Tag Archives: reviews

Return to the rabbit hole


Sara Veal

Adapting books for the screen is tricky, even with big bucks and star power there is no guarantee of getting it right.

Time and time again, audiences excited to see their favourite story brought to life have left the cinema disappointed, cursing the director for failing to match what their minds had conjured up.

Once upon a time, I would have said, without hesitation, that the combination of Tim Burton and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was a match made in adaptation heaven.

In Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, The Corpse Bride and Big Fish, Burton spun magical, edgy worlds where you were never quite sure what would happen next, ideal for the irreverent Victorian fantasy. But Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left a nasty taste in my mouth, which overpowered my appetite for Roald Dahl and the delicious Johnny Depp.

So, I reserved my expectations. And Burton proved me wrong yet again – his latest attempt to adapt a children’s classic is a triumph, remaining true to the spirit of the source material while offering something new.

We first encounter an Alice much like the one in the books, at seven, complete with blue pinafore dress and buckets of curiosity – and suffering a constant dream about a strange land of wonder.

Twelve years on, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is still curious, which puts her at odds with her peers and the starched white environment full of rules she is forced to inhabit.

Alice’s mother and sister hope she will marry a chinless aristocrat whose family now owns her recently deceased father’s company. Before she has to make a decision, she falls down a rabbit hole into Underland, a place she remembers from her dreams.

Or does she? As Alice surrenders to the oddly familiar world she finds, dream or not, she is expected to attempt a heroic feat, the success of which will decide the Underlanders’ fate.

Burton has fashioned a plot out of the book’s series of mad, vaguely connected events, one that well sustains audience interest in the 108-minute running time, without losing the essential whimsy. Absurdity is ever-present, provoking helpless giggles, and blended with plenty of heart that will ensure you care about what happens.

The plot-driven narrative suits Alice’s journey from uncertain girl to empowered heroine, transformations the Australian Wasikowska deftly manages, whether physical or mental. Her Alice is strong without being spunky – she is realistic despite her surreal surroundings.

There’s an unsettling hint of romance between Alice and Depp’s Mad Hatter, but overall the two have winning camaraderie, and you understand their support for one another without need for exposition.

Depp, forever a Burton muse, disappears into the makeup-heavy role, projecting pathos as the post-traumatic-stress-disorder-suffering Hatter. His English accent has come on in leaps and bounds since Sleepy Hollow, however his Scottish one needs more work – the instances in which the Hatter lapses into an angry Braveheart are only the false notes in an otherwise faultless performance.

Wasikowska and Depp take care not to overshadow the galaxy of supporting stars, most of whom are digitally manipulated or animated, mixing seamlessly with each other and the fantastical environment.

Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s wife) as the toddler-like and decapitation-demanding Red Queen, is both villain and comic relief – and somehow sympathetic. The White Queen, the Red Queen’s rival and sister, allows the oft-sweetly neurotic Anne Hathaway to try something new – she is ethereal and a touch psychotic, like most of the Underlanders.

Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts is enjoyably deplorable, while the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) are languidly voiced. The White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) is suitably antsy and the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) is completely bonkers.

The often hangdog Timothy Spall works well as the voice of Bayard, a kindly canine who has to balance helping the Underlanders’ cause and looking out for his family. Little Britain’s Matt Lucas is especially entertaining as bantering twins Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee – or “fat boys” as the Red Queen amusingly refers to them.

Underland is gorgeously rendered, a shadowy rainbow place that sharply contrasts with the prim and proper Victorian world above. Within Underland are rich environs that reflect characters, such as the Red Queen’s psychedelic palace, the Hatter’s decrepit Tea Party and the White Queen’s austere castle, adding to the texture and expansiveness of the imaginary world.

The 3D is not integral, but there were moments when I tried to dodge “flying” objects. The CGI is a tad video-gamey at times, especially at the Red Queen’s palace, where Carter’s digitally oversized head bobs along unconvincingly against a painfully color-schemed backdrop. At other times, it’s eerily tangible, as when Alice steps on corpse faces in the moat surrounding the same palace.

More consistently impressive than the CGI is the makeup and costuming, particularly with Alice’s outfits as she shrinks and expands, and enters new places, nonchalantly donning couture outfits that fashionistas would give their eyeteeth for, and add to her development and the wonder of Underland.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is that it achieves closure – a rarity in this sequel-driven age. Burton may take two hours to tell Alice’s story, but he wraps it up, and treats the audience to many ingredients while he’s at it – a coming of age, an epic battle, hilarity, thrills and enough visual eye-candy to land you in a sugar coma. It satisfies while leaving you wanting more.

Future novel-to-film adaptors would do well to take a page out of Burton’s book – he’s created something existing fans will likely love, balancing admirably between faithfulness and originality.

Verdict: Maintains the magic of the book while offering surprises, adding up to a weird and wonderful ride you’ll want to return to.

Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney Pictures, 109 minutes)
Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd
Written by Linda Woolverton (screenplay), Lewis Carroll (book)
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry



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Love is a battlefield


Sara Veal

Nicholas Sparks has perfected the formula for the 21st century weepie, with The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe reducing hopeless romantics of all ages to tears.

Lasse Hallestrom’s Dear John, the latest cinematic adaptation of Spark’s work, gives you everything you’d expect – heart-wrenching romance, photogenic leads, dazzling vistas – and then some.

One beautiful spring day by a beach in Charleston, young Americans Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) meet-cute, spurring an intense two weeks of romance, enough time to fall madly in love.

So in love that they are willing to withstand a year apart, while John completes his military tour of duty. To combat the distance, they faithfully exchange letters, a passionate correspondence that helps them endure their lives without each other.

Naturally, the obstacles pile up, the least of them being 9/11. While John helps fight the war on terror, Savannah has her own battles to contend with back home. But what seems at first to be a predictable tale on whether Savannah and John’s love is true and can conquer all, proves much more complex, resulting in a moving exploration of different kinds of love – love for one’s country, the love between a father and son – and the difficult decisions people must make in navigating their hearts and lives.

Tatum (She’s the Man, Step Up) and Seyfried (Mean Girls, Mamma Mia) are well cast, and given a decent opportunity to extend their range, while generating tangible chemistry, the linchpin to any good romance.

The chisel-jawed Tatum, who resembles a younger, harder version of Josh Hartnett, is brooding and laconic, convincingly expressing the inner struggle of a lonely young man. Decent yet dangerous, he is capable of steadfast love, but also prone to self-destruction. This story is more his than Savannah’s, you’ll feel strongly for him as his defences melt and when his heart breaks.

Savannah is almost good to be true, which, ultimately, is one of her biggest flaws. She’s beautiful, caring and wants to dedicate her live to helping those who need her. She’s a little unrealistic in her idealization, and the film at one point suggests she is defined by her relationship with a man – but Seyfried, an actress to watch out for, does just about succeed in bringing Little Miss Perfect down to earth. Both Seyfried and Tatum demonstrate perceptible maturity as their characters age, no mean feat.

Also worth mentioning are Academy Award-nominee Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, The Visitor), who turns in a pitch-perfect performance as John’s mildly autistic, coin-obsessed father, and Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall) as Tim, Savannah’s neighbor. The father-and-son relationship quietly develops into one of the film’s main drivers, helping us to discover John’s tightly wrapped layers.

Thomas, no stranger to sweeping romances, acts both as a mirror to John and his father, in being a single father to an autistic son, and as an important wheel in Savannah’s development as a young woman. There were some aspects to his plot strands that may be discomfiting, but overall, the underrated former child star plays his part with panache, striking the right emotional chord.

Director Hallestrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat) once again demonstrates his intuitive ability to allow scenes to speak for themselves, encompassing distinctive motifs that enhance his storytelling – in this case letters, the coins and the moon. Hallestrom manages a varied pace, slowing down and speeding up rhythmically, helping to prevent the action from dragging.

The Charleston beach is exquisitely shot, a bittersweet backdrop to the evolving romance, while the war scenes are gritty without being gratuitous. The film avoids making its stance on the American “war on terror” too explicit, while showing the personal sacrifices the soldiers have to make to keep fighting it. More importantly, the film shows that even when there are foreign wars to fight, life for those left behind continues, and is no less difficult.

The letters themselves are an enthralling cinematic component, at once old-fashioned and yet plausible, allowing a plausible portrayal of a timeless romance against a contemporary backdrop – and are a refreshing antidote to this digital, instantaneous age. The letters become a testament to the power of words, both positive and negative.

If you’re in the mood for a thoughtful romantic melodrama that stops just short of being saccharine, this would be ideal. Dear John isn’t quite another The Notebook – but that’s a good thing.

Verdict: A poignant romance that manages to surprise, as well as satisfy.

Dear John (Screen Gems, 105 minutes)
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Ryan Kauvanaugh
Written by Jamie Linden, Nicholas Sparks (Novel)
Starring Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Thomas Henry

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Cult rockers battle the night


Sara Veal

For 15 years, alternative rock stars Placebo have set the music world alight with haunting tunes and unabashed debauchery.

Last Tuesday, Jakartans finally had the chance to see the naughty Nancy Boys in spectacularly acoustic action.

Since its 1994 formation in London, Placebo has gone through a number of line-up changes, but core duo Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal remain as front man and bassist/guitarist, respectively.

Drummer Steve Forrest is the newest and youngest member, completing the official trio, and Tennis Indoor Senayan saw live support from bass guitarist Bill Lloyd and musical Girl Friday Fiona Brice on the keyboards, electric violin and theremin.

Before a large screen with narrative video clips, the band got down to business with “For What It’s Worth”, the spunky first single from 2009’s Battle for the Sun.

Placebo’s newest and sixth album was very much the focus of the gig’s 21-song setlist. After a soaring, insistent “Ashtray Heart”, “Battle for the Sun” more than earned its title track status, with Forrest’s thudding beats, Olsdal’s feverish strumming, Molko’s impassioned vocals and Brice’s violin accompaniment conveying apocalyptic bewilderment.

It was then time for a slight step into the past, with the powerful “Soulmates”, a heavier version of 2003’s “Sleeping with Ghosts”, from the album of the same name.

“Thank you very much Jakarta!” said Molko, looking far younger and fresher than you’d expect for his 37 years, and the amount of pharmaceutical experimentation to which he has happily confessed, before launching into the tinkling and relatively upbeat “Speaking in Tongues”.

“Follow the Cops Back Home” (Meds, 2006) followed, sorrowfully transforming the mood, and then a rousing rendition of “Every You Every Me” (Without You I’m Nothing, 1998) inspired sing-alongs and wolf-whistles, setting the scene for “Special Needs”, on which Olsdal especially shone.

“Breathe Underwater”, sure to become a fan favorite, upped the ante even further.

“It’s very funny for us every time we go to a new country, with a new audience, I’m surprised that people like us so much, so thank you for giving us your love tonight,” said Molko, while the band readied for “Julien”, which he introduced as a “song that begins in the gutter and ends with an ascent into hell”.

Battle for the Sun
continued to take center stage with the fiery “The Never-ending Why”, plaintive “Come Undone” and anthemic “Devil in the Details”.

Molko’s willingness to talk and sing about drugs was showcased in the playful “Meds”, frenzied “Song to Say Goodbye”, and of course, “Special K” (Black Market Music, 2000), which garnered the most enthusiastic response of the night.

After electrifyingly delivering “The Bitter End” (Sleeping with Ghosts), Molko and co said their goodbyes and disappeared into the wings, as a disturbing video clip of a ballet-dancer became a poor replacement for the band’s charismatic stage presence.

But with appropriate commotion from the audience, the band triumphantly returned for a much-wanted encore.

As Molko resumed his inimitable serenade, a suddenly shirtless Forrest, revealing impressive ink, threw himself into the delightful “Bright Lights”, which was perfectly complemented by “Trigger Happy”, an unreleased number that paired clap-happy beats with anti-war lyrics.

During the groovy “Infra-red”, a sweaty Molko literally threw the towel in, to one lucky fan’s evident pleasure, before the band closed the night with the classic “Taste in Men”, ending on a gender-ambiguous note, to thunderous applause.

“I thought they sounded great,” said student Meli Sastro, 22, who was seeing Placebo live for the first time. “All of the band had great stage presence and Brian Molko was looking fine, and the bassist’s sparkly pants were lovely.”

Placebo enthralled their Jakarta audience without theatrics or pyrotechnics. The glam rockers still have that special something.

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Who’s been a naughty boy then?


Sara Veal

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, German auteur Werner Herzog’s gritty, surreal treatise on corruption and addiction, makes little attempt to win over its audience yet is strangely watchable, with a compelling anti-hero, absurd humor and lashings of suspense.

The film, which superficially draws on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film of the same name, opens amid the chaos of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. Police officers Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) are taking the opportunity to cover up a recent act of corruption when they come across a convict drowning in a jail cell. The partners joke about letting him drown, but Terence decides to save him, garnering a back injury in the process, which the doctor later informs him will be permanent.

Terence is promoted to lieutenant for his heroism. Six months on, he’s as corrupt as ever, but now addicted to painkillers, including cocaine, looking for every opportunity to score, whether raiding confiscated property or extorting clubbers.

At the same time, he’s just started investigating a case about a murdered immigrant family from Senegal, which is likely the work of drug lord Big Fate (rap star Xzibit). As his actions grow more extreme, the viewer is pressed to wonder whether Terence will manage to solve the case before his bad behavior catches up with him.

Veteran filmmaker Herzog’s (Rescue Dawn, Nosferatu the Vampyre) works are known for their quirky, conflicted protagonists and explorations of the limitations of Western society. Bad Lieutenant delivers on both counts.

Terence is often abhorrent, more villain than hero. He’s worse than most of the criminals he chases. He’s hooked on drugs, gambling and women, and prone to violent and erratic acts. Nothing is taboo – he teams with a drug baron to feed his habit and pay off debts, he offers his prostitute girlfriend up to thugs, he even tortures two elderly women for information.

Aside from an unnaturally smooth face that negates his 46 years, Cage is excellently cast. Love him or hate him, he’s definitely taken on interesting parts in his career, from hangdog lovable (It Could Happen to You) and mournfully saccharine (City of Angels) to despicable (Face/Off).

Sometimes his quirky approach to acting drags down the film (see squeaky voice in Peggy Sue Got Married), but here, despite his audacity, he keeps it real. Sadly, you can believe that someone like him exists – and sometimes, even more disturbingly, you find yourself rooting for him.

The supporting players turn in similarly bizarre yet believable performances. Eva Mendes as hooker Frankie Donnenfield is sultry and damaged, and she and Terence have an interesting, affectionate dynamic – they certainly seem to deserve each other.

Xzibit, as the main villain of the piece, seems far more reasonable than Terence, which sums up the film’s iconoclastic stance. Val Kilmer, on the other hand, as Stevie, is hinted to be a few more steps over the line than Terence, which is one of the few aspects that make the latter seem heroic.

The film’s mix of hyper-realism and surrealism is enforced by the grainy, hand-held camerawork. At first, you feel like you’re following a police officer on his day-to-day activities around the Louisiana bayou to Biloxi, Mississippi, and then the weirdness gradually builds to a crescendo that also serves to convey Terence’s increasingly addled state of mind. It’s alternately suspenseful, thrilling, hilarious and sickening. Herzog evidently has a reptile fetish, inserting a few mad sequences involving crocodiles and iguanas that may or may not be Terence’s drug-induced hallucinations.

For a while it seems that the film, like Terence, is on a purely madcap, destructive bent, with no end goal, which is likely due to Herzog’s penchant for improvisation. Just after the half-way point, the action drags, and you’ll find yourself wondering if you can be bothered to continue watching. But, toward the finale, like its protagonist, the film adopts a circular pattern, finishing up where it began, with a measure of resolution for the characters.

It’s not completely satisfying, but it is cinematic, leaving the viewer with much to chew on about the nature of corruption, and its seeming inevitability, and the way addiction continues to loom like a shadow over those first caught in its claws.

And without preaching, it also hints at the desperation of the Katrina survivors, whose challenging existence before and after the disaster has provided fertile ground for men like Terence and Big Fate.

Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted, but if you stick with this demanding crime drama, you’ll be rewarded with a visceral, refreshingly offbeat cinematic experience.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

First Look Studios, 121 minutes
Directed by Werner Herzog
Produced by Edward R. Pressman
Written by William Finkelstein
Starring Nicolas Cage. Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit

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To New York, with Love


Sara Veal

New York has hosted countless cinematic romances, from the tragic West Side Story and unforgettable An Affair to Remember to the modern day fairytale Sex and the City.

So, following the enthusiastic response to Paris, Je t’aime, it’s no surprise that the Big Apple was the next choice for a tapestry of cosmopolitan love stories. This American cousin is inferior to the French original, but succeeds as a gorgeous portrait of the titular city, with glimpses of silver screen brilliance.

Like its predecessor, New York, I Love You is made up of a series of vaguely connected short films, each by a different director, including Mira Nair (Vanity Fair) and Natalie Portman. There are 11 in the final cut – Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut starring Kevin Bacon, and Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s featuring Carla Gugino, Goran Visnjic and Nicholas Purcell, will be saved for the DVD. Each filmmaker had to adhere to three guidelines: 24 hours to shoot; a week to edit; and a conveyed sense of a particular neighborhood.

The stories take place in New York’s five boroughs, and encompass a spectrum of romance, from long-term to passing fancy, and across religious, linguistic, cultural and age divides.

A wise-cracking pickpocket (Hayden Christenson) finds himself outclassed by the sleight of hand of his older romantic rival (Andy Garcia), undermining his attempts to win the girl (Rachel Bilson). Shortly before her wedding, a young Jewish woman (Natalie Portman) haggles over jewellery prices with her Jain supplier (Irrfan Khan), and finds they can understand each other unexpectedly well.

While scoring an animation, a composer (Orlando Bloom) struggles with his demanding employer, finding solace in the telephone support of their unseen liaison (Christina Ricci). Two sets of strangers (Ethan Hawke, Maggie Q, Robin Wright Penn, Chris Cooper), united by smoking cigarettes outdoors, speak frankly about sex in pairs, with unexpected consequences.

The night of his prom, a teenager (Anton Yelchin) faces embarrassment when he has to take his chemist’s (James Caan) wheelchair-bound daughter (Olivia Thirlby) as his date. A man (Bradley Cooper) and woman (Drea de Matteo), who have had what was meant to be a one night stand, agonize over their arrangement to meet up a second time.

A faded songbird (Julie Christie) broods in a stark, dilapidated hotel, drawn to the young, crippled porter (Shia La Boeuf) who tries to cheer her up with violets and champagne. A man (Carlos Acosta) and little girl (Taylor Geare) spend a carefree day in Central Park.

In Chinatown, a reclusive, laconic artist feverishly creates soy sauce paintings, hoping to convince his latest muse, a Chinese herbalist (Shu Qi), to pose for him. A young couple (Justin Bartha and Eva Amurri) bicker about romantic spontaneity, while an older couple (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) also argue, reflecting on their 63 years of marriage.

Meanwhile, a French video artist films everything that catches her eye, and several characters encounter each other in the backseat of a cab driven by a man, who like everyone else in the city (and especially the film), is more than he initially seems.

These almost-dozen tales, all boasting pretty camerawork that well showcases the different corners of the city, vary in effectiveness. All initially draw you into their small worlds, but few live up to their promise. The best are Portman’s debut, with ballet superstar Acosta, which aptly captures the joy of being a kid, magnifying the wonder of Central Park through Geare’s wide eyes, and Yvan Attal’s (The Interpreter) segment, with the two smoking couples.

Nair’s sequence, featuring Portman and Khan, is self-conscious, eliciting laughs through verbal sparring and surreal imagery, without adding up to anything meaningful. Brett Ratner’s (X-Men: The Last Stand) with bright young things Yelchin and Thirlby, is cute but cheap, while Shekhar Kapur’s (Elizabeth) segment, with Christie and LaBeouf, is thought-provoking, yet out of place. The remaining shorts are forgettable or overwrought, but the way everything loosely comes together is sweet, if not entirely satisfying, so you are likely to exit the cinema with a smile.

Most the acting from the impressive collection of cast members meets expectations. LaBeouf, Geare and Wright Penn deliver the most memorable performances. Portman, despite her victory behind the camera, is jarring as the Jewish bride-to-be, her accent lacking authenticity. Hawke is the most irritating, as a chatterbox who has a lot of confidence about his sexual ability.

As a romantic film, New York, I Love You falls short. As an ensemble piece, it fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts – it’s no Magnolia, Crash or even Love Actually.

But as a love letter to a vibrant city, it triumphs, making one dream of hopping on the next plane to New York. Now, if someone could make a Jakarta, I Love You, it could do wonders for tourism…

New York, I Love You (2009, Vivendi Entertainment, 103 minutes)
Directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin, Joshua Marston, Randy Balsmeyer
Produced by Emmanuel Benbihy, Marina Grasic
Written by Fatih Akin, Keenan Donahue, Natalie Portman, Anthony Minghella, Joshua Marston, Jeff Nathanson, Hu Hong, Jiang Wen, Meng Yao, Suketu Mehta, Shunji Iwai, Olivier L*cot, Yvan Attal, Xan Cassavetes, Stephen Winter, Hall Powell, Israel Horovitz, James Strouse
Starring Bradley Cooper, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Olivia Thirlby, Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf, Chris Cooper, Cloris Leachman

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Unravelling an embroidered puzzle


Sara Veal

Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, a delicately crafted mystery about generations of women in Salem, Massachusetts, is deceptively light, yet intricately patterned, much like lace itself. A mesmerizing first novel, it casts a powerful spell with its involving exploration of memory, misogyny and magic.

Like all the women in her family, Towner Whitney can read the past, present and future in patterns of lace, particularly in the Ipswich lace handmade by the ladies of Salem using centuries-old methods.

It’s a curse as much as a gift, with a disturbing vision catalyzing her departure from Salem 15 years previously. She returns home when her beloved great-aunt disappears, an event that forces her to confront her fractured and forgotten past, and discover what really happened to her twin sister all those years ago.

The Lace Reader reads like a dream, with misleadingly simple prose. While a sense of melancholy pervades and many dark subjects are addressed – loss, abuse – it’s also often funny, with an appropriate touch of wit breaking through like sunshine though heavy clouds.

Although the tale is full of magic and witches, it’s the kind that exists in real life, the kind that is part of modern Salem life, both for the benefit of tourists – tarot readings, historical recreations – and as an expression of the characters’ beliefs and insight.

Lace reading is heightened intuition – Towner remarks that everyone has a capacity for it – and seemingly fantastic events – disappearing acts, hauntings – are plausibly explained. Barry also sees and reveals the magic in reality, such as a “sparkling trail” of phosphorescence that follows a pair of lovers as they swim, which adds a fairytale quality.

As one might expect from a novel revolving around crafts – witchcraft and handicraft – women dominate the narrative. Most of the women are damaged in some way, victims of the men in their lives, much like the persecuted Salem “witches” of the past. Yet many are also strong, channelling their power through creativity and solidarity.

The main women in Towner’s life are warriors in their own way. Her mother May, though a hermit on her own island, rescues battered women and facilitates their completely self-reliant lifestyle – they grow and pick their own food, and even make the flax for their lace.

Great-aunt Eva is a Salem institution, able to pull strings to help others, and acting as a guide in both etiquette and matters of the heart. Though she disappears at the very beginning, she retains a strong presence throughout, guiding Towner and the reader towards the truth.

Lyndley, Towner’s long-deceased twin, recalled in flashbacks, is vivacious despite her difficult home life. Ann Chase, the most famous witch in Salem, is witty and supportive, a source of occasional refuge for Towner as she readjusts to her return.

Angela Rickey, a waif who also disappears, acts a thread that reconnects the women, demonstrating the way history inevitable repeats itself when patterns are kept intact.

While misogyny is explored – especially through the figure of Cal Boynton, a charismatic cult leader who has cast a dark shadow on the Whitney women’s lives – the men also receive nuanced characterization.

Detective John Rafferty, a transplanted New Yorker who has been assigned to the case of Eva’s disappearance is compassionate and curious. Beezer, Towner’s brother, has his own ways of dealing with their shared history and displays constant concern for his family. Jack LaLibertie, Towner’s first love, is both Prince Charming and pathetic, as trapped by past events as she is.

Towner herself is elusive, unsure of her past and – like the author – has a gift for writing that allows her to embroider her history, mending the many holes with her active imagination. The reader can never be sure of her interpretation of events – and neither can she.

This tale’s mystery and complexity is deepened by the layered narrative, which comprises Towner’s unreliable narration, Rafferty’s third-person perspective, police reports and excerpts of Towner’s journal and Eva’s The Lace Reader’s Guide.

Clues and revelations are artfully hidden throughout – the reader is invited to play both detective and lace reader, gazing into the story’s patterns to find the truth. Once the bigger picture becomes clear, you’ll want to re-read again and again – and will likely be able to see something different each time.

The lace motif is effectively exploited, working as metaphor, plot device and clue. Towner receives a piece of lace before she returns to Salem, which acts as a net to draw her back into her past. She clears all the lace from Eva’s home as if they were cobwebs. The Ipswich lace is often described as imperfect and flawed – yet beautiful – like Towner and May’s girls who have revived the tradition.

The lace, particularly through Eva’s guide, also serves as a unique lens through which to view Salem’s long history, hinting at the hardships the colonial women endured and the creative ways they adapted – another reflection of female power, specifically the power of the Whitney women.

This historical background adds to the strong sense of setting. Barry vividly evokes Salem and its small town life, depicting the continuation between its troubled past and touristy present, which later emphasizes the terror of a modern-day witch hunt towards the novel’s climax.

Salem and its islands are stunning, but full of dangers, from minor ones like rabbit holes to inescapable ones like abusive fathers. It’s an effective backdrop for Towner’s memories of her alternately idyllic and horrific childhood and adolescence.

Thanks to Barry’s deft handling of difficult subject matter, The Lace Reader ultimately succeeds in delivering a hopeful message. By unravelling a destructive, complicated pattern, it ends with a kind of freedom for its heroine.

The first thing you’ll want to do when you’re done is read it again.

The Lace Reader
by Brunonia Barry
Harper Press, 400 pages

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Parker and Grant endure witless protection


Sara Veal

When city folk go to the countryside, there are two typical outcomes – at least in Hollywood. Deprived of cell phones and civilization, either they get eaten by inbred psychos or they learn about what really matters in life.

In Did You Hear About the Morgans? it’s the latter – although some might wish it was the former. But if you like Hugh Grant and/or Sarah Jessica Parker – or at least like seeing them suffer – you’ll be able to tolerate this predictable comedy.

Meryl (Parker) and Paul (Grant) Morgan are a Manhattan power couple. She’s a top real estate broker and he’s a successful lawyer. They’ve been estranged for three months, following Paul’s infidelity. Paul longs for forgiveness but Meryl still needs space. Unfortunately for her, she’s not going to get it. After the couple witness a murder, they become key figures in a federal case, and need to be relocated immediately, with new identities, to Ray, Wyoming, a small town in the middle of nowhere. Hi-jinks ensue.

The fish-out-of-water shtick is incredibly familiar – To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Sweet Home Alabama – and Did You Hear About the Morgans? adds little to the concept, sticking to mining laughs in a typical fashion. There’s a touch of timeliness in references to the global financial crisis and a throwaway comment about Sarah Palin (although that’s all a bit old by now), but otherwise, it’s pretty much a cinematic throwback, the kind of film that belongs in the 1990s.

The locals are salt-of-the-earth Republican meat-eaters, occasionally bordering on xenophobia (“We don’t take kindly to strangers around here”), while the urbanites are helpless in a world without Chinese takeaway and BlackBerrys. They’re disturbed by rural silence and amazed by starry skies and $10 sweaters.

Similarly, most characters are safely within the actors’ comfort zones. If this movie was a costume party, the invitation must have read “come as you are”. Parker’s Meryl is neurotic and hopelessly romantic, a blend of Sex and the City’s Carrie and Smart People‘s Janet. Grant does his usual bumbling Englishman thing as Paul, with a dash of Bridget Jones‘ Daniel Cleaver. There’s something for lovers and haters of the duo here, particularly the moments where Grant faces off with a bear and repeatedly endures slapstick violence.

Sam Elliot, as Sheriff Clay Wheeler, the Morgans’ keeper and Meryl’s country “cousin”, pimps out his patented laconic cowboy – he even only has John Wayne and Clint Eastwood DVDs. Mary Steenburgen perfectly complements him as his warm-hearted wife and deputy, much like her characters in Back to the Future Part III and the recent The Proposal. Elisabeth Moss, fabulous in Mad Men, draws on Peggy’s ambitiousness as Meryl’s personal assistant.

Yet the film is saved from feeling like a chore by how genuinely nice a place Ray seems. Yes, it occasionally looks like a Wild West set from the Universal Studios back lot, but the on-location vistas are beautiful – especially the golden cornfields and blue skies – and the townsfolk, though slightly caricatured, are pleasant and friendly.

Grant and Parker have little chemistry, but somehow you grow to care about them both and their marriage and general survival. The killer thriller aspect is perfunctory, serving mainly as a plot device, facilitating the relocation and finally paying off with an “I am Spartacus” moment that demonstrates the kindness of the Ray denizens. The real drama comes from the depth of the Morgans’ marital dilemma, which amid all the cartoony humor, is down-to-earth.

And although you’ll predict the outcome from the get-go, the finale is feel-good and well-earned. Just as you’d want this sort of film to end – unless you prefer Texan chainsaw massacres, of course.

Verdict: You’ll have seen it all before – but Grant and Parker’s trademark comic turns and a touch of drama keep this cheesy comedy watchable.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Castle Rock Entertainment, 103 minutes)
Directed by Marc Lawrence
Produced by Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
Written by Marc Lawrence
Starring Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Kelly, Wilford Brimley, Jesse Liebman

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