Month: June 2016

Goodbye Mousya

mousyaToday we said goodbye to Mousya, our gorgeous tabby princess who lived to the ripe old age of 18, which means that she’s been in my life for exactly half of it. She’s been an old cat for so long I can barely remember her as a young one. We got her very soon after we moved into our family house, and for the first few days she wouldn’t leave my brother’s bedroom, which she probably found comforting because of the carpeted floor. We called her Mousya after our first family cat who we sadly left behind in Russia. Mousya is basically a Russian version of Spot, a common-as-dirt pet name.

Mousya eventually left the carpeted bedroom but she always remained a rather anxious cat, skittish and wary of strangers. On the plus side, it meant that she never in her entire lifetime ventured beyond our backyard, even to check out the neighbours. Considering how many cats get killed by the cars in the suburban Melbourne, that was a blessing. She also posed zero threat to the native Australian wildlife and birds, on the account of being a hopelessly bad hunter. She gave it plenty a try, but after spending ages crouching low on the ground she was just too slow to be a killer.

Mousya was fond of the games many cats play; I don’t mean the small fluffy toys and such. They were more along the lines of, How To Frustrate Your Human and Make Them Swear. One favourite involved sitting a couple of metres from the hatch door deliberately looking away, after making the human go outside in freezing cold, in order to let the cat from under the house. The upstairs variation was about making the human stand on a tall chair under a hatch in the ceiling, beckoning the cat to come down from under the roof, while the cat sits on the very edge of the hatch ever so slightly out of reach. Though she mellowed out significantly in her middle age and lapped up the affection and cuddles like a sponge, young Mousya was a bit of a moody bitch, swiping at the caressing hand without a warning. Of course, I adored her regardless.

Though she’s had ongoing kidney issues for the last 3-4 years, things didn’t start to get bad until the last year, when Mousya’s lost heaps of weight and shrank from a fatty to a skinny little thing. In the last couple of months, the vet also discovered a fast-growing tumour on her leg; since she was too old to become a tripod cat the only thing to do was to monitor it until her quality of life well and truly declined. This weekend, we finally made a decision to put her to eternal rest.

I thought that the last few hours before the vet’s home visit would be an absolutely terrible waiting game, but a small miracle occurred when I woke up near midnight last night to see Mousya trying to climb the bed – unexpected since she’s become so withdrawn and prone to hiding under the kitchen table. It was a lovely farewell having her sleep on the bed next to me, and stay there in the morning until the vet came over. The vet and the nurse couldn’t have been more caring and gentle and the end was quick and merciful. It’s incredibly sad to lose Mousya, but she’s had a very long happy life and it was the right time to let her go.

I don’t believe in afterlife, but if I did I’d have liked to think that Mousya’s spirit will roam the mountains where she’s to be buried, happily munching on the spirits of the mice and birds.

Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James

pdjamesI finished this book in a couple of days while recovering from a nasty cold. This was in fact the first P.D. James novel I’ve read in my life – despite their enormous popularity they just never fell in my lap before, even though I quite like the crime genre. As the title suggests, this one is set in an Anglican theological college on the Suffolk coast, where a young, rather unpopular ordinand is found dead under a collapsed mound of sand (first time I’ve seen this method of death in a book, so full points for originality). His death is dismissed as an accident, until his father receives an anonymous note hinting at foul play, and being the kind of powerful man who is accustomed to getting his way, he insists that Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard takes over the investigation. For Dalgliesh, it’s a chance to return to the place of many fond memories he’d visited as a boy. More bodies start to pile up even before he arrives, when the elderly woman who discovered the boy’s remains is murdered and her death passed off as natural – you pretty much know she’s doomed when she remembers something described as important and tells someone about it.

I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, mostly because of the backdrop of St. Anselm’s college, which is in danger of being closed down by the Church of England for being too remote and elitist – it’s so isolated that all access can be blocked by a fallen tree on the road. Like most insular places it’s got a distinct atmosphere of its own and is populated by a bunch of interesting, finely drawn characters. There’s a sparse, melancholic, contemplative feel to the story along with some nice observations of human nature, as the characters’ messy pasts and relationships get untangled. At times I couldn’t figure out what decade this book was taking place in – despite the occasional mention of mobile phones there’s something quaint and musty about it; I couldn’t work out if it was the author’s style or the nature of the setting.

Unfortunately I felt that much of the book’s charm goes out of the window in the second half, especially when Dalgliesh’s colleagues arrive from London and the novel gets taken over by the investigative mechanics. The unravelling of the mystery was somewhat anti-climatic, where in the last 50 pages I was expecting a major twist to happen, which never materialised – instead you realise that the last stretch was simply about finding the evidence rather than discovering the real culprit. Not exactly riveting. Overall though, it’s a well-written book and I’d be interested to read more by the author.

I gather that P.D. James really wasn’t a fan of Agatha Christie’s work – one scornful reference to her books is random, but two definitely point at a deliberate dislike.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

danish.jpgAnother I-moved-to-another-country book, this one by a London woman who moved to Denmark after her husband got offered a job with Lego – and rather than exchanging one capital city for another, they move to the “real” Denmark, a tiny town of 6,100 in the rural Jutland (the European peninsula part of Denmark). Unlike many other books of the similar sort, which are rather rambling in nature and simply concern themselves with the author’s experiences in a foreign country, this one has an actual focus: uncovering the secrets of Danish happiness. According to the statistics, the potential new home of Helen and her husband (nicknamed Lego Man) is officially the happiest country in the world, with most of the Danes Helen interviews in the course of the book ranking their happiness at 8, 9, or even 10 out of 10. To Helen, who is supposedly living her dream with a high-flying job as an editor on a glossy magazine but instead feels overworked and overstressed, this is an attractive mystery to explore.

What follows is a very entertaining and endlessly insightful account of Helen and Lego Man’s new life in Denmark. Helen’s position as a journalist allows her to interview the various specialists in the social, financial and cultural fields who help shed the light on the Danish education, interior design, childcare, working culture, food etc. And the number one reason for the Danish happiness? High levels of trust – trust in the system as well as trust in the random stranger on the street (according to the book, it’s common for the Danish parents to leave the prams unattended outside cafes or homes). Denmark’s inhabitants pay crazy high taxes, but what you get in return is free healthcare, free education (including university), a welfare system, subsidised childcare and unemployment insurance where you’re guaranteed 80 per cent of your wages for two years. There’s an interesting observation made in passing about the correlation between the welfare state and Danish atheism – when you have faith in the state taking care of you, the need for God is lesser, it seems. The high sense of community also means that some things around your house is everybody’s business – if for instance you happen to sort the rubbish into the wrong bins, your neighbours will think nothing of telling you off about it.

Of course it’s not all smooth sailing and scrumptious Danish pastries all the way for Helen and her husband – the language barrier and social isolation are big issues, and for all its virtues Denmark is not quite the equality-for-all feminist utopia and faces the similar difficulties over immigration issues that other European countries do. There’s also the Danish winter, the bleak prospect of SAD, soul-crushing darkness and bitter cold (though, as a former denizen of Siberia, the author’s comment about -20 Celsius made me snort. -20? Try -40 lady!) Also, while the Danish order and stability are fine things, there’s a chapter where Helen and Lego Man go away on a holiday to the Mediterranean and she realises that she missed the chaos and dirt of a less organised society. Overall though, plenty of things about the Danish Way make perfect sense and everyone else could benefit greatly from living a bit more Danishly.

Unfortunately there’s not much I can do about creating a Danish-style welfare state here in Australia, but at the very least, I’ve resolved to try and burn more candles at home during winter for a touch of Danish hygge. Hygge by the way is one of those untranslatable words which can be described as, “the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things”, or “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people”. Sounds good to me.

The Nice Guys

the_nice_guys_poster_2_headerThis movie was a nice surprise, a detective buddy comedy that feels fresh mostly because of the stellar work by its two stars (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling), who are not typically associated with the comedy but turn out to have a major, previously untapped talent for it. Throw in a sleazy, noirish 1970s Los Angeles setting, slapstick, sarcasm, raunchy dialogue, darkly humorous and surreal touches, and the results are highly entertaining.

The film starts with a car crash and death of a porn star, who was then glimpsed by her elderly relative walking around alive and well, or so she claims. The old lady hires a private detective Holland March (Gosling), who is something of a loser and an erratic single father to a teenage daughter (who, in the best movie traditions of precocious teenage daughters to hopeless fathers, is sharp as a tack and is the movie’s moral centre, but not obnoxiously so). His investigations lead him to Amelia, a young girl who has gone missing and seems to be tied up with a wrong kind of people, and is a subject of interest to Jackson Healey (Crowe), a detective-slash-enforcer for hire. Crowe’s presence here brings back memories of LA Confidential, another noir classic where he also played a world-weary character with a brutal side – especially when he gets a sort of reunion with Kim Bassinger, appearing here as a politician and the mother of Amelia. After a rocky start involving some physical violence, the two detectives reluctantly agree to team up and get to the bottom of the mystery.

While the story has plenty of twists and turns, the movie’s main pleasures lie in watching the interactions and chemistry of the mismatched duo; Crowe and Gosling are not the actors I would have thought of as a natural pairing, but they work off each other brilliantly. Gosling especially is a comical revelation, and manages to make his screw-up of a character inherently loveable. The movie does a neat job mixing slapstick and one-liners with violence and is full of great this-is-so-wrong-but-so-funny moments. I love me some gallows humour. Something else I always appreciate is a strong sense of place in a film, and here it creates a palpable atmosphere of a sultry, corrupt 70s Los Angeles – probably heightened and exaggerated for the effect but who cares, give me more of those fabulous 70s clothes and awesomely hideous wallpapers.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

returnofthejedioriginalposterFinished the rewatch of the original Star Wars trilogy with the third and final movie, which, yes, is the weakest one of the lot. It also suffers the worst from Lucas’ post-release tinkering, with the CGI additions that stick out like a sore thumb, and an unnecessary melodramatic NOOOOOO shoehorned into the climatic scene, which, while not as terrible as the NOOOOOO that forever ruined the birth of Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith, is still pretty cringeworthy. I’m also pretty sure that the addition of “Weeesa freee!!!” cryout during a final cheering scene is Lucas giving a middle finger to the people (i.e. everyone) who didn’t like Jar Jar Binks. And what’s the deal with Hayden Christensen showing up as the force ghost of Anakin, instead of the person Luke actually interacted with onscreen in this movie?

In a way I felt like I was watching two movies – one of them a carryover of the darker, mature Empire Strikes Back featuring the epic, moving father/son drama and a fabulously over-the-top, cackling villainous turn by Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor. To be honest, I never really understood what the Emperor’s plan regarding Luke was or what Luke was supposed to be tempted by. Was Luke supposed to lose it and give in to his anger, and then that alone would somehow be enough for him to go, oh my master I’ll serve you forever and ever? Regardless, the scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor are gripping, tense, emotional and easily one of the highpoints of the series. I admit it, I’m an absolute softie for redemption and the last scene between Luke and his father does get me choked up.

The other movie is, unfortunately, Star Wars: The Muppet Show or God Not Another Death Star. I vented a lot about a regurgitated Death Star plot in The Force Awakens, but turns out it’s just as boring second time around. Imagine watching the entire series in one go and seeing the same bloody storyline in three movies out of the last four. Complaining about Ewoks is pretty common and while I can’t say I hated them with a power of the thousand suns they do a lot to dumb down the movie, and they’re not even cute for crying out loud. Maybe Lucas wanted to make some grand statement about the mighty empire getting defeated by the humble, living-close-to-nature creatures with spears and stones for weapons, but it’s just all too childish. I didn’t care for the puppet-dominated first act at Jabba’s lair either – other than rescuing Han it’s got nothing to do with the rest of the story, so it feels like the actual plot is not kicking in until two thirds in. There’s also a remastered version of a song and dance number so godawful and tonally awkward I watched it almost in disbelief.

Mark Hamill gets some great material to sink his teeth into with Luke, and it’s really amazing to look back on the character in the first film and see how far he’s come since then. His co-stars unfortunately fare much worse – Harrison Ford especially looks like he’s going through the motions and doesn’t really want to be there. Han’s got none of the zing, verve or charm he had in the previous two films (I’m glad though that Ford didn’t get his wish and Han didn’t die in this film, or we would have been robbed of his wonderful presence in The Force Awakens). Carrie Fisher is likewise pretty listless and doesn’t get much to do, though I’ll admit that the scene where Leia chokes Jabba with her own chains is pretty badass. Han and Leia’s romance also loses its spark here, with Han’s silly jealousy over Luke the only “development”.

For all the problems with the movie, I never felt any feminist ire over Leia’s infamous gold bikini. What irks me way more is that poor Leia is given zero time to deal with the revelation about her real father, who had tortured her in the very first episode, no less. I get that this is a very Luke-centric movie, but still.

Labyrinth

labyrinthI finally watched this 80s children’s fantasy classic, which like many other 80s movies I missed out on account of having grown up in the last years of the Soviet Union. Because the film is now 30 years old, I was kinda prepared for it to be really really dated, but to my surprise it mostly holds up very well. There is one distracting sequence with the red feathery creatures which looks like a cheap 80s music video, and the painted backdrops are really obvious, but overall the effects are on the acceptable side of dated and Jim Henson’s old-school puppetry is simply exceptional, a showcase of creativity and wild imagination and that clunky tactile charm that you’ll never find in the modern-day CGI animation.

The very young Jennifer Connelly is Sarah, a teenage girl who must navigate a perilous and perplexing labyrinth in order to save her baby brother from the clutches of the Goblin King, who steals him when Sarah impulsively wishes him away. Connelly’s performance as the sullen bratty Sarah early in the film is, shall we say, not an Academy Award-winning stuff, but she improves later on. On her journey through the labyrinth, Sarah encounters all sorts of wonderful weirdness, including a farting swamp and vicious fairies who get gleefully gassed by one of the locals, and makes friends with some of the creatures who prove to be loyal friends and allies. The world of the labyrinth is full of zany little touches and details that are by turn humorous and dark and are just delightful to watch. Sarah also gets to wear a white ball gown in one of her dream sequences that’s just about the most gloriously over-the-top 80s dress, accompanied of course by the giant 80s hair.

The standout of the film is David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, who is cruel, playful, seductive and for a children’s movie, rather subversive – even without that perfectly visible bulge in his tight grey pants. Ahem. Female hero/male villain is a rare dynamic in children’s stories, and here it doesn’t even try to avoid the sexual undertones that arise almost automatically from such scenario. Viewed in real-world terms, Jareth’s obsession with the young Sarah would probably look creepy or abusive, but Bowie’s presence here is so otherworldly and enchanting it takes on a fairytale quality that’s not bound to reality. He absolutely steals every scene he’s in. Other than the fun bouncy Magic Dance none of the Bowie-penned tunes really stood out to me, but whatever. He’s David Bowie and he’s awesome here.

Like any young protagonist, Sarah learns all sorts of lessons about responsibility, taking care of others and letting go of childish material things. But as a great believer of keeping my inner child alive, I rather liked that the ending wasn’t all, now that you’ve grown up you must forget all that silly magical daydreaming stuff.