romance

The Lobster

The Lobster made me think of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi short stories I read as a teenager, where some “what if” premise would be taken to an absurd extreme, except that this movie does it with an extra helping of bonkers. If you’re a fan of out-there scenarios, the summary should grab you instantly. Here goes: in the dystopian world of The Lobster, it’s illegal to be single. If you’re divorced, widowed or just unattached, you get sent to a high-security hotel in the countryside, where you have 45 days to find a new partner among the fellow singles. Those who fail to pair up are then turned into an animal of their choice and remain that way for the rest of their lives. David (Colin Farrell), the main hero of the film, tells the manager of the hotel that he’d like to cast his lot with the crustaceans, and be turned into a lobster. Lobsters, he says, can live for hundred years, and he quite enjoys swimming.

The absurdity doesn’t stop here. In this society, people believe that the only way to find a suitable partner is a perfect match-up of a single defining attribute. Thus, a person suffering from a nosebleed must be paired up with another similarly afflicted person. If a single is desperate enough, they might fake an attribute. Once in a while, the hotel bus takes the “guests” on a trip to the woods where they hunt for rogue singles with stun guns; for each captured single you get an extra day reprieve.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a group of militant Loners, who live in the nearby woods. Ruled by the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux in a frightening and charismatic performance), their society is just as cruel and authoritarian, punishing those who form romantic relationships or even attempt any kind of flirtation. They dig their own graves to spare others the effort of burial, and organize silent disco parties where each Loner dances to their own electronic music with the headphones on. After failing to make himself fit in at the hotel, David falls in with the Loners, and begins a forbidden affair with another Loner, called The Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).

This movie is… an acquired taste. For the first half an hour or so, I found it extremely grating and pretty much everything about it got on my nerves: the narration, obnoxious use of slo-mo, artificial dialogue and emotionless line deliveries (very much deliberately so, but still), the whole look at me, look at me, I’m different and quirkyyyyy. A bit like Wes Anderson movies minus the whimsy, pastel colours and visual splendour. Also, I think I’m over the cliché of setting dark and violent scenes against a charming and lighthearted soundtrack. I think the only reason I kept on watching was to find out what weirdness the movie was going to throw at me next.

While I hesitate to say that I loved the movie in the end, its peculiar approach did sink in after a while and I could appreciate it more. Colin Farrell is excellent as the sad-sack protagonist, and eventually I got invested in David’s fate and his love life. The movie is clearly making fun of our society’s obsession with coupledom and the rigid rituals of dating; is it really an issue that needed to be highlighted with a pitch-black satire? Maybe not, but I’m happy to have watched this oddity.

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Passengers

This movie copped a massive backlash upon its release last year, and in all honesty it was practically asking for it, with its grossly misleading trailers and advertising which treated its premise as a twist and in the end made some viewers feel like they received a pretty glittery gift box with a dead puppy inside.

Here’s what the bullshit summary on my DVD rental reads like:

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are two passengers onboard a spaceship transporting them to a new life on another planet. The trip takes a deadly turn when their hibernation pods mysteriously wake them 90 years before they reach their destination. As Jim and Aurora try to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction, they begin to fall for each other, unable to deny their intense attraction… only to be threatened by the imminent collapse of the ship and the discovery of the truth behind why they woke up.

Here’s what actually happens in the film (spoilers ahead):

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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.

Movies I watched on my flights

Me Before You

Romance film with a difference. Emilia Clarke of the Game of Thrones fame is Lou, a quirky, adorably klutzy girl who is fond of bright colours and just lost her job. Desperate for work, she is hired as a caregiver of Will, an impossibly handsome and wealthy young man who became a quadriplegic after an accident two years ago. Will has a capable Aussie physical therapist (played by Steve Peacocke from Home and Away of all people) looking after him so Lou’s role is more that of a companion, and the true reason she was hired by Will’s mother is revealed later in the film. At first Will treats Lou’s wacky upbeat ways with coldness and disdain, but this is a romantic drama so the usual developments happen.

Clarke, freed from her stoic Daenerys straitjacket, is going for the opposite style here, acting with every single facial muscle, especially her extraordinarily mobile eyebrows (seriously, I was so distracted from the story at times by the eyebrow acrobatics). But despite being a tad over-the-top, she’s quite likeable and makes for a decent chick flick heroine. I was a bit nervous seeing her and Charles Dance in the same scenes, in case he decided to order her assassination or something.

The ending of the film was probably controversial, but to be fair I don’t think that the movie necessarily set out to make a broad statement about a group of people. It made complete sense to me that this particular individual made this particular choice.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I’ve watched and read so many angry nerd reviews of this movie I felt like I’ve seen the damn thing over and over already, but I guess I just had to find out for myself how bad it was. Yup it’s bad. Boring, glum, unlikable Superman; brain-numbing action; no narrative drive or flow, with scenes just happening. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a twitchy, bizarre performance that’s almost so-bad-it’s-good, though he doesn’t scale the majestic WTF heights of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending. I liked what little I saw of Wonder Woman, and Ben Affleck is legitimately good as jaded older Batman, who is also the only character in the film with traceable and believable motivations, at least until the Martha scene which is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen onscreen. Like so many modern blockbusters is tries to cram in way too much, and would have probably worked better if it simply set out to be a Batman vs Superman movie, rather than a Justice League prequel.

Suicide Squad

I watched one crappy DC movie I skipped at the cinema so I thought I might watch another one, and sheesh this film makes Batman v Superman look like bloody Hamlet in comparison. It’s less a movie and more like a mutilated corpse of a movie, sliced and diced and put together in the editing room by a hundred blind cooks. The first half in particular is a total incoherent mess, with endless character introductions and obnoxious use of popular songs. The main villain is lame as hell and there’s yet another army of CGI minions for our heroes to fight in bloodless battles. It’s a pity because Will Smith as Deadshot and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn are pretty damn great, as is Viola Davis in the role of the ruthless intelligence officer who assembles the team of villains. The second half does give some glimpses of “a bunch of outcasts form a family” feeling that the movie was aiming for, but it’s too little too late.

A Street Cat Named Bob

Finally a good movie! Based on a true story of James Bowen, a homeless street musician and a recovering drug addict in London, and the touching bond he forms with a stray ginger tom which ends up changing his life. Cats in movies are often relegated to the villain roles, so it’s nice to see a film about a human/animal connection that’s not about a dog. Drugs and homelessness make for a strange mix with a cute animal story, but it strikes the right tone and Luke Treadaway’s performance as James is hugely sympathetic. A sweet, unassuming, life-affirming film that well and truly melted my heart. I didn’t realise until later that the cat in the movie was the real-life Bob the Cat, and he’s honestly just the coolest, chillest feline, who is happy to hang around with his human in the busy centre of London and sit on his shoulders wherever he goes. Give Bob a kitty Oscar!

Bridget Jones’s Baby

Too long and patchy maybe, but the movie recaptures much of the charm and magic that made the original one of my favourite romcoms and feelgood-movies-to-go-to. Our favourite British everywoman is now in her 40s, and while she has her weight and career more or less sorted out, romantic happiness is still elusive, having broken up with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) some time ago. Flames are rekindled when the two meet at a christening, but unfortunately Bridget also just spent a night at a music festival with a handsome American entrepreneur Jack (Patrick Dempsey), so when she finds herself with a bun in the oven she’s not sure who the father is.

The movie is maybe not quite as sharp and funny as it could have been, though it did get some big laughs out of me, especially whenever Emma Thompson’s no-nonsense obstetrician is onscreen. But Renee Zellweger as Bridget is just so irrepressible and appealing and while the movie puts her through the usual course of pratfalls and mishaps, it never feels mean-spirited. The movie is also wise not to make Jack into Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver MkII; while he’s smooth and charming he’s a genuinely decent guy who cares about Bridget. But of course if you can’t guess which of the two men Bridget ultimately ends up with, you probably haven’t watched much in the romantic genre.

Favourite movie romances

I don’t have much use for Valentine’s Day, but it’s as good an excuse as any for more listmaking… so here are my personal favourite celluloid love stories and couples.

Daniel Craig and Eva Green – Casino Royale

casino_royale

Casino Royale is my favourite Bond film and while it’s great from the beginning, it really takes off when Eva Green’s exotic, mysterious Vesper Lynd enters the stage and trades barbs with Bond in the train scene which could have come from a classic 40s screwball movie. But their relationship wasn’t all witty banter and sexual undercurrents; Craig’s raw, unformed Bond was still open to love and his tragic romance with Vesper was genuinely emotional, though I do have to admit that the last 20 minutes of the film don’t quite work.

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

rosie_project“I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem” is a pretty damn effective way to start your novel. If the book had a different cover – say black and grimy with sinister-looking type – you could be forgiven for wondering if the said solution involved some foul play; but because my edition was bright and perky with a cute font it could only mean romance.

Our narrator with the Wife Problem is Don Tillman, professor of genetics in his late thirties who is quickly revealed to be somewhere on the autistic scale. Don is intensely logical and literal, and has a highly regimented lifestyle concentrated on the ultimate efficiency in everything. He sees emotion as inconvenient, social norms tend to baffle and exasperate him, and success in romantic relationships has unsurprisingly proven to be elusive. So one day Don decides to approach the wife problem with a purely rational method, by compiling a detailed questionnaire that will automatically weed out unpromising candidates right from the get go. This, Don reckons, will help him find his perfect mate and prevent him from wasting time with unsuitable women. Then he meets Rosie – vegetarian, smoker, drinker, unpunctual, working as a barmaid – who fails on pretty much every score. Yet he strangely enjoys her company and soon gets sidetracked by The Father Project when Rosie enlists his skills to help her find her biological father. Is Don going to realise that Rosie, despite her “deficiencies”, is The One for him? Is the Pope Catholic?

Until roughly half-way, I thought the book was as charming and delightful as a fluffy puppy with a shoe in its mouth. The light, breezy, warm-hearted tone is pitch-perfect, and Don is a likeable, endearing protagonist with a unique perspective on the world and human relationships. I don’t know how realistic this portrayal of someone with Asperger’s is and it could well be exaggerated in places for comic effect, but it’s entertaining for sure.

Unfortunately, a novel that’s over 300 pages needs a decent story to sustain it, and this is where I felt the book fell short. The mystery of Rosie’s parentage just wasn’t all that interesting and I got bored with Don and Rosie’s global hunt for DNA samples from the potential fathers, which takes up a big chunk of the plot. Another major problem is that Rosie herself is a pretty flat character who I never got a true feel for, despite the author’s attempts to make her edgy with occasional expletives and feminist statements. It’s a bit of a problem when Don’s earlier social mishaps and dating disasters are heaps more fun to read about than his relationship with Rosie that you’re supposed to care about. There’s one section set in New York which is pure rom-com cliché – I wasn’t surprised to learn that this book was originally intended as a screenplay, because it seemed like such a deliberately visual montage of typical things soon-to-be-in-love couple does in a romantic setting. It doesn’t lose its charm completely, but for something that started out so fresh and promising it was a shame to see The Rosie Project fizzle out.

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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