review

28 Days Later

I always liked post-apocalyptic settings, and in 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, it’s the zombie apocalypse, which happens after a bunch of animal activists break into a research lab and free a chimpanzee carrying a deadly “rage” virus. Once a person is infected, they have 20 seconds before they turn into a mindless berserk monster. As the film’s title suggests, you don’t get to see the collapse of the society, instead the action switches to our hero Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier who wakes up in the hospital after suffering a road accident. Emerging from his coma, he wanders the silent, deserted streets of London, made even more eerie by the total lack of soundtrack. These early scenes of the abandoned metropolis and familiar postcard locations stripped of life are probably the most striking sequences in the film.

Soon Jim stumbles on a couple of survivors, including Selena (Naomi Harris), a tough-minded young woman grimly focused on staying alive. Some time later they encounter big and kindly Frank (Brendan Gleeson), holed up in a high-rise apartment block with his teenage daughter, and pick up a radio signal from an army unit near Manchester, offering safety. They decide to take the risk, and go on a car trip through the zombie land.

As I started watching the movie, I wondered if my DVD rental place had slipped in a crappy pirated version, because I felt like I was back in 1997 watching a VHS tape. I only realised later that the cheap and nasty video effect was a deliberate artistic choice, probably for a more documentary and immediate feel. I can’t say I cared for this affectation, but luckily the movie itself was good.

On the list of onscreen terrors, zombies occupy a lower rung for me, maybe because they’re fairly straightforward creatures, and I actually find the classic slow shuffling zombies more unnerving than the fast killing machines in 28 Days Later. Still, the film is a well-executed thriller, with the nightmarish atmosphere and effective use of speeded-up motion. It also has things to say about the human nature; Selena may imagine that she’s a kind of ruthless person who’d do anything to survive, but then the third act demonstrates what cold self-interest really looks like. The characters, while painted with broad strokes, are engaging, and the movie makes great use of its locations, whether it’s depopulated London, a church littered with corpses or a grand manor in the countryside. My only real quibble is the ending, which felt rather tacked on and disjointed. I did a brief research and yep, apparently the original ending was scrapped because they couldn’t get it past the test audiences. What a surprise.

Dunkirk

It takes something special to lure me into a cinema to watch a modern war movie, and the involvement of Christopher Nolan definitely piqued my interest, even though I thought that The Dark Knight Rises was a bloated misfire and Interstellar was deeply flawed. Thankfully, Dunkirk is a lean mean machine that dispenses with stilted dialogue about love, and in fact relies very little on the dialogue. It’s probably not an obvious comparison, but of all the recent movies Dunkirk reminded me the most of Mad Max: Fury Road, and not just because Tom Hardy’s face is covered up with a mask in both films. Like George Miller’s instant classic, Nolan’s latest is a visceral, purely cinematic survival story that made me feel like someone grabbed my insides, twisted them in a knot and didn’t let the grip go for a couple of hours. It’s a kind of movie where you need some time and preferably an energetic walk to decompress after.

Dunkirk is Nolan’s first bash at a historic genre, and tells the story of the Allied soldiers in World War II, who were cornered on the beaches in France by the German army. Faced with the possible annihilation of their troops, the British launched a desperate rescue operation. There are three distinct narratives in the film: one follows a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead), one of the trapped unfortunates. The second follows a small yacht operated by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who sets out with his teenage son and a young helping hand as a part of the rescue fleet. The third narrative takes place in the air, where British Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and¬†Jack Lowden) engage the German planes heading for Dunkirk in aerial dogfights. Nolan also continues his obsession with time by placing the three narratives into different but ultimately overlapping time periods. To be honest I wasn’t sure if this non-linear approach was really necessary, but since it didn’t ruin the film either I didn’t object to it.

The movie pulled me in right from its opening scene, where you see Whitehead’s character walk down an eerily empty and silent street. All of a sudden, there’s a sound of gunfire from an unseen enemy, and before you know it all five of our boy’s companions are mowed down. It’s so intense and vivid and if my guts could express a thought it would probably be, holy crap this is probably what being in a war feels like, not knowing where the next bullet is going to come from. And then the movie doesn’t drop this gruelling mode until maybe the last ten minutes. The extraordinary cinematography captures just about every physical fear in existence – fire, drowning, heights, dark and confined spaces, you name it. It does it so well in fact I was made slightly nauseous by the spinning and swooping aerial scenes. The pulse-racing score by Nolan’s frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, with the sound of a ticking clock as its backbone, helps tie the narratives together and ratchets up tension even further.

The decision to portray the characters in-the-moment, without any backstories or conventional character arcs, might not sit well with everyone. For my part, I got invested into every character’s fate and liked the decision to develop them through their onscreen actions and physical performances. While Whitehead’s young and vulnerable soldier is clearly the audience stand-in, Rylance and Hardy’s characters are more heroic, though in a very reserved, understated British fashion. Overall, the lack of sentimentality and any kind of speechifying and flag-waving was very welcome. Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and an impressive debut by Harry Styles round off the superb ensemble cast.

Mum and I watched the movie at the Melbourne IMAX theatre, and I really can’t recommend enough catching Dunkirk on the biggest screen you can. I wouldn’t say it’s an “enjoyable” experience per se, but immersive and impressive, heck yes.

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen

My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.

The prologue opens on Tuesday, 24 October 1917, the eve of the Revolution (not quite the impeccably organised operation it was later portrayed to be), then follows the more conventional structure, starting with Lenin’s family background and childhood, and finishing with his death and the embalmed rest inside the Red Square mausoleum. What made this biography more easily digestible than some heavier biographies I’ve read is its arrangement into relatively short and tightly focused chapters (54 in total), each covering a different aspect of Lenin’s life and the greater social and political events of the time. It’s pretty blunt in regards to Lenin’s darker aspects, among which cynicism and ruthlessness stand out the most, though it’s not out to paint him as a total monster either:

Lenin thought himself an idealist. He was not a monster, a sadist or vicious. In personal relationships he was invariably kind and behaved in the way he was brought up, like an upper-middle-class gentleman. He was not vain. He could laugh – even, occasionally, at himself. He was not cruel: unlike Stalin, Mao Zedong or Hitler he never asked about the details of his victims’ deaths, savouring the moment. To him, in any case, the deaths were theoretical, mere numbers. But during his years of feuding with other revolutionaries, and then maintaining his grip on power, he never showed generosity to a defeated opponent or performed a humanitarian act unless it was politically expedient.

Most people who met Lenin seemed to find him thoroughly unimpressive, but he was an astute leader and good at image-making. One example is Lenin’s appreciation of the fact that a rival socialist political party, Mensheviks, stuck with a name derived from a Russian word for minority, in contrast to Bolsheviks whose name suggested the majority. Hmm which one makes for the smarter brand-building I wonder?

The first chapter, devoted to Lenin’s parents, remarks that the most important relationships in Lenin’s life were with women, while close male friends were very few and inevitably lost to politics. Other than Lenin’s many political allies and enemies, the book covers his personal relationships with his wife Nadya and Inessa Armand, his mistress for many years and the most glamorous of the female revolutionaries, who his wife accepted in an unusually civil menage a trois. There are other details and trivia that flesh him out as a person, such as his deep lifelong love of nature, and strong dislike of most modern art and literature (I was amused to read that Lenin considered Mayakovsky’s poetry garbage, though the latter was at pains to glorify him).

The biography also paints the picture of the broader Russian society at the time, and outlines the causes that ultimately led first to the abolition of monarchy and then to the Bolshevik October Revolution that paved the way for the Soviet Union. They include a weak and incompetent Tsar presiding over a country in desperate need of reforms, yet unwilling to change and maintaining the grip on the autocracy, under the delusion that repression and censorship would preserve the Romanov dynasty. Lenin’s older brother Alexander, whose execution at the age of twenty-one for plotting an attack on the Tsar is cited by the author as the main reason for seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov’s own immersion in politics, was one of the many radicals eager for change. The author’s view is that Russia’s involvement in World War I was Tsar Nicholas’ most catastrophic decision which in the end cost him his throne and his life (though he’s not entirely without sympathy for the Tsar’s terrible final fate). While the pre-revolutionary period is well-covered, the civil war that erupted soon after the Bolsheviks took power is unfortunately sketched in rather thinly.

Overall, I found this a very accessible and readable account of one of the most important figures of the 20th century. While not as massively detailed as some other biographies I’ve read, it gives enough of the historical background and insight into Lenin as a person.

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s magnum opus was the subject of discussion in our most recent book club, so I thought I’d watch the 2012 film adaptation by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. As far as unfilmable novels go, Cloud Atlas is a doozy: six separate stories set in six different timelines, each written in a different prose style and covering a different genre, from 19th-century pastiche to science fiction. Moreover, how do you visually translate a book whose chief attraction is Mitchell’s virtuoso use of language? This would have been enough to make most filmmakers run away screaming, so kudos to Wachowskis and Tykwer for even attempting something this ambitious and daunting. While I didn’t think that the movie succeeded overall, it’s a kind of high-aiming failure you can’t help but admire.

The epic storyline of Cloud Atlas takes place between the years 1849 and 2346. In the 19th century, a young attorney befriends a runaway slave on a sea voyage. In pre-WWII England, a young poor composer is struggling to write his masterwork. In 1975, a journalist investigates a shady nuclear plant. In the present day, an old publisher finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home. In 2144, a fabricated clone in the dystopian Korea gains self-awareness. In even more distant future, one of the few tribes remaining after the collapse of human civilization are visited by a woman from a more advanced society. Phewww… Is it any wonder this film runs for almost three hours?

One of the biggest changes made during the film adaptation is structure: Mitchell’s novel is something like a nesting Russian doll, where all but one central story are split in half, and once you read the middle story you’d go on to finish the rest in the reverse order. The movie dispenses with this symmetry, and instead chooses to constantly crosscut between the narratives, often pairing up the story beats, emotional moments and situations from different time periods. It also drives the central themes of freedom and oppression rather more forcefully than the book, where the thematic connections between disparate stories would dawn gradually. The crosscutting approach yields mixed results; even though I was already familiar with them, the rushed and shallow introduction of settings and characters was frustrating. Throughout the film, I kept wishing it would just stop and let each story breathe for a while, instead of taking short sharp gasps before whoosh, it’s on to another storyline.

Another questionable artistic choice is the decision to cast the same actors across the stories, blurring the boundaries of age, race and gender. In theory, this emphasises the theme of interconnectedness, but in practice it’s often distracting and some actors fare better than others. Tom Hanks is a great talent but his range is not limitless, and among the unconvincing characters he’s saddled with a hard-boiled Irish gangster/author is the chief offender. Poor Hugh Grant is disguised by the dreadfully fake aging make-up in one story, and I’m sorry, but Hugh Grant made up to look like a savage cannibal warrior can only be hilarious. In the future segment, the movie tries to pass a few non-Asian actors as Koreans, but their heavy make-up and prosthetics only make them look like Star Trek aliens. Likewise, turning a young Asian actress into a middle-aged Hispanic lady and then into a freckled white European girl took me out of the movie.

Yet when the actors simply portray the film’s main characters sans heavy make-up, the casting is bang on, particularly Ben Whishaw as witty, bohemian, bisexual composer Robert Frobisher. He really could have stepped off the pages of the book. Halle Berry (a sporadic performer to say the least) is effective in her two main roles. Doona Bae is touching as the doomed clone Sonmi, though she’s a tad unbelievable as a speechifying revolutionary whose incredibly monotone broadcast is supposed to have transformed the society (in the book, Sonmi’s call to rebellion is done in writing). But then, this is from the filmmakers who gave us the equally robotic Architect speech from The Matrix Reloaded.

Some changes from the source material I didn’t mind, such as more romance and action, and the revised ending to the far-future story. The book found a way to end on an optimistic note, so it’s fine if the filmmakers choose to do likewise. While ultimately I don’t think that the movie quite works, it’s daring and imaginative and there are moments of genuine emotion and magic to be found. I’ve no idea how I would have reacted had I not read the book, but I’m glad that someone attempted to put Mitchell’s incredible vision on screen.

The Beguiled

I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1971 version with Clint Eastwood, but it probably wouldn’t matter if I did. Whether based on an original story or adapted from an existing source, Sofia Coppola’s films are so distinctive they drive all thoughts of comparisons away and feel like entirely her creations. The Beguiled has Coppola’s trademark languid, atmospheric style, and shares some similarities with her previous films like The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette – women cloistered away from the outside world, in a beautiful but stifling setting. There’s also a shade of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with all the imagery of young girls in their ghostly dresses.

The film begins like a gothic fairytale, with a young girl picking mushrooms in the shadowy woods. As she hums to herself, we learn that the setting is an American Southern state, a few years into the Civil War. She then stumbles on a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and decides to take him back to the girls’ school where she lives. Run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the school is all but abandoned: there are five students left and only one teacher,¬†Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), still remains. In a spirit of Christian charity, Miss Martha decides that they should aid an enemy soldier, so they hide him in the downstairs music room away from the Confederate troops.

What effect will the appearance of a young handsome man have on an all-female house, bursting with hormones and secret hopes and desires? To the girls, he’s an exciting intrusion, made even more delicious by being an enemy, yet also rendered safe by his injury. Even the prim and steely Miss Martha is not immune, as she keeps her composure while sewing up McBurnley’s bloody wound but gets flustered when bathing the unconscious man’s naked chest and calves. Awake and eager to remain at this safe haven, crafty and chameleonic McBurnley takes care to win over every girl and woman, but Edwina, with her air of resignation and world-weariness, is the one most deeply affected by his attention. Is this powder keg of a situation going to explode? With a gun deliberately introduced in an early scene, the answer is fairly obvious. Even so, the change of pace from placid to melodramatic is a jolt, and it took me some time to sort out my response to the ending, which is simply chilling.

The intriguing male/female dynamics and lush, eerie visuals are the main attraction of this strange little film. It’s pretty rare to see a movie set in war-time that focuses squarely on women and their emotional lives. The performances are uniformly excellent; other than Kidman, Dunst and Farrell, Elle Fanning is also memorable as the over-ripened teenager bored out of her mind and eager to try out her feminine powers. While I like Coppola’s woozy, restrained approach, I was left wondering if the movie would have actually benefitted from even more overt melodrama, but it was enjoyable regardless.

Music I got recently

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Live From KCRW

I would have preferred a full concert recording from the Push the Sky Away tour, but this loose and casual 10-song show performed for the KCRW station in Santa Monica is a great live offering. It’s predictably dominated by the Push the Sky Away material, and the rest of the picks match the quiet, meditative mood of that album, bar the closer Jack the Ripper, a throwback to the fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave of old. It wouldn’t be a Bad Seeds gig without The Mercy Seat, their signature showstopper performed here as a stripped-down piano version with all the white-knuckle tension and power of the original.

Gattaca – Original Soundtrack by Michael Nyman

It only took me 20 years but I finally got a copy of one of my favourite film soundtracks. Nyman’s beautiful emotional score suits this underrated sci-fi drama perfectly and stands up on its own as a classical piece of music. It’s on the sombre side and requires the right mood to listen to from start to finish, but its finest moments, especially The Departure, never fail to move me.

Feist – Pleasure

I’ve been a long-time fan of Feist, which is why I have stuck with this album for as long as I have. I probably miss out on a great deal of music that I could get into if I gave it more chance, but there’s just not enough hours in the day to treat every artist with patience. Pleasure is easily Feist’s least immediate and poppy record and there are no breakout quirky hits like 1234; the songs are sparse, pared back and lacking in obvious hooks. The opener Pleasure, with its weird dissonant bluesy riff, is probably the closest thing to catchy. The rest of the songs take a while to unlock, but prove to be worth the effort in the end.

Triple J’s Hottest 100 – Volume 24

I got into the habit of buying these compilations of Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 countdown every year. They make for a fun time capsule of what the radio station’s musical landscape was like in a given year (in retrospect, it’s a bit sad to trace the decline of rock music’s presence from the good old times when the early 00s bands like Franz Ferdinand ruled the list). This year it’s another solid 40-track, 2-CD compilation including songs by Flume, the xx, Starboy among others.

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

Laura Mvula’s rich soul voice would put her into the retro territory occupied by Adele and Amy Winehouse, but in truth she’s a lot more off-centre and idiosyncratic. The oddness reaches new heights on her second album, which is often gorgeous-sounding yet full of strange orchestrations and meandering melodies that have zero interest in becoming normal pop songs. Like Feist’s latest, it also requires some patient listening and letting the songs unfold and sink in. The only misstep for me is Nan, a recording of Mvula’s conversation with her grandmother; I generally can’t stand this sort of self-indulgent inclusions and they’re best kept on the artists’ private laptops.

D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated

It’s a bit hard to describe the style of this Australian muso, whose passport name is Oliver Perry: it’s a vibrant hodge-podge of various sonic elements (even some lush sitar on the album standout Alihukwe), blending into a rather unique and whimsical vision. Keeping it all together is Perry’s warm and likeable vocal presence, which lends the album an endearing childlike quality despite some dark lyrics. Some tracks are stronger than others, but overall it’s an impressive debut.

Baby Driver

I had a couple of biases to overcome in order to watch this movie. Firstly, the unattractive title that makes you think of some dumb third-rate summer comedy (a baby gets behind the wheel and hilarity ensues!). And then there was its lead actor, Ansel Elgort, whose punchable turn in the otherwise decent The Fault in Our Stars irritated the crap out of me. Well, I judged prematurely, because he’s more than fine in Baby Driver, and the movie itself is a rarity these days, a truly idiosyncratic thriller that doesn’t feel like a product of a committee.

In many ways, Baby Driver is a film about music disguised as a car-chase heist flick. Its eponymous hero is a young getaway driver, who has been working for kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), paying off an old debt. Baby is not a bad sort, and as the film begins, he’s only a couple more jobs away from freedom. While Doc never employs the same crew twice, there’s always someone in the bunch who’s unsettled by Baby’s quirks: he barely ever speaks and he hardly ever takes his earphones out. Baby needs his tunes (different i-Pods with different playlists to suit the mood) to drown out his tinnitus, the result of a childhood car accident, but his passion for music goes further than that. At home he cares for his old deaf foster dad, and spends time making mix tapes from his secret recordings of gang meetings. When he meets the girl of his dreams, a waitress called Debora (Lily James), the two get to have nerdy conversations about music and songs with their names in them – when Debora learns Baby’s name she exclaims that he’s got everyone beat.

The film weaves music and the love of music into the story in inventive and joyful ways – some action scenes aren’t just set to the music, but carefully match the beats of a meticulously chosen song. The opening credits sequence could make one think they’re about to watch a musical, and there was a brief (and perhaps unintentional) reminder of La La Land’s primary colours in the scene where Baby and Debora visit a laundry and you see brightly coloured clothes spinning inside the dryers.

The car chase sequences are exceptional and some of the most exhilarating and well-choreographed action scenes I’ve seen in a long time, but whether Baby’s behind the wheel or romancing Debora, the movie is just tremendous fun to watch. The superb supporting cast is one of its biggest strengths. Other than Spacey’s boss, the standouts are Baby’s partners in crime played by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, a violent loose cannon and a deceptively laidback ex-Wall Street man, respectively. The film’s only real weakness is a crucial plot point involving Spacey’s character where things get implausibly sentimental, but it’s a minor complaint about an otherwise excellent and fresh offering from Edgar Wright.

Oh and have I played Queen’s Brighton Rock over and over since watching the movie? Oh yes.