Month: December 2015

Oh look everybody it’s New Year’s Eve

I’m planning to spend it at home eating ice cream and watching TV. It honestly couldn’t feel more like a non-event, which is a shame in a way because back in Russia it was always one of the year’s most exciting events, with all the trimmings that are associated with Christmas here in Australia, the tree, presents, copious amounts of food, Santa Claus (or rather Grandfather Frost) etc. We tried to keep it up for a few years after arriving in Australia, but then it just petered out and these days my attitude is that of the many Aussies: ugh I’ve just had Christmas, do I have to make an effort for this thing too? And I like Christmas just fine, but without any childhood memories or sentimental attachments it’s just not the same; it’s like I’ve lost a holiday that used to mean a lot and gained one that, without any roots in childhood when you feel the magic of an event most intensely, is basically just an excuse for another big family gathering.

As it often happens, my most memorable New Year’s Eve in Russia was a disastrous one, where our entire neighbourhood lost the electricity and we had to burn candles and eat cold salads. Until miraculously, the lights went back on just in time for us to turn on the TV and watch the clock on Spasskaya Tower in Moscow ring in the new year and for Boris Yeltsin to give his presidential address. And right after he finished, the damn lights went out again.

Mind you, even these days, as the time gets closer to midnight, I do get an echo of the feeling that you’re about to cross some sort of threshold and something new is about to begin. So maybe I should work on some resolutions. Exercise more and eat sugary/fatty crap less, here’s a good one.

Canberra

I don’t think I’d want to live in Canberra but visiting for a few days was nice. It’s a very sedate place which, depending on a point of view, could either mean quiet and relaxing or dull and empty. On a plus side, the food was uniformly fantastic and the city is very green, with many European trees which must look stunning in autumn. The road system however is a visitor’s nightmare; evidently someone decided that parallel streets are way too boring and that the traffic must run in circles and loops instead.

To break up the trip, we stopped in Beechworth for the night. It’s a pretty little historical town but unfortunately we couldn’t explore it properly the next day: almost everything was closed because of Christmas holidays and the rain was bucketing down like crazy. It kept on pouring for the rest of the drive, so our view of the countryside was limited to dead kangaroos by the side of the road. Luckily, for the rest of our stay the weather was pretty much perfection.

It was pretty cool to see the Parliament House in the flesh though we decided to skip the queue and not see the interior. It’s a massive improvement on the Old Parliament House for sure, which looks positively daggy in comparison. The Australian War Memorial was genuinely impressive and my favourite landmark in Canberra. The one unintentionally amusing detail was that the interior mosaics of young strapping soldiers and pilots were so reminiscent of Soviet-era art I half-expected stars and sickles to pop up somewhere.

The National Gallery of Australia had an excellent retrospective on the art of Tom Roberts. Back at the school/uni, I used to think that the Australian art history classes were massive bore, but in hindsight I’m grateful to them for introducing me to Roberts, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker et al. Roberts’ portraits are exceptional and though I’m usually not a big fan of landscape painting, I’m so used to seeing European landscapes in museums that the Australian landscape, and especially Australian light, is such stark contrast the paintings feel striking and refreshing. I had no ambition to see absolutely everything on display in the gallery, so I mostly stuck to the modern Australian art and particularly Nolan’s series of Ned Kelly paintings, which were awesome. The National Portrait Gallery, which has a collection of portraits of notable Australians from different eras, was also good, though by the end of it I was thoroughly galleried out.

The National Zoo was good value; unfortunately we didn’t get to see the white lions, because cats being cats, they chose to doze in the shade. Sun bears however were up and active, which was cool because I’ve never seen them in real life before, and we did manage to see one of the tigers after one of the keepers coaxed him out. The National Arboretum was worth visiting mainly for its collection of bonsai and penjing trees, which were like a living work of art and adorable to boot.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

StarWars_ForceAwakens

In a nutshell, despite some winning performances and energetic direction of J.J. Abrams, the movie falls short due to mediocre writing and some of the common problems plaguing many of the modern blockbusters. I was hoping that it would be a lot like Abrams’ first Star Trek film, which I adored to bits despite its story/villain shortcomings, but unfortunately it felt more like a companion movie to Star Trek: Into Darkness: never boring, but ultimately hollow.

I’ve read some criticism about The Force Awakens basically following the template of the very first Star Wars film, but I can honestly say that it’s not what mainly bothered me about it. It’s true that I really didn’t care for yet another Death Star storyline – here it’s been upgraded to an even bigger Starkiller that can destroy five planets simultaneously. How many times can the bad guys spend their time and resources on a massive superweapon that keeps getting blown to smithereens every friggin’ time? Also, some of the nostalgic winks made me cringe, like for instance Han Solo recycling one of his best-known lines from the original trilogy (which by the way only highlights the film’s serious lack of quotable dialogue of its own). But again, nostalgia wasn’t the real problem. Disney spent billions on the rights, the prequels left a sour taste in many people’s mouths, so whatever, play it safe and lay on the familiar for your first new movie. But while The Force Awakens copied the beats from the original films, it forgot to copy the stuff that made those stories work.

– The movie had a case of franchiseatis where it felt like the whole thing was a setup for the next movie. A New Hope was a self-contained film that gave enough information about the characters and their world, without the viewers having to trot out the “oh well maybe they’ll explain it in the sequel” excuse. It didn’t leave its characters hanging with unexplained backgrounds and backstories – the later films simply revealed that there was way more to them than what you’ve originally thought.

– The plot of A New Hope centred on the attempt to destroy the Death Star, but here the Starkiller stuff is just a distraction tacked on the main plot in order to pad the movie out, serve up some action scenes and make it seem like our heroes have accomplished something. The central storyline about locating the missing Luke Skywalker is frankly too thin and there’s no reason why it should have been stretched out for an entire film.

– I’ve no idea of what the bigger political picture is here, so I’ve no idea of what the stakes are for this universe. In the original trilogy, it was dead simple: the evil Empire was in charge and the Rebels were the underdogs. Here, we have the Republic, the First Order (basically Empire with more overt Nazi overtones), and The Resistance… so is the Republic in charge with the First Order acting as a sort of a terrorist cell? Or is there a civil war going on? If the Republic is in charge, why the name “Resistance” which implies a struggle against the prevailing order? The prequels were bogged down with tedious politics but this movie does the opposite and explains far too little.

– The breakneck pace of the movie leaves no room for characters to breathe, which leads to way too many instances when the emotional moments are either glossed over too quickly, or feel unearned. As lovely as much of the camaraderie between the characters is, the film sometimes is too eager to have the characters banter like old friends and form deep ties when realistically they spent barely any time together. There’s a Big Scene in the third act that tries to be all tragic and Shakespearean, but because the movie spent zero time on the relationship between the characters, the reason it succeeds even partially is through the sheer effort of the actors. And because the movie then jumps back to the frenetic action with minimal time given to the characters’ reactions, the whole thing feels like it has no real weight.

– Oscar Isaac is a fabulously charismatic actor, but unfortunately his character disappears for the large chunk of the movie and feels underwritten. I wasn’t surprised to learn that there was a late decision to include more of him, because the lack of planning with Poe Dameron really shows.

– Supreme Leader Snoke, the new big bad, is one dud in Andy Serkis’ illustrious motion-capture career. As far as I can tell the character design brief must have been, Gollum and Voldemort mashed together and enlarged for no good reason whatsoever. Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the evil General Hux, does ok but during his speech to the troops I kept thinking, why is this little twerp in command? Don’t they have older, more imposing officers around? Oh and why create a cool, distinct Stormtrooper character with Brienne of Tarth on the inside and give her stuff all to do?

– The scenes between Han and Leia would have been really moving if it wasn’t for the fact that Carrie Fisher’s facial muscles got frozen by the Botox.

– John Williams’ score is woefully unmemorable and only comes to life when it references the old, instantly hummable themes. No Duel of the Fates standouts here.

– Daisy Ridley got tons of acclaim for her turn here, but to me she was hit and miss. She’s natural and charming in some scenes and in others her line delivery was a tad wobbly and reminded me of Keira Knightley’s more wooden moments. Rey also was too much of a magical perfect heroine who picks up all the skills the plot needs her to have all too easily. Because she’s a sole main female character she gets the kind of scrutiny a male character would never get – she’s a strong independent female character and everybody who complains has a problem with competent women! she’s blatant pandering to PC and feminism! – but really the problems with her character are just a part of the overall rushed execution and convenient writing.

I guess it’s only fair to say that there was also quite a bit to like in the movie as well. BB-8, the new droid on the block, is amazingly expressive and just the cutest thing ever. John Boyega, who plays a renegade stormtrooper who leaves the First Order after the appalling massacre at the start of the film pricks his conscience, is enormously likable and felt like the most relatable character in the movie (even if his defection story is too rushed just like everything else). Harrison Ford seems to genuinely enjoy his return as Han Solo – this was no “show up and get the paycheck” performance. There are many scenes in the film where the chemistry and interplay between the actors is absolutely smashing – something that J.J. Abrams always excelled at. And though his character is underwritten, I really liked Kylo Ren, the new villain who’s Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy, to the point of wearing a pointless mask so that he can have a cool evil distorted voice just like his idol. I liked him mostly thanks to Adam Driver, who’s got one of the strangest faces I’ve seen onscreen (I mean this as a compliment), a wonderful deep voice and a striking, gangly yet elegant physical presence. Ren’s scenes with Rey have a weird compelling energy to them, not attraction exactly but certainly some kind of connection, that makes me interested in where these two characters might go in the next movies. Although with Ren, I can already smell a redemption story coming along, and I’m a hopeless sucker for those but I just wish it didn’t feel so damn predictable and telegraphed in advance. I just hope it doesn’t end with him throwing Snoke down the shaft.

In the end, Force Awakens is not sterile and soulless like the prequels, it does feel like everyone involved really did give a shit, it’s fun while it lasts, it’s got the realism and grime that is most welcome after Lucas’ CGI fests. But gah is it too much these days to want some decent writing in a summer blockbuster? Or at least a simple, well-executed story that doesn’t depend on the future films to fill in the gaps?


It’s been ages since I’ve seen a big movie in a huge cinema full of people. To make a music comparison, I like my small intimate gigs but there’s just something special and thrilling about watching a big fat spectacle in an arena or a stadium setting. I had a couple of middle-aged guys with their kids on either side of me, and when John Williams’ iconic score kicked the movie off, I heard “goosebumps” and “I love this already”. I’m pretty sure one of them sniffled at one point, too.

Holy crap the trailer for Batman vs Superman was terrible. I like Jesse Eisenberg a lot but he was painful to watch. Add some forced quips, a mute Wonder Woman and a monster who looks like Weta’s rejected concept for the Cave Troll, and you have one big stinker.

Junebug

511I generally enjoy the movies about dysfunctional families, and I liked this one a lot despite its annoying artsy pretensions. Maybe Juno is to blame, but it just bugs me when a movie practically waves arms at you and cries, oooh look at me, look at me and how quirky I am oooh! Just so you know how different I am, let’s open with a random scene of people yodeling! Fortunately, the movie had enough strong character writing and acting to compensate for the eye-rolling bits.

The story is the good old trope of visiting the in-laws. Madeleine, a sophisticated art dealer in Chicago, meets and marries George, whose family comes from a small town in North Carolina. When she finds out that a folk artist she’s dying to represent lives in the same area, she and George decide to kill two birds with one stone and visit his family as well. Soon, she meets the clan: a formidable matriarch of a mother who’s barely polite to her, her silent, withdrawn husband, George’s younger brother Johnny who’s something of a moody shit and often finds it hard to express himself in ways other than anger, and his sweet, excitable and very very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams, whose performance here got her first Oscar nomination). Needless to say, with Madeleine the outsider around, tensions simmer everywhere, especially when she has to choose between the professional and personal interests later in the film.

It would have been easy to either present Madeleine as a snobby, stuck-up city bitch who needs to learn the true family values, or George’s family as a bunch of ignorant hicks we’re meant to laugh at, but the movie treats the culture clash with subtlety and has sympathy for all of its characters, allowing them flaws but never condemning them. Madeleine does come off as pretentious at times, but Embeth Davidtz, who plays her, has such natural warmth about her it shines through at all times despite her character’s severe, angular look. Amy Adams is another standout; Ashley could have been nails-on-chalkboard annoying with her enthusiasm permanently cranked up to 11, but Adams makes her utterly adorable, and it becomes clear that under all that frilliness and girlish squeals Ashley is a solid, genuinely good person. I also liked the way the movie showed how the family visit can reveal a side to your partner you never knew existed, like it does in the church scene where George does a beautiful rendition of a hymn that leaves Madeleine stunned. Though by the end of the movie there’s some predictable thawing on most characters’ parts, it doesn’t pretend that all family problems can be fixed in a single visit, and there’s no big clichéd climatic scene where everybody’s feelings come out in a rush and everyone just hugs and it’s all ok.

I only wish that my DVD had subtitles; I find thick southern accent one of the hardest ones to wrap my immigrant brain around, and I think I missed out on maybe 40% of the dialogue between Madeleine and the folk artist.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark_Places_coverGillian Flynn has a fascination with the bleak side of life, for sure. Gone Girl was dark and cynical, and this one had all that plus a whole lot more blood, poverty and Satanism on top. I’m glad I read it in an overall good mood, otherwise my mental state might have spiralled down a tad.

In its opening chapter, we’re introduced to Libby Day, a survivor of the horrific family murder in rural Kansas when she was seven. Libby’s testimony put her older brother Ben in prison for life, and 24 years later, she’s a sad screw-up, with no job, no friends, living off the donations that had come from the well-wishers and now all but dried up. Desperate for cash, she reluctantly takes up the offer from the bizarre fan club whose members are obsessed with famous murders to first appear at their convention for Q&A, and then to seek out the various people connected with the crime. Libby, whose belief in Ben’s guilt never wavered all these years, is also shaken by the club members’ conviction that her brother is innocent and that someone else is responsible for her family’s massacre. In between Libby’s road trips, there are flashback chapters told from the point of view of Ben and Patty, Ben and Libby’s mother, which inevitably count down to the night of the murders.

Early on Libby puts it bluntly that she was not a lovable child, and she’s grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Flynn has a knack for writing unlikable characters you want to keep reading about, and she doesn’t shy away from revealing her characters’ deepest, darkest unmentionable thoughts and impulses. She also does a great job with the Day family dynamics, particularly with the way siblings can treat each other like shit sometimes, and I liked the little things like how the same situation can be interpreted so differently by two different people. Patty, an overworked mother of four who is struggling to keep her farm and family together and who can only watch her son descend into something dark, is probably the most sympathetic character here and you really get a sense of her plight. The book has a strong sense of place and the landscape the characters inhabit is pretty damn bleak; the hopeless poverty and grind, the seedy strip clubs and the squatters’ camp. There’s also a strong satirical edge as far as our culture’s obsession with crime goes; I got an impression that it skewers even the seemingly good-hearted women who correspond with Libby’s brother in prison and think the world of him.

To be honest, I thought that the Kill Club device that galvanises Libby into action was a bit contrived, but otherwise I can’t fault the novel’s plotting. Flynn knows exactly how to pace the mystery and how much to reveal before switching to another setting, how to plant moments and items whose significance is revealed later on, and how to make the past and present timelines work in unison so that the story is revealed bit by bit and neither timeline feels redundant. Regarding the final big reveal, I guessed some of it since it was pretty obvious that there was no way a particular character wouldn’t be involved, but the bulk of it took me completely by surprise. It both came out of a blue, and did make total sense once you looked back and remembered particular details. So three admiring hand claps for that.

The Dressmaker

Fashionable-Fridays-Kate-Winslet-Dressmaker-Australian-Couture-e1438772691764This movie’s been out for seven weeks or so, and I half-expected to be shoved in a tiny theatre, but instead it screened in one of the largest ones, which was a bit strange. I guess it’s the film’s last hurrah before Force Awakens takes over 95% of the world’s cinemas in two days’ time.

The Dressmaker is a rather weird hodge-podge of dark comedy and melodrama. It tells the story of Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), who returns to her dump of a town in rural Australia, some time in 1950s, after working as a dressmaker in top Parisian houses. Tilly’s got a few reasons for her return: to look after her eccentric, ailing mother (Judy Davis) who’s a handful to put it mildly, and to uncover the truth about the incident from her childhood which led to her exile from the town. Oh and to have sweet sweet revenge on those townsfolk who have wronged her, with fashion, Singer sewing machine and red lipstick as her weapons.

I haven’t seen Kate Winslet on the big screen in seven years or so, and she’s great fun as the sartorial femme fatale while also uncovering her character’s fragile side. And wow she can rock a red dress. Judy Davis is in cracking form as Tilly’s mother, and their tense mother/daughter interactions make for some of the best scenes in the movie. Liam Hemsworth, who plays one of the local boys and Tilly’s love interest, doesn’t have much to do other than be charming and attractive, but I don’t think any women in the audience minded, including myself, though I’m rather more keen on his older brother. I’ve spotted many familiar faces from the Australian cinema and TV, but most of their appearances aren’t particularly memorable, with the exception of Hugo Weaving’s sympathetic policeman who harbours a secret love of all things fashion. It’s a great comic performance, though one of his earlier scenes cracked me up for a different reason when his diction suddenly got very Agent Smith for a second.

The movie was kinda messy and not always put well together; some of the transitions between the scenes are too abrupt and awkward, and tonally it’s all over the shop, swinging from satire to dark drama to cartoonish humour, sometimes within the same scene. Most of the supporting characters rarely rise above the caricatures. Also, I felt like Tilly’s story was a tad confused, as at times it wasn’t clear on her motivations and whether she wanted revenge or acceptance from her home town. Still, I enjoyed its energy, humour, the particularly Australian brand of quirk, and of course the clothes. The movie well and truly celebrates the transformative power of fashion (and curvy figures). There’s one rather clichéd subplot about an apparently plain girl transformed into a glamorous bombshell who leaves the guy she fancies utterly gobsmacked, but I also appreciated that, for many other women in the movie, looking beautiful was all about how it makes them feel, not about how it makes the observers feel. Some of the darker moments touch on domestic abuse, there’s one particular moment early on which is shown with such matter-of-factness it makes it even more shocking.


Speaking of women’s issues, Suffragette trailer was pretty painful. Worthy topic, love the actors involved, but god it made the movie sound like one of those heavy-handed, Oscar-baiting “important issue” movies.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

wicked-book-coverThe full title of the book is Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and it’s less of a prequel and more like a complete re-imagining of the world known from the classic children’s story by L. Frank Baum and the 1939 Wizard of Oz. I wonder if at this point it got overshadowed by the mega-successful musical – I haven’t seen it but I imagine it reworked the hell out of what is ultimately a very pessimistic, even bleak, story.

The book is split into five sections, each dealing with a significant period from the life of Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch. Born in Munchkinland to a priest and his wife, a high-born heiress whose husband’s absences don’t stop her from having a sex life, little Elphie has green skin, razor-sharp teeth and an allergy to water which is never explained (neither is it explained how she manages to drink liquids). In a later chapter, she is an intense, idealistic teenager who is shunned by her snooty schoolmates, including her roommate Glinda who might not actually be as superficial and empty-headed as she appears to be. While in school, Elphaba becomes passionate about fighting for the rights of the Animals, who are sentient beings as opposed to mere animals and live and work alongside humans as equals. The Wizard of Oz is gradually restricting the freedom of the Animals and threatens to turn them into slaves to be owned and used for labour. This involvement sets Elphaba on a long, long journey which eventually ends up with her meeting Dorothy as the Wicked Witch of the West.

I’ve rarely read a more frustrating book. There was so much to love about it – the whole premise of re-telling the story from the point of view of the character who so far has been portrayed as Just Plain Evil is rich with potential. Maguire’s prose is often striking and powerful, with vivid descriptions and a good dose of the wacky, macabre and perverse. Sometimes the language gets way too ponderous and some overly articulate conversations between Elphaba and her schoolmates got on my nerves – it takes me right out of the story when a character starts to sound like a walking thesis – but overall I really enjoyed the writing, the inventiveness and the bizarre and humorous little details. Plus every chapter is preceded by an etching-style illustration which are absolutely gorgeous, as is the cover art on my edition. It’s the kind of thing that makes me love real books even more.

Story-wise though the book is total shambles, with a meandering plot that seems to reach a climax by the end of the third section and then just noodles around, until it’s suddenly time to tie everything up with the events of Wizard of Oz and the plot gets even more contrived and jumpy than before. I would not be surprised if the musical actually improved the story. Characters’ motivations and actions are often either poorly explained, implausible or just plain dumb. Oh and it’s a bad idea to get attached to the secondary characters, because once a chapter is over most of them get dumped from the story never to be seen again, or at best they reappear as a brief cameo. While the story takes place all over the country of Oz and by right should have an epic sweep about it, every setting in every chapter is so small and confined you get very little sense of the broader society, and the supposedly major events that happen in it. The book tackles some weighty subjects – religion, political oppression, the morality of terror acts, the nature of good and evil – but because the damn thing is so scattered neither feels particularly well-explored.

Elphaba is a character you’re predisposed to be feel sympathy for, as her green skin makes her an outcast right from her birth, but she also becomes the victim of Maguire’s choppy storytelling. For the first three chapters, she is mostly seen through the eyes of other characters, which makes her somewhat distant, and at times she spouts dialogue that tries way too hard to be witty. Her motivations, particularly in the second half of the book, often make little sense, as does the inexplicable coldness that she displays towards one particular character (without spoiling anything, the details of how this character came to be in her life is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve read).

So in the end, an infuriating book, but a memorable one too, without a doubt.


I haven’t seen the Wicked musical, or read Baum’s book, or seen the movie; my knowledge of Oz actually comes from the series by a Russian author Alexandr Volkov. The first book is a very close re-telling (or a rip-off, depending on your view) of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and there are five original sequels – four really good ones and one so-so. They also have some socialist undertones, though not overly blatant thank god, unlike some of my childhood favourites which, in retrospect, are so heavy with propaganda it makes you want to puke. Overall, it’s a fantastic children’s series in their own right. My edition had some of the most enchanting illustrations I’ve seen in a children’s book – I re-read them over and over just to look at the pictures.