Month: November 2016

Star Wars, redemption and the curious case of love

forceawakens-hv-tallWith books and movies, I don’t usually try to predict where a story might go, and to be honest I never expected to get analytical about a series I’ve only been a casual fan of before. However, many people who love fiction have their personal storytelling catnip, and mine is the theme of redemption. I can’t explain exactly what it is about redemption that moves me so, but it surely can’t be a coincidence that the last time I got an urge to write long in-depth speculations was after the sixth Harry Potter book and that ending, which made me certain that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there was some powerful story going on.

Contains spoilers about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, if you’re one of the ten people on the planet who haven’t seen it yet.

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Maleficent

maleficent960I think it’s pretty telling that the only time this Disney reinvention of the old fairy tale truly soars is when it recreates the classic cursing scene, in which Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent comes uninvited to the christening of baby princess Aurora to bestow a terrible curse. Dressed in black, eyes ablaze, with her naturally exaggerated features made even more striking courtesy of make-up master Rick Baker, Jolie looks utterly fabulous and alive and she visibly revels in the mayhem and revenge Maleficent unleashes. If only the rest of this limp if beautiful movie felt as spirited.

In Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent curses Aurora just because she’s evil and spiteful, but here they attempt to give her a more sympathetic background, with the first 30 minutes acting almost as a kind of prequel. As the movie begins, Maleficent is a powerful but innocent young winged fairy who lives in the Moors, a magical realm bordering the human kingdom. She meets and falls in love with a young human boy called Stefan, but the two grow apart as they get older. Eventually the human king attempts to conquer the Moors, but Maleficent drives him back with the help of the forest army, in a sequence that feels like a poor man’s The Lord of the Rings, with one of the forest creatures even resembling a mash-up of Treebeard and Balrog. The king is mortally wounded, and promises to leave the throne to any man who can kill Maleficent. Seduced by greed and ambition, Stefan tricks his old girlfriend into drinking a sleeping draught, but can’t bring himself to kill her and instead cuts off Maleficent’s wings to present them as a proof of her death.

The movie is full of plot holes, characters making inexplicably idiotic decisions, and glaring inconsistencies – Maleficent’s powers for instance change from scene to scene depending on what the plot demands – but they’re not the movie’s biggest problems, the issue is rather Maleficent herself. A fresh new angle on a classic story can work wonders, as well as an attempt to humanize a character previously portrayed in black-and-white terms. You could have a decent story about how Maleficent didn’t just start out all bad, but instead grew bitter and twisted because of bad life experiences. The problem with Maleficent is that, once the film gets her to the bitter point, it then loses nerve completely and won’t let her actually be bad and vengeful. It even wimps out during the cursing scene, where, instead of dooming Aurora to die, she proclaims that the princess will fall into an eternal sleep, and then bloody well provides the loophole for her own curse, i.e. that Aurora can only be woken by a true love’s kiss. Then, to make Maleficent look good, the movie turns the traditional three fairy godmothers into annoying dimwits who have no clue how to look after a baby they’ve been entrusted with and try to feed her raw carrots, so that Maleficent can reluctantly step in and send the baby she’s cursed barely ten minutes ago some milk. Puh-leeze.

This, I think, basically stems down to the common idea that a female protagonist we’re supposed to root for, even a supposedly “complicated” anti-hero, can never do anything really bad, and by god she’d better have a warm nurturing side hidden somewhere. Instead of injecting Maleficent’s story with some nuance and ambiguity, the movie simply does the switch where Maleficent is recast as good and Stefan gets to be a one-dimensional villain. It also tries to do a Frozen and subvert the traditional reliance on romance and a handsome prince, but the results are pretty leaden, partly because the relationship between Maleficent and teenage Aurora (Elle Fanning) never feels fleshed out. Aurora is bland as hell and her only setting in the movie is sweet and innocent and fairies OMG fairies I love fairies yay fairies!!! Is it just me by the way or has the whole “no romance, how progressive” chorus sorta become a cliché in itself, while reacting to a cliché? I’ve been reading reviews for Moana, which I do look forward to, and I swear my eye started twitching.

Baraka

baraka-blue-ray_0-pageA striking and mesmerising documentary with no conventional narrative, Baraka presents a collection of sights and sounds from around the globe – mountains, places of worship, cities, wilderness – as a sort of lush travelogue, set alternately to tribal beats and rather New Age-y soundtrack. The sights of the movie are not always beautiful, detouring at one point to the humanity’s darker places like the concentration camps and Cambodia’s killing fields, as well as sweatshops and overcrowded slums in South America and Asia. This is probably going to be the shortest film review I’ll ever do, because this movie is one to experience, rather than talk about. It’s an ambitious achievement that really leaves you in awe of the world’s sheer variety and splendour, and reminds me of the sadness I always feel at the thought of seeing only a tiny little sliver of the world in my lifetime. It’s a moving portrayal of faith and nature even if you’re an atheist like myself and find hippy-drippy sentiments maybe a tad cringey.

More images from the film:

Brave

brave-merida-hi-resDecided to catch up on one of the few Pixar movies I still haven’t watched. I think it got a fairly muted response upon its release compared to most Pixar films, so having lowered expectations I actually enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

The first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist, it dips its toe into the classic Disney territory with Pixar’s own princess, a headstrong flame-haired young girl named Merida. Unlike most Disney princesses, Merida actually has both living parents – the Scottish King Fergus (Robbie Coltrane) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). She has an easy, chummy relationship with her coarse but good-natured father, and a strained one with her strict mother, who is intent on grooming her into a perfect heiress while Merida would rather roam the countryside with her favourite horse and bow. One day, to Merida’s dismay, her parents announce that they plan to hold a tournament for the eldest sons from three Highland clans, with her hand in marriage as the prize. The sons turn out to be various degrees of losers, but Merida manages to turn things to her advantage, which angers the lords and Merida’s mother even more so. Fleeing her home after a spat with Elinor, Merida stumbles upon the cottage of an eccentric old witch and her sassy talking raven (who I wished we saw more of), and asks for a spell that would change Elinor into forgetting about the whole marriage thing. Because spells in fairy tales always have a nasty fine print, it backfires badly and now Merida must undo the curse before it’s too late.

Brave is a gorgeous-looking movie and my favourite thing in it was Merida’s unruly, glorious mane of hair. Lovingly and painstakingly animated, it floats around her head in shades of vivid red that I don’t think I’ve even seen onscreen before. It suits the free-spirited nature of the character, but I found it curious that Merida’s restlessness wasn’t entirely depicted as some sort of modern you go girl! ideal. Rather, it suggests that Merida, while rightly rebelling against a forced marriage, is also being childish and immature by refusing to grow up and face the responsibilities to her kingdom. Another refreshing aspect of the movie is that it focuses on a mother/daughter relationship, which rarely gets a look in animation (quick, count all the dead Disney mothers!), and accurately captures the mix of love and exasperation often prevalent in this dynamic.

Brave is more low-key and less ambitious and sophisticated than the best Pixar movies, and pretty much all of the plot developments are telegraphed well in advance – there is no clever subversion of tropes or Big Themes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing because a simple tale well told is nothing to sniff at, but I still think that the film could have done more with its premise and the relationship between Merida and Elinor. It simply feels like there isn’t that much for the characters to do or accomplish. Because their conflict is pretty standard and involves lack of communication rather than any real rift, it’s resolved quite easily, and I think that Frozen did a much better job with “character thinks that they can fix the problem like so, but it turns out to be something totally different”. Can there be a doubt in anyone’s mind about what really needs to be fixed in order for the spell to be broken? It’s not some silly tapestry, duh.

In the absence of a clear antagonist, the main threat in the movie comes in the shape of a giant evil bear, who turns out to be more than meets the eye, and for a bit I wondered if the movie was going to go into a different direction altogether. It doesn’t, and again, I was left with a vague feeling of a lost potential. Same goes for the witch: her appearance is disappointingly brief, and you’re left to wonder if something more interesting could have come out of the maiden-mother-crone setup. But while it lacks inventiveness and ambition of classic Pixar, Brave still has plenty going for it: beautiful visuals with a touch of Celtic mysticism, emotion, and humour, most of which involves the antics of Merida’s mischievous triplet brothers.

Witness

witnessWonderful Peter Weir film starring Harrison Ford that’s part thriller, part fish-out-of-water story about culture clash and part romance. While the thriller element is just okay if slickly made, it’s really there to explore an unusual setting and a growing connection between a man and a woman from two very different worlds. The only bad thing I could say about it is the dated 80s soundtrack, but it’s a small nitpick.

Most of the story takes place in the Amish settlement in Pennsylvania, a self-sufficient world that seems to be frozen in time, with its commitment to a rural lifestyle and avoidance of electricity and modern clothes, among other things. At the start of the movie, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), a young Amish widow, takes a train with her young son for a family visit. While their train is delayed in Philadelphia, the boy witnesses a brutal murder in the station’s bathroom and manages to avoid the killer. Through a chain of events that put their lives in mortal danger, Rachel and her son escape back to the Amish country with John Book (Harrison Ford), the tough big city detective assigned to the case.

The romance between Rachel and John is the heart of the movie, and really involves three characters: John, Rachel, and the palpable sexual tension between them. I’m a big fan of “love each other, can’t be together” romances and here it’s done exceptionally well. There’s a big kiss scene at one point but most of the emotion is conveyed through the glances, gestures, and the intense yearning chemistry. Both characters are grown-ups with responsibilities and place in the world, keenly aware that the cultural gulf between them can’t be crossed, and I admired the movie’s reluctance to go into full-on melodrama (which by the way I totally love too, but it would have been at odds with this film’s more subtle mood). For instance, early on it introduces a third-wheel Amish guy who is clearly sweet on Rachel, and in another movie this would have led to a love triangle, rivalry, jealousy etc., but here it’s pretty much sidestepped. The nature of Rachel and John’s relationship is of course a source of gossip and tension in the community, but again, it’s not really overblown.

The ways of the Amish are likewise well-observed; one might say that the film portrays them in a rather golden light, highlighting the purity, non-violence and the lovely communal spirit of their lives, but at least it also does give you an idea what price one might pay for breaking the rules and going against the grain. Amish shunning sounds intense, man.

Random spotting: fresh-faced Viggo Mortensen in the barn-building scene. Also, the young boy with the slightly strange, elvish features who plays Rachel’s son looked naggingly familiar; I realised later that the same actor played the crime boss in Brick which I’ve watched just recently. Funny how some people don’t change all that much from childhood to adulthood.

The Piano Teacher

pianoteacher_1130_430_90_s_c1Michael Haneke’s Hidden was one of those strange unsettling films with one truly shocking scene that lingers in your mind for a very long time, so I was curious to see more of his stuff. The Piano Teacher certainly ticks the controversial and shocking boxes, but I’m afraid I was less than impressed this time around.

Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, a 40-ish teacher at the conservatory of music in Vienna. She lives with her overbearing mother who still treats her as if she was a little girl, and the two sleep in the same bed… so yeah some massive psychological issues there. Words to describe Erika would be, severe, unsmiling, cold, harsh, uptight, distant, repressed. She also leads a secret life visiting porn shops, where the male clients are made visibly uncomfortable by her matter-of-fact presence. Sometimes she locks herself in the bathroom with a razor, doing something I’d rather not describe, suffice to say it made me cover up my eyes for a while. She is without a question a deeply disturbed woman – for reasons the film never really explains – but there seems to be a sort of stable routine in her life, which is rocked when one of her students, a handsome young man named Walter, takes an interest in her, resulting in a sexual battle of wills.

I’m guessing the film was meant to be some sort of unflinching, brutally honest look at repressed sexuality, sadomasochism and gender roles, but to me it all came off as rather silly, overwrought and not in the least bit plausible. Sometimes a film just feels off right from the start, and I got a whiff of that in the opening scene, where Erika comes home and has a terrible row with her mother, who goes through her bag and tears up what she deems an age-inappropriate sexy dress. Erika pulls at her mother’s hair, tearing out whole clumps before remorse overcomes her and mother and daughter share a tearful hug. All of this is pure over-the-top melodrama, but the film presents it in a super-serious, clinical manner, and the overall tone feels rather phony. Walter’s interest in Erika also never feels convincing – not necessarily because of the age gap or Erika’s severe make-up-free appearance. He just seems like a regular 20-something guy without any particular depth to his personality, and it’s hard to see why exactly he’d chase after someone as cold and unapproachable as Erika. Huppert is a magnetic actress who is superb at playing icy characters with a sea of boiling emotion underneath, but her efforts aren’t enough to save this film from feeling artificial and ultimately dull.