Month: March 2016

A Beautiful Mind

2757480_origI’m house sitting at a friend’s with Netflix at the moment, so I decided to watch this movie. It’s one of those staples that seems to regularly pop up on free-to-air TV, and I swear I’ve seen the same scene of John Nash (Russell Crowe) trying to chat up a pretty girl at the bar with disastrous results at least three times, but for whatever reasons I just never got around to finishing the movie.

Directed by Ron Howard, the film is a biopic inspired by the life of John Nash, a Princeton University mathematician who distinguished himself early in his career with a genius theoretical breakthrough, before succumbing to full-blown paranoid schizophrenia after getting involved into code-breaking work for the government. By his own admission, Nash doesn’t like people much and people don’t like him either, and he’s basically another entry in the long cinematic tradition of difficult geniuses – socially awkward, arrogant, extremely blunt, with zero regard for social graces. Unlike many of them he ends up meeting a woman who loves him as he is (Jennifer Connelly), and their relationship is a major focus in the second half of the film, as Nash struggles with his mental affliction.

The film focuses on the melodrama in Nash’s life more than his mathematical achievements, which is just as well I guess since the realm of advanced math and economics is probably inaccessible to us mere mortals. The film tries hard to break down and simplify some of it, and visually represent Nash’s obsession with patterns and codes, some of which are more successful than others. Even when they’re gimmicky though, the “character analyses stuff and comes to conclusions” sequences are rather fun to watch.

If nothing else, the film was a nostalgia trip back to the times before Russell Crowe ruined Les Mis with his horrible singing and his hotness was a discussion topic on Sex and the City. Crowe’s onscreen intensity back then was something else, though to be honest I haven’t warmed up to his performance here immediately – at first it felt too much like a collection of calculated ticks and altogether too much Acting. Likewise, for the first half or so the film felt like a solid but unexceptional TV movie of the week – but somehow both it and Crowe’s performance won me over in the end and I was genuinely moved by Nash’s story, while being aware all the time how corny and manipulative the whole thing is. Jennifer Connelly won an Academy Award for her turn, in a performance not unlike Alicia Vikander’s in The Danish Girl. Oscar voters must have a thing for warm, supportive wife roles. As Nash’s patient wife Alicia, Connelly is luminous and appealing, and just about saves her character from being a beautiful blank. The film pays a lip service to Alicia’s intelligence earlier in the film, when she meets Nash as a student in his class, but the movie is ultimately interested in his mind. Paul Bettany and Ed Harris are also enjoyable in their roles as Nash’s university roommate and a sinister government official, respectively.

Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqvist

10807928I absolutely loved Let the Right One In, Lindqvist’s brilliant, original and macabre first novel, which offered a new take on the well-beaten vampire story, so when I saw this one at my local op shop I grabbed it immediately. While I didn’t think that Harbour was quite as strong, it’s got some of the same haunting power and memorable imagery that made Let the Right One In unforgettable. Lindqvist’s been nicknamed a “Swedish Stephen King”, apparently, and I can see where the comparisons come from: he’s got the same ability to really dig into his characters’ disturbed psyche, and conjure the atmosphere of dread from the most mundane, everyday details – but with a more European sensibility of his own.

The novel is set on the fictional island of Domaro, on the outer reaches of the Stockholm archipelago, where there’s a distinct divide between the local population, mostly fishermen, and the holidayers from the city with their summer cottages. Anders, one of the island boys who married a girl from the city, comes back for a visit with his wife and Maja, their six-year-old daughter. It’s an ordinary visit, until the family goes for an outing to a local lighthouse and Maja disappears without a trace while outside on the ice. This tragic event shatters Anders’ marriage and nearly destroys his mind, until he decides to come back to Domaro since it’s the only place in the world that has any meaning for him.

I expected Anders to be the sole main protagonist of the novel, but the narration is in fact split between Anders and his kinda-grandfather Simon, who’s been together with Anders’ grandmother Anna-Greta, an unofficial leader for the island’s community, for 50 years. Simon is a retired stage magician who used to make his living escaping from chains underwater and suchlike, and soon after his appearance a first supernatural element of the story is introduced… which unlike the other supernatural elements in the book I found jarring and not a bit silly, to be honest. It didn’t ruin the book, but it never stopped being ridiculous either. Though Simon has lived on the island for decades, he remains an outsider, as he finds out when strange things begin to happen to the people of Domaro and the island’s dark past is slowly uncovered. It all comes back to the sea, and the terrible, malevolent force it exerts over the island and its people.

The island of Domaro is a character in itself, and the book takes its time to explore it, frequently jumping back and forward to tell stories about the island and the people, or delving into the characters’ backstories that shed light on the present-day events, all the while building up the feeling of creeping dread. This gives the book a rather meandering feel, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think what’s going to stay with me the most is the depiction of the sea as a huge, frightening, merciless entity that evokes pagan gods of old: an inhuman elemental force that cannot be tamed, that gives and takes as it pleases, that must be appeased and respected. It is a portrayal that is both chilling and deeply poetic. There’s also an unexpected twist later in the book which deals with the reshaping of memories and lies we tell ourselves in order to hold on to the idealised past. The ending of the book gets well and truly supernatural and imaginative, and if it’s ever made into a film it could make for some stunning visuals. My only major dissatisfaction is that the ending feels abrupt and doesn’t explore the truly interesting ethical dilemma – parent’s love for a child vs the greater good of larger community – as well as it could have, and it all ends with a bit of a dull thud.

Hail, Caesar!

EMGNHailCaesar3I only watched this movie on a recommendation, because the trailer frankly looked lame and not an enticing prospect at all. In the end I was very happy that I did, because the film was absolutely delightful. The Coen brothers can be hit-and-miss for me – their films are almost always worth watching but they’re as likely to stick with me as they are to leave me cold. This movie however clicked right away.

The film is essentially a love letter, or an affectionate spoof, of the 50s era Hollywood and the film genres that have since largely gone the way of dodo – westerns and musicals in particular. It made me wonder about the longevity of trends and if, 60 years from now, someone will do a nostalgic tribute to the superhero movies, which rule the cinema at the moment but might eventually look as quaint and antiquated as 1950s Bible epics do to us now. There is a semblance of a plot going on, as the movie follows the 24-something hours in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer who must deal with the various crises that threaten the smooth running of the production line. There’s a mystery of the kidnapped movie star (George Clooney at his goofiest best), an unwelcome pregnancy of an unmarried star that could blow up into a major scandal (Scarlett Johansson), and a high-strung European director (Ralph Fiennes) who can’t cope with an oafish western actor shoehorned into his sophisticated drama for the sake of box-office appeal. On top of that, he must deflect the vicious curiosity of the twin gossip columnists (both played hilariously by Tilda Swinton), and consider a tempting job offer from a “serious” company, whose rep can barely disguise his contempt for the whole frivolous movie business thing.

If it all sounds quite random, it totally is, because the plot is more like an excuse to follow a cast of entertaining, colourful characters and meander through a series of lovingly re-created and gorgeously detailed 1950s movie tributes – which include synchronised swimming and a joyous tap-dancing sailor routine with Channing Tatum (who again shows that he truly comes to life onscreen when in motion). Even though I have no particular fondness for the era, it’s depicted with so much panache and exuberance it’s impossibe not to enjoy. There’s a streak of irreverence running through it all, even during the more earnest moments that celebrate the moving, transformative power of the film. Besides, a movie that pokes fun at communism and has a sequence about lasso made from spaghetti can do no wrong.

While the entire cast is gold, my personal favourite was the turn from a newcomer, Alden Ehrenreich, who steals the show as the western actor Hobie Doyle. He’s got serious charisma and hopefully has a bright future ahead of him.

John Grant @ Forum Theatre

grant-pale-green-ghosts-011Went to see John Grant at my favourite music venue in Melbourne, for a night of exquisite balladry and funky grooves. Forum was only maybe two thirds full, which was enough for a good atmosphere while also making it very easy to move around. I started the concert second row from the stage before deciding that the sound was kinda abysmal there, with the vocals getting lost in the mix, and moved further away which improved things significantly. Because the floor wasn’t packed like sardines in the can, it was easy to move to quieter spots whenever people around me got annoying. People who talk non-stop, loudly, at a music concert are only one step above the people who blab during the movie, in my book.

This was my first John Grant concert and it was fantastic. His gorgeous, wonderfully controlled baritone is absolutely magical to listen to live, and as a performer he’s just as funny and entertaining (and sweary) as his lyrics suggest. He might look like a bearded truck driver, but the guy can dance up a storm, as he did during the funky uptempo numbers, shimmying and shaking his booty like there’s no tomorrow. Grant made a lovely comment about how he always felt a connection to Australia and the Australian film and music; musicians say this “so happy to be here” stuff all the time but this felt genuine – especially when he namechecked┬áChrissy Amphlett and said that the yodelling touch his singing sometimes has was inspired by her. He was backed by a full band, including two Icelanders, judging by their something-son last names, which makes sense since I think that’s where he’s based now. The setlist was dominated by the recent album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, and I really enjoyed the songs from the previous record, Pale Green Ghosts, that for some reason I never got around to listening. My beloved Queen of Denmark, Grant’s debut which made me a fan, was represented by three songs, but they were the best ones from that album. I don’t cry or get a tickling sensation all that often at live gigs, but hearing Marz almost did that; there are few songs that hit me emotionally as much, even though the lyrics are just basically listing various flavours at a sweets shop. I guess it’s the childlike innocence of the song that really gets to me. And Caramel, which is one of the most beautiful love songs ever, was a perfect way to close the encore.

Sleater-Kinney @ The Croxton

sleater-kinneyA mid-week gig in Thornbury that’s unlikely to start before 10 pm would normally be a terrible prospect, especially during a week that’s already been sleep-deprived because of a late Mad Max showing at the Melbourne IMAX theatre. But if there’s any act worth going deaf in one ear and feeling like a zombie at work the next day for, it’s these amazing ladies. Sleater-Kinney for me was one of those bands I wish I got earlier into; I became a big fan with One Beat, loved their new direction on The Woods, saw them live twice… and then they broke up. Oh. Well then. So when I heard that they were making music together again and touring, I was pretty psyched.

I have to say this concert blew the previous times I’ve seen them – 2006 Big Day Out and their own gig at around the same time – out of the water. I remember enjoying them well enough, but with a slight sense of disappointment as it wasn’t a revelatory experience I was expecting judging by the routine praise their live shows receive. In retrospect, it’s clear that back then I watched a band who were about to call it quits and were probably a bit over it. The difference between then and the impassioned, energised set I’ve witnessed at The Croxton more than ten years later was huge.

Driving to Thornbury was as much of a nightmare as I had expected – I missed my turn off the Monash Freeway and ended up driving into the city and doing a big hook in order to get back on track. Because of this delay, I only caught the last dying notes of the opening act, whoever it was, and wove my way discreetly closer to the stage. Seeing the Sleater-Kinney girls hit the stage was a huge sentimental rush for me, though I was surprised that they were joined by a fourth member, who stayed in the background for the entire show so it was still all about our power trio – Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. Speaking of the latter, holy drumming moly Batman, does that woman get a workout. Corin’s piercing howl of a vocal was as wonderful as ever and watching Carrie live again, kicking and jumping and strutting the stage like Pete Townshend in a white dress, only served to re-confirm my girl crush. The whole band played like a tight, lean, mean machine, with only minimal chat in between the songs and the energy level never dipping.

The setlist focused mostly on the material from their latest, No Cities to Love, as well as two previous albums. Just when I resigned myself to the idea that we’re not getting much 90s material, they played I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Words and Guitar which made me grin like an idiot. The only downer was a choice of Let’s Call It Love for the encore, I absolutely cannot stomach that droning dirge of a song and it’s a pity it took the place of maybe two songs I could have enjoyed instead. Also, some poor soul about two metres away from me passed out near the end – the security promptly escorted them off the floor so hopefully they were good.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Lukevaderesb-2Out of all original trilogy films, I was curious to rewatch this one the most, because I’m sure I had only ever seen it once, and remembered virtually nothing except the big scenes that even little green aliens on Mars probably know about. And something about the ice planet. Oh and this totally not awkward scene:

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So… am I watching Star Wars or Game of Thrones?

I found A New Hope rather slight and clunky, if not without charm, but Empire takes the series to a whole new level in virtually every respect – it’s no wonder that it’s widely regarded to be the high point of the series. For starters, even if I didn’t know it I’d still probably guess that it wasn’t directed by George Lucas. Watching A New Hope, I thought it was pretty obvious that the stiffness and staginess of the prequels didn’t come from nowhere. I don’t pretend to know much about the technical side of filmmaking, but Empire just feels different from its predecessor in terms of imagery and choice of shots; everything seems more organic and nuanced and visually exciting. Plus this is where the big Shakespearean family drama of the series really takes off, with that scene between Luke and Darth Vader which still has impact despite of the million pop culture references and parodies from the last 35 years.

Speaking of Darth Vader, he truly becomes a grand villain of mythical proportions, after spending the previous movie as Governor Tarkin’s henchman. I was starting to think that maybe he was more impressive as a figure in people’s collective memories and imagination, but no he really is an amazing onscreen villain. He is served well by the overall darker mood and the way everyone on the Star Destroyer is clearly scared shitless when he’s around, because you never know when you might get demoted by Force choke.

I probably found the storyline with Luke’s training on Dagobah with Yoda insanely slow and boring when I first saw the movie as a teenager ages ago, but re-watching it now I appreciated the way it expanded on the spiritual aspect of the Force, and the dark-fairytale, swampy set design of the place. Plus, after The Force Awakens, it’s just gratifying to watch a hero actually work at getting good at something and fail along the way, instead of reaching instant god level. I also had a whole new appreciation for Han and Leia’s romance, because after so many blockbusters with boring shoehorned love stories (looking at you Jurassic World) it’s refreshing to watch a romance with the actual chemistry, emotion, unspoken undercurrents and snarky repartee.

The craft and artistry that went into the creation of Yoda is amazing; you can clearly tell that he’s just a puppet and yet he’s imbued with so much character and soul you forget it. Some of the other effects haven’t dated well and some of the puppet creatures at the start of the movie are rather… hilarious, but you know what? I’d rather take a real-looking puppet with their jerky movements over the crappy dated soulless CGI, any day.

Oh and I definitely forgot the bit at the start where Luke gets the Revenant experience inside the gutted white llama-like creature, way before Leonardo di Caprio made it cool.

Steve Jobs

steve-jobs-movie-poster-800px-800x1259-copyI was glad I wasn’t the only person interested in the 10am Saturday session of this movie at the Palace Cinema Como. It’s no fun being by yourself in an empty cinema, as I found out last year. Luckily, two more people showed up to sit behind me mid-commercials, and even better, they turned out to be a nice quiet couple who didn’t act as if they were watching Netflix at home, so I didn’t have to shush or employ a basilisk stare.

I had very little interest in the subject of the movie, and only got attracted by the talent involved: written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, both huge favourites of mine. Though I use the hell out of my iPod nano, I’m not an Apple disciple and Steve Jobs as a public person only really registered with me after his resignation and the subsequent death. Besides, I practically grew up with PCs and though my chosen industry is dominated by Macs and my fellow designers all but hiss and cross themselves when PCs are mentioned, Macs to me are just not real computers. Though I fully admit that those colourful first generation iMacs I got to work on at uni were a thing of beauty that made my home PC look like a lumbering monster. I don’t care what anyone says though, a proper computer must have a big clunky tower dammit!

Steve Jobs somewhat follows the traditional rise-fall-rise biopic formula, but does so in a refreshingly non-traditional manner, focusing on the backstage happenings of three key product launches: the MacIntosh computer in 1984; the NeXT cube in 1988; and the iMac in 1998. Despite some stylistic flourishes from Danny Boyle here and there, this is very much a Sorkin movie, with the characters spitting out his particular brand of uber-articulate, hyperactive dialogue. I’ve seen comments that David Fincher, who directed The Social Network, another Sorkin-penned film about an abrasive technological visionary, would have been a better pick, but I’m not sure if he would have brought the same feeling of humanity to the movie that Boyle did, especially to the scenes between Jobs and his estranged daughter whose paternity he had initially denied. They do a lot to add human touches to this portrait of a deeply flawed, “badly made” person, though the bit where Jobs promises Lisa to put all of her favourite music on one device is bordering on too cute and on the nose.

When I first heard that Fassbender was cast as Steve Jobs, my reaction was the same as probably most people’s: eh? He looks absolutely nothing like Steve Jobs. Watching the actual movie, he still looks nothing like the guy, but the sheer force and energy of his performance overrides this incredulity scene to scene, moment to moment. It’s not a very flattering portrayal, but even when he’s being a total cruel asshole to the people around him Fassbender’s Jobs is just utterly compelling to watch, and I got the sense that his brutal, uncompromising quality attracted people in his life as much as it appalled them. It also helps that he actually does come to look a lot more like Jobs in the final third, when Jobs hit his iconic black-turtleneck-and-jeans-with-glasses look. Despite a wandering Polish accent, Kate Winslet is fantastic as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ unwaveringly loyal if constantly exasperated head of marketing, who is not afraid to butt heads with her boss. Their intense but entirely platonic relationship was one of the film’s highlights for me. Jeff Daniels (as Apple CEO John Sculley) and Seth Rogen (as Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak) are also solid in their supporting turns. The film overall didn’t quite hit the heights of The Social Network (a perfectly executed movie if there ever was one), but it’s easily one of the best and most entertaining biopics I’ve seen.