Tuesday, 28 February 2012

One Day

Lowdown: A love story’s ups and downs sampled over twenty years.
That good old concern whenever a book is converted into a movie was the main event with One Day. And rightly so: as I described in my book review, I learned of One Day while travelling the UK and reading reviews of the movie that was just released. At the time I didn’t see the movie but elected to read the book instead, enjoying it a lot despite my general disassociation with romantic literature. Now that I got my act together and finally watched the film, the question is – how good is the film given the freshness of the book experience and given the movie script was written by the book’s own David Nicholls?
I won’t bore you with plot details here. As can be expected through the Nicholls factor, One Day the film is very loyal to One Day the book, so if it’s plot you’re after just read my book review; for this forum I will say that One Day is a typical boy/girl love story told over some twenty years by sampling the events of each year’s 15 July.
Back to the key question of how the film compares with the book, a question I could not avoid asking myself throughout One Day’s hundred minutes or so. The immediately noticeable changes are in location: the book’s Greek island holiday has turned French, as did the book’s Roman encounter. I suspect the Frechification of the film was done purely for production cost cutting purposes.
The main difference between the book and the film is one of omission. The reason is clear: to keep the movie flowing and to prevent One Day from becoming an excruciating marathon, The Film takes the main points out of the book’s 15 July yearly encounters and gives us the digested/congested version. Is that good enough, though?
My answer? No. Those almost snippet like excerpts, compared to the book’s depth, were far from enough to get me into the characters. While the book made me loath the boy, identification and admiration for the girl more than compensated for it; with the movie I was not able to dig the girl half as much, nor did I get to despise the boy as much. He’s still an idiot, but not the finely detailed idiot from the book. From a respected work of fiction belonging to a genre I don’t normally venture into, One Day turned into yet another romance on film whose 15 July aces didn’t really make much of a difference. I felt uninvolved, and but for the dramatic ending almost bored. At this point I will mention One Day was directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig, whose previous film – An Education – seemed to have suffered similar issues.
Don’t get me wrong, there is much to admire in One Day. For example, I liked how the heroes (portrayed by Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess) are presented slightly differently each year, so as to create the illusion of aging. Some of it is exaggerated (e.g., young Hathaway’s glasses) but most of it is subtle enough (hair styles, clothing styles). Hathaway’s casting does attract attention: she’s one of the best actresses out there, no doubt there, but she’s the only American in an otherwise very British story. Her presence sticks out even when she speaks with a slight northern accent.
Worst scene: I do not understand why the film deviates from the book and starts with an older Anne Hathaway riding a bicycle, with the rest of the film then being a rewind. If you know the book, even ever so slightly, then that scene is a dead giveaway that ruins any chance of suspense later by forcing you to remember the ending; and if you don’t, that scene is totally meaningless.
Technical assessment:
One Day is the first proper film we get to watch after settling at our new residence, and yes – it feels good to be watching Blu-rays again, even if this one is rather mediocre in quality.
That said, this blog’s technical assessments would be put on hold for a while. There are two reasons there: due to the limitations of Australian house renting, I am unable to deploy my surround speakers and enjoy full 5.1 sound. Second, One Day has been the last movie we got to watch on the TV that served us for the past six years, the TV whose acquisition contributed to me starting this blog in the first place.
Overall: I know it’s unfair to judge a film by its book, but in One Day’s case that comparison is unavoidable. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson

Lowdown: A collection of non fiction articles from a proficient futurian.
I didn’t get to a good start with William Gibson. My first attempt at Gibson-land, Zero History, turned out to be the first book I started but didn’t bother finishing on my Kindle. Yet despite the experience I suspected there is a good reason for the halo this science fiction author carries; a second chance was due, the question was what.
Into the picture steps Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of Gibson’s non fiction writing. It’s a smallish book, but from what I understand out of Gibson’s own introduction it encompasses all of the writer’s non fiction work, the result of his work on a genre he was reluctant to embrace.
So, what do we have on our hands with Distrust That Particular Flavor? We have ourselves some 10-15 articles grouped from sources as varied as book prefaces, music reviews and articles from magazines such as Wired. Reading these articles feels like reading an author’s blog, or for that matter my own blog: the articles vary in length, although none are particularly long; common themes, such as Japan, repeat themselves; and due to the heavy personal touch, one can learn a lot about their author by reading them.
While one cannot mistake the articles' author for not being a science fiction specialist who won his fame through futuristic depictions of the present, article topics can seem much more grounded (especially given the age of some). For example, there is the mandatory post September 11 gig and there also is an article depicting the author’s addiction to this new website called eBay. There are things to learn, such as the history of Japan and the overview of the way Singapore works, as told from a personal point of view (the latter probably qualifies as the article I’ve enjoyed the most, given the good times I’ve had at Singapore but also given the taste that place left in my mouth).
I’m afraid quality does vary, too. With some of the articles, in particular the art reviews, I had no idea what Gibson wants out of me; it reminded me again of why I dumped Zero History. Put together, the lack of a uniting theme, the varied quality and the depth of discussion reinforce the notion of Distrust That Particular Flavor being a hard bound form of a personal blog from a blog averse person.
Overall: A mixed bag of articles that, when put together, has a few more positives than negatives. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography.
The title Hitch-22 might lead potential readers to suspect this self described memoir is the diary of a mad man. Having read it I would vote for the exact opposite: this is a book written by a very rational person describing his full frontal assault on life in order to leave the world better for it. This is a book written by someone who loves life, with at least some parts written with the author’s full knowledge of his pending end through terminal cancer.
For the few weeks I took to read his book Christopher Hitchens held my hand through the journeys of his life. Following from his introduction and the realization his life is coming to its end, Hitchens takes us back to its start through a collection of stories, each of which seems to center around key characters in his life. We start with his parents, which he tellingly refers to as Yvonne and The Commander. We move on through his British public (i.e., private) school upbringing at boys only institutions with everything that comes with that and with a whole lot of Pink Floyd “We Don’t Need No Education” spirit. The well read Hitchens, to quote a Richard Dawkins phrase, starts to pop up then, and continues through his escapades at both Cambridge and Oxford. We move on to meet other literary figures of influence, such as Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. We learn of Hitchens’ views regarding the USA and his relocation there, which obviously meant a lot to him. We learn of his stand on the Jewish question as well as his stand on matters of totalitarianism, particularly in the context of Iraq. All in all, a pretty tight package bursting with views and influences but relatively few accounts of specific events in a man’s life; this is more about analysis than story telling. As one can expect, language plays a key role in the story telling, forcing me to refer to the dictionary at rather alarming rates but also filling me with awe at the mastery and style on display.
The effects of the different stories varies. Some are touching, as with the one on how the author’s appeal for American citizenship was sponsored by a company impressed with his writings on Mother Teresa (if you have to ask, Hitchens does not pay the latter compliments). Others are tragic, as with the story of Hitchens mother’s growing dissatisfaction and ultimate suicide. Then there is the educational, as with the stories of Hitchens’ struggles, as limited as an individual’s struggles can be, with dictatorships in Argentina, Portugal and Iraq.
There is, indeed, a lot to learn from Hitchens. Not just in the clear sense of the word, as in the learning of facts about the decline of the British Empire or the support given by NATO to fascist regimes. There is more to Hitch-22 than facts learning about the history “our side” would like to forget about; you know, the stuff we tend to not hear of and avoid talking about because it shows us as rather different to the gallant pure knights we think we are.
I found most of my learning came from the description of the evolution of Hitchens’ own opinions. In a process that mirrors my own in many respects, Hitchens starts from a Trotskyite and ends up at a position most of us would describe as right wing through his support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hitchens would beg to differ with that right wing label, but that’s the whole point of his book: there is a lot to learn from his development and from his thought process.
No, I do not agree with Hitchens on matters such as Iraq. While there may have been valid reasons for invading the country, those were not the reasons that led the Coalition forces there, and these wrong reasons have a lot to do with the way things ended up. I do, however, agree with Hitchens that as much as most non Americans like to criticize the USA, it is the USA that is primarily responsible for sorting out many of the world’s wrongs (say, former Yoguslavia). It may do so too late, it may do so reluctantly, but alas – it is the only entity that can do so, and because of that we should give it some credit.
My reviews are meant to be personal, and this last point on the USA is the link to the personal side of Hitchens’ touching me with his story. I know I am flattering myself badly here, but after reading Hitch-22 I think I can confidently state Hitchens and I hold a lot in common. We may disagree on things, but we tend to perform analytics in a similar manner; then again, many other people do so, too. Where the similarities between us are sharper is in our common background, with both of us being Jewish according to many people’s reckonings (in Hitchens’ case, there are additional racial/religious tags that can be pinned on the person). Through differing circumstances, both of us felt obliged to face that Jewish question, and both of us arrived to very similar conclusions: we are both vocal atheists (can anyone be more vocal than Hitchens there?), we both acknowledge the effect that Jewish element had on us, and we share common views regarding the State of Israel.
The similarities continue to the relocation department, which is where I will tie the USA thread of the discussion. Both Hitchens and I got to a stage where, through roughly similar circumstances, we realized we are living at the wrong country. And we both made a move, but the moves we made say a lot about the person that made them: Hitchens moved to the USA, the place he loathed through the Vietnam War but the place he recognized to be the most influential to be at; I, on the other hand, took the escape route to Australia. That choice of a path less traveled still resonates with me: I often wonder of the life that could have been lived in the USA and the person I would have become instead.
That difference of choice also summarizes the Christopher Hitchens self portrayed in Hitch-22. A man who cannot be half a heretic, a man who cannot stand the totalitarian whatever manifestation it may have, a man in love with life and struggling to make the world better as a result. It is a great pity I now have to start talking about him in past tense.
Overall: Hitch-22 is a very enjoyable ode to life written by a worthy veteran. 4 out of 5 stars.