Friday, 26 December 2014

Endings and beginnings

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

No, I am not announcing the end of my blog despite no posts for months. It's been a long and busy year, moving to Bangkok, enjoying the trailing spouse lifestyle, dabbing in some NGO work, then progressing to the most busy and stressful job so far in my career; being asked to be a best man at the last minute; travelling around the world for work and play; forging new ground in the second year of being with the love of my life; and somewhere in there finally starting a blog about two of the passions of my life: film and television.

I will continue blogging next year but I have mostly been kept dormant for the last few months because of some intense work periods. But I had to post about one thing before 2014 came to a close - the ending of the partnership between seminal Australian film reviewers Margaret and David.

Their on-screen partnership has lasted for 28 years, as long as I've been alive and longer and more fruitful than most marriages. It's ironic that although their subject matter is film, it is television that has cultivated their fame and sustained their cult for so long. This is another example of television being the unique medium that allows people, like Margaret and David, to enter our homes over weeks, months and even years, projecting as much passion, humour, anger and vulnerability as we might share in person with our very own friends.

Growing up, Magaret and David were my windows to the film world, my window to both the objectivity and subjectivity of film criticism, my window to the souls and visions of filmmakers. They were the aunt and uncle who could passionately, constructively and respectfully disagree, and it didn't mean the end of their relationship. In fact, it only strengthened it. I didn't have those kinds of role models growing up.

In my youthful days as a wannabe film director, I didn't just envision film festival and awards acceptance speeches, I also envisioned intense debates between David and Margaret about my future films. I wanted them to debate my films, to disagree on my films (I knew David would not like my shakey-cam shots, so Margaret would always give me the higher ratings). I'm quite saddened that there won't be a generation of filmmakers that will have that as part of their dream, and there won't be a whole generation of filmgoers who compare their film opinions to the David and Margaret scale.

Although my film future was not to be (if only talent was not necessary to succeed), their presence remained throughout the years. One of my most cherished memories is their review of Khoa Do's The Finished People. Sometimes they are criticised (rightly or wrongly) for their soft ratings for Australian films, but this film demonstrated exactly why that soft touch was needed. It's a lovely film full of heart and poignancy, but would not have received a fair audience without David and Margaret as advocates. In Australia, very rarely do we hear sympathetic stories of these characters from the Vietnamese enclaves of Cabramatta, who are trapped within vicious visibility circles of voiceless children within a migrant world, hidden behind a multicultural story of drugs and cuisines, safely hidden from the view of middle class Australia.

Based on this review, I took my mum to a faraway arthouse cinema to see the film - it was ironic that although this was a film about the people living in the area that this film captured had to go so far away to watch it. Luckily in this case, the 50 minute train ride home was fertile ground for discussions about the film. My mum's comments afterwards was the most I have heard her say for any film. Living in the area, she could see the locations, the familiar settings, and the stories behind the faces of the homeless children she saw.

In this review, and countless others, Margaret's and David's love and enthusiasm for Australian film, and film in general, never wavered. And without their reviews, I don't think I would have had that train ride with my mother. Film clubs around Australia might not have flourished like they do. And this blog might never have existed. It's been a great 28 years, and I wish them the best of luck in the future.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Matrix

This post is the final post from The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

In 1999 I was a newly formed teenager, venturing out from the PG action movies and comedies that my family watched and into the world of watching movies without my parents. I don't remember much about how I got to to my movie seat, dragging my sister to the cinema. I can't remember what the marketing was, or whether it was talked about but that I remember having the urge to see this movie called The Matrix (what was the matrix anyway?). And it blew my mind. Whoa indeed.

One of the main things that blew my mind was the cinematography which expertly captured the choreography. Right from the opening fight between Trinity and the police until the final fight scenes involving air stunts and bullet-time effects, I knew this was something I had never seen before. I had seen aerial stunt work in the Asian martial arts films before, but never so polished and never so graceful (I would be even more spoiled the following years with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon etc). My impression of the choreography was so fluid and so immersive that I subconsciously incorporated it into my dreams. I recall having vivid "anxiety" dreams where I was chased (by witches I think, probably all played by Angelica Huston), first jumping through the air onto roofs, then running through apartments and houses like Neo in the final act, before escaping through the backyard and into the forest behind, gliding through branches and treetops like I was Zhang Yiyi finding my own Mount Wudang (I was not manly enough to be Chow Yun-Fat).

This was my overriding visual memory of the film, and it was such a blur of a kinetic experience, I found it difficult to find a singular favourite shot. It seemed a betrayal of these sequences to single out one shot, so I "settled" on one from a more static sequence:

Kansas has indeed going bye-bye, but instead of entering the technicolour world of Oz, we've visual regressed to a whole new world of black and green. Everything here is coded in dehumanising green digits, pulsing with electrical energy. The shot builds on the recurring motif of green digits, first seen in a line on Neo's computer, then as part of phone numbers that dial into the Matrix, and then as a jumble of digits on Tank's computer. Finally, here, Neo experiences the wonder of seeing the world anew, seeing the Matrix for the digitally programmed world that it truly is. It's a moment of triumph and revelation, the resurrected messiah empowered with knowledge and understanding.

This shot speaks to me because I recall a similar experience from high school. No, not the messiah part, but more the geeky understanding of the world part. Upon first learning about the existence of waves - sound waves, light waves, colour spectrums, electrical waves etc - I wandered out of the classroom, inspecting the world anew. I saw waves coming out from all directions, from trees, from tables, from humans. This was an exciting world, much more interesting and dynamic that what I could see with just my eyes.

To this day I sometimes imagine the waves radiating around me, data sent wirelessly from routers and mobile devices, and waves of music and movies travelling through optic fibres and air molecules to my laptop. For me, this shot encapsulates what the Matrix is all about. It reminds me of the world around us, pulsing with hidden concepts and energies, invisible to the naked eye, but easily awakened by our own knowledge, understanding and imagination.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Gone with the Wind Part 2

This post is part of The Film Experience's wonderful Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, and continues from Gone with the Wind Part 1.

Part 2 is not my favourite part of the movie - the story drags on and the addition of Scarlett's child drags the movie even more. Even though her death acts as a catalyst for Rhett leaving Scarlet in the movie's famous ending, it is not even the most affecting death. That honour goes to Melanie, and her final farewell to Scarlet is the cathartic end to the most enduring, functional and satisfying relationship of the whole movie. For me, Melanie encapsulates all that is good in the movie, and once she dies, the manners and honour of the old South are truly gone with the wind.

This was the surprise revelation for me upon this rewatch, and I found myself cheering loudly whenever Melanie revealed her awesome self, such as when she plays along with Rhett when the policemen come to arrest her husband. While Scarlett takes action and creates waves around her, Melanie remains the calm moral centre of the film.

When Melanie sees Scarlett and Ashley in an embrace later in the film, I always feel it's a betrayal more of Scarlett and Melanie's relationship than anything else. How dare Ashley get between these two strong women! So it is always such a relief when Melanie not only accepts Scarlett in for Ashley's surprise birthday party, but also defends her. This scene has my favourite shot:

After trying to implore her guests to receive "our Scarlett", she gives up and just leads her straight to Ashley. But not before quietly giving the best side stink-eye in the whole film to one particularly haughty guest. Surrounded by beaded dresses (lust and desire), expensive frills (wealth) and made up hair (social class), her look is rather dowdy and demur, but right in the centre of her dress and the frame is her heart of gold, shining brightly for all to see. It is beautiful and pure, but also hard as any metal. And it is one that will let no-one give shade to those she loves.

This shot captures a small and quiet moment, overshadowed by Scarlett's entrance and the end of the sequence when they reach Ashley. And yet, it is one that fills me with such joy and admiration for Melanie, who herself is always overshadowed by Scarlett. Here's to the quiet ones with the hearts of gold!

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Gone with the Wind Part 1

This post is part of The Film Experience's wonderful Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

The 1939 film that my family watches is not The Wizard of Oz (which I love), but Gone With The Wind. It was one of the first English-to-Vietnamese literary translations that my mother read as a child, it was one of the first films my sister downloaded when she signed up for an iTunes account, and it is one of the very few 3hr+ movies that I can sit through in one sitting, even if the movie itself helpfully gives us an intermission break.

Perhaps this was because in our matriarchy of happily settled refugees in Australia, the story of the perseverance of Scarlett O'Hara during the civil war has more resonance than a girl who would rather return to boring Kansas than stay in the wonderful land of Oz. Perhaps we saw something real in the endurance of strong women during the struggles of war. In a similar way, my favourite shot for this first half is clearly this shot:

As a kid, for all the intriguing melodrama of Scarlett's love life, it was this shot that remained in my mind because it brought home the huge scale of the casualties of war. It was one of the very first images of war (fiction or otherwise) that I had seen, and it was a rude shock to see such realism amongst Scarlett's personal dramas.

The shot begins as a mid shot of Scarlett walking through the town and eventually zooms out to show all the wounded lying across the tracks. The sequence ends when the camera finds the Confederate's flag. I prefer this shot in the middle of the sequence because, as part of the slow zoom out, with the devastation of war building throughout the sequence,  there comes a point where, for me, I no longer want to see any more. But I also cannot turn away. I am reluctant for the camera to zoom out any further and reveal even more casualties. The relief comes when the zoom finally finishes and I see the tattered Confederate flag - there are no more dying men to see.

In today's cinematic landscape, we might see a similar zoom out that shows thousands of men fighting and dying, but we know that that is mostly CGI. There's a palpable realism to this shot, one that rises above the pretty dresses and interior soundstages that dominate the film and grounds the melodrama of the film within a real, resonant historical context.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Last Week in LCC

Somewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere
This post is a bit late since I have been on holidays in Taipei and Sun Moon Lake. Taiwan is a beautiful country, and its scenery and history is this 2014 film’s best feature. The beautiful photography of the Taiwanese countryside, mountains and islands (and men) props up an otherwise earnest but uneven film. It's no wonder that the film has been used as a bit of a tourism ad for Taiwan:

Somewhere tells the story of a road trip between two friends on the road to self-discovery. One is a director who is still grieving for his recently deceased father, and the other is running away from an impending wedding. The story uses contemplative narration, flashbacks and fantasy sequences to create an enticing atmosphere of melancholy, longing and self-evaluation, but all of these techniques cannot hide the fact that the script leaves many ideas unresolved, including the underlying homoerotic relationship between the two leading men. I’m also yet to fully figure out the role of paternal figures in this film, and how it may be a commentary on the relationship between Taiwan and China. Perhaps I will explore this in a later post. The second best feature of this film is the love of food, and the communal aspects of family cooking (side note: I tasted some of the best beef noodle soups in Taiwan, second of course to the Vietnamese pho).  For me, nothing brings back memories of my childhood like the smell of my mother’s pho, “thit kho” and curries, and this film portrays that sensory memory with great understanding and reverence.

Million Dollar Arm
Perfectly disposable fish-out-of-water sports drama for an overseas flight. Neither a laugh-out-loud funny comedy or a hysterical-sobbing drama in which your reaction will annoy your fellow passengers. Jon Hamm has considerable charm and does his best with a rather pedestrian script, but it’s the India aspects that make the film interesting.

In Memoriam
We lost 2 big Hollywood stars in the space of 2 days – Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams. I can’t say I’ve been a huge fan of Lauren Bacall or her movies – the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s were never my favourite genre, and I’ve always preferred my B&B to be Bogart&Bergman than Bogart&Bacall. But there’s no denying her worldwide popularity and contribution to cinema.

Robin Williams, on the other hand, is more contemporary for me and my friends. Our generation grew up with him as Hook, Mrs Doubtfire, the Genie, Jumanji and particularly for me, he is always Mr Keating from Dead Poet’s Society. Not only did the film introduce me to the screen charisma of Ethan Hawke (who would later bloom in the Before series) and Josh Charles (who would later enthral me as Will in The Good Wife), but also to Mr Keating. Despite any warranted criticisms of over-sentimentality, Mr Keating spoke to many quiet shy schoolboys in high-school English class, introducing us to carpe diem as the worms slowly ate away at our forebears, to the honour of standing on our desks, the freedom of finding our own verse, and the dignity of leaving for the good of the group. I sound my barbaric yawp to you, sir. RIP.

Suddenly Last Summer

August 12 is Mother's Day here in Thailand so it's a strange coincidence that Suddenly, Last Summer is the next movie in The Film Experience's wonderful Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, and also a coincidence that my choice for best shot includes the crazy mother figure of Violet as she tries to shoo away the vultures picking at her dead son's estate ...

This shot is a point-of-view shot from the perspective of Violet's nephew, who is raiding the closet of Sebastian, Violet's dead gay son and the subject of what happened 'last summer'. Throughout this scene, the camera soaks in the details of Sebastian's room - male nude sketches, Grecian statues of male torsos, masks and skulls, and books and artefacts. It's a room filled with human culture, death and beauty, a refined (but also macabre) respite from the all-consuming plants and Venus-fly traps outside .

I chose this shot because it's an overt example of the 'male gaze'. In this shot, through the perspective of the nephew, we see two mothers talking about their children - one is aware of the harshness of the world and protective of her son's legacy (however crazy and sociopathic both of them may be), the other simple to the world and unaware of how her daughter is being played in Violet's game. And in the centre is Montgomery Clift as Sebastian's present surrogate, Dr Kukrowitz, his face lined with the same shadows as the mask beside him, and his body positions in the same as gay martyr St. Sebastian behind him (this is the other reason I like this shot - for the layers of symbolism put into the art design to overcome the Hollywood Code). For the nephew, all the harms, manipulations and injustices are playing out before him, and yet I think perhaps his only interest may be the fine white silk suits he has plundered from Sebastian's closet.

If the male gaze here is the surrogate for the audience's and society's own perspective, then the filmmaker with this shot brings into question where our interests lie. In the previous scene outside this room, Violet described to Dr Kukrowitz how her son saw the face of God as the innocent baby turtles were attacked by the birds on that day at the beach. Is mankind also like the birds? Are we too like the nephew here, not appreciative of beauty and compassion, only plundering the earth and ourselves for our own selfish wants and needs? As the plot progresses, these characters are shown to the extremes and the plot becomes very dramatic so that it's harder to put ourselves in their positions. But early on in the movie, it's a good question to ask.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

MH17: Limbs akimbo like skydivers in reverse.

Today was Australia’s national day of mourning for the MH17 crash victims. Many Australians were coming home on board the flight from the Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur, and many others were coming to Melbourne for the 2014 International AIDS Conference. It is always a tragedy when there is a senseless mass loss of lives, but the tragedy feels greater when it involves a whole cohort who were working together to make the world a better, fairer and healthier place.

As you grow older, you hopefully experience more of the world, and that big bad outside world that seemed so huge when you were little starts feeling a bit smaller. And conversely, the more people you meet – friends, acquaintances, lovers, new family members – the bigger your world gets. In today’s age of globalisation, mass media and technological interconnectedness, the rest of the world is literally just a click away and the outside world and your world begin to collide. And a finger pressed against a trigger a world away feels like it hits you right at home.

In my own childhood, getting on an airplane was a rarefied privileged experience – first when our family was being repatriated and I was leaving Vietnam for good, and then as a dream to fly around the world. I didn’t fly overseas again until I was in university, and any fears of disaster were overshadowed by my youthful blindness to risk and my excitement for travel. As the years have progressed, the fears slowly increased – perhaps I had more to lose each time. And yet I keep on travelling - more to gain each time perhaps, and fears overshadowed by what's waiting at the destination – be it a new country or city to visit or live in, be it the friends and family I can catch up again, be it reuniting with the love of my life again, even just for a weekend.

In the hours before the news reports came in of MH17’s crash, I had been saying goodbye and good luck to some friends and work colleagues from APCOM, the HIV/AIDS organisation at which I am currently working. They too were flying to Melbourne for the AIDS conference. Some were flying direct, others through Singapore, and others through Kuala Lumpur. One colleague was excited to catch up with activists from around the world, and to again savour in the sights and sounds (and men) of Melbourne. Another was excited to visit Australia for the first time (will I see a kangaroo he asks), but nervous at presenting for the first time in front of a huge audience. He was still there in the office, 2 hours before his flight, refining his speech and taking in all our feedback. When he waved goodbye to us through the glass and hurried onto the motorbike taxi, he had that same excitement and optimism we all have when we travel, whether or not fear overcomes us.

When I think of the families and friends of the victims of the crash, and how they must feel, I think of my feelings at the thought of losing these friends and colleagues who I have only known for 4 months. It’s a small fraction in comparison, and my heart aches at that calculation. Ironically, in times of sadness and hopelessness, I turn to one of my favourite scenes of all time, which happens to take place on a plane:

Monday, 4 August 2014

Last week in LCC - 27 July - 2 August 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I finally had the chance to see the Grand Budapest Hotel on the weekend as part of a ... meetup. (These are meant to be socialising events to connect people who are new to a city. Lo and behold, I ended up in a conversation with 5 other Australians. We're everywhere!)

I can't say I'm a Wes Anderson agnostic - I definitely like his style and was very moved by The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom - I just don't think his films are particularly great or anything. I get that his films are beautiful to look at, that there's a meticulous detail and love of spaces, and that there can be a poignancy to the nostalgia of the lost worlds he recreates. But for me, his hermetically sealed worlds can be a bit too cutesy and lacking in depth to become great. That was definitely the case with the Grand Budapest Hotel. Nothing more than a B+ for me.

Demolition Man and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Perhaps as part of celebrating Sandra Bullock's 50th birthday, I managed to catch these two of her older films on cable throughout the week. Sandy didn't have much to do in Ya-ya except be the straight centre for the craziness of the Maggie Smith and Ellen Burstyn show. But in Demolition Man, she just steals the movie with her comic timing and screen-presence. You could say that Sandra's somewhat robotic acting skills are perfect for this dystopic world, but I think she performs the role with just the right balance of android-ness and sassy personality. She's also helped by a rather funny script: "He's finally matched his meet. You really licked his ass."


I've finally started watching this cartoon and just needed to pose the question: is it odd to be mildly turned on by an animated character? I guess if it's okay for femme fatales, Sailor Moon and Disney Princes, then it's okay for this spy spoof. Apart from Archer's fine muscles, this cartoon also has some finely drawn characters, verging on caricature, but entertaining none-the-less. I can listen to Jessica Walters throw barbs all day long.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Cries and Whispers

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

There are some movies which I've seen and loved, but only need to see once because they are so emotionally disturbing, the prime example being Requiem for a Dream. Cries and Whispers is becoming another candidate. Despite it being a pretty great movie, the emotional violence inflicted by the sisters were so dead on and so scathing, I don't think I can bare to watch it again.

In choosing a shot for this series, I've realised that in many of my earlier HMWYBS choices, I seem to look for shots that offer a calm, cathartic break from the intensity of the movies - see the dull but cathartic hallway scene from Eternal Sunshine, and the relatively bright shot in Batman Returns. This time around, if I applied the same formula, it would be a choice between the dreamy serenity of the mother in the beginning, and the Madonna and child composition near the end. Both shots indulge in the calm escape of a memory (or a fantasy), somehow an escape from the oppressive red, white and black of the house.

But I had to stay true to the emotional horrors of the film. These horrors come from characters who are emotionally trapped by whatever trauma they experienced as children, and are now physically trapped within their macabre childhood house. The film's signature use of saturated crimson is so powerful - it represents not only their trauma and the pain, but also their passion and sexuality, and, in some ways, the comfort of the womb. I found the power of the crimson was in its omnipresence, and my memories are of images of trauma bleeding in and out.

But for the best shot, I've chosen a shot that is a reprieve from the bold crimson but one which nevertheless shows the emotional damage done by the characters:

In this pretty simple close up, we only see part of Marie's face with her lover's mouth intruding on the right. Her face, a beautiful alabaster framed by sensuous red locks, is a tightly controlled mask that bears the brunt of her lover's tormenting words. His words outline all her character flaws through the features of her face: her eyes with its quick calculating side glances, her mouth full of discontent and hunger, her wrinkles of indifference, the smile lines of her easygoing, indolent ways, and the brow lines of her sneering, her impatience, her ennui. This shot captures her face as it registers with many subtle emotions: playfulness, amusement, anger, pride, hurt, fear, and vulnerability.

In a film about the female psyche, and especially when many have viewed the four central women as "as four aspects of one and the same person", it's an excellent representation of the pressures faced by women, both physically and emotionally. She must act desirable but also subservient. She must look sexual but not too sexual. In some ways, it's a tribute to the strength of Marie that if she seems the victim here, she very quickly turns it back onto her lover, retorting that he himself is the same, and that is why they are so suited. It's the mark of a person who's faced such criticisms (and many others) before, and who knows exactly how to respond with as much venom.

But on a greater level, in a film and filmography concerned with morality and questions about the absence of a god, this shot is also a perfect example of the battle we face within ourselves. In Bergman's modern world, we have either rejected the supreme being or have been abandoned by Him/Her. We're now in our own space with nothing else but that voice in our heads that reinforces all the obsessions and insecurities that we've learned from society. Devoid of some greater force telling us how we should act and that it's all going to be okay, we're left with our own destructive whispers. And in this film at least, our only response is a lonely cry back, heard by no-one who can help.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Last Week in LCC - 20-27 July

Sex and the City - Season 6
Whenever my boyfriend is away for work, I revel in the space and revert to some old habits of singledom - eating whatever I want, playing music at loud volumes and binge-watching television shows. After a couple of nights though, I tend to have enough of the single life and desire some companionship again. That's when I extend the binge watching to catch up with the fabulous ladies of Sex and the City. Some quick thoughts:

  • Carrie's issues with Paris weren't really because of the Russian, or at least he wasn't completely to blame. One thing I've learned as a trailing spouse is that you have to decide to move for yourself as much as for your significant other. Where were her plans for her own personal growth? For her own career? Perhaps it was because of Carrie's usual carelessness, or perhaps it was poor writing (or both), but it was clear that her heart wasn't in Paris so the whole final premise was quite weak. It was just a distraction to get her away from New York City and create some tension among her friends, speaking of which ...
  • I was struck again by how much the show depended on the work of Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis. All 3 of them knocked it out of the park with their respective storylines (cancer, moving to Brooklyn, and adoption issues), and the scenes where they were together (e.g. at Miranda's wedding and learning about Samantha's diagnosis, and in the final pre-Paris scene) were quite magical.
  • I miss Sunday brunch.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Spurred by the quality of the previous film and the positive word of mouth, we saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and were ... quite impressed. No, it's not the best film of the year by any stretch - its characterisations were too broad but I give it kudos for its humour, its CGI, its thoroughly consistent anti-gun message, and it giving Keri Russell a chance, through however small and undeveloped a role, to grace us with her strong yet brittle screen presence. Unfortunately I also fell victim to two of Thailand cinema's greatest drawbacks - the temptation of buying the smallest drink available that happened to be 1.5 litres of coke, and failure to bring warm clothing for the cinema's relentlessly cold air conditioning. I was shivering a bit, not from the suspense of the movie, but from my bursting bladder and lowered temperature.

House of Cards - Season 1
We finally started House of Cards, having not done so out of a lack of time and a fear of getting sucked in. That fear was warranted, because we powered through 5 episodes, which is a lot for us. Kevin Spacey was his usual brilliant self and Robin Wright is the show's secret weapon. I was also glad to see Kathleen Chalfant in there as the Washington Herald's owner - I've always had a soft spot for her ever since The Guardian. I can't wait to see where this goes (and can't believe there is only 21 episodes left until I have to wait for season 3).

Cries and Whispers
This is one film I may never want to see again ... more thoughts in tomorrow's HMWYBS post.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Under the Skin

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

HMWYBS is always a fun exercise because it  allows me a chance to really analyse shots within a film. But this time around, with Jonathon Glazer's Under the Skin, it was also an opportunity for me to really enjoy and appreciate a film that I had not enjoyed the first time around in the cinema. When I first watched Under the Skin, I was with my boyfriend, and having not really read much about Glazer's stylistic choices, we were both expecting something a bit more ... shall we say ... action packed and less cerebral.

For someone who loves film and wants others to enjoy it too, there's a special responsibility I feel when I  pick a film for others to see. Is it the right kind of film for the occasion? Are you both in the mood for this type of film? Are they gonna like it? When the film began with a 2001-esque birth sequence, I knew that this not going to be a standard narrative and adapted my expectations. But could my boyfriend? I felt a mild anxiety that he would just walk out, knowing how much he disliked slow meandering films like this. To his credit he stayed to watch the whole movie, but has since described it as the worst movie he's seen (this year). I, on the other hand, think it's one of the best of the year, a singular movie not like much else available, one that feasts in sights and sounds to create the alienating experience.

Upon watching this again, I had the good fortune of my boyfriend being on a week-long work trip. I watched the movie in the comfort of my own solitude, the eerie silences of the film echoing the unusual emptiness of our apartment. Not only did I not have to worry about whether someone else was enjoying the film, but I was also able to feel a special connection to the alienation and loneliness felt by Scarlett Johansson's character. Like this alien seductress trying to understand the world and the sensory stimuli around her, I too was seeking out the meanings and beautiful shots in this film.

Without a doubt, the images in this film are beautiful to look at, and with Glazer's leisurely pacing it's pretty easy to feast in these images. For beauty alone, there would be many shots to choose from. But from an emotional point of view, there were a few that grabbed me the most, and one in particular. My favourite shot occurs just after the middle of the film, in a sequence that tells so much narratively with perhaps 5 shots. After she has taken the man with neurofibromatosis and fed on him at her house, she walks down the stairs, and stares at herself in the mirror, itself lit like a dark silhouette of herself.

While she never communicates what is going on in her mind, it is clear that she is fighting some moral quandries within herself about killing the sweet vulnerable person she just met. She suddenly hears a noise from the hallway, and looks to see a fly buzzing against the window, trying to escape.

I'm sure this will become one of the definitive "viewing an animal changes someone's perspective" scenes, just like Queen Elizabeth and the stag in The Queen.

The next shot, my favourite, is an extreme close up of her left eye. The white light coming from the glass in the previous shot is reflected in her pupils, and it's a beautiful image.

It's also the pivotal  point for the character. We already knew she had a curiosity with this world's living things because of her examination of the ant at the beginning of the film. Now, having gotten to know all her victims as part of her seduction, she now has some empathy for them. I think in this moment, she relates to that core desire of all living things - the desire to survive. Something, compassion perhaps, develops in her mind and burns in her heart, as loudly as the fly's buzzing and as bright as the light behind the glass. It's enough for her to deviate from her job to unknown consequences. This shot beautifully frames her eyes as the entry point for the external stimulus that leads to her internal transgression.

What makes this shot transcendent for me is that it also captures the magic of cinema itself. Here she is, an individual in the dark, a witness to the story of life before her, a story projected from a light source far away, piercing right through her retina and into her consciousness. That is exactly what I hope to experience every time I go to the cinema.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Batman Returns

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

My very first introduction to Batman was through Batman Returns, however, like for many others, it wasn’t the caped crusader that was the main draw, but the villains. The Penguin was suitably grotesque and villainous, but it was always Catwoman that stayed with me. One sequence in particular was etched in my memory, the famous "kiss" scene between Catwoman and Batman on the rooftop.

It was undoubtedly an erotic moment, one different from all the kissing scenes I had seen before. Here she was, this sex kitten, slowly licking the only exposed part of Batman, from chin to lips to nose. I didn’t even know you could do that! AND THEN HE LICKS HIS LIPS AFTERWARDS! For a budding prepubescent boy, it was a scene that showed that saliva could be involved in kissed, and for a budding homosexual boy, it was a scene that showed that in this scenario, I didn’t desire Catwoman, I desired to be her.

So it was a surprise to me that, upon a further viewing as an adult, this shot, while still titillating, was not my favourite. Of course, my favourite shot still revolves around Selina/Catwoman because she remains a tantalisingly crazy and multi-dimensional character. Unlike the mysterious chaos of the Joker, Catwoman is one of the few villains whose genesis is fully realised. Upon each death caused by either the Max, her boss, Batman or the Penguin, we witness her identity continually fracturing. And, like her costume's disparate jigsaw puzzle pieces visibly stitched together, we also see her attempt to reassemble herself.

My favourite shot comes from a scene that showcases these fractured identities: the masked ball scene. For the other guests, it is an opportunity to put on masks, but for both Bruce and Selina, it is a time for them to just be their normal citizen selves. Or, could it be that they too are arriving in masks, since ‘Bruce’ and ‘Selina’ hide their real, more significant, identities? Either way, it’s a scene in which their multiple identities manifest. For Selina/Catwoman, her fractured identities are starting to fray at the edges. Throughout the film, her identity, like her costume, is constantly ripped, broken and torn during each battle. In this scene however, it is laid bare with the most powerful of weapons: words.

In an amazing performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, we witness glimpses of her fracturing identities flash before our eyes during her banter with Bruce: “It’s okay, I had to go home to feed my cat” – the spinster, “Actually, semi-hard I’d say” - the sex kitten, “I came here to see you” - the object of desire, “I came here for Max” - the unattainable woman, "hahahahaha" laughter - the hysterical woman, “Don’t give me the killing Max won’t solve anything speech” - the vengeful woman, “I don’t know anymore, Bruce” the vulnerable woman, and finally, the kiss – the woman capable of love.

After these revelations, in the arms of perhaps the only person who could understand her, her open face looks up to the sky, searching for a calm respite from the chaos of her multiple personalities.

In this shot, my favourite shot, Selina’s fractured identities are replicated in the jigsaw pattern of the floor. For just a moment, it is held together, centred by her embrace with Bruce, floating in a moment of vulnerability, peace and a touch of sexiness. For just one moment, her circumstances and fractured identities seem to be okay.

Unfortunately, this is fleeting, and in this moment of vulnerability, her own words prove her hidden identity’s undoing. “A mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it” … “A kiss can be even deadlier ... if you mean it”. Both their identities are revealed, a bomb that threatens to keep them apart forever. Not long after, the glass floor that represents her fractured identities is literally blown up by the Penguin’s entrance, and the story of the freaks of Gotham continues.

But this shot remains in my memory, because for me it is the warmest, most humanly-connected moment in a film filled with outsiders, loners who seek some companionship in a disconnected world. In a film that might be titillated by more elaborate action sequences and weirder erotic scenes, it is the moment that represents what all these characters, and perhaps the audience too, most yearn for in this world.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Live theatre is a bit hard to come by in the wicked little town that is Bangkok. There is an abundance of live music, but the ‘shows’ that people come to here are more of the sex variety. So it was with some optimistic hesitation that my boyfriend and I went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the RCA Mongkol.

The night began with a rocky start. Although scheduled for 8pm, we had to wait until 8:20pm before we could even move from the un-airconditioned hall and to an even smaller, but thankfully air-conditioned waiting room inside the venue. We listened to sound checks for about 15 minutes, before being ushered into the performance space. The space was set up like a bar, so that there several rows for sitting and some tables for standing. Luckily we managed to get a seat, because it was another 20 minutes until the band appeared, and then maybe another 10 minutes until the show started.

By this time, we had grown impatient and were ready for something amazing. Hedwig entered the stage, and while her wig was drag-tastic and the music was loud, something was amiss. The sound was warbled and the Thai-accented English was inconsistently intelligible such that we were distracted by needing to read the English surtitles above the stage. This was not looking good…

Friday, 4 July 2014

Happy Independence Day

Happy Friday, happy weekend, and oh yeah, Happy Independence Day America! To celebrate, I present to you this drag-tastic-'whether you like it or not' mini-rendition of America the Beautiful from the current Broadway version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

This last week, I just recently saw an amazing Bangkok performance of Hedwig, and I was hoping to write about it in time for today, thinking that the musical's treatment of the construction of gender and self-identity and Hedwig's search for her manifest destiny was a perfect way to salute the story of America. But alas, the best laid plans of mice and men etc... hopefully it'll be ready by next week.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Normal Heart: 5 best scenes

Apologies - I've been sitting on this post about the Normal Heart for about a month now, and I thought I'd better post it before Pride Month ends. Ned would surely have screamed at me throughout the month for not being passionate enough, and in many ways, he would be right. Work and field trips has taken up most of my time this June, but equally I think I have been waiting to feel passionate enough to write something about this film. But I haven't. Despite the rage in Larry Kramer's original play (which feels like a tightly wound, claustrophobic tragedy) and Ryan Murphy's usual provocative handling of subject matter, The Normal Heart is in many ways too restrained a piece that relies too much on screaming and shouting monologues (more on that below). It also attempts to open up the story by providing additional scenes such as the opening scenes on Fire Island, and Ned's proposal at the docks. While the additional scenes are affecting, such scenes distract from the tense anger of the film, and the film becomes a rather middle of the road (shouty) drama rather than the angry play of its source material.

But, despite its flaws, I'd rather focus more of the positive parts of the film. The following are the 5 strongest moments of the film, These scenes shows how it's not difficult to be affected by the end of the film, due to the strong script and performances by the cast.

5. Final fight between Ned and Felix

Ned screaming and throwing food at his dying lover is one of the more distressing scenes in this movie. For the majority of the movie, I never fully believed Mark Ruffalo as the angry agitator Ned Weeks/Larry Kramer, partially because he will always be the damaged but vulnerable cinematic brothers Terry from You Can Count on Me and Paul from The Kids Are All Right (I think this will be a future blog post), but also because I couldn't believe an activist could be so unstrategic in his continuous agitation tactics. I was sick of all his screaming throughout the film, and I could not have dealt with it day in day out, especially in meetings with people where tact and diplomacy is required - I fully supported his dumping. But here, Ned's anger and frustration in the context of the personal is organic, believable, and ultimately devastating. His slow floor crawl back in apology show glimpses of that naked vulnerability that is the best thing about Mark Ruffalo. I don't think I ever fully forgave Ned for this outburst, but it surely made me cry.

4. Tommy's funeral speech

I always find it heartbreaking when the most reserved and composed of us break down. There are situations where even the most optimistic of us break down. In this scene, Jim Parsons lets some anger and frustration out as he can't keep it inside any longer.

3. Dr Death's monologue

Another powerful example of fury and frustration that can no longer be hidden. With a supporting performance by Julia Robert's trademarked forehead vein.

2. Bed-side wedding

This is more Mark Ruffalo's strong point - teary-eyed vulnerability. And this is Matt Bomer at his most raw and beautiful. Forget his perfectly defined body (okay fine, don't forget it - how could anyone forget naked Matt Bomer?). It's those clear expressive eyes, ever present and warm on his face, whether chiseled or hollow, that makes the performance. If you weren't already crying, this is the scene that should do it.

1. Mickey's breakdown

Thanks Joe Mantello. This is the part of the movie where my relatively silent sniffling went into full hyperventilating ugly-cry mode. This isn't the breakdown of the always angry agitator Ned or the charismatic leader Bruce, it's the breakdown of the quiet everyman, neither leader nor villain - just the average dedicated worker without whose dedication and assistance no work can get done. The average worker who works because he believes it will make a difference, and breaks down when he can no longer try anymore in the face of unreasonable, hateful and ignorant inaction. I think this is the moment that would connect with the majority of the people and even the activists who watch this film. Most activists aren't the Neds or Bruces of the world - they are more likely the Mickey's and Tommy's. It's their dedication, love and compassion that powers the normal hearts around the world.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Life in a Foreign Land: A Burmese in Japan

20 June is World Refugee Day. This year’s theme focuses on the impact of war on families and place individual refugee family stories at the centre of celebrations. The UNHCR is currently showing free films at the CentralWorld SF World Cinema as part of it's Bangkok Refugee Film Festival (June 19-24). Life in a Foreign Land was shown last night and will be shown again Tuesday night. Tickets can be reserved here and via facebook

Last night I had the privilege of attending the Bangkok Refugee Film Festival 2014 with some friends (including a person who had recently been granted refugee status) to watch the wonderful documentary, Life in a Foreign Land: A Burmese in Japan. Life tells the story of Kyaw, an upbeat, softly spoken and statesmanlike pro-democratic political activist - sort of the anti-Ned from the Normal Heart. Kyaw fled from Burma in 1991 after spending years opposing the oppressive military regime there. He left his home country on the orders of his father who said that he wanted his son to be safe and not in jail. After years in Bangkok and Japan trying to get refugee status and away from his wife, Nwe, they finally reunite nearly ten years later after both obtain refugee status in Japan. What follows is an uplifting journey on their continued activism, holding onto the dream that one day, they can return to a fully democratised Myanmar. At the same time, they must adjust to life in Japan, and face the very scary reality that, after living almost half their lives in Japan, the land of the rising sun could replace Burma as where they call their home.
What I love about Life is that it is rough and raw. There are no talking heads being professionally shot and edited. About a third of the documentary features raw news and activism footage from Burma and another third is relatively amateur footage from Kyaw's first few years seeking refuge in Japan in 1998 (the change in quality in the camera work throughout the years is another interesting artifact from the film). Even in the more recent footage which takes up the other third, the filmmakers do not clean up the film - shots are overexposed, the sound continues to be distorted, passages of speech remain untranslated. It is within this raw footage that we are able to experience the raw emotions of the key characters. As you can see in the trailer, the director is not afraid to zoom in for extended periods on Kyaw's and Nwe's crying eyes, or on their handed entwined when they reunite at an airport, or linger on Kyaw's face as his sings the cheesy but oh-so-thematically-and-Asian-karaoke-appropriate 'Right Here Waiting'.

Yes, this is a film that breathes the unpolished grass-roots air of activism, but it also very ably poses the right questions. Sometimes, I think thought-provoking is the wrong term to apply to these sorts of activist documentaries. Such documentaries are more question-provoking, and they are all the better for it. Thought-provoking may only lead to inaction - 'Yes, isn't it a terrible shame what is happening in all these countries ... okay next thought, next issue.' It's much better to create a more active response, and the best documentaries don't simply tell the audience what to do. The best ones provoke questions from the audience, and it is in the audience's own quest for answers that lead to meaningful action. So here are my top five questions after watching this documentary: (Warning spoilers ahead)

Monday, 2 June 2014

Mad Men

The mid-season finale of Mad Men aired last week and while I've been attempting to gather my thoughts, a bunch of recaps have analysed the episode so much better than I could have. Vulture has compiled a round up of the best Mad Men Mid Season Recaps - I'd also include The Film Experience's Mad Men @ the Movies post in that list for a bit of a cinematic touch. But the best of the bunch and my favourite has always been Tom & Lorenzo's costume designed-centred Mad Style series, and the one for 'Waterloo' is no exception.

My contribution to the conversation is a more literary one. I, like many others, have always thought Don Draper had certain Gatsby-esque qualities to him - most notably the self-made identity from poor country beginnings, although it's worth noting that Don is more the creator of the images of the American Dream that Gatsby so foolishly follows.

'Waterloo' brought my thoughts right back to the Great Gatsby. The episode was structured around man's first landing on the moon and when it finally happened, it was one of the best moments of a season. Families (new and old, traditional and non-traditional) sat around watching the moon landing, in awe of mankind's technological achievements and excited for this new frontier full of endless possibilities:

This sense of wonder and possibility parallel one of the most beautiful passages in the Great Gatsby:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
How great would it have been, if he really had thought that the discovery of America was the last time in history mankind was 'something commensurate to his capacity for wonder', for F Scott Fitzerald had witnessed the moon landing. Amidst all the doom and gloom in life, it's so affirming to be reminded of potential for the great transcendental moments. The capacity of mankind to pursue its dreams is such a romantic ideal that we keep at it when we know these dreams can and do get corrupted. Perhaps one day in the future, there will be a widespread renewable energy solution, a cure for HIV and cancer, a more sustainable and peaceful world.

Can this hope apply to Mad Men and its characters?

"Do you have time to improve your life?" asked Freddie at the beginning of this season. For all these damaged characters, it seems they're half way there in June 1969. Perhaps energized by this new frontier of endless possibilities, the characters were embarking into better versions of themselves - Peggy landing the Burger Chef account with a touching reference to her surrogate son, Sally choosing the astronaut instead of the smoking hot athlete, Don and Megan amicably breaking up, Roger stepping up to become a leader. And Don, most miraculously of all, acknowledging all the people who matter most to him and selflessly helping them in some way. Perhaps Don, after his first amicable breakup, his long awaited reconciliation with Sally and Peggy, and a posthumous reminder that the best things in life are free, escape the fate of Jay Gatsby, who was deluded by a dream that had already passed him by and faced rejection once his true identity was uncovered.

However, with the ambiguous final shot of him resting on a desk, and this being Mad Men, we really have no idea. The possibilities of how this fine series will end are endless and like the rest of the world, I'll be sitting by my screen awaiting the next 7 episodes with breathless anticipation.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

How Green Was My Valley

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

How Green Was My Valley has the unfortunate distinction as being the film that beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar. Unfortunate because on its own it is a wonderful film, well made and quite moving at times. If a comparison needs to be made, I'd rather see the two films as complementary representations of two competing ideals of America. Citizen Kane ponders the corrupted American dream through an examination of an increasingly isolated individual trying to recapture, through commercial excess, happiness that was taken away years ago (how very Gatsby-esque). How Green Was My Valley, on the other hand, examines the integrity of the individual spirit and community power in the face of corporate greed and excess. There are elements of each in the other, despite the differences in tone and style, and I like to think the two ideals wrestle with each other, constantly pushing America forward.

So in any other year, I think How Green Was My Valley would have been a worthy winner. But I'm also not surprised that the Academy would chose a film with a generous serving of nostalgia and sentimentality as the alternative to a darker and more negative film. A film that Randolph Hearst had so vehemently campaigned against. And also a film that was the second highest grossing film of 1941. That always helps.

In any case, the film is beautifully photographed with stunning long shots that showcase the beautiful small Welsh town set (it was meant to be shot on location in Wales, but due to the war was shot in California instead) and the ravishing countryside vistas.  Equally beautiful are the images of the town and its people binding together as one. Such images really enhance the theme of the power of the community - miners rushing in and out of the mines, the Morgan brothers standing up together to form a union, and the townspeople comforting the Morgan family in moments of tragedy:

Amidst all this communal love, it was the images of the individual spirit standing up above the community that moved me the most. For example, Beth rising above the town gossip to tell the townspeople how far she will go to protect her family:

Or Huw, once the outsider at school, turning adversity into strength, literally, by becoming a boxer:

Argharad bravely turning up in church despite the rumours against her:

And Mr Gruffydd, in a callback to the above scene, turning his back on the townspeople after condemning them for their small-mindedness:

But this is my favourite:

It's an image that stands in stark contrast to the majority of the images we see throughout the movie. Gone are the vistas, the town and the townspeople. In its place is a lone silhouette, in an uphill battle against the smoke and ash that threaten to cover her town. She is searching for solace but is overpowered by capitalism's destructive power. The lost, yearning loneliness of this image packs a real punch, for despite the heartwarming nostalgia of the final montage, this image reminds us of the true darkness of the film. Here, as we begin to wander past the valley of the shadow of death and into the future, it's an ashen valley full of grey men that we see, rather than any green valleys of yesteryear.

Sunday, 18 May 2014


May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia which commemorates the date on which the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the Classification of Diseases in 1990. Local initiatives are undertaken around the world, including the IDAHOT Thailand: School Rainbows in Bangkok, organised by UNAIDS, APCOM, YVC and Youth Lead. Internationally, as part of IDAHOT's celebrations, people are encouraged to share their stories. This is mine.

My homosexual feelings began in primary school when I had a crush on our class captain, Paul. This was confirmed during my first year at an all boys school, but it wasn't until my final year that I ever expressed my sexual identity to anyone other than myself (my mother, on Mother's Day, but that's another story to tell). To the outside world, a person's coming out is a one time experience, because they only come out to you once. But really, it's a continual process, first to yourself, then to others, perhaps slowly or in one big go. But it continues every time you meet someone new. It happens with every new work colleague, every new acquaintance, and every niece or nephew who reaches a certain age when they release that Uncle Adam and Uncle Steve sleep in the same room.

Every time you come out, there is a risk, hopefully ever diminishing, that you will face awkwardness, disgust, rejection, discrimination or violence. There can also be no reaction at all, or happiness as closer connections are built. But most importantly, each time you come out, you affirm your own identity. You declare yourself as who you are as you express it to the person next to you or to the world at large. It's thanks to coming out that I'm a more confident person, that I've also been able to come out as a Linux geek, or as someone who thinks bacon is not the best meat ever. For someone who is relatively private and introverted, being gay has made me come out of my shell, and I am all the better for it.

I'm also lucky that I've grown up in an environment that has been extremely accepting of homosexuality. Decriminalisation of homosexuality, anti-discrimination laws, Will & Grace, Brokeback Mountain, Mardi Gras, and, most importantly, a family that treasures love and wellbeing over religion or social acceptance. That is not to say that I haven't encountered some homophobia in my life. One night in Canberra, my partner and I were holding hands in public, and a group of teens became following us, throwing rocks our way (but not at us). We walked faster and stopped at a bus stop, confronting them and calling the police. There are still places where I don't hold hands with my partner, where I walk a bit faster than I normally would. And I overhear people say fag, or poof, or 'it's just not right'.

It upsets me, but this is nothing compared to what others have experienced, particularly in the Global South. Social and workplace discrimination, denial of essential health services, physical violence, jail and death by stonings. It is unacceptable. I cannot imagine what gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people must feel in such environments. There is so much to be done to end homophobia, so much research, awareness raising, education, advocacy, and lobbying to be done. But it starts with speaking up, telling your story and taking a stance against homophobia and transphobia.

So that's my story. What is yours?

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Mother's Day

In one of my first weeks in Bangkok, my partner and I were walking around Chatuchak Markets and, 'Que Sara Sara' played over the speakers over the homewares section. A wave of warmth and nostalgia washed over me. I was tired in all the heat, humidity and crowds, as we unsuccessfully searched for a red ceramic bowl for our house. But all of that faded away as the melody to one of my favourite songs swelled in my ears. It's a song full of memories for me.

I think it is such a beautifully written song because it captures both the romantic yearning for a happy future and the stoic acceptance that what happens in the future may simply be beyond our control. It neither dampens nor amplifies our dreams, merely realistically accepting the ambiguities at play. Something that generations continually teach the next.

It's also a song that has been used to chilling effect. Exhibit A: this emotionally brutal advertisement from the Thai Life Insurance Company:

It's also frequently used in cinema, such as in Mary & Max, In the Cut, and the one that started it all, Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much:

Here, Doris Day sings the song at the ambassador's house, in the hope that her kidnapped son hears the song and somehow responds. That crack in her voice when she sings "now I have children of my own ..." gets me every time.

It's that endless and timeless connection between mother and child that resonates the most with me. Probably because it's also one of my mother's favourite songs, and I can still hear her in my head, whistling the tune while she's cooking or while she's moving around the house. It's a song that brings me back to my childhood, a time when my mum, and her resilience in bringing up 3 children on her own in a foreign country, was so crucial for our family. It's a reminder of how much our mother's experience, wisdom and love comfort us as children, readying us for the world ahead. It's a reminder of the most important woman in my life, and how much I love her. Happy Mother's Day.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014


I have vague memories of watching Pocahontas at the cinemas with my sisters, but beyond Colors of the Wind (which I sang under duress as part of a school choir), nothing stuck particularly in my mind. So I was excited to view this film anew with new eyes as part of The Film Experience's fabulous Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Unfortunately, I found the film just as unspectacular. I found the film traded in obvious tropes without being particularly entertaining, and none of the characters were very complex or interesting.

The score and cinematography sure was lush and beautiful though. Colors of the Wind remains as wonderful as ever, and there were no shortage of frameable shots. For me though, the best shots are those loaded with extra meaning beyond beauty, imagery within the image, and in this regard there was a clear winner for me: 

This is one of the least busy and textured images in the film, but it is also one that captures what the film gets the most right: Pocahontas' determination and will. Her most valuable skill is not her beauty, curiosity or ability to pick up a foreign language in 2 days. Rather, it is her desire to run and forge her own path that powers her. And in this shot, in this moment, she is only running but not merely running - she's becoming a force of nature in her own right, her shadow self as strong and fast as an eagle. Her steely determination to put herself to do what she thinks is right and to stand up for her love is as dangerous and powerful as any of the weapons the men around her wield, and her pacifism leads to peace between the two cultures (as the film leads us to believe). It's the most powerful she's ever been in the film.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Less Impact Men.

It's been a big week for the environment, with Earth Hour last weekend, the International Panel on Climate Change releasing its latest report and policy summary, and the International Court of Justice ruling in Australia's favour and ordering that the Japanese Government cease its scientific whaling scheme because it breached the International Convention for the Regulation on Whaling by not being carried out for a scientific purpose (summary here). I've been recently writing ICJ case summaries for the online resource A38, and in particular environmental cases like the Case concerning pulp mills on River Uruguay and the Case concerning the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Project. To me, the ICJ has always been reluctant to make major findings against countries, so this is the first time in the environmental context that it has so emphatically declared and ordered injunctions against a country. It's so invigorating to see such outcomes!*

Given this, I thought I'd begin doing my own bit for the environment, starting with publishing this post on No Impact Man, the documentary I watched recently at the Social Change Film Festival. This documentary follows one year in the life Colin Beavan and his young family as they try to lead a carbon neutral life in New York City. Each month they alter something out of their lives to reduce their carbon pollution - transportation, food, electricity, cleaning products.

Like Money & Life, the other documentary I watched at the festival, it was pretty inspiring seeing Colin (and especially his hesitant wife, Michelle) challenge themselves and adapt to a better way of living. They persevered in the spirit of 'let's just give it a go', and if certain things did not work out (like replacing their fridge with a naturally cooling, sand-lined pot), then they could go back. Unsurprisingly, despite some resistance from his wife at first, she enjoyed so many of the changes over the year that what started as an experiment became a lasting way of life.

Can't Stop The Music

This is my second contribution to the Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, and from the highs of eternal sunshine, we sink to the dark and sweaty strobe lights of the discotheque that is Can't Stop The Music.

Growing up in Australia in the 1990's, my first encounter with this film came on New Years Day, since one of our television stations broadcasts the film as a post NYE celebration tradition.  So in the wee hours of the next morning (which is really noon on New Years Day), high on fireworks and optimism, I was quite receptive to the film's excesses. And, like the bulges contained within the shorts on display, my sexuality was burgeoning in time with the music. Who was I to resist short shorts?

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Death of Girls

The season 3 finale of Girls aired this week and like its fellow HBO stablemate Looking, it went out with a bang after a midseason stunner (Beach House). While there was so much unpleasantness in the first 5 episodes, by the end, it was a reasonably interesting and entertaining season - not least because the finale provided interesting closure to the storylines this year.

Death, or at least the end of things, seemed to be hover over the characters this season. From the deaths of Hannah's editor and grandmother, Flo, and the near death of Bedelia, to the end of the Girl's relationships after the amazing Beach House episode, death and destruction was everywhere.

This was also a season where their hopes kept getting dashed. For all the characters, all of their personal and professional relationships that they were building throughout the season, fizzled by the end. But as always, when one door closes, another opens. Of the supporting characters, Ray had to get his heart broken before he could be more grown up. Flo had to be on her deathbed to bring her family together. And  Bedelia had to swallow the pills before she knew she didn't want to die.

And for our girls? Of course there's another season to go, so they can't learn all their lessons yet, but the show is putting them through pain to get there - Shoshanna realising that her plans of sex and study couldn't work out, Jessa getting kicked out of rehab and losing those around her, and Marnie going through humiliations after humiliation, constantly seeking validation from men. And Hannah - she had to lose her writing contract, lose her grandmother, lose her creative soul at GQ, and lose her relationship with Adam.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Social Change Film Festival: Money & Life

Sometimes, the right film comes to you when you least expect it. That happened a couple of Sundays ago when I took my partner to the Social Change Film Festival at the beautifully preserved Scala Theatre to see two documentaries: Money & Life and No Impact Man (which will be the subject of a later post).

Money & Life is a US documentary that documents the historic significance of money as a currency, and how it has grown exponentially since the Industrial Revolution to now dominate our way of life. Where once spirituality, community and physical resources would evenly shape people's everyday lives, money now dominates our world.

The documentary specifically outlines how debt, interest and speculative financial trading have created a market that is completely disconnected from tangible goods and services, and how the pursuit of wealth in this context means that people are striving for achievements disconnected from the physical resources of our world and the services that develop relationships within our communities. This renders people blind to other important facets of our world, for example, the connectedness of relationships within our communities, or the unsustainable depletion of resources in a finite world.

The answer, according to Money & Life, is to re-imagine the idea of currency. Money as we know it can stay where it is, but why not create another form of trade-able currency that values good will, community projects, and other endeavours to which the present money assigns little worth? Will this inspire people to look away from the wealth of intangible capitalism and focus more on the value of real products and services?

Of course, this is not a new idea, but the power of cinema provides an entertaining, empathetic medium to express this idea. It is invigorating and the perfect antidote to my feelings of worthlessness and failure that I was feeling on the weekend.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Hit me with your best shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I've been a long time reader and admirer of Nathanial's The Film Experience so I thought I would jump in on his Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, especially for one of my favourite films from the 00s. Nathaniel talks about how this exercise allows you to appreciate the film so much more, and he's right. So let's get on with it.

I saw this film for the first time at a cinema with my family. My sister had to duck out after 30 minutes because the imagery was so strong and the camera so kinetic that she was getting dizzy (she was feeling ill prior). Unfortunately for her, she not only missed out of one of the best movies of the 00s, but she was unable to enjoy the amazing wonder and energy of the set pieces on display.

And here's the dilemma. With a film where the majority of the sequences are so kinetic, so full of ingenious design and detail, that each shot is not only beautiful but bleeds into the other, how could I find the single best shot? I had this in mind as I rewatched the film, and within the first act I thought I found my answer.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Have we found what we are Looking for?

Looking finished this week and the response from those who stayed with it has been quite positive. And I agree. Since the 5th episode the show has really stepped up a notch, packing quite a punch in its season finale.

Yes, the first half of the season was less interesting than the second half, but that was just the show finding its feet. And the show's relaxed style might not be the perfect fit for the initial establishing episodes. Perhaps if an episode like episode 4 had happened earlier in the series, the audience could have developed greater interest.

For me though, even if the plot is more 'boring' than others, I find it rare to have a mainstream show dedicate its entire time to gay relationships, to see gay men interacting, dating and discovering someone new. Many of us have had those discussions about our first time with a boy, coming out, sexual positions, bottom shaming, open relationships, and whether we'd want to get married if we could. And let's not forget the love for Golden Girls! For me, there's something so wonderfully affirming to see characters living and discussing these issues on screen.