Archive for March, 2012

Movie review: Mirror Mirror

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Mirror Mirror

Remember those silly, campy, lots-of-zany-“boing!”-sound-effects bits near the start of Moulin Rouge? Mirror Mirror is basically an entire movie of that.

This is Snow White, but not as you “snow” (ha) it: Mirror Mirror takes the classic fairy tale, shatters it, puts it back together with the dexterity of a blind street urchin on a sugar high. The story’s most familiar elements remain mostly intact. A wicked queen (Julia Roberts, who’s having FUN) terrorises her fairest-of-them-all stepdaughter Snow White (Lily Collins, who’s got EYEBROWS. Lord, has this girl got eyebrows), casting her into a spooky forest where she’s adopted by seven dwarves1 who each embody a different quirky character trait, like Fat, or Frowny, or Short.

The notable departure from that original is, now that we’ve solved sexism, you can’t just have a handsome prince sweeping in to save the helpless pure maiden from an evil older woman who symbolises icky female sexuality. Mirror Mirror gets around this by making its handsome prince, Alcott (Armie Hammer), a buffoon who’s rescued by Snow White as much as she rescues him. (He remains, however, extremely handsome. And frequently shirtless!) Handily, Snow White gains both skills with a sword and a chic haircut (presumably given to her by the Fashionable dwarf), allowing her to fight alongside her prince and defeat the queen together.

You need to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy this movie. Approach it one way, it’s fluffy fun. Approach it another way, there’s a desperation to convince you that everyone onscreen is having such fun (nowhere is this more obvious than the inexplicable, wildly off-key, isn’t-this-so-such-fun Bollywood dance sequence that plays over the closing credits. No, really).

Mirror Mirror

Eyebrows eyebrows, on the face/You're really distracting, like whoa

In the film’s favour, Roberts gets off some good one-liners (even if she does say them in an accent she apparently learned watching high-schoolers perform Shakespeare), while Hammer throws himself into the thing with admirable energy (and handsomeness. Though it’s a shame his identical twin brother couldn’t star in this one too). The weak link is Collins, a sweet lick of nothing who never makes much of an impression… aside from those eyebrows of hers.

Given it’s directed by Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror isn’t as visually over-the-top as I expected. There’s a smallness to the look of the film – I swear that isn’t a coded dwarf joke – which focuses the sense this is a ultimately a children’s film that adults might enjoy.

  1. Tolkein spelling, yeah! []

Book review: You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

You Are Not So Smart, David McRaneyNow here’s something terrifying: your most vivid memories are mostly made up, your everyday habits and preferences are little more than evolutionary hand-me-downs, and the “you” in your head is just the surface of an untamed, unknowable unconscious.

These are the lessons of You Are Not So Smart, a book based on a well-known blog that explores our cognitive biases (is the intelligent-sounding way of putting it) and self-delusions (is the accurate way of putting it).

And yet, this book isn’t terrifying. It’s fascinating, and more importantly, it’s liberating. Yes, us humans procrastinate. Yes, we’re easy targets for manipulation. Yes, we’re worringly good at ignoring reality. But we’re just born that way.

Each chapter presents us with a new mental foible, documented by author David McRaney in a clear, easy manner that connects everyday human behaviour with scientific studies. The short, easy-to-summarise-at-dinner-parties essays are ideal ebook material. After a while it reads less like a psychology textbook and more like a self-help book without the self-help: the traps built into our brains are unavoidable, McRaney argues, but an awareness of provokes a strange sense of humility. Your perspective on the world is not fixed and absolute but this strange, nebulous thing that sometimes needs to be questioned. When it’s not, bad things can happen: you make crappy snap judgements, you prefer one brand over an identical one for no rational reason, and – worst case scenario – you walk robot-like down evil paths.

The central message of You Are Not So Smart isn’t “Human consciousness is not a wonderful thing”; it’s “Human consciousness is a wonderful thing, but…” We’re loaded with so many mental shortcuts and biases it’s incredible we manage to function at all. Ironically, if everyone read this book on why none of us are as smart as we think, we’d probably be a whole lot smarter.

Movie review: The Hunger Games

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

The Hunger Games

I read Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games two years ago (way before it was cool, may I smugly point out), and since then I’ve loudly insisted the movie adaptation will be way better than the book. I enjoy being right!

But it’s a pretty good book, with a simple and disturbing idea at its core. By now The Hunger Games (more accurately, The Hunger Games‘ marketing team) has penetrated pop culture deep enough that everyone knows the plot basics, but here they are again: the overlords of a cruel post-apocalyptic dystopia force teenage “tributes” to battle to the death in an annual spectacle called the Hunger Games.

It’s a story that demands to be told visually, and it becomes much more powerful after its freed from the first-person-narrative trappings of Collins’ book. It’s counter-intuitive to say so but our heroine Katniss really is much more evocative, much more badass, when we only see her from the outside – which is largely down to a fuck-off-amazing performance by Jennifer Lawrence. She owns this film. Her Katniss is strong and brave and mature, and sympathetic and believable and feminine, and lots of other wonderful things.

The other great advantage of tossing aside the book’s first-person perspective is that it allows director Gary Ross to take us behind the scenes of the Hunger Games – and even in this far-flung post-global-warming post-nuclear-apocalypse future, reality TV is still heavily manipulated. Watching Head Gamemaker Seneca (Wes Bentley – who seems to have been in a lot of movies lately? Maybe he got a new agent) and his team plot so casually to destroy the Tributes for the entertainment of the Capitol’s extravagantly dressed residents makes the entire pageant even more sadistic.

The Hunger Games takes a while – at least an hour – to get to its actual Hunger Games. But the suspense and tension of that build-up is important in capturing what a monstrous event Katniss is participating in. The Games are horrible. But… also morbidly voyeuristic. I mean, c’mon: if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you were super-impatient for the Games to get started so you could get to the killin’, right? You are as awful as everyone in the Capitol (though maybe better dressed).

Much has been made – in Australia, at least – of Liam Hemsworth’s role as Katniss’s District 12 squeeze Gale. He’s hardly in the film. The supporting cast’s shining stars are Elizabeth Banks, who’s grotesquely made-up and just terrific as Katniss’s fussy chaperone Effie, who insists on good manners as she prepares her Tributes for a battle royale; and Woody Harrelson, playing drunkard-with-a-heart-of-gold Haymitch, a former Games winner tasked with guiding Katniss and her fellow District 12-er Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to victory.

The pace sags in the lead-up to the bloody climax, and the plot relies too heavily on sloppy exposition from Games commentators Caesar and Claudius (Stanley Tucci, who’s brilliant, FYI, and Toby Jones), who drop in every now and again to helpfully explain something to us dummies in the audience, then just eject out again.

But the bigger weakness is that The Hunger Games is too light – and I’m not talking about the teenagers-murdering-each-other violence, which is pretty skilfully handled. Plot-wise, this is an edgy film; thematically, it should have been edgier. The satire of media machinations needed more sting (sadly, Katniss’s memorable makeover scene from the book lasts barely 10 seconds in the film), and the exploration of the politics of the Capitol and the Districts needed more depth. Perhaps they will in the inevitable sequel. “It’s aimed at young adults” isn’t a convincing-enough excuse.

Previously: Book review: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins; Book review: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Book review: Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

Me Talk Pretty One DayNo, I never read any of David Sedaris’s books before I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. I know right! All my life (occasionally), everyone (a couple of people) have been telling me to read one of David Sedaris’s books (presumably because I’m an intelligent and witty as he is, right?).

(Important clarification: I had read plenty of David Sedaris’s writing before. Just not collected in book form. So everyone calm down.)

The appeal of Sedaris’s style is that his neuroses and hyperboles read so effortlessly. “I could write insightful, laugh-out-loud funny essays like these!”, you think, and then you actually try to do it, and it’s really really hard. Damn your deceptive talents, Sedaris! His writing is unaffected, his metaphors unexpected and delightful, his turns-of-phrase hilarious. (The best one-liner in Me Talk Pretty is probably the one about the “Future Homosexuals of America”. In future I am only befriending people who have no read this book, so I can pass that joke off as my own.)

This is a pretty perfect book for the iPad generation: each essay is short, so you can finish it in the time it takes to commute to your tedious office job, or between Twitter checks. Plus, if you casually mention you’re reading David Sedaris, folks who think they’re smart will think you’re smart!

Book review: Kraken, China Mieville

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Kraken, China Mieville

Kraken opens with a pretty epic locked-room mystery: a giant embalmed squid is stolen from the British Museum of Natural History in London. The whole squid, and the tank it’s stored in. Gone.

Museum curator Billy Harrow is sucked, almost against his will, into the ensuing investigation: he’s passed around between a cult-busting police squad, a squid religion, and London’s magical warlords as he starts to realise that the end of the world is coming, and soon… a synopsis that doesn’t do justice to Kraken‘s sheer batshit craziness.

The tone of this book is much loosier and less serious than Mieville’s other works (that I’ve read, anyway). He pretty much throws anything at the wall without waiting to see if it sticks: there’s real working Star Trek phasers, talking malicious tattoos, a union for animal familiars, angelic museum guards, and more, and more, and more. The plot bristles with anarchy and pop-culture references and inventiveness – Ben Aaronovitch’s similarly themed magic-in-London books seem tame by comparison – and the hodge-podge evokes a sense of messy chaos that perfectly fits the pre-apocalyptic tone.

Trouble is, the further into Kraken you get the more exhausting the frantic pace becomes: the finale is an ADHD blur, and there are few characters who really leap off the page. What ultimately stands out about this tale is Mieville’s jaw-droppingly admirable creativity. It’s cliched to ask a writer where he gets his ideas, but seriously – where does this man get his ideas (and can he please mark the exact location on a map to benefit the rest of us)?

Previously: Book review: The City and the City, China Mieville; Book review: Perdido Street Station, China Mieville