Gweilo

Gweilo : A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood is an autobiography by Martin Boothe. Gweilo is a Chinese slang for a European male, translating as ‘ghost fellow’; once a derogatory term. (The feminine equivalent is ‘gweipor’.)

Boothe said in the Author’s Note that it had never been his intention to write an autobiography until his two children asked him to tell them about his early life when he was convalescing from an incurable cancer. This book became his epitaph.

The book has 11 chapters, each with an interesting title, such as ‘Three Lives on the Edge’, ‘Firecrackers, Funerals and Flames’, ‘Dens, Ducks and Dives’, ‘Living on Clouds’ and ‘Hiking to Buddha’.

Boothe described how he befriended rickshaw coolies and local stallholders, learnt Cantonese (one chapter is titled Sei Hoi Jou Dim, translated as ‘Four Seas Hotel’), sampled delicacies such as boiled water beetles and one-hundred-year-old eggs and participated in colourful festivals. He even entered the forbidden Kowloon Walled City, wandered into the secret lair of the Triads and visited an opium den.

Description of his journey into Chinese culture and a way of life full of curiosity and humour, this memoir would appeal to anyone interested in Hong Kong in the 1950s and looking for vivid descriptions, pictures and accounts of this fascinating city. Some passages brought a sense of nostalgia – such as my visit to the Walled City almost 30 years after Boothe.

Orchids

 

In the early hours,

Mist veils the golden rays,

Quiet and serene.

Through sheer lace curtains,

Sprays of purple orchids

Bloom gloriously.

To a tranquil mind,

These bring delight and calm –

Fruits of sheer patience.

Frozen

The main reason for my watching this 2014 movie is to relive a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (The Snow Queen) and to find out where the famous theme song fits in (when Elsa runs off to an icy mountain to  self-imposed isolation).

Arendelle is a fearless princess who sets off on a journey with a rugged iceman, his loyal reindeer and a naive snowman to find her estranged sister, Queen Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped their kingdom in eternal winter.

This is a lovely and pretty enjoyable animated movie, but overrated. What is undeniable are the splendid visual and sound effects, beautiful graphics, art and production design, cinematography, wonderful technical support and editing and original songs (especially Do You Want To Build a Snowman, Love Is an Open Door, Reindeer are Better than People and For the First Time in Forever). A bonus feature in the DVD is a video of Demi Lovato singing the theme song Frozen (the version played during the end credits) playing on a grand piano where a violin sits.

Zoolander No. 2

With Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig leading the cast, I expected this to be a silly comedy, but it’s more riduculous than I thought. I also thought it would be a treat to watch the singer Sting in an acting role. There are also cameos by Katy Perry, Tommy Hilfiger, Naomi Campbell, Ariana Grande, MC Hammer, Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs, Susan Boyle, Kate Moss, Susan Sarandon, Lewis Hamilton, Benedict Cumberbatch and many more. However, some of these celebrities have parts that are absurd and unnecessary.

Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and Hansel (Wilson)  are former models tracked down by interpol agent Valentina Valencia (Cruz) to help  uncover who in the fashion world is behind a series of assasinations of the world’s famous people (such as Justin Bieber). Instead, they become targets of a sinister conspiracy. The whole experience is a hilarious and desperate attempt at parody with exhausted gags which are meant to be funny but are not.

Still, some of the music and behind-the-scene work make me feel it’s not a total waste of time watching this movie: J S Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Sting’s Roxanne (performed by The Police), the locations (eg. Extreme Northern New Jersey, Uncharted Malibu Territories and Rome), the aerial photography and visual effects.

Listening

 

It’s better to be laconic

Than to be sarcastic;

It’s better to be empathetic

Than to be a critic.

Isn’t it a bit ironic,

That anyone prolix

Is more often than not sardonic

That borders on pique?

Listening shouldn’t be sporadic

Or it’s emblamatic,

And may lead to unwanted conflict

That makes one traumatic.

Similar to hydoponics,

Encouraging ethics

Require appropriate dynamics

Abstract as aesthetics.

All The Money In The World

Besides wanting to see how much difference Christopher Plummer’s role as oilman J. Paul Getty (reportedly complete in ten days) would make to replace Kevin Spacey who is embroiled in a Hollywood scandal, I also wanted to see how Mark Wahlberg’s agent was able to negotiate for an astronomical sum for reshooting the scenes involving Getty whereas Michelle Williams agreed to do it for next-to-nothing. It is really incredibly impressive, but I am still puzzled by Wahlberg’s fees (especially since he speaks with a drowsy cadence throughout).

One scene I most looked forward to involved the cutting of part of Getty’s grandson’s ears, news of which have haunted me since I read about it in the newspapers when I was 15 years old.

The movie is based on a 1995 book by David Scarpa which I’ve not read, but the story has been stuck in my mind for more than four decades.  I could not begin to fathom why anyone would be so heartless and cruel: to think that not even his grandson is worth paying a ransom for, even though he is the richest man in the world and the amount is only peanuts to his vast fortune.

In Rome in 1973, 16-year-old Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher Plummer) was kidnapped and a ransom of US$17 million was demanded. His parents had been divorced for nine years and in exchange for full custody of her children, his mother Gail (Williams in a heartfelt, steely performance as a mother with fierce determination) did not get any alimony and so was not able to pay the ransom. She appealed to her former father-in-law to pay the ransom but he refused in the believe that it would only encourage more kidnappings on his family, especially the other 13 grandchildren. The media thought Gail was rich and blamed her for not paying the ransom. She was not a person anymore, but a symbol.

In the meantime, Getty asks Fletcher Chase (Wahlberg), a Getty Oil negotiator and former CIA operative, to investigate the case and secure Paul’s releasse. Paul is kept hostage in a remote location in Calabria, Southern Italy. Chase pinpoints the hideout but Paul had been sold to another crime organisation that is more aggressive in their demand for ransom but lowering the demand to US$4 million.

Getty at first thought it is right not to pay the ransom and right to follow his guts but finally agrees to contribute $1 million (this being the maximum that he can claim as tax deductible) but Gail must sign her parental rights to her former husband. However, the kidnappers cut off part of Paul’s right ear and mails it to a major newspaper and say they will mutilate him further (the other ear, fingers, hands and leg) until the full ransom is paid. Getty finally agrees; Gail and Chase take the money to Italy and follow specific instructions from the captors on where to leave the money and where to pick Paul up. However, a frightened Paul has run away by the time they reach the location. The captors realise they’ve been discovered by the police and hunts Paul down, but Chase and Gail manage to find him and get him out of the country.

Grandfather Getty dies and Gail is given the responsibility of managing her children’s inheritence until they are of age. As someone who would spend a seven-figure sum on a small Renaissance painting of disputed origin, Getty has a humongous collection of possessions which he relishes owning; all these are now on display in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Christopher Plummer coming on board is a minor miracle. He should have been cast from the beginning: his perfomance of a miserly billionaire with a cold, cold heart is like that of a brain surgeon who saves lives in his sleep. His portrayal of Getty has an avuncular twinkle and a hint of vulnerability. He gives an impeccably refined performance as an extremely wealthy man who  is barely recognizable as a member of the human race. (If you can count your money, you ‘re not a bilionaire.) His age (88) also means he looks the part; I doubt Spacey’s prosthetic make-up (as fine as it could possibly be, which I saw in an old trailer) would be as effective.

Besides the cast, also to be commended are the people who work behind the scenes: The art direction, stunts, graphics, set decorators, make-up and hair, prosthetics, modelers, prop constructors, plasterers, location managers (for beautiful scenes in Rome (The Colosseum), other parts of Italy, Morrroco, England and California), technicians, costumers, stand-ins, digital artist, music, visual, special and sound effects.

Phantom Thread

The main selling point of this movie is that it’s probably the last movie that Daniel Day-Lewis will star in. That my favourite film correspondant gave it an excellent review in The Straits Times does not hurt. I had wanted to watch it even before the first public screening.

A historical drama about a fashion designer and his relationship with a much younger woman, I savoured this treat right from the very first piano chords in the opening title. At the end of 131 minutes, I still wanted more. It is not often that a movie has this effect on me.

Set in London in the 1950s, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) creates dresses and garments for members of high society. His charisma and genius is matched by his obsessive, controlling personality. His sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) whom he refers to “my old so-and-so” and who is a paragon of frosty decorum, manages the day-to-day operations of his luxury fashion house and has significant influence over his life.

A young  waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), beguiles him and becomes his love interest, muse and assistant. Alma enjoys being part of his creative process, but Reynolds is hard to please. Alma is, for him, essentially a mannequin that talks. But she also talks back. They bicker, and Alma resorts to poisoning his food with some wild mushroom shavings. He becomes gravely ill but Alma nurses him back to health. He is deeply moved and proposes marriage when he recovers. Their relationship soon falls into the same pattern and she decides to poison him again so that he will be weak and vulnerable and she can take care of him. He accepts the idea and she imagines their future with a child and her running the dressmaking business as a partner, believing that their love and new arrangement are challenges they can overcome.

Day-Lewis is such a monumental talent that he deserves an Oscar for Best Actor here. He is able to communicate a touchy temperament and angst through facial expression alone. There is a ferocity beneath his studied exterior. He not only succeeds in coming across as a handsomely groomed Adonis, but his portrayal of  a difficult and exacting man who has amassed a collection of daily rites, habits and superstitions (a strict regiment of silence, meticulously prepared meals, focused discipline, and attention to details) are absolutely convincing.

I recall two literary statements expounded here: Clothes Maketh The Man (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) and Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned (often mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare but is from William Congreve’s The Morning Bride). Clothes certainly made Reynolds Woodcock. He is not just a dressmaker; his designs are that of an artist’s. His clothes are refined, rare and amazing. Alma is not like Reynold’s other muses, to be discarded once they’ve served their purpose. She becomes jealous and would not give up her place without a struggle.

Then, the cinematography is awesome: everything from the luxurious and creamy interiors (eg a five-storey, seven-bedrooom Georgian townhouse and a New Year’s Eve ball) to the rustic and romantic outdoor scenes (eg road trips along country byways and an Alpine holiday) are stylishly captured. Details such as rich brocades, laces and velvets are as dreamy as the music used that always set the right mood and atmosphere – from the jazzy My Foolish Heart by Oscar Peterson and Day Dream by Billy Strayhorn to Gabriel Faure’s Berceuse (Dolly Suite Op 56 for piano duet), Claude Debussy’s  Scherzo, Schubert’s Allegro (from Piano Trio No 2), Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique Op 14 and the classic waltz by Brahms. The rest of the original score by Johnny Greenwood, largely for piano and strings, are alternately dissonant and elegant, delicately lyrical and sensuous. The leimotifs only strenthens the intense theme and is both gorgeous and melancholic. The music just melt into the story so effectively, showcasing how the music jumps across time and space to give life to any kind of situation, beautiful and appropriate.

This movie is indeed well crafted, subtly covering and revealing vulnerable truths underneath. It is also unsettling and even nauseating at times. I hope Day-Lewis will come out of his retirement in a few years and bring forth more of his uncanny performances.

The Emoji Movie

When this movie came out, all I heard (and read) about it was unfavourable, so I never wanted to watch it. However, curiosity got the better of me (“Why was it panned? Is it really that bad?), so I finally borrowed it.

The plot is nothing to shout about –  it’s an adventure into the secret world inside the smartphone to Textapolis, a bustling city where all the favourite emojis live. In this world, each emoji has only one facial expression – except for Gene, who is bursting with multiple expressions and so doesn’t fit in. Determined to become “normal”, Gene enlists the help of other emojis – Candy, Hi-5 and Jailbreak. Together, they embark on a “app-venture” through the apps on the phone, such as Instagram (where they could literally be in this frozen world) and Spotify (the world of music).

The most interesting part of the movie is perhaps the first five minutes, including the narrative: “The world we live in is so wondrous and mysterious, even magical.” In a smartphone, each system and programme and app is its own little planet of perfect technology, all providing services so necessary, so crucial and so unbelievably profound. The pace of life gets faster and faster, and attention spans get shorter and shorter, and who has the time to type out actual words? And that’s where the most important invention in the history of communication come in – emojis (eg Christmas tree connotes festivity, a crier cries even if it just won a lottery, a laughter laughs even if it’s in pain, a ‘meh’ denotes ‘who cares’).

The Art Deparment has done stunning work. The imagery and animation are beautiful. The visuals are mesmerizing, and would definitely appeal to the very young. The characters are fun and cute. The designers, layout artists, CG and digital production, 3D visual, software engineers and sound effects (voices and music, including the traditional Deck The Halls, Jingle Bells, Waltzing Matilda and Christina Aguilera’s Fell This Moment and even excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute).

Hysteria

I borrowed this 2011 DVD on the strength of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s name and the ‘hysterical’ title, expecting a fun ride. I was not disappointed.

This is a light-hearted romantic comedy based on the surprising truth (Well, the opening title says it’s “based on a true story. Really.” Also, I googled it, and discovered that a Granville’s Hammer was patented in the early 1880’s for the massage of men.) of how Dr Mortimer Gransville (Hugh Darcy) came up with the world’s first electro-mechanical vibrator in his quest to work out the key to woman’s happiness (a condition called female hysteria).

The story begins at the Westminister Hospital in London in 1880, where Granville is a young doctor who has difficulty in his occupation because he is in constant arguments with the senior physician over modern medicine and methods. After leaving the hospital, he gets a job assisting Dr Dalrymple ( Jonathan Pryce) in treating women with hysteria. He meets Dalrymple’s two daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) and Charlotte (Gyllenhaal). Emily is a prissy homebody who plays the piano, her favourites being Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major Op 9 No 2  and Grande Valse Brilliante and Charlotte is the liberated older sister who runs a home for disadvantaged women.

Granville is intended to marry Emily but falls in love with Charlotte. At the same time, he is so dedicated to performing his duties that he develops carpal tunnel syndrome in his right hand. He consults his friend Edmund St John (Rupert Everett) who tries his electrically powered duster on Granville. And the vibrator is invented. Vibrators were then sold as portable home-use “personal massagers” as a health aid for aches and pains.

The subject for this movie is rather amusing. On top of it, there are simply crazy scenes throughout; an example is when a woman spontaneously burst into the Sempre Libera aria (from Verdi’s opera La Traviata) during a treatment for hysteria which takes place in a special chair in which small velvet curtains obscure her lower body.

The tone throughout is light and mischievous. Ther performances are spot on, especially Gyllenhaal’s. The production design is really good too.