The Cul De Sac (television; NZ, 2016)

I am not really keeping up with the pop culture right now but I was surprised to discover on Sunday that I’d just missed the first episode of a new youth-oriented TV series called “The Cul de Sac”. Further surprised that I couldn’t see anyone talking about it – especially since it features KJ Apa in a lead role. The dude is playing Archie Andrews in the new Riverdale series in the US, and this show doesn’t even show up on his IMDB yet!

So, I’m gonna talk about it.

The article I read – a little promo piece in the Sunday Star Times – said the series “follows two major sci-fi tropes and mixes them together with some Kiwi flavouring: a world with no adults meets what sounds like an alien invasion.” (No adults – like another piece of NZ-produced yoof telly, dear old bonkers cheesefest The Tribe!)

This sounded worth a look, especially after namedropping those classic kidult sci-fi shows of the 80s, Under the Mountain and Children of the Dog Star, although it’s obviously scratching that Hunger Games/Divergent sort of itch. I watched the first episode over lunch – if you’re in NZ you can do the same right here. (Probably blocked for other regions, I guess?)

And – it was a good time! It goes like a bloody rocket, as the protagonists find out that all the adults are gone and sinister weather turns into a destructive event that vaporises a whole bunch of teens, while the high school has gone all dystopian authority. It gets points for planting a young woman in the lead role and giving her heaps to do – the opening scene with an unhappy dog is a brilliant piece of understated action – and I was delighted to find rising star Apa playing (with effortless charisma) what would typically be the girlfriend role – taking orders from the main hero, running to report bad news, and even twisting his ankle while running away from stuff.

You do have to give the show a lot of leeway as it races through its setup, though. We see a lot of teens and kids who seem completely happy to just stand around murmuring after this crisis and submit meekly as a few tough kids establish an authoritarian regime when, well, there is a whole adult-free world elsewhere they could go to instead, not to mention whole supermarkets sitting there unlooted. But I’ll run with it because this show obviously wants to get to its main storyline as quickly as possible.

I’ll definitely be coming back for more. Worth a look.

Pitch Perfect 2 (USA, 2015)

I loved Pitch Perfect. That, to my surprise and delight, was a good film.
This sequel is very much a sequel. It’s not as good. It’s not a good film.

There’s still some nice laughs and some good tunes, and although the studio pressure to turn this into a series of slumber-party classics is visible on-screen, it has its heart in the right place. So it feels kinda mean talking about all the reasons why it doesn’t work.

Instead I’ll just say the film certainly has some high points, particularly whenever David Cross or Keegan-Michael Key are on screen; but what a disappointment that in a film full of interesting women, the highlights are both men in cameo roles.

Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings: a few thoughts

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, Tina Makereti
I just finished reading Tina Makereti’s novel Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014, Vintage). In a short twitter conversation with the author and another reader, I mentioned an intense passage late in the book featuring some graphic and unpleasant content. (I said I wasn’t sure I could recommend the book to my mother on account of this sequence – it was a flippant comment, but sincere nonetheless.) When I tried to go into further thoughts on this sequence I gave up, the Twitter format defeating me. They both suggested taking it to blog – so here we are.

Context, then. The novel follows two stories in parallel. First, in the 1880s, the forbidden love arising between Māori girl Mere and her family’s Moriori slave, Iraia. Second, in a contemporary setting, twins Lula and Bigs investigate the secrets of their own ancestry that leads them back to Mere and Iraia, and then to Rēkohu (Chatham Island). Woven through the narrative is another voice, the spirit of an ancestor even further back who accompanies Iraia, and then Lula, on their respective journeys.

(Some plot spoilers, inevitably, follow – but despite the name I don’t think knowing the things I’m about to discuss will spoil the book for you at all.)

Late in the book, Lula and Bigs return to Rēkohu and for the spirit this is an awakening of unpleasant memories, recounted in two powerful sequences. First, we relive with him his death at the hands of invading Māori, an intense build-up to a battle that ends almost immediately in his death. The second section is the one that gave me pause. Here, we stay with the spirit as he finds he does not move on into the afterlife, but instead lingers, attached to his body. And the narrative follows what happens to that body, in careful detail, as it is cooked and eaten by the conquerers. The back cover describes the book as “quietly powerful and compelling”, and it mostly is, but this sequence is a clear violation of that tone. It is gruesome and confronting. I think it’s also important and valuable and probably crucial. Many reasons. Let me try and catch some of them.

The book is, in part, about the historical relationship (and conflict) between Māori and Moriori. This is, to put it lightly, poorly understood by New Zealand at large – this well-researched novel is certainly the most information I’ve ever encountered on the subject. But one thing that everyone knows – well, “knows” – is that Māori were the aggressors towards the Moriori, and killed and ate them. The reason everyone knows this is because many socially conservative voices try to invoke this historic injustice as a way of dodging the current inequality in NZ. If Māori were wicked to Moriori, then they can’t complain about Europeans turning up and being mean to them, and besides it’s not as if the Europeans ate the Māori, they aren’t barbarians, the Māori should be thankful for all the things we gave them… These sentiments are regularly expressed in the letters to the editor of every newspaper in the nation, not to mention in more than a few opinion columns and other venues. (Don’t even think about what gets said in comment sections. It isn’t good.)

In a sense this sequence was necessary – if you write a novel about the history between Māori and Moriori, I’d guess you can’t avoid this narrative. Not that I’m suggesting Makereti is obliged to address the social conservatives out there in NZ – far from it, no author owes anything to anyone – just that a novel on this subject would feel incomplete if it avoided addressing the best-known historical factoid about this relationship. Makereti in fact deftly structures the novel to exclude those grumpy old men entirely by locating the issues raised by this history in the relationship between twins Lula and Bigs, who share lineage from both sides of the historical conflict and each come to identify more with one side than the other.

So Makereti had to talk about the details of what happened somewhere. But the sequence she gives us is clearly far in excess of simply acknowledging this history. The intense dramatisation makes this a climactic moment of the entire novel, and a tonal disruption that colours everything around it. This serves her literary purpose well, because in historical terms that violence colours subsequent history right up to the present – the tone structure of the novel echoes the history that is its subject.

But the genius in this sequence, and why I think it’s so important, isn’t just that it presents this history so vividly and unforgettably. It’s that it contextualises these acts of, to my eyes, barbarism, with an anthropological eye filled with empathy. As the spirit becomes attuned to his new afterlife, his relationship to his body changes, and the perspective of the invaders slowly approaches knowability in his eyes. The crucial moment comes as he witnesses part of his body fed to an infant, and through this moment, leaves his body and moves perspective to hers. The description, unflinching in the detail of chewing and swallowing and digestion, is subsumed under the child’s innocence, and the spirit becomes able through her to perceive the other oppressors as people driven by their own fears and needs and loves. The sequence becomes, somehow, beautiful.

When I say, then, that this sequence of grotesque violence hangs over the rest of the novel, what I mean is the strangely comforting moment where the spirit allows himself to feed the child. It promises some redemption, someday, for conflicts that remain unresolved.

So, yeah. It’s structurally and thematically huge, and it works beautifully on many levels. That’s what I got out of this sequence, as best I can express it today anyway! The rest of the book of course is not full of violence. I should point out it’s a beautiful book and I love the characters and the storytelling and the whole thing. And in writing this I’ve talked myself around – the violence here shouldn’t dissuade anyone, my mum included, from reading this. It’s worth it.

No wonder I couldn’t fit all that into 140 characters…

(Edited to add: “Makereti” in this post feels wrong, but “Tina” would be even more wrong, and “Ms. Makereti” would be even even more more wrong. I dunno.)

Gone Girl (USA, 2014)

Made it to the movies! A rare treat.

Gone Girl is a twisty mystery/psychological thriller. Wife disappears apparently kidnapped, but some things don’t add up, and husband has secrets. Director David Fincher underplays everything, including his directorial style – it felt to me like he was taking some of the moves from Zodiac (probably his masterpiece) and playing them more broadly, without the obsessive control that gave many sequences of that film their power.

Film has a big wrenching swerve in the middle, and becomes quite a different beast thereafter. Felt to me that the film overplayed its hand here, partly the fault of novel author Gillian Flynn adapting her own work. It had more endings than Return of the King and would be a better movie with almost the entire last half hour simply cut. I also didn’t find the emotional resonance that other viewers and critics have reported – it had disappeared too far into its own reality for that.

For all these grumbles, it is definitely entertaining and I’d unhesitatingly recommend it.

This review has SPOILERS from here…

The chief failure for me was the film’s attempt to set up some kind of moral equivalence between the sins of Nick and those of Amy, and to locate those within an interrogation of the idea of marriage. Those are some interesting questions but they don’t work if you make Amy a less realistic character than Hannibal Lecter. The revelation that Amy was alive and was planning everything – her insanely detailed lists and plans and their expected outcome of Nick’s execution – instantly framed the character as a nearly cartoonish villain, and I still enjoyed the film with that in mind, but you’d probably find an equally good examination of marriage in those Stepfather movies.

NZIFF: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden (USA, 2013)

Doco about a weird unsolved murder mystery in the 1930s Galapagos Islands. There were only a handful of people on the island of Floreana, all eccentric or mad to various degrees, locked in strange jealousies and rivalries. It’s a small cast of characters, none of whom are particularly endearing, all destined to be either victims or suspects.

It was a good watch, but like more than a few docos I’ve seen in the last few years, it was slooow. There was a tight, excellent 90-minute documentary film inside this 120-minute version, and I would much rather have seen that. But I can recommend it anyway – there is much in this account worthy of eyebrow-raising, and that is surely a good measure of a documentary’s worth.

NZIFF: Under The Skin (UK, 2013)

Scarlett Johansson is an otherworldly being who seduces Glaswegian men to their otherworldy doom. It’s shot, framed, told, and paced as an art film, but the narrative itself is fairly straightforward. (Which is good! That’s not a criticism!) There are many mysteries, mostly unexplained, although the shapes of answers are given. There’s a lot of improvised stuff where unsuspecting Glaswegian locals found themselves interacting with Johansson in seduction mode. The whole sequence on the beach is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen.

I loved it. Best thing i’ve seen in ages. But this is really not for everyone.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (USA, 2014)

This was a great action film in the mold of post-2000 action films – i.e. ludicrous stakes, lots of CGI, frenetic pace. I liked it a bunch. So some random notes:

* The film has Captain America’s name on it, but it’s a team film. Two black men, two women, and one traditional whitebread action guy. Sure, it’s that guy who’s on the poster, but this is definitely a good step forward. In related news, for heaven’s sake give Scarlett Johansen her own Black Widow film (if she wants it), she basically steals this one without even trying.

* Speaking of Black Widow – there’s a bit at the 3/4 mark when the big scary bad guy has Cap and Widow in his sights, and he says, “you get the man, I’ll get the woman”. And as soon as that happened and he went stomping after the brave resourceful woman, I sat a bit forward in my seat, because it’s the setup for one of the most cliche moves in action narrative.

To explain – as you move into your final sequence you need to set up the big confrontation – raise the stakes while you show your bad guy is scary as hell. The cliche way to do it? Aim your villain at the hero’s main ally. Put them in hospital, or in a coffin. Then the hero gets to be isolated and enraged and desperate all at once, ready for climax! (Or you aim your villain at the hero’s ladyfriend, and have them get killed or captured. “Fridged” you might say. Same deal.)

So in a movie called “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, the Winter Soldier (2nd part of title) could have a fight with Captain America (1st part of title) but he goes after another character instead? That character is toast, right? Is our super-resourceful Black Widow about to be stomped to put the villain over and set up a tearful Cap vs Winter finale?

SPOILER ALERT nope. Not even a little bit. It’s a small subversion, but it’s a pleasant one. This is a team movie, and the team get to work together the whole way through.

* Seeing comics writer/Winter Soldier creator Ed Brubaker in a scene was very distracting. He had good facial expressions.

* Marvel movies always have a little stinger scene at the end of the credits. They have one in the middle of the credits too. Well, this was the least rewarding end of credits scene yet. It was a loooong wait for something completely redundant. Don’t bother waiting for it.

* Anthony Mackie as the Falcon: yes, more of this sort of thing.

12 Years A Slave (USA/UK, 2013)

I am part of the film’s third audience, neither American White nor American Black, privileged to watch from outside, safely, to look upon the horrors and the injustice and whisper thanks that my people never devoured themselves with such madness, to observe with smug fascination at the broken ways of some other kind of people so different from my own. But the film doesn’t let me take this escape, for the unspeakable encompassing specificity of the American slave trade is an expression of something within, and Ejiofor and Nyong’o and Woodard and the rest don’t let me hide from the truth that I am complicit too, my veins are thickened with power, my people have embraced their strength and murmured that it could not be helped, and I sit white and healthy in what I call my property on a land my people once desired, a system of normalised exploitation replicating soundlessly around me, and just because my ancestors did not take a whip I cannot be at rest, it is in all of us, and it is in me and mine at strength, the sins are mine, and if I tell myself I am safe from this film I am lying, because it rebukes me too, it must rebuke me, it must teach me to hate a part of myself, but not just that, but also to love some part, some small part, that knows how justice might be found at any cost, that might be coaxed to hold on to justice, that might be tricked to fight for justice, for that is in my lineage too. This film is not safe, is not an instructive lesson in good morals for middle-class white people, it is not interested in me, but it comes for me anyway, and it looks at me, and it looks at me, and it looks.

American Hustle (USA, 2013)

First up: read Alasdair’s piece about this film, and how everyone’s talking about the actors and no-one’s talking about the plot. Good stuff.

This was headlining at the Roxy the same night Cal & I wanted to use our tickets to the Roxy, so we saw it. And it vexed me. On a different night I could imagine walking out of it. Not that I hated it, or found it upsetting or even boring, but there was something…

Excess – director David O. Russell drives this home right from the opening, an extended and lingering view of Christian Bale’s paunchy con-man applying a hair-piece. It’s not a subtle piece of filmmaking symbolism, this sequence, and I doubt it was intended to be. (See also: the nail polish.) Even here, the camera is restless, switching attention to Bale’s hands, looking at Bale then his reflection then back at Bale. Like the camera is anxious to get moving and is being forced, like the audience, to wait. And then it goes bezerk, two hours plus of feverish swirling camera, lots of closeups, lots of dense frames full of leering people. It goes for the voiceover method to fill in backstory but even here Russell acknowledges what he’s doing and loads it to excess, keeping the voiceover running and running and running until you’re sick of Bale’s voice and then giving other characters a chance to voiceover too and then finally ditching voiceover entirely for the bulk of the film. And Bradley Cooper’s FBI goon and Jennifer Lawrence’s messed-up wife get their characters stretched like bubble gum into the same excessive mold, Cooper’s especially, both saved from rolling over into caricature only by relentless, driving editing and the fundamental ability of both actors to ground what they’re doing.

Watching this film, for me, was an exercise in frustration. I kept feeling like the film was elbowing me out of the screen, knocking me back into my cinema seat, while it barrelled on to its next set piece. It felt like this film had been so caught up in filling itself with excess that it forgot to leave space for the viewer. There was no room for me inside it.

But even then, there was much to enjoy. Amy Adams, playing “sexy” (after building a career on winsome nose-wrinkling), but at the same time going raw, nearly method, letting her face go uncomposed or, I don’t know, unpretty, shameless, while the camera zooms in for a closeup. She was great to watch, and Cooper and Lawrence kinda kept me engaged just to see how they’d manage the high-wire of their OTT characters. And Jeremy Renner (as Alasdair notes, did you read that post I linked to, dooo it) was really sharp with his uneven principled but still sort-of-shady mayor. And Christian Bale –

– oh man, Christian Bale. Maybe it wasn’t David O. Russell who wasn’t giving me room, maybe it was Bale. Dude has screen presence to burn but when I watch him, I feel like there’s something fundamentally ungenerous about how he plays. Like he’d be happiest of all if his work never had an audience at all, the only viewer there’d ever be would be the cold lens of the camera. It’s a great performance, he holds the film together, he anchors it, and he communicates every beat of the tangled/poorly-explained plot through his performance choices. But it was like an ice cube in an empty glass. I wish the film was centred on Amy Adams instead.

Oh yeah, the plot, the story, good if you cared enough to pay attention, but you didn’t need to. The two pivot points (the one that gets Bale invited on a very unpleasant limo ride, and the one that leads to Cooper’s comeuppance) are both ostensibly surprises but I expect lots of people would see ’em coming from the moment they get set up. The point is the journey through the plot, not its ability to stay a step ahead of you.

High point of the film: the woozy, boozy counterpoint of Bale/Lawrence/Renner out for dinner intercut with Adams/Cooper out dancing. All the stylistic overkill just flowed. Funny, fun, and another reminder that it is a good thing to see Amy Adams dance.

So I dunno man. Did I like this movie? Yeah! Did I dislike this movie! Also yeah! It’ll get some Oscars I guess, and lots and lots of people seem to like it just fine. But, for a movie that’s all about drawing people in, I wish it had tried to do that to me.

To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf, 1927

Micro-review. We’ve had Woolf’s classic on the shelves in a 60s Penguin edition for years, and finally the time was right to pick it up. I knew virtually nothing about it, only that it’s often talked about as a partner to Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the milestones of early-20th-century modernism. (It’s also a fraction of the length.) Given how much I enjoyed Ulysses, I was looking forward to this.

But I nearly put it down and didn’t pick it up again.

I was enjoying the read, Woolf uses language beautifully of course, but I hit the half-way point and I just wasn’t *grabbed* by it. It seemed like one of those art milestones that you can’t read properly any more because all of its innovations have since become cliches. The stream of consciousness shifting perspective Woolf offers has become a commonplace stylistic trick. Heck, I’ve done it myself. Combine that with a busy run that saw days go by between chances to knock off a few pages, and I almost lost momentum entirely.

Then I hit the second phase of the book. I had no idea it was coming; a sudden change in tone and style and scope, crossing decades after spending dozens of pages in the minutia of a single day. Then the narrative eased into a third and final phase, another intense dive into character POV across the moments of a single day, a decade on from the first section.

And I *loved* it.

I can’t think of another time my reaction to a book changed so completely in the span of a few pages. The structural moves Woolf made completely won me over. Simple and powerful, retroactively making the first section seem fresh by the unexpected (to me) contrast with the final section. I think I’ll be going back to this one in a few years.

(Also: I imagine this book would be frequently studied in english lit courses. I am glad I never had to apply the scalpel of analysis to this – I doubt it could survive the experience. This seems to me a book to be felt rather than understood, even though there is so much in it to be understood. That’s a definite contrast to the cheeky gamesmanship of Joyce, who seems to be clearly writing with such analysis in mind.)