Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

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Be prepared to be blown away. Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry packs quite a punch. This documentary shows Chinese artist cum activist Ai Wei Wei as he stands up for victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and seeks justice after police break into his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him.

The film fascinated me. It follows Ai as he tries to get the government to publish the real numbers of students who died in the flimsy school buildings in Sichuan. With newsreel footage and interviews, it shows the torture and abuse his father endured in the 1950s. I’ve read several books, fiction and non-fiction, about the Anti-Rightist Campaign. The stark newsreels of neighbor denouncing neighbor deepened my understanding of this horrible period.

The documentary shows Ai in New York where he started his art career and in Europe installing current works. Filmmakers follow him as he pursues justice after being beaten by police and detained so that he was unable to testify on behalf of another Chinese activist, who was found guilty.

Ai is mesmerizing. He’s bold, audacious, brave, down-to-earth and shrewd. He’s figured out the power of social media and despite the government’s censorship has attracted a following of Chinese who share his desire for transparency and democracy. These folks aren’t just spectators as we see when Ai protests the government mandated demolition of the studio the government told him to build, hordes show up for his protest. They know they’re being watched and recorded and are willing to take that risk.

Ai knows what the government’s up to and finds clever ways to show it for what it is. Though he doubts he can win, he works within the system seeking justice from the police whom illegally knocked in his hotel room door, beat and detained him. By recording every step of his bureaucratic quest for justice, he shows the world how the government works and that all is not well in the new China.

I found the interviews with fellow artists and Evan Osnos of the New Yorker insightful and trenchant. They show how people who care about China will stick their necks out to make it better, even though they doubt they’ll see improvement.

Living in China myself, I see the good parts and know that experiences like Ai’s and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo‘s are true, but it’s so easy to forget. I’m grateful for this movie that reminds me and fleshes out Ai WeiWei’s life and work.

Never Sorry is available on Netflix.

Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style Parody

Lincoln

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What is this far off, vacant look about?

Although I can see the hard work that went into the performances in Stephen Spielberg‘s Lincoln, I can’t say I liked the film. No doubt it will win several nominations and even awards, but I was struck by how the film lumbered along and how Daniel Day Lewis‘ Lincoln seemed so detached from the people around him. I can see that Day Lewis perfected Lincoln’s walk and mannerisms, but this character seemed removed from the others and hence hard for me to connect with.

There was something quite odd about the lighting, that distracted me. I realize they didn’t have electric light so I appreciated the night scenes with rooms that weren’t as bright as ours are now. But why were the rooms with the windows open during the day so dark, while the sun poured in through the windows as if the sun were a lot closer than it is. Shouldn’t a sun lit room then be like one now? I’ve toured the White House, Lincoln’s Springfield home and other preserved homes of the 19th century and never seen such lighting. It’s as if there were more eclipses or something during this era.

The maneuverings to pass the 13th amendment freeing slaves form the plot and I can see that it’s good to have a thread that the story clings to. I guess it sort of worked, but this choice didn’t thrill me. It was okay.

A lot of good actors appear. Some of my favorites like Hal Halbrook, David Strathairn, and James Spader. They all add to the film, but still I feel something was missing.

It was strange that Daniel Day Lewis went to such pains to portray Lincoln as he really was, while the script rejected some of the historical consultant’s advice and mucked around with history. For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not sit in the galley to watch congress and congress didn’t vote state by state. Most historical films do add some fiction, but I don’t think these choices added anything to the drama. Also, I’m puzzled by the choice to not show the shooting in Ford’s theater, but rather to fake the audience out with a scene in another theater where Lincoln’s youngest son was watching a play.

Now I did still have jet lag, a little, when I saw this movie on Wednesday, but I’m not sure that’s the only reason I had a hard time staying awake during the second half of the film. I never fall asleep in a movie, but I did doze off twice here and had to fight to stay awake. Mind you, I can stay awake for rather esoteric fare.

I know a lot of people praise the film highly, but I left thinking something’s missing or wrong here. This film could have been better and I’d like to see a Lincoln film based on other material, not just (or mainly) on Team of Rivals, which I still need to read.

Five Days

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While not as compelling as MI-5 (a.k.a. Spooks) or Sherlock, Five Days is a solid detective program from the BBC. The series looks at a crime and all the concerned parties, police, suspects, victims and guilty party, on five different days: the day of the crime, the following day, a week later, a month after that and 108 days after the crime. It’s an original premise and works.

I viewed season 2, not realizing it was season 2. The season was self-contained so there was no problem knowing what’s what. The central crime involved a person in a burqa who jumps in front of a train. Why? Who is this? Is there any connection to a baby who’s abandoned at a hospital the same day? There are several plot lines going at once, but their kept clear so viewers don’t get confused. It’s easy to get caught up in the search for the truth about the train accident/possible murder, the detective’s relationship with her mother who’s got dementia, the abandon baby’s future and the Muslim couple’s quest for a baby. There’s a lot going on, but the pacing and plots are handled well making for a series that works. I will go back and watch the first series.

I could easily become a long time fan if they make more.

Adam’s Apples

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A very black comedy from Denmark, Adam’s Apples follows a neo-Nazi ex con out to a small church in the countryside led by Ivan, a pastor who’s so optimistic and positive it’s both annoying and just very weird. Adam can’t figure out Ivan the weird priest or the other misfits at the church. He has no faith whatsoever and immediately replaces the cross in his room with a portrait of Hitler.

Ivan tells Adam he needs a goal, something to strive to complete his community service. As a sort of smart aleck response, Adam says his goal it to bake a pie. While most normal priests (or people) would say, “Make a real goal.” Ivan accepts this goal and shows Adam the apple tree out front. This simple goal soon becomes a big challenge.

Plague upon plague befalls Ivan, yet he never lets his faith slip or reason prevail. It drives Adam absolutely crazy, though everyone around him, misfits all, seems to accept Ivan.

The film gets darker and darker, yet ends boldly and on just the right note.

This film is different, fresh and engaging. You can stream it on Netflix.

Top Notch Service

When I’m in China lots of sites are blocked: WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, several news sources, and benign educational sites like Edublog and Engrade. It’s well worth it to get a VPN, virtual personal network, that enables me to fake out the government and the websites so that I can access Netflix, hulu and the aforementioned blogs and social media sites.

But which one? There are several out there. The problem is the free one’s are known to cause viruses and other problems, which I don’t need. My tech savvy, friend Luke recommendedStrong VPN and it’s been a blessing. Their customer service is superb. If you have the least bit of trouble setting up, they’ll talk you through or even do it all via a remote program. Before you know it, you’re good to go. Whenever I’ve had a question and called for assistance the customer service folks have been so polite and considerate. They really seem to care about giving respectful, personal service.

The prices are reasonable and you can earn credits if friends sign up after you refer them.

Before I knew about Strong VPN, I tried another service and they went under. Then the group that bought them out was surly when I asked a question. That would never happen with Strong. They’re good people.

By Susan Kelly

The Exam

The Exam

A Hungarian film, that’s won some festival awards, The Exam (A Visgva in Hungarian) is a terrific thriller that’s hard to find. I saw it on my flight home from China. It’s not on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. However, it’s captivating and well worth seeing.

Directed by Péter Bergendy and written by Hungary’s prolific, accomplished Norbert Köbli, The Exam is a spy thriller that shows the secret police spying on themselves, testing agent’s loyalty in 1957.

As Christmas approaches, Jung, an exemplary spy who interviews citizens from all walks of life to ferret out the counter revolutionaries, doesn’t realize that his mentor Marko is spying on him, recording his every move as part of a program to spy on the spies.

The film recreates Communist Hungary and all the distrust and suspicion inherent in that regime. It’s tense and keeps the audience guessing, much like The Lives of Others did. The acting is masterful and the plot keeps viewers riveted.  The juxtaposition of Christmas images, the tree, ornaments, and an angel with spy tools, tape recorders and guns in the opening credits captivates. I wish this “must-see” wasn’t so hard to find.

Sepia Saturday

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Ah, romance.

This prompt made me wonder when was the first cinematic kiss. A Google search led me to this photo from an India film released in 1933:

Devika Rani in "Karma"

Devika Rani in “Karma”

Yet, certainly 1933 wasn’t the first film to show a kiss. (Google isn’t always the best.) A Yahoo search led me to discover that “John C Rice kissed May Irwin in 1896, and became the first couple to be recorded kissing in the film called The Kiss.

1896 First Onscreen Kiss

1896 First Onscreen Kiss

Hallelujah

I’ve always loved this haunting song. I’ll always remember it when it was used in The West Wing.  I think this is the best rendition I’ve heard.