The Martian

The Martian (2015) Directed by Ridley Scott

I re-watched this tonight and was reminded what an excellent film it is and that I hadn’t written a review! In recent years, I’ve been very disappointed with Ridley Scott’s work but here, in a fairly straight science fiction drama, he’s in fine form.

Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is a scientist who gets stranded on Mars, but despite incredible odds, he manages to use his knowledge, training and problem solving ability to stay alive.  Damon brings a ton of heart to this role, there’s a lot of subtlety to Watney’s character arc and I think in lesser hands, this character could’ve become incredibly insufferable very quickly. Despite the set-up and resulting drama, the result is a surprisingly uplifting film, with some nice music choices.

The action switches between the earth-bound NASA personnel, who (when they realise he’s still alive) are desperately trying to work out how to help bring him home and Watney, who’s dealing with the vagaries of trying to survive on a planet which is hostile to him in every way. I particularly liked how Watney’s crew are reintegrated into the story after the tumultuous opening scene, led by the always excellent Jessica Chastain.

But the thing that really makes this work is the script, adapted from Andy Weir’s excellent novel by Drew Goddard (former staff writer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer andx Angel as well as writer/director of the slasher homage Cabin in the Woods). Goddard makes the dialogue sing and brings both levity and pathos to the drama.

While the science is sometimes questionable (there’s one explosion that makes sense in the book but fails miserably in the film), the Mars sets (which I believe were shot in Jordan) bring a fabulous otherness and vibrancy to the movie and the supporting cast are uniformly great. But ultimately, this is Matt Damon doing the heavy lifting with the aid of a great script and Ridley Scott in all too rare form.

Very entertaining science fiction fare.

The Party

The Party (2017) Directed by Sally Potter.

Earlier this week, (before the madness of Avengers: Infinity War hit Australia) I was feeling decidedly tired and run down. Recovering from a head cold, too much work and generally worn out, I decided on an evening of solo self-care.

What would cheer me up? A hearty dinner for one followed by an acerbic, biting black comedy? Yes please! This film, written and directed by the wonderful Sally Potter (Ginger & Rosa, Yes, The Tango Lesson and the sublime Orlando) was just what I needed.

The Party is a short (71 minutes) and fast-paced ensemble piece that revolves around Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s just been made Minister of Health and is having a few friends around to celebrate her promotion. It was filmed just before the Brexit madness in the UK, proving again that truth is stranger than fiction.

Shot in digital black and white and beautifully lit, the focus is often on the faces of the ensemble, accentuating their flaws as much as their beauty. This is particularly true of Cillian Murphy’s often manic Tom and Timothy Spall as Bill (Janet’s taciturn husband). I also think this method showed the underlying dinginess of Bill and Janet’s house (particularly the bathroom), which could also be viewed as a metaphor for their lives.

The entire cast of seven are terrific (I’m a sucker for anything with Bruno Ganz in it) but for me Patricia Clarkson as the no filter, cynical and bitter April steals the film and has many of the best lines. There is a twist that I did see coming but I still laughed out loud when it finally arrived.

This has opened to mixed reviews and I can see that it does sound and look more like a theatrical production at times, playing with caricatures rather than characters in its short running time. Also note it has a MA15+ rating for some graphic drug use. But nevertheless, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it if you’re a fan of black comedy and farce. It’s currently playing at the State Cinema in North Hobart and selected cinemas across Australia.

Avengers: Infinity War (No Spoilers!) + Update

Update: In the last 24 hours quite a few people have asked me if I wrote this spoiler-free review because of Disney/Marvel’s Thanos Demands Your Silence campaign. I would like to be very clear that my allegiance is NOT to any corporate behemoth, but to the many fans and friends who want to see this for themselves and make up their own minds. I plan to revisit the film at some point (before Avengers 4 comes out) and discuss it in full – spoilers and all 🙂

I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I did ❤

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo.

Today I went to the opening screening at (oddly) my local art house cinema, The State in Hobart. I say oddly, because this isn’t high art, it couldn’t be considered quirky and it certainly isn’t an independent production.

This is the 19th movie in the MCU – a decade of blockbuster comic book cinema, which has changed how we think of big, loud action films and helped bring strong threads of fantasy and science fiction narrative into mainstream movie-making.

Essentially, Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of all those films, where incredibly well-paid (arguably overpaid) actors get to dance around in front of green screens, dangle off wires and sometimes wear motion capture (or mocap) suits, all the while acting their hearts out. In many ways, the MCU can be seen as everything that’s wrong with homogenised, formula-driven mainstream cinema – but I cannot begin to express how much I enjoyed this film.

Yes, there are faults. I think stylistically, the Russo brothers played it very safe, employing design and style elements from previous films which stand out against original scenes such as those on Thanos’ home planet Titan, which become almost too generic and to my eyes, bland. There was a moment early in the film where the CG really stood out – and not in a good way! – but fortunately, this was the only point where I felt the strain of all those pixels trying to be “real”. Also, unlike nearly all previous films in the MCU, this is not a stand-alone product and requires at least some background knowledge. The other is Captain America: Civil War (2016), which acts in many ways as a set up for this film.

Looking at it as a classic three act structure, we leave this story about halfway through the second act, and things are looking very bleak. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t miffed that I have to wait another year for the conclusion, reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010). But unlike the Potter experience, where nearly everyone I know had read the books and we knew what was going to happen, in the MCU not everything plays out like the comic book versions.

Thanos is a particularly complicated and multilayered villain, far more I think than in the comics. The rationale behind Thanos’ desire to reduce populations is psychopathic and extreme to say the least but he truly believes it – and despite the character being a CG/mocap mash-up, Josh Brolin makes us believe his sincerity too. And Brolin’s scenes with Zoe Saldana’s Gamora had me immediately thinking there’s going to be a lot to talk about in feminist film circles regarding Thanos’ “love” for his adopted daughter.

Perhaps the biggest plus is the slick pacing, which the Russo’s and their editing team did incredibly well. At almost two and a half hours, there’s barely time to breathe, let alone gasp, wince or laugh – and there are quite a few laugh out loud moments – but I was left wanting more. It’s like being on a roller-coaster joyride with heroic deeds, death and destruction all around. (So my pro tip is prepare with a toilet stop BEFORE the film starts!)

So why did I love this so much? Because at its heart, this is the culmination of really good long-form storytelling. While some characters don’t speak to me as much or as well as others, I’ve found myself over the last ten years completely invested in some stories and now, caring about their outcomes and departures. I’m really glad that Marvel have gone down the route of killing my darlings, raising the stakes makes their actions and how they say goodbye all the more important to us as fans. (Oh, that DC could understand this!)

I must also note there’s no mid-credit sequence after the film to set up part two (currently listed simply as Avengers 4), due for release in May next year. Having had a few hours to think about it, I think it’s because the whole film is the set up for the next movie. But I do encourage everyone to stay to the very end for a particularly pertinent sequence that leads down yet another narrative rabbit hole.

Roll on 2019!

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows – Book Review

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows (The Cthulhu Casebooks, #1)

This is an expanded version of my review on Goodreads

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To be honest, I wasn’t sure when my friendly, neighborhood bookseller Richard, from Cracked & Spineless recommended this to me about a year ago. I affectionately call Richard my “book pimp” for good reason. Like any bookseller in today’s cutthroat market, he makes it his business to know his clientele – and in my case he’s rarely wrong!

As a fan of Lovecraftian horror and Conan Doyle-style detective fiction, I had many misgivings about this particular mashup. I think the resurgence of interest in Sherlock Holmes as a media property in recent years made me more than a little suspicious of publisher intentions – it could easily be seen as a quick cash grab.

From the first pages, I knew this was something entirely unoriginal but oh so endearingly well written! Author James Lovegrove wears his heart on his sleeve, with an obvious love of both source materials and a clear professional, literary understanding of the respective narrative, style and pacing of each. It also caused me to see how many similarities there are between the two in these important areas.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe this book is in any way high art – but it is rollicking good fun, easy to read and highly entertaining, cherry-picking some of the best aspects of Lovecraft’s horror and Conan Doyle’s consulting detective. The entertainment factor for me was very high and I’m looking forward to the second book in this series that currently sits in my bookcase, waiting patiently to be read.

I also have to give a nod to the design team at Titan Books. The cover design and chapter plates are superbly in character, and even the typeface and paper used adds a good deal to the nostalgia elements of the book. It feels and smells like something that would’ve graced my late father’s library shelves – certainly not a bad thing!

Incredibly stylish and a fun, fast read.

View all my reviews

One final note, it was announced last month that Lovegrove is one of three writers chosen to pen novels set in Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe, something else to look forward to!

Black Panther

Black Panther (2018). Directed by Ryan Coogler.

I’ve had a very mixed weekend. I was considering going to the movies yesterday but my painful back, hip and knees would’ve made sitting still uncomfortable. My body is telling me the seasons are starting to change, and that really is depressing – I haven’t finished my love affair with this summer yet. But with some careful management (stretching, hot packs and yoga), I managed to get some quality gardening time in, and planted a heap of vegetable seedlings. Also yesterday, there was a state election here in Tasmania, and from my point of view (and anyone working in the arts sector) the results were less than encouraging.

So, I was in the perfect mood for some blockbuster action to take my mind off things, and (with a makeshift back bolster) went to the local Village Cinema to see the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Black Panther didn’t disappoint! It has an excellent premise, a top-notch cast and some fine action moments. The film begins with a really beautiful animation that backgrounds the history of Wakanda, the fictional African nation that is the only place on earth to find the equally fictional vibranium (the metal used to construct Captain America’s shield) and this gives new viewers enough backstory to get them through the film. The story picks up from the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016) where Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home after the death of his father to become king of Wakanda.

Ulysses Klaue (played with manic relish by Andy Serkis) makes a return, as does CIA agent Emmett Ross (Martin Freeman) – but the rest of the main cast are black and many of the strongest characters are female. It’s also pertinent to point out that all the female characters are appropriately dressed for their roles, don’t try and fight in high heels, don’t require saving and have some of the best dialogue. In fact, at one point a character does complain about having to wear a wig to a casino, which (for me) really drives the point home.

The action scenes are for the most part, the high quality I expect from the MCU, but there’s a couple of ropey moments that don’t quite work. A car chase in Seoul (part of which features in the trailer) is a real standout and will certainly bear repeat viewing when the DVD comes out. Narratively, it’s a little baggy and threatened to get bogged down in the second act but the final act is very good and (unlike so many films in this genre) I don’t think the last big fight scene outstays its welcome. I’ll be seeking out other films by Ryan Coogler now for sure!

For me, three things really made this film work. Firstly, at one point I genuinely forgot I was watching a Marvel film, I was fully invested in the characters and story in the moment, without all the add-on Marvel baggage. Secondly, the two young boys in the row behind, their gasps and obvious delight reminded me how important pure action entertainment is.

But above all, I really liked that this film raised questions of how to deal with refugees, sharing knowledge, resources and how (for a film that’s based on a comic book), they strove to resolve those questions. It brought to mind the often quoted phrase “when you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence”.

Long live the king!

Visages Villages – Faces Places

Faces Places (originally released as Visages Villages) (2017) Directed by JR and Agnes Varda.

I saw this French language documentary a few weeks ago at the end of its run at the State Cinema in Hobart and I cannot get it out of my mind.

Agnes Varda is well known to me as the sole female director of the French New Wave but I confess I hadn’t heard of JR, Varda’s young co-director. Apparently JR is a French photographer and muralist and I must say, very engaging in front of the camera.

The documentary was shot over 18 months, with the two of them travelling around France in JR’s wonderful photo booth van, which also printed large format photographs. Their core idea was to create ephemeral black and white photographic art works that would eventually be worn away by the elements, depicting people of the area. These took the form of oversized images pasted on the exteriors of buildings, bridges, factories and even shipping containers.

I loved this film at many levels. A good deal of it was shot in rural France and there was a beauty beyond the idyllic pastoral scenery that Varda and JR managed to elicit from the people they spoke to. I confess I shed tears too when Jeanine, the last occupant of the condemned miners cottages, saw her two storey image on the outside of her home.

Perhaps the most poignant scenes for me were with Varda talking frankly with JR about growing old, losing her sight (the cornerstone of her art), and the friends and loved ones who have died. I felt these scenes are the spine of the film and despite the sombre feel, Varda has a sense of humour and clear zest for life that at times matches the much younger JR. There is also sadness, particularly when Varda talks about her husband who died some years ago and (without giving too much away) the manner in which she is treated by someone later in the film.

All in all, this is a quiet yet spectacular and very moving documentary, which addresses questions about ageing, being completely in the moment and engaging fully in a life well lived. It’s stayed with me for weeks and although it’s only early days, I think come December it’ll be in my best films of  2018. I recommend it to anyone who has a beating heart.

Summer in the City – Home Made Tempeh

It’s been hot and steamy the last few weeks in Hobart – well, hot by the standards of the most southerly capital city in Australia. Many mainland Australians think Tasmania is just cold all the time but (as a South Australian who has lived and worked in desert conditions) I rather think we have proper seasons (sometimes all in one day) and because this is an island, when the temperature rises as it did here today to 31 C (88 F) it’s the equivalent of 36 C (97 F) anywhere else on the mainland.

As I type (early on a sticky Saturday evening), the rain has finally come after days of teasing, topping up the water tanks and bringing much needed relief to my vegetables and fruit. In my tiny kitchen the dehydrator’s been running all week and I’ve dried nearly all of the nectarine crop and made a start on the prune plums.

Dried, home grown nectarines

Consequently, it’s been very warm in there and I took the opportunity to try out something I can only do this time of year – make my own tempeh. Although I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, I love tempeh sliced, marinated and fried. I then use it in stir fry or just on its own with a fresh garden salad. My friend Heather says it’s fabulous fried and used in veggie burgers, so I’m going to be trying that very soon!

There’s heaps of YouTube tutorials available but when I was researching this I really liked this from Veganlovlie and took her advice to buy a reliable starter from her source, Top Cultures in Belgium – oh the joy of online shopping!

Two important things to note before we start (so I’ll put them in bold)

  1. Like any food preparation, cleanliness is paramount. In the case of working with a specific ferment, this becomes critical. Make sure everything that comes in contact with your precious beans/tempeh is scrupulously clean.
  2. I haven’t pasteurised my tempeh, so for all intents and purposes it is a raw product and must be cooked before eating.

Anyway, this is what I did.

Home Made Tempeh (makes 4 blocks)

2 cups soy beans (washed and soaked)

5 tabs apple cider vinegar

1 teas dried rhizopus starter culture

Bags or moulds with drainage holes for the tempeh

Method:

Wash the beans thoroughly, rinse and repeat. Soak them in clean water for at least 8 hours (or even overnight).

At this stage, while the beans are soaking, I suggest prepping the bags or containers you intend to use for processing the tempeh. I opted for zip-lock plastic sandwich bags because I had some on hand and I can reuse them but I’ve been making vegetable bags out of baby muslin and I’d like to try something like that as a more sustainable option. Bags are easy to clean and afford a great view of the process but the problem with plastic (apart from the waste issue) is potential sweating, turning your lovely soy beans into a smelly mess, so I used a skewer and poked holes every couple of centimetres (about 1 inch) all over four bags.

After soaking, drain the beans, wash and cover them with clean water. Cook in a large pot over medium heat until they’re nearly done. (This took about 30 minutes) Add the vinegar and stir it through. Continue cooking and when the beans are cooked to your taste, (about another 10 minutes for me) drain most of the water off. Return the pan and beans to a low heat to cook off the rest of the water. Stir continually at this step to stop any sticking. Your beans should be moist but with no residual water in the bottom of the pan.

Allow to cool to about 35 C (95 F) and add the teaspoon of starter. I suggest take your time and mix this through very carefully. I’ve made quite a bit of cheese over the years and found out the hard way that ensuring the starter is evenly distributed is a really critical step.

Next, evenly distribute the beans into the bags (mine made just under 500g cooked beans per bag) and working as fast as possible, carefully shape them into small rectangular cakes, expel excess air and zip-lock them. Finally, put the cakes on a clean board or non-metallic tray and weigh them down with another board, keeping them somewhere warm and draught free for at least the first 12 hours. After that, the fermentation will generate enough heat to keep it going.

I put a scrupulously clean wooden board on top of my monster dehydrator (to take advantage of the escaping heat) and placed the bags on the board, weighing them down with my old and very heavy ceramic lasagne dish.

Within 12 hours, it was clear there was fermentation and the bags were quite warm, a great sign!

By 24 hours the fungus was clearly visible and looked very clean, white and with no discolouration – more great signs!

 

By 36 hours I called it as a successful experiment and carefully removed the first cake from the plastic bag and sliced it up.

It worked out incredibly well and it was a very easy way to make one of my favourite foods. I’ll certainly be making more of this while the weather stays warm and freezing it for use in the cooler months. Next, I want to try making chickpea tempeh.

But tomorrow night, Tempeh Stir Fry for dinner!

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