February 28, 2011

The Oscars (part two)

Well, everything shook out pretty much as expected.

Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Aaron Sorkin and David Seidler all collected the Oscars that might as well have already belonged to them, Melissa Leo managed to weather the controversy about her kinda shameless advertising, and True Grit's plentiful nominations didn't amount to a hill of beans.

I will admit to being disappointed that The King's Speech took out both Best Picture and Best Director (for Tom Hooper) over The Social Network, but I can take solace in the fact that this year, even the film I didn't want to win was still a damn good film. That doesn't always happen (cough, Slumdog Millionaire, cough).

The telecast was probably even more dull than usual (in regular person terms, that is ... of course I was loving every second), only enlivened by Melissa Leo's F-bomb, Kirk Douglas' sass, and the bizarro double-team of the disinterested (and possibly stoned) James Franco alongside Anne Hathaway, who flailed around desperately, trying to be enthusiastic enough for the both of them.

In Hollywood terms, it's actually been an unusually strong year, I reckon. Of the ten Best Picture nominees, I loved seven of them, which is a strike-rate that's off the charts. (127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right and The Fighter were the duds, in case you're interested ... and even then, none of those are bad films. They're just not especially good ones. It's not like there was a Benjamin Button in the mix this year.)

And it most definitely is decadent to eat popcorn alone at midday.

But I don't care.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
books to go: 111

The Oscars (part one)

Okay, I'm outing myself as the King of all Nerds here, but ... I love the Oscars. Yes, even the telecast. I'll watch the whole damn thing (disclaimer: I also love watching the Brownlow Medal and the Eurovision Song Contest ... so clearly there's something not-quite-right with my head). This year we've been luckier than usual here in Australia, in that basically all of the major contenders have actually had their release before the gongs get handed out (this doesn't happen often) and, being the movie-geek that I am, I've seen ... well ... all of them.

Here's my rundown of the major categories.

BEST PICTURE: I take it as a given that anything nominated for Best Picture that ain't also nominated for Best Director is merely making up the numbers (though there are some very good films that fall into that category). Of what's left, Black Swan is too bizarre, The Fighter too ordinary and True Grit too not-No-Country-For-Old-Men, meaning (as everybody surely knows by now) that it's The King's Speech and The Social Network that are slugging this one out. I'm hoping The Social Network can get up - for the hopelessly quaint reason that I believe it's the better film - but The King's Speech is infinitely more heart-warming, and the academy does tend to like treacle.

BEST ACTOR: Well, Colin Firth's a lock for this one, so it doesn't matter what anyone says or does. He actually should have won last year, for making the horrifyingly tedious A Single Man sit-through-able. If Jesse Eisenberg gets a nomination next year, put your house on him. The Oscars love playing catch-up for some reason.

BEST ACTRESS: The only way Natalie Portman won't win is if they give it to Annette Bening as a de facto lifetime achievement award. Which won't happen. Michelle Williams deserves it for Blue Valentine, (again, get on her next time she's nominated!) but deserve ain't got nothing to do with it. As we all know.

BEST DIRECTOR: Even if The King's Speech wins Best Picture, I still think they'll give this one to David Fincher for The Social Network. Put bluntly: Fincher won't give them many opportunities to award him, his work is generally too edgy and too damn violent. So they'll take their chance while they can. (And the direction was very nearly the worst thing about The King's Speech anyway, so if Tom Hooper wins for it, I'll be ropable.) Aronofsky deserves to be in the conversation for Black Swan but, again, it's just too weird. Make a film that doesn't fit into any single easily-defined genre and boom, you've entered awards-season limbo.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: While I'd love John Hawkes (you know him from Deadwood) to win for A Winter's Bone, it won't happen. Christian Bale will win for his totally over-the-top performance in The Fighter, unless our Geoffrey, the only other realistic contender, can pinch it from him at the last second.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Hailee Steinfeld, from True Grit, should have been nominated for Best Actress. If you watch the film, it's obvious to anyone with a brain that hers is the lead role in the damn film. Because she's ended up here, she should win ... but (with a few notable exceptions) the Oscars tend not to go to first-timers. They prefer people that have paid their dues. Sorry parochialists, Jackie Weaver is no chance: Animal Kingdom is just too niche. The other three though, are all a chance. I won't be surprised if any of Helena Bonham Carter (for The King's Speech), Amy Adams or Melissa Leo (both for The Fighter) get up. If forced to make a prediction, I'll fall back on my quaint who-actually-deserves-it? system, and say that maybe young Hailee will pull it out after all.

In the other categories: Aaron Sorkin will win Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network and David Seidler will win Original Screenplay for The King's Speech ... unless Christopher Nolan gets a sorry-you-weren't-up-for-Director pity-gong for Inception, though if I was him, I wouldn't be holding my breath. Inception will, however, win Visual Effects (duh!) and is a good chance for Cinematography as well, though Roger Deakins will probably claim that one for True Grit, because when it comes to cinematography, the academy seems to love a nice landscape.

The travesties? The fact that Inception isn't even nominated for editing is a fucking joke (it intercuts between four levels of reality ... none of which are actually reality), and Rabbit Hole should have earned nominations for, at the very least, Aaron Eckhart's performance and its sublime screenplay.

Oh well, come back in a few hours to see how wrong I am about all of this. In the meantime, I'll be pulling out my tuxedo and sashaying to the couch. Is it decadent to eat popcorn by yourself, at midday?

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
books to go: 111

February 25, 2011

Roadside Picnic (#112)

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

What I said then:

Russian science-fiction with a literary bent.

What I say now:

Hmm. More like 'Russian science-fiction with an annoying bent.' As with a lot of sci-fi, the ideas are really interesting ... but the story ain't.

Years before Roadside Picnic begins, aliens arrived on earth, hung about for a while, then nicked off. There was no contact between humanity and the aliens while they were here, but when they went, they left behind them a bunch of mysterious debris of dangerously advanced technologies. The Zone, where they were encamped, has been quarantined by the government to allow for study. But the black market in alien artefacts leads a reckless band of so-called 'stalkers' to make illicit trips into the Zone, hunting for goodies. Red Schuhart, drunken bum and gifted stalker, makes various trips into the Zone, at the urging of crooks, scientists, and government functionaries.

So far, so good. Some of the best writing in the book is saved for Red's trips into the Zone, and the bizarre and fantastical conditions that are at play there. Red must read the air and the light, because even the slightest disturbance could herald the coming of something terrible, and deadly. During those (genuinely tense) scenes in which Red slowly, carefully, picks the meat from the bones, the novel really works.

Unfortunately, once the Strugatskys enter the realms of character, emotion and motivation, they are obviously much less comfortable ... and much less skilful. The plot, such as it is in a book as slender as this one (144 pages), is a disjointed, rambling mess. As a reader, you're never allowed to know why people are acting the way they are, or why they feel the way they do. Characters are introduced, then dropped and never seen again. The protagonist changes for a chapter, to no apparent purpose, then changes back. The Zone suddenly develops new abilities halfway through the book, which pass unremarked. It's all a hopeless muddle.

A book as small and as disappointing as this one doesn't leave a whole lot for me to say, I'm afraid. Oh well.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
books to go: 111

February 22, 2011

Cat's Eye (#113)

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

What I said then:

"A key work from the Grande Dame of Canadian Letters that I haven't got around to yet."

What I say now:

Margaret Atwood is a freakin' genius, she's one of my favourite novelists in the world, and Cat's Eye may, after a bit of reflection, be the best thing of hers that I've read yet (A Handmaid's Tale, a sci-fi examination of the politics of women's bodies, is the other contender, in case anybody's interested). I've mentioned before in this blog that I have a very short list of authors of whom I will, before I die, read their complete works. Cat's Eye puts Margaret Atwood on that list. It's that fucking good.

Elaine Risely, a successful painter, flies back to her hometown of Toronto to attend the opening of a retrospective of her work. The journey back to the city of her youth leads her to remember her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, which were marked by a destructive and traumatic 'friendship' with a neighbourhood girl named Cordelia.

And that's the plot, in a nutshell, but that summary doesn't come near to doing justice to the richness of Atwood's creation. Elaine has (probably) the most complex interior life, and fully rounded personality, of any fictional character I've ever come across. Atwood has captured perfectly the way that our lives shape us, the way a seemingly unimportant experience as a kid can stick in the subconscious and loom over us years later, the way that the person we become is subtly hinted at in the person we were. Narrated in the first person, Cat's Eye could be mistaken for a memoir if only it wasn't so ... whole, so perfect.

Elaine is bullied as a kid and the first half of the book will be horribly recognisable to anyone who was ever a child - that is, to everyone. As a portrait of a childhood, the book is remarkable enough, but it doesn't rest on its laurels: as they grow up, the relationship between Elaine and Cordelia grows infinitely more complicated, and sends its tendrils through Elaine's entire life, gaining in power even as the two girls drift apart. When the relationship's (and the story's) resolution comes, it's not what Atwood and Elaine have been leading you to expect ... but it's more powerful for being unexpected.

There's also considerable technical skill on display: as Old Elaine narrates Young Elaine's life, the reader is presented with two levels of consciousness simultaneously, that of the young girl experiencing events, and the old woman remembering them. That should be difficult enough for a writer, but Atwood doesn't stop there, having Old Elaine unaware of the significance of many elements of her own story, only to finally understand her own life at the very end of the book. It really is an incredible feat of reader-juggling, made even more impressive by the fact I only realised how great it was once I'd finished the book: it's so seamless that, during the novel, I didn't notice a thing (Philip Roth does something similar in his equally good The Plot Against America).

Anyway, my 2011 has had its first great book. Huzzah! And sorry about the lack of a front-cover picture up top, blogspot's being skittish about uploading jpegs. I'll try again in a day or two.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
books to go: 112

February 1, 2011

Darkness Visible (#114)

Darkness Visible by William Golding

What I said then:

[Another] forensic examination of humankind’s inherent bastardry, from the author of The Lord of the Flies and the brilliant To the Ends of the Earth trilogy.

What I say now:

Yep, William Golding was one pessimistic cat. If you're a character in a Golding novel and you're deeply deeply flawed, you've actually come out ahead: most of his characters are murderers, charlatans and thieves. Or, in this instance, paedophiles.

A small boy emerges from a horrific fire in London during the blitz. Given the name 'Matty,' his burns make him terrible to look upon and as he grows up the revulsion of those around him separates him from the rest of humanity. At school he is haplessly responsible for the sacking of a paedophile teacher (named, hilariously, Mr. Pedigree ... or 'Pedders' for short), before travelling through Australia for a while and slowly growing mad. Or becoming a conduit for religious revelations. Or something. When he returns to England a couple of elderly locals convince themselves that he's a saint.

At the same time, two sociopathic twin girls are growing up in the same town. Though they hate each other as much as they hate their father, his various girlfriends and the rest of the world, they'r always forced together because of the frustrating circumstance of having shared a womb. As adolescence arrives each explores the intersections between power, violence, sex and politics in their different ways. One becomes a terrorist (the novel was written in the 70's, the first age of terrorism), while the other plans a kidnapping, hoping to ransom a royal - not for ideological reasons, but simply to make enough money to last her the rest of her life.

When Darkness Visible is good, it's absolutely brilliant. When it's bad, it's completely incomprehensible. Matty is an enigma: what he's thinking is rarely made clear, either through his actions or through Golding's writing. Even when, for a couple of chapters, Golding presents Matty's own journals, they are so obtuse that they might as well be written in gobbledegook. He isn't alone in being difficult to understand; almost every character acts in mysterious ways for no apparent reason, or draws absurd conclusions from meaningless acts, or speaks in such a way that their intentions are obscured. In a nutshell: following what's actually happening in this book is really bloody hard. When you have to read a sentence twice to understand it, that's bad. When you have to read every sentence twice, that's terrible.

But ... but ... there's a section in the middle of the book in which Matty drifts into the background and Sophy, one of the twins, becomes the novel's focus ... and it's great. Written with infinitely more clarity, peopled with characters whose motivations make sense (if only to them), and narrating the adolescence of a cheerfully sociopathic teenage girl, that section was fantastic, and showed off why Golding won a Nobel prize. When Sophy, after believing for years that sex was merely a foolish chore, achieves orgasm for the first time by stabbing her partner with a pen-knife, Golding is a good enough writer that the scene isn't merely sensationalist, or bawdy; it's the first time the self-absorbed girl has truly felt anything, and the writing makes of it a moment of bizarre beauty.

Unfortunately, the novel lapses back into its weird affectations towards the end. I've loved some of Golding's work in the past, but could only truthfully say I loved bits and pieces of this one. The whole was too disjointed and vague for my taste. Oh well.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
books to go: 113