Book review: The Museum of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister

(cover image courtesy 4th Estate)

 

It’s a rare thing indeed to reference another review in your own but in this case it’s pertinent because the charmingly appreciative words of Laline Paull, author of The Bees, are what convinced me, along with a whimsically bittersweet title, to buy Seni Glaister’s remarkably lovely first novel with bite, The Museum of Things Left Behind:

“Took me on holiday to the tiny imaginary country of Vallerosa, and returned me with with the wonderful feeling of having spent time with an uplifting time.”

It’s true that you could say that of many books; each, in their way, feels like a friend of sorts when you’re with them, rich with intriguing stories, wonderful personalities and beguiling insights, often so evocatively so that saying goodbye to them is enormously hard, almost a grief-stricken process.

But in the case of Glaister’s delightful book, that’s exactly what it feels like as Lizzie Holmesworth, newly-mistaken as a visiting member of British royalty, finds herself in a country which is almost Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in its quirkiness.

“‘We like to think of it as unique. It is called The Museum of Things Left Behind. You’d be amazed at what careless people abandon, like so much unwanted baggage. Come here! Look at this!’ He beckoned her towards the table on which he was leaning and swung round to show her its curiosities. There, pinned with tiny nails at each corner, were banknotes of all denominations and currencies, each one captured, preserved and displayed with the same love and attention that a butterfly collector might apply to his rarest species.” (P. 187)

Only Glaister has rather judiciously imbued the good citizens of Vallerosa, nestled in northern Italy near Austria, its buildings and arable land clinging to the edges of a gorge through which the river Floren flows for a scant eight kilometres, with enough self-awareness, intelligence and understanding of their place in the world that they are never at any point the laughing stock of the book.

Refreshingly, although there is undoubtedly much old-fashioned comedic potential in the idea of the wise, cultured outsider helping the backward souls of a neglected kingdom to come alive and realise their true mainstream potential, the arrival of Lizzie under entirely mistaken pretenses (theirs, not hers) is the catalyst for all kinds of mutually-beneficial epiphanies.

That these epiphanies are realised with much humour and some knowing social and political commentary adds to the rich enjoyment of a book that is light as air delightful but knowingly substantial in its insights on politics, humanity and the ways in which the arrival of someone or something new can spark real change if we’re open to it.

 

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

 

What we have in The Museum of Things Left Behind is the wonderful sense that all the things that transpire happen in the context of people simply getting to know one another.

There’s no grand denouement, no massive reveal that proves pivotal in the lives of all and sundry; simply the gentle and heartwarmingly real unspooling of all kinds of change and improvement that would likely never happened if Lizzie Holmesworth hadn’t happened to meet the good citizens of Vallerosa, from the President, Sergio Scorpioni to the Minister for Tourism Settimio Mosconi and humble but wily and insightful clockmaker Pavel, among the many appealingly idiosyncratic characters who make up the book.

They are an eccentric bunch in their own way but certainly not objects of ridicule, no more or less human and fallible than the rest of us and it’s a pleasure to read each and every page of this book precisely because everyone has worth and value and in many cases, amusing personalities.

“Lizzie pondered the question. She’d thought she had learned quite a lot, but now, put on the spot, she wasn’t sure she had. She knew that there was a complex political system that involved an unelected dictator, the sort she had been taught to fear, but since her whispered conversation with him [Sergio] in his bathroom and the many cups of tea they shared, she wasn’t sure he was that sort of dictator at all.” (P. 284)

The humour, laden with some pithy insights on all kinds of things, from the characters and they’re interactions with one another; there is a fair sense of the ridiculous yes, and there are gently hilarious scenes that unfold as a result, but at no point do you get the feeling that anyone is the butt of the joke.

The Americans possibly, with bluster and bombast that reflects palpable self-interest and an outdated paternalistic way of thinking, but even they escape as reasonably well-rounded characters who are just, in many ways, stupidly shortsighted.

The Museum of Things Left Behind is in many ways that charming book you need when the world seems to be falling apart around you – like right now perhaps?

It’s multifaceted, warm-and-fuzzy happy ending is the stuff of political and societal fantasies, an all-too-rare coming together where everyone learns a little something about life and is all the better for it.

It’s a reassuring reminder that contrary to all current indications to the contrary, and they are there in lamentably multitudinous abundance, people are capable of seeing each other’s point of view, learning from each other and growing.

If that sounds all a little too neatly tied up with a rose-coloured bow, well perhaps it is, but I adored each and every moment of a book that celebrates the very best of us as a collective species, imbuing its humorously clever tale with richly-woven tales, intelligent comedy that is happy to be as silly as it can at times, to always rewarding effect, and a wonderful sense that maybe we are closer to each other in sensibility, ambitions and hopes and dream that we realise.

The short and the short of it: Fishwitch and the surprising selfless acts of love

(poster courtesy Adrienne Dowling)

 

SNAPSHOT
A cantankerous, iceberg-dwelling witch is taken by surprise when a relentlessly cheery merman gets caught in her net and attempts to befriend her. Before long he begins to uncover a secret, long kept buried in the ice. (synopsis via Laughing Squid)

What a delightful piece of storytelling this is!

It begins as an opposites attract scenario – upbeat, endlessly-cheerful merman meets coldhearted witch who has developed a knack, to her detriment of course, of keeping the whole world as far from her as possible.

But as Adrienne Dowling unspools Fishwitch, layering nuance and humanity upon each other to beguiling, moving effect, you come to realise why the Fishwitch is the way she is and why the merman’s unconditional love and friendship means so very much to her, even if she won’t admit it, at first.

It’s an utterly charming tale, gorgeously and vividly animated, with real substance and depth and you would have to have a heart made of ice not to be moved by it.

 

 

Movie review: I Kill Giants

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

If there is one thing that life is very good at doing with its myriad unexpected twists and turns, its delights and its traumas, it’s making us feel like we have absolutely no control over anything.

Time and again, our attempts to rein in the unruly beast of life comes to nothing, our best-laid plans faltering and failing in the face of odds so overwhelming we may wonder if we will ever prevail, if we even have a chance of prevailing.

It’s hard enough to deal with these situations as an adult but even more difficult as a child or teenager when life experience and emotional nous are in their formative stages and our capacity to react in any kind of meaningful way is stymied at every turn by our lack of understanding and limited perspective.

Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) knows exactly what you’re talking about, or she would if she understood precisely what was happening to her.

When we meet her, she is what her brother rather derogatively terms a “nerd queen”, a Dungeons and Dragons-addicted girl barely into her teens who is grappling with the kind of trauma most of us don’t have to face until well into our lives.

We are not made privy to the exact nature of the trauma until well into the film, a narrative reveal that feels like it arrives at just the right moment, shedding light and truth onto many of the events preceding it, but thanks to a nuanced and skillful screenplay by Joe Kelly, who wrote the graphic novel of the same name on which the film is based, we never once feel like we’re in the dark about the forces assailing Barbara.

She is clearly someone in existential pain of the highest order, escaping into a fantasy world built upon an intense appreciation of Norse folklore in which Barabar is a giant killer, a person who triumphs over forces beyond the control of everyone else, the one person in her hometown who keeps everyone else safe.

 

(image courtesy RLJE Films)

 

It’s never suggested for one moment that the giants Barbara faces, and about which she knows a prodigious amount – it’s the one topic of conversation she is happy to talk about, telling new friend Sophia (Sydney Wade) about them in detail, the one time the taciturn social outcast ever lights up – are real.

But then, as in A Monster Calls, no one, initially at least, fully appreciates what the giants, and her ability to take them on and win, means to Barbara; it’s only when freshly-installed school therapist Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana) takes a special interest in the disaffected young girl, who is the target of some vicious bullying by a mean girls clique led by Taylor (Rory Jackson) that the truth about the giants emerge and we slowly come to see why it is that Barbara has taken on the persona of all-conquering heroine.

Her devotion to her calling is near-absolute – from the well-equipped cave-shack on the beach filled with all kinds of tools and gadgets to the traps she lays through the woods where she tests various combinations of food to see which the giants favour to the hours she spends roaming the town in which lives looking for black omens such as flocks of black birds and weird oceanic disturbances, she has no time or patience for anything or anyone else.

Whether it’s her older Karen (Imogen Poots) who’s doing her best to keep the household of five siblings together, or new friend Sophia who can’t quite figure out her aloof, strange friend, or Mrs. Mollé, if you’re not part of the giant-subduing solution, you are very much part of the problem and not worth Barbara’s time or attention.

Because of this, Barbara has the potential to come across as thoroughly dislikable protagonist, but in the hearts of Wolfe, and the wise words of Kelly and careful direction of Anders Walter guiding her, she instead comes across as raw and vulnerable, someone who is lashing out and falling in on herself because she can find no other way to cope with life.

She is not inherently an awful person and I Kill Giants succeeds as well as it does, because so many layers are added to the character, layers which are carefully, thoughtfully and sensitively peeled away in a way that makes sense and which increasingly makes your heart go out to a young woman in a great deal of pain.

 

(image courtesy RLJE Films)

 

So skillfully are the reasons for Barbara’s surly disengagement with the world around her, one which doesn’t make sense to her unless it is couched in terms of giants and giant killers, revealed that by the time the great reveal takes place you have become deeply invested in her welfare.

You have also, if you have ever experienced overpowering, inexplicable trauma of any kind, the sort that defies your ability to understand, reason or successfully overcome it, readily-identified with Barbara to such an extent that watching the last half hour of I Kill Giants feels like someone has taken your heart out, stomped on and put in back in again, in the best possible way.

Is there a good way to have your heart broken? In the context of this film, most certainly, and you ache and weep and feel so deeply for Barbara in her ever-more disquieted world of monsters, traps and fires, battles and showdowns that you wonder if you’ll ever be able to breathe again.

It’s that emotionally-affecting and that viscerally, beautifully real, a film with quirky indie underpinnings and a captivatingly grim, grey stormy look that is anything but remote and distancing, bringing you ever closer with ever slow-burning, unhurried scene, to the realisation that Barbara is ever single one of us who has ever faced the worst life can throw at us and wondered if we’re strong enough to make it through.

That’s the central truth of I Kill Giants in the end – that no matter how ill-prepared we feel we are for life’s calamitous curve balls, however poorly we understand what is happening to us and however much we flail in our futile attempts to come to grips with it, that we might be stronger and more able than we think.

Getting to that point is the great challenge and it’s on this dramatically-intense but artfully and quietly-expressed ground that the film expresses itself most profoundly, an emotionally-powerful kernel of truth hiding in a whimsical world which is revealed to be far more real and far more truthful than you might first expect.

 

Onward into moody dystopia: Blade Runner 2049 continues on in comic book form

(image via IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
The comic series will continue to unravel the future-set continuity of the Blade Runner universe, picking things up after the events of the long-awaited 2017 movie sequel, director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which followed the exploits of replicant blade runner K (Ryan Gosling), whose circuitous existential crisis leads him into the crosshairs of a radical group of replicant revolutionaries, steering him on a path that pairs him with original movie protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). The events of the sequel saw a major evolution in the duality between humans and replicants, leaving things on an intriguing cliffhanger. (synopsis (c) Den of Geek)

I was relatively late to the marvellously moody world of Blade Runner – OK try really late, only watching Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece in 2017 ahead of the release of the equally-as-masterful Blade Runner 2049 – but once there, I was enraptured and enthralled by cinema that satiated the senses, satisfied the mind and went a long way to owning the heart too.

This is science fiction that is both cerebral and deeply human, that rare mix of spectacle and accessibility that says something profound without collapsing under the weight of its own self-importance.

Given the relatively poor performance of Blade Runner 2049, a criminally-sad under-appreciation of a masterful piece of cinema, my hopes for any sort of continuation of the story, and there is a rich and deep capacity for one, was pretty slight.

Read non-existent.

 

 

But as the good folks of Den of Geek have revealed, there will be a sequel and it will be in comic form:

“A Blade Runner comic book series is officially in the works, set to arrive as a written collaboration between Blade Runner 2049 screenwriter Michael Green (who earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod for Logan, having also worked on genre offerings like Alien: Covenant, and TV’s American Gods,) and comic book writer Mike Johnson (of the recent Supergirl revival, Superman/Batman and the Star Trek franchise).”

But that is not the end of it, my sci-fi dystopia loving friends, not by a long way:

“The details don’t stop there. Titan [Comics] and Alcon [Media]’s collaboration on the Blade Runner comic series will serve as the launch pad for a new line of comics and graphic novels. Interestingly, lest anyone think that these stories will be negated in pre-Disney Star Wars Expanded Universe style, the companies have confirmed that the comics will be part of the official canon of the films.”

 

Way before they were Yellow: Coldplay documentary A Head Full of Dreams

(image (c) Coldplay)

 

SNAPSHOT
A Head Full of Dreams offers an in-depth and intimate portrait of the band’s spectacular rise from the backrooms of Camden pubs to selling out stadiums across the planet.

The film is helmed by Mat Whitecross – director of Supersonic, the acclaimed 2016 Oasis documentary – who met the four friends at college in 1996, before they’d even formed the band. From the very first rehearsal in a cramped student bedroom, Mat has been there to capture the music and the relationships on tape. (synopsis (c) Coldplay via newsletter)

I have a long, passionate and enduring love affair with Coldplay.

It’s never quite reached my deep and abiding love for ABBA, but Coldplay have come close, along with Pink, musical markers along my journey from Baptist pastor’s son struggling with his sexuality to out gay man to a writer and the husband of the most wonderful man I know.

Through all the ups and downs, the steps forward and steps back, Coldplay have been there, each of their songs awash in emotion and the most exquisite melodies, and while like any affair the ardour has dimmed from time to time – I’m sorry but the album Ghost Stories still leaves me cold – it has never gone out.

So to see what led to the creation and enduring appeal of Coldplay over 20 years (that long really? Wow) will be nothing short of fascinating and a lovely intimate insight into a band who said they would be massive, and are, but who remain very much an intimate and special part of my life.

A Head Full of Dreams is available on Amazon Prime Video from 16 November in UK, US, Australia and New Zealand (local language versions to follow), with screenings in 2000 cinemas globally on Wednesday 14 November.

 

Every family is Atypical (season 2 review)

(image via IMP Awards)

 

There is something utterly freeing and refreshing about Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), the protagonist on Netflix’s Atypical.

An 18-year-old senior on the autism spectrum, Sam is a reassuring presence for all of us, regardless of who we are or our circumstances, that it’s entirely okay to be yourself, and that, all messaging to the contrary, there is no such thing as normal.

Though Sam is growing in leaps and bounds in his understanding and experience of love, sex, life beyond school and life as a member of a typically functionally dysfunctional family – that’s all the good ones right? – and season 2 sees him becoming ever more independent, though not always successfully, he still remains an outlier to what we in the neuro-typical community might see as normal, everyday social niceties.

But that is not a bad thing; he is a reminder, a salient one in a world where the mainstream is still placed on a pedestal and differences are not even close to being universally embraced, that each of us must forge our own path through life and that mistakes, missteps and poor judgement is common to us all.

In fact, in season 2, Sam’s family – over-protective, emotionally-starved mum Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), dad Doug who made great progress in embracing who his son is, and track star close sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) – are all struggling to get life humming along.

There are copious times in the 10-episode second season when Sam’s family are every bit as flawed as each other, with no one able to stand up and claim the prize for most together family member.

Elsa, for instance, starved emotionally from years of caring for Sam on her own, the result of husband Doug’s initial inability to cope with Sam’s diagnosis, embarks on an affair with bartender Nick (Raúl Castillo), recapturing for a moment at least what it feels like to make decisions for herself and not everyone else, particularly Sam.

Like a lot of extramarital affairs, the reasons for why it happens at all are complex and not solely Elsa’s fault and its existence opens a chasm in Elsa and Doug’s marriage, setting in motion all kinds of soul searching.

There’s a veracity and reality to Elsa’s affair and its messy, family-sundering aftermath that speaks to the fact that no matter how good our intentions are, and in Elsa’s case, it’s to provide the best care possible for Sam, there are always unforeseen consequences.

Take the way Elsa and Doug’s marriage has been essentially placed on autopilot for years as everything, often by necessity, and partly by Elsa’s choice – she admits candidly at one point that she’s entirely forgotten what it’s like to be selfish, consumed as she is by the welfare of her son – revolved around Sam.

Or the fact that Casey, who is struggling with life at a private school where she’s on a flashy full scholarship thanks to her athletic abilities and loves her older brother passionately, often feels overshadowed by Sam’s dominating presence.

 

 

That’s life right? You get some things right, a whole lot wrong and have to deal with the resulting mess. All the damn time.

Though he is undeniably different from family and friends like cheeky, pot-smoking co-worker Zahid (Nik Dodani) and has his own unique path to forge including falling in love for the first time with the equally-quirky though neuro-typical Paige (Jenna Boyd), and the series rightly places him front and centre, it also refreshingly makes the case, and with great warmth and humanity, that Sam is just as “normal” as everyone else around him.

Gilchrist is superb in the role, imbuing Sam with equal parts knowingness and understanding, uncertain innocence and near-total blindness at times to the way social niceties are never as straightforward as they seem (if only they were, right Sam?), in the process establishing Sam at definitively Other and yet not, just another person with their own unique challenges and abilities.

What makes season 2 such a delight is the way his path towards college, therapy sessions, and then not, with Julia (Amy Okuda), sex, love and the usual rites of passage are presented so normally.

Atypical resists at every point making Sam look special; he is different sure, something even he readily admits, but he’s not portrayed as less-than-truly-human either, a trap that shows which focus on people with disabilities can sometimes fall into, even with the best of intentions.

It doesn’t minimise his differences but nor does it play them up either, acknowledging and using them as a narrative catalyst on more than one occasion while making it clear that he is no better or worse at life than anyone else in his orbit.

It’s a similar story in many ways, though for entirely different reasons, for gay people like myself; too often we are seen as different but dive right in and get to know us, and we are just as human, of course, as the rest of you.

Different definitely but somehow less than or other? Not really when you get down to it.

So is Sam – sure he’s freaked out by loud noises, patterns, changes in routine and only mollified by reciting endless facts about Antarctic life, particularly the penguins whose species names he repeats as a calming incantation (Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor and Gentoo) but how is that any different from the rest of us with our peculiar ticks and routines?

The refreshing take from Atypical season 2 in which life changes immeasurably while not at the same time, is that we are all different and that’s okay; the true measure of authentic humanity, which the show has in empathetic spades along with a gentle easy tone that never resorts to cheap tricks or histrionics, is how we deal with that difference which should be to acknowledge it, value it and embrace everyone as the unique people they are.

It might seem like a lightweight, twee message but in an age where the Other is being increasingly used to separate, divide and oppress, it’s a powerfully muscular one that Atypical owns completely in its own quiet, heartwarming and transformative way.

 

HO! HO! HO! Action … The Christmas Chronicles and Anna and the Apocalypse (new trailers)

 

There’s no such thing as too many Christmas movies!

You have to trust me on this; I have watched hundreds of the eggnog-soaked things and I am perfectly fine and do not dream of Christmas all year long, itching to decorate the tree, eat chocolate-covered sultanas and buy and wrap myself presents.

OK, I do, but that’s not the point.

What is the point is that Christmas films are wonderful, cliched or otherwise, and these two are some of the finest coming your way this festive season.

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
The Christmas Chronicles, a holiday adventure from producer Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter) and director Clay Kaytis (The Angry Birds Movie), tells the story of sister and brother, Kate (Darby Camp) and Teddy Pierce (Judah Lewis), whose Christmas Eve plan to catch Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) on camera turns into an unexpected journey that most kids could only dream about. After staking out Santa’s arrival, they sneak into his sleigh, cause it to crash and nearly derail Christmas. As their wild night unfolds, Kate and Teddy work together with Santa – as you’ve never seen him before – and his loyal Elves to save Christmas before it’s too late. (synopsis via Coming Soon)

Christmas movies are one of those rare times in my cinematic experience, romantic comedies being the other, where I am perfectly happy for you (not you personally; the filmmaker) to pile up trope upon trope until I am covered in tinsel while helping Santa finish his deliveries as we, and really the whole damn neighbourhood, sing out hearts our with heartwarming life-affirming carols.

That’s why I am more than willing to entertain watching The Christmas Chronicles which looks like it’s having a trope-ticking festival with a jauntily festive air.

 

 

Well, that and the fact that Kurt Russell is Santa Claus – KURT RUSSELL people!

I mean, if you wanted your Christmas tale with a healthy dose of cliche, and honestly I am more than happy with that, then how about much better is it with a Kurt Russell-ed Santa?

I am hoping very good indeed.

The Christmas Chronicles releases 22 November on Netflix.

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
Based on the 2010 BAFTA-winning short Zombie Musical. The feature takes places in Little Haven on Christmas as a a zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town, forcing Anna (Ella Hunt) and her high school friends to fight, sing and slash their way to survival with a fast-spreading undead horde in relentless pursuit. Teaming up with her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), Anna and her crew fight their way through zombified snowmen, a ravenous bachelor party and high school hormones to try and save family and faculty alike. The film features original music by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. (synopsis via Coming Soon)

Way over on the other end of the spectrum, tropes-wise, is Anna and the Apocalypse which, glory be, combines Christmas, zombies and musicals into one effervescently original take on the end of the world.

I mean, the odds of any of us singing and dancing our way through the zombie apocalypse is remote – although if it keeps the undead away then I say have at it! – but isn’t it nice to think that some people might? – and that it’d feel rather upbeat as they did so?

Of course it would, and the latest trailer for Anna and the Apocalypse looks absolutely, run for your life, delightful!

 

 

But as one character observes it may not be as much fun as it appears.

After all, fighting for your life may seem daring and brave but when you actually have to do it, its kinda scary.

Still, with some killer moves and equally killer tunes, maybe it’ll work out OK in the end?

You have to hope so … now go dance and sing that zombie into an early grave will ya?

Anna and the Apocalypse releases 30 November USA and UK and 6 December Australia.

Choose wisely: The serious fun of live action Aladdin (poster + trailer)

(image via IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
The Aladdin cast includes: Two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith (Ali, Men in Black) as the Genie who has the power to grant three wishes to whoever possesses his magic lamp; Mena Massoud (Amazon’s Jack Ryan) as Aladdin, the hapless but lovable street rat who is smitten with the Sultan’s daughter; Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) as Princess Jasmine, the Sultan’s beautiful daughter who wants to have a say in how she lives her life; Marwan Kenzari (Murder on the Orient Express) as Jafar, an evil sorcerer who devises a nefarious plot to unseat the Sultan and rule Agrabah himself; Navid Negahban (Homeland) as the Sultan, the ruler of Agrabah who is eager to find a proper husband for his daughter, Jasmine; Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live) as Dalia, Princess Jasmine’s hand maiden and confidante; Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods) as Prince Anders, a suitor from Skanland and potential husband for Princess Jasmine; and Numan Acar (Homeland) as Hakim, Jafar’s right-hand man and head of the palace guards. (synopsis via Coming Soon)

Disney’s great love affair, commercially-driven or otherwise, with remaking their animated classics, what We Got This Covered rather winningly calls their “wildly ambitious new hobby”, has me in two minds.

On the one hand, I lament the seeming inability or unwillingness to try for something truly original; and yet, on the other, well you have films like Beauty and the Beast and now Aladdin, and a slew of others in the works, which seem to suggest Disney is doing a great job of executing its grand new vision, or hobby, whatever you want to call it.

Granted, as with most teaser trailers, there’s not a whole lot to see and hear in the trailer but lordy, what a sense of wonder and possibility the trailer engenders, a sense of delicious foreboding that might augur poorly or well depending on, I’m assuming the state of your art.

It all feels like a little Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and I am totally there for it.

I’ll just be careful about picking up golden lamps, just in case I’m not as worthy as I think I am …

Aladdin opens 24 May 2019 in Australia, USA and UK.

 

Book review: Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman

(cover image courtesy Murdoch Books)

 

In this ever-more mobile digital age, where job tenure is fleeting, geographic locales are a home but for a moment, and social ties fray and fasten at the speed of tweet, we remain, as a species, heavily-dependent on a sense of place for our sense of identity.

Even when we move, without a second thought, from our childhood home to a place of study and then onto various towns and cities, and these days, countries, we will often refer back to a hometown or a place we most feel like we belonged, an anchor point in the benign turbulence that is our lives.

It’s not necessarily a repudiation of where we are now, and where we have been or wish to go; simply a recognition that this place most heavily shaped who we are and what we became and remains the focal point for our life’s journey upon which everything else pivots, like it or not.

For Maya Suleman, an immigrant in her college years from Ukraine who married Alex Rubin, a New Yorker who emigrated from Minsk, Belarus when he was 8, the much-adored son of Eugene and Raisa, and stayed in America to forge a life, and raise an adopted son Max, whose troubles kick the narrative of Boris Fishman’s second novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, into high gear, questions of identity and place are merely academic or a thing for idle musing anymore.

They become, in a very real sense, a matter of existential life and death when she sets out with a reluctant husband and son in tow, for Montana, to see if she can find out why it is that Max keeps running away, keeps eating grass and floating face down in rivers to stare at fish.

She is convinced, to the very depths of her unsettled, neurotic soul, one that has barely ventured in thought or actuality from her home in New Jersey, that Max will find peace if she can just get back to the state from which he was adopted, see his birth parents one more time and interrogate them on what will make her son happy.

“Frank’s eyebrows, of the same gray bristly mix as his beard, slunk together. ‘All right, now,’ he said. ‘Take it easy.’ The night shift regularly put him in acquaintance with the glitches and flaws of human design, but Maya didn’t seem crazy, only despondent. She nodded vacantly, grateful not to be dismissed so far from home, and turned back to her seat.” (P. 55)

What she’s really asking, and this is only something that comes to light in this beautifully-written, richly-wrought novel that deftly brings together emotionally-evocative drama and idiosyncratic humour to powerful effect, when Maya is on the road in Montana, is who she is.

Projecting everything onto her son, who it emerges is actually reasonably secure in his sense of self, and takes life as it comes in common with most children, she externalises the roiling, restive energy that drives her onwards, ever onwards, a lack of peace that sees her unable to truly settle or relax and which indelibly imprints on her fractious marriage or sometimes-troubled son.

The common denominator for the family, for all its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, is Maya who has never quite found her groove in a society she loves but always feels somewhat of an impostor in.

What she discovers when she finally hits the road and leaves the suffocating smallness of New Jersey and her in-laws behind – she loves them but they have sculpted a small world buttressed by superstition and old world perspective but also humour-laden and flawed certainty of what the new world is like – is that it is she who isn’t at home, who is yearning for something else, for the other, an unspoken need to realise who she is and make something of that.

 

Boris Fishman (photo by Stephanie Kaltsas via Lewis Centre Princeton Arts)

 

As an exercise in identity discovery and true understanding of sense of self, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is a delight.

It straddles the serious and the absurd, the deep and the eccentrically and humourously shallow with ease, offering up a portrait of one person’s life, and that of the people in uneasy satellite around her, that you find yourself happily and thoughtfully lost in.

Fishman slowly but surely unravels the real cause of Maya’s slowly-burbling distress, and the way in which it disguises itself, or it is allowed to be disguised by the one-time would-be cook and cafe owner, taking us on a journey that is as surprising for the protagonist as it is for us.

What seems like a simple, if emotionally-complicated and questionable, exercise in re-acquainting themselves with the birth parents Max doesn’t even know exist – he hasn’t been told he is adopted yet, a decision forged in a myriad conflicting desires and issues clung to uneasily by the Rubin family – becomes so much more as Maya discovers that she is the root of her family’s topsy-turvy world, and quite possibly, the source of her son’s inability to fully settle down.

“Maya colored, feeling the interloper’s familiar cluelessness. It, not Alex, was her true life’s companion. Just when she began to get free of the feeling, she mispronounced a word or failed to apprehend some invisible rule, and lived the nest days like a guest, a cherry pit of self-reproach in her stomach. How was one to know these things?” P. 211)

At times Fishman’s narrative just jump around in both sequence and intent, leaving you as befuddled as Maya often feels, but by and large, this is a wryly-clever and sensitive novel that explores what it is like to exist in a weird limbo where you are simultaneously at home and not, all at once.

If you have ever felt a niggling sense that you’re a little too square peg-ish for that round hole you should, in theory, find permanently and wonderfully invitingly comfortable, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo will speak to you, echoing what it is like for anyone, but particularly immigrants or anyone who has uprooted themselves from a world they know intimately and well to one they almost do but not quite, to realise they haven’t quite reached a perfect accommodation with their new life.

Perhaps none of us really do, something Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo more than hints at with its narratively-uncertain resolution that nevertheless find some sense of peace for its restive main inhabitant, all of us forever perched between contentment and an impelling need to find that elusive something that will complete us and leave us feeling, in our minds at least, more at ease with who we are and in the case of Fishman’s fascinatingly real characters, where we are.

 

(cover image via Amazon)

Can catastrophe be averted? Two brothers race to find out in Exit Strategy

(image via Vimeo (c) Travis Bible)

 

SNAPSHOT
A man in a time loop must work with his brother to prevent a catastrophic fire. (synopsis via Vimeo)

Exit Strategy is one powerful piece of deeply-affecting storytelling that runs its entire length including a bittersweet emotional whammy, in the course of 15 tightly-plotted but deeply human moments.

What first appears as a garden-variety time loop scenario ends up being anything but, suffused with benign brotherly estrangement that masks a longing to reconnect, fate vs. freewill and a quietly-executed ending that will leave you moved beyond belief.

 

 

It’s no wonder this superlative short film was selected Official Selection of Tribeca International Film Festival and has won a slew of awards including being the winner of $50,000 Grand Prize Louisiana Film Prize and scoring the Filmmaker Achievement Award Mammoth Film Festival.

Pop Culturalist nails it when it says this about Exit Strategy.

“Ambitious, powerful, and emotionally poignant, Exit Strategy is a masterpiece in storytelling. Bible not only conjures an intriguing plotline, but he also creates likable characters that you fall in love with and root for, all within the film’s 15-minute runtime. His work is supported by the inspired performances from his lead actors, Christopher O’Shea and Richard Kohnke, who are commanding, yet vulnerable. A must-see.”

You must take the time to watch this film all the way through and maybe hug someone you love too?