Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Fight Club, Reprise

July 12, 2013
Obviously, major Fight Club spoilers ahead. The movie is 14 years old and I’ve just watched it, here’s a few thoughts channeled through Jack’s head. tl;dr, thoughts on a movie that seemed to be about Marxist alienation and revolution, then became “OMG MINDBLOWN who are we really and what do we want to do?”.

Dear Tyler,

It’s been a while. I bet you weren’t expecting to hear from me again. To be honest, I didn’t expect to see you ever again either. But asylums and prison change a man. I learnt a few things in there, took up a hobby or two, picked my life up when they let me out. I still get alternating bouts of mania and boredom every once in a while, but not like back in the bad old days. But, tonight is one of those nights, so I thought I’d write you, seeing as we didn’t exactly part on the friendliest of terms.
Fight Club. It’s been years and they’re still talking about it. They even wrote a book and made a film about it, moderately successful, big hit with young men. Our fifteen minutes of fame, immortalised in celluloid for the next generation of the angry and downtrodden, required viewing for the disillusioned and indebted college dropout waiting tables, up there with the likes of V for Vendetta and Brave New World. And Marx of course, let’s not forget Marx.
It’s fitting how the movie cut you out right at the end; your splicing pornography into kiddie flicks, in reverse. I’ve got to tell you, it’s not just the movie that’s cut you out. The world’s slowly cutting you out. I’ve cut you out and left you behind. The thing is, most people picked up that you aren’t relevant. You weren’t a dashing daredevil or a righteous crusader, you weren’t right, you were wrong.
I can imagine what you’d say. You’d say Hollywood toned it down, they couldn’t very well wholeheatedly condemn the capitalism that lines their pockets keeps their boot heels over the necks of their waiters, their chauffeurs, their ambulance drivers, their plumbers. They cut me out of the closing frames and pretend that love can conquer suffering, that lying back and taking it can replace passion. You’ve forgotten the passion, the adrenaline of the fight, the blood in the mouth, the pain that proves you’re not a cog. Too few taste it, and too many forget, lulled into comfortable degeneracy by cheap pleasures and empty work.
Do you know what you really were Tyler? Not a maverick, not a connoisseur of life, not some kind of Neo fighting the Matrix. You were a madman. A madman and a charming asshole. How else could you have tapped all those guys’ mild unhappiness and twisted it into Project Mayhem? Remember when I said “I felt like destroying something beautiful”? That was you. Charismatic, forceful, non-conformist, you really were everything I wanted to be. Too bad you had a fanatical one track mind. Although, to be honest I guess that was partly my fault.
Your fanaticism was a comfortable lie. You think people couldn’t, shouldn’t, stand being alienated from their labour? You think it hasn’t been going on for centuries? Work happens, shit happens, but people learn to deal with it, they don’t let it eat their entire lives. Only the disaffected and disturbed fell for you, because they didn’t have things like love or other people or occupations besides the Sisyphean task of being grinded down. So dull and so angry. But not everyone is like that, and that’s why not everything is burning they way you wanted it.
There’s a reason we have laws, and it’s not just to put people like you and me away when we’ve been bad. We have laws because we know we’re animals who will bite, claw, tear, and punch each other into a bloody pulp because it feels good. We have them because we want to stay alive, and sometimes we don’t want to be beaten halfway to death. It’s called a trade-off; it’s a term you might not be familiar with, so take your time. We trade some of our freedom to blow buildings up so that when we’re done laying into each other we can tap out and the other guy will stop. So that we can go home and indulge in our wives, or our woodworking, or our shitty golf handicap.
It’s not that I’m completely selling out on you though. Laws are always up for negotiation. Thing is, when you threaten to kill everyone at the table if you don’t get your way, you’ve pretty much already lost. You’ve just got to keep up the poker face and not let the other players get to you. Find the calm, find your peaceful cave, while you play the game, and you’ve won.
There is one thing you did do right I thought I should mention. Remember Raymond K. Hessel? The guy from the convenience store who wanted to be a vet? I’ve always said, on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero, but that one time you, in a twisted way, gave life instead of taking it. That’s perhaps the one good thing you ever did. But it wasn’t enough Tyler, and I’m done with you.

You are Jack’s past, and you’re not coming back.

Review: The Secrets of A Fire King

August 12, 2012

Reblogged from Goodreads

There are books that have substance, and there are books that are pure style. Not that there’s anything wrong with style: see this short piece about Joyce and the “New-Agey claptrap” Paulo Coelho churns out.

But, it is exceedingly difficult to write a readable book that is pure style with, at the heart of it, very little substance. Edwards tries, and the result is a collection of short stories (fictional vignettes really) that falls far short of her debut novel, The Memory Keeper’s daughter. The stories focus on a character, and tries to play on her transformation or growth, or a turning point in their life, but often fails. Engagement in the character falls short, and is inadequately replaced by far too many adjectives, or unconnected passages that try to connect the reader to the scene.

In short, I found the book tiring and unsatisfying. Unsatisfying, because the stories lack meaningful conflict and resolution (more the latter than the former), and tiring because the writing style gets trite pretty quickly. The stories are mostly plotless (something that I can envision working, but only in the hands of a few truly skillful authors), and the author doesn’t pull it off. It was a struggle to finish reading

Review: Hellstrom’s Hive

April 18, 2012

Most people first encounter Herbert through Dune (and all the subsequent books), and some of them go on to read his other stuff. I guess that makes me some sort of bastard child, seeing as I did read some of the Dune books before this. But I read them in my (very) early teens, and don’t remember much of them. For sure, they were more entertainment than tomes bursting with ideas at the time.

Seeing other people’s high regard for Dune, I feel that I owe the books a revisit with the maturity and wisdom of age. But to be fair, Hellstrom’s Hive, even though it has been described as “right at the lowest point of [Herbert’s] form and it shows”, is still pretty good, notwithstanding the anachronisms to be expected of most sci-fi written during the cold war.

The novel focuses its attention on the core idea of a human hive society, built on the principles learnt from insects, and it delves deep into the implications of that idea. It is not a campy one-dimensional take on an alternative social structure; it weaves a careful investigation and thoughtful consideration of the alternative society with a decently paced plot that gets the reader to the finish.

The book takes time to delve into the perspectives of multiple characters, both inside and outside the Hive. By moving between both Hive perspective and motivations, and the all-too-human pawns and powerbrokers in the secretive government agency investigating it, the book forces the reader to consider competing models of social organisation.

The instinctive revulsion towards the de-individualisation (and, presumably, de-humanisation)of Hive life that the book provokes is balanced by an unsympathetic portrayal of uncaring bureaucracy. I found it impossible to cheer for either side; the greatest sympathy I could muster was for an individual pawn of the agency and his personal struggle in a world devolving into madness. The presence of human characters in the book forces the reader to confront not just the philosophical implications of the idea being discussed, but also to evaluate our gut reactions and to consider tangible consequences of ideology.

The book ends at a lull in the action, leaving the reader wondering about the fate of the world as the power of balance shifts. It may be unsatisfying, but it also forces the reader to decide what sort of ending he would prefer, and what that reflects of his worldview and his attitude towards the invisible social laws and forces of human life.

Never Let Me Go (to sleep)

August 30, 2011

I have a (mostly) unread collection of Kazuo Ishiguro short stories sitting on my growing I’ve-bought-these-so-I-really ought-to-get-down-to-reading-them pile of books. I put it aside after two stories (for what, I don’t remember) and keep telling myself I should get back to it, but I haven’t for quite a long while now. Yet now I think, for the first time in a long while, I’m truly excited about a book, without having even come anywhere close to it before.

Mark Romanek’s film adaptation of Never Let Me Go is devastatingly good; and the critics tend to agree the novel is much better. The film is the so very sad: it transcends mere heartbreak and enters the territory or literal and literary tragedy.

The film’s main premise, of widespread human cloning to meet organ donation needs, strains at the boundaries of credulity and is its Achilles’s heel. It makes the going-ons seem surreal, and all that less believable. It leaves a shadow in the back of one’s mind, constantly nagging, asking why the characters seem so normal and calm in a world apparently gone mad. But, in spite of this the actors do a brilliant job, bringing poignancy to their characters’ desperate struggle to live. The dystopia of the film’s setting is so absurd and the characters’ attempts to fight fate so futile; combined with the humanity the actors bring results in a product that forces us to confront what it means to live, to breathe, to be human in an ultimately hostile world. It is terrifyingly good.

The Holy Machine (no spoilers, I promise)

April 12, 2011

Review time: The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

For those who have heard of him, describing Chris Beckett as the potential “next big thing’ in science fiction will not be surprising. As for the science fiction readers amongst us who find his name unfamiliar, well, perhaps they should sample what he has written.

I first encountered Beckett’s work through his 2009 collection of short stories, The Turing Test. It tantalised and hinted at good things to come, and with his first novel (first published 2004, but only more widely known now), Beckett has delivered something deliciously thought-provoking. It is this sort of writing that gives science fiction new life, showcasing how much more rich than the (rather juvenile) style of the old greats (e.g. Asimov, Clarke) it can be. It is this sort of writing that keeps pulling me back to science fiction, no matter the effort I put in to explore other genres, because while it is science fiction it also transcends classification into a mere genre.

That, of course, is not to say that The Holy Machine is a perfect book. Right off the bat I will admit it is flawed in some ways. For example, the dialogue is clunky at times, and on a few occasions there is heavy information-dumping. But, as a whole, this book remains a delightful read.

(Like I promised) I won’t spoil the book. The Holy Machine concerns itself with one George Simling (there is a rather amusing reason for his peculiar name),  chief protagonist and romantic hero. He is a citizen of the city of Illyria, the last bastion of science and reason in a world gone mad with irrational religious fervour. Yet, technological paradise on earth, with every physical need easily satiated is not enough for happiness. Our story follows out protagonist as he makes the difficult journey to find  meaning in life whilst dwelling in a city whose only God is blind reason, and the parallel metamorphosis from lonely misanthrope living with his mother to a fully-formed person.

This journey takes us through a varied landscape of ideas, ranging from a reconsideration of the old idea of robot consciousness, to the limitations of reason and the place for faith, and to the meaning of self and sentience. These ideas are in and of themselves not special; science fiction has always been a genre of ideas. However, what Beckett has done well is to weave these ideas into a compelling narrative with good pacing and interesting, evolving characters. And therein lies the secret to the good science fiction book: a book which is at one level a pleasure to read, and at another level a thought-provoking read, inviting the reader to pause, to consider the idea being discussed, to review it against his preconceived notions and to experience an intellectual conversation between his own ideas and the book’s.

The Holy Machine can be easily read in a single afternoon and be quite enjoyable. Taking the time to read and consider the ideas contained within, it becomes tempting to reread it immediately, or perhaps to force it upon someone, simply for the sake of having someone to discuss it with.

Comics are not just pictures

March 23, 2010

Here’s something to break the monotony of exams (or, for the lucky who are done, to celebrate). Or, if you’re that other sort, something to assist the procrastinating of last-minute studying. Inappropriate or not, I do suggest you give Mr. Winston Rowntree a go.

As comics go, Mr. Rowntree is not your typical artist. He is not Stan Lee, nor does he aspire to be. He speaks much more to the soul of human existence. If you look past the walls of text and see instead the master  storyteller with the gift of illustrative prowess, you will enjoy his work greatly. He does Nazism with humour, metaphysics, atheism, music, job dissatisfaction, apathy, drunken video game characters, award show cynicism, personality, fantastic sci-fi short stories, and incisive, personal, insight on life. Oh, and sheer ridiculous humour.

Mr. Rowntree has also done some impressive graphic novels: Sector 41 will leave you wanting more and Captain Estar goes to Heaven will haunt you for a while yet. And of course, take a look at the (not exactly children-friendly) Guide to Life.

The Blue Mansion: A Singapore film to watch

October 22, 2009

One part muder mystery, one part family drama, and one part corporate takeover saga, The Blue Mansion is one hundred percent captivating.

And the kicker? It’s a Singaporean film.

So, like the three coffins for the film’s one dead man’s funeral, you get three movies for the price of one. But, seriously now, there is a whole lot of other good reasons to not miss this film.

Centering on a number of perennial Singaporean favourites, The Blue Mansion follows the death of Singapore’s richest man, tycoon Wee Bak Chuan – the self-styled Pineapple King. As the two sons fight over the legacy of the family business, a murder probe is raised regarding the death. As the ghost of Wee Bak Chuan watches, events unfold and reveal dark secrets of children and family.

Chilling as it sounds, the film is more endearing than terrifying. As brother is pitted against brother, we also see the true side of the revered patriach, denounced, in not so many words, as “that heartless old bastard.” Yet, we also see attempts at reconciliation and overcoming hidden flaws.

The star in this film is not any particular character, but the family as a whole. We see exactly the role the respected, but also feared and hated patriach played in his family by observing the ramifications of his death. The brokeness that wealth gives rise to is revealed for all to see, and we simultaneously weep for and denounce all these tragically flawed people.

The film has its light moments too though. Watch out for Huzir Sulaiman as the uproriously funny Detective Subramaniam Suresh. Of note also are Adrian Pang, who slips right into the skin of younger brother Wee Teck Meng, anger-issues and all, as well as Patrick Teoh playing the indignant and highly beliveable patriach. Followers of Singapore TV will also recognise names such as Lim Kay Siu, Neo Swee Lin, and Tan Kheng Hua.

Without revealing too much, The Blue Mansion is a tight, well written and nicely delivered film. Viewers will be enthralled by the plight and struggles of thse super-rich and yet still so flawed characters. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the rich interplay between characters in this refreshingly good Singapore film. (instead of the usual insipid fare)

Star Trek: The Review

June 1, 2009

Who would have thought Stark Trek could make a guy cry? Watched it yesterday, and it was rather impressive. To quote Simon Pegg (Scotty):  “I once said every odd-numbered Trek film was crap, so fate put me in this one to show me I was talking out of my ass”

For starters, there’s that tear-inducing introduction, sans-opening credits (really, who needs A-list stars?). War heroism, valiant sacrifice, and conflicted love between service and family, pulled off superbly by Chris Hemsworth (as George Samuel Kirk, Sr) and Jennifer Morrison (as Winona Kirk).

<~Nerd alert~>

Well, let’s get the science geekiness out of the way first shall we? Time travel is almost always far too contrived to make for a good story, but Star Trek pulls if off decently. Intended to get around continuity problems with the rest of the series, the film establishes an alternate timeline. It eliminates causality paradoxes, but does put into question Nero’s motivation for revenge, considering his vengeance is wreaked merely onalternate timeline counterparts to those he’s sworn revenge.

Disregarding the Trek staples of Warp drive and beam transportation (beam me up Scotty!), there are few scientific anomalies, provided orbital skydivers are sufficiently unaffected by wind to hit platforms ten metres across from 200km up

<~end nerd alert~>

What’s more impressive though, is that Star Trek is a sci-fi, space opera that works, without any protracted space battles. The customary ten minute climax involving two flagships trading blows never materialises. What does materialse, however, are Spock and Kirk on on board Nero’s vessel and a far more satisfying end to this film’s villain.

Of course, what’s an (almost) explosion-less film without good acting? The cast, devoid of A-listers, pulls it off magnificently, with inspired performances by Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, as well as Anton Yelchin in the supporting role of Pavel Chekov. Quinto, pulls off the conflicted not Vulcan, yet not-quite-human Spock, exuding trademark Spock cool and composure in a sublime performance. Pine, meanwhile, plays Kirk with all the panache of the space cowboy that he is (taking his character’s regular beatings in stride). The supporting cast does not disappoint either, reinventing their characters while capturing the essence of their appeal.

Although part-action, part-drama, Star Trek is wholly entertaining, with its share of slapstick moments and the characters’ classic humour. Long-time Trekkies will not be disappointed either, with references and in-jokes littering the film. Not forgetting the series’ tradition of social commentary, the scenes of Spock’s childhood, beleaguered by his mixed ancestry, as well as Kirk’s aimless wanderings prior to Starfleet, are thought-provoking.

All-in-all, Star Trek is a well-executed, space action drama, that doesn’t rely solely on cinematics. Tight storytelling and stellar performances keep the audience rapt, and asking for more as the credits roll.

(4/5 stars)