February 28, 2012

The Untouchable (#91b)

The Untouchable by John Banville

What I said a few days ago:

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy recently and thought it was a masterpiece, so I figured I'd continue with a 'repressed English spies' theme. Banville's novel is a fictionalised take on the Cambridge Five, and I've heard good things about it from several people.

What I say now:

Ooh, this one was a corker. In his dotage, Victor Maskell has been exposed as a Soviet spy and had his knighthood revoked. Repulsed by the journalists who camp out on his doorstep (and secretly glad that he can finally spill his secrets), he sets out to tell his own story, beginning a journal. As his reminiscences wander up and down the paths of his covert, secretive life, he comes to finally understand just what part he's been playing, and what he has sacrificed himself for.

Banville's Maskell is a wonderful character, and the perfect narrator for a spy story, for he's a man who lives every facet of his life in a sort of permanent state of duality. He is an Irishman, but grows up Protestant and loyal to the English. He is gay, but married with two children (his wife is the sister of his secret, life-long love). He is a welcome guest at Buckingham Palace, referring to the royal family with touching familiarity, yet he is a Russian spy. He is a brilliant judge of character, but is wilfully blind to so much of what is happening around him. It's that duality, that ingrained rootlessness, that Banville, Irish himself, is so fascinated by. Maskell contorts himself to suit every available ideology, like he's playing the world's hardest game of Twister, and ends up falling on his arse.

Like the narrator of Margaret Atwood's brilliant Cat's Eye, Maskell comes to understand his own story through the act of telling it, piecing together the extent (and the author) of his betrayal only in the novel's final moments. I love that use of a first person narrator, where the author only allows the narrator to piece things together after the audience already has. It's a tightrope, but Banville walks it with aplomb.

Similar in tone to Tinker Tailor, calling The Untouchable a spy story might give you the wrong idea. There are no chases and no 'action' scenes. There is one gun, but it is never fired. If you're thinking Jason Bourne, you've got it wrong. Maskell is simply a pawn, delivering low-level information, never approaching the heart of great intrigues, always a minor player. The novel is about one man's soul, not international politics.

The prose is a bit overbearing, but Maskell is a pompous ass, wielding his impressive vocabulary like a cudgel (this novel had me reaching for a dictionary more than any I've read in years), so the wafty, overly literary style suits him perfectly. Maskell, the character, is a celebrated art historian, and was at Cambridge in the thirties ... how else would he write?

Oh, and speaking of, the brief portrait we get of the heady University days of these characters is absolutely brilliant. Young, insouciant, believing (rightly) that the fate of the world was in their quick, clever hands, it's hard not to fall in love with this troop of merry Marxists, even as they make horrible mistake after horrible mistake. I didn't love Brideshead Revisited when I read it, perhaps because, written too close to those times, it couldn't quite gather the courage to bluntly nail its characters to the wall the way Banville does. With the space of sixty-odd years behind him, Banville's portrait seemed more honest (and was way more fun).

Occasionally a bit of a slog, but nevertheless highly recommended.

Cheers, JC. 

about to read: Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales, Aboriginal Stories of Australia and Aboriginal Words of Australia by A.W. Reed
books to go: 90

February 27, 2012

The 2012 Oscars (part two)

Aah, the glorious march of predictability.

The Artist took out its big three: Best Picture, Best Director for Michel Hazanivicius (bless you!), and Best Actor for (the villainously versatile) Jean Dujardin. It also added Score (despite ripping off the score from Vertigo) and Costume Design, which had it tie with Hugo on five statuettes apiece.

My call on Hugo kicking technical arse was vindicated in a big way. Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects (the dudes from Rise of the Planet of the Apes were robbed), and the two sound categories which nobody really cares about made up its five.

In the screenplay categories, my Hopes were dashed by my Predictions: neither Midnight in Paris or The Descendants was well-structured enough for me to be overjoyed by their wins. Lovely, both of them, but not much more than that.

Meryl Streep overcame her 29 year long case of the yips to win, and you could tell she'd been planning that speech a while, it was self-effacing, funny and gracious. Everybody should have a dozen near-misses to let them prepare.

And on the topic of long waits, Christopher Plummer was just as charming picking up his gong for the severely underrated Beginners. I'm glad he took the trouble to give such an extended shout-out to Ewan McGregor, who was wrongfully ignored for his half of their scenes.

While I could understand Plummer's standing ovation (he's eighty-two, the oldest actor ever to win), less understandable was the ovation doled out to Octavia Spencer when she won for The Help. Okay, call me a cynical bastard, but were they standing up just because she's African-American? Or is there a behind the scenes story that I'm not aware of?

Australia's own Kirk Baxter winning for Editing for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was about as surprising as the show got, and also led to the night's best line from his editing partner Angus Wall. Having been genuinely shocked, they'd run out of things to say, but the 'bugger off' music hadn't even started. Just when things were getting a mite awkward, Ward said simply: 'We're editors. Thank you.' And they scampered off. Gold.

Funniest line? Yes. The night's funniest moment, though, came from Jim Rash, one of the winners for adapted screenplay. After Angelina Jolie came out and shamelessly flaunted her knockout pins by taking an unusual stance that made use of her high-slit gown but looked frankly bizarre, Rash upstaged Alexander Payne's speech by copying her in the background. Gold times ten.

Oh, and a member of Flight of the Conchords has now won an Oscar. Gold times a hundred.

Anyway, that's that for another year. Of course I loved every second of it. Before I go I'd like to thank blogspot, God, my parents, and James Earl Jones. Thank you so much.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Untouchable by John Banville
books to go: 91

The 2012 Oscars (part one)

So, I made sure I had today off work months ago, and not because I'm a political junkie who had miraculously divined that the Labor Party would meltdown this morning. Nope, I took today off because I am an Oscars Nerd. For some reason nothing gets me tingling quite like a boring awards ceremony does --- if there's ever a year that a Melbourne player might actually win it, I'll probably even blog about the Brownlow. And let's face it: the Oscars shit all over Brownlow night, mainly because movie stars are way prettier than footy players.

Anyway, on to my predictions:

BEST PICTURE: Unfortunately, The Artist has this one all wrapped up. It would be a major shock if anything else wins, which sucks, because The Artist just wasn't that good. It took a cute idea for a sketch and made a whimsical, fluffy little film out of it. If people still give two shits about this feather-light movie in five years, I'll eat my horse. Scanning the other nominees, though, makes for depressing reading: Oscar voters have fucked up big time this year. While I know that The Descendants, Hugo and Midnight in Paris all have their champions, they're all deeply flawed (and in Paris' case, deeply unambitious) movies, which wouldn't have a prayer in a stronger year. I guess karma's coming round for the pretty kick-arse list they served up last year, but still. I'll be rooting for The Tree of Life here, and for best director (even though it doesn't have a chance in hell at either of them) because it's the only nominated film that's really aiming for greatness. Everything else is safe, and ultimately mediocre.

And seriously, War Horse? What. The. Fuck.

BEST DIRECTOR: The French dude will win, which will be nice because we'll all learn how to pronounce his name. "Hazanivicius." "Umm ... gesundheit?" It'd be nice if Terence Malick got the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award in this category, but he's probably the biggest outsider. And sure, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Alexander Payne deserve accolades ... just not for these movies.

BEST ACTOR: And the other French dude will win this one, just to shove it up me for not liking that fucking movie (Question: doesn't America hate France? Anybody else remember Freedom Fries? What happened to all that?). I'd love love love for Gary Oldman to win for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for the foolish reason that I thought his performance was flat out amazing. Unfortunately it was also mostly internalised, so he's going to lose to an over-the-top pratfalling buffoon. Okay, that's a bit harsh: Jean Dujardin was very good at what he was asked to do. It's just, what he was asked to do wasn't really all that special. Oldman's task was infinitely harder, and he rose to it in spectacular fashion. Pitt and Clooney, meanwhile, seemed to get their nominations more based on who they are than on what they did. They were fine in Moneyball and The Descendants respectively, but I don't know if they were much better than fine.

The biggest nominations shock across all the categories was easily Demian Bichir getting a Best Actor nod for A Better Life. Until the nominees were announced I'd never even heard of that movie, and I'm all over this shit like that gross rash on my back. It hasn't been released here in Australia yet, so I can't bitch about it yet. But when something scores a nomination coming from this far back, it usually means that it's actually pretty darn good (see also: A Separation's nomination for original screenplay) so I'll make sure to check it out when it does arrive down under.

BEST ACTRESS: Aah, a category that isn't completely cut and dried. God, what a relief. While for a big chunk of this awards season has seemed like a coronation march for Meryl Streep's take on Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, there's been some recent whispering that she's losing ground. Maybe Hollywood on the whole just wants to keep her remarkable 'getting nominated then losing' streak going (17 nominations, 2 wins), because she's so good at making that gracious loser face. If they do deny Streep, they'll give it either to Michelle Williams for her Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, or Viola Davis for giving a bit of soul to The Help. Any of those three actresses would make worthy winners (they were all by far the best thing about their respective films), but if forced to choose I'd probably go with Williams (and not just because of my prediction this time last year). As much as I admire Williams' work, Marilyn Monroe was one of the greatest comic actresses there's ever been, and I didn't think she'd be able to nail the magical 'on-camera' Marilyn. I was happy to be proven wrong.

Elsewhere, Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer seem to be locks for the Supporting Actor/tress awards, and the screenplay statuettes could go anywhere (my hopes: Original to A Separation, Adapted to Tinker Tailor. My predictions: Original to Midnight in Paris, Adapted to The Descendants). Hugo has so many nominations that it's got to win something, but it'll probably be limited to more tech-ish stuff, with it and Tree of Life duking it out for the cinematography award.

The main controversies this year are: no Michael Fassbender nomination for Shame? For shame. And the year the Muppets are nominated for best song, they decide they won't have performances of the songs in the ceremony. Let me repeat that: they could have had the Muppets singing at the Oscars, and they decided not to. I don't know who's making these decisions, but they need to be shot and killed. And then set on fire, just for good measure.

Anyway, I'll be back in a few hours to dissect how it all played out. 'Til then, sit back, have some Freedom Fries, and enjoy watching a whole bunch of wealthy, beautiful people sucking each other's dicks. I know I will.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Untouchable by John Banville
books to go: 91

February 16, 2012

Sons and Lovers (#91a)

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

What I said then:

A refugee from Year 12 Literature. If I hated it enough to never finish it, why the hell have I kept it?

What I say now:

Year 12 (the last year of high school, for any non-Aussies who may be reading) was a long time ago now: 13 years, in fact. I found Sons and Lovers completely obtuse and impenetrable back then, and gave up on it with something close to joy. Over the course of these last 13 years, this book has become monstrous in my mind, my memory turning it from a kinda boring novel into the ultimate test in reading endurance, a test I had failed miserably. I probably kept the damn thing because, while it had won a battle with my seventeen year-old self, I didn't want to admit that it had won the war.

And honestly, it wasn't too bad. Sure, at times it's impenetrable and obtuse, and I can say with complete conviction that I'll never read another D.H. Lawrence novel, but Sons and Lovers isn't without its pleasures, either. You just have to dig for them.

Plot-wise, it's actually a very simple book. Gertrude Morel marries below her station, and quickly falls out of love with her coal-miner husband. She instead lavishes affection on her two eldest sons, who return her obsessive love in kind. Paul, the second son, finds his relationships with women poisoned by his relationship with his mother. His attempts to court first Miriam, a local farmer's daughter, then Clara, a suffragette, and his inevitable returns to his mother's embrace, form the bulk of the novel.

I'm very much a plot/narrative/story lover, and the moments in the book when things were actually happening were by far the highlights for me. The first few chapters, which give a potted history of the Morels' marriage and the childrens' early years, were very good. Unfortunately, the kids grow up to be insufferable bores, and once Paul (who really needs a smack in the head with a wet fish) takes over the novel, it degenerates into a windy, quasi-philosophical head-scratcher. Paul's budding relationship with Miriam, in particular, seems for long stretches to be constructed of nothing but pretentious conversations and air.

This paragraph comes just after Paul has lost his virginity: "To him now life seemed a shadow, a day, a white shadow, night, and death, and stillness, and inaction, this seemed like being. To be alive, to be urgent, and insistent, that was not-to-be. The highest of all was, to melt out into the darkness and sway there, identified with the great Being." I don't know about you, but that might as well be gibberish, for all the meaning I can take out of it.

For all that, though, even the second half of the novel can suddenly surprise you with a moment of wonderful clarity. Pretty much any conversation that Paul has with his mother falls into this category: her character is fairly plain-spoken, and she usually inspires Paul to finally just say what he bloody means in return. Their interactions, and the deftness with which Lawrence sketches the Oedipal perversity of their love for each other, work beautifully.

Another frustration I had was that Paul and Miriam live their lives with such intensity of feeling that they seem to be in a constant state of hysteria. A simple walk down a country lane will have Paul in radiant love with Miriam at one moment, for something as daft as the shape of her arms, then filled with hate for her, when she says something to him in the wrong tone of voice. Their emotions are never moderate, and they change at the drop of a hat, and God, Lawrence drastically overuses the word 'hate.' It's such a bizarre rollercoaster that you stop taking any of their feelings seriously, and their relationship devolves into a sludge of meaningless emotionality.

Also, Lawrence's gender politics, as evidenced by his treatment of Miriam and Clara, is pretty offensive. Yes, he was writing a long time ago, and it's probably not fair to judge him by modern standards, but he makes one of his characters a suffragette then makes her happiness completely dependent on serving a man. It's really kinda gross.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Untouchable by John Banville. I get to buy a book! I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy recently and thought it was a masterpiece, so I figured I'd continue with a 'repressed English spies' theme. Banville's novel is a fictionalised take on the Cambridge Five, and I've heard good things about it from several people.
books to go: still 91

February 14, 2012

2011 (and some of 2012) in Film

I sat down and started writing a '2011 in Film' blog post at the beginning of January but, looking over my previous year's worth of Itty-Bitty Film Reviews, it struck me as weird that I'd be talking about films like Black Swan and True Grit. Sure, I might have seen them in 2011, but they feel like they belong to the previous year. It was just ... off.

Then I realised, hey, the movie year doesn't end on December 31st, not really. It ends with the Oscars. And, being in Australia, I see most of the prestige 'Oscar Movies,' not in November and December, but in January and February. So I decided to hold off this blog until I'd seen all the contenders for this year, rather than waiting eleven and a half months to talk about 'em. Is that cool with you guys? (Disclaimer: I haven't quite seen every Best Picture nominee, I'm missing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but the trailer for that one looks flat-out appalling, so fuck it.)

All up, it's been a strange old year in film for me, and kind of oddly disappointing. A lot of the movies that other people fell in love with --- The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Drive --- left me a bit cold. While I can honestly say that all five of those films had moments of skill, beauty, or just old-fashioned awesomeness, none of them really coalesced into a great film for me. They felt like less than the sum of their parts, not more.

And, seriously Oscars voters ... War Horse for Best Picture? Yeesh.

My favourite film of the last year (and a bit) was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by the Swede Tomas Alfredson (who made the also-fantastic Let the Right One In, track it down if you haven't seen it). Based on the novel by John le Carre, it's an austere spy film, one with lots of hushed conversations and hardly any guns.

Obviously there have been a gazillion spy films over the years, but rarely has one delved so deeply into the question of what it actually is to be a spy. Put simply, a spy must divorce his interior life from his exterior to such an extent, that he can show absolutely nothing to the world. Tinker Tailor explores with wonderful nuance the consequences of this sacrifice. Every character in the entire film is operating under the same stress, but they all deal with it in slightly different ways. While the plot might be about a retired agent being asked to investigate his former colleagues on the sly, the film is really about exploring the inner depths of these most outwardly cautious of men. Gary Oldman has an extraordinary monologue in the middle of the film in which he reveals how savage the effect of his work has been on his home life, while simultaneously admitting that all that work has, for all intents and purposes, been utterly meaningless. It's heartbreaking.

Speaking of Gary Oldman ... I went to see Tinker Tailor with three other guys, and our reactions were hilariously disparate. I loved it, another guy liked it, another guy wasn't quite on board, and one guy hated it with the fire of a thousand suns. Talking to them afterwards, it seemed like our differing takes all hinged on how we took to Oldman's George Smiley. He has one of the most difficult jobs I've ever seen an actor take on: for the film to work, he has to communicate to the audience what Smiley is thinking, while never giving away what he's thinking to the other characters in the scene. To my mind, he succeeds beautifully: I felt I was with Smiley every single step of the way. The guy that hated the film, found the performance flat, and thus found the film boring. Clearly it's not going to be to everybody's taste, but I ate it up.

In the past I've admired Terrence Malick's films, but I haven't really liked them, and I've never had any desire to watch any of them twice. (Disclaimer: I've never seen Badlands.) But The Tree of Life, his epic, allusive, obtuse tone-poem about the 1950's Texas childhood of Jack, played by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken, left me a snivelling wretch on the floor.

A screenwriting lecturer I had at Uni used to love to say 'The most personal is the most universal.' That guy was kind of a jerk, but I think he was onto something. The details of Jack's childhood and adolescence (and of his adult life) are specific, but, helped by Malick's cosmos-sized diversions, they reach deeper than telling us about one man's life.

Let me use an example to try and explain. My favourite sequence in the film deals with Jack's burgeoning sexuality, and runs thus: Jack watches his mother, who is almost unbearably beautiful, wash her feet with a hose in their front yard. Then their neighbour (another pretty woman, seemingly in her 20's or early 30's) leaves her house. It's a simpler time: she leaves the doors unlocked. Jack sneaks into her home and wanders around the strange, silent rooms, soaking in the details of a woman's life. Upstairs, he goes through her drawers. He takes out one of her slips and lays it on the bed. Then we cut to Jack sprinting madly through some scrub, the slip clutched in his hand: he's stolen it. Reaching a creek, he hides the offending underwear beneath a piece of wood, then thinks better of it and throws it into the water. When he returns home, his mother watches him with her arms folded, disappointed.

Obviously reading it like that doesn't do it justice, but trust me, it's electrifying cinema. Malick perfectly captures Jack's mixture of excitement, confusion, and guilt. And here's the thing: I think everybody who's been through puberty will recognise that blend of emotions in some way. I never did anything like that when I was a kid, but God, I get it. I get it perfectly.

Personal and universal. Right on, screenwriting lecturer douchebag. Right on. The film's not without its flaws --- I could have done without the coda on Memory Beach --- but when it's at its best, it's so much better, clearer, and truer than anything I've seen in years.

My feelings for Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams are just as hard to explain as my feelings for Tree of Life, but they're just as strong. Perfectly sealed for 20,000 years, the Chauvet Caves in France were re-discovered about fifteen years ago. Not having been exposed to the elements, the cave paintings that adorn the walls are still in pristine condition, as vibrant and bright as if they had been drawn yesterday. To protect them from damage, the caves are ordinarily closed to all but a few scientists. How Herzog got permission to get his cameras in there I don't know, but I'm grateful that he did. The film that results is spectacularly beautiful.

As a documentarian, Herzog has a habit of getting on my nerves. His pompous, pseudo-philosophical voice-overs are a bit trying, and his insistence on inserting himself into his movies is often to their detriment. In Cave he has the good sense to shut up (well, for most of the time) and let the pictures tell their own story, aided by interviews with the experts who study them. His most brilliant move, though, was shooting in 3D. I'm a sceptic of that format, but it's perfect here: we get to see how the paintings were thoughtfully designed to meld with the curve of the rocks.

It almost feels too easy: shoot millenia-old rock art, slap some epic orchestral music on the soundtrack, and hey presto, cinematic magic. That's really all that's going on here, but it's more than enough for me.

Now that I think about it, Mike Mills' Beginners stakes out pretty similar thematic territory to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: it's all about the schism between our interior lives and the face we present to the world. After the death of his wife, the elderly Hal (Christopher Plummer, charming as hell), having lived a lie his entire life, comes out of the closet and begins to explore his homosexuality for the first time. Meanwhile his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), having grown up in a household of secrets and repression, has never learnt to express his feelings to anyone. The father's last years of fearlessness inspire something in the son and after Hal, too, passes away, Oliver begins a halting, awkward relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress. 

Beginners could so easily be one of those twee indie rom-coms, and there are moments when it veers perilously close to the edge (Not only do Oliver and Anna meet at a fancy-dress party, but she's got laryngitis, so she can only communicate by writing notes! It's so adorable you just want to puke!), but McGregor's performance weights the film, and keeps it from jack-assery. He's a man wracked by pain but unable to do anything about it, or even really let it show. He manages to convey to the audience what he's feeling, even when he doesn't know it himself. Plummer is (rightfully) getting a stack of accolades for this film, but it was McGregor who really blew me away.

There's also these interludes composed of still photographs, advertisements and brochures from different time periods relevant to the film. It's an affectation, sure, but given the themes of the film, it plays beautifully. "This is what families looked like," Oliver intones, over a succession of absurdly smiling models in period advertisements, and when it's cut with flashbacks to Oliver's own childhood, it's heartrending. To the outside world, Oliver's family would have looked perfect, but only those inside it knew it was built on a lie.

It's been a while since I've seen Black Swan (I've loaned my DVD to someone and now I can't remember who. Serious question: have you got it?), and it's such a wacky piece of work that without a re-watch I don't really have anything coherent to say. Instead, let me treat you to this genius flowchart, which pretty much sums it up (you have to scroll down a bit ...). But God, I loved it when I saw it. In case you haven't noticed, 'bonkers' is one of the highest compliments I can ever pay to anything, and Jesus, Black Swan has every bonkers base covered. It's a horror film, that's also hilarious! It's a serious examination of representations of gender, but it doesn't take itself too seriously! Vincent Cassel plays the sleaziest Frenchman in the history of sleazy Frenchmen! Barbara Hershey has creepy-plastic-surgery-face, and paints scary paintings! It's a motherfucking body-horror set in a ballet company (I've checked: this is officially the best idea for a film ever)!

Seriously, what more do you need? Do you need Winona Ryder stabbing herself through the cheek with a nail file? Because it's GOT THAT TOO!

In other notable movie news from the last year: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 hit all the right spots for this mega-nerd (and Matthew Lewis totally pulled off Neville's transformation into a bad-ass motherfucker); Rabbit Hole proved that Nicole's still got it, and that small stories can sometimes be enormous; Attack the Block was savage, funny and really, really smart; and Melancholia married the best on-screen depiction of depression I've ever seen with a goofy end-of-the-world movie, and made it work.

And finally, 2011 gave me a definitive answer to a tough question for any cinephile. In the past when people have asked 'What's the worst movie you've ever seen?' there have been several contenders. Is it The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Pirates 3? Transformers 2? I've seen so many dreadful films, how could I pick just one?

Fucking Sucker Punch, that's how. It can't get any worse than that. It is the laziest, emptiest, stupidest piece of cinema that has ever existed and, as cynical as I am, I have too much faith in humankind to think we'll ever be able to match it.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
books to go: 91