fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Birdman’

Birdman poster.jpg 

‘Birdman’ is an exhausting film - a helter-skelter journey inside a Broadway production in the lead-up to opening night. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has cleverly constructed his movie to seem like one continuous take. We literally follow the characters through the bowels of a New York theatre, onto the stage, and out the doors into West 44th Street where ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is playing just across the road. The director doesn’t allow us a chance to catch our breath, and before we know it, we’re enmeshed in the dysfunctional yet intriguing lives of the characters.

I’ve never been a Michael Keaton fan but his performance in ‘Birdman’ totally won me over. He’s amazing as Riggan Thomson, a film actor who became famous playing a super-hero called ‘Birdman’ (shades of Keaton’s own fame as Tim Burton’s Batman). Now Thomson is trying to prove that he’s much more than a has-been celebrity. So he’s adapted a Raymond Carver story for the stage. He’s also directing the play and taking the lead role. With all that on his plate, plus a difficult cast and a daughter (Emma Stone) who’s a recovering drug addict, it’s not surprising that Thomson appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Among other things, he hallucinates that he can move objects by telekinesis (or maybe he can really do it). And inside his head he can hear the voice of his alter ego (or nemesis), Birdman, egging him on.

One of my favourite actors, Edward Norton is reunited with Naomi Watts, his leading lady from ‘The Painted Veil’, but the parts they play in ‘Birdman’ are as removed from their romantic characters in the Somerset Maugham story as they could possibly be. Norton is mesmerising (and incredibly funny) as Mike Shiner, an über-talented and egotistical actor who wants everything his own way, even to the extent of rewriting the dialogue – his and everyone else’s. Naomi Watts is an insecure actress making her Broadway debut and trying to escape Mike’s libidinous attentions.

Be prepared for an abundance of in-jokes, name-dropping and theatre talk. Director Inarritu has a dig at Method actors in the guise of Edward Norton’s character, and at critics in two scenes involving an influential reviewer played impeccably by another of my favourites, British actress Lindsay Duncan.

In May 2014, when I reviewed ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, I made a rather rash, long-range forecast that it would win the Oscar for Best Picture*. Now I’m not so sure. Both films are clever, funny and innovative, yet each pays its dues to Hollywood traditions in its own unique way. In ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ it’s the 1930s movies of Lubitsch and Co, set in a mythical Middle Europe; in ‘Birdman’, it’s the dark super-heroes of recent decades.

If either of these outstanding films wins the golden figurine, I’ll be happy, but if I had to make a choice between them, it would be the decorative and stylish confection with a dark centre – ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.

A warning: There are some graphic scenes in ‘Birdman’ and equally graphic language.

* This week 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' won a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture - Comedy or Musical.

Deborah O’Brien

23 January, 2015


 

fbook icon 60Film Review:

‘The Water Diviner’

 

I have to confess that I came to ‘The Water Diviner’ with a personal agenda. My great-uncle Arthur was one of 8709 Australian soldiers who died at Gallipoli and I feared that this picture might trivialise something which has always been sacred to me. Fortunately I was wrong. In his directorial debut Russell Crowe has crafted a very fine film about a father’s search for his three sons, missing in action on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Like the three young men in ‘The Water Diviner’, my great-uncle was a country boy caught up in the colonial fervour to serve King and Empire. For them, it was a ‘great adventure’, and although fathers like Joshua Connor and my own great grandfather James Hill would later agonise over having allowed their boys to enlist, the pervading atmosphere at that time was one of flag-waving and glory, and few foresaw the carnage to come. The fictional Connor brothers joined the 7th Battalion AIF recruited from Victoria; my great-uncle the 2nd Infantry Battalion from NSW. The Connor boys went missing in action on 7 August 2015. My uncle Arthur was killed exactly two months earlier. The eldest Connor son, played by the very talented Ryan Corr, shares my great-uncle’s name.

The story begins in December 1915 just after Australian troops have been evacuated without a single casualty – the antithesis of the horrific landing and the bloody campaign itself. The first soldiers we meet are Turkish, under the command of Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdoğan). They have just discovered that they’ve been tricked by self-firing rifles left in the Australian trenches. We are shown the impact of the campaign from the perspective of these men defending their homeland. In this respect, it is a departure from earlier films such as Peter Weir’s 'Gallipoli'.

Rifle

Self-firing rifle, The Army Museum, Bandiana. Pic courtesy of WGH.

There are many excellent performances in ‘The Water Diviner’ but Russell Crowe is its towering strength. He is the river gum, its roots buried deep within the Australian soil, its trunk solid and sturdy. We see the aching pain he feels for his lost family and the goodness in his heart. Not once do we question his decision to travel to a faraway land in search of his sons or doubt his commitment to bring them home to be buried beside their mother.

My own great grandfather never saw his son’s grave, except in a photograph sent by the army with details of its location in the Lone Pine Cemetery at ANZAC Cove. James Hill received a brown parcel containing a small wallet, a metal disc and a letter – these were Arthur’s only remaining possessions from his six weeks in the Dardanelles. My great grandfather duly signed the acknowledgment form and returned it to the military authorities. Medals followed, but nothing could replace his lost son, the six-foot shearer with grey eyes, olive complexion and dark brown hair.

There are many threads in Crowe’s richly crafted film, all woven together with expert skill – the tale of the magic carpet from the 'Arabian Nights' juxtaposed with Australian icons such as the steel windmill and the cricket bat. Each motif plays its role within the story as both metaphor and practical part of the plot.

Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie gives us images that linger long after the film is over: the dust storms of western Victoria, Istanbul’s magical skyline with its mosques and minarets, the killing fields of Gallipoli. Writers Andrew Knight (of ‘Sea Change’ fame) and Andrew Anastasio have created an engrossing story, an historically accurate framework and a screenplay graced with authentic dialogue. On the latter count, Julian Fellowes, please take note.

In a nutshell, ‘The Water Diviner’ is a moving homage to the Australian and Turkish soldiers who fought at Gallipoli and a hymn to the tragic futility of war. I commend it to you without reservation.


If you would like to read more about Australia's involvement in earlier imperial wars, see my article, He Who Would Valiant Be.

Deborah O’Brien

5 January, 2015


fbook icon 60The Trivia Man Is Coming

 Kevin Portrait

When you’ve been working on a manuscript for several years and you finally submit the finished product to your publisher, it’s incredibly nerve-racking. A couple of weeks pass without a word, and by then you’ve convinced yourself that they hate your whimsical, offbeat story but are too polite to tell you so.

Then an email pings into your inbox from the publisher entitled ‘The Trivia Man’. It takes a while to summon the courage to open it. You come up with a series of delaying tactics – a cup of tea, a Tim Tam (or two), a ball game with the dog, another cup of tea – but eventually you have to return to your laptop and face the inevitable. You click on the email and start to read. Here is what it says:

‘I loved it. Such beautiful characters and a heart-warming story . . . an enchanting book’.

‘The Trivia Man’ is very special to me for many reasons, but I can’t go into them without giving away the plot. Suffice it to say that the book explores a range of issues – from the dangers of stereotyping people to the need we all have to find a place to belong.

As for genre, the book is hard to classify. There’s romance in the story but it’s not romantic fiction. There’s humour but it’s not a comedy. There’s a good amount of nostalgia but the setting is contemporary rather than historical. In a nutshell, ‘The Trivia Man’ is funny, sweet, sad and quirky. I hope you'll like it. And I'll let you into a secret -  it's my favourite of all the books I've written.

*‘The Trivia Man’ will be released by Random House Books Australia on 1 June  2015.


P.S. For my personal connection with all things related to trivia, see: 'Trivia Isn't Trivial'.

Trivia Girl cropped

Text and illustrations: Deborah O'Brien

6 December, 2014


fbook icon 60My Christmas

 Christmas Heart

The Christmas season just seems to creep up on us, doesn’t it? And although we’ve been bombarded by Christmas merchandise and decorations in the department stores ever since October, it’s still a shock when we look at the calendar and realise it’s December 1 – the first day of Advent. Then comes the rush to purchase Christmas gifts, wrap them, write and post greeting cards, decorate the house . . . and maintain our everyday life at the same time.

Having said that, I just looove the Christmas season. My family calls me Mrs Christmas and when you look at the pics that follow you’ll see why. Let’s start with my Christmas kelpie reluctantly wearing her reindeer ears for the photo. They were torn apart not long after this shot was taken.

Angel Christmas

Here's one of my favourite ornaments - yes, it's a pasta angel. A great project to make with the kids. 

Christmas pasta angel


I've always wanted to visit a Bavarian Christkindlmarkt. My son was on an exchange in Germany and brought back these decorations for me.

Christmas decs

 

I painted this Santa years ago in a workshop with the wonderful DeLane Lange.  I bring him out every year and although he's a little battered now, I like to think it only adds to his charm.

Christmas Santa cropped


Christmas tree cropped


Christmas Mantel

Wishing you a joyful Christmas and a wonderful 2015!

Deborah

December 1, 2014

 


fbook icon 60Zucchini and Herb Frittata

with Eggs from Robyn's Happy Chooks

Frittata baked 

Whenever my lovely country friend and neighbour, Robyn Goodwin (author/illustrator of the ‘Backyard Tales’ series of children’s books) gives me a carton of eggs she’s collected from her happy, free-ranging chooks, I start planning special things to make with them.  

This time I decided on a Devon honey cake and a zucchini frittata and had enough eggs left over for WGH* to make one of his yummy omelettes. He’s incredibly secretive about the method and won’t let me watch him cooking them so I have no idea what he does, but I have to tell you they’re the best omelettes I’ve ever tasted.

Since I can’t share the details of WGH’s omelette with you, here’s my frittata recipe instead  – if you can call it a recipe – I tend to cook by taste, smell, texture and appearance, which means the quantities are rather inexact and the instructions a tad vague. So treat this as a guide and vary it to suit yourself.

Frittata ingredients

You’ll need:

  • About half a block of your favourite vintage Cheddar cheese, grated – I use Mersey Valley from Tassie. Use more if you love cheese and don’t have a cholesterol problem!
  • 2 zucchini, peeled and grated
  • 1 carrot, peeled and grated
  • The white section of a leek, very finely chopped
  • Chives, oregano leaves, thyme leaves, parsley – whatever you have in your herb garden – chopped
  • 1 ½ cups self-raising flour, sifted
  • ½ cup rice bran oil/grape seed oil. You could use olive oil but it has a stronger taste.
  • 5 free range and/or organic eggs, beaten lightly with a fork. Sometimes I add an extra egg just for good luck.
  • Salt and pepper


Line a lamington tin with baking paper cut larger than the size of the tin if its sides were flattened out. I always make diagonal cuts at the corners to help the paper sit neatly in the tin.

Gently mix the self-raising flour, eggs and oil in a bowl.

Carefully fold in the carrots, zucchini, leeks, herbs and cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Don’t overmix or you’ll make it tough.

Frittata mix with cheese cropped

Pour the mix into the tin and spread out neatly.

Frittata in tin cropped

Now for the fun part. Push halved heritage tomatoes into the top in a geometric pattern.

Frittata in tin with tomatoes cropped

Bake at 190° C (fan-forced 175 ° C) at least 30 minutes and check to make sure the top isn’t burning. My oven tends to cook things more on one side so I just turn the tin around at the halfway mark.

frittata in  tin cropped

Once your frittata is set and browned, remove from the oven and serve with a delicious salad. Mine consists of mixed leaves from my organic garden with avocado and pine nuts. 

Frittata on plate cropped

*WGH = World's Greatest Husband - it says so on his coffee mug!


Deborah O'Brien

November 17, 2014