Comics review: Daybreak by Brian Ralph

(image via Drawn and Quarterly)

 

There is a tendency in apocalyptic literature to go for the frenetic juggler narrative-wise.

Given the scenarios usually at play, this is reasonably understandable since we’re generally talking epic fights for survival and not a stroll in the park on Sunday.

The problem with going hard and big, a syndrome that afflicts shows like The Walking Dead, either positively or negatively depending on your vantage point,  is that a great deal of the nuance that could really make a story set in an apocalyptic landscape is lost.

This is important because even in tales that take place in worlds beset by some world-ending nightmare or another, people are still people and not everything occurs in finale-producing fashion.

Daybreak, a wholly original and imaginatively-executed graphic novel from Brian Ralph (Cave-in) understands this dynamic all too well, delivering up a story which acknowledges the gravity of the setting – earth lost to the undead with much of the world in unexplained ruins (was it bombing to stop them? General decay over time? We’re never told but honestly, it doesn’t matter, it’s just there) – but lets the raw humanity of the characters drive the story.

In fact, the zombies, who are unnervingly more active and faster at night when survivors are at an obvious disadvantage, aren’t ever front or centre in the action, though they are, for obvious reasons, one of the key narrative drivers.

Rather, what we see the most of are the survivors – both the one-armed, nameless and endlessly cheerful guy who does all the talking and you the reader as the rescued survivor who is never pictured but who becomes part of a team with the plucky man who lifts you out of harm’s way.

The brilliance of Daybreak, a clever title with many reference points the most obvious being the point at which the destroyed landscape that is what’s left of civilisation, is that it manages to craft a compelling, propulsive story out of a slow-burning, never-rushed series of events that owe as much to our innate humanity as they to the animalistic undead who are a constant threat throughout the book.

In so doing it avoids the trap of so many apocalyptic thrillers that prioritise action over character development, epic moments of truth over small but vital moments of humanity, offering up a story that matters because the people in it matter.

They matter a great deal in fact, granting us a window into a world with little to no set-up, which is ravaged and full of loss and deprivation but also, as our plucky, resourceful rescuer makes clear, all kinds of opportunities and possibilities for hope if you know where to look for them.

 

(image via Drawn and Quarterly)

 

Daybreak‘s masterful ability to quietly and without unnecessary fuss balance the big apocalyptic moments with the smaller day-by-day developments that ultimately have more impact for our survivors is one key reason why the novel works so well.

It understands, in a way that stories like The Girl With All the Gifts/The Boy on the Bridge and Station Eleven implicitly acknowledge, that all the good does not flee from the soul of humanity when calamity strikes, nor does our capacity for hope and expectations for a better future.

Sure, many people area nasty bunch of self-interested Darwinian-type fiends or just plain mad and lost in their own inability to sanely process the insane events around them, with the only other character in the book representing that all too common type of broken survivor, but there are also those who still see value in helping and uplifting others.

It’s a reassuring thread true but it is also realistic, and as the companionship builds between rescuer and rescued, and events build and build in both threat and unpalatable realisation, you are drawn into the idea that life may be bleak and awful in one sense but that there remains the ability for the world to be nourishing and hopeful too.

So well does Daybreak draw both the horror and the hope, often in the same scenes, that you can’t help but become invested in the lives of everyone in the book.

Even the deranged old man who causes them so much trouble that he triggers  a turn for the worse for all parties, comes equipped with enough humanity that you can’t help but feel for him; after all, who among us wouldn’t find ourselves tempt with an easy slide into madness when faced with the loss of pretty much everything and everyone we have ever held dear.

Ralph is at every turn a concise and elegantly-gripping storyteller, a writer and illustrator who understands the deleterious effects that would plague the human psyche in an apocalyptic world, but also appreciates that for all the nightmare and horror, there is also the capacity for the best part s of the human spirit to prevail, even when by rights there should no sign of them.

The ending is a thing of heartbreaking beauty, holding the balance taut between bestiality and humanity, loss and gains, bleakness and hope, and reminding us that even in the very worst of times, and there are plenty of them in Daybreak, that the best of times are also possible, and very much still a part of the fabric of human existence.

 

(image via Drawn and Quarterly)

Don’t be afraid: Tito and the Birds is here to beautifully embolden you

(image courtesy official Tito and the Birds Facebook page)

 

SNAPSHOT
The Brazilian film — directed by Gustavo Steinberg (End of the Line), Gabriel Bitar (Cidade Cinza) and Andre Catoto (Say I Am Only Seventeen) — follows Tito, a shy 10-year-old boy who lives in a world on the brink of pandemic, where fear is crippling people, making them sick and transforming them. (synopsis (c) Hollywood Reporter)

There’s a lot to be afraid of in our world right now.

Everything from climate change to the rise and rise of the far right to countless wars and so much more besides is priming us not so much for fight as flight.

The worst part is you begin to feel as if there’s nothing you can do but as a new Brazilian animated film, Tito and the Birds makes gorgeously clear – and the artwork is a thing of breathtaking beauty (Indiewire describes it lush colours and landscapes as resembling oil paintings – maybe there is a way to combat the fear and not being changed or maligned by it.

If ever there was a message the world needed to hear right now, it’s this one, and what a beautiful vehicle to deliver it in – let’s hope it makes it right the world and we can all think about staring down the fear and embracing love and hope and all the good things instead huh?

Tito and the Birds premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France in June; North American launch will take place at Toronto International Film Festival with release scheduled in theatres later this year.

 

Movie review: Leave No Trace

(image via IMP Awards)

 

There is very little that is subtle about our current digital age.

Though I am largely a fan, it is all too often the case that the louder, the more bombastic, the more obvious a story, the more it is given credence or is seen as the true teller of a particular tale.

While loud stories well told can be fearsomely good – witness Mission: Impossible – Fallout – there is amazing, oft-forgotten power in narratives that unfurl themselves at an unhurried pace, that recognise there is a commanding presence in simply placing one artfully-constructed, well-wrought scene after another and taking us to places that may look understated but which send a seismic, and much-welcome, shock through our souls.

Leave No Trace is one such film, written (with Anne Rosellini) and directed by Debra Granik and based on My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and replete with a quiet patience that knows there is something compelling about letting people with real stories tell their tale.

In fact, so patient is the film that it spends much of its opening scene simply showing the father and daughter at the heart its deeply-affecting story, Iraq War veteran Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) respectively, collecting food, starting a fire and checking their shelter in the small patch of wild forest just outside of Portland they call home.

It’s so idyllic and bucolic that you could be forgiven for thinking that the film will play out as some contented rustic depiction of life lived happily outside the mainstream, but the grim reality is, for Will at least, who has PTSD, is that nature and an almost near-absence of people (his daughter excepted, obviously) is the only salve for the traumatic wounds that have long lacerated his soul.

Eschewing the usual cocktail of drugs that some veterans use to cope with their vividly-scarring memories, Will finds peace in living sustainably off the land, in teaching his smart, empathetic daughter everything she needs to know (it later emerges she is well ahead of her contemporaries) and in staying well out of the rat race he finds so confiningly unbearable.

 

 

There is a great beauty and solitude to the life Will and Tom have carved out for themselves, one in which they seem in relatively perfect harmony, save for Tom’s occasional, and honestly, minor acts of rebellion such as finding (and hiding after her dad has walked off) some jewellery on a track that she wants to keep but which Will instructs be left for their return journey, just in case its owner comes back looking for it.

But underlying this seemingly tranquil life is Will’s restlessness, his nightmares which he cannot hide from Tom since they share the same tent and a rootless sense of impermanence that Tom doesn’t question since it’s all she’s ever know, but which she begins to notice is deficient in a number of ways that affect her when a tip off from a forest user leads social services to take Will and Tom back into a society neither is initially even remotely comfortable inhabiting.

While Will ostensibly goes along with the new isolated house where he finds work thanks to the compassion of Christmas tree Mr Walters (Jeff Kober) and the many bureaucratic demands of their case worker – to be fair Jean (Dana Millican) is a caring, compassionate person who does her best to help Will and Tom but she’s is inevitably part of a complex system that Will finds overwhelming and undealable with – he is chafing at the bit to get away and find somewhere new to lose himself.

The problem is that wherever he goes, his trauma goes with him, and when father and daughter finally end up at a trailer park in the woods of Washington state, peopled by all kinds of flotsam and jetsam from society, he is still unable to settle, despite the compassionate oversight of Dale (Dale Dickey).

He wants to move on again but Tom, all too aware that what is wrong with her father is not wrong with her, something her father belatedly and tearfully acknowledges in one of the most moving scenes I have ever seen on film, and happy in a world where she friends and a sense of purpose is reluctant to leave.

It leaves Tom and Will at a crossroads that to Granik’s credit is not resolved with any kind of euphorically, Road to Damascus moment.

 

 

PTSD after all is a complex condition, one which is not easily resolved, if it is resolved at all, ending far often than it should in suicide, and Granik wisely chooses not to simplify what is a harrowing way in which to relate to the world, her decision providing an evocative ending to a film which never offers simplistic answers.

Heart and soul of this immensely-touching, and exquisitely-nuanced film is the relationship between Will and Tom, with her presence in his life the one thing besides the natural environment that, you suspect, keeps Will alive and engaged with the world around in, limited though it is.

It anchors Leave No Trace all the way through, the quiet companionship of this small family providing a wealth of insight into not only PTSD but what happens to anyone on the margins of society, especially one like America where social welfare safety nets are not as expansive as those in more liberal Western democracies.

Will has chosen to live on the fringes, his only option he thinks to stay alive and functioning, but Tom soon realises, once other options are made available to her, that she has neither the need nor the desire to live the same way.

Drawing on the quiet majesty of the forests of Oregon and Washington state and a willingness to let silence linger and people act without words or explanation, Leave No Trace is a masterful piece of cinema, driven by mesmeringly good performances, full to the brim with power and substance and evident compassion and truthful realism, but never seized by the need to shout its story from the rooftops.

In so doing, it mirrors the way life often is, with even major lifechanging events playing in the most undemonstrative, show-stopping kinds of ways and trauma taking its toll in a thousand, small cuts, something the shouty, yelly modern age fails to take into account to its great cost, missing out on profoundly-moving stories such as this along the way.

 

 

Things are changing in Atypical S2 trailer but Sam’s not a fan

(image via YouTube (c) Netflix)

 

SNAPSHOT
Set in the wake of some major changes in the Gardner family’s natural environment, Sam (Keir Gilchrist) is struggling to adapt to some shifts in his high school friend group. Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is still trying to earn back the trust of her husband Doug (Michael Rappaport) after having an affair. Meanwhile, Sam’s therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) is still working through last season’s surprise pregnancy while helping her patients get back on track. (synopsis (c) Indiewire)

There are those who like to quip, and quip far more often than is amusing or necessary, that “constant change is here to stay”.

It’s meant to reassure us that all the constant moving around of the established order is normal and natural and we shouldn’t be panicked about it; nice thought but it’s not really all that comforting, even less so if you’re a teenager like Sam, who’s on the autism spectrum and is no fan, despite his and his family’s best efforts, of any kind of change.

 

 

Especially the lifechanging kind of which he’s dealing with a pretty sizable amount.

After a stellar season 1, which beautifully articulated how family can be both our anchor and a weight when we’re trying to navigate the messy unpredictability, and in which Keir Gilchrist stole the show with his nuanced performance as Sam, Atypical is back with what looks like another finely-judged series of stories.

Forbes called it “The best show Netflix has ever made” and you know what. they may just be right.

Atypical season 2 premieres 7 September on Netflix.

Fear the Walking Dead: “The Code” (S4, E11 review)

Vogueing in the apocalypse isn’t a big hobby but there are still devotees among the survivors (image via SpoilerTV (c) AMC)

 

SPOILERS AHEAD … AND WAY TOO MUCH MORGAN FOR ONE EPISODE …

“Morgan, it’s not me, it’s you – I think I should start seeing other characters.”

That, dear readers, is my imagined opening gambit in a conversation with good old Morgan (Lennie James), a character who whinged about being alone, who then whinged about being with Rick and the gang in The Walking Dead and who then whinged about being with just about everyone he met in Texas.

He’s like an apocalyptic Eeyore but with way less charm and charisma, a character who is no doubt supposed to be learned and thoughtful, who thinks about the Big Issues, but simply comes across as that person you don’t want to sit next to a work lunch.

You know the one – no matter what topic of conversation you bring up, they manage to find a negative angle so expansive in its whinging potential that you are left gasping in wonderment at their endless ability to complain while gnawing off your feet as you increasingly realise this is the only way you will ever escape this person’s presence.

Little wonder that in last week’s episode, when Morgan, unhappy despite everyone being super nice to him and goodhearted John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) even calling him a very good friend, let’s be Apocalyptic Facebook friends and send each other Christmas cards via a now non-existent mailing service, urged everyone from Victor (Colman Domingo) to Luciana (Danay Garcia) to Naomi/Laura/June (Jenna Elfman) to come with him back to Virginia because … honestly I don’t know why.

Normally, I have nothing but admiration for the writers of Fear the Walking Dead, who write with nuance, insight and understanding of the human condition in a way their parent show has never quite mailed.

But in “The Code”, it became increasingly apparent that they have no idea what to do with Morgan and honestly I don’t think it’s really their fault.

In fact, I would argue that that particular flawed character die was cast far earlier when Morgan was gifted, or really cursed, with the mantle of being the Wise Zen Master of the Apocalypse, the Thinker not the Doer, the Prognosticator not the Actor, the one who mused but didn’t do anything with it.

But has it maybe run its course as a narrative device?

 

Just so you know zombies are generally pretty shit at vogueing (image via SpoilerTV (c) AMC)

 

I get it – you need a character who will act as the conscience of a show, the one who, especially in the Darwinian moral vacuum of the zombie apocalypse when humanity is on a whatever-it-takes free for all, asks people to think before they act, who urges constraint when others rush to bathe in the blood, real or metaphorical (usually the former) of their enemies.

But “The Code” exposed how little gas is left in this narrative engine.

Morgan repeatedly came across as annoyingly directionless, a man who, after he fell asleep in the back of a truck laden with supplies and woke up to find himself in Mississippi at a truck stop with power, water and lots of handy survivor consumables, decided he was going back to Texas to help his friends after just deciding he was leaving them behind to go to Rick et al.

Geez Morgan, make up your mind will ya?

Even more glaringly, the characters he met at the truck stop who turned out not to be the good Samaritans of “take what you need and leave what you don’t” cardboard variety but rather charlatans looking after their own self-interest – so basically pretty much everyone in the apocalypse bar much-missed Madison (Kim Dickens) – who left the real good guy by the side of the road way back in Texas, actually made way more sense than him and let’s be honest, were way more fun.

Now I know we’re not supposed to root for the bad guys, or the semi-bad guys, or the situationally-challenged flawed human people, but honestly next to Morgan’s indecisive nothingness, they came across looking and smelling pretty sweet.

Wendell (Daryl Mitchell), a wisecracking wheelchair-bound black man and his adopted sister Sarah (Mo Collins) initially playing the good cop routine to the hilt, offering up supplies to Morgan and sending him on his way in his very own new automobile.

When he pretends a bridge is washed out and goes back to meet up with them, encountering likeable but opportunistic micro-brewer Jim (Aaron Stanford) running from zombies on the way, the twosome show their true colours and even abandon him to be gobbled on by zombies with his hands bound.

Yet even then they come across as more reasonable and hallelujah more decisive than Morgan who can’t even decide to leap off the car on which he is sheltering from the zombie horde until well into the night where he somewhat magically spots a Swiss Army Knife lying on the ground. (By the way has anyone noticed that in the apocalypse, it’s always a full moon all the time, ALL THE TIME; the moon just as wacky as everyone else now the zombies are everywhere.)

 

And don’t even get me started on how bad Morgan is at Madonna’s sacred art form (image via SpoilerTV (c) AMC)

 

Sure they leave him to his fate and drive off, all three of them, to go to Virginia in search of Rick and the Promised Land of New Beginnings – don’t do it guys, it’s not worth your time; stay right where you are! – but a few wise words of musing from Morgan and hey presto! Tehy’re born again Good Samaritans, dispensing boxes hither and yon and on their way back to … yup, TEXAS. (Honestly, it all happens way too easily, compromising Wendell, Sarah and Jim’s characters all of who are very anti-hero likable.)

See Morgan cannot work out what he wants to do; it’s gone beyond silly and is just plain annoying and impressive though Lennie James is as an actor, he isn’t being given much to work with at all.

Compare “The Code” – supposedly ‘We got a code and we keepin’ it alive,’ says Wendell. “You gotta help people when they need that help and then you gotta keep yo’ truck movin’…Keep on truckin’.’ – with last week’s taut, Alicia-centric episode “Close Your Eyes” which gave Alycia Debnam-Carey an amazing amount of beautifully-scripted material with which to work.

Lennie James alas is given nowhere that kind of substance on which to chew as an actor, forced to put up with a character who vacillates like its a national sport, moving from pillar to the post in some desperate attempt to set some kind of new personal best time for himself.

That lack of backbone in a character’s motivation doesn’t do much for Fear the Walking Dead either, which previously benefited from having an amazingly strong and nuanced lead character in Madison; she set the tone with her mix of decisiveness, compassion and vulnerability for the show which had the can-do action feel of The Walking Dead but enriched with a real, earthy, caring humanity.

By defaulting to Morgan, when it should really be Alicia, as the star of the show, Fear the Walking Dead risks losing everyone it built with Madison, taking a show that acknowledged the world was now a crueller and nastier place but that it was still possible to be decisively compassionate into that Darwinian bargain into one that isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be.

The lead character, for better or worse, and this applies to ensembles as much as any other, establishes the look and feel of the show and the writers need to fix the problem of Morgan before his fence-sitting takes everyone else down with it.

  • Up next on Fear the Walking Dead in “Weak” …

 

 

Sesame Street: How They Became Bert & Ernie (Fresh Prince of Bel Air parody)

(image via YouTube (c) Sesame Workshop)

 

There are many reasons to go to Sesame Street – there are 26 very good reasons I can think of straight off the bat – but one of the main ones, apart from watching my favourite monster Grover do this thing (super and otherwise), is to watch the latest shenanigans from Bert and Ernie.

Friends from pretty much the start of the show – they were the only Muppets in the July 1969 pilot and it was because they tested so well with audiences, that Sesame Street ended up with Muppets as the stars of the show – mischievous fun-loving Ernie (originally performed by the late, great Jim Henson; currently Peter Linz) and anal-retentive, well-meaning, passionate Bert (originally performed by Frank Oz; now Eric Jacobson) have been one of the highlights of a program full-to-bursting with adorable, well-wrought characters.

Now thanks to the latest parody from Sesame Street, we get to see, in a parody of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air opening titles, how the two came to be such fast friends, depending being wholly-different personalities and it is every bit as illuminating and fun as you might imagine it to be (Rubber Duckie, paper clips and all).

 

The short and the short of it: A Father’s Day proves being undead is no barrier to family togetherness

(image via UK Horror Scene)

 

If there’s one thing that zombies films, long and short, cinematic and televisual, have in common, it’s that they’re not exactly warm-and-fuzzy family viewing.

Sure some of the people in these shows have some touchingly intimate moments – well until they slip this mortal coil and join the multitudinous ranks of the undead – but the zombies themselves? Not so much.

The short film, A Father’s Day, which has is fair share of gore you should be warned but that makes sense really, turns this idea on its head, giving us a series of really touching, sweetly-evocative moments between an undead dad and his daughter, proof that even family ties and love sweet father & daughter love can transcend the horrific scourge of the zombie apocalypse.

Granted it’s not a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life but it’s a refreshingly new take on the zombie genre that reaffirms, as if there was any doubt, that love might be every bit as durable as Hallmark and innumerable movies-of-the-week believe it to be (now with added teddy bears and swings and roundabouts).

It’s just not usually as messy and bloody as it is in this instance but lordy if it doesn’t warm the heart in the most unexpected of circumstances.

(source: io9 Gizmodo)

 

Book review: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

(cover art courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

 

There’s a certain romanticism attached to the idea of time travel.

While stories as diverse as Back to the Future and H G Well’s The Time Machine have offered some darkly cautionary tales, and the idea of time paradoxes have caused anyone outside of pure physics a major headache trying to accommodate all the many contradictions inherent in the concept, we have clung doggedly (aided no doubt by Doctor Who which, though bleak at times, is also jolly good fun) to the notion that travelling through time travel is full of wonder and possibility.

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, herself a psychologist, does its best, in the midst of hugely-entertaining and deeply-thoughtful murder mystery that stretches across multiple time periods, to disabuse us of the idea that there is magic in that there time machine.

Taking as inspiration the fact that even the most wonderful of inventions can fall prey to the corruption of human nature, Macarenhas takes us from the mid-1960s when four good friends – Bee, Brace, Margaret and Lucille, all brilliant and driven in their own ways – invent time travel through to the present day, and of course, beyond, where time travel is an accepted part of everyone’s lived experience.

That’s not to say that everyone is blinking in and out of the here and now racing hither and yon through epochs close and distant; time travel remains the preserve of the handpicked, rigorously psychologically-profiled select few, people who not only have the temporal wanderlust needed to race across time – one constraint is that you can back in time beyond when the machine itself was invented which sadly rules out wandering among the Brachiosaurs a la Jurassic Park – but who can survive the many privations it exacts on the psyche.

“She picked up a sun-bleached photo. There was Bee, her rosy face still recognisable; Lucille, who looked so full of wisdom and mischief; Grace, exuding all the cool of a French New Wave actress; and Margaret, her face already showing the determination that would make her one of the most powerful women in Britain. Such different women, and yet their laughter and uniforms suggested camaraderie. Bee didn’t look mad. She looked like she belonged.” (P. 18)

You see, time travel does strange and altogether amoral things to people.

Unmoored from the ticking of the clock, and free to visit anyone in any period, living or dead, the usual things we value start to lose relevance, value, and time travellers end up becoming cavalier about the most sacred of ideas.

Take death, for instance, a rather relevant example given that a murder mystery lies at the heart of the beguilingly engaging narrative.

Odette, a student at Cambridge University and a volunteer at a toy museum with a link to Margaret, the most hard-nosed and edged of the four women who rises to become the cruel, autocratic head of The Conclave, the body which polices time travel, finds a body one day in a locked museum room, with no trace of a murderer and no normal explanation for how the person died.

It sets her on a path that leads her into direct contact with the inner workings of The Conclave, an organisation where wonder and curiosity have long given to cruelty and weird indifference, where life is seen as less a thing for magical endeavour and rather a play thing for people who can subvert the very bonds of time, ordinarily something that holds people back.

At The Conclave it frees them to go forth and explore without restraint – while there is a legal system separate from the British courts, an almost medieval-esque system that relies more on fate than established principle, time travellers can pretty much come and go as they please – leaving their humanity corrupted and corroded.

 

Kate Mascarenhas (image courtesy official Kate Mascarenhas Twitter account)

 

If this all sounds bleak and suffocatingly dark, Mascarenhas beautifully leavens her cautionary tale with a celebration of women at the forefront of science, of the possibility of love and connection even where you might think none could exist, and of the idea that even in the most corrupt of places that a commitment to truth, justice and doing the right thing can prevail.

The Psychology of Time Travel seamlessly brings the dark and the light together, ultimately settling on the idea that the better angels of our nature will triumph or at least prevail sufficiently over the darker denizens of our psyche, and marrying some fairly profound insights together with real emotional intimacy and a sense that it is possible to make a difference even against the most implacable of edifices and people.

It’s a rare thing to hold that kind of a balance in a novel.

Too often the scales fall either way with a vengeance, giving us a story that is too light and simplistic or so impenetrably terrible that the idea of anything good escaping its toxic grasp seems impossible to imagine, but Mascarenhas does it with aplomb, in the process including a number of people of colour in her tale, a welcome change from the overwhelming whiteness of much of literature, and a more realistic of the multicultural world in which we live.

“Odette watched her own reflection in the kitchen window. What was she frightened of? She was comfortable enough with lying, to find out if the time travellers were murderers. But Fay’s ritual had made it clear that blending in might also mean doing unpleasant things to innocent people. This time Odette had resisted. Could she keep resisting, and yet evade detection? Could she keep resisting while earning the time travellers’ trust? Odette feared they might contaminate her. She wasn’t sure you could work in a rotten system and keep your hands clean.” (P. 226-227)

The author’s willingness to add much-needed diversity to her tale and to have these characters (Odette and psychologist Ruby) be the drivers of much of not just the narrative momentum but its morality and rightness provides a refreshing perspective to some trenchant societal issues.

Time travel itself might be rotten to the core, but not all the people in its orbit are, and Mascarenhas is at pains to make sure we understand that it’s not the technology itself that is flawed so much as the people using it.

A tale as old as time yes?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a remarkable book – weighty, insightful, deeply human, uplifting and demoralising, cautionary and hopeful, written in such a way that the substance sits easily with its lighter, love-strewn moments when all the bad we have witnessed finds its redemptive salvation in the goodness that sits in all of us, a perspective which, even in an age when time travel has changed all the usual rules of mortality and chronology, should fill us with some optimism that we may yet not be the victims of our own flawed brilliance.

 

Meatball cake anyone? Release your inner child with Esme & Roy

(artwork via HBO (c) Sesame Workshop)

 

SNAPSHOT
Esme (pronounced EZ-may) (Millie Davis) and her best monster friend Roy (Patrick McKenna) live in Monsterdale, and their monster sitting business is going well. When the pair’s all-purpose carrying case starts playing a jazzy Dixieland tune, Esme says ‘We’ve got a monster to watch!'”

Adulthood is supposed to be a Very Serious Thing.

I’m not sure who decided that but it seems to be the message that’s repeated over and over by the kind of people that think that just because you go to work, pay taxes, and maintain a loving relationship – all of which are very grown-up serious things (unless you’ve seen my boyfriend and I giggling like idiots over something silly in which, not always) – that absolutely every last part of your life must be grimly determined.

Sorry but no; I’m firmly of the opinion that letting your inner child off the leash as often as is practicable is a great way to not only keep a health lease on life but an important contributor to not letting all that serious stuff get you down.

As always, the solution to keeping your inner child happy is Sesame Street and the Sesame Workshop, who make the long-running, fabulously-creative educational show for children, are offering up another gem for adult-weary viewers.

 

 

Sure, it’s ostensibly for kids and they are going to LOVE it, but like pretty much everything the talented team at Sesame Workshop do, Esme & Roy has got a lot in it that appeals to adults too:

“Esme & Roy is the first new series developed by the Sesame Workshop in over a decade, and the elements that they bring to Sesame Street and the other shows they produce are there in spades. It’s a relatively quiet and slow-paced show, but with more than enough to hold kids and parents interest. And just like the rest of the SW’s shows, it doesn’t talk down to its audience.” (Decider)

It looks absolutely gorgeous too with each episode, as with Sesame Street, dedicated to teaching kids some important life lessons:

“The main purpose of E&R is to show how kids can learn and listen via play. In every episode, Esme usually has an idea to make a game out of the task that needs to be done. In fact, she generally comes up with a play idea that doesn’t work first, leading to a ‘Monster Meltdown’. After a song about calming down, she and Roy usually hit on the right game that gets the job done. So there’s a mindfulness element to the show, as well.” (Decider)

Of course if you like meatballs, anmd frankly who doesn’t, there’s plenty to, ahem, whet the appetite there too.

So sit down with your kids, or by yourself, and be reminded that for all the seriousness in the world, and there’s a lot right now, and in adulthood, that letting your inner child have some fun isn’t ever a bad thing.

Especially not with a show as charming as Esme & Roy which is currently screening on HBO.

 

 

Movie review: Book Club

(image via IMP Awards)

 

There are very few people out there who would regard the Fifty Shades series of novels, plagued by poor writing, lacklustre characterisation and inert narratives as the height of great literature.

They are likely the last books, especially now with their thoroughly ill-deserved time in the zeitgeist largely passed, that any self-respecting book club would devote any kind of time to, and yet the four lifelong friends who form the protagonist foursome at the centre of Bill Holderman’s directorial debut, Book Club, go down that very road, the first of many missteps in a film that clearly fancies itself, like the books at its heart, as far better than it actually is.

It’s clear that what Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms were aiming for was a witty, clever take, full of throwaway lines and warm friendships, on the perils and rewards dating in later years, an admission that age shouldn’t preclude anyone from finding love, sweet love, the kind that lasts beyond sex which, by the way, is also totally something people of a certain vintage should still be having (look at the books featured in the film for awkwardly obvious evidence of that).

It’s a laudable goal, one that is, by convention and intent, at the heart of every romantic comedy worth its Cupidian salt; Book Club, alas, is not worth its salt or any other precious commodity even remotely worth mentioning.

From the rather forced opening narrative, which is only saved by the quirkily-upbeat dulcet tones of one of the film’s stars Diane keaton, who plays Diane (yep, the fact that they named the character after the actress speaks to the film’s bankrupt imagination), a recently-widowed wife and mother, it’s patently clear that this is a film that is not going to trouble itself with any kind of nuance or originality.

 

 

Now, the less charitable among you might argue that romantic comedies, like many genres captive to well-established convention, have spent many a decade without an original scripted thought or approach troubling their warm-and-fuzzy one track minds, but the truth is there are a great many sterling examples of the genre out there such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, not to mention the great efforts of the golden years of Hollywood such as those starring Spencer and Hepburn, that rebut this baseless allegation almost instantly.

As these examples more than ably demonstrate it is more than possible to adhere to much-loved, audience-friendly convention without offering upsomething dully and uninspiringly original; clearly the makers of Book Club never got the memo.

Even more egregiously they seem to have assembled their joke book and visual slapstick from a book of “dad jokes” somewhere, one that never met a tired old piece of innuendo it didn’t like or a nudge-nudge-wink-wink moment it didn’t want to embrace.

Example A is when Sharon (Candice Bergen), an august, well-respected Federal judge goes the vet with her cat for an assessment during which the poor animal medical professional is forced to make reference, and you suspect his eyes are rolling in his head even more than is visible on screen, to her “tired pussy”.

Yes, you may groan now, and join the rest of humanity with any kind of critical faculty left to them.

It’s plain too that neither Holderman nor Simms regard any of their four central characters, despite their age and accomplishments, as belonging to this particular group; Sharon, Diane, Vivian (Jane Fonda) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) are bright, literate, clever, funny women and yet each are saddled with plot lines and characters arcs so ridiculously simplistic and predictable that you have to wonder how any of them make it out of bed in the morning.

Diane puts up with ludicrous over-protective bullying by her daughters Adrianne (Katie Aselton) and Jill (Alicia Silverstone) who seem to view their sprightly mother as a geriatric neanderthal, good only for wrapping in cotton wool and sticking in a padded cupboard somewhere; fortunately for her, her pilot suitor Mitchell (Andy Garcia) sees far more than this and pursues her, their moments together one of the film’s few delights.

Similarly, Sharon, who has climbed to the top of her profession with the respect of colleagues and staffers is suddenly unable to lower the volume on her computer, resist peeking at messages from a dating site during an important meeting in her chambers or put on clothing properly, either in a store or after hilariously-inept sex with her date for the night George (Richard Dreyfuss).

Only Vivian and Carol seem to escape the worst of the indignities visited on their two lifelong friends and fellow book club members, but even they make more than a few suspect decisions as their respective would-be-boyfriend (Arthur, played by Don Johnson) and husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) can readily attest to (hilarious, I mean HILARIOUS, Viagra scene with a policeman anyone? Yeah, no I didn’t think so. Wise choice).

 

 

Any viewability possessed by Book Club, which does have some genuinely touching moments – the scene in the final act featuring Bruce and Carol is as smile-inducingly touching as it gets – and some laugh-out loud moments can be slated almost solely to the acting prowess and comedic talents of the four actors who save it from being a total dog’s breakfast.

Bergen consistently deliver her lines with Murphy Brown-levels of wit and snark while Fonda has all the knowing cheekiness and confidence that she brings to Netflix’s superlatively-written sitcom Grace and Frankie (it is everything this film is not); similarly Steenburgen is earnestly likeably intense and heartfelt and Keaton is goofily, endearingly fun.

Each actor gifts us with performances that are far better than the material they’re working with, testament to their talent and experience, and their ability to find humour in even the lamest of lines of which there are regrettable many.

The pity is that their diamond-like performances should have gone hand-in-hand with a script of equal quality; instead, they expend considerable effort trying to salvage both characters and dialogue, both of whom are so badly and obviously drawn that you wonder how it made past any kind of quality control process.

You can only imagine how good Book Club might have been if these four amazing actors had been gifted with a screenplay equal to their talents; unfortunately, the film is living, cringeworthy proof that it’s not simply enough to pair fantastic acting with sub-standard everything else and expect to get some sort of quality cinematic experience.

Book Club is a waste of everyone’s time, save for the fact that if you treat it as a manual of what not to do when you’re dating in your later years, you will be considerably ahead of Sharon, Vivian, Carol and Diane who really should have stayed well away from this film’s agonisingly-stilted idea of what dating and love is like, and stuck instead to reading and discussing books and drinking copious of wine (which is pretty much what you need to survive this film).