Month: May 2017

Things to Come

Our trip to the cinema to see this French film with the incomparable Isabelle Huppert started off with a bit of drama: as the room went dark and the opening credits rolled in, Mum and I realised we were in a wrong cinema and instead were watching a British war film, which explained the trailer for Dunkirk. Oops. We hurried across into the right theatre and luckily our session hasn’t started yet.

The film itself was in a way an anti-drama; we are so conditioned to constant dramatic developments and turns in the movies that it’s almost disorienting to watch something that’s actually much closer to real life. In a different film, a character suddenly bursting into tears would generally be followed by some shocking confession or revelation, but here it’s just a random burst from a new mother whose emotions run high after the birth and which doesn’t necessarily suggest a shift in the narrative.

Not to say that there wasn’t any drama period – Huppert plays Nathalie, a Parisian philosophy professor, who in the course of the film loses things and people most important in her life. The most devastating loss comes when her husband of 25 years, another philosophy teacher and fellow lover of books, leaves her for another woman. Not that Nathalie lets any of these losses unravel her – even though she doesn’t go through anywhere as much trauma as Huppert’s memorable character in Elle from last year, the two women respond to their misfortunes with a similar lack of self-pity. In the case of fiercely intellectual Nathalie, she leans on the tenets of philosophy to get her through hard times.

Huppert is brilliant and luminous, the gorgeous and serene shots of Paris and French countryside are francophile’s manna, and the movie is best seen as a collection of slice-of-life observations, rather than something that builds up to anything major. This is not How A Mature Philosophy Professor Got Her Groove Back, despite the presence of a younger man, Nathalie’s former student and now a fellow philosopher, who invites her to spend time at the commune-like rural house he shares with his anti-establishment friends. The film tantalises you with possibilities that their relationship might take a sexual turn, but like everything else this doesn’t play like your regular movie drama. In fact the most dramatic thing in the film might be Nathalie’s mother’s fickle black cat.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Another novel I’ve read for our book club at work, this time a follow-up to Hannah Kent’s best-selling debut, Burial Rites, which I didn’t love anywhere as much as others did and found rather over-praised. Maybe it was the lowered expectations, but I ended up enjoying this one much better. Kent seems to have a penchant for the grim northern settings and harsh landscapes; Burial Rites was set in an isolated Icelandic community and this book moves the action just a bit further south, to a remote valley in the 1820s Ireland. The subject matter however is entirely different: The Good People concerns itself with the Irish folklore and superstitions, particularly the fairies, or the Good People, who according to the traditional beliefs belong to neither God nor Devil but exist on their own, mischievous and unpredictable terms.

The novel opens with a sudden and inexplicable death of Martin Leahy, a husband to Nóra Leahy, who receives this blow soon after the death of her only daughter. The immediate aftermath then introduces the rest of the characters, Nóra’s family and neighbours, a chief standout among them being Nance, a local wise woman who arrives at the wake to offer her keening (lamenting) services. Nance occupies a shaky ground in the community where she’s both a social outcast and yet is sought out for her knowledge of herbs, midwifery and the ways of the fairies. A new local priest however is not willing to be as tolerant about these pagan matters as the old one and could spell out trouble for Nance.

Nóra is also burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál, once healthy boy who can no longer talk, walk or put on weight, and wails relentlessly through the night. Neither the priest nor the doctor can offer any help or remedies, and though Nóra hires a teenage girl, Mary, to help her with the child, taking care of Micheál is an ordeal and an emotional drain. So it’s with some sense of relief that Nóra accepts Nance’s diagnosis that Micheál is a changeling, a false fairy child swapped with the real healthy Micheál by the Good People.

To be honest, I thought that the main narrative of the novel – Nóra and Nance’s quest to recover the boy from the grasp of the fairies – felt too stretched out and maybe didn’t warrant an almost 400-page novel. Where this impeccably researched book really excels though is in immersing the reader into its claustrophobic setting, and vividly evoking the life in a poor 19-century Irish village. The freezing dirt floors, the diet of potatoes and poitín, the smells and textures, the tactile quality of life far removed from our modern world, the evocative language peppered with the Irish vernacular, all weave together to transport the reader. In Nóra’s world, there are no coincidences or meaningless incidents, if something bad happens to an individual or a village, someone is to blame – either for deliberate malice or failure to follow a ritual.

As for the fairies, I wasn’t sure until the end what sort of book I was reading – is this a strictly historical novel about the way desperate, powerless people cling to the superstition in order to deal with the misery of their lives? Or was there going to be a genuine supernatural element after all? I’ve been caught out too many times with gotcha! endings, so I wasn’t certain. Without going into specifics, the ending of the book did provide me with a certain jolt.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It’s been forever since I read Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel, but I can’t really remember Dracula giving the female heroine her sexual awakening. Nevermind, I do have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast trope and Gary Oldman as the monstrous yet tragic Dracula is captivating and sensual… well at least when he’s in his young human Gary Oldman form with the fabulous long hair. Not so much when he’s hanging from a ceiling as a hideous human-sized bat.

In this version, Vlad the Impaler turns to vampirism after the tragic death of his wife, who hurls herself off a parapet at the false news of his death. The priests tell him that a suicide will never enter heaven, which enrages Vlad; he renounces God and embraces the immortal life of a blood-sucking monster. Fast forward 400 years to the end of the 19th century, and Dracula sees a spitting image of his wife staring at him from a photograph belonging to a young attorney (Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. What the Heck Am I Doing In A Period Piece) who visits Dracula in his picturesquely sinister castle.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this adaptation is by no means perfect, but it’s a gloriously decadent feast for the eyes. I first watched this movie almost twenty years ago and its opulent imagery imprinted on my brain just from that one viewing. The imaginative production design, the sumptuous costumes, the unrestrained romanticism, the fantastic horror score are all a thing of beauty. There are billowing Victorian dresses, creepy shadows, long red cloaks, rooms full of candles, evil vampire succubi, bleeding crosses, and many many transitions between various circular shapes (like the eye of a peacock feather transforming into a railroad tunnel at the start of the film). The special effects and make-up still look good, other than a few decidedly cheesy shots of Dracula in his animal shapes. At the very least, even when the practical effects look dated and clunky you know that what you see onscreen is actually there.

The original novel was written as a series of documents, and the film largely preserves this episodic structure, switching between several protagonists and multiple narrators. This is somewhat to the detriment of the film, which feels like a succession of set pieces rather than a story with a real drive. The performances are a mixed bag; as mentioned before Gary Oldman is utterly magnetic and his line readings in the first half of the film as the bouffanted old Dracula (Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!) are just delicious. I couldn’t decide whether Winona Ryder is actually good as Mina, or whether it’s just that she has such a perfect look for the film with her huge dark eyes and her angelic beauty. Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top turn as the vampire hunter Van Helsing is hit-and-miss, sometimes it works and other times his wacky ways fall flat. Tom Waits is heaps of fun as the deranged bug-eating Renfield.

Keanu Reeves… ooh dear. I confess, I can never really hate Keanu Reeves even when his performance is like a walking wooden plank, but god he’s terrible here. Jonathan Harker is a pretty dull character to start with, and Reeves almost made me wish for Mina to dump her boring husband and go for the depraved immortality. Despite these shortcomings, there’s still plenty to love about the movie, especially from the visual standpoint, and it’s a fantastic take on the classic monster.

Get Out

My only regret with this film is that I already knew the big reveal beforehand from watching a spoiler-filled review. I’ve no idea why I did this to myself, I can’t even blame the reviewer who was thoughtful enough to include a spoiler warning – but I just kept on watching. The movie was still hugely enjoyable and suspenseful, and had other twists and surprises up its sleeve, I just wish I came into it knowing as little as possible.

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in an instantly sympathetic turn), a young black man who is about to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time in their affluent rural home. Rose never told her parents that her boyfriend is black, and Chris worries about their reception despite Rose’s assurances that her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. A different, simpler movie might have played it so that Rose’s parents are awful in an obvious racist way, but in Get Out Chris’s visit turns into a nightmare because Rose’s liberal neurosurgeon father and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist mother are just so hellbent on broadcasting how totally fine they are with Chris. But this awkwardness might be the least of his problems, as he gets increasingly creeped out by the very odd behaviour of the other two black people in the house, a groundsman and a housekeeper. They move around the place in a ghostly, silent manner, and when Chris tries to be friendly with them they’re cold and just plain unnerving.

If you briefly summarised the main mystery to someone who hasn’t watched the film it would sound incredibly silly, but it totally works in the context of the film, much like the potentially silly reveal of The Stepford Wives works in Ira Levin’s classic satirical thriller (Ira Levin I think would have enjoyed Get Out a lot). It takes care to lay the foundations for the reveal, so that when it happens it’s genuinely horrifying rather than inviting ridicule. There are certainly implausibilities, but you’re generally too busy being carried away by the film and its suburban-Gothic vibe to stop for nitpicking. It’s a superbly made thriller that juggles horror and humour, most of the latter coming from Chris’s lovable best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), TSA Officer whose natural inclinations to conspiracy theories come in handy.

One unexpected delight of the film for me was its score, which often sounds like it was lifted from the old-school horror movies with their shrieking violins, an interesting juxtaposition with the modern-day setting. My Mum who watched the film with me remarked that, just when you think that nothing new can be done anymore, a film like this comes along, and yes Get Out is the sort of fresh take on the genre you cherish.

P.S. The actor who plays Rose’s douchy brother looked naggingly familiar to me, and I only realised later that the same guy played the sweet-natured Banshee in X-Men: First Class. He’s certainly no sweetikins here!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Yes yes I know I’m three years late to the party with this one. Missed it at the cinemas, was going to watch it on Netflix at my Mum’s for ages before it was taken off, so I finally rented it at my local DVD place. In a nutshell, I thought it was the strongest Marvel movie I’ve seen by a long margin and the first one I could say I loved since the first Iron Man. If you take out all the superheroing stuff, at the heart it’s a gripping political thriller/1970s-esque spy movie tackling themes of national security vs personal freedom, a debate which is rather timely in the world we live in now.

I haven’t seen the first Captain America movie, but The Winter Soldier helpfully summarises its events for the newbies like myself. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is busy adjusting to the life in the 21st century after spending most of the 20th century asleep, concentrating on workouts and special missions, but no dating just yet. Though he can’t see a life outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of secrecy and lies going on in the organization, despite the assurances of boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that such compartmentalization is for the best. However, when Fury himself is locked out of some top-secret files just before the launch of a new defense project that would give S.H.I.E.L.D. the ability to wipe out potential threats with a push of a button, it becomes clear that something rotten is going on. Who is up to the task of cleaning out the poison?

The movie does lean heavily on the usual spy movie tropes, such as the hero on the run from his own organization, but there are also surprises, brutal and grounded fight choreography, terrific action sequences full of nifty little details, and some compelling emotional drama too (I won’t spoil what it is but suffice to say it’s of the variety that’s pretty much guaranteed to move me). Even when it gets to the obligatory big-scale Marvel third act where things go kaboom, it never feels like it’s something the filmmakers shoved in just because every superhero movie needs a big action-driven finale.

Captain himself is an interesting aberration in today’s comic book movies where heroes are supposed to be flawed or anti-heroic and even Superman can’t just be an earnest corny Superman any more. But his staunch old-fashioned decency is what makes Captain America so endearing, plus the perfect casting of Evans who practically radiates all-American wholesomeness (and is nice to look at, I won’t lie). It helps that he gets to have lively interactions with the supporting characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who make the most out of their screen time. The addition of Robert Redford to the cast as the shady figurehead Alexander Pierce lends the movie a seriously classy touch and he underplays the role nicely.

The only thing that truly sucks in this movie is the Winter Soldier’s Russian, which is pretty bad but oh well I’m used to my native language getting mangled by non-Russian speakers. The Marvel quipping is not done to the obnoxious degree, thank god, though I could have done without a couple of one-liners. There was also one gratuitous lingering shot of Black Widow’s derriere that made me roll my eyes. But really, this movie is awesome. If only all Marvel films were as good.

The Witch

A very effective and disturbing exercise in slowly escalating dread, The Witch is the sort of movie where you sit on the edge expecting something really bad to happen any minute now. It doesn’t have many big jump scares but the claustrophobic setting, moody and muted visuals (the film is shot in natural light, with only candles providing the artificial one), spooky music and the unsettling implications of horrible things happening offscreen all work together to create a superb atmosphere of unease.

The setting is the 1630s New England, and in the opening scene a devout family of seven leaves their Puritan settlement over religious differences to reside on a farm by the edge of a forest, far away from human contact. I was glad to have subtitles while watching the movie, because everyone in it speaks in the archaic English based on the written records of the time, with thee and thou and dost and so on. It has a certain poetry to it and adds a lot to the authentic feel, but man would it have obscured the dialogue for me. One day, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy of the eerie wide-set eyes, seen most recently in Split and giving another strong performance here), the eldest child of the clan, takes her baby brother outside, where he vanishes into the thin air. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that, contrary to my expectations, the movie actually doesn’t toy with the audience regarding the existence of the titular witch – it shows upfront that yes she’s real, and what she does with the baby is not pleasant.

Thomasin and her family live in a world governed by faith and superstition where God, Devil and sin are a daily pre-occupation and the idea that the Devil might take on an animal shape is nothing out of the ordinary. It sure made me happy to live in the present day where I don’t have to think of myself as a born sinner and worry about hellfires all day long. When other strange and inexplicable things begin to happen, the family is slowly consumed with fear and paranoia that leads them to turn on each other with accusations of devilry. I thought that The Witch worked best as a quiet psychological thriller about the breakdown of the family – when it did attempt a few deliberately scary moments they mostly made me titter. They’re just too over-the-top compared to the overall subtle approach of the film.

Taylor-Joy is the standout in the cast, as The Witch is also an unconventional coming-of-age story of a young girl in the Puritan age, but Ralph Ineson and Katie Dickie (both seen on Game of Thrones), are also solid as the father who is sympathetic but too weak and prideful to admit he’s taken his family to ruin, and the brittle, emotionally damaged matriarch with a shade of Lysa Arryn. Without spoiling twists and turns, looking back it’s satisfying to spot all the clues the movie plants early on that hint on where the story will eventually go. It certainly has one of the most memorable endings in a film I can think of.

As a random aside, I wish I could think of ways to incorporate the line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” into my daily conversations somehow.

Apocalypto

I came across this one thanks to the most excellent History Buffs YouTube series, a show dedicated to reviewing historical movies run by a British guy called Nick Hodges. Nick is not a fan of Mel Gibson movies to put it mildly and he panned Apocalypto mercilessly for its many gross historical inaccuracies and the overall misrepresentation of the Mayan culture, with Gibson rolling his Mayans and his Aztecs into one. While his criticisms seemed legitimate, I’m way more forgiving towards the movies fudging historical facts for drama, and the film looked visually interesting at the very least. Besides, who else out there is making movies about a pre-Columbian civilisation shot exclusively in the Mayan dialect? I’ll take my Mayan movies where I can get them.

The story is very simple: Jaguar Paw, a young tribesman living in a jungle village with his little son and very pregnant wife, gets captured by the raiders from a nearby city, where he and his fellow villagers are due to be sacrificed to appease the angry gods. The collapse of the Mayan society is imminent, with the dying crops and strange diseases decimating the population, and nothing less than a constant waterfall of blood will do. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son in a pit cave before he’s taken, and he must escape and return to his family before it’s too late.

There’s some social commentary about the decline of a civilisation, with the scenes showing environmental degradation, the contrast between the pampered ruling elite and the sickly poor, and the cynical manipulation by the religious leaders. Some of it is as subtle as a brick, such as the creepy little girl prophesying the end of the Mayan world in a typical Creepy Child fashion. The movie really works best as a crazy, audacious, ultra-violent adventure story. Whatever else you can say about Mel Gibson, he knows how to pack a cinematic visceral punch and film a tense chase through the jungle, as the hunted becomes the hunter and picks off his pursuers one by one through the ingenious and often gory means. It’s like Home Alone, Mayan style.

The city scenes can be truly stomach-churning with the decapitations and cut out hearts galore, but they’re also visually stunning and feature the colourful body paint, eye-popping costumes and tribal decorations the likes of which I’ve never seen onscreen before (all that jade jewelry! The film is at least accurate about the Mayan upper class decorating their teeth with jade, as I got to learn on my recent trip to Mexico). I don’t know how historically accurate they really are, but they sure do look spectacular. The cinematography makes the most of the lush green jungle and other naturally beautiful locations. The indigenous cast, many of them first-time actors, do a fine job, especially Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, and there’s a surprising amount of humour in the scenes where we get to know our hero and his fellow tribesmen and women before everything goes to hell.