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.