Aubrey Plaza, who plays the monstrously vitriolic Julie in this film, looked the part and was very close to being fine, but delivered her lines in such a dreary tone of voice that I hated her, not in the pleasurably spite-filled way I had in the comic but in the standard annoyed sense. Actually, apart from a couple of people—Alison Pill is great as Kim Pine, Mae Whitman is as confusing and nutso as evil ex Roxy Richter should be, and Chris Evans does Attractive Asshole just as enjoyably as he did in Not Another Teen Movie—most of the casting felt off, but I’m not sure if Wright’s direction was at fault for getting good actors to, well, be less good. Even the superb Jason Schwartzmann was kind of dulled down as ultimate ex, the evil Gideon Graves.

Everyone spoke so fast, trying to get all the best lines into the film, that it felt like Wright had just done what he could to cram as much into the movie as possible, while still keeping to a respectable running time. Fights dragged out longer than necessary in some cases or just plain sucked—Scott fighting the Katayanagi twins was a standout of pained effects—and ate into time better spent working on everyone’s relationships, like Scott’s and Kim’s.

I brought up with Chris whether it was kid-friendly, as it’s bloodless, fairly swear-free and the one rude scene starts in underpants and cumulates in not having sex, but as he says, it’s also a movie without repercussions. Being an ass like Scott just means you get to date gorgeous girls like Knives and Ramona, even if you cheat on them with each other. Killing someone ends with them exploding into a pile of coins. Stealing your friend’s boyfriend—I’m looking at you, Wallace Wells—ends in nothing but a sigh. Sure, it’s a hyped-up, gaming-related reality where if you’re an evil enough ex you can conjure up a team of flying hipster demon girls to help you, but still. I was let down and thus will bang my fists on the keyboard and proclaim, “If I’d been the one to direct this, well, it would have been a masterpiece of modern theatre.”

Still, Edgar Wright did a good job of filming Scott Pilgrim. If you haven’t read the comics, you’ll probably adore it. If you have, maybe you still will. To an extent, I didn’t, though I fell far short of actively disliking it. Stick enough pixels and cartoonish boxes in anything and I’ll have affection for it, but that’s because my home kind of looks like that. But I won’t be buying this on DVD—though I’ll happily reread the comics again, and you should too. Because I am just as awkwardly heroic as Scott Pilgrim is to you, right?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

john boyne, noah barleywater runs away

While I’m mostly a sucker for a tearjearker—otherwise I’d never go see Pixar films—sometimes I just flat-out refuse to see things that I know are going to send me spiralling into weeks of hysteria, lamenting the death/lost love/actually happy ending of some fictional person/lion/robot or other. It’s why I’ve never seen/read Whale Rider, The Notebook, and, topically, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author John Boyne has a shiny new release called Noah Barleywater Runs Away. Now, as I haven’t read Boy, I can’t do much in the way of comparing. But I do know that Boy was one of those books that worked for children and adults—that it was set in the world of children, but in a way that adults could understand it differently. Noah Barleywater Runs Away is, I feel, aimed more at children, though I’m a big proponent of Everyone Should Read Whatever The Hell They Want And No One Should Ever Make Them Feel Bad About It, so adults could (and undoubtedly will) read this too. Because while Noah has talking donkeys and magical doors, it also has a tinge of sadness
that made me stop reading at one point on the train, lest I burst into tears and cause everyone to move into another carriage at speed.

Noah Barleywater is eight years old, and, upon reflection, doesn’t feel he’s done enough with his life. Sure, he came third in the 500 metres at Sports Day the year before, and he knows the capital of Portugal (it’s Lisbon), but it’s about time he really went out and achieved something. So he runs away from home early one morning to do so. And on the way he encounters many extraordinary places and people, as eight-year-olds are wont to do in books about running away (because a more realistic book would be something short like “he ran away and then hid in a bus stop until someone saw him, called the police and he was sent home.”)

More than a little influenced by the likes of Enid Blyton and glorious old fairytales, he meets a talking tree in the first village who pleads with him not to steal its apples; by the next village, shortly afterwards, Noah’s apple theft has made front-page news and he is considered a menace to society. Luckily for him, the third village is a lot more welcoming, and there he meets a kindly old toyshop owner, whittling away at a piece of wood and ready to share the story of his life with Noah. This old man was a runner so fast he’d be back from the edge of the city by the end of your sentence, and met the King and Queen, amongst other celebrities
; but he was also a man filled with regrets. By sharing the story of his life, he causes Noah too to reflect on the real, heartbreaking reason why he’s run away from the family he loves so dearly.

Well I’ve made that sound all very serious, but I think it’s because of Noah’s straight and fairly dignified way of speaking (“Goodness!” he will say, unlike the sweary eight-year-olds I’ve encountered.) Noah does have a sense of humour, and the whole book is very entertaining, filled as it is with great adventures and talking animals and flashbacks of Noah’s recent, real-life adventures with his suddenly very animated mother. It’s definitely aimed at children—but, as it’s a secret little sequel to something much-loved by adults, anyone who likes to have a bit of fairytale fun when they read will have a ball. And then a bawl. (How do I not have a book contract yet with this startling wit?)

Of note also is the fact that the cover is illustrated by the fabulous Oliver Jeffers, who not only wrote Lost and Found and The Book-Eating Boy (amongst others), but is so visually cool that he recently appeared on The Sartorialist, looking dashing and upsetting people everywhere who don’t own blue shoes. I sent an email with a question to Oliver once, and he replied personally and in a friendly manner, so know that good people were involved in creating this work, and you should make a cup of cocoa, and curl up with a lovely little book. Except not until October, when it’s released. Sorry.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

ned beauman, boxer, beetle

Kevin Broom is a Nazi memorabilia collector and an awkward sufferer of trimethylaminuria, an illness that causes him to smell strongly of fish all of the time. Seth “Sinner” Roach is a pre-WWII Jewish boxer, short, nine-toed, alcoholic, and the best fighter in England. Philip Erskine is a collector of beetles, a devout follower of eugenics, and a bumbling and incompetent fascist who is mostly deplorable, except that you feel some mild pity for him for being a bit pathetic —and he wants to conduct tests on the one-of-a-kind Sinner.

As Kevin deals with an alarming beetle-related kidnapping in the present, he pieces together how Sinner and Erskine, seventy years before, have brought him to the point where a graceless shut-in like himself has to deal with a gun-wielding member of a long-dead Nazi society. The narrative runs smoothly from Kevin’s present-day machinations to the remarkably gritty past of Erskine and Sinner, and it surprised me completely as I generally avoid historical novels (it’s not something I’m proud of, but I am much more likely to read something set right this very moment than something pre-1990s, even though I grew up before that) yet I was much more excited reading their story than Kevin’s. Which isn’t to say that Kevin’s thread wasn’t interesting—of course it was, this whole book is great—but perhaps I learned a Valuable Lesson About Reading; i.e. that I should stop being fussy about stories set before the glory times of New Kids On The Block.

Ned Beauman manages to deal with the serious—anti-Semitism, eugenics, fascists—yet produce a smart book that manages to completely engage by virtue of its characters. From Sinner, small yet alarmingly intimidating even in paper form, and poor inept Philip Erskine, to foul-mouthed pre-teen fibber Millicent Bruiseland and sarcastic social darling Evelyn Erskine, everyone is wonderfully drawn and fantastically entertaining. Even London itself, and the buildings we visit, are as alive as the people, with Erskine’s family home Claramore a frightening place full of oversized appliances that may electrocute anyone unlucky enough to be existing nearby.

Boxer, Beetle is a brilliant, fun-in-a-dirty-way read by someone who has the nerve to be youthful and beardy and intelligent. It’s written in such an immediate, realistic style—despite the level of farce, Beauman doesn’t hold back on the stark violence of the era—that sometimes I had to remind myself in the 30s-set scenes that it was just a well-researched novel and not a well-told historical document. With jokes.

Boxer, Beetle will be published in September.

Friday, August 6, 2010

dead man’s cell phone

As you get your ticket checked for the theatre you are often confronted with a sign warning you of certain things happening in the play you’re about to watch. For example, we’ve been warned in the past for nut-related food fights that may rain upon the front rows. And as we went into our most recent Melbourne Theatre Company play—Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone—I was accosted by a sign warning me of theatrical smoke and nudity. And as I got into my seat, third row from the front, I thought to myself, well, someone’s going to get their boobs out, and everyone’s going to smoke like it’s cool. And I sighed. And then it happened.

The play opened with all the lights still on and the audience still gossiping away. The setting: a cafe and Laundromat. A man walked casually across the stage, completely naked, to retrieve his clothes from the dryer and put them on. The audience’s chattering died away. The man walked offstage; by then, everyone was silent. And so it began. And I was already pleased.

In an American cafe, a man’s cell phone rings and rings and he doesn’t answer it. The only other customer, Jean (a too cute Lisa McCune), is irritated, and says so—until she realises he’s not ignoring the phone because he likes to torment others with his choice of ringtone, but is ignoring it because he is dead. Lost in the moment, she answers the phone.

Soon she becomes involved with the dead man’s family, feeling obliged, as the person with Gordon when he died, to comfort them. She meets his bitter wife, Hermia (Sarah Sutherland); his cold mother, Harriet (Sue Jones); his saucy mistress, played by Emma Jackson; and his unloved brother, Dwight (Daniel Frederiksen). Hoping to help them through their grief, she begins to tell some little white lies about his final moments, including that he wanted her to have his phone, which keeps ringing, and ringing...

From its wonderful wang-filled opening, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is hilarious and enjoyable; while Jean is so eager-to-please it is a mite painful, and her motivations are sketchy, the characters are all such delightful exaggerations you can’t help but adore them. Harriet is monstrous in her way, but trips about in gorgeous shoes and says to Jean, “You very comforting. I don’t know why. You’re like a very small casserole. Has anyone ever told you that?” Hermia is very proper until she is drunk, then she is glorious; Dwight is just as awkward and pained as Jean. Gordon’s mistress is sexy and dramatic and underused, and clad in the most gorgeous coats around. In fact, the costumes might have been my favourite character. All ’40s lines, jaunty hats and big hair, all the characters were enormously visually appealing (and that’s even without Frederiksen
s nudity and the later topless stint by the alarmingly triangular John Adam.) Jean is a little less forties and more layered, to the point where I thought she was the best actor solely because she hadn’t fainted under the lights despite them: ribbed tights, socks, boots, turtleneck, dress, cardigan, jacket, coat. The music was fantastic as well; film noir-inspired dramatic chords constrasting with beautiful tinkling background sounds.

As with some other plays, I couldn’t help being irritated by the accents. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the play was American—though the “Cell Phone” in the title should have been a fairly obvious giveaway—and with Lisa McCune’s first “Excuse me?” barked in a shrill New-Yawk accent, I was a bit broken hearted. With Boston Marriage, I at least understood that it was set in a certain place and time, but this would have worked just as well with Australian accents. I mean, despite the semi-period clothes and music, the fact remains that with a title I have since renamed Dead Man’s iPhone (they used them) it is set now, and nothing implies it needs to be set in America. Admittedly I did enjoy Hermia’s squawking dramatics as she drank cocktails and lamented the demise of her marriage, and perhaps the accent made it a little more surreal and injected more humour. But it’s always so unnatural in person—even though they all seemed to do very good jobs, as far as I can tell (and I have absolutely no expertise in the area, so don
t even assume that I’m right about the accent’s region.)

After its initial hilarity, the script did descend in the end into something a little too farcical and twee by the end. Because of the play’s light touch, you kind of roll with the farce for a while, but for me it reached a certain point where I felt like I was in a different, fantastical play that was out of place there. It still remained enjoyable, but just a little silly, like that annoying friend who won’t understand when to stop being ridiculous. (I am guilty of mostly being that friend.)

The set design was interesting, yet to me a bit flawed (though Chris liked it.) The Laundromat format remains throughout, with tumble dryers everywhere to open and retrieve things from; tables are moved to form a church, drapes are pulled out to represent a home, but it was still, well, a Laundromat. I went with it until the end, when I felt I needed a firmer grasp of where exactly characters they were to figure out what the hell was happening.

Well, now that I’ve fussed over all the little details, the larger story is about our reliance on the phone: the little buzzy object we all adore so much (I am guilty of this also) and have such trouble ignoring, even if it is not ours. As Jean herself says, “When something rings, you have to answer it, don’t you?” While most normal people wouldn’t quite go to Jean’s lengths with a stranger’s phone, we can’t deny that the arrival of it has changed social interactions, and that we haven’t wanted to snatch away someone’s mobile and do something with it: throw it away, change their story, bop them with it for talking on it while you’re trying to serve them (not that this is a personal bugbear, of course.) And this was summarised perfectly by the discussion that immediately arose from the audience around us once the play ended, regarding one phone that suffered a terrible fate: “They didn’t really smash that phone, did they?” One boy said, sounding upset. Another replied wisely, “No, they couldn’t have. If it was a real iPhone, it wouldn’t have broken.” Truer words I have never heard.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

leanne hall, this is shyness

Because the last thing I would do is lie to you, dear reader, I have to let you know that I actually work with Leanne, and I like her. She’s lovely, and funny, and always asks after my own writing. (Current status: OH GOD THIS SCENE IS BORING DELETE ENTIRE NOVEL INSTANTLY.) Still, if I hadn’t enjoyed her prize-winning young adult novel This is Shyness, I wouldn’t have written a review saying I liked it; I probably would have just kept quiet. Well, upon further reflection, seeing as I find it hard to shut up, I probably would have written a review, but it would have been quite short and said something like, “Wow, you should all read Leanne’s book, because the font is EXCELLENT and the spelling is SPOT ON. Hooray Leanne!”

Luckily for me, she won the Text Prize for this not just because she’s really nice in reality (ruining my illusions about being able to bribe publishers, alas) but because This is Shyness is legitimately, fabulously good. From the first chapter I was smiling happily to myself about all those lovely pages ahead that I knew I was going to enjoy. And I did.

Wildgirl is in the unnerving suburb of Shyness for the night, doing her best to get away from her problems—her disinterested mother, and the awful breed of monster known to some as the classmate—when she meets Wolfboy in a bar. Wolfboy is also shrouded in issues, but the two of them see each other across the room, and that’s it—they see in each other someone they want to know better, and they blow that popsicle stand and head out to a night filled with endless possibilities. And, in Shyness, it’s a night with no eventual dawn. Shyness is a place that has been abandoned by adults and the sun itself, where sugar is the currency and drug of choice, and somewhere Wildgirl wants to experience with someone who knows it well. And so together they navigate this odd place and its residents, from criminally-inclined under-12s after their filthy sucre, to mystical kebab makers and sinister doctors.

It’s a story that charts exactly the thrill of being a teenager; how life can become so awful that escape seems like the only option, but how hope and confidence can still be found in the face of the adversity that can come with youth. Wildgirl is overwhelmed in some situations and breezes through others; Wolfboy seems about the most physically attractive fictional character in the history of the novel (quiffs, tight jeans, swoon) but he is out of his depth in some situations. The two of them are the heart of the story; two fascinating and gorgeously real people in a world both strange and familiar, wading through life and sticky situations the best they know how. When Wildgirl jokes around you laugh with her; when Wolfboy hurts you feel for him. The other inhabitants of Shyness radiate personality, and the town itself feels like a dream but smacks of something real.

Sometimes, though I’m not yet thirty, all the sparky emotions I felt when I was a teenager seem very long ago. This is Shyness brings them all back, and while the idea of an endless adventure of a night made me a little unsure at first—all the endless nights I remember from being a teenager involve everyone getting drunk, a short bout of frenzied dancing followed by hours of Deep and Meaningful Conversations About Stuff And Things—what This is Shyness is really about, for me, is being able to find, even when everything seems impossible and hopeless, someone else out there who will hold your hand and simply be there.

I’m biased. But I loved it. And, much to my excitement, I knew about half the people on the acknowledgments page, though shockingly I was not on it. And I’d imagined the moment so clearly: “And most of all, thanks to Fiona, who I met after writing and editing this book, but who distracts me at work by yabbering on about nail polish and her own writing. This couldn’t have been done without you.”