Month: October 2015

Snowpiercer

SnowpiercerThis dystopian parable had one of the nuttiest premises I’ve seen in a movie. In the not-so-distant future, the entire planet is frozen solid after the attempt to solve the problem of global warming goes spectacularly wrong. All life is wiped out, and what remains of the human race is gathered on a single train, which is powered by an eternal engine and whose rail network spans the entire globe, so it takes the train one year to complete the full circle. The train is the world, and as throughout the human history its population is split into haves and have-nots. The former reside in the front of the train where they spend their days in pampered luxury, while the denizens of the back section live in misery and squalor on a diet of protein bars which look like disgusting black jelly (and yes you do get to find out what they’re made from). At the very front are the quarters of Wilford, the mysterious owner/designer of the train, who is never seen to leave the engine room and who has cronies and armed forces maintaining the order in the back, including some inventive punishments involving cold temperatures. Despite that, the train had seen a few (failed) revolutions and as the movie opens we’re at the start of another attempt, spearheaded by Curtis (Chris Evans), who is something of a reluctant leader.

This is the kind of setup that can be mercilessly nitpicked on, so it’s probably best to see it as a device for the commentary on human nature and social order, rather than a realistic scenario, because there’s no way a train could chug around the planet for 17 years without any railway maintenance or repairs and that’s just to start with. Once you swallow the premise though the movie is a weird and wonderful ride through the bizarre and often brutal universe onboard the train, as our rebels make their way through the carriages, each designated for some specific purpose. While it’s pretty clear that in the end Curtis will somehow make it to the engine room and have a chat with the Architect… sorry wrong movie, Wilford, there’s nothing predictable about the journey itself. Probably the most surreal moment is when the group comes into the classroom full of little kids, where a bright and chirpy teacher feeds them propaganda glorifying Wilford a la Hitler’s Youth. There are also frequent scenes of violence, though much of it is implied rather than graphic and it’s often interspersed with moments of black or/and absurdist humour.

Evans is solid as the lead; Curtis starts out seemingly a pure, heroic kind of character (partly because Evans has one of those faces that just look so damn decent and all-American), but is slowly revealed to have a haunted past. The supporting cast, which includes the likes of John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer, do a fine job, the standout performance coming from the nearly unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason, who acts as Wilford’s propaganda mouthpiece. She’s a truly eccentric character, sorta like a cross between Margaret Thatcher and a hammy clown; her insanely over-the-top performance should by all rights stick out like a sore thumb among the more natural acting everyone else does, yet it works, probably because it’s in tune with some of the over-the-top elements of the film. When I finally found out who plays Wilford, I had a chuckle to myself and thought, but of course.

The film’s view of human nature and history (going around in circles like the train) is pretty damn bleak, and I wasn’t sure how to interpret its ending. Is it a depressing view of what the human race ultimately deserves, or does it offer hope whose lack of realism can be ignored because the entire premise is unrealistic to start with? Sometimes open endings like this are the best way to finish the movie even as they frustrate the hell out of you.

Crimson Peak

Jessica-Chastain-in-Crimson-PeakI’m glad I watched it, but dear lord this was one silly movie. I overheard one person say that this was the worst film he’s ever seen, and while personally I don’t concur, if you don’t have a soft spot for the overblown gothic melodrama I can see why this movie would not agree with you.

Early on, the film’s heroine Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska, who seems to have inherited Kate Winslet’s mantle as the period movie girl, tells a prospective publisher that the story she’s written is not a ghost story but a story with a ghost in it. She is talking about the film at large here, but the problem is that it’s never clear what kind of story it’s meant to be. It has ghosts but it’s not a ghost story; it has a romance but it’s not a romantic story; it’s structured like a mystery but the mystery here is so painfully obvious, with every development telegraphed well in advance, that you have to be a moron not to put two and two together. While it has elements of horror, it is unfortunately not in the least scary; it does manage to be creepy when our heroine is exploring the atmospheric, dimly lit interiors, but the minute the actual ghosts appear in all their laughable CGI glory all I could do was snigger.

The film has two distinct halves; in the first one, Edith, who lives with her banker father in Buffalo USA, meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an impoverished English baronet who is seeking sponsorship for one of his mechanical inventions. He also travels with his icy, haughty sister (Jessica Chastain), who might as well have I AM EVIL tattooed on her forehead; you pretty much know she’s up to no good when she wears a blood-red dress to a society ball. Thomas is all dreamy and sensitive and caring so Edith is an easy prey for him. Her father takes an instinctive dislike to him, but soon enough that stops being an issue and Edith is whisked away to England and to Allerdale Hall, a vast, crumbling family mansion standing on red clay that seeps through their basement and stains the freshly fallen snow.

I still haven’t said anything complimentary about the movie yet, so here it is: the production design, the rich decaying beauty of the mansion, the extravagant costumes, the billowing night dresses are pure gothic heaven. I also loved the odd, macabre details like the image of the ants consuming a dead butterfly early on in the movie and the weird little nooks and crannies of the mansion. While the characters are rather cliched, I did enjoy the three main performances. Wasikowska is a perfect pure-hearted gothic heroine, though it’s a tad disappointing to see Edith go from a spirited independent woman in the first half to someone who’s basically there to react to the house and its hideous mysteries. Hiddleston supposedly has a small but very rabid female following and yeah I can see why, he’s charismatic, soulful and gorgeous. Edith and Thomas’ romance is hard to really root for though since it’s clear that nothing good will come of it. I also couldn’t see the fuss over the sex scene that was made in some of the interviews: oh no we showed some brief male nudity (not even full-frontal), goodness me how shocking! Jessica Chastain’s British accent made me wince at first, but I really warmed to her performance; it’s operatic and preposterous but fun to watch. Plus she looks great as a brunette and has a sensuality here that’s missing from the last few movies where she’s played the same kind of determined nerdy character.

So, a mixed bag; while I loved the visuals and enjoyed the acting I do wish the story had more focus and at least made an attempt to rise over the genre cliches. Also, if you’re putting humanoid ghosts in your movie, for the love of god invest in some good make-up rather than horrible fake special effects.

Laura Marling @ Hamer Hall

Laura_Marling_NEW650x370Saw Laura Marling at the beautiful Hamer Hall yesterday – she performed as part of the Melbourne Festival. Monday night is a weird night for a concert, but then a break in the routine is always nice. I arrived early and lingered around for a while, observing the arty/hipsterish crowd and trying not to have a second helping of the hideously overpriced ice cream. The supporting act, D.D Dumbo, was short and sweet, surprisingly short in fact – I don’t think he was onstage for longer than half an hour. It was just one guy, armed with a bunch of pedals, where he’d record a sample of a drum beat or guitar and then let it loop over and over and gradually build a song up. This layering technique is always fun to watch live, and the music was pretty good, I even recognised one of the tracks since they played it quite a bit on Triple J. The crowd chat was minimal and he didn’t even introduce himself, which obviously bothered a guy in the audience who cried out, “what’s your name??” before the very last song. Strangely enough, he introduced himself under his real name, Oliver.

I’ve seen Laura couple of times before, once at the Laneway Festival where she was such a shy bunny her crew had to talk her into walking onstage. She was much more relaxed and comfortable this time around, making self-deprecating banter in between the songs and being charmingly British. As a performer, she’s immediately enchanting; her voice has got the intimacy of a storyteller and feels incredibly mature, womanly and lived-in for someone who’s only twenty-five years old. They kicked off the night in a sombre manner with the opening track from Once I Was an Eagle – Laura joked later that they like to get the heavy stuff out of the way early on, with a 20-minute song and three songs in a minor key, and fair enough, the rest of the show had a more upbeat vibe. This was billed as a concert in support of her latest album, which I missed out on since I’m not buying music magazines on a regular basis anymore, but I think I’ve only heard two or three songs I didn’t know and they played something from every album. They also did an excellent cover of a Dolly Parton song, and another cover whose name I missed, but it was good too. At one point she messed up the lyrics to her best-known song, but the crowd thought it was adorable and cheered her on. It’s always nice to be at a concert where the artist is so warmly welcomed.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

into-thin-air-978144720018501I ended up reading this book twice, because I didn’t feel like I gave it justice the first time around: I read it in a terribly rushed, haphazard manner and this is simply not a book to read in 15-minute bites. Plus I have a bad habit where sometimes I get impatient about two thirds into the reading, and start scanning and skipping through the final pages in a race to the finish.

The previous non-fiction I’ve read by Krakauer, Into the Wild, was one of those rare books that really got under my skin and haunted my imagination for a very long time afterwards; also I’ve just watched Everest, which, like the book, tells the story of the disastrous guided ascent in May 1996 when eight people lost their lives in the terrible storm. Krakauer, who was sent to write about the expedition by the Outside magazine, was one of the survivors, so this book was also an incredibly personal account, written not long after he returned home. In the preface, he says that, rather than waiting to put some distance between himself and the event, he wanted his account to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty, and the book certainly drips with it. The very first paragraph immediately sets the mood: Krakauer describes arriving at the top of Everest, looking down at the spectacular sight beneath him, yet instead of feeling elation over achieving a long-held dream, he is simply too tired to care. There’s your romanticism slaughtered right away.

Movie vs book comparisons are always interesting to make, and while the book doesn’t have the power of the visuals, it has remarkably vivid descriptions and the advantage of a far greater breadth of details. It delves into the history of Everest climbing, mentioning such prominent figures as George Mallory and Edmund Hillary; the culture of Sherpas, the Nepalese ethnic group whose livelihood came to revolve around the business of organised climbing; and Krakauer’s own obsession with scaling mountains which never completely went away even after he got married. I think that this personal insight into what drives people to suffer hardship and risk their lives out in the wilderness is what makes this book and Into the Wild so compelling. It is not a drive I can personally relate to but reading these books gives me a kind of understanding. This paragraph I think sums up his experience at Everest:

I’d always know that climbing mountains was a high-risk pursuit. I accepted that danger was an essential component of the game – without it, climbing would be little different from a hundred other trifling diversions. It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.

Until I visited the Himalaya, however, I’d never actually seen death at close range. Hell, before I went to Everest, I’d never even been to a funeral. Mortality had remained a conveniently hypothetical concept, an idea to ponder in the abstract.

The second part of the book, which deals with the events of the day Krakauer’s group made the final ascent to the top of Everest from Camp Four, was harrowing to read. Krakauer made it back to the camp before the weather got really hairy, but even so his experience brought him to the utmost brink of exhaustion, yet he still was luckier than some of his fellow climbers who got caught in the storm. Their suffering was especially heartbreaking considering that some of them were a mere 15 minutes away from the safety of the camp, had their vision not been completely blocked by the snow and lacerating wind. Krakauer gives a full account of the mistakes and ill judgements (including some of his own which came to haunt him later) that were made on the day, without putting the blame on any single person, and stressing that the oxygen-depleted atmosphere of Everest does not encourage lucid thinking. One also has to keep the extremity of the situation in mind when reading about some of the life-and-death decisions the group had to make on whether a still-living person was beyond rescue. As one of the members from a different Everest expedition bluntly puts it, “above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality”, but even so this story is not without examples of courage and selflessness. There’s also a story of survival concerning one of the climbers which is so improbable that if you saw it in a movie you’d probably cry bullshit. As the additional chapter shows, some of the readers considered Krakauer’s book a slander against one particular guide, but personally I never got this impression while reading the book, which to me retained an impartial tone at all times and didn’t stress one person’s mistake over another’s.

In the end, I was really glad that I gave the book a more thorough second reading, as it deserves it.

Good stuff in Revenge of the Sith

Nooo-Meme-Darth-Vader-04

No, this moment is not one of the good things about the movie

They’re screening all of the Star Wars movies on Channel 7 Saturdays, and tonight it was Revenge of the Sith. I’m not a mega Star Wars fan by any means so I wouldn’t say that the prequels ruined my childhood memories or whatever, but there’s no doubt that they deserve the hate they get. This movie has many of the same issues that flattened the hell out of its predecessors, but overall it’s the most watchable one of the three. Which is faint praise I guess, but it does have quite a few things I genuinely enjoy and it manages to have some good moments of pathos and drama, mostly when the actors are spared having to spout Lucas’ stilted dialogue.

The dark vibe
They go overboard with it at times, like did we really need to have Anakin kill the Jedi children… oh sorry not children, younglings? You’re making a space movie for kids, not Schindler’s List. While at other times, the film is too much of a jarring throwback to the more childish, sillier mood of the previous two films, like when Obi-Wan is chasing that ridiculous robot general atop the equally ridiculous lizardy creature. But all in all I think the movie has a great sense of impending doom and tragedy, helped by the shadowy visuals and menacing score.

Ewan McGregor
He’s got his dodgy moments here and there, especially when he needs to act against the blue screen, but he’s been consistently watchable in the prequel trilogy. Even Lucas’ disinterest in human actors can’t extinguish that spark he has.

The Emperor
Ian McDiarmid chews scenery so hard in some of the scenes I’m surprised my rug is not littered with shards of wood coming out of my TV. But no matter how over-the-top he gets, I honestly don’t mind because the Emperor just takes so much joy in being an evil bastard. He’s the only character in this movie who seems to have fun and he certainly has more charisma than the entire Jedi council, who come off as a bunch of clueless, smug sourpusses.

The birth of Darth Vader
Sure it ends in that laughable NOOOOOOOO, but the preceding moments, with that iconic black helmet lowered over Anakin’s burnt face and the sound of that first mechanical breath, are pretty damn powerful.

The one good Anakin/Padme scene
Their romance here is generally more tolerable than in Attack of the Clones (worst onscreen romance ever, in my book), but that scene where they look out over the city thinking about their future is genuinely good. Ironically, it happens when they’re not actually together and don’t speak a word to each other. There are some other dialogue-free scenes that work really well, like when Count Dooku is pleading for his life with his eyes and Anakin is conflicted on what to do with him.

Hot liquid magma
The final duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin goes for far too long, but I can’t deny I dig that fiery volcano-like setting a lot. Some of the environments and worlds in this movie I don’t particularly care for – they’re meticulously designed and rendered but feel too cartoonish for my liking. However there are some gorgeous shots of Coruscant at dusk, and the design of the senate chamber remains incredibly cool.