September 18th, 2011
It is awfully easy to be hardboiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
September 9th, 2011
We went down the stairs to the cafe on the ground floor. I had discovered that was the best way to get rid of friends. Once you had a drink all you had to say was: ‘Well, I’ve got to get back and get off some cables,’ and it was done. It is very important to discover graceful exits like that in the newspaper business, where it is such an important part of the ethics that you should never seem to be working.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, obviously written before smartphones were invented! (1926 to be precise)
September 8th, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: On (R)Evolution

For convenience’s sake I will write RotPotA instead of Rise of the Planet of the Apes which really is a ridiculously long title (which is why all posters just say RISE PLANET APES with microscopically small of-thes in between).

Perhaps the question formulated by one young student to another as we were all filing out the cinema summed up the film best: “You know Planet of the Apes? So was this anything to do with that?”

Indeed.

So much for the IQ and film history knowledge of the average film audience (and I will not list all RotPotA's 'secret' references to PotA here). The question whether RotPotA (do you also find yourself saying that? RotPotA!) is anything to do with what came before is really quite interesting. I would say that the writing team and director Rupert Wyatt decided to produce a crossbreed of Batman Begins and Outbreak. With a monkey (oh excuse me, an ape) as a postmodern hairy Bruce Wayne and the cure for Alzheimer’s disease as a potentially deadly virus. Unlikely as this may sound, the result is not unpleasant. The film moves fast and smoothly, has a nice structure, a lovely opening sequence and a clever ending (as with Super 8: watch those titles at the end!). And as long as you are willing to skip over some plot holes (why exactly does fancyschmancy smartypants Will Rodman (James Franco) not lose his job after the experiment gone deadly wrong? why fast forward through so many of Caesar’s younger years?) RotPotA is a satisfying no-brainer.

So instead, I focused on other things: language and culture. According to the tagline “Evolution Becomes Revolution” and I wanted to know why.

Language
Hoping for the key to the evolution of language (one can always hope) I paid close attention to Caesar’s progress. Alas, chimps’ voice boxes are just not made for talking. Still, Caesar progressed admirably from sign language and grunting to “no”, “wait” and “now”, completely skipping any baby talk. After that, he went straight to the wonderfully grammatical and concise “Caesar is home”. Evolution yes, but revolution?

Culture
So the supersmart professor doctor guy takes home this chimp who is superbright as well and raises him as a son. How does he make the chimp ‘evolve’ into a healthy American boy?
Clothes: this little monkey wears jeans and a shirt. He only takes them off when he goes for a Twilight-like run in the treetops. As he hit puberty, I expected Caesar to progress to band t-shirts (My Chemical Romance?) or geek t-shirts (Atari?) but blue jeans and a red shirt it was. And stayed.
Room: Caesar is raised in the attic, where he can climb to his heart’s content. Also, it appears to be the room professor doctor genius Rodman grew up in and they haven’t even changed the wallpaper. It looks, well, dusty.
Play: Caesar cannot play with any of the children. The neighbour is a mad maniac and all the kids are scared of poor Caesar. Caesar can watch them from his attic window as they play giddily, and he appears to spend many lonely hours doing just that.
Food: eggs sunny side up and bacon are bad for chimp tummies, so Caesar gets healthy fruit and vegetables instead. As soon as he gets the chance, he goes for the chocolate chip cookies though.
Parents: Rodman is single, but when Caesar suggests he hooks up with a zoo worker, he does. And they lived happily ever after. Whatever happened to a healthy family argument?

Conclusion: anyone could have seen this revolution coming, I blame the parents.

September 6th, 2011

The Conspirator enlightens more than it entertains



If there is one thing I hate in movies it is dramatically swelling background music. A symphonic orchestra that goes all out at the exact moment something ‘special’ is about to happen. I think it distracts from the action and that it reduces the moment to farce instead of strengthening it. As if the film makers think you won’t understand the importance of the scene without some “hang on, this is important”-music. For an example of what I mean, watch the Saving Private Ryan trailer or the Pearl Harbour trailer. A symphonic orchestra is not even required - Tarzan proved an ex-Genesis drummer can do the job equally well…* 


The Conspirator has a lot of “hang on, this is important”-music. Don’t get me wrong, I think composer Mark Isham did a great job. The music itself is good, but the way it is used makes The Conspirator much more sentimental than it needed to be. Of course, the American Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln are huge historical landmarks that many Americans are still passionate about. The question is, did director Robert Redford feel that he needed to tread carefully, or did he simply get lost in nostalgia and sentiment? Whatever the reason, The Conspirator has become an interesting courtroom drama that enlightens more than it entertains.


The Conspirator is saved by its fantastic actors. James McAvoy is brilliant as Frederick Aiken, a young lawyer who finds himself defending Mary Surratt, America’s most hated woman, upon his return from the American Civil War. Robin Wright has the difficult task of making this misunderstood woman appear sympathetic, and does so convincingly. The acting really makes the period come alive, as do the costumes and the sets. Sitting in the cinema, you practically taste the dust on the 19th century streets of Washington DC. Lincoln’s funeral train is a sight many have imagined and can now finally take in. I recommend The Conspirator to anyone who enjoys a good courtroom drama. If The Gangs of New York is more your thing, you might find The Conspirator a bit too clean.


As to whether The Conspirator depicts the era appropriately… it is selective in the information it imparts. The rivalry between North and South is talked about, but the South is literally invisible. The liberation of the slaves is glossed over, as are the difficulties liberated slaves and freemen encountered. Instead, all eyes are on the men who murdered Lincoln, the men who convicted these murderers and the men who ran the country. Oh, and the one woman who is accused of conspiring to murder Lincoln. It would be interesting to see a YouTube-style film reply highlighting the position of freemen and women in this same period, late 19th century America… 


*John Williams’ score for Saving Private Ryan was nominated for an Oscar, as was Diane Warren’s “There You’ll Be” (performed by Faith Hill) for Pearl Harbour. Phil Collins actually won an Oscar for “You’ll Be In My Heart”, in itself a nice song that unfortunately appears ad nauseam in Tarzan.

September 2nd, 2011
When they’d moved in, it probably was the best view on the planet. Then, one morning, out of a clear blue sky, it became, for a while, probably the worst.
From Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg. A great story, especially poignant in the run-up to 9/11/11.

Back to the drawing board

Earlier this week my laptop died. Perhaps Steve Job’s resignation sapped the lifeforce out of it. Apple doctors are currently trying to revive it, so for now my writing and posting is done on mobile devices and a borrowed laptop (thanks, K!). The big question is: will my laptop return with its memory intact? I hope so, otherwise it will have taken all my holiday pics and a partly completed tax return with it to the great Apple Core that is MacHeaven. As well as my story. The story I’d written for that competition with the August 31 deadline.
The moment my laptop refused to boot on August 30, instead only making puffing noises and getting incredibly hot, I realised I had not saved the story anywhere but the harddrive. I had finished it earlier that day, but not emailed it or saved it on a USB stick. D’oh. Back to the drawing board it was.
So on August 31, I retyped the whole thing from an outdated printout, which resulted in an alternate final version. Frustrating, but also interesting. The two alternate versions are alike, yet subtly different. I used to completely rewrite my stories in the past, when I still used pen and paper before typing up a final version of a story on my dad’s PC (ah, those early 1990s!). I’d forgotten how useful that final stage had always been: I’d notice typos, incongruities and, usually, fragments where I’d contradicted myself. The same happened this time. Ideally, I’d now merge my two final versions. Alas, I am left with version 2 and the memory of a previous, slightly different one. I can only hope the jury unknowingly prefers version 2, and chuckle when I allow myself to imagine future readers comparing the two versions, scratching their heads, their eyes flicking from one version to the other… Lessons learned: retyping an existing story is a refreshing experience and always, always save your files in more than one place…

August 29th, 2011

Melancholia: It’s the end of the world and no one is fine

When Melancholia begins and you are watching planets collide accompanied by pompous classical music (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde), you think to yourself “Oh no, not more of that The Tree of Life crap”. Fortunately, Melancholia is not like The Tree of Life at all. So much so, that one wonders how it is possible that two filmmakers have the same idea (“Let’s show some planets and a family history!”) while one pulls it off brilliantly (“My planets will collide! And symbolize depression and how the world sucks!”) and the other messes it up so badly (“My planets will make you feel like someone keeps pinching the remote and flicking to National Geographic Channel while you’re trying to watch a movie!”).

Von Trier has divided Melancholia up into 3 parts (the introduction, Justine and Claire) to tell the story of two sisters and the end of the world. The introduction leaves no room for surprises: the planets collide and that’s it. Fade out to black. Justine’s story begins as a cheerful wedding and ends as the surreal representation of a dysfunctional family. Justine is ill, but what is wrong with her? Claire’s story tells us that Justine is depressed and that Claire is an incredibly sensitive, caring woman. No wonder her husband tries to hide the imminent end of the world from her.

Although Melancholia's story is simple and clear from the start (the end of the world is near, two sisters care about each other), it is also incredibly complex and opaque. Is Justine really a psychic? Or is she 'only' suffering mental illness? What is going on in the rest of the world? Apart from a few mentions and one exploration of the internet, the world outside Claire's mansion is absent.

The result is an atmospheric movie that leaves you pondering. What would I do if I were them? Is Justine right when she says the world is evil and not worth mourning? How about the children?

Kirsten Dunst’s Best Actress award at Cannes was well-deserved. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland also perform incredibly well. Now if only Von Trier hadn’t made those idiotic comments… 

August 27th, 2011

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

You know those books everyone is always saying you should read? But somehow you’ve just never got round to it? And you secretly wonder what the fuss is all about and, shock horror, whether everyone is maybe exaggerating a bit? The Great Gatsby was one of those books for me. I was excited to see it on my reading list for next semester and managed to create the perfect blend of duty and pleasure by reading it while on holiday. Reading my dad’s copy from 1968 with a cover illustration by John Sewell provided an extra sense of history and tradition (by the way, in 1968 The Great Gatsby was already a Penguin Modern Classic, which added a touch of post-modernism to the experience).

The most pleasant surprise was Scott Fitzgerald’s poetic language. I didn’t see it coming (I’ve been reading a lot of WYSIWYG books recently, must have got used to a no-nonsense style) and I usually dislike it. This time, however, I loved it. I savoured eyes that “leaked continuously with excitement”, a lawn that runs, jumps and drifts up the side of a house, and a crowd of disaster tourists who “lapped up against the front of the garage”. I read passages out loud to people who were not even vaguely interested but always agreed it was a beautiful turn of phrase. The Great Gatsby is a book you consume slowly, like a tasty (probably alcoholic) drink. Ideal holiday reading, and fitting for an author who allegedly struggled with alcoholism. Of course, I also spent a fair few moments pondering the energizing as well as destructive power of dreaming, while dangling my legs in the lake. When I had finished the book, I went for a swim and decided to re-read it at least once, at some point. I guess I am now one of those people who will tell you to read the book, if you haven’t already…

August 17th, 2011
Mr McKee awoke from his doze and started in a daze toward the door. When he had gone half-way he turned around and stared at the scene - his wife and Catherine scolding and consoling as they stumbled here and there among the crowded furniture with articles of aid, and the despairing figure on the couch, bleeding fluently, and trying to spread a copy of Town Tattle over the tapestry scenes of Versailles. Then Mr McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
August 16th, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Why did I pick up A Visit from the Goon Squad? The cover wasn’t particularly pretty, or interesting. The title was more than a bit vague. I think the combination of the “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” stamp and the message “National Book Critics Circle Award Winner” made me wonder what made the novel so special. Awards always manage to inspire a random mix of curiosity, scepticism and jealousy in me. Whatever it was, I am incredibly grateful that I did pick it up. I read the back and the first page and could barely put the book down long enough to pay for it and leave the store.

Each chapter introduced another character, another factoid, era or feeling. It actually took me a while before I realised that each chapter was told from a different character’s perspective. In this manner, and jumping back and forth in time, Egan gradually paints a picture that spans decades. The reader gets hooked, wondering whose perspective will be next and which piece of the puzzle will be revealed. Just like in real life, bad things happen to people in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan’s vision of the future (yep, we jump that far forwards in time) is not optimistic. Planet Earth is sick, very sick. Thankfully, people still love each other. And technology. The ‘Powerpoint chapter’, from the perspective of a young girl, is easily the most original bit of fiction I have read this year (check out Jennifer Egan’s website for the actual Powerpoint presentation!). A synopsis won’t do the novel justice. If you enjoy reading about music, New York, the past, the present and the future, and real life in all its ugliness, you will enjoy A Visit from the Goon Squad.

August 15th, 2011
The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walks and burning gardens - finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
August 12th, 2011

Super 8: Good but not gr8

Super 8 is J.J. Abrams’ tribute to Steven Spielberg. Abrams is the brain behind two of my favourite TV series, Felicity and Lost. Spielberg is simply awesome: E.T., Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, etcetera etcetera. The cooperation of these two masterminds seems a match made in heaven. But who would have thought that Super 8 would be less than the sum of these humongously talented parts?

A brief summary for those of you who have managed to miss the media frenzy: a group of geeky kids who spend all their time and money on film projects witness a train crash and get caught up in the resulting confusion and horror. There are missing dogs, lots of bicycles, strange white cubes, an impromptu army invasion, a cute deputy sherriff who was married to the cute kid’s dead mother and, of course, a monster. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the surprise. Problem is, neither does Super 8.

What I expected: to be grabbed out of my cinema seat, thrown onto a rollercoaster and crash-land after 112 minutes feeling all warm and fuzzy and a bit dazed.
What I didn’t expect: a film set in the past (E.T. wasn’t!), to watch an episode of Lost and to not feel pleasantly surprised till the very end (you have to stay and watch the titles!).
What I got: an anachronistic experience, too much yelling, fantastic special effects (now THAT was a rollercoaster, my seat was shaking with the noise!), a pretty cool monster, a lukewarm and not-very-fuzzy feeling.
What I would have liked: that the monster had appeared earlier in the film, a more convincing sobstory, and that Super 8 had been set in the recent past. Seriously, they could even have called it Full HD. And with instant replay, that monster would have been seen a bit earlier. A win win situation, surely.

August 11th, 2011

Zeitoun - Dave Eggers

Zeitoun

Read this if you don’t want any spoilers:

Place Zeitoun at the top of your To Read List. You will understand more about hurricane Katrina, and the ways in which the people and the government responded to the hurricane’s destruction. Zeitoun also raises questions about the extent to which the United States is a melting pot, a salad bowl or simply deeply divided and hostile to its own citizens.

Read this if you’re not worried about spoilers:

Zeitoun should have been the story of a stubborn, caring and patriotic man in a canoe. Instead, it becomes the story of a Syrian American who encounters discrimination and civil rights abuse. 

Abdulrahman Zeitoun first appeared in Voices from the Storm, a book from the Voice of Witness series that is the non-profit division of Eggers’ McSweeney’s Books. In Zeitoun, Eggers expands on the family’s story, including Abdulrahman’s childhood in Syria and Kathy’s conversion to Islam.

Eggers has deftly divided Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun’s story into five parts. In the first two parts, we meet the couple and experience the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Abdulrahman and his canoe inspire a curious mix of amazement, admiration and worry. The overall feeling Eggers creates, however, is one of unity and patriotism. But just as you are beginning to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, Abdulrahman finds armed people in his house and promptly goes missing until the end of part three. His tale of American heroism is replaced by a double nightmare: Abdulrahman’s confusion and frustration as he is incarcerated and Kathy’s despair as she struggles to find her husband while wondering if she should start to mourn for him.

What happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun should not have been possible. Often such stories are so horrible that they become literally hard to believe. In Zeitoun, Eggers has done a fabulous job of documenting facts as well as feelings. Abdulrahman is not a number, an anonymous immigrant who disappears for a while and then magically returns. Rather, he is a husband, a father, a human being who is taken away without explanation and returned without an apology. The unceremonious way the government has dealt with his case raises questions about procedures, morals and the chance of similar situations occurring on a regular basis. The personal and beautiful way Eggers paints the Zeitouns’ story ensures it remains believable and will be remembered. In addition, it helps to restore your faith in people and what they can achieve when they put their minds to it. 

Eggers generously donates all author proceeds from Zeitoun to the Zeitoun Foundation, which is dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and fostering interfaith understanding. Check it out: www.zeitounfoundation.org.

October 4th, 2010
As with our colleges, so with a hundred “modern improvements”; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. […] Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.
Henry David Thoreau in Walden, published in 1854. I thoroughly agree, but can’t help myself: I still want an iPad! It will help me to think about serious things, I swear.
September 7th, 2010
Leaves don’t really fall from the trees any more, do they? They just kind of sit on the branch and randomly commit suicide sometime before January. Seasons are passe. Only suckers believe in seasons.
Julien in Generation A by Douglas Coupland