Monday, August 13, 2012

Why I love, love, love HBO’s “The Newsroom”

I recently discovered HBO’s show “The Newsroom” starring Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, alongside many other amazing actors. I came late to the party, having the benefit to allow myself a little Newsroom-marathon with the first seven episodes over one weekend. And, boy, did I have a good time!

The critics have been rather sniffy about the show (unrealistic, manipulative, cheesy) – but it took me pretty much five minutes (or less – just as long as the “America is great”-rant takes) to fall in love with it. Head over heels.

Why? Very simple reason: I am hugely entertained. To me, it is a soap-opera with brains and a mission, sparkling screwball comedy-worthy dialogue, and likeable characters I can root for, sufficiently damaged and flawed  to be interesting.

Glad to hear that HBO is giving it a second season. But first – can’t wait to see how this one ends.

Monday, February 13, 2012

One more for the franchise: the Taiwanese version of “Love, actually” - “Love” by Doze Niu

I watched the Taiwanese film “Love” by director, writer, producer and actor Doze Niu who also has a role in the film at the Berlin Film Festival this year. The film could be considered the Asian version of “Love, actually”, thereby fitting nicely into the pattern of more or less successful versions of that franchise. The storyline follows eight individuals, their interwoven lives (more interwoven than one realizes at first), and their quest for love and friendship, which they find at unlikely places. There is the hotel waiter dreaming of the unreachable society girl; there is the slick and wealthy business man constantly quarreling with his real estate agent but grudgingly falling for her; there is the love-triangle involving two best friends and their mutual love interest; there is the rough on the edges policeman with a heart who keeps showing up for comic relief; there is the cute little boy without a father looking for a male role model; there is the strained China-Taiwan-relationship – of course overcome by love.

This is candy for the eye and for the mind. Not more and not less. But, as such, it is very well done – and to me much more enjoyable than a comparable Hollywood-version. Absolutely gorgeous people (both men and women) in great settings (from Taiwan to Beijing, from rich to poor) and beautifully shot. There was not a lot of depth in the stories, but there was a lot of entertainment.

Rating for the film: four stars out of five.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The ambition gap – “Don’t you miss your family?”

The COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg, recently made headlines when talking about her views regarding the low number of women in C-level positions. It came down to the on-going discussions – do women not break through because men (and other women) don't let them or because they don't want to. She used the term "ambition gap" to describe how women appear to have less of a drive to succeed than men. She attributed this to the up-bringing and socialization of girls that differed from that of boys by engraining in them that being ambitious and wanting to be better than others would lead to them being less liked, while this was exactly the other way around for boys.

Sheryl Sandberg came under a lot of fire after expressing those views. It was claimed that the blame was put on the women and that the (mostly male) managers were left off the hook: "See? Women don't want to succeed, therefore we don't promote them."

There are statistics on one side (and Sheryl Sandberg quoted some of them to make her point) and personal experience on the other side (there will be plenty women out there who got passed for a promotion for gender reasons disagreeing with her). The truth – as always – is most likely to be somewhere in the middle.

My personal experience based on statistically entirely unsound observations is that I witness the ambition-gap more often than the discrimination. I see highly educated and talented women who want it all: the successful husband, the big family, time to spend with the family, time to spend with friends AND a great career. To me, this is simply not realistic. When looking at men and women who have the fabulous job and a successful career they typically have to compromise in the private sphere. Many of my female friends are not willing to do so and then compromise on the professional side. This is what I call an ambition-gap. It is also a choice on how to live and what is important in life, and we should rejoice living in a world where such choices are possible. However, choices are of course influenced by up-bringing and socialization – and this is where Sheryl Sandberg clearly sees room for improvement. I tend to agree with her.

Just as an example, I have never heard someone ask a full-time working dad “don’t you miss your family?”  This – possibly well-meant, but clearly suggestive and somewhat offensive – question is put to full-time working moms quite regularly. Mostly by other women, I might add.

So, next time around, ask your male friends who are full-time working fathers how they feel about being away from their family so much. And with your female friend who flies around the world for her work, away from her children – don’t play the guilt card, but rather ask her about her exciting job and make her feel good about having a successful career.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Emotions pure on the rocks – women’s speed skating team pursuit during the 2010 Winter Olympics

Only few sports events have left a lasting impression on my. One of them was the women’s speed skating team pursuit competition during the 2010 Winter Olympics. A drama in two acts.

To set the scene: a team of three skaters starts simultaneously and all three of them have to cross the finish line for the clock to stop, so a team is only as good as its weakest link. Typically, the women skate in a line using a rotation system to constantly replace the leader of the line.  Success depends on coordination, cooperation and synchronization.

The protagonists: the German women's speed skating team including Anni Friesinger, one of the leading German skaters of her time. She had knee problems in 2010, however, and was not at the top of her game.

Act I – The semifinal

In the semifinal, the German women are competing against the US team.  The race is going well for the German team, they are ahead; but during the final lap Anni Friesinger suddenly has problems keeping up. She shortly loses her balance, falls behind and then – possibly in an attempt to catch up – missteps and falls. She knows that she needs to get a body part – any body part in fact – somehow over the finish line. So while she is gliding over the ice on her belly, making use of the momentum, she throws her leg forward to gain a few fractions of a second. While still gliding over the ice on her belly she starts pummeling the ice with her fists – utterly exhausted, frustrated and disappointed. Eventually, she looks up at the board with the results. And at that very moment, her face and entire demeanor changes completely. In spite of her fall, the German team has won by a tiny margin and will go through to the finals. This moment, when Anni Friesinger’s emotions change from extreme disappointment to outright joy is for me the most memorable moment of the 2010 Olympics.

Act II – The final

In the final, the German team is competing against the Japanese team. The Japanese had a very strong performance that year, clearly training to have close to perfect team interactions during the race. The women are all very similar in height, dressed in futuristic-looking gold-black suits, skating with precision and accuracy close to perfection like a well-oiled machine. The German team (this time without Anni Friesinger) is doing well, but appears just slightly less coherent. They lose a little bit of time from the Japanese in every round, the gap reaches over 1.5 seconds at some point. And then something happens. It is as if a switch has been turned and the German skaters start to accelerate. They gain several tenths of seconds per round, getting closer and closer to the Japanese, who are still leading by a considerable margin. It is evident that the Germans will eventually catch up with the Japanese, but, will they do so on time? Have they started to accelerate too late? When both teams cross the finish line, it is at first not clear who the winner is. And then the official result comes out. The German team has won by 3 hundredths of a second. No one cheers louder than Anni Friesinger.

This was one of the most amazing sport events I have witnessed. Would be worthwhile to turn into a movie. On second thought, maybe not. In reality, it’s big emotions, in fiction, it would be unbearable kitsch.

(semi-final at 0:41, there are several re-runs of Anni Friesinger’s fall and glide after the end of the race, final at 1:40)

Friday, February 3, 2012

On the topic of movie remakes – “Love, actually” vs. “Alles is liefde”

Normally I am not a big fan of remakes – unless they add something to the picture. One of the big exceptions, in my view is the Dutch remake of “Love, actually” under the (literally) lovely titel “Alles is liefde”. They took the concept of “Love, actually”, but gave it a very Dutch touch by setting it in Amsterdam, replacing Christmas with the 5th of December (big day of celebrations and presents for children in the Netherlands), and adding some storylines that might be considered typical for the Low Countries. There is a gay wedding, a (fictitious) member of the Royal family is one of the protagonists and Sinterklaas (the saint whose birthday is celebrated vicariously on December 5th) is playing a central role. Add to this a wonderful script with hilariously funny scenes and a set of fabulous actors (including the delightful Carice van Houten) and this is the ultimate feel-good-movie.

For me, this is one of my all-time favorites, and I watch it about once a year. There are very few movies that get better when watched repeatedly – but this is one of the very few that fall into this category for me (the other one being “The Big Lebowski”).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Film review “Tokyo Playboy Club“ by Okuda Yosuke – Three stars out of five

I recently watched the Japanese film “Tokyo Playboy Club“ by Okuda Yosuke at the Rotterdam Film Festival in a packed movie theater (always fun to see a somewhat obscure film with many, many other film fans). The film centers around said night club in Tokyo, a rather shabby establishment starring three chatty showgirls and catering for passing business men (although we actually see only one customer there in the course of the entire movie). The protagonists are the club owner, a slightly sleazy character with a shady past trying to make an honest living; his stony-faced friend with anger management problems who comes to Tokyo from the province looking for work; the young goofy doorman-waiter-manager who helps run the club and is a bit of a womanizer (although I personally did not see his appeal) and his quiet and passive young wife, yearning for a better life, who gets caught up in the events. Although it took some time to crystallize the film is in essence a dark crime comedy. Things start to go wrong when the newly arrived friend of the club owner gets in trouble with the local thugs. The thugs look for compensation and later retaliation and the protagonists are pulled into a maelstrom of confrontation and violence.

The film is entertaining enough, with a few good scenes and an interesting setting, but in the end did not entirely succeed at what it set out to do. The acting was sketchy at parts (especially the goofy womanizer did not convince). The scenes inside the night club showing the daily going-ons were generally amusing (especially the first scene featuring the one-and-only involuntary customer), and I wished there had been more of those. The show girls provided good comic relief, even though I believe some of the humor is literally lost in translation (aka subtitles in this case). There were also some nicely absurd scenes, for example when the protagonists discuss a freshly committed crime in a café over breakfast, eventually reminding each other that they should keep their voices down to prevent others from overhearing. The camera then zooms out to reveal that the café is extremely crowded and the next clients are only sitting half a meter away, so no major ear dropping was needed to overhear the entire conversation.

Two more comments that I would like to make: every “normal” character in the movie just lost his or her job and is looking for work (more or less actively). Even the ones that have a job, are not actually working since there are no customers. So, times are tough everywhere.

The second comment: I really, really liked the song “Power of the world” from the Japanese rock band Elephant Kashimashi that is being used for the trailer of the movie and also during the closing credits. A great way to get to know music that otherwise would not have made it to the West.

Rating for the film: three stars out of five.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My personal all-star cast of Mary McCarthy's "The Group"

I just finished Mary McCarthy's "The Group" - and absolutely loved it! The book is about eight women who graduated from Vassar College in the 1930's and their lives, fates and choices after graduation. Quite wonderful and gripping. A real recommendation for anyone interested in that period and the role of women in that time, possibly a must-read for all "Mad Men"-fans.

I must admit that in the beginning I struggled a bit with the many protagonists of similar age and background. To make them more graspable, I imagined having to cast them for a movie-version of the book. I disregarded how well they would fit age-wise and imagined them all to be in their mid-twenties.

So, here it is, my own all-star cast of "The Group":

Kay Strong (“thin, hard-driving, authorative”) – Keira Knightley
Mary Prothero, “Pokey” (“cheerful society girl, very rich and lazy”) – Heike Makatsch
Dottie Renfrew (religious, quiet, follows the rules of society) – Kate Winslet
Elinor Eastlake, “Lakey” (“intellectual, impecable, disdainful”) – Anna Chancellor
Polly Andrews (“fair-haired, the quiet type who knew everything”) – Carice van Houten
Priss Hartshorn (idealistic, easily influenced) – Rachel McAddams
Helena Davidson (“the droll member of the group”) – Emily Blunt
Libby MacAusland (“tall, pretty blonde,” ambitious) – Kirsten Dunst

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sherlock’s magical microscope OR ‘is this a tricorder which I see before me?’

In BBC’s up-dated version of Sherlock we see him do wondrous things with a simple microscope. The scene that intrigued me most is from the Hound of the Baskervilles where he infers from one look through the microscope that a sugar sampled has not been spiked with a yet unidentified hallucinogenic drug. So, I kept wondering, what has he been looking for through that microscope? Trace-amounts of a white powder among the equally white sugar crystals? Changes in the crystal structure? Chemical composition? And all this with a traditional microscope??

Let’s look at the facts: what we have is a rather simple looking device that allows precise analysis of a wide variety of samples with minimal sample prep. That can be used by anyone moderately schooled in the art. And which provides incredibly precise detail on molecular structure, chemical composition and cellular anatomy. Sounds like science fiction? But also strangely familiar? Exactly. The famed Star Trek tricorder. And, as we know, when all other possibilities have been eliminated, whatever remains…

Well, let’s not nitpick, but rather sit back and enjoy. Science that actually delivers results. Successfully. The first time around. I love fiction.