Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Chaining the Lady by Piers Anthony

Revisiting Chaining the Lady means, to me, going back to a book that gave me lots of fond memories back when I read it as a teenager that just made it into the two digit age realm. I didn’t remember much, but I did remember a fascinating tale of science fiction and sex. Mostly, I remembered sex.
Which goes to show how times have changed, because - reading the same book today - I could not avoid noting how little in the way of explicitly depicted sex there is in the book and how most of the sexual connotations come through the author’s extensive use of the word “mammaries” throughout the book.
Anyway. Personal background aside, 1978’s Chaining the Lady is a sequel of Cluster, although it can be read independently with little harm. What probably sets it apart from numerous other aspirants is the very well detailed universe its story takes place in: a universe in which the Andromeda galaxy is trying to take over the Milky Way’s resources, but in which interstellar travel is way too expensive for conventional occupation to take place. Instead, Andromeda tries to achieve its nasty goal by transferring the ‘spirits’ of its people to key positions in our galaxy, a feat that is possible for entities with very strong ‘spirits’. Their plan’s weak spot, however, lies in the fact the strongest ‘spirited’ entity in either galaxy is a Milky Way barren, non human, old female named Melody. She has the potential to use her might to thwart the Andromedean threat, the question is whether she is up to it.
The bulk of the story takes place inside a fleet of Milky Way spaceships fighting amongst itself as Andromeda takes control of the ships. Author Piers Anthony depicts a very complicated set of different ships, each depicting the attributes of the species that created them, as they fight one another. The level of imaginative detail is quite impressive.
Science fiction themes aside, the main themes of Chaining the Lady revolve more closely to what the title might suggest. Our female hero finds herself repeatedly chained by males, both figuratively and explicitly; similarly, Andromeda’s Greek mythology character is also chained. Thus the book deconstructs, if you will, the war between the sexes as seen through the eyes of our female protagonist.
Slightly dampening everything else that’s going for it is a mystic affection to Tarot cards, but us intelligent readers can easily dismiss it as mere fantasy in an otherwise fantastic tale.
Overall:
Sure, Chaining the Lady feels a tad outdated when it comes to its depiction of the feminine in our age of #MeToo. But it still tells a nice and very detailed tale, and I am a sucker for it due to pure nostalgia.
3.5 out of 5 crab nebulas.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Death of Stalin

If you know your Soviet Union history, you will know Stalin was a pretty ruthless guy on the Hitler scale. The guy really tried to compete with Hitler when it came to killing and putting people of his own country into exile (he didn't mince words with other countries, either - ask Poland). Such was the horror of living under his regime that the silliest things in ordinary life were determined by the expected whim of the leader.
Into such a reality steps The Death of Stalin, a political satire kind of a movie that tries to demonstrate to us what the USSR was like on the day Stalin died. As I’m sure you are aware of, Stalin didn’t outright die back in 1953 when he died; he first suffered from a stroke, then - a few days later - he seemed to come back to life, and then he died. Throughout that period and afterwards, there was much confusion as no one dared assume Stalin’s place for fear of what might happen once he recovers while, at the same time, those powerful enough to be there struggled to be the one that will replace him when he dies.
The Death of Stalin takes some liberties with historical events, mainly through compressing the timeline into a period of days rather than the months it actually took till the matter of Stalin’s replacement was determined (hint: Khrushchev led the USSR through the Bay of Pigs incident and the Cuban crisis). However, it is very loyal to the truth, both in its depiction of the main characters and their actions at the time, as well as in its depiction of related events of that period (e.g., a concert that had to rerun when Stalin asked for a recording after the original session wasn’t recorded; or mass executions that came to an abrupt halt as the news of the leader’s death arrived, with whether one lived or died determined by when the news had arrived).
It’s all very striking given two things. Firstly, the knowledge that the USSR was a nuclear power at the time, yet with all its might it still came to a grinding, pathetic, halt. And secondly, the realisation that our political establishments in our modern era are actually not that different to Stalin's: witness Brexit, Trump, or just the recent spill attempt at the Liberal Party in which Prime Minister Turnbull survived a coup attempt from Peter Dutton. Can us Westerners truly boast to be much better than The Death of Stalin? I don’t think so.
I would do The Death of Stalin’s cast great injustice if I wasn’t to mention the performances on display. In our movie, Russian-ness is portrayed through a strong British accent; the stronger the accent, the tougher the person perceived himself to be. Quickly going over my favourites, I will mention Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, Jason Isaacs as WW2 hero General Zhukov (my personal pick), Michael Palin as Molotov (ok, his performance was nothing special, but a Python is a Python), Rupert Friend as Stalin’s crazy son, and last - but not least - Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the notorious leader of the secret police and our baddie for the duration of the film.
Overall:
There is a lot to learn from history, and The Death of Stalin proves the point unequivocally. It may not be the world’s most exciting movie, but it is a smart movie full to the brim with sarcasm, realism, and fine acting.
3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Ali’s Wedding

Superficially speaking, Ali’s Wedding is a Melbourne based comedy about the lacklustre love life of a young Muslim. And as such comedies go, it is pretty good and often quite funny. However, I will argue Ali’s Wedding represents much more than a comedy: it is a movie about Muslims, who live in a country that is often looking at them rather negatively, that actively try to reach out to the majority and tell them: look, this is what we are; look, we are trying to lead a normal life; look, we are all quite alike.
I am writing this during a week in which an Australian senator spoke aloud, in a parliament session, stating all sorts of negativities about Muslims and Muslim immigration. I will not give him the benefit of repeating those here, but I will point at the icing on the cake: explicit usage of the term “final solution”.
It makes me cringe to think what ordinary Australian Muslims think after such blatant demonstrations of Australian racism. Racism is rife in Australia, as any immigrant of non Anglo origins will tell you using numerous examples from day to day life. However, it is only in recent times that the ultra racists, those who are not ashamed of their racism, have allowed themselves to speak out loud. They know they will no longer pay a price for their racism. They know our society has changed to the point of them earning brownie points through being openly racist. And now we got to the point where parliament reflects the fact.
In the face of such hostility, the Muslim community reaching out with Ali’s Wedding represents, in my mind, the best possible answer.

So let’s get to the movie at hand, shall we?
The basic plot is simple. Ali, a Muslim living in Melbourne, is what you and I will call an ordinary guy living an ordinary life. Like many people growing in immigrants’ families, his has high expectations of him; they’d like him to be a doctor. Alas, Ali is no doctor material, but he feels obliged to play his intended role.
When a fellow Muslim community guy of a similar background announces his high score at the medical school (Melbourne Uni) entry exam, Ali fabricates his retaliation by faking his own score. That, in turn, only sets the bar of expectations higher, with everything that one can imagine coming out as a result of this lie.
That’s it for the basic plot engine. The main event, however, is not a guy having to deal with the ramifications of his lie, but rather exposing us viewers to Muslim community life. We witness what happens at the mosque when the community gathers (or, as Ali’s Wedding presents it, when Melbourne’s taxi drivers unite). We witness how Muslim females are treated: the top scorer on that medical exam was not Ali’s competitor, not even Ali’s fictitious score; it was a Muslim woman (and, later on, the subject of Ali’s love). We witness the way the Muslim community does things such as matching its younger people in weddings + celebrate the weddings later on. And we witness how not all Muslims are alike, yet pretty much all of them are normal people just trying to live a normal life. All is presented with a smile on the face.
To its credit, Ali’s Wedding does not skip over the more contentious. Early on in the movie, the would be doctor (Ali) is asked whether he will treat a Jew; he gives the obligatory answer (of course) in scene that does feel a tad contrived yet is also, well, obligatory given our movie’s agenda. Ali’s Wedding shows us how the woman with the highest medical exam score is prevented from studying medicine on account to being a woman. Or how, later on, she is sent for an extended “reeducation” period in Lebanon following her contamination by Aussie culture. Both of her ordeals are accepted almost with no protest by the Muslims in the film, with the exception of Ali (and the woman herself, though she cooperates), which goes to show that there is still plenty of room for progress in contemporary Muslim culture, even in its Australian incarnation [and I'm well aware of the fact merely making such a statement can land me the wrath of the left; to which I will point out, would you trade places with that woman?]. Point is, Ali’s Wedding does not attempt to wipe these off the table; it does seem to make an effort to present Australia's Muslim culture the way it really is.
The end result of this mishmash of classic romantic comedy elements, that innocence of low key Australian cinema, and the portrayal of the Muslim community in Australia is, to my mind, quite powerful. Which makes for a pretty entertaining as well as educational film.
I thoroughly loved Ali’s Wedding.
Best scene:
If you think Australia is bad with the way it treats its minorities, just wait till you see what happens to Ali and his team when they visit the USA for a sporting event.
Which reminds me: Ali’s Wedding claims to be based on true events. I don’t know how loyal to the truth the movie is, but during the credits we are provided with real life evidence of what happened during that extremely brief visit to the USA. And that was before Trump!
Overall:
Ali’s Wedding proved to be educational comedy of the type that keeps having me going back into thinking about it. I will support such an effort with a score of 4 out of 5 crabs.
I particularly recommend the movie to all the Bob Katter, One Nation, and Peter Dutton voters out there.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Disobedience

An arty New York photographer (Rachel Weisz) receives news her estranged London father had past away and goes back to the environment she grew up in: a tight orthodox Jewish community.
The people there aren’t too excited with her presence, and as Disobedience rolls along we learn why: the now very secular woman is viewed as a troublemaker on account of her past romance with a fellow orthodox Jewish girl (Rachel McAdams), who is still a part of the community, is married, and fits in the orthodox culture. Disobedience follows both our two heroes as well as the way this very tight community manages the situation.
Disobedience may not be the first film about forbidden love, but it does have certain attractions. On the general side, there are the performances of Weisz and particularly McAdams. On the more personal side, there was the aspect of a father dying far far away in another country, as well as the aspect of a child that grows to distance themselves from the religion of their heritage yet finds themselves forced to interact with it during family gatherings.
In other words, I expect to not be the only person in the world with much to identify with in Disobedience.
Overall: I’ll be generous to Disobedience, on account of its acting, and hand it 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Women of Mafia (Kobiety Mafii)

My efforts at increased exposure to non English speaking films got me to Poland and Women of Mafia, a police and thieves movie telling its complicated story from multiple angles and featuring multiple round characters. The key theme, which emerges at several points, relates to the power of women in the grand state of things.
We have seen this movie before. In order to bring justice to a successful arms, robbery and drug ring, the authorities send in an undercover cop. This time it's a policewoman who was just discharged for the crime of demonstrating original thought in capturing a large number of wanted criminals (through fake invitations to the World Cup final in Russia!). In order to do her job, our woman collaborates with the criminals in some daring robberies, in the process exposing us viewers to the robbers’ families to the nanny level. Thus we transition to follow one such nanny as she shows much ingenuity and takes over some of the criminal operations. Women of Mafia makes several such transitions in lead characters.
The plot thus develops, with key themes being a complicated plot featuring characters that go in and out of focus. The world depicted by Women in Mafia is a very grey one, a world where no one is without fault.
Women of Mafia might not be the best movie ever, but I’m pretty sure its ensemble performance would have been much celebrated and its posters would have been all over the place had this been a Hollywood production rather than a Polish one. Then again, perhaps this is the main reason why Women of Mafia is surprisingly good.
Overall: Not bad at all, and drifting between 3 to 3.5 crabs out of 5.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

A Quiet Place

What you’re about to read is a review where I express negative opinions on a movie that has been collecting much praise all over the place, hence I will start with a disclaimer: generally speaking, I do not like horror movies; further, I detest when movies pull the “make you jump” trick on their viewers, and regard it rather cheap.
So bear with me.

A Quiet Place is a short hour and a half horror movie taking place in a near future where civilisation has been wiped out by these ultra strong and non defeatable monsters that track their prey through sound (and sound alone). We aren’t given a shred of a clue on how the world got to where it is at; all we have is a family featuring mother (Emily Blunt) and father (John Krasinski, who is also the movie’s director and also Blunt husband IRL) plus their kids.
Our family lives a very quiet life. They have to, because at the mere sound of a footstep the monsters will come to snatch them up. The movie progresses by depicting several incidents of family life through a period of roughly a year and a half, in which we witness the now quietly pregnant mother & Co try to lead an ordinary life - or merely survive - in a very hostile world. The key point is the care taken by the parents and all the lengths they go to in order to ensure the survival of their kids, which makes it pretty clear that A Quiet Place is an allegory to parenthood. It's all about the efforts and energies it takes to be a good parent in a generally hostile world that requires said parents to work for their living (with a work week clearly designed for the benefit of those unencumbered by the duty of care) on one hand and also face the rebellious protests of the very kids they are trying to support.
So much for the positives of A Quiet Place.
The negatives came, to me, from all the other stuff that doesn’t make sense. Forget the whole “how did the world come to this” question; I wonder how our family managed to even make it through day one. It’s hard to think of daily activities that do not generate sound, from food making through sex (which our couple obviously engages in) to having a cracker at the toilets. I can see how our family is the only one left on earth, given these circumstances, what I don’t see is how they managed to survive.
Then there is the fact our family seems to not have to worry about mundane stuff such as running water or electricity. It’s not like they went back to the Stone Age, the way they should have given the circumstances; they lead a life not dissimilar to ours. The only things they seem to have been forced to give up are smartphones, wifi, and noise.
Sorry, but it doesn’t make sense to me. I was unable to enjoy A Quiet Place while continuously having these illogical aspects nag at me.
Overall: 2 out of 5 crabs, please refer to the disclaimer at the top of this review.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

I will apologise in advance: this is not going to be a review of Infinity War. By now I am rather tired of the onslaught of Marvel superhero movies and fully admit to have stopped paying attention.
However, I am a family man, and as such I did get to watch the latest installment of the united Marvel superhero front. To which I will say, when you add so many characters into a single dish, it is hard to expect much in the way of proper character development. I will also say Infinity War is not a movie that stands by its own right, as it fails to provide an ending (unless you count a “...will return” caption to be a suitable ending).
That said, the movie is saved by the stream of jokes coming from everywhere and anywhere to mock the whole superhero facade. So at least I came out laughing [figuratively speaking, as I watched this one over at iTunes].
Overall: 3 out of 5 rather tired crabs.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Mother!

Director Darren Aronofsky and I do not see eye to eye. Sure, Black Swan was good, but I will argue it was as good as it was because of its actors. In contrast, films like The Fountain or Noah were utterly terrible. I therefore did not expect much out of Mother!, either, but gave it a go on account of its actors: not necessarily Jennifer Lawrence or Javier Bardem in the leads, but rather the ever awesome Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer in supporting roles.
I will start at the end: Mother! gets my thumbs up, but not because of its actors (who are as good as expected, don’t get me wrong). It gets it because of Aronofsky himself. Whether this is a case of “accidents do happen” or whether there is more to it is another matter; I suspect that, given the director’s affection with mysticism and such, it is quite unlikely he & I will see eye to eye again any time soon.
Anyways, let’s talk about the movie itself. It features Lawrence as the exceptionally young wife of Bardem, with the couple living in Bardem’s childhood residence, somewhere pretty remote from anything else (on top of which, they don’t even have wifi and only have one landline!). That house was previously burnt down, so Lawrence is busy doing a wonderful job rebuilding it while Bardem, a writer, spends his time trying to come up with that piece of literature in him that he repeatedly has problems coming up with.
That Garden of Eden of a status quo is interrupted when a guest appears out of nowhere (Harris). They don’t know him, he’s there because of a wrong address kind of a mistake, but to Lawrence’s horror he’s taken in by Bardem. It doesn’t end there; soon, Harris’ wife arrives (Pfeiffer), then his kids, then all sorts of related people. The house gets fuller and fuller of people disrespecting its fragile nature, and no one bothers to listen to Lawrence. Eventually, the disrespectful guests break a pipe and the whole house floods.
Chaos continues despite the post flood’s temporary relief. Soon enough, our couple’s ordeals reach the level of the surreal, at which point I pointed a finger at Aronofsky again (a force of habit, I assume). But then there is a scene that explains the chaos [sorry, no bloopers here] and lets us figure out the symbolism behind everything we had watched thus far, and suddenly it all made sense.
Even better, for the first time I found myself in a position where I was applauding Aronofsky for his statement and criticism of the society we live in.
Overall:
Given its nature, Mother! is not a movie one watches for the sake of entertainment. If one is interested in an artistic statement delivered through good actors, one will enjoy it nevertheless.
3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Elle

The first thing I have to say about Elle, before getting into any other business, is that it is a very hard to watch movie. It is a movie about rape, it starts with a rape scene, and there is no whitewashing here; the rape is depicted in detail.

With that out of the way, I will tell you the second thing you need to know about Elle: it is a Paul Verhoeven film. Verhoeven and I go a long way: he directed two of my all time best movies ever nominees, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. More to the point, since he first exposed to world to the talents of Sharon Stone in Total Recall, Verhoeven’s specialty has been movies about strong women: Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Black Book, and now - Elle.
And the third thing you need to know? It is a French speaking movie.
Now to the film itself. Elle follows Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), whom we witness getting raped in her own house by a balaclava wearing burglar at the movie’s opening scene. She doesn’t call the police and hardly tells anyone of the incident, but it greatly affects her.
It’s not like Michèle’s life is all smooth otherwise. She is divorced, she has an affair with her best friend’s partner, her mother threatens to marry her gigolo, her son is tying himself up with a girl that’s exploiting him, and the people at her own company - the company she owns - show her disrespect. Worse, as the film goes along, we learn of a dark family secret from the past that still blemishes things today. Yet Michèle is strong, and while imperfect and often far from ethical, she soldiers through.
Then there is the rape coming on top of all that. Yet the main event in Elle is not that of a woman dealing with being raped, but rather of that woman feeling sympathy and even craving for the rapist. Which turns the movie into a whole new ballgame (and, as per the very first point, makes for a very uncomfortable watch).
I will put it this way. I see it as no fluke that Michèle’s character in the movie is the owner of a video game development company in the thick of developing a horror themed video game with female characters. Everything one is expected to think in a knee-jerk reaction upon hearing of a woman craving her rapist has been said already about video games, particularly Japanese ones with their tendencies to offer scantly clad characters bearing very generous mammaries. Think Bayonetta; or consider Nier:Automata’s 2B. Exploitative!, people say. Chauvinistic! Or are they?
The explanation always offered by the Japanese gamer camp is that, perhaps inconceivably to us Westerners, perhaps it is the case that these women derive their strength from their sexuality? As Elle makes vividly clear, Paul Verhoeven is certainly of that opinion.
And he even dares throw an “all gamers are stupid” comment into his movie.
Overall:
Hard to watch? Definitely. But Elle is also a movie that does what the vast majority of movie never even bother attempting, which is to change their viewers’ perceptions.
In other words: Paul Verhoeven has done it again. 4 out of 5 crabs to a top notch piece of [controversial] art.