Goddess (Movie review)

Will I, won’t I, will I, won’t I, has been running around my head over the last week since I saw the recent Australian movie Goddess. In the end I’ve decided, obviously, that I will – will, that is, write a post on it because I do like to raise a little awareness about Australia’s film industry.

Cradle Mountain

Beautiful Tasmania

Whether you like Goddess depends a bit, I think, on your expectations. If you expect a fun romcom you are likely to enjoy it. If, however, you expect a sociological analysis of celebrity culture in the 21st century, as I half-expected based on the line or two advance summary that I’d read, you may not like it. Fortunately for me, my expectations changed to the “right” ones in the opening scene. The film opens with an homage to the film version of The Sound of Music with our heroine standing, arms spread wide, on a high green hill surrounded by mountains in gorgeous Tasmania and ready, we think, to burst into song. She appears to think so too, except she suddenly spies her toddler twins, halfway down the hill, about to chomp into a cowpat  … all thoughts of singing immediately fly out of her head and the film’s tone is established!

Goddess is both romcom and musical comedy. It was adapted from a stage play titled Sinksongs which was written and performed by Joanna Weinberg. The plot concerns a young couple – Elspeth and James – who have moved to Tasmania with their twin toddler sons so that James can follow his dream of protecting and researching whales. The couple have a deal. James will follow his dream until the boys start school, and then he will take over prime childcare while Elspeth has a go at her career which is singing. The trouble is that Elspeth finds life in rural Tasmania with demanding (albeit cute) toddlers and a mostly absent husband a harder “deal” than she’d expected. She receives no support from the local mums (played by comedian Corinne Grant, Pia Miranda, and two others) who do not welcome her into their group. To assuage Elspeth’s loneliness, James buys her a webcam suggesting they can stay in contact that way. Unfortunately, probably due to poor reception out there in the southern Pacific (!), Elspeth can’t raise James but, she suddenly realises, she can put the webcam to another use. She can sing her life to a cybercrowd – and so begin her “sinksongs” performed, yep, from the kitchen sink. The inevitable happens of course. She becomes famous around the world. We see people everywhere tuning in to watch her sing, including, eventually, the local mums. I won’t detail the plot further as you can probably guess its course … one requiring her, in the end, to work out her fame-family priorities.

What makes this movie delightful is not the predictable plot (it is, after all, what it is) but the performances and the music, which ranges from pop to jazz to blues to country to tango. It’s all there as Elspeth is one talented young singing mum. Elspeth is played by someone unknown to me, the English actress Laura Michelle Kelly. She is, not surprisingly, more active in theatre than film. It’s a cliched thing to say, I know, but she lit up the screen with her expressive face, her warmth and her singing-dancing ability. She managed to hit just the right note between vamp and mum, between confidence and uncertainty. James is played sympathetically by Irish pop idol Ronan Keating. Australian comedian Magda Szubanski was entertaining as the “Corporate bitch” Cassandra, while relative newcomer Hugo Johnstone-Burt, from the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television series, convinced as her nervously keen but ultimately sensitive right-hand man.

The plot was a little forced in places and there was the odd slapstick moment that made me cringe. There were also picture-perfect shots of Sydney  – the Bridge and the Opera House – that worked, I suppose, for immigrant Elspeth’s visit to the big smoke but that also seemed rather carefully placed to attract foreign audiences. These, though, were minor aberrations in a movie that saw us leaving the cinema smiling.

I seem to have been writing about romance more than usual lately, which is a bit weird as it’s not really my zone of interest, but I’m not sorry. A little break from the usual never does you any harm does it? If you’d like a change from your usual fare and Goddess comes to a theatre near you, give it a go. It may not be the best movie you see this year, but its joie de vivre is infectious.

Dir. Mark Lamprell
Prod. The Film Company and Wildheart Films, 2013

Graeme Simsion, The Rosie project (Review)

Simsion, The Rosie Project

Bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

While I go to films fairly regularly, I rarely think of adapting books to film when I am reading. However, I was only a few pages into Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project when it occurred to me that it was perfect film material. The feeling got stronger – and then around a third of the way through the novel I decided to look at the publicity sheet Text Publishing sent with the book. I usually read these sheets after reading the book. Guess what? The Rosie project started as a screenplay and has won a Writers’ Guild Award for Best Romantic Comedy.

This brings me to the other thing that crossed my mind as I read it:  how to categorise it. I’ve now read two books in a row that are a little outside my usual fare. Like the previous one, Anita Heiss’s Paris dreaming, The Rosie project is a romance, but it’s not chicklit and I’m not sure it fits the romance genre as a whole either. You see, the protagonist – as the cover may have told you – is a man, one Professor Don Tillman. As I understand it, romance novels tends to involve a female protagonist and the trials and tribulations she meets en route to true love. Movies have a genre called “romcom” but I’m not sure that term is used for novels. It is, however, the most appropriate description for this novel – because it’s a romance and it’s funny.

Now, I’d better give you a brief outline of the plot. It opens with Don Tillman, a genetics professor, about to give a public lecture on Asperger Syndrome as a favour for his friend Gene (ha!), a psychology professor. In the second paragraph, you start to suspect that Don himself has Asperger’s:

The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom.

Ninety-FOUR minutes!? The novel continues in this vein with Don admitting to being socially inept, to being routine-driven and focused on efficiency over all else, and so on. He knows all this about himself, but never in the novel is he named as having Asperger Syndrome so I won’t either. However, this description of him provides a good introduction to the novel’s basic premise. Don, nearing 40, wants a wife but, not surprisingly given the way he approaches the world, he hasn’t had much success. He starts the Wife Project and creates a 16-page questionnaire designed to help him eliminate unlikely candidates before he wastes time on getting to know them. In comes 30-year-old Rosie, whom he thinks Gene has sent to him as a candidate. But Rosie, he quickly realises, would fail his questionnaire on the first page. She smokes, works in a bar (and so, he presumes, would fall below the required IQ), is not punctual, dresses unconventionally – you get the picture. Yet, there’s something about Rosie … so, pretty soon, Don offers to help her find who her father is, and thus begins the Father Project, which rather puts on hold the Wife Project.

From here, the novel runs pretty much to a romcom formula. The light tone tells you that it is likely to turn out the way you expect but despite this, the novel engages. This is because, although the plot is formulaic, the characters aren’t. Don is an unlikely hero. He’s aware of his difference and, as the novel progresses, starts to think about whether he can change himself to become more acceptable to people. It’s, dare I say it, poignant – but it’s not saccharine. Don and Rosie are too themselves for that. The novel also has some truly laugh-out-loud scenes. Comedy which involves ridiculing difference can be uncomfortable but again the tone saves it – it’s light and it’s warm. We like Don and our laughter is not so much at his behaviour as at the absurdity of the situations he sometimes finds himself in. I loved, for example, his description of his special treatment by airlines:

As we drank champagne in the lounge, I explained that I had earned special privileges by being particularly vigilant and observant of rules and procedures on previous flights, and by making  a substantial number of helpful suggestions regarding check-in procedures, flight scheduling, pilot training and ways in which security systems might be subverted. I was no longer expected to offer advice, having contributed ‘enough for a lifetime of flying’.

I enjoyed the book. It is a warm, but not stuffily earnest, book about accepting and celebrating difference, about negotiating relationships that accommodate different ways of being. It would make a great film.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also found it fun.

Graeme Simsion
The Rosie project
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922079770

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

Ruby Sparks (Movie)

English: Zoe Kazan attending the premiere of T...

Zoe Kazan 2011 (Photo credit: David Shankbone, using CC-BY 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Because I am a litblogger not a film blogger, I don’t review all the movies I see. When I do review a movie it is usually an Australian one. However, because of a certain synchronicity and because of its subject matter, I can’t resist writing a little about Ruby Sparks.

The synchronicity comes from Anita Heiss‘ statement at last week’s Canberra Readers’ Festival that the good thing about writing fiction is that “you can create the world you want to live in”. She meant this positively, because she is passionate about creating a world in which indigenous Australians are respected for their culture, for their similarity to non-indigenous Australians and for their diversity. In other words, she wants them to be recognised and valued as equal human beings, which should not be too much to ask. But, what if the world you want is not the world you need?

Ruby Sparks is a a delightful but also clever and thoughtful movie about a young man with writer’s block. Calvin, the writer, had a New York Times bestseller with his first book when he was 19 years old, and was hailed as a genius, but ten years later, as the movie begins, he has not produced anything more beyond some short works. This, however, is not his only problem. He is in therapy – not only because of his writer’s block but because his life is not going well. He lives alone (with his dog Scotty who, in an affront to Calvin’s manliness, pees like a “girl dog”) and has not had a romantic relationship for several years. Enter Ruby – first in what seems to be a dream sequence and then in the park. Who is this Ruby, we wonder? It soon dawns on us that Ruby may not be real, that she may be a figment of his imagination, the product of his pen (or, in this case, his manual typewriter). It starts in fact to feel a little like a Pygmalion story …  and, as we move down that path, we are forced to confront how far a writer’s hubris might take him, because gradually Calvin’s sweet neediness starts to take on another look.

And so the movie progresses, teasing us with the “is she or isn’t she real?” question, and forcing us to examine the implications of want versus need . I’m not going to say anything more about the story, though, for fear of spoiling what is a charming but by no means silly movie. I’ll simply say that the movie explores the potential of its plot with humour and warmth, alongside a little darkness – think power and manipulation – which keeps it grounded. It’s gets a little “tricksy” at times, but not incomprehensibly so. The cast – including the well-known (such as Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas and Elliott Gould) and the lesser-known (namely the romantic leads, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) – do a convincing job. They, particularly Dano and Kazan are, dare I say it, “real” and engaging.

Then, at the end of course, came the credits – which I do like to read. I was delighted to discover another little twist to get our heads around. The script, you see, was written by Zoe Kazan* who plays Ruby who may (or may not be) the product of Calvin’s pen. What is that about art imitating life? (Or, something imitating something, anyhow – my brain is starting to hurt now with the permutations!)

This is not a proper movie review. If it were I’d take the time to talk more about the plot and the role of the other characters; I’d discuss the music (which I loved); and I’d mention the symbolism including the moment when Calivn ditches his typewriter for a laptop.  But, I simply wanted to share a few thoughts about it with people who like to read. If you’re a movie-going reader like me, I recommend you give this film a go … and if you do, come back and tell me what you think. Meanwhile, I wonder what Anita Heiss would think …

* Zoe Kazan has an impressive pedigree. Her grandfather was film director and screenwriter Elia Kazan and her parents are screenwriters.