Film review: Past Lives (2023)

This film, that has won many awards and was nominated for best film at the latest Academy Awards, will evoke long forgotten memories in viewers who have reached or passed middle age. Who amongst us does not recall past loves from whom we drifted away for a variety of reasons, and now occasionally wonder what our lives might have been like if things had turned out differently and we had stayed together?

This film tells the story of Nora and Hae Sung, childhood sweethearts in Seoul, South Korea who get separated at the age of 12 when Nora’s family emigrates to Canada. She subsequently moves to New York to pursue a career as a writer while he remains behind in Korea to become an engineer. But he still thinks of her and at the age of 24, he reaches out to her through Facebook and they start talking via Skype where they discover that they still feel warmly towards each other. But there is little chance of them meeting in the near future and that brief period of connection also fades and they do not make contact for another twelve years, when they are in their mid-thirties. In the meantime, she attends a writing residency and ends up falling in love and marrying Arthur, a fellow writer she met there, while Hae Sung also gets engaged.
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TV review: 3 Body Problem (2024)

My recent two posts on UFOs and the possible existence of life emerging on other planets in the universe generated quite a bit of interest. Those interested in this topic may enjoy the new series just released on Netflix that deals with this. I recently finished watching all eight episodes (each roughly an hour long) of this show.

It deals with a group of five friends who were together at Oxford University and were all the proteges of a physicist Vera Ye who herself was the daughter of an accomplished Chinese physicist Ye Wenjie, whose father, also a physics professor, was murdered by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution for teaching Einstein’s theories. While remaining good friends, the careers of the five have diverged. Two of them (Jin Cheng and Saul Durand) are hotshot physicists, one (Auggie Salazar) is the chief scientific officer of a nanotechnology company. One (Jack Rooney) dropped out to start a snack company that has made him very wealthy, while the fifth (Will Downing) became a physics teacher, feeling that he did not have what it takes to be top-rank research scientist.
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Film review: The Lost King (2023)

I do not share the admiration that some people have for British royalty, instead seeing them as a long line of greedy and murderous individuals who connived their way to the throne and sucked wealth from the people. But I am a sucker for mysteries and the story of Richard III has many unresolved puzzles and so I watched this film that is based on the true story of one woman’s quest to find out the truth about the man who died in 1485 at the young age of 32. He has long been portrayed as exceedingly malevolent, scheming, vicious, and murderous, whose personality was twisted by the rejection he felt due to his physical deformity of being a hunchback and who usurped the throne after the death of his brother the king and imprisoned his two nephews in the Tower of London and later had them murdered because he saw them as potential rivals to the throne.

But later scholarship suggests that he may not have been nearly as evil as has been traditionally portrayed and also that his physical deformity may have been not as severe and that the evidence is scant that he murdered his nephews. These revisionists argue that the ‘official’ story was put out by his successors in order to discredit him and build support for their own rule.
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Mary Poppins gets a PG rating

If you had to pick a film that you think would be totally wholesome fun for the whole family, Mary Poppins would seem like a good bet. So I was surprised to learn that it is now being given a PG rating (which stands for Parental Guidance) by British censors, a step up from its previous U (Universal) rating.

Why?

Because it has ‘discriminatory language’, specifically the word ‘hottentots’.

In it, a derogatory term originally used by white Europeans about nomadic peoples in southern Africa is used to refer to soot-faced chimney-sweeps.

In the film, Admiral Boom, a neighbour and Naval veteran who thinks he is still in charge of a ship, uses the word twice.

The British Board of Film Classification said it classified the film in 1964 and then again for a re-release in 2013.

“Most recently, the film was resubmitted to us in February 2024 for another theatrical re-release, and we reclassified it PG for discriminatory language,” a spokesperson said.

“Mary Poppins (1964) includes two uses of the discriminatory term ‘hottentots’.

“While Mary Poppins has a historical context, the use of discriminatory language is not condemned, and ultimately exceeds our guidelines for acceptable language at U. We therefore classified the film PG for discriminatory language.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the term, which referred to the Khoikhoi and San people, is “generally considered both archaic and offensive”.

Hottentots is a word that I had heard of before and had a vague idea that it referred to a group of people but could not have told you who they were, somewhat like the group ‘Huguenots’. I learned who the Huguenots were only after reading The Three Musketeers. I did not know that Hottentots was an offensive term.

Some people might think that this is yet another example of hypersensitivity but I think that it is because the people being thus described are not as well known. But just as we now avoid labels that are seen as slurs when used for groups of people whom we know, we should be just as willing to avoid using slurs for the less well-known.

Review: Life On Our Planet (2023)

This new documentary being shown on Netflix consists of eight parts, each about 50 minutes long. It tells the story of the evolution of life, starting with the emergence of the very first cell around 3.8 billion years ago and going through various cycles of flourishing and mass extinctions until we got to where we are today. The series is narrated by the Morgan Freeman who seems to have become the go-to person when you need someone to ooze gravitas and convey authority. I felt that he was too unrelentingly solemn and portentous and could have lightened up the Voice of God tone from time to time.

The documentary describes the five major mass extinctions that have occurred.
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Film review: Rustin (2023)

Bayard Rustin played a major role in the civil rights struggle in the US but his name is not nearly as well known as it should be. This film, streamed on Netflix, tries to correct that deficiency. It is not a full biopic since it focuses almost entirely on the eight weeks in which Rustin organized the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the National Mall that culminated with Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That drew about 250,000 people from all over the country and was instrumental in pressuring president Kennedy and the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act that had been stalled.

Rustin was multi-talented, a charismatic speaker and an indefatigable and inspiring organizer whom young people rallied to. His idea for the march met with resistance from the old guard Black establishment in the NAACP that wanted a more go-slow, less confrontational approach in dealing with Congress and Kennedy. Rustin allied himself with veteran labor leader A. Philip Randolph to argue that they could pull off a massive march in such a short time. Both sides vied to get King on board with their side. Rustin was an old friend of King and his family and once he got King’s agreement to speak, he went full throttle to get the event organized in just two months. It remains one of the landmark events in the fight for civil rights in the US.
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Why do we still have smoking in films?

There is a lot of smoking in films that are set back in the days before smoking became well known as a serious health hazard. For example, in the film Maestro that I reviewed a few days ago, Bradly Cooper who plays Leonard Bernstein has a cigarette in his mouth pretty much all the time. This caused me to wonder if those were real cigarettes, because it did not seem right to have actors risk their lives with cigarette smoke just to play a role. Films now routinely carry a disclaimer that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, which is a welcome development, but why do we not carry that over to the actors?

This article explains that film makers often use prop cigarettes instead of tobacco-based ones.
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Film review: Maestro (2023)

I had been looking forward to seeing this biopic because Leonard Bernstein was a charismatic multi-talented artist, composer, conductor, and teacher who seemed to enjoy not only creating music and but also making it more accessible to regular people. The film is really a joint biopic focusing on the relationship between Bernstein (played by Bradley Cooper) and his wife actress Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan), starting with when Bernstein is just 25 years old and catapulted into fame when he is called in at the last minute to fill in as conductor of the New York Philharmonic when the regular conductor fell ill, and was a rousing success. His career took off after that.

But I found the film to be a let down. Especially in the first, half I found it difficult to get engaged with the lives of Bernstein and Montealegre. Their acting did not seem convincing, artificial, as if they were trying too hard. I am not a high-brow viewer who usually notices such things so for it to register with me is telling. Also for some reason, the first fifty minutes of the film was in black and white, then abruptly changing to color. I later read this article tries to explain why. The article also said that the film’s aspect ratio switched from time to time, something I had not noticed. (Did I mention that I am not a high-brow viewer?) I kind of get the reasoning but found it jarring while watching it and wonder about the benefits of making artistic choices in films targeting the general public that only a few will appreciate or, if they even notice, will be baffled. Often the dialogue was unintelligible, making it frustrating. Since I was screening the film, I had the option of rewinding the film but that would have broken the continuity. The story was also disjointed, with some scenes that lasted too long and others that did not seem to serve any purpose.
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Film review: Minari (2021)

I recently watched this Korean film that has received a lot of praise. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant family (parents, two children, and the wife’s mother) trying to make a life for themselves in rural Arkansas and the increasing tensions between the parents as they worry about money and disagree as to whether they should stay or go back to California, and the complications caused by the arrival of the grandmother. (Youn Yuh-jung won an Academy Award for her role as the grandmother role and Steven Yeun was nominated for the role of the father.)

Here’s the trailer.

It is a curious film in terms of its narrative structure. Rather than pursuing one story arc, it is a series of vignettes about the family grappling with internal tensions, caused by different ambitions of the father and mother. The father wanted to move to this location to pursue his dream of creating a successful farm growing vegetables that are favored by Koreans, while the mother does not like the idea of leaving the California city they used to live to move to a mobile home set far away from any town, where the nearest hospital is an hour away. This is of particular concern because her young son has a congenital heart murmur that requires him to not run or otherwise exert himself.
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Film review: The Duke (2022)

I recently watched this nice little comedy set in 1961 that stars Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren in which Broadbent plays a working class character who keeps losing his job and getting into trouble because of his efforts to fight for those whom he sees as being unfairly treated, such as old pensioners and disabled veterans of wars, trying to get the government to waive for them the licensing fees that the owners of every television must pay the government and which goes towards funding the BBC.

This film is based on the life of a real person Kempton Bunton and the theft of a painting of the Duke of Wellington that was stolen from the National Gallery, and the trial of Bunton for stealing it. (The link has spoilers for the film.) It is a film that gets its laughs from the behavior of the characters, not from jokes, and Broadbent and Mirren, two excellent actors, have the skills to make the most of their roles.

Here’s the trailer.

One thing I was curious about was how Bunton was able to get a high-powered barrister to represent him at his trial since he clearly would not have been able to afford one. Since this theft really happened, I looked Bunton up and found a link to the lawyer Jeremy Hutchinson who had a privileged background with an elite education that led to an illustrious career and was married at the time to the already-famous actress Peggy Ashcroft.

I do not know the British legal aid system and how this came to be. Maybe because Bunton’s case gained a great deal of notoriety at the time and he became something of a folk hero, a Robin Hood type fighting the establishment, Hutchinson provided his services pro bono.