review

Deep breath.

Hello world!

I know it has been over six months since I’ve updated, and it’s terrible. Every so often I would open up my blog and stare determinedly at the “new post” button, but I never managed to muster up the willpower to write an entry. I think the problem was that there was just so much going on in my life, that the task of condensing it into bite-sized paragraphs seemed insurmountable. For most of the past half-year, I’ve been playing catch-up, week to week, with all the things I’m supposed to be and do. I think now, at least, I’m glad to say I’ve reached a point where I’m able to take a deep breath and refocus.

In February of this grand year, I started my training in psychiatry. Working in an inpatient psychiatric ward at a busy public hospital has been hectic and challenging, at many points. But it has also been immensely eye-opening, memorable and rewarding. But more reflections on psychiatry training to come later.

I also did not finish my book. I hate admitting failure: it gives me a cold shudder in the pit of my gut. But it’s true—sadly, I didn’t achieve what I set out to do in my six months off from work. I wrote up to chapter 23 of a planned 30, and then—bam!—life got in the way. And then I lost faith in the story, and I haven’t yet picked it up again. I haven’t written anything for a few months, struggling to find inspiration amidst the busy-ness of fulltime work and study.

A Time article reminded me recently:

Failing is OK. Not failing is not OK. If you don’t flop every so often, you’re not trying hard enough.

I’ll keep trying.

In the vein of cheesy, motivational quotes, I’ve embarked on a bit of a personal mission to be less cynical and more positive. About two months ago, rather uncharacteristically, I browsed “inspirational quotes” on Pinterest and felt immensely uplifted by the words. I’ve even become one of those people with an inspirational quote on my phone wallpaper. I know, I can’t believe it. But being more positive to people around me on a day to day basis has had such a tangible effect. As soon as I shifted my mindset and behaviour, I noticed changes. My day became less stressful. People responded to me more warmly. I was able to be a soothing presence when others were stressed, and to give more to help out. When a coworker was short to me and others, I understood that she was probably stressed out and used to being spoken to in a grumpy manner. So instead of shutting her out, I decided to do her a favour. I think I’ve just realised the magic of returning coldness with warmth.

Anyway, onto some book recommendations!

Non-Fiction

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik 

stuff matters

This is an informative, interesting and fun read. Miodownik is a materials scientist with a flair for words. There are ten chapters in this book; each chapter discusses a different material in our daily lives—glass, charcoal, steel, concrete, etc—from a historical and scientific perspective. It’s pretty eye-opening and you really learn to marvel at the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary substances around us. Highly recommended.

China in Ten Words – Yu Hua

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Ever since reading the graphic novel A Chinese Life and visiting China at the end of 2013 (and oh yeah, maybe because I’m ethnically Chinese too…ha ha), I’ve been somewhat interested in 20th century Chinese history and the shaping of modern Chinese culture. That’s why I was quick to snap up this book by Yu Hua when I found it in Green Apple Books in San Francisco. It’s a collection of ten essays, each one reflecting on an aspect of Chinese culture from a personal and analytical perspective. For someone living outside China, it’s fascinating. Another highly recommended read.

Fiction

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise & The Search – Gene Luen Yang

Avatar_The_Last_Airbender_The_Promise_Part_1_coverAvatar_The_Last_Airbender_The_Search_Part_1_cover

These spin-off comics are set after the events of the original series. The Promise and the Search are each an instalment of three, and there’s a third trilogy, The Rift, as well. I had my doubts, but Gene Luen Yang’s artwork is wonderfully lively and the story stays true to the spirit of the series. These comics are very fun reads, and The Search is especially compelling. Worth reading if you’re a fan of the series!

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More next time,

Grace

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Movie Review: Made in Australia

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I first met Matthew Victor Pastor on a train station platform in Melbourne, perhaps seven years ago, when he was a film student. Since then, Pastor has gone on to create several award-winning short films, as well as his self-exploratory full-length feature, Made in Australia, which won Best Guerilla Film at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival 2013.

Made in Australia is a tell-all autobiographical tale that engulfs the viewer with its rawness and intimacy. We are compelled to keep watching this downward spiral of colliding relationships almost out of a sense of voyeurism and horrified curiosity. The lines between fact and fiction are blurred, as some actors, or “players”, portray themselves, including Pastor, his Hong Kong amour Janice Keung, and his parents.

Pastor takes the viewer on his coming-of-age story. From the opening scenes of Janice, naked and sobbing in a bathtub, and Pastor, standing nude on a beach with all his imperfections in front of the camera, the viewer knows at once that this is a film that won’t hold back. We travel with him from his present-day relationships back to the Hong Kong of several years ago, and to his tumultuous affair with an older woman. The film explores themes of humiliation, “losing face”, identity, the collision of Western and Chinese cultures, and the full spectrum of human emotion. Pastor doesn’t shy away from showing the messy, bitter nature of intimate relationships, and the way they fall apart.

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Pastor plays himself commendably. He has a manner that is wonderfully self-deprecating and yet, somehow, narcissistic and over-dramatic. His youthful character, who gives way to all his emotions, runs into traffic impulsively, and shouts out unrealistically melodramatic phrases almost as though he just wants to see their effect on the other, contrasts with the reserved, composed, sad, and fascinating Janice, who has a story of her own that we only glimpse in pieces.

One of the best moments of the film was a freeze-frame in the midst of heightened tension, when Pastor’s voiceover states “people act very strange when they lose face”. Pastor prods at the Asian phenomenon of “losing face,” ie. losing respect, dignity, sense of self-worth, but never really pursues this theme further. The film has several of these moments that hint at more powerful themes but ultimately zooms back in to the tale of the protagonists.

I enjoyed the patient, tense editing of Made in Australia and the wonderful use of silence, static and basic colours. The gritty feel of Hong Kong was also conveyed through detailed shots of apartment blocks, abandoned lots, discarded rubble, views of the bay, hotel rooms, elevators and little details inside the apartments.

Overall, Made in Australia is a striking debut film that is brutally honest and bursting with lust and emotion. It’s an interesting exploration of the lies we tell ourselves and others, and the various faces we wear in the hope of achieving happiness. Pastor has a clear obsession with personal stories, emotions to the brink of madness, and relationships. He tells his own tale unflinchingly.

Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair

Before Watchmen - Ozymandias

After reading and reviewing  Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, I was left with mixed feelings. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist trying a second book in DC’s spin-off series. And of course, it had to be Ozymandias.

The books themselves are hardcover volumes with lovely, glossy pages and vivid colours. The title and contents pages are done in classic Watchmen yellow. At the back of the book are several pages of extra artwork, mostly character sketches—a joy to browse.

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Ozymandias #1-6 Collected – Writer: Len Wein; Artist: Jae Lee

As soon as I read the first few pages of Ozymandias’ story arc, I was hooked. Firstly, Len Wein’s writing style was much more lavish, rich, and just delightful than J. Michael Straczynski’s in Nite Owl. I relished his command and confidence with language. As the story is an autobiographical account, this works well: Wein gives Veidt a grand, egotistical voice that adds to the almost-deification of mortal into god, as Veidt attempts to change the fate of humanity.

Jae Lee’s also provides stunning line work to complement the story. The best parts of Lee’s art included daring side-profiles and powerful illustrations of movement and combat. A visually marvellous work.

The Ozymandias arc provides backstory into Veidt’s early life and then his choices in the lead up to the events of Watchmen. It’s a thought-provoking character study of a man whose lofty ideals justify personal atrocities. Overall, a great read. Liked how it tied into 20th century events. Loved that the Comedian got some screen time, too. 4 out of 5 stars.

The Curse of the Crimson Corsair – Writer: Len Wein & John Higgins; Artist: John Higgins

Reads a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean. Young Scotsman Gordon McClachlan survives a shipwreck and is scooped up by the undead crew of the Flying Dutchmen, captained by the Crimson Corsair, a tough guy in a bandanna who says creepy things. McClachlan must then embark on a quest to regain his soul. I’m still not too sure where this story fits in to the whole Watchmen universe. It stands alone; perhaps a sister story to Tales of the Black Freighter, the serial pirate-horror comic that was interspersed throughout the story of Watchmen. Maybe I missed something? Altogether entirely average: entertaining but only moderately satisfying. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Dollar Bill – Writer: Len Wein; Artist: Steve Rude

Bonus story! Gotta love that. A short snippet of Dollar Bill’s life—from athletic but academically-stunted high school student, to struggling actor, and eventually to caped mascot. Because he draws heaps of publicity, Dollar Bill is accepted into Minutemen, but almost as soon as his adventures begin, he meets his tragic end. 3 out of 5 stars, I guess. It was a little funny.

Redeemed the series for me! I may pick up yet another volume. Stay tuned :)

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TV Review: BBC’s Wonders of the Universe (2011)

WOTU

Wonders of the Universe is a four-part television miniseries produced in 2011 by BBC, Discovery Channel and Science Channel and hosted by physicist Professor Brian Cox. It followed on from the successful series, Wonders of the Solar System, which aired in 2010.

WOTU has four episodes, each one hour long, with a cool name and a focus on a particular aspect of the universe.

The first episode, Destiny, talks about the time course of our universe: its origins, and its ultimate fate, and compels us to try to compare the eye-blink of a human lifespan to the epic timescale of cosmic events.

In Stardust, the second episode, Professor Cox discusses the elements of the universe and how they are formed through nuclear fusion in stars. This one’s more of a high-school chemistry lesson.

The third episode, Falling, is a contemplation of the effects of gravity across the universe.

The last episode, Messengers, addresses how the speed of light allows us to get information about the universe past and present, but also the limits to that information.

 

You’re probably thinking that, at one hour each, these episodes are lo-o-ong. And they are. They felt long, to me, and I often had to break my viewing up into twenty or thirty minute blocks, simply because I would become distracted or sleepy. The visuals/animations are quite breathtaking and beautiful, but the pacing is definitely a bit on the slower side. Cox as host is impassioned and excited, but the delivery of information is slow, in bite-sized morsels, and made to be quite easily accessible to the layperson.

If you remember most of high school chemistry/physics, and have a passing interest in astronomy, you’ll probably know most of the content of the documentary already. There was definitely some old material in there that had me yawning, but there were also a lot of facts that I didn’t know, which made it worth watching. I found episodes 3 and 4 most interesting.

The strategy of Wonders is to take the viewer to various exotic and obscure locations around Earth and draw analogies to phenomena in space, which is a pleasant journey. You get to tour Earth and space, all from the lazy comfort of your couch!

I’ve not seen Brian Cox host a show before, and I can’t decide whether I liked him or not. It took me a while to get used to his permanently smiling face, but his boyish delight in science definitely added to the appeal of the show.

Recommended if you want an aesthetically-appealing, not overly complex introduction to some of the major scientific concepts of our universe.

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Week 3 of Hermit Life + Game Review: To the Moon

Reading: Before Watchmen – Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair
Listening: Owsey & Resotone – Broke My Promise & Stared to the Sea; Klingande – Jubel
Watching: Elementary, Parks & Recreation, Korra, eagerly awaiting the Twelfth Doctor…

I’m in my third week of writing life!

I’ve written about 15,000 words of a first draft—some of it I’m happy with, some of it I know I’ll need to rewrite later. I’m also revelling in my newfound freedom with all the joy and abandon of a pig in a bog. I’ve been watching stuff, reading stuff, studying stuff and, when my introverted side is entirely sated, crawling out of my hole to achieve social connection.

hot star chicken

Over the weekend, I tried fancy pizza and gelato in Fitzroy. I explored the fowl wonders of Melbourne (my friend organised a city-roaming, chicken-eating adventure) and devoured chicken cooked in Taiwanese, Chinese and Korean fashions. I also played too much soccer, after chugging Nurofen last week and luring myself into a false sense of recovery. After unusual amounts of physical activity on Sunday, and a game on Monday, my ankle is killing me, but not as much as the fact that I have so much time to play, but my body isn’t physically allowing me to do so :(

So today I am resigned to being a couch potato. Whilst I am sedentary, I thought I’d do a quick review of the indie adventure point-and-click game, To the Moon. This game came highly commended to me several months ago by my dear friend Frank. I’m not at all a gamer, so bear in mind that I have zero qualification or authority to write this review. That being said, it’s a lovely, short introduction to the gaming world for a non-gamer, or for anyone who likes a good story.

To the Moon was designed by Kan “Reives” Gao and released in November 2011. It’ s a simple, 2D point-and-click role playing game that tells the story of an old man named Johnny who, on his deathbed, contacts Sigmund Corp, an agency that has the technology to implant artificial memories in a person’s mind. Johnny has an inexplicable wish to go to the moon, and two doctors arrive at his house to delve back into his memories and fulfil Johnny’s wish. As they explore Johnny’s past, an intriguing story emerges surround his late wife, River, and Johnny’s childhood.

Playing To the Moon is really more like reading an animated novel or watching an interactive movie than playing a game. I didn’t really feel like I had become a gamer through this four-hour experience! The story is sweet, clever, poignant and had a good amount of unpredictability. I appreciated how every character had a personality, especially the Drs Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, who had some hilariously entertaining dialogue between them.

Although the graphics are pretty basic, they are cute and also pleasantly eerie at different points in the story. The gameplay, I have to say, was frustrating and slow at some points. Wandering around multiple scenes to collect various hidden ‘mementos’ became repetitive and frustrating, particularly as I just wanted to find out what happened next in the story.

I guess that goes to show that although the story is a little soppy, it definitely did fascinate me, perplex me and leave me wanting to play more every time we took a break. The thing that really completes this game is the beautiful, evocative soundtrack. The threads of For River that float through the game really highlight, to me, the tenderness of the tale and the attention to detail.

A clever, emotional story with an interesting science-fiction premise that can be played through in about four hours.

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr Manhattan/Moloch

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Before Watchmen: DC’s spinoff prequel series to the 1986 genre-defying graphic novel that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. This is the first of the prequels I’ve read. I’ve been pretty reluctant to pick it up, because I’ve always seen Watchmen as being a standalone masterpiece, especially impressive as a closed-off, non-continuous work. I like books that are complete, elegant, finished, structured, polished. But the nature of comics universes is to expand and expand upon storylines…even if the original creators aren’t involved and don’t approve.

The lovely hardcover copy that I got my hands on (Thanks, local library! I have loved you since I was three years old!) collects several issues together in one lightweight book. The stories are all written by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrated by various artists. There are some pleasing elements here and there, but overall, nothing astounded me.

I’ll review each character’s arc separately.

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Nite Owl #1-4 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Penciller: Andy Kubert

Interesting glimpse into Dan Drieberg’s childhood life, his idolation of the original Nite Owl and eventual assumption of the superhero mask. Followed up by a rather trite and predictable homicide mystery where prostitutes are being murdered and the Nite Owl gets to boink a sexually liberated vice-queen with lots of gratuitous boobs and butt perspectives. The fragments of Rorshach’s past were exponentially more intriguing. 2 out of 5 stars.

Dr Manhattan #1-4 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Artist- Adam Hughes

Marginally more compelling. Straczynski takes Dr. Manhattan’s omniscient, omnipresent abilities and uses that to tell a story that breaks down linear time and unfolds into multiple possible narratives. Basically expands on the events and potential of Dr. Manhattan as told in Watchmen. We get to meet Dr. Manhattan when he was little Jon Osterman, and also his German father and Jewish mother. 3 out of 5 stars.

Moloch #1-2 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Artist – Eduardo Risso

Entire life story of Moloch the Mystic. Fairly cliche but reasonably entertaining. Not sure if the change of heart towards the end of his career was entirely believable, but I found myself feeling extremely sympathetic towards the poor, sad, pointy-eared chap. I liked this story arc particularly because it showed how Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (one of my favourite characters in the Watchmen universe for his fascinating personality) manipulated ol’ Moloch and many others. 3 out of 5 stars.

dr manhattan before watchmen

Overall, Before Watchmen seems to be a step backward into a more traditional form of superhero storytelling. There were elements that strongly repulsed me, and other elements that I enjoyed. Despite my mixed feelings, I’ll probably try another in the series. I would probably recommend this to Watchmen fans because you do get more fleshed out back-stories to some of the major events of the original graphic novel.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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What can I say about this movie? Rotten Tomatoes has already given it a 92% rating, and who can argue with that cinematic authority of spoiled vegetables? If you’re looking for a big, fun adventure in space, then get yourself a ticket to the 10th instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stat.

I must admit I’ve been waiting for this movie for months. A ragtag ensemble of interstellar heroes, somewhat scruffier and edgier-looking than the clean-cut Avengers in their capes and spandex, reluctantly banding together to defend the galaxy to the classic tunes of Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling…what more could one desire?

Guardians of the Galaxy tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a kid who gets abducted from Earth in 1988 by a gang of space pirates called the Ravagers and ends up becoming a carefree, womanising, wandering thief. After stealing a very important orb that attracts the attention of bad guys Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and Thanos (Josh Brolin), a very big dude with a very big jaw who sits in a very big floating chair, Quill falls in with several other misfits: a green-skinned lethal assassin and daughter of Thanos, Gamora (sci-fi screen queen Zoe Saldana); a genetically engineered super-smart raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper); Rocket’s devoted sidekick, Groot the living tree (Vin Diesel); and Drax the Destroyer, a tattooed muscleman hell-bent on revenge (Dave Bautista). Karen Gillan also plays a key role as Nebula, sibling rival of Gamora, a bald and blue-skinned fighting machine.

Guardians manages to pull off a perfectly wonderful mash-up of rock classics and science fiction which, along with the grungy-looking interior of Quill’s spaceship, and the futuristic but gritty technology, gives the movie a great sense of nostalgia and realism. It’s a rollicking, fast-paced adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

There’s nothing much new or unpredictable about the story of Guardians. Frequent jokes tease mildly at heroic stereotypes but the plot ultimately doesn’t stray far from the sugary, upbeat staple of big budget productions. The highlight of the movie is almost certainly the delightful prison break scene. The visual effects, fight scenes and fantastical locations with grungy place names are also commendable. The final battle and resolution, though, fall a little flat.

What makes the movie worthwhile are the characters. Quill, also known as Star-Lord (mainly to himself), is a planet-hopping, rascally scoundrel of the Han Solo type, but more quick-witted than he seems. Gamora, unfortunately allotted the role of the “token girl” in the team, holds her own as a character with an intriguing past. The irritating, cynical and hilarious Rocket is also surprisingly poignant. Drax definitely had the best one-liners and impressive pan-faced delivery. And Groot—well, everyone falls in love with Groot: wholeheartedly sweet and innocent whilst being able to smash a dozen men against a wall with one twisty arm. Each of them have hints of a fascinating backstory.

My only quibble with sci-fi blockbusters is the relative sparseness of female characterisation. Gamora fills the shoes of the Strong Female Character well, but apart from her, the only women are Nebula, Nova Prime, Quill’s sickly mum and the bed-haired girl in a T-shirt whose name Quill couldn’t remember.

Nevertheless: lots of laughs, lots of action, and a feel-good romp through the galaxy. Worth a trip to the cinema.