Movie review: The Girl with All the Gifts

(image via IMP Awards)

 

The zombie genre has exploded in recent years, fuelled by a morbid end of days fascination with the way the apparent vivacity and robustness of human civilisation could so easily be brought down to undead ruin by any number of small, unnoticed Achilles heels.

That’s good news if you have  a darkly moralistic tale to tell of homo sapienic arrogance; not so good if you want a better than even chance of standing out from the shambling crowd.

Fortunately in the midst of all this apocalyptic sameness, British writer M. R. Carey found a way to tell a thoroughly original tale of man vs. his animated corpse counterparts which shed new light on a genre that seemed to have precious few new narrative paths to take.

The Girl with All the Gifts, which began life as a successful 2014 book release for the successful comic and book author, has now found its way to the big screen courtesy of a pared-down screenplay by Carey himself, and assured, nuanced direction by Colm McCarthy, which deftly retains the intelligent, thoughtful insights of its predecessor while becoming very much its own rabidly-fast storytelling monster.

Drenched in an eerie, tense atmosphere where the fear is palpable and the risk of not surviving at all is desperately real, the film, like the book, is one of those rare examples of a story that is very much of its genre but also distinctively set apart too.

Dispensing with the feral human Junkers (think Mad Max-ian survivalists) that added in another element of danger and civilisational breakdown, the cinematic version of Carey’s recounting one remarkable girl and a nifty evolutionary leap by what’s left of humanity strips itself to doing what it does best – a warts-and-all examination of humanity’s hubris, an unwarranted, unflinching belief in our own superiority that is brought to its knees by something as small as fungus, specifically Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.

This small denizen of tropical forests – yes conspiracy theorists and doomsayers of the world this harbinger of undead doom actually does exist – manages to cross the species barrier in Carey’s darkly hopeful tale, bringing with the end of all things, and quite possibly, the beginning too, if anyone will actually pay attention.

 

 

One person, although most people don’t see her that way, who doesn’t have any choice but to sit up and take notice of the new order prevailing across the world, is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young human/zombie hybrid, possessed of both the autonomic need to feed on human flesh and an incisive, enquiring will that sees her emerge as the best and brightest of a strangely locked down classroom of similar young people, the products of women pregnant at the time of infection by the fungal interloper.

Melanie, starved of human contact – exposed flesh without the all-important Blocker Gel smeared liberally on it is catnip to Melanie and her strapped-down classmates, limiting interactions by her military guards who seem all too happy to abide by that stricture – but rabidly curious about a world she has yet to see, kept as she is in a darkened cell much of the time, is more human than anyone can see.

Bar, of course, the establishment rebel of our morality tale, Miss Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) who, as the teacher of this most unusual of classes, sees what many other can’t, or pragmatically refuse to (case in point, vaccine researcher Dr Sharon Caldwell, played with ferocious implacability by Glenn Close) – that Melanie and her new wave ilk are far more human than anyone will admit.

Sensing someone who can give her the love and affirmation she needs, Melanie worships and adores the only authority figure who has ever treated her as anything other than a fertile test subject or a threat, a bond that is only strengthened when the military base she and Miss Justineau are on falls to the fast-moving, herd-like “Hungries” as they’re known, precipitating a mad dash across dangerous British countryside for the relative though dubious safety of Beacon, the last bastion of what passes for human civilisation in the fungus-ravaged country.

Along with Melanie and Miss Justineau for the wildest and most deeply-unsettling of rides into a world long ceded to the undead – buildings are carpeted with green, cars sit rusting, with much of the decay covered by strange pod-bearing plants growing unnervingly out of countless zombie carcasses – is Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), Dr Caldwell and two “Ensign Fodders” who quickly meet disturbing but morally instructive ends.

Seeking safety and a new place to call home, the mission is quickly revealed as a fool’s errand for all concerned but Melanie, who discovers bit by bit that the world is no longer the preserve of Homo Sapiens but whatever it is that this clever, curious and all-too-human young girl and her more Lord of the Flies-ish counterparts have become.

Informed by a gritty, authentically-gruesome aesthetic that doesn’t flinch at showing the full primitive monstrosity of a world surrendered to nightmarishly ferocious survival of the fittest, The Girl with All the Gifts is astute, clever filmmaking, that somehow manages to offer hope in the midst of what is, by our estimations at least, a hopeless situation.

 

 

Augmented by industrially-beautiful music that is deeply redolent of mood and menace, the film never flags once, delivering up a viscerally frightening tale that comes complete with some delightfully clever visual flourishes (holed up in a hospital, the first sign someone in the team passes is for the Dept of Immunology) and ironic touchstones (Melanie wild, guttural next generation have chosen a library in which to roost, the tribal new and the educated though doomed old sitting cheek-by-jowl).

Sporting a slimmed-down narrative that proves Carey is one of those rare authors who’s able to step away from his material and take what is needed for a visual medium and discard the rest, The Girl with All the Gifts, bristles with a foreboding sense that none of this will end well, never more so than when the team, silent as church mice, and sloth-like in movement so as not to trigger their flesh-hungry enemy, are edging their way through a throng of silent, tomb statue-like Hungries who stand silent and still when not in threatening motion.

Both a striking visual reminder that humanity long ago lost the fight for sheer numbers and influence to the undead, and gripping, edge of your seat storyelling, this scene encapsulates much of what makes McCarthy’s spare, gritty zombie thriller so compellingly watchable.

It is moralistic without being preachy, unsparingly bleak while never surrendering its humanity, which finds its home in the touching relationship between Melanie and Miss Justineau, and hopeful when, for all intents and purposes, optimism is a spent force, long lost to despair and a grinding sense that everything is irredeemably lost.

Sporting a look and feel that suggests a world in freefall decay, and possessed of the kind of sparse but emotionally-evocative storytelling that grips you from the get-go, The Girl with All the Gifts is proof positive that’s there not just something new to say about zombies, but that’s the end of all things for humanity, may not be the end of all things after all.

You just have to know where to look, right Melanie?

 

 

Audience meet protagonists: The impressive work of director Edgar Wright

(image via IMP awards)

 

No matter how you slice it, Edgar Wright is a very talented, immensely creative director/producer/screenwriter/actor, responsible for a slew of memorable movies including the Three Flavours Cornetto film trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ant Man and most recently, Baby Driver, one of my favourite films of 2017.

Filmmaker Karsten Runquist has shone a successful light on Wright’s prodigiously unique talent, examining all of his films with a particular focus on the protagonists in Baby Driver, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Ant Man, noting the various methods he employs to connect the audience with the protagonist, a critical element if there’s to be any emotional connection to the films:

“… what makes Wright’s main characters feel so relatable and likable is the misunderstanding coming from those around them in the story … Edgar Wright keeps in mind that every scene deserves full attention, because every scene is its own thing. When every scene is its own thing and the audience member is fully invested in what they’re watching, of course the feeling of connectivity between us and our protagonists is going to feel just that much stronger.”

The video essay thoughtfully examines how important it is to have this connection in any film because without it all you have is a possibly-addled narrative and bombs-and-explosions.

And really, who wants just that?

(source: Laughing Squad)

 

Fear the Walking Dead: “This Land is Your Land” / “El Matadero” (S3, E13 & E14 review)

Behold I have become the destroyer of worlds … it’s highly unlikely that Troy, now an official mass murderer, would be so poetic though he did attempt it to bullshit away the full effect of Jake’s death (photo by Richard Foreman Jr/AMC)

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD … AND WAY MORE HUMANITY (AND WAY LESS OXYGEN) THAN YOUR AVERAGE PIECE OF APOCALYPTIC STORYTELLING …

The thing that has been most compelling about Fear the Walking Dead from the word go has been its willingness to wear its humanity on its sleeve.

While its parent program The Walking Dead often showed bad things happening, and yes, showing how badly it affects the people involved, it has never really shown the full existential drip feed of life in the apocalypse to the extent that its progeny has.

Fear the Walking Dead rarely show people getting their apocalypse on without considerable moral repercussions nor are its bad guys or girls ever as one note; lordy, even Troy (Daniel Sharman), head cheerleader of the zombie horde cleansing movement, has some weirdly redeeming qualities (not many mind you but they are there, you know, somewhere).

The brilliantly-etched humanity of the show was on immensely evocative display in these two episodes, with every character facing up to an titanically epic event – the overunning of the Ranch by Troy’s shepherded horde and the imprisoning of the survivors, bitten or otherwise, in an airless bunker – in ways that spoke of the toll its taking on them.

Sure, they did what needed to be done and did it, for the most part, impressively well, but there was always an undercurrent of frailty, of moral loss, a slow, crippling ebbing of what it means to be human and it made the storytelling all the richer.

Take Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) as prime example #1.

Trapped in the larder with all the survivors of the Ranch, it quickly dawned on Madison’s “least favourite child”, Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) and Lee aka Mad Dog (Justin Rain) that there wouldn’t be enough air to keep them alive beyond the two hour marker, what with the block air shaft showing a determined reluctance to do its job. (You had one job! ONE JOB.)

Kinda of a big deal when you’d like to live for as long past that time period as possible, and when failure to do so, at least by your bunker companions, means that you’ll be trapped in a room below ground with newly-minted zombies.

Yeah, not exactly an optimum survivability scenario is it?

 

Long live Alicia, new temporary leader of the many ranchers who survived the zombie horde’s arrival and … oh, never mind … (photo by Richard Foreman Jr/AMC)

 

Realising how high the stakes were and with Ofelia and Lee off to find out why the air wasn’t flowing, Alicia stepped up, despite significant reluctance to take centre stage, painfully and with a real sense of the anguish it was causing her, moving to cull the numbers in the bunker by despatching, with real grace and sadness, the dead people walking aka those bitten by zombies in their midst.

Granted, it involved massively big doses of morphine to everyone affected, which means their deaths were as humane as possible under the circumstances, and the unstinting moral support of Christine (Linda Gehringer), who sadly didn’t survive the asphyxiation ordeal, but the whole process, necessary though it was, took its toll and you could see the agony written all over Alicia’s face.

She knew it had to be done, and she was brave enough to do it, but it sucked away a little bit more of her humanity, and convinced her that there was no safe place left in the world, that Madison’s quest to circle the wagons and fend off the bad guys was a fool’s errand that could never be satisfactorily completed.

This led her to strike out on her own, battered by the loss of Jake (Sam Underwood), in the hope she could find the idyll he spoke of, find some peace, and maybe retake some of her humanity back in the process.

Her willingness to do what needed to be done while still remembering she was a person contrasted powerfully with Nick (Frank Dillane) who, god bless him and his aspirations to completely shoot hole’s in his status as Madison’s favoured child, ineffectually handled Troy’s horrifically bloodthirsty acts and to add insult to injury, went on a drug and alcohol fuelled bender at the trading post.

Yep, pick the exact last thing you should do after you’ve covered for the guy who killed almost everyone at the Ranch and Nick went ahead and did it!

He even decided that he and Troy were the bad black sheep of the piece, as Troy had alleged, and that he might as well live up to that; yeah, not the brightest thing he’s ever done and proof that humanity is a gift well served in some (I’m looking at you Alicia!) and poorly entrusted to others (Nick you freaking idiot).

 

Not quite the reunion Daniel had in mind and way more portentous than he meant it to be (photo by Richard Foreman Jr/AMC)

 

The other great and powerful moment of raw, palpable humanity came when Madison (Kim Clarke), who played the part of the cavalry with Victor (Colman Domingo), Ofelia, Lee and the others, rescuing Alicia (and alas no one else) from the Bunker o’ Hell, stood her ground and ensured that Ofelia got her wish to be see her father again.

She moved heaven and earth and sold a shit load of guns to the mercenary souls at the trading post, staffed largely by ex-fast food workers by the looks of things, to get Ofelia drugs and drinks to ease her final moments as the zombie bite she suffered while clearing the air shaft took its toll.

Sadly Ofelia died just minutes before dad Daniel (Rubén Blades) made it to her side, imperilling Madison who almost earned a summary execution for her troubles, leading to one of the saddest father-daughter reunions I’ve ever witnessed.

In one emotionally-charged scene, the kind Fear the Walking Dead does so well, we witnessed the kind of heart-searing loss that the apocalypse has delivered to everyone, and the high price paid for sins, real or imagined.

It was powerful, arresting, desperately human television which left you reeling, not because of the epic nature of the storytelling, thought  that was definitely there, but because it focused on the intimate, soul-scarring human toll that survival is taking on everyone.

We all know that living in the apocalypse isn’t easy but Fear the Walking Dead, fearless in its narrative bravery and willing to take the time to really tell a story and address its authentic, damning effects on the soul, is excelling still in taking the time to show us what humans to people, on a stripped back, existential level, when the new brutal realities of life call for all kinds of horrific choices to be made.

  • And so onto the series 3 finale, “Things Bad Begun” / “Sleigh Ride”, where everything, as you might expect, goes right royally and cliffhangeringly, to shit and Alicia’s idea that there is no safe place proves rather prescient …

 

 

Ruinworld and the trouble that comes with stealing cursed chests

(artwork (c) Derek Laufman)

 

SNAPSHOT
RuinWorld is a fantasy adventure comic about treasure a couple of hunters that find themselves in a heap of trouble after stealing a cursed chest. (official synopsis via Ruinworld/Tapas)

If you’re ever tempted to steal a cursed chest in a land replete with fantasy and adventure, and some damn fine quirky art, then you might to think again.

Then again maybe not, if you’re treasure hunters Pogo and Rex and you want to be as entertaining as Canadian Derek Laufman, a resident of London, Ontario, Canada where he runs an independent game studio called Half-Bot, has made his thoroughly delightful webcomic, Ruinworld.

Pogo and Rex are an absolute delight, fully-formed and possessed of considerable whimsical personality which invests their story, which is 13 episodes old and available as a digital or physical collection, with a huge amount of fun, drama and idiosyncratic flair.

Ruinworld is a cut above your average webcomic, with the narrative, artwork and charactarisation at the top of its game.

It’s an absolute joy to read and it’s justifiably attracting some attention.

So dive on in, get on the road with Pogo and Rex and see where adventure, and Laufman’s gorgeous storytelling style, takes you.

 

(artwork (c) Derek Laufman)

 

(artwork (c) Derek Laufman)

 

Read more at Ruinworld.

Puppets from socks! Jim Henson’s 1969 inventive masterclass on an age-old artform

(image via Muppet Wikia)

 

SNAPSHOT
Jim Henson and Muppeteers show kids how to make puppets from simple things like socks. This video aired on Public Television in 1969, prior to Sesame Street, on Iowa Public Television’s Volume See kids’ show. (source: Laughing Squid)

I have long loved the work of Jim Henson.

A man of great creativity and imagination, he began making puppets in high school before moving onto Sam and Friends, Sesame Street, and of course, The Muppet Show.

Through every stage of his too-short career – he died far too early at the age of 53 in 1990 – whether he was beguiling us with The Dark Crystal or bringing Kermit and the gang to the big screen, there was real artistry, warmth and passion for his craft on display.

In this video, we are given a rare glimpse into Henson’s approach to puppetry, not to mention an hilarious cameo by Rowlf the Dog, which is as much about the nuts-and-bolts of creation as it is the spirit behind the work.

It’s enchanting, informative, and if you listen carefully, you can hear Kermit coming through Henson’s voice in the most wonderful way.

 

First impressions: Atypical (Netflix)

(image courtesy Netflix)

 

There’s no such thing as normal.

That’s the refreshing message from Atypical, a new(ish) Netflix series created by Robia Rashid, about one charming young man on the autism spectrum, which ends up beautifully exploring the idea that none of us are really as normal as we’d like to think we are.

While the series, which has been lauded as a flawed but reasonably accurate depiction of life for a person with autism, in this case 18 year old high school senior Sam (Keir Gilchrist), doesn’t set out to diminish the distinctiveness of the condition, it certainly makes it clear that Sam is no less or more human than the rest of us.

It’s an important message since humanity is cursed with a near-unquenchable thirst to place everyone in black-and-white, crudely simple boxes, responding to the people they contain in certain set ways that bear no resemblance to the unique perspective and life of that person.

For all of Sam’s differences – he cannot easily distinguish social or emotional cues, has a charming obsession with Antarctica, and specifically its penguins, and has what is known as “atypical verbal development”; so in many ways what many of us understand as autism 101 for better or worse – he is simply a young man who would like to see a girl’s boobs (his words) and have her as a girlfriend (or a practice one) and is poorly serviced anytime anyone places him in the “autism box”.

Just like anyone else, Sam is very much his own person and Atypical does a thoroughly charming of demonstrating through Sam’s sweet but determined quest to find himself a woman with whom to have sex, and maybe love (assuming she passes his pros and cons list of attributes).

While Sam is sometimes the punchline for a scene, it’s never done in a cruel or malicious way and you could well argue that many of the other “normal” characters (there’s that easily-twisted, damn near useless word again) end up every bit as much being used to make a comedic point in a series that neatly balances itself between comedy and drama (more the latter than the former, and no, we will not be referring to it as a dramedy).

 

 

Ultimately Atypical is less concerned with taking cheap comedic or crafting overwrought dramatic moments – in fact, to be fair, it doesn’t tend to either of these extremes at all, thankfully – and more with giving us a balanced and nuanced look at Sam, the way honest and unaffected he sees the world, and how the world sees him. It also does a lovely job of examining how his family have moulded themselves around him and how, even though their love for him is unquestioned and often in display in both touching and groundedly practical, he has shaped how they respond to the world around them.

Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport) loves his son, despite his wife’s cheapshot retort one night at dinner that he doesn’t even seem to like him, but frets that he can never seem to connect with him. It’s an anguish that began sooner after his birth, and led to a brief schism with his family, now obviously healed. As Atypical begins, and Sam wrestles with the complex and comfusing world of dating, made all the more so for him by his raw honesty and struggle to full process the unsaid nuances of nascent romance with a member of the opposite sex, Doug finds a way to connect with Sam, simply by meeting him where he is at, taking all his frustrations and problems at face value and giving him unadorned sensible advice.

He also saves Sam at one point from making a complete fool of himself with his 26 year-old therapist Julia, whom Sam is convinced is his forever girlfriend, with the sweethearted Paige (Jenna Boyd), who likes him for all the right reasons, merely a stand-in with whom to practise.

Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) has a whole other realm of issues to deal with.

Younger than Sam, but forced by circumstance and a fierce love for her brother to act much as an older sister would, Casey is a high school track star with an offer to attend a prestigious sports academy in a town an hour away, who constantly finds herself living in Sam’s shadow. To her credit, she doesn’t resent Sam for it (well, most of the time) but understandably finds her aspirations curtailed more often than not, by the need to accommodate Sam’s unique position in the world.

It’s the plight of many a sibling in a family with a person needing special care and attention, and is handled without fanfare or melodrama, a fact of life that she and her parents must grapple with and which has a series of less than perfect and quite realistic outcomes.

 

 

It’s perhaps Sam’s mum, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is most emblematic of the way you can be both empowered and imprisoned somewhat by caring for a teenager with autism.

This is not to even remotely suggest that Sam is a burden or a problem; on the contrary, Elsa sees him, unsurprisingly, as a blessing, much as any parent would see their child, and while caring for him carries its own unique set of demands, Elsa happily puts in the time at supports groups, school and with Sam himself, to give him the love and care he needs.

It’s when she meets and has an affair with bartender Nick (Raúl Castillo) that her carefully-constructed world, built almost solely around Sam to the occasional frustration of the endlessly-accommodating Doug, starts unravelling, her “all Sam, all the time” mantra opening to reveal a woman who lost her sense of self in the midst of being a mother.

Again, there is no sense Elsa resents Sam, or indeed Casey, in any way; she loves motherhood. But she has never examined those feelings and thoughts we all have, even when we love someone, that may not as positive or Anne of Green Gables as we’d like, and when she finally does, she’s deeply unsettled by what she finds.

Ultimately Atypical, which seems to do an appreciably good job of representing someone with autism – although, with no firsthand experience, my perspective is limited with someone like Leslie Felperin, mum of a child on the autism spectrum, far more qualified to provide commentary – is a sweet, warmhearted and deeply sincere show that gives us a delightful look at the perils of growing up.

Yes, Sam is rightly at the centre of the narrative, and his charm, honesty and desire to live as full a life as possible are a pleasure to watch – you want to spend as much time with him as possible, happy when he is treated as anyone else would be, and cringing when people report to placing him in a narrow-minded, poorly thought-out, and often unfeeling boxes – but it’s the way the show weaves him into the wider fabric of family and society, with great sensitivity and understanding, that makes Atypical one of the best shows to come along this year.

Atypical has been renewed for a second 10-episode season.

 

 

Weekend pop art: Famous movie clothing in itsy-bitsy window displays

The Royal Tenenbaums (artwork (c) Jordan Bolton Design)

 

It has long been said, in one form or another, that “clothes maketh the man (or woman)”.

What is not as commonly remarked, but is no less true, is that clothes, or in this case, costumes, maketh the movie.

One person who recognises that to the very core of his artistic bone is Manchester-based artist Jordan Boltonhis work has been featured on the blog before – who has recreated the clothes from a slew of memorable movies and put them on display for our viewing pleasure in teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy shop windows.

The result are beautifully intricate posters that give you a whole new appreciation for the costuming artistry in films like Amélie, The Royal Tenenbaums and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

You can check out more of this talented artists’s pop-culture inspired work on Tumblr and Instagram and even buy them at his Etsy store.

Time to dress up your home with some wholly original movie artwork!

(source: Laughing Squid)

 

 

 

 

Rip’d from the pages of my childhood: The Rescuers by Margery Sharp

 

There are a great many books I remember fondly from my childhood – the rest of the Rip’d from the Pages of My Childhood series is testament to that – but there is one series in particular that I adore to this day because I fell in love with a character and the impossibly romantic world she inhabited.

Miss Bianca, of Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers – the first book, simply titled The Rescuers came out in 1959, followed by eight others with Bernard into Battle (1978) finishing things off – is an ineffably lovely white mouse, an aristocratic lady of distinction who belongs to the ambassador’s son and lives in a porcelain pagoda in the embassy’s classroom where she writes poetry and eats cream cheese.

Her ivory tower life stands in stark contrast to Bernard, a brave, resourceful mouse who lives in the embassy’s pantry – think working class to Miss Bianca’s more upmarket digs – but thanks to a call from the Prisoners’ Aid Society, a mousian group dedicated to keeping prisoners company and brightening their lives, she and Bernard find themselves on a thoroughly unexpected journey to liberate a beleaguered Norwegian poet from the Black Castle.

“‘Miss Bianca!’ he called softly…’Don’t be afraid, Miss Bianca!…I’m not burglars, I am Bernard from the Pantry with a most important message.’
He waited again. One of the golden bells, as though a moth had flown past, tinkled faintly. Then again there was a rustling, and at last Miss Bianca came out.”

The first book in particular, and those that follow, were full of swashbuckling daring and adventure as the ultimate rodent odd couple not only found resources deep within themselves but discovered they rather liked each other’s company as well.

If you were to judge The Rescuers on the basis of that expansive narrative alone, it would carry a romantic cachet of epic proportions; but Margery Sharp, an English writer of rare wit and cleverness, goes further, giving us two utterly beguiling characters, but most especially of course, the delightful Miss Bianca, who not only rise to the occasion but go way out of their comfort zone to help others, growing in immeasurable ways in the process.

As a young boy growing up in rural northern New South Wales, Australia, the idea of a world as exotic as that inhabited by Miss Bianca was impossibly alluring; it became even more so with Sharp describing it in the loveliest, most wonderful ways possible, so lushly and perfectly that I honestly felt as I was along for the ride on Miss Bianca and Bernard’s adventures.

 

 

The books themselves were rather slight in length, but as Mari Ness points out in Spy Mice: Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers, they were jam-packed with all kinds of engaging goings-on that captured the imagination of a young boy who expected life could be every bit as big and exciting as Sharp made it out to be:

“For such a short book, it’s very crowded with both incident and realistic depictions of long, slow tedious periods of waiting for something to happen, or being unsure of what to do next. Miss Bianca often tidies up, which serves both as distraction and a stress reduction technique. Sometimes she makes flowers out of sugar, bits of paper, or cheese, both to pass the time and keep up everyone’s spirits. Nils and Bernard explore the Black Castle when they can, although the presence of a dangerous cat does put a bit of a damper on this. There’s also happier moments—rides on carts filled with plenty of crumbs for mice to nibble on, watching the river, an exciting boat ride, a touch—just a touch—of light flirtation and growing love between the elegant Miss Bianca and working-class Bernard …”

It was that heady mix of bravery and derring-do and sweetly intimate character moments that made the entire The Rescuers series such rewarding reading.
If the object of any book is to take us to places far beyond our own with characters we love being with, and I did and do love Miss Bianca and Bernard, then The Rescuers succeeded brilliantly.

So entranced was I with the tales of small mice charging into situations where the odds were most definitely stacked against them – as the writer of Books that Changed My Life: The Rescuers by Margery Sharp beautifully explains, this was an insightful introduction for children to the world of adults, as foreign a place as any when you are small and vulnerable, just like mice – that I hung onto every word that Sharp wrote about these extraordinary rodents.

In fact, so enamoured of Sharp’s creations was I that I spent valuable pocket money – my family weren’t rich (nor were we necessarily poor either) so I wasn’t exactly flush with funds – buying six of the nine books at the Dymocks bookstore in Lismore.

Whereas many of the books I read were sourced from the local community library, which was really well stocked for a town of 5000 people, occupying space in the recreation hall of the community centre, or were given as presents, The Rescuers were accorded the rare privilege of being bought.

It spoke to how highly I valued these marvellous books, rich with emotional resonance, delicious romanticism and exotic otherness (not to mention the sweet love between Miss Bianca and Bernard), that I bought as many of these books as I could, with every one of them, 40 years later, almost as pristine as the day they were bought.

 

 

What has stayed with me all these years later is how much I fell in love with the world these characters promised could be mine.

I had grown up with inquisitive, adventurous parents who had a decade on and off working in Bangladesh in the ‘60s until political upheaval sent them back to Sydney, who always encouraged me to dream big, look far and see where life could take me.

It was all the impetus this city-boy-in-a-country-boy’s body needed, and while I didn’t exactly end up rescuing Norwegian poets trapped in a bleak castles – though if they’d been cute and prone to quoting sensuous iambic pentameter to me I would surely have it a go, especially if Miss Bianca and Bernard were along to help me – I did leave my small country town, travel alone to Sydney to live, go to the USA and Canada solo on multiple trips and take all kinds of chances that I might not otherwise have taken.

While I can’t sheet the responsibility for all of that willingness to jump into yawning void of the unknown to Margery Sharp’s and her plucky creations, they must have had an influence.

They taught me that no matter where you’ve come from or what you think your circumstances will allow you to do, that it’s possible to go forth and do all kinds of things you might have once thought beyond you.

It’s inspiring stuff and explains why I, possessed of inexhaustible curiosity and unwilling to live a small “l” life, was so impelled to follow their example many years later when the books, locked away temporarily for safekeeping, sallied forth to see if, like Miss Bianca and Bernard, what might happen if I dared to take a chance.

I haven’t looked back since.

 

Pretty as a deer: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (poster + trailer)

(image via IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a darkly comic drama from Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated. (official synopsis via Coming Soon)

Grief is an awful limbo world in which to exist.

Your life as you knew it is gone, and even if it largely continues on it as it was, in form at least, there’s an aching sense of immobilising loss that hangs over everything.

This grinding sense of powerlessness and inertia is compounded even more, I would suspect (thankfully it’s nothing like my experience) if your lost loved one was murdered and the police are yet to find the killer.

You can well understand how desperately exhausting that must be and why Mildred Hayes, played by the incomparable Frances McDormand, decides to take matters into her own hands.

In just one short trailer, we see what a powerhouse of a person she is and the lengths she will go to, devil and social properiety be damned, to find the answers she craves.

This looks like it will be an immensely powerful film with some added-in quirk and humour to leaven out the intensity, with a thoughtful, insightful eye on the way grief profoundly, and irretrievably, changes everything.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens 10 November USA and 1 January 2018 Australia.

 

Book review: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

(cover art courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

 

 

Life is a complicated thing.

Anyone who has reached adulthood with life, limbs and psyche relatively intact will attest to the fact that for all its capacity for magical delight and soul-consuming wonder, life also comes with some fairly onerous demands.

It’s a hard enough ask for anyone to get through unscathed but throw in mental illness and the lingering, corrosive effects of grief, and you have a recipe for a fraught existence that slides from the darkness to light and back again with frightening rapidity. (That’s assuming, of course, that the light ever makes its presence felt in the first place.)

Matthew Homes, the schizophrenic protagonist of Nathan Filer’s deeply moving novel, The Shock of the Fall, knows all too well what it is like to carry the burden of grief in crushing tandem with the debilitating burdens of mental illness.

“That [wrestling with his dad and Simon] is what we used to do when Simon was alive, but now Simon wasn’t alive, i never got up before my dad. At quarter to seven he would still come into my room to find me lying awake, unsure of how to begin. That must have been hard for him.” (P. 37)

In a novel that bends chronological order to slightly disorienting effect at first, until you realise this is how Matthew’s mind works, leaping from one moment to the other in no particular order, we bear witness to how the death of Matthew’s older brother Simon, a person with Down Syndrome, when the siblings were 9 and 13 respectively, massively impacted the way he sees life, even before his debilitating diagnosis.

As you duck and weave through Matthew’s recollection of that horrible moment, one he blames himself entirely for, although save for one catastrophically-bad decision one rainy night, it was an accident rather the product of deliberate intent, and then the way it informs the young man he grows into, you ache for the toll that the combined weight of mental illness and grief takes on him.

But not just Matthew, who struggles to operate in a world where he hears and sees Simon everywhere from the candle flames of his birthday cake to rushing water and the underside of his bed, but his family who want to love and be there for him, and are in many important ways, and yet are hobbled by the same grief that besets Matthew.

The Shock of the Fall beautifully and heartrendingly explores how grief stops the clock in so many ways, with what came before it bearing little to no resemblance to what follows.

Its effects linger far after the actual event and you could well argue, and it’s borne out in the beautifully well-thought out and wholly-affecting narrative, that it never really reaches a conclusion.

 

 

The truly lovely part of The Shock of the Fall, which gracefully mixes insightfully poetic language with raw, confronting honesty, is that Matthew finds some resolution and peace, much as his family does, coming to grips, as much as anyone can, with the assailing power of grief to send a life permanently off-kilter.

The refreshing thing is that his happy ending of sorts, the exact nature of which I won’t reveal, is that it is not the kind dreamed up by Hollywood, big on melodrama and short on affecting authentic emotion, but rather deeply real, acknowledging that even when we are given some kind of closure, it is not neatly and perfectly sewn up, all signs of the scars erased.

Rather, and given the nature of his illness which Matthew admits is always with him and will never ever leave him alone since it is inextricably bound up with him, the sense of an ending he receives is as much as a beginning and a continuation as it is any sort of imperfect to long and drawn out grief and loss.

“But beside the light switch, he had written something. I was never meant to read it. I know this because he would paint over it when he came back to do the second coat. And he had no way of knowing that I’d be brought home on this one day to collect my post. I ran my fingers across the words, written lightly in ballpoint pen. What he’d written was:

“We’ll beat this thing mon ami. We’ll beat this thing together.” (PP. 210-211)

But is that not the nature of life for everyone? Matthew certainly has a more intensely complicated experience of its vicissitudes than anyone else in the book, but the truth remains the same for everyone, a salutary lesson in the universal even handedness of grief and life’s contrary nature.

The Shock of the Fall explores these truths and others through a multitude of devices to get us into the mind of Matthew, one of the most visually striking being the changes in font and text size from one section of the book to the other.

It neatly illustrates how Matthew’s mind works, and that even though he’s often aware it’s his illness talking, he feels powerless to counteract it, and when it delivers him up Simon, “alive” and kicking as if he never left – his departures from reality are all Simon-centric and suffused with regret and deep sadness – really doesn’t want to, even if he could.

The shifts in time also bring home the fact that the tragic events of a decade ago – Matthew goes from 9 to 19 over the course of the book’s brilliantly well-articulated, time-jumbled narrative – are never far from home, as real now as they were all that time ago, coterminous with everything happening in the present.

As moving and deeply affecting a book as you’re likely to find – it is damn near impossible not to weep when Matthew gets closer to the source of his grief and pain, reliving the events of Simon’s death – The Shock of the Fall has delightful warmth and humour, emotional honesty and a devastatingly beautiful insightfulness that understands and touchingly explores how life never follows an easy or well-laid out path and that for all of us, whether we have mental illness or not, it is a journey with no easily-reached or lived-in destination.