Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019), A Deeply Humane Film About an American Icon

There are two types of narratives that always hit me like a thunderbolt. They don’t even need to reinvent the wheel; they can just revel in all the clichés and I am a goner. The first is an underdog-sports genre film and the sport doesn’t matter – a ragtag team that can’t work together have failed so many times they don’t know which way is up. In comes a coach, with his personal demons, who will transform the team and himself in the process. The last act is practically carved in stone – it’s the final game, but they have lost the first half miserably. The coach delivers a half-time pep talk that gives everyone a helluva adrenaline shot, and with a great swell of music the team wins the game by a hair’s breadth. The second movie genre that I have a soft spot for is a father-son story. Give me Like Father, Like Son (2013). Give me Field of Dreams (1989). Give me Big Fish (2003). And I show you a grown man who totally loses it. These are stories that feel like they were written for me. I know that because my breath is caught in a hitch, my heart is soaring and my tears are welling up by the last act.

I say all of that as a preface because I have a feeling I may be biased in how this review will turn out. I will attempt to be strict but as I am pondering over A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood my eyes are already glistening, just so you know.

Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod (Mathew Rhys). After the jaded magazine writer (renamed as Lloyd Vogel for the movie) is assigned to write a 100-word profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America’s most beloved neighbour.

I grew up with the likes of Sesame Street and Electric Company, and had no idea there was another American venerable mainstay in children’s television in the form of Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Hence, watching the opening scene of a sugary mild-mannered man in a red cardigan donning his sneakers and offering homilies was curiously fascinating.

Director Marielle Heller didn’t do a straight-up biopic of a celebrated personality. As soon as Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers is done with singing the theme song of a typical episode of the television programme, he introduces us to Lloyd Vogel. An unfaltering photograph of Vogel is presented and the story shifts its perspective to Vogel’s. Before long, you will realise that Rogers is not the main character. We see Rogers through Vogel’s cynical eyes which is the surrogate of people like me on this side of the screen. How can there ever be a person with not a single bad thought, bad bone and bad deed in his being? Apparently, there is and his name is Mr Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is not much of a biopic. It uses a narrative framework to tell a story of how Mr Rogers affected generations of people, young and old. Tom Hanks does a splendid job as Mr Rogers, capturing not just his simple mannerisms, measured speech and patient eyes, but the essence of the man. This is a man with such simple gestures, possessing a Zen-like vibe, who offers us a blueprint of how a world can be like if we all do the simple things, like loving everyone in your neighbourhood, well. His innate ability to relate to children and his uncomplicated view of the world, remarkable to the point my heart threatens to explode in a flurry of rose petals. Some of the scenes feel fabricated for pseudo-nostalgia, especially the one where random people on a subway train see Rogers and start to sing the theme song (it’s in the trailer). Later, I would read Tom Junod’s article and found out it did happen.

Vogel’s story arc is the ubiquitous storied history of a man wounded by his father who abandoned him and his dying mother. Stop me if you have heard this one before – his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) comes back wanting to reunite with the son. The father is sick and doesn’t have long, but the son finds it impossible to forgive him, but eventually with some help finds closure with his father. We have seen this story template numerous times, but Vogel’s emotional arc is empathetically satisfying. Through interviewing Rogers, Vogel got “interviewed” instead by Rogers with his never ending questions in his soothing cadence of a voice. When Vogel’s arc is complete, I never felt cheated with an act of convenience, but felt moved that with the help of good old Mister Rogers he could face his demons with a big heart of love. This is a wonderful storytelling device – we may not have gotten a full tour of a delightful man and his ideas, but we get to experience his kindness, honesty and philosophy. I don’t know about you but with the state of the world as it is now, we could all use a bit of Mister Rogers.

It leaves me to enclose Tom Junod’s article Can You Say… Hero? A 100-word puff piece that became a thesis on a kind soul and how Rogers’ simple philosophy of life changed him. It’s long, but it is a rewarding read. My advice is to read it after you have watched the movie. Your skepticism of the man will melt away as the words cascade into your consciousness and hopefully into your heart.

Rating 4 of 5

TV Series Review: Crash Landing On You (2020), Winsome Chemistry and Fascinating World-Building Make this a Must-See

The late 1970s to early 80s were my adolescent years, my formative years. My ideas of love were gleaned from watching countless Taiwanese mandarin movies on Saturday nights, featuring Brigette Lin (林青霞), Chin Han (秦汉) and others. Most of the storylines either fell into terminal-illness-of-the-week or the universe-doesn’t-want-the-couple-to-be-together narrative trappings. I learned that a girl will get pregnant if a guy kisses her or if they share an umbrella in a storm. I learned that it’s true love if you love the other person more than yourself and you should sacrifice your life for your significant other in the greatest demonstration of love. The image of a trickle of blood running down one’s corner of the mouth as the one you saved weep for you is the sexiest look ever. What a load of crock! But I think back to those movie nights with my family fondly. One of the most important lessons in love I have learned through those mandarin movies is that it isn’t true love if the journey of love isn’t arduous. Korean drama Crash Landing On You has lots of scenes of the principal couple taking bullets for each other and putting their lives in constant danger for the sake of the other, and their passage of love takes them from North Korea to South Korea in one of the most testing journeys of love ever.

The “what-if” is brilliant – a tornado sends a paragliding self-made young South Korean business woman and heiress Yoon Se-ri (Ye-jin Son) into North Korea. She then falls into the arms of a North Korean army captain Ri Jeong Hyeok (Hyun Bin). The typical Korean drama narrative strategy is then to make them gradually fall in love and to make it fraught with difficulties and danger. You can bet your entire fortune that only at the final episode will they truly be together and you look at your love life wondering why it isn’t as spectacular as theirs. That’s the game plan, the broad strokes, the Spark notes version.

The really great ones know how to make the seams disappear and make you so vested in their journey of love you don’t ponder on the implausibility of it all. Se-ri and Jeong Hyeok’s love story is impossible on paper. Think about it – one is a CEO in the south and one is an army captain in the north. It’s doomed from the start. It’s Romeo and Juliet all over again and we all know how that ended. But as great love stories go… theirs is fraught with many eleventh hour twists and dangers, but they stand firm. Jeong Hyeok loves her so much he wants her to go back home and he comes up with many outrageous plans to make that happen. A storyline like this can’t last sixteen 85-minute episodes and thankfully the story shifts to the south at the halfway mark.

Love stories soar or plummet on the chemistry of the leads. Here, it soars like a seraph to the heavens, which is not a surprise because I have seen Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin in The Negotiation (2018) and they were excellent. Incidentally, due to the popularity of Crash Landing On You, the movie is showing again in the cinemas. Cast against type, Hyun Bin actually plays a villain and dammit… he is so good. But in Crash Landing On You Hyun Bin plays Captain Ri in a nuanced and reserved manner, his mild-mannered reticence belies an unfathomable depth. When he looks at Se-ri, he sees into her soul. His broad shoulders not only offer comfort, they shield her from all manners of harm. Son plays her character as a feisty force of nature always wanting to stamp her opinions on any issue. But as days pass, her hard exterior melts away showing us a softer side. That’s how love works – it changes you; it makes you want to be a better person. How their characters are drawn is the classic opposites attract master-stroke. They are on two ends of the romance line and you are counting down the moments when souls will connect, lips will touch and bodies will collide. Cue the fireworks when it hits.

As much as I find the love stories endearing, I am in awe at how the series paints the world of North Korea. Movies with North Korea as the backdrop typically portray it as the nexus of evil, its citizens barely surviving in a totalitarian regime. Here, the writers take a nuanced stance and present a world filled with complex characters. The four lovable underlings of Captain Ri display distinctive character traits and are memorably portrayed. I particularly find the wiretapper’s story compelling and his character arc well-drawn and by that I mean I was crying my eyes out. I dare you to not giggle at the antics of the busybody ajummas (aunties) of the military village, each of them bringing something new to the plate. At times you will laugh at them, but sometimes you wonder why your community can’t be like theirs.

The last episode broke the records for viewership in Korea and I must say it nails the landing. The closures for the myriad characters are sublime, Jeong Hyeok and Se-ri earned their ending. A sigh of sublime relief permeated the air and it was time well-spent. Is it the best I have seen? Nope, not by a long shot, but it is up there with the best. For a while, I have lived a lifetime with these interesting characters in a world I can never and want to go. All this in the comfort of my living room which has become a cocoon of love. This one ticks all the boxes and then some.

Rating 4.5 / 5

Review: The Invisible Man (2020), A Worthy Reboot and Relevant in this Age

A little context first… over the weekend we saw two movies that stopped way short of being great. The first was Jeethu Joseph’s The Body (2019), a Hindi remake of Oriol Paulo’s El Cuerpo (2012). What should have been a twist-galore suspense-driven thriller turned out to be a turgid affair because of the necessitated song and dance numbers; a case of death by cultural traditional practices. We followed that up with Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018), an uncomfortably tragic and elemental revenge tale let down by an unsatisfying and bloated to-and-fro final act. Then we made a trip to the cinema to catch The Invisible Man and our faith with great storytelling is restored. This, in my humble opinion, is the first awesome film of 2020.

Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) is escaping from the grip of her abusive boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a scientist. Freed from him, Cecilia starts to rebuild her life, but her nightmare is just beginning when weird things begin to happen around her that only she can perceive.

Time and time again, H.G. Wells’ classic novel of the same name is revisited by Hollywood. The narrative track is usually one of two (or both) – it portrays either the perks or tribulations of becoming invisible. The first cool thing Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell does is to frame the ubiquitous storyline as a riveting domestic thriller making it thoroughly relevant in this #MeToo era.

The opening sequence is a symphony of gradually swelling music, thrills and spills with nary any exposition of the explicit kind. We have no idea what is going on, but it is so effective we are eagerly clutching at every detail. I love it when a storyteller respects the intelligence of the audience who can connect the dots.

A lot of the story is told from Cecilia’s point of view and in Elizabeth Moss who has a knack for playing strong female characters, we have our perfect guide into a nightmarish world of extreme stalking. Her glazed and terrorised eyes can convey a world of crazy. Her unhinged acting will draw you in. The concept of invisibility is not just a literal concept, it is also a metaphorical one. Being consistently abused by a sociopath, Cecilia is always haunted by shame, anguish and pain even when the tormentor is not around (or is he?). Her mind takes a beating by an invisible force – is Adrian tormenting her or is it post-traumatic stress? It all feels relatable and real.

The camera work is simple but effective. At times, it pans to an empty space and stays there for an eternity, and we sense a presence that isn’t there. The special effects is of a high calibre and it serves the enraging story. The science behind the invisibility is niftily presented and the movement of humans getting plummeted by an unseen brute force is downright scary.

Above all else, it is the nail-biting tension that is deftly maintained from the first scene to the last that is a high-wire act. The twist of an ending is thoroughly earned and cathartic, and in Moss we have the ultimate portrayal of a female heroine gradually finding a latent power within her to strike back at a seemingly insurmountable force that threatens her very being. This is worth the risk of sitting among a cinema full of patrons with the threat of the coronavirus hanging in the air.

If all my words are not enough, try this on for size. That night, after we came home from watching the movie, the missus had one nightmare after another. If that’s not a huge thumbs up, I don’t know what it is.

Rating 4 of 5

Review: Hitman: Agent Jun (2020), A No-Frills Half-Baked Action-Comedy that Entertains

When the kids in my writing classes are bereft of story ideas, I always remind them to think of an actual incident they have experienced, do a slight (or hard) left turn and let it ripped from there. In Hitman: Agent Jun, webtoon artist Jun (Kwon Sang-Woo) is at his wits’ end. Nothing he draws worked and the threat of being fired is looming. In a fit of drunken stupor and righteous anger, he draws his personal stories using actual names with no intention of uploading his secret past as a NIS secret agent and “Ace” assassin up to the internet. But the shite hits the fan when his wife accidentally uploads it. His webtoon becomes the talk of the town and before long his enemies and friends who thought he was dead come rampaging into his life and make it a living hell.

My wifey and I actually had the entire cinema to ourselves. Unbelievable! The COVID-19 thing is really killing a lot of F&B and entertainment businesses. No matter what, the show must go on and we laughed our heads off at the antics and hilarity of it all. It’s such a shame that nobody was there with us. A cinema filled with raucous laughter would have done everybody some good.

Okay this review is going to write itself and I suspect the novelty of having an entire cinema to ourselves earned the movie another half star. 

Like many Korean movies, Hitman: Agent Jun has an interesting premise, but building upon it is a different ball game. I can detect a lot of True Lies (1994) vibes, but this isn’t even remotely in the ballpark of James Cameron’s classic action-comedy. Hitman: Agent Jun coasts along with the affable charm of Kwon Sang-Woo and its intriguing premise.

There are lots of people dying but the deaths are portrayed in a cartoonish manner. The hero is practically bulletproof and irresistibly winsome, but his arc doesn’t go anywhere remotely memorable. His superior behaving like a child, screaming his entire dialogue grates on my nerves. The villain is the baddest guy on the planet because he has a humongously scarred face with one eye and he snarls through all his dialogue. Basically, the characters are drawn in convenient broad strokes and you will know how the plot will progress from a mile away. Finally, all the parties collide in a climax that is an over-long overkill and ends with a coda that is utterly useless, with me silently praying “no sequel please.”

Director Choi Won-Sub’s strategy is to machine-gun the whole canvas, but nothing hits the bullseye. To be fair, it is successful at some moments, bringing on mad laughter from us in an empty cinema (that’s not an easy task), but inventiveness and depth are not his forte. Jun’s daughter and wife story arc would have made an amazing story spine, but I guess that would scream True Lies in my face. That’s a shame because the scene of daughter rapping is particularly memorable and fresh, and the scene of the wife going wide-eyed in slow-motion and mouthing “where the f**k are you going?” as Jun careens his car in a new direction instead of saving her is hilarious. All in all, it’s not a bad way to spend 110 minutes, just leave your brain at the door. 

Rating 3/5

Review: Happy Old Year (2020), A Charming Little Story About a Woman Doing a KonMari on Her Cluttered Home and Love Life

Being a creative writing teacher, I am a firm advocate that the beginning and ending of any narrative piece is crucial. This little English lesson has also permeated into many areas of my life, including my love life: how one begins and ends a relationship is also significant. I was at the tail end of a seven-year relationship with a girl who two-timed me. I knew it was game over and I had a choice: I could make it really bad for her or I could let her go gently. I chose the latter. I was not under the illusion I was a saint – when a relationship breaks down, both parties have a part to play. On our last date, I brought her to the exact spot where I confessed my love for her seven years ago, a bench outside a lecture theatre at National University of Singapore, and we had a heartwarming time chatting and reminiscing the great moments we shared together. Thinking back, I thought it was the most fitting way to end a relationship that both of us have put in so much and it was a good emotional closure for both of us. It was a farewell that gave us hope and set us free to love again. 

In the Thai movie Happy Old Year, while Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is doing a major decluttering of her house to convert it into a home office, she finds some items that belonged to Aim (Sunny Suwanmethanont), her ex-boyfriend. Three years ago, Jean just packed up and left the country without giving Aim a reason. Their relationship never did have an emotional closure. It may be time to do the right thing now.

You wouldn’t be faulted for catching some zany rom-com vibes and you would be utterly wrong. Just like writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Heart Attack (2015), Happy Old Year is marketed like a rom-com, but it isn’t in the strictest sense.

The movie is divided into chapters, each detailing an aspect of decluttering. The KonMari’s method seems easy on paper: anything that doesn’t spark joy just say “thank you” and throw it away. It is easy when the things are irrelevant, but it gets tough when they are tied to a memory. This is where the movie soars – its examination of the elusive concept of memory, its selectiveness and how it is tied in an ironclad bond to histories and emotions. Thamrongrattanarit shows us the different ways we deal with painful memories through Jean, her mother and all the other myriad characters. Jean seems ruthless, wanting to follow a strict timeline to get everything out and give the home a minimalist look, while the mother is resolute with her selective amnesia in not wanting to change the status quo. The scene where Jean and her mother get into a heated argument is especially poignant and heartbreaking. 

How expositions and plot details are doled out is immaculately handled. Even the music has a minimalist feel which ties in to the theme of minimalism. The possibly rekindled romance is but a part of the whole story and I wouldn’t even say it is the spine. The typical rom-com arc of “will they or will they not” takes a backseat as the scenes of Jean and Aim play out in surprising ways. 

The topic of memory is prone to be mishandled, but Thamrongrattanarit’s hand is assured as he delves into the different notions of the elusive concept. Through all the storytelling, he even gives the movie a spellbinding minimalist vibe and makes it compellingly relatable. The characters feel lived in and authentic. I was rooting for Jean to get the emotional closure she doesn’t know she needs, just like me.

Rating 4 / 5

Review: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020), These Birds Failed to Take Flight

Birds of Prey review

That sure is a mouthful for a movie title and it also cleverly signifies this is a movie that cannot be taken seriously (not that we need a reminder when we see Quinn’s kaleidoscopic get-up and strange choice for a pet). Let me fire out all the puns first: these Birds not only do not soar, they stay grounded; I won’t be surprised these Birds lay a bad egg at the box office; these Birds are going into a tailspin; my fear of birds just got worse; these Birds won’t be ruffling any feathers; when Birds hit the hour mark my senses went on flight mode.

Okay… it isn’t as bad as what I made it out to be and it definitely isn’t the worse one from DCEU. I think Suicide Squad (2016) takes that unwanted honour. Out from that mess, Harley Quinn was the only colourful spot and the powers-that-be decides that she deserves her own spotlight.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Prince of Crime, Joker. She soon realises that the privileges accorded to her have been revoked and all guises of trouble come looking for her. Meanwhile, club owner Roman Sionis aka the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) sends his henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get a special diamond, but it lands up with pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Sionis enlists Quinn’s help with the promise of protection for her in Gotham City once the job is done, but her path is impeded by Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and driven cop Montoya (Rosie Perez).

A few minutes into the zany movie, my mind is throwing up Deadpool with the same off-the-fly expositions and storytelling that doesn’t adhere to a chronological timeline. It is alright to copy, God knows there practically aren’t many original stories anymore, but to me the borrowed idea needs to be taken to a different place. In the case of Birds of Prey, it just isn’t an interesting place.

The plot is outlandish, the characters cartoonish and the situations absurd. That is all fine because I can take a joke, but the plot is choppy and the story feels like a mess. At least it is a colourful mess. The action scenes also don’t escalate in terms of spectacle and ingenuity. The police station raid is oh-la-la fantastic, but the climatic one at the amusement park isn’t on par with the earlier ones with a lack of inventiveness.

Director Cathy Yan doesn’t understand the dynamics of an ensemble movie. The main focus of Birds of Prey is only on one bird, and her arc isn’t pronounced. You can’t just put a bevy of women together and scream “this is female power” and everyone will get the female empowerment message. I felt none of that because every time it may be going down the road to develop the female characters, we get inundated by noise. That seems to Yan’s goto aesthetics – noise and more noise.

Its other problem is a lack of a convincing villain. McGregor tries his damnedest to chew his scenes out but when you are not given much material to begin with you are probably chewing on your own tongue. Victor Zsasz gets it even worse and from what I have read he features strongly in the comics. I don’t read the comics and don’t get why Roman needs a mask.

Whatever potential Birds of Prey has is buried under a heap of under-realised characters and repetitive action. Birds need to be free and these birds deserve better. They just couldn’t break free from its stylised cage. They didn’t even try.

PS – There is an end-credit scene that drops after you sit through all the credits. Depending on your disposition, you may just shout some expletives at the screen, so I think I better tell you it’s just a cheeky sound-bite involving a certain major character.

Rating: 2,5 / 5

Review: Bombshell (2020), Fails to Detonate Resoundingly

bombshell review

There is a deliciously charged scene near the halfway mark of Bombshell depicting the three principals in a lift. No words are exchanged at first, all of them sizing each other up from the corner of their eye, deciding whether they are friend or foe. Prior to this scene it all feels like a wine and dine build-up of each character’s motivation. The lift scene is momentous with each woman representing different stages of their career and what they have to lose if everything explodes. Their paths intersect and the possibilities are enticing. However, what a could-have-been becomes a flurry of denouements that don’t quite hit the spot.

Bombshell is a retelling of the 2016 sexual harassment scandal at Fox News, which was the harbinger of the #MeToo movement. The story drops us right smack into the presidential campaign and Fox News honcho Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) makes no bones that he likes Donald Trump at the helm. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is tasked to pick at Trump which lands her in hot soup. Kayla (Margot Robbie) is new and wants to build a vivid career at the network. She gets more than she bargained for when she finally gets to meet Ailes in his office. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is a veteran at Fox News programming, but she has had enough of the male corporate atmosphere, especially when Ailes is trying to squeeze her out of the network as she tries to introduce feminist thinking in her show. Knowing that the end is near, she seeks legal help, eventually suing Ailes for sexual harassment, exposing his sexual deviant behaviour to the world.

For a talkie movie, it moves at an electric pace. Scenes don’t overstay their welcome, neither does director Jay Roach allow the scene to build to an empathetic level. There is also a cheekiness in that Kelly at times addresses us, educating us in the not too subtle ways of the network that seeks to be the Numero Uno of all television networks. It is an intoxicatingly breathless tour of the network floor where the selling of ideas, ethics, candidates and the truth as they deem it is of paramount importance and it does it through the showing of the female legs and sexuality. 

Charlize Theron superbly nails the twisty character of Megyn Kelly. Theron gets Kelly – her sensuality weaponised to the hilt, every smile calibrated to set off bombs in your body you didn’t you have and the walk to any spot timed to perfection. It is a role that Theron owns and she absolutely deserves her Best Actress nomination. 

Elsewhere, Margot Robbie’s Kayla also does a great job as a composite character. Kayla is essentially our surrogate. The scene of her in Ailes’ office as she is subtly asked to betray her soul to a predator is gobsmackingly scary. It is in this scene that the thought of “why can’t you just walk away” is extinguished because so many elements are in play. The conversation is not immediately discernible as sexual harassment, but Ailes is a skilled predator in playing the game of backing off and pushing it further. When all else fails, he gently, Iike a little lamb, holds you hostage with your career. It is just not easy to stand up and walk away from that. 

Bombshell feels like a greatest hits package – we get all the momentous moments that change history. Don’t accept the unacceptable; speak up; get help; say no to the objectification of your body; stand up to sexual harassment in your workplace. If the message is blunt and the plot’s denouement stodgy, it is all smoothed out by the fine acting. Credit must be given for a nuanced way of telling the story, but it feels over-packed with many pulled punches. What should detonate with stand-up chest-thumping fervour becomes just a flurry of small explosions with little impact.

3.5 / 5

Review: My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Enchantment at its Purest Form

Netflix will be streaming the classic animes from Studio Ghibli from February. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service… I am sure everyone has their favourite and this is mine…

My Neighbour Totoro has become one of the most beloved family films of all time. Interestingly, the first time I saw it wasn’t in its original opening year of 1988. At that time I was still in the army and all things masculine. What I presumed was a cheesy anime of an outlandish grey creature didn’t entice me one bit. The first time I saw the anime was from a Studio Ghibli DVD boxset a few years later, but I distinctively recalled that it didn’t floor me. It was in 1998, one rainy night in my university, during a screening in a theatre, I finally ‘got’ it. When the lights came on, I could see tears and smiles on a lot of my classmates’ faces.

What did I ‘get’ that night? I finally understood why it’s revered as a masterpiece for a cartoon. It didn’t use the traditional narrative structure and the usual plot devices to tell its story. This film has NO villains. NO fight scenes. NO angry disbelieving parents. NO suspicious characters with ulterior motives. NO red herrings. NO plot twists and turns. NO fighting between the two sisters (in fact during the first hour both sisters’ moods and attitudes are similar. If it’s Hollywood their behavior will be the opposite, acting as counterpoints). NO scary monsters. NO lesson learned arcs for main characters. On paper it looks like a disaster because the ingredients for a story are just not there. But oh man… the film works so well. If you can’t marvel at it, it is because of one of three reasons – you are immature, you have a heart of stone or you have just broken up with someone.

The film does not work on the premise of threats or conflicts but on situations. It is suffused with the joy of country living (no long faces here, complaining of boredom). It unites the unique vision of Miyazaki with a feel-good tale of childlike wonder, true originality and pure enchantment. You will find nothing emotionally manipulative here.

Since that evening at the university, I have seen it at least five more times and every time I would still notice stuff that I have missed in my last viewing. Last night I saw an early scene where Satsuki first lay eyes on their new rundown house and shook on a wooden pillar. Debris falls, she laughs heartily. Mei follows her sis and does the same, debris falls more violently. Everybody, including their dad laughs. If this is any other movie, a foreshadowing doom music will ring out, dad’s face contorted in mortal danger and to seal the deal, dad will sprout some warning to the kids. I also noticed in this latest viewing that ghosts, goblins and boogeyman are mentioned but the words are uttered in a sense of wonder, not of doom. Try also to name a cartoon with a sick parent/adult (I know… Pixar’s Up)… there are not many and I am going to say the ill adult is used as the focus point to tell the bigger story. In this film, illness is treated as a matter of fact.

I love this movie. It is a film that teaches you how the world should be and how we should live and want to live our life.

Review: Richard Jewell (2020), A David Versus Goliath Horror Story Based on Actual Events

Lately, I have been watching a lot of movies that share something in common – they are narratives that make me stare in disbelief at figure heads of authority and many a time I would hurl expletives at the scenes of gross miscarriage of justice and the failure of the legal system. Most recently it was Netflix’s When They See Us and prior before that it was the Sheep Without a Shepherd, a Chinese remake of Drishyam (2013), but what started it all was Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. This is a David versus Goliath tragedy – a man was celebrated as a hero and a few days later he was vilified by the press and the FBI as a terrorist.

It was a sensational story in 1996: Richard Jewell, a security guard at the Olympic Games in Atlanta finds a bomb and saves hundreds of lives due to his quick thinking (and probably his set ways). A few days later, he turns from hero to villain being accused of masterminding the bombing. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

I like how Eastwood paints Jewell – he is no paragon. He may worship the men in blue and sees himself as a police officer, but he oversteps his boundary in barging in on college kids “Mickey Mousing” around or even stopping cars on the roads for breaking traffic laws. He is a social misfit, a square peg to a round hole, always saying more than what is required especially if it is to people in the law enforcement. Jewell sees the world in black and white, following rules to a T as long as they have been written in the book. Owning a whole cache of legally purchased weapons doesn’t help his cause too. 

Paul Walter Hauser plays Richard Jewell and it’s a performance that feels genuinely lived-in. He is so good that I thought they actually cast a daft beatnik of an oddball in the role. Later, I would IMDb him and realised I have seen him most recently in I, Tonya and Blackkklansman. This is a role that finally puts him in the spotlight and the empathy emanating from his performance will leave an indelible mark on the most jaded movie-goer. In my humble opinion, he should have been rewarded with a nomination for Best Actor.

Hauser is supported by an able cast that includes Kathy Bates who plays Jewell’s loving mother and Sam Rockwell who plays his attorney, Watson Bryant. It’s the latter relationship that is engagingly portrayed. In fact, the movie begins with Jewell and Bryant in an office years before the heinous events. Bryant nicknamed Jewell “Radar” who was then an office guy, but he will become a steadfast believer of Jewell’s innocence. Rockwell can play these irascible but redeeming roles in his sleep. He is the voice of reason and the true north of the moral compass as Jewell becomes victimised and character-assassinated.

The twin Goliaths here are represented by Jon Hamm’s FBI agent and Olivia Wilde’s journalist Kathy Scruggs. Theirs is a blow by blow method on how to “kill” someone in the public eye. Unscrupulous and despicable, till the point I felt like stepping inside the screen to punch them. That usually means the storyteller got the mechanics right. Of the two, Wilde definitely drew the shorter stick with a thankless role, but kudos to her for a good performance that hit a nerve in the last act. While reading up on her character, I found out that both Jewell and Scruggs died very young. Till the last months of her life, the events that happened and her part in them still plagued her. The modern society can be very unforgiving and it is the same in any city.

Eastwood’s direction is not showy, editing feels invisible and nothing will take you away from the main story. He allows the scenes to breathe and none overstays their welcome. I hardly felt two hours pass and long after that the characters continue to stay in my mind. 

The later part of Eastwood’s career sees him train his erudite eye on lone heroes, deconstructing the idea of heroism and what it entails. Richard Jewell definitely fits like a glove into his oeuvre and it is as relevant today as it was in 1996. 

Rating: 4 of 5
Written by Daniel Chiam

Review: For Sama (2019), A Love Letter of War and Devastation

There is a scene midway that has a father mixing paints and giving a bevy of excited children a colour each. He tells them each to paint a segment of a bus destroyed by a bomb and to make it vivid. It is a scene I seldom see in war movies which are more interested in showing you mass destruction and extreme cruelty. The scene makes absolute sense because these are people who still crave for a semblance of normalcy in their dire lives and the instilling of hope in their children is still vital, perhaps even more important in those trying times. A while later, the documentary’s director, Waad Al-Khateab, points her Sony video-cam at a girl, probably about five years old, and asks what happened to the bus. The little girl smiles and says it was destroyed by a “cluster bomb”. How in heaven’s name does she know the term “cluster bomb”?

For Sama is a love letter “written” by a mother for her baby daughter Sama (it means sky in Arabic). It documents her confessional hope for Syria and the battle-ravaged city of Aleppo,. It is a 100-minute documentary of unflinching horror and the senselessness of war, made with the sheer passion of a rebel and the undying love of a mother, wanting her daughter to understand why she continued to live in a city when they could die at any moment.

Waad Al-Khateab and co-director Edward Watts have crafted a film with an escalating narrative drive. It begins with a 26-year-old girl entering Aleppo University with rising hope in 2012. With just a handphone, she filmed the fervent protests against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, probably feeling jubilant that a renewed future is close at hand. However, any hope for that gave way to atrocious crimes against humanity as the corrupt regime and its allies refused to yield, pelting the city with ordnance and bombs till 2017 when the rebels finally surrendered.

The story of the death of a city and innocence is told in flashbacks with weary cut and dried voice-overs by Waad, explaining to her daughter why she and her husband Hamza, a doctor and freedom fighter, stayed behind. The film would act as testament and legacy for Sama if she and Hamza don’t make it.

The film is not a downer throughout the runtime. There are scenes of levity as Hamza and Waad find love and get married. In another scene, their neighbour quips that their life resembles a soap opera with explosions and you will feel her joy when her husband surprises her with a persimmon. As much as there are harrowing scenes of death and destruction, there are also many moving scenes of familial and human connections. But it is those unflinching scenes of horror that you will never ever forget.

Waad relentlessly documents everything at ground zero and the hospital, the nexus of suffering. The self-taught journalist shoots everything, never evading her Sony-cam from the horrific scenes of carnage. A scene of two brothers covered in dust, carrying their dead youngest brother to the hospital is particularly heart wrenching. The footages are so in-your-face, so you-are-there that you forget you are watching a film until someone breaks the fourth wall, like how a grieving mother screams into the camera “why are you doing this?” amidst the tragedy of losing her young son. For Sama also has a centerpiece that in my humble opinion is the Scene of the Year – my heart broke into a million pieces and an eternal minute later my heart melded together and leapt with sheer joy. It is a marvellous and magical scene that is not engineered, demonstrating the undying spirit of human beings. You will know it when you see it.

This is a soul-shattering film; it feels epic, yet intimate, also putting you right smack in the midst of harrowing pain. When the house-lights came on, I sat in my seat stunned out of my senses, counting my blessings. Yes, it will do that to you. If you are reading this it means you and I have it a lot better than the people in this film, who don’t all make it out alive.

Like everyone, I have seen my fair share of war movies. In my humble opinion, For Sama dwarfs them all in terms of honesty and authenticity. No amount of gloss, sugarcoating and emotional manipulation can reproduce the fervid wallop the film sends to your very core. Sama may be too young to understand the film, but not us. This is essential viewing and a strong contender for Best Documentary of the Year.

Rating: 5 / 5

Written by: Daniel Chiam