Friday, December 31, 2010


Somewhere out there, there are celebrities and CEOs and other famous, bored people who go see Sofia Coppola’s new movie and think to themselves, oh, OH, thank the lord someone has finally made a movie about how hard it is to be ridiculously wealthy. I’m not saying that being rich will buy you happiness—poor mental health transcends class, undoubtedly—but if you want me to watch a film about the sorrows of being able to fly anywhere, bonk anyone, and have everyone love you, then you better make it interesting. And Sofia, while you look like a nice person and I loved The Virgin Suicides and adored Lost in Translation (and as you are an ex-partner of Quentin Tarantino I will forever hold you in high esteem), I found Somewhere to be self-indulgent and dull. Sorry.

In LA’s Chateau Marmont, hotel to the famous and the place to do stupid things that end up on TMZ, famous actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is holed up waiting for the upcoming media junket for his new action flick and recuperating after a staircase-induced arm injury. He also drives a luxury sports car, as the five-minute opening sequence of him circling a racetrack in it will attest. In other news, his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) comes to stay for an indefinite period of time, dropped off by her mother. During this there is lots of brooding, no real talking for the first fifteen minutes, and no actual, long proper conversation for the entire length of the film, which is about an hour and a half, maybe less. So, the fact it’s short is a plus. Another point in the movie’s favour are the actors themselves—Stephen Dorff is quite likeable, Elle Fanning is great as Cleo, and the only other actor in it for any period of time, Jackass alumni Chris Pontius and his luxurious hair, is perfectly agreeable as Johnny’s best friend. Coppola herself turns up in a party scene, in case we hadn’t already thought that the life of a kid following her famous dad around hotels had any kind of autobiographical elements.

The movie is a series of vignettes about Marco’s existence over a few weeks, each scene carefully thought out and executed to perfection. We see him watch two awkward pole-dancing shows in his room (and in case you were worried it was too subtle, he falls asleep during the first one); look morose at his own party; sunbathe with his daughter; receive anonymous text messages calling him names; order room-service gelato with Cleo in an Italian hotel room; do a lot of driving; and have sex with everyone who makes eye contact with him. There is a startling dearth of speaking, and much like those scenes in Family Guy when Peter trips over and hisses over his hurt knee for five straight minutes, each moment is stretched out as long as is possible, then for, say, four minutes more. Thus poignancy turns tedious, and we physically feel the pain and torment of life as a star. It’ll make you want to donate to an ennui-based charity.

The juxtaposition of scenes seems important and telling, like when one of the pole-dancing scenes is followed by an uncomfortable viewing of eleven-year-old Cleo’s ice-skating routine. Hers is not a raunchy routine, nor is it perfect, and it gains the attention of Johnny like the dancers could not, but seeing her skimpy, glittery costume so soon after other skimpy, sexualised costumes is most definitely disconcerting. I don’t quite know what the message was. Dancing and metal props don’t mix?

Johnny and Cleo’s relationship doesn’t seem to be the point, as it follows a straight, drama-free trajectory. Johnny’s interactions with everyone are fairly mundane or friendly, his affairs only temporarily distracting. His hedonistic tendencies are on show, but still do not make him an unappealing character, meaning he lacks any real depth. When he calls one of his lovers to ask for company and she says no, he cries in despair, but with none of his past on display or many of his emotions or motivations revealed, I just couldn’t understand or care.

An enjoyable moment with a masseuse and affable characters, along with fine acting, lifts the movie out of the bin and possibly above the horror that was Tron: Legacy. The soundtrack has been much lauded but went largely unnoticed by me—which is not necessarily a bad thing, however, especially as I can’t stand Phoenix, who had a hand in it. It looks gritty and indie, and raw and true. But I still looked at my watch a lot, and wished Johnny would brush his hair just once, honestly.

In summary: Below Expectations. I feel she was striving for beauty and emotion, and instead got beauty and nothing else underneath, like when you’re walking through the Basement at Myer and think you see some well-dressed dude sitting down until you come to the devastating realisation that it’s a stragetically placed mannequin and will probably not appreciate your well-thought-out pickup line. And nothing will ever pull you out of a movie more than seeing the boom appear at the top of the screen not once, but twice. For shame. I’m shaking my head at my laptop now in pointed despair, Sofia.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

tron: legacy

If Tron: Legacy has taught me anything, it’s that we are now entirely spoiled when it comes to special effects. For all of Avatar’s faults, it showed just what CGI can do—and that’s pretty much everything, and with an extra dimension just to show off. So when you sit down to watch T:L, armed with your popcorn and the stupid happy smile you have on when you know you’re going to see a splashy neon actioner scored by Daft Punk, it is pretty much impossible to not be disappointed. Not by the action—the special effects in those were plenty amazing—but from the first moment Jeff Bridges rocks up, in a sappy prologue set a few years after the original Tron, you lay eyes on his youthfully digitised face and it’s all you can do to not storm off in disgust, throwing your popcorn at the projectionist and harrumphing right out of the cinema to lecture whoever was unfortunate enough to be working the candy bar at the same time.

Sam Flynn is a twentysomething brat, heir to his father’s huge tech corporation and a habitual prankster, driven to destroy the very company that pays for his bizarre car-garage home next to the river and forks out for his bail whenever he gets up to mischief. One day, a strange page (as in, those technological whatsits that no one uses now that there’s mobile phones) sends Sam to his father’s old arcade, where he stumbles upon ancient, eighties-era technology that does what it did to his father nearly thirty years ago and sucks him into a digital world. (Frankly, looking at dot matrix printers and clunky hardware and thinking that it created anything more elaborate than Tetris is a bit of a stretch, but that’s because I’m naive.) Captured almost immediately by the digital police squad, he is thrown unexpectedly into the fight of his life—and his father’s life, too.

Tron: Legacy has some stunning action scenes and despite my indifference to dance music in general, Daft Punk’s soundtrack is incredible and I am suffering some serious internal struggle over whether to download a couple of the songs or quit whining and just buy the whole album. The lightcycle fight, reminiscent of the original 8-bit Tron game, was great fun. Garrett Hedlund, as Sam, looks a little like Christian Bale but actually did a pretty good job despite being barely on my radar before right now. Olivia Wilde, as the older Flynn’s mysterious sidekick Quorra, has great makeup and sufficiently otherworldly eyes. And everything else about this movie is terrible.

Maybe I would have been able to overlook the slab of ham otherwise known as Michael Sheen’s ridiculously overdone club owner Zuse, the improbable fight victories, the heavily foreshadowed helmeted-foe twist and the forced, biblical plotline (Man creates world! Oh look, everything’s gone to shit. Better not do anything about it then, unless of course my son’s involved). Maybe I could have forgiven all of that if it wasn’t for one thing: Young Jeff Bridges. His digitally altered face is one of the worst things I have seen in cinematic history. As both the flashback Kevin Flynn, relating the story of the original Tron to his young son using figurines of himself and his cohorts, and as CLU, Kevin’s digital counterpart who—as doppelgangers always seem to do—has turned evil, he is a uninsured trip into the Uncanny Valley, his face devoid of texture and life, all the pixels of which seem to have been sent straight to his constantly moving hair. If he was in a video game, you’d consider him a great likeness, but this is a real movie, populated otherwise by real people, and as soon as he is next to them he looks completely fucking ridiculous. Maybe if they’d budgeted for an extra million dollars and made him spot-on realistic in the opening scene, you could buy the idea that he looks weird in the digital world for some digital reason, though no one else suffers from this ailment but him. The filmmakers could have made up some technological term to explain it away and I would have totally bought it. But I couldn’t. And basically, that poor effects work—especially when coupled with the rest of the film’s seamless CGI—ruined the entire movie, hands down.

The whole story is a bit ridiculous, and the action and plot so far-fetched, that sometimes I felt like Garrett Hedlund looked like he had fallen out of another, more serious movie, in which he played the straight man, and into this barrage of Bizzaro-Disney neon. He does his best, but is ultimately let down by poor scripting and awkward conversations with CLU, who appears to have suffered the ill-effects of a Botox jab. The movie probably would have been much better had they marketed it as a lengthy video clip for Daft Punk’s new album, and that way I would have completely excused any shoddy effects.

In summary: Below Expectations, in that I expect that a movie made in this day and age will look great, especially when that guy made Monsters in his bedroom and it looked a zillion times better.

Monday, December 20, 2010

winter's bone

In a world as familiar as the suburbs and as alien as a sci-fi movie, seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly is put in a terrible position. As the caretaker of her younger siblings now that her mother has lapsed into a speechless depression, she finds out that if her absent father does not turn up for his court date in a week, she will lose the family’s house and land—which he put up for bond. Trouble is, she doesn’t know where her crack-dealing pappy is, and the frightening inhabitants of her rural Missouri town take any requests for information as a personal threat. But with the wellbeing of her beloved family at stake, Ree is prepared to face whoever and whatever she needs to help them. While Ree’s younger brother and sister adore her and are good kids, they’re too young to look after themselves, and Ree has very few people to turn to. Teardrop—her missing father’s brother—is a scary, violent man, haggard and brutal, and aware of the code of honour within the society they live in. Her friend Gail is stuck at home with a baby and her unwilling, angry-looking spouse, unable to offer Ree the help she needs in her search. As a determined Ree asks questions of everyone within her realm of knowledge, the bleak landscape and the community do their best to stop her.

Chris pondered aloud if the camera could have caught a flash of green grass or clear skies if only it had moved a bit either way; as it was, Winter’s Bone’s cinematography catches a place that is universally grim. Everything is cold, and worn, and old, and the world I am familiar with—happiness, smiles, friendliness—seems so impossible to get to that it is hard to believe cushy American movies are filmed on the same continent (and that my dear friend Lilli was in the same state recently having a total blast.) The gardens and houses show a world where perhaps in the past life was brighter: toys may have been new, machinery free of rust, houses freshly built. Drugs have choked the town, with its inhabitants mostly made up of crystal meth dealers and users, leaving everyone drawn and with the alarming look of someone high, or waiting for the next high. So chilling are the cast that Teardrop, constantly snorting from his little baggie, terrified me until I IMDb’d him in the car on the way home and realised he was actually John Hawkes, recently the cause of my adoration as the will-they-won’t-they father in Miranda July’s excellent Me and You and Everyone We Know. It was such a brilliant turn and I was so completely fooled that it reminded me just how plain talented actors can be. Jennifer Lawrence, as the savvy Ree, is also amazing, stopping at nothing—no matter what the threat—to save her family.

The movie manages to put a few interesting twists into the characters, turning two cinematically-hated tropes, including an army recruiter, into basically the kindest people in the film. As Ree hopes to join the army, asking when the promised $40,000 would arrive, the recruitment officer tells her gently that it wouldn’t be for a few months, and that she really needs to rethink joining the army if money is her sole motivation, and that caring for her family is a much more important job. Their heartfelt discussion is, frankly, shattering, as it was the only time I had thought: join the army! Get some money! This really is your only choice! Instead of: run away! Army bad!

Winter’s Bone is probably going to take over the Oscars, and it should. It really is a marvellous film: knock-you-down devastating, depressing and pearl-clutching, with a lake scene so viscerally horrible near the end that will have you wanting to hug Jennifer Lawrence should you ever see her in the street shopping for groceries. There is, in Ree and her siblings and the home of her father’s lover, little sparks of hope that make the movie beautiful through its cheerless exterior. In this, it shares similarities with John Hillcoat’s The Road, though Winter’s Bone conveyed a world that Hillcoat (well, Cormac McCarthy) needed an apocalypse to create. Why so dramatic, when there is such horror in the world we already have?

In summary: Above Expectations. This is a tremendous film, never tedious, and with characters you feel are desperately real and whose determination you cheer (or whose downfall you secretly wish for.) The only fault, for me, was the addition of a tree-felling dream sequence. I don’t believe a good dream sequence has even been filmed (or written.) Feel free to shoot me if you wish. (And hush, Alice in Wonderland is not counted.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

richelle mead, last sacrifice

As someone who rarely reads books that are part of an ongoing series—apart from Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid and Stephenie Meyer’s satirical Twilight series, I can’t think of anything since Harry Potter—making it to the sixth book in a row is a real effort and means that something must be right. While this is true—the Vampire Academy series is great fun—there is also a lot wrong with this book.

To rain down spoilers from the first five books in the series, Last Sacrifice opens with our heroine, Rose Hathaway, locked away in jail accused of the murder of Tatiana, queen of the Moroi. Rose and Tatiana didn’t particularly get along—Tatiana had recently passed a law lowering the age that guardians graduate and become fighters. As Rose is a guardian herself, trained to protect the Moroi—the good, consensual-bitey vampires—from Strigoi—the bad, murdery kind of vampire—she is not well pleased with the decision, but not enough to kill Tatiana. After a previous court outburst and some shifty bribing, Rose has been framed for the crime—but by who? As she is stuck in her cell, her friends and family do all they can to help her, from trying to find the real perpetrator to using a dramatic diversion to bust Rose out of the big house.

The Vampire Academy novels rely highly on throwing twists and shocks in every chapter, so I’ll try not to say much more. Suffice it to say the series relies heavily on action and drama, neither of which really can happen in a jail cell, so Rose is out and about breaking hearts and staking vicariously shortly into the book, making new friends and new enemies and smooching—well, who? Longtime readers will be either Team Dimitri (Rose’s first boyfriend, guardian trainer and someone who was turned Strigoi then brought back by Rose’s best friend, Lissa) or Team Adrian (when Dimitri became evil then broke up with Rose, in that order, Adrian was there to pick up the pieces and smoke heavily in the background.)

As Rose blusters her way around the countryside, her best friend Lissa, who brought Rose back to life during a car accident years before, is coping with her own dramas back at court, where she is thrown into much bigger turmoil than expected. The series is written through Rose’s dramatic, biased point of view, but due to her resurrection she shares a bond with Lissa that means she can see from the other girl’s point of view. Doing this means Rose is free to keep tabs on what’s happening in court even while getting up to more hasty crimes in the American backwoods.

It remains good, action-packed fun, sufficiently dramatic, a bit sexy (but not too much for the innocent eyes of teen readers—most dalliances get interrupted at inopportune times) and full of the characters you’ve enjoyed meeting in the past. Rose is flawed, has a quick temper, but is pretty funny and does what she thinks is best, which means she is mostly likeable.

But lord, sometimes you want to just stake her in the heart. Sometimes she is so stupid, or brash, or insensitive, that you really wonder if it would be so bad if she got executed for treason after all. Rose is a pain in the ass, and if it wasn’t for the fact that she is tall, fit, gorgeous, and could beat up anyone who looked at you funny, would she ever get as many marriage proposals and men willing to do anything for her? Her decisions are frequently annoying, and her reasoning behind the eventual relationship choice she makes feels very pasted on and does not compute with how the gentleman in question has appeared in the past.

The book could have done with a good dose of editing and the removal of one chapter ending early in the book that put my teeth on edge far too soon. The bond between Lissa and Rose has been a large part of the whole series, so when chapter two ends with Rose waking up, panicked, and the last lines being:

“What I found was...nothing.
The bond was gone.”

it’s serious business, you know? So when chapter three starts like this:

“Well, not gone exactly.

you feel like you’ve been cheated out of your emotions. I actually ended up marking a lot of pages in the book with scraps of paper if I came across questionable writing or plotting, but half of them fell out when I was flicking through just now to get to chapter two, so you might have to take my word on that. (One seemingly petty marked page found that someone knocked on Rose’s door in a “discrete” manner.) While I’m sure author Richelle Mead has had the series planned out in her head for some time, the eventual unveiling of who really killed Tatiana is actually kind of mean and annoying rather than a lightbulb moment where you think “of course!”. Some characters seem like red herrings, or just introduced to fawn over Rose, and some questions are still left unanswered. While the series will be continuing on with another Vampire Academy series forthcoming, one that won’t follow Rose—but apparently she will be around, so it won’t quite be the last we see of her—perhaps some of the loose ends will be tied up, but I don’t think I can be bothered reading any further now that this story has essentially reached its end point. I’ll just harass some poor teenage girl into reading them and telling me what happens to Rose in the future. “Does she get married? Does she have cute babies? Does she ever get the cute but inappropriate clothes she often finds herself wearing caught in any machinery and killed? TELL ME!!”

In summary: Below Expectations. I had hyped myself up into thinking the series was much more well-written than it is. It was still enjoyable enough, and with so many surprise moments it’s a page-turner, but I won’t read anything else by Mead because I am sick of all these improbably attractive people and their fantastical castle-related lifestyles. I really just don’t care any more.

Monday, December 6, 2010


It took filmmaker Samuel Moab almost thirty years to tell his story. It has been that long since the first day of the Lebanon war—June 6, 1982—when he was just twenty years old, and I was a few days off being born. As I was rolling around in the comfort of my mother’s womb, Moab sweated and shook behind the trigger of a tank cannon, tasked with the job of shooting anything that moved. It’s a thankless job: don’t shoot, and you may put all your comrades in danger; shoot, and you might kill an innocent civilian. Moab attempted to make this film years before, but couldn’t, the horrors of his experience too raw to recount. Finally, he was able to finish the script and make the movie he needed to. On a tight budget, and shot entirely within the confines of a tank—bar the brief opening and closing scenes—what he produced has won him accolades worldwide.

I will do everything in my power to not see war movies, generally. It seems awful and shallow to avoid what is a grim reality for a huge part of both history and present, but I usually find the machismo and bloodshed just too sickening. You’re much more likely to find me at a 3D kids’ flick laughing at a fart joke than in an arthouse cinema stroking my beard about the poignancy of camera angles. Still, when a movie receives as much attention as Lebanon it seems a good reason to get over my dislike and watch something so worthwhile.

Shmulik is a gunner, dropped into the belly of an Israeli Defence Force tank with loader Hertzel, driver Yigul, and officer Assi. They meet and shake hands, then are mobilised immediately to get to a road and wait for further instructions. When a car approaches, they are given their task: shoot to their left, then to their right, and if they don’t move, shoot out their engine. As someone who has previously “only ever shot barrels”, Shmulik freezes, endangering everyone around him; from that moment, the stage is set as real people—not Rambo-type heroes with oversized muscles and bandannas—are shown fighting with their emotions and each other as they struggle to survive the first day of the Lebanon War. Outside, the unit’s commander and his soldiers are face-to-face with the horror, with hostage-takers and the dead or injured, and trying with the tank to clear a freshly razed town. As the situation worsens, those in charge must deal with changes of plan, lack of backup and the subversiveness of inexperienced and frightened soldiers.

After seeing Buried and Devil I worried that 2010 was overdoing the claustrophobia* movie, but this felt much different. It is still an oppressive atmosphere, crowded into a tank with four men whose only view to the outside world is through crosshairs, but at least there are other people to see. With the faces of those destroyed by the war in sharp relief, however, it is not a beautiful world, but a devastating one. As one man stares down the sight, sharing a table in a town with a friend lying dead and bloody opposite, the trauma of the experience for everyone involved is made clear.

Immersive from the moment Shmulik lowers himself into the tank, Lebanon is a gripping and awful movie, with only one real moment of levity during a tale of an ill-placed hard-on in front of a teacher tasked to accompany a teenage Shmulik home after the death of his father. It’s hard to crack a smile during the story anyway, told as it is to improve the mood of the men in the tank, feeling alone and desperate in their dirty, aged, shelled tank with the walls covered in post-attack oil and soup croutons.

The sound design is ominous and alarming, the cinematography amazing when you consider the limited space. It is not a comfortable movie, soaked in blood and tension, but with tender moments as soldiers try to reach out with humanity during even the worst times in war. The devastation and tension of the first ten minutes does have the detrimental effect of causing the rest of the movie to feel slower and (mildly) less traumatising.

In summary: Meets Expectations, which were high after the glowing reviews. Lebanon is an important and devastating movie, and I am full of admiration for Samuel Moab in making such a personal film.

*Chris told me I wasn’t allowed to use the c-word word in my review because “everyone else has”, but that’s like not saying the word “tank” in this movie. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you probably shouldn’t see it, unless you’re at the Open Air Cinema and you’re driving home afterwards in a convertible.

Monday, November 29, 2010


If you hadn’t seen the posters or read about the plot, a movie with a name as subtle as Monsters could be understandably visualised as some kind of schlock horror film that may be either taking the piss out of horror (a la Scary Movie) or perhaps actually just some big, stupid monster flick about aliens that no one will go and see (except that mantle has been taken by Skyline at the moment.) Having read about Monsters’ guerrilla shooting style, the minimal budget, the frisson of excitement surrounding it in Empire magazine and the fact that the lead couple are, in reality, married, I was interested to see how the film would go. So, on a Saturday night in a movie theatre filled with twelve-year-old boys who were undoubtedly disappointed in the lack of boobies, we went to the flicks to see what would happen.

The film has a nicely original starting point where we are not witnessing the Attack of the Monsters, or How America Beat the Monsters with One Guy and a Well Placed Bullet, but how society is going seven years after octopus-like aliens have landed on Earth via a space probe that broke up in Central America. That area has been cordoned off as the Infected Zone, and with great big walls erected on both the Mexican and US sides of the zone, the creatures are kept isolated. There are occasional attacks outside the zone, and the film begins with the destruction of a hotel in Mexico and the unexpected pairing of attack survivor Sam (Whitney Able) with Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist pressured by his boss—Sam’s father—into helping her get home to safety. The course of a monster movie escape never runs smooth, however, and the seemingly quick journey home becomes an unnerving trip right through the Zone itself.

Monsters is not really about monsters, though you will see them and be scared. Monsters is allegorical and sentimental in equal parts. Mexico and the United States have erected enormous walls on either side of the Infected Zone, but that hasn’t stopped the aliens from breaching the defences and getting all up in society’s face. The high walls themselves are a perfect vision of terror, and supply some of what was, for me, the most chilling moments in the film. Seeing Mexico’s giant wire fence was genuinely spooky, like when I was eleven and watching Jurassic Park and waiting for the T-Rex to sidle up to his giant electric fence and eat his goaty breakfast. You kind of wanted one of the aliens to come up to the fence, all tentacles and spiky legs, tentatively touch the fence, get zapped and then run off, yelping, just to dissipate the fear of that giant structure. The reality of walls between societies is not lost on anyone, with the horrors of war made clear. Kaulder points out to Sam—who is appalled by his photography at inappropriate times—that her father pays fifty thousand dollars for a picture of a kid killed by an alien and nothing at all for a picture of a happy child.

The sentiment lies in the relationship between Sam and Kaulder, one that is by turns spiky, playful, and tender. It is easy to forget the pair are a real couple despite the chemistry they share; they seem genuinely annoyed by each other at times and then newly excited in others. It is quite sweet watching them get closer, as the slightly jerky but amiable Kaulder does his best to impress engaged rich-girl Sam, and all done with only a vague script and a large amount of ad-libbing. When Kaulder makes Sam laugh it is uplifting, and when they huddle together in fear you hope desperately that they survive. A cheesy moment in a hotel room, where a David Attenborough-type documentary on mating plays in the background while Sam and Kaulder are trying to work out where their relationship stands, was a little forced, but the rest of their scenes felt uninhibited by constraints.

It really is a movie about adapting: watching people adapt to new people and experiences, no matter how shocking or horrific; watching the world adapt to these new alpha critters on the food chain; adapting enough to a new life to be able to appreciate the beauty of the monsters themselves. The casual, documentary feel to the camera work lends itself to lots of close-ups of faces and brings the raw emotion of the characters to the fore. It also enables lots of soft-focus and outright fuzziness, especially when it comes to gore; most of the worst scenes are tempered by photographic haze. It makes the scenes both awful in what they don’t show but also more palatable for the teen market (and there was a six-year-old in the cinema, which was pretty unnerving, though he seemed more bored than scared and mostly sang to himself in the corner and ate chips.)

The music is lovely, and the scenery is mind-blowing at times and eerie in others; lush forests, amazing landscapes, hidden treasures amongst the trees, destruction, husks of buildings, rusting planes. What is most amazing is that this entirely professional-looking movie was made on a budget of only $200,000, which, well, isn’t an amount to sniff at, (grumble about housing prices) but in film terms, it can be the cost of a single explosion. Few of the cast are actors, just given an outline of the scene and filmed from there. It makes the film so much more natural and believable, a down-home gritty reality instead of a shiny surreal world that $500,000,000 will get you. (Yes Avatar, I’m looking right at you and shaking my head, sighing.) Director Gareth Edwards also wrote the story, was the cinematographer, and did the special effects himself—an A+ effort when you see them. The critters themselves are possibly not as perfectly lit as they could have been if another zero had been whacked onto the budget, but are still believable, completely incredible and, as they occasionally make their own light source, forgivable.

Less forgiving is the one irritating monster movie flaw that Jurassic Park 3 started with that stupid dinosaur that ate the mobile phone: creatures sneaking up silently behind someone to deliver a shock but spending every other moment walking around the land causing the earth to shake and bone-chilling thuds to be heard from miles away. Hundred-metre-high octopi are not the same as the bad guy in Scream. They cannot sneak. They do not need to sneak. They have the upper hand. Eight of them, even. (Boom-tish.)

In summary: Exceeds Expectations. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great three-and-a-half star movie that is touching while still being scary enough to be a proper, pacy monster movie.

Friday, November 26, 2010

songs for nobodies

Regular readers of this blog will have heard me frequently sigh over my secret boyfriends including, but not limited to: David Tennant, Antonio Banderas, Rupert Grint, and Robert Rodriguez. One thing I have not had until today has been a secret girlfriend. Bernadette Robinson has completely changed that and is now a contender for my heart.

Songs for Nobodies was the final play for our final Melbourne Theatre Company subscription, as the prices for subs when you’re thirty or older become far too expensive. (I hold Chris entirely to blame; I don’t turn thirty for another year, but refuse to see plays by myself because then who will I be able to whisper “they were on the telly!” to?) Fittingly, we saw our first and last plays in the same theatre—the Fairfax, in the Arts Centre—and we were also running late, as we were for our first play. Here I should mention how lovely MTC staff are when you turn up late, wracked with guilt and apologetic—they tell you how long until you can enter, set you up in a chair, and turn on a television that fuzzily broadcasts the play as it is performed. The people we had to clamber in front of were less excited, but hey guys, YOU try turning right in our car at the moment: it’s a fine and stupid art.

Songs for Nobodies follows the story of five separate women: the first, a woman who meets Judy Garland (this is the bit we arrived late for, so I am not as clear as I wish I was); an American usher glowing after her experience with Patsy Cline; an New Yawk journalist setting up an interview with Billie Holiday; an English librarian recounting how Edith Piaf saved her father’s life; a young Irish woman working on a cruise ship packed with temperamental celebrities, including Maria Callas. In each story, the most notable tunes by those singers will also be performed along with a band and—while many of the tunes are not particularly high on my list of favourites because I have heard them so much during my life—listening to them performed six feet in front of you by an artist who gets them all absolutely pitch-perfect was one of the most amazing theatrical experiences I’ve had.

Without a performer of the calibre of Bernadette Robinson, this play would be nothing. But listening to her get every accent right, all while wearing the same sharp outfit, utilising the minimalist, slightly art-deco set, and becoming five completely different people—she is incredible. As the librarian, she looks austere, walks with her head held high and speaks in a clipped accent that is nothing less than convincing. As the Irish teenager, fresh out of a relationship with an “evil, he isn’t a bastard, but he is evil”, she is all sass and and lopes around the stage, recounting her tale with delicious drama. And when she sings—oh—you’ve never heard anything like it. Or you have, because she sounds so much like the singers she’s emulating that the hairs raised up on my arms and I leaned forward in my chair, beaming at this woman who, moments before, had been an aspiring journalist nicknamed Too Junior Jones, and then suddenly became Billie Holiday, singing the always moving Strange Fruit. It really is something.

The play isn’t all singing, though, and the little snippets of existence we get from the women are of equal interest. They are funny, and smart, and appealing. When the librarian makes a crass joke with her beautiful voice you can’t help but giggle; when the usher accidentally walks in on Patsy Cline you are excited for her, meeting her idol. Bernadette Robinson is an absolute revelation—to me, anyway, as she is a well-known performer. Joanna Murray-Smith wrote the play for Bernadette, and it is hard to imagine anyone else in these roles, able to sing as five loved stars, and to act as five anonymous women whose lives were changed by them.

I didn’t even make any jokes in this review. That’s how blown away I was by this play. It took away my propensity to be ridiculous and filled that part of my brain with awe.

In summary: Exceeds Expectations and the perfect end to our subscription. I also want to know who styled Bernadette’s hair, because it was great. If I could complain about anything, it would be that it started on time so we missed the beginning. Damn efficient MTC.

The Songs for Nobodies season runs from November 5 to January 15, already having been extended, probably due to an excess of awesome.

Monday, November 22, 2010

the loved ones

If there’s one thing Australia can do well, it is: be scary. International folk think we’re a hotbed of spiders, snakes and drop bears, and that we’re liable to get kicked in the face by a kangaroo as soon as we walk out our front doors. What The Loved Ones shows is that it’s not the wildlife we should be afraid of, but also teenage girls who like to wear pink. Though I could have told you that years ago.

Teenager Brent (the preppily named Xavier Samuel, who was vampire ringleader Riley in Eclipse) is living a typical schoolkid existence: he motorboats his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) in her Volkswagen Beetle, listens to hard rock, and fights with his mum. What is less typical is that he’s trying to cope with the car accident that took his father’s life six months before, and in that respect, he resorts to cutting, and spends his afternoons either in the darkness of his room, or searching for release in the dangers of the Australian landscape. When he is asked to the school dance by the slightly awkward Lola (Robin McLeavy), he turns her down; he’s kind enough, but it wasn’t the answer she wanted. And as Brent listens to his iPod and broods in the bush with his dog, Lola’s dedicated dad (John Brumpton) does what any father of a slighted girl does: he knocks Brent out, chucks him in the back of his ute, and hoofs it back to his place so Lola, decked out in a pink frock and matching shoes, can get the night she wanted so badly. And while Brent’s best friend Jamie (Richard Wilson) enjoys a typical dance with the hottest black-wearing girl in school—the glum Mia (Jessica McNamee)—by smoking a buttload of pot and embarrassing himself trying to impress her, Brent himself is dealing with drills, knives, hammers and the very real chance of a lobotomy, all underneath a disco ball in the kitchen of one of the creepiest families you’ll ever see on film.

It’s an authentically Australian movie without being throw-another-shrimp-on-the-barbie ocker. The landscape is that kind of local country you could find just at the end of the train lines; the house interiors could be any of your friends’ homes; when in the school grounds, the lockers could be yours from year eleven, all scratched up from your combination lock grating against it. I am obviously biased in this sense, being from Victoria where this was shot, and possibly even in the neighbourhood—the end credits thank the Whitehorse City Council (where I live now) and the Yarra Valley City Council (where I used to as a kid.) Heck, when the credits rolled, I realised I actually knew two people in the crew as well. The Loved Ones portrays Australian life convincingly without being cheesy or overdone. (Though when Lola’s father hammers one message home to Brent, he does snarl, “That’s for the Kingswood.”)

Half of the movie is spent in Lola’s kitchen, claustrophobically trapped by her and her father, surrounded by glitter and sparkle, and with Brent attached to a chair and wearing a snappy suit. Those scenes are truly, utterly scary. The two, and a very quiet third house guest, are so completely unnerving with their insanity that they’ll undoubtedly be haunting my dreams. Lola, brought up by a father whose is clearly unhinged, has no moral issues with what she is doing. Her father is doing everything in his power to keep her daughter happy. There is a deeply disturbing undercurrent (actually, maybe just a current) of attraction between the father and his “Princess”, which will keep you just as squicked out as the mild torture-porn they inflict on poor emo Brent.

The other half of the movie takes you out of the devastation of the home and into the lives of others: Brent’s mother, as she waits for news of her son; Holly, as she waits in her party dress for her beau to come home; Jamie, as he bumbles his way through the night of his dreams. Jamie is really just there to alleviate the mood; one of the hardest scenes for me to watch was immediately followed by a riotous bit of slapstick comedy from the clumsy Jamie that literally had the audience coughing on their popcorn and laughing well into the next (probably inappropriate) scene. Rather than detracting from the tone of the film, it made it a much more enjoyable movie. There was a lot of humour for a horror movie, with Lola’s tantrums and glee overdone to the point of hilarity, while still—admirably—remaining scary. As the film goes into a glowing slo-mo play of Lola being crowned the queen of the dance with a pink paper hat from a cracker, it is an amusing yet chilling look into the headspace of poor deranged Princess.

The acting is top-notch, with the everyday teenagers spectacularly natural even as they are damaged; Brent bears his torture with the appropriate amount of screaming; Princess is bonkers but had you feeling sorry for her at the start of the movie, and survived her many close-ups looking perfectly like a five-year-old who didn’t get a lollipop at the supermarket; her father, flitting between proud, overprotective, eager to please and Candyman-scale terrifying, will have you scared of meeting any potential in-laws for decades to come. The sound engineering was so convincing in parts I wanted to cover my ears and run out screaming; composer Ollie Olsen’s metal soundtrack was also a perfect backdrop to the piece.

In summary: Meets Expectations, because I’d read a whole pile of glowing reviews and expected it to be good. It really is. The only things I didn’t like about it were that Princess looks alarmingly like the girl who does my eyebrows, and that everyone who was playing high school kids were all the same age as me, though I was completely convinced they were seventeen. But that’s just wrinkle-induced jealousy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

jeff kinney, the ugly truth #5 diary of a wimpy kid

When the fifth Wimpy Kid book came out, I was a bad representation of its readership. The day is was released I skipped into work, made a beeline for the kids’ section, then asked my nearest co-worker: “Where’s The Ugly Truth?” “Not here yet,” said they, “but maybe on its way from the warehouse.” When the first delivery from the warehouse came, I almost leapt onto the trolley being pushed, yelling, “Is it in here? Is it in one of these boxes?” Then I tore them open, couldn’t find it, and sulked. HARD.

Finally I opened a box and there was a flash of purple. There they were, Jeff Kinney’s newest Wimpy Kid. And there was me, with hours left at work. I thought long and hard about leaving work early, or just hiding myself out in a quiet corner upstairs to read it, hoping no one would notice I was there. Instead I did the slightly more mature thing: I worked diligently the rest of the day, and shrieked about how excited I was to read the book to anyone who provoked me into conversation with something like “Hi, I’ll take this history book please.”

The Ugly Truth starts with our hero Greg about to start back at school but lamenting a fight with his best friend, Rowley. Greg is a little jerk to Rowley at the best of times, so you can’t help but feel glad Rowley has escaped—and has started hanging out with parent-hired mentor types to be a good influence on him. But Greg needs to find a new best friend, and no one’s quite up for the job. (For example: “Tyson is nice enough, and we like the same video games. But he pulls his pants all the way down when he uses the urinal, and I don’t know if I can ever get past that.”)

And Greg really needs a friend right now, because he is starting to grow
up. There’s boy/girl parties to be had, instructional videos to watch at school (“Rowley didn’t even make it through the whole video. He passed out at the two-minute mark when they said the word ‘perspiration’.”) and awkward conversations with his family to avoid. So Greg does his best to reclaim his childhood by wanting to go to the pediatric dentist (slogan: “We cater to cowards!”)and trying out for ice cream ads only small children are required for, while simultaneously trying hard to come across as mature to the cool kids and pretty girls at school. Basically, it’s hard hitting puberty, especially when your ex-best friend still thinks it’s contagious and avoids older kids because of it.

The Ugly Truth is just as hilarious as you’d expect, but without Rowley for Greg to torment, and a surprise lack of Greg’s father around to do embarrassing things, it maybe wasn’t as good as last book Dog Days. It’s still better than a lot of other books I’ve read—grown-up ones included—and the pictures (at least one on each page) remain a perfect accompaniment to the text. It’s a great read for kids who are overwhelmed by a lot of writing but still like the idea of books, and it’s such a laugh that you’d be hard pushed finding a kid t
hat doesn’t love it. The characters are all great—from Greg’s Gammie who quietly pranks her unloving family, to his uncle Gary whose fourth wedding Greg finds himself the “assistant” flower boy for. While there’s heaps of jokes that made me giggle uncontrollably, there also is a mildly discomfiting subplot involving a maid named Isabella who doesn’t do any work, too.

In summary: Meets Expectations, but almost Below, because I thought it would Exceed. Here, have a page from it to smile about goofily.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Only a few reviews ago I was raving about The Social Network being the best movie of the year. In retrospect, that was a ridiculous thing to say when there was a new Robert Rodriguez movie released within weeks. The Social Network is great, sure, but Machete takes that movie, shoots it in the face, straps a bomb to it, and then sets it on fire.

You know how in relationships, you always end up having the discussion about who the one famous person is you are allowed to have an affair with if the possibility ever arises? Chris usually picks Sarah Chalke, who plays Elliott in Scrubs, and while I’ve discussed my secret boyfriends in the past on this blog, I’m pretty confident that my number one affair-inducer is Robert Rodriguez. I am a fan of him in every shape and form. He is cute, wears a bandanna, directs, writes, edits, composes, and gets his family and friends involved in pretty much every movie that he makes. And they are some of the best movies I’ve seen. I don’t know what it is about his films that I love so much, but he absolutely hits every button with me. Embarrassing as it is, there got to a certain point during Machete where I was enjoying it so much—not laughing, just smiling—that I actually shed a tear. I did. I cried with excitement over a schlock action film. AND I WILL DO IT AGAIN.

Machete began as just a glimmer in Rodriguez
s eye years ago, then properly as a fake preview in Rodriguez’s ill-fated (but brilliant) Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. With Danny Trejo decked out in an array of machetes and knives, he shoots, stabs, gets shot, bonks pretty ladies and comes flying through the air out of an explosion on his motorbike. It received such love from the crowds that Rodriguez turned it into a feature length movie, and we are all the better as a world because of it.

Machete (Trejo) is an ex-Federale, working illegally as a day labourer in the Texas after a series of unpleasant events involving crossing drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal), watching his wife be killed, and being stabbed and left for dead in a fire. A lot is going on in Texas: Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) is launching a campaign targeted at getting rid of immigrants—he calls them “parasites”—while The Network, run by the elusive Shé, is doing what they can to help those crossing the border. When Machete is hired to assassinate McLaughlin, ostensibly to stop him from taking away the cheap labour Texas needs to survive, he finds himself part of an even bigger plot that goes all the way back to Mexico and to the man he hates the most.

From the opening scene with Machete crushing a police two-way radio in his bare hand, what follows is excessive amounts of gore, blood, and nudity—if you wanted to see Jessica Alba (as immigration official Sartana Rivera) in the shower, or Lindsay Lohan (as wayward daughter April) naked in a pool but for a huge blonde wig, this is the film for you. Michelle Rodriguez keeps her kit on but is amazing as Network leader Luz, saving the world from her taco van. The casting is always incredible in these films, and also usually share a few of the same actors: Cheech Marin returns as Machete’s padre brother, meaning Rodriguez can have his usual church shoot-em-up (“I absolve you of all your sins, now get the fuck out”); blue-eyed Jeff Fahey is Michael Booth, political aide and the conniving schemer behind the hit; Tom Savini—he of the glorious groin-gun in From Dusk Til Dawn—plays Osiris, hired by Booth to kill Machete. This movie also “introduces” Don Johnson as border vigilante Von Jackson. Seagal is utterly excellent and looks about eleven feet tall next to Trejo (who isn’t a tiny man), and as ominous, unmoving and square as a detention centre in his Kim Jong-Il outfit.

Things get blown up. Limbs and heads go flying. Everything is ridiculous and overdone. Sartana kills someone armed only with her red stiletto shoes. A particular self-induced death scene is the most calm and memorable you’ll ever see. Booth walks through a house shooting everyone there is without breaking a sweat. In my favourite scene by far, Machete jumps out of a hospital window using still-attached intestines as a rope. It’s absolutely silly, fun and cartoonish. While this blog is okay with differences of opinion, and if you hate schlock movies then that’s fine, but the reviews I’ve read that dislike this seem to be taking it far too seriously. I mean, honestly. At one point Sartana yells at Machete for not contacting or texting her and Machete says, monotone, “Machete don’t text.” It’s brilliant. Even despite its silliness, Sartana’s speech at the end as she rallies the immigrant workers of Texas, saying: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” made chills run up my spine. I think I am the Target Market here.

Rodriguez makes the most out of close-ups, not holding back from the actors’ flaws. His cinematography has always been wonderful, at the right place at the right time, and totally immersive. The sound is predictably wonderful, loud and chaotic and full of zest.

In summary: Exceeds Expectations, and is the greatest movie ever. Apparently, an even more violent director’s cut will be on the DVD release, leaving me searching wildly for a time machine that can shoot me into next January to buy it.

ETA: After extensive fawning over Wikipedia, I have discovered that Robert Rodriguez has broken up with Rose McGowan. Bye all, I’m off to Texas.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Some actors can pull off any film you stick them in. I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like Bruce Willis (even after Surrogates), Helen Mirren (who looks hotter in a red bikini than I ever will), Morgan Freeman (whose voice weakens knees) and John Malkovich (mostly evil, always cool). Make the four of them ex-CIA agents, trying to keep themselves alive after a case from their past comes to light, and you get action-packed quality that could boast the stupidest script ever and you’d still watch it. Luckily, it’s not the stupidest script ever either.

Adapted from Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s comic, Red opens with retired agent Frank Moses (Willis) waking up and moving around the house to the kind of jaunty soundtrack that opens an indie character piece. He gets on the phone to Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), who deals with his pension cheques and who shares with Frank a shy, fledgling phone-relationship. Then, in one incredibly destructive scene—why use a wrecking ball to destroy a house when enough people with machine guns could do the same?—Frank is forced to escape, get help, and assist the girl he has a crush on—and who he has been endangering just by talking to her.

Moses rustles up old friends and foe, from nursing-home-bound rascal Joe Matheson (Freeman) to the bonkers Marvin Boggs (Malkovich), living alone on an island, hiding in trees and paranoid only in the sense that occasionally he is wrong that people are out to get him. Add to the mix the elegant Victoria (Mirren) and Russian agent Ivan (Manhunter’s Lector-playing Brian Cox, who has amusingly been in a previous movie called Red), and you have one of the most elderly death squads since the other day when I went to see The Expendables. Except that instead of oversized biceps and hilarious hair, it was more oversized talent and hilarious jokes. Well, corny jokes.

The story itself was not quite as twisty as expected, being a fairly straight action movie with all the requisite one-liners and romance. The audience around laughed so hard and loud at the most obvious jokes (and a lot were signposted) that I was beginning to wonder if I’d stumbled into an audience of people that had never actually seen a film before, and then I thought I was a bit of a monster for analysing why a crowd would laugh at a joke. If this movie had been filmed with up-and-coming actors, it would have barely made it to theatre—not to say it’s terrible plot-wise, but really, this is a movie to see for the acting alone.

Bruce Willis plays exactly what you imagine of him—a tough guy, but a bit old (though he doesn’t really look it) and gone all soft for Parker’s Sarah, who he kidnaps to save her. Parker does a wonderful job of actually doing her best to escape from a guy she had previously been into but who now appears to be a criminal, but then starts to enjoy the ride he’s taken her on—though it never seems contrived (well, in an entirely contrived movie, but she still does a convincing job of it.) Malkovich is only a year or two older than Willis, but with a proper amount of crazy white hair he looks sufficiently old and batshit, and is absolute fun as Boggs, jumpy and watchful and who was the subject of LSD experiments in his past. Morgan Freeman doesn’t get enough time on screen, but as a sneakily dignified gent, fools everyone. Much has been said of Helen Mirren shooting people with a machine gun and how awesome that is, and let me tell you internets, it is. She was the Queen of England, and now she’s shooting CIA agents and you’re cheering her on. On the youth front, Karl Urban, current CIA agent and the man who doesn’t have the full story but is trying to stop Frank from killing everyone, works nicely from a fairly bland beginning to a much more emotive ending, though he does get the shit kicked out of him at one point but then appears the next day with barely a scratch on his previously swollen and bloody face. His motivations are also tricky to decipher, but oh, who cares. It’s an action comedy. And he’s pretty cute.

In summary: Meets Expectations. Predictable and silly, but great fun.

Friday, November 5, 2010

the social network

Hype! I hate it. It’s all up in your media, telling you something’s going to be the next big thing or a godawful disaster, and then causing nothing to ever be as awesome/terrible as you expect. But then sometimes hype is actually right. I guess it’s just statistically inaccurate to assume they would always be wrong.

In the case of the new David Fincher movie, The Social Network, the hype is right. This movie is killer. It’s great. It rocks. It’s everything you could want in a movie. It is beautiful and entertaining and it is interesting and it should win all of the awards for available, even Best Musical because there was music playing in the background sometimes. I loved it. I have lost my brain a bit about it—even when I think about its failings I am like one of those people who defends their friend who is a jerk. “It’s just how they are,” they say, and you hate them. I am like that about The Social Network. Blinded by how cool it is. Just like Sean Parker does to Mark Zuckerberg—yes, maybe this is an indication I should get to the plot.

Based on Ben Mezrich
s book The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network is the fictionalised but vaguely true account of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), founder of obscure website facebook and the world’s youngest billionaire (billionaire! I’m excited to be a thousandaire half the time.) The film opens with Harvard computer student Mark and girlfriend Erica in a bar, getting into a fight as Mark is revealed to be an arrogant and basically unbearable person to be around. Erica leaves him, and he takes out his anger by creating a website called FaceMash, where pictures of women from the university are shown side by side with the ability to vote on who is “hotter”. This crashes the Harvard server, lands Zuckerberg in trouble with the school, and brings him to the attention of three people: all-American identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, as both) and their business pal Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). These fine folks are looking to create a social networking site for the university, and they recruit Zuckerberg to write their code. Instead, he takes their idea and creates facebook, landing him popularity, fame, and ridiculous amounts of money—and leaving the “Winklevii” and Narendra with their idea plundered. As Zuckerberg chases his dream of getting facebook to the masses, he starts to lose his own friends, namely best pal Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose eventual lawsuit—along with the Winklevoss/Narendra case—plays out in the background to the rise and rise of facebook itself.

The acting is top notch. Jesse Eisenberg was awkward and loveable in Zombieland, and is awkward and a pain in the ass in this, making Mark the kind of arrogant know-it-all with jealousy issues that you can hate but understand on a human level. There is an amazing turn by Armie Hammer as both Winklevoss twins: blonde, sculpted, rowing champions, entitled and utterly enjoyable to watch, especially as they are shot down by the university dean for bringing their problems to his attention. Eduardo is the one good guy in a big pile of jackasses, and he was represented endearingly by Andrew Garfield, who is soon to don the Spider-man suit and release us all from the curse that was the other Spider-man movies. (Insert theatrical gagging here.) Another character of note is Sean Parker, the brains behind Napster, who gloms onto Zuckerberg, offers advice and becomes a business partner, coming across as a man of much blustery charm, little in the way of morals and basically as the villain of the piece. He is played with tight blonde curls by my nemesis Justin Timberlake (rant to follow).

The music, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is incredible, from tender and moving to go get ’em inspirational-moment beats to brain-knocking party tunes. The cinematography is amazing, with every shot tight and perfect, and some—like the twins’ regatta in England—shot in such a way that the scenery and the race looked like miniatures, perhaps (and we all know I rarely go in for symbolism here) to illustrate how small they have become in the scheme of the plan, or how small-minded they are as they make fun of Prince Albert—who they have just met, as you do. David Fincher continues to be the kind of director that gets people flapping their arms about when they hear that he
s bringing a new film out. Well, me, anyway.

Women are not fabulously portrayed in this film, apart from the five or so minutes we spend with the strong and admirable Erica (Rooney Mara, who will be Lisbeth Salander in the American remakes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc, and who I am reserving judgement on until I see that trilogy.) Women are shipped in by bus to a frat party where they dance on tables and kiss each other madly; they get high in the lounge of the house Eduardo helps pay for as tech boys frantically write code in other rooms; they snort cocaine off each other’s bellies; they fuck the famous; they are batshit crazy girlfriends who set things on fire; they are beautiful but never part of a living, breathing plotline. I assume this is more a pointed look at the college boy view of women, but it still feels a little gross. Women: only here to party, or break Mark’s heart. We get the instructions for those two tasks when we are born.

Also well-portrayed but hard to swallow is the whole Ivy League classism and fraternity/finals club wankery, where which club you belong to can change your entire life due to knowing the right people, but which can often only be achieved by knowing the right people (or having enough money) in the first place. Australia isn’t immune to classism, but with the universities not having frat houses or as many boys wandering around with sweaters tied around their shoulders, it’s always something that’s come across as almost comical and ridiculous. People actually act like that? What dicks. But that’s why America is such enjoyable fodder in films like these, where they milk it for all its worth, as Eduardo is picked for a finals club and Zuckerberg spitefully says it’s only because they’re filling their minority quota. Not only that, but everyone in the film appears to be from money, apart from Zuckerberg, who appears to be from outer space as his family is never mentioned and he is really weird.

Despite the bad attitude towards women and the nauseating sense of entitlement suffered by everyone involved, I would give this five stars or ten out of ten but for one thing. Justin Timberlake. I don’t even know what he’s like as an actor, though I do know he plays the person who is basically the villain of the piece. I just hate him so, so much. It’s not his awful music, or his flat head, or his celebrity relationships. It’s the fact that he not only thought that he brought sexy back, but that it ever went away to begin with, and that emulating Michael Jackson was the way to reintroduce sexy to society. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE. YOU ARE WRONG. I cannot see past my emotions here. Therefore:

In summary: Exceeds Expectations, in the way that rockets exceed the local school zone speed limit. But only 9.5/10 until you strap Justin Timberlake to one of those rockets.

Monday, November 1, 2010

tripod vs the dragon

I am sceptical of musical theatre in any form. I think my feelings are somewhere along the lines of: if you can sing it, why don’t you just say it, and if you think your singing’s so good, why don’t you just join a band? I’ve been to a few musicals, and sure, some of them have been beautiful, elaborate productions, funny or moving, so on and so forth. But once you’ve heard the chorus of a song, where they sing the point of the scene (“Lisa it’s your birthday”, and other much more high-class examples) then I get the point. You don’t have to sing it again. But you will, because it’s musical theatre, and it’s there to repeat the same line until you throw up your hands and say, “Fine, I get it. It’s Lisa’s birthday. I understand.”

Musical comedy is a little trickier to judge. I like to laugh. (A strange quirk, I know, but there you are—one of my most embarrassing and intimate secrets revealed to all.) But I don’t like musicals. A quandary! But when the suggestion came up from lovely co-worker D to accompany her to see Tripod’s new show Tripod vs the Dragon, on the day it was getting filmed for DVD, I said a firm hell yes. Because comedy is funny, and I’d never actually seen a full Tripod show—only skits on those epic musical all-nighters they show on TV when the comedy festivals come out. Now was the time to branch out, so I practised my ridiculous laugh so that I could be heard clearly when I purchased the DVD later. But that was only 76% of my reasoning to go.

Tripod vs the Dragon is the musical tale of a game of Dungeons and Dragons, with our three Tripod heroes, Scod (Scott Edgar), Yon (Simon Hall) and Gatesy (Steven Gates), chancing upon a map that has a mysterious missing area. They decide to explore, but will they listen to warnings about a dragon in the area? Of course not, because it’s called Tripod vs the Dragon. This differs from other Tripod performances by the addition of jazz songstress Elana Stone, who really should have caused the renaming of the troupe to Quadpod, as she was quite a useful (and vocally as well as visually gorgeous) member of the group. As game master and an important part of the story, she stole the heart of poor goofy Gatesy, and the audience too.

It was hilarious. Some jokes made me feel deep, lasting regret that I had not gone to the bathroom before the show. Tripod was pleasantly sweary, and they bang out a good tune. They harmonise beautifully, and are clearly talented musicians. They’ve got fantastic chemistry and have clearly been honing the skill of being scathing to each other for years. Elana had great comedic timing, and fit in just fine. Some of the story was told through shadow puppetry, purposefully simplistic and thus fantastic, and those were my favourite parts. What can I say? I love a good cardboard cut-out.

It didn’t really alter my opinion of musicals being one of my least favourite types of comedy, but it’s definitely my favourite kind of musical theatre. It was fun and funny, I had a blast, and the fact that they were filming a DVD means that this could be my big break into the film industry. Well, maybe if we hadn’t been in the second row from the back. The actual DVD recording aspect was quite entertaining, with them explaining to us what was going on, cameras all over the place, and an understandable blanket ban on toilet breaks during the show. When they had to repeat a skit at the end to make sure the sound was right, it was like we were old pals and they were asking us a favour. They also left the theatre just after everyone else and will happily stand around and chat. Because they’re cool.

In summary: Meets Expectations. I thought they’d be funny, and they were; I thought the songs might occasionally be repetitive, and they were. But it’s okay; it’s still a million times better than listening to the Top 40. (I say this, but as I seem to be only listening to the new albums at work, I don’t really know. For all I know Justin Bieber and his ilk might actually be quite talented.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010


So it occurred to me that even though I prattle on here on a vaguely regular basis, there are actually more things that I read, watch and hear that I don’t write up into a smartassy 1000-word essay. Sometimes it’s because they’re older things and you all know about them (“just watched some movie called The Blues Brothers and turns out it’s pretty cool”) or because I go to write a blog post and end up staring vacantly at the screen unable to process my feelings towards whatever I’ve read (“The newest The most recent The author of AUGH I HATE BOOKS”). But I feel I could write about them in less than 140 characters, and this will also give me the opportunity to spread some salacious bookstore gossip, and tweet about exciting things like the weather as well. (“Melbourne has erratic weather? Who knew?”)

So if you would like to, please follow me at readwatchtweet (someone had already nicked readwatchlisten, dammit) as if I get some followers I might actually tweet some stuff, unlike my last Twitter account which has had two tweets in the past nine months, both about male nudity in the media. (I maintain it’s important, but I should try and have some other opinions too.)

Nails alas not mine, but found here. I also promise there won’t be as many brackets on Twitter, mostly because they have character limits. (Bah.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

carrie fisher, wishful drinking

So, for some people, Carrie Fisher is known only as one thing: Princess Leia from Star Wars. Now, don’t be embarrassed: I only also knew her as the batshit ex-fiancée from The Blues Brothers and the author of a book (Surrender the Pink) I once bought second-hand because the first paragraph was so great but forgot to actually read and then sold at a market stall last month (stupid past self.) Luckily for those of us with little knowledge of Fisher’s wider work (script doctor, actress-in-other-flicks, screenwriter, mother, comedian, Pez dispenser) she knows this all too well and doesn’t mind catering to those of us with a narrow view of the most famous woman to ever be chained half-naked to a giant earthworm. In her one-woman stage show, Wishful Drinking, she tells the audience everything they wanted to know—and, of course, much more than they wanted to know, too. Seriously, when she said the word “pussy” I felt the collective blush of the entire audience.

Carrie Fisher is funny. Hilarious. Hysterical. She has an excellent turn of phrase, she quips like it’s an Olympic sport, and charmed the pants off everyone in the Athenaeum Theatre. And, after she opens the show singing on the stage (set like a comfortable living room dotted with R2D2 plush toys, photographs, quirky decorations and a giant projector screen) she flings glitter all over the audience and then declares we’re going back to 1956, when she was born to two of Hollywood’s sweethearts: singer Eddie Fisher (who passed away just a month ago, and was renowned for “Oh My Papa”, or, in her own favourite lyrical mashup, “Oh My Faux Pas”) and actress Debbie Reynolds (on her mother’s beauty: “She looked like a Christmas morning.”) To explain the dramatic tentacles of Hollywood relationships after her parents’ divorce, a blackboard drops from the ceiling with a complicated bunch of pictures that try to decipher if Carrie’s own daughter, Billie, is in any way related to her new flame, who happens to be Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson. Eddie Fisher did marry Ms. Taylor, briefly, but after much laughter and pointing at the board with a stick, she establishes that they are related only “by scandal!” Hollywood really is just as deliciously trashy as you’d imagine, and though it must have hurt Carrie and her brother Todd as children to watch the train wrecks that were marriage after marriage of their parents, she does now find it all funny and made it seem like the height of farce for her audience.

There is so much more to Carrie than her parents’ scandals and even more than Star Wars (gasp, I know!) She talks about celebrity, how her likeness is owned by one George Lucas, her relationships, and, of course, her bipolar diagnosis and addictions. She didn’t shy away from any topics, and her discussion of her mental state was frank and admirable, and her explanation of what bipolar is for her led to quite a moving time in the show as everyone went utterly quiet and was swept up in her heartbreaking description towards the end of the show, including how electroconvulsive therapy affects her memory.

And what memories she has, and she will floor you with her perspective and devastating one-liners. Her marriage to Paul Simon (who, when I was four, wrote the first song I ever loved, “You Can Call Me Al”) started off with them feeling like they were the only two people who understood each other but at the end, “things were getting worse faster than we could lower our standards.” That relationship was followed by one with Bryan Lourd, with whom she had her daughter “[who was] dragged out of me like I was a burning building”, and who also accused her of turning him gay due to her use of codeine. Then there was her clothes in Star Wars—on donning the white dress for the set, George told her she couldn’t wear a bra. When Carrie asked why, George replied: “There’s no underwear in space.” And her parents, from her widow-stealing father to her mother, who suggested Carrie carry Debbie’s new husband’s baby so that it would have “great eyes”. All this, interjected with political jokes and constant references to her mental state—it’s really a completely wonderful show. Carrie is charming, devastating, and honest, and if you’re in her line of sight, you might get dragged on stage, kissed on the cheek, and made to hit on the cement life-sized sex doll of Princess Leia. (And before you ask, no, I wasn’t, we were seated upstairs.)

In summary: Exceeds Expectations—we scored some very lucky free passes and I hadn’t really known what to expect, but it was a blast. There’s an intermission, so you’ll have the opportunity to go and cash in some shares to afford a bottle of water and a packet of potato chips if you need half-time sustenance.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

isbells, s/t

There was a time when I thought of of folk music as the favourite only of hippies and horribly optimistic people, and scowled and listened to the tough hardcore music I loved, like Crowded House. Now, I pat my past self on the head patronisingly for thinking like that, and admit bravely that most of the new music I’ve bought has been folk. It puts me in this lovely springtime mood, thinking of long drives to the beach and sepia-toned picnics in the park (full disclosure: I’ve had maybe one park-based picnic in the past six years.) I love folk. The Fleet Foxes and their ethics and beards almost completely took over my life. Iron and Wine as well. (Stick a beard on a man and give him a guitar and watch me swoon. Alas Chris prefers to be clean-shaven, though he does happily bash about on his guitar making up songs about how the cat smells terrible or how we stay up late writing songs about staying up late when we should be getting a sensible night’s sleep.)

One of my lovely co-workers pushed me in the direction of Isbells, saying that they were going to be the new work favourite. (Past favourites, played until we were sick of them, include: The Morning Benders, Broken Bells, Mountain Man, Laura Marling.) And you know what, they are. Just as tender and beautiful as Fleet Foxes, and similar in a way, it’s an album that takes a few voices, two guitars, and creates something that lights up your house and reminds you, like folk does best, of all the little things in life that are so important. A lot of folk seems to put me in this strange clucky mood, all its talk of family life—Feist’s Mushaboom being an example that always gets me sighing—and this album is no different, like with track Maybe’s lines:

I don’t know who you are/you don’t know who I am/maybe you will be mine/and we’ll have a beautiful child/a house and a dog and travel a lot/but the moment’s gone so maybe not

Couple that with a wistful tune and I get all misty-eyed in regards to children. Sometimes I think that if it wasn’t for sappy family songs like Animal Collective’s My Girls I wouldn’t even want to have kids and would continue to be happy living my self-involved life of vanilla cake and ten-hour stretches on the couch reading nonsense on the internet, single-handedly saving the world from overpopulation.

Isbells’ self-titled album is a gorgeous little collection of tunes both melancholy and upbeat, moving and fun. I say “little” because it’s currently at the lovely EP-type price of $14.95, though at ten tracks and forty minutes long it outruns (and outmusics) a lot of other albums I’ve paid more for.

Because I always find something to complain about, I’ll say two things here: that it is quite similar to other folksy music out there, and that these lyrics from first song As Long As It Takes would have been heard by my past self and mocked roundly:

What have you done/To the earth we all love/where do we go from here/who’s responsible/look at the mirror on the wall/what do I tell my child/its future’s gone for life


In summary: Meets Expectations, which, because I share many musical tastes with the person who recommended the album to me, were high.

Monday, October 18, 2010

steve holden, somebody to love

On paper, Somebody to Love was My Kind of Book. I love reading about relationships and reality, about the everyday, but with something a little different to lift it. I loved The Lonely Polygamist because it was about relationships—one man and his four wives, which, of course, is a normal life for some people. And Somebody to Love was about a transsexual mortician in Tasmania; as I’m quietly a bit morbid, the mortician aspect appealed to me, as did the fact that I’d be reading about sex and gender issues that a lot of us could stand to know more about. And when I got my hands on a copy, I swooned at the cover: it’s a beautiful-looking book.

Our heroine, the mortician, is in her family’s funeral home, preparing three bodies for burial: the Esterhazen girl, the Kremmer boy, and Mr Phillips, a man who entrances her even in death. As she readies these cadavers for their final rest, she reflects on the life she’s led. From the family that taught her the trade to her journey to changing her body to reflect how she is, every cut and touch of makeup is the product of the years before her.

It really is an exercise in language. And like James Joyce’s similarly verbose Ulysses, it’s not really my bag. It’s a bit hypocritical for me to say so when the fiction I write is just as tangential and plotless as they come, which means I count a lot on my use of language, but I am possibly biased and clearly see myself as some kind of Fabulous Exception to the Rule. The mortician thinks in the kind of distinguished language that, if conversing in real life, would immediately put me on edge and feel I was being condescended to. One does not use the word “I” if “one” can be used to refer to oneself instead; indeed, the word indeed turns up at the start of a sentence so often I considered getting out a highlighter and counting, except I was worried my highlighter would run out of neon. Sure, the main character doesn’t have to be someone immediately likeable to be an interesting person to follow
—like in A Confederacy of Duncesbut in this case, I found it far too frustrating. She is an unreliable narrator—seemingly paranoid of other people’s reactions to her, but without supplying enough information to know if she has a basis for it or not. Like so:

‘I see,’ she said, turning quickly, her eyes glinting, I believe, with malice. Mrs K, it is a known fact, is a vicious woman, sudden to anger, ready to wound, and in that moment she meant, undoubtedly, ‘I have your measure, I will punish you for this.’

(I do, however, feel I have met a kindred spirit in someone who like the comma as much as I do.)

In some cases, things were not explained enough; other subjects were banged on about repeatedly. It’s also something I wouldn’t recommend for anyone with a prudish constitution (necrophilia by page two—a new record!) and if you’ve recently experienced a bereavement, the graphic explanations will not make you feel better, though the care that the mortician puts into it is at least mildly comforting.

It is, in an understated but visceral way, one of the most violent and dark books I have read. Beauty is stripped to dark, and everyone within the book’s pages has their secrets—the funeral industry included. Some of the violence will happen with such smoothness, clouded by gorgeous words, that you will barely notice it happening. It has some beautiful moments of realised horror, delicately atmospheric and engaging. Every word, item and action is in its place. Some turns of phrase struck me as a bit odd, like the following:

There is, at the top end of the cemetery, a fence of trees laced with a passionfruit vine. It was a most welcome place to shelter on account of the warm afternoon, curtained by the fringe of fruit that hung grimly like testicles, hard and green, against the sunburned iron heat.

Now I understand her own male genitals were a source of concern for her, but testicles are not hard and green. If so, see your doctor. Just some advice from your friendly neighbourhood bookseller.

Frankly, the elegant language made it a difficult undertaking, and I had to reread sentences to try and understand what was happening; sometimes I just gave up and moved on. The plot jumped back and forth in time and often I had no idea where I was or at what point in the chronology of the story. It was kind of like when you’re stuck on a train next to the window, surrounded by a stack of third-year uni students who are loudly retelling the story of the Nihilist Party they threw on the weekend
and trying their best to impress each other with their Word-of-the-Day-Calendar knowledge, but are all slightly too drunk to remember the order of events clearly.

There are a lot of books out there that have given me a similar reaction that have gone on to win ridiculously well-paying prizes and the accolades of millions. I’m the first to admit that just because I didn’t like something it doesn’t mean it’s not worthy, or that it won’t make your Top Ten Desert Island Reads. But this is not in mine.

In summary: Below Expectations. The past two books I’ve read by Tasmanian authors have been linguistically challenging for me (the other being Anna Dusk’s Inhuman) and I am now wary of crossing Bass Strait in case all the signs are in fancytalk or covered in werewolf blood.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Remember how you always secretly thought about how cool it would be if you could get a Ryan Reynolds in a box? How you could keep him in the cupboard and bring him out for, uh, special occasions? Well, think again. It turns out that Ryan Reynolds in a box is not sexy and mischievous at all, but in fact wrong and dirty and kind of depressing. And I know this for a fact because I have seen Buried.

Buried is a movie about a man in a coffin. The entire movie is set in this coffin. It’s like when that movie Phone Booth came out, and everyone wondered if it was possible to sustain a whole film with just Colin Firth in a phone booth, but then they showed things happening outside and there was a cast of hundreds around his phone booth, including Radha Mitchell and Katie Holmes. In Buried, it’s a man in a coffin, buried underground. It is reminiscent of the scene in Kill Bill 2 where Uma Thurman is buried underground, except if you didn’t have any training by a frustrating Pai Mei and were therefore just stuck in a box without the ability to beat your way out of it with your mighty Uma Thurman knuckles. In Buried, you will not see any other faces. And, for a not insignificant amount of time as the movie starts, there’s no light, just some breathing. It got to the point where someone in the audience sighed dramatically and said, “Well, that was a good movie” and we all laughed and looked around awkwardly waiting for something to happen. Which, after a few sharp intakes of breath and the fumbling for a lighter, it does, and then things start to get interesting.

It takes a while for things to get clear, for both us and for Ryan Reynolds’ Paul Conroy. Why is he in a box in the ground? Who put him there? Where in the world is he? Can he be helped? While Ryan Reynolds is alarmingly attractive, is he interesting enough to hold an entire movie with few props and not much in the way of movement? I will only answer the last question for you, because spoilers are for jerks. Yes, he is, and the movie is good. But it’s not excellent. Because dramatic tension, great acting and the realism of the situation doesn’t stop one thing: watching someone in a box for two hours is still kind of boring. Because if something else isn’t immediately happening, there’s nothing new to look at. Just the box. And Ryan Reynolds.

But things do happen to Paul Conroy. We do hear him talk, and panic, all of his reactions completely realistic and covering all bases that a panicked person in a box would do. He does get a certain visitor, one that caused the poor man in the row behind me (who had been doing some manly swearing while the previews were on) to start moaning in horror to the point where I worried he would be sick on my hair. It is also a politically interesting film, though a little bit of a downer on that front. The things that can happen in a coffin in two hours are pretty high in number, depending on what you have in there with you. The movie relies entirely on this very small set—we don’t have any convenient visual flashbacks to Conroy’s past. The cinematography—which feels like an enormous word for what was done here—is amazing, considering the small area the film was made in. It’s a very claustrophobic feeling, and the camera will look through holes in the dirt or the wood towards him occasionally, but you are always very aware of the restrictions and frankly, being able to make such a small scope of film as interesting as it was is an incredible feat.

I found with Buried that I actually enjoyed it more once it was over than I actually did at the time. I occasionally got bored with it, and cranky at the complete and utter morons Paul deals with at a couple of key moments. It got to a point where I wondered why every human being was such a stupid jerk and what was achieved by making everyone so awful, apart from to make me feel even more depressed than I already was. Once I was removed from the cinematic experience, I could think about the movie and appreciate it; but in all honesty, at the time, I found it a bit tedious. The post-cinematic experience is much better.

Disregarding the fact I know nothing about what it’s really like to be buried, I had one small gripe with what he could hear at one point, and what he was unable to hear at a vital point at the end, which should have been obvious. I don’t want to say much more than that, but it’s a small bit of continuity in a film that otherwise felt very honest. I am also full of doubt that he couldn’t escape; after all, Buffy the Vampire Slayer dug herself out of a grave, and vampires themselves do it all the time. Surely it can’t be that hard.

In summary: Meets Expectations, which were: Ryan Reynolds in a box.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

anh do, the happiest refugee

The world is full of great people. Sometimes when I watch the news I forget that, and when I’ve had a bad day with customers at work I think that everyone is out to be a bully. And then sometimes you meet someone like Anh Do, and they beam at you, shake your hand with enthusiasm and it’s all you can do not to hug them just because they’re ace. And then sometimes they write books, and their general good cheer falls off the pages and into your lap, and that’s why The Happiest Refugee is a great book and everyone should own it.

You may recognise Anh Do, Australian comedian extraordinai
re, either from his standup or from stints on shows like Thank God You’re Here. He’s always there with a smile and ready to make you laugh. It’s basically impossible to keep a straight face around this man. With the release of his autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, he will make you laugh—but I found it wasn’t the continually hysterical book I was expecting. Not because Anh isn’t funny—he is—but because his life hasn’t necessarily always been the most wonderful.

At age two and a half, Anh travelled from Vietnam as a refugee with much of his extended family in an overcrowded boat. They were attacked by pirates—twice—and barely survived the trip that left them in Malaysia. When they were eventually sent to Australia, life remained difficult as Anh’s parents struggled with limited resources in every way but one—family. The strength of The Happiest Refugee for me lay in the fact that Anh’s story is such a universal and inspirational one, where determination and love was how this boy who almost died in the sea became so completely awesome.

Anh has this wonderful casual writing style that kind of makes you feel like you’re having a chat with a pal rather than reading a book. Without trying to sound insulting, it’s a simple and straightforward read, but that is also part of what makes it so entertaining. It’s relaxed and friendly. You probably by now get the hint that it’s cruisy and I liked it. Moving on.

There’s a lot to be heartbroken about in here. When Anh’s aunt is almost taken, naked and horrified, by the pirates. When his uncle’s dead body is found by the water in Vietnam. When his parents, such a strong and loving influence, split apart as his father leaves, and his mother has to struggle to raise her family on her own. When he finall
y is able to contact his father again, years later, only to find he is seriously unwell.

But within all this is such hope and wonder, and Anh’s family so wonderful and supportive, that it’s the kind of book that makes you want to go out and have a thousand kids because they’ll all end up as great as Anh and his siblings. Right? Right. Even his father, not a great example all the time, has his own heroism: saving his wife’s brothers from a concentration camp by borrowing a communist officer’s uniform and boldly walking into the camp and declaring that he needed to take those two men with him. It’s a moving story, and knowing the horrors of the life he led gives some insight into how Anh
’s father may have reached a point of anguish where he thought there was nothing to do but leave. The sacrifices that Anhs parents make for their families is truly something to behold.

One thing I loved about this was just how familiar the existence of the family was once they hit Australian shores. There was embarrassment—Anh’s brother Khoa had been given lovely lacy girl’s clothes by St Vincent de Paul’s kindly nuns—and there was the everyday life they led. From watching MacGyver, to keeping budgies (we had an aviary in our backyard), to wearing knockoff runners to school (I had a kid crawl under the table and yell out to the class that I was wearing Traxx shoes from Target instead of th
e pump-up Nikes everyone else was), it was great to just read about the early life of what was really many Australian kids and be reminded of my own. As an adult, Anh was a fantastic entrepreneur, coming up with countless fantastic moneymaking ideas, not least the idea of studying law. And just as he was applying for numerous, well-paying, fabulously corporate jobs, he had a better idea: to become a comedian. And thus we have Anh today, making us laugh on television and writing great books. But I’m sure he would have been a great lawyer. I can tell because I have proof that he is a very smart man.

Takes one to know one, I guess.

In summary: Exceeds Expectations. I’m going to recommend the hell out of this for Christmas presents, because it’s a hard book not to like.