First Man (2018, directed by Damien Chazelle)

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Going into this film completely blind — no trailers watched, nary a thought spent on the event of the first moon-landing, which is to say I was the perfect tabula-rasa audience member — I was pretty much bowled over by First Man.

I didn’t think there would be such a strong emotional core at the heart of a movie about going into space. I was not expecting to feel the nitty-gritty of space travel — the claustrophobic spaces, tiny airplane windows, complete lack of mobility while you are fully strapped into your seat just watching the sky outside change, while monitoring the dials and needles in front of you for any sign of things going wrong — so opposite from what the idea of space conveys: an expanse, wonder, a whole and alien world. Danger: of course. Isn’t that why we’re here? But to feel the actual human cost of it, that’s a different matter.

And with no less — arguably even more — important a role stands Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet, played breathtakingly by Claire Foy of The Crown fame. She is the reason the whole structure stays together — the family, Neil’s mental state. She faces the possibility of losing her husband every day, and holds it together regardless: we see her superhuman restraint in choosing not to pepper him with wholly understandable questions or appeals for reassurance, because she knows that whatever answers she seeks, he does not have. When he goes on an extravehicular activity, she is pinned to the radio transmitting his updates to the space station, all the while handling their two children all on her own — these updates, filled with technical numbers of the spacecraft’s status, provide more insight than any answer he can give directly to her. When the radio cuts off, she rushes down to the space station and demands that the staff turn it on again, uttering the truest line: “All these protocols and procedures to make it seem like you have it under control. But you’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control!” On the very last night before Neil sets out to the moon, she finally makes him confront the side of him he has spent the whole movie, decade escaping: the impact on the family if he dies — or to generalize, facing up to his feelings towards loss.

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For Neil, played just as admirably by our favourite heartthrob Ryan Gosling, the space mission has become more than just a test of humanity’s limits, or an expedition to another frontier. It has become a symbol of what has been lost — his teammates’ lives, in the course of this attempt; his daughter’s life, as the initial impetus for him to apply for the program just for a change. He barrels on with a single-minded intensity, determined to reach the moon at all cost — even his own life — for the alternative, failure, would mean that the personal losses he has suffered would have been in vain. Metaphorically carrying the ashes of his loved ones — and literally carrying his daughter’s bracelet — he views the moon as the only possible resting place for these last relics; it was also the only place he could come to terms with his own grief, and let go of its relentless grip.

And yet despite — or perhaps because of — the emotional baggage and the backdrop of loss, the moments in which we first see the moon are filled with utter wonder: the magic of space made concrete, the surreality of a place eternally imagined, outside of the bounds of atmosphere. The landing, so similar to that of a flight we take to another country, is at the same time brimming with a strangeness from the surface it is trying to settle on: a white, powdery expanse, against absolute black. The camera lingers lovingly on craters visible to the 360 view, as if to remind us: there is no way to tabulate this cost-balance sheet. This sense of wonder, this actualisation of possibility, sheer inspiration, can never be quantified.

Let me not forget to add that the music by Justin Hurwitz was absolutely spellbinding. It catches you on a wave and transforms the movie into an aesthetic experience, so much that the 141 minutes of the movie did not feel like so.

Imma giving it 5/5 for introducing me to space magic rooted by a strong core of humanity, in a perfect blend of music, pacing, and cinematography.

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Jazz (1992, Toni Morrison)

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Jazz lives up to its title — the prose is pure music, a song that croons its husky notes seamlessly into the next, an endless slow dance pressed against your partner, lift, whirl, dip. It’s a love letter to the city, infused with longing, barely-concealed desire, thin dress and silk stockings over a melancholic heart. The bright-eyed hope of migrants from the country twinned with the ever-present sorrow of the African-American.

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The narrative weaves through perspectives and periods of the circle of characters — Violet, her husband Joe, his eighteen-year-old mistress Dorcas, their families, their lives before the city. The events leading to the tragedy of Joe shooting Dorcas right at the start of the book. It’s not always easy to tell whose perspective it is; the narrator takes over at times, creating an effect of disparate voices strung together by a deep commonality, bond. The tale is one of grief attempting to piece itself together, locate the source of the wound as far back as it can go, before it can right itself again, a mended vase with golden seams. And finally call the city — the place they have always been besotted with — home.

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It’s a 4/5 from me — beautiful beautiful prose, but there’s a sense of being kept at a distance from the characters, watching them dance.

The Infinite Happiness (2015, directed by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine)

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Googling my way through floor plans of buildings after watching a show is not a habit of mine, but that’s what I did after watching S1E4 of Abstract: The Art of Design, featuring Bjarke Ingels, lots of months ago. Evidently I was curious/skeptical enough of Bjarke’s grand concepts to try to figure out if they actually worked. It also sparked an interest in visiting some of Singapore’s strange building concoctions, culminating in a side trip to The Interlace before the main objective of Henderson Waves with S early last year. (How’d we get in? Duh, the usual way of lurking around completely inconspicuously until a resident exits through the side gate, and then deftly slipping in like the ninjas that we are.)

Which is how I ended up watching The Infinite Happiness, since all the architectural floor plans and awards in the world weren’t going to convince me that the noble social engineering aims were achieved. Some questions I had were, does anyone actually cycle and/or climb up and down those slopes? What is the occupancy rate of that building? Do people really linger outside on those slopes and terraces to socialise?

The Infinite Happiness is a light-hearted and quirky documentary, captured in a series of vignettes/small episodes that can be as random as following an elegant white cat out of the 8 house compound where it proceeds to hunt and polish off a satisfying meal of a small bird, before trotting back confidently up those 8 house slopes and returning to its apartment through a small cat flap. Or a series of almost-still scenes in an episode titled Star Wars tunnel (along those lines) which show us different angles of the streaks of white light against the red-panelled sides of a tunnel through the building.

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aforementioned cat, ruler of this kingdom

The not-so-random episodes were those of residents, naturally; we had kindergarten kids traversing up and down to find a scary skeleton criminal, three generations of family living in adjacent flats having dinner together, a hobbyist inventor using the workshop within 8-house for his random ideas, a completely voluntary group of residents just helping out other residents with their house fixes. Oh, and a couple of episodes of deliverymen getting lost. Because the apartments aren’t even aligned on a single floor.

Did it answer my questions? Nevaaa, my curiosity is deep and bottomless. But I did manage to arrive at a few thoughts. First, the people who moved in there, or at least who were interviewed by the documentary-makers, were already predisposed to believing in this idea of community — they moved in because they bought Bjarke’s vision of a mountain village. They’re the early adopters, so there’s already that inherent bias. But there’s still something to like in having idealistic considerations involved in choosing where to live.

Second, if it works, it’s also because of where it’s situated, not just the design of the building itself. It’s perched at the edge of civilisation, and your view opens up right from that V shape of the parameter into wide pastures, glassy lake. There’s nothing to stop a storm from hitting you with its full force, like what one of the interviewees described (in a not so tasteful way. Hint, it involved the analogy of a woman.) The mountain village metaphor applies because of this isolation, destitution. There’s something lonely about that, and it makes you clutch more tightly to whatever social fabric you can find. To share that beauty, too.

Third, goddammit let us not forget those cool European temperatures that facilitate casually lounging around on your terrace, and climbing those slopes up to the 9th storey where your house is because you’re not going to break a sweat from your fifth step. I will continue to cast a skeptical side-eye at similar concepts in Singapore. Balconies are a waste of space I maintain. Unless you do plants.

To end this off, the documentary did an adequate job in showing us glimpses here and there, without aspiring to go too deeply into the topic, which on balance works. Just sit along and enjoy the ride, and don’t expect a directed narrative. Imma giving it a 3.5/5, but the cat is 5/5 cute for sure.

My Girl (1991, directed by Howard Zieff)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for coming-of-age films — there’s that breath-holding quality of significant life points where a huge crest of change confronts one and nobody’s sure what they’ll be like emerging from it. After that, you know that a shift has occurred somewhere within the protagonist’s frame of mind, psychological state, but outwardly all will still be the same. It’s always marvellous to witness. (Side note — also why My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels, is my favourite of the series.)

Setting a spunky 11-year-old heroine within the premises of a funeral parlour promises great fun and comedy — I don’t think one can tire of deadpan attitudes towards the freshly dead (assuming, of course, their relative anonymity). It’s probably a must-have that our heroine disregards conventions to develop that sparkling personality which promises pesky boys a peep at a dead body in a coffin in exchange for money and never delivers on it. Other endearing attributes: stopping by the doctor’s complaining of afflictions that are suspiciously like those of the causes of death of the latest corpses, and having a crush on her teacher that leads her to enroll in the summer creative writing class that he teaches, recommended age range be damned.

Yet there are plot developments that feel thin — the unconvincing blossoming romance between Vada’s father and Shelley, the rushed climatic buildup and denouement of Thomas J’s death, and Vada’s acceptance of all these as well as her discovery of Mr Bixler’s impending marriage after a period of disappearance. It’s almost as if the movie tried a little too hard in getting us and Vada to arrive at A Great Revelation that will level up our maturity with Necessary Plot Events. Cue sad music for a single tear one too many times.

There were a couple of scenes at the end that I loved — Vada walking to Thomas J’s body during his wake wailing about the absence of his glasses (“He can’t see without his glasses!”), and going to the doctor’s gasping for air from her imaginary bee stings. I wanted to get more of that Vada who couldn’t separate herself from the people she loved or the bodies that got embalmed by her father. A few threads the movie dropped tantalizingly but did not go deeper were her fear of darkness as well as her feeling of culpability towards her mother’s death (childbirth complications). I also felt that her father was too flat a character for how much affection Vada sought from him — he maintained that same level of attention towards Vada throughout, aka none; we did not get any of that father-daughter relationship that actually would have made this movie much richer with necessary contradictions, push and pull of father-daughter relations.

Despite that, I found myself reflecting on some heavy matters, like how one person’s (Vada’s father, in this case, towards his wife’s death) inability to deal with emotions can cause a rippling circle of effect on the people close to them/depending on them (Vada), creating a void that they can’t put a finger on, and potentially perpetuating the cycle of emotional damage. If you keep up a wall of silence around a deep source of hurt within, those depending on you will never get that necessary sense of resolution as well. And then they end up circling, circling back to the same issue, if they cannot articulate what it is that’s missing…

(A little Freudian, huh, with the repression)

Anyhow, a 3.5/5, probably also the number of tears that I shed for my spunky heroine who had to suffer too many losses.

The Betrothed (Alessandro Manzoni, translated by Bruce Penman)

Manzoni has a delightfully snarky style that shines more at the start than towards the end, in a way that translates remarkably well in the modern age. Never treating his characters too seriously, he induces in equal measure comedy and sympathy for these sketches of personality – even caricatures – in a manner that’s difficult to balance well. Reading the book, you imagine a roving camera now trained on one character, now panning across the scenery, now diving into a second character’s bread-and-butter concerns, all the while keeping up a hilarious metafictional narrative reminiscent of The Princess Bride.

Manzoni’s craft is at its sharpest when light-hearted, enabling the reader to acknowledge the issues within society – the inequality between the haves and have-nots, the rampant lawlessness, improper governance – more effectively than a heavy-handed style would have allowed. From the middle of it, however, as the camera loses interest in the individual characters and effects a sombre tone from scenes of plague and suffering, the narrative loses its tightness, to the extent of becoming indulgent in its descriptiveness. With an almost fanatic energy in trying to capture the utter senselessness of sickness and war, the novel has perhaps overreached with its panoramic ambition, and ironically loses us when it needs our sympathy the most. At that point it became more of a historical documentation of the plague than a narrative. So – good for educating yourself on the events in 17th century Italy, not so great for literature. Would have been a better book if it were 10 chapters shorter. (It’s 800+ pages long.)

I’ll give it 3/5 which is also the proportion of how long it should have been over its actual length.

(Got fed up with how hard it is to see your reviews on Goodreads, and inspired by a friend to put reviews up on a blog instead. I guess I’ll post on both places, to make use of Goodreads’ sorting and aggregation functionality?)

Lion King: the musical vs the film

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Having watched Lion King (the musical) today, I’m wondering why I felt that the film performed better in character portrayal and hitting the emotional notes.

Perhaps it’s unfair to watch the musical with the film’s context at the back of the mind. Any attempt to redo a scene is inevitably compared to the film, especially when the musical stays faithful to the movie, almost replicating it scene by scene, and at best we will accept the reinterpreted stage action; at worst, it will be an unsatisfying imitation.

Animation also has greater latitude with regards to scale: zoom in to an intimate scene, and you get a better sense of characters; zoom out, and you get panoramic spectacles of the wildebeasts running, hyenas dancing, animals going about their daily motions. The musical did a good job in capturing the spectacle — stage set ups were massive and elaborate, and always took your breath away with their sheer intricacy and variety. Actors were half in life-sized animal puppets that had many moving parts, and a lot of effort and attention to detail was put into their movements, in order to capture the essence of an animal. That was excellently done; I did not feel that any animal came across as stilted, uncanny, or merely a moving 2D picture.

The zooming in, however, still did not feel as intimate as the film, and instead more like a sketch of what the film achieved. I wanted more of Simba and Scar, as well as the relationship between Nala and Simba. It’s a little strange, because they essentially replicated the scenes in the film, and yet something of the essence was lost. Maybe it had to do with how dynamic the animation expressions were in the film. Simba as young cub felt more in-your-face child posturing rather than mischievous kid. Nala pinning Simba down in their play-acted fights was not believable as child’s play, and there’s less of that sense of Simba having caused Mufasa’s death, because we couldn’t really see the desperation of Mufasa trying to save Simba from the wildebeasts. Scar’s wicked charm was less obvious as well.

The musical did one scene superbly, though: the scene when Simba talks to the ghost of his dead father, and finally achieves a sense of resolution with regards to his father’s death. The backdrop of stars dizzily spins around, when abruptly, out of the dark holes within the backdrop, a massive 4-6m tall lion’s head emerges out, having been pieced together from separate parts carried by several people – a pop out effect towards the audience – a visceral, collective gasp on the part of the audience enhancing the shock, awe, and happiness that Simba feels on talking to his father again. That particular emotional note was right on point.

Other than that, I did not appreciate two things especially: one, cheap Singaporean references inserted into the musical, such as a reference to the curtains being like they were bought from Mustafa Centre, and sending Zazu back to Jurong Bird park. I felt that they took the audience away from the world already built up within Lion King, of the vast savannah and organic African rhythms, and whatever humour achieved (not really) was not worth that. Two, the atrocious sound system of MBS theatres: you could not feel the power of the singers’ voices, or even the orchestra — the volume was too modulated, and there was a flat, polished microphone quality to the songs. The clarity of the words because of the muffling effect of the mic also left much to be desired. I want to feel where the voice is coming from, not have it sound like it’s coming from some speaker in the general direction of the character!

In conclusion, I think it’s worth a watch for the sheer theatrical spectacle, but if money is a source of concern, it’s probably better to just watch the film.

Trends of play: Future World

Just went to an exhibition at ArtScience museum titled Future World, by teamLab — basically works of interactive media. In exhibitions such as this, it’s very much about play rather than games, if we define games as contexts with rules and objectives, and play as a kind of leisurely endeavour in which wonder is a primary component.

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Touch is a major part of such exhibitions: participants place objects on and touch projections, and move, stack, collide lit-up blocks or balls. In one centrepiece, kids go around rolling different coloured soft lit balls that were 3/4 their height in a modified version of a ball pen or bumper cars; balls changed colours when they collided. Another similar piece with less success was blocks that could be stacked on top of each other, again changing colours upon stacking. At least the first piece had the tactile joy of rolling and colliding, but as far as originality or effort goes, pretty minimal.

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Another common interaction was touching projections and seeing what effect that would have on those projections. For example, in one piece with fish, touching them would cause them to dart away. Very much what we already have on mobile phones, except scaled to room-size. Another piece projected on a slide, creating light paths when kids came down and causing objects at the bottom to bounce away when they landed. A third one had tablets for participants to create their own hopscotch patterns, which are projected onto the floor for people to hop; the greater the accuracy of a hop, the more spectacular the visual effects. This reminded me of the first assignment in my game design course at CMU: reinvent hopscotch. One piece that was slightly more interesting for me was one where hieroglyphs fell; touching them unfurled animals, plants, even a fire, unfolding a story that harks back to how ancient Egyptians spread their history.

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Developing on that theme, there were pieces where participants put objects on projections on tables, and the type of object that was placed would create different virtual objects that would relate to pre-existing objects in the scene. For example, there was this one where you can place houses, mountains, flower-shaped objects; mountain objects would create rivers between them; green houses, railway tracks that form bridges if crossing rivers; red houses, roads. Virtual houses would spring up beside the roads, and flower-shaped objects would create what I presumed were trees. I particularly liked the inter-object dynamics, but there was an unspoken restriction as to how far you can place say a mountain for the river to link to a previously-placed mountain which I was unsatisfied by. I was also hoping for more surprises, like if you put a water source beside a flower, maybe an entire meadow would spring up? A cluster of towers: a city of skyscrapers?

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Another piece that was neat was one where you colour within the lines of spaceships, buildings, cars, and scan those pictures in — the piece transformed your creations into 3D models and had them moving around in a little town. The opposite of augmented reality: instead of pulling the virtual world out, you put reality in. I coloured a piece myself for the sheer small thrill of seeing my tower pop up in that town which had UFOs and helicopters buzzing all over. The 3D transformation was a key component to this thrill: the software didn’t just take what you made, it developed upon it and made it fit into its world.

It reminded me of a piece I saw recently at Singapore Art Museum: participants would stand in front of these video cameras and create some silly dance, and these cameras would record a few seconds of it, and project the human figures in one of the many jars lining the wall. That video would last only an undefined period, until the software decides to replace it with another video, and the people looked like they were little figures contained in the jars. It was on the theme of the transience of memory, and it’s a variation of that piece (I don’t know if it was just an installation within my university campus, or more widespread than that?) where jars are placed perpendicular to the wall, and you open their lids to say something or other, and close them. When the lids are opened again by the next person, the recording from the previous person would play, and then disappear, for the next recording to take place: a self-destructive message in a bottle. There was that same sense of wanting to see something from the real world inside the piece, even for just a few seconds.

All in all, this is an exhibition more geared towards kids than adults. A topic for another day: what makes stuff like Yayoi more for adults, compared to this?

(all pics taken from teamLab’s website)