Sunday, January 29, 2012


Since the oscar season is upon us, I remembered last year's winner of Academy award, Hævnen (In a Better World). I have a feeling that this year's winner will be A Separation, which also won the golden globe for foreign language film. I can't say I would particularly like that but I am yet to see the rest of the nominees. More about A Separation later.
I will focus on the movie that in my opinion should have won last year. Incendies is a joint effort of Canada and France. Set in the Middle East, in a country that looks very much like Lebanon, where twins Jeanne and Simon are trying to heed to their mother's last wish (or will). Nawal was never a really warm, loving mother and their father died a long time ago, they never even knew him. When their mother suffers a stroke and dies, they are left with two envelopes. One they must give to their brother, whom they never even knew they had, and the other to their father, who according to their mother is still alive. Confused and angry they at first deny going on such a trip, especially Simon is adamant not to do anything of the sorts. But as Jeanne decides to follow her mother's footsteps and try to uncover the story that shaped her mother into the person she was, she discovers details, twists, plots and stories she never even heard of. At a particularly difficult moment she calls her brother for support. And that is the most that I can reveal. Nawal's life is shocking in itself, surprising, painful and resilient. The things that you find out as her children follow from one lead to another, digging deep into the roots of best hidden details of a war-stricken country, will move you, shake you and stun you.

"Sometimes it's better not to know."

The story is believable, the acting moving and truthful and the movie beautiful. There was not a second of it that I didn't enjoy or wonder what happens next. The truth can be waiting behind the corner but often we need a long time to find it and just like life, the journey is that matters. And more than anything else, sometimes we never know the people in our life, at all. Nawal's story explains so much of her attitude and so much of the person she was that without it, anyone would simply think that she was mean, cruel, cold and emotionless.
Should have won an oscar. Seriously.

Death is never the end of the story.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Elizabeth Kostova: The Swan Thieves

I've read this book about two weeks ago and until now couldn't bring myself to sit down and write about it. I'll admit that I was so frustrated about it that I went and checked if The New York Times said anything (bad) about it. If anyone, they'd have the guts. Better yet, I discovered that apart from mentioning it, they never dissected it. Given they've not been too kind to The Historian (which I have not read) it's no surprise there.
I don't know about the people who claim this book "flew by in an instant". In my humbled opinion, Ms Kostova beats around the bush. That's what she's particularly good at. Now, don't misunderstand, the story has its potential and it is artfully written, she is clearly skillful with words. But that does not a good writer make. She is terrible with plots. Horrible with characters. Infuriating at endings. Yes, I am now speaking as if I've read more than one of her books when in fact several endings in this one particular book have quite frankly pissed me off.
Without divulging too much, I can just say that yes, the book is about an artist's torment and a psychiatrist's loneliness. Because nothing else but self-obsessive ego-centrism are the reasons that drive Robert's psychiatrist to uncover his secret. Once he does (and if you've read one or two crime (or whodunnit) novels in your life, you will too, about halfway into the book), everything falls into place. He does not need to explain his indiscretions, he has saved the day, the soul, the life and his own heart. Oh. My. God. Was her editor drunk?
Hm, I realize it seems as if I am furiously yelling but I must admit, I did not *hate* the book. But that is also because I know how artists are, I know of the world they are living in, the kind of psyche they have and things they are thinking about. But not how they are thinking, because no one but them knows that. The writer was at least smart in avoiding that subject. Perhaps that was the interesting part to me. Although even Robert, the artist, who attacks a painting in a gallery with a knife and is therefore hospitalized, is in the end completely inconsistent with himself. Completely.
I was intrigued by the background story of the artist, who was held captive but I was disappointed to find that Kostova was constantly hinting, building up expectations, giving pressure, allowing quickening of pace only to land - at nothing interesting at all. Why did he leave his wife? Who is mysterious Mary? What has changed him? What happened to him in the museum? Even the explanation of how he met the woman he is so obsessed with and can't stop painting is ludicrous.

A painting of Leda with a swan waiting to attack her. (author: François Édouard Picot)

This was quite simply a story that was disappointing. That promised a lot but somehow didn't live up to its potential. And most definitely a story that could have been told in 300 pages. Not every character should have the same poetic expressions, it isn't plausible. Not every character should be painting. Not every character should be quiet and suffering.
Not the money, I want my time back.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Three Girls With The Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson's story of Men Who Hate Women (the original title of the Swedish novel) had a tragic beginning. It came as the opening story of the Millennium trilogy and he was working on all three novels for a long, long time. Then one day he came to work (he was working as a journalist) and realized that the elevator was down. So he took the stairs. By the time he almost reached his work space, he collapsed due to a heart attack. He didn't make it but what he left behind were amazing stories that enamored the world and captured millions and millions of readers.

So began the story of one of the most enigmatic heroines ever depicted. Lisbeth Salander, the (proverbial) girl with the dragon tattoo (and many others) is a hacker, a computer genius who helps Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who has fallen from grace, restore his name, solve a 40 year old mystery and earn some money on the way. Going into details about the plot would be superfluous and insensitive of me, so for the entire plot (consider yourself warned - it *does not* save you from spoilers and they are GOOD) go here.

The book is, suffice to say, amazing. Even the parts that you think are irrelevant or not important or could be skipped turn out to be of major significance. Lisbeth Salander, as presented in this book, is such an intriguing character that it should by all means be introduced to everyone through this book. Neither through the indie-film character nor through the blockbuster-movie character. The way she is described is what any author always dreams of succeeding with their character-building technique. You not only don't know whether to love, fear or wanna-avoid her. More than that, no matter how you like or dislike her, you desperately want to know what happened to her, what is happening with her and what awaits for her. If she were alive, she'd have the most Facebook friend requests ever (hear that, Fincher?). She is a social pariah, a literal weirdo and not very friendly and yet she is honest, no-bullshit, straight-to-the-point genius with absolutely no need to do anyone any favors, to follow the regular society rules or manners. She is who she is and nothing will change her. She is shameless to the point of being completely and utterly free of any kinds of bonds. Except for bonds with other human beings that involve trust and letting go.
The way the plot develops is also very astounding. Delving into details is, again, not something I wish to do. But let me say that every word and sentence, every turn of the head, smile or action speaks volumes of every character and their agenda. And the only person who is truthful and perhaps the most innocent in the entire scheme is the poor old Henrik Vanger.

It was only a matter of time when the world would take notice of such a dark, twisted and complicated mystery that could (let's face it) not possibly have grown anywhere else but under the cloudy, dark and freezing skies of Scandinavia. But before Hollywood had a taste of just how deep the dirt they were about to tread into really is, Sweden took notice. Of course. It goes without saying that their film version would without a doubt be better than what any other big bucks, fat budget movie maker from the promised land could even come up with. Right?

Well, after reading the book, I first watched the Swedish version of the film. Because back then there was no Hollywood version yet released and because I wondered how Lisbeth was in the flesh. In the flesh, seen by the Swedish, of course. To put it bluntly, I was horrified, upset and pissed off after watching the movie. Not only did it not follow the plot and change some extremely important parts and omitted some story-crucial events, it hinted at what book number II was bringing and at what story the second movie would be telling. Given that the book only hints at it, I was upset that anything would be told about it in the movie. I felt it disrespectful to the readers and perhaps not that relevant for the movie-watchers (unless it was about enticing them to come see part II). Lisbeth, as portrayed by the beautiful Noomi Rapace, was nothing like the Lisbeth in the book. Apart from tattoos and brooding character in dark clothes and offensive t-shirts, of course. She was the well-built, strong kind of version of Lisbeth, who in the book was almost anorexic, asexual and more unpretty than attractive. Noomi was simply too well-built and too beautiful to play the enigmatic Salander. Despite the fact that she was brooding and dark, she did not strike me as the kind of Lisbeth that the book painted for me. But, then again, it's in the eye of the reader.

Mikael Blomkvist: "What has happened to you? How did you turn out this way? You know everything about me. I don't know shit about you. Not a damn thing."
Lisbeth Salander: "That's the way it is."

Then David Fincher stepped in. The story seems to have been written for his movies. The director, known for his dark telling of stories and magical musical soundtracks that give you... well if not the creeps then at least the feeling that something or someone is following you. Perhaps even chasing you. Just like the secrets that Lisbeth and Mikael are chasing. They are hiding from the investigating duo but lurking behind the corner, waiting to attack them. And Lisbeth Salander in this case, played by Rooney Mara (who is anything but my favorite actress in the world) is dead on. It was like watching the Lisbeth I read about come alive on the screen. She seems exactly like the kooky, geeky and bratty Salander that pisses off her co-workers and anyone who ever tried to be polite with her. Mara's Lisbeth seemed more vulnerable, the way I actually imagined Lisbeth, while Rapace's was strong, undefeatable and at some glances seemed even malicious. Almost like a superhero in her own mind. Definitely not one I would believe can be forced into horrible deeds or be manipulated by society.
The way Fincher unraveled the story (or rather Steven Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay, the same person who is set to write the script for the movie version of A Thousand Splendid Suns) is to be debated. He skipped some important parts of the plots and changed others in order to fit his version of the story. Or budget. (?!) Or location(s). Who knows. In the end it seemed like the Swedish and American version were completing each other and yet skipping some things. Hollywood was building this story since 2008 and Fincher has been attached to it since beginning of 2010. Just so we don't accuse anyone of making a remake.
I must add that I loved the slight accent the actors had, from Robin Wright to Mara, it made for a more authentic story. Perhaps only Daniel Craig was babbling and mumbling instead of enunciating. And he was speaking in a thick English accent. I do hold that against him.

Lisbeth Salander: "He's had a long standing sexual relationship with his co-editor of the magazine. Sometimes he performs cunnilingus on her. Not often enough in my opinion."

All in all, I've decided that this book cannot possible be made into a good, cover-it-all kind of movie. It needs to be at least a mini series. So many little bits of information, character importance or story turns that explain things so much better, have to be omitted in max three hour time span. Lisbeth Salander is simply too complicated to be squeezed in such a short interval.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

John Irving: The Cider House Rules

John Irving is a modern day Charles Dickens in many ways. Hist stories are full of details, interesting twists and characteristics of people you actually know. He frequently incorporates recurring elements and - especially for someone who is a great fan of his writing - watching and waiting for those elements is half the fun of the book. If you're a fan of crime, thrillers or car chases, intertwined with plot twists, Irving's books are most likely not for you. But if you're a book lover who appreciate a great story, amazing development and consistent characters, this will most likely be a great experience for you.

Tobey Maguire plays Homer Wells beautifully.

Just due to these reasons it's difficult to say anything about the story that will not give away too much. Homer Wells lives in an orphanage and is the most un-adoptable boy who one way or another always comes back to the orphanage in St. Cloud's. The main doctor at the orphanage, dr. Larch, loves him like his own son. He is the one who delivers unwanted babies that stay in the orphanage or aborts the unwanted fetuses, which is at the time illegal. As dr. Larch tries to teach Homer everything he knows and can already imagine them working together as father and son, Homer's opinion surprises him. Despite the promise he gives to another un-adoptable orphan, a girl called Melony, he decides to try something new when a young couple in trouble comes to seek help at the orphanage. And the beauty of the story is that it somehow only starts off there but on the other hand you learn so much by then. Everything has a story, everything has a meaning, even the naming of children, explanation of Melony's name, Larch's attitude to women and sex and the choices which Homer makes. Right until the end of the book. Everything holds. There are no plot holes and no "but what about when...?" questions.

What is the hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the
people who once mattered the most to us are wrapped up in parentheses.

It isn't surprising that this in 1985 first published novel became a very successful movie. Even more so, John Irving, who dissected the lengthy story into a screenplay, won an oscar for his adaptation. Tobey Maguire is extremely convincing as the calm, unnerving Homer Wells, whose zen-ness borders on pushover. Carefree Candy, portrayed by Charlize Theron, who showed her great talent even at the beginning of her career, a little after she dazzled in The Devil's Advocate. Michael Caine, in the medical coat of dr. Larch, impressed even the Academy. The monumental story, although fantastic also in the form of a movie, is much, much more impressive in the book version. The rules which are written or unwritten, obeyed or ignored are mainly pointless. Everyone follows their own instinct. Is it true for this story? You be the judge of that.

Further reading:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Circumstance (2011)

Circumstance is a difficult movie to explain to someone who hasn't seen it yet. Not only because there's always that risk of giving away too much but also because it's filled with subtle hints and hidden meanings. Before I begin, I must add, that the movie did not score too high on my liking bar. I've read about this controversial story way before I actually saw the movie. Iran was fuming with the two actresses and the disgrace they have earned. Not surprising, since everything they show is basically demeaning to their culture.
The story seems quite simple and has a lot to say about women's lives in Iran. The main protagonist is Atafeh, a girl from a rich family, who seems to be quite a bit more permissive than a regular Iranian family might be. The girl is a teenager and clearly a very hormonal one at that. Her best friend is Shireen, an orphan girl of dissident parents, living with her (obviously very orthodox) uncle. She is constantly stigmatized because of her parents and therefore also a bit more reserved and pulled together than Atafeh who seems to have a nonchalant attitude towards the fact that her parents are less traditional in the sense that they listen to western music and drink wine at home, all the while speaking freely amongst themselves but never sharing that with the outside world.

But Shireen is a regular with Atafeh's family, they basically do everything together. Some time ago Atafeh's family was shaken by her brother's addiction which led to rehab and finally a return of the (once prodigal) son who has fallen from grace. A former lover of music and a promising musician is now not interested in the beautiful sounds but in the proper living of everyone in his family's household, in abiding by Muslim laws. The measures he goes to keep everything under control turn from slightly creepy to shocking and deeply disturbing but are kept as a very carefully and successfully guarded secret of his own.
The coming of age story of two girls who are companions, friends and lovers, paints the picture of contemporary Tehran (shot in Lebanon), where men can swim in their swimming trunks while women must sweat in their long clothes, covering almost their entire bodies, and wait for them on the beach. A story where Sex And The City and Milk are not available on DVDs and where secret underground dubbing of those is a risk, bigger than we can ever imagine. But this is more than a story of underground Iran, where sex, drugs and rock'n'roll are easily available. Hell, throw in some alcohol for good measure. It's a story of where a woman can be safer wearing a mini skirt in a big club, full of sweaty men, grinding against her than by herself, covered with a hijab, in a taxi going home. If you are found and accused by the moral police, your penalty and jail time might not be the worst thing to happen to you. The punishment of your family, the payback for the disgrace you caused them, might be far, far worse.

And despite knowing all this, these two girls cannot help themselves but be - girls. Young, happy, carefree. Unaware of a daunting obsession of a person close to them, oblivious of someone's malicious plot that they are entangling themselves into, heedless of watchful eyes, drinking in their every move. Their erotic fantasies of a life together somewhere in Dubai are cut off in one very carefully calculated slash that they never once see coming.
No matter their dreams, wishes or desires, they are victims of their circumstances. Their love falls prey to social rules, takes a back seat in the car of life. The melodrama that is present all through the movie, is at times a bit too much. It seems that the director was trying to put every single stereotype about Iran into this picture and to add as many threads of different stories as possible. Most likely has a lot to do with the fact that the director is Maryam Keshavarz, a woman, born in New York to Iranian parents. She spent most of her life in USA, but studied in Iran for one year. Despite the fact that she has Iranian background, I at some points did not find the movie convincing or finishing all threads that were undone, causing plot holes. More so, while watching, I felt that the director cannot possibly be Iranian. Which says a lot about the movie. It's obvious the actresses cannot be living in Iran or they would probably be punished severely after filming this movie. The final choices of their characters did not make a lot of sense, seemed rash decisions and poorly made at that. Despite the fact the movie raises a lot of very, very important issues, not everything is good simply because it's Middle Eastern, different, bold or groundbreaking in its topic. It takes a spark.

Further reading:
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