Month: February 2016

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

star-wars-new-hope.jpgFor all its massive flaws which I wrote plenty about, The Force Awakens did manage to pull me into the Star Wars world, so I’ve decided to revisit the original trilogy, which I haven’t seen in over 15 years. Well, not the “original” trilogy but the one George Lucas updated, which is ironic considering that all that extra CGI crap he added looks really really dated these days. Luckily, the annoying tweaks in this movie are minimal and mostly involve a few fake-looking critters and environments.

My first ever memory of Star Wars is watching the first few minutes of A New Hope dubbed (badly) into Russian when I was maybe ten years old, either at a school camp or when whiling away time at the airport, I can’t quite remember. I saw the entire trilogy from start to finish years later in Australia, when I was about fifteen. While it’s always been in my nature to develop obsessions with fictional worlds, Star Wars never really captured me the way other films/books did, though of course I always appreciated its amazing iconography and that epic John Williams score. Then of course came the prequels. While I actually like quite a few things about Revenge of the Sith, the best thing that came out of the prequels were the classic Red Letter Media reviews which, other than being hilarious (at times in rather, um, disturbing way), offered intelligent and scathing insights on why the prequel trilogy was such a colossal failure.

Anyways, A New Hope. It was interesting to revisit even just to observe the huge difference between this movie from 40 years ago and the modern overcrammed, ADHD blockbusters. By today’s standards, the story in A New Hope is shockingly simple adventure/coming-of-age stuff and the pace is relatively slow. That bit with C-3PO and R2-D2 getting captured by the Jawa traders would have happened in a flash had this movie been made today. While I moan a lot about the modern tentpole films, it’s also fair to say that it’s impossible for one to not get affected by them, and to my eyes A New Hope does feel rather dated and clunky. It’s also short on the kind of dark epic drama that only appeared in the later films and that, to me, helps to salvage a lot of the above-mentioned Revenge of the Sith.

That said, it does have oodles of charm and the pleasure of watching young, hot Harrison Ford swagger through his role as Han Solo. To the gang responsible for casting the young Han Solo in the upcoming prequel, good luck finding someone with half of Ford’s charisma. Seriously, daaaaamn. I’ve seen comments that Luke is something of a whiny kid in this movie, but to me he came off no more whiny than an average teenager who is restless to leave his family nest – which made him relatable and gave him room to grow in the later films. To be honest, I thought that Carrie Fisher and her wandering British accent was the weakest link in the cast acting-wise, with some stiff line reading here and there, but still the main trio of characters are terrific fun to watch. After The Force Awakens, I appreciated the fact that there was no superficial insta-friendship between them – Han initially thinks that Luke is just a dumb kid and patronises the hell out of him, Leia doesn’t think much of Han’s mercenary attitude (although the sexual chemistry between them is obvious from the start – sorry Luke but you really didn’t stand a chance, even if you and Leia didn’t turn out to be related). It’s just much more satisfying to see the characters’ relationship change and grow; like most people I really enjoyed the bromantic chemistry between Poe and Finn in the new movie, but their relationship was nothing but 10 minutes of “duuuuude! broooo! woooo! yeaaaaaah!”

Speaking of build-up, story build-up is another thing A New Hope does really well. Despite the dated visuals the final attack on the Death Star is legitimately exciting to watch, because that’s what the entire movie and Luke’s own personal journey were building up to the whole time.

Heresy ahoy! Considering his unmatched iconic status as probably the greatest cinematic villain of all time, it came as a bit of a shock to me how… unimpressive and unimportant and downright unmythical Darth Vader is here. I don’t know much about the history of the series, but judging by this movie I doubt that Lucas ever intended Vader to be this grand, tragic figure which the prequels then elevated to the Chosen One no less. Here he’s just basically a henchman to Peter Cushing’s reptilian Tarkin and even stoops to taking personal part in a space fight. Plus his helmet and suite are kinda cheap-looking and he even has a few goofy moments like his “What???” just before Han comes to the rescue near the end. And yeah… the duel between Vader and Obi-Wan is pretty much old men awkwardly trying to poke each other with the sticks.

The characters and designs of Star Wars are so ingrained into popular culture at this point that it’s easy to take them for granted, but it’s really mind-boggling how many iconic scenes, musical themes, catchphrases and visuals this movie alone has. The only thing I didn’t remember at all were the guys with rather silly giant black helmets. On a random note, I tend to watch movies with subtitles on, and it amused me that the last spoken line in the movie, according to the subtitles, was Chewbacca’s “argh!” What’s the deal with Chewie not getting a medal like everybody else, by the way? I smell speciesm!

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

9781742755717I’ve read this book in a bizarre pattern – read the first 50 pages, got distracted and put the book away, decided to start over, re-read the same 50 pages, got distracted again for a shorter period, picked up the book where I left it, then finished the whole thing in a day while staying at home with a cold. It started off in an intriguing enough fashion, but at one point it becomes such an emotional rollercoaster it was simply impossible to put down. It’s not without faults, but it’s a powerful read about love, family and good people making bad decisions.

The book opens in 1926 on Janus Rock, a small remote island off Western Australia, where a young couple, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, live a quiet, isolated life. Tom is a lighthouse keeper, a decent if rather closed-off man who’s haunted by his experience in World War I, and Isabel is a local girl he marries. One day they make a startling discovery when a boat washes ashore, carrying a dead body of a man and a very much alive baby girl. For a variety of personal reasons, a decision is made by the couple not to alert the authorities back on the mainland, and raise the child as their own. While Isabel is all lost in maternal bliss and has no qualms about the deception, Tom can’t shake off the uneasiness and is tormented by the dreadful premonitions even as they live happily with little Lucy, cocooned from the rest of the world. That is, until the day they learn their daughter’s real story and the terrible consequences of their decision.

From this point on, the tension becomes almost unbearable as the story marches towards the inevitable explosion which will tear the characters’ lives apart in a heartwrenching manner. I’ve read too many books by now not to recognise the important clues when I see them, so some of the book’s developments didn’t come as a surprise, but they weren’t less gripping for it. The novel does a great job making you sympathise with the characters’ morally ambiguous decisions, and muddling up the issue of right and wrong and which character deserves the most compassion. It also conjures up a fantastic atmosphere of a provincial Australian town that’s been devastated by the losses from the war, and the tranquil, almost otherworldly isolation of life on Janus Rock where your perspective on the outside world can get warped indeed.

Both Tom and Isabel, their flaws, good qualities and the nuances of their relationship are believable and finely drawn. There’s a crucial character who enters the story at one point who unfortunately feels thinner in comparison, with a backstory that is tragic but too sketchy and simplistic to be truly moving. Also, the book gets maybe a tad too melodramatic by the end; I’ve nothing against having my emotional strings pulled if it’s done well, but I felt like, ok book maybe you’re trying too hard now. Overall though, there’s a good reason why I gulped it down – it’s an engrossing and deeply felt tale.

Artwork in Progress

Eight figures completed, 4.5 to go… unfortunately all four are rather complicated so that’s 4-5 more months, at least. That’s the longest I’ve spent on any of my fabric projects, I’m so taking a long break after this one. I had to start a new sheet as well since the cardboard pieces aren’t large enough. I can’t believe I actually didn’t measure them when I started my very first figure – the yellow one on the left just fits. Phew!

RvB_Nov15

RvB_Nov15

Room

room1This movie had one hell of a harrowing premise: a young woman is imprisoned in a tiny garden shed for seven years, together with her five-year-old son Jack born as a result of her captor’s visits. In order to create some kind of semblance of normality for the boy, she pretends that the 10 square metres they’re trapped in is in fact the entire world, that beyond the walls and the roof window there’s nothing but outer space, that the humans he sees on TV are make-believe. Though it’s clear that she can barely keep it together, Jack’s Ma nevertheless manages to sustain a remarkably innocent and even happy environment for him made up of ritual and familiarity, stories and games and birthday cakes, even amidst the horror of continuing visits by Old Nick, their jailer, during which Jack is told to sleep in the wardrobe. It’s not a huge spoiler to say that eventually Ma hatches an escape plan, which is as tense and suspenseful as any thriller (and very clever too!), and the second half of the film becomes about the mother and son’s adjustment to the world beyond the Room.

The intense, intimate, claustrophobic setup of the first half is so striking and unique that it’s probably inevitable that the rest of the film suffers in comparison, though on the other hand, it’s admirable that the movie explores beyond the mother and son’s escape, which in most other films probably would have been the natural happy ending. Being out in the real world, with their horizons suddenly expanded, is not an easy deliverance for both of them, or Ma’s parents (William H. Macy and Joan Allen, who was great to see onscreen again after what feels like forever). Ma in particular takes it hard after being confronted with a question that’s both shockingly cruel and has a grain of truth in it that I couldn’t deny even though I was itching to slap the character who asked it.

The bond between the mother and the child is the heart of the movie and I’ve rarely seen it portrayed so tenderly, with fantastic performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay who is simply astonishing as Jack. Child actors can come off as annoyingly precocious, wooden and cutesy sometimes, but his was one of the most touching and naturalistic child performances I’ve seen, it’s as if he’s not acting at all. Jack’s innocence and wonder at the outside world goes a long way to make this grim story feel ultimately uplifting and hopeful. I really look forward to reading the book the movie was based on.

The Danish Girl

TheDanishGirl2.jpgBased on a true story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery in 1920s, The Danish Girl is unfortunately too wispy, sentimental and suffocatingly conventional to do its subject justice. I didn’t really expect innovation and fireworks from the director Tom Hooper (I am still bitter about him winning Oscar over David Fincher… why Academy why?), but even a pedestrian film can often be lifted by a great central performance. And there is a great performance to be found here but it doesn’t belong to Eddie Redmayne, who plays Einar/Lily.

When we first meet Einar, he’s a young successful landscape painter living in a funky shabby-arty apartment in Copenhagen with his painter wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). They adore each other, with the absence of children the only shadow on their marriage. Gerda specialises in portraits, and is told by gallery owners that she’s got the makings of a great artist if only she can find her true subject. One day, when her model doesn’t turn up, she insists that Einar don stockings, shoes and dress and pose for her instead. Einar is mortified at first, but the experience awakens something in him, the sense of his true self, which intensifies even further when Gerda, in a moment of mischief, gets him to fully dress up as a woman for the artists ball they’re both attending. Gerda, in turn, is shaken by the realisation that her husband’s transformation (nicknamed Lili by their mutual friend) is no lark, while at the same time Lili energises her art and becomes the subject of her paintings which immediately gain popularity.

At one point later in the film, Gerda remarks to Lili that she sometimes has no idea what goes on in her head, and that pretty much summed up my problem with the character, whose real-life bravery is incredible (transgender surgery at the time was unheard of and the risks were enormous). Eddie Redmayne has a striking androgyny to him which is used well in the movie, and there are a couple of scenes which I found truly affecting, such as the one where Einar examines his naked body in a full-length mirror in an empty theatre, trying to locate his real self in this masculine shape. But Lili remains frustratingly opaque and sidelined in her own movie and for the most part Redmayne’s repertoire of coy smiles and feminine gestures is a skin-deep performance with no real depth. The movie essentially treats Lili as the inscrutable Other while it’s really Gerda’s struggle with her husband’s choices that resonates (the movie goes as far as actually refer to her as the titular Danish Girl). This is not to dismiss the fantastic work of Alicia Vikander, who truly excels in what could have been a cliched Caring Supportive Wife role. With her intelligent dark eyes and her jauntily held cigarette, Gerda feels like a three-dimensional character and Vikander imbues her with a wonderful spirit and compassion. Matthias Schoenaerts of the Far From The Madding Crowd also pops up in a solid, lovely supporting turn as Einar’s old childhood friend.

I rather enjoyed the beautiful shots of Copenhagen and the movie’s production and costume design are top-notch. I got annoyed by some of the Hooperisms which drove me nuts during The King’s Speech, like his bizarre cropping choices which to me scream, look at meee I’m being arty for no good reason whatsoever, though they’re not as prominent here. The whole movie has this polite glossy sheen over it where any real edges are smoothed over and the handling of prejudices is heavy-handed. Lili’s story is something that deserved to be told, it’s just a shame that it got told in such a toothless manner.