Book 8: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), written by Milan Kundera, is a philosophical novel about two men, two women, a dog and their lives in the Prague Spring of the Czechoslovak Communist period in 1968.

– From Wikipedia

Today I read the 2,000th page in my 26 book (that is, 9,500 pages) challenge. Whew! And right on schedule. Tomorrow (one day early) I’ll begin Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As with most of the books on my list, I come to it in near complete ignorance (indeed, all I know about it is summed up in the rather charming description above). I like philosophy, dogs, and the year 1968, so I anticipate a pleasant time with this one.

Your spolier-free thoughts, please, on The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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Book 7: Mister Pip (and a note on Great Expectations)

Mister Pip (2006) is a novel by Lloyd Jones, a New Zealand author. It is named after a character in, and shaped by the plot of, Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Lloyd Jones wrote 11 versions of the novel originally setting it on an unnamed Pacific island. The novel was ultimately set against the backdrop of the civil war on Bougainville Island during the early 1990s.

– From Wikipedia

Having read the early chapters of it with dread and dislike in my school years, I came to the challenge of (re)reading Great Expectations with, shall we say, Low Hopes. But it completely reversed my prejudices. It is blisteringly witty, deliciously descriptive and devilishly plotted. How can I have spent upwards of 10 years detesting Dickens’ writing? (The answer, I think, is that it – or at least Great Expectations – is not suited to a teenage readership, complicated and demanding as it is). Mister Pip is somehow – I’m not yet sure precisely how – related to Dickens’ classic. I haven’t begun it yet and I already like it, for prompting me to give Charlie a second chance…

Has anyone else experienced a sudden change in opinion of an author, classic or not?

Film review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Worst Exotic Marigold Hotel, more like.

That’s about the standard of the jokes throughout this film (with perhaps ten surprisingly very funny exceptions). Imagine it delivered with the flatness of a sheet of paper, tempered between set-up and punchline by a languorous pause during which the editor might as well run into the cinema, attempting to tickle random members of the audience with camp condescension and leering, “waaaaaiiiiiit foooor iiiiiit!”

This just about sums it up.

But you are waiting for it. You saw it coming, it would seem, long before the writers themselves. Had you been in a position to do so, you would have raised your hand and said with quiet solemnity, “No. That’s not funny.” I implore you, if you’re invited to see this film, to do precisely that.

Please don’t mistake me for the kind of person who enters a film such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel expecting a great cinematic achievement; don’t think that I’m merely a dusty high-brow cineaste for whom only the severest of standards will suffice. I was prepared for a simple, heartwarming, predictable tale of loveable Brits learning life lessons in a colourful setting. This film manages to defy the very lowest of expectations (and be assured, in case you have somehow misjudged the tone of the review so far, it does not defy them felicitously). I’m generally loathe to make sweeping claims containing “most” or “worst” or “wittiest” ever, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel warrants it; it is unequivocally one of the most ill-judged comedies or dramas I have ever seen. It’s like watching a flailing first-time stand-up fluff all the punchlines to a series of old knock-knock jokes – but worse because you know that, had they really tried, they could have been a blazing success.

Because there is potential and talent here. It would have been wonderful to see a charming, well-written, well-paced film about elderly people. Three of the seven (yes, seven) central characters are played with respectable skill and patience, by Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. None of them are given much to work with – every character in the film is wafer thin – but these three manage to be, respectively, graceful, charming and touching. It’s a shame that one of the side-effects of their admirable performances is to draw more attention to the one-dimensinonality of the rest of the cast, from the four remaining retirees who just shout (Penelope Wilton), look startled (Maggie Smith) and gurn (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, who, for no reason I can discern, play the same character), to the hotel owner and his acquaintances, who are determined to extract drama from the most mundane situations. “My feelings for you are too great for one word,” says Dev Patel’s character, simply so he can have a denouement when he finally dose profess his love. I don’t mind that everyone saw it coming, but I mind that it’s not remotely interesting.

Gosh, that paragraph went in too many directions at once, didn’t it? I struggled to refrain from dumping all the criticisms I wanted to make into one overlong, ugly sentence. But perhaps it was naïve of me to think that I could deal with seven-plus characters and their various plots and narrative arcs all at once. Yes, perhaps that was a poor writing decision on my part. I was in danger of undermining all my points by dedicating so little time and attention to any single one of them that, not only did they not have time to grow, but I felt inclined to resort to cheap clichés and lazy stereotypes just to muddle through to the end of it, and losing your interest along the way because you couldn’t possibly care about such hastily and poorly-written characters.

The preceding paragraph, by the way, represents the single, cloying, totally misplaced visual metaphor (a slow motion bird flying away to represent the release of death) that suddenly appears in the middle of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, accidentally highlighting how devoid of craftsmanship every element of every other moment of the film is.

For the sake of my blood pressure, which I feel rising at the mere prospect of writing more about how dismal this film is, I shall quickly summarise its flaws in bullet points and examples.

Lazy, clogged up writing:

  • One of the seven supposedly central characters (Imrie’s gurner) isn’t even granted an ending to her story.
  • Nighy makes a clunky segue from a perfectly good line to a completely irrelevant one in order to give Dench an opportunity to bed in some exposition.

Poorly-judged/-timed/-written jokes:

  • Wilkinson bumps into Dench one night and asks quizically during an otherwise serious scene, “can I show you something”? A few audience members titter, unsure whether this is a bad, poorly-timed double entendre or a bad, poorly-timed unintentional double entendre.
  • “I’ll give you your money back,” says Patel. “Right now?” asks Wilton. WaitForItBeat. “Right now. In three months.” says Patel. It’s hilarious.

Pointless subplots:

  • Patel’s hotel manager has to save the hotel from closure, convince his mother to accept his girlfriend for who she is, and tell the same girlfriend he loves her. None of these have anything to do with the main characters. None of them are interesting.

Characters stating clearly and eloquently what they’ve just learned:

  • Honestly, the actors might as well have just turned to the camera and told the audience the moral. Oh wait –

Infuriating cod-moralism:

  • Dench is forced to narrate with endless monotonous proverbs that sound like someone entered the closing words of various episodes of Sex and the City into Google Translate and selected the language “dull”. These lessons, like the film (which is at least 30 minutes too long) never seem to end.

Endless clichés:

  • Potential partners Nighy and Dench find themselves in an awkward tight embrace after a near-miss road accident.
  • A young lover’s difficult mother finds her heart suddenly opened by a perplexing reminder of her own (never-before-mentioned) past.
  • An old woman learns the Important Life Lesson™ that racism is wrong because, I don’t know exactly, an Indian woman gives her some Branston Pickle, or something.

“Words fail me,” croaks Smith during one of the film’s few clever exchanges, when asked to detail what she likes about the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I can think of three – Dench, Nighy and Wilkinson – but their performances can do little to save this otherwise dreadful, dreadful clunker of a film. What do I like about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Maggie, I’m with you.