Sunday, May 25, 2014

"We need you to hope again"


When I announced to my friend a couple months back that a new X-Men film would be coming out, she exclaimed, "another one?!"
I suppose such an outcry is justified, considering how SEVEN X-Men films have been produced in the past 14 years. So why do they keep rolling out?

The opening of X-Men: Days of Future Past is dark and pessimistic. Mutants with a scarred 'M' branded into their foreheads shuffle along a dark corridor to their doom. There is a certain Holocaust overtone to the scene - this is mass slaughter. Patrick Stewart's voice asks, "is the future truly set?"

His question is the undercurrent running throughout the whole movie. Taken back to 1973, a journey facilitated by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has but one task to fulfil: to change the course of the future. He must team up with young Xavier and Eric (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and prevent Mystique from shooting Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the Paris Peace Accords. For Dinklage's murder, contrary to impeding the development of his anti-mutant campaign, rather leads to Mystique's capture and the subsequent exploitation of her DNA to create the mutant-killing Sentinels that wipe out Storm (Halle Berry), Bishop (Omar Sy!!) and indeed the entire mutant race at the very beginning of the film - the 'future.'

Just as how Glee has always been the "Rachel Berry Show," I suppose X-Men is always centered around Logan (I did not just make that comparison) - but the emphasis of this film is undoubtedly placed on the 'younger' generation of mutants; the majority of the actors from First Class reprise their roles. Lucas Till makes a welcome cameo, Nicholas Hoult returns as Beast and of course Jennifer Lawrence takes on the role of Mystique. Yet the true gem of the film is undoubtedly Quicksilver, played by Peter Evans. Unruly, ignorant and capricious, Quicksilver is the key to Eric's prison-break. The best scene in the ENTIRE movie is his single-handed, slow-motion reconstruction of the kitchen so that Xavier, Eric and Wolverine can escape untouched. Jim Croce's Time in a Bottle as the soundtrack to his mischief is just the cherry on top.

Apart from shedding light on new characters, however, Days of Future Past also zooms in on the acute temperaments of its protagonists. When Logan is confronted by a drunken Charles, we get a sense of the utter psychological trauma that followed First Class - Charles is not only obliged to deal with his leg injury but also the heartbreak of losing Mystique and being abandoned by Eric. Eric seems essentially the same man he was before, albeit less preoccupied with the idea of mutant Darwinism. Yet  violence and demonstration remains his key assets: he seems just as ready to kill Mystique as he is to uplift an entire stadium and enforce a siege upon the White House. Somehow, Magneto always turns out to be the antagonist. Thus both Charles and Eric remain ideologically split - the former staunchly believes in appeasement and cooperation whilst the latter gravitates towards the extreme.

The film also offers insights into Mystique's internal struggles and not only those concerning her indecision regarding what she knows she "has to do" and what Charles keeps trying to persuade her to avoid. As in First Class, Mystique struggles with self-identity and image. "Oui, je peux," she responds to the nurse who asks her whether she can imagine waking up to a face "like that." I truly think Jennifer Lawrence leaves a distinct mark in any movie she appears in. It's a magical thing. No wonder everyone in the movie (Eric, Charles, Beast) is in in love with her.

Moreover, X-Men is - as it always has been - visually stunning. I'm not just talking about the effects and the overal grand-scale spectacle - there were so many powerful images in this film. The one that sticks with me the most is perhaps that of Beast hoisted by the metal rings as on public display, his photos snapped as if he were some animal at the zoo. Discrimination and prejudice - are those not still problems we, let alone mutants, continue to face?

Finally, Days of Future Past is ultimately a movie about unity in the face of adversity, and hope - what Xavier calls "the most human power." Beast raises a quantum physics theory about the unalterable nature of time - the current will correct itself no matter how many pebbles are thrown into it, he suggests. But the spirit of hope - the idea that "showing them a better path" can make a difference - is what ultimately leads to the denouement that Logan set out to achieve. Hope is what drives Xavier out of his pity-party and hope is what gives Kitty the willpower to continue facilitating Logan's time travel despite her injury.

Despite the plot turns in the movie, its ending is expected - but not any less satisfying. The scenes of the academy at the end of the movie, complete with Jean, Summer and Rogue, send X-Men fans' minds way back (haha, get it) to 2000, all the way back to X-Men One.

In terms of the final scene of the movie, Stryker's appearance makes sense since his importance was expertly foreshadowed throughout the film. Yet the fact that he is actually Mystique in disguise does seem to suggest a brighter future for Logan and confusingly nullify the contents of X-Men Origins... or does it? Admittedly, Days of Future Past didn't go to great lengths to clarify finer details.

So to respond to the question I posed at the beginning, I suppose the easy answer to why X-Men films keep coming out is that they are lucrative - Hollywood is, after all, a money-sponge to a certain extent. Yet the continued release of these films and their popular reception suggests that there is a 'public demand' element that factors into the making of the X Men films. The actors loves it, the press loves it, WE love it.

Bring on X Men Apocalypse... in 2016!

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Warning: plot spoilers ahead

Karen Russell's Swamplandia! opens like a poem - brimming with imagery, action verbs and, of course, her flawless personification. Once you discover that the protagonists are all alligators, you won't want to put the book down. Just as in St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell has a way of melding beast and human so that the characters' 'species' is never thrown into question. They are as human as they are alligator:

"Hilola Jane Bigtree, world-class alligator wrestler, terrible cook, mother of three, died in a dryland hospital bed in West Davey on an overcast Wednesday, March 10, at 3:12 p.m."

Once Hilola Bigtree dies, the rest of her family - Ava, our narrator, her sister Ossie, her brother Kiwi and her father the 'Chief' are left to salvage the 'prestige' of their theme park Swamplandia! without its main attraction. Egged on by his radical idea of "Carnival Darwinism," the Chief refuses to acknowledge that Swamplandia! is finished. Ossie develops a cult following for the supernatural and begins to 'date a ghost,' a so-called Louis Thanksgiving. Kiwi, frustrated by his father's obstinance, ventures off to the rival themepark - the "World of Darkness" - to try and earn his own living. Ava, struggling with her mother's death and her family's rapid disintegration, is left to deal with her sister's 'erratic behavior.'

So, the magic of the opening slightly peters off as the plot develops. Indeed, things turn quite creepy, particularly post-Ossie's elopement with 'Louis' and especially during the seemingly out-of-nowhere rape scene (although the Bird Man's antagonism was expertly foreshadowed). The description is tucked so cleverly into the prose that readers at first seem willing to deny it before it all becomes undeniable.

Throughout the novel, one looming question presses readers as well as Ava - are Ossies' hallucinations real? Is she indeed able to communicate with the underworld? In particular scenes, it seems as if Ava does indeed interact with the mythological. Towards the end, however, reality settles on all the characters - Ossie begins therapy, the family abandons the Chief's 'Carnival Darwinism.'

Perhaps the only character who seems from beginning to end grounded in pragmatism is Kiwi, although he nonetheless harbours far-fetched dreams (e.g. going to Harvard) and overestimates his 'genius-ranking.' Because of his comparatively 'base' storyline, his chapters simply are not as engaging as Ava's - this was another one of the novel's drawbacks for me.

Swamplandia! did not evolve into the story I wanted it to be, nor did its rather hastily drawn ending strike me as particularly convincing. Nonetheless, one cannot doubt Russell's ability to spin out an utterly human story regardless of whether her subjects or wolves or alligators.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird for some time now, especially as it is always being quoted on
It's a witty, absorbable read, easily devourable in a couple of hours. Offering advice on facets of writing that range from perfectionism to libelling real-life people in your work ("Give the character a small penis," Lamott suggests. "Then he won't come forward."), Lamott is both honest - and witty. I would say that the book's weakest element is perhaps its pithiness; in some chapters, I wish Lamott had chosen to extend her scope a bit further and to tap into other stories and other dimensions of the writing life. Nonetheless, Bird by Bird is a genuine and honest 'writer's guide' that inspires and encourages one to pick up the pen - and take the writing process "bird by bird."
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.
“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

View all my reviews

I am who I am, she would say, I live as I do because of you.

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rooted in the political history of India in the 1960s, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland is a powerful story about the impact of the Naxalite movement on future generations and family relationships.

Subhash and Udayan are two brothers growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s, a time when the Naxalite movement was heralding immense social and political change. Although both brothers are near-identical and inseparable in childhood, the rebellious Udayan becomes politically involved with the Naxalites while the cautious Subhash decides to pursue his studies in the States as both enter adulthood.

All changes when Udayan is assassinated for challenging the government. Subhash weds Udayan's pregnant wife, Guari, to help the both of them seek a more stable life in America. The child, Bela, grows up unaware of her origins. All characters adapt to their new lives post-Naxalism in the shadow of their shared past.

Yet Udayan does not dissolve from the story after his death; his presence continues to pervade the lives of the kin he leaves behind. Guari's fear of the child being born a son, a mirror of its father, reflects Udayan's undercurrent throughout the novel; likewise, Bela's adolescent inclination towards nomadic lifestyle also seems to echo that of her late father.

A strong sense of time and repetition is compellingly conveyed throughout the novel. The structure is well-conceived and allows the content it carries to transcend time and distance, from the lowlands of India to the 'land of the free' in America. In this way, the ending - which brings readers back to the root of the conflict - is a fitting conclusion. It reminds us - not that Lahiri makes it necessary - the core of every detail that has passed before.

The novel encompasses also rooted cultural beliefs, exhibited especially in the Calcutta home-base where Udayan's mother conforms to strict rituals to honor her deceased son. Lahiri's acute portrayal of the Saris and the customs of the Indian people also adds to this effect, indeed binding the novel together the way Arundhati Roy does in The God of Small things. Both writers present familial themes that are universal and timeless - yet the cultural and historical backdrop that serves as their starting point endows their novels with an irreplaceable, and very magnetic, sense of specificity.

Nonetheless, Lahiri offers us a streak of the modern, perhaps most tellingly exposed through Guari's relationship with Lorna and Guari's adaption into American life. Mugs of Coffee, sweats - certainly not elements of the lifestyle that her mother-in-law would allow. Guari is a complex character; the first time readers are aware of her, she is but a photograph, an enigma. By the end, Lahiri has given her a form and purpose. Out of all characters in the novel, perhaps Guari is the one who has taken the broadest leap away from the horror of the lowlands into her version of the future.

Despite such progress, however, and regardless of the 'growth' the characters experience as time takes them farther away from Udayan's death in the lowlands, their grudges, development and decisions are all shaped by their common history.

Such a pervasive influence, which captures the core of Indian society at the time as it does the essence of the characters' familial conflicts, is what makes The Lowlands a compelling read.

Lahiri writes with clarity and perceptiveness. She has the astonishing power of drawing readers into the childhood hearts of Udayan and Subhash in the first pages, and to seemingly out of nowhere draw up Bela, for whom readers instantly sympathize. I remember Vikas Swarup once saying that Indian literature was the next big thing - I wasn't sure what he meant then, but reading The God of Small Things and The Lowlands certainly changes my perspective.
“Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold.”

View all my reviews