Movie Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth officially makes the third story I have seen in my life set during the Spanish Civil War.  For those of you who want the briefest of backgrounds, in the late 30s, a Fascist government came to power by overthrowing the Republican government, and a lot of the Republicans became fled or (in this particular film) became guerilla freedom fighters.

The first story I saw set in this era was Elke Neidhardt’s staged opera production of Il Trovatore, which I saw in Brisbane some years back.  This was an interesting production and worked rather well because there were two opposing armies in the opera, so the revamp worked well.

The second movie was also by the director of this film, Guillermo del Toro, and was called The Devil’s Backbone.  I don’t know many other people who saw it, but it was about a little boy who was left at an orphanage in the last days of the war.  So while the fighting was raging outside, the boy was being haunted by the ghost of a murdered child.

And now we have Pan’s Labyrinth.  In this particular case, the boy has become a little girl, Ofelia, who is heading up into the mountains with her pregnant mother, to join her mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal.  Vidal is a fascist, and absolutely obsessed with killing the last of the rebel guerillas hiding in the mountains.

While Vidal spends his time tracking down the rebels, young Ofelia becomes more obsessed with fairies.  Pretty soon, she’s seeing them, and one night, a Faun (who alternates between being friendly and menacing), gives her a series of tasks to do: tasks which, in the tradition of the old fairy tales (not the latest sugar-coated Disney versions) become increasingly more frightening as the movie rolls along.

I was a bit disappointed with this film, because I was hoping that there would be some sort of connection between the fairy story and the real world story.  (Perhaps even an allegory.)  But it seemed a little bit more disconnected than that.  Basically, imagine that during The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe movie, the film kept switching between the kids in Narnia and a story about British troops being stationed at the old house who are hunting for Nazi spies hiding in the woods. If that seems like an odd mix, that’s what Pan’s Labyrinth seemed like to me.

At the end of the day, I think this film was more style than substance. Beautifully shot, with every scene being great eye-candy, you were certainly never bored, but nonetheless, the film was populated with stock characters.  The ailing mother who doesn’t see what’s really going on, the innocent child, the nice doctor, the caring maid, and absolutely chewing up the screen, Sergi Lopez (who similarly chewed up the screen in the very Hitchcockian Harry, He Is Here To Help a few years ago) as Captain Vidal.  I don’t think we’ve seen a psychopath like this since Ralph Fiennes’s random Jew-shooting in Schindler’s List.

Which of course brings me to what really ties this film together, fairy tale and real story: they’re both gross.  The special effects guys who work on the gore have gone to town on this film, with ever-escalating new ways to be unsubtle.  Where other films move the camera somewhere else once the amputating surgeon pulls out his hacksaw, this camera moves in to show you the action.  All this culminates in what is without doubt, the mother of squeam-inducing scenes: a scene where, to spoil as little of it as possible, a character sews up their own wound.  The scene dragged out for something 30-45 seconds, but I doubt very many of the audience I was with watched the whole thing.

Was there a point to any of this extra blood and guts? I don’t think so.

So, all in all, a fascinating piece of film-making an an engaging story, but I’m not sure this is the great fantasy masterpiece of the decade.  3 1/2 out of 5.

Book Review: By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Agatha Christie)

Some of you may know that for a period of – I don’t know really – probably two years – I was collecting The Agatha Christie Collection.  This was a partworks collection that came out at the rate of one book every fortnight from the newsagent, with a nice hardbound edition of the book (which I haven’t got pictured here, because it wasn’t sold in bookstores) and an accompanying magazine.

Originally, there were just going to be 45 issues, containing the 45 best Agatha Christie stories.  However, the collection was so popular, that it kept going to 65 issues.  Then, by that stage, it was still so popular that the publishers decided, “Why not do it all?”  So they went out and chased up copyright for her plays and her autobiography and they published absolutely every last thing she wrote under the name of Agatha Christie, bringing the collection to a whopping 85 books.

I think it was somewhere in the low 60s that I had to take a break from reading one every fortnight.  Especially because, as the really classic ones were in the first 45, there’s a sense in which there’ s a bit of barrel-scraping going on here.

Anyway, I’m not going to review the 60 or so I’ve already ready here, because that would be a test of my patience trying to remember exactly what happened in each one and a test of yours reading it all.  However, I did just finish this one, so I can comment on it while it’s fresh in my mind.

This book is another in the Tommy and Tuppence series.  T & T are a little bit more obscure than Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie’s main sleuths, and they’re not quite as outlandish.  But they are interesting, because they’re the only characters that really aged in Christie’s books.

The first time we met them was in a very early book called The Secret Adversary, where they were a couple of young adventurers caught up in a spy plot.  (By the way, Tuppence’s real name is Prudence, in case you were wondering. ) Then, in their next book (whose name escapes me) they were now married and middle-aged middle-aged couple helping in an undercover operation during World War II, sussing out a spy at an English boarding house.  And now, in this book, they’re now in their early 60s with grown-up married children.

Nonetheless, this in now way stops them from having adventures.  The story starts with the pair visiting Tommy’s elderly Aunt Ada at the Sunny Ridge nursing home.  While there, Tuppence meets an old lady, Mrs Lancaster, who drops some hints to a dead child in a chimney.  Tuppence feels that there’s something unusual here, but doesn’t think anything of it.

Until a few weeks later, when Tommy’s Aunt Ada suddenly dies in her sleep.  They return to the nursing home, only to find that Mrs Lancaster has been taken away suddenly by mysterious “relatives” and seems to have disappeared.  To make things more complicated, before Mrs Lancaster left, she left a painting of a house by a canal with Aunt Ada.  The painting now falls into T & T’s hands.

Tuppence has two suspicions: 1) That Mrs Lancaster has been kidnapped somehow.  2) That she knows that house in the painting.  While Tommy goes away to a conference, she sets out to investigate the mystery, and the story just takes more twists and turns from there.

I didn’t see the end coming on this story, to tell the truth, and it was actually a stronger story than I expected.  As usual with Christie, the characterisations are light-on and fluffy, and nobody really seems to take anything terribly serious, but the plot is, as always, brilliant conceived. (It is truly amazing how many different stories she could tell without getting repetitive with her endings.)

3 1/2 out of 5.

Video Review: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

For those of you who’ve never heard of him, Glenn Gould was an eccentric but very gifted Canadian pianist, who died in 1982 at the age of 50. Widely regarded as one of the great classical pianists of the 20th century, his career took some strange turns.

At the age of 32, he decided that live concerts were too imperfect, and so took to only playing the piano in the recording studio, so a lot of people never got to hear him live. Also, he was a recluse and seemed to like to keep to himself.

But, despite that, he wrote quite a lot of articles and things to show us that he had quite a quick and well-developed wit (in addition to being an insightful musician). Also, those who knew him, told stories of how he would ring them on the phone and chat for hours and hours. So this over-clinginess on the one hand, seemed to balance off his reclusiveness on the other.

So how do you make a film about a guy like this? In the end, the approach Canadian director Francois Girard took is rather unorthodox, but also somehow fitting. He made 32 short films (one for every 32 of Bach’s Goldberg Variations), each of which shows various facets of Gould’s life.

Most of them are dramatised, with Colm Feore playing Glenn Gould, but there are a few which just consist of talking heads of real people who knew Gould when he was alive.

One of my favourites that I could mention is one where Glenn is in a hotel in Hamburg, Germany. A maid is cleaning the room, while he’s sending a telegram over the phone. In the middle of all this, a package arrives containing his latest record. The maid is about to leave, but Glenn grabs her, asks her to sit down, and puts on this record.

It’s interesting, because as a beautifully played piece of Bach starts to play, we see the maid move from being rather perplexed by what’s going on, to visibly enjoying the music, to finally realising that this strange man is actually the pianist she’s listening to.

Some of the others are more unusual – such as one that just consists of Glenn narrating all the different medications he’s taking and what their side effects are (towards the end of his life, he was on large amounts of medication for his blood pressure and other things that ultimately killed him.

Then there are poignant ones – we see the Steinway piano that he played at his live concerts. As we hear Bach being played, the camera moves across the strings, zooming in on the moving keys. Then, at the end, we see two stagehands packaging the piano up – never to be played on stage by Glenn ever again.

All in all, it doesn’t really take the place of a conventional linear film about the man. But then again, if it was linear, we’d have to have things like plot and character development, and tension, and all of those things that we need in Hollywood biopics. By taking this approach, this film avoids all of those cliches. However, as a consequence, I think it leaves us a little too distant from this man. That said, though . . . I think that’s kind of the way Glenn would have liked it.

3 1/2 out of 5.

Confessions of a Former Opera-Hater

I have been meaning to do a CD review for a while, but the CDs that I’m currently working through are part of a 10-CD box set, so with weekend time a bit scarce, I haven’t yet finished the box set, and so cannot do a review.

So I thought to fill in time and spice things up a bit, I’d do a few posts on opera in the meantime.  To start with, though, I thought I should tell my conversion story (I think that’s the corrrect term) of how I changed from hating opera to absolutely loving it.

We’ll start with the hating.

Opera was never something I liked.  It was in the same sort of class as lieder, really.

However, it must be stated, that nobody else in my family liked opera either.  So I didn’t actually hear too much of it growing up, because it was never on the record player or anywhere else.  We didn’t own any operas.  But I must have heard bits and pieces on the radio, because I came to hate the sound.  It always just sounded like some singer bellowing at the top of their lungs, accompanied by a loud orchestral blast from behind.

I liked pure orchestral music, and I didn’t mind choir music.  But this loud bellowing in Italian was getting too much for me.

I realised now that there were two main problems (and they really are the two main barriers to liking opera): 1) not liking the opera sound and 2) not understanding what the singers were singing about.  Actually, a third issue in my younger days was 3) not having enough money to get into opera – but that’s a different issue.

Believe it or not, if you really want to be an opera fan. However, Barrier Number 1, Hating the Opera Sound, is something that must be conquered if you wish to do so.  And not everybody can.

The operatic style of singing involves using your throat and voice in a different way from contemporary singing (which is why, for instance, musicals sound much different from operas, even though they’re essentially the same thing).  This style of singing has a few pros and cons.

The pros are that a good opera singer can project his or her voice out into a theatre full of people with no microphone whatsoever, and be heard perfectly.  (Remember, also, that the singer is also trying to sing over the top of a full-size orchestra that is accompanying.) The pros are also that this sound can vary dramatically depending on what type of singer you have.  Working up, there are the basses, who usually play the baddies in an opera because they have low, menacing voices. Baritones are next up.  They’re higher than basses, but still not tenors, so they tend to get the sidekick roles, or the wise old men roles.

Tenors, of course, with their soaring vocal range, become the heroes of the piece.  If a tenor is an opera, he’s going to probably a) get all the women, b) wipe out the bad guys, c) get heartbroken, d) possibly break some hearts himself and e) die tragically.  And in most cases, he’ll do all this on the one night.

Then, next, we have the mezzo-sopranos.  They’re not as high as the sopranos, so they tend to get female sidekick and wise old women roles.  They also get to play the role of the operatic female tyrant. If you’re going to have a mother-in-law, evil queen, you name it, she’ll be a mezzo.  Finally, sopranos, who are always going to be the heroines of the piece, with their high gliding notes.  If you really want to get specific, there are also coloratura sopranos, who specialise in being able to rattle off long strings of very high, very fast notes, all without breaking a sweat.  Truly amazing to hear.

However, the cons of this sound are: 1) these voices all vibrate, which largely separates it from straight normal singing.  And, usually, the higher the voices go (especially sopranos), often the louder and more noticeable this vibration becomes.  It is this sound which most people can’t stand.

The only way to get used to it is just to listen to some opera and grow to like the sound.  If you try it enough times, you gradually will come to like it.  The second con of the opera sound is 2) to get the power in the voice, regular vowel sounds get squashed a bit.  So, even if a singer is singing in English, it can still be difficult to make out the words. (Unlike a musical, where these things are fairly clear.)  So, without a set of the lyrics, it can be quite difficult to listen to it.

Anyway, for all those reasons above, I never liked opera.  However, during my teenage years (15-18 mostly), I started getting to like oratorios, which are long pieces for choir and soloists, usually on Christian themes. (Two of the most famous ones, and two of my favourites, are The St Matthew Passion, which tells the story of Christ’s death and The Messiah, which tells of Christ’s whole life. More on that another day.)

Unbeknownst to me, listening to these oratorios got me used to that operatic voice sound.  The first barrier had been crossed.  But I still could never really get into opera.  Whenever I listened to bits and pieces of it on radio, it just never interested me.

But all of that was to change . . . and I’ll post about that another time.

DVD Review: Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels

One of the interesting things about getting older (which has kind of taken me by surprise a bit) is my changing taste in movies.  This film is one case in point.  There was a time when I thought this film was one of the most entertaining films ever. Now I’m not so sure.

This film tells the story of four young guys in the tough end of London who decide to chip in 25,000 pounds each to play in a high-stakes poker game (minimum needed to play: 100,000 pounds), run by notorious gangster, “Hatchet” Harry. (That said, three out of four of these guys are young thieves as well, so there are no real good guys in this particular story. One of the guys, Freddie, is something of a card-playing genius, so they figure they’re in with a pretty good chance.

But the game is rigged, and not only does Freddie lose all 100,000 pounds, but he walks out owing 500,000 pounds . . .

So this is when his mates come up with the idea of robbing their next door neighbours (also a bunch of crims), who they hear planning to rob a third bunch of guys who make a fortune selling marijuana.

Somewhere in the middle of this, Hatchet Harry also sends off a couple of thieves to track down a couple of antique guns that he’s after.

And there are more subplots as well, which only makes things more convoluted.

The cleverness of this story works in the way all these subplots interweave in and out of each other throughout the course of the movie, culminating in increasingly out-of-control situations as the story goes on.  Combine that with very clever camera-work, frenetic editing (withs lots of slow-downs and speed-ups), and a pounding soundtrack, and the 1 hour 40 minutes is gone before you know it.

However, looking at this film after a gap of some years, it’s a strangely empty film.  I now understand completely why Guy Ritchie has never made it good after this film and Snatch: he’s got nothing except the ability to write a convoluted plot, a fancy film style, and crackling (albeit profane) Cockney gangster dialogue.

But there’s no heart to this story.  You’re dealing with one bunch of crooks cheating another bunch of crooks.  It’s only as amusing as the plot.  And, frankly, British gangsters seem to be wearing very thin to me after all these years.  I don’t mind a good intense crime thriller every now again (last year’s The Departed was quite memorable) but this just seemed to fall flat.

2 1/2 out of 5

Book Review: The Absolute Sandman, Vol.1 (Neil Gaiman)

The second book that I’ve finished is this first volume (well, it’s the only volume available at the moment) of The Absolute Sandman. Fans of comics will know that Vertigo and DC comics have recently been releasing a lot of famous comic series in “Absolute” editions. Unlike a regular trade paperback, these absolute editions are oversized (meaning you can see the pictures in really good detail), often re-coloured (as has happened in this book), printed on really good quality paper and bound with very nice hardcover binding, and put in a slipcase. Also, like a DVD, they have lots of “extras” in the back. So if you like a particular comic, they’re the ideal way to keep and collect them.

However, that said, if you’re going to buy them, get them from Amazon because they’re horrendously expensive in Australia. You could probably make a fair bit of money, actually, buying them off Amazon and reselling them on Ebay in Australia, the price difference is that large.

Anyway, to a review of the story at hand. Volume 1 (with another three volumes projected as being necessary to contain everything) contains the first 20 issues of The Sandman comic series. For those of you who have never read any Sandman before (like myself before I picked this up), I should say that The Sandman series is probably the most praised comic series ever written. Even people who don’t like comics enjoy Sandman. So this piqued my interest.

So what’s it all about?

This is kind of tricky, because unlike a regular epic (say, Lord of the Rings) where we’re given lots of background detail, Sandman sort of starts low key and gradually expands its mythology as it goes. So, in the very first issue, a tale is told in the style of old Edgar Allan Poe-type stories of a group of magicians in England in 1914 who attempt to call up Death and trap him (or her, as we later find out . . .) so that nobody needs to die.

However, something goes wrong, and instead they end up with a tall, skinny, pale looking fellow with dark hair and very black eyes, with starfire in them. This is Dream. Anyway, figuring that they can hold him for ransom, the magicians lock up Dream in a bottle, where he stays for the next 70 years. They also take off him his helmet (looking like a gas mask), his red ruby, and his bag of sand. During that time, all around the world, people get “sleeping sickness”, where they suffer from various ailments – some can’t dream, some become like zombies, some sleep and never wake up. But, basically, the world is not a fun place without Dream in it.

Ultimately, Dream escapes and sets out to reclaim his missing stuff (which, in true quest fashion, is now scattered in various places). This is what he spends the rest of the eight issues doing. We find out, during the course of this time, that he’s commonly known as Morpheus, sometimes as Dream, and (very rarely – despite the comic title) as The Sandman.

These first eight issues aren’t all that crash hot, because Neil Gamain, the writer, is trying to pay a bit of a homage to all his favourite DC comics characters, and so there are a lot of references to other characters that show up in other comics (some of which I recognised, a lot of whom I didn’t). Also, in the beginning, it is meant to be more of a horror series than anything else. But as the series moves on and heads away from its DC/horror beginnings, and starts to develop its own unique world, some brilliant ideas start to surface.

First of all, Death. She’s Dream’s sister. (By the way, I should also mention that Dream and Death are one of several personifications of human life, all coincidentally starting with D. So we also meet others such as Desire, Despair, etc. throughout the series.) Death, in a rather unlikely move, appears in the form a young girl in her early 20s, who wears black. (So she’s a bit Gothic.) Very friendly, almost human – rather different from the cold and aloof Morpheus. The comic issue where Dream and Death walk around as she “collects” various people who are dying is quite brilliant (and also unnerving, because this is still death we’re talking about).

Other brilliant ideas are some one-issue stories Gaiman comes up with where the Sandman interacts with different characters and cultures, showing how he has appeared in various forms throughout different times. So there’s one story of two African tribesmen, an elder and a younger. The elder is telling a story about a princess long ago who fell in love with Dream.

Then, there’s an issue entirely devoted to the dream life of cats. So Morpheus (still recognisable by those dark eyes of his) shows up as a cat. Then there’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where Morpheus brings William Shakespeare out into the country with his troupe of actors to perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Unbeknowns to Shakespeare (who has kind of sold his soul to Morpheus in exchange for the gift of creativity), Morpheus is bringing along the real fairies to see the play about themselves.

But, my favourite one has to be the one where Dream and Death enter a pub in England in the 1400s. There, a man is bragging that the only reason everybody dies is because everybody follows the crowd. Nobody has the tenacity to be different. So Death decides to give him a go, and never comes to collect this guy. Dream is left with the job of telling this man that he’ll never die (unless he wants to) and so these two unlikely characters make a bargain that every 100 years, they’ll meet up and see how life is going.

As a Christian, I can understand why this series has taken off. In a day and age where most stories that we hear and read are remarkably superficial, and only concerned with this life, these stories deal with things that are very close to us, that we share in common with all mankind. Dreams. Death.

In contrast to the prevailing view that “this life is all their is”, in the world of the Sandman, there is so much more reality to the everyday mundane world around us. Almost, it seems, a meaning to life.

Of course, The Sandman is just fiction, and a closer look will reveal a lot of imagination, but not much meaning. And, ultimately, the Sandman, while he is interested in keeping order in the dream world, doesn’t seem to care so much for people themselves. (Which is why it is so interesting that Death, by comparison, is much more sympathetic of humans, even though by the time she comes to visit you, you’re number’s up.)

So I’m rather more glad that there is an infinite, personal God who cares for us, rather than the Endless. But, as far as stories and myths go, I shall be interested to read the next volume at some stage in the future.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Blink – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell)

It’s always nice to finish a book, and this week I’ve finished two!

Blink is a non-fiction book written by Malcolm Gladwell that deals entirely with the subject of “snap decisions”. Have you ever looked at someone and instantly decided they were a good person or a bad person? Even though you coudln’t put your finger on why?

Have you ever been somewhere where something didn’t seem right, but you weren’t sure what?

This is the realm of Blink. Gladwell goes into extensive detail talking about various research that has been done on this area of snap decisions. The book is full of anecdotes and stories that have happened. Some of the more fascinating stories were:

  • How research has shown that when a person shows up at a hospital with chest pains, doctors can make a better decision about what to do (in other words, whether this is a serious heart attack) by doing less tests. Apparently, the more information they are presented with, the harder it is to make a snap decision.
  • If you try food in a blind taste test, where you don’t know which brand is which, you’ll make certain decisions about which type you like. However, if you see those same foods in their packages, you could well favour something else because the packaging changes your perceptions of what the food tastes like.
  • The fascinating story of a war game that was set up in the U.S. between one team, playing the United States and another team, headed by an ex-Vietnam officer, playing a Middle Eastern country with a tyrannical dictator. The Americans were loaded with all sorts of information, modelling computers, surveillance, etc. The team playing the Middle Eastern country had much less. But the enemy team won because of their ability to make snap decisions. The most amusing part of this story was that the team playing the U.S. called a halt to the game and started again when they were losing and told the team playing the Middle East what they could and couldn’t do – so they could report to the Pentagon that they successfully won and that it was a whitewash. Need I say more?
  • Why orchestras suddenly started employing female musicians when they started auditioning people behind a screen without being able to see them. (Previously, their perception that women just couldn’t play as well as men meant that they would make snap decisions about their music without really hearing them.)

So, all in all, Blink is a very easy-to-read and enjoyable book. However, I have to mark it a bit low, because at the beginning of the book, Gladwell hinted that he was going to teach us how we could make better snap decisions and learn new things. But all he did was tell a bunch of stories in his (to be honest) rather long-winded style. So while I know a lot about snap decisions and how the subconscious works, I’m still very much in the dark as to how to harness this power of quick thinking in my own life.

2 1/2 out of 5.

Geico Commercials

One of the highlights of my recent trip to America, besides:

  • barely finding deep-dish pizza in Chicago
  • using the free Charmin’ Toilet Paper toilets on Broadway in New York and
  • eavesdropping on hunting talk while eating some kind of combination of meat and melted cheese (as all American restaurant meals seem to be) at Jakes in Ashland Ohio

was these series of commercials for Geico (a provider of car insurance if you’re not sure)  I’m not a huge TV watcher, but these commercials are without doubt some of the funniest I’ve seen in a long time. For those of you in Australia, if you haven’t seen these, I hope you enjoy.

Running from least funniest to funniest, there’s basically three categories of Geico commercials.  There are a couple where they have a real person who  is telling how Geico helped them, and right next to them, a celebrity playing the part as well.

Then, in a truly inspired idea, the Caveman ads.  The premise is simple.  Geico’s latest advertising slogan is that their new website is so easy, a caveman could use it.  However, cavemen around America are rather offended at the insinuation that they’re stupid.

But, beyond a doubt, my favourite ads are the Geico gecko.  If they ever give this guy a movie, I’m pre-booking seats.

Watch them all; they’re all great. 

I’d go from the top gecko commercial down to the bottom one, but they’re all pretty good.

“I’d stick with the small talk, mate.”

“Of course they want free pie and chips.  It’s pie . . . with chips . . . for free.”

“And I’m like, ‘Of course I’ll sit with the kids.  You’re like a brother to me.'”

DVD Review: Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World

When it comes to historical or period films, there seem to be two main approaches taken by filmmakers.  The most common one is to make essentially a modern film set in period costumes.  A classic example of this type of film is Titanic, which was not making any real attempt to tell the historical story of the Titanic but rather was telling a fairly contemporary teenage love story set on the Titanic.  You could have easily changed the costumes and the characters would fit right into a modern film.

Now, this is not always a bad approach, and can sometimes yield some fantastic results.  (Amadeus being a case in point.) But no one is convinced that “this is exactly what it was like.”

Which brings me to the second school of historical films.  Much rarer are films that actually attempt to recreate, not just in the visual look of the film, but in the entire experience, the actual reality of what it might have been like to be in that time period.

This is a much harder trick to pull off.  Not only do you have to get the costumes and sets completely right, but the script writer has a very tough job as well.  Number one, the writer has to create characters that think like characters back in the time did.  Number two, the characters then have to talk like characters back in the time did.  Number three,  despite the fact that these characters have different motivations, actions and speech patterns than us, a modern audience still needs to be able to connect with them.

So, as you can imagine, generally the first option for historical films is preferred.  But every now and again a surprise slips through.  Master and Commander is one such surprise.  For starters, it’s based on the famous series of books by Patrick O’Brian, which detail the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey, English naval captain, and his best friend, Dr Joseph Maturin, Irish doctor.  Now, having read one of these books, I can tell you that O’Brian was making no attempt at all to update his characters.  In fact, the first three chapters of the first book in the series (also called Master and Commander, but not the book that this movie was based on) are some of the toughest fiction I’ve ever read, because the dialogue was old and stilted, and the nautical terms came thick and fast, with no real attempt made to translate them for the layperson.

However, if you stuck with it, you eventually worked out what things were what, and gradually the story started to work its magic.  Part of the charm of the original series also was the characterisation of Aubrey and Maturin.  Aubrey is a brilliant sea commander and absolutely unstoppable while on the chase.  But as far as people go, he has absolutely no real grasp of tact or how society works at all.  Thus, outside of his naval duties, he’s always getting into trouble from one person or another.  Maturin, by contrast, is wiley and smart when it comes to people, but clueless about the ways of boats and the navy.  And, of course, a nice touch, the two men like playing music together – Maturin on cello and Aubrey on violin.

Now, when it comes to Weir’s film itself, they’ve almost got it right.  The costumes and sets are spot on, their portrayal of all the little details on the ships are straight out of O’Brian’s books, and the dialogue also sounds very convincing (however, it’s a little more clear in the screen version what’s going on where).  With excellent camerawork and sound design, it’s a very immersive experience.

Also, fans of action films should be warned that there’s really only one fight scene in this movie.  The story follows Aubrey’s ship, the Surprise, as they trail after the French ship Acheron, and for an hour and a half, that’s more or less what they do – follow the French ship, with the occasional long-range cannon shot fired.  Only in the last half hour do they catch up for the climactic final battle.  For lovers of this film, there is enough detail and goings-on to sustain interest, but if you want to see guns blazing regularly, you might be better off sticking to Pirates of the Caribbean, I think.

The only negative I have about the film is the characterisations of Aubrey and Maturin.  Jack (perhaps because they have Russell Crowe in the role) has been made a little bit more “perfect” in this film, with less of the amusing personality flaws that could make him swing from the heroic sea captain to confused lunkhead very quickly.  As a consequence, this means that Maturin is no longer the perfect offset to Jack and instead becomes more of an argumentative character – criticising when Jack does something harsh or complaining when he doesn’t get dropped off at the Galapagos Islands in the middle of the chase so that he can study animals.  Also, by casting Paul Bettany in the role, they dropped his age by about 40 years, which also takes away some of the crustiness that the original character had.

But these are minor shortcomings.  All in all, this is a top-notch war film and considering that, up until Pirates came out, nobody was really making any movies about the old naval sea battles, it’s also one of only a handful of recent films on this topic.  So 4 1/2 out of 5.

Book Review: Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies (George Grove)

I didn’t actually finish this one today (in fact, I’ve read it a couple of times, the last being last October). But I might as well review it, while I’m on the subject of Beethoven books, because this is a much better book than the Berlioz book (well, much better if your goal is to really understand Beethoven symphonies).

This one was still written a long time ago – in 1898 in England, to be precise, but it’s really never gone out of print. I discovered my copy in a second-hand bookstore in Brisbane. It was $20 (because they said it was brand new), which is another example of the things I hate about second-hand bookstores (honestly, you’re almost better buying brand new sometimes).

However, in this case, it was money well-spent. I can honestly say that this is one of those books which have changed my life. This book was probably the last step in a Beethoven purchasing chain. As I mentioned right back in my first post, I was quite a fan of the Immortal Beloved soundtrack. In fact, I even went so far as to buy the follow-up album, More Immortal Beloved, which goes to show something.

Having enjoyed those two CDs, I decided to splurge out, and bought myself a copy of the complete Beethoven symphonies conducted by Herbert von Karajan, which is, I believe, still one of the cheapest CD box sets you can buy in Australia. (It doesn’t seem to be so cheap in America, though, for some reason.)

The problem I found, though, was that while I enjoyed listening to the CDs when the famous bits came on, the rest of the symphonies (and there’s a lot of “the rest of the symphonies” once you move outside the famous bits, believe me) tended to sound exactly the same. I couldn’t really hear any subtle difference.

So when I came across this book by Grove, which was promising to take me almost bar by bar through the symphonies and explain them all, I was intrigued. To my utter delight, the book delivered all of that. I struggled a bit at first, because even though Grove is writing for laypeople of his time, he assumes that a layperson can read music (which I could, so that was all right) and also that they know the structure of a classical symphony, especially sonata form (which I did not). I finally managed to piece together what he was talking about, and how sonata form works (and I’ll explain that in another post some day).

Once I got that out of the way, I was able to sit back and enjoy his book. And it was amazing. All of a sudden, the music just came alive. For instance, one of the most memorable passages in the book concerns the slow movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which is commonly known as the “Heroic” (or Eroica symphony, because it describes a great hero in the music). Very briefly, it contains a big fugue (which is kind of like a round, if you remember those – where one voice starts a little bit after another, but when all the voices are singing, they all combine together), followed by a loud passage for the brass. Grove describes it as follows:

“In this noble and expressive passage of fugal music we might be assisting at the actual funeral of the hero, with all that is good and great in the nation looking on as he was lowered into his tomb; and the motto might well be Tennyson’s words on Wellington–

In the vast cathedral leave him,
God accept him, Christ receive him.

“Then occurs a passage as of stout resistance and determination, the trumpets and horns appealing against Fate in their loudest tones, and the basses adding a substratum of stern resolution.  But it cannot last; the old grief is too strong, the original wail returns, even more hopless than before; the basses again walk in darkness, the violins and flutes echo their vague tones so as to aggravate them tenfold, and the whole forms a long and terrible picture of gloomy distress.”

I remember reading this and thinking, That really all happens in the music?  I’ve never heard that before.  But then I’d play the symphony, and lo and behold – there it was! The fugue did sound like a vast funeral, the trumpets and horns were appealing against Fate, and when the music does get quet again and the violins and flutes come in, it is a gloomy, gloomy picture.  It was incredible. (When I wrote my own, I more or less followed a similar pattern to Grove, except that I kept things a bit more simple, because I assumed that my readers wouldn’t be able read music or know what sonata form is.)

So really, if you can cope with the technical difficulties, I highly recommend this book.  Some of his descriptions and the things he gets enthusiastic about have changed with the years, and obviously a lot of his opinions are subjective, but it is still a good book to get an introduction to the Beethoven symphonies.

4 1/2 out of 5.