Month: May 2016

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

mistsI first read this book when in highschool, and had only vague memories of it, so when I spotted it in friend’s book collection while housesitting I was curious to read it again. Turns out, I also forgot what a slab this book was – my friend’s deceptively small edition stood at mammoth 1,000 pages. That’s a long time to spend on one book, but overall it was worth the re-read.

The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters, chief of which is Morgaine, half-sister to King Arthur and a priestess of the holy island of Avalon. At the heart of the book is a conflict between the pagan, matriarchal Celtic religion of old and the rise of Christianity, which threatens to take over Britain and drive Avalon into the mists, out of humanity’s reach and memory. The fight against this decline defines Morgaine’s life, as she finds herself alternately a pawn and a main player. Gwenhwyfar, the Christian princess who ends up marrying Arthur, is Morgaine’s foil, as she tries to sway her husband towards a strictly Christian rule. Other than the religious strife, the book is also an epic story of love and family and features all the familiar elements of the Arthurian legends: Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, incest, Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar’s doomed passion, and so on. But it’s the women who truly rule the story and get the fullest, richest portrayals. Even Gwenhwyfar, arguably the least likeable character with her piety and occasional shrillness, has sympathetic, vulnerable moments where you can at least understand her motives and why she is the way she is.

It’s fair to say that, seen through the eyes of Morgaine and other characters, the patriarchal, expansionist and intolerant Christianity doesn’t come out looking good for most of the book, but in the end the book’s view is not as simplistic as, Pagan Goddess = rocks, Christianity = sucks (and I get an impression that living with the Goddess, who can clearly be as cruel and despotic as any pagan deity, wasn’t all rainbows and flowers and feminine power). If you’re familiar with the Arthurian legends you know there’s death and tragedy galore; there’s also a deep sense of melancholy and sadness that permeats the second half of the book, not just over the loss of the old ways, but also the loss of youth, family and friends, and the missed chances of happiness.

The novel is not without flaws; the last pages feel terribly rushed as the story, which prior to that travels at a sedate pace, suddenly races through a series of crucial events like an out-of-control truck. I remember looking at the width of the pages left and thinking, uh this story doesn’t look anywhere near over yet, how is it going to wrap everything up? While in other places earlier on, the book can be bogged down with pages and pages detailing the everyday chitchat between the characters that’s not particularly interesting or illuminating. Also near the end, a character who previously was ambitious and vain at worst, suddenly turns full-on eeeevil for no reason other than the plot necessity. But these are minor quibbles, as the world and characters of the book are truly worth a visit (or a repeat one).

X-Men: Apocalypse

xmenapocalypseimax-1There’s a scene in this movie where a bunch of young students from Xavier’s school discuss Return of the Jedi and one of them remarks that the third movie is always the worst, a knowing wink to the audience that was probably meant to refer to X-Men: The Last Stand, the much-hated third entry of the original X-Men trilogy. A movie’s gotta be careful with a line like this in case it comes to bite it on its ass, and man does it come to bite, hard. It’s not just the worst film in the trilogy that got started in the 60s with X-Men: First Class, I’m tempted to call it the worst X-Men film ever made, if only for the fact that it was the first time I was bored watching an X-Men movie. This disappointment doesn’t exactly come as a surprise seeing that I wasn’t a big fan of Days of Future Past, the previous offering from the writer Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer, which flattened most of the great character work seen in First Class, wasted or underused most of its cast and was full of dumb contrivances. Still, I had hopes that, with the continuity now reset courtesy of the time travel plot, something new and different will be done with the franchise, but nope, instead Apocalypse feels like a tedious, messy, over-familiar rehash of the elements seen in these series over and over again.

Much of the problem lies with the titular character of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who is awakened from his rest in the 80s and decides to destroy the world… for some reason. The character is a disaster in every respect: terrible design with ridiculous rubbery facial make-up, lack of presence and clear motivations, powers that are never clearly defined, dialogue that consists of pompous villain speeches and empty platitudes. He comes off less like an intimidating foe and more like a cheesy villain-of-the-week from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s also never clear why exactly he needs to recruit a posse of mutants that come to be known as Horsemen and include familiar faces like Storm and Magneto, and why they would join him on his destruction quest. This guy is the biggest waste of top acting talent in a villain role since Spectre.

Speaking of Magneto, as much as I loved his origin story in First Class, I had wondered what they were going to do with a character whose story was essentially over in the very first film. My worries proved to be correct, because Kinberg and Singer clearly have no idea how to move the character forward in an organic fashion; instead he is basically reset at the start of every new film according to what the plot requires. Here, Erik starts off the movie by living a quiet life in Poland with an adorable wife and young daughter and their equally adorable fluffy chickens. How did a fiery, militant mutant leader with supremacist views come to have a (presumably) human wife and abandon his life’s cause? Your guess is as good as mine. Bottom line is, the writers wanted Magneto to have a sympathetic reason for joining Apocalypse, and you can easily guess what’s going to happen to his wife and daughter. It’s a shame that this is all so contrived, because Michael Fassbender does some fine work in these early Magneto scenes. As soon as Magneto becomes Apocalypse’ henchman however, you can practically see the light go out of his eyes and boredom set in.

The tense, complicated relationship between Magneto and James McAvoy’s Professor X was the heart and soul of First Class but it’s become increasingly sidelined and stale since, and here it’s reduced to a couple of scenes with McAvoy and Fassbender reciting the same dialogue we’ve heard from these characters million times before. For some reason, Singer also decided to resurrect the barely-there romance between Professor X and Rose Byrne’s Moira┬áMacTaggert, which results in some cringeworthy scenes with Professor X reduced to a giggling schoolboy. Other First Class mainstays don’t fare much better: Nicholas Hoult’s Beast hasn’t progressed anywhere since the first film and has precious little to do here; while Jennifer Lawrence at times barely hides her disinterest in playing Mystique, the shape-shifting mutant whose character arc here is a repeat of First Class (Mystique hides her true shape because…. reasons, then comes to embrace her true blue appearance).

It’s a pity that the movie doesn’t instead spend more time with the new additions to the series, because the new cast playing the younger versions of the familiar characters – Jean, Scott, Nightcrawler – are easily the brightest spot of the film and have nice camaraderie when the movie lets their characters breathe a bit. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, who was the best thing about Days of Future Past, has a bigger part and is still delightful, even though his super-speed sequence here feels too much like a calculated rehash of the similar, genuinely inspired scene in the previous film, and Quicksilver’s mugging rather undercuts the seriousness of the situation.

The film has a weird structure where it spends ages setting up the multiple characters and jumping between various storylines (lessening the impact of each as a result), before rushing straight to the climax without a second act in between. What could pass for a second act here is a bizarre detour that has nothing to do with the main storyline, and feels instead like a clumsy attempt to shoehorn in a brief pointless cameo from a much-loved character. The final climatic battle – because every superhero movie has to have one – is an unremarkable CGI-fest where presumably millions of people die and major landmarks get destroyed (goodbye, Sydney Opera House), with minimum emotional impact. It’s impossible to feel the global stakes when the movie makes it look like it’s only ten or so people you’re supposed to feel concern about. The social commentary that had always distinguished the series is virtually non-existent here, and nothing much is made of the 80s setting other than the fashions and a track by Eurythmics.

In the end, I wouldn’t write off these series yet, as the acting talent involved is enormous, but what it badly needs is a decent screenwriter and a director who can bring a fresh vision to the franchise and its characters. I’ll always be grateful to Singer for X1 and X2 and unleashing the hotness of Hugh Jackman upon the universe, but it’s really time for him to go.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

cloud-atlas-cover-imageWhat a book. Its scope and ambition made me feel like I’ve read multiple books and been away on a very very long journey. At one point it even gets cheekily self-referential when one of its protagonists wonders out loud, “Revolutionary or gimmicky?” Neither, from my perspective, but it’s one hell of a remarkable book. It can frustrate and demand patience at times, but it’s immensely rewarding the more you stick with it.

Cloud Atlas is a collection of six stories, all set in a different place and time, and each told in its own unique voice and style. It took me a while to get into the first tale, a diary of Adam Ewing, a 19th-century American lawyer who is crossing the Pacific on his way back to California. It annoyed me straight away with its use of ampersands and the story didn’t seem particularly interesting… and then when it finally gains momentum, it abruptly stops and it’s on to the next story. Argh the frustration! I eventually got over the fact that every story would cut off just when I was getting into it, but it was a sore point for a while. The second story is a series of letters written by Robert Frobisher, a young, bisexual and cheerfully amoral 1930s British composer, who is disowned by his family and convinces a dying musical genius to take him on as a student/assistant. Frobisher sounds like a character who could have walked from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel, and is enormous fun to follow. The third story is something like a pulpy thriller set in 1970s California and featuring Luisa Rey, a journalist who uncovers a sinister corporate cover-up. To be honest I found it the least compelling of all stories; its cat-and-mouse, plucky-hero-against-the-evil-corporation plot is only mildly interesting and the characters were nothing special. The fourth story is the most comical one in tone and narrates the woes of Timothy Cavendish, a 1980s London publisher who finds himself in a serious pickle when the thuggish relatives of a successful (if dead) author come knocking on his door.

The fifth and sixth stories is where the book really crossed into the “can’t put it down” territory, for me. Unlike the previous stories which are grounded in the real world and its past, these two jump centuries ahead and into the realm of science fiction. The fifth story is told in an interview format and features the book’s most memorable, intelligent and haunting character, Sonmi-451, a clone who lives in what used to be Korea but since turned into a totalitarian, ultra-capitalist state where humans are referred to as “consumers” and the clones are basically slave labour (promised carefree life after some years of servitude, but you can guess straight away where that one goes). For reasons unknown, Sonmi gains intelligence and awareness that sets her apart from her sister clones, and takes her out into the world beyond the food chain eatery she slaves in. The theme of clones and artificial intelligence is nothing new, granted, but the world of the future state of Nea So Copros is wonderfully imagined and detailed, and Sonmi’s story is genuinely moving. The sixth story – the only one not split into halves – is simultaneously the best one in the book and the hardest work to get through. It jumps even further in time into a post-apocalyptic future, where the human race has been reduced to a few surviving communities here and there maintaining the faint, fragile embers of civilisation. It’s written in an imagined future tribal dialect that has a certain poetic quality and flow, but dear god the apostrophes. Here’s a sample sentence:

I din’t sleep none that night, ‘cos o’ the mozzies an’ nightbirds an’ toads ringin’ an’ a myst’rous some’un what was hushly clatt’rin’ thru our dwellin’ pickin’ up stuff here an’ puttin’ it down there an’ the name o’this myst’rous some’un was Change.

So yeah it took some getting used to, but as in the previous story, this future post-technological dystopia is inventive and richly imagined, and this tale spells out one of the most important themes in the book, the hunger for more more more that both fuels the progress of the human race and dooms it to extinction. I figured that the stories would somehow be all linked, and they of course turn out to be, whether it’s a common theme (incarceration or enslavement being one of them) or more concrete details. Some of these connections are better executed than others; there’s one particular re-occurring physical detail which I felt was rather unnecessary. Even though chronologically the conclusion is a massive downer, Mitchell still manages to finish the novel on a hopeful note that puts faith into humanity’s better, more generous instincts.

Vietnam Week 2

We stayed in Hoi An for three nights, and it was totally worth it: it’s an incredibly pretty place, especially enchanting at night. We did another countryside excursion on the second day, this time on a mountain bike. By the end of the trip, I felt like some parts of me might never be the same again, but it was a fun day out. Among other things, we got to make our own rice noodles for lunch.

I’ve never heard of Nha Trang before, and it turned out to be a coastal resorty place, full of Russian tourists. It was bizarre seeing Russian signage and menus everywhere. We had a full day boat trip on the bay, including snorkelling which unfortunately I didn’t get to do since I can’t see much without my glasses. The water however was lovely and warm, and I really tried to squeeze in as much sunbathing and swimming as possible before coming back to Melbourne and the impending winter.

Once in Ho Chi Minh City (our group leader never called it so, preferring the old name of Saigon), I finally gathered enough courage to try the frog. It tasted kinda like chicken and caused many Kermit jokes around the table. I really liked the city and its wide shaded boulevards, even if the street traffic here was at its most intimidating to cross.

Vietnam Week 1

I’m back from my two-week trip to Vietnam, and it’s amazing how quickly the rubber band snaps right back and the whole thing feels like a dream. Thankfully, there are photos to remind of all the good times had. It was a big success all-around: great group and leader, a wide variety of experiences, yummy food. The weather was humid and got progressively hotter as we went further south, but other than sweating like a piggie I bore it surprisingly well. The only real low point came when I ate something dodgy couple of hours before boarding the overnight train. Food poisoning and bumpy Vietnamese train and me with my motion sickness… let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. It’s probably a karma payback for all those times in Egypt and India when I was almost the only person in the group without tummy troubles.

Hanoi is not the prettiest of cities, to be honest, and the pollution level was the worst of the entire trip, but the Old Quarter is rather exciting and chaotic to walk around, with good food places and people watching. We spent half a day getting a crash course in the history of Ho Chi Minh, who I didn’t even realise was a real person (yes, my knowledge of Vietnam’s history was non-existent). Also got a crash course in crossing the streets lorded by the mopeds, cars and bikes with no traffic lights in sight. Hint: really can’t afford to be timid. Avoid the fast-moving vehicles and stop the slower ones with the power of your hand.

Ha Long Bay is as beautiful and impressive as the travel brochures suggest, even with the occasional pieces of garbage floating by. We had an overnight stay there on a junk boat, and a kayak expedition in the morning, enjoying the peace and quiet and the eerie misty beauty.

Had a motorbike tour of the countryside in Hue. I was a bit nervous beforehand, as I’ve been at the back of the motorbike once before and found it terrifying, mostly because of lack of control. I’m obviously more chilled with age now – after about a minute of trepidation the ride was enormous fun.

Going through the Hai Van Pass was an interesting experience. On the way up, the weather was overcast and the fog was as thick as milk, but as soon as we went down towards Da Nang, it was as if someone installed some kind of cloud stopper: perfect visibility and blue skies.

Joy

joyI watched this movie on my flight from Singapore to Hanoi. International flights are usually a chance for me to catch up with the movies I never bothered to see at the cinema and I often end up watching a whole load of rubbish. Joy isn’t quite rubbish, but it’s not particularly good either. It’s a third straight collaboration between David O. Russell and his Oscar-winning muse Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s easily the weakest of the three. Though ultimately forgettable, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle at least entertained me while I watched them, but Joy just never gets off the ground.

The movie is based on the real-life story of Joy Mangano, a Long Island divorced mother and the inventor of the self-wringing mop who ends up building her own business empire. Not that you’d know any of this from the pre-release advertising, because there’re surely few less sexy words to describe your movie with than “self-wringing mop”. At the beginning of the film, Joy shares her house with her dysfunctional family including her divorced father (Robert De Niro) and mother (Virginia Madsen), her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) and her grandmother (Diane Lane). As a little girl, Joy used to spend time making things, but then life got in the way and her dreams were put on a back burner, until one day she comes up with an idea for a mop you can wring without using your hands, and decides to use it as a ticket to a better life.

There’s no reason why this underdog rags-to-riches story couldn’t have worked, but most of the film just feels off and messy. It spends a lot of time on Joy’s family and their individual quirks, but these characters mostly come off as one-note. While I can’t fault Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as such and her commitment to the role is unquestionable, they really need to stop casting her in the parts she’s obviously too young to play. She just about got away with it in American Hustle, but here I never got over the impression of watching a kid playing dress-up among grown-ups. Lawrence just doesn’t convince as a hardened mother lamenting the loss of years when she looks barely out of her teens with her fringe and ponytail. Her best scenes, and the movie’s best scenes overall, happen when Joy’s persistence leads her to the QVC shopping network, where she meets a producer (Bradley Cooper) who decides to give Joy’s Miracle Mop a chance. I couldn’t decide whether or not the movie was somewhat sending up the whole shopping network business (which, let’s face it, has more than a touch of tacky and ridiculous to it), but no matter, the scenes where Cooper’s character demonstrates the inner workings of the show, and Joy’s subsequent appearances on it, have the energy the rest of the film lacks. And yikes, it actually has a scene where the main character cuts her hair to tell the world that she’s now a Brand New Determined Woman. I’m a cliche, hear me roar!