Month: April 2015

Leviathan

Leviathan_CannesI wanted to see this movie for a while but held out because, while things at work were super-stressful, I didn’t feel like watching a real downer. Mum and I watched it yesterday and yeah, it’s long, slow and depressing; things start out bad and then get worse, and worse. Then much worse. But it’s very well made. It’s set in a small town in north-western Russia, near the Barents Sea, and it features some of the most starkly beautiful and mesmerising landscapes I’ve seen onscreen. The story follows Kolya, a mechanic who lives by the sea with his wife and son from the first marriage, and his struggle against the local mayor who wants to confiscate his land for development. I’ve read that the film was meant to be something like a loose reworking of the Book of Job (and Job even gets a mention), except that instead of struggling against God Kolya fights against the Russian state. Guess who wins.

For my Mum, the movie was like a cure for nostalgia and brought back everything she disliked about Russia, whereas I’m a lot more detached where my country of birth is concerned, so I guess it didn’t affect me on the same personal level as much. But the film sure does paint a bleak, vodka-soaked picture of Russia, though it’s not without moments of levity and humour. Except for a portrait of Putin hanging in mayor’s office, the current government of Russia is not explicitly mentioned, but there’s an amusing aside in the scene involving guns and portraits of former leaders of Russia which leaves no doubt as to who it’s referring to. There’s also a fair bit of intense personal drama between Kolya, his quietly beautiful wife Lilya, his surly delinquent son and his old friend from Moscow who acts as Kolya’s lawyer. I found it interesting that many of the dramatic scenes that, in other movies, would have played out to the max, mostly happen offscreen or are cut short and we only see their consequences. Perhaps because the director didn’t want the personal drama to take too much of the centre stage, when the film aims to be about something bigger.

If something rubbed me a tad wrong, it was the character of the mayor, who is so cartoonishly eeeeevil he could have come from some political comedy sketch (or a Michael Bay movie for that matter). I understand that he was probably meant to be less a character and more like a personification of greed and corruption, but to me he just felt at odds with the rest of the characters, who are all portrayed with shades of grey and who are neither 100% bad or good, i.e. who are real people. Whereas the second the mayor appears onscreen, it’s clear that yep, there’s a bad guy. Also, one of the major characters disappears from the movie some time soon after half-way mark, which was a pity, as the character added a lot to the dynamic. Overall though, definitely worth seeing even if you might need some mood-lifters after.

Commander Keen Chess

I’ve done these illustrations years ago to help out my brother, who was participating in a competition where you needed to collect a bunch of weird and random objects. One of them was a chess set based on a video game, so I made up this set based on the characters from Commander Keen 4, a game we’ve spent crazy hours on when we were kids. I think we just cut the figures out and stuck them onto small pieces of cardboard so they would stand. It won my brother first place!

keen-chess

Quote of the day

I’ve just re-read The Collected Dorothy Parker. To be honest I prefer her short stories over her poems, partially because poetry is such a particular form I find I need to concentrate much more in order to take it in. Especially with the poetry written in my second language. But she sure wrote some sharp poems and her sarcastic/cynical wit is totally up my alley.

Indian Summer

In youth, it was a way I had
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!

Being a recovering people-pleaser, this does resonate with me quite a bit.

Oh you’re Russian?

I get to have a variation on the following conversation once in a while, when people hear my accent. I’ve been living in Melbourne for almost 20 years now but my accent is as thick as ever – weirdly enough it’s actually stronger than my Mum’s. But then she worked harder on her English pronounciation, whereas I reckoned that as long as I managed to pronounce “th” (common stumbling block since “th” in “that” and “th” in “things” don’t exist in Russian language) I was okay.

So, where’s your accent from?
Russia.

Are you from Moscow? (a.k.a. the only Russian city in existence apart from St Petersburg)
No, I lived in Siberia.

Oooh Siberia?? Cold eh? (I wish I had a dollar every time someone put these two together in a sentence)
Yeah winters can be cold but it can actually get warm/hot in summer too.

Are you a fan of Putin?
Erm no. (Sometimes I’m tempted to say yes in the most enthusiastic tone possible just to see the reaction)

Usually that’s as far as it goes, but sometimes I end up in a social situation where people want to have an involved discussion about Russia, with an assumption that I have a lot of feeling or things to say on the subject. Thing is, though I was born in Russia and left when I was 15, an age which left me with plenty of memories of my life there, I don’t feel much nostalgia or connection. That is, I do still feel a strong connection to the Russian literature, history and language, but the everyday, modern Russia? Not really. My immediate family is here in Melbourne, I never got to know most of my extended family all that well, I never liked the city we lived in, I’d lost connection with all of my old friends, I haven’t consistently followed any of the Russian media in ages. When I do get to read a Russian magazine or newspaper once in a blue moon, I’m often struck by the conservative and sometimes plain offensive sentiments and attitudes; not that the Australian media can’t be guilty of the same but it’s a whole different level.

If I miss anything it’s probably more to do with nature. There are beautiful places around Melbourne and the native Australian flora has its charm, but I do miss the lush green grass and trees and the fields of spring flowers. Also, while snowy winters can be a pain and the post-winter slush is not pretty, a sunny, crisp winter day is a beautiful thing. And you just don’t get the same sense of rebirth and renewal in spring here in Australia.

One thing that hasn’t changed in 20 years though is my sense of the seasons which is still stuck in the northern hemisphere and causes me to pause and readjust every time. January is still winter and July is still summer dammit!

Cinderella

poster_66114I’m having a very stressful week at work, so I was up for some total escapism at the movies. The new Cinderella was exactly what the doctor ordered – a total fantasy where everything looks impossibly beautiful and good people live happily ever after. Though, it must be said, it was quite heavy on death too. Dead parents are, of course, a Disney staple, but this movie had not one, not two, but three parent deaths. Sheesh!

Unlike many live-action fairytales these days, Cinderella doesn’t seek to reinvent the story and instead goes for the old-fashioned, earnest, irony-free approach and a gentle pace of storytelling that’s refreshingly at odds with the manic mode of children’s movies these days. I thought it worked beautifully, when it’s done well and with obvious love this kind of approach can be magical and transporting. Where the movie does tweak the story is in giving its characters a bit more depth: Ella’s loving relationship with her parents (particularly her father) is expanded upon, as is Prince’s relationship with his father; and we’re given some understanding as to why Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother acts the way she does. Another change is that Ella and Prince get to meet before the ball, which makes their romance a tad more credible; it helps that the leads have lovely chemistry, too. Because the movie keeps so close to the original story, it also inherits the kind of stuff that comes off as silly onscreen – like, what’s the point of lining up the women all over the country to try on the glass shoe when the Prince and others actually know what Cinderella looks like? But nevermind.

Growing up, Cinderella was never one of my favourite fairytales, probably because, as a heroine, Cinderella was so completely passive and never *did* anything. Ever After with Drew Barrymore reimagined Cinderella as a spunkier, more active character; some might argue that, compared to recent Disney female leads like Elsa and Anna this new Cinderella is a throwback. I think that a younger version of me, who was rather scornful about most traditionally feminine things, would have gone pffffft at this Cinderella. Watching this movie now though, to me she never felt like a doormat; she comes off as a genuinely good, pure, gentle soul with a gift for endurance who is determined to stick by her values of kindness (even towards those who wrong her) and love for her parents’ house. Is this the kind of message that can turn problematic in real life, where the desire to be kind and considerate towards others at all times can sometimes hold you back? Maybe so, but I still can’t hate on it. Besides, I think that Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy etc. are all great, but I want to see a whole variety of lead female characters, with different kinds of strength. Not all of them have to kick ass or be sassy – in her own gentle way, Ella does influence the people around her.

Cinderella would never have worked without spot-on casting, and I thought that Lily James was absolutely wonderful – she gave a heartfelt, committed performance that never felt cloying. There’s something very grounded and earthy about her Ella – she’s of course a gorgeous girl but not in a doll-like way. Maybe it’s her thick, dark eyebrows. Richard Madden as the Prince was charming and handsome; it’s a bit amusing that, just like in Game of Thrones, he was again playing a young noble who chooses to marry for love rather than political advantage. I’m sure that a Cinderella/Red Wedding mash-up is in the works somewhere out in the internet wilderness.

Lady-Tremaine-cinderellaCate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine was divine and got to wear some of the film’s most fabulous costumes, kinda like a 40s screen siren on acid. As mentioned before, the film never justifies her actions but we do get to see her vulnerable side and understand what made her into a cynical, bitter woman she is. Her stupid, vulgar daughters are by comparison fairly flat and are mostly played for comic relief. Helena Bonham Carter makes a memorable eccentric fairy godmother who has never worked with squashes before but is game to try; her narration during the movie is a nice, warm touch.

As wonderful as the actors are, the costume and set design are almost the real stars of the movie – maaaan was this movie glorious to look at. They really went all out with Cinderella’s coach – it was like the most baroque, opulent golden construction you could think of. And I can’t even imagine how much work went into Cinderella’s ball dress. Compared to some of the other gaudier dresses it’s actually quite simple, but the volume, the layering, the detailing, the sparkle was just amazing. I’d really love to see all those costumes in an exhibition one day.