Short review: Hereditary (cinema)

Ok I don’t do horror movies, but I agreed to see this because 1. I was pleasantly surprised with the producer, Lars Knudsen’s, other folk horror movie, The Witch 2. Toni Colette! And 3. the trailer did look quite good. Now, when I say I was pleasantly surprised by The Witch, I mean it was less of a horror movie than I was expecting and I enjoyed the ambiguity and the family tensions. I did, however, think the ending was balls. I might appreciate it more on a rewatch, knowing it was coming. But that’s unlikely to be the case with Hereditary, which is also let down by its ending. The central cast is excellent, and Toni Colette’s portrayal of a grieving mother easily rivals Francis MacDormand’s of last year. The movie plays with the reliability of its characters’ senses, noting the history of mental illness in the family and letting us wonder about the extent to which grief — and drug use — warp the characters’ perceptions. I was wary of the history of horror movies and mental illness, but it was a line that Hereditary actually trod quite carefully: someone is apparently punished when they finally stop supporting the character with an unstable past. Wedges are driven again and again between the family members, unspoken resentments washing together with uncomfortable truths spoken aloud. It’s at its strongest just showing the crumbling relationship between the parents and their teenage son, and Alex Wolff matches up to Colette and Gabriel Byrne very comfortably, at least in the first two thirds of the film when he has more to do. This being a horror film, of course things start to creep beyond the psychological and into the physical realm. It’s a disappointment when they do, and the film’s justification of its ending is limited to a moment flicking through some books and photo albums that does not explain much about the final scene. I suppose one should also ask whether, as a horror movie, it is scary. I’d say no. The characters are wrung out and tormented and it’s exhausting, but it’s a film that’s too savvy to go for jump scares, except in one effective instance. Instead the gore and eventual manifestations just sit awkwardly in the modern setting. It uses a style that one can get away with more easily in the historical setting of The Witch. Still, the two films make an interesting pair when considered together: one can imagine them existing in the same universe. As a family drama it’s magnificent; as a horror film with a satisfying narrative arc it fails.

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Short review: The Eagle Huntress (2016)

There has been some controversy over the way this story is told. Otto Bell, the director, clearly wants to sell a neat story of female empowerment, and no doubt some subtlety has been lost in his efforts. An academic has thoroughly debunked the claims that Aisholpan is the first female eagle huntress in Kazakh tradition, but even if the film wants to push its message a bit far, other reviewers’ complaints of staging feel churlish, and one suspects that these critics quietly agree with the naysayers Bell films tut-tutting about a woman’s place. Aisholpan is still a young girl who wants to hunt with eagles, and as such is in the minority. There are no other contemporary huntresses shown at the competition she attends, and her skill and determination are very real. So is the bond between her and her father, who delights in supporting her from the hair-raising scramble down a sheer cliff face she must perform in order to capture a wild eaglet, to helping her navigate the snow drifts when they take their eagles hunting in the wild mountains. The film is full of beautifully observed details: I was struck by the pastel purple chipped nail polish on Aisholpan’s fingers as she wrangled her eaglet from her nest and into a cloth bag. She’s still a schoolkid, she’s just a schoolkid who was determined to raise and train her own giant, feathered killing machine. She’s a compelling heroine too, with a brave face for all situations. The story is unapologetically feel good — I know it was blatant and unsubtle editorialising but I still laughed and laughed at the old men with faces like slapped arses when we cut to them after the competition — but Aisholpan herself has defended the essential narrative and her achievements should stand, regardless.

Short review: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

A perfect hangover movie: it’s always sunny, white dresses billow in a comfortable breeze, and though only some of the cast is perfectly at home with the Shakespearian lingo, they are at least universally gorgeous. I admit I’m not really much of a fan of the Bard. Maybe it’s the way he’s crammed down our throats at school (I’ve always been bad at accept that I ‘should’ or ‘must’ like something just because), with no context for his writing or his life, nor any idea of what makes him so different from his contemporaries. Anyway, this didn’t win me ’round because I found Claudio such a wet blanket and Don John’s motivation thin enough it might be called diaphanous. BUT I was watching for Beatrice and Benedick, and I was not disappointed. If it had just been a story about getting these two dorks to admit their love for each other it would have been perfect, but the drama around Hero was unconvincing, felt dated, and did not sit easily with the rest of the events. I was also emphatically not a fan of Michael Keaton’s gurning Dogberry with what sounded suspiciously like a cod-Irish accent. I thought we were done with those jokes. The humour in the ‘gulling of Benedick’ and between him and Beatrice is razor sharp though, and who better to sell it than Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh? Admittedly, I saw it on a very small screen too, and may appreciate it more in its full glory.

Short review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (cinema)

I know, weird, I wrote like three essays when The Last Jedi came out, but for this I can’t even summon enough energy for a full review. I just got so sick of seeing two sides of fandom each claiming that only they could decide what Luke’s actual personality was, or define what it means to be a fan. I know people who are unequivocally Star Wars fans who hated TLJ; I know plenty of fans who loved it, too. Plus I didn’t have any strong opinions on Han’s origins, other than that I was ready to side-eye the treatment of any Wookie life debts… Happily, that particular meet-cute took a different turn. I enjoyed the way Han talked himself out of the situation, and it was fun hearing him vocalise some Shyriiwook. I was also pleasantly surprised by Alden Ehrenreich, I loved Donald Glover as Lando just as much as I knew I would, and thought the Kessel Run was done brilliantly (though the big tentacled beastie was overkill). Overall it felt like two different movies uneasily bolted together though: many of the set-ups don’t bear close scrutiny (what’s Chewie actually doing in that front line prison?), Val’s death is pointless, there’s no need for Q’ira to be a lost girlfriend (*yawn*) who’s now some sort of gangster’s slave (*yawn*) and there is no way in the world giving that character a cameo is going to make me care more about anything, particularly when it seemed to use the same ugly CGI animation from the TV series… I also saw people enthusing about Enfys Nest beforehand and… honestly I expected to have more to go on? She felt like an afterthought, and that’s a pity. Still, it was generally good fun, not worth thinking about too closely, and it gave me the chance to wonder whether Lando’s captain’s logs actually draw on the plots from those old EU novels (‘and the Star Cave of Thonboka’ etc). I look forward to seeing it again.

Rewatch: Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

This is still the best Beowulf adaptation. Yeah it is. Based on John Gardner’s brilliant novel Grendel, it tells the story of Heorot’s destruction from the monster’s point of view. Only, unlike the novel, this is an animated musical (Australia’s second feature-length animation!) in which Peter Ustinov is the voice of the monster. I am not making any of this up. Grendel is something of a philosopher in this version of events, contemplating his place in the world as man encroaches on his territory, and viewing these upstart humans alternately with amusement and contempt. Grendel is also arrogant and a mummy’s boy, chatting lonely hours away with the beastly mother who does not respond and is not seen. She saved him in his first encounter with the humans though, and Grendel watches in disbelief as the court rewrites Hrothgar’s violent empire-building into a more benevolent rulership.

With no other influences in his life the monster is ripe for manipulation when he meets an erudite dragon, whose intellect finally matches — and outstrips — his. The dragon explains that his role is to terrify the humans, and that they need a villain to face in order for their own society to remain cohesive. This rings true when Grendel watches the manoeuvrings of the petty people of the court: the venal old Hrothgar, Unferth’s hopeful posturing, and the Shaper/scop’s protection of the lies and self-aggrandisement of the others. They’re a bluff, brusque Northern bunch in this movie, Yorkshire accents punctuated by the quiet, controlled RP of the shaper and, when he turns up, of Beowulf.

Beowulf is justly terrifying here: a quiet, gently lisping presence whose helmet is never removed, so his eyes are never depicted. He’s voiced by Arthur Dignam, who also voices the dragon, and it’s appropriate that the two of them together bring about Grendel’s destruction. It’s true that the movie and novel fall into the usual trap faced by Beowulf adaptations, of not knowing what to do with Wealtheow, nor how to show what power and influence her position gives her. Grendel sees instead how miserable she is — as does the hopeful Unferth — and hatches a plan to spirit her away. It brings the conflict between the monster and the humans to a necessary climax, but it’s the least radical or interesting part of the story. The horrifying Beowulf is my favourite part, showing us how unsettling the professional hero is to the other members of society, though he is never anything other than courteous. The ending packs a real punch too, as Grendel tries to reconcile his existence and purpose and calls out for the only person who has consistently supported him.

Review: Trans-Atlantyk (Witold Gombrowicz)

This was another Christmas present, a satirical novel by a Polish author in exile in Argentina, telling a version of his exile and set in the early days of the Second World War. It was a wild ride from start to finish, and hats off to Danuta Borchardt for her gutsy translation of its affected, baroque prose. The story is told in the first person as a Polish fireside tale, a gaweda meant to uphold the values of the elites and here subverted to tell of the upheaval of Gombrowicz’s (or at least his self-insert’s) first days in Argentina.

The opening third is full of absurdities that made me laugh out loud, from tortuous bureaucracy to the wounding of artistic egos. Gombrowicz(‘s protagonist) looks for support from the consulate, treading a fine line between professing love for his country and mistrust at his countrymen’s nationalism that makes them hunger for war. Similarly, he wavers as an artist, simultaneously a no one who the consul has not heard of and also a national treasure, whose genius will surely show Poland up in a good light for their Argentinean hosts. The meeting between Gombrowicz and a great figure of Argentinean literature is hilariously awkward, emphasising the different ways that people read a scene and the importance of public perception. Gombrowicz is often painfully anxious about how he’s perceived, as are his compatriots, and much of the humour in the book comes from the absurd lengths they go to demonstrate their manliness.

Following his humiliating encounter with the Argentinean author, Gombrowicz finds a surprising companion in Gonzalo, a gay Argentinean aristocrat who wants Gombrowicz to help him get close to a Polish lad he has taken a fancy to. The presentation of Gonzalo is difficult in some ways for a modern reader. Gonzalo’s illicit lifestyle means that he disguises himself as his own butler in order to meet his lovers, and Gombrowicz himself is surprised by how sympathetic he feels towards Gonzalo. However, he’s also described in unflattering, feminine terms and his interest in young boys speaks to sinister stereotypes still used by homophobes, plus he’s continually referred to as the derogatory ‘Puto’. Nevertheless, Gombrowicz sticks by him, and Gonzalo remains a far more sympathetic figure than his adversary, the ex-military father of his object of affection.

This becomes a tussle over notions of the fatherland versus ‘the land of the son’; a desperate attempt to wrest control of the future from the old men who send their boys to die in war. Where discussion gets metaphorical, the novel is at its best, and the idea of a ‘land of the son’ will reverberate around your mind as it does Gombrowicz’s. But there are continual reminders that this is also a competition for the body of a teenager, who is talked about by all with much earnestness, and is himself not allowed to comment on events until right at the close of the novel. At this point, Gombrowicz sweeps away all hopes and speculations, dissolving the adults’ handwringing in gales of unrestrained laughter. As a release of tension it’s a glorious, if bewildering ending.

In the style of the gaweda there are plenty of digressions, but the burlesque strangeness of the characters made me think more of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. It is a story of Gombrowicz’s realisation of the hypocrisies of nationalism, in which he’s buffeted about by external forces, as passive a protagonist as Calvino’s Reader. It’s not an entirely satisfying story, but it’s an utterly different perspective on the global upheaval of the Second World War and seems to champion some of the social changes that have fought free since then.

Review: Sisters of Sinai (Janet Soskice)

This was about as different from the male authors I’d been reading as I could imagine, and I’ve had my copy for the best part of a decade, so it seemed like as good a time to read it as any. The book is an autobiography of the two Scottish sisters who discovered the earliest Syriac gospels and it also gives an overview of the field of scholarship at the time. It’s quite lightly written, partly so as to appeal to as wide a readership as possible and partly, one suspects, because of the thinness of its source material. Cambridge did indeed forget these two residents very effectively.

The strictly Presbyterian sisters grew up as beneficiaries of a series of bizarre events: for instance, they had an alarming number of unmarried male relatives who made fortunes in the States and whose money ended up back in Scotland. Their father — one thinks of Patrick Brontë — did not mind that they were girls, and put education first and foremost in their lives. I particularly admired the attitude he raised them with, that they only holiday in countries where they spoke the local language. It’s fascinating to see their faith and education lead them on adventures that eventually coalesce into an impressive academic career; and before Cambridge acknowledged female academics, too.

Agnes Smith Lewis and her sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson filled themselves with languages and learning. They identified the importance of a palimpsest manuscript whose underlying text was in a script they barely read at the time, and photographed it in unideal conditions so that it could be shown to experts. They learned how to photograph and develop their own images in order to do this. The great significance of their find for Biblical scholarship and and the field of textual history spurred them to learn Syriac and they were lavished with honorary degrees from universities around Europe — but never in their adopted home city, which has absorbed their idiosyncratic house into the blandness of college accommodation and is only just now coming to grips with the collection they helped Solomon Schechter bring to light.

Soskice is very fair to all of her subjects — fairer than I’d have been to men like Bentley, who come across as entitled old misogynists next to those like the more forward-thinking Rendel Harris. It feels like a cop-out to be so generous, especially given Soskice’s tendency to point out looming dramas and disagreements far in advance. Still, she corrects many important wrongs in this book, giving short shrift to the folk tale that sprung up about the sisters noticing the early gospel because the Sinai monks used it as a butter wrapper at the dinner table. It’s a false account that is patronising to both the women and the monks.

The subject may not seem like a glamorous one, but the sisters’ enthusiasm and ravenous appetite for learning shines through. Their age and gender never hamper them as they continue their travels into their fifties, outliving their frailer husbands by decades. The significance of their find is carefully explained by Soskice, too: during this period of the nineteenth century textual criticism was a fledgling subject, in which scholars sought to identify ‘errors’ in manuscripts copied from lost exemplars. This was about discovering the ‘original’ text of the Bible and it often challenged the received view of just what the word of God really was. The Syriac gospels were probably translated from earlier Greek gospels, but their language was closer to the one that Jesus would have spoken, so scholars such as Lewis and Gibson hoped to unearth turns of phrase that were truer to what had been said by their saviour. In actual fact, early schisms, disagreements and differences of interpretation came to light, showing, for instance, a scribe’s preference for omitting references to Mary’s virginity. Nothing shook the faith of the sisters, though they learned to be gentler with those of other denominations as their travels brought them into contact with them. It’s frustrating that the sources to give this story a little more depth don’t exist, but Soskice still ties together what she can and brings an important moment in academic history into the light.

Review: The Breadwinner (cinema)

This is the animated Oscar nominee I have been dying to see since I first heard Nora Twomey was developing it. Like I said in my review of Coco, I bear the Disney animation no ill will; it was doing its own thing and doing it well. But I am sad that there doesn’t seem to be a space for recognising the likes of The Breadwinner at the same time. If you have championed Coco because it tells a story from a community that doesn’t regularly get heard by the mainstream, then you must see The Breadwinner as well. This movie is based on Deborah Ellis’ novel of the same name and tells the story of Parvana, a girl growing up under the Taliban regime in the deep breath just before international forces began to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan.

It’s a series of balancing acts: telling this story for children with no knowledge of the background, but being honest with the fact that this is the story of many living children, whose survival should not be patronised. Trying to leave some hope in the story for an uncertain future, but without glossing over the many many hurdles faced by the women this film follows. For the most part, The Breadwinner walks delicate lines like these with effortlessness, aided by the gorgeous, expressive animation and simple, steady narrative. The ending allows itself one moment of wild, unexplainable optimism with a scene that cuts away and is mysteriously resolved. This is a flight of fancy it has earned though, and through Parvana’s eyes we know that the unseen resolution to that scene could have been bloody and brutal or more generous, and though it’s more likely the former, we are allowed to hope that the latter could still happen.

At the start of the story Parvana’s father, a teacher who lost a leg fighting for the regime, is jailed for speaking inappropriately to the regime. The boy who causes this is an ex-student of his: the kind of angry, scared teenager who resents everything around him and is half-drunk with the power of growing his first moustache and wielding a gun with the big boys. The banality of this boy makes him terrifying: he is a child with the power to enforce rules that suit him perfectly, and to hell with other views. The fear of him stays at the edge of the first half of the movie, ever-present, until he is bundled away to the front line, his face now rigid as he faces the other part of the bargain he made for that rush of power. It was a shock to find pity for this character even in the midst of all he does, but it’s one of the film’s firm strengths that every single character is a person and not a caricature.

Parvana’s life without her father is a dead end: her mother and older sister cannot leave their house, even to buy food. And a twelve year old girl is not to be served either, as she is too close to becoming that which must never be seen in public without an owner. As her mother resolves to write to a cousin in search of a husband for Parvana’s older sister, Parvana decides to cut her hair and take her dead brother’s clothes. The transformation is powerfully revealed in her first trip out: she cringes as she walks through crowds who talk in completely unfamiliar tones of ease, laughing and barely even noticing her presence. She meets a school friend who has disguised herself in the same way, and this connection allows her to make the most of the odd jobs she takes on. Her goal is to make enough money to bribe a guard at her father’s jail, just so she can see him.

The film does not compromise or sentimentalise its view of family. Parvana’s friend Shauzia longs to get away from her male relatives and relishes the freedom she has in her disguise, but Parvana only ever wants to unite her family. Though she bickers with her big sister and grows exasperated with her baby brother, she does so in the same spirit as any middle child growing up in any part of the world. Throughout the film she tells a story to her baby brother about a boy who goes to save his village from a great, spiky elephant. The elephant and its minions have taken the villagers’ seeds, without which there can be no future harvest. In fits and starts, Parvana grows this story — she began by telling her father stories were pointless of course — sometimes with Shauzia’s contribution, until her hero reaches the mountaintop and faces the elephant while American bombs rain down around the jail in which her father is held.

The simplicity of the story’s ending is powerful because it sidesteps any obvious moral about future-proofing, or regaining the seeds for the village. Instead, what is needed is to remember: Parvana reveals what happened to the brother she has been dressing as. It’s senseless, brutal and unfair. She tells us who her parents were before the Taliban. ‘Everything changes. Stories remind us of that.’ Her father’s advice from the outset of the film is bracketed by a quote from Rumi at the close: ‘raise your words, not your voices. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.’ It may seem like scant comfort in the setting, but we humans take what we can: Shauzia tells herself stories of the future and the life she’ll work for, while Parvana tells stories that explore the hole at the heart of her family as she struggles to adjust to the loss of so many things.

Cartoon Saloon are the perfect studio for this story. The animation is as gorgeous as ever, moving between stylised paper-cut out figures in Parvana’s stories to the simple lines and muted tones of reality. The characters’ eyes really stayed with me in a way they did not to the same extent in The Song of the Sea or The Secret of Kells. Parvana’s big green eyes (surely inspired by that National Geographic cover) dart about nervously in the silences; her mouth is a sharp little line. It’s less cute than the style used by Cartoon Saloon’s other pieces, as befits it’s older protagonist and rough setting. One day, I hope they’ll be nominated for that Oscar in a year that Disney haven’t released anything…

Short review: Deadpool 2 (cinema)

Ah, those opening animated credits with their smart arse quips. I seethed through them because even though they were designed to needle people like me, I was genuinely bored with this movie’s attitude barely ten minutes in. Superhero man pain and self pity is still just that, even when you go the extra mile with the violence and you put in some cutesy afterlife visions. I mean, I did enjoy this movie well enough, but I still think Deadpool isn’t in any way the ‘not like other superheroes’ hero people seem to make him out to be. Not in these movies anyway. The problem is that the film doesn’t really want to be that different: the story can’t really balance the conflicting aspects of the emotions that could be explored and the mandate to have cool superhero fights. Wade’s suicidal impulses are danced around, like a knowing wink to the audience that is never really allowed to be taken seriously. Logan, which this so self-consciously apes, had the same problem, but the balance was better there to my mind. Still, Domino was fantastic and Julian Dennison managed very well with a role that could easily have become whiny emo teen. Josh Brolin played the kind of role he always does well, too. It just seemed like any time I might feel something other than mild annoyance watching this, it took a sidestep into less interesting territory. There were only a couple of laugh out loud moments, and Negasonic and her girlfriend were totally underused. The final irritation was that after all his efforts, Cable chose not even to go back to the family he was so determined to save. It might have rung true if Deadpool’s gang did feel more like a family by that point, but the film just didn’t quite convince there. It happened because Deadpool wanted to have its death scene cake and to eat it. Oh well. Watch it for Domino.

Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Salman Rushdie)

I think this is the last from the ‘to read’ list I made after finishing Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time (way back in summer 2015). I’ve not read any other Rushdie, but couldn’t resist the sound of this children’s book about the son of a storyteller who loses his ability to tell stories. Haroun is an earnest, serious child protagonist, from a city that produces sadness and has forgotten its own name. There are layers of interpretation, right from the beginning: pollution and poverty are not hidden from the reader, and all ages will get a great deal from this. Present also, is the reek of politics: when Haroun’s mother leaves, despairing of the pointlessness of stories (it is a children’s book, it’s meant to be on the nose…) his father, known affectionately as the Shah of Blah, is due to appear before the crowds at two local political rallies, tasked with enthusing the crowd about the sleazy incumbents. This was written by Rushdie for his son while he was in hiding after a fatwa was placed on him for his novel The Satanic Verses, and it’s clear he empathises both with Haroun and his doleful father. Haroun tries to help cheer and inspire his father by finding a bus driver who is willing to drive maniacally to get them a beautiful view of a valley. It helps a little, but inspiration remains lost in face of the father’s grief for his wife. It turns out that all the stories his father told him about the ‘Sea of Stories’ and the tap that flows from them to Haroun’s father are true, and his father has asked for the flow to be turned off and the tap uninstalled. Determined to undo this, Haroun must journey into the Storyworld in order to have his father’s tap returned.

There’s an exuberant mechanical hoopoe, a gruff little genie, many-mouthed, ironically monogamous ‘Plentimaw’ fishes in the sea (say it out loud, go on…) and dastardly villains made of pure darkness. Again I found myself wondering whether Jasper Fforde had read this before he began to elaborate on his own book world, but Rushdie’s references are often more subtle than Fforde’s lit crit-baiting. The vain prince has himself inserted into all the popular stories which are printed on the uniforms of the army (who, as Pages in their flat, rectangular outfits, resemble the Red Queen’s men in Alice in Wonderland); there are Beatles references that will surely go over most children’s heads; the language of traditional Indian dance gets a look in, and naturally there are 1001 Nights references aplenty. There’s a lot going on, in short. One very much gets the impression that Rushdie wrote it for himself and his son first and foremost, and what tickles him may not always tickle the reader in the same way, but his enthusiasm is nevertheless infectious. The politicians are absurd but menacing, though other characters delight in the escapism of their own undiluted absurdity. It’s a mixture that barely hangs together, but somehow just about manages it.

My one gripe is that it’s a very blokeish story, which is no doubt linked to its joyful self–indulgence: the female characters are just not where Rushdie’s interest lies, they are little more than a grudging nod to the ‘other half’ of the population. The motives of Haroun’s mother are never really explored or empathised with; the princess is ugly and an awful singer, and though other characters comment on this constantly, the prince is gently mocked for his adoration of her. The girl who disguises herself as a Page is fun, but little more than your average smurfette/tomboy. She has her own skills which prove to be useful, but the ‘romance’ (flirtation?) between her and Haroun feels rather forced, as though it were deemed obligatory but uninteresting. I don’t think the guise of the fairy tale is enough to excuse this, either, rather there is a mix-up of messages, between the wife’s willing departure, the captured princess , the poisoning of the Sea of Stories and the political rally. I’m sure it doesn’t affect a child’s enjoyment of the story, and its effect was probably exacerbated for me coming on the heels of The Buried Giant, which, despite my enjoyment, shared — also with Out Stealing Horses — a certain sense of mystification at the motives of females, and a guilty awareness that they deserved to be understood as much as the male characters, but that the authors were all at a loss as to how to do so. One might argue that it’s the character’s attitude in the cases of Axl and Trond, but it’s harder to make that wash in the case of Rushdie’s pared back personalities. It did affect my enjoyment of the book, but I’m still glad to have read it, and hope it’s a staple of children’s reading still.