Book Review: ’3096 Days’ by Natascha Kampusch

April 3, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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I find long-term abduction stories fascinating. What kind of a person could do something so cruel to another human being? What kind of human being could live through such cruelty?

A few years back I read Alan Hall’s Monster (review here), a horrific investigative study into the case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his biological daughter Elizabeth in a dungeon for 24 years as a sex slave. Earlier this year I tackled Elizabeth Smart’s My Story (review here), the account of her harrowing 9-month abduction at the hands of a deranged couple in 2002.

After reading My Story I decided first-person accounts of such stories were probably best avoided as Smart’s book underwhelmed due to her weak writing, but I decided to ignore my own advice after coming across 3,096 Days, penned by another Austrian abductee, Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive from the ages of 10 and 18. After breezing through it in a few days, I now have to backtrack from what I said about first-person accounts, because 3,096 days is not just the best abduction book out there — it’s one of the best first-person true stories and finely written autobiographies I’ve ever read.

Natascha Kampusch was an unhappy, overweight and introverted 10-year-old who was on her way to school after a fight with her mother when she was tossed in a van by Wolfgang Priklopil, a mentally ill recluse who appeared polite and “normal” to locals. She would spend the majority of the next 3,096 days in a steel-enforced dungeon in Priklopil’s house that brought back memories of Josef Fritzl’s house of horrors. She would be starved, subjected to mental and physical abuse and torture, and living in constant fear of her bi-polar captor. By the time she was escaped, at age 18, Kampusch was a shell of a person, barely 40kg (despite being 175cm) and terrified of the free world she faced for the rest of her life.

This is a remarkable book. Kampusch’s writing is nothing short of amazing, considering she lost more than 8 of the most important years of her education. On the other hand, she spent a large proportion of her time in captivity reading, writing and educating herself, so in that sense it’s not surprising that she comes across as such a seasoned writer.

Some credit must go to her co-writer Heike Gronemeier and her English translator Jill Kreuer, but there’s no doubt that the bulk of the book is entirely her own words, because only she could describe — in tender, beautiful and heartfelt prose — the complex emotions she has towards her ordeal and her abductor whom she mostly calls “the kidnapper” in the book.

In many ways I found Kampusch’s writing almost Anne Frank-esque, not just in her observations and views on life but in the way her words manage to evoke a pure emotional response. Her descriptions are dramatic yet unpretentious, piercing yet comforting. I don’t know how she does it but there were so many passages where I found myself in awe of with her ability to hit the mark.

When I read Elizabeth Smart’s My Story, I complained about my inability to connect with her psyche and how the things she said often felt like “justifications” for her seemingly bizarre behaviour (such as squandering many obvious opportunities for escape) rather than “explanations” of why someone in her position might act that way. With Kampusch, it was the opposite. Even though she was criticized just as much as, if not more than, Smart for her behaviour, I understood where she was coming from perfectly. Had I not read her book, I too might have been baffled as to how she could go out with her kidnapper in public, and even on a ski trip, without reaching out for help. But after reading about the the depths of her fear and the grip Priklopil had over her, everything made sense.

Another impressive thing about 3,096 days is Kampusch’s insights into Priklopil, from his personality and mental illness to his upbringing and unnatural relationship with his mother. You can tell that despite everything he put her through, she had a special connection with him, and how could she not when he was the only person in her life, the only person she spoke to and interacted with, for 8.5 years? I was impressed with the way she saw him as not just an evil man (the way Smart saw her abductor), but as a complex person who could show kindness and vulnerability but also had a terrifying darkness that constantly threatened to overwhelm him. As she said, children who are ill-treated and abused by their parents and guardians still love them, and I suppose that goes some way towards explaining her feelings towards Priklopil and why she wept when she found out he had thrown himself under a train after she escaped.

I was also impressed with her refusal to accept that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, saying the label oversimplifies the complex relationship she had with her kidnapper. You can tell she has put a lot of intelligent thought, research and effort into analysing her ordeal and her emotions in the years since she was freed. Instead of trying to forget and put those eight years of her life behind her, which would have been impossible anyway, she is doing her best to make sense of this atrocious, meaningless crime committed against her.

(By the way, I am in no way trying to demean Smart or her experience. She had a completely different type of abductor and the period of her captivity was not so long that she could develop any positive feelings towards the perpetrators. But the contrast between the approach of the two books and the way their respective stories were told is stark, probably something akin comparing this the quality of the writing in this blog to that of the New Yorker.)

The only genuine fault I can find with the book is Kampusch’s refusal to talk about her sexual abuse at the hands of Priklopil. While she admitted in interviews that she was raped several times during her ordeal, in the book she sidestepped the issue by saying that there are some parts of her capture she wished to keep private (she did say that Priklopil chained her to his bed but mostly just wanted to cuddle). You can’t blame her for not wanting to talk about something like this, but the omission does spark concerns that perhaps Kampusch could be leaving other details out as well. It’s unfortunate because she already has so many doubters, many of whom believe she is hiding something. I can only repeat what I said in the case of Elizabeth Smart, which is unless you personally experience what they’ve gone through you have no idea how you’d react in the same situation.

Ultimately, I am certain that 3,096 Days will resonate with me for quite some time. It’s a fascinating read that’s harrowing and hard to stomach at times, but I found it contemplative, empathetic and truthful — in the sense that not everything in life is black or white, good or evil. It’s a testament to Natascha Kampusch’s courage, her strength, her intelligence, and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have come across this inspiring book.

5/5

PS: 3,096 Days has been adapted into a feature film of the same name. I’m not sure if I will watch it, but here’s the trailer anyway. There is also full documentary on Kampusch’s story on YouTube called 3,096 Days in Captivity.

Tribute: My favourite Philip Seymour Hoffman scenes

February 6, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’m still reeling from the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my top five actors of all time and hands down one of the greatest thespians of his generation. Think of a non-heartthrob actor who can boast the same CV as Hoffman. Think of any actor who has anything close to Hoffman’s range. Think of any actor who can be as memorable in a cameo as in a lead role. You can’t. (OK, maybe you can, but there aren’t many, certainly not more than fingers on a Simpons’ character’s hand)

As a tribute to this great man, here are a baker’s dozen of my favourite PSH scenes of all time. Unfortunately, there are some great films from his body of work I either haven’t seen or can’t remember, like Scent of a Woman, Almost Famous, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages and Synedoche, New York, so these are simply based on what I have seen.

I think this small sample will show off just what a phenomenal actor he is. From serious leaders to manipulative bastards to poor saps to demented psychos to creepy perverts to insufferable douchebags, PSH can do it all, and he does it with the remarkable reliability and brilliant consistency we have come to expect from him…well, expected from him.The last time we will likely see him on screen is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part II, scheduled for 2015, though apparently some of that appearance will be CGI (but not much, as most of the shooting had been completed). Until then, just keep watching these videos below.

13.  Mission Impossible III (2006) — Prologue

The only time I’ve seen PSF tackle the main antagonist in a movie, and he does so with a terrifyingly nutty coolness that makes even Tom Cruise seem sane by comparison. It was interesting to see him tackle such a villainous role (and in an action flick, no less) immediately after displaying his effeminate side in Capote. And the voice — you can’t top the voice!

12. Magnolia (1999) — Seduce and Destroy Hotline

Another Tom Cruise collaboration, this time in the brilliant ensemble film Magnolia. In this scene PSH is a nurse trying to track down the son (Cruise) of his dying elderly patient. It’s such a pivotal scene in the film, and such a difficult scene because it’s all done on the phone, and PSH does it in a way that is completely believable and captivating. The nervousness and desperation in his voice as he tries to get his point across without seeming like a lunatic is brilliant.

11. The Big Lebowski (1998) — The Butler

A small but memorable performance as the butler of the titular Mr Lebowski in this cult classic. His interactions with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) — seeing him try to inform, show off about his boss and withhold his disdain for his guest, is absolutely gold.

10. Patch Adams (1998) — The Prick

PSH is fantastic at playing douchebags, and in Patch Adams (where Robin WIlliams pretends to be a doctor) he is the ultimate douchebag — but a douchebag with a very good point. I don’t remember much about the movie itself but I have always remembered this scene, and the little bit after the rant where he pretends to return to his book is priceless.

9. The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) — Freddie’s Suspicions

One thing I have never forgotten about The Talented Mr Ripley is that tiny snippet of the annoying little laugh PSH does in the trailer. I said he was the ultimate douchebag in Patch Adams, but he’s probably an even bigger one here, and it’s great when he eventually gets his. But first, this wonderful scene in which he starts making Matt Damon (and the audience) very nervous.

8. The Ides of March (2011) — Blackmail’s Better

I loved The Ides of March, and one of my favourite scenes is where PSH gives Ryan Gosling a lesson on what it takes to make it in the political game. The composed fury, the ego, the coldness — it’s all masterfully portrayed here. Gosling’s not bad here either.

7. Capote (2005) — What’s the Name of Your Book?

One of the key scenes of PSH’s Oscar-winning performance in Capote, where death row inmate Perry discovers the name of Capote’s landmark book. The manipulation here is chilling, and there are few actors I can think of that could have delivered the same effect.

A bonus clip from the same movie is from the end, when Capote sees his “friends” off before they head to their deaths. It moves and angers at the same time. Amazing.

6. The Master (2012) — Confrontation

I wasn’t as high on The Master as a lot of other people, but no one can deny that Hoffman was brilliant as the manipulative and charismatic L Ron Hubbard clone. And he was arguably never better in this scene, when he confronts one of his naysayers and launches into a stoic yet unhinged defensive tirade. Loved the can’t-control-it profanity at the very end.

5. Doubt (2008) — Gossip Sermon

One of the most powerful scenes in a most powerful movie. PSH plays a priest accused of molesting a child and he cleverly uses his sermon as an opportunity to deliver a message to the two women (played by Meryl Streep and Amy Adams) who have been propagating the rumors. Enjoy this one because it’s a doozy.

4. Boogie Nights (1997) — I’m An Idiot

PSH can play gay too. This awkward yet heartbreaking scene from Boogie Nights is PSH at his absolute best.

 3. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – Shut Up!

Such a random yet unforgettable conversation between PSH and Adam Sandler. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you place well-timed profanity in the hands of a genius (and of course by that I mean PSH, not Sandler). I can never stop laughing at this.

2. Along Came Polly (2004) — Let It Rain!

Just to remind us how funny he can be again, here’s PSH in one of my favourite sports scenes of all time, the basketball game in Along Came Polly with Ben Stiller. It’s an average film at best, but this is one extraordinary scene.

 1. Happiness (1998) — Phone Scene(s) (but also just about everything else)

Todd Solondz’s Happiness is perhaps the most shocking uncomfortable black comedies I have ever seen, and much of that is thanks to the jaw dropping performance of PSH as the depraved sexual deviant Allen. There is no one I can think of that could possibly pull off this role (pun intended) other than him, and the courage for him to take on such a character without thinking it could destroy his career is impressive.

There are many hilarious PSH scenes littered throughout the film and these are some of my favourites. This first one is him making a prank call to Lara Flynn Boyle, the object of his lust and source of his self-hate.

This next scene is the introduction to the film, where he describes to his therapist what he would like to do to Ms Boyle. Be warned. It’s disturbing.

This third scene is the uncomfortable aftermath of the first scene posted above.

And lastly, perhaps the most controversial scene, in which he makes another prank call, this time to Ms Boyle’s sister, played by Jane Adams. I haven’t embedded the video but have set the clip to start where the call starts, but you can actually watch the entire movie if you so desire. It’s sick and twisted but also very funny if you can stomach it.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7plOP4qlIo&t=29m34s

 Thank you PSH for the memories.

Movie Review: Ender’s Game (2013)

January 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’ve already put Orson Scott Card’s 1985 award-winning sci-fi novel on my reading list for the year, but I couldn’t help but watch the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in advance. Directed by Gavin Hood (the South African who won a Best Foreign Pic Oscar for Tsotsi and made the first Wolverine film), the film stars Hugo’s rapidly growing Asa Butterfield as the titular Ender, a kid chosen to lead a rebellion against an alien race in the 22nd century. Butterfield is backed up by a superb all-star cast led by Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin.

I’ll be upfront: Ender’s Game starts off as a really intriguing young adult sci-fi thriller that is fairly entertaining and bolstered by solid and creative special effects. But by the end of the film it felt like a wasted opportunity that barely scratched the surface of what it could have been. Not having read the book, I don’t know how much depth Card goes into in terms of exploring this fascinating future world, but the film version is riddled with unexplained mysteries and gaps that make you question the plot’s common sense and logic. It was as though most of the important background to the story was purposely omitted because it would have been too difficult to explain.

The basic premise is this: in 2086, an alien race attacks Earth but some brave military commander sacrifices himself and saves everyone. Fifty years later, the war is still raging and young Ender (Butterfield), who is constantly monitored along with the other kids through a device in their neck, is chosen by Colonel Graff (Ford) to join the International Fleet, where they train kids like him to fight in the war.

The majority of the film’s 114-minute running time takes place at the Battle School, where Ender learns new skills, strategies, and takes part in war games with his fellow recruits. There is a sense of excitement when all of this takes place because you don’t know what to expect, but what makes the viewing entertaining is Ender’s interactions with the other cadets, and seeing how he hones his natural abilities to rise from the crop to become a leader. Yes, it’s yet another one of those “chosen one” stories, but for the most part it was executed effectively.

Asa Butterfield, who I loved in Hugo, is excellent as Ender. He’s rail thin but you can believe his intelligence and toughness, though there is a strange sort of distance about his character (it feels almost psychopathic) that makes him difficult to really like. Harrison Ford is basically an old Han Solo, while Viola Davis is pretty underutilized as his sidekick. Hailee Steinfeld gets a decent chunk of screen time as a fellow cadet and potential love interest, but Abigail Breslin doesn’t get to do much as Ender’s earthbound sister.

The problem I had when watching Ender’s Game was the feeling that I didn’t understand the world Card had built in his book(s). We get hints of some kind of semi-post-apocalyptic world that is dominated by an autocratic government from some of the Earth scenes, but it wasn’t like they were living among the rubble of an annihilated planet. I was curious why the world had become what it became, and how it happened. And why were they recruiting kids to fight an alien war? We know there are still capable adults, and it is said that only “millions”, not “billions” perished in the initial battle. We don’t even know what the status of the war is, except that Earth is obviously still under some kind of threat.

The vagueness extends to the battle games the kids play to train themselves. It’s a visual spectacular, with teams in futuristic space suits shooting laser beams around an obstacle course of sorts in zero gravity conditions. But we have absolutely no idea what the rules are or even what they are doing, which reminded me, very randomly, of when Conan O’Brien tried to provide commentary at some international Wold of Warcraft competition.

I understand it’s probably all too difficult to explain in a movie, but at least give us something other than the expressions of the actors to at least let us know if they’re winning or losing. And by the way, it’s not clear how any of their training helps them prepare for real battle, which appears to be fought strategically inside space ships anyway! Too much just didn’t make sense, especially the final climax of the movie, which was somewhat predictable but also inexplicably ludicrous (can’t say much more than that without spoilers).

Having said all that, Ender’s Game was still relatively enjoyable to watch as a popcorn flick, particular at the beginning. If you don’t think and just go for the ride along with all the big stars, you might even find it pretty cool. But the holes just kept adding up, and the more you think about it, the more the whole narrative just falls apart. Given that the film has been a box office bomb (barely made back its $110 million budget), it’s unlikely we’ll have the opportunity to understand more of the world depicted in the film in future entries.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)

January 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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In the winter of 1959, a team of nine experienced hikers ventured into the northern Ural mountains in Russia on an expedition. Days later, they were all dead. Soviet investigators found that the hikers tore their tent open from the inside and ran out into the -30 degrees Celsius temperatures in socks and bare feet. While there were no signs of struggle, two of the bodies had fractured skulls and two had broken ribs, though there were no signs of external trauma. Another was missing her tongue. Oh, and there were traces of radiation found on some of the bodies. With no rational explanation for the bizarre deaths, investigators concluded that the hikers perished from “a compelling natural force”, and the mystery became to be known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

More than 50 years later, a UK-Russian production decided to make a film about the incident, with famed filmmaker Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) signed on as director. Instead of making this a movie about what happened during the incident itself at the time, however, the producers decided to make a modern “found footage” movie about a bunch of American college students who decide to make a film of themselves retracing the steps of the fateful hikers.

The result is a mixed bag. As a low budget movie with no-name actors and a director still reeling from The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996, The Dyatlov Pass Incident is actually quite clever, entertaining and occasionally frightening — relatively speaking. Renny Harlin still has some tricks in his bag and knows how to create tension and scares that don’t keep relying on the same tactics.

Much of the intrigue, however, stems from the crazy mystery itself and the script’s creative take on what happened to the hikers, which is not bad given that none of the theories (from avalanches to Yetis to aliens to secret military weapon tests) have been accepted as foolproof. I won’t give away what this film speculates, though all I will say is that it is fresh and no less stupid than what’s already out there.

On the other hand, the decision to turn this into yet another lame found footage flick in my opinion backfired by making the movie less real and authentic. What it means is that we have to deal with the wobbly cameras (though not as bad as in some films), the irrational reasons to “push on” with their expedition despite massive warning signs, and forcing the characters to hold on to their cameras when they are running for their lives. It makes the film campy and silly. We’ve seen so many of these attempts since The Blair Witch Project that this approach mostly annoys and irritates rather than create more tension, and it’s baffling why studios keep doing it.

The acting from the cast, especially the five American students, also leaves a lot to be desired. They just aren’t very likable or believable, and we just can’t wait for them to do meet their inevitable gruesome end. Part of that is the fault of the script, which is solid from a big picture perspective but doesn’t do much for the characters. The low budget also means the special effects are fairly poor and often look video gamey (and as a result they had to utilise a lot of darkened shots).

On the whole, The Dyatlov Pass Incident feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity because it is such an intriguing mystery. With a more conventional format (as opposed to found footage), a bigger budget, more bankable stars and some tweaks to the finer aspects of the script, this could have been a great film. At best, it’s a surprisingly entertaining DVD rental or on-demand flick (which is how I watched it), and I suppose that’s not a bad thing given its humble ambitions.

3.25 stars out of 5

PS: The film is titled in some regions as Devil’s Pass, which is generic and completely uninteresting, whereas its original title, The Dyatlov Pass Incident, is far more intriguing. The stupid poster for Devil’s Pass also has a naked woman with her back turned to the camera, which also makes no sense if you’ve seen the film. Go figure.

PPS: Trailer below, though I should warn that there are major spoilers from about the 1 minute mark. Never ceases to amaze me how trailers like to ruin everything.

PPPS: If you are interested in reading more about the incident, including the most prevalent theories, check out the links below.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyatlov_Pass_incident

http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2012/01/mountain-of-the-dead-the-dyatlov-pass-incident/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2401175/Dyatlov-Pass-Indicent-slaughtered-hikers-Siberias-Death-Mountain-1959.html

http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/dyatlov-pass-incident-strangest-unsolved-mystery

http://amnationalistcouncil.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/the-dyatlov-pass-mystery-solved/

Movie Review: The Bling Ring (2013)

January 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Despite critical acclaim, I haven’t been a big fan of Sophia Coppola’s earlier works, such as The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, both of which I felt were somewhat overrated. Her latest (written and directed), The Bling Ring, is based on the true story of a bunch of self-entitled rich kids in LA who break into the homes of famous people such as Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, and Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr. Apart from Paris Hilton, however, the other stars refused to take part in the film and archived footage was used instead.

The film features an impressive cast headlined by Emma Watson, who shines as the bratty and care free Nikki, with Vera’s sister Taissa Farmiga (from American Horror Story) playing her more naive younger sister Sam. These two are the biggest names, but they are really supporting characters, with the parts of the ringleaders taken up by the manipulative Katie Chang and the central protagonist Israel Broussard, the only male member of the gang.

The Bling Ring is categorised as a satirical black comedy, though it certainly felt a lot more like a semi-serious drama with just a sprinkle of satirical laughs. It’s really about how shallow and stupid these wannabe celeb rich kids are, thinking they could actually get away with something so brazen, but also about how ridiculously bad the security is at the homes of Hollywood celebs! Seriously, most of the time the kids just waltzed right in!

The performances are strong, but there is a strange distance about them that makes it hard to really get under their shallow facades. I felt like I was just watching a bunch of silly kids doing silly things while thinking it’s really cool, without ever really caring for them or what they were doing. They felt one-dimensional; I didn’t get to know them, nor did I want to. Part of the blame has to go to Coppola’s direction, which didn’t stand out for me, and failed to deliver the substance I had been hoping for. Maybe it was an impossible task to accomplish, given that the source of the story is essentially limited to news clippings, but even for a brisk 90-minute film (which was probably already stretching the material) it felt like more depth and insight could have been achieved.

In the end, The Bling Ring came across as superficial as the characters Coppola was trying to portray. Maybe it was too nuanced for me to get, but I didn’t find it particularly funny or engaging. It was an interesting idea to tackle and the performances were stellar, but more had to come from the characters since we knew from the beginning what they were doing and what ended up happening to them.

2 stars out of 5

 
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