Tuesday, September 29, 2009


When I saw the previews for Surrogates, and knew there was going to be a part where everyone in a city falls dramatically to the ground at once, I was immediately sold. I love a good scene of destruction. (Anyone else excited over the entire world being destroyed in 2012? Anyone?) Plus, there was going to be Bruce Willis in full goatee rage. It was going to be awesome.

But it wasn’t. Honestly, I was very underwhelmed by Surrogates. In the near future, robotics have developed to a point where everyone can send robot versions—or “surrogates”—of themselves out into the world, where there is no way to get sick or injured, and you can look as pretty as you want to. Then someone’s surrogate is killed, and the robot’s owner is found in his home—dead. For reals. Who is doing this? How are they doing it? And why?

Well, the first question is answered, but the second is only given a vague, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it explanation. The why is the point, but I didn’t really care. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly deserving of my empathy, though Chris pointed out that by making everyone airbrushed, disconnected robots, it may have been purposeful. Still, an early death of a main character was a surprise but not heartbreaking, and Bruce Willis, while endearing enough just by being Bruce Willis, completely alienated me with his choice of surrogate haircut.

Willis plays policeman Tom Greer, put on the case of finding out what’s up with the supposedly impossible brain-implosions of humans. His only lead is a witness that he follows to the small outpost of humans who resent the surrogate lifestyle, instead living vicariously through themselves. They are an odd bunch; instead of being the heroes, they appear to be a group of violent, personality-free thugs who mostly wave around shotguns and shout “git offa my lawn!”. They are led by Ving Rhames, aka The Prophet, whose enormous dreadlocks would give you an initial happy-revolutionary feel. But he’s actually just a bastard. How did he rise to power? Who is he? Is he behind the attacks?

If there was any backstory for the characters in the movie, it could have helped. Bruce Willis and his doll-like wife Maggie, played unblinkingly by Bond Girl Rosamund Pike, have a minor tale to tell that is the same sad story heard in countless other movies about Policeman Suffering From Angst. Our Radha plays Peters, Greer’s partner, who fares much better follicly than Bruce. We know nothing about her, apart from that she lives in a house. The only other character we get to know a little about is indian-giver Canter, who created the surrogates, decided it was a bad idea after all, quit the company that made them and became a social pariah. Now he’s a recluse, and another link to the crime. He’s also, annoyingly, played by evil-since-Babe James Cromwell, aka I, Robot indian-giver Dr Alfred Lanning, who gave the world servant robots and then decided it was a bad idea and got himself thrown out of a window. That sense of déjà vu just served to remind me how much of a better movie I, Robot was, and that it is possible to make robots sympathetic characters and give sci-fi movies enough heart so you care what happens to the people within it. In Surrogates, Greer’s climactic decision comes across as selfish and unthinking more than heroic, because there simply isn’t enough emotion to work off.

There’s unanswered questions, too—where are the children? How was the one twist (which celebrated movie psychic Chris predicted, but for once chose not to share with me) hidden for so long? Does no one at all choose for their surrogates to be less-than-beautiful, or blue-haried, or plus-sized? It’s also ridiculously US-centric. During a news report at the beginning, it is noted that surrogates are now so affordable that 98% of the world can afford them. The world. More than 2% of which can’t currently afford to, you know, eat. How remote villages would have the electricity and general resources to build and recharge surrogates is beyond me, but hey, it’s fifteen years in the future—anything could happen. Do I sound cynical?

Look, it wasn’t the worst movie in existence—the scene I went to see it for was sufficiently dramatic, and there were a few interesting asides on what kind of surrogates people will pick, but it just wasn’t fleshed out enough for me. Chris gave it three out of five stars. I give it two—one for Bruce, who could just stroke his beard for an hour and half and I’d pay to watch it, half for effort, and half for being better than The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original comic, by Robert Venditti, is probably better.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

jason aaron, scalped

Another review from Chris, who is reading far more than me at the moment. [Insert bitterness about the amount of holidays teachers get here.]

“Graphic novel” is the term used for a story told in comic book form. Sometimes this is just a story arc from a superhero comic collected together, but most graphic novels out there have nothing to do with superheroes or fantasy.

Scalped, written by Jason Aaron and mostly illustrated by R.M. Guera, is as far away as the superhero comic as you can get, having the feel and pace of a crime television series rather than spandexy-planet-shaking-adventure pap. As the name hints, it is about Native Americans and violence. This is not a feel-good book, and it took a second reading for me to get past the bleakness and noir stylings to consider the story almost obscured beneath it.

A young Lakota named Dashiell Bad Horse ran away from his people’s reservation as a teenager, and worked hard making a life for himself that had nothing to do with his heritage. But after earning a rep as an FBI agent, he finds the part of himself he has been avoiding is the very thing others want to exploit. So the FBI, and in particular the embittered Agent Nitz, send him back home to work undercover for Red Crow, the ruthless tribal leader and crime boss of the reservation. Overall Scalped is most concerned with why people so often get trapped in places and perpetuate situations they should be doing everything they can to escape from.

This book is gritty. Nothing is romanticised. You’ll feel like washing your eyeballs and sending all your money to third world charities after reading it. But at the same time this book isn’t making a cheap attempt at using violence to be cool or adult in nature, as too many comics do. Scalped reads like a well considered portrayal of the problems indigenous people, and even disadvantaged people in general, deal with. While the peripheral characters will often commit immoral, violent and even psychotic acts without much reason or explanation, the motivation of the main characters (I won’t say ‘good and bad’ because the distinction disappears very quickly) are explored fully and with great sympathy. Even Red Crow, the heartless Godfather figure, becomes relatable, though never excusable.One of the most interesting characters to me was a young boy called Dino Poor Bear, who is about 15 or 16. The first time we meet him he asked Dashiell—by then working as one of the town’s only straight cops—if he can tag along or help out. Dashiell tells him to piss off. A few chapters later we are further introduced to Dino, and we meet his obese auntie and diabetic uncle. His pregnant sister is smoking crack in the backyard, and defends it to Dino by claiming its better than crystal meth because ‘crack comes from plants and shit’. As he leaves for work Dino’s grandmother, who provides the only other income to the house by tying tobacco twists, reminds Dino to hug his daughter before he leaves. He does so, promising the baby he’ll get her out of there once he gets his car running. And this is just his introduction, we watch Dino gain a footstep that might help him get out, but follow them up with choices that take him back two paces. The same is true of all the characters, but the writing and plot are such that we believe and sympathise with their mistakes, more than judge and condemn.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

god of carnage

For Christmas this year we had the unexpectedly generous gift of a subscription to the Melbourne Theatre Company. They have a lower-priced version for the under 30 market, which we luckily are part of for an entire year more after this one. We’ve been to eight plays so far this year, which are convincing trying their best to tempt us into forking out the extortionist rates they make you pay once you hit your fourth decade. (I thought that, like car insurance, things got cheaper as you got older, not triple in price. No fair.)

In a French park, two boys have an argument. The result: one of them gets thwacked in the face with a stick and loses two of his teeth. The boys’ parents hold a meeting to discuss how to deal with the situation, imagining themselves as rational people who can deal with the silliness of children and work out a solution. They can’t, of course, because they’re human and humans as a species aren’t well known for their ability to fix problems with words. The whole event becomes a battleground between the couples and those within each relationship, and by the end even the painstakingly organised lounge room the conversation is held in bears the brunt of the event.

Hugo Weaving and his eyebrows starred as Alain, a lawyer whose most important announcements are usually interrupted by the ring of his mobile phone. As with other plays that star People What Are Famous For Being In Movies, the entire theatre went a bit silly every time he made a joke. I couldn’t really fault the cast—especially Alain’s wife Annette, played by Natasha Herbert, whose scene of inelegant illness was utterly convincing and wholly amusing in an immature kind of way. Pamela Rabe and Geoff Morrell round out the cast as Veronique, the injured child’s slightly batshit mother, and her more realistic husband Michel.

This play, translated from Yasmina Reza’s original, has the benefit of both being short—an hour and a half, no intermission—and the funniest play I’ve seen all year. Physical comedy and witticisms abound and I found myself quoting things like “pears!” in a posh (and awful) accent on the car trip home. It handled serious issues with occasionally too light a touch, and despite my enjoyment I could never entirely believe that the more flamboyant reactions the characters were having were realistic. However, until I am also an overprotective and French parent I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t also have a knock-down drag-out fight with my partner while guests were over. Perhaps it’s in the parenting manuals.

As with any art form that discusses classism, even only slightly, I heartily approve of this and advise you to go see it. Psst, there’s eight-dollar parking just down the other end of the road from the Arts Centre, in a warehouse. And grab some hot chips from Lord of the Fries, too, and eat them by the river. Otherwise, don’t bother going. Seriously.

Monday, September 21, 2009

(500) days of summer

This movie, which could also be known as (500) Shots of Zooey Deschanel’s Baby Blues, is a snapshot of the lives of twentysomethings Summer and Tom over five hundred of their days together. It’s a love story, but it’s not how you expect it to be—and not how ol’ romantic Tom nor cynical Summer expect either. Tom believes Summer is The One, but Summer tells him from the get-go that she is no believer in true love, only people having fun together. In the least shocking news of the year, Tom cannot resist Summer.

And who could? Zooey Deschanel is just about as cute as they come, and the camera loves her. Even when she’s not wearing makeup she is still adorable, and the costume designer has put her in glorious outfits and tied her hair up with cornflower blue ribbons. You’d hope, as a bitter cinema viewer drinking an unhealthy amount of flat movie Coke and rubbing your squishy belly in jealousy, that you could be pleased with a scene that sticks her drunk on a karaoke platform and watch her embarrass herself. Alas, no, and the She & Him singer does nothing but endear herself further to everyone in the film and cinema. Sigh. Over the course of their five hundred days, as we skip back and forth in time, she is not always perfect—but then who of us isn't at least once over a year and a half? Apart from me, obviously.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom sufficiently walks the line between respectable and scruffy, and you really feel for him when Summer gives out what would usually be a fairly clear signal of affection while telling him not to get attached. He does suffer from always coming across like a jerk in the few interactions with his two best pals and his infinitely wiser twelve-year-old sister, whom he consults with when things between he and Summer start to go awry. However, Tom also has one of the best scenes in the movie, as he happily heads to work the morning after his first date with Summer and the world responds to his mood with cheerful dancing in the park and an unexpected but hilarious Star Wars aside. Still, I had a real, physical problem in believing Gordon-Levitt as a grown-up with a job, and not as a teenager a la 10 Things I Hate About You/3rd Rock From The Sun. Part of me wanted to get in the screen and tell Zooey off for romping with someone I could not personally detach from his youth. I would follow that lecture with a kick in the shins for The Happening.

The song-and-dance isn’t the only little strange bit of non-reality in the movie, with occasional little breaks of style and pace into animation or documentary-style filming, and infrequent narration in the manner of Morgan Freeman observing all this from his Shawshank cell. The soundtrack is a highlight, and something we’ve already sold a handful of at work. Altogether, it makes for a nice little movie that is not quite romance or drama or comedy, but has some of each element within. As the kind of person who is utterly convinced by love, I was always on Tom’s side, but I never truly hated Summer, even when she does something quite hurtful at the end of the movie. And I left this movie on a sunny Monday afternoon feeling fairly generous towards the world-if not the Hoyts cinema that chose to show this film on the ludicrously expensive Xtreme Screen instead of showing something actually Xtreme like G-Force or District 9. Honestly.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


It’s no secret that I’m a big, giddy fan of Studio Ghibli. I’ve even been to the Ghibli museum in Japan, where I squeaked over the giant Laputa robot, understood nothing of the short film that was entirely in Japanese, and was proclaimed too big to jump all over the giant My Neighbour Totoro catbus. So I was a big arm-flap of excitement over the release of Ponyo.

From what I can gather plot-wise, Ponyo is the name of a “goldfish” that five-year-old Sosuke discovers washed up on the beach near his clifftop home. In taking care of her, he unleashes the anger of Ponyo’s father, a human who lives under the sea after giving up on humanity, continuing his existence in a variety of air-bubble type houses and vehicles. Sosuke and Ponyo become very attached to each other, and when Ponyo’s father retrieves her, breaking Sosuke’s heart, Ponyo decides she’s sick of being a fish with a semi-human face (which only one person seems to actually notice) and become a human, aided by the magic her father is storing away to save the ocean. Her attempts to do so unwittingly create utter chaos, because, as we all know, Magic Can Occasionally Be a Bad Idea. Can Ponyo and Sosuke’s friendship fix this problem?

It’s gorgeous. It really is. The colours are beautiful, the moments of happy family familiarity are touching, and unsurprisingly the backgrounds and action scenes are absolutely divine. Like a few of the other Ghibli movies, it doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense (as one of our fellow watchers said, “It’s like there was about ten minutes in the middle that they just forgot to put in”) and there’s a few parenting choices that make you want to move to the back of the cinema and discreetly dial Child Protection Services. But to counter that last point, it’s always lovely in a way to see a world in which children are much wiser and braver than we give them credit for, and the adults are happy to believe in them. Still, I doubt I’d leave my five-year-old alone in a cliff house during a storm and while a crazy old man is possibly out to find him. But then, I’ve always been the kind of person who worries over silly little things like that.

I can’t say there’s much in the way of plot, and it possibly has the least amount of conflict that I have ever witnessed in a movie. But it’s a kid’s movie, and a sweet one at that. Everyone is endearing, even the bad guys, there’s a whole bunch of smooching and magic, and frankly you’re best leaving the logic part of your brain at the door, where it’s already been battered by convincing yourself that six dollars for popcorn is in any way reasonable.

I adored this. I can’t say enough how lovely the whole movie is. It’s no Totoro, but it’s a great antidote to the brilliant but depressing Ghibli movie Grave of the Fireflies, and frankly it’s one of my favourites. Disney may now have their fingers in the Ghibli pie, but clearly they don’t have a lot of pull, otherwise this movie would have had a narrator explaining what the hell was going on with the father and his magic, and a disclaimer at the end about Always Wear Your Seatbelt, Kids. As it is, we’re not always sure of the reasoning behind Ponyo, but I’m more than willing to abandon myself to Ghibli once more.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

fyodor dostoyevsky, the brothers karamazov

Note: today's review is supplied by Mr RWL, otherwise known as Chris, who adored Karamazov and wanted to share it with everyone. Who am I to stop him? I mean apart from being the one who rules this blog with an iron fist. I haven't read this, and I probably won't be any time soon. After all, one of the two people in the hivemind otherwise known as our relationship has read this. And I am ashamedly overwhelmed by books that are larger than hamburgers.

If you know this book, you know what it’s about – three (or four) brothers, and one of them killed their father (it’s a Russian novel, there’s GOT to be a murder—it’s the rules). I already knew this from discussions of this novel in tomes like 1001 Books You Must Read Before Literary Snobs Suffocate You With Their Pretentiousness, and it even said it in the first line of the blurb on the back, so, clearly not a spoiler. But I must have been spoiled by about three thousand episodes of Law & Order where the murder happens in the opening minute before the title sequence has even run, because, while I was expecting a murder, I wasn’t expecting it to happen around page six hundred of this thousand-page house brick.

Don’t get me wrong, this book was impressive. It is in danger of causing you brain-shear as your mind spins with its awesomeness. Kurt Vonnegut has a character claim in Slaughterhouse 5 that everything in life can be found in The Brothers Karamazov, and it was only a slight exaggeration to say so.

The characters, the themes and the scenarios are sophisticated and well explored, but you get the feeling Dostoyevsky doesn’t trust us to make intelligent reflections on the world he has created, so he shoves every possible detail surrounding his plot devices down our throats.
This is what reading The Brothers Karamazov is like: you know when someone is eating a bag of chips, and you know them well enough to ask for a bite, but only because you were a little bit hungry? The person then turns around and gives you the whole damn bag of chips. It’s an act of generosity, but you try and refuse because you didn’t want the whole bag, just a small nibble on one or two of them. But they insist and then you’re stuck with more than you can eat, but you don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful, so you have to gorge yourself on every last crumb until you feel stuffed and maybe even nauseous from so much consumption.
Dostoyevsky is a little over-generous with his words. When one or two paragraphs would have satisfied the reader and got the point across, Dostoyevsky slams you with a 10 page paragraph-less wall of text at the end of which you can’t help but wish you’d taken a sneaky flip past to save some time.

But, no, seriously, it’s a great book, extremely rewarding once you have got to the end. It is probably the only book I have read that so convincingly expounds completely contrasting points of view on religion, making each of them seem intelligent and defensible. In the end though I think Ivan, the atheist brother, comes off best intellectually, though the writer’s sympathies are clearly with Alyosha, the young would- be monk.

Women are almost completely refined to their living rooms throughout the whole novel, to the point where one is even crippled and living in a tub. Even Grushenka, who is presented as ‘getting around’, doesn’t actually manage to get around.I utterly recommend you take the month or so it will (eventually) take to read this book. It is in the same vein as family epics such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and East of Eden, and considering it came first, those books probably owe a lot to it. Despite its verbosity, the fact that you feel guilty when you skip sections (not that I did...that often...ahem) is testament to how much you were actually enjoying it until you ran out of stamina.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

max brooks, world war z

Somehow, I’ve come to a point where the paranormal—zombies and vampires and their ilk—have crept their way into my reading and viewing life. (Not so much on the listening angle, unless there’s something Fleet Foxes aren’t telling their fans.) It’s my own fault—you tell a couple of sales reps you liked Twilight okay and then suddenly books about the paranormal come flying at your head. Some have sucked (boom boom) and others have been great.

World War Z was found through a different avenue. Mr RWL is quite partial to zombies—films, comics, the Horrorpops song Walk Like a Zombie—and he was recommended this by our pals at the city Comics 'r' Us store. He read it in about two days and then wouldn’t let up until I’d read it too, asking me constantly, “Are you up to the bit about Yonkers? What about the quislings?” I wondered about his mental health and patted him nervously on the hand—until I finally caved and read it.

The bit about Yonkers is actually quite good. And quislings, well. That’s a whole aspect I’d never even considered. Are you up to those parts yet? No? Well, get cracking.

World War Z is an oral history of the zombie war, compiled from dozens of interviews with people from all over the world. It is told in the aftermath of the war, but begins when the warnings—unheeded, as undoubtedly any reports of a zombie uprising would be if it turned up in the Herald Sun today—start to filter through, then follows as the panic erupts and then into full-blown war. Where did it begin? Possibly in a quiet Chinese village, as told through a chilling interview with the doctor from the nearest town. How does insular North Korea deal with a zombie invasion? Can the might of the US Army triumph against an enemy that knows no fear, only that it wants to chomp on our heads? Can zombies swim? What happens in outer space? Does anyone take the nuclear option?

This novel takes on the aspects of total war with the undead that few, if any, zombie-related media have done. Tales of the political ramifications sit shoulder-to-shoulder with stories of blind monks in Hokkaido and desperate soldiers in Russia. Hollywood celebrities are in just as much danger as aw-shucks suburban families hiking to North America for the winter. It’s an interesting concept and one I could have read for much longer.

It’s not perfect. I found many of the characters, whether from Israel or Ohio, sounded like they were the same person. Australia barely gets a mention. Our world leaders are all assholes. (I see you there fainting from the shock.) There are a few plot holes. But you know what? Like all great actioners, I didn’t really care. I was reading it not because it won the Pulitzer Prize, but because I dig a good story about the splatty death of virtually all mankind and I adore reading about destruction. It’s an entertaining book and to be honest, I think it’d make a great TV series. I mean, aren’t you over shows about vampires? I sure am. Bring on the zombie dramas, I say, every episode chronicling the war through the eyes of someone different. Who knows, maybe they’ll even get Nelson Mandela to play himself. Oh wait, aren’t you up to the South Africa bit yet? Whoops.

Monday, September 14, 2009


The one thing competing most for my time with reading/watching/listening, work, and general smooching of Mr RWL is the internet. It's probably a little less than exciting for me to review my friends' facebook status updates or What Hilarious Things Happened On Livejournal Today, so I won't be going on about it - but occasionally I won't be able to resist the allure of the hilarious picture. Behold:

Perhaps you've seen it? Perhaps you're offended? And rightly so.

Now, I've read the Twilight books, all of 'em. Even The Host. And my opinion is this: while reading them I became completely absorbed in the characters and their lives. Once I put the books down, all I could see were the flaws - Bella's useless and fragile heroine, Edward with his absolute lack of any appeal, and Jacob who thinks it's okay to use his strength against women. (But he doesn't know his own strength, the poor thing. Bleurgh.) The first three books are fairly harmless, then Breaking Dawn turns into this horror story of R-rated issues and gore. I hope my future children don't read them, but if they do they can expect to be given a lecture beforehand on What Is Not Cool In A Relationship And No I Don't Care That Your Love Is Special It Isn't Really.

But one thing I cannot stand is snobs. People who will criticise you for what you enjoy, be it book, music, or movie. Can you really help how you feel? If a movie moves you or a song makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, does anyone really have the right to tell you you don't know what you're talking about? Of course not. We are all different, and if we weren't, life would be dull and we'd all be stealing each other's boyfriends.

So everything here is my own opinion. If you like something I hate, good for you. I don't mind. If you hate something I like, then you are WRONG and should be arrested.