Month: January 2017

Split

split-imageWith all the prestigious Oscar-season films out, I wanted to take a break and see something different. To my surprise, a film I felt like seeing was M. Night Shyamalan’s latest. Like most people, I loved The Sixth Sense, but I haven’t watched a Shyamalan film at the cinema since Signs in 2002, a movie so offensively stupid it would have put me off his stuff even without the critical bashing his next few films received. The reviews for this one however were quite decent, hailing it a comeback even, and James McAvoy starring did a lot to sway me, since I’m a big fan.

McAvoy has a kind of sweet face that could easily have doomed him to an endless string of lightweight cutie-patootie roles (Amy Adams had a similar problem before David O. Russell cast her in The Fighter), a fate he’s obviously determined to duck. There was his stellar turn as a vile foul-mouthed cop in Filth, and in Split he’s once again playing a shady individual, with spectacular results. His character, Kevin, has a Dissociative Identity Disorder, and shares his mind with twenty-two other personalities, though we only see a handful of them. McAvoy, always a vibrant screen presence, has tremendous fun with his scenery-chewing performance and manages to successfully distinguish his “characters” through body language, ticks and vocal inflections, going from almost endearing to scary-as-hell in a fraction of a second. There’s a rather fascinating (and most likely wildly unrealistic) system to the way the personalities “come to the light”, wrestle for control and arrange alliances between themselves.

The story has Kevin kidnap three teenage girls, including an introverted school outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is offered a ride home by chance. The girls are kept in an unidentifiable place somewhere underground, and though Kevin and his other personalities don’t intend any immediate physical harm they keep on making creepy comments about sacrifice that can’t possibly come to any good. Casey, a haunted soul with a tragic personal history told in flashbacks over the course of the film, does the most trying to engage their captor and trick him into letting them escape. The other two girls are less developed and feel like traditional horror archetypes.

Most of the explanation and world-building in the movie comes courtesy of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist who is intensely sympathetic to him and other DID patients. Through their conversations, we learn of an enigmatic twenty-third personality in Kevin’s mind called The Beast, whose existence Dr. Fletcher doubts and who doesn’t sound like anyone you’d like to run into in a dark alley at night.

Split still has some of the usual annoying Shyamalanisms like stilted dialogue and a pointless cameo from the director, but it’s easily one of his better films. It’s fun, trashy and full of weird interesting camera angles, it excels at generating Hitchcockian tension and suspense, and it’s anchored by McAvoy’s freewheeling, entertaining performance. I wish though I didn’t read so much hype about the Big Twist this movie was supposed to have, because a part of my brain spent the entire movie trying to figure out the twist and anticipating the surprise. The revelation however failed to rock my world – it has little to do with the story itself and its effectiveness depends solely on how much you know or care about the thing it refers to.

Lion

lion-dev-patelBased on a true story of an Indian boy who gets separated from his family, adopted by an Australian couple, then finds his birthplace 25 years later using Google Earth, Lion is an unashamedly emotional tear-jerker which mostly works. It’s heartfelt, beautifully shot and features uniformly strong performances (and on a totally shallow note, my my Dev Patel is all grown up and crushworthy).

While I knew the general storyline, I didn’t expect the film to be effectively split into two distinct halves. In the first, we meet Saroo (Sunny Pawar in a remarkable, eloquent turn), a five-year-old boy from a poor rural area who insists on accompanying his older brother Guddu on a trip to find work. When Saroo is too tired and sleepy to go on, Guddu leaves him on a bench at the train station. The boy wakes up alone, tries to look for his brother, and gets trapped for two days on an empty train which takes him 1,600km from home, to Kolkata. When Saroo finally gets off the train, he’s completely alone in a city where strangers talk in Bengali while he only knows Hindi.

This first half, which chronicles Saroo’s odyssey of survival in Kolkata, is easily the most compelling part of the film. Told with minimal dialogue, it captures the heartbreaking loneliness of a small vulnerable child in a huge indifferent city. Eventually, the fate smiles on Saroo and he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who live in Tasmania. Flash forward twenty years, and grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) is a young man heading to a hotel management course in Melbourne, where, at a house party, the memories of his Indian family are prodded, leading him to an obsession with finding them.

Because the filmmakers decide to concentrate both on Saroo’s harrowing journeys in Kolkata and his grown-up anguish, the second half of the story, which really needed a 2-hour film of its own, comes seriously shortchanged. Saroo’s relationships with his adoptive family – which includes another Indian boy his parents adopt a year later, with less successful results – don’t feel fleshed out enough. Mantosh, Saroo’s adopted sibling, is a troubled boy who grows up into a troubled adult and there could have easily been an entire movie about the tense, complicated family dynamic, but as things stand it feels like the character could have been cut out of the film altogether with no big loss. Saroo’s memories are triggered in what feels like a very simplistic, “movie” manner – this kind of stuff works in melodramas but feels a tad contrived in a film that strives to be more naturalistic. Also, I found it hard to believe that until that particular moment Saroo’s biological family was never on his mind. Rooney Mara, though never less than compelling to watch, is rather wasted in the supportive-girlfriend part, and while Nicole Kidman’s acting is impeccable Saroo’s relationship with his adoptive mother doesn’t hit as hard as it could have.

Despite these issues and a general sense of lull about three-quarters in, the flagging pace eventually gives way to a genuinely emotional resolution which made the audience around me sniff and wipe their eyes (I got a tickle in my nose as well). And having been to Tasmania a few times, it’s nice to see its gorgeous scenery displayed so lavishly on the big screen.

Two years of blogging!

So apparently my blog now is two years old. How the time flies. When I started it back in January 2015 I really had no idea how long I’d keep at it and what the blog was going to be about. Since then it’s turned into a more or less constant thing, and once I’ve seen a film or read a book I’m automatically itching to turn my computer on and arrange my thoughts in a coherent and hopefully engaging manner. Admittedly, sometimes I had to let go of the idea that I have to review everything I come across as some sort of obligation to god knows who, and only do it when I genuinely feel like it.

Big thank you to everybody who visited my blog, subscribed or liked a post – it means a lot.

PJ Harvey @ The Sidney Myer Music Bowl

pj-harvey-1478274130It’s been a long five year break since her last visit, but PJ finally made her way here with her latest tour and I made it to my ninth PJ concert. Short review, it was awesome (again). Passionate, intense, musically and vocally perfect, great crowd.

Last time I was at the The Sidney Myer Music Bowl I didn’t have a great experience and found the venue rather underwhelming, but I enjoyed it much better this time now that I managed to get proper seating tickets for my friend and I. The people on the grassy hill behind us got very lucky with the weather – it was a perfect, beautiful summer evening with not a cloud in sight; had the concert happened a day earlier they’d be cold and miserable, toughing it through the rain. Sitting on the grass rather did look like an inviting option, but I’m not sure I’d be up for the soreness after four hours of it. On our way to the gig, neither of us could remember exactly which way the Music Bowl was, so our strategy was to spot an alternative-looking person likely to visit a PJ Harvey concert and follow behind them, which worked to perfection.

The opening act was a duo called Xylouris White. I thought their music sounded vaguely like Dirty Three, a guess which made sense when I googled the band and found out that it in fact featured the drummer from Dirty Three, Jim White. The other guy, a Greek musician and singer, played a lute-like instrument called laouto. Can’t say they were really my cuppa but I enjoyed a couple of their songs.

PJ got onstage at around 9.15, wearing a rather eccentric and fabulous purple outfit and purple feathers in her hair, mowhawk-like. This time around, she was backed by a nine-piece band, including long-time collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish, and for the first time, saxophones baby! Unsurprisingly so, since the latest album relies heavily on sax. Introducing the band was the only bit of crowd banter throughout the show, but I never hold the lack of interaction against the artists as long as they’re into the show and give it all. It was also a much more deliberately theatrical performance from PJ, who for the most part was freed from having to play an instrument, so she could prowl dramatically across the stage.

They played five songs off The Hope Six Demolition Project (gah I hate this clunky title) in a row, before varying it with the older tracks, including some non-obvious choices. Some picks from Let England Shake was a given, considering how close it is to the new album thematically, but To Talk to You from White Chalk was a nice surprise. I absolutely adore that album and there’s something about those ghostly, otherworldly songs that’s especially mesmerising live. The River as a final encore song was also unexpected (Is This Desire? is such an underrated gem in PJ’s discography), and 50ft Queenie was a glorious blast of the old-old-school, snarly shouty PJ. I love her recent stuff but god I wish I could see a whole show of her just rocking the **** out. It was great to hear the old favourites Down By The Water and To Bring You My Love, though in case of the latter I wasn’t 100% sold on the saxophone interpretation; that song is just not the same without the sinister organ outro. Of the new album, The Wheel was a clear standout but I enjoyed all of the new songs.

My only complaint was that there wasn’t a second show, so I could experience all of this again.

Room by Emma Donoghue

room-iiIt’s always interesting to read a book after watching the film adaptation first, particularly when the way the same story is told in different mediums is so drastically different. In Emma Donoghue’s remarkable novel, the only viewpoint we get is that of its narrator, a five-year-old boy named Jack, who lives with his mother (referred to solely as Ma throughout the book) in a 11-by-11-foot room, where he was born. As revealed later, Ma is a young woman who was abducted when she was a 19-year-old student, and kept for seven years in a soundproof garden shed by her captor, a much older man whose visits eventually leave her with a son.

Jack’s mother made every effort to make his life in the Room safe and happy, inventing routines and games with the few means at her disposal, and insisting on as little “brain-rotting” TV as possible. She also encourages Jack to believe that the Room is all there is to the world, and nothing Jack sees on their TV is really real, a decision which lets Jack have a semblance of a happy childhood. Their jailer, known to Jack only as Old Nick, brings them enough food to survive and Ma keeps Jack out of his way by hiding him in the wardrobe at night-time.

This may sound like a harrowing and lurid sort of setup, but the book’s genius is in telling the story from the point of view of a small child and restricting everything to his vision, which lends innocence to a very dark scenario without trivialising or downplaying it. Jack is happy in his routine and the Room for him is a safe magical place where every inanimate object is a good friend and deserves to be called with a capital – Rug, Bed, Meltedy Spoon, Door etc. Shielded from the true horror of their situation, he treats things like Ma occasionally spending a day prostrate on the bed with depresssion with a child’s acceptance. The novel never falls into the trap of making Jack’s voice sound precocious or cutesy; he’s maybe unrealistically articulate for a five-year-old but you can say the same about any character from a film or a book (let’s face it, no one wants to hear truly “realistic” dialogue).

Soon after we meet Jack on his fifth birthday, his mother begins to slowly reveal to him that there’s in fact a big world outside of their tiny cell, which is like telling an average person that most of the existence happens in a fourth dimension they didn’t know was there. Without spoiling things too much, Jack’s world does expand in the second half of the book, and as in the film, the story does lose something without the unique, claustrophobic setting of the first half. However, it still remains compelling, with the sensitive exploration of the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Jack’s impressions of the Outside and its sheer disorientation and sensory overload, mother and son’s coping with their new situation and Jack’s eventual growth into his own person after their intense closeness in the Room. Some of Jack’s observations about the Outside are quite priceless:

“Everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.”

Allied

alliedAs far as wartime romance goes, Allied is no Casablanca, but I must have been in a right mood for a classy, well-crafted, pleasantly old-fashioned drama with glamorous leads and lacking in flaws that drive me bananas about many modern mainstream films. It’s not a classic by any means, but an enjoyable viewing nonetheless. For god knows what reason, the marketing for this film has given away the key twist that drives its second half, though I can’t say that it affected things much since some sort of twist was a given.

As the film begins, it’s 1942 and Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), a Canadian intelligence officer, is dropped off behind the enemy lines in Northern Morocco. He then travels to – where else – Casablanca, where he meets up with Marianne Beausejou (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful French Resistance fighter. In order to carry out a potentially fatal mission, the pair must pose as a married couple and remember to look like authentic sweethearts at all times. Though the reserved Max is initially wary of mixing business with pleasure, he of course can’t help but fall for Marianne and the two end up having a steamy pre-mission scene inside a car while the Moroccan desert howls around them. They move to London, get married, have a daughter, and settle into as much of a quiet life as the war allows, when Max has a bomb dropped on him by his superiors, which flings him into a life of suspicion and despair. Without giving too much away, it concerns the possibility that his wife might not be who he thought she was.

For a thriller, the movie unfolds at a fairly sedate pace, which I didn’t necessarily think was an issue. It very deliberately eschews the modern go-go-go cut-cut-cut sensibilities in favour of the old-fashioned feel of the classic 40s films, except with more swearing, sex and nudity than those films would have allowed. Casablanca is obviously a major touchstone here, with the movie knowingly setting its first half in the Casablanca that feels less like a real place and more like film!Casablanca, an exotic place of danger and intrigue (there’s also another nod to a classic Casablanca scene, about La Marseillaise performed in a room full of Nazis). The main pleasure of the film for me was simply watching its movie-star beautiful leads. I seem to have gained a whole new appreciation for actors who can evoke that old-school Hollywood glamour, and both Pitt and Cotillard have it in spades, though Cotillard probably stands out more, since as a character Marianne is more vivacious and has a mysterious allure to her. Robert Zemeckis’ direction is fluid and confident, though the above-mentioned car sex scene had a bit too much spinning camera for my liking. The film’s resolution feels like a slight cop-out and overall it’s a 3 out of 5 kind of film rather than something revelatory, but after watching a few recent films which made me go “huh” at basic stuff like character motivations and story, it was nice to see something that actually feels thought-through and solidly crafted.

Moana

moana_0abcaedeSolid if not quite spectacular effort from Disney. If nothing else I’m happy that I watched it at the cinema, because this movie really is exceptionally beautiful – and that’s saying a lot because complimenting an animated film on visuals is like complimenting big blockbusters on special effects: what doesn’t look great, these days? Yet the Polynesian-inspired world of Moana really does feel special and magical, or maybe it’s just that I can’t watch gorgeous tropical scenery and not think, I need a holiday and I so want to be there.

The story and the characters by comparison don’t stand out as much, and instead simply put a new gloss on the well-worn Disney tropes that the movie is both happy to use and wants to poke fun at. A young protagonist with a cute animal sidekick who yearns for the world outside their home goes on a journey of self-discovery… sounds familiar? Here, Moana is a teenage daughter of a chief who is destined to some day rule the small island her people live on. Moana’s heart however belongs to the sea and its wonders, against her tribe’s tradition of never venturing beyond the reef. The only person who understands Moana is her eccentric grandmother, who has a similar affinity with the sea and encourages her granddaughter. Soon however the island falls under the curse that’s been unleashed a long time ago when Maui, a demigod and once a benefactor to Moana’s people, stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, disrupting the natural order of things and unleashing a terrible lava demon. The heart has been lost in the sea during Maui’s escape, but now the ocean itself chooses Moana to take the heart to Maui so that he can return it where it belongs.

Moana got much praise for its modern-day take on a female protagonist, and yes it is great that we can now have stories where a heroine’s gender is a complete non-issue. It’s also good to have romance-free stories for variety’s sake, though I’m not down with the view that a lack of romance for female characters is now the One and Only True Way, period. This however doesn’t negate my issues with the film, chief of which is that the characters’ personal conflicts and obligatory moments of self-realisation often have a mechanical, by-numbers feel to them, and so fail to be truly moving. I could almost see the screenwriters go, ok we’re approaching the third act so we need to insert a Dark Night of the Soul moment… here! Moana, while spunky and brave and ticking all the right boxes as a role model for kids, is a teensy bit bland. Also, personally I’m just not that fond of the type of story where a character goes on a quest to get a thing to a thing conquering obstacles on the way, video game-style. Having the sea as Moana’s ally drains tension out of the story where she spends most of her time at sea, which can help her out pretty much any time she’s in a pickle. Finally, while pleasant on the ear the film’s songs aren’t what you’d call memorable; parents the world over may loathe Let It Go with a passion of hundred suns by now but no one can deny its catchiness.

Though probably not high on a repeat value for me, the movie was still fun to watch; the interactions between Moana and Maui are entertaining and Dwayne Johnson does a great job with the voice work for his cocky but charismatic character, whose giant ego of course hides a well of insecurities and sadness. The animators do some fun clever things with Maui’s big-and-burly character design, with his many tattoos acting almost like a whole separate character. Moana’s animal sidekick gets an amusing spin – at first you think it’s going to be her adorable pet piglet but instead she spends most of the film accompanied by a remarkably brainless chicken, who is a rather inspired comical creation and provides most of the film’s laughs. There’s also an unexpected resolution concerning the film’s villain which in retrospect was totally coming but still managed to surprise me, and ended up being quite beautiful. And as mentioned before the visuals are just divine.