Testament of Youth

This 2015 movie is based on the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain and stars Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington. The story encompasses many themes – youth, hope, dreams, love, despair, war and the horror and futility of war, tragedy and rising above it all.

The opening scene shows Vera Brittain (Vikander) trying to seek solace in a church amongst the crowd’s yelling and cheering and cars honking on Armistice Day in Nov 1918. We are then transported back to a time four years earlier as Vera recalls the spring/summer during which she shared her dream of becoming a writer with her brother and his friends, including Roland Leighton (Harington).

However, her hopes of going to Oxford with Roland is thwarted: War is declared and he enlists; she volunteers to be a nurse, even nursing the Germans. He is killed, and she writes this memoir to record her wartime experiences.

This movie is beautifully made. All the actors (including Talon Egerton as Edward, Vera’s brother, Colin Morgon as Victor Richardson, Edward’s friend who is secretly in love with Vera, and Emily Watson as Vera’s mother) are good, especially Vikander. There are many big scenes, which involve lots and lots of extras, all contributing to the authenticity of the plot.

The cinematography is lush – the gorgeous Brittain family home, the vast pastures and paths surrounding it, the long and wide roads, hills and heather, the calm blue sea. All feast for the eyes. Adding to the visual effects are the costume designs, great make-up and hair designs, and of course, music and poetry. I love the use of Chopin and Dvorak and the quotes from Chaucer and Leighton.

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The Goldfinch

While most people were out enjoying the festivities over the long weekend, I tried to read The Goldfinch which won Donna Tartt the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As I had borrowed the Large Print edition, I thought it would be a more pleasant experience compared to The Secret History which I didn’t like.

The novel is told in the first person by Theodore Decker who survives a terrorist bombing at an art museum at age 13. He takes with him a small painting called The Goldfinch, a work by Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt’s most promising pupils. Over the years, Theodore has always concealed the painting as he is afraid of being accused of theft.

Sometimes I do not understand myself: this is a Pulitzer Prize winner, yet I didn’t enjoy it one bit. (Just like how the immensely popular Harry Potter put me to sleep the three times I tried to read it.) Is it because it’s in the first person narrative? (Yet I’ve enjoyed many book written in the first person.) Is it because the characters are not mesmerising enough for me? Is it because it’s about a painting? (But isn’t this akin to an old music score by a well-known composer?) Is it because it’s too lengthy? (But then I love another Pulitzer Prize winner Gone With the Wind, and novels like War and Peace and  Anna Karenina, all of which are lengthy; however, these do not have more than 50 pages just for the opening.)

I would not be recommending this book to anyone. However, if ever it is made into a movie, I’ll probably go and watch it. If nothing else, perhaps I will be able to better appreciate why it is praised as “a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart” by the judges of the Prize.

Spy

Spy is a 2015 comedy spy movie starring Melissa McCarthy and Jude Law.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is a deskbound CIA analyst who remotely assists her partner, field agent Bradley Fine (Law) on missions. When he is shot in the head and all the other agents’ covers are blown, Cooper volunteers to go deep undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer and prevent a global crisis. The mission takes her to France, Rome and Bulgaria.

The plot aside, what I like best about this movie is McCarthy’s acting. She is a really good comedian who can deliver wise-cracks and be hilarious in her actions spontaneously. There is not a dull moment when she is onscreen, even when she delivers serious lines. With the right script and role, I won’t be surprised if she is nominated for an Oscar for her performance one day. In her role here, she has the license to kill the audience with laughter and slay with her acting skills.

A cameo appearance by rapper 50 Cent (as himself) is a nice surprise. The views (especially the aerial ones) of Bulgaria (Varna), France (Paris), Italy (Rome) and Hungary (Budapest) are a feast for the eyes. There are many stunts, all well-executed and do not smack of exaggeration. Besides the original compositions and 50 Cent’s Twisted, there are also classical music; notably Anton Dvorak’s Humouresque and Mozart’s String Quartet in G Major, all used appropriately to enhance the atmosphere of the situations the characters are in.

The Expatriates

What attracted me to this book is that it is in Large Print, and written by someone with an Asian-sounding name. My attention was arrested right from the Prologue: The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week… … and they dream of what lies ahead.

The novel focuses on three women: Mercy Cho, a young Korean American and a recent Columbia graduate;  Margaret Reade, one-quarter Korean and once a happily married mother of three; and Hilary Starr, a 38-year-old wealthy housewife from San Francisco haunted by her struggle to have a child.

The story of how these three women are bound together, how their lives converge and are changed unfolds slowly in intricate and unexpected ways. In the process, there is quite a bit or revelation about the lives of both the expatriates and locals in Hong Kong.

Almost reminiscent of Jodi Picoult, the story is told by each of these three women in alternating chapters, and the reader gets insight of their inner thoughts, emotions, frustrations and dreams. This makes the characterization more vivid. Each of these characters is flawed, making them real. The relaionships and their complexities make it a compelling read. Each also learns to metabolise grief, and try to live life in her own way.

The three women come together in the epilogue, and the sentence that sums it all up is: Becoming a mother is the most life-changing event in a woman’s life.

Equity

Equity is a 2016 movie that centres around a female investment banker at Wall Street. The financial world (things like IPOs and insider trading) is almost alien to me, and I recognise none of the leads. I thought I might enjoy the plot of a (financial) scandal and corruption but I ended up only appreciating what it takes for a woman to be at the highest echelon of her career. It seems that they end up with less-than-fulling personal lives while thriving on competition and ambition.

The plot is about a post-financial crisis: a company going public. It tells of what people would do to themselves, their friends and other people to get ahead. The characters are quite complex. There is moral ambiguity and grey lines. There is trust and mistrust.

The main characters are women. Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) embodies the strong woman on Wall Street. Despite her drive and passion to succeed and the sacrifices she’s made, she faces setback such as clients losing confidence in her work. She is betrayed by her scheming second-in-command Erin Manning (Sarah Megan). Samantha Ryan (Alysia Reiner) is an old college classmate and now an investigator of white-collar crimes.

This movie is not particularly interesting. I can’t fault it for anything, so I guess I should stay away from stories about investment bankers.

American Pastoral

When I picked up this 2016 DVD, I thought at first that I was looking at Demi Moore and wondered why the other two female leads are not on the cover. In fact, I didn’t even recognise Ewan McGregor on the cover photo.

As the movie plays and I get to know who Jennifer Connelly is,  and until the end of the movie, I’m still puzzled at her resemblance to Demi Moore, even as an older adult with all the makeup tricks by the production team. I can’t help but wonder if the two of them have actually visited the same cosmetic surgeon at some point.

When the opening credit shows that the movie is based on a novel by Philip Roth, my interest perked. I read one of his books about three decades ago but the next one I read wasn’t to my liking so I’ve stayed away from him since. However, here is a movie based on one of his novels, so it would be like getting reacquainted with his writing.

The story is about a successful Jewish businessman Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor). He was a star athelete in high school. He marries a former beauty queen, Dawn Dwyer (Connelley) and they have a daughter Meredith “Merry” (Dakota Fanning). Merry is precocious but stutters. As a child, she is outraged by the war (this was the Vietnam War) and as she gets older she becomes increasingly radical in her beliefs. She plants a bomb in the Post Office and kills the postmaster; then goes into hiding.

Swede finds Merry many years later, and she confesses she has killed three more other people. He decides to keep their meetings secret when he discovers that Dawn has betrayed him with another man and gets a facelift for this man. (Which reminds me strongly of Demi Moore again.)

What comes across to me is the father-daughter relationship. Unlike Dawn, Swede never stops searching for Merry. This is unexpected. I would have thought it’s the other way round. It is usually the mother who doesn’t give up, but it is not the case here, and Dawn even has an affair with another man instead!

Because the story is set in 1942 and the years after, when America was at war and there was depression all around, there is quite a bit of archival footage juxtaposed.  The costume designer and the department did a good job in making everything look authentic. The music is mostly from that era, such as Heaven On Earth (The Platters), Lullaby in Ragtime (Nick Mazrock), For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield), Dream Dream Dream (The Mills Brothers), and Moon River (Henry Mancini). The background music in some scenes are also very appropriate:  BeBop Blues (The Peter Blair Quartet), The Four Seasons: I. Allegro (Spring) by Vivaldi and Symphony No 6 “Pathetique” (II. Allegro con grazia) by Tchaikovsky.

The art direction, the prosthetic make ip design, the visual effects, the location coordination and many more others behind the cameras give this movie a crispiness and sharpness that make the plot and characters more colourful and vibrant than I would imagine in the book. Without the happy and  bright colours or ageing and decaying textures, I don’t think the words on a printed page would appeal to me in this case. And I don’t think I’ll pick up another book by Philip Roth anytime soon.

Mean Dreams

Other than an expectation of great cinematography and beautiful landscapes, I was only mildly curious about this 2017 movie with a cast I’ve never heard of.

Right from the opening titles, there are stunning views of vast open fields and forests, beautiful autumn leaves and country roads, and the gorgeous lake with lovely, soft music in the background. Then the camera zooms in to Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins) in the forest, meeting Casey Caraway(Sophie Nelisse), a new neighbour (though the house is at the other end of the road), for the first time.

Where the story is concerned, I must say it isn’t terrific but it isn’t too disappointing. Casey introduces herself to Jonas’ mum but got the door slammed in her face. Her dad is Sheriff Wayne (Bill Paxton), whom she is so afraid of that she drills an extra lock from the inside of her bedroom. He beats Casey up often. (Her mum was killed in a car crash, diven by Wayne when he ws drunk.)

There is ominous music when Jonas complains about Wayne to the Chief Sheriff; Jonas tries to talk to his own dad about it but got brushed off. His dad is also a bully to Jonas and his mum.

Jonas discovers Wayne’s secret, steals his ill-gotten money, and gets Casey to run away together.The chase begins. There is dramatic music and eerie music throughout the hunt.

The music and views – thanks to the departments of photography, production design, sequence design and location managers – make watching this movie not a watse of time.