Monthly Archives: February 2012

Moon (2009)

Sam (Sam Rockwell) is a Lunar Industries employee who has signed a three-year contract to oversee automated operations on the moon base Sarang. His job consists of collecting full canisters of helium-3 from robotic harvesters and sending them to Earth, where clean fusion energy has replaced fuel as the main source of power. With only a mechanized assistant called GERTY for company, Sam maintains a regular routine, counting down the days until he sees his family again. However, things change when an accident occurs and he finds someone out there, the one person he would have never expected—himself.

Co-writer and director Duncan Jones deserves praise for this stunning debut, which—as Joachim Boaz warned me—far exceeds the merits of his other film Source Code. While both involve thought-provoking science fiction, Moon (among other achievements) attains greater success in the creation of a singular effect on its viewer. I went to bed that night feeling sorrowful and deeply moved. It’s also worth noting the director’s aptitude in crafting a story about immense solitude and intuitively situating it on the moon, which carries with it simultaneous associations of fascination and alienation. On the one hand, it’s new terrain—exotic and unfamiliar. On the other, it represents the furthest possible distance between one man and others (in this case, also himself).

Moon is a prime example of the kind of science fiction that asks the terrible questions. What does it mean to be human? What differentiates us from highly intelligent machines like GERTY, one that can express a limited range of emotions and even make decisions on its own? In a world where both are manufactured, rebooted, and disposed of as needed, where do we draw the line? This film forewarns of a plausible (and in some ways already palpable) future based on dehumanization, where our perception of man draws from mere practicality, where a person is reduced to a commodity, of which hundreds of similar stocks may be produced; most cruelly of all, where an individual is permanently deceived in regard to his own identity. In the most painful of ironies, Sam is reduced to asking questions about his existence to a machine.

A highly satisfying movie, Moon convinces, compels, and assaults with a poignancy human enough to disturb an emotional core. It is a film I am grateful to have watched, and one I passionately recommend.

‘GERTY, we’re not programmed. We’re people, you understand?’

Baltasar and Blimunda

I used to hate Saramago with a blinding vehemence. A regular grammar Nazi, I was outraged at the uncontrolled profusion of his prose, at his lack of respect for natural limits. Never mind that he is a Nobel awardee, and I a mere undergraduate. But about three-quarters into The Double—after I grumpily gave up my grammar issues—my eyes were opened. Saramago went from loathed offender to favorite author. I used to say that, outside the obvious range, only two deaths would sadden me: Jose Saramago’s and Hayao Miyazaki’s. After the novelist died, I regulated my intake of his now-limited literature. Baltasar and Blimunda, another gift from Kai, is the first Saramago book I’ve read in years.

“God clearly did not know what He was doing when He created Adam and Eve.” Most anywhere else, this statement would seem like thoughtless sacrilege, but in Saramago’s hands even blasphemy becomes witty, perceptive, truthful. Although his trademark humor allows readers to take everything in stride, one cannot escape without at least a nagging feeling of unease. A romance, a fantasy, and an adventure story, Baltasar and Blimunda is most of all a dark social commentary. In highlighting the excesses of royalty and religion, the novel paints a dismal portrait of 18th century Portuguese society. Monarchs are constrained by expectations, priests tread a path of eternal conflict, and peasants are condemned to a life of sacrifice and subservience. Like unwilling nuns trapped in a convent, everyone is confined to his proper place, denied even an inch more.

Doubtless, Saramago’s storytelling is superb and his visionary ambition inspiring, but I find it strange that the blurb trumpets this as his “best-loved” work. Although his criticisms remain incisive and relevant, I felt shortchanged by the actual story. The book’s titled Baltasar and Blimunda but its focus is elsewhere: uneven power relations and religious hypocrisy—as revealed in chapter-long descriptions of processions and festivities. This excessive detailing underscores shallowness but does not make for an absorbing narrative. Still, if pure enjoyment is what one expects in a novel then one is better off reading other books instead. Why read Saramago unless you want to be disturbed, unsettled? Compared to his other works, Baltasar and Blimunda seems uncharacteristically bland, but it does tease the mind out of torpor, prompting us to consider former horrors and ponder how much—if at all—the world has changed since.

Sete-sóis could feel his mouth watering, it seemed as if all the hunger accumulated during the four years of war now bursting the dykes of resignation and self-control.

…laughter is so close to tears, reassurance so close to anxiety, relief so close to panic, and the lives of individuals and nations hover between these extremes…

…once she has finished she opens her eyes, turns toward Baltasar, and rests her head on his shoulder while placing her left hand where his is missing, arm touches arm, wrist touches wrist, life is amending death as best it can.

It ought to be sufficient to state what someone is called and then wait for the rest of your life to find out who he or she is, if you can ever know, but the custom is otherwise, Who were your parents, where were you born, what is your trade, and once you know these facts, you think you have learnt everything about the person.

It is a well-known fact that Baltasar likes a drink, though without getting drunk… But when he drinks there always comes a point when he feels Blimunda’s hand rest on his shoulder, and that is all he needs, Blimunda’s tranquil presence in the house is enough to restrain him, Baltasar reaches out for the tankard filled with wine, which he intends to drink as he also drank all the others, but a hand touches his shoulder, a voice says, Baltasar, and the tankard is returned to the table untouched and his friends know that he will drink no more that day.

Bridesmaids (2011)

Comedic wedding disasters must already form a movie sub-sub-genre. We have enough of them, that’s for sure. Still smarting from You Again (the tail end of which I caught on TV), I wasn’t exactly psyched for this movie, but I felt low that day and thought a comedy would do the trick.

As the maid of honor, Annie (Kristen Wiig) strives to help her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) plan her upcoming wedding. However, things go awry when she faces competition in the form of another bridesmaid, the rich and fabulous Helen (Rose Byrne). Confronted with this challenge, Annie finds an unlikely confidant in Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd). But as abysmally bad luck continues to shower her life, she comes dangerously close to ruining both her life and her best friend’s wedding.

No regular moviegoer is a stranger to female leads with messed up lives, but Annie takes the cake for this award. Raised by a non-alcoholic mother who attends AA meetings, she goes through life encountering people who do not get much farther towards the spectrum of what’s considered normal. Lillian’s bridesmaids are prime examples. They seem so ridiculously unreal that, in the strange way of movies, they appear all the more alive onscreen. Individual Bridesmaids posters show the five women sporting nifty labels like “Little Miss Perfect,” but those who have watched the film know better than to confine them to such descriptions. Everyone is extreme, and that’s exactly what this movie has going for it. Aware of what’s already out there, Bridesmaids makes no attempt to veer clear of formulas and instead jumps straight to the stereotypes, taking them to levels we’ve never seen before. Familiar scenes like catfights and falling-outs take on an entirely new dimension here, aided by the occasional slow-motion effect and cynical dialogue.

Bridesmaids is also incredibly gross, something you never expect from an all-female comedy, even an R-rated one. No lighthearted melodrama here—in this movie, life is one tough bitch. “Fuck” is thrown around as the new “OMG,” and women lose their sanity in more literal ways than what we’re used to. “Wasn’t it my turn to be crazy?” Lillian asks. “You kind of stole all the crazy.” Fresh, inventive, and absurdly funny, Bridesmaids owes its success to a spectacular cast and a daring script. I was feeling sad when I started this movie, but damn, I laughed and laughed.

‘I’m life, Annie, and I’m biting you in the ass!’

‘You’re your problem, Annie, and you’re your solution.’

Melancholia (2011)

Revealing the end is not something most of us would consider doing in a movie, especially one about the end of the world. But that is exactly what Lars von Trier does in Melancholia, and very consciously at that. The film opens with a series of slow-motion images chronicling Earth’s last moments: a bride floating down a stream, a mother carrying her child, two planets at the moment of collision. Not wanting his audience to be distracted from the central drama, von Trier dispels the suspense by establishing the end at the beginning.

I’m not completely sold on this idea, mostly because I found the opening scenes too dramatic and too consciously “artistic,” to the point that they seemed little more than overdone wallpapers. Nonetheless, I do get von Trier’s point about distraction, and I did like the movie better as it progressed. Part I focuses on Justine (Kristen Dunst), who remains distant and troubled throughout her wedding, until her new husband leaves her by the night’s end. In Part II, we see Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggling with her depressive sister as her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) tracks the approach of the rogue planet Melancholia.

Maki always makes me watch the strangest films. Although it doesn’t beat Waking Life, Melancholia ranks very high in terms of oddity. For one thing, it confines a world catastrophe to one family’s experience. It’s actually more frightening than typical apocalyptic movies where everything is large-scale and explosive. Here, the end of the world is a most private experience. Seemingly marooned on a sprawling mansion, our characters are cut off from the rest of humanity and are left to face the end alone.

What I appreciated most about Melancholia is its skillful handling of metaphor in conflating depression and planetary collision. Von Trier identifies melancholy with a destructive planet, both of which loom over the characters’ lives in their immensity, and against which they are rendered completely powerless. But this subtlety is difficult to reconcile with the film’s extremely slow pace, which adds to its inherent heaviness and disconcerts the viewer. It’s not a pleasant experience, but one I cannot criticize because it’s clearly part of the intended effect. Strange and eerily beautiful, Melancholia is not a readily enjoyable film, but is triumphant enough to warrant intellectual appreciation and discussion. Most importantly, it exhibits a conceptual ambition that few other movies even attempt.

‘Life is only on Earth. And not for long.’

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This book has gone through so much with me. I borrowed it from Maki early last year, returned it before I had a chance to read it, then borrowed it again in the last quarter of 2011. I started it during a very busy month, and had to stop after two chapters because I felt my intermittent reading didn’t do it justice. This second time around, I made sure I had time.

Early in the novel we are asked, “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” Just as Sabina’s paintings “featured the confluence of two themes, two worlds…all double exposures,” this book highlights various oppositions: soul and body, public and private, truth and farce. But the foremost burden that confronts us is the unbearable lightness of being, which echoes Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “One time and no more. And we, too, / once. Never again, But to have existed / this once, even if only one time: / to have existed here on earth, appears irrevocable.”

In this book Kundera offers keen insights into the human condition, startlingly precise observations flung across the pages in abundance, creating “an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.” If this is an investigation, it is a mathematical one: there are five meanings attached to Sabina’s bowler hat, exactly six fortuities that bind Tereza to Tomas. Despite this narrative precision, the novel does not content itself with mere dimensions, goes beyond the measurable. It plumbs irreparable gulfs between people, examines the seemingly insurmountable distance between one person and his beloved. Kundera dramatizes this solitude through Sabina and Franz: How is it possible to love when you can never completely know the other, when one word for you means another for him? In Rilke’s words, “Lovers, you who are each fulfilled by the other, / you I ask about us. You clasp each other. Do you have any proof?”

Occasionally the narrative treads into the realms of philosophy or politics, but the gems of the novel are really Tomas and Tereza. Despite his incurable womanizing, despite her persistent dreams, love still stretches itself between them. It is a beautiful, enviable thing. At times I had to stop reading just to ponder, and wonder at this unearthly love. For the longest time I didn’t know what to reply when asked which books have changed my life. Now I can finally say something.

This…reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.

What happens but once…might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.

Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).

For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.

If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders.

No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.

She was amazed at the number of years she had spent pursuing one lost moment.

‘Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means infinitely more than the billions of words spewed out by our universities.’

It was completely illogical. How could someone who had so little respect for people be so dependent on what they thought of him?

And now she was with him again. He saw her pressing the crow wrapped in red to her breast. The image of her brought him peace. It seemed to tell him that Tereza was alive, that she was with him in the same city, and that nothing else counted.

He tried to picture himself living in an ideal world with the young woman from the dream. He sees Tereza walking past the open windows of their ideal house. She is alone and stops to look in at him with an infinitely sad expression in her eyes. He cannot withstand her glance. Again, he feels pain in his own heart. Again, he falls prey to compassion and sinks deep into her soul. He leaps out of the window, but she tells him bitterly to stay where he feels happy, making those abrupt, angular movements that so annoyed and displeased him. He grabs her nervous hands and presses them between his own to calm them. And he knows that time and again he will abandon the house of his happiness, time and again abandon his paradise and the woman from his dream and betray the “Es muss sein!” of his love to go off with Tereza, the woman born of six laughable fortuities.

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions—love, antipathy, charity, or malice—and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas’s shoulder… She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

One magical summer, I met Hayao Miyazaki and entered the strange universe of Studio Ghibli. I remember listening to Eandra play the theme of Howl’s Moving Castle and being convinced to watch the movie, which soon prompted me to unearth more. I wept over Grave of the Fireflies, laughed through My Neighbors the Yamadas, and marveled at the mysterious worlds of Ponyo and Nausicaä. For a year I awaited Studio Ghibli’s next film, then titled The Borrower Arrietty.

The movie centers on Arrietty, an adventurous girl born to a family of borrowers—little people who live under the floorboards and “borrow” from humans the things they need for survival. She knows that this peaceful co-existence hinges on one very important tenet: that the borrowers remain undiscovered by humans, whom they perceive as cruel and dangerous. But one day a frail boy named Sho arrives at the house and strikes up a friendship with Arrietty, transforming her understanding of humans but also endangering her family’s existence.

A legend among anime fans, Hayao Miyazaki is a name that has become inseparable from Studio Ghibli. He serves as the production planner for Arrietty; animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes on the director’s role. Even after repeated viewings, Ghibli’s animation does not disappoint. There is always something new to admire in each film. In Arrietty we find a strong emphasis on detail highlighting relative properties: short distances become chasms, a clock’s ticking is amplified to insistent banging, and tea flows out of a pot in gigantic drops. This magnified scale imbues house interiors with a sense of newness, inciting wonder at what we deem ordinary—this I consider the film’s chief achievement.

Content-wise, what I liked most is the subtle dynamics of Sho and Arrietty’s relationship. Neither character overwhelms the other; they are equal in their weakness. I especially appreciated how Sho did not presume to solve the borrowers’ lodging problem, even though it was well within his capacity to do so. That struck me as the ultimate sign of respect. Because of this, I am prompted to deem the film’s few didactic lapses forgivable.

While Arrietty holds none of the exuberance of Spirited Away (my favorite), it possesses the same qualities that made the latter such a success. Charming and splendidly uplifting, this movie shows that it doesn’t take all that much to bridge two worlds. Sometimes, all you need is a cube of sugar.

‘We’ll make do, we always have. You don’t know anything about us!’

‘You protected me after all. I hope you have the best life ever. Goodbye.’