Viewing recap February

Life Itself (2014)
Martin Scorsese: “He made it possible for a wider audience to appreciate cinema as an art form, he really loved it, he really loved films, and he did not get caught up in certain ideologies about what cinema should be”
The most interesting part for me is how Ebert was friends with filmmakers like Scorsese and others, and was criticized for this, because it could cloud his judgement. Yet as is said, 200-300 years ago, it was common for critics and artists to mix and encourage each other.
The first half of the doc about Ebert’s rise to fame and early life was the most interesting. His recent problems everybody knows about already, if you are vagely familiar with him. The best thing is it doesn’t just praise Ebert, but reveals his flaws as well.
Rating 7/10

Whiplash (2014)
A gripping drama. I liked the main character for the first 40 minutes or so, up until the family dinner, after that my opinion of him changed. I guess you could say it was a brave move by the filmmakers to make Andrew Neyman a layered main character, and I commend them for not just letting him be a “faultless“ guy up against the “harsh” teacher. JK Simmons plays the teacher and he is unforgettable in his oscar winning performance.
SPOILERS: A couple of moments confused me, which has Simmons character not get mad about him being late at 6am, did Simmons not even intend to show up until 9am? Also, who stole the song sheets in the hallway? Was it Simmons character, because he wanted the other drummer to look incompetent, and thus replace him?
The message of the film is interesting. Because on the one hand it’s a motivational Hollywood movie which encourages us to work harder in order to reach our goals. Yet on the other hand Whiplash is also quite off-putting in how Andrew subjects himself to an almost torturous lifestyle, and the film suggests Fletcher’s questionable behavior to some degree is effective teaching, which is actually reprehensible, in that it green lights school teachers to go in that direction. The films also does nothing to suggest learning is not a one-size-fits-all, but is different for each individual. There’s a feeling that if a relaxed teacher had helped Andrew Neyman the film would not have gotten Oscar attention. It’s all about the showy performances.
While I’ve heard Whiplash may have technical inaccuracies in terms of how to set up a drum kit and the injury was sustained on the wrong hand, I did find the story totally captivating, hence my rating.
Rating 8/10

Imitation Game (2014)
Historically important, so it's worth seeing as a history lesson. But it could have been better, we don't really learn enough about the enigma code breaking, and why/how it was able to save so many lives.
Rating 6/10

Inherent Vice (2014)
For me, the biggest disappointment of the 2014 releases. Has moments that work well, but the storytelling is needlessly confusing, and lacking in tension and vitality. I’m guessing it's more pleasurable to read as a novel. Nice soundtrack, but a rare misfire by the great director. Was the first PTA film that had me bored, I didn’t care about the characters or the conversations.
Rating 4/10

Heathers (1988)
An 80s cult classic that didn’t wow me like it has others. Maybe if I had seen it as a teenager the impact would have been bigger. I was surprised how dark and shocking the screenplay is, apparently it’s a black comedy. In some respects, it’s an eerie reflection of American society. Winona Ryder gives a strong performance, and I liked the score
Rating 6/10

Wait Until Dark (1967)
Mainly takes place in the confines of an apartment. Good for suspense. But why was she so protective of the doll and willing to risk her life for it? If she gave it to them she wouldn’t have to worry anymore. This was something that really irritated me about the ending.

Rating 7/10

A Day At The Races (1937)
Entertaining Marx Brothers comedy, considered among their finest. So many great one-liners, I'll definitely be rewatching this again. A treat. The musical numbers do go on a tad too long and feel a bit of place, but in some ways act as a breather from the dialogue. Highlights are the "tutsi-fruitsi" ice cream sales man scene, the background verification telephone call of Dr. Hackenbush, and of course the ending by the race track.
Rating 8.5/10

Birth (2004)
From Jonathan Glazer, the director of Under The Skin. Good performances by Nicole Kidman and the boy she meets. More time could have been spent on flash backs to the real Sean and why she loved him so much. What we get is good for 30-40 min, but just feels too repetitive. Potential for a great short film, but the plot is a bit thin for a 100 min movie.
Rating 6/10

The Warriors (1979)
Overpraised gang movie, which starts out with an epic scene at a gathering. Then becomes about a group who must navigate their way home through enemy territories, which to me becomes repetitive after a while.
I expected more from the movie considering its reputation. I prefer Walter Hill's previous outing The Driver (1978)
In the City by Joe Walsh is a great closer.
Rating 6/10

The Way of the Dragon (1972)
Spurred on by a blog post written by Wendell at Dell on Movies, this is only my second Bruce Lee film.
The final showdown between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris is what the film is remembered for, but it’s so much more than that, and surprisingly funny. The way he uses the weapon depicted on the poster stayed with me.
Rating 8/10

The Big Boss (1971)
The story of injustice is pretty good, but overall it didn't have a lasting impact on me, and was a bit formulaic. I don't remember the fight scenes.
Rating 6/10

Abigail's Party (1977)
TV movie directed by Mike Leigh. A stressed husband must navigate both his job and a party at home, while his wife is not very helpful and doesn’t offer to buy the beer, and expects him to do it. However sympathy for the husband soon evaporates once the guests arrive and he belittles his wife in conversation.
During the film, themes such as divorce, marriage, raising kids are explored. Amusingly the husband and wife's taste in music doesn't match at all.
The story does show it’s datedness in a few areas such as the husband not allowing his wife to take a driving license, but it’s not overbearing, and doesn’t become a distraction.
Rating 8.5/10

Nuts in May (1976)
Entertaining and amusing depiction of a couple on a camping holiday with their tent. The male lead could be so annoying that it might lead you to switch off though.
Rating 7.5/10

College (1927) 
Buster Keaton comedy. More about story and less about stunts, although he still has daredevil moments. The scene when he sways back and forth and the group sway with him is memorable, as is the bullying scene with the old lady in the window. The sports activities are fun to watch too, even if Keaton’s failings become slightly predictable.
Favorite quote, customer to waiter: “Bring me something you can’t stick your thumb in!”
Rating 7/10

The Dreamers (2003)
While it is controversial and daring, I found the story a bit lacking and forgettable. The scene that stuck with me is when the parents return home and see them sleeping naked.
Rating 6/10

Home from Home – Chronicle of a Vision (aka Die andere Heimat - Chronik einer Sehnsucht) (2013)
Directed by 80 year old Edgar Reitz. A criminally underseen German epic, filmed in black and white. Set in a fictional town in the 1800s, I felt transported back to this era, when they faced different problems than we do today. The characters are memorable, and the pacing is well-handled, considering a running time of almost 4 hours. You could almost say it's a mini-series. See it if you get the chance.
Rating 9/10 

A Second Chance (2014)
Director Susanne Bier has said in an inteview she wanted to combine believable characters yet also let it be a thriller with twists. The film has good performances, and there are a few surprises I didn't see coming, yet the weakness is the last act, the writers have written themselves into a corner, and there is only way it can logically end. Also feels unresolved in terms of supporting characters. Worth a watch, but I prefer Bier's previous Scandinavian films.
Rating 6.5/10

Seen any of these? Agree or disagree? Watched anything great in February? As always, comments are welcome

Book review: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (2005)

This review is written as a contribution for 2015's A Fistful of Reads blind spot challenge which is hosted by A Fistful of Films.

Last month, I reviewed a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which dealt with Nigerians in the US, and so I was curious to also read a short story collection by a Chinese author, which likewise is a window into a culture I was not familiar with.

A multi-award winning debut fiction work. Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Consists of a collection of ten short stories about life in modern China and Chinese Americans in the US. Has also been adapted into a film which I haven’t seen. 

I like the observations about how the rigid system in China sometimes causes unhappiness among its citizens. However the writer’s anti-communistic critique of the regime is too repetitive, so while interesting, the book is a bit monotonous thematically. I do think the messiness of life is handled well by the author, which is not necessarily specific to China, but universal.

My experience of reading short stories is that it’s quite demanding, because you have to keep starting from scratch after a few pages. Worth a read if China and its people interest you. Certainly a brave publication in a country that is notorious for its censorship. Although China is changing, it's still shaped by its traditions and recent history.

Of the two short story books I’ve read in the last six months, I prefer The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009), which I reviewed here

If you’d rather not have the stories spoiled, I recommend you skip over the following summaries:

1) Extra (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Grandma Lin loses her job, but is not given a pension, so she must figure out how to get by on her own. She marries an old senile gentleman who has wealth, he dies, and she inherits nothing. A relative of the deceased offers her a job opportunity at a private school. Lin cleans and does laundry, and forms a friendship with a 6-year boy named Kang, who is as much a reject as she is. Grandma Lin takes pity on him. Kang is from a divided family, where the father has a new wife, and the existing wife and child(Kang) are no longer desired. This is why Kang has been sent away to the school. Kang disappears and is found again, but Lin is fired due to lack of responsibility towards Kang. On her departure from the school her handbag is stolen, luckily she kept her money in her lunchbox. Lin speculates inwardly about missing out on love, she only had temporary loving moments in her life.

Thoughts: A critique of the regime not giving unemployment benefit, and about loneliness

2) After a Life (Rating 9/10)
Summary: Mr and Mrs Su are cousins yet married. Unfortunately their first born girl is spastic and afflicted with cerebral palsy, their daughter lives at home with them. The trio isolate themselves from friends and family, and secretly would like their girl to die so they can be free of the burden. The spastic girl keeps their son away from home, and he is missed. Mr Su becomes friendly with a man his own age. The friend says he wants to live with a younger woman and leave his wife, who is current serving time in prison. His wife is released from jail and is horrified that he would want them to live two women and a man under the same roof.

Thoughts: The Greek tragedy aspects are interesting, that the family are punished for inbreeding. I could empathize with the parenthood issues, even though it’s wrong not acknowledging your child to the surroundings. The parents are to be admired for sacrificing so much to look after the handicapped child, but it’s a high price to pay, and maybe some might say the girl would be better off in a home. It's always going to be the parent's decision how to handle the responsibility, for better or worse. 

3.) Immortality (Rating 7/10)
Summary: Takes place in a fictional country and tells the story of a young man who bears a striking resemblance to a dictator. A family policy is introduced by the dictator which encourages women to produce many children, these women are name “hero mothers”.  A scientist is tortured to death because he asked the dictator to change his politics, having predicted a massive growth in population.
The citizens due to food shortages are encouraged to eat sparrows. The dictator is described as a heartless bastard, who is not afraid of another world war and atomic bombs, because if half the country’s population should be killed, then there will still be 250 million remaining, and the survivors can quickly multiply themselves so the population once again is 500 million citizens.

Thoughts: Different approach to the first two stories, the storytelling is quite fragmented. The exaggerated absurdity is comical about the dictatorship, poverty of communism, and so on. An obvious satirical jab at China's population-control policy.

4.) The Princess of Nebraska (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Sasha is from Mongolia, and now lives in the US. She is too far into her pregnancy to have an abortion. Boshen is openly gay and currently in a proforma marriage with a lesbian friend. He is in love with 18-year-old Yang, who is an actor. The secret police halt Boshen’s efforts in China against AIDS. Boshen and Sasha know each other and consider whether they should raise the child together in US and potentially bring Yang to the United States. It turns out she befriended Yang also, and Yang is the father of her unborn child.

Thoughts: Again, a critique of the regime who are preventing efforts in China against AIDS.
The author does a fine job of depicting how you can fall in love with someone without hardly knowing them.

5.) Love in the Marketplace (Rating 6/10)
Summary: An illiterate mother works at the market, she makes the best eggs with spices. Sanson is called Miss Casablanca by her students, because she shows them this film.
Sanson is abandoned by her lover Tu, he married another woman called Min. But Min dies ten years later. Sanson’s mother wants Sanson to take Tu back without questioning the reasons for the divorce. Sanson doesn’t want to marry him, because it didn’t work out the first time.
The story concludes with a beggar asking people on the street to cut him for money. If they kill him it doesn’t cost anything.

Thoughts: The critique of the regime concerns the capital, if you don’t have citizenship there, you have to settle for lesser jobs outside the city. In comparison, in America they don’t care where you are from. The laws also limit the students opportunities, in that only students with relatives in US could have a passport to study in US.
Can you rekindle with a former love is also what the story is about, which is difficult, if the other person treated you as second best.

6.) Son (Rating 7/10)
Summary: Hung is a 33 year old unmarried software developer, with US citizenship. His mother is a  matchmaker, however Hung is gay.
Mother picks Hung up at the airport in Beijing. She gives him a gold chain and wants Hung to go to church with her. After the father’s death, many of the mother’s letters to Hung have been about her newfound faith.
At an internet café, many of the pages Hung usually frequents have been blocked, for instance gay chat and NY Times.
Hung never becomes irritated by people from churches and listens to them. Hung tells his mother that the state-authorized church see the communist party as their only leader. Hung thinks his mother’s church is deceiving people.
Children beg in Beijing, the mother gives them money, if they agree to go to church with her. Hung is more critical and notices the kids are child labor. Roles are reversed, and Hung now sees himself as someone who is protecting his mother, but she doesn’t want him to.
When the mother returns from the church he admits to homosexuality. She accepts this because “god sees all and understand all”

Thoughts: Questions whether China should block specific internet pages. The story is about empathy among children and their parents, who have grown apart. In this case, Hung perceives the Church differently because he is educated.

7.) The Arrangement (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Uncle Bing is under suspicion for having an affair with a married woman, when her husband is away. Ruolan’s mother is less irritable when unmarried Uncle Bing visits. The mother is sick yet not very old, she doesn’t work, and spends a lot of time in bed.
Ruolan is about 12 or 13 and gets her first period. Ruolan can’t talk to her mother about it and admits she’d rather speak to a stranger on the street about her period than her own mother.
Father and daughter are in the same boat, tied to the woman they are unable to love, but unable to leave. Mother refuses to divorce him.
The father is hardly better, and says he is not her father, she is her mother’s daughter, and Ruolan has to look after her mother. He has another woman he goes to see.
Uncle Bing and Ruolan are friends, he admits that for many of the children the only meal they eat during the day is porridge at school, and this is the main reason they go to school. He also tells her she is adopted.
Ruolan wants to escape and marry Uncle Bing when she becomes of age, he is uncomfortable with this suggestion, and refuses, because he is much older.

Thoughts: Nearly all the main characters are unhappy, so it’s easy to empathize. Uncle Bing is the outsider character who tries to help.

8.) Death is Not A Joke If Told The Right Way (Rating 5/10)
Summary: Visiting Mr and Mrs Pang, the child narrator can take a breather from her blood family and the obligations of being a daughter. Mr Pang is incompetent, and we follow his journey. He dies with dignity in a post office job. The narrator becomes friendly with a group of drop outs.

Thoughts: For me, the weakest short story in the collection. I quite like the ending, but the characters and story are a bit forgettable.

9.) Persimmons (Rating 7/10)
Summary: A couple secretly had a second child but didn’t rapport their firstborn. The authorities hear of this and "one child per family" is painted on their house. Mother commits suicide so Lao Da can have more children, but he loses his mind and kills 17 people. The children go to an orphanage. Lao Da becomes a killer because his son was killed. A group of judges go to the local reservoir and following an insulting remark throw Lao Da’s son into the water. The boy drowns and his father later takes revenge, the reservoir was a place Lao Da had fought for, and for the drowning to happen there made it even worse. 

Thoughts: Deals with one child per family and how it affects a family. The social commentary is that there is a drought, yet it is illegal to beg in the city. The authorities offer no social benefits or handouts. Probably the moral of the story is that on rare occasions a gentle man can turn into a violent man, and it's insinuated the laws and circumstances are at least partly to blame for his frustration.

10.) A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Mr Shi visits his daughter in Midwestern United States. People are friendly towards him, and impressed, when he tells them he is a retired rocket scientist.
He befriends an elderly lady, the language barrier means they don’t understand everything the other says.
Mr Shi has a dysfunctional relationship with his daughter, she felt he wasn’t present enough during her childhood, and now he feels she is not present during their conversations. Perhaps she is getting her own back. 
Years earlier, he was caught talking to a female employee and degraded. He was unable to talk about what he did at his job and this hurt his home life.
Favorite quote: “life offers more happiness than we are aware of”

Thoughts: The friendship between the elderly lady and Mr Shi was quite heartwarming, who struggle to understand what the other is saying, yet appreciate each other’s company.  In contrast to the father-son relationship, which is so heartbreaking.

Overall rating of book 7/10

Are you a fan of reading short stories? Know any books/movies that depict Chinese people in America? Are you familiar with Yiyun Li or other Chinese authors? As always, comments are welcome.

2015 Blind Spot Series: Hoop Dreams (1994)

Premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. The film was ranked #1 on the International Documentary Association's Top 25 Documentaries list. Its exclusion from the Best Documentary category at the 1995 Academy Awards led to a restructuring of how the category was evaluated. Many felt Hoop Dreams was unfairly snubbed.

Originally intended by filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx to be a 30-minute short. The filmmakers followed the children back to their homes, and after several years, and with over 250 hours of raw footage, a 30-minute PBS special turned into a three-hour feature film.

The documentary follows two African-American high school students in Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee, during their high-school years, and their dream of becoming professional basketball players. We are given a sense of the world they live in.

I wouldn’t go so far and call it the best film of the 90s as Roger Ebert does, but still a highly watchable documentary. Despite not being a fan of basketball, and despite its lengthy three hour running time, the film kept me involved throughout.

A coach reckons Arthur has the talent, but not the confidence. It’s not enough to have the ability to play basketball, equally important is the tuition fees, which Agee’s family are not able to fulfill.

The only minor flaw for me is the filmmakers gloss over William Gates’ injury in the last act, as if he no longer had this physical problem.

It’s a documentary not just about basketball, because the goal is also to explore issues of race, class, and education in modern America. The expectations placed on talents from such an early age is quite frightening and revealing. You could substitute the basketball angle of this with any other sport or passion that young people foster. It's really about daily life amid urban poverty, people's dreams and struggles.

I don’t know if the documentary helped instigate change and make it easier for underprivileged kids to have a career as an athlete. The pressure put on them to perform comes from both sides, family and coaches, there are financial implications where the schools are given bonuses for winning. In some ways the kids are being used, even though they want to play.

A recent guardian article covered where the main figures are now, reading the piece feels a bit like what Michael Apted is doing with the Up series. Both William Gates and Arthur Agee were able to turn the film's success and their subsequent fame into a better life for themselves and their families, so some positives came of their participation. However the families have also faced adversity, which the article spotlights as well.

As Will Di Novi wrote in his article Game Changer, Hoop Dreams was a film that took the temperature of American culture in the 1990s, while also, in its own way, redefining it, demonstrating the economic potential of documentary filmmaking to distributors. The success has affected filmmakers around the world. Hoop Dreams was one of the first feature-length films shot entirely on video, establishing a new, cost-effective blueprint for the production of non-fiction cinema.

What I will take away from watching Hoop Dreams is the sheer joy on the faces of family members, applauding during the matches. It’s really a film about family. As another reviewer wrote, Hoop Dreams seems to encompass not just a few individuals' stories, but draw archetypes out of them to personify the larger world around them.

Rating 8.5/10

Thanks for reading! Agree or disagree? Have you seen Hoop Dreams? As always, comments are welcome

Overlooked 2014 music

Get Up by Young Fathers

Loosey In The Store with Pennies by Your Old Droog

Fractals by Keep Shelly in Athens 

Every Little Thing by Röyksopp & Robyn 

Ain't It Fun by Paramore (Won Grammy for Best Rock Song) 

Our Love by Sharon Van Etten 

One Who Loves You by Alvvays

Coming Down by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Feat. Matt Berninger)

Everything Passed Me By by James Irwin

Fire Rides by MØ 

Let Me Down Gently by La Roux

Slow by Leonard Cohen

Is This How You Feel? by The Preatures

Let Me Be The 1 by Miracle Fortress

You Carry A Sickness by Astral Swans

Wrong Club by The Ting Tings

Her Name On Every Tongue by Geoffrey O'Connor

Agree or disagree? Have you listened to any of these artists? As always, comments are welcome

Guest Post: Bob Marley Turns 70

Born on February 6, 1945, Robert Nesta Marley was a Jamaican singer-songwriter and guitarist who rose to international fame and acclaim. If still alive, he would have turned 70 on February 6 2015.
Using his birthday as a time to reflect on what the man stood for, it’s clear that he was above most of the commercial noise surrounding the music industry. Ultimately, his message was that there should be peace, love and harmony between all of members of mankind. He sought to be a voice for the freedom of the repressed masses, using his music to call for the uplifting and the unification of people worldwide.

Marley grew up Catholic but converted to Rastafarianism and remained that way for many years. Shortly before his death he was baptized into Christianity again, however his involvement in Rastafarianism molded most of his life commitments. He declared that the leader of Ethiopia was divine, and believed that smoking ganja led a person to a more meditative state. Many songs that he wrote represented the ideas espoused in Rasta culture.

Bob Marley's early life greatly influenced his music and political tendencies. First, he was born of a black woman and a white man. It seems that this caused in him a sort of transcendence above racial identification. He considered himself not to be black or white, but rather a child of God. This likely influenced his 'One Love' personal philosophy.

Despite this attitude of transcendence, Marley was always a rebel and an instigator of sorts. It could seem that the message of “universal love” does not mix well with revolution, but Marley pulled it off. His youthful experiences with poverty and a lack of political rights in Trench Town, Jamaica, firmly planted ideals that he would retain all his life. Marley preached his beliefs in a not-so-subtle way in his music and interviews. Songs such as Get Up Stand Up explicitly call for revolution. What is the case, though, is that Marley did not advocate violence or militant behavior. The broader message was one of peace and harmony.

With respect to the countercultural movements of the sixties and seventies, Marley's music helped encourage change and experimentation in a similar way to other world acts such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Eric Clapton, a British bluesman, covered the melodic I Shot the Sheriff, and his transferability is not unique to that song. Even Sting and Paul Simon say that they were influenced by Marley's music. Marley’s blend of rock and reggae would end up influencing other styles of music as well, impacting rap, hip hop and ska artists as well as members of his own family. Ziggy Marley, his son, tours in his own right, recently appearing as a musical guest on Direct TV’s popular Guitar Center Sessions, for example. Ziggy’s own success helps sustain the popularity of father’s unique reggae sound.

Unfortunately, while Marley’s music was undoubtedly created out of pure intentions and passion, it was also transformed and commercialized for the purpose of appealing to a Western audience. Once Marley and the Wailers began recording with Island Records, the titles of his songs, as well as entire albums, were culturally and commercially modified. Western rock audiences bought the most records - it made sense not only financially, but for the purpose of cross cultural outreach as well. Today, Marley’s image has been exploited on an even greater level. His popularity has made it possible for the holders of his estate to market his image not only on t-shirts, flags and posters, but on Marley-blend marijuana, cannabis-infused lip balm, and a hoard of other products. While there were definitely benefits to reggae becoming internationalized, it also exploited the true intentions of the music and the Rasta culture.

However, regardless of commercialization, the music associated with Bob Marley will continue to be powerfully moving. Throughout his short career, Marley managed to become both a political and musical figure of international authority. His messages still resonate with today's youth. Marley's music does not seem dated in the way that many folk singers' music from the early 1960’s does, both the style of the instrumentation and the lyrics are fresh and inviting. There is a reason that his song One Love is used by the Jamaican tourist bureau. Influencing both countercultural movements and mainstream culture with his music and personal ideologies, his messages allowed for the creative empowerment of many musical artists the world over.

Have you listened to Bob Marley's music? Any thoughts on the article? As always, comments are welcome

About the author:
Beth Kelly is a freelance blogger with a horror film addiction. Her primary interests include pulp cinema, analog photography and vintage film posters. You can find her on her Twitter: @bkelly_88

Thanks to Beth for contributing. Have an idea for a guest post? Feel free to contact me, and we'll sort something out. My e-mail can be found in the About Me section above.


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