Masterminds

masterminds

 

Masterminds is a 2015 comedy based on the Loomis Fargo Robbery in North Carolina. It is so weird and ridiculous, I have a hard time believing it is based on a true story. The plot – the Plan, the Heist, the Getaway, the Take, the Chase, the Betrayal, the Getaway and the After – is hilarious because it is so crazy and at the same time idiotic! The message seems to be that people are stupid!

David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) is a driver of an armoured vehicle. He has a crush on his co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) and is lured into the Plan. He, absurdly, manages the impossible and makes off with $17 million in cash. His team leader Steve Eugene Chambers (Owen Wilson) betrays him and hires hit man Michael Aaron “Mike” MacKinney (Jason Sudeikis) to eliminate him. But David and Mike become friends instead when David realises Kelly is a manipulator of emotions.

Plot aside, there are some laugh-out-loud moments as it is so silly and eccentric because the actors are talented and uninhibited. (I can’t imagine Owen Wilson in anything but a comedy.)

The locations are well chosen: Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. Of the eight-or-so songs, I’m most surprised at the choice of an Enya song (Only Time)!

Other than as entertainment for a lackadaisical afternoon, the budget for this production (with relatively good cinematography, editing, design, art, special and visual effects and stunts) feels extravagant to me as I would never buy a ticket to watch a movie like that.

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A Dangerous Method

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A Dangerous Method is a 2011 historical drama based on a stage play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton, based on the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr, about how the intense relationship between Carl Jung (1875-1961) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) gives birth to psychoanalysis. I was drawn to this movie because I first came across these two during a Philosophy course as an undergraduate, and I was curious about the role Kiera Knightley plays.

The opening scene of a carriage carrying a screaming woman, Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) towards Burgholzli Clinic (a psychiatric hospital) in Zurich, Switzerland on 17 Aug 1904 is arresting for at least two reasons: the music of Richard Wagner (from his opera Siegfried) and the impression of authenticity (since an actual date is given). The next morning, Sabina meets Dr Jung (Michael Fassbender) for the first time at his office, where he proposes they speak for an hour or two every day to find out the reason of her hysteria but she assures him that she is not crazy. She talks about her humiliation which started whenever her father hit her and her siblings since she was four years old. Jung uncovers the reasons for Sabina’s problems.

Sabina is an aspiring physician and Jung employs her to work in his research which often involves Sabina and Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon). Jung eventually meets Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and they develop a relationship akin to that of a father and son driven by their discussions on psychoanalysis, with Jung finding Freud to be completely inflexible. Discussions with a fellow psychoanalyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who is obsessionally neurotic, lead to fundamental changes in Jung’s relationships with Freud, Sabina and Emma.

Both Sabina and Jung’s favourite opera is Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Wagner’s Fantasis Aus Walkure plays on the phonograph during the meeting between Jung and Otto. The same music is heard as Sabina writes her notes with Jung standing behind her. Wagner’s opera plays an important role in this movie. Just as intended by the plot, the music shows there must be enough energy created by the friction of opposites to give rise to the crash of destructive forces so that something new can be created.

Jung and Freud meet again to discuss telepathy, parapsychology, catalytic exteriorization phenomenon and the standard symptoms of nymphomaniac. Freud also brings up a rumour in Vienna about the relationship between Jung and Sabina. Jung denies it but feels trapped and confused and tells Sabina he has to leave her, becoming cold and offhand suddenly, declaring that he has made a mistake not being professional in making a distinction between a patient and a friend. Apparently it is Emma, feeling guilty and neglected, who spread the rumour. Sabina decides she would go to Vienna after calling Jung a philistine, bourgeois, complacent coward who wants to break away and leave everything but unable.

In Vienna on 17 April 1912, Freud and Sabina meet again to discuss sex and death. Freud thought Jung brutal and sanctimonious, displacing one delusion after another and is shocked by Jung’s lies and ruthless behaviour about Sabina. Freud’s and Jung’s relationship has been hanging on a thread and the eventual break was violent.

In Kusnacht on 16 July 1913, Sabina meets Emma. Sabina is now married to a kind Russian Jew and heavily pregnant, and specialises in child psychology.

I find the movie intellectual, charismatic, passionate and brilliant. The mentoring relationship is intriguing. The characters are fascinating, and the plot, though based on heavy and serious material, fantastic. There are traumatic and intense moments, with Howard Shore’s adaptation of Wagner’s music adding to the dramatisation. Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is beautiful and gorgeous. Full of melancholy and longing, it carries the theme of Jung and Sabina. The flow of music brings the scenes to dimensions that would not  be what they are without the music.

The cinematography and photography are amazing.The props and set decorations are unique. The costume and production designs are subtle yet sensual and stimulating. All these come together to replicate the emotions and moods of the scenes.

Memento

memento

 

Memento is a 2000 American psychological thriller about a man trying to solve a mystery while having short-term memory loss. It is intriguing but at the same time confusing.

The story begins at the end. Gut Pearce is Leonard Shelby, an ex-insurance investigator, and quite an ambiguous character. The last thing he remembers is the murder of his wife. He now lives life by tattooing notes on himself and taking pictures of things with a Polaroid camera. In a complicated adventure of a memory inside a memory; the movie goes back in time to reveal a little bit of the past, juxtaposed with the present. The structure of the story is not very obvious, but the use of colour or black-and-white presentation helps. The ending is unsatisfying for me, especially since I sat through almost two hours to find out.

Even the music is designed to be quite deceptive: the distinct sounds between the colour and black-and-white sequences suggest different feelings and moods. It is atmospheric, but disturbing because the music still does not help explain what the movie is about.

The Big Lebowski

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I borrowed this movie to watch Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Jeff Bridges. It is a 1998 crime comedy that seems promising at first.

Bridges’ character is named Jeff Lebowski. He is better known as The Dude but is mistaken for a millionaire named Jeffrey Lebowski, whose personal assistant is played by Hoffman, and daughter played by Moore. In a twisted case of mistaken identity, more troubles arise, including intrigue and kidnapping.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the humour. What is so funny about two thugs peeing on the rug after barging into The Dude’s home? Is the nickname unusual? Is the kidnapping funny? What is it about the fascination with bowling? I find the character of The Dude bland and uninteresting. There are also too many uninspiring characters which are not directly relevant to the plot (German rockers, a Hugh Hefner clone, an avant-garde artist, a drugstore cowboy…).

Another thing I find distracting (and that’s putting it mildly) is the extensive use of vulgar language. I wonder if people really talk like this in any part of the world. This is on top of the drug use, drinking and lack of moral character.

The saving grace is the music. However, The Eagles’ Hotel California, Duke Ellington & Paul Francis’ Webster’s I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good, Ray Evan & Jay Livingston’s Tammy, Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are almost buried under the confusing situations going on in the movie. Only Bob Dylan’s The Man In Me can never be missed because it comes on during the end credits.

Blow Out

blowout

 

I decided to watch this movie because I thought it would be interesting to look at a young John Travolta and find out who Nancy Allen is. Unfortunately, I must have picked a wrong time to watch; I was brain-tired at that time, so I didn’t feel the excitement or thrill that must have been the intention of the makers of this movie.

The story is simple: A movie audio technician (Travolta) makes his living recording unique sounds for horror movies. One evening, he accidentally records something unexpected. It turns out to be evidence that a car accident was actually a political assassination. He enlists the help of a possible eyewitness to the crime (Allen), who may be in danger herself, to uncover the truth.

It is the first time I watched Allen. Not only did I find her voice and mannerisms annoying, I find her performance to be uninspiring too. Well, that’s not so bad, considering the character she plays is supposedly not very bright. The dialogues between her and Travolta are cringe-worthy at best. Again, not the stars’ fault. I have seen Travolta perform better in other roles.

The Leaky Pot: Poetic Form Workshop Series

Slightly more than a month ago, I sent in my application to take part in a poetry workshop series organised by the National Library Board (NLB) that teaches how to write poetry and think about poetry through the paradoxical lens of form. Though I studied Literature, I had not learnt much about the poetic form; I learnt about form only through music theory. I started writing poems about two years ago, after attending two other workshops also at the NLB, and I’ve tried to ensure my poems have form, by drawing from my experience with music compositions and structure. It is fascinating that there are many forms in poetry and I’m eager to learn more.

The instructor is local poet Tse Hao Guang:

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He will share the different aspects of form over six weeks, of which the first this afternoon is about Form as Prompt. Form is important because it’s something natural: all creations have form. Form in poetry is special as it is unlike dance, drawing, short story or pottery. An example is the nursery rhymes as they are poetic and have form.

The first exercise is free writing where the participants just write non-stop, after which we’ll read through what we’ve written and underline the words and phrases that are interesting or useful. Then I got quite lost from the third exercise where we have to think of an image or a moment and capture it in a poem. It has to be finite and contained. Luckily, Tse shares two examples: a poem called The Wheelbarrow and another called Old Pond (translated from Japanese). I learnt about paying attention and forming an idea (both abstract and concrete), taking on a texture as the image changes from line to line. I also learnt that something that is poetic contains metaphor, rhyme and contrasts.

The section on Image Generation just about flew over my head. I would need to digest this information over the next few days: it is relatively free of abstraction; poetry can exist and be made up of purely images but not purely imagination; by and large, the human mind is drawn to more concrete things; how to identify images and make them and bring in ideas.

This is followed by a video clip (Moods and Images of Singapore). Participants are supposed to list images that are “same-same but different”. I would need to go to YouTube to watch it again and figure out what I’m supposed to do about what good images (concrete) and bad images (abstract).

Next: What is a Metaphor? It is a more interesting way of saying something by comparing it with another. The connection of having two images next to each other could be good (fulfills the criteria of “same-same but different”) or bad (such as “as short as a giraffe”). To help illustrate the power of a good metaphor are the poems, the short In a Station of the Metro. (The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough.) and a longer Only the Moon (written in 1962/3, which I must google and revise another day).

The handout given for the day, a poem called Ars Poetica by Archibald Macleish is discussed for its metaphors and images, concrete and abstract, ideas and contradictions, paradox and more. Again, I would need to digest this when my overworked brain cells come alive.

It has been an interesting session, but due to whatever reason or excuse that I can come up with, rather heavy and taxing. On top of having to digest everything imparted during the session, there are many pieces of homework! We are required to free write for five minutes every day (or add a minute every day), besides composing a poem out of the underlined words and phrases from the pre-writing exercise done during the workshop.

All the topics for the next five sessions are equally, if not more, interesting. I hope it’s not true that as age catches up the brain slows down. Somehow, I feel that everyone in the class has no problem following the instructor whereas my brain gets more and more tired each minute and could not absorb any information, especially in the second half of the session.

Piano Masterclass by Dr Azariah Tan

azatan

 

This afternoon’s Piano Masterclass by Dr Azariah Tan is the first in the Yamaha Piano Recital & Masterclass Series 2019.

With his achievements galore, Dr Azariah Tan (whom I shall refer to as Aza for the rest of this post) really needs no introduction. Hailed as Singapore’s Beethoven, he was diagnosed with congenital bilateral sensorineural hearing loss at age 4. He has only about 15% of his hearing left, and will eventually become deaf. It is all the more remarkable that he was so impressive at today’s masterclass.

The first student played Chopin’s Nocturne, Op 48 No 1. I’m amazed that Aza could hear all the details and the nuances executed. Even more impressive is when Aza sits at the piano to play and demonstrates what he means when he talks about mood (gloomy, sadness, funereal, or a calm and soothing atmosphere as well as agitation, turbulence, trepidation, and passion). I love the expressiveness in the slow passages, the different colours between the two hands (dark sound in the left hand and more ringing in the right hand), the change in mood brought about by a modulation, and bringing the juice out of the chromatic scales. Aza also explains about the effectiveness of using gestures (for example, hands coming up to take a rest), of using different fingerings to give different effects (the 4th finger is more expressive than the pinkie) and the avoidance of sudden changes in order to keep a more even sound texture. Also touched on are matters of tempo and rubato, and the use of the pedal. It is such a joy to watch him explain and demonstrate on the piano how to maintain balance between the melody and the thick chords, and how to keep them capped under a certain level of sound. All these, and so much more, from someone whose hearing is much more weaker than mine!

The second student played Copland’s Cat and the Mouse. It is an interesting piece, but one that I know that is beyond me. There is story in this piece of music, and the way Aza interprets it makes it even better. Right from the opening notes, there is the feeling of anticipation. There is an element of surprise and unexpectedness. The eerie kind of sound could be brought out more effectively with unusual gestures. I really enjoyed Aza’s demonstrations of how the mouse peeps out of his hole, tip-toeing away and got noticed by the cat, how the music becomes sinister when the cat chases the mouse that runs in one direction then another (how this is brought out by playing the two times with contrasting dynamics: sforzando and pianissimo), how there’s a bigger difference between the two (or even that there are two cats, fighting). The effect would be funny, clownish or even silly with sarcasm (there could be ‘punches’ and a special crescendo). I’m mightily impressed by the way Aza explains about making the sounds come out of the piano, and how balance should be made by concentrating more on the top notes in the upper register and making the left hand not just softer but also dashing. Then there is this passage “where nothing much happens on a hot Singapore afternoon”. Still, the music needs to be shaped. Then a strange augmented chord occurs, depicting something strange and bizarre, before going back to a relaxed F Major. I’m more than impressed with Aza’s explanation of the difference between piano (delicately) and piu forte! The story could be told more effectively through gestures too. The melody should be brought out and time kept. A little pedalling would help to bring out the brilliance of sound. Aza recommends “going a little crazy here”, imagining all the broken furniture and porcelain vases and so on. Yet there’s a surprise at the end. (Is the mouse dead? Or has it walked away?)

With both students, Aza invited questions, but only the second one did. He wanted to know how better he could play with more contrasts, and Aza replies that pedalling would help in creating a bigger sound and changing colours. He also gives an insight into the dynamics: the cat requires big gestures and is heavy, while the mouse is nimble and light. He suggests using the fist to play heavy notes (and demonstrates more than once, to my delight).

It may have been only one hour, but tremendously enjoyable and inspirational. I look forward to his upcoming recital in June with Clarence Lee (who’ll be conducting a masterclass tomorrow but which I unfortunately cannot attend because of my commitment to the Poetry Workshop at the NLB), Gabriel Hoe (whose performance after today’s masterclass is sorely missed due to a prior commitment) and Song Ziliang (whom I last heard several years ago).