The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the-heart-goes-lastI love me a good dystopia and I enjoyed this futuristic satire despite the slightly jarring shifts in tone, especially towards the end when it seemingly abandons all restraint and dives into (still very entertaining) surreal silliness.

The beginning of the book is fairly grounded: in the near future, a financial crisis has reduced a large part of the USA to an unemployed wasteland. Charmaine and Stan, a married couple down on their luck, are living in their car, getting by on tips Charmaine makes working at a seedy bar, scavenging for food, always on guard from the roaming bandits. They’re in fact prime candidates for a socioeconomic experiment called the Positron Project, which they see advertised one day. It is located in the town of Consilience, and provides the lucky applicants with jobs and roof over their heads. The catch? One, every other month, they have to swap the occupancy of their house with the Alternates – a couple just like them they’re never supposed to meet – and spend a whole month in the on-site prison. Two, the project is for life and you can never ever leave Consilience for the outside world.

Sure enough, Charmaine and Stan promptly sign up and at first things are ok, even though the happy-happy 50s aesthetic of the town, down to the selection of music you’re allowed to listen to, is rather dull and antiseptic (no rock music or anything else deemed overly stimulating). Charmaine seems happy in her new surrounds, but Stan begins to find their marriage stale and sex too vanilla. His imagination is set on fire when, one day, he finds a love note under the fridge, presumably written by the female Alternate who shares their house, hinting at the kind of sexual abandon he craves. Unable to stop fantasising about the woman, Stan is determined to meet her, even though such contact is against the rules. Little does he know what massive shocks expect him.

Of course there’s much more going on than a tale of marital infidelities, and soon enough the story dives into – surprise – the dark side of the Positron Project, getting increasingly sinister and absurd and involving sexbots, knitted blue teddy bears, gay Elvis impersonators… among other things. At times it gets almost too silly, yet its bleak view of humanity and the scary places future technology and corporate greed might take us to don’t feel all that far-fetched, sadly. The novel is perhaps more uneven than some of the other Atwood books, but her imagination and caustic wit are a delight as always.

Favourite movie romances

I don’t have much use for Valentine’s Day, but it’s as good an excuse as any for more listmaking… so here are my personal favourite celluloid love stories and couples.

Daniel Craig and Eva Green – Casino Royale

casino_royale

Casino Royale is my favourite Bond film and while it’s great from the beginning, it really takes off when Eva Green’s exotic, mysterious Vesper Lynd enters the stage and trades barbs with Bond in the train scene which could have come from a classic 40s screwball movie. But their relationship wasn’t all witty banter and sexual undercurrents; Craig’s raw, unformed Bond was still open to love and his tragic romance with Vesper was genuinely emotional, though I do have to admit that the last 20 minutes of the film don’t quite work.

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Moonlight

moonlightOn the day I saw the movie, I booked my ticket in the morning, and as I got progressively dog-tired at work I was thinking to myself, I could do with some fun fluffy movie right now, not yet another Oscar-season glumfest. In the end though, I’m glad I saw it because, while sombre and sad Moonlight is also a lyrical, immersive, compassionate and tender look at an experience that usually doesn’t get much attention in the media. My only problem was that, in my tired state, I found some of the street slang hard to follow, but in the end, this is a movie that mostly tells its story through the visuals, music, the actors’ expressions and the stretches of silence that convey so much.

Moonlight is a story of Chiron, a quiet and shy boy from the rough neighbourhood in Miami, divided into three chapters of his life as a boy, teenager and young man. At the start of the film, Chiron is chased by the neighbourhood kids and takes refuge in an empty house, where he’s found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a charismatic local drug dealer who sees something in the kid. He takes Chiron home where he and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) feed him and let him spend the night before taking the boy back to his mother Paula (Naomi Harris, as far away from the glamorous world of James Bond as possible), an abusive drug addict who showers Chiron with affection one minute then screams at him the next. Juan and Teresa become something of a surrogate family for Chiron, despite the messed up situation where Juan is selling the drugs that destroy Paula. The scene in which Juan teaches Chiron to float on his back, with its intimate cinematography, is one of the most beautiful and poetic scenes in the film.

While still in the first chapter, Chiron, sitting at the table in Juan and Teresa’s house, asks what a faggot is, and whether he is one, a question that immediately sucks all the air out of the room onscreen, and the real-life movie theatre. Juan carefully dismantles the slur before the boy, but his supportive attitude does little to dismantle the misery and confusion over his identity that follow Chiron into his teenage years and adulthood, when everything else in his environment teaches him to repress repress repress. His issues intensify in the middle chapter as Chiron grows into a timid scrawny adolescent; things get worse at home with his mother, the bullies at school get more vicious, and his feelings about his sexuality reach peak confusion when he develops a crush on a classmate who treats him kindlier than others. Without revealing too much, the last chapter of the story is the saddest of all, with Chiron fulfilling his destiny in a way that initially feels jarring but which is depressingly realistic, reminding you that a revenge fantasy that feels satisfying and draws audience claps in the moment (as it did in my session) has to come up against the reality in a film that’s committed to honesty.

Moonlight moves at a leisurely, meditative pace, slowly building the scenes and touching on issues of gender, race, isolation, sexuality and identity in an organic way that simply happens during the course of examining a life, rather than waving them in your face. With bold cinematography and stellar acting across the board (the transitions between three separate actors playing Chiron are seamless), Moonlight is both graceful and brutal.

Jackie

jackieNot your conventional biopic, Jackie mostly focuses on one specific period in its subject’s life, the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy when Jacqueline Kennedy became the world’s most famous widow. As a framework for the film, it uses a fictionalised encounter between Jackie and a journalist (Billy Crudup) who comes to interview her soon after she packs her bags and leaves the White House. The interview is somewhat tense; the journalist’s attitude is not necessarily reverential and Jackie displays candour and calculation in equal measure.

I admit, the whole Kennedy myth has never been of much fascination to me personally, but a good film can make any subject under the sun interesting if it’s well done. The biggest weapon this movie has is undoubtedly Natalie Portman’s powerhouse performance, which deservedly won her plaudits and nominations. Playing an icon can be tricky; Portman’s innate elegance did make her seem a natural choice for the role, but she also always had this little-girl vibe about her which made me doubt if she could pull off playing a, for the lack of better expression, womanly woman. However her transformation is convincing right off the bat. It’s a highly mannered performance that makes Jackie perhaps hard to truly warm to – her solitary moments of grief and tears aside, one gets a feeling of an invisible wall whenever she’s interacting with other people, even her own children. But it’s never less than captivating to watch, as Jackie navigates the whirlwind of personal shock, politics and media management, wishing more than anything else for her husband and his all-too-brief legacy immortalised above a historical footnote (as she remarks in one scene, two American presidents died while in the office without leaving a trace in public memory).

The fractured narrative of the film does well to mirror its heroine’s chaotic state of mind in the days after her husband’s death, and while the movie is sombre it never feels stuffy or lifeless. The excellent supporting cast includes the late John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy (it’s rather amusing to think that he and Portman were both in Garden State in very different roles from Jackie) and almost-unrecognisable Greta Gerwig who lends warmth as Jackie’s secretary and confidante. As expected, the costume design is to die for and a heavenly manna for the eyes.

Split

split-imageWith all the prestigious Oscar-season films out, I wanted to take a break and see something different. To my surprise, a film I felt like seeing was M. Night Shyamalan’s latest.¬†Like most people, I loved The Sixth Sense, but I haven’t watched a Shyamalan film at the cinema since Signs in 2002, a movie so offensively stupid it would have put me off his stuff even without the critical bashing his next few films received. The reviews for this one however were quite decent, hailing it a comeback even, and James McAvoy starring did a lot to sway me, since I’m a big fan.

McAvoy has a kind of sweet face that could easily have doomed him to an endless string of lightweight cutie-patootie roles (Amy Adams had a similar problem before David O. Russell cast her in The Fighter), a fate he’s obviously determined to duck. There was his stellar turn as a vile foul-mouthed cop in Filth, and in Split he’s once again playing a shady individual, with spectacular results. His character, Kevin, has a Dissociative Identity Disorder, and shares his mind with twenty-two other personalities, though we only see a handful of them. McAvoy, always a vibrant screen presence, has tremendous fun with his scenery-chewing performance and manages to successfully distinguish his “characters” through body language, ticks and vocal inflections, going from almost endearing to scary-as-hell in a fraction of a second. There’s a rather fascinating (and most likely wildly unrealistic) system to the way the personalities “come to the light”, wrestle for control and arrange alliances between themselves.

The story has Kevin kidnap three teenage girls, including an introverted school outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is offered a ride home by chance. The girls are kept in an unidentifiable place somewhere underground, and though Kevin and his other personalities don’t intend any immediate physical harm they keep on making creepy comments about sacrifice that can’t possibly come to any good. Casey, a haunted soul with a tragic personal history told in flashbacks over the course of the film, does the most trying to engage their captor and trick him into letting them escape. The other two girls are less developed and feel like traditional horror archetypes.

Most of the explanation and world-building in the movie comes courtesy of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist who is intensely sympathetic to him and other DID patients. Through their conversations, we learn of an enigmatic twenty-third personality in Kevin’s mind called The Beast, whose existence Dr. Fletcher doubts and who doesn’t sound like anyone you’d like to run into in a dark alley at night.

Split still has some of the usual annoying Shyamalanisms like stilted dialogue and a pointless cameo from the director, but it’s easily one of his better films. It’s fun, trashy and full of weird interesting camera angles, it excels at generating Hitchcockian tension and suspense, and it’s anchored by McAvoy’s freewheeling, entertaining performance. I wish though I didn’t read so much hype about the Big Twist this movie was supposed to have, because a part of my brain spent the entire movie trying to figure out the twist and anticipating the surprise. The revelation however failed to rock my world – it has little to do with the story itself and its effectiveness depends solely on how much you know or care about the thing it refers to.

Lion

lion-dev-patelBased on a true story of an Indian boy who gets separated from his family, adopted by an Australian couple, then finds his birthplace 25 years later using Google Earth, Lion is an unashamedly emotional tear-jerker which mostly works. It’s heartfelt, beautifully shot and features uniformly strong performances (and on a totally shallow note, my my Dev Patel is all grown up and crushworthy).

While I knew the general storyline, I didn’t expect the film to be effectively split into two distinct halves. In the first, we meet Saroo (Sunny Pawar in a remarkable, eloquent turn), a five-year-old boy from a poor rural area who insists on accompanying his older brother¬†Guddu on a trip to find work. When Saroo is too tired and sleepy to go on, Guddu leaves him on a bench at the train station. The boy wakes up alone, tries to look for his brother, and gets trapped for two days on an empty train which takes him 1,600km from home, to Kolkata. When Saroo finally gets off the train, he’s completely alone in a city where strangers talk in Bengali while he only knows Hindi.

This first half, which chronicles Saroo’s odyssey of survival in Kolkata, is easily the most compelling part of the film. Told with minimal dialogue, it captures the heartbreaking loneliness of a small vulnerable child in a huge indifferent city. Eventually, the fate smiles on Saroo and he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who live in Tasmania. Flash forward twenty years, and grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) is a young man heading to a hotel management course in Melbourne, where, at a house party, the memories of his Indian family are prodded, leading him to an obsession with finding them.

Because the filmmakers decide to concentrate both on Saroo’s harrowing journeys in Kolkata and his grown-up anguish, the second half of the story, which really needed a 2-hour film of its own, comes seriously shortchanged. Saroo’s relationships with his adoptive family – which includes another Indian boy his parents adopt a year later, with less successful results – don’t feel fleshed out enough. Mantosh, Saroo’s adopted sibling, is a troubled boy who grows up into a troubled adult and there could have easily been an entire movie about the tense, complicated family dynamic, but as things stand it feels like the character could have been cut out of the film altogether with no big loss. Saroo’s memories are triggered in what feels like a very simplistic, “movie” manner – this kind of stuff works in melodramas but feels a tad contrived in a film that strives to be more naturalistic. Also, I found it hard to believe that until that particular moment Saroo’s biological family was never on his mind. Rooney Mara, though never less than compelling to watch, is rather wasted in the supportive-girlfriend part, and while Nicole Kidman’s acting is impeccable Saroo’s relationship with his adoptive mother doesn’t hit as hard as it could have.

Despite these issues and a general sense of lull about three-quarters in, the flagging pace eventually gives way to a genuinely emotional resolution which made the audience around me sniff and wipe their eyes (I got a tickle in my nose as well). And having been to Tasmania a few times, it’s nice to see its gorgeous scenery displayed so lavishly on the big screen.

Two years of blogging!

So apparently my blog now is two years old. How the time flies. When I started it back in January 2015 I really had no idea how long I’d keep at it and what the blog was going to be about. Since then it’s turned into a more or less constant thing, and once I’ve seen a film or read a book I’m automatically itching to turn my computer on and arrange my thoughts in a coherent and hopefully engaging manner. Admittedly, sometimes I had to let go of the idea that I have to review everything I come across as some sort of obligation to god knows who, and only do it when I genuinely feel like it.

Big thank you to everybody who visited my blog, subscribed or liked a post – it means a lot.