Astropolis (book review)

Humanity is deeply flawed. But despite this, not ultimately doomed.

This is the recurring theme throughout this book, which is the first volume in what is styled as an epic sci-fi trilogy.

And epic it is! The story covers vast amounts of space and time in its quest to tell the story of Imre Bergemasc who may be the saviour of human civilisation, or it’s greatest threat. He can’t quite recall which. Reconstituted into physical form after drifting as a download of sorts for millennia through space, and missing vital memories lost in the process, he is struggling to make sense of a galaxy greatly changed since he was last conscious. In the vacuum of power caused by the governing body, The Continuum, it’s every person for themselves, which presents endless complications for Imre as he attempts to rebuild his life.

Sean Williams’s great gift is that his story doesn’t descend into dystopian bleakness. Humanity, while technologically and biologically much evolved in a far distant future, is still prone to many of the same flaws that beset us in our troubled present. But the key part is we’re still around, chaotic galaxy or not, trying to do our best. This grounded perspective informs the whole book and makes it a compelling read.

The Temperamentals (New Theatre)

It is easy to brave behind closed doors.

You can articulate the most intimate secrets and no one will hear you, unless you choose to let them. But the whole equation changes when you are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, or like Harry Hay (Doug Hansell), and his lover, Rudi Gernreich (Daniel Scott), founders of America’s first gay rights organisation, the Mattacine society, choose to step right into it.

And step into it Harry boldly does, with a more reticent Rudi following as close behind as he can. Harry is a deeply frustrated man. Forced to shelter deep within a closet, which includes marriage to a woman he cares for, but doesn’t truly love, or feel attraction for, he yearns for far more. He wants to live a life with the man he falls in love over a series of clandestine encounters, Rudi, that is as open and free, and recognised by society as that of his heterosexual forbears.

But instead he is forced to hide behind code words – “temperamentals” was code for homosexual back in the 1950s – deny his true feelings, and tone down his innate flamboyance (he takes to wearing brightly coloured scarves later in life), all to keep society comfortable. Emboldened by the spirit of defiance he encounters in Rudi and like-minded souls, he forms the Matticine society with a bold manifesto that he expects everyone else to believe in as fervently as he does.

But the beauty of the play, by Jon Marans, which is peppered with wry observations, witty lines, and heartbreaking truths, is that it doesn’t turn Harry, Rudi and those that eventually join them – Bob the clown plagued by inner demons (Mark Dessaix), and Dale and Chuck (Ben McIvor and Brett Rogers respectively) –  into paper-thin gay stereotypes. They are rendered as complex, flawed men, all struggling to find their place in a society that says they have no worthwhile role.

Obviously they reject that, Harry most aggressively, but not all of them are prepared to nail their colours to the mast and make a declaration. That they are forced to do so when one of their number is falsely accused of soliciting gay sex in a men’s room, and is tried in court, is borne more by necessity than passion pursuit of exposure.

Well with the exception of Harry, who emboldened by his love for Rudi, and free of his marriage is determined to make himself as visible as possible. This costs him a great deal in the end, not least the love of Rudi who reluctantly walks back into the closet in order to claim his place as one of the most celebrated costume designers of Hollywood’s golden age. It breaks his heart and Harry’s but it underlines beautifully that not all the men who joined this movement were of the one mind, and that they all approached the fight for equality with their heterosexual brethren in different ways and at different tempos.

And that is the beauty of this play. It resists the temptation to show all gay men as identical. They may all yearn for freedom from oppression, but go about in different ways, with makes sense since gay people are as diverse in their outlook and aspirations as the rest of society. Jon Marans portrayed this deftly and cleverly, and underlined the inhumanity and it’s consequences on wildly different people. who all react in different ways, as you’d expect.

It is powerful play because it resist easy answers and portrayals. You are left feeling as if you have met five real men grappling with who they are, and the best way to make society acknowledge their uniqueness. The means may vary but the yearning is the same, and it is as powerful as it is moving, especially in the hands of a cast, and a director as talented as the ones directing this production at the New Theatre.

Review: Harvest (Stadt Land Fluss)

I need to say from the outset that I normally like slow-burning indie dramas.

In fact, it’s the greater bulk of the movies I see. I like to watch them because they take the time to craft a rich and fulfilling narrative, and create fully-formed characters that you care about, quite deeply usually, by the end of the movie. They’re very satisfying films to watch.

I thought this movie was one of them. On the surface, Harvest (Stadt Land Fluss), the first film I chose to see in this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival, looks every bit the part. Long slow sweeping landscape shots. A slow build of character introductions, chief among them withdrawn Marko who has an abusive past with an alcoholic mother, and so is not inclined to let anyone near to him at all. He is guardedly friendly with the other apprentices on the farm where he has a bright future but that’s about it. You are introduced to the other people on the farm through naturalistic, almost documentary-like scenes which on one level work quite well.

And yet unfortunately for all the natural light, scenes of work on the farm (cows, lots of cows!), and slow reveals of the various people Marko interacts with, what you end up with is a movie that takes a good long while to get nowhere very special.
Yes, Marko’s closed-off world is slowly prised open by the warm and friendly Jakob who with great care takes the time to get to know Marko properly.

Sensing Marko’s reticence to get too close to anyone, Jakob moves closer to him step by step until a bond, no matter how tentative is formed. In that respect, it is a sweet, touching movie, and you hope that the two of them will be able to create something special from this awkward, one step forward, two steps back dance of attraction.

The pity is that in trying to reflect the two men’s slow steady walk towards each other, the director Benjamin Cantu crafts a movie so slow moving that it almost stops. What should be a delightful natural waltz to true love becomes achingly dirge-like. It never truly takes shape nor finds a sense of itself and the budding romance between these two obviously decent, caring guys gets lost in the fog of nothing much happening at all.

Some reviewers have welcomes this as a positive, citing the fact that it lends the gently unfolding story of their relationship a bucolic country idyll in which it can take place. That is true to some extent, and the steady rhythm of life on the land with its early starts, and deadlines that pay no heed to normal work hours or leisure time does provide the perfect backdrop for the pace and tenor of the budding relationship.

While I can acknowledge the director’s intent in this regard, the movie becomes a prisoner to this relaxed approach. The mood and tone has effectively robbed the life from what should have been a beautifully unfolding relationship between two lost souls seeking someone, and somewhere to belong (this longing for a place to call home is evinced by their talks about where they’d drive to, Poland or Belin, and whether life on the farm is where they want to be).

Yes, Marko and Jakob do connect, and yes it is sweet and touching but it is so understated as to be muted to the point of invisibility. Even their big night out in the city, where they finally express their true feelings is underplayed to the point where you never see any real emotions come into play. There might be sex, there might only be kissing, who really knows? The director has clearly tried to imply what happened but does it with such understatement that, in the end, I couldn’t even be bothered filling in the blanks. It’s a pity because the characters of Marko and Jakob were appealing, but both they, and the relationship they eventually form after many stops and starts suffers from a blandness that drains all the life from it, and you stop caring.

The film too lacked a visual bite. Shot in what was clearly intended to be natural light, you are struggling much of the time, save for the obvious night scenes, to work out when events are taking place. You’re helped out at times by conversation about what an early morning start it is, or what a bought day it’s been but those conversational clues are few and far between. Unfortunately the poor lighting also makes it hard to see characters at all sometimes such as when Marko is talking to the “mother” of the farm, Mrs Burchadt, who is filmed against a brightly lit window. It was so poorly lit that I could barely make out her face most of the time, and is distracted me from what was a fairly pivotal scene establishing with admittedly clunky exposition how wounded and damaged Marko is, and why.

There was no real drama either. It was obvious that Marko, with no real family, or other career prospects needed this job. In his final year, his continued employment pivoted solely on passing the last big exam, which he was clearly struggling with, either due to literacy issues, or general mac of will. And yet it was clear it was his home so he should be fighting to stay. Instead, we got one half-hearted fight with Mrs Burchardt, from which Marko storms out, and then magically he passes the exam and all is well.

It underlines the central problem in what could have been a great movie if handled properly. It relies too much on the quiet rhythms of the countryside to inform the tone of the movie to the point where all the colour, drama and emotional richness is sadly leached away. By the end of the film, all you want to do is leave Marko and Jakob to their embrace, which finishes the movie rather abruptly, and get back to the messy rushed pace of reality, vowing you will never endure the turgid routine of life at the farm ever again. Which, of course, is the opposite of what normally happens when any of us go to see the movie, and the polar opposite of what Benjamin Cantu would have wanted with his first, but flawed, directorial effort.

I love my Scandinavian pop! 2

Who doesn’t love a sequel?

Hollywood adores them. Book publishers are having them written by living authors for books by dead authors. And even artists like Mary J Blige are doing album Part 2s. It’s all in the rage, and not wanting to miss the sequel boat – which looks exactly like the boat that just left shore save for a different paint job – I am back with even more of my favourite Scandinavian pop (Scandipop).

All the talk about sequel-itis aside, which just for the record I am not really a fan of, I am doing a part demux of my Scandipop tribute because I left out some fabulous music last time and figured that had to be rectified. It was a conversation with a good friend in my writing group recently that made me realise that there’s even more Scandipop that I love and didn’t include, and then even more northern European sonic goodness that I wasn’t aware of, and had to listen to, and naturally wax lyrical about.

Of course as I said it all started way back in the dark ages of the 19070s when ABBA first burst onto the scene – yes this is a naked attempt to get ABBA mentioned in yet another post and use another picture of them; I am shameless and yet charmingly devoted you must admit – and has blossomed in recent years into a full blown love affair with music from their countrymen and near neighbours.

It’s not that I actively seek it out. It simply seems to be that most of the music I end up adoring has the same gorgeous melodic sensibility and an originality that you don’t find in a lot of mainstream music in common, and it happens for the most part to be by artists from Scandinavia. You can tell they’ve been influenced by current trends but not shaped by them, and the music they create is wholly, and delightfully unique.

So who’s made the list this time? A diverse but utterly beguiling bunch, as you’d expect!

 

JENS LEKMAN

 

 

Jens Lekman (first name pron. “Yens”) is a Swedish musician with a knack for crafting delicate, but not fey, guitar pop. His music is warm and rich, and is the perfect accompaniment for a lazy Saturday afternoon. What’s also appealing about this talented artist from Angered, Sweden is his ability to write beautiful, articulate lyrics that marry perfectly with his sweet, melodic pop. He has a greater mastery of the English language and its quirks that many native speakers I have heard and use it to great effect. He is quirky, clever, and subverts many of pop conventions to delightful effect, a trait in common with many of his Scandipop compatriots who don’t play by standard musical rules.

You can read a brilliant review here of his EP, An Argument With Myself, which documents beautifully what is so attractive about this multi-faceted artist.

 

 

KASPER BJORKE

 

 

This handsome Danish DJ, who found fame mixing for many of the leading lights of the international electronic scene including Moby and Trenemoller (who he manages), has released two eclectic albums, with a third, Fool, ready to drop, appropriately enough on April Fool’s Day this year. Whatever the style of the song, whether it’s dark and troubled (“Fasano”) or beautifully melancholic (“Young Again”), the sound is fresh and bright and gorgeously, richly melodic.

Here’s a great biography of this talented young man who deserves to be much better known than he is.

 

 

THE KNIFE

 

 

This quirky, with a capital Q in screaming blood red neon, Swedish duo, Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, photograph themselves as crows, in the snow, and generally go out of their way not to promote themselves along conventional lines. It’s not a case of being petulant or difficult – they simply have firm ideas on how they wish to express their artistry and stick to them. It’s all part of that delightful Scandinavian eccentricity that Bjork has raised to an art form, and which I suspect makes their music so refreshingly different to what the rest of the music is producing.

Their music is unusual and offbeat. They don’t release what you would call “radio friendly” songs preferring off-kilter melodies, remote echoey vocals, and discordant jangly rhythms but it all comes together in one very unique but wholly listenable whole. Trust me.

Here’s a much fuller biography of these one-of-a-kind artists.

 

 


 


He may have only been around since 2006 but Swede Anders Kleerup has done enough for several lifetimes. He has mixed songs for a who’s who of Swedish pop including Roxette, The Cardigans and The Concretes, and collaborated with Robyn on her massive hit “With Every Heartbeat”. He released his debut album in 2008, which featured collaborations with, well, just about anyone who’s anyone on the edgy avant garde of Swedish pop like Lykki Li, and The Concretes’ Lisa Millberg. He has even co-written and produced a song for the fabulous Ms Cyndi Lauper, “Lay Me Down, which is one of my favourites on her irresistibly funky dance album, Bring Ya To The Brink.
His tunes veer between subdued beauties like “Until We Bleed” (the aforementioned collaboration with the uber-talented Lykke Li) and bouncier tunes like “On My Own Again” which oozes bright poppy fun. There is no doubt his music has a devilishly compelling groove and it is that rare beast – electronic pop with beauty, melodic and a dance sensibility that is gentle in one sense but ball-bustingly joyful on the other. Resistance to his melodies is futile. No point trying.

 

 

 

 



 

She may share her name with the Greek goddess but that’s probably where the similarities end. Unless of course, Hera, unknown to hubby Zeus decided to record some sweet, engaging guitar pop that can rock it out, and softly caress in equal measure with gutsy, real life lyrics. Then throw in a  country tinge to her pop and sing a bunch of captivating songs with a bright light voice that manages to sound like it’s cotton-soft and steel-hard all at once.
This modern day, Hera (full name Hera Hjartadottir), Icelandic-born, but New Zealand-resident since she was 13, and del;easing music since she was 16, has a whimsical and even mischievous air to her that belies the earthiness of her lyrics. She is also rather partial, and why not, to celtic tattoos on her face which lend that extra degree of difference that you need in today’s sonically-cluttered landscape. Another one-of-a-kind artist that deserves way more than your passing attention, and fortunately she has quite a few albums to keep you busy.

 

 

So that should you well and truly glued to your headphones for a good long while, which should give me the time I need to work on a third helping of the sonic goodness that is Scandipop. Yes, there’s plenty more of this unique amazing music to share with you, and if I am going to have a sequel, the least I can do is make it part of a trilogy, and make sure as many of these talented artists get the exposure they so richly deserve.
Enjoy the sonic joy that awaits!

It’s raining cat and dog memoirs

It started way back in 1933 when Virginia Wolf published Flush, a cleverly written biography about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog which told his story from abandoned stray to much loved pet.

Then fast forward to 2005 when Marley and Me, by John Grogan, was released, telling the story of one man’s attempt to live with “the world’s worst dog” which became a sentimental favourite and a hit 2008 movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston.

And now the occasional quirky book on pets has become a veritable downpour of stories about dogs and cats, and yes, even pigs and owls, variously saving their owners’ fractured lives, making a difference in the wider community, or shining a light on little discussed social issues.

Pet memoirs are big business
Pet memoirs, as the genre is unofficially known, have become big business. Both for the authors who recount, with great affection, how the beloved animal in their care changed their life, and the publishing industry which has found that the reading public has an endless appetite for these often inspiring stories.

But why have cats and dogs, owls and pigs, suddenly found themselves at the centre of a publishing phenomenon? What is it about our current age that has people snapping up these stories with ever increasing frequency?

It clearly goes beyond the simple fact that people love cute animals. That is hardly a revelation. It makes sense that owners, often grappling to come to grips with the recent passing of their beloved pet, would eulogise them in a heroic, life-affirming way. We do it with our human loved ones, and since pets are considered family members, it makes perfect sense that we would do the same for them.

But Daniela Rapp, an editor at St Martin Press’s (and awash in pet memoir submissions), thinks she may know why these books have struck a chord, beyond the need we have to feel close to cute and fluffy and feathery animals.

A special bond

In a guest post she wrote for the Pet Bookshelf Blog in May 2010, she postulated that the Global Financial Crisis has turned the focus of peoples’ lives well and truly back on to their families. She also thought that people were beginning to increasingly appreciate how unique animals are and how special the bond between them and their two-legged friends really is.

“And lastly, humans have always been fascinated with that special bond between animals and people – we love to hear heartwarming stories of the dog that changed someone’s life, the cat that made everyone’s day brighter, or the bird that was able to communicate desires and dislikes. The wall between us and the animal kingdom is one of the last frontiers, and it is slowly being dismantled, as our understanding of animal behavior and communication grows,”  wrote Daniela.

In short, we are bonded to the animals in our lives in ways that go beyond simple appreciation of how cute or endearing they are. We feel an affinity to them, and even more so when they connect with us in ways that enrich our lives or the world in general.

It’s also true that in a frantically-paced, rapidly changing world where many people feel ripped from the moorings of old certainties, whether work or personal, animals are an emotional touch point. We may not understand why our job has gone overseas, or how to program our Tivo, but there’s no mistaking how much our pets unconditionally love us. It is a bedrock certainty, an unwavering part of our lives that isn’t affected by failed relationships or bills we can’t pay.

Animals it seems make sense to us when little else does. And our desire to be ever closer to them is keeping this new genre growing in leaps and bounds, and the variety of titles available is as varied as the animal world itself.

The pet who changed my life

The first category could loosely be termed “The Pet Who Changed My Life”. This sub-genre usually centres on a pet who arrives into a family, and upsets the status quo to largely positive effect. Marley and Me is perhaps the best known title in this category. But it has been joined in recent years by the likes of Cleo by Helen Brown, about a black “part Abyssinian princess” cat who brings emotional healing to a family grieving the untimely loss of a child. It is about to be made into a big-budget movie, and has spawned a sequel, After Cleo Came Jonah, due out later this year.

Another more unusual entry in this field is Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien, which tells the tale of an abandoned barn owl who ended up rescuing his new human companion every bit as much as she rescued him.

All of these stories celebrate the love and devotion of animals that were only ever intended as pets but ended up becoming so much more, and changing their owners’ lives forever.

Changing communities
But animals don’t just transform the lives of individuals. They also affect entire communities, always for the better.


Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron speaks with great affection about a kitten found in the book returns box of a library who is adopted by one of the staff and becomes loved by the entire town. So popular is the now dearly departed Dewey that his story will be told on the silver screen in a film released in October this year.

But Dewey is not alone. He is kept company by Casper the Commuting Cat by Sue Finden, about a plucky feline who left home each day, shortly after his owner, spending his days riding the buses in Plymouth, England. He became a staple of many commuters’ lives, drawing people together who would otherwise have never interacted.

And also by The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood by Sy Montgomery, which recounts the effect one piglet had on a New Hampshire rural community who drew together in ways no one, least of all his owner, could have foreseen.

Social issues
But the books in this genre are not all warm and fuzzy transformations of an individual’s or community’s life. Another critically important category uses the story of one animal in particular to cast light on a major social issue that otherwise may not receive the attention it deserves.

For instance, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa M.D., tells the story of a cat gifted with the ability to know when an Alzheimer’s patient was within hours of dying. This important book sheds light on terminal disease and death, two intertwined issues that most people shy away from but which Oscar’s beautifully told story provides a point of accessibility to.

Similarly, Saving Gracie: How One Dog Escaped the Shadowy World of American Puppy Mills by Carol Bradley documents through the life of one rescued cavalier King Charles spaniel, the nightmarish world of puppy farms, and the efforts of dedicated animal loves to close them down. Again, it’s an unpleasant topic but Gracie, who grows into a beautiful, affectionate dog despite her past abuses, provides a point of entry for people who would otherwise not acquaint themselves with this issue because of the horrifying subject matter.

Another worthy inclusion in this category is Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan and Bret Witter which tells the story of US soldier who, traumatised by two tours of duty In Iraq, finds it almost impossible to re-integrate back into society. That is until he meets Tuesday a boisterous, affectionate and intelligent dog. This heartwarming book encourages discussion of what has become a major issue in a country which has been at war for over 10 years.

It would be easy to be cynical and make light of this genre as inconsequential stories about peoples’ pets. But this genre is far bigger than the simple affectionate ramblings about someone’s dog, cat or pig. It has exploded in popularity for the simple reason that it articulates, in ways people can instinctively relate to, a basic human need to be connected, to love and to make a difference.

They are in essence explorations of what it means to be human triggered by creatures that are anything but, and because they speak to such elemental parts of who we are, you can expect Fido, and his ilk to occupy even more space on bookshelves, and of course, in our hearts, for years to come.

(This is an article I originally wrote for writingbar.com, the official website of the Sydney Writers’ Centre where I work.)

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Review)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is grief writ large, and yet also taken down to it’s most raw and intimate.

And you don’t get much more raw and intimate than the 11 year old boy at the centre of the absorbing drama, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who loses his much loved dad on 9/11 and then struggles to make sense of a world so shattered it defies his attempts to put it back together.

In truth, he can’t. Just like the blue vase, containing a mysterious key inside a yellow envelope with the word “Black” on it, which falls from a shelf in his dad’s cupboard and shatters when he finally ventures into his father’s inner sanctum a year after his death, he can’t put the pieces together. It’s beyond his reach as a child, especially as the adults around him, chiefly his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock) and his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) are struggling just as much to make sense of their great loss.

In his quest to make sense of it all, he listens over and over to voicemail messages left by his dad (Thomas Schell played by Tom Hanks) on what he calls “The Worst Day”, saddened beyond words by the escalating desperation in his father’s voice, but unable to cut himself loose from this last link to the only parent who truly “got” him. (You only find out much later in the movie that these messages have even greater resonance and regret for him than what is apparent at first.)

He is trying desperately hard to make the most of the last eight minutes he has left with his father, a reference to the fact that if the sun was to ever splutter and die that we would have eight minutes to enjoy the light that was left. With his father gone, he feels as if he must do everything in his power to enjoy the light of his father’s presence for the short time it still burns brightly.

But it’s a light that is fading, which he freely, and sorrowfully admits. He feels like he is letting his father down by not doing enough to keep his memory alive, and he spends hours in the topmost part of his wardrobe, in what is essentially a shrine to the parent he loved deeply. He keeps all this quiet from his mother, whom he loves but whom he feels increasing isolated from as he strives with everything in his power to stay close to the flickering presence of his father.

His father, you learn early on, was a the mainstay of his world, and that’s why his loss is so keenly felt, and why Oskar’s desperate need to honour his memory is so intense. With his mother always at work, or “in absentia” as he accuses her during the film, it was his father who created ever more elaborate hunts for clues that Oskar had to follow all over Manhattan in search of the missing sixth borough. It was an attempt to get Oskar engaged with the world around him, something he seemed disinclined to do without the prodding his father playfully provided. In tandem with these grand urban adventures, Thomas Schell played “Extreme Oxymorons” with his son (a rare moment of humour in an emotionally dense film) and engaged him at every opportunity to keep him thinking, enquiring, interacting.

With his father’s passing, Oskar finds his life diminished by the loss of his father’s energy and passion. He is adrift, and though his mother tries to fill the void, he feels like his life can only have meaning again if he can do something for his father. But he has no idea what that would be as he retreats deeper and deeper into the interior world his father worked so hard to draw him out of.

It’s at this point that he decides that the only way to truly honour the memory of his father is to find out what lock the key that was in the blue vase opens. He is sure it opens something important and is a fitting last quest that his father would want him to undertake. With characteristic painstaking thoroughness, he draws up an elaborate grid mark of New York, finds out where all the people with the surname Black live in the five boroughs and sets out to meet them all, believing that one of them holds the key (or the lock really) to getting past the pain of his father’s death.

Of course dealing with his grief isn’t as simple as completing this impossible quest but even if he suspects this, and he is an exceptionally bright kid, he cannot even begin to admit that to himself. He presses on with the help of his newly discovered grandfather ( and the unseen help of his mother, which sows the seeds for their eventual reconciliation) but ultimately learns that he probably suspected all along – that the healing comes in the journey, not the destination which is nothing like he expected.

The movie has been criticized for these sorts of philosophical underpinnings. It’s been criticised for being too earnest, too intense, and an overly sentimental and belaboured look at grief, especially grief experienced against the now iconic events of 9/11. The feeling has been that the film is manipulative and not a worth exploration of such a weighty issue.

But I’d argue just the opposite. Oskar’s grief is genuine, raw and visceral. He may come across as too self-aware but his intelligence and defiant sense of purpose is simply a cover for a child struggling to make sense of what his mother admits at one point “makes no sense”. I think his grief, and pain are palpable and perhaps it’s the fact that he is so intelligent and possibly autistic, that has obscured for the film’s many critics what for me is very real affecting emotion.

This movie didn’t feel forced or manipulative for a second. It was as real as it gets as were the relationships with just about everyone in his life. I suspect that much of the criticism of this film stems from the fact that you can’t truly do justice to the still raw emotions surrounding an event as impacting as 9/11.

It’s likely you can’t, but Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud does a superb of representing the grief it causes in microcosm. It moved me deeply.

How quickly the pop culture loving masses forget… or do they?

Santigold, an innovative alternative music artist who shot to prominence in 2008 with her self-titled debut album (under her then moniker of Santogold), has a new single out, “Big Mouth”. It’s a funky, fresh slab of crackling alterna-pop.

Almost simultaneously, Sam Sparro, who enjoyed massive success with his second single, “Black and Gold” way back in the dim dark days of early 2008, has also just released his first new music in some time, “Shallow End”. It has his trademark soul-influenced style, along with grooves so compelling it’s hard not to tap your foot clean off the ankle while you listen to it.

What these two quite different artists have in common, apart from enjoying massive success with their debut releases, and releasing new music almost four years later, is that they have both chosen to take whatever time was needed to craft new music. They didn’t rush out new music just for the sake of it, frightened that the fickle masses would forget them the instant they weren’t ubiquitously present on any and all forms of media. They preferred to concentrate on their artistry and let the fans find them again when it was time to release their new music to the world.

That may not sound such a radical thing to do unless you think about the fact that our digitally frenetic age moves at a such a frighteningly fast clip that four years may as well be a century in terms of the public’s attention span.

Events move at such breakneck speed now that a person can be mourned and then have people move on with their blurred lives in a matter of hours (Whitney Houston being a recent example), memes can come and go so quickly you don’t even know they existed, and Twitter hashtags fill up with new tweets so quickly that you can get a headache watching them pour onto the feed. Nothing seems to stay still for long, and the conventional wisdom now seems to be that if you don’t march to this exhausting frantic beat, that you will be left behind, forgotten and unloved, yesterday’s object of fascination, unwanted by the masses looking for the next bright shining star.

But the thing with conventional thinking is that it can all too quickly be turned on its head, especially if certain individuals such as Santigold and Sam Sparro choose to ignore it and play by their own rules. That is the want of many creative people – to forge their own path, and not feel bound by the expectations of others. It fires their artistry and makes them stars. They continually confound expectations and that’s why we love them.

And if Sam Sparro and Santigold have proved anything by forging their own paths, it’s that setting your own agenda doesn’t mean the masses will forget you. Both their songs have been received to great acclaim, and the fans, who have followed them closely over the last four years, gouging out any morsels of news they could uncover, seem no less enthusiastic than they did then.

If anything, the very mechanisms that have created this ADHD world of ours – social media, instant news and the like – are in fact the very thing helping even radical individuals like Sam Sparro and Sanitgold stay in the race, and in the affections of their fans.

Irony you are the monarch of this harried digital age.

First Impressions: "Happy Endings"

I had heard a lot about this show. It was supposed to be a Friends-rip off that started slowly and unevenly, stumbling its way forward, in constant danger of being cancelled. That it only picked up mid way through the first season where it finally found it’s feet, was ordered for a full second season by its network and grew into a sitcom-ic juggernaut. However you sliced and diced it, and even with that improvement in its fortunes, it was not exactly being sold to me a show worthy of being included in my viewing schedule.

So to be honest, when it premiered on Aussie TV a few months back, I ignored it. I, to my now great unending pop-culture junkie’s shame, listened to the naysayers, including a reviewer in The Sydney Morning Herald’s The Guide, and didn’t even record it for later viewing. I didn’t even give it a chance.

Fast forward a few months and I have finally seen the show’s pilot episode. Yes, the episode that I had avoided, ignored, and shunned, and frankly I feel like a fool.

Because Happy Endings is VERY FUNNY.

No seriously it is freakin’ hilarious. Like lots of pilots it has work to do in finessing the characters, but it is definitely one of the better pilots I have seen. Each of the characters was fleshed out extraordinary well considering they had 22 minutes to resolve a plot line, introduce six characters and establish the dynamics of the group… and make us love them all.

They managed to do all that, and yes I love them all. All six friends – married couple, Brad and Jane (Damon Wayans and Eliza Coupe), ex-fiancees, Dave and Alex (Zachary Knighton and Elisha Cuthbert) – whose aborted wedding is the centrepiece of the pilot episode since it has ramifications not just for the couple but for the group as a whole – and fake boyfriend and girlfriend, gay Max (Adam Pally), and unlucky in love, Penny (Casey Wilson).

I love too that they live in Chicago, that they trade witty clever bon mots that mere mortals couldn’t come up with in everyday conversation and I love that the dynamic in the group is affirming and caring, and that the writers don’t rely on cheap jokes, and half-arsed caricatures, and put down jokes to establish how these people relate to each other. They rib each other like good friends do but it’s done from a place of affection, and mirrors the way real friends interact.

Does the ghost of Friends, template for all ensemble sitcoms that followed it hang heavy over Happy Endings? To an extent yes, how can it not? But this show is really it’s own creation, with a unique take on what 21st Century life is like for singles and couple people alike.

I can see why it has gone gangbusters. It’s funny, clever, with real people you can engage with, and if you’re going to commit precious time to a show, that’s the least you should expect. The good thing is Happy Endings is likely to exceed this minimum standard again and again, and I can’t wait to see where my new friends take me next.

First impressions: "Alcatraz"

Alcatraz could well be the most perfect conspiracy show to come along in years. 
It has, as you’d expect in a show like this, dark overtones of paranoia and mistrust, and yet it remains in full possession of its humanity at the same time. That it does so is largely due to the inherent likability of the two protagonists – Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Lost alum, Jorge Garcia as geeky historian and Alcatraz expert, Dr. Diego Soto – both of whom embody an inherent innocence of sorts when pretty much everyone around them, including yes, some of the good guys, operate from suspect, or blatantly evil motives.
A long serving policewoman who lost her partner recently while they were chasing a criminal, she is certainly more jaded than Dr. Soto but has somehow managed to retain a sense of curiosity and a willingness to explore the unexplained. You would think those qualities would be inherent in an upholder of the law but like anyone who’s in a job for any length of time, it is easy to simply stay right within the box and not even open the lid.
Almost from the get-go, Detective Madsen, in her pursuit of the truth, busts the box wide open, and refuses to pay for the damage. But what starts off as just another murder, soon becomes far more than that as she discovers that the fingerprints of the killer belong to an Alcatraz inmate who supposedly died more than thirty years ago. Puzzled by this, and let’s face it, who wouldn’t be, she seeks out anyone who can help unravel the mystery which leads her to Dr Soto, Alcatraz itself and finally Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) who proves every bit as mysterious as the real story of Alcatraz itself.
He is slow to reveal information and downright hostile at times. Of course, this doesn’t faze Detective Madsen who regardless of Emerson’s caginess, takes on the case of Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) who is the first known inmate to reappear almost 50 years after Alcatraz was supposedly closed and the inmates transferred (in reality they all disappeared and the government covered it up), looking not a day older. He embarks on a murderous spree, arriving from wherever he has been, armed with keys, money and a ticket to get him off Alcatraz where he wakes up.
This is, naturally when the simply murder investigation becomes far more complicated, dark and dangerous. Where has he been for almost 50 years? For that matter, where are all the other inmates and guards and who made them disappear and why? Adding to these, at least in the short term, unanswerable questions is the fact that Emerson knows far more than he is letting on, and was expecting the inmates to reappear. He has been ready for some time to deal with them, which raises suspicions on Detective Madsen’s part; suspicions she puts aside as she races to stop killers who technically no longer exist. What matters to her is having justice served but you can tell she is becoming ever more curious about the layers upon layers that she keeps uncovering.
I think what I liked most about the show, apart from several choice reveals that were dropped into the show from time to time, was the fact that at heart it’s a police procedural within conspiratorial overtones., and that makes it, at least based on the two episodes, far more accessible than shows like Lost which became, ahem, lost, in the maze of their own cleverness. I want this show to be so clever it knocks my socks off, but I also want to feel like I have a handle on what’s happening, both right in front of me and as part of the wider conspiracy.
Based on what I have seen so far, Alcatraz is balancing the two demands with the skill of a highly skilled circus act, and if they can continue to do that, they will craft a show that is as beautifully realised as its premise is tantalising.

"Le Voyage Dans la Lune" – Air

The atmospheric spacey melodies of Air, a French outfit known for their ethereal electronica, are back in (admittedly delicate) force on his album which is the soundtrack for the re-issued 110 year old George Melies movie, Le Voyage Dans la Lune.

A colour version of the film is about to hit the world festival circuit, after being found in 1993 and painstakingly restored, and Air, who have some history scoring movies with Sofia Coppola among others, have contributed this music to the re-issue at the request of the film’s restorers. It’s a perfect marriage. The movie, which was directed by Melies as a comedy, does have darker themes to it too – the intrepid astronauts of the film fight with Martians and even take one hostage – so Air’s ability to meld dark and light into one piece of aural magic complements the film’s tone, and sounds as if it were always part of the cinematic masterpiece.

The music throughout this album is quite beautiful and sounds like the perfect accompaniment to your day dreams. Evocative day dreams at that. It is lush, rich and almost symphonic, and it feels as if you should be wafting above the ground as you take it in. “Lava” with its choral overtones being a case in point. It is all quite apropos since it is, after all, the soundtrack for a space-themed movie.

In that vein, it is a soundtrack full of blips, beeps and sonic playfulness. “Sonic Armada”grooves and soars in that breathy way that Air have raised to an art form. So too “Cosmic Trip” is also jam-packed with bouncy drips and plops – it’s the only way I can adequately describe the jaunty sounds they have woven into the fabric of this song – and zips along, sounding dark and haunting, and joyfully exuberant all at once.

Quite a feat but given Air’s pedigree, it’s not really a surprise at all. They are two very talented men, and inspired by an equally clever Gallic predecessor, have crafted a body of music that is likely their finest yet. This is a worthy addition to their canon, and the perfect accompaniment to the whimsy and genius of George Melies.