fbook icon 60     Film Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’

 

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers.


I’m always partial to a book or film which has a literary allusion in the title, and I have to confess it was the title that drew me to ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. I should also own up about not having read the best-selling novel by John Green on which the film is based. So I really didn’t know what to expect when I lined up at the cinema yesterday to buy tickets to ‘The Fault in Our Stars’.

It was the longest queue I’ve seen at our local picture theatre for quite some time. There were dozens of adolescent girls sporting long ponytails and fur-trimmed anoraks, purchasing buckets of popcorn. In retrospect, I realise the absence of grown-ups wasn’t surprising, considering the film is aimed at the lucrative ‘young adult’ market.

'The Fault in Our Stars' starts promisingly enough with a disclaimer by the lead character, seventeen-year-old cancer victim, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), that her story will be neither stereotypical nor soppy. And for the first third of this very long film (125 minutes), that’s exactly the case, thanks largely to Woodley’s understated yet riveting performance. Even when Hazel meets the amiable Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) at a cancer support group, the story doesn’t turn to schmaltz. Gus has faced his own battle with cancer - osteosarcoma – and has lost his lower leg as a result. Although Elgort plays the part charmingly, he tends to get by on an engaging smile and never quite gives us the substance we’d like to see from him.

There are many things to like about this film – the cute text messages, the way Hazel and Augustus adopt the word 'okay’ to mean so many things, the discussion about pain, both physical and emotional, and the fact that it has to be felt. 

But there are negatives as well. During the scenes set in Amsterdam, the story declines into a soap opera cum travelogue. Hazel goes there, wanting to meet the author of a novel she’s come to see as her bible - 'The Imperial Affliction' about a young girl with cancer. But the author turns out to be a cantankerous Willem Dafoe, who still seems to be over-acting following his stint as the villain in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (where a mannered, over-the-top performance was indeed appropriate, but not here). Even though the subsequent visit to the Anne Frank House is obviously intended to give an extra layer of meaning to the story, the special location actually makes the scene look superficial by comparison. 

Back in Indianapolis, the story picks up for a while but takes far too long to resolve itself. Like everyone else in the cinema, I was dabbing at my eyes through the last half hour or so. At the same time I was berating myself for being manipulated by such a blatant tearjerker. Having said that, if I’d been a teenager viewing 'The Fault in Our Stars', I would have loved it. Perhaps I’ve just become a cranky old cynic.

Deborah O’Brien

June 23, 2014


 

  

fbook icon 60 A Guide to Book Jargon

 for Aspiring Authors

 writing equipment cropped

Every profession has its jargon, and publishing is no exception. If you’re a writer trying to get published or a first-time author working your way through the publishing process, here’s my select, subjective glossary of buzz words.

Acks:

Otherwise known as ‘Acknowledgments’, these are the author's version of an Academy Awards acceptance speech.  The best speeches tend to be short and sweet. Having said that, first-timers have a lot of people to thank.

Regarding the spelling of the word itself, there’s a dilemma - whether to use an ‘e’ between the third and fourth syllables. You may find that the final decision is a function of your publishing house and their style/spelling guide.

Note: The ‘acks’ are entirely different from the book’s dedication which has a page to itself at the front.

Author pic:

Agents/publishers will ask for an author photo. Yes, I know writers are notoriously shy about such things, but author pics are a reality you can’t avoid. So give it your best shot (pardon the pun) and please don’t use that ‘selfie’ you took last week.

You don’t need to look gorgeous in a Tara Moss or Kate Morton kind of way, although if you are, then use it to your advantage. For the rest of us, here are my thoughts. Mysterious is good - see M.L. Stedman's author pic on the Random House Australia website.

Craggy is also interesting (no examples here for fear of offending anyone). A nice, friendly smile works well but so does a thoughtful gaze. Go to a bookstore and look at some author pics, particularly in your genre. Then decide on your approach.

Author platform:

As a tyro, I actually thought that ‘building an author platform’ referred to the construction of the stage on which authors speak at book festivals. Thank goodness, I’ve never said that out loud (well, not until now!) In reality, it refers to the author’s interface with the world, the way they market themselves – via book talks, library visits, social media, etc. By the way, it’s a good idea to have some social media (such as a writer’s blog) in place before you approach an agent or publisher with your book.

End matter:

Never fear - this has nothing to do with biological functions. It simply describes the stuff at the back of the book, such as the author bio (unless you’re very famous, in which case this might appear at the front), acknowledgments, bibliography (nowadays even novels can have bibliographies), promo material from your publisher and so on.

Indies:

No, not the East or West Indies. In the publishing world, this is the abbreviation for independent book shops.

DDS, by the way, refers to discount and department stores.

Full:

Refers to the full manuscript. If you’ve sent an agent (or a publisher) an excerpt from your book, having taken care to follow the exact specifications on their website, and they contact you requesting the ‘full’, this is a very good sign indeed. Not exactly a fait accompli but extremely promising.

Market position:

In the simplest terms, this means your book’s genre and its target market (ie. the readers at whom it’s aimed, for example, women over 40, upper primary school children and so on). Even though you might have written your entire manuscript without having given a conscious thought to such dastardly commercial considerations as market position, it's something you'll need to reflect upon if you’re going to submit your work to an agent/publisher. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Where would my book sit on the shelves of a bookstore? In the Crime section? Romance?Historical fiction?  Young adult? Or does my book straddle genres and sub-genres? In which case, you might say, for example, it’s a thriller with romantic elements.
  • Who would want to read my book and why?
  • What are the comparables? In other words, the books in a similar vein?
  • And then ask yourself this: What makes my book stand out from the rest? What makes it unique?

MS:

Short for manuscript.

Pitch/Proposal

The use of the word ‘pitch’ in the sense of a sales pitch originated in the late 19th century when the advertising industry was in its nascence. Nowadays everyone is pitching something to someone else. If you’re an aspiring writer, your ‘product’ will be your manuscript.

A formal proposal or submission may include your covering letter, bio, synopsis, sample chapter/s and possibly a market position statement - in fact, whatever the agent/publisher requires. The most comprehensive and practical book that I’ve read on this subject is ‘A Decent Proposal: How to Sell Your Book to an Australian Literary Agent or Publisher’ by Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth (Keesing Press). 

Synopsis:

It’s sometimes said that writing a synopsis is as hard as writing a novel, and I most definitely agree. To tell you the truth, I’m wont to spend weeks, even months on mine.

Don’t leave the synopsis until the last minute. While you’re writing the manuscript, start thinking about how you’ll approach it when the time comes. A good synopsis will distil the essence of your story in a beguiling way. It’s the hook to lure an the agent or publisher to read your first three chapters or whatever you’ve been required to send. Conversely, if your synopsis is dull, ponderous or badly written, they may not read beyond the first paragraph.

By the way, agents/publishers will specify a word count for a reason. I know it’s hard to distil 90,000 words into, say, 300 words or a single page, but if that’s what they want, it has to be done.

Tweaking – the process of refining and polishing your work until it shines. One of the most common mistakes that a first-time writer will make is to send off their work too early. Make sure you’ve proofed it thoroughly for typos, spelling and grammar mistakes. Reading your MS aloud is always helpful, not just for spotting typos but for checking the flow of the text and identifying clunky language. I also suggest seeking objective advice about your manuscript before going to an agent or publisher. If you’re in a writers’ group, be brave and ask for feedback from your peers.


Good luck!


Deborah O’Brien

June 15, 2014 

 


fbook icon 60The Beatles and Me

 

Beatles LP Paul

My original 'Revolver' LP

1964 was the year I fell in love for the first time. I was in primary school and the object of my affections was a certain Beatle called Paul McCartney.

As this is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ tour of Australia, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with the Beatles, and Paul in particular. It’s always been a long-distance affair except for the time in March, 1993 when I sat in the tenth row of Parramatta Stadium during Paul’s Sydney concert. I still have the ticket.

But back to 1964. The evening newspaper – I can’t remember if it was ‘The Mirror’ or ‘The Sun’ – ran a competition to win a place at Paul’s twenty-second birthday party. All you had to do was write in fifty words or less why you wanted to attend. I penned multiple drafts in my childish printing, trying to express my feelings for Paul within the word limit. It wasn’t easy. Finally I filled in the coupon and gave it to my dad to post. Whether he actually sent it or not is another matter. Probably not - my dad didn't approve of the mop-topped quartet and besides, I was way under the minimum age for the competition.

A week or so later I was devastated when the winners were announced and I wasn’t among them. I recall one of the winning entries saying something to the effect of: ‘My parents think I have Buckleys of winning this so I’m going to prove them wrong.’ What kind of entry was that? I asked myself. And who or what was ‘Buckleys’?

A few weeks later, when the Beatles flew out of Sydney, my friends and I - all devoted little Beatles fans  - stood in the school playground, waving at a plane that we imagined was theirs. There were tears and hysteria. That afternoon our teacher couldn’t manage us at all.

From then on, I started to keep a Beatles scrapbook. If I still had it, that book of memorabilia would be worth a lot of money. A few years later, I came home from school to find my dad burning some rubbish in the incinerator. ‘I thought I’d clear out all that junk in the cupboard’, he said. The cupboard! That was where I kept my precious scrapbook. I threw open the doors and the shelves were empty. I cried for days. I’ve never really gotten over losing that scrapbook.

Was it the end of my relationship with the Beatles? Of course not. You never let go of your first love. It stays with you forever. 

Beatles 1

My Beatles jewellery

Deborah O’Brien

June 11, 2014 



Winners of the May Giveaway 

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A couple of weeks ago I announced a competition in conjunction with the release of ‘A Place of Her Own’, asking readers to tell me the Australian woman over 50 whom they most admire. I found myself inundated with wonderful entries, some of them deeply personal and moving. And it was incredibly difficult to choose the prize winners. That's why there are six runners-up!

But before I announce the winners, here’s a pic of the woman over fifty I admire most  – my lovely mum. 

Deb and Phyll 420

And now, drum roll please . . .

The first prize of a signed copy of ‘A Place of Her Own’ with a matching handmade bookmark goes to Larry A.

Larry wrote lovingly about his wife Therese, an inspirational woman who is courageously overcoming a massive brain injury.

And here are the six runners-up, all of whom have won a handmade, signed bookmark:

Evelyn S chose Deborra-Lee Furness. (I have to agree here, Evelyn, and not just because we’re both called Deb. Like you, I greatly admire her dedicated work in changing Australian adoption laws . . . and her choice in men.)

Marice K who chose her 101-year-young mum-in-law, a positive woman with a fighting spirit. 

Christine M nominated her sister-in-law, Celia, who does an amazing job as a teacher of children with hearing and vision impairment.

Amanda B chose Mem Fox, iconic children’s author (‘Possum Magic’) and literacy ambassador.

Sharon M and Maritsa Z both nominated the amazing Ita Buttrose. 

Congratulations to the winners and thank you to everyone who entered. Could those winners who didn’t provide mailing addresses, please email me via the Contact page with their address and the name they'd like for the signed dedication on the back of their bookmark. 

Deborah

May 28, 2014

 


 fbook icon 60Film Review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

Yes, I know the next Academy Awards are still almost a year away, but I’m making a prediction right now - that Wes Anderson’s film will win Best Picture.

In brief, it’s the story of a hotel concierge who is accused of murdering an elderly female guest, one of his many paramours. The setting is an alpine region* somewhere to the east of Germany, and most of the action takes place in 1932, although there are segments set in 1968 and 1985 featuring characters from the thirties and serving as 'bookends' to the story.

As a film, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is full of contradictions. It's highly stylised and decorative, full of farcical elements, yet there are also serious political undercurrents. It makes gentle fun of cinematic storytelling traditions: the voiceover narration, the story within a story, the chase scene, the prison break, the buddy movie, but it also takes these to new levels. And although there are echoes of 1930s classics such as ‘Grand Hotel’** and even the romantic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch***, this film is far more than an homage.

The cast is superb. There are some brief but memorable cameos from Tilda Swinton as Madame D; Adrian Brody as the rapacious son, Dmitri; Willem Dafoe as a suitably creepy villain; Owen Wilson as the delightfully named Monsieur Chuck. But the standout performances come from the two leads: newcomer Tony Revolori as the wide-eyed lobby boy, Zero Mustafa, and Ralph Fiennes as the vain and supremely confident concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. Just when we’ve decided he’s a rather obnoxious character preying on ‘women of a certain age’, we catch a glimpse of him eating dinner alone in his spartan room, clad only in his underwear. Is he equally as vulnerable as the women he sleeps with? As the story progresses, we begin to see other aspects of Gustave H which make us question our early assumptions about him. 

The film is a visual feast. As a Libran, I just can’t resist the symmetry of the set-ups. As an artist, I’m drawn to the sumptuous Art Nouveau/Art Dec interiors. Like Luchino Visconti in ‘The Damned’, Wes Anderson has an impeccable eye for detail. Every set is perfectly decorated, from the painted wall panels to the bric-à-brac. One scene in particular stands out for me – the reading of the will. The ghoulish family has assembled in front of the dour Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), executor of the estate. He stands behind a desk trimmed with antler-horn legs. Beside him is a rampant stuffed bear and in the background there’s a folk-art style painting of a pig. Everything mirrors the greed of the family.

The voiceover narration is brimming with in-jokes, sub-text and double-entendres. Writers suffer from ‘scribe’s fever’; the annexation of Zubrowka is compared to an epidemic of ‘Prussian grippe’. There is amusing signage everywhere. In fact, during the prison break sequences, the signs literally point the way to freedom. So much is going on visually and verbally that you’d have to see the film many times to take it all in.

But this isn’t just a clever and entertaining confection; it’s also a sad political allegory about the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe.

If you loved Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘A Very Long Engagement’, I feel confident that you’ll enjoy this. Wes Anderson is an American with a European sensibility and a deep appreciation of the traditions of 1930s cinema.

In a nutshell, this a a delightful, quirky and poignant film. I rarely use the term ‘masterpiece’ but I suspect that ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ will go down in cinematic history as one of the greats.


* Writer/director Anderson is playfully vague about the location – at times the film seems to be set in Sudetenland (the part of Czechoslovakia which was annexed and occupied by the Nazis in 1938). But ‘Budapest’ would of course place it in Hungary!

** Filmed in 1932, (the year in which Wesley Anderson sets his film) ‘Grand Hotel’ was based on the 1929 German novel by Vicky Baum, ‘Menschen im Hotel’ (People in the Hotel).

*** Often set in a mythical olde-worlde Vienna.


Deborah O’Brien

May 20, 2014