The Brothers Grimm

Again, two reasons prompted  me to borrow this 2005 DVD: the lead actors Matt Damon (not a bad actor) and Heath Ledger (who will not be seen again); and the Grimm fairytales.

The movie opens with ‘Once upon A Time …… 1796’. The viewer learns that the Grimm brothers come from a very poor family, and how one of the brothers (who is supposed to sell a cow to get money to enable their mother to get help to cure their very sick sister) is excited to be given some magic beans instead of money and how exasperated the mother is.

Immediately after this scene, the brothers are grown (15 years later) and  in French-occupied Germany, trying to kill trolls and giants, find missing children and destroy the dark heart of evil – all schemes and shows put up to con the inhabitants. Then comes a turning point and the brothers decide to pursue a new career path with their now-famous name …

I had hoped to watch something of a biographical nature but it appears that this is a fantasy story of the Brothers Grimm. This is quite disappointing. Other than that, I must say the various departments (eg. stunts, wardrobe, visual effects, special effects, animation, art, sound and music) have put in a lot of effort. Czech music, especially, is not often used in movies.



Despite being well aware that I dislike science fiction, I still borrowed this DVD. I gave myself two reasons: first, the movie stars Amy Adams (one of my favourite actresses), Jeremy Renner (who reminds me of Liam Neeson) and Forest Whitaker (whose earlier movies impressed me); second, this 2016 movie received mixed reviews and I want to find out for myself how fair or biased they are.

Based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story Of Your Life, it is about how a team of experts (a language professor, a scientist and an army colonel) try to find out the intent of a dozen mysterious spacecraft that landed all over the world.

As with most sci-fi movies I’ve watched, I find only the opening scenes interesting. This is when the background of the story is laid. Once the team sets off to be near the aliens, I find my attention wavering. Even the aerial views from the helicopter did not pique my interest. The ending is quite unlike some other sci-fi movies I’ve watched, though. There is some drama that I could understand.

The very long list of names in the end credits attest to the fact that a lot of people and a  lot of work is involved in the production, but only the musicians’ list left me in awe because one man (Johann Johansson) is responsible for composing nearly all the music (except Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight and Anton Dvorak’s Serenade).

The Wayang Kids

As the first female receipient (‘A’ levels catergory) of the Prime Minister’s Book Prize, I would definitely want to watch this movie as soon as possible. It is not only supported by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism, it is also about an autistic child in a mainstream school (a topic close to my heart because I was form teacher to one of the first such boys accepted by a mainstream secondary school). And then, the plot involves the art form called Wayang (local term for Chinese Opera).

Austin Chong plays the lead role of the autistic boy named Open (his surname is ‘Ou’ and his name is ‘Ben’ – in Hanyu Pinyin – , so eveyone calls him Open). Right from the first scene, he got the mannerism down pat – eyes blinking furiously and hand rubbing one side of his head, drawing during lessons and ignoring what his teacher and classmates are doing, even if some of them tease him and bully him.

Henry Thia, in his cameo as a Hokkien-speaking fishmonger who cannot pronounce Mandarin properly, draws laughs from the audience. Lorena Gibb, as Bao Er (whose father is a Mandarin-speaking Canadian – Christopher Downs – and mother a former Opera trouper from Beijing) is someone with great acting potential.

Typical of persons with autistim syndrome, Open is obsessed with one thing – in his case, drawing – and even draws when he’s walking. Instructed by his father Eli Shih) to meet him at the latter’s office at 2pm, Open waits outside the door and enters only when the alarm on his watch tells him it’s 2pm.

Another habit of Open’s is spinning his pen in his fingers. When his mischievous classmates snatch his drawing pad while he is drawing in class, he cries and scream and would not stop. He cannot bear being touched and when he accidentally pushes a girl and causes her to fall, this girls’ mother complains to the school, demanding an apology from Open, unaccepting of any explanation or apologies from the school staff (including the teacher played by Joci Kok who also sings the movie’s theme song) and Open’s father. Her parting shot is that Open is hurting other students and  affecting their learning, so he should not be allowed in this school but in a special school. She is also disdainful of the Chinese language, telling Bao Er’s mother that in Singapore,  Chinese is not important but English is very important, to which Bao Er retorts: “You’re a Chinese, yet why won’t you speak Chinese?”

In contrast, Bao Er’s father explains to her when he finds her reading up on autism on the internet, that these people cannot have conversations like you and me; don’t tease them but help them. If only more parents are so understanding! Open is very talented and has lots of gifts and is very smart; but he just doesn’t know how to express it.

Bao Er notices Open’s affinity for the Monkey God and persuades the teacher-in-charge (who is Open’s father but she doesn’t yet know) to include him in the performance group. Slowly, Open is accepted by all. A visit to the Singapore Zoo shows how the classmates are more accepting, understanding and helpful towards Open.

Open’s mother (May Phua) is quietly suffering an emotional turmoil by burying herself either in work or pretending that she cares more about retail therapy and having a good time with her friends. When she announces that she is leaving for New Zealand for a work project on the same afternoon as the school’s opera performance, Open and his father are taken aback. On that afternoon, Open asks his father if “she isn’t coming because I’m different”. His father replies: “With make-up, on the stage, we are all the same”. This scene really tug at my heartstring.

When it is Open’s turn to take to the stage, he ignores all cues but keeps staring at the vacant seat meant for his mother. When she turns up with a finger puppet, I cried. The background music is Bach’s Prelude in C Major, played by piano and violins. My tears flow freely through the next few scenes where mother and son meet and hug and many photographs of the performers and their parents are taken.

Good thing there are a few more concluding scenes showing how Open’s mother decides to stay, Open is  happier and livelier and many lovely views of the Singapore seafront, including the iconic Flyer, Marina Bay Sands, ArtScience Museum, The Esplanade and the financial district. By the end of the credits (and the list is very long indeed, as some earlier scenes are shot in China and many people from both countries are involved in this project), my tears have dried.

Kudos to the director Raymond Tan, the music composers (including Jean Low) and the cinematographers and photographers. I look forward to their next collaboration.

I read somewhere that a book has been written based on this movie (not the other way round), and I hope there will be copies for loan at the public libraries soon.



A Tale of Love and Darkness

This 2015 drama-mystery is based on the international bestseller by Amoz Oz.  It is essentially about the founding of the state of Israel. I’m surprised that Natalie Portman chose to write the screenplay and make it her directorial debut besides taking the lead role. I did not know she is so proficient in the Hebrew language.

Portman plays Fania, a young wife and mother in war-torn Jerusalem. She had fled Europe as a young girl and recalls her past (here, the audience is brought to Poland’s Sosenki Forest where she used to pick mushrooms and slept in sleeping bags on the riverbank beneath the stars) and gets really bad headaches.

In Jerusalem in 1945, under the British mandate, Fania witnessed riots and curfews and realises that “your life is yours for only a very short time”. Stifled in her relationship and weary from the tedium of her life, Fania creates tales that amazes her 10-year-old son Amos (Amir Tessler), stories that would influence the boy to grow up to become a writer.

Fania’s migraines give her insomnia and she doesn’t eat, sinking into depression. Her childhood was trampled upon and the monotony of life itself led her to envision death as a release. After she died (how she died remains a mystery), Amos left his father and Jerusalem, changed his name and went to Kibbutz Hulda on his own. He learnt to drive a tractor, lay irrigation lines and hit the target with a Czech rifle but still did not manage to transform himself. However, he remains hopeful and continues to dream.

I was not enamoured with this movie. I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that I had to totally depend on the subtitles. Other than some fine photography of scenic spots and archival footage, I found the movie rather bland. What I appreciate is the use of traditional music (including the Cossack Lullaby and a few others), music by Rachmaninoff and La Mer (the well-known French jazz piece by Charles Trenet).


Red Sparrow

I’ve wanted to watch this movie the first time I saw the trailer (I saw it thrice), and when I read the newpaper review (which rated it only 3 stars out of 5) and found out that it involves a ballerina, I knew I must watch it.

This is the first time Jennifer Lawrence stars in a spy thriller (as far as I know), playing Dominika Egorova, a ballerina whose career at the Bolshoi is abruptly cut due to a horrible ‘accident’. (But ‘there are no accidents; we create our own fate’.) She is a devoted daughter and is manipulated by her uncle, Ivan Egorova (Matthias Schoenaerts) to join the Russian Intelligence Service. She emerges the top trainee from a perverse and sadistic training programme at State School 4 (which she calls the ‘whore school’).

Dominika is assigned to find a mole, and is given a fake identity to extract the name from an American (CIA agent Nate Nash, played by Joel Edgerton). The plot and characterization are complex. There is double-crossing (or triple-crossing), revenge, and violence; there is a hint of what a complex character Dominika is – she has tenacity, fiery wit, an aptitude for both enduring and inflicting violence – because she may have experience trauma, abuse or even incest. (I must read the book – by Jason Matthews – to find out.) She understands what it takes to survive.

The plot means many scenes take place in different countries (besides Russia) – Budapest, Vienna, London – and the location managers/coordinators and photography units have done a good job in capturing some awesome aerial views. That Dominika was a ballerina means there are scenes of ballet performances (whether she’s dancing – with the help of a dance double – or watching others dance) and lovely music (by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach and Grieg). The rest of the music (by James Newton Howard) all depict the various scenes well (stirring orchestral music, percussive and pulsating music, tutti, suspenseful and mysterious music, foreboding and soaring orchestral music).

It’s definitely worth the price of admission.


The Glass Castle

This 2017 movie is based on a 2005 memoir by Jeanette Walls. It recounts the unconventional, poverty-striken upbringing Jeanette (played by Brie Larson, the second oldest of four children) and her siblings had at the hands of their deeply dysfunctional parents (Rex, played by Woody Harrelson, is an alcoholic dreamer and Rose Mary, played by Naomi Watts, is an eccentric artist). The family moves from place to place every few months when their debts grow too numerous – Arizona, California, Nevada, West Virginia. It must have been very disturbing and tumultuous to grow up in such environment.

The glass castle is one that Rex hopes to build – an energy-efficient beauty with glass all around to let Nature in without letting the rough invade. It never gets built but the childeren’s heads are filled with unrealistic hopes and dreams of a better life. They learn to take care of themselves and learn to come to terms with their nomadic and poverty-striken childhood. As adults, the children settle in the Big Apple while thier parents squat in an abandoned building and go round ransacking trash cans.

Three things strike me as outstanding: the acting, the cinematography and the music. All the actors are good, especially Harrelson, Chandler Head and Ella Anderson (who both played young Jeanette at age 5/6 and 10 respectively). The emotions are very well expressed. Thanks to the location managers, photography unit and aerial photography, the landscapes – in daylight and nightime, from dusty ones to snowfall – are visually impressive. The music – about two dozen of them, mostly originals but also including a Cole Porter number (‘Don’t Fence Me In‘) and  traditional ones (‘O Christmas Tree’ and ‘My Wild Irish Rose‘) – all of which enhance the mood and atmosphere.

This is a fascinating and complex story; it has prompted me to read the memoir to find out more details.


Alone in Berlin

This is a relatively new DVD (2017), and it stars Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, two veteran actors who’ve never failed to deliver.

Based on Hans Fallada’s bestselling novel, Every Man Dies Alone, this movie is both a gripping thriller and an ode to resistence.

In 1940, a young German soldier is killed in action. His parents, Otto and Anna Quangel, are devastated by the loss. (There is forlorn music, sombre music, melancholy music, foreboding music, mysterious music and suspenseful music throughout the movie. This sets the tone and atmosphere of the plot very well.)

Believing Fuhrer Hitler and his Nazi regime responsible, Otto decides to create handwritten cards denouncing the regime’s abuses and lies; Anna, equally disillusioned, helps him to deposit them all over Berlin.

The police tries to track down the person/persons responsible for this act of treason. The writing style changes over the year, but Otto has written 285 cards, of which only 267 are found. Otto is tortured when told Anna has been arrested and confessed. (Cue: dramatic music.)

The couple are both court marshalled at the same time, locked up and then guillotined. Their crime: cards written and circulated between 1940 and 1943.