RARELY DOES DEATH HAVE A PRETTY face. I hope when my time ends here I die peacefully in my sleep. Surely, I am not the only one who wishes for this to happen. The first time I ever saw the face of death it was on a woman with cancer. I did my best not to show my horror when I walked into her hospital room. She had turned her head towards me when I knocked on the open door of her room. Her eyes once prominent and bright were now dull and sunken deep into her skull. The thing that shocked me the most was her teeth. They looked huge because of the wasting away of her face. Dimples once deep and defined were just vertical lines now, accentuating the prominence of her teeth. I swear, they looked like they belonged to a carnivorous animal. The dry, chapped lips were stretched thin. She smiled at me; I wondered how much effort that must have taken her. A nurse stopped in to check on her vitals and give her a few ice chips to suck on. It took everything for me not to lose control of myself. I knew this was going to be the last time I would see her alive. I COULD NOT STOP THINKING ABOUT her. Though we never talked about it, it must have been brutal to be aware of the cancer that was taking the life away from her. By the time she died there was a sense of relief among her survivors. I realized right then that the longer a person stays in the throes of a disease, the easier it becomes for the survivors to say goodbye. No one wants to see a loved one suffer; by the time a person succumbs, those left behind are relieved their loved one is no longer in pain. On the other hand, I realize when a person dies suddenly it is harder for their survivors to deal with the unexpected death. I had a friend who was driving their sister to an event and the sister, at some point, raised her hand to her head saying she had a sharp pain. That is all she said because she died instantly from a brain aneurysm. Except for the immediate sharp pain in the sister’s head, she did not suffer; however, the other sister did not recover from that experience for years. Not that she would ever recover completely. Death as you can see has been on my mind since I watched this comedic drama. THE DECISION WAS MADE NOT TO tell her grandmother she had cancer; but Billi, played by Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s Eight), did not know if she could live with that decision. This film festival winning movie also starred Tzi Ma (The Ladykillers, Arrival) as Haiyan, Diana Lin (Australia Day, The Family Law-TV) as Jian, newcomer Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai and Ines Laimins (Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, Lady Bloodfight) as Kathy. Overall, I enjoyed this picture. Many of the themes in this story have been told before; but here there was a different perspective put on them, which I attributed to the Chinese culture. I wish I could say Awkwafina was outstanding in her role, but I honestly wonder if there could have been more drawn out of her. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very different role for her and I thought she did an excellent job; but, I wanted to see more intensity in her character. Again, it may be because I am not completely schooled in Chinese culture. The humor in the story grew organically for me as it came out of family dynamics. If I was put in such a position as Billi, I do not know how I would have handled the situation. Instead, this picture made me think about what I would want done for me if I fell ill. At times Chinese was spoken with English subtitles.
3 ¼ stars
GROWING UP IN AN APARTMENT BUILDING, our pet bird was more like the family dog. We had gotten her as a baby when I was in elementary school. She was a very smart bird and if we had spent more time teaching her, I am sure she would have been able to speak. When I would walk into the living room, I would stand just inside the entryway and call out her name. She would jump out of her cage and fly right to my outstretched arm. Once landed she would walk up my arm to my face and plant a kiss on my cheek; seriously, she would do this every time and not just to me. She would do the same thing to anyone in the family. During the summer months I would ask her if she wanted to take a refreshing bath and she knew to immediately fly over to the windowsill, where I would set up her bathtub. One trick I especially enjoyed was pretending she was a hawk. With her perched on my arm I would tell her to “go get them” and she would takeoff and fly around the room once or twice then come back to land on me. BECAUSE WE HAD GOTTEN HER SO young, I wondered at the time if she had bonded with us like I had seen done in a classic comedy cartoon. Ducklings had hatched just as a different species of animal walked by them and the little ducks imprinted themselves onto this animal as their parent. I have seen similar circumstances when friends and family members have adopted a kitten or puppy. When there is more than one person in the household the little puppy or kitten can focus solely on one particular member. I know this married couple who got a puppy that bonded to the “father.” The female puppy wanted to be in his lap anytime he was sitting down; it got harder for him as she grew into a 65-pound dog. If she heard him sneeze she would race into the room and jump up on him to lick his face. I have to say it was funny to see her standing on her hind legs with her front paws up by his neck, licking his face because he was standing when he sneezed; it almost looked as if they were dancing. So, you are wondering now how the dog interacted with the “mother” aren’t you? The dog would let the “mother” pet and feed her, but she would have to go over to the dog to pet her. The baby/parent bonding thing certainly is fascinating; you will not believe how it was done in this beautifully filmed documentary. RESEARCHERS BASED IN SICHUAN, CHINA solicit the help of a man from New Hampshire who has a special way with bears, earning him the nickname of Papa Bear. This film was being shown at the IMAX theater at the movie complex near my house. Did it need to be in this format? No not really, but I will say the scenery in this picture was gorgeous. With that being said the stars of this film were the panda cubs. I could not get over how much they looked like a bunch of kids playing. With the movie only being 40 minutes in length, I enjoyed the way the story went because it evoked different emotions out of me. Narrated by Kristen Bell (Bad Moms franchise, The Good Place-TV), one would be hard pressed not to fall in love with the pandas. If the reason for filming this movie with the IMAX format was to increase profits, then I am comfortable with it if some of the proceeds are going to help the panda institute. My only criticism is the film was too short; I could have sat there for a longer time just to see what the pandas would do next.
THERE were so many people watching April the giraffe’s pregnancy that the computer servers became overloaded and the park had to shut down the live video streaming. I only saw a bit of it on the news; but I was fascinated with the attention April was getting from all around the world. What is it about an animal giving birth or more directly the immediate mother/child bond that gets formed that makes us humans stop and take notice? One thing that comes to mind is the pureness in animals’ behavior. Seeing the way a mother protects her child is amazing, especially when the animal’s instincts are being formed. The reason I use the word pureness is because I do not recall ever seeing an animal putting its offspring in harm’s way. Every action and reaction has a purpose as far as I can tell; unlike some of the things I have seen human parents do with their children. PLEASE understand I do not mean to disrespect parents and parenting skills, but there have been times where I witnessed something that was puzzling and/or troubling. Sitting at a casual fast food restaurant I once saw a mother give her infant child a cola drink. The child must have been no more than 2 years of age; am I old fashioned or mistaken in my beliefs that giving a sugary soft drink to an infant is not a good idea? Personally I would never reprimand a child by slapping them across the face, yet I cannot tell you how many times I have seen it being done. And as I have said before children are born into this world without having the awareness of hatred, prejudice or discrimination; it is something that is taught to them. So you see why I say there is a pureness in the animal world that I do not easily find in the human one. This documentary will show you what I mean. SET in the outer remote reaches of China director Chuan Lu (City of Life and Death, The Missing Gun) follows the lives of three different species (snow leopard, golden snub-nosed monkey and panda) and their babies. Narrated by John Krasinksi (13 Hours, Away We Go) I found his telling of the story was okay; he did not have the dramatic appeal compared to other actors I have heard in similar roles. There were two big reasons why I enjoyed watching this film. The first one was the cinematography; it was not only gorgeous, but exciting for me to see places in China that were so far removed from the familiar locations that are associated with the country. The other reason to see this film was the animals, of course. Sure the movie studio did its spin in creating a human emotional story onto the creatures, but ultimately it came down to the bond a mother and child have with each other. Compared to the previous movies done in this category there was really nothing new; the audience here witnessed the usual animal antics, danger and thrills. However it did not matter too much for me, though I was surprised there was a scene of sadness included in the story. I enjoyed this documentary about three species of animals that may not be residents at my local zoo, but I clearly understood what they were doing for their young. There were extra scenes during the credits.
I am not sure if the word is “refreshed” or “encouraged” when it comes to how I feel when I see an act of kindness. There are many incidents where I see or experience rudeness, meanness or hatefulness; so when I see someone doing an act of kindness it really stands out for me. Even with horrific news that gets reported these days, sometimes an act of kindness comes out in the middle of it. Recently I heard about a person who was dealing with a life threatening disease. Before they went into the hospital for surgery they were comforting their significant other, telling them everything would be okay. I was touched by such a selfless act. Of course if the person had always been kind, it would not be a surprise. However, it would be a bigger surprise if the person who did the act of kindness was not considered a nice person. There was an employee I used to work with who was so miserable that you would get a sour taste in your mouth if you were just near them. They never engaged in a friendly conversation; heck, they barely made eye contact with you if you had to talk business with them. Imagine the shock all the employees felt when there was an article in the local papers about this particular employee’s generous contributions made to a shelter. None of us could believe it. I guess one could say never judge a book by its cover; but I have to tell you, when situations like this come up it does give me hope. MORTICIAN John Miller, played by Christian Bale (The Dark Knight franchise, The Fighter), arrived in the city of Nanking, China just as Japanese forces staged an invasion. His main task now would be to stay alive. This historical drama was a Golden Globe nominee and film festival winner. I was familiar with the story, having seen it in documentaries; books and news articles. The invasion was brutal; in turn, there were several tough scenes in this film. Christian did a very good job of acting, as did Ni Ni (Back in Time, Up in the Wind) as Yu Mo and relative newcomer Xinyi Zhang as Shu. Maybe it was challenging to tell this story in a way that would keep the viewer’s interest, but I found it disjointed. It would go from torturous scenes to poignant ones. I was disappointed because the cinematography at times was stunning; though I must say I felt some of the scenes used too much blood if you know what I mean. On any level I think this would have been a challenging story to transform onto film; however, it was obvious there was much thought put into this one. Despite its shortcomings I was surprised by the turn of events in this war film that had its own sense of hope. There were multiple scenes where Mandarin and Japanese were spoken with English subtitles.
2 1/3 stars — DVD
There goes by a young couple walking hand in hand. As they stroll through the park they carry on a conversation that causes them to chuckle, sigh, exclaim and smile from time to time. Periodically one rests their head on the shoulder of the other and when the pathway narrows they wrap their arms around each other to get closer. In a completely different locale there is a couple sitting in an airport gate’s waiting area. While one leans into the other as they begin to doze off, the other is reading a book. When finally coming back to consciousness, the other brushes the hair off their sleepy face, looking into their sputtering eyes. With the book closed and placed to the side the two simply lean into each other, one affectionately massaging the neck of the other one. Anywhere you look you can always find people in love. A candlelight dinner, shopping at the grocery store or sitting together at a sporting event; they do not need to declare their love to the world, the way they interact with each other is proof enough. But I ask you, how often do you see couples in their twilight years out and about participating in public displays of affection? How about in the media or forms of entertainment like movies and television? I can only bring to mind a few from recent movies compared to the amount of films I have seen about youthful love. And the reason why I believe that is the case is because growing old isn’t for the weak. Let us face it when one hears the words, “in sickness and health,” how often do they imagine what their life might be like in their later years? AFTER spending years in a labor camp during the cultural revolution in China Lu Yanshi, played by Chen Daoming (Hero, Aftershock), was finally released to return to his waiting wife Feng Wanyu, played by Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Memoirs of a Geisha). But after so many years Feng did not recognize the man who showed up at her door. This film festival winning drama’s story was beautiful in its simplicity. With newcomer Zhang Huiwen as the couple’s daughter Dan Dan, the acting was painfully real. It was wonderful watching Gong Li as she would turn an emotion upside down with a look or subtle movement. On one level the story focused on the effects the cultural revolution had families. The stronger part of the story in my opinion had to do with the strength love had between two people. I did find a few places where the movie dragged for me, in a repetitive type of way. However, the way the story unfolded as it progressed kept me engaged. After the movie was over I walked away with the feeling I had just witnessed a full and unconditional love. Mandarin was spoken with English subtitles.
3 1/4 stars
The passage of time quickly vanishes any time one sees the person responsible for them having stored inside of themself fond memories. It does not matter if it is a real or fictional person; the fun feelings do not discriminate. It is like this old friend I have who lives across the country from me. We may not talk or see each other for months and months, but as soon as we do it seems as if we had just been together a day or two before. That bond we formed decades ago continues just as flexible and permanent as it did back then. I experienced a similar reaction when I saw some of my classmates when I attended my high school reunion recently. It is relatively easy for me to attach these types of feelings onto an actress or actor based on their screen roles. There is one actress I am especially fond of because I know every time I go to see one of her movies I will never be disappointed by her performance. Even if the film is not that good, she still shines in it. This explains why some people do not bother reading reviews (except for mine I hope) when their favorite movie star is in the cast, since they are going to see them anyway. It does not matter what genre or time period; the feelings people have for their actors never waivers unless something blatant changes their opinion. For me, once I saw one of the actors in this action adventure film I was reminded of his comical martial arts skills. VITAL for continued growth throughout the region Hua An, played by Jackie Chan (Rush Hour franchise, Shanghai Knights), and his band of trained warriors would stop at nothing to protect the Silk Road. When a new threat appeared, Hua An would need to forge alliances between warring factions if he wanted to keep the road from falling into enemy forces. This award winning drama was filled with massive, spectacular fight scenes. Seeing Jackie back on screen after all this time was fun to see. His style of martial arts always had a comical goofiness to it. Where someone like Bruce Lee was always serious in his fighting, Jackie comes across as if he stumbled in the situation; he incorporates any and all objects around him into the fight. With John Cusack (Maps to the Stars, Love & Mercy) as General Lucius and Adrien Brody (The Pianist, The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Tiberius, the three of them could have done so much better if the story was not so over the top filled with melodrama. For such an historical moment, the script did not do anyone justice here. If it was not for my fond memories of this type of action hero movie, I would have been bored. There was blood and violence throughout the film.
Our usual ammunition was snowballs and squirt guns, with the occasional water balloon bombs. But when a friend came up with the brilliant idea to freeze the water balloons first, our parents put a stop to it when one friend on the enemy’s side got a black eye from one of our frozen balloons. In wintertime when a heavy wet snow would fall, my friends and I would be outside building forts, stockpiling them with snowballs. During summer we would choose different apartment buildings to be our designated headquarters as we would sneak through alleys and gangways for a surprise attack on our enemies. This was the extent of our war games; it was based on what we learned about warfare in school. From our textbooks and videos we saw war as a distant game filled with bombs and guns. There really was no personal connection for most of us. It was not until new neighbors moved into our apartment building, that I got a deeper understanding of how war affects all of us. One of the new neighbors had a series of numbers tattooed on her forearm. It was the first time I had seen such a thing so I asked her about it. She explained to me how she was a concentration camp survivor which led to multiple questions from me. From that point on, whenever the subject of war came up in class, I would always go and ask her opinion. I discovered there were and had been many horrors done throughout the world. AFTER defeating the Chinese troops in the city of Nanking during the year 1937, the Japanese troops settled into a six week reign of terror against the city’s residents. Though I was familiar with the history of this event, this film festival winning drama was utterly riveting. Filmed in black and white, the story unfolded with the assistance of seeing things through the eyes of three different individuals. There was Hideo Nakaizumi (Who’s Camus Anyway, Scout Man) as Kadokawa, Wei Fan (Back to 1942, Set Off) as Mr. Tang and Yuanyuan Gao (Beijing Bicycle, Caught in the Web) as Miss Jiang. I thought it was brilliant the way the director shot this historical war movie; there was a direct approach that needed no special effects or swooning melodrama. Honestly, this was one of the most realistic portrayals I have seen in a World War II film. It also had some hard scenes of brutality and horror, besides violence and blood. Speaking to a friend after seeing this picture, she asked me why I watch such movies. The reason is to remind me that war is not a kid’s game. Chinese, Japanese, German and English was spoken with English subtitles.
3 1/2 stars — DVD
The young boy was straining under the weight of the dumbbells. I was exercising on the weight bench behind, yet I could hear the father correcting his son’s posture. With a wide leather weight belt cinched around his waist, the man had the body definition of a serious weightlifter. Hearing and seeing his encouraging words to his son reminded me of the time I learned how to throw a football when I was a small boy. As I continued with my workout I had memories of past mentors and individuals who had a big influence on me. There was the building superintendent of the apartment building where I was born. I recalled how he would magically appear at the front of our place when I would be running towards it on my way home from school. It never occurred to me that he was aware I was being chased; he would just be there with a large grin on his jolly face, his bloodshot eyes barely blinking. In my adult life I was fortunate enough to have a yoga instructor who really showed me the wonders of yoga. This man was amazing to watch as he would bend his body in various positions to show us the difference between poor and ideal forms. He looked like one of those dolls where all the joints were unrestricted, the limbs able to fold from front to back. I have always been grateful that I was able to spend time with him in class and one-on-one sessions. HAVING spent his whole life as the postman for a rural mountainous region of Hunan province, China; being away from home for long stretches of time, it was time for him to retire and turn the responsibility over to the son, played by Ye Liu (Curse of the Golden Flower, Dark Matters), he barely knew. The father, played by Rujun Ten (A Love of Blueness, Xian’s Finest), instructed his boy on all the details of the job as the two took to the route that would deliver them something more than just the mail. This film festival winning drama had such a tender gentleness about it that it quickly drew me into the story. From the lush landscapes to the sweetness exuding out of scenes, I thought the story did a wonderful job in creating a believable and authentic dynamic between the father and son. From a technical standpoint, due to the time this film was made, the subtitles were primitive. There were a few improper words used and sometimes the subtitles flashed by too quickly. I think one of the added beauties of this film will be its ability to stir up warm memories in many viewers. Chinese language was spoken with English subtitles.
3 1/2 stars — DVD
There was a time when I fantasized about running for public office. My platform would have been based on every single citizen getting a decent education. For families that were poor and needed their children to drop out of school to find employment, I wanted to create a fund that would pay the parents to keep their children in school. I have witnessed hateful incidents, where if the opposing parties had a stronger educational foundation, they could have avoided their misconstrued conflict. No matter what type of background a person came from, I felt an education would benefit their life. In this startling documentary a family’s sacrifices had a bigger impact on their children then they realized. In the single largest human migration on the planet, China’s factory workers were able to go home once a year during the Chinese New Year. This film focused on the Zhang family. Married couple Changhua and Suqin Chen were poor, uneducated, from a small rural town. Trying to make a better life for their children, the parents could only find factory work far away from home. The children had to be raised by grandparents since Changhua and Suqin Chen could only come back home once a year. The couple’s yearly trip back home was spent encouraging their children to study hard to get good school grades, so they could have a better life. But how could the children believe two people they barely knew? The first thing that produced a powerful impact on me was watching the hell workers went through in their attempts to travel home. Seeing over 100 million factory workers struggling through an antiquated train system, that could easily collapse from the sheer volume of humanity pressing against it, was mind blowing to me. This doesn’t even include the shock of seeing the workers’ living conditions at the factories. Another aspect of this movie had to do with the cultural changes that were taking place across China. The Zhang’s children were a preview of a more modern China. This film festival and Emmy winning film had an incredible story to tell about sacrifice and hope. Mandarin with English subtitles.
3 1/2 stars — DVD