Month: July 2015

Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman

cvr9780743289542_9780743289542_hrI love me a good historical biography and I really enjoyed this account of one of the greatest figures in history. As with any serious historical non-fiction, you can’t just skim over it casually and it requires your full concentration, but it was so absorbing I finished it in a space of three days, abandoning the usual distractions of TV and internet. It also helped that it was written in a very straightforward, accessible language.

In the preface, the author states that his aim was not to praise Caesar nor to bury him, but simply to tell his story as it happened. While it’s true that overall the biography keeps a neutral tone and doesn’t gloss over Caesar’s mistakes and the less-than-admirable episodes, I still got an impression that the author had quite a bit of liking for his subject. It’s not hard to see why though. Caesar was a truly great man, a skilled politician, a brilliant orator and a general. He was capable of both careful, cautious planning, and acting boldly when he needed to (there are so many occasions in the book when Caesar sprung surprises on his enemies by doing something completely unexpected that no one tried before). His psychological hold over his loyal armies was exceptional, with numerous occasions when he was able to bring his men back from the edge of mutiny by, paradoxically, not giving in an inch. He also had a policy of clemency and forgiveness towards his enemies that was unusual by the standards of the day, even if it was calculated and politically motivated most of the times (on the other hand, he rarely if ever showed mercy to the same person twice, and never had a problem destroying an entire city if he felt it was necessary). Plus he just had style. There’s an anecdote early on about the time when young Caesar got captured by the pirates on his way to Rhodes, and raised his own ransom by more than half because he found the initial sum insulting. It is fair to say that his ambitions and military exploits brought a huge amount of death and suffering, but on the other hand, you can’t really separate his actions from the world he lived in, in which war and conquest was a normal part of life. Romans were just much better at it than most.

The biography can be said to be roughly split into three sections: Caesar’s early life, his campaigns in Gaul (modern France), and the civil war which ended with his rise to the ultimate power (which in turn ended with one of the most famous assassinations in history). Unfortunately, the only good source on the childhood of Caesar available to the modern historians begins with his sixteenth year, but the author does a great job evoking the time and place in which Caesar grew up, and making educated guesses as to what his childhood might have been. This section of the book also has the most interesting details about the society of ancient Rome: politics, education, structure of the Roman households and family life, the ancient view of homosexuality, religion etc. The middle chapters on Gaul were probably the least compelling (though still interesting) partly because they shift much of the focus away from Rome and its political life, but then it comes back with the vengeance in the last third. As an aside, it was interesting to see how many details the TV show Rome (one of my all-time favourites) got wrong and right about that period. Pompey’s death, for instance, was pretty much spot-on in the series. I wish the book gave more details of personal nature, such as Caesar’s relationships with the people closest to him, but I guess these details could be hard to come by when the person in question lived more than 2,000 years ago. It was rather amusing to read though that, just like many men throughout the ages, Caesar was quite self-conscious about his baldness and tried to hide it by combing his hair over. Some things never change, haha.

The only thing that really annoyed me was the amount of grammatical errors in my edition of the book, just really stupid stuff like saying “really” instead of “rally”. I found at least five and that’s absolutely unforgivable in a professional publication. Grrrrr.

Dark City

darkcityThis moody sci-fi mind-bender was a pleasure to revisit. Released a year before The Matrix, it explored some similar themes in its own unique way, and has aged really well. The special effects look a tad cheap and dated here and there, but because the story is set in a world that never sees the sun, the dimly lit environment does well to hide the imperfections. Visually, the film is a marvel, with many memorable images, fantastic noirish atmosphere and superb set design.

The film begins with a man (Rufus Sewell) waking up naked in a bathroom, with no memories of who he is or why there is a corpse of a young woman with creepy ritualistic circles carved into her body lying on the floor in his hotel number. Immediately after he gets a warning call from a stranger who tells him that there are people looking for him and that he must leave. He eventually figures out that his name is John Murdoch, that he’s got a wife (an adorably young Jennifer Connelly), and that he might be a suspect in recent brutal murders of several young women. This makes him of interest to Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), a policeman in charge of the case.

This alone could actually have been a premise for a decent detective thriller, but there’s a lot more going on in this movie. What John doesn’t know, and what we learn in the prologue, is that this is no ordinary city. The city and all of its inhabitants are in fact controlled by the Strangers, an alien race from another solar system who, for reasons that are never explained, are dying out. They possess a power of changing and shaping reality that they call “tuning”, and they left their home world to study human race in an attempt to figure out what makes them unique. They have a human helper, Dr Daniel Schreber, who incidentally is the same person who warns John to leave.

What follows is a suspenseful story of John trying to figure out who he is, what the hell is going on with the city, and what’s the deal with the persistent memories of a bright sunny place called Shell Beach he keeps getting. I’ve already said this but the moody, eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere that the film evokes is just awesome. The look of the place is predominantly 1940s, with some of the characters’ dialogue sounding like it was lifted from the movies of that era, but there are other elements and touches that make you constantly feel like something is just not adding up. The Strangers themselves are unsettling creations in black trench coats and with chalk-white faces (which have an explanation by the way that makes them even creepier).

Rufus Sewell is a curious choice for the lead as I’ve mostly seen him in bad guy roles. He’s got a naturally haunted look to him that fits the role, and because his features are kinda dark and sinister it adds ambiguity to the character whose past we know nothing about. Jennifer Connelly’s character is not all that well-developed beyond the loving concerned wife, but she is crucial in highlighting what the Strangers, in their quest to understand humanity, do not see. Kiefer Sutherland, who’ll probably be remembered most for his tough guy role on 24, was tons of fun to watch as a somewhat wimpy but wily doctor. His performance was eccentric, with lots of heavy breathing and weird… pauses… between the… words, but never grating.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going_Clear_PosterI was once involved with Scientology for a brief period in my early 20s. I knew absolutely nothing about it at the time, and ended up joining by chance: I got handed a flyer on the street about a free personality test, and decided to take it on a whim. My teens and early 20s weren’t always the happiest of times; I suffered from major social anxiety and inability to relate to my peers, which wasn’t helped by my family moving to Australia when I was 15. So I guess I was drawn by the promise that these people could help me out. I haven’t stuck there for long though. It’s not that I felt like something was off, the people were nice and genuine and the auditing exercises I did were often cathartic, but I’m just not a joiner at heart. There’s always a sceptical, detached part of me that stands apart with crossed arms and won’t melt and flow, and thinks that the promotional video I’ve just seen is really quite cheesy. My attitude was, ok I’ve had powerful experiences at your organisation which taught me valuable things about myself, but now, goodbye. No, really, bye. Which of course hasn’t stopped the Melbourne Scientology centre from bombarding my mailbox with spam for the next 15 years.

I didn’t learn until much later that Scientology was actually considered a religion, with a long trail of controversy attached to it, the extent of which I didn’t realise until I watched this documentary the other day. Its maker, Alex Gibney, speaks to an array of former members, including those who used to hold senior positions in the organisation, and also spends the first half of the film looking back at the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard. Admittedly, it’s hardly a balanced view, but there’s no denying that Hubbard’s life was crazy stuff (living on a boat with dozens of adoring disciples at one point). The film speculates that Scientology was a form of self-therapy for its creator, who clearly had some major personal issues.

The real villain of the documentary, though, is Hubbard’s successor David Miscavige, who is portrayed as a ruthless, sinister figure. The testimonies of unpaid labour, physical and psychological abuse, harassment of the former members, manipulation and brainwashing all made for a chilling viewing. The inside footage of the church’s grand ceremonies (how did they get those?) is a rather bizarre mishmash of gaudy Hollywood glitz, Soviet-era pomp and Hubbard deity-worship. The documentary also focuses on two of Scientology’s most valuable Hollywood assets, John Travolta and Tom Cruise, and speculates on the hold the church has over them (since all the auditing sessions are documented, there’s a biiiig pile of the stars’ innermost confessions and secrets locked away somewhere, in case they wanted to walk out). Tom Cruise’s general weirdness has been a butt of jokes for a very long time now so it’s not exactly shocking to see his over-the-top antics in the documentary, but even so the interview where he goes into a creepy laughing fit after being asked if he’s ever met a “suppressive person” still makes you go, wow this guy is mad.

The absolute saddest moment in the whole thing is the bit where the ex-members talk about being “disconnected” by their family and loved ones who are still in the church. The one that almost made me cry was a woman who described how her daughter told her that, while she still loved her, she couldn’t be in contact with her any longer, and how, in that moment, she tried to remember every single detail about the person she was about to lose.

There was also a rather hilarious moment when Paul Haggis, a famed screenwriter and another former member, talks about his what-the-fuck reaction to Scientology’s origin story, which you don’t get to know until you reach a certain level and which involves a galactic overlord Xenu bringing billions of alien souls to Earth to solve an overpopulation crisis. To be totally fair, I don’t think it’s any weirder than most of the world’s mainstream religions, who simply have the benefit of greater familiarity and the respectability that comes with being around for thousands of years. What separates Scientology though is that other religions are totally upfront about their core beliefs, whereas Scientology gets people in under the guise of personal development, and only dumps the Xenu stuff later when they’re sucked in so far into it all it doesn’t make them quit even if they find it laughable.

Paul Haggis by the way comes off as a very likeable guy (Crash and Million Dollar Baby are still garbage though).

This Charming Man by Marian Keyes

THIS-CHARMING-MAN-appI read a few novels by Marian Keyes (a.k.a. the Irish Queen of Chick Lit), but while I enjoyed them all to various degrees most of them fall into the “read once and forget” basket. This book had stuck with me though, I’ve just re-read it for the second time in two years and loved it as much as when I first read it. At nearly 900 pages (set at a pretty large font mind you), it’s a breeze and pleasure to read.

The story starts with the engagement announcement of Paddy de Courcy, an Irish politician, which comes as a huge surprise to Lola, a stylist for the society ladies, who until then believed herself to be his exclusive girlfriend. Naturally, Lola is a total wreck, and on her friends’ interference she moves to Knockavoy, a tiny place on the coast of Ireland. From then on, the story switches between Lola and three other women: Grace, a tough no-nonsense journalist, her troubled twin sister Marnie, and Alicia, Paddy’s fiance (though her presence in the book is minimal compared to the others). The different character chapters have their own writing styles: Lola’s is more like diary entries, with lots of short sharp sentences and skipped nouns; Grace is written from a first-person perspective and Marnie and Alicia’s are third person narratives. Their stories are even set in different fonts, one of them looking a bit too much like Comic Sans which bugged me a bit. It’s a designer thing.

The chapters are interspersed with creepy interludes detailing scenes of horrible domestic abuse, which as the book progresses becomes one of its main themes: violent men and the women who get trapped in abusive relationships with them. Also, one of the characters is revealed to be an alcoholic; apparently the author herself had struggled with alcoholism and depression and the descriptions of the character’s self-destructive behaviour and inability to quit or even acknowledge the problem ring true. But despite this heavy stuff the book is actually very funny. Keyes’ writing has a likable, natural style and down-to-earth sense of humour (with some amusing Irish expressions), with the funny bits and darker themes in perfect balance where none diminishes the other. Lola’s subplot in Knockavoy, where her stylist skills become useful in a way she (and the reader) would have never anticipated, is particularly hilarious. This being a Marian Keyes book there’s also romance and happy endings which are a tad too happy, but what the hell I loved them too.

Rams

1431335012201I love Icelandic language – even the name of this movie, which is just wooly things that go baaaa, sounds epic in Icelandic: Hrutar!

This was another film screening at the Palace Cinemas as part of the Scandinavian Film Festival, and one I wanted to see the most, because of its setting and also because it won a prize at Cannes (mind you, so did Dancer in the Dark and I wanted to strangle that movie). It’s set in a secluded valley in northern Iceland, and is about two elderly brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, who are both sheep farmers and live side by side, but haven’t said a word to each other in over 40 years. The film never really goes into the details of why, but Kiddi’s irascible temper must have had something to do with it. Their only means of communication is the notes that Gummi occasionally passes to his brother through his dog (this dog mail system is just the cutest thing). Their world is turned upside down when Kiddi’s prized ram suffers from terrible infection which means devastation not just for him and Gummi but every farmer in the valley.

I always love it when a movie pulls you into its world that’s so different from the one you live in it might as well be another planet. Rams moves at a gentle pace and not that much happens in it, but you feel totally engrossed in the lives and concerns of its characters, for whom the sheep are their world. The bleakly beautiful Icelandic landscape lends the movie a special vibe, helped along by the effective musical score. Even though the circumstances that the brothers find themselves in are quite tragic and sad, there’s also plenty of humour and hilarious quirky details. You know from the start that the relationship between Gummi and Kiddi is going to transform somehow by the end, but it’s done in an understated, believable manner which is touching and lovely.

Mum and I then sat through the majority of the credits, where 95% of surnames ended in either “son” or “dottir”, which is how Icelandic surnames are formed. That was pretty cool too.

Out of Nature

Out-of-Nature3Scandinavian Film Festival is on at the Palace Cinemas, so friend and I went to see this Norwegian feature. I’m a sucker for the scenery, and I have a basic love for the “characters go out into the wilderness to find themselves” subgenre. It’s a very minimalist film with virtually no plot which centres on Martin, a 30-something man who feels like his life is in a rut. He’s bored with his job and his marriage, and though he clearly loves his little son he’s got no idea how to relate to him in a meaningful way. So he sets out on a lone hike across the local mountains for the weekend, and that’s pretty much the whole movie – Martin trekking along while we listen to his stream-of-consciousness voiceover. He agonises a lot over his marriage and his relationship with his son, thinks back to his own remote unaffectionate father, his old carefree life before the marriage which in its own way was just as much of a rut, and imagines scenarios of how his life could be. Plus, he thinks about sex a lot. You know you’re watching a European movie when there’s casual full-frontal male nudity galore.

I’ve always found the whole concept of listening to the characters’ thoughts in movies a tad contrived (more so than in the books), because they never fail to think in perfectly worded sentences, and some of the supposed thoughts in this movie sound too much like deliberate narration. Once I got over the artificiality of it, the movie was enjoyable. Something as simple as this requires a perfectly judged tone, and they got it just right through the editing, music and the stunning scenery. While the overall mood is angsty, there’s also a subtle comedic touch to the movie and the kind of odd Scandinavian sensibility which is hard to pin down but which runs through all of their movies, books and TV. It’s just nice to take a break from the American/British cinema sometimes.

The only blip was a couple of inconsiderate old people sitting behind us who would not shut up throughout the movie. Just because the cinema is near empty, it does not make it ok people!