Friday, 28 October 2011

Midnight in Paris (movie)

I went to see Midnight in Paris as part of the Girls' Night In fundraiser event, hosted by Curves Carnegie. It's the latest Woody Allen movie, and tells the story of successful Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), holidaying in Paris with his fiance and future in-laws -- but he would rather be working on his Great American Novel and dreams of living in the halcyon Parisian days of the 1920s.

What follows is part-fantasy and part-dream, as Gil encounters some fascinating new friends while strolling the streets of Montmartre (at midnight).

I really enjoyed this movie, perhaps because it was about a writer meeting his idols, and finding new inspiration and self-confidence. The first night of Gil's adventures is particularly marvellous and made me grin broadly. The Paris of dreams depicted in this movie -- a character all of its own, really -- is one every writer could envisage themself living in.

The other message in this movie, though, is to appreciate life as you know it. Many of the characters in this film are yearning for a life they cannot have, and it only makes them dissatisfied... Gil learns to live in the moment and follow his dreams. The style is typical Woody Allen whimsy, and Owen Wilson does it well.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Making new friends with Build-a-Bear

I only recently discovered the Build-a-Bear workshop. This is perhaps understandable, given the usual workshop demographic of 4 to 10 year olds, but . . . well . . . give me leave to be a child at heart.

It all started early this year when my youngest nephew was given a build-a-bear monkey by Nana for his first birthday. At this stage, I was still oblivious to the full significance of the gift, but several of us spent some time coming up with a suitable name for the new addition . . . now known as Sir Monkalot.

And then I was introduced to the shop at Southland, where . . . OMG . . . you can choose your own personal bear (or creature) and then fill it with love and stuffing (out of a massive fairy-floss-like machine) and then you can choose an outfit for your new friend to wear.

At this first visit, we purchased AFL colours for Sir Monkalot (it's a Pies household), and I completely fell in the love with the concept . . . Was I too old for a new friend?

Perhaps yes. So instead we decided to save it for when my nieces and nephew were to visit from Germany – which is now! So today we all traipsed down to Southland to visit the Build-a-Bear workshop.

The kids at first had no idea what was about to happen . . . they seemed a little perplexed at first . . . and then the fun to be had began to dawn on them. What followed was a classic display of personality as each child chose and bonded with their new friend.

First decision: choose a 'bear' from at least 20 options (as-yet-unstuffed). Number three (J, aged 5-1/2) was the most decisive. Within 30 seconds she had homed in on a fluffy pink bear, and declared she had already decided on a name. Number two (W, aged 6-1/2) took a few minutes longer, bouncing between a dinosaur and a dragon before finally settling on the monkey reasonably quickly. Number one (H, aged 8-1/2) had the hardest time choosing. She test-cuddled the 'camo' bear (in camouflage colours) and the dragon at least three times each, before suddenly discovering and settling on a different bear all-together – Champ bear.

Next came the heart ceremony. Each bear gets a soft red heart, infused with all the love of its new friend. The heart ceremony was a joy to witness, with each child hugging and rubbing and kissing and wishing and dancing and warming and energising the new heart. This was then slipped inside the new toy . . . then each toy was stuffed to the precise cuddle-ability – soft or firm – as requested. And test-cuddled before being sewn up – just to make sure!

New friends were then taken to the bathing station, and scrubbed clean. (Using a brush to fluff up their fur – no water was applied.)

Now to choose an outfit! Once again, Miss J took . . . perhaps one minute this time to come up with two choices: a glittering sequined purple ball gown and an elegant pink satin dress. The purple won, deemed exactly the right look for the newly named 'Rosie'.

Mr W's monkey – Mr Jack – first tried on a casual outfit of orange T-shirt and denim jeans, but ultimately preferred AFL colours (Bombers in this case).

As for Miss H, a tomboy, her criterion was 'unisex'. Being a swimmer, she first had her eye on a bear-sized wetsuit, complete with snorkle, flippers and mask. Hmm, quirky, but perhaps . . . There wasn't much in the way of unisex outfits, but to keep with the swimming theme, we did find some board shorts and a rashie in rather striking blue, green and yellow. Yess!

And then it was time to print birth certificates and – oh no! – now H had to come up with a name! The stress of making such an important decision (I totally understand this)! Some fast thinking and consultation with the bear-naming book eventually yielded the name 'Tex'.

So now three little children have three new friends – Tex, Mr Jack and Rosie – and I confess I'm a little envious! (One of these days I may just yield to temptation and return home with a cute bunny with floppy ears, called . . . ?!)

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Status update: What I will miss

This is my last week of no-holds-barred leisure. Next week I board a plane to San Diego for the World Fantasy Convention and following that I'm to start full-time work again.

Yes, I'm very pleased to report that The Awful Task is completed and I have accepted a position as 'marketing & communications specialist' with a global supply chain management/logistics company. It sounds like a diverse role, covering internal and external communications, and will allow me to leverage all the great skills I already have, while learning a whole lot of new ones.

I'm tentatively excited: it will be good to get some enforced structure back into my life, rev up my brain again, meet some new people and of course there's the small matter of dollars. Yet, for good and bad, it's the great unknown. I've met exactly three people in the company and haven't laid eyes on the everyday working environment. (Maybe my workstation will be the size of a pea and located outside the toilet. I have no idea.)

I've had such an awesome year. This coming Friday it will be exactly one year since I boarded a plane for Paris and commenced my 10-week trip through France, Spain, England and Germany. In the entire time since, I returned to work for exactly 3 weeks, a mere blip. To all intents and purposes, I've had an entire year without working. Never did I imagine this would be possible.

It's rather incredible -- and a little disconcerting -- how normal it feels to not work. I'm certainly not looking forward to having to compress all the things I've been doing into the spaces around this new job. I know that I've probably suffered from Parkinson's Law all year (work expands to fill the time available) but I am just so relaxed because of it. Going back to full-time work is going to completely shock my system.

This is what I'm going to miss:

Creative writing
This is the big one, obviously. One of my primary goals for this year was to focus on creative writing, from producing words to honing craft to engaging with the industry. I wanted to reconnect with myself as a writer of fiction, take myself more seriously. In finishing one novel, recognising its flaws, and embarking on another I feel that I'm on the way to achieving this. I might not have progressed the new novel as far as I'd have liked (the culprit being my usual tendency to rewrite), and I might still be a long way from publication, but I have moved forward and realigned my priorities. This has been an essential outcome.

But what's going to happen from here? Aside from the past couple of months when I was focusing on career stuff, I've been able to devote whole afternoons to creative writing on a regular basis. And it isn't just the time, it's the head-space. I know from experience that it's very hard to write at the end of the day after work. Most writers who work full-time utilise the early hours, and my experience of this has been positive. But it requires a LOT of discipline. This is something I'm going to have to figure out.

Social networking
I've spent a lot of this year social networking online. My daily ritual has been to follow breakfast with about an hour (or two) of checking email and facebook and sometimes twitter and sometimes reading blogs and links. There's usually something of interest to click across to.

Yes, OK, I shudder when I tally up the hours I must have spent doing this. And these are the activities that I'm going to have to scale back if I'm to get any writing done once I'm back to work.

In addition to the morning ritual, I've also had the leisure to monitor facebook (and twitter) all day and respond to topics of conversation as they come up. For someone at home without anyone else to talk to, these 'chats' have been brilliant fun. I love feeling connected to all my friends via facebook. It really is a virtual conversation sometimes. Somehow I doubt I'll be able to keep this up in a new job. (Not a very good look.)

My blogging time will invariably suffer as well. I've been trying not to spend too much time blogging during the prime daytime hours, but sometimes I give in to the urge. But blogging is something I've been fitting in for years now -- I'll just have to make sure it doesn't take precedence over my other writing.

Meeting friends/family in cafes
This is kind of self-explanatory, really. I've had a wonderful time meeting up with friends who either don't work or who work flexible hours. Some weeks I've had lunch out every day. I've been telling myself that I might as well enjoy the benefits of not working while I can. (What I won't miss is my expanding waistline as a result of all this decadence.)

I've also been able to meet my sister and my two nephews for coffee on an almost weekly basis. We descend upon the cafe like a bomb going off and they have to disinfect the table after we've left it, but it's been so amazing to have this regular time with the two little kids and their baby-cinos.

Writing in pubs and cafes
For most of this year, we've had a regular writing session in the Elsternwick hotel, mostly on Tuesday afternoons. We drank wine. We talked shop. We wrote. We ate chicken parma for $12. (Another reason for the expanding waistline.) It has been brilliant.

Even on my own, I've spent quite a few afternoons in local cafes with my computer, sometimes because I wanted to get away from the Internet (and social networking etc), sometimes because I just needed to get out of the house. Despite the whole 'writing in cafes' thing being a bit of a cliche, I've loved every minute of it. And found it surprisingly productive as well. The cafe staff know me quite well by now. I wonder if they will miss me?

There are heaps of other things I'll miss as well, even if it's just the freedom to be spontaneous -- to dash down to the shopping centre with my mum, or attend a random writing seminar.

Probably what's missing from this list is the ability to get projects done -- and that's because I haven't done any. Not one. I'm a little disgusted with myself, really. I was supposed at the very least to get my bathroom renovation happening. A large reason for my failure in this area is due to my not having a car. It's very hard to get out and make stuff happen when you can't get around very easily. But c'est la vie.

I will look back at this year with perhaps a little regret (for the things I didn't get done while I had the time), but mostly with a great deal of satisfaction for the opportunity to chill out with friends and family and with myself. Most importantly, I've reconnected with myself as a writer. I stated at the beginning of the year that 2011 was about taking control of my life (I even dubbed it 'the year of the writer'), and I feel as though I've done this.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The heel that crippled me

I don't have much of a relationship with high-heeled shoes. I've never been a shoe junkie, I don't sigh with desire at the sight of the latest Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo. In fact, I'm rather astounded I even know what these are. . .

It's flats all the way with me -- and not those dainty little ballet flats you see some people wearing around the place. I like a shoe that I can walk in, stride out in, walk home from work in if I need to. Like Birkenstocks. Yeah, Birkenstocks are my thing (and some of them are quite smart these days).

Having said that, a few years ago I acquired a pair of Wonders wedge-heels that met all my comfort criteria -- rubber soles and a comfortable fit. I could walk properly in these heels, despite the fact they were about 10cm high (which is not really very high, but . . .), and they proved ideal for work. They're a bit old now, and not as comfortable, but I still drag them out from time-to-time.

But now there's a problem. I wore these shoes last Sunday and they crippled me. As soon as I arrived home and took them off, the ball of my left foot went into shock and I could barely walk.

These are shoes I've worn loads of times and they've been the most comfortable pair of 'heels' I've ever had. I've stood in exhibition halls for days on end. I even walked 4km in them once. So I was a little astounded at my foot's reaction.

I thought maybe it was cramp, that it would settle down and all would be back to normal the next morning, but alas this was not to be the case. I still couldn't put any weight on the ball of my foot, let alone push off. I could only put weight on the outside of the foot, making walking a tad tricky.

By Wednesday it was improved, but I was still hobbling so I decided to get a podiatrist to look at it. And it turns out that I have stretched the ligament that runs beneath my second toe. Just from wearing a shoe. There was no specific incident, no moment when I thought I'd pulled something. It's completely unfathomable.

Anyway, it's apparently not a serious injury, just damned inconvenient. I've been advised to avoid wearing heels for . . . well . . . ever (within reason). But I think this is just a podiatrist's blanket rule. Nonetheless, I'm happy to comply -- I more or less do anyway.

But the fact remains that there are some times when wearing a heel is the expected thing. And now that I know what I know -- which is that by rarely wearing heels I am more prone to this kind of injury -- it's going to make me really nervous next time.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Clybourne Park (MTC)

Clybourne Park, a play by Bruce Norris, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year, and I think I can see why. It's cleverly constructed and tackles the sticky subject of racial prejudice in a way that's both sobering and entertaining.

The plot
The first act takes place in 1959 Chicago, as a middle-aged 'white' couple prepare to move out of the house which holds sad memories surrounding the death of their son, a veteran of the Korean War. They are assisted by their 'black' housemaid, whose husband comes to collect her, and forestalled by the local priest and passive-aggressive neighbour (with pregnant deaf wife), who have discovered that the house has been bought by an African-American family. These so-called 'friends' try to bully the grieving couple into defaulting on the sale, on account it would lower the tone (and price) of the neighbourhood.

After the interval, Act 2 zooms forward to 2009, taking place in the same living room of the same house during planning negotiations among neighbours. This time, it's a young white couple moving into what has become a black residential area, and they want to demolish and rebuild. Only it turns out that the African-American couple they're negotiating with have ties to the family who originally bought the house in 1959... What starts off as real-estate and building plan wrangling degenerates into a racially founded conflict.

The big issues of community and racial conflict tackled in this play are well done and offer much food for thought. But, even though I felt the first act took a while to get going, it was the clever writing and construction that particularly appealed to me.

Inversion & irony
The same cast of seven actors tackle the roles in both acts, and Norris has made wonderful use of symmetry, inversion and irony in the dual casting:
- Grieving father Russ in Act 1 spends much of the act promising to drag down a trunk from the first floor (containing letters etc from his dead son), which he ultimately buries in the back yard; the same actor plays a tradie (Dan) digging a trench outside in Act 2, interrupting events in the living room, and ultimately digging up that same trunk and discovering the contents.
- Karl Lindner, the passive-aggressive neighbour, and his wife Betsy transform into the WASP couple (Steve and Lindsey) seeking to move into the neighbourhood . . . still pregnant. (Their lawyer in the second act turns out to be the daughter of their first incarnated couple.)
- The priest (Jim) in the first act is played by the same actor who plays the mediator in the second act . . . who turns out to be gay.
- The African-American couple in Act 1 (Francine the housemaid and her husband), who could never hope to live in such a house, metamorphose into the Act 2 couple (Lena and Kevin) making life difficult for the newcomers to their neighbourhood. In both acts they have 3 children. At the end of Act 1, the husband lays restraining hands on Russ, who shouts "don't you touch me!". This is inverted at the end of Act 2, when his alter-ego yells the same words.

A Raisin in the Sun
The other interesting fact about this play is that it's a response to the classic 1958 play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which was based on real-life events surrounding a black family's experiences in a Chicago neighbourhood. In fact, the African-American family who have bought the house in the first act of Clybourne Park is the Younger family, whose story is told in the earlier play. The minor character of Karl Lindner in 'Raisin' (the only white character) is the very same passive-aggressive neighbour in Act 1 of Clybourne Park, and has just come from his scene in 'Raisin' when he enters 'Clybourne'.

In this way, Clybourne Park hypothesises what might have led to the sale of a nice house in a white neighbourhood to an aspiring African-American family, and explores what might have ensued thereafter.

The MTC production of this play was directed by Peter Evans. I felt it took a while to get going, with the timing on the opening inane debate about the origins of the word 'neopolitan' a little rocky -- not to mention a bunch of awkward American accents. Then the priest (Luke Ryan) comes in to offer council to Russ (Greg Stone), but it's not until the entrance of the obnoxious Karl (Patrick Brammall) that things really start to get interesting. Brammall's Karl is certainly one of the most memorable characters, and Laura Gordon does a great job as his deaf wife. Alison Whyte ably plays Russ's wife Bev, with Zahra Newman as Francine the housemaid and Bert LaBonté as her husband.

The second act opens with most of the characters amid negotiations, and it took me quite a while to figure out why they were there and what all the individual roles were. Due to its contemporary setting, the scenario (conflict over building permits) was much easier to relate to, although it did degenerate into a bit of a slanging match. Everything came full circle, however, with the discovery of the buried chest -- although it could be argued that this and a final tacked-on 'ghost' scene were largely unnecessary.

Overall I enjoyed this play a great deal, despite its imperfections. There was certainly a lot in it for a writer to admire, plus plenty of entertainment value underpinned by serious themes. Here's a link to a more thorough and insightful review . . . (I think I've got some way to go in the theatre review stakes!).

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Crazy Stupid Love (movie)

Just saw Crazy Stupid Love. This is a movie that seems to have split the viewers, and I came down on the side of liking it. I found it laugh-out-loud funny and unpredictable, not your average rom-com at all.

Cal (Steve Carell) is moping in a bar trying to deal with his impending divorce, when womanising Jacob (Ryan Gosling) decides to take him in hand and give him a makeover -- in both appearance and personality. (Jacob declares that Cal needs to learn how to be a man again. He's become boring.) Carell branches out a little bit (including a fling with Marisa Tomei), but really wants his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) back. Jacob meanwhile meets Hannah (Emma Stone) who just might be his match... Also suffering the pangs of love are Cal's 13YO son Robbie, who has eyes for his 17YO babysitter Jessica, who in turn has a crush on Cal. (There's also a sideline with Emily and her work colleague, played by Kevin Bacon.)

It's definitely Cal's story, but the supporting storylines add complexity, are entertaining and entwine together in surprising ways. In fact, I would have liked more weight given to Jacob's part of the story -- he unfortunately fades out of the script in the last part of the film, and it's weaker for it.

But overall I enjoyed this movie a lot. Even if it is a little too long. There's a fabulous climactic moment, which you think is going to be the end, but then it all keeps going. The last little section doesn't quite live up to the rest of the movie, and leads into an ending that's overly sentimental (and a little bit controversial). I guess you can't have everything!

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Help (movie)

One minute everyone is talking about the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett . . . and the next minute it's a movie starring the suddenly ubiquitous Emma Stone. And, even if Margaret and David found the film lacks sufficient gravitas as warranted by the subject, it's still a film well worth seeing.

Set amid the 1960s civil rights movement in the USA, the story focuses on Skeeter, a young white woman from the 'in crowd', who decides to interview and write down the personal stories and day-to-day experiences of as many African American maids as she can convince to talk with her. Initially it's just two, Abileen and Minny, but ultimately she wins the trust of dozens, and the result is a book that takes society by storm.

It's hard to believe that as short a time ago as 1963, African Americans were treated with such discrimination -- and, as one of my friends pointed out after our viewing, the subject matter of The Help is relatively benign compared with much of what else went on. (The murders of black activist Medgar Evans and JFK are mentioned.) But the plight of the domestic servants serves to illustrate -- without all the violence -- just how inhumane some white people could be. The maids really were at the mercy of their employers, who could sack them with little provocation -- and ensure they would be unable to work again.

In addition to the obvious major theme of racial equality and civil rights, the story also explores the challenge of standing up for what you believe in, as Skeeter forges ahead with her project and is forced to realise how shallow and cruel (and weak) her erstwhile friends have become. Moreover, in this particular case, voicing equality sentiments was actually illegal, and could have resulted in severe repercussions for the maids who participated (if proven).

One criticism of the film has been that it's overly sentimental, filled with caricatures, rather than characters. I agree with this to an extent, although this may be derivative of the novel (I don't know). Certainly Skeeter, with her complete lack of prejudice and courage of her convictions, must have seemed too good to be be true to these women whose voices she made heard. And her 'friends' were also rather polarised in their nasty/vindictive/weak behaviour. Yet the character of the maid Abilileen had good depth and texture, and I rather enjoyed Allison Janney's role -- alternately comic and poignant -- as Skeeter's sick mother, desperate to find a husband for her daughter.

To sum up, I'm definitely glad to have seen it, because I think these are important issues and it never hurts to reflect on the dark shards of our past. But it doesn't leave me with a desire to read the book. It's not the style of novel I'm generally partial to, so I'm happy to have it presented to me as a film.