TV review: the human condition, not crime drama, adds tension to ‘Rectify’

As a TV experience, Sundance Channel’s first original drama, Rectify, is frustrating, yet satisfying; painfully slow, yet utterly absorbing. These contradictions may be tough to handle, but they do create a TV show that feels startlingly unlike anything else that is currently airing.

Rectify, the story of a seemingly-innocent man released from prison after serving 19 years on Death Row for the murder of his high school girlfriend, is dramatic only in the strictest sense of the word. This is theatre drama more than TV drama. Rectify swaps painted scenery for beautiful on-location shots of rural Georgia, but still an overwhelming number of its scenes consist of two characters talking at length.

The result is a lot of speeches, a lot of philosophy, a lot of staring into the middle distance. Rectify’s dialogue is, too often, unwieldy, yet sometimes it is amazingly precise. When one character remarks, “It’s the beauty, not the ugly, that hurts the most,” it hits you in the stomach. That may be the show’s whole mantra, summed up in just 10 words.

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Book review: Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld (fiction, **)

It’s always tempting to believe that a good writer can elevate any material. It’s the literary equivalent of saying of a singer, “oh, he could sing the phone book”. The reality, of course, is that we don’t want to listen to a singer sing the phone book. It’s only when a great singer sings a great song that we stop and think, damn, he’s good. Because you simply can’t extricate the artist from his material.

With that in mind, Sisterland is Curtis Sittenfeld singing the phone book.

What’s immediately evident in Sisterland is that there’s an amazing amount of polish to Sittenfeld’s prose. This is writing as writing should be done. The characterization is rock solid. The detail of the mise-en-scène is utterly convincing. Every plot point is carefully established, so that nothing in the narrative feels forced.

Unfortunately, this careful, elegant prose cannot elevate mediocre material. Sisterland is, by turns, banal and depressing, simply because its storyline is banal and depressing. Following the unremarkable lives of a pair of twins from St. Louis, Sisterland’s trek towards a climax, which involves a strangely-uninspiring subplot about a psychic prediction, feels slow if not downright sluggish.

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Book review: Little Star – John Ajvide Lindqvist (fiction, ****)

What a strange and unexpected book Little Star is. I found it shelved under Horror in my local library, yet it’s unlike any horror novel I’ve ever read. It’s also about teenage girls, but it’s not YA. It’s about murder, but it’s not Crime. In fact, Star’s genre-defying narrative is part of what makes it so wonderful.

Wonderful might seem a strange word to describe a book as openly macabre as Star, yet it is wonderful. John Ajvide Lindqvist imbues death with humour and finds unexpected light within pitch darkness. This is a book where I smiled and smiled and smiled through a chapter where one character attacks another with a champagne flute. I smiled! Because it was… cute? (And, no, I’m not unhinged. It’s just that kind of book.)

Nominally about a washed-up-and-dysfunctional Swedish pop singer who finds a baby abandoned in the woods and decides to raise her away from outside influences that might damage her other-worldly singing talent, Star’s narrative takes a number of surprising twists.

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TV review: the visually-stunning, emotionally-raw Top of the Lake

In many ways, crime drama mini-series Top of the Lake is a quintessential indie mood piece. Filmed in the mountains of New Zealand, every frame is gorgeous. From the eerie symbolism of the title’s vast, void-like lake, to our fearless heroine’s blood-splattered face in the final scenes, Top of the Lake is visually stunning. The fact that it’s also a well-written and finely-detailed thriller sets it apart from the usual all-style-no-substance indie fare.

I should probably know co-writer/co-director Jane Campion from other things (1993’s Oscar-winning The Piano for instance), but actually I’m only familiar with the underrated In the Cut (2003). Campion traverses similar themes of sex and death in Top of the Lake when Sydney cop Robin returns to her childhood home to see her cancer-stricken mother, only to find herself caught up in the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. If the summary sounds a little hokey, don’t let it put you off: there are enough witty, original touches to Lake that you’ll forget the central storyline is standard crime fiction fare.

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Book review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah – Paula J. Freedman (YA fiction, ***)

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, a charming celebration of multiculturalism, may be short on story, but it’s big on heart.

The title tells you just about all you need to know about the plot: 12-year-old Tara, whose dad’s family is white Jewish and whose mom’s family is south-east Asian Hindu, is having mixed feelings about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah and her cultural identity in general.

This is no clunky lecture on multiculturalism, though. Paula J. Freedman takes on the subject matter with a refreshing breeziness. The musings on what it means to be Indian-Jewish are at once intrinsic to the novel, but also just another part of life for Tara. Our heroine is, above all else, a 12-year-old girl, so wondering where she fits in in the world often takes a backseat to everyday middle school drama.

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