Month: September 2017

It

This big-screen version of Stephen King’s 1,200-page doorstopper is not great, but solid enough, and considering the overall woeful track record of King film adaptations, it can be counted as a success. I haven’t read the book or watched the popular 80s mini-series with Tim Curry, but knowing King’s propensity to write and write and write and write some more, I gather that the screenwriters pruned away the verbiage and streamlined the novel to its basic story about a bunch of kids in a small American town who are terrorised by a creepy, cackling clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Actually, make it half of the story, as the filmmakers split the novel into two cinematic chapters, with the follow-up a certainty now that this movie has made a mountain of cash.

The first appearance by Pennywise is his most effective and unsettling. A little boy named Georgie is playing outside in the rain sailing a paper boat, which disappears down a drain. When Georgie looks down, he sees a nightmarish painted face with terrifying glowing eyes looking up at him out of the darkness. Would he like to have his boat back? Just lean in and take it! Georgie does as the evil creature beckons… and it doesn’t end well for him.

Unfortunately, this simple macabre scene is an anomaly in the movie that relies mostly on loud obnoxious jump scares and throws everything but the kitchen sink at the viewer. To the film’s credit, its horror set pieces never became repetitive, and had enough visual interest and striking surreal imagery to hold my interest. But they are too loud and over-the-top to be truly scary, and nothing kills suspense and dread like the obvious CGI. The movie never manages to build up a mood of a small town with a haunted history, and Pennywise has less and less impact the longer he’s onscreen. That first remarkable appearance is mostly memorable for his stillness – when Pennywise instead turns into a blurry fast-moving shape lunging repeatedly at the screen, he is not anywhere near as effective. Also, not to sound bloodthirsty or anything, but his failure to ensnare any of our heroes for so long makes him feel less of a credible threat.

It however works much better as a coming-of-age story, and its talented and likeable young cast carry the film when the scares dry up. After Georgie’s disappearance, his guilt-wracked brother Bill and the rest of his friends all encounter Pennywise in various ways tailored to their personal fears, and eventually realise that they must take on this demonic force. Dubbing themselves The Losers’ Club, the young protagonists are all nerds and outsiders who suffer at the hands of local bullies and find comfort in each other. Because of time restrictions, some of them are better fleshed out than others – a couple of kids’ entire characterisation comes down to “a Jewish kid” and “a black kid with dead parents”. Beverly, the only girl in the club, is one of the better developed characters; slut-shamed at school, at home she endures her creepy and abusive father, and her bloody encounter with Pennywise gives the film one of its most memorable and primal scenes that has shades of Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Beverly also sets hearts and hormones aflutter among the boys, most notably Ben, a sensitive, shy overweight kid whose interest in history clues the Losers onto their town’s sinister past.

Stephen King always had a knack for writing kids, and it’s refreshing to watch pre-adolescent boys who are not air-brushed Hollywood children: they cuss like sailors and drop nonchalant sex-related insults right, left and centre, particularly Ritchie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), the resident smartass who all but steals the movie. I wish the film did more with the idea that the town’s grown-ups – which include a pervy pharmacist and a grotesque overprotective mother – are the real monsters in the kids’ lives, but again it just doesn’t get enough time to breathe. Despite the rushed execution and lack of real scares, It is strongly acted and has enough heart and visual panache to entertain for a couple of hours.

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White Cat Blues

by Lorna Crozier

The white cat with sapphire eyes
can’t be colour blind
must see the world
as blue.
Blue horses, blue light spilling
from the window, blue willows,
blue women
carrying bowls of bluish cream.

How beautiful I feel
all blue – shoulders, feet and hair,
the brilliant air,
blue wind
touching everything.

Tonight desire
the distance
between the moon and the white cat
sleeping under the apple tree
(the apples cold and blue)
will be the precise colour
of the cat’s dreams of rain.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

I’ve read quite a few John Grisham legal thrillers over the years. At their best, they’re tightly constructed, entertaining, compulsive page-turners you can’t put down. At their worst, they’re… well like this dud of a book.

It starts off rather promisingly. Our protagonist is Samantha Kofer, a young associate working in commercial real estate who loses her job at New York’s massive law firm after the financial crash of 2008. With hundreds of lawyers left unemployable, even non-paying internship positions are hotly contested, but eventually Samantha finds a pro bono opportunity in small-town Appalachia, where she’s to provide free legal aid to the downtrodden. There she meets Donovan Gray, a fearless lawyer crusading against the Big Coal, companies whose strip mining practices defile the land and poison the local population. Oh and he’s young and handsome too, though an estranged wife and kid put a damper on a potential fling.

For the first quarter I was happy for the novel to take it slow with setting up Samantha’s new environment: the poor coal mining town of Brady, the all-female staff at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, the appalling injustices of the coal companies and so on. Then at the 200-page mark, I realised that any kind of solid plot was still nowhere to be seen and the book was still busy meandering.

As it turned out, the big central question of the novel really was, what kind of lawyer will Samantha choose to be: will she go back to pushing paper at the big city firm, or will she stay to fight for the voiceless underdog? The big problem is that Samantha is not a very interesting character, and the compelling environmental and social issues don’t benefit from the perspective of a detached self-centred outsider. In fact Samantha comes off as a wishy-washy fence-sitter in all aspects of her life, personal and professional, and has no real passion for anything. If Grisham intended this as an “issue” novel, maybe it should have been driven by a main character who is involved and actually gives a shit, rather than a fish-out-of-water character who is often described as just plain bored. In the absence of strong plot and suspense (despite the novel’s attempt to inject some with a “shocking” development two-thirds in), dud protagonist and way too much pointless filler, Gray Mountain is the least entertaining Grisham novel I’ve read.

Zootopia

When this movie first came out, I must have gone, oh Jesus no, not another bloody animated film about cute talking animals, and skipped it. It however turned out to be a smarter and much more inventive movie than I anticipated, with the amount of social commentary that’s quite heavy for a kids film. While I found some of its messages rather muddled, Zootopia is a fun, charming, beautifully animated Disney flick that’s part fish-out-of-water, part mismatched buddies comedy, part detective whodunnit.

Zootopia is quite literally an animal utopia, where the predators had evolved past their savage nature and carnivores and herbivores live peacefully side by side. It’s never explained though what diet the predators survive on now that a lion doesnt’ chomp down on his sheep neighbours. Our heroine the bunny seems to eat normal rabbit food like carrots, but all we see the predators eat in the movie is… donuts, ice-cream and candy? Also, why would this evolved society still keep the terms “prey” and “predator”, which are loaded to say the least, as a popular way to divide the population into two categories? But I digress.

Our heroine is a bunny named Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin), who grows up on a carrot farm and has a big dream of becoming the first bunny police officer in the city of Zootopia. She makes it through the gruelling police training course after learning to make clever use of her diminutive size, but disappointingly gets assigned to meter maid duties. This is a good news to her overprotective parents back home, who give her a fox pepper spray as a parting gift along with the warnings about that sworn enemy of the rabbits. Naturally, Judy ends up teaming up with a red fox named Nick Wilde (a fantastic performance from Jason Bateman), a wily small-time crook, in order to solve the mysterious disappearances of a number of predators. It’s a mix of Chinatown, The Godfather, and every government conspiracy movie in existence. Because I’ve seen quite a lot of these, it was dead easy to figure out who’s behind it all, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Man I do miss great Disney villains though.

The best thing in the film is the dazzling city of Zootopia itself. It covers different terrains like rainforest and tundra, and the creators obviously had tons of fun imagining how the city could accommodate the animals of wildly different shapes and sizes. The film is full of small amusing details like the various sizes of the doors on a train carriage that range from large to rodent-sized. Speaking of rodents, my favourite district of Zootopia is Little Rodentia, where Judy suddenly becomes a 50 Foot Woman, knocking over the miniature buildings and almost squashing their inhabitants. Judy and Nick make for a fun odd couple; Judy starts off as such a starry-eyed little Miss Perfect it’s a relief to have her interact with a cynical character who’s initially rude and dismissive to her. They had such good chemistry in fact that at one point I began to wonder if the inter-species romance was a thing in this universe. Maybe the filmmakers intended their relationship to remain strictly platonic, or maybe they just didn’t want to get into the whole awkward biology thing. Or maybe it’s something left for the sequel.

Zootopia wears its message about the harm of stereotyping on its sleeve, but at times it feels like the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, by both preaching the message and relying on the stereotypes for the laughs. I can get onboard with the message about looking past some species stereotypes – bunnies are weak and dumb, foxes can’t be trusted – and when Nick opens up about his personal experience with anti-fox sentiments it makes for a touching moment. But later on the movie gets onto the topic of majority and discriminated minority in a way that made me think back to the early seasons of True Blood, and the problem I had with presenting vampires as an allegory for the real-life persecuted minorities. It doesn’t quite work when your minority is biologically wired to be a serious threat; vampires feed on humans and carnivores evolved to eat herbivores. The movie has its heart in the right place, but I think that it maybe bit off more than it could chew.

First big trip – USA 2001

I got inspired by another blog to write about my first ever big solo overseas trip, which was USA back in April and May 2001, when I was 20 and a month away from the legal drinking age (not that it mattered since I’m a boring non-drinker anyway). I’ve travelled a lot since then, but your first independent trip always remains a rather special memory. I even dug out my travel diary, which was an interesting read in retrospective. For one thing 99% of it is written in Russian, whereas now my travel diaries are 99% in English, and it’s a bit sad to see how much fluency I’ve lost. And good lord it’s overzealous with descriptions; I spent three whole pages listing all the things I’ve seen at the American Museum of Natural History.

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Wind River

A stark and powerful mystery thriller, with a mood of deep melancholy that stuck with me long after I’ve left the theatre. Part of it is the natural setting, the vast, silent wintry expanses of snow and forbidding mountains of Wyoming, where the story takes place. While beautiful in its own way, this desolate environment makes for a harsh life. Another part is the sorrow and desperation of the people who live on the edge of this wilderness, and the hard-hitting, ugly violence of some key scenes. And there’s the haunting, sparse score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, an animal tracker who, on one of his hunting expeditions, finds the frozen body of a Native American young woman, who we’ve already seen at the very start of the film, running barefoot through the snow under a full moon. Apart from the tribal police, the case is also investigated by the FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who comes from Las Vegas ill-equipped for the brutal life-threatening cold, and is out of her depth while trying to get the information from the locals. This is an insular community, riddled with poverty and drug abuse and mistrustful of the government. Cory and Jane end up working together to solve the mystery; Cory’s tracking skills come in handy and he’s on intimate terms with the people, having been married to a local Native American woman. Currently divorced after a devastating personal loss, Cory also has his own reasons for helping out with the case.

The direction is assured and there are fine performances from Olsen and Graham Greene as the weary no-nonsense tribal chief, and thankfully no forced romance between Cory and Jane, which I was dreading a bit since their first meeting could have been a meet-cute in another movie. I haven’t watched Hurt Locker and I’ve only seen Jeremy Renner in bit parts here and there, but in Wind River he gets a rich lead role and puts in a stellar performance. Some of his best scenes are the heartfelt conversations with the father of the dead girl, whose stoic and macho veneer crumbles in his grief. These scenes felt so genuine it was the closest I was to tears at the cinema in a long time.

For some reason, the online booking system messed up my order, and instead of the third row from the back I got designated a seat in the second row of a very tiny cinema. After spending a few very uncomfortable minutes craning my neck up and getting nausea from the occasional handheld camera shots, I rebelled and went to the back, where I located a lucky last free seat. If it wasn’t available I’d probably be forced to just walk out.

Testimony by Anita Shreve

I haven’t read anything by Anita Shreve before, but she sure knows how to grab the reader’s attention in the opening chapter. A video tape is brought to the headmaster of a small exclusive New England boarding school, which shows three male students, aged 17 to 19, engaged in sexual acts with a girl. She doesn’t seem to be in any way unwilling, but she is clearly very young, fourteen as it turns out. There’s also a fourth person operating the camera whose identity is never revealed during the scandal that explodes soon after and destroys the lives of the people involved.

All of this has the making of a gripping drama, but in the end the book has surprisingly little to say about the event and the fallout outside of, teenage drinking is bad, teenage hormones are almost as bad, and one thoughtless action can shatter a life. To mask the thin content and lack of real insight, the book is split into multiple narratives, each providing a different point of view: the headmaster of the school, the journalist covering the story, the boys and the girl caught on tape, their parents and so on. I guess I at least would give the author some credit for working hard to give each narrator an individual voice; I’ve read far too many novels with multiple perspectives where all characters feel interchangeable.

However, this fragmented approach makes the novel feel unnecessarily crowded – did we really need the testimony of a person who medically examines the girl four days after the making of the tape and doesn’t find anything noteworthy? At the same time, the four or five key characters at the heart of the emotional drama are done a disservice by the constant switch and remain frustratingly underdeveloped. When the book reaches peak tragedy in the final stretch, it’s hard to feel anything about it since the characters never succeeded in earning empathy. The mystery of the fourth person in the room meanwhile is resolved with a whimper and I wished that the book never made a big deal out of it in the first place.

Shreve is a good writer, her prose is straightforward and readable, and overall I wouldn’t say that the book was a chore to get through. But it did leave me with a muted impression of reading a 300 page-long epilogue, when the story of this kind needed to be raw and immediate. Maybe the framing device picked by the author – a researcher from the University of Vermont collects the testimonies some time after the scandal – is to blame for this feeling of distance.