Book Club Benefits

My book and movie entertainment this week was local, down to the town in which I live. More than the pleasurable local aspect, my enjoyment of the book in question was greatly increased by the book club discussion around it; I should think of joining a movie club to, similarly, enhance my appreciation of the films I watch.

The film I saw, 3 Days to Go, by producer Bianca Isaac, showed familiar backdrops of the Durban beachfront and shoreline. Summer sunshine filtering through in the indoor shots was, likewise, wonderfully recognizable. As with the setting, I thought the filming itself was well done and made for good viewing.

The story of 3 Days to Go revolves around the death of the patriarch of a South African Indian family. Upon his death, for the first time in many years, the man’s four adult children return to the family home and to their widowed mother. Tensions ensue as each comes with a load of baggage. Abusive or wayward husbands, difficult teenage children, gambling brothers, schemes, betrayal, extended family issues and more are what emerge during the three short days before the man’s final ocean memorial.

I’m not a fan of all romantic comedy, and some of the acting in 3 Days to Go is a bit stilted. But the actors themselves are beautiful to behold, and the film will find a following amongst audiences.

Family concerns and more also feature in the book The Blessed Girl by South African author, Angela Makholwa. More seriously, The Blessed Girl raises the thorny (horny?) subject of blessers – people ‘(usually male and married) – who sponsor younger women with luxury gifts or a luxurious lifestyle in exchange for short- to medium-term sexual relationships’ (The Blessed Girl).  During a lively discussion of the book at the book club I attend we discussed the author’s treatment of the role of social media, the mockery of government corruption, male irresponsibility, shocking family handling of young girls, drugs, and of course the prevalence of blessers and blessees. The Blessed Girl is written in a flow-of-consciousness, conversational style, and is laced with humour and colloquialisms that I especially enjoyed.

Disagreements as to the merits of The Blessed Girl, and grappling with the issues raised in this book made for fruitful discussion.

Here’s to South African flavour and to discussion forums!

The Blessed Girl is available on Kindle. 3 Days to Go opens at South African cinemas on 25 January 2019.

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Reading: An Entry into Other Worlds

I bumped into a friend and his 12-year-old daughter at a market recently. The young girl, whose pen name is Tamika, enthusiastically told me about a book she’d been reading, Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Treese. Words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and Tamika’s excited description whet my own appetite for what sounded like an historical fiction book for children.

Using history as a base for children’s fiction is a wonderful idea. After borrowing Cue for Treason from my local library and reading it for myself I read another children’s book in the same genre, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell. The Explorer is a story about four children whose aeroplane crash lands in the Amazon jungle. There they meet an Explorer who – though unnamed throughout – is reminiscent of Percy Fawcett, the real-life adventurer who went missing without trace while searching for the Lost City of Z (see my previous review https://wp.me/p4c1s1-nS). All the children are transformed by the experience and at least two of them grow up to be explorers themselves!

Like my young friend Tamika, Rundell is enthusiastic about her genre and about reading. Copious historical research as well as a visit to the Amazon made up Rundell’s groundwork for The Explorer. But so too did books Rundell read as a child, books that caused her to be ‘in love with the world of a book’. (Read an interview with Katherine Rundell here https://bit.ly/2vVaEAp). As a writer herself Rundell is wonderfully descriptive. And, like the books she read as a child, Rundell has likewise created in The Explorer a book that easily transports the reader to another realm.

Descriptiveness – or lack thereof – was Tamika’s one criticism of Cue for Treason, a book she otherwise loved. Read Tamika’s review of Cue for Treason here:

‘The main characters in this book are Kit, Shakespeare, Sir Joseph and last, but certainly not least… Peter.

‘Pete or Peter is accused of a crime, a crime he did indeed do and all the people in his small town know it. The 14-year-old has to escape from home with a few of his family’s pennies and bread and cheese. He has to survive on the road where he meets Kit and then Shakespeare. Kit and Peter learn that the queen will be killed. When Pete becomes an actor and Kit’s friend, they go on their way to warn the good Queen Bess about her murder. Will Pete be kidnapped with all the things he knows? Will Kit have to travel alone? So many secrets, so many lies. Who is a friend, who is a foe?

‘I think this book could have used more description of the characters but I guess everyone can make up their own characters. I mean I’d like to know what Kit looked like. I did love the vigorous verbs. It was a wonderful book and we read it every night. We couldn’t put it down! 70%’.

Tamika, thank you for sharing your review and for your passionate recommendation!

 

 

 

 

Festive Season Viewing

Two festive season films releasing today in South Africa are: Ben is Back and Mary Poppins Returns. The former is for adults, the latter suitable for the whole family.

Far from sentimental, Ben is Back explores some of the difficulties that this time of year can bring. Ben (Lucas Hedges), a drug addict,

unexpectedly turns up on his family doorstep on Christmas Eve. While his mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), is very happy to see him, it is obvious that Ben’s sister (Ivy – Holly & Ivy …) and stepfather are far from happy to see him. Ben has caused problems for his family on previous Christmases. After a heated debate the family agree that Ben can stay for just 24 hours – but only if he remains under his mother’s watchful eye for every minute. Thereafter he must return to rehab.

What could go wrong? Predictably, everything does go wrong after Ben goes out in public and has a run-in with former druggy friends. During the fraught 24-hour period that follows viewers get to see the really grim aspects that go with drug addiction: guilt, desperation, crime, lying, remorse, weakness, drug dealing, family love and pain, and even death. The final scene of the film gives a double meaning to the film’s title ‘Ben is Back’. The acting is good. Julia Roberts is especially believable as the loving, tough mother, prepared at once to distrust and to believe in her son. A very good, if sobering ‘Christmas’ film.

Mary Poppins Returns – although not specifically about Christmas – is nevertheless a lovely film that families will enjoy watching during the Christmas holidays. Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins.

In the original tale based on the book by P L Travers, Mary Poppins arrives unannounced to help the Banks family. In this sequel, Michael and Jane – who were children in the first story – are now grown up, and their parents are dead. Michael is a struggling artist who works in a bank, and is a widower with three children. Jane has followed in her mum’s footsteps and spends her time attending workers’ rights rallies. More than that Michael and Jane seem to have inherited their parents’ absentmindedness and ineptitude. It is the children who are pragmatic and mature. Nevertheless, they are just children and the imminent repossession of their family home is a big problem. It is at this crucial time that Mary Poppins floats down from a gloomy London sky and sings her way into the family. With each song she teaches the children life-empowering lessons and once they have learnt and grown she quietly leaves again.

There is lots of bouncing, flying, floating, adventure, and entry into other worlds. The characters encountered, and the songs Mary Poppins sings, teach the children how to look at things differently, how to use their imaginations, and how not to take things at face value. These life lessons are a little different to the typical Disney message ‘believe in yourself’. They’re more realistic.

Mary Poppins Returns follows very much the same formula as the first Mary Poppins story and may be a little boring in parts to modern viewers. Emily Blunt is just perfect as Mary, though: prim, very self-assured, poised, beautiful and melodious. Mary Poppins Returns is a lovely film with which to end 2018. And the lessons learnt are worth taking into 2019.

Happy viewing this festive season.

A Christmas Carol & The Man Who Invented Christmas

I recently read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was elected as a ‘short read’ by the bookclub I belong to and fitted well with the time of year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Its arresting beginning – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ is a great start.

Scrooge, who is completely bad and miserable is at first ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ who hates Christmas. But he ends up in the last lines of the book knowing ‘how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.’

What exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? In A Christmas Carol it seems to be about caring for others, especially for the poor. Giving, receiving, enjoying.

The film The Man Who Invented Christmas backs this up. During the film’s telling of how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, the housemaid protests when Dickens initially kills off Tiny Tim at the end of the story. ‘But you can’t let Tiny Tim die’ she wails. And so Tiny Tim lives to see another day and in fact to speak the last words of the book, ‘God bless us everyone’.

Ensuring a happy ending gives A Christmas Carol a Disney feel. In today’s context ‘giving and receiving at Christmas time’ are gushy, feel-good sentiments. Both can be viewed as rather superficial. However, Dickens makes strong comment in many of his other books about the unfair treatment of the poor. Equally, A Christmas Carol may be making a more serious point about poverty and inequality. The rich Scrooge, with all his self-made money, can help to raise the unfortunate circumstances of poor, sick Tiny Tim.

Again, what exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? If we take the Christian origins of Christmas into account, keeping Christmas would be to remember and rejoice in the birth of Christ who was born to die for the sins of mankind. Although A Christmas Carol does make Christian references, I think Dickens does not explicitly endorse the Christian message. In some of his other works he is in fact quite disparaging of the hypocrisy of the church. In this sense, then, A Christmas Carol may in fact be Dickens showing the church to ‘put its mouth where its money is’ and help to lighten the load of others.

 

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

In this rendition of Marvel’s Spiderman the world wakes up to a new Spider-man. A young black boy named Miles Morales who lives in New York City is bitten by the magic spider and he starts walking up the sides of buildings. Miles meets the Spider-man he is taking over from. He’s a jaded, overweight white boy who gallantly fights on saving the city from baddies, despite being out of shape. Then, into Miles’s dimension come various past versions of ‘Spider-man’. A funky Spider-girl (who looks like Scarlett Johansson), an eighties Japanese talking toy Spider-girl, and a hilarious sixties comic book Spider-Ham. And more. Something has gone wrong in the cosmos to cause all these Spider-men/girls to congregate in one dimension and it’s up to Miles to set it right or they’ll get sucked into a vortex and cease to exist as individuals.

This Spider-man movie is an animated one. More than that, the look and feel is intended to be that of a comic book. The characters look like drawings, the colours are washed-out like typical comic-book paper, and text appears over the characters’ heads now and then. I think that’s partly why I enjoyed Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse. It’s not a comic book posing as real life, as the other Marvel films do when they use real people. Because of the comic-book medium presented in this one, the viewer doesn’t have to pretend it’s real; they can just enjoy it for what it is – a comic. Other typical comic-book elements that appear are: humour, and characters falling from dizzying heights and yet surviving.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse is a tale about celebrating and preserving differences. The new Spider-man is a black boy, who comes of age in this tale. His difference from the earlier Spider versions race-wise is obvious. But the other Spider-men/girls aren’t thrown out or denigrated in any way. They all have something to contribute for who they are and the presentation is tasteful and unforced.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse opens at cinemas in South Africa today 14 December 2018. It’s an enjoyable film for adults and children alike.

 

 

Bizarre, Fascinating Story of a Writer

After seeing Keira Knightly in The Nutcracker and The Four Realms https://wp.me/p4c1s1-tx I wasn’t excited about seeing her in Colette. But she does much better in her role in this adult film than she does in the former one for children.

Colette is the story of true-to-life author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and her writer husband Willy (Dominic West). The pair had a strange relationship. Willy moved in well-known social circles in Paris while Gabrielle (as she was known) was a ‘country bumpkin’. Willy wasted money on gambling, women and entertaining and was constantly scrabbling to put out a best-seller to cover his debts. To do this he gathered a team of people who wrote for him. Gabrielle was drawn into this stratagem and this was how her writing was ‘discovered’.

Colette – as she became known – wrote about her own youthful experiences – with some poetic licence – and Claudine the character was born. In the mid-1800s the ‘novel’ started to become popular but was considered something only women would read. Willy was at first disparaging of his wife’s writing but in desperation he submitted the manuscript to his publisher under his name and the book was a hit. Colette continued to write book after successful book in the Claudine series.

As Willy took the accolades Colette stood back and watched. Sounds like Big Eyes you say, the story of painter Margaret Keane who painted well-received pictures while her husband took the credit. But, no, Colette is different. Colette herself was complicit in the arrangement and didn’t try to wrest control from Willy – at least not for many years. The two worked together to make Claudine successful, which also involved them bizarrely ‘living out’ Claudine in order to make the writing authentic. Amongst other things, to do this, Willy took up with a mistress, and Colette experimented with lesbian sex.

As Claudine the story matured and discovered its identity, so too did Colette the person. While Willy remained the immature, self-centred individual that he always was, Colette outgrew him.

Colette is a fascinating – if weird – story of a writer who became enormously successful in her own right. The film opens in South African cinemas on 7 December 2018.

 

Magic Story Spoilt

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a Disney film based in part on E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. A family dance scene as well as flashes of a ballerina dancing – particularly as the credits are rolling – indicate the famous Nutcracker ballet.

This version centres around one family – the Stahlbaums – and in particular younger daughter, Clara (Mackenzie Foy). Clara, like the rest of her family, is grieving the recent loss of her mother and Mr Stahlbaum’s (Matthew Macfadyen) wife. The action opens one Christmas eve when each of the children receives a gift from their late mother. Clara’s gift is an elaborately carved silver egg with a message that tells Clara ‘everything you need is inside’.

What ensues is a fantastical adventure in which the young Clara ‘finds’ herself, becomes the heroine, comes to terms with her mother’s death, and contributes to Disney’s eternal message that goodness is always found within oneself.

The make-believe world Clara enters is lovely and the sets and costumes are grand and gorgeous. Toys come alive, war with one another, and Clara leads them in a battle between good and evil that takes place in the fourth realm. She uses her natural science brain to solve mechanical problems, an aspect that makes her an interesting and feisty heroine.

But when Foy is not leading soldiers in battle she minces around with her arms out to the side like a ballerina, delivering lines like a wooden puppet. Keira Knightly, who has an interesting role as Sugar Plum, is irritating. She is awkward throughout and fails to give her character any kind of depth. These aspects and a few holes in the script detract greatly from the depth and pace of what is otherwise a wonderfully imaginative children’s story.

Despite these problems The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is still worth seeing. It opened at cinemas in South Africa on 2 November 2018.