Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

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I like Woody Allen films. There, I’ve said it. Particularly in the past twelve months, heaps of people have come under flak for admitting that they like his films – unsurprising, since Dylan Farrow last year accused him of molesting her when she was a child. Though he wasn’t formally charged, and refused to acknowledge the allegations, the fact that he married his step-daughter already had a lot of people raising eyebrows.

While I can understand why people would want to boycott his films, when possible I try to separate the artist and the artist’s work, so to speak. I don’t encourage criminals who make an income from their crimes (which, now that I think about it, is actually against the law), but currently Woody Allen hasn’t been charged with anything illegal. Guilty until proven innocent, right?

Plus, if I’m completely honest, then I’ll also admit to loving both Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck – one who was an angry drunk who cheated on his wife, the other who was a racist who once said that Arabs were the dirtiest thing on the planet. Needless to say, neither of them have traits that I aspire to. Yet, because of their brilliant writing, I can’t help but read their books.

Now that I’ve given this review a somewhat lengthy intro, as a way to warn people that yes, I do like Woody Allen, I’ll formally begin by saying that last week, I saw Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone, and I absolutely loved it. Critics may be lukewarm about it, but damn, it was one of my favourite films of the year. Plus, critics have never stopped me before.

Set in the 1920s, Colin Firth plays a magician, Stanley, who masquerades as the famous Wei Ling Soo (I’m going to hope that Woody Allen was being racist solely as a reflection of the times), while also debunking fraudulent psychics. When his friend and fellow magician, Howard, asks for his help to unmask a young psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone), Stanley immediately sets off for the south of France to do what he does best – bring the cold, harsh reality to those who have been fooled. Only problem is, the more time he spends with Sophie, the more uncertain he is about reality and he begins to question what he never believed possible – can magic really exist?

The magic in Magic in the Moonlight largely references the magic that occurs between Stanley and Sophie, yet while both of the actors are personable, charming and very attractive, it is still a bit creepy when you consider that Colin Firth is 53, while Emma Stone is 25. Extra creepy when you realise this closely resembles Woody Allen’s real-life marriage. Oh well. For the sake of the movie, I tried to put this out of my head, and for the most part I could.

The best bits about Magic in the Moonlight are the cinematography, the costumes, the lighting – basically everything about how the film looks. The scenery, set in the south of France, is achingly beautiful, and it is only improved by the chateau that the film is set in, complete with ocean views, sweeping lawns and a gasp-inducing garden. Topped with multiple scenes that showcase roads along cliff faces, the film couldn’t have been shot in a place more beautiful.

What really captured the feel of the film was the gorgeous outfits, as the 1920s seemed to excel in, combined with natural light that Allen obviously used to his advantage. The overall feel was a relaxing, romantic time and place, where things weren’t stressful or hurried, and pleasures were the main concern. Take me there, please!

While some critics have said that the storyline was a little ‘too light’ compared to other Allen films, I thought it charming and entertaining. Yes, it was relatively light, but that didn’t stop it from including beautiful gems that were just on the right side of sentimental, sarcastic one-liners and a smooth plot line that seemed neither hurried, nor dull. In short, it was exactly the type of thing one would expect from a Woody Allen film, based in the south of France, centred around love. Plus, despite their age difference, who doesn’t love watching a film that has both Colin Firth and Emma Stone, who are not only great actors, but seem to have that undefinable feature of always being likeable, attractive and charming, regardless of what their character is doing?

In short, I loved this film. It was smart, witty, charming and very likeable. The look and feel of the film, coupled with accomplished actors and a pleasant storyline lead to a blissful way to spend two hours on my Friday night. If you’re after something light and entertaining, that is still of a very high quality, then I’d recommend Magic in the Moonlight.

 

Have you seen Magic in the Moonlight? Are you a fan of Woody Allen’s films? Have you started boycotting them after what has been reported in the media? Let me know!

 

Book Review: In the Winter Dark

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Tim Winton is basically a superstar in terms of Australian literary history. Every time he writes a book, the Miles Franklin judges are practically like ‘Oh, Tim, just take the award. Just take it!’ If this were high school (and we lived in America), Tim Winton would be the cool, drama kid who reluctantly accepts the award of prom king, after turning up to the event as an ironic statement about the bourgeoisie society that we live in.

Essentially, Tim Winton is that hipster on Brunswick Street (non-Melburnians, I recommend you Google that one) that you kinda don’t want to like, but you do, because he’s so cool. And just to cement that theory, I just Googled Tim Winton, and the first photo that shows up is him, with long hair and a black turtleneck. Cliche fulfilled.

Aside from all this though, up until recently I hadn’t read any Tim Winton books. Which is weird for two reasons (aside from my above ramblings): first, practically every ‘literary’ person in Melbourne appears to have read Cloudstreet and loved it, and second, up until 30 seconds ago when I Google’d him, I’d pictured Tim Winton as an exact replica of my high school English teacher. Who I’d loved, because, hello, English nerd.

So, obviously, I decided enough was enough and I had to change that. Earlier this year, I woefully admitted that my knowledge of Australian authors was terribly inadequate, and that I needed to make a change. While I’ve read some Ruth Park and Timothy Conigrave since that statement, it wasn’t until about a week ago that I picked up Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark. Lo and behold, like many Australian classics, it’s set in the lonely outback, with a black centre at its core.

In the Winter Dark follows the lives of four near-strangers who live in the Sink, a lonely valley in the outback. Though they are neighbours, they seldom interact with one another, and each has a dark secret in their past. One evening, Murray’s dog is killed and eaten by an unknown figure, and Ronnie’s goat and birds are completely torn apart. What thing in the night is literally pulling apart their lives? Could it be an errant animal, fuelled by years of isolation and evolution? Or is it just a way to trick one another, as part of an elaborate and cruel prank, while someone watches from the sides?

A short novel, In the Winter Dark is one of those rare novels that goes from first to third person perspective without causing any strain or confusion for the reader. Winton has a sparse, strangely emotionless way of writing, that still manages to capture the reader’s attention. Though he isn’t over the top with adjectives, and his descriptions are left to a bare minimum, I felt oddly as though I could picture the loneliness of the Sink, and of the heart-wrenching, confusing emotions that are gathering momentum inside each of the characters.

Considering that there are so few characters, and essentially the one scene throughout the novel, Winton has done a captivating job of creating a story that is thick with nuances, tensions and emotions. He is the epitome of a writer who ‘shows, but doesn’t tell’ – he somehow leads the reader to do all of the work, often without us realising it. Cheeky! This sparse writing also fuelled the plot of the story, which hinted at so much, while revealing very little.

In the Winter Dark is a perfect thriller – one that keeps you guessing, while building to a crescendo that you know isn’t going to end well. It isn’t black and white, and though it may be slightly frustrating to end the book without definitive answers, it also means that you’re left pondering the themes in the novel for days afterwards. Screaming with literary motifs and clues, its overt plot repetitively points to the hazier, indistinguishable emotions that are inside each of the characters.

 

I would definitely recommend In the Winter Dark, and after reading it, I will admit that I feel like a bit of a dill for not picking up one of Tim Winton’s books earlier. Apparently, sometimes if everyone is reading it, it IS because it’s a good book! Other times, not so much.

Have you read In the Winter Dark? Have you read any of Tim Winton’s books? Let me know!

in the winter dark by tim winton

In the Winter Dark – (image taken from http://www.musingsofaliterarydilettante.files.wordpress.com)

Book Review: The Forever Girl

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The Forever Girl is the latest offering by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, who apparently, is not only one of the few male authors who attempts ‘chick lit’, but he’s also highly successful while doing so. In all truthfulness though, I’d only recently heard of him, and until now had never read one of his books. Either I’m not his target market, or I’ve been living under a rock.

The Forever Girl is a novel that spans over twenty years, telling the story of Clover, a girl who meets and falls in love with the man of her dreams, James, when she’s only four years old. Only problem is, he doesn’t appear to reciprocate. They’re childhood best friends until hormones, school and sheer distance come between them. Spanning The Caribbean, Australia and the UK, Clover follows James, and her heart, to give love one last shot.

While the relationship between Clover and James is the central plot of The Forever Girl, there’s also a secondary plot – one that follows the love that Clover’s mum, Amanda, and James’s dad have together. Though neither give into their feelings (they’re both married) their yearning and unspoken love for one another acts as a pantomime of Clover and James’s relationship.

WARNING: While I usually try to avoid it, to review this book I’ll be giving away some spoilers.

The Forever Girl was a fun, enjoyable read that I consumed in only a couple of days. It was lovely and breezy, with likeable characters and exactly the book I needed, after slogging my way through On The Road. McCall Smith is clearly an experience writer who knows his target audience and what they expect from his plots. His writing style is so perfectly tuned that it was even quite obvious when he was providing visual clues that reflected the plot. In short, I really liked this book.

But I found the ending disappointed, and I found the two lead characters frustrating. Essentially, The Forever Girl follows Clover as she tries again and again to get over James. She knows she should move on from him, but she can’t. She tries dating another man for years (never a good idea), and yet she still can’t get over him. In short, the entire novel is of her yearning to be James, yet never being courageous enough to actually tell her how she feels.

And then, while the reader has clearly been waiting the entire novel for it to happen, James declares his love to Clover. Doesn’t explain why now, or why is he even telling her now, it’s just BAM, I love you, and then the book is completed two pages later. And as a reader, I just felt that this was an absolute cope out by McCall Smith, and without an explanation, it soured the entire novel.

Why, after all, was James telling Clover only now that he had feelings for her? If he has always been in love with her (as he announced he did), why was he calling her ‘sister’? Why didn’t he actually contact her or provide her with an email address when she asked for it? And dear god, how on earth can two people go twenty years knowing one another, yet both being too afraid to tell each other how they feel – or even, just flirt a little? I mean, I was happy and relieved when they got their happy ever after (even if I was jibbed a lovely big finale), but I got so frustrated with Clover that I almost felt she didn’t deserve it.

I did enjoy this book. It is the perfect ‘too tired to think, just want to relax’ type of book. It would be wonderful to read by a pool or on the beach. While I wasn’t particularly happy with the ending, I still enjoyed McCall Smith’s writing style. I would definitely pick up one of his other books, and if you want something that is carefree and predicable, then I recommend you do too (although you probably have, with over 20 million copies sold).

Have you read anything by Alexander McCall Smith? Have you read The Forever Girl? Can a man successfully write Chick Lit? Let me know!

the forever girl by alexander mccall smith

The Forever Girl – (image taken from http://www.blogspot.com)

Book Review: On The Road

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On The Road by Jack Kerouac is universally regarded as ‘the’ novel of the Beat generation. Echoing Kerouac’s own life, filled with writing, booze, drugs and travel, On The Road is the original salute to living life without a damn, and without thinking of the consequences.

Sal Paradise is an author writing in his first manuscript, living with his aunt in New York. Then, he meets con man and fellow beatnik, Dean Moriarty, and decides to travel cross country to San Francisco. No money, no plans, no worries. Hitch-hiking across the continent, Paradise meets and falls in love with a girl, destroys a friendship, gets a job as a night watchmen and never even meets up with his mate Moriarty.

And that’s just the first trip across the country, of which there are several.

On The Road is considered an iconic example of roman a clef, using fiction to mask the real lives that Kerouac (Paradise), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) led. While this is the first Kerouac novel that I’ve read, I’ve come across him before in other books – notably in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.

I can see where On The Road would be a cult classic, beloved by a certain type of person and reader. In terms of quality, it is a fantastic book. Kerouac captures the essence of the Beat generation, the feel of poverty and travel, the debauchery rakishness of his main characters. His richly painted scenes of American countryside, particularly towards the end in Mexico, were vivid, colourful and engrossing.

Yet I didn’t like this book.

I just couldn’t stand Sal Paradise and his mates. While the reality of getting drunk, sleeping with women, travelling the country, all sounds great, as a reader I just felt as though it was all utterly, totally pointless. Paradise goes across the country only to curse San Francisco and to return home, with his tail between his legs. Then, bam, off he goes again, not once, but twice. And each time that he travels he isn’t prepared, he has no money, he stresses that he won’t be able to eat.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely people out there that would read On The Road and envy Sal Paradise’s lifestyle. I’m not one of those people. And while I usually love reading stories from the perspective of a character whose life is so far removed form mine (isn’t that the purpose of reading, after all?), I was just overcome by the absolute pointlessness of Sal’s character. What is he trying to prove? What he is trying to achieve? Why am I being carried along beside him, as a reader, only to find that he is doing the same nothingness with his life over and over? What has changed from the beginning and the end of his story?

Overall, I can see why Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is considered a classic, but it wasn’t the book for me. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad book, but it contained characters that I couldn’t relate to, and their stories just seemed uninteresting and pointless. However, I know that this is a beloved novel by a lot, so if you would like to prove me wrong, please don’t hesitate.

Have you read On The Road or anything by Jack Kerouac? Are you a fan of the Beat generation? Let me know!

on the road by jack kerouac

On The Road – (image taken from http://www.happyybrown.files.wordpress.com)

Book Review: Before We Met

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Lucie Whitehouse’s psychological thriller Before We Met is basically an entire novel screaming ‘DON’T GET MARRIED TO SOMEONE YOU’VE KNOWN LESS THAN A YEAR’. Also, don’t get married to someone whose close friends or family you’ve never met. Particularly if you meet them in a foreign country.

Hannah lives a charmed life, largely thanks to her perfect husband Mark: he’s rich, handsome, successful and has a big house in a great street in London. Sure, she’s never met his family and he refuses to talk about his brother, but that’s inconsequential right?

Then one evening Mark goes MIA after he was meant to return home from New York. Though Hannah eventually hears from him the next day, suddenly things aren’t adding up. Mark’s secretly transferred all her savings into his account, his colleagues think he’s away in Rome on a romantic weekend with Hannah, and the quiet lies about his past start to resurface. All of leads Hannah to continually ask herself one question – how well can you really know someone else?

While on the surface Hannah can come across as rather silly to have entered into a marriage with a man she doesn’t really know, events from her past are slowly revealed to explain why a confident, independent woman would marry a man who is clearly hiding a great number of secrets. Plus, when you’re in love with what comes across as the ‘perfect man’, it’s quite easy to pretend that everything is well.

In a similar vein to Gone Girl, Before We Met delves into the idea of what it means to marry someone and share your life with them – will you ever truly know about their past or what type of person they are? Can we create facades that allow us to hide our true identity from everyone, including those closest to us?

Before We Met was an engaging and enthralling thriller. Though at times the storyline lagged, particularly in the middle, I was kept guessing until the end, when all the loose strings were pulled together. Though the premise of Whitehouse’s novel wasn’t particularly original, and sadly Hannah frequently lacks the drive or feistiness that I had come to expect from her, it is a fast-paced novel that somehow manages to ring true.

Furthermore, Whitehouse’s portrayal of advertising, money and the perception of class, and how it can affect someone, was scarily accurate. While most people wouldn’t resort to freezing their family and their past completely because they weren’t rich enough, the effects of marketing definitely convince many that they have to look and act a certain way, around certain people, if they want to live a ‘perfect life’.

Lastly, throughout Before We Met, Whitehouse weaves cautionary tales that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, so to speak. While someone may be handsome and rich, alas, look fantastic on paper, if you fail to really understand how they think and what motivates them, you may end up for a rude shock.

Before We Met is a fun, easy read that will keep you turning pages and guessing right until the end. If you’re into something a bit edgy, without the gore that usually comes with horror, or if you’re after another book similar to Gone Girl, then I’d recommend Before We Met.

 

Have you read Before We Met or anything by Lucie Whitehouse? Let me know!

before we met by lucie whitehouse

Before We Met – (image taken form http://www.blogspot.com)

Book Review: Surrender

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Sonya Hartnett is an award-winning Australian novelist who creates stories that look innocent on the outskirts, but always seem to reveal a deeper meaning. In the same way that Australian horror movies always seem to be set in the outback or in a country town, population 1000, Hartnett’s novels seem always to be a tad sinister, with a placid, country town as its backdrop.

Surrender follows the life of Anwell, seven, a lonely boy who lives in a prestigious but cold family; his mother is frequently sick and distant, his father is unsympathetic and cruel. After a horrifying incident two years previously, Anwell has been kept on a very tight leash – he has no friends, he isn’t allowed to leave his yard, and all the children at school bully him for being part of an odd, elitist family.

One day Anwell makes friend with Finnigan, a rogue boy who appears to run wild in the bush lands surrounding the small country town. One day he promises Anwell to ‘do only good’ and go by the name of Gabriel, while he will make sure to do only bad.

After the town is ravished by fires caused by an arsonist, Anwell soon learns how volatile and unstable Finnigan truly is. And when things at home go from bad to worse with the inclusion of an errant family dog, Surrender, Anwell learns that loneliness and despair can lead to terrible consequences.

If you’ve ever seen or read Fight Club, aspects of this plot may sound familiar to you: Finnigan is the alter-ego of Anwell. Anwell is made up of two personalities: Gabriel, who wants badly to please his strict parents, and Finnigan, a boy who has been so scarred by his upbringing, he wants to ravage and destroy the town that has led to his misery.

Surrender is set in present day – Anwell is slowly dying of a terrible disease – but it largely relies on flashbacks from when Anwell first meets Gabriel. Hartnett clearly knew what she was doing – this way of telling the story only heightens the suspense and the growing belief that something terrible has happened and it’s soon to be revealed.

When I was reading this book, a man from the writers festival (where I’m currently volunteering – yay for books!) commented on it that it almost has a horror feel about it, and I completely agree. At first, Surrender simply comes across as a novel about an unhappy boy in a country town, having to deal with everyone knowing your entire family’s business (coming from a country town myself, I can relate). Yet as the plot unfolds, it becomes more apparent that there is something deeply wrong with Anwell, and that while we’re seeing things from his perspective, it’s clear that what we’re being shown isn’t the reality.

The other outstanding part of Surrender is how well Hartnett depicts what can happen when someone is lonely and completely deprived of love. Not only does Anwell have to deal with the grief and guilt of something he did when he was only five, but he is surrounded by family members, people who are meant to care for him, who are trying desperately to distance themselves from him, largely because of the shame they feel towards themselves.

Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender isn’t light reading by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, it disturbed me so much that the next time I want to the bookstore I struggled to find anything to read, desperate to make sure I picked something up that didn’t involve death, despair or derailment. (For the record, the next book I chose ended up having all three.) But it is also an engrossing read that reveals, piece by piece, the extraordinary depth of the characters that Hartnett has created. Will it give you nightmares? Perhaps. But like all good thrillers, you’ll enjoy the ride right until the last page.

 

Have you read Surrender? Have you read any books by Sonya Hartnett? Are you a fan of thriller books? Let me know!

surrender by sonya hartnett

Surrender – (image taken from http://www.sonyahartnett.com.au)

Film Review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him

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Melbourne loves festivals. If you can think of anything cultural, there is bound to be a festival in its honour here in Melbourne. It’s probably because of the shocking weather – we need something to occupy our time. Currently in town is the Melbourne International Film Festival, where art house, foreign language, downright kooky and pre-release films are on offer. So my friend and I treated ourselves to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him.

The first feature length film(s) by Ned Benson, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is actually three films in one. The Melbourne International Film Festival was showing parts Her and Him back-to-back (we couldn’t get tickets to Her), and Them is set to be released later this year.

The story centres around a strong couple that have their relationship irrevocably changed after a devastating incident. While Conor (James McAvoy) believes that the only way to move on is to look towards the future, his wife, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) has been sucked into a depressive blackness that she feels she has suffered through alone. After a suicide attempt, she tells Conor that she ‘needs to disappear’ and for him to stop contacting her.

We watched the ‘Him’ version, which tells the story from Conor’s perspective: the anger and confusion that he feels after Eleanor lives; his vulnerability that he eventually shows to his friends; and eventually, the acknowledgment of pain that he too has been suffering since that horrific incident.

The beauty of Benson’s project is that the films can either be seen together, or as stand-alone films, but in saying that, I do wish I had seen the Her perspective too. Simply because from the viewpoint of Conor, Eleanor comes across as cold and unforgiving – I wanted to know how she got to that stage where she fell completely out of love with the man of her dreams.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is one of those films that just breaks your heart. You don’t necessarily cry (although I did) because there aren’t any truly heart-breaking moments in the film, but the whole film is just filled with so much emotion you can’t help but leave with a terrible ache in your stomach. I’ve had that ache whenever I’ve thought about the film since. And while the plot could have at times been corny, the performances by Chastain (the role was actually specifically written for her) and McAvoy were so astounding that they just made the whole film feel genuine.

What resonated with me most about the film is that it questions relationships, and why it is we fall in love with that one person. After all, how can one person change our lives so irrevocably? And what do you do when something shakes that foundation of love so strongly that it tears you apart? Can you ever truly ‘move on’ from someone that you’ve shared your life with?

Benson’s first attempt of a feature length film was definitely ambitious, and while there were aspects of the film that could be improved, particularly plot flow, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a haunting, beautiful film. It deals with how different people cope with grief, and how one can move on from that stage of sadness in their life. For such a sensitive topic, it has been dealt with beautifully.

I’m keen to watch the ‘Them’ when it is released later this year, but if you’re in Melbourne and keen to go to the film festival, then I’d recommend Him or Her too.

Have you seen The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby? Have you been to the Melbourne International Film Festival? Let me know!

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