Month: February 2017

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.