Archive for the review Category

Only Lovers Left Alive: pollution is a real pain in the neck, yeah

Posted in gothic, horror, movies, review with tags , , , on July 25, 2014 by jason nahrung


only lovers left aliveJim Jarmusch takes the long, slow road to a vampire movie aimed squarely at what happens when you use up resources, but yet, there will still be music.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) features Eve (Tilda Swinton), well read and generally wonderful, reconnecting with her significant other, Adam (Tom Hiddleston). She travels from Tangier, leaving behind good old mate Christopher Marlowe — played with the usual aplomb by John Hurt — to Detroit, where the collapse and abandonment mirrors Adam’s depression. Adam’s a muso of modest but enduring renown, and things are looking all right for the reunited lovers until Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up to rock the boat with her over-eager, insatiable consumerism.

Because things are already tense for the children of the night, with the blood supply as tainted as the environment. Resources are getting scarce. The good stuff is in demand. And the food chain, and decency, are such fragile things.

It’s a slow-burner, shot almost doco style as Adam and Eve drive through derelict suburbs, living their lives in splendid and not-so-splendid isolation.

The vampire culture is wonderfully (under)drawn, with its own peccadilloes and gentle in-joke references. Living in the shadows, observers trying to find safe ways to interact, to leave a mark, however anonymously … the settings mirror the desolation, even Tangier — necessarily by night — an empty place where people offer only what is not needed. And the leads capture the mood perfectly. Swinton’s nuanced performance is a delight, and Hiddleston has the disaffected rock star air down pat.

It’s crafty, too, how at least one certain prop never gets to satisfy the Chekhov law, although perhaps that’s a Jarmusch law. Along with the music, of course.

As the predators prowl the decaying streets, the message is there in the coyote howls: nature will have its way, so we’d better look after it.

Neil Jordan’s Byzantium: delicious!

Posted in gothic, horror, review with tags , , , , , , on June 30, 2014 by jason nahrung

byzantium, vampire movie posterNeil Jordan made Tom Cruise look good in Interview with the Vampire, but Byzantium is even better.

Saoirse Ronan chews up the celluloid as a 16-year-old vampire, on the run with lusty Gemma Arterton, who looks in her period flashbacks as though she just stepped out of a classic Hammer Horror movie (and indeed, there’s a nod to Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness in the film).

Writer Moira Buffini has delivered a script that these two actors totally inhabit, Ronan with subtlety and tender beauty, Arterton a force majeure of hedonistic pragmatism. The familial relationship between the two, of freedom vs control, change vs habit, of nurture and protection, is a joy to watch as Ronan’s Eleanor stretches her 200-year-old adolescent wings.

In the background is the threat of a patriarchal order who don’t like women rocking their boat, with events set in motion by Johnny Lee Miller as bounder and cad, and Sam Riley as an understated hero-figure.

The casting is superb, the sets suitably atmospheric, and there are nods to vampire forerunners in Ruthven and Carmilla. The vampirism here is well drawn and consistent, drawing on a Caribbean version called a soucriant (read more in this excellent New York Times review).

The story is kept simple and is simply told, set to a soundtrack of classical and folk songs, and gorgeously presented by Jordan and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, allowing us to bask in the beauty: to sink in its warmth like Bathory into a bath.

Definitely in my list of the best vampire movies.


Intruder: a dog can be a girl’s best friend

Posted in books, review with tags , , on June 26, 2014 by jason nahrung

Intruder by Chris BongersBrisbane writer Chris Bongers has the knack of keeping it down to earth, even when it’s something as horrifying as waking to find a home invader in your room.

In Intruder (Random House), Bongers uses the terrifying incident to unveil and transform the secluded life of 14-year-old Kat.

Kat lives at home with her piano-playing, bakery-working father, with both of them haunted by the death of her mother.

The shadow of the child welfare department hangs over them after an earlier incident, and next door lurks the ‘witch’, the best friend of her mother who has given Kat reason to distrust her.

The intruder is a catalyst for Kat to examine her family and her beliefs and to take charge of a life lived on autopilot. Along the way, she finds new allies: a good-looking lad at the dog park, and her new defender, an ugly but endearing mutt called Hercules.

Bongers does a wonderful job of bringing her characters to life with all their foibles; her descriptions of Herc and his interaction with Kat are priceless.

There’s a lot of charm in this yarn, mixing humour and tension in a believable scenario that unearths home truths and serves up a warning about the dangers of jumping to conclusions. It also contains a message of the power of family and trust to overcome even the most dire of situations.

Kat and dog might not be superheroes, but they make a winning pair.


australian women writers challenge logoThis is the fourth of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. signed on for four, but it’s only June, so let’s push on and see what else I come across …
Previous reviews:

  • The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke
  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • Peacemaker, by Marianne de Pierres
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Edge of Tomorrow — not the time (travel) of our lives

    Posted in movies, review, science fiction with tags , , on June 25, 2014 by jason nahrung

    Two movies in a week: be still my beating heart! And both to do with time travel.
    My friend and I emerged from X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Wolverine is sent back, fairly convincingly, to prevent the birth of the Sentinels and the apocalyptic mutant/humankind vs machine war that eventually follows, wondering, what is it about this time travel thing?

    I loved the Sentinels when I was reading X-Men back in the day; they were a lot less sophisticated than the movie ones. And just for once, there was no real time paradox, which is what usually does my head in when it comes to time travel narratives: the whole chicken and egg, cause and effect thing. I didn’t see the previous X-Men movie, First Class, but enjoyed the first couple for their ability to explore some themes of prejudice and put interesting, sympathetic characters on the screen. That’s kind of stopped now, it appears: in fact, this movie seems to have reduced all those that came before to being nothing more than a dream. Any fiction writer knows: you don’t do that. You don’t invalidate the investment of your reader, or viewer. It reminds me of the first season of what had been an enjoyable Witchblade (based on the comics): no overt spoiler, but I still haven’t watched the second series.

    But even if I’ve got the bull by the horns in my understanding of why all is shiny in the X-Men world, I didn’t much get much to care about in this flick. Not even James McAvoy’s tortured Xavier and Jennifer Lawrence playing Raven/Mystique on the knife edge of good/bad (or law/chaos, if you prefer) could make me give a damn. A popcorn movie, with no lasting crunch.

    And then there was Edge of Tomorrow, with Tom Cruise dying over and over again in a computer game fashion as his reluctant soldier learns to be all GI Joe in a quest to defeat the lead alien, with a little help from Emily Blunt’s scarred veteran. Had me going there, Tom, on your fun ride, and I could really sense the frustration and weariness, as any gamer could, I suspect, of having to start all over again after every wrong turn. (My kingdom for a save point RIGHT NOW!) But what was with the whitewashed ending? Once again, hit the reset, all is well: victory without cost. He even gets to keep his good name and rank. And the girl, of course.

    Is this something in the Hollywood psyche at the moment? That we can keep making the same mistakes over and over again until we get it right, and all the wrong alternate worlds just go away? Peace in our time, mission accomplished: look mum, no bodybags? It reminds me a little of the sour taste left over by Source Code, in which a hell of a lot of people die in a whole bunch of universes, but that’s okay because the hero finally gets his happily ever after. Icky.

    So, to return to the original question: why we are so fascinated with time travel? Marty McFly and Quantum Leap, Star Trek, The Time Tunnel! And on, and on. Yes, yes, all right: Dr bloody Who. (For the record, I can’t choose between Pertwee and Tom Baker. But ‘Blink’: that had a cool time travel premise, didn’t it?)

    It offers a chance to compare and contrast different cultures, different times; to make predictions, HG Wells style, of what current philosophies or technologies might wreak in the future; and to challenge perceptions of historic events.

    But perhaps most often, it seems to be the allure of the second chance, whether it’s another shot at love, or to save one life, or a whole planet, or universe, or right a wrong. To withdraw that statement, to pick the box, to walk instead of drive.

    At the end of the day, though, I reckon the old adage holds true: wherever (whenever) you go, there you are. Now pass the popcorn — it’s time I was somewhere else.


    The Babadook: horror out of the pen

    Posted in horror, movies, review with tags , , , on June 3, 2014 by jason nahrung


    The Babadook is an Australian horror movie. It’s clever without being pompous or overwrought. A suburban working mother is trying to raise her needy son while stricken by grief over her husband’s death. Then a book is found, and it tells of the Babadook, who once it gets in, can never be got out.
    There is so much to like about this film: acting, setting, lighting, sound, combined with an insightful script. Deftness, depth and subtlety define this movie — the narrative pulled me along, and the ending wrapped it up beautifully, its metaphors intact and satisfied. Here are some of the credits:

  • The heroine is a working single mother, whose hair is in disarray, who looks shattered from the opening frame.
  • The heroine does not wear makeup, except for the one time she does in company who wear it better. This tells us a lot.
  • When the heroine screams, it is not a screech. it sounds real. The acting is uniformly superb, but lead Amelia (Essie Davis) and son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) are particularly brilliant as they carry the emotional journey.
  • There are no aural tricks to make the audience jump. There are no jump cuts to make the audience jump. Possibly, this makes it even creepier, perhaps because tropes are used — opening doors, creaking floors, fleeting shadows, popping lightbulbs. Sound is wonderfully adept at creating mood without intruding or being overtly manipulating.
    badadook movie poster
  • The kid is a weird little guy in his own way, and despite his Home Alone precociousness in the arena of home defence, he is just a kid.

  • The characters act naturally, resulting in increasing isolation and dislocation for the heroine. Mostly through her own decisions. There are no villains, just people trying to deal.
  • The heroine does bad things, but she is not an image of hate or scorn.
  • There is no happy ending, but rather, progress, and ongoing struggle with the hope of some kind of equilibrium.
  • The setting reflects the character’s mental and emotional state.
  • Facts about the characters that inform the story are introduced with subtlety that urge a re-watching to fully appreciate just how well sewn this tapestry is — a few, minor dangling threads notwithstanding.
  • The symbolism is clever and consistent but not pretentious. You want to talk about grief, depression, dysfunction in an engaging and oblique fashion — the personal cost and the impact on family, friends and those around — this is the perfect example of how a horror story can do that.

    I hope writer/director Jennifer Kent, who adapted this feature from her short film, Monster, gets support for her next project. She went to Kickstarter to help this one get across the line, and has rewarded those supporters handsomely.

  • 1984: newspeak is new again

    Posted in rare political comment, review, theatre with tags , , on June 2, 2014 by jason nahrung

    1984 tour poster for shake and stirWe saw the Shake and Stir Theatre Co.’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 at Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s theatre today, and what a superb performance it is. The Brisbane company is touring, and has there ever been a better time for it?

    With Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s reprehensible use of the term illegal maritime arrivals burning in my ears — well done, minister, for ‘unpersoning’ the desperate people seeking safety in our country, and hang their right to do so — Orwell’s observations of language control, propaganda and social warfare have never struck closer to home.

    A government that has declared war on its own citizens to propagate the class structure. Demonising of an external other, or traitorous domestic foe, to justify draconian measures. Reducing access to education and awareness. Attempts to enforce conformity of belief and behaviour. Bread and circuses to help keep the proletariat amused and distracted? Even some history tweaking. And of course, adapting language to carry a specific message, and ensuring media carry only that message. Ignorance is strength, indeed.

    Admittedly, we’re not in Room 101 territory just yet, and S&S did not draw any analogies — for instance, their footage of Oceania’s wars was from World War II, as far as I could tell, and they stuck to Orwell’s script — but the Ministry of Truth echoes were powerful just the same. Orwell’s vision is undiminished.

    S&S did a superb job of bringing a relatively complex story to the stage. Winston’s monologues are delivered on big screens — clever, in keeping with the monitoring of citizens and delivery of propaganda by Big Brother — and other characters take up some of the duty. The bank of screens formed the back drop for a sparse, evocatively lit stage, with Cold War-style concrete walls evoking the barren homes and factories, and a swinging stage delivering Winston and Julia’s love nest for sexcrime. [Do check out the Eurythmics' 'soundtrack that never was' 1984: For the Love of Big Brother.]

    The screens not only gave Winston his inner voice but also allowed Big Brother to broadcast to the audience, and turned the audience into Big Brother’s observers, seeing off-stage family life and dream sequences as well as tracking the characters’ on-stage movements.

    The love scenes and torture scenes were well handled, provoking the barest of titters and squirms from the predominantly school-student matinee audience. And then there were the rats!

    Well acted, well delivered, topical. Doubleplusgood. Most excellent.

    The Lascar’s Dagger: sharp, pointed fantasy

    Posted in fantasy, review with tags , , on May 23, 2014 by jason nahrung

    lascars dagger by glenda larkeThe Lascar’s Dagger (Orbit, 2014), the first of The Forsaken Lands trilogy, will not disappoint fans of Glenda Larke‘s previous fantasies. Here you will find the exquisite world building and conflicted characters as well as familiar themes that inform her work.

    The dagger of the title is a magical artefact, one with the ability to shape the actions of those around it, and it can be capricious as it seeks to right a wrong. It harks from the spice islands, now being opened up by an essentially European seafaring civilisation for trade and plunder. The titular lascar, Ardhi, has journeyed to these technologically more advanced Va-cherished lands to retrieve his people’s stolen treasure.

    Here he crosses paths with our primary antagonist, Saker, a spy-priest, who quickly finds himself in a whole world of hurt: he’s fallen in inappropriate love with the wrong woman, there’s a strange disease inflicting the land (and driving up the price of ‘medicinal’ spice), his religion is under threat – and people keep trying to kill him. And on top of that, there’s this dagger that has plans for him.

    The novel highlights Saker’s ignorance of the Va-forsaken Lands and their peoples — not quite the savages they seem, nor even a single tribal group — and pits commercial greed against environmental balance and moral compass. It touches on the danger of judging people by appearance. It objects to gender stereotyping and misogyny. It opposes religious fanaticism and bigotry. Oh yes, this is a Larke book!

    Read an excerpt here

    And it has birds. Larke by name and somewhat by nature, the twitcher author has given birds a special perch of importance here.

    There are a few downdrafts to mildly ruffle the feathers: an unusual, for Larke, if memory serves, surrender to the technique of dropping us into minor characters’ points of view for the expediency of showing details that the prime POV characters cannot relate — a distracting peccadillo, but certainly not fatal to the flow; and another in the apparent failure of the Regal’s desire to keep a certain theft secret, the truth of it not long after common knowledge on the streets. Book 2, due in January, might reveal more on both scores.

    australian women writers challenge logoJust the once I felt Saker was a little dim, but I guess even an experienced spy can be a little slow to realise his network has been compromised. And on odd occasion the creative vernacular felt, again unusually in a Larke book where language is as much part of the world building as the landscape, a little forced in places: ‘Va preserve me from idle-headed dewberries’? In other places, the vernacular shines, adding to the sense that this is a real world of politics, economics, social tension, linguistic diversity; one with history.

    I’m also not a big fan of direct thoughts on the page — I’d rather see stronger interaction and action than be told what a character is thinking — but that’s a taste thing, and the technique is not abused.

    What does soothe these minor ruffles is the combination of aforementioned strengths in world and character, the mysteries still to be solved, the thematic underpinnings. Perhaps not quite as smooth sailing as some of her previous works (The Aware is one of my favourite fantasies), but nonetheless well worth going aboard for. My fingers are crossed for some serious piracy, err, privateering, in the next book!

  • This is the third of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
    Previous reviews:
  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • Peacemaker, by Marianne de Pierres
  • The Shining Girls … very bright indeed

    Posted in books, gothic, horror, review with tags , , , on April 9, 2014 by jason nahrung

    the shining girls by lauren beukesI enjoyed both of South African writer Lauren Beukes previous novels, Zoo City and her debut Moxyland – they pretty much put her on my ‘buy automatically’ list. Shining Girls (HarperCollins Australia, 2013) is her tightest yet.

    In it, she leaves South Africa behind, instead trawling through Chicago’s history since the Depression era, as a serial killer uses a most unusual house to track and kill his victims – his shining girls.

    The blurb makes no secret of the fact the house enables Harper Curtis to spread his carnage across a 60-odd year span.
    His evil is well drawn, leaving us in no doubt this guy needs to be stopped.

    Harper has never limited his appetites to one particular kind of woman or another. Some men prefer girls with wasp waists or red hair or heavy buttocks you can dig your fingers into, but he has always taken whatever he could get, whenever he could get it, paying for it most of the time. The House demands more. It wants italic potential – to claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out. Harper knows how to do that. He will need to buy a knife. Sharp as a bayonet.

    The damage done is portrayed through a survivor, Kirby, who dedicates herself to the seemingly impossible task of finding her attacker. She teams up with burnt-out journo Dan, a crime writer now on the sports round, using his knowledge and newspaper resources to make her case file.

    Adding to the sense of waste caused by the senseless murder spree are glimpses into the lives and deaths of the shining girls, sometimes in their point of view, sometimes Harper’s, as well as that of an addict whose character is well realised but whose presence in the book is of minor assistance.

    And in keeping with the story’s time-travelling conceit, the episodes are presented in non-linear fashion. It’s a bit of a head spin, but it works.

    Time travel brings a raft of headaches, not least the idea of if at first you don’t succeed …, but Beukes has answered the conundrums with smooth skill.

    Her vignettes of Chicago are wonderfully realised, her characterisation spot on, her story enthralling. When the writing’s this good, I can accept with perfect faith the chicken and egg scenarios that come with time travel. My only regret is that the book was such a joy to read, it took no time at all.

  • Beukes says on her website she will be touring Australia in August to promote her latest novel, Broken Monsters (in Detroit, with more killings, another journo, a daughter … ooh!), due for release later this year.
  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf: a spirited first novel

    Posted in books, fantasy, review, science fiction with tags , , , on March 21, 2014 by jason nahrung

    the interrogation of ashala wolf by ambelin kwaymullina

     

    In the future portrayed in The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (Walker Books, 2012) by Ambelin Kwaymullina, a new order arises: the world reduced to one continent, the people decimated past the point of racism. The new order follows a decree of Balance, handed down by a Noah-like figure, Hoffman, and a series of decrees are implemented to attempt to avoid such global catastrophe again. Technology is restricted, for instance; no nuclear power of genetic modification, few cars, a limited number of laser-like weapons for the security force. The full extent of just what tech is available to whom is is sketchily drawn, with just enough details provided to allow the story to unfold.

    Several hundred years after the Reckoning, humanity has found its own genetic modification – the development of powers, restricted one per person, a little like the X-Men: one chap can move air to cause effects such as flight and telekinesis; a girl can interfere with memories; our titular heroine can sleepwalk into a dream state where the rules of physics do not apply, but the results are enacted in the real world. It’s exciting stuff, especially when one adds in sentient trees and telepathic dinosaurs, and creation spirits who have helped breathe new life into the devastated planet.

    These powers are the source of conflict for the story, with government enforcers testing children for special abilities and decreeing them either useful or detrimental to society. Using those powers is not without its risks, which helps to make them more convincing, and offers balance to what can be a simplistic ‘technology=bad nature=good’ argument.

    Ashala heads a band of child runaways who live in the sentient forest, hunted and feared by society at large, but not without supporters: there is a rebel movement of families tired of giving up their talented children, of free thinkers who don’t like to see the gifted persecuted and locked away.

    The story opens with Ashala a prisoner, her Mengele-like persecutors seeking to identify an imminent threat to their program, and Ashala harbouring more secrets than even they, or she, might suspect.

    australian women writers challenge logoThis is a story of community, of mutual care and understanding, as well as a plea to respect the planet and the beliefs that have formed it.

    While ill-defined ‘advanced technology’ is seen as the key cause of the end of the world, and spirit the tool of the natural world’s rebirth, it is not technology alone that is to blame, but rather, as Hoffman is quoted as saying, ‘advances in technology could never compensate for failures in empathy’. Reading current headlines, it’s a point worth making.

    In this action story with its underlying and competently drawn romance subplot, the theme of the strength of the pack – of mutual care and concern – gives the book its heart. There are echoes of the colonial devastation of Indigenous Australia subtly vibrating through the story as Ashala draws strength from the memory and inspiration of her friends.

    The ending is perhaps too neat, but love will out, and the story is wrapped up so that one is left wondering where to from here, given this is the first of The Tribe series. The answer lies in the synopsis for book 2, The Disappearance of Ember Crow , which came out in November last year, and begins a new plot set in the same world, with a new challenge for Ashala to overcome. No doubt this will see further exploration of intriguing elements of the world to come, such as the totem animals the children of the Firstwood embrace, and the structure of the broader world with its delicate balance of nature and technology.

    Western Australian Kwaymullina, of the Palyku people, has written several picture books, with this her first novel; it’s a quick and engaging read with clear appeal for young adult readers.

  • This is the second of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Peacemaker: the west comes to town

    Posted in books, fantasy, review, science fiction with tags , , , , on February 26, 2014 by jason nahrung

    peacemaker by marianne de pierresShe started life in a short story, received a comic book treatment, and now Virgin Jackson rides tall in her own novel. The heroine of Marianne de Pierres’s Peacemaker (Angry Robot) is, not surprisingly for followers of de Pierres, an opinionated and feisty character.

    Jackson is continuing her father’s legacy as a ranger in a rather unusual park: this slice of outback Australia occupies a restricted space in a conurbation that takes up most of the east coast, has hi-tech protection against interlopers — no camping, no eco stays, and definitely no people smuggling! — and sports, uneasily, a thin veneer of the American wild west.

    This attempt to woo international tourism with stetsons and chaps is the one element of the novel that rests uncomfortably in the saddle, as the park provides the hub for a quasi dude tourism industry that doesn’t quite spark on the page. Also uncomfortable is that the review copy of this Australian story published by a British publisher sports US English, making self-fulfilling the book’s prediction of further cultural crumble, in street gangers who’ve watched plenty of US telly: lots of ‘you feel me?’ going on. At least Jackson kicks arse, not ass! You go, girl ;)

    So that’s the beef out of the way — a minor cut compared to the repast that’s on offer here.

    The book opens a little like a rodeo: there’s the rider entering the chute, now she’s checking out the arena, and then the door flies open at the end of chapter one and we’re away on a bucking, wheeling, snorting adventure that races all the way to the buzzer.

    There are elements of de Pierres’ Parrish Plessis books here, in the cyberpunkish inner-urban decay shot through with a thread of voodoo, and a heroine trying to work out just what the hell is going on with all these people trying to kill her. She’s even got a murder rap hanging over her head, just to keep the pressure on.

    Few folks are who or what they seem; trust is a precious commodity in this near-anarchic world where the haves have and the have nots can be damned.

    australian women writers challenge logoJackson works her way through the mire of intrigue with the help of an enigmatic US Marshall, complete with six-shooters, who has a grasp on the spiritual world that edges her reality. Spirit animals are a charming feature of the story, giving us a glimpse into a dystopian future where belief and cynicism ride side by side.

    By the end of the story, we are primed for book two as Virgin finds herself involved in a global battle to save, if not the world, then reality as we know it. Bring on the second ride!

  • This is the first of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
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