July 28, 2011

Getting more than a tad MIFFed (part two)

I continued on my merry, MIFFy way with four more movies spread over Monday and Tuesday.

Give Up Tomorrow is a stunning documentary about a horrifying miscarriage of justice in the Phillipines. When two girls go missing and are presumed dead, seven kids are accused of the crime, including a teenager named Paco Larrañega who can prove he was 350 miles away at the time. There are his school enrolment records, more than two dozen eye-witnesses, and even photographs! The twists and turns of his increasingly desperate attempts to win his freedom from the hopelessly corrupt Fillipino justice system form the substance of this amazing movie.

I can't say much about Give Up Tomorrow, except this: see it, if you get the chance. About twenty minutes into the film, the filmmaker had already set up Paco's obvious innocence and the conspiracy to frame him, and I found myself wondering where else the movie could possibly go? The answer, horrifyingly, is further. And further, until each new revelation is like a fresh stab in the gut. It's an incredible story, and a truly remarkable film.

Another doco, Armadillo, is just as remarkable in its own way. Portraying the six month tour of duty of a Danish squad in Afghanistan, Armadillo does a great job of getting inside the heads of the young soldiers. They must have become incredibly comfortable with the presence of the camera, because they let their guards down completely: to the point where, in one disturbing moment, a couple of the more boorish among them make jokes about (what seems to me to be) a war crime they've just committed. It's truly amazing footage, and I'd be fascinated to know what became of these guys once the film was shown in Denmark.

On the whole, Armadillo didn't quite live up to its best moments. There were a number of strange choices the filmmakers had made (including structuring the whole film in such a way as to infer a very particular 'something' about one of the soldiers, but never in any way confirming that it was true ... so the whole unspoken 'accusation' felt unjust) which held it back from being sublime. Still, being pretty great is still pretty great, know what I mean?

Veteran Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike returns to MIFF with 13 Assassins, which is easily the most accessible film of his that I've ever seen. Essentially a stock-standard Dirty Dozen-style story --- the head samurai dispatches his protege to take out an evil lord in a clandestine operation, said protege gathers a small team, they train for a while, then they go kick arse --- there's not a lot about 13 Assassins that isn't pretty predictable. But it doesn't matter a whit, because it's done with such assured style, and with such blood-spattering, flaming-bison-stampeding, severed-head-rolling zeal. It's a "Check your mind at the door and just have a friggin' blast" movie, and on those terms, it succeeds perfectly.

The muted Korean end of the world flick End of Animal was another film that had some really interesting elements, but wasn't able to maximise them. After a great first scene (in which a cabbie and his fare, a pregnant university student, pick up a psychic hitchhiker who informs them the world will end in five minutes time ... and it does), the film tailed off, its deadly slow pace quashing our interest in the post-apocalyptic setting and the random plot slipping out of the directors grasp and never adding up to any cohesive whole.

I've got a bunch more films tomorrow and on Friday, but before then I should give a shout out to Josh Nelson and Thomas Caldwell. They're both acquaintances from my Uni days (Josh took one of my film studies tutes, and Thomas and I acted together in an amateur stage production of Catch-22 --- it was awesome), neither of whom I've seen in about ten years, until suddenly at MIFF 2011 we seem to be sitting together and chatting in every single session. I can't quite figure out if I'm stalking them or they're stalking me. Regardless, they both write about movies in a far more considered, intelligent way than I do, Josh at Philmology and Thomas at Cinema Autopsy, where he's taking part in MIFF's blog-a-thon ... and, I suspect, swiftly going mad.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
books to go: 100

July 24, 2011

Getting a tad MIFFed (part one)

Well, it's that time of year again. Open your eyes, gird your loins, trawl through the program and stock up on emergency jelly beans (more on these later), it's the Melbourne International Film Festival.

As I do every year, I had the vague thought months ago that I should take time off from The Avenue while the festival's on, and then never got around to organising it. So I'm left fitting in as many movies as I can around work, cheering on Cadel in the Tour de France (done and dusted after tonight, thank God), fitful bursts of sleep, bi-daily showers and reading Marie Antoinette. Rather than clutter up my by-now-kinda-traditional Itty-Bitty Film Reviews with meditative Finnish documentaries about goats (joking, joking ... but only just), I thought I'd review my MIFF experience as a whole.

Easily the highlight of my cluttered first couple of days (I saw six films on Friday and Saturday) was Jean Cocteau's classic Beauty and the Beast. This being the sixieth anniversary of MIFF, they're showing a select group of films from earlier editions of the festival, and I jumped at the chance to see Cocteau's gothic romance on the big screen. I saw his version of Orpheus back at Uni but, being the diligent student I am not, all I remember about it is being stunned by the visuals. I was probably half asleep in the screening: that tended to happen a lot.

I don't particularly want to use the word 'ravishing' to describe Beauty and the Beast, but I don't think anything else will do. The sets, costumes, make-up and photography are magnificent in every detail, and together they spirit us into the heightened world of Cocteau's macabre dream. We never question the magic that is present in the plot, because we can see that magic at work in every sumptuous detail. As often happens with old movies, there are elements that will seem twee to a modern viewer (Beauty faints dead away when she first spies the Beast, a moment that is almost its own parody), but if you're willing to go with it, you'll come away utterly enchanted. It's a classic for a reason. And look, any film that includes the line 'May the Devil spatter you with dung' is just fine by me.

Finisterrae is a completely bonkers Spanish film and, though it has grave faults, it's the kind of movie that makes me love MIFF: you'll never get another chance to see it, and you'll never see anything like it. Two doleful Russian ghosts (played by men under sheets) decide that they don't like being dead, and want to be re-animated. An oracle (who is a circle of flame) sends them on the famous pilgrimage across Spain to the Santiago de Compostela. Along the way they befriend some reindeer, consult a sarcastic owl, look into a knot on a tree and discover some Catalan video art from the late 1980's, and kill a histrionic hippie. When they reach their destination, one of them wimps out and stays a ghost, while the other turns into a frog.

That brief synopsis sounds brilliant to me, and Finisterrae was so close to being awesome but unfortunately, when it's not making use of its bizarre tone of deadpan surrealism, it's knitted together by long, boring sequences of the ghosts trudging across the landscape. From one side of a very wide shot to the other. Slowly. It's a hopelessly dual-natured film: just when I was falling asleep, something hilarious would happen. Then they'd start walking again, and I'd start nodding off. If only they'd cut the great stuff into a twenty minute short, it could have been a hilarious and, at times, weirdly moving little movie --- the coda, in which an adult reindeer with amazing antlers wanders around an empty mansion, is beguiling, haunting and beautiful. There's just not enough there for a feature-length film.

That last sentence could apply to three of the other films I've seen as well. Footnote, a dark Israeli dramedy about a father and son who are rival scholars working in an obscure branch of Jewish history, Pink Saris, a documentary about the leader of a militant feminist group in the far north of India, and Boxing Gym, a fly-on-the-wall style doco that paints a multi-faceted portrait of a working class gym in Texas all contain great elements. It's just ... none of them are great films. Footnote suffers from pointless arty affectations and mysterious plot threads that lead nowhere. Pink Saris is undeniably fascinating, but is a bit episodic and repetitive. Boxing Gym is even moreso; large swathes of the film pass by with no dialogue at all, and there's only so much 'watching random amaeur boxers train' that I can take.

Which has brought me, in descending order, to the first (and please God, the only) fucking terrible film of my 2011 MIFF watching. If you ever get the chance to watch The Silence of Joan, run screaming in the opposite direction. It's appalling. To sum up, it's a version of the story of Joan of Arc that doesn't tell her story from her point of view, instead choosing to swap between a bunch of random men who briefly enter her story in positions of power, project their own bullshit onto her (for most of the film Joan is giving the whole world the silent treatment), then bugger off again. Shot through with stilted performances, ridiculous trying-to-be-meaningful slo-mo, and static shots of poorly-photographed nature, there's really nothing to recommend this movie. At least in Finisterrae there were ghost wandering around the over-long landscape shots; in The Silence of Joan there's nothing at all.

I've learned from previous MIFF experiences to always have on hand a bag of lollies to crack open for a jolt of energy, for use in those films when I'm truly in danger of falling asleep. The Silence of Joan forced me to delve into my bag of emergency jelly beans. At four in the afternoon. Of the first day. Seriously, it was that boring.

Ah well, onward and upward. I've got two movies tomorrow ...

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
books to go: 100

July 23, 2011

A Dance with Dragons (#101b)

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin.

What I said a few days ago:

Uh-oh, this is the second time in a row that I've used my 'I get to get a book!' to buy the new entry in an epic fantasy series. My geek is showing. But it's nothing to be ashamed of: Martin is a master of narrative and, with the HBO show winning raves and garnering him new fans, the whole world's beginning to realise it.

What I say now:

Okay, this is the fifth book in a series, so I figure it'll be more useful to Martin newbies to kind of review the series as a whole.

Put bluntly, George R.R. Martin kicks arse, and I am completely addicted to his books. I'm not a downloader, so I haven't had a chance to check out the pretty well-reviewed (and popular)  HBO series that is being adapted from his works, but I'll be buying it on DVD at the first possible moment. I am somebody who's more fantasy-inclined than most, but this guy stands above his genre to a ridiculous degree. He's like the Don Bradman of fantasy writing.

What is it about his books that gets me all hot and bothered like this? He is, simply, one of the best pure story-tellers I've ever come across. He has a genius for narrative that is unmatched in the entirety of my reading.

The series is mostly set in the fictional continent of Westeros, where seven former kingdoms have, through centuries of warfare, been joined into one large, uneasy realm. The land is rife with bitter factionalism and Machiavellian politicking. Very, very, very unusually for fantasy novels, those fantasy elements that are present are much less important than the complicated interactions between the human characters. Even his tiny characters, insignificant though they might seem, have their own motivations, desires, and plans.

Martin writes from many different characters' viewpoints, alternating with every chapter, which allows him to view every event from both sides (I say 'both sides' as if there's only two, but it's normally more complicated than that!). In the third book, he suddenly takes us into the viewpoint of a character who, to that point, we've found utterly repugnant, and humanises him. It's a brilliant way of making his central point: nobody in Westeros is wholly good or wholly bad, everybody is some kind of shade of grey. Again, how unusual is that for a fantasy novel, the genre that simplifies character more than any other (except maybe romance): the naive protagonist destined to defeat evil, the dark lord who wants to crush the whole world beneath his yoke, the pristine princess whose love is pure. None of these characters appear in Martin's work, and if they did, they'd be eaten alive.

Buy A Game of Thrones, the first in the series, and read it ... and then thank me.

On A Dance with Dragons specifically, I'm a little less enthusiastic. Where the first three books in the series are pretty nearly perfect in my view, four and five have been slightly less satisfying. So many characters, subplots and viewpoints have been introduced that events have slowed down a bit, making us wait a long time for any gratification. In A Dance with Dragons there are two specific plot-threads where we spend a lot of time, but never reach any satisfactory resolution. Martin has proven himself so adept at balancing his story that I remain hopeful that the series, when completed, will work as a whole but I can't deny that right now I found the most recent entry a slight disappointment; we did a lot of travelling, but very little arriving. Still, when your main issue with a thousand page book is that it was too short, the author must be doing a hell of a lot right.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
books to go: 100

July 18, 2011

Mr Darwin's Shooter (#101a)

Mr Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald 

What I said then:

One of those Australian historical novels that looks duller than words can describe. Hopefully it’s better than I expect.

What I say now:

When I was a kid, one of the big traditions in my family was that we'd all get a big pile of books as one of our presents on our birthdays, and another big pile at Christmas. It was Mum who made the choices, and while I was still living at home she used to hit the nail on the head every single year. 

(I'm particularly thankful for the haul I got on my sixteenth birthday. At the time I was still into Stephen King, John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer, but that year Mum decided it was time to move me on from thrillers to 'literature.' Amongst other things, I got Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and The Magus by John Fowles. Collectively those three books made my head explode, in the best possible way. Suddenly books could be more than entertainment, they could be art. They were amazing, perfect choices. Thanks, Mum.)

But once I was at uni, my Mum's idea of my taste in books began to slip away from the reality. Suddenly my book-gifts weren't always things I liked, or even things I was interested in. Things came to a head when, just as I was discovering J.G. Ballard and Bret Easton Ellis, I was given a batch of Australian historical novels that looked duller than words can describe. Which brings me to Mr Darwin's Shooter, a birthday or Christmas present that has stayed on my shelves, unread, for about a decade. Which isn't really fair to either Roger McDonald or my Mum, because it actually wasn't too bad.

The novel is split into two intersecting story threads. In one half, a young boy named Syms Covington leaves his home in rural England for a life at sea, eventually finding himself on the HMS Beagle, working as Charles Darwin's steward for the length of their voyage. These sea-going, nature-observing, bird-skinning scenes alternate with passages in which Covington, in middle-age, waits in his new Australian home for the first copies of Darwin's Origin of Species to arrive. In the intervening years, he and Darwin have kept up a correspondence, and he is aware of what the book will contain; as a Christian, he is torn between pride at Darwin's achievements and horror at the heresy he has been a part of. Covington really existed; much of the book is based on his diaries, which are kept at a library in Sydney.

I'm a bit of a fool for a sea-going tale (hell, I even tried to write one.), so I was naturally drawn to the Beagle sequences. The background information on the collecting of samples was fascinating, and the byplay between the rough-and-tumble Covington and the truth-seeking Darwin was fun. The Sydney-set chapters were less successful: Covington's spiritual discombobulation is buried beneath a rather annoying plot-thread about an annoying neighbour's attempts to get to know him (and seduce his daughter!). I could have done without that character altogether, and I thought those sections would have benefited enormously from a tighter focus on Covington himself.

I was disappointed by the last third of this book: ultimately the two strands of the story didn't connect in any satisfying way. I was left feeling that I'd learned a lot, but not feeling moved. And hey, if I wanted to know about Darwin, I could go read Origin of Species and Voyage of the Beagle myself, y'know?

We ended up ditching the book-giving tradition, probably due in some part to the unimpressed look on my face when I unwrapped Mr Darwin's Shooter. But now I've read it, and there's no way that it deserved a decade on the shelf. I should've trusted my Mum.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin. Uh-oh, this is the second time in a row that I've used my 'I get to get a book!' to buy the new entry in an epic fantasy series. My geek is showing. But it's nothing to be ashamed of: Martin is a master of narrative and, with the HBO show winning raves and garnering him new fans, the whole world's beginning to realise it.
books to go: still 101

July 8, 2011

Last and First Men (#102)

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

What I said then: 

A sci-fi classic, this one covering the entire future evolution of humanity.

What I say now:

Re-defines 'Epic.'

In a nutshell: having a more nuanced vision of the nature of time, future versions of humanity have discovered the ability to communicate telepathically with other advanced species from the past. One member of the 18th race of men, the Last Men, has invaded the mind of a writer in the late 1920's (one of us, the First Men), and he/she/it dictates this book, which covers the entire future of humanity. Or, as the Last Man puts it in his/her/its foreword: "The actual writer thinks he is merely contriving a work of fiction. Though he seeks to tell a plausible story, he neither believes it himself, nor expects others to believe it. Yet the story is true. A being whom you would call a future man has seized the docile but scarcely adequate brain of your contemporary, and is trying to direct its familiar processes for an alien purpose. Thus a future epoch makes contact with your age. Listen patiently; for we who are the Last Men earnestly desire to communicate with you, who are members of the First Human Species. We can help you, and we need your help."

From that beginning, the book takes us through the rise and fall of we First Men, then traces across the next two billion years the various rises and falls of humankind. It has a larger scope than any book I've ever known. We build magnificent societies, then destroy them. We get sick, then become well. We blow each other up, and seek shelter together. We war, and we make peace. Eventually we become smart enough to realise our limitations, then use our new knowledge of biology and DNA (Stapledon refers to it as 'germ-plasm') to try and build more perfect successors. We create new humanities to be our descendants, then they turn on us. We are invaded by Martians, but defeat them. When the Earth is about to be consumed, we travel to Venus and, needing a new home, we commit genocide on the Venusians. The Fourth Men are brains in boxes. The Seventh Men can fly. The Ninth Men leave Venus for Neptune. The Eighteenth Men diagnose a disease that is spreading from star to star, and realise that every sun within reach of them will shortly implode: there is no escape, they will be the Last.

The central conceit of the book is a brilliant one, but the use Stapledon makes of it is flawed in many ways. The whole thing is written in an incredibly dry, academic tone that makes it a book to be waded through, rather than enjoyed. I had to read just about every sentence twice to make sure I understood it, often I had to reach for a dictionary, and sometimes I just let myself be confused and moved on. It's impenetrable. There are no characters, no stories. Very occasionally, when the fate of humanity did rest on one or two people, Stapledon takes the trouble to tell you why. But that happens only rarely: most of the time he restricts himself to describing the great waves of thought, or science, or war, or disease that build us up or tear us down. There's not much that offers an easy way in to the book.

The other issue I had was begun in that quote I wrote out above: 'We need your help,' the Last Man writes, and I thought (not, I reckon, unreasonably) that as we moved through humanity's history, this plea would come to bear on the tale in some way. I expected, in short, that somehow Stapledon would find a way to twist this dry history lesson into a story. Perhaps in reading this book we could take some action which would, all those billions of years hence, affect what was happening to the Eighteenth Men? I was kept reading by the implication that it would all be to a purpose, in the end ... but it wasn't, which disappointed me.

Often Stapledon ascribes a certain trait to a race of men which chimes perfectly with the psychology of our times. You'd read about something someone does in ten million years time, and it would read perfectly true. At other times, he couldn't be more wrong: the book was published in 1930, and Stapledon's version of his immediate future is almost the exact opposite of what was about to happen. Though you have to mine for it, the pleasure of the book is in sorting the realistic things from the fanciful, and in realising how little there often is between them.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald
books to go: 102

July 2, 2011

The March (#103)

The March by E.L. Doctorow

What I said then:

Dramatises a key moment in the U.S. Civil War.

What I say now:

Jesus, some of my 'then' descriptions are masterpieces of brevity, aren't they? 

My Dad is nuts about the American Civil War. When I was fourteen, he took me and my brother to the U.S. for a holiday, and amongst the sporting stops (I saw Michael Jordan play live --- it was awesome) he made us spend a few days in Atlanta. To me and Paul it seemed like Atlanta was the most boring city in the universe (they invented Coca-Cola, there's a big rock that's tiny compared to Uluru, and Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind is buried there ... and that's all they've got), but Dad ditched us and went scurrying about to all sorts of Civil-War-related sites and had a ball. I originally bought this about three years ago, thinking I'd check it out and, if it was any good, I could give it to Dad for Christmas or something. He can expect to see a The March shaped present under the tree this year. It was fantastic.

As the war was winding down and the North had definitively grasped the upperhand (partly by burning Atlanta to the ground, a conflagration of which I can heartily approve), General William Tecumseh Sherman invented the 'scorched earth' approach to warfare in order to bring the South to its knees. To that end he marched his army through Georgia and the Carolinas, living off what they could pillage and leaving ashes in their wake. The aim was to destroy the South's ability to make war by destroying every piece of infrastructure they had. Crops were looted, farms burnt down, railroads dismantled, and then the army moved on to do the same in the next town, and the next, and the next. Everywhere they went the marching armies gathered a train of refugees behind them; mainly freed slaves who were frightened to stay in the South once the army had passed by, but dispossessed Southern whites who had nowhere else to go were also compelled to tag along.

Doctorow's novel covers the march from the perspectives of a wide array of characters, including: Sherman himself, portrayed as an irascible genius; a brilliant and dispassionate military doctor with the rather bizarre name of Wrede Sartorius; Emily Thompson, the ruined Southern belle who falls in love with him; Pearl, a pale-skinned half-caste who belongs neither with the whites or the freed slaves; Wilma, Miss Thompson's former maid who must adapt to her new freedom and all the choices it brings; and Arly and Will, two devout soldiers who keep switching sides, depending on their circumstances. These are the major players, but one of the brilliant things about The March is the way that a bewildering variety of characters flit in and out, sometimes appearing only for a page or two and never being heard from again. What might be confusing is kept perfectly straightforward by the clarity of Doctorow's writing, and his ability to imbue depth in a character with a few deft strokes of his pen.

Speaking of the writing ... because Doctorow is considered one of the masters of contemporary American literature, I was kind of dreading reading this. I was worried he might work in that high-faluting, 'literary', 'poetic' type of writing that makes reading seem like wading through a sludgy swamp (*cough* Michael Cunningham *cough*). But actually Doctorow pulls off a feat of small genius with his prose: he manages to write in an old-fashioned way that neatly evokes the 19th Century milieu, while keeping the pace (and accessability) of a page-turner. Though he's dipping into a 'ye-olde' sort of a style, it's never anything but a breeze to read. Nice job, E.L.!

Because of the historical narratives that have grown up about successive waves of European migrants from the Pilgrims on down, Americans, in a general sort of a way, seem to conflate the journey of their (white) forefathers with a metaphysical journey towards 'freedom,' that nebulously defined value that lies at the core of their national identity. Freedom (and American-ness) are found by leaving the past behind and creating a new home for yourself. African-Americans, having made the journey west in chains, are a rather sour counterpoint to this ideal. In The March, Doctorow gives his negro characters an equivalent mythic 'journey' --- leaving behind bondage in the South for freedom on the march, and in the North, and in the future --- which integrates them into American society, to the betterment of the nation, and to the lives of the characters presented. It's an interesting attempt at evaluating the African-American experience with regard to the American experience as a whole, and while the novel ends in too neat a fashion for my liking, Doctorow doesn't shy from detailing the degrading aspects of the lives of his black characters, whether slave or free.

The book isn't without its little flaws. Pearl, so pale that she's mistaken for a white boy, ends up on Sherman's staff, and the narrative convolutions Doctorow has to undertake to get her where he wants her are a bit ham-fisted. Some characters we grow to love drop off the march to take their chances in the new South, and their disappearance from the novel lends the finale a mildly unsatisfying air. Overall, though, The March is a corker: a smart, serious book that is as readable as any pot-boiler, and has a heart as well as a brain.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
books to go: 102