Fanny and Alexander
This is a continuation of the my 7 great movie series that I thought I will do in a week. It really takes much longer. But as least the movies are good. And I think that's what really matters!
Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander is saga of a rich family the Ekdahls. I am particular impressed by the confrontation scene between Alexander and the Bishop. The Bishop, whom Alexander never have much affection with, becomes his step father when he marries his widowed mother. Alexander has mischievously made up a rumor about the Bishop mistreating his former wife. His maid informed the Bishop, which leads to the inquisition scene. Being a man of honor the Bishop clearly consider this a serious defamation. Alexander flat out deny he has made such accusation. The denial has took the Bishop by surprise. How dare would Alexander lie in front of everyone? So the Bishop escalates the pressure, making Alexander swear with his hand on the bible and explain that any further lying will be considered perjury, a very serious crime. In every step Alexander just dig himself deeper into a hole. This leads to his final breakdown and the severe punishment.
The power of this scene is that we can follow each character's mind and see how end step lead to this explosive end. The Bishop is no ordinarily villain. In fact he is completely right. It maybe somewhat harsh to apply his institutional power on a kid. But we also see how Alexander's willfulness provoke him. The Bishop told him he consider himself wise and fair, why does Alexander hate him? Again he is right, it is fair to say he is wise and fair even if he is also cold and dull. It is a thought provoking exercise to try to make sense of the conflict. How someone seemingly making every right step will come out so wrong.
Atonement is one melancholy film that captivates me. It opens in the Tallis castle. Cecilla and Briony, the aristocrat sisters, both have a crush on the house keeper's son Robbie. When the disenchanted young girl Briony made a false statement against Robbie, she did not know her action will bring ruin to Robbie and cause him to be convicted of a crime that he did not commit.
The story fast forward to world war II. The war effort has interrupted their cloistered life and bring down the distance between the aristocrats and lay people. Robbie was send to fight in France. And both sister volunteered to work as nurses. Cecilla and Robbie has a reunion before he was sent off. These brief episodes becomes a yearning that stay with them, with Cece's call to "come back to me" a recurring voice that stay with him.
I have seen the movie about four times and know almost every scene. The Dunkirk retreat scene is a work of mastery. Demoralized soldiers loosing their discipline while waiting for evacuation. Ruins are everywhere. Horses were shot and equipment being destroyed. The whole apocalyptic scene was done in one long sweeping shot.
A lot of scenes are played twice in the movie. Sometimes it shows us something new by looking at things at a different angle. Mostly it offers us plenty of opportunities for retrospection, plenty of what-if contemplation. When we see lovely scenes that we wish would have happened, it brings up great emotional feeling with a lot of depth.
Rivers And Tides
Sinuous rivers, pods make of rock slabs, a circular hole, these are some of the
recurring forms artists Andy Goldsworthy use in his sculptures. He create his
arts inspired and situated in a natural setting. They are often ephemeral. A
string of flower petals flowing down the stream, driftwood on the beach to be
washed away by rising tides, ice that is going to vanish without a trace. They
may seem impermanent. And yet it perfectly symbolize the flow of the nature. In
this documentary you will see the creation of many works by Andy Goldsworthy.
They are really very inspiring.
Life Affirming - Million Dollar Baby
... Spoiler Alert ...
Continue reading after you've seen the movie.
Million Dollar Baby starts off like a female version of Rocky. Maggie is an aspiring boxer, endowed with little besides a stubborn determination. She pester the unwilling coach Frankie to train her. Finally she has overcome his reluctance and eventually fight her way up to challenge the championship. Then the movie takes a sharp turn when an accident in the boxing ring has badly injured her. Rather than accepting life in her now paralyzed body, she requested to be relieved from the lesser existence.
To me the story of Maggie is a life affirming story.
For most of history, the nature decides who lives and who dies. If an injury does not kill you, the starvation will. Modern technology changed this and in many cases allow us to sustain life for as long as one is willing. Our culture tell us to delay death at all cost. Even the most diminished patient can now be sustained. So much that what is considered life should perhaps be called "not-dead". When life is reduced to mere not-dead, this is actually a desecration of life.
Maggie recognizes that there is vitality in a worthy life. She has the vitality once. But it is unfortunately now lost. By rejecting "not-dead" in her self-assured way, she honors the life she has lived. Paradoxically, this makes it a really life affirming story.
Inglorious Basterds is one of Quentin Tarantino's most successful film to date. Many of his distinct elements are in his film. Dark comedies, absurd situations when everything that can go wrong goes horribly wrong. There are clever dialogs, gun fight, violence and cruelty. Even the scene with three people point gun at each other, a tribute to Ringo Lam's City of Fire and a scene that appeared in his first film Reservoir Dogs, is used in the tavern scene. But there is one difference that makes Inglorious Basterds better than his previous films, it transcends.
... Spoiler Alert ...
Continue reading after you've seen the movie.
"You can end the war tonight", that was the question posed in the movie. In Inglorious Basterds, the history of World War II has been fictionalized. The familiar story is instead rewritten into something entirely different. Why? In that scene in the interrogation room a few people has the power to decide the course of history. Isn't it wonderful if there can be a button to push? A single act that will relieve us from suffering, liberate us from our worst nightmare, and turn things around for the better? I am quite taken by the idea. By constructing an alternative reality, Tarantino bring a fresh possibility into our mind. For this I find this film transcend us to a new level.
Of course the movie is superb throughout. There are memorable scenes one after another. Col. Hans Landa is one of the most fearsome character who's smile send chill down to your spine. There is the tense tavern scene and its unimaginable aftermath. There is Shoshanna in her red gown, standing in front of large circular window in the projection room. There is the botched Italian impersonation. And then there is the accidental hero Marcel, or rather the accidental martyr. History has called upon him and he accomplished his duty in one of the coolest cinematic scene by ejecting his cigarette butt.
There is a scene I only catch in the second viewing. In the projection room when Zoller turned up in an inconvenient moment, Shoshanna shoot him. She then turn away from his inanimate body to take a glance to the auditorium. There he was, Zoller's face is on the silver screen. His pensive expression speaks to Shoshanna after he was shot. The projection room drama is a great tragedy I will remember.
La maison en petits cubes 『つみきのいえ』
This week is my movie week. I want to talk about films that really affect me.
La maison en petits cubes 『つみきのいえ』 is a hauntingly beautiful and deeply emotional short animation by the Japanese animator Kunio Katō. It takes place in an imagination world where rising water are submerging homes. The old man hang in by building a new story over the roof. The story takes us on a surprising and emotional journey, accompany by no dialog but a melancholy score.
© Warner Bros Pictures
We have a company movie outing today. Sure enough, us from "Kontagent" went out to see the movie "Contagion". This maybe the first movie I watch in a cinema for over a year. It really affected me emotionally. In the past years I've followed closely on the development of the SARS and H1N1 epidemic. Contagion feels like a very realistic story.
Businesswoman Beth contacted a bug from a business trip to Macau. The ailment that she dismiss as jetlag quickly progress to become fatal. A new virus has traveled with her on an airplane and spread around the world. It spirals out of control and killing scores of people all over the world. The medical community are helpless trying to stop it.
What makes it so emotional? For one thing, I just can't bear to see people die. The Emhoffs have two death in their family. The remaining father and daughter live under a dark cloud and the threat of more inflection. This is, above all, a very human story. You can see that from Dr. Cheever of CDC. When he finally received his personal vaccine ration from the first batch manufactured, he shows much caring by giving them to the people he cares for.
The movie develops in multiple story line all with strong characters.
Kate Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears answers her call of duty, going out to the field and putting herself in the front line of danger. She was an inspiring figure in the time of crisis.
I love the face of researcher Dr. Ally Hextall. She has a radiant expression that bring some rare optimism to the grim movie.
Jude Law plays blogger Alan. It depicts the dark side of social media, where the Internet amplifies skepticism and conspiracy view, causing much more confusion in the time of chaos.
Elliott Gould's Dr. Ian Sussman makes an important breakthrough in his University lab. It exemplify the global cooperation in combating diseases.
And I also like the ending. Soderbergh shows his cinematic skill to bring us some closure at the end.
Contagion recalls another great Soderbergh movie "Traffic". The story contains multiple plot lines revolving around the drug problem. It gives a realistic depiction and you come to see how drug affects everyone. The complexity of the problem defy rhetorics or any easy solution.
People should know new and unknown virus do indeed emerge regularly. We are always a risk of another global pandemic. In the 10 years after the movie Traffic, we are no closer in solving the drug problem than the start. In fact we see Mexico government losing control of the country to drug lords. And Afghanistan has emerged as a top opium producer. What will happen in 10 years after the movie Contagion? It is chilling to think that there is a real possibility that an epidemic as horrific as in the film could happen in real life.
How long ago was it when I went to the marathon screening of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, the entire ten episodes shown in one full day? It must be more than 15 years ago. Kieslowski's films have a such important place in my memory, it is hard to imagine he has left more than 10 years ago.
This time I have as much time as I need to review each episodes on DVDs. The Decalogue One, "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me" is a about a tragic accident. Against all the computer calculation and precaution before going on ice skating on the frozen lake, accident has befallen on the young Paweł. Daddy returns home to stare at the green glow of the screen of his trusted computer. Just yesterday it made the assurance on the ice strength. Now it displays a single message - "I am ready _" with a blinking cursor. The picture remains there silently. It is some of the most contemplative moment in the cinema.
I don't remember how I feel when I saw this the first time. The message is simple enough. It questions the primacy of science and structure in modern society and to reflect on the diminishing role of religion and spirituality.
Today I think I have resolved such conflict. It is a false dichotomy between science and religion. To me science is spiritual. The story implies a kind of scientific determinism. I think it is old school. Of course old school probably still describes the majority of people, both religious and non-religious. And also we have to take into account of Kieslowski's background working in the communist Poland in the 80s, where determinism is really the rule of the society and has far more relevance for him.
The flaw of Decalogue One is some may see it as an apology for scientists. Many people may simply conclude scientists are arrogant and ultimately hurt people. If so they are too affected by the accident. Kieslowski is a master to induce us into reflection of a moment. But we must not lose the bigger context to a single moment. Can religion or traditional knowledge make a better guideline regarding safety compare to science overall? I doubt it.
And this is only old school science. The "new" science of complexity sees the world as fundamentally nondeterministic. Many events are unpredictable. Accidents do happens. But this does not mean scientific prediction are not useful. They are useful in plenty of ways. The problem is those people who expect 100% certainty are not realistic of their expectation.
In the middle of the film the father was giving a lecture on language. Unlike other old school point of view, this lecture on the relationship of language and intelligence resonates deeply to me. He laments that computers, a machine that operates on 0 and 1, can somehow displays awareness. He was talking about emergence! It strikes me that human, an organism makes up of simple molecules and a lot of H2O can display awareness. So a man made machine, despite its seeming simple logic structure, can conceivably display a consciousness on a high level someday by the similar principle.
I don't have a conflict between science and spirituality. Science is my new religion. This is of course the topic of another 100 blog posts.
Movie Review - Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources
Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources (1986)
Director: Claude Berri
Paris je t'aime - 18 stories in the city of love
Paris je t'aime (2006)
Director: 18 group of directors
Movie Review - El Norte
El Norte (1983)
Director: Gregory Nava
El Norte is a story about two indigenous Guatemalan brother and sister, fleeing from the civil strife from their village, embarked on a perilous journey for a new life in the United States, which is simply referred as El Norte (the north) by the people. As this title has suggested, it is a story seen entirely from the point of view of the immigrants. For them U.S. is the land of legendary riches. Immigration laws are really challenges they have to workaround. But when they have arrived, the reality is a lot harder than they have imagined. They find their prospect limited to menial labor, and a life under the shadow of illegal status with a constant threat of deportation.
Movie Review - Ballad of Narayama
Ballad of Narayama (1983)
Director: Shohei Imamura
The Ballad of Narayama is set in a remote village in Japan. There was a tradition that before a parent reaches the age of 70, the son will bring her on the back to a remote mountain, where she will let die alone, so as not be become a burden to the family in this very deprived village. Orin was 69. She was preparing for her journey. She reminds her son Tatsuhei not to behave like his father, who 30 years ago has evaded the duty of carrying his own mother to the mountain and brought disgrace to the whole family.
Movie Review - The Bridge
The Bridge (2006)
Director: Eric Steel
The Bridge is a controversial documentary about the people committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Digital media and gadgets has definitely revived my interest in music and movies. I have since dusted off my CD collection and ripped a good portion of them into iTunes. This time round I have joined the DVD rental by mail company GreenCine. I am very excited in its movie treasure trove.
At the peak days around my final years in college, I watch about 60 movies in theatre a year and many more from rental and from TV. Now I go to a cinema perhaps two times a year. There are many reasons for this decline. But enough to say movies has always been a part of my cultural life and I look back fondly to those days. What online rental give me is access to virtually any movies I'm interested, whether they are new releases or years old. I no longer have to wait for the chancy encounter when the programmer decided to put something on a local cinema on a certain day.
How does GreenCine stack against the better known, original DVD by mail company Netflix? I check against their inventory and find little differences. Bear in mind my interest is mostly in artsy, relative little known flicks. If anything is unavailable it is more likely because they are not release in DVD yet (or not released for North America, darn regional code). Perhaps it is best to look at GreenCine's top 250 movies list. Dominated by decades old movies, it is nothing like you average movie rental shop. I received my first DVD about 24 hours after I joined. So you can say I am fairly satisfied. But then I am living in San Francisco, where the company is located.
So bye bye my local rental shop. I still love you, but you don't have what I'm looking for. And I still wish to go to cinema more. The sound of curtain rolling and light projected on screen still mean something to me.
National Geographic - Guns, Germs and Steel
Yesterday I have watched the documentary Guns,
Germs and Steel based on Jared Diamond's book of the same name. I
have not read the book. But with Jared Diamond being the host himself
this should be a good representation of his book.
He started off in Papua New Guinea. Stuck by the islanders'
deprivation, he tried to explain why do the West prosper and why do
other cultures remain impoverished. His theory is that geography
(environment), guns, germs and steel (technology) are the major factors
that set them apart. The documentary followed the development of
civilization from hunter-gatherers to farmers. It brought us back to the
fateful battle between Francisco Pizarro and the Inca Empire. Finally it
looked at the challenges in Africa, the land where the human race is
believed to be originated from.
His book has won a Pulitzer Prize and his theory is called ground
comments notwithstanding everything he said has been studied in
anthropology. While all of them have some degree of truth, there are
many other important factors he simply ignored, like culture, politics,
religion and non-military technology. Also his emphasis on the
environmental factor just sound too deterministic. Interesting this
exact critique has voiced in the documentary.
I find two big faults in his thesis. First he like to insert simple
answers for big questions. Why do our civilization developed in such
way? Answer: geography, guns, germs and steel. But in fact he has only downplayed many other important factors.
On the other hand there are plenty of counter examples for
everything he has said. For example, which success factor did Mongolian
possess when their conquered much of Europe and Asia? What geography
advantages does England has that led them to become a global empire? Why
does Arab and Chinese, with civilization in the similar stage with
European, did not set off to conquer the world? His answer is really a
weak answer at best.
Secondly he has a dichotomy view on cultures as winners and losers.
Lots of focus are put on warfare and military technologies (i.e. guns,
germs and steel) Other world shaping forces such as trading are entirely
ignored. I doubt such winner and loser view can explain the complexity
of civilization. For example, throughout its history China repeatedly fell
to the nomadic invaders from the North. Jared's theory would have
concluded the nomads the winner and possess some advantage over the
Chinese loser (though non of his 4 factors can really count here). The
interesting thing is over time many invaders adopted chinese culture and
assimilated into the host country. Winner and loser cannot really
describe what has happened.
Just curious. Jared is certainly not the first anthropologist to pose
a big theory. What makes his work so popular?
Review - 20-30-40
My favorite actress director Sylvia Chang's new film "20 30 40" is a
story about 3 women. Xiao Jie (Angelica Lee) of 20 ran off to Taipei by
herself to pursuit her dream career in entertainment. Xiang Xiang (Rene
Liu) is an air stewardess having affair with several lovers. Sylvia
herself plays the 40 something Lily, who found herself divorced one day
but were starting to find a new life. Together they echoed her previous
film, the endearing "Tempting Heart", which traversed the life of a
woman from teenager to into middle age.
More movie reviews
Got to see two excellent movies in a row this week. I am excited to
have written some reviews for Tagegukgi and 20-30-40. The front page is also
getting crowded. It is also about time to reorganize it.
Review - Taegukgi
The epic war film opened in the happy days in 1950. Jin-tae and Jin-seok
were close brothers. Jin-seok was a bright student and the hope of the
family. Jin-tae worked hard so that his younger brother could go to
school. Life is not easy, but with the family and his fiancee around,
they could not be more contented.
First Movie Review
Finally I have come up with my first movie review. I am delighted
by Fong Yuk Ping's acclaimed 1983 movie "Ah Ying". I will probably
put only good reviews here since good movies motivate me to write.
Movie: 半邊人 (Ah Ying)
Hong Kong, 1983
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