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Stefan Zweig & The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The recent The Grand Budapest, comedy-drama film written and directed by Wes Anderson, nudges me back to the writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The movie is inspired by his writings. Zweig was born to a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna in 1881. He wrote novels, short stories and biographies. When Zweig was still a young man, he went to Berlin where he was supposed to be studying in the university there, but instead spent most of his time in low dives hanging out with the toughest, roughest people he could find. Zweig describes his lifelong fascination with character types whom he calls “monomaniacs,” people really driven to stake everything on the realization of a desire that often proves impossible to realize. His work is deeply invested in confessions and secrets. Who doesn’t like to overhear conversations? In his fiction there’s lots of eavesdropping and peeping in and all sorts of ways in which the characters who narrate their stories are often observers of some grand moment of passion to which they become, in some way or other, either sucked in directly or have their own complacent view of the world shaken by what they see of other lives.

Zweig’s overwhelming objective was the creation, preservation and proclamation of the Europe that was already inside him. When Zweig began to feel that the Europe that he had known was gone for good, he lost a lot of his motivation to keep going. He and his wife committed suicide while they were in exile in Brazil in 1942. As Zweig put it in his memoir, The World of Yesterday, published in Stockholm in the year of his suicide: “The truly great experience of our youthful years was the realization that something new in art was on the way—something more impassioned, difficult and alluring than the art that had satisfied our parents and the world around us.” The World of Yesterday is in one respect a long, loving wail of lament for a world that was largely lost by 1918, and wholly, irrevocably lost with the rise of the Nazis. While the goofiness and jocularity in the film are not part of Zweig’s work, but what Zweig does have is an understanding of the absurdity of existence. The way the film portrays a celebration of life in the midst of a poignant tragedy is something the Zweig himself would have found very resonant.

With the ascension of Hitler and the toxins of xenophobia and nationalism, Zweig felt that old, familiar pain and surrendered to despair. Yet, in saying “no” to the world, Zweig found a way of saying “yes” to himself. I was moved by his visionary idealism and commitment to international culture. It is with The World of Yesterday that I begin to feel I have anything approaching the full measure of the man. His art was always self-effacing, or certainly not self-revelatory; all you could have confidently told about him from reading his work is that he was obviously thoughtful, highly observant, and humane.

42

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42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in American Major League Baseball, focusing on the two years of his life after he entered the game in 1947. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland. the film stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, John C. McGinley as Red Barber, T. R. Knight as Harold Parrott, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Nicole Beharie as Rachel Isum.

Because before Jackie Robinson donned a baseball jersey with the number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers—becoming the first African American player in the major leagues, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. That’s why the new movie about Robinson, aptly titled “42” for the number that has since been retired from all major league baseball teams in his honor. In a switch from leading man roles, Ford plays Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who recruited Robinson for both moral and business reasons. Moral being that Rickey had not done enough in the past to help another African American ball player. Picking Jackie Robinson for the job, Rickey’s reasoning is a classic: “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.” Trust me, the audience laughed up a storm.

Robinson faced hateful fans who yelled racial slurs and spat at him during games; he faced wayward pitches that struck him in the head; and he even faced death threats. Through it all, he showed restraint and courage in not fighting back. Robinson’s restraint and dignity through it all warmed his Dodgers teammates who initially opposed his joining with a petition. The story goes that Dodgers short stop Pee Wee Reese, who was also team captain, left the infield to go stand by Robinson and put his arm around him in a show of support, quieting the hecklers in Cincinnati.

The movie does cover all the bases according to Robinson’s daughter. Director-screenwriter Brian Helgeland does a stellar job of condensing key moments of two baseball seasons, 1946 and 1947, into a sometimes suspenseful and often moving piece of storytelling, and of capturing the mixed mood of the country from a time long gone. It highlights the resistance and prejudice faced by Jackie Robinson, a trailblazer. The beanballs, the deliberate spiking to injure Robinson, the protests from some of his own teammates, the catcalls and slurs from the crowd, the anonymous death threats—they’re all folded into the story without overdramatization. This story needs no embellishment. The compelling story of a legend cannot go wrong. What is so significant is that it shows people who were not from that era, myself included, how difficult it was to be someone who was never treated equally. It reminds us that racial justice and equal opportunity are only gained less a century ago. Racial equality is a hard-won battle.

128 minutes/PG-13

Spooker

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What a coincidence that The Castro Theater will be showing Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). I have started the novel three days ago and it has given my creep. Jack Torrance takes up the job to be the winter caretaker of The Overlook, a splendid hotel tugged away in the remote Colorado mountain. Jack, his wife Wendy, and the clairvoyant 5-year-old Danny move into the Overlook. The hotel has a personality in its own right, and acts as a psychic lens: it manipulates the living and the dead for its own purposes; and it magnifies the psychic powers of any living people who reside there and makes them more sensitive to its urgings. Danny has premonitions of the hotel’s danger to his family and begins seeing ghosts and frightening visions from the hotel’s past, but puts up with them in the hope that they are not dangerous in the present. This is the type of book meant to be read under the sheet with a flashlight. But I can also see myself reading it at night by the pool in Palm Springs. The movie, which seems to be a capacious spooker, is something to looking forward to.

The Iron Lady

You will think a joint effort with the UK Council would show the vital aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s life and career on the cutting room floor. But think twice. I dare say that Meryl Streep is the highlight of the film, if not the saving grace. She disappears so uncannily into former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the film that her performance overpowers the movie it’s in. The ingenious opening segment features an anonymous elderly Thatcher buying milk for her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). Then it flashes back to Margaret’s early years as the daughter of a conservative shop owner who, when his daughter tells him she has won a place at Oxford, tells her not to let him down. Soon I discern a pattern that sets the tone and basis for the rest of the film for which director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan are to blame: Framed as a sequence of flashbacks Thatcher reflects on in late retirement, The Iron Lady dwells at length on the mental and physical frailties that have attended her later years. In and out of her dreams and abrupt flashbacks, I get the impression that the subject is being both lionized and punished, but without any clear reasons. Meryl Streep does her job well as usual, delivering a bravura performance, but this performance is neither a thoughtful nor provocative portrait of one of the most consequential, influential figures of the 20th century. This is a curious movie, almost standing as its own genre. I don’t recommend the movie, which is no more than a collage of a woman, way ahead of her time, and her ideas and political passion, and later, ambition. Unfortunately the film devotes virtually no time on their substance, let alone any substantive argument regarding the historical roots of Thatcherism, its effect on Britain or its lasting impact on the country’s political culture. The political fallout of her positions is also rushed. Streep shines in her meticulously researched characterization. She really nails Thatcher’s imperious stare and the breathy but insistently inflected speaking style. The movie as a whole is dull.

1 hr 45 mins. PG-13

The Year in Film

I don’t watch films as fanatically as I read books. Several films do make a deep impression on me this year.


1. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, UK/France)
Never thought I’ll enjoy a sci-fi film. A teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion. It’s just subversive, prophetic, and totally addictive. This low-budget alien invasion flick for surely puts the blockbusters in shame.

2. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/United States)
What can I say? I’m biased. Who doesn’t like Paris, especially with the whole literati and artist cast in the 1920s background. The ending is much more profound than you may have first noticed. Definitely begs re-watching.

3. The Woman (Lucky McKee, United States)
Obviously not a family movie, but it is, like much of the best drama, about a family—how an outsider upends its unhinged equilibrium. True to its genre, there is gore and sudden shrieks. No wonder audience ran for the door during its premiere.

4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, United States)
One shot flows into another, whispered voice-over displaces dialogue, and an almost perfect domestic narrative takes shape, anchored in three extraordinarily graceful performances. In 38 years, the film folds eons of cosmic and terrestrial history into less than two and a half hours.

5. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Belgium/France/Italy)
In Tuscany to promote his latest book, a middle-aged British writer meets a French woman who leads him to the village of Lucignano. While there, a chance question reveals something deeper. A remake of Journey to Italy (1954). It still rocks.

6. Hugo (Martin Scorsese, United States)
Based on Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the story is set in 1930s Paris, and those visuals are one of the movie’s strengths.

7. One Day (Lone Scherfig, United States/UK)
Based on a novel by David Nicholls, the film depicts a 20-year friendship/relationship between Emma and Dex, visiting them on only one July day, each year. Except that the couple doesn’t actually meet on that day every year. And then it gets even more complex. Now is the book actually better than the movie?

8. Shame (Steve McQueen, UK)
This is a dispassionate treatment of a disturbing topic, and therein lies its power. Despite the sexual graphic nature, it is made with a restraint that’s both unflinching and unnerving, this is a psychologically claustrophobic film that strips its characters bare literally and figuratively, leaving them, and us, nowhere to hide.

9. Hanna (Joe Wright, Germany/United States/UK)
The action in Hanna is noisy, disorienting and violent. Bones crunch, cuts bleed and sometimes you may wonder what the hell is going on. But it’s a good (not perfect) film.

10. We Were Here (David Weissman and Bill Weber, United States)
With much skill, the director reminds us of the avalanche of death and fear that noosed the San Francisco gay community during the AIDS epidemic. Almost everyone in the audience, my friends included, had lost friends and loved one. That was an emotional time.

19/30 Day Book Meme: Favorite Film Adaptation

Day 19: Favorite book turned into a movie

Movie tie-in is not always my cup of tea. I recognize that there are some things in a novel that just can’t be adapted for the screen: the long stream-of-consciousness narrative, contemplation, and motives. Directors might throw some hints through an enunciated flashback. After all, no movie will ever live up to the power of imagination because allure and association are purely subjective, no matter how costly the special effect that is put into the making of the film. My impression, fashioned by experience, contemplation, and introspection, will always be a little damp with emotion, which in turn contributes to a preoccupied vision of what the film should be. That all said, one movie made an indelible impression in me.

I remembered walking into the cinema with little expectation of The Remains of the Day which is based on the novel with the same title by Kazuo Ishiguro. Books and films are completely different in their artistic imaginations. In books, readers can construct the world of the characters from the authors’ words, fill the gap for what’s not said, and speculate from between the lines. So it becomes very subjective, a matter of one’s own interpretation. The film is a manifestation of the story in the director’s perception. So different nuances can be exuded through the appearance of the cast, the scores, and the screenplay, which most of the time would have taken exact words or dialogues from the book, but the context becomes inevitably different. In this case, the film is a very faithful and fair portrayal of the book. There are fine points and nuances in the story that I have to refresh myself to see the film starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, who both deliver a stellar performance. I have a penchant for literature set in early 20th century, and Ishiguro’s ponderous and perceptive writing is always a comfort. Seeping through beautiful and quiet prose is a profoundly compelling portrait of a first-rank English butler who is an effective, dedicated, but also a repressed servant. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive during which he looks back and reflects upon his career to reassure himself that, by abiding to principle and dignity, he has served humanity.

Echoes of the Rainbow (2010)

Director by: Alex Law
Principal cast: Simon Yam, Sandra Ng, Arif Lee, Buzz Cheung
Country: Hong Kong, China
118 minutes

I am grateful that the SF Film Society has run a screening of Alex Law’s Echoes of the Rainbow 歲月神偷 (2010) this past weekend as a part of the new Hong Kong Cinema program. The film, which took home Crystal-Bear Award for best children’s film in Berlin Film Festival, premiered in Hong Kong in spring 2010. It’s been a pleasant surprise that it finally makes its way to San Francisco. The director himself surprised the audience with his presence and a Q&A session afterward.

The usual writer Alex Law tries his hand at directing and the result is extraordinary. The story is hybridly autobiographical of Law and his brother, who grew up in 1960s Hong Kong, when police bribery and gangs were rife. Paradoxically, it was a time when the former British colony was full of opportunity if you worked hard. On a small budget, the film is bittersweet drama that focuses on a working-class family, in which the father (Simon Yam) is an illiterate shoemaker who believes hard work combined with perseverance was the path to a brighter future. Simon Yam earns the much-pined-for Best Actor award stature with this memorable role, a drastic departure from his usual tough-guy characters in triad movies. Co-star Sandra Ng, known for her comedic roles, plays the shoemaker’s wife who struggles with her husband to create a better life for their two sons (Arif Lee and Buzz Cheung) amid moments of tragedy and joy.

Moments of this retrospective film strike chord with me. As seen through the eyes of the little brother, eight-year-old Big Ears, who aspires to be an astronaut, Echoes of the Rainbow achieves the delicate balance between bitterness and sweetness. One particular scene really grabs me: The little boy scraped up what little allowance money he had to finance a mooncake payment plan—just so he can have two double-yolk lotus-paste mooncakes to himself. Failure of his clandestine scheme is met with tears and scolding from his parents. But he quickly forgets his misery and once again wanders around the neighborhood with his head in a fish-bowl. Children, to me, always preserve memories, regardless of the nature. Law’s scripts really bring out that innocence and c’est-la’vie attitude in children.

Echoes of the Rainbow is very simplistic and accessible film, almost too predictable, as the older brother’s fateful end is foretold. Arif Lee is stiff and lackluster compared to the rest of the cast, albeit he is a sound singer. His portrayal of an intelligent and athletic teenager at the revered Diocesan Boys’ School is eclipsed by Buzz Cheung’s lively performance. Evoking the era with English-language songs and stills of Hong Kong, the film is a trip down the memory lane. It reminisces of a time when poverty didn’t discriminate, as everyone was poor and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. The film also raises awareness of the ever-changing Hong Kong and saves the street where the film sets from being torn down by the Urban Renewal Authority of Hong Kong. I definitely enjoy this film but am not sure if it will be a solid favorite. It’s a welcome deviation from the usual slapstick comedies and gritty crime thrillers.

Midnight in Paris

Other than the movie poster with Owen Wilson strolling underneath Van Gogh’s Starry Night, I knew nothing about Midnight in Paris. I wanted it stay that way—go in blind, and let it gobsmack me into euphoria. Spoiler Alert: Owen Wilson is Gil, a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter who wants to write real literature like that by Hemingway, who takes a vacation with his girlfriend Inez (Rachael McAdams) and her parents in Paris. Gil has a very different perception of Paris—nostalgic and artistic. Gil rather takes walks at night while his girlfriend go out to parties with her friends. Like many a writer or artist, Gil has longed to travel back in time to the sizzling Paris of the 1920s. Hemingway, in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, writes: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Edmund White in his memoir says Paris is a city meant to be seen by a flâneur—an aimless stroller getting lost in the city’s enfolds. Gil is the lucky flâneur who is living a highly unusual but moveable feast.

One night when the church bell chimes midnight, a vintage car drives past (on a slightly curved street that reminds me of Rue Bonaparte in the 6th Arrondissement), and Gil hops in the back. He’s taken to an elegant soiree, where he meets a couple (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) who introduce themselves as Scott and Zelda. He notes that is a coincidence. But coincidence doesn’t end at the party, where he hears Cole Porter crooning “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” He gets writing advice from a laconic (and sarcastic) Hemingway (Corey Stoll), persuades Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to read the manuscript of his novel—a story about a nostalgia shop owner, and falls in love with Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard). Adriana’s sighing dissatisfaction with her own era mirrors Gil’s, despite the anachronism. Back in the daylight world of 21st-century Paris, he must contend with a materialistic fiancée and her moneyed parents. Gil wants to live in the past—1920s Paris—as much as Adriana wants to leave it. *End of Spoiler*

The movie sometimes assumes viewers know the details of these luminous lives as well as Paris’s history, so it may be helpful to understand some of the complicated relationships that made Paris in that era both a dream and often something less. That said, Paris is perpetually alive, not because it houses the ghosts of the famous dead but because it is the repository and setting of so much of their work—which is what Gil eventually realizes. There’s not much depth to Allen’s time-travel conceit, though the way he develops the premise yields a lot of laughs. Particularly, from Stoll’s brusque portrayal of Hemingway to a surreal conversation with Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) and Man Ray (Tom Cordier). Allen also cast the French First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, as a tourist guide. The movie really shows a Paris that is special, timeless, and romantic. Midnight in Paris opens with a three-plus minute montage of Paris scenery set to 1940’s French jazz clarinetest Sidney Bechet’s “Su Ti Vois Ma Mere.” The scenes in Montmartre, St. Germain de Pres, and Shakespeare & Co. just make me nostalgic of the City of Light.

Tie-In

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Do you like movies made from books? Which ones do you think have been done well—kept mostly to the plot of the book, etc?

I like movie tie-in but have mixed feelings about them because I am usually preoccupied with my visions of the book, especially the ones I love. While the potential can be auspicious, it’s not clear that a book that’s a favorite with readers will prove equally successful at the box office. For the readers at least, who have individually developed pre-conceived ideas of what the characters might appear, how they carry themselves and interact with one another—the very private interpretation of the books, is hard to beat when the film is a product of director and screenwriter’s interpretation. In other words, they cannot satisfy everyone’s fantasy.

Maybe the film companies take advantage of the established publicity of the book. But, again, this goes back to the point I made about how readers become attached to books in a certain way. This could be a difficulty that neither filmmaker nor actors can overcome. How can an actor fulfill every expectation of the individual readers and fit into their vision? As for me, the issue is so much simpler. If I don’t give two straw about a book, there might be a better chance that I would see the movie because I won’t bother with the book. For my favorite books, I proceed with fear and trembling! That said, some of the well-done films include The Remains of the Day, Brideshead Revisited, and 84 Charring Cross Road.

Not at the Theater

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And–the reverse of last week’s question. Name one book that you hope never, ever, ever gets made into a movie (no matter how good that movie might be).

I have mixed feelings about the desire to see a favorite novel made into a film and the fear that a half-hearted or cheaply made film would ruin the book. I have read The Master and Margarita five times, and I am sure that I will read it again. My only regret was that my Russian is not good enough to understand the novel. Three out of five times I read the same translation by professor Diane Burgin and the rest two different translations. A quick poll at the local Russian grocery market revealed that almost all the Russians have either read or known about the story. I know for sure that even the best translation can not compare to the original because cultural nuances are inevitably lost during translation. The book has nonetheless made a deep impression me. Every time I re-read, I found something new in the book—a different connotation, a refreshed interpretation; it would turn to me by different facets. The novel itself, in both forms and plot, is incredibly beautiful, deep, sophisticated yet playful and sparkling with unforgettable characters, not to mention it’s audaciously ahead of its time. Supernatural elements will render an adaptation challenging despite the advent of technology and special effects in the film industry.

That said, there is in fact an adaptation in 2005. Vladimir Bortko has become the first Russian film director to start shooting of renowned Bulgakov’s novel and not to stop half-way. All the others Russian directors once engaged in the production of Master and Margarita have actually turned out to be unable to finalize their projects. I had a lot of doubts before watching the film because as much as I wanted to see Bulgakov’s masterpiece, which fuses three plots into one, on the screen I was not sure that it was possible to adapt it and not to lose anything important—which is everything. Bulgakov gradually weaves the three scenarios together, all the while exercising devilish lampoonery and wit to satirize Soviet life under Stalin. How would the film achieve the same? I was nervous and antsy while watching the familiar story unveiling across the screen. Bortko’s adaptation is actually not bad at all. It is respectful, thoughtful and as close to the spirit of the greatest Russian novel of the last century as possible. Even I have enjoyed it, I still don’t expect to see another adaptation because I’m just too fearful!