Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Mother

We watched a BBC film the other night called simply, The Mother.  Two things occurred to me after watching it.  Firstly, I was yet again struck by the fact that many actors are cast for the kind of face they have.  They can be the best actors in the world, and given the chance they'd be great in a wide variety of roles, but at the end of the day, if you work for TV or the movies, you are likely to be cast in a role that fits your face.

There were two particular examples here.  Anne Reid (known from a long way back as Ken Barlow's first wife in Coronation St) played the downtrodden mother of the title.  Downtrodden was written all over her face, and all Anne had to do, in a sense, was play to that look on her face, and she'd express everything the director and scriptwriter wanted.  (She does do a lot more, but that doesn't negate my point.)

Steven Mackintosh also appeared.  Mackintosh is unlikely to play a trustworthy character; there's something about the shape of his face and the ways his eyes look at you that tells the audience: if you're suspicious of this bloke, you have every reason to be.  In his role as the Mother's son, he was playing an ordinary ambitious family man - but you could see there was something sneaky going on.  Mackintosh didn't need to do anything in particular to convey this; it's written in his face.  (I don't know what Mackintosh is like in real life - he's probably a delightful person - but his face, on screen, says something different.)   I couldn't remember where I'd seen this actor before, and of course IMDB was its usual helpful self and reminded me that Mackintosh had been the villain in one of the Prime Suspect episodes.  He'd played a man who had cut himself off from emotions, who had no qualms about his villainy or his control of weaker people, and who seemed able to bring even the imperious Helen Mirren to her knees.  Mackintosh played this role brilliantly...his face helping not a little.

The second thing was that it was hard to gauge what the author of the screenplay was trying to say: was it that everyone, underneath, is basically selfish, and as a result will bring out the selfishness in others? That certainly happened: even the seemingly gentle Mother turned out to be selfish in her own way, though you might have credited her with some good reason for being so, given what her life had been like up until the time her husband suddenly died (early in the story).  There wasn't a character in the film who wound up eliciting our sympathies completely.  The Mother's daughter vacillated between blaming her mother for all her problems - and causing them herself (I'm not sure that the script helped the actress here: the part didn't seem quite to know who it was).  The son gave a pretence of being concerned about his mother's sudden widowhood - until the pressures of business called him away.  His wife didn't give her mother-in-law the time of day, and, without concern that her mother-in-law was listening, said that she hated her in-laws being in the house.  The man who was putting a new conservatory on the son and daughter-in-law's house was happy to have sex with both the daughter and the mother - for his own ends.  When he discovered that the Mother wasn't going to give him the money she'd offered in the way he'd expected, he flew into a fearful, foul-mouthed self-centred rage.  This character was played by Daniel Craig, in the days before he became the most uptight and edgy James Bond we've seen.  He's brilliant in the role, but after feeling sympathy towards him early in the piece (he and the mother do get on well as people) you hate him at the end.

So what was the point of this unpleasant exercise?  Does seeing it encourage us to want to be kinder to our ageing parents?  Perhaps, except that the parent in this piece finishes up not worrying about whether her children care about her any more.  It certainly shows that selfish children are a menace to older people (especially when their own children are just as selfish), but the writer of the script hints more than once that the Mother was selfish herself from way back.  We never quite know whether this was because she was controlled by her husband, who cut her off from friends and other relationships (and that would seem to be the obvious reason) or whether she was just naturally not cut out to be a mother.  Her behaviour towards her own daughter's lover can be seen on one hand as a natural need to be loved by someone - anyone; or it can be seen as a bizarre kind of continuation of hurting her daughter.  That's assuming that what the daughter says about her mother is true, and this aspect of their relationship never quite makes sense.

An open-ended piece and thought-provoking.  You would probably not want to know any of these people (you'd be likely to come out of it worse off), but perhaps they teach us something, if we're willing to stop and think about it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Kite Runner and My Wedding

Picked up a couple of movies on DVD from the Library this last week.  One was the New Zealand made, My Wedding and other secrets, and the other was The Kite Runner.  An interesting pair.  The NZ film knows exactly its limitations, and works to present a world that's very ordinary, down-to-earth and in no way more excessive than the reality - apart, perhaps, from the humour.  The other movie is big budget, filmed in some amazing locations, with hundreds of extras and plenty of CGI.  For all that, it remains a very human film, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Well, enjoyed may not be quite the right word; it terms of filmmaking it was enjoyable, in terms of content it was often heart-breaking and sometimes extremely grim.   Kite Runner, for all its big budget, isn't a big story in the sense of being a huge adventure.  The main characters are fairly ordinary, and none of the faces on the screen are particularly familiar.  It's primarily about family and how relationships fare in the midst of crises.  Khalid Abdalla, as the adult Amir, turns from being a young man who knows he's done an extremely cowardly act as a child, to being someone who can forgive himself because he finally acts bravely enough to overcome not only his own demons but some brutal men who see no hypocrisy in abusing children on one hand while stoning adulterous women on the other.  His childhood friend and also the son of his father's servant - he turns out to be his step-brother as well - has inner strength, but no power.    Well, no power in the sense of position or authority.  He certainly has resilience and integrity.

I had thought the story was based on the author's life, but it's actually fiction, which gives it a more effective resolution than a 'true' story might have done.  There are some very nasty moments in the movie; curiously, but perhaps typically, there's been more angst from Afghanistan about the rape of the servant boy by some bullies than about the stoning of the woman by much nastier bullies.  Life under the Soviet invaders has some brutal moments (during one of these, Amir's father shows what moral integrity and guts he has) but the Taliban regime is a worse one to be under: for example, something that seems almost farcical - the beard police - is actually vicious and murderous.

My Wedding is based on the director's life.  The film has its origins in a student documentary Chinese New Zealander Roseanne Liang made; this focused on her secret marriage to a white New Zealander, brought about by Liang's concerns that her family wouldn't accept the marriage.  The feature film, in general, takes a much more light-hearted look at the same material, fictionalizes some of it, gives it dramatic structure, and offers two first-class roles for the two leading characters.  Michelle Ang plays the movie version of Liang (who directed), and Matt Whelan plays her husband.  He's gangly and very tall; she's petite, and a ball of fire.  Both of these actors are so good in their roles, it's almost a disappointment to see the real life couple in one of the extras on the DVD.

The film has everything going for it: a good cast which includes two popular and very experienced Hong Kong actors, Kenneth Tsang and Pei-pei Cheng (she was Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The other actors are relatively unfamiliar but uniformly good (only Simon London as the poncy student co-producer of the documentary seemed not quite attuned to the movie's mood).

My Wedding is one of those wonderful small-scale comedies New Zealand seems at last to be producing without making its audience cringe (Secondhand Wedding was another). Highly recommended.

Wodehouse - and deaths in books

I became a fan of P G Wodehouse's books when I was still in my teens, and have read most of the ones I have on my shelves.  I'd never read French Leave, and since it had been sitting on my shelves since I got it at a sale somewhere - it has Rental stamped inside the front cover in two places - and since I have marked it with a code that I used when I was still in the aforesaid teens, that sale must have occurred a long time ago.

I'd thought it was one of his later books, but the title page says it was published in 1955Wikipedia, curiously, insists it came out in 1956 - which makes it about two-thirds of the way through his very large canon.   Because I thought it was one of his later books, I assumed that was why it seemed a bit weak in places.  The plotting is intricate, and yet there are some very loose ends (what does happen to the dossier Quibolle, for instance?).  The metaphors are superb in many places and unusually clichéd in others.  It has some slow patches, and some brilliant ones - and for some reason, at the end of chapter 11, we skip nine months, arrive in chapter 12 and discover that most of the cast have been ditched (no matter at what point they were still trying to unravel themselves from the plot) and everything has been sorted out for a very small number of the main actors.  Having expected a good deal of unravelling, it's surprising to find almost none.

It takes some time to figure out who the main two lovers are (they survive into chapter 12, at least), since a variety of other characters get plenty of room to show off their nonsense.  There's a typical Aunt - mostly known as Mrs Pegler, but also by two or three other names - but she's dismissed around chapter 10 after making her presence seriously felt throughout most of the story.  It's a puzzle how she suddenly loses all her fire.  There's the hero's father, a Frenchman with a ridiculous title (Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne), who was Mrs Pegler's husband at one point; his first appearance is a delight, in which he deals with the boredom of an office job, and he has several funny scenes.  There is the French policeman, a Commissaire, who is always behind the eight ball because he knows no English and refuses to learn any.  In fact, some of the best parts of the book include scenes in which two people are talking to each other in two different languages without either having much idea what the other is talking about.  But Wodehouse also manages to make the scenes in which people are speaking the same language amusing, especially those which include only French characters.  There are a bunch of other characters, some of whom (the young ones in particular) are virtually indistinguishable, even though they seem vital to the plot.   

Looking back on it, and having got over the shock of it seeming to end so suddenly, I'm more in favour of it than not.  There are much better Wodehouse books, but this one obviously pleases a vast number of his fans, so why should I knock it any further?

And talking of shock endings: the last scene of the 2012 Christmas special of Downton Abbey Iwhich we watched last night) came across to me as inconsiderately brutal.  Julian Fellowes, the writer, had already killed off a major character in the middle of the 2012 season.  Killing off yet another seemed arbitrary and only done for the sake of making people miserable.  Yes, it leaves lots of questions to be answered, which is no doubt part of the reason for doing what he did, but the death came out of nowhere, in the dramatic sense, and damaged what had been an otherwise interesting episode.

I find such deaths can put me right off a story: I remember reading A J Cronin's Hatter's Castle in which the young man who makes one of the main characters pregnant is killed in a train crash not long after.  I put the book down, unable to read any further.  He hadn't done anything to justify such a death.  In the second book of Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, (The Subtle Knife) the boy has finally met his father, who's been missing up until now.  Towards the end of the book, the father is killed in what seemed to me at the time to be a quite off-hand fashion.  I almost stopped reading the trilogy at that point, so angered was I by what had happened.  I'm sure authors take the deaths of their characters seriously - there's usually a reason for what they do - but such seemingly random deaths can affect their readers in ways the authors never intended.  Perhaps I get too emotionally involved with characters, but I suspect I'm not the only one.  After all, stories are intended to affect our emotions.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Life of Pi - the novel

Why is it so many modern novels - especially those that seem to get categorised in the literary genre - don't grab you sufficiently from the beginning to make you want to keep on reading?   These books are often very well written, as far as the style is concerned, but when it comes to an actual story (and I don't just mean a 'plot' - although many of them could do with something that could be called a plot) they fall down.  I began to read a book last night called How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić - the excellent translation is by Anthea Bell.  It's full of interesting detail, and considerable warmth, and the characters have life.  And yet...something's missing.  There's nothing grabbing you (at least in the first thirty pages or so that I read), nothing that says: keep on reading me; I'm going to take you somewhere.  I suspect that if I persevered, I'd find that it did go somewhere (if the blurb is anything to go by) but why do I have to wait thirty pages or more to find out?

I began to read Felix Holt by George Eliot the other night (I've had it on my shelves for as long as I can remember).  Now, in her time, it was okay to start slowly and gradually draw the reader in.  But Eliot spends several pages of small print giving us nothing but background, and absolutely no characters, and I just couldn't be bothered taking the journey any further.  Sometimes it seems like modern writers (again, I emphasize it's the 'literary' school that's most inclined to do this) don't really care whether their reader keeps reading.  They've written their beautiful book and that's all that matters.  

I read The Life of Pi while on holiday.  Yann Martel manages to keep you reading from early on, though it would be possible to toss this book into the unfinished pile too.  I think the difference is that there's a sense that the book is going somewhere (Stanišić's book somehow misses this, in spite of all the detail), even though again there's no particular 'story' and certainly no plot.  The first third of the book has the narrator telling us mostly about the zoo his father runs, on one hand, and his spiritual journey on the other. The zoo is there for a good reason, but the spiritual journey?  I'm not sure how that relates to the rest of the book.  It almost seems like a sidetrack that Martel enjoyed writing about but which perhaps should never have got into the finished book.  It's interesting, and intriguing and amusing, but is it part of the story?

The first third is all pretty much a prelude to the incredible journey that Pi ultimately finds himself involved in: the ship on which he and his family are travelling to Canada on sinks mid-ocean; the ship also contains some of the animals from the now closed zoo.  Pi is the only human to escape - he winds up on a lifeboat with a tiger, an orang-utan, a hyena and a zebra.  There's some very nasty sorting out of the pecking order amongst these creatures, and finally only Pi and the tiger remain.  They survive an extraordinary trip across the ocean, wind up for a short period on a floating island full of meerkats, escape from its initially unrealised perils and finally drift to the coast of Mexico, where both survive in their own way.  Recovering in hospital he's visited by two Japanese agents from the ship's owners who try to understand what caused the ship to sink.  Pi tells them his story, which they don't believe, so he tells them a totally different (and even more unpleasant) version - and then they don't know which to believe.  And the book ends.  There's also a kind of framing of the whole story supposedly written by Martel, who meets up with Pi at a later stage.  This section also seemed a bit irrelevant, like a kind of framing device that should have been ditched at some point in the various draftings of the story.  

Anyway, for better or worse, Martel kept all these diverse elements in.  The story is full of humour, and is enjoyable for that reason (the last section with the translated Japanese comments is often delightful).  It's full of detail about surviving at sea, and that's extremely interesting, if difficult to come to terms with at times.  It's also extremely grim: if the sinking of the ship seems like an unpleasant experience, it's nothing like the unpleasantness that's described when the four animals gradually dispose of each other, or the horrors of trying to survive for months and months in a lifeboat.  The fantastic section set on the meerkat island begins as a tranquil interlude and then becomes a nightmare. 

Martel keeps us guessing throughout as to what is really going on: who is the real narrator?  Is it Pi or Martel (or Martel's novelist 'character')?  Do we hear Pi's story as he told it, or as the novelist has rewritten it?  How much of it is 'true' and how much a fantasy?  Where does the religious element that's so prominent in the first part come into the rest?  According to some reviewers the book's underpinning is religious, and there are hints scattered throughout that this may be so.  Yet the religious element seems to me to be the weakest.  I don't know what Pi is thinking about spiritually in his long journey, and at the end that aspect of his life seems to be put in the background.  Perhaps I need to re-read it discover what Martel is getting at here, as I seem to have missed what other reviewers have 'discovered' in this regard.  Early in the book a character tells the 'author' that this story will make you believe in God.  I'm not sure how that is supposed to happen.  Pi doesn't necessarily credit his ultimate salvation with being saved by God (and which God, anyway, since he believes in three very different versions simultaneously) and there's no sense of an epiphany - at least not that I recall.  

Anyway, the main point about the book is that somehow Martel keeps you reading.  I'm not sure how he does it - whether it's the sheer inventiveness of the book and its wealth of detail or the perseverance of the main character - but he does it in such a way that it would annoy you to put the book down.  Certainly better than being annoyed because you can't be bothered to read any further!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

La cathédrale engloutie

La cathédrale engloutie is a piano piece by Claude Debussy, one of the twelve Preludes he published in 1910.  I've played it since I was a teenager, and always enjoyed the way the deep bass notes resonate underneath notes in the higher registers, as well as the way the huge chords build up in the climax.  I remember it being performed in Dunedin's Concert Chamber (as it was known then) by a touring New Zealand female pianist - her name escapes me, but she was well known.  In the middle of the piece (almost literally in the middle) she had a momentary mental block, and stopped. Fortunately she was able to carry on quickly and only those who knew the piece would have noticed.  But she must have been disappointed; the momentary break caused a much bigger emotive break. 

So, La cathédrale engloutie is a piano piece, and it was written for the piano, and sounds very good on the piano.  I have no objections to musicians and composers transcribing well-known piano pieces for other instruments, or for orchestras, but sometimes only the original instrument conveys the composer's intentions satisfactorily.  (Occasionally it works the other way: Ravel's orchestration of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is probably superior in almost every way to the original piano version.  The piano version is marvellous, and exhilarating to play, but a full orchestra has the capacity to give depth and breadth and variety to the music in a way few pianists can.)  

However, just this week I've heard two other instruments playing La cathédrale engloutie, one a guitar, and the other - just this morning - a harp.  Nope, this piece doesn't work on either of those instruments: the sonority of the piano is totally missing, the ability to sustain notes with the pedal while others are being played is totally missing, the wondrous booming bass pedal note that thunders through the piece again and again cannot be achieved on either a guitar or a harp.  I could barely hear this bass note in the harp version - there was a kind of clonk somewhere in the depths every so often - and while the guitar achieved the effect a little better, I would guess it was at the expense of shifting the registers of the original music around.  

I suppose it must be disappointing if you're a harpist or a guitarist not to be able to play all music written for the piano.  It sounds like an easy process of transcription really - all three instruments have a fair number of notes at their disposal; all three can play chords comfortably.  But sometimes you harpist or you guitarist just have to admit there are certain pieces that will sound worse if tackled on your instrument.  Please refrain from playing those.

I wrote some piano pieces early last year - after I'd finished writing the music for Grimhilda!.  Not one of these four pieces would sound effective on a guitar or a harp. They rely on the particular percussiveness of the piano, the ability to wash the notes together with the sustaining pedal, and the wide tonal range that the piano has.  I'm going to keep them hidden from any guitarists or harpists I meet...

Jean Cras

I was driving home from an appointment this morning and on the car radio the presenter announced a Piano Concerto by Jean Cras.  Jean Cras?  I'd never heard of him.  The Concerto was accessible and accomplished and worth hearing again.

Cras was a French composer whose main career was in the Navy (in which capacity he also invented an electrical selector and a navigational plotter protractor, which was used until replaced by an electronic equivalent.).  He wrote a great deal of his work in his spare time, which makes him an amateur composer - indeed, from the biography on this site it seems he was mainly a self-taught composer, apart from a brief three-month stint with the older composer, Duparc, who admired his talent immensely.  However, it might also be considered that he was a man who managed to combine two careers, both of them effectively.

He wrote a substantial number of works, including an opera that was so successful it made him a household name for a period.   However, the bulk of his work is chamber music.  Until recently his music had almost entirely vanished from the repertoire.  There is now an increasing impetus to bring him back into focus again, and people are beginning to enjoy this music that has rarely been heard for more than half a century.

Strangely, neither of the biographical links above mention his Piano Concerto!

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The books I didn't finish in 2012

I discovered this morning that I'd read - and finished - 57 books in 2012.  That was a surprise...I thought it was only around forty.  But on top of this were the books I started and didn't finish.  There were probably a lot of these, but the ones I made quite a deal of headway with before abandoning them are the following:

Moby Dick again.  Enjoyed a good deal of what I read, but got bogged down when Melville started using the pseudo-Shakespearian style, and then listing all the information about whales that he could find.  Ahab seemed a false character too, which didn't help.  (I actually got further with this book the first time I tried to read it.)

Started Lilith (by George MacDonald) but didn't get far into it: very obscure as to what it’s saying amidst the fantasy.

Read about half of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino.  Interesting, but it seems almost like a collection of short stories strung together with a separate narrative, and not really going anywhere much.  It was one of those books someone raved over somewhere. 

Read a chunk of a biography called Kiri (te Kanawa) – only read the bits that related to London Opera Centre, and some of what followed. 

Began Little Dorrit and got quite a way through, but bogged down a bit; it’s very slow, and the characters aren’t as great as in many of Dickens’ other books.  Thought I might finish it, but it's not calling out very loudly to me. 

Read around half of Frank Baum, Creator of Oz by Katherine M Rogers.  Interesting and detailed, but for some reason it didn't grab me enough to finish it.

Read about half of Funeral in Berlin, by Len Deighton.  Good, but it all seemed a bit dated, somehow, and not enticing enough to keep on reading when I’ve got plenty of other books on my plate.

Read about half of  The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder.  An attempt to write about Shakespeare and his crew coming together to write the last, missing, historical play, but the writing isn’t strong enough, and it’s all a bit overdone, and longwinded. Sorry, Mr Winder. 

Monday, January 07, 2013


For as long as we've been in this house - nearly 35 years - we've had two blackcurrant bushes growing towards the back of the section by our neighbour's fence.  Year in and year out they've provided us with plenty of blackcurrants around this time of the year; usually we pick the currants just after Christmas.

Most strangely, last year, we had no more than half a dozen blackcurrants on the main bush and none on the lesser bush.  It was a bit of a puzzle, but who knows why a blackcurrant bush would take a sabbatical from producing fruit?  I guess there could be a perfectly normal explanation, something that gardeners who know everything about their garden would be able to understand.  Not being such people, we were at a bit of a loss.

However, this year, the blackcurrant bushes have well and truly made up for last year's lack.  I picked a  bowlful before we went to Christchurch, on the 22nd of December, and yesterday I sat out there and picked two more bowls' worth.  Another two bowlfuls this morning.  Not only is there an abundance of fruit, but many of the currants are big and juicy, more than they usually are.  (It could be that in the past we've picked them earlier, which might explain this aspect of the growth.)

Ah, the joys of gardening.  Last year we planted several potatoes that refused to come up in any way.  This year they seem to be back to normal.  And the coriander has gone wild as well.  Obviously there's been the right combination of sun and shower this time round.  Certainly the weeds would indicate that!


Slane is not a surname I've ever come across...until today.  Therefore, to find that a company is called Slane and Slane made me take notice.  Apparently Slane is an Irish surname, and one that arises from the name of a place - Slane, obviously.  This is unusual, the Surname Data Base informs me; there are only twenty such coming out of Ireland.

Slane is a place in County Meath, and is situated on the river Boyne.  It's an interesting, though small, place, and has historic sites dating back around 5,000 years.  There are a couple of good stories relating to St Patrick and the hill of Slane, though whether they have any historical basis is another question.  However, Patrick did appoint a Bishop in Slane, and the place was a centre of Christian learning for several centuries.

The well-known hymn, Be Thou My Vision, is apparently set to a tune called Slane. The song's original words were about the hill of Slane.

Seemingly one of the first Irish settlers in America was a Grace Slane, who embarked from Belfast in Ireland on June 11th, 1847.  It would be interesting to know whether she was an ancestor of the two women who run Slane and Slane, though it's likely her surname was lost when she married.

I thought I'd check out to see if the name Slane came up in my Evernote clippings, and surprisingly it did.  Chris Slane is a New Zealand cartoonist.  You can see some examples of his work here.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Hunger Games - the book

I noted in my last post that I watched the movie The Hunger Games on New Year's Eve.  As a result I decided to read the book, in part to satisfy some of the questions I had about the movie.  The result is that I now see that the movie often provides a shorthand version of much of the background material, and while this would be sufficient to those who've read the book, it isn't always enough for a person coming new to the story.  So it pays to read the book, which is very readable - apart from a few factors.  No doubt it would pay to read the other two stories in the trilogy before the movies of those appear (the second is in production) as well.

My main concern with the book is the same as with the movie: there's little sense amongst the teenagers who spend their time killing each other off in the bulk of the story that there's something wrong with all this. Yes, they do talk about it briefly at times, but when push comes to shove, they don't seem to have many real qualms about the killing - and that includes the heroine with the weird name - Katniss - as well as her male counterpart, the equally oddly named, Peeta.  Katniss has some qualms about killing, but it's mostly to do with those she likes. The rest are basically the enemy. Suzanne Collins, the author, gets over this to an extent by painting these enemy kids as youngsters who've grown up expecting to have an opportunity to be involved in these gladiatorial games: they've made a career out of it, as it were.  In fact, this is what they're known as collectively.  Other people, however, like Katniss and Peeta - and Rue, the twelve-year-old rather incongruously caught up in this crazy business - are the goodies, and whatever their flaws, they're always painted as the goodies. Of course Katniss has to have an antagonist, and the craziest of the 'tributes' (as the youngsters are called) is seen as bad to the bone from early on.  In fact, the real antagonists of the story, I suspect, don't really come into their own until the second or third stories; this is collectively the Capitol, one of those usefully anonymous entities who appear regularly in fantasy/sci fi.  In the book version, the Capitol barely has a personality.  In fact, the Capitol in the movie has much more of a face (as do the game controllers) than in the book, courtesy of Donald Sutherland in one of his more sinister personifications.  But even though he appears briefly several times in the movie, we still don't know the whys and wherefores of his part in the whole proceedings.  This is okay: we have two more stories in which to find out about him/them.

What's not so okay, and what seems to me to be a flaw in the book (which translates over into the movie) is the way in which Peeta is constantly being rescued by the heroine.  Now, you could say that female characters by the million have spent their allotted time in books being rescued by heroes, and you'd be right.  But Peeta, who's lacking in virtually any skills that would actually get him through the nightmare of the Games, and who constantly puts his foot in it, and who is more trouble than he's worth in terms of forcing Katniss to have to deal with him as well as the big nasty, is supposed to be the romantic lead in this story.  He has to be strong enough as a character to give Gale, the boy Katniss thinks she might be in love with (but who doesn't have any involvement in the Games) a run for his money.  But he isn't that strong a character. He's a romantic, and unless he pulls his socks up in the other two stories, he's going to find himself where he probably belongs - as number two in the romantic stakes.  I suppose it's possible that Collins sees a romantic character as being more trustworthy in the long run than a hunk.

The interesting thing is that in the movie the role of Gale, the boy back home, is played by a hunk. When you come to the story as I did, without any prior knowledge of what part he plays in it all, you wonder how he doesn't wind up as the other candidate for the Games.  The role of Peeta in the movie is played by Josh Hutcherson, who isn't a hunk, and who doesn't have the screen presence of a romantic lead, and yet he gets all the screen time.  It could be said to be a nice reversal (in more ways than one), subverting our expectations.  Whether this works will only be shown when the next two films get made.  Perhaps when I read the other two stories in the trilogy - if I do - the logic behind this will come clear.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Hunger Games and Quartet

New Year's Eve was spent watching The Hunger Games, that strangely amoral piece about 24 teenagers plucked by lottery from twelve different tribes and sent off to kill each other in some Roman games kind of affair in earth's future where the scenery can change at random and strange pig-dogs can be brought into being out of nothing by a large bunch of technicians working back at base.  I say amoral because the whys and wherefores of these kids killing each other off is barely gone into.  Everyone seems to accept the 'normality' of it, and a only a brief discussion at the beginning of the movie (between the heroine and the young man who looks as though he's going to be the hero but who vanishes for almost the entire movie) indicates that there are any people who find the whole idea revolting.  Certainly as soon as the so-called games start, almost half the teenagers are slaughtered by those who are quick off the mark.  The curious thing is that at least one young girl survives this awful sixty seconds, and that out of it some alliances are formed between some of those who survive.  Given the ferocity of the initial slaughter this didn't make sense to me.

Now, I haven't read the books in this trilogy, so perhaps I'm a step or two behind everyone else and perhaps there are explanations there that are missing from the movie.  (Rather like the situation for anyone who watches the Harry Potter movies without reading the books.). We have the books on Kindle so maybe it's worth checking the first one out at least to see if it clarifies a few issues.  However there are a lot of holes in the plot and background in the movie, to my way of thinking, and we could have done with some more explanations as to how things came to this pretty pass.

Jennifer Lawrence is superb in the main role, and Josh Hutcherson, who, as a child star, always seemed to specialise in playing grumpy boys, here brings more sensitivity to his role as Lawrence's opposite number than usual. However his role isn't well-written; we're surprised that he makes through.  It's almost entirely because of Lawrence that he survives, and in reality he would have been easy outwitted and killed off by one of the nastier teenagers.  The fact that they allow him to run with the pack seems unlikely. He's too nice.

Stanley Tucci - almost unrecognisable at first - plays one of those TV hosts who is vile in every respect, and Woody Harrelson is the mentor who at first seems unlikely to be of much use to anyone.  Again he does well with an under-written role.

And talking of under-writing in terms of a script, we went to see Quartet today.  This is the new Maggie Smith piece in which she plays an ageing opera singer, as do Billy Connelly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins.  It's set in an old people's home that caters for singers and musicians (preferably serious music people, although a couple of music hall guys seem to have snuck in) and there are the usual squabbles and tiffs going on and the usual old people jokes.  I enjoyed it (the music itself is great) but felt that the cast were ill-served by the scriptwriter, Ronald Harwood, who adapted it from his own stage play.  When you have a bunch of top actors, and in this case a bunch of real-life retired singers and musicians as well, you'd think it would behoove you to provide them with some zingers of lines, but much of the dialogue here is fairly low level stuff.  Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with this movie.  A slightly curious choice: a quintessential American actor working with quintessentially English characters.  Suffice to say, he doesn't provide anything extra in the way of bells and whistles.