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Still Alice, the film

1alicef

Two reasons to see this film: Julian Moore and the book by Lisa Genova. While there’s no shortage in literature or film about Alzheimer’s disease, few stories can claim to do what Lisa Genova accomplished in her novel Still Alice, which tells the tale from the perspective of the disease’s victim. The movie adaptation, by directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, retains this aspect while supplanting the usual sentimentality of “Alzheimer’s films” with a clear-eyed honesty. Still Alice is heartbreaking but it doesn’t earn its tears through easy emotional manipulation.

The film’s highlight (for me at least) is the performance of Oscar-nominated Julianne Moore, whose turn as Dr. Alice Howland captures all the nuances of a brilliant woman slowly losing herself. Moore plays the part without histrionics; it’s a controlled, contained portrayal that can rival her performance in The Hours.

I already knew the story but the movie breathes new life into the story, which slowly unfolds visually, in Julian Moore’s own rendition and interpretation of Alice Howland, a professor of cognitive linguistics at Columbia at the time she began to be afflicted with memory lapses, whose life has always been defined by her intellect and people’s respect for her.

The downhill progression begins slowly—and it’s very poignant to watch: she stumbles over words she would normally be able to retrieve without a problem, becomes disoriented while out jogging, and fails to remember meeting her son’s girlfriend. The diagnosis is ominous: early onset Alzheimer’s, a rare genetic version of the disease. The majority of the film chronicles the Alice’s deterioration as the pernicious influence of the condition chips away at her memories, intelligence, and identity.

I am simply in awe of Alice’s struggle—the struggle to make sense of her surroundings, struggle to retain her dignity. I like how the director takes us into Alice’s mind and projects her changing circumstances through her eyes. I can’t help wonder which is worse: remembers things she could do but no longer has the capacity to achieve or forget everything? The final scene is poignant, also unbearably poignant but beautiful. The film keeps pretty much the entire audience riveted in their seat for the entire 1 hour and 4 minutes.

Stefan Zweig & The Grand Budapest Hotel

1world1budapest

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

42film

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

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

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.

Read the Book, Watch the Film (2)

Murder on the Orient Express (2010)

Based on the 1934 detective novel, Murder on the Orient Express, the latest adaptation from 2010, co-produced by ITV Studios and WGBH-TV, starring David Suchet who reprises the role of Hercule Poirot.

The intrigue of the story has been known to generations of readers: Returning from an important case in Palestine, Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded for the time of year (a clue that is often overlooked). Poirot secures a berth only with the help of his friend M. Bouc. That night, near Belgrade, at about twenty-three minutes before 1:00 am, Poirot wakes to the sound of a loud noise—somewhat like a wail. It seems to come from the compartment next to his, which is occupied by Mr. Ratchett, a sinister man who is suspicious of his personal safety. When Poirot peeks out his door, he sees the conductor knock on Mr. Ratchett’s door and ask if he is all right. A male voice replies in French “Ce n’est rien. Je me suis trompé”, which means “It’s nothing. I made a mistake”, and the conductor moves on to answer a bell down the passage. Poirot decides to go back to bed, but he is disturbed by the fact that the train is unusually still and his mouth is dry.

As Poirot lies awake, he hears a Mrs. Hubbard ringing the bell urgently. When he then rings the conductor for a bottle of mineral water, he learns that Mrs. Hubbard claimed that someone had been in her compartment. He also learns that the train has stopped due to a snowstorm. Poirot dismisses the conductor and tries to go back to sleep, only to be wakened again by a thump on his door. This time when Poirot gets up and looks out of his compartment, the passage is completely silent, and he sees nothing except the back of a woman in a scarlet kimono retreating down the passage in the distance. The next day he awakens to find that Ratchett is dead, having been stabbed twelve times in his sleep.

This is very well Agatha Christie’s most well-known story. It’s a classic full of mysterious and contradicting clues and circumstances. Some of the stab wounds are very deep, only three are lethal, and some are glancing blows. The evidence points to more than one killer. In this 2010 adaptation, the adaptation is unusual in that the narrative begins with Poirot in the midst of solving his recent case in Palestine (referring back to the case mentioned in the book). While generally faithful to the original story, it has a number of major differences, such as the character of Cyrus Hardman being omitted from the story, with Doctor Constantine (who is changed from a Greek doctor to Mrs. Armstrong’s American obstetrician) taking his place among the “jury”, and Antonio Foscarelli being the lover of the maid (whose name is changed from Susanne to Françoise) as well as being the chauffeur. The evaluation of evidence on Poirot’s part, which constitutes to the most fascinating aspect of the story, remains the same. The adaptation is unusual in that the narrative begins with Poirot in the midst of solving his recent case in Palestine—but it’s rare contrivance quickly justifies. The adaptation in question takes on a religious and moral stance that is unprecedented. Poirot is shown to be turmoiled by the decision to incriminate the murderer(s), as he strokes his rosary repeatedly at the end. It concludes with an emphasis on Poirot’s moral dilemma—against his scruple. This one is extremely well-done and attentive to details. As the series continues, I find an increasing tendency of moral interpretation. In a sense, Poirot is no longer just a shrewd private detective who solves the cases, but is given to a gamut of emotions.

Oscars Predictions

Updated

with actual results:

Best Picture: The King’s Speech
Best Director: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Best Original Screenplay: The King’s Speech
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network
Best Art Direction: Inception
Alice in Wonderland
Best Cinematography: Inception
Best Costume Design: Alice in Wonderland
Best Makeup: The Wolfman
Best Editing: The Social Network
Best Sound Mixing: Inception
Best Sound Editing: Inception
Best Visual Effects: Inception
Best Original Score: The Social Network
Best Original Song: If I Rise, 127 Hours We Belong Together, Toy Story 3
Best Foreign Language Film: In A Better World
Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3
Best Documentary Feature: Inside Job
Best Documentary Short: Strangers No More
Best Animated Short: The Gruffalo The Lost Thing
Best Live Action Short: Wish 143 God of Love

20/24

Read the Book, Watch the Film (1)

Based on the 1952 novel A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) is set in 1949-50 Hong Kong. It tells the story of a married, but separated, American reporter (played by William Holden), who falls in love with a Eurasian doctor originally from China (played by Jennifer Jones), only to encounter prejudice from her family and from Hong Kong society. A good amount of the story devotes to the widowed Han Suyin’s struggle to fall in love with the charmer Mark Elliot. An Eurasian, Doctor Han often often finds “the English side of her debating with the Chinese side of her.” That she has the run of foreign blood doesn’t make her an open-minded person. She is hung up on Elliot’s importuning question: Do you still not see what destiny has in store for us? Honestly, this is no big deal now, but it was outrageous to re-marry in Han’s time, as Chinese woman is to remain loyal (physical and emotional fidelity) to a deceased husband, behaving in a manner so decorous as the forbears. The movie ends rather abruptly, but leaves the impression that Doctor Han would have no regret in giving her love to Mark. What I find interesting is despite the authentic landscape of 1950s Hong Kong, the delineation of Chinese people is a far cry from reality.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987) is an adaptation of the 1970 epistolary memoir of the same name by Helene Hanff, a compilation of letters between herself and Frank Doel dating from 1949 to 1968. In 1949 Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), in search of obscure classics and British literature titles she has been unable to find in New York City, notices an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature placed by antiquarian booksellers Marks & Co located at the titular address in London. She contacts the shop and—the chief buyer, Doel, as polite and soft-spoken as Hanff is loud and overbearing, fields the request from his book shop in London. A long distance friendship evolves over time, not only between the two but between Hanff and other staff members as well, including birthday gifts, holiday packages, and food parcels to compensate for post-World War II food shortages in England. In these days of e-books, and bland books constructed from franchised ideas and formulas, we are presented Hanff’s memoir, a story about a relationship spawned because of a mutual love of old great books. This growing and deep friendship never had its denoument—For the next two decades they correspond without ever actually sitting down for tea and crumpets. Bancroft brings Helene Hanff alive in all her dimensions, in the process creating one of her most memorable characterizations. Somewhat sad, but uplifting at the same time.

Helen’s enthusiasm and passion for them is infectious, and 84 Charing Cross Road is a rare film that can convey a character’s love of books without having the character come across as pretentious or pedantic. I enjoyed the gradual change in Helen and Frank’s relationship, the way their friendship deepens. The movie dares to rely on simple things—words and friendship. There is no grand drama, no whirlwind romance; Frank is married and committed to his family, while Helen is busy with her writing and books. I could sense that they’re kindred spirits, and under other circumstances might have fallen in romantic love and married, but whether that would ever have happened remains unknown. It’s not even worth much speculation. Their strong mutual understandings and respect for each other that their roles in each others life became inconceivably profound.

What Women Want

1 hr 40 mins.
Not Rated

Starring Andy Lau and Gong Li, What Women Want (我知女人心) is a Chinese language remake of the 2000 American romantic comedy film What Women Want. Sun Zi-gang (Andy Lau), a Beijing ad creative director, and alpha male, is skilled at selling to men and seducing women. However, just as the womanizer thinks he’s headed for a promotion, his managing director informs him that he is hiring the talents of Li Yi-lung (Gong Li) instead, to broaden the firm’s appeal to women. Just when the office is abuzz with a vision of a Devil Wears Prada type of boss, Sun meets Li, bespectacled and novel-reading, in the elevator. Needing to prove himself to Li, Sun attempts to think of copy for a series of feminine products that Darcy gave out. However he slips and falls into his bathtub, electrocuting himself. The next day, Nick wakes up able to understand women’s thoughts. As he walks through town and encounters numerous women he hears their innermost thoughts. This proves to be an epiphany for him when he hears the thoughts of his female co-workers.

I’m in awe of the top-heavy lineup of this film, which has been rare in the last decade. While the plot structure has been kept close to the original, the Chinese language remake takes a look at social dynamics and workplace relations between men and women in China in a humorous way that has rarely been seen in Chinese movies. Li has broken the glass ceiling in man-dominant office in a chauvinistic society. The film also cultivates elements of a paternal relationship with daughter. Andy Lau’s performance is steady, delivering his usual flirtatious charm that was seen in Needing You (2001, Co-star Sammi Cheng). Gong Li’s being a career woman is a pleasant surprise, apart from her heavy sentimental epic roles in Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and Farewell My Concubine. The movie might pretend to be about what all women want—men’s dream of diving women’s mind come true, but it’s really more about Li’s (Gong Li) ability to make a guy want to be a better man. She did it for Sun Zi-gang, who gets a look at her and goes weak in the knees. My usual impression of Gong Li is a woman who never grew into her smile. Still, whether she can inspire a movie to be better remains to be seen. Could it be that the light, comedian nature of this film has limited the dramatic allure of Gong Li? I miss that Gong Li in Zhouyu’s Train.