Month: June 2015

Inside Out

pixarWelcome back Pixar, I missed you guys.

I suppose technically that’s not correct, since I did love Toy Story 3 a lot. But if I had to think of an original Pixar movie I loved without reservations, I’d have to think back as far as The Incredibles* in… 2004? (I say that a lot lately but man does time run fast). Since then, even the universally acclaimed Pixar movies had been hit and miss for me. Ratatouille was just ok with one great scene near the end. Wall-E was half of a brilliant film until it got to the fatties in space. Up was a quarter of a great movie – I honestly cannot remember anything that happens after the old man and the boy land in South America. So while Inside Out gathered all those great reviews, I still went into the movie rather cautiously.

I needn’t have worried because the movie was fantastic through and through, and had everything that made the classics like the Toy Story series amazing – inventiveness, fun, humour, heart, wisdom, technical brilliance. Even the customary animated short about a lonely volcano who wants to find love was outstanding.

Most of the movie takes place inside the mind of Riley, a hockey-loving 11-year-old girl, where Riley’s five primary emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – guide her life from a kind of a control centre. Until now, the bossy if well-meaning Joy has been pretty much in charge, but their world, as well as Riley’s, is turned upside down when the family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco. Sadness, who until then had been skulking around on the edges like the least popular kid in school, finds herself trying to come to the front without really knowing why, which in turn makes Joy edgy. Things really turn hairy when both Joy and Sadness are inadvertentely hurled out of the Headquarters into the far reaches of Riley’s mind, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust in charge. The story is about Joy and Sadness trying to get back before Riley’s life is ruined by bad decisions, but it’s also about Joy coming to terms with the new role she must play as Riley grows up, and learning that the role of Sadness in Riley’s life is just as vital as hers, and in fact has always been.

There’s so much sheer inventiveness on display during Joy and Sadness’ adventures that it’s impossible to list every single thing, but my favourite bit was probably the area of Abstract Thought, where the characters are transformed into cubist blocks and then almost get deconstructed out of existence. I don’t know what kids would make of that scene because the ideas there would be way above their heads. Another standout which I didn’t expect was the character of Bing Bong, Riley’s old imaginary friend who now has nothing much to do except look back at the memories of their adventures back when Riley was a toddler. He starts off as a rather cartoonish and slightly irritating character, but his part in the story is crucial and probably the most moving. Some of the film’s funniest moments happen when we briefly visit the minds of the other characters – Riley’s parents, bus driver, even a dog and a cat. I thought it was a nice touch to show how, in the more balanced adult mind, the emotions work so much more effectively as a team.

The voice work is stellar across the board (Agent Cooper is Riley’s Dad? Cool!), but the special mention goes to Amy Poehler, who voices Joy. She’s got probably the toughest job of creating a character who is constantly optimistic, enthusiastic, excitable and happy without making me want to throttle her (being an introvert, I naturally gravitate to a quiet observer like Sadness). Even at her perkiest, Joy is always endearing rather than annoying. As the film’s narrator, she also has to deliver tons of exposition, without making it sound like exposition, and she pulls it off beautifully. Phyllis Smith also does a wonderful job giving shade and depth to Sadness, a character who easily could have been very monotone.

My only nitpick (because I have to pick at something) is, why couldn’t they just use the clouds to go back to the Headquarters? I guess clouds to this movie are what the eagles are to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, haha.

*Actually, as much as I loved it, there was something in The Incredibles that bugged me. There’s a scene near the end where Dash, the kid with superspeed powers, finally gets to participate in a running competition, and just before the end he deliberately slows down and gets a second place. You’re obviously supposed to see it as a happy compromise, which always struck me as total bullshit; it devalues both Dash’s powers -and- the victory for the winner. As much as the movie wants a happy resolution, superpowered beings have no place competing with the regular people.

Books I’ve read lately

funnygirlFunny Girl by Nick Hornby

Hornby novels for me are like pizza: when they’re good they’re great and when they’re not they’re still enjoyable and immensely readable. Luckily, in addition to being readable Funny Girl is really good. It starts off in 1960s, in the North West England town of Blackpool, where our heroine, Barbara, wins a beauty contest. She doesn’t remain crowned for long, however, as her life ambitions are rather much higher, and she relocates to London where she pursues a career in television. Barbara looks like a blond pin-up goddess, but what she really wants to do is make people laugh and be Britain’s answer to her hero, Lucille Ball. With talent and luck on her side, she changes her name to Sophie and lands the lead role in a domestic sitcom, which she comes to dominate so completely that the show adopts the name Barbara (and Jim). Needless to say, the sitcom is a huge hit. Even though Barbara/Sophie is set up to be the heroine of the book, it devotes almost as much attention to the team behind the show, particularly the writing duo of Bill and Tony, and the different ways they deal with the success of their sitcom and their own sexuality (the novel takes place before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK). How long can Barbara (and Jim) stay on top, before the inevitable decline sets in?

Hornby has a real knack for observing human nature with clever, hilarious passages like:

Tony and Bill used to be two different shades of chalk. Now Tony was turning into a variety of cheese. It wasn’t a strong cheese, admittedly – he was probably closer in flavour to a cheese spread than to a seeping blue French thing riddled with maggots.

I did think that some of the extended dialogue scenes went on for a bit too long, but overall the writing is as sharp and funny as in Hornby’s best books. Even though I loved About a Boy and Juliet, Naked, I thought that both novels ran out of steam somewhat before the end, so I was pleased to find out that the ending for Funny Girl (set in the modern day) was wonderfully handled and satisfyingly bittersweet.

My edition of the book also had neat real-life photographs from the period scattered throughout – the funniest one was probably of the United Kingdom coming first in 1960s Eurovison (how the mighty have fallen indeed). They were a nice touch – I could never understand why illustrations or any kind of images are always relegated to the children’s books ghetto.

99664The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I haven’t seen the film with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton which was based on this novel, but I think it still created some preconceived notions in my head about what the story would be like, just because of its casting. Instead, the book turned out to be something quite different – in a good way.

The story is set in 1920s in Hong Kong and centres on Kitty Fane, a young and naive woman who is caught in an affair with another man by her husband Walter, a bactereologist. Devastated by his wife’s infidelity, he takes up a post in a remote China district to fight an outbreak of cholera, with Kitty more or less forced to go along to what could well be her death.

Kitty and Walter are spectacularly unsuited for each other. He adores her to bits, but he’s a stern, shy, proud, painfully self-conscious man without a shred of lightness or charm to him. She only married him out of desperation, in order to beat her younger sister to the altar and avoid the disapproval of her mother. What I was expecting at that point was for the story go the way where, trapped together in peril, Walter would learn to forgive Kitty and she would learn to love her husband. But then the novel had different ideas and while the outcome may not be as romantic, it felt more honest and had lots of things to say about human capacity for change and growth. There’s also a scene near the end which was almost painful to read, it was such a raw reminder that no matter how far you might come as a person, something can still come along and knock you off your feet and send you tumbling right back.

Despite her bad choices and initial shallowness, Kitty is a sympathetic character throughout – you get an understanding that her foolishness is largely the result of her mother’s ambitions and the skewed, cossetted world she grew up in. Likewise, Walter is not portrayed simply as a wronged, saintly husband: though he’s got many admirable qualities it’s clear that his passion for Kitty has a dark side which turns him cold and unforgiving.

I’d definitely want to read more of Maugham after this and Of Human Bondage (which was just as emotional and had the same effect of making me go, oh shit no don’t do that no, in certain scenes).

The Book Blogger Confessions Tag

I saw this on another blog and thought it would be a fun thing to do.

1. Which book, most recently, did you not finish?

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, English translation. His novels are ultimately rewarding, but my can they be hard work; I made it to half-point and then just quietly gave up.

2. Which book is your guilty pleasure?

Nothing I can think of currently. In terms of, a book I once loved but which in retrospect is rather embarrassing, I’d probably go with a Buffy novelisation I read back when I was obsessed with the show and shipped Buffy and Angel big time. It was very bad fanfiction, but at the time it fulfilled my wishful shipper thinking.

3. Which book do you love to hate?

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray. A good example of one single idea repeated over and over and over and over and over and over.

4. Which book would you throw into the sea?

I’ve read some shitty books which would all make an easy target (hello Twilight: Breaking Dawn), but what I hate the most is a book which starts off brilliantly only to screw you over later. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres is probably the most recent example: loved it until the last 50 pages where it went spectacularly off the rails and, among other things, committed one of my most hated sins in fiction: characters acting in an inexplicably moronic way in order for the story to go where the author wants it to go.

5. Which book have you read the most?

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, and too many of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels to mention.

6. Which book would you hate to receive as a present?

Probably an autobiography of an Australian football player, or any sport-related autobiography for that matter.

7. Which book could you not live without?

Not one particular book, but I definitely couldn’t imagine a life without reading.

8. Which book made you the angriest?

Again, the books that pissed me off the most are the ones that made me angry unexpectedly. If, for instance, you’re reading a book dealing with racism, social injustices, war etc., you expect to get worked up. You don’t really expect a Jodi Picoult novel to make you angry. I can’t remember its name now, but it had a main character who I absolutely hated and who at one point impulsively kills a man she suspects of abusing her son. Apparently it was totally ok for her to kill an innocent man because, don’t you know, she’s a mother and it’s her sacred right to practice vengeance.

9. Which book made you cry the most?

Without a doubt, The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers was probably my favourite book in my teens, and this was the final in the series in which all but one of my beloved characters die. I think I’ve spent a whole sleepless night crying on and off, and could never bear to read the book again.

10. Which book cover do you hate the most?

Not any particular cover, but I hate hate hate popular fiction covers with ugly giant fonts and tacky Photoshop effects. Bevel effect in particular. Bleh.

Slow West

slowwestCaught the encore session for this movie today at Palace Cinema Como. I’m not usually a fan of westerns, but this one looked more offbeat and interesting plus I’m very partial to Michael Fassbender. Because I’m not into westerns I probably missed out on tons of references and tributes that the genre enthusiasts would pick up on and appreciate, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless.

The story is very simple: a young Scottish boy from a well-off family, Jay Cavendish, is looking for his missing love Rose in the wild, lawless territory of Colorado. On the way, he meets and hires Silas, a rough gunslinger who’s rather more equipped to survive in the wilderness than Jay, and who also has his own reasons for helping the boy. On the way, they meet all sorts of colourful and/or dangerous characters, often with unpredictable results, and run into some sticky situations.

The film has a very distinct atmosphere (helped by a wonderful score), and it’s the kind of movie where you either fall under its spell and go along with the characters’ journey, or you sit there twiddling your thumbs thinking, when is something going to happen? Luckily I was very much in the former club. I love it when a film captures a sense of place and time, and I definitely felt it here: the vastness of the plains and the starry sky, the slower pace of life, the casual violence and brutality of the times. There were a couple of moments when the setting looked a bit too obviously like New Zealand (where the film was shot), but otherwise I had no problem believing that this was really the 19th-century Wild West. There were also great moments of quirky humour, including what has to be the funniest clothesline ever.

Fassbender (who channels Clint Eastwood here quite a lot) is immensely watchable and entertaining as tough and laconic Silas, but the heart of the film belongs to Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay. He was fantastic in the otherwise underwhelming adaptation of The Road, and he gives a soulful, moving performance here. He’s got unique, enchantingly strange looks – it will be interesting to see what he grows up like. It was fun spotting some familiar faces among the cast; Rose is played by an Offspring regular Caren Pistorius and it took me a couple of scenes to figure out why the guy who played her father looked familiar: The Hound from Game of Thrones! Hell yeah!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial-rites_bookI was very eager to check this book out. It got a lot of attention and praise, and the premise seemed interesting: it’s based on the real-life story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. She was beheaded in 1830 for her part in the gruesome murders of two men, one of them her employer, and the attempted cover-up by arson. Before the execution, she spent her last months at the rural home of Jon Jonsson, a middle-ranking official, and his family, a wife and two daughters. Iceland is a place that has always fascinated me, and I can’t say I’ve read many stories with it as a setting, so that made this book even more intriguing. Did it live up to the hype? Not really. I found it solid reading, but not that special, at least not consistently so.

The story itself doesn’t offer many surprises. You know from the start that it’s going to end with Agnes’ execution. It’s also pretty obvious that the family housing Agnes will eventually become more sympathetic to their servant/prisoner, and that Agnes will turn out to be not as guilty and monstrous as everybody thinks she is. A large section of the book is devoted to gradually uncovering the truth about Agnes’ backstory and the events of the night of the murders, and unfortunately the true story is not much more interesting than an average Law & Order episode.

That wouldn’t have mattered so much if the novel did a good job with the characters and the setting, but I don’t think that it quite succeeded on that front either. It’s perhaps unfair, but sometimes your impression of a book is coloured by the one you’ve just read beforehand. In my case it was Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who is one of my favourite authors and whose skill at evoking a sense of place and time, and writing about the texture and minutiae of everyday life, is simply astonishing. With that book still fresh in my mind, Burial Rites definitely suffered in comparison. It’s full of exotic Icelandic names and phrases, descriptions of the landscapes and farms, but for all I cared it could have been set in any remote, impoverished community – I got no real sense of either the early 19th century or the country it’s set in. If one of the characters suddenly got a mobile phone out I honestly doubt I would have noticed.

Agnes is easy to sympathise with, given her terrible fate and the privations she goes through before she’s placed with the Jonsson family. There’s also a point made that, unlike the other female servant caught up in the crime, she’s denied a lighter sentence because the society she lives in punishes the women it deems to be too smart for their own good. The chapters with her narration are written in a more lyrical, poetic language compared to the plainer, more functional style of the rest of the book. I’m guessing the author did it in order to highlight the difference between Agnes’ inner world and the outside reality in which she’s reviled by pretty much everyone, and these chapters do have some beautiful passages. At the same time though, this stylistic switch felt a tad contrived, and made Agnes feel remote even as she’s supposedly spilling her innermost thoughts and feelings. Of the supporting characters, Margret, Jon Jonsson’s tough, no-nonsense wife, is probably the best-realised one, and her interactions with Agnes are well done. Margret’s daughters, Lauga and Steina, start out promisingly but then retreat into the background, whereas Jon himself is a blur. Reverend Toti, a meek young priest who is assigned to be Agnes’ spiritual advisor and guide her back to God before death, never really rises above a stereotype.

Despite all that, I thought that the final chapter, which deals with Agnes’ final hours, was powerful stuff. Very haunting and emotional. It will probably stick with me for a while where the rest of the novel likely won’t.

Quote of the Day

I read out this extract from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet during my speech at my sister’s wedding – I was looking for a wedding-appropriate poem that a) didn’t make me vomit and b) expressed something I personally believed in. I think it puts a very practical advice on the need of space in relationships in a very beautiful way:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

The Wolverine

The_Wolverine_(film)_poster_001Watched The Wolverine yesterday on regular TV; I really forgot how annoying the ad breaks are. Luckily a mute button was there for me to make things a little bit better.

I love Hugh Jackman and I love the character, but I skipped the movie during its theatrical release. I still had the foul aftertaste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine in my mouth, a legitimately shitty movie if there ever was one, and the trailers just didn’t look inspiring enough. While The Wolverine is not anywhere as terrible as Hugh Jackman’s first solo outing, it’s still nothing more than mediocre. It’s not exciting enough as an action/thriller and much too superficial to be a thoughtful, mature character study it was obviously aiming to be. In fact the best thing about it is this rather cool Japanese-style poster.

It starts well enough with a gorgeously shot prologue sequence set during World War II, in which Logan saves a Japanese soldier from annihilation during the Nagasaki bombing. Cut to the present day, Logan is a depressed bum living somewhere up north, tortured by the memory of killing Jean Grey at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. Which is where my big problems started: it’s not exactly this movie’s fault, but I just never bought the idea of Jean being Wolverine’s One True Love. I love X2, but that scene near the end where Logan starts to blubber “she’s gone” honestly makes me cringe every time. As a result, all the angst over her death in The Wolverine fell flat despite Hugh Jackman’s best efforts. The “hero finds himself in the darkest place and must rise” arc can be effective, but if the setup feels phony to start with the whole thing falls apart. I had exactly the same problem with Dark Knight Rises.

Anyway, Logan mopes around until he is tracked down by Yukio, a young Japanese martial arts expert who explains to him that her employer, Ichiro Yashida, the same Japanese man who Logan had saved, is dying and wishes to say goodbye. Once in Japan, Yashida reveals to Logan that he wants to make him a parting gift and make Logan mortal, so that he could have a chance at normal life. Logan also meets the other members of the Yashida clan, including Mariko, Ichiro’s granddaughter, who (duh) immediately catches his eye.

The theme of immortality and its burden is pretty intriguing, even if it’s already been explored in dozens of vampire movies, though I’m not sure why it would be a burden to Wolverine since, being an amnesiac, he can’t actually remember most of his past life. But ok fine, the thought of immortality could be pretty depressing I guess. However, the movie then immediately dumps this theme in favour of Logan getting involved in the intrigues of the Yashida family, and getting all protective over Mariko. Also, the minute the dying old man tells Logan that his powers of regeneration can be transferred to someone else, I immediately figured out where this was all going. Let’s see, is there a character in this movie badly in need of regenerative powers? Why I believe there is! From then on, it’s just about sitting through the family machinations and chases and fights and a lame romance and more fights until everything is revealed in a very silly third act. I suppose the makers of the movie thought it would be fascinating to take Wolverine’s healing powers away and make him more vulnerable, but it doesn’t amount to much. I never felt like the stakes got higher or that Logan was ever in genuine danger.

You can tell that Hugh Jackman is 100% committed to the role, but flashes of laconic humour aside, Wolverine is stuck in the one-note, brooding, glowering mode here, and is nowhere as compelling as he was in Singer’s first two X-Men movies. His romance with Mariko is absolutely lifeless; I’ve been harsh on the Logan/Jean romance just before but at least it had some palpable chemistry and flirtation. Here, Mariko and Logan kiss simply because that’s the spot in the screenplay where characters are supposed to kiss. Far more believable is Logan’s growing friendship with Yukio, who turns out to be a close friend of Mariko’s and also has a gift of seeing into the future. The actress who plays her is a striking girl with almost stylized looks – red hair, huge eyes, triangular face – and if her line delivery is a bit stilted at times it actually adds to the oddness of the character somehow. It’s funny that Logan’s platonic relationships with women in these movies (Rogue and Yukio) are so much more convincing than any of his romances. The most ridiculous character in the whole movie is Viper, a physician employed by Ichiro Yashida, who is also a mutant with snake-like powers. The Russian actress who plays her seems to be under an impression that she’s really playing Poison Ivy in Schumacher’s Batman & Robin; her over-the-top campiness is completely out of place.

The action in the movie was very hit-and-miss. The bullet train sequence was lots of fun, but many of the fight scenes are shot in confusing close-ups and aren’t as exciting as “Wolverine vs. ninjas” sounds in theory. In fact, the scene with the ninjas, which ends with Wolverine walking around like a living pincushion with dozens of arrows in his back before toppling over in a Christlike pose, is unintentionally hilarious. I did like the Japanese setting, and my favourite piece of set design was the old man’s bed which automatically moulds itself as he sits up or lies down. In the end though, I’m glad I saved myself twenty dollars.