“Plastics.” – Movie Review on The Graduate (1967)

Any film synopsis would tell you that The Graduate is about a confused college graduate Ben being seduced by Mrs Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, but is then haunted by this short affair as he falls in love with the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine, who in the end elopes with Ben. The film is nevertheless much more than a love drama. It is full of contemporary cultural discussion and iconic lines that are often referenced in other films.  The Graduate opens with Ben, a top student freshly graduated from college, returning home to his upper-middle-class parents and their friends in Los Angeles, worried about his future because he looks to be different from the older generation. In fact the older generation has plans and words of advice laid before him. His parents expect him to study in graduate school with his outstanding academic results. Mr Robinson tells him to relax and have fun. Another family friend Mr McGuire says “plastics” is the only word he should keep in mind all time. The adults seem to have already envisioned a world for Ben to live in, and yet Ben does not want to be what the adults expect him to be. He feels uncomfortable with the homecoming party organised by his parents and hides in a room staring at a fish tank. Against his will he has to showcase his scuba diving gear and once he is in water, he dives to the very bottom to hide away from the crowd. He is helpless but not losing hope. Puzzled as he is, before he figures out how to break free from the older generation, he is seduced by Mrs Robinson engaging in a short sexual affair. While dominating and taking the lead in the affair, Mrs Robinson may be more fragile than she appears to be. During one of their stays in the hotel room, Ben wants to start a conversation with Mrs Robinson on art, but she is much reluctant to discuss about the subject. In the conversation she then reveals that her major in college was indeed art. She met Mr Robinson in college and got pregnant. Her reluctance to discuss art seems to be a parody of her conscious attempt back then to move away from who she was, but shifting focus to objects and values that she now comes to regret.  Among his parents and their suburban friends, including Mrs Robinson, they are all the same – “plastics” – artificial people who cling onto worldly constructions throughout their lives. Mike Nichols once commented that The Graduate is not centred on the conflicts between the older and the younger generations, but on how people cling onto objects to such a huge extent that they themselves become the objects they are clinging onto. Ben wants to be different, because he has noticed how the older generation has become the worldly objects themselves, and he does not want to passively become an object under the life designed by the older generation. He starts to breakthrough. The film ends with Ben crashing Elaine’s wedding and elopes with her. The couple hop onto a bus after Ben has literally fought for his prize Elaine at her wedding with another man. Some say the puzzled young man has finally tried to get what he really wants in life. It is a triumph of the heart. But to the audience’s surprise, there is no excited discussion about their new page in life. The delight quickly subsides as Ben turns calm and stares into the emptiness. Elaine’s loving smile retreats into a cold face upon seeing the expressionless Ben. The scene ends with the couple staring ahead in silence. This silence is a restatement of the opening theme song The Sound of Silence  – while speech is in essence shallow silence between superficial people, real silence speaks a thousand words. It gives voice to the uncertain future lying ahead of Ben and Elaine. It poses a question of “now what?” after a youthful rebellion against the older generation. It makes the audience ponder upon if Ben and Elaine are challenging the older generation simply for the sake of being rebellious. It casts doubt between reality and dream – is fighting for what the heart wants practically rewarding in the long run? The film’s ending has never failed to intrigue its audience since its premiere. Such is the power of silence.

Advertisements

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'” – Movie Review on Whiplash (2014)

Not my tempo” is perhaps the most frequently repeated line in Whiplash by the ruthless conductor Fletcher of an elite music school. An extreme perfectionist, Fletcher is abusively demanding to members of his ensemble. He shouts insults and foul language to push them to be technically perfect.

Andrew is a new joiner of Fletcher’s band. Greeted by Fletcher’s verbal humiliation and hurled a chair by the conductor, Andrew practises day and night. He does not stop with blood oozing from his palm, but put on layers of plaster and even soaks his hands in ice-water to continue with his gruelling practice sessions. While Fletcher strongly believes that positive comments like “good job” on just mediocre cannot bring musicians in training anywhere, Andrew also firmly accepts Fletcher’s methods and will not stop to make himself one of the greats. Even though he is injured in a car accident right before a competition, he still runs to the concert hall in bloody face, because he has earned the core drummer position after hours of intense competition and selection with two other drummers of the ensemble, and he cannot let the original substitutes play his part. However, as he struggles to play with his injured arm, Fletcher stops the piece halfway and tells Andrew that he is “done”. Andrew attacks Fletcher on stage and is subsequently expelled by the school.

Fletcher’s methods do not only cause discomfort to his current students like Andrew, but have allegedly led to a former student Sean Casey’s death. When the lawyer representing Sean Casey’s parents asks Andrew to testify on Fletcher’s abusive teaching, Andrew agrees. Fletcher is then fired by the school.

And yet Fletcher does not abuse students for personal reasons. In his eyes, he is doing so for the sake of the student who can overcome the challenges, and the music industry to nurture the next legendary musician. When Andrew meets Fletcher again in a pub, Fletcher tells the story of Charlie Parker. Parker once played with drummer Jo Jones. Dissatisfied with Parker’s performance, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at Parker, nearly decapitating him. Having told himself not to be ridiculed again, Parker started practising intensively and made the legendary performance of the 20th century.

So, imagine if Jones had just said, “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” So Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That to me is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. And they wonder why jazz is dying.

Fletcher laments at the world’s tolerance of mediocrity and excessive compliments. To Fletcher, pushing students to the extreme is his necessary duty to the industry. He is not afraid of going too far, because “the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged“.

Fletcher’s mission in life is reached with Andrew’s final performance which parallels with that of Charlie Parker. Fletcher, who already knows it is Andrew who testifies and makes him lose the job, sets Andrew up by inviting him to an important performance without telling him that the concert pieces are those he has not played before. The audience is composed of critics and agents, who never forget about a musician’s performance – if you screw it up this time, you are forever done. As expected by Fletcher, Andrew screws up the first piece – he does not even have a score to follow. Nevertheless, Fletcher is not discouraged. He starts playing another band piece that he has practised hard, that showcases all his efforts and talents. From attempting to stop Andrew, showing disbelief, nodding with satisfaction, to guiding Andrew to perfect his performance, the final scene features the eye contact between Fletcher – smiling and with great enthusiasm – and Andrew – exhausted but blissful. Andrew’s astonishing performance makes the audience wide-eyed in amazement. While for Fletcher, he has finally fulfilled his duty to the music industry.

A legendary performance certainly does not come easy, and the next great artist needs to be pushed. It is also not disputed that the next Charlie Parker will possess the determination to succeed. The question lies in how far should one go in the quest of nurturing the next legendary artist while uncertain if a young musician is really the next Charlie Parker who can withstand the stress and anxiety, or will mentally break down and have his or her future ruined. In the present era where competition is fierce, it is always a doubt as to how far should one go to pursue artistic immortality.

Below is the final scene of the film, in which you can appreciate the unparalleled performance by both JK Simmons and Miles Telller. Damien Chazelle has beautifully transformed the story of an aspiring drummer into a single-directional drumming tension that makes your heart keep racing towards the very end.

Oddly Colourful, Nostalgic, and Courageous – Movie Review on The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Harmonic chorus seemingly remote. Girl approaching a statute engraved ‘national treasure’ and slowly unraveling the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. Through the narrative of the Author, or Stefan Zweig (the ‘national treasure’), whose writings Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl inspired the screenplay of the movie, the adventure between a legendary concierge Monsieur Gustave H. and his loyal lobby boy Zero Mustafa unfolds in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in the 1930s. Because of inheriting a priceless painting from a rich dowager guest of the hotel, M. Gustave was involved in the treacherous scheme of the son of the guest. He was sent to the prison, successfully escaped and inherited everything from the dowager. He was in the end shot at military checkpoint and Zero, his most faithful companion and ‘brother’, inherited M. Gustave’s property accordingly.

What distinguishes The Grand Budapest Hotel from other movies is its directing and production. Colourful scenes that exploit all hues on a palette are harmonic but in fact suggest evil plans. Meticulous design coupled with rhythmic music and acting surprisingly brings spontaneity. Seemingly discreet filming of violence presents unexpected brutality with chopped fingers and decapitated head with haunting facial expression. Literary M. Gustave who is versed in the most adorned manner and speaks in poems often explodes in vulgarities. It is a movie that you will miss out an important detail in the blink of an eye, and this is what keeps it upbeat and exciting.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the carefully constructed miniature of the director Wes Anderson’s world. A world which laments the decadent yesterday, the last aristocratic world preserved in the Grand Budapest Hotel, but slowly slipping away. A world where noble and kind people believe in humanity – ‘there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity‘, commented M. Gustave when an old acquaintance saved Zero’s and his life at the military checkpoint. A world where courage and decency are wronged by the evils, the former reluctantly become prone to vulgarity. Gustave’s world, or Anderson’s world, has long disappeared. Indeed, M. Gustave is himself the reminiscence of the past. Gustave’s superfluous manners that belong to another age are his feeble attempt to maintain the long-lost world: ‘To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!‘ Gustave’s life was ended the next time his train was stopped at the same military checkpoint at the barley field – only that this time, there was no more old acquaintance saving him. He was shot by the military men when defending for Zero and his wife Agatha. The movie is an artwork mixed with faint glimmer of hope in humanity and the ironic reality of cruelty.

With camera gliding alongside the actors, Wes Anderson establishes a rare sense of intimacy and reaches out from the antique hotel to the audience in the modern world. He presents to us his impish but oddly practical fantasy in a dark but light way. He also put together the best people all of starkly different imageries in his carefully articulated hotel. He is said to be highly capable in uniting and bringing out the best performance of actors and actresses. Together they allow us to take a peek into Anderson’s wonderfully wired mind. The Grand Budapest Hotel, the quintessence of kindness and courage that shapes one of the most impressive years in recent years.

Just another oscar-winning movie – Movie Review on The Imitation Game (2014)

While success of wars depends on good leadership and sacrifice from soldiers, it is not always a hard battle. Sometimes, it is about knowing what your opponents think before they act, and that is when intelligence comes to play. Obtaining intelligence is more than sending out spies, but includes also intercepting messages for information. Countries are all equipped with the technology to intercept messages, but not the technology required to understand messages encoded by the Enigma machine, one of the most complicated encoding machines ever existed in the world and used by the Germans in WWII.

Winston Churchill once called Station X at Bletchley Park his “goose that laid the golden egg and never cackled”. Mathematicians (mostly from Cambridge), chess players, and linguists assembled at Station X for the highly confidential task of decoding wartime German messages. As a gibberish message processed by the Enigma machine could only be decoded by another Enigma machine, and each day the Germans would change the encoding settings of the Enigma machine, cryptanalysts’ analysis would only be useful for one day. What was more daunting was that there were 150 million million million possibilities for the setting, leaving the top talents exhausted. This all changed when Alan Turing abandoned the old way of manual decoding but successfully designed a decoding machine named Christopher to decipher German messages efficiently. Station X thus became the “golden egg” that could probe confidential information from the enemies. Christopher, or the Turing machine, is now considered a forerunner of modern time computer and formalises the concepts of algorithm and computation.

Alan Turing was a Cambridge Mathematician with immense interest in decoding messages since young. His interest developed due to his strong friendship with another student Christopher, whom he named the Turing machine after. Christopher helped Turing from school bullying and gradually, Turing had romantic feelings for him.

The success of the Turing machine assisted the British to gain valuable information of German warfare. However, not every decoded message would be reported, or the Germans would become suspicious. In one of the movie scenes, a teammate begged Turing to inform the army on a planned attack by the German, as his siblings were involved in that operation. However, Turing refused and concerns were raised over what right Turing had to control the fate of the soldiers. This is the age-old debate between valuing individual life and sacrificing for the wider community. Apparently Station X chose the latter. There was no right or wrong to the question, only that the war did shorten by two years with the help of Station X.

However, Station X remained largely unknown to the public. At the end of WWII, Churchill demanded all records be burnt in bonfire. If not for The Ultra Secret by F. W. Winterbotham, a former British Royal Air Force officer responsible for distributing intelligence, being published in 1974, the secret might still not be revealed to the general public. The cryptologists at Station X were largely a group of heroes who indeed deserved recognition.

Despite his substantial contribution during WWII and to the development of computer science, Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency in 1950s due to his homosexuality. As an alternative to imprisonment, he was ordered two-year chemical castration treatment. He committed suicide after receiving a year of the treatment. He was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II posthumously in 2013 in recognition of his contribution.

The Imitation Game has been both commercial and critical success. It has earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley) and Best Director. The movie is undeniably an excellent production with outstanding performance of actors, who have done their very best with their roles. Different time frames are presented – the young Turing in school, Turing during WWII, and Turing under police investigation for gross indecency – and the transits are made smoothly. A movie like this deserves many Oscar nominations, and The Imitation Game does not let its supporters down – it did secure quite a few nominations. And yet maybe the film has been calculated in such a way to receive critical acclaim that it lacks uniqueness. It is just another movie with the ambition to capture as many prizes as possible.

Nevertheless, the movie raises awareness towards the uncelebrated heroes of WWII, that without their hard work, the war might have dragged for two more years with heavier casualties. It also constantly reminds the audience that “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

One interesting fact to note – some scientists claim that Benedict Cumberbatch is distantly related to Alan Turing as 17th cousins. Both can be traced back to John Beaufort, the first Earl of Somerset born in 1373, through their paternal lines.

“People do belong to each other” – Movie Review on Breakfast at Tiffany’s

At 5 a.m. in one morning in 1960, a yellow taxi gently pulled up in a rarely quiet Fifth Avenue in New York. Disembarked from the taxi was a lady with oversized sunglasses and layers of pearl necklace in a Givenchy little black dress, holding a bag of breakfast. Being the only pedestrian, she strolled to the shop windows of Tiffany & Co, where she took out a bun and a cup of coffee from the paper bag and stared at the jewellery. The backdrop plays Henry Mancini’s Moon River, while the elegant remains as an enigma.

As the story gradually unravels, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is not a very loveable girl you will expect in any another movie. She is a party girl who lives off by engaging with rich men. She has a list of top 10 richest men in the country on top of her head. She was married at a young age with her real name Lulu Mae Barnes, but abandoned her husband for a new life in New York under the false name Holly. She meets her new neighbour Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a writer who has not published any works in the last 5 years and benefits from his relationship with a wealthy old woman.

To many, life in New York City is thrilling due to its glamour and the possibility of chasing after their dreams. To Paul or the men fascinated by Holly, the thrill of the city is seen through Holly herself. Her wildness and impulsiveness naturally attract them to experience the city through her eyes. However, it is always dangerous to give your heart to a wild thing. “The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky.

Although a wild thing is sometimes the one in a cage. Holly is undeniably a shallow gold digger who would marry any man for his money. However, after all, she may just be another poor soul who imposes on herself all those constraints as she chases after something “better”. It is also a struggle between falling in love and safekeeping freedom. Falling in love means obligations. You are no longer on your own, but part of the two-men team against the world. It also means being vulnerable. And yet the more you escape from such possibility, the more you confine your own life by invisible nuisances.

A good movie is like wine. The more you watch it, the more it brews your thoughts – gently, never in excess.

Movie Review on God Help the Girl (2014)

God Help the Girl is a 2014 musical film debut directed and with song written by Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian, telling the story of a once depressed teenager who recovers and marches on her way to making good music. Eve, an anorexic patient escaping from psychiatric hospital, meets James, a lifeguard, and his music student Cassie. Together they write songs and form a band with other local artists. As Eve’s boyfriend fails to deliver her tape to the radio station for screening and James has been distancing himself from his crush Eve having found out she has a boyfriend, Eve takes drugs and is sent back to the psychiatric hospital. Eve stays strong and has decided to attend music school in London. Before she leaves, the band performs in a concert with great success, and the radio station has played her tape. Online reviews on God Help the Girl are of mixed opinions. While some appreciate the creativity of Stuart Murdoch, others may find the separate musical episodes barely linked together by the story of Eve recovering from anorexia. True that the storyline is weak and the development of story inadequate with prejudiced focus on the musical parts, this first attempt by the Murdoch adds unique colours to the cinematic landscape. The costumes The main characters provide plentiful fashion inspiration to the audience – cute little black dress brought to life by Audrey Hepburn, bold leopard prints, and tartan trousers that were adopted as golf wear in the 1920s and are welcomed by the preppy fashion – their costumes are a pleasure to see on screen. Satchel used to be an exclusive item of English schoolboys in the 1950s and 60s, and yet have now become a necessary accessory of indie pop. The exquisite satchels carried by Eve and Cassie add a sense of independence to the characters and music but do not diminish any melodic softness. The bold use of colours – peach pink peter pan collar on orange floral dress and red hairband against red-blue strikes make you feel like starting afresh in the morning. The music Of course, the move is much more than that. Its music featuring Eve (Emily Browning) as the vocalist melts your heart. The simple backdrop and cute dance moves add to your anticipation of each little musical episode in the film. The songs describe simple things and emotions from daily life. Their melodies are lightly sonorous – contradicting it may seem, the apparently unintentional music circulates your mind and body long after your first perception. You can also sense independence from the music. Even without arrangement or ornaments, the blossoming melody can stand well on its own. Perhaps this is what makes it a gem. “Collective idiocy” The plot features a small argument between Eve and James towards the end. James once says, “I don’t mind people. I just can’t stand collective idiocy.” While it is difficult or almost impossible to distinguish between collective idiocy and general intellect, James has the tendency to isolate himself both out of superiority and inferior complex. He finds himself too good but at the same time unable to meddle in the turbid waters of the world. He stays as a lifeguard writing songs for his own pleasure. Indeed, the three main characters have been escaping from the world through music, especially Eve. It is certainly alright and a matter of personal choice as to the purpose of writing music – whether for personal pleasure, commercial value or gaining recognition. Only that as Eve gradually recovers from her emotional problems, she understands the importance of connecting to the world. By connecting to the world, she can receive more support and resources to produce better music. It is perhaps right for the critics to say that God Help the Girl is filmed for a certain niche – some cannot stand the isolated musical episodes and the lack of in-depth discussion through dialogues. However, it can certainly put you in a dreamy state for close to two hours. Same as the main characters, you can take a break from the reality for a while. Get yourself immersed in indie pop and wonderful vintage vision, and add in your own imagination to fill in the gaps – that surely is a pleasant experience on its own!

What Will Your Verse Be? – Movie Review on Dead Poets Society (1989)

Dead Poets Society is a 1989 American film set in the 1959 Welton Academy, an elite and conservative preparatory school that oberves tradition, honour, discipline, and excellence. John Keating is a former Welton graduate who has recently joined the school as English Literature teacher with unorthodox teaching that centres on critical thinking. Having learned that Keating was a member of the unauthorised Dead Poets Society, which is set to encourage the youth to “seize the day”, his students restart the society and are gradually inspired to pursue their dreams. Among them is Neil, who has discovered his passion in acting and has obtained the main role in a Mid-Summer Night’s Dream production. Tragedy happens when Neil’s father strongly opposes against Neil’s participation in the play and is sending Neil to military school to ensure that he can get into the Harvard Medical School. Devastated by the totalitarian attitude of his father, Neil commits suicide. Another student Cameron blames Keating for leading to Neil’s suicide. Keating eventually leaves the school.

On carpe diem

The society is full of adults, who may have stumbled on challenges and failures when young, directing the youth on how to live out their lives. While wisdom from the aged is precious, it is not absolute truth. Conforming to adults’ expectations may bring stable income, but it kills the passion in hearts, and it will be too late when they realise this. In the first English Literature class, Keating brings the students to look at school photos, capturing boys with similar temperament and confident smiles that the world is their oyster – they have all become fertilising daffodils. Instead of encouraging conformity, Keating’s ideal of carpe diem rings in their minds – “Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

To teach the boys to “seize the day”, Keating brings them to the courtyard to stride in personal style. He tells them to rip pages of “Understanding Poetry” out of the book, in which a PhD scholar suggests measuring the greatness of a poem by a mathematical formula. To Keating, one reads poetry as a member of the human race; the passion and artistic impulse of human race cannot be measured by static mathematical formula. Also, proposition of scholars needs not be blindly trusted. Instead of submitting to the authority, “consider what you think.”

However, “sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” This is what Keating said to Charlie, who has published an article in the school newspaper under the name Dead Poets Society demanding girls be admitted to Welton and made fun of the headmaster Nolan in assembly. While carpe diem means living the most out of life, it does not suggest reckless behaviour  – “there is a time of daring and there is a time of caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”

On burning with passion and being burnt

However, poetry is unrestrained like fire. Some may create greatness with burning passion, but some may be burnt by the passion itself. What makes the difference? The valour of making concession when necessary, of not taking carpe diem to its extreme. As said, seizing the day does not mean living recklessly. Apart from living life to its fullest, it also means keeping up with the changes in life. When life goes against you for following your heart totally, it may not be a good idea to confront the blockade directly. Sometimes one may gain more in the end by circumventing direct confrontation but solving the problem through other means.

“O Captain! My Captain!”

Subsequent to Neil’s suicide, the headmaster Nolan has started an enquiry into the cause of Neil’s death upon request of his parents. While others may easily realise that the domineering father plays a central part in causing Neil’s suicide, the wrongdoer often refuses to recognise one’s own faults, and will find faults in others to alleviate one’s own guilt, if any. Neil’s father is a good example. Cameron tells the school authority about members of the Dead Poets Society, and puts the blame all on Keating for his unorthodox teaching and zealous ideals. One by one, the members are forced to sign a paper attesting to Cameron’s allegations. The boys sign the paper, understanding that there is nothing they can do. At this stage, they lack the power to change the adults’ mindset. No matter how noble their intention is, with pressure from the school administration, the possible sacrifice of future and the burden of their parents’ expectations, each of them alone in the headmaster’s room is too weak to fight back.

Nolan then takes over the English Literature class. When Keating comes to fetch personal belongings from the classroom, Todd, who was once shy but has discovered his potential in poetry through an improvisation exercise, stands on his desk and says that Neil’s suicide is not Keating’s fault. Keating has before asked the students to try standing on the teacher’s desk, learning to look at things from a different perspective. With Nolan shouting and ordering him to sit down, Todd stands up straight and salutes Keating with the phrase “O Captain! My Captain!”, a poem Walt Whitman wrote to honour Abraham Lincoln.

One by one, the boys stand on their desk, saluting the Captain as he leaves.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Keating asks, “What will your verse be?”