This morning you’d probably waken up to Parasites everywhere. What is Parasite, you might ask. In case you’re one of those who avoids watching the perennial award show of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, after 92 years, they have opened their door and allowed a non-English film to win the top prize, Best Picture of the Year.
Last night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the South Korean, genre-bending dark comedy directed by Bong Joon Ho garnered four Oscars. Other than Best Picture, it won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. Haven’t heard of Best International Feature Film either? It’s the new name for the old category Best Foreign Language Film, an effort to dispel the awkwardness of the term ‘Foreign’. Even within the continent of North America, many languages are spoken.
Previously, no non-English film had ever won Oscar Best Picture even though nominated: Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1974 Oscar), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Michael Haneke’s Armour (2013), Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2019). Parasite makes a monumental win in Oscars’ 92 years history by being the first non-English language film to reach the highest prize.
By opening this door, the Academy begins to reach out to tap its potential, international stature. The closest I can think of is Cannes. The most prestigious film festival in the world that takes place annually in the small resort town in the French Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur has maintained its status of bestowing the highest cinematic accolades across national borders.
About borders, director Bong’s vision is global: “I don’t think it’s necessary to separate all the borders of division if we pursue the beauty of cinema.” Referring to Chinese American filmmaker Lulu Wang’s Indie Spirit Best Picture win for her film The Farewell just the day before the Oscars, Bong said: “Like Lulu, we just all make movies.”
When it comes to breaking down barriers, Bong’s own acceptance speech at the Golden Globes is succinct and spot-on. As translator Sharon Choi relayed in English, the director’s commentary on differences and the language that unites is inspiring for our divisive world:
“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. Just being nominated along with fellow amazing international filmmakers was a huge honor.” And in English, he added, “I think we use only one language: the cinema.”
I’ve had the chance to enjoy some refreshing cross-border collaborations at Film Festivals. Just to name a few from last year:
Frankie – the Cannes nominated American Ira Sachs directing two veterans of the cinema, French actress Isabelle Huppert and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson in a film shot in Portugal. Language: English, French, Portuguese.
To the Ends of the Earth – Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa shot the film in Uzbekistan (a former Soviet republic close to the Eurasian border) on a commission to celebrate the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Uzbekistan. Language: Japanese, Uzbek
The Truth – Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda directing the legendary Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke (no need to declare nationality, I think you got the idea) Language: French, English
Maybe the art of cinema could well be the lingua franca to unite us all.
Whenever I’m in Toronto, the AGO is a must-see. Over the Christmas holidays I had the chance to catch the last few days of an awesome exhibition there: Early Rubens, plus some impressive works from other artists.
I use the word ‘awesome’ not casually, I mean exactly as the word is originally intended. Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens’s (1577-1640) paintings are huge, depicting Biblical characters and narratives in epic scale. On a wall I read this Rubens quote:
I confess that I am by natural instinct better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities. Everyone according to his gifts; my talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diversified in subject, has ever surpassed my courage. – Peter Paul Rubens, Letter dated 1621
Glad he mentioned ‘Everyone according to his gifts’, or else those who are afraid of heights would never be able to score any artistic achievement.
Anyway, this one in particular haunted me, The Massacre of the Innocents, around 1611-1612. Mothers try desperately to protect their sons against muscular men:
Those entangled, near-naked bodies are men following an order from King Herod to kill all babies under the age of two after hearing that the King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph took their baby son Jesus and fled to Egypt to escape a ruler’s jealous rage and his desperate cling to power. Yes, Jesus and his parents were migrants, one of the early political refugees escaping from a ruthless government.
Fast forward several centuries to 1903, and in contrast to the massive scale of human tragedy of the above painting, I was drawn to this very quiet, seemingly simple painting of a mother giving a bowl of soup to her child. The mother looks unwell and seems to give away what she needs to her child. This poignant and sparse scene entitled The Soup is Pablo Picasso’s social statement of poverty and homelessness:
A more relaxed social scene. This painting from the 19th C. French landscape painter Eugène Boudin, Beach Near Trouville, linked my thoughts to a movie scene right away. Boudin’s work is dated 1864, that’s around the same period as Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. Boudin depicts Parisian high society mingling on the beach town of Trouville. Notice the women’s dresses:
My mental association was naturally the Greta Gerwig directed Little Women beach picnic scene. I couldn’t help but compare their formal attires even at the beach and the actual chairs they sat on in Boudin’s painting with the beach scene in Little Women, so free and casual (not displayed in AGO):
Don’t you want to fly a kite with the March sisters on that sandy beach?
From the historic to the futuristic, the iconic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) has invented visions of infinity with her experimental installations for three decades. Her work was exhibited at the AGO in 2017 and now the Gallery has a permanent set up Kusama called The Infinity Mirrored Room – Let’s Survive Forever. I had to reserve a time slot ahead for my visit. At my appointed time, which was another hour later, I still had to wait in line to go into the room.
It’s a room of silver spheres suspended from the ceiling and arranged on the floor set against mirrors. A person standing in the room will see seemingly infinite reflections:
Here’s the image of one silver ball in the middle of the room. I didn’t do any colour changes, so just interesting to see what looked to me was a silver ball came out green in the photo:
You can actually see me taking the picture. What does this all mean? According to Kusama, the room gives a person a sense of infinity and limitlessness.
Only two visitors were allowed inside the room at one time. And how long could we spend in there? One minute. A staff with a timer in hand monitored the flow of visitors. When our time was up, she knocked on the closed door for us to go out and another two would go in. Call it a visual oxymoron if you will: A one-minute taste of infinity. O the limits of our human experiences.
Five years ago, I took a New England road trip with my cousin. It was a major endeavour for me coming from Western Canada, over 2,500 miles away. The photos here were taken during the road trip that fall. We began our drive across three States starting from Wayland, MA. Nearby Concord was our first point of interest. This is where Louisa May Alcott grew up and later transposed her real life family onto the page to write Little Women.
Thanks to writer/director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation, fond memories flash back as I watch the New England scenery captured so beautifully on screen. One of the memorable scenes is the panoramic autumn hillside in which Laurie made his failed attempt proposing to Jo. Another one was the Christmas morning breakfast give-away as Marmee led the girls to exercise love-in-action.
A major attraction in Concord is Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. The Alcott family owned Orchard House from 1857 to 1884, within which period all four Alcott girls Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May had their most influential growing up years. The house is now a museum:
The rooms and furniture, Louisa’s (Jo) writing desk, the costume and props the girls made for their plays, Anna’s (Meg) wedding gown, and all of May’s (Amy) original paintings on the walls of her room are preserved inside the Orchard House Museum:
Louisa transposed her family onto the page, creating parallel characters in the March household. In the Little Women Garden, the March sisters had their own flower bed, each planted their section according to their taste or maybe, character. Here’s from the quote on the sign indicating their choices:
Meg – roses and heliotrope, myrtle, and a little orange tree
Jo – never alike two seasons, for she was always trying experiments
Beth – old-fashioned fragrant flowers, sweet peas and mignonette, larkspur, pinks, pansies, southernwood, with chickweed for birds and catnip for the pussies.
Amy – honeysuckle and morning-glories hanging their colored horns and bells in graceful wreaths all over it, tall white lilies, delicate ferns, and as many brilliant, picturesque plants.
Here’s the issue many have questioned:Did Greta Gerwig alter the Little Women characters to appeal to modern day viewers, or, is she merely revealing Louisa May Alcott’s true image?
From Orchard House we went to visit the Concord Museum. Among plaques presenting some of Concord’s famous residents is this one of Louisa May Alcott. The quote on there comes from a letter Louisa wrote dated November 29, 1856:
I think I shall come out right, and prove that though an Alcott I can support myself. I like the independent feeling, and though not an easy life, it is a free one, and I enjoy it. I can’t do much with my hands; so I will make a battering-ram of my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world…
The Alcott parents, Bronson and Abigail were abolitionists and environmentalists. Bronson was the first teacher in Boston to admit a black student to his class despite protests from white parents who threatened either the black student go or they go. Bronson’s school was left with very few students consequently as he insisted his stance.
But his educational ideals must have been embraced by students as Bronson introduced the idea of raising their hands to speak in class, and he was the one who invented recess in school. There you go for a Jeopardy question.
Louisa’s mother Abigail was one of the first social workers in Boston, and was active in Women’s rights. She’d said, “I will go to the polls before I die if my daughters had to carry me there.”
The Alcott’s close friends and neighbours included prominent intellectuals and writers of the day: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne. They made frequent, mutual visits, and had personal influence on Louisa’s formation and writing.
Down the road from the Alcott’s was Emerson’s home. Emerson had helped the financially strapped Bronson with acquiring Orchard House:
And living minimally by choice as an experiment, here’s Thoreau’s cabin (replica) at nearby Walden Pond:
Growing up under such stimulating milieu where thinkers and writers are free to explore new ideas and generate new philosophy, it was only natural that Louisa grew up grasping the values and the spirit of her parents and their friends, becoming a non-conformist herself.
Louisa had admitted she’s Jo in Little Women and added: “I didn’t make her half-bad enough.” If she’d been here today and directed the movie, I’ve a feeling she’d make Jo twice as radical and assertive. Gerwig is admirably restrained and for this, kudos to her.
Best of the decade lists have been sprouting up everywhere now that we’re wrapping up the second ten years of the 21st century. As Ripple Effects has been around for over 12 years now, I too have the privilege to post my own decade favourites, with links to my reviews. A disclaimer is, obviously, I can only rate films that I’ve seen. For 2019, I’ve yet to see 1917 and Bombshell.
But first off, before looking back to the decade, here’s the list of
The Tree of Life (2011) –– Director Terrence Malick’s visual treatise on life, death, and everything in between… and after. .
Roma (2018) –– Nothing’s too mundane for a filmmaker, especially with childhood memory. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical work that won him 3 Oscars, Best Directing, Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film. .
Ida (2013) –– Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s gripping depiction of a young woman’s choice of the sacred or the secular. .
An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) –– A last outcry of a young talent, the first and last masterpiece of Chinese writer/director Hu Bo who took his own life after making the film at age 29. .
Little Women (2019) –– No matter what your previously held memory of the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic is, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century. Surely lots have to be left out in a 2 hr. movie; take it as a good prod to go read the book. .
A Hidden Life (2019) –– Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter gave up everything to stand by his conviction, refusing to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. Terrence Malick’s newest film is a meditation on the meaning of life, and death. .
Silence (2016) –– Martin Scorsese’s epic adaptation of Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s novel, a harsh and audacious look at the persecution of Christianity during 1600’s Japan. Similar to Malick’s A Hidden Life but depicts a totally different choice and outcome for its protagonist. .
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) –– French director Olivier Assayas’s mesmerizing tale of being famous, ageing, becoming obsolete, and the young rising. Juliet Binoche and Kristen Stewart offer interesting interplay, but it’s Stewart who stands out. .
12 Years A Slave (2013) –– Two Brits takes over the American story: Director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Solomon Northup. I wrote this in my review: the subject matter may be ugly, but the medium depicting it can be artistically gratifying, thus, conveying the message with even greater potency and inspiration. .
Certain Women (2016) –– Director Kelly Reichardt has chosen three short stories by Maile Meloy to form a cinematic triptych. The seemingly mundaneness of life is actually the very essence of it. The women are what make this film quietly impressive: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristin Stewart. .
Pain and Glory (2019) –– “The child is father of the man”, iconic Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical sketch of his childhood, later life and career up to this point. Beautifully shot, a film for artists. .
The Farewell (2019) –– Chinese American director Lulu Wang has put her family story on screen and captured the hearts of many, making Awkwafina the rising star this awards season. To tell, or not to tell, that is the question… and the answer is obvious depending on where you’re from. .
Faces Places (2017) –– Agnes Varda at 89 goes on a road trip with photographer/artist JR, adorning dilapidated buildings and unlikely places with human portraits larger than life. .
The Rider (2017) –– Chinese-American Chloé Zhao tells the rarely told story of a modern day cowboy’s existential crisis after he suffers a debilitating head injury. How she tells it is poetry on screen. .
Arrival (2016) –– Admirable collaboration: French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s adapts Chinese American sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, rendered with sensitive performance by Amy Adams. A film packed full of ideas, condensed sentiments, yes, like poetry. .
Frances Ha (2012) –– Noah Baumbach has created a character that’s a perfect fit for partner Greta Gerwig, an aspiring dancer trying to find her place in NYC. The scene of Frances running and dancing through the streets of NYC has become an archetype for freedom and exuberance. (Look for it at the beginning of Little Women) .
Varda by Agnes (2019) – The only female director of the French New Wave, Agnes Varda had left us with an inspiring legacy. This is her summing up, her last work wherein she went through every film she’d made, commenting with valuable insights and wisdom. .
Our Little Sister (2015) –– I’ve to say this could well be my favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda movie. Koreeda is a master in filming family relationships, reminiscent of Ozu but with contemporary scenarios. This is a heartwarming film for the unhurried heart to savour. .
Life of Pi (2012) –– What Canadian author Yann Martel has succeeded in literary form, Ang Lee has realized in this visually stunning cinematic offering, filming what is considered the ‘unfilmable’. Aligned with its magical realism, Lee ventured into flashy 3D. .
The Past (2013) –– Iranian Director Asghar Farhadi elicited some amazing
performance with this absorbing story. The film came out two years after A Separation, his Oscar winning film. I’d enjoyed The Past more. .
Other Top Ripples not on the above lists can be found on the sidebar. Click on the image to read my review.
For over 10 years at Ripple Effects around this time, I’ve a Christmas post entitled Reading the Season. That’s when I post a book or collection of poetry that I find relevant for Christmas. This year I’ve something different. It’s a film that could offer some quietude among the cacophony of the season.
I first saw A Hidden Life at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It’s now showing in selective cities.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refused to take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler to fight for the Nazis in World War II, for he saw Hitler’s war unjust and evil.
The title alludes to George Eliot’s ending of Middlemarch:
…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
A quest for spiritual meaning is the signature of the reclusive director’s works. They are often expressed in whispered voiceovers from the characters, revealing their doubts and questions, anguish and insights.
Days of Heaven (1978) establishes Malick’s aesthetic style of using natural light to shoot his films, every frame exudes cinematic poetry. The Thin Red Line (1998) begins his signature whispering voiceovers to express inner thoughts and spiritual quests. But it’s The Tree of Life (2011) that makes such whispers monumental as Malick situates the microcosm of a Texan family within the cosmos, and asks questions of the Creator the problem of pain and death, the struggle with human nature, with love and hate, and despite all human failings, the presence of grace.
Since The Tree of Life, Malick has produced several ‘misses’, films that are not well received as they are elliptical and experimental but visionary no less. To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) all point to one common quest: in the materialistic world of the rich and famous, what makes life meaningful? And, can true love be found?
A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick back to his form in a more traditional style of filmmaking, and more explicitly spiritual as he tells the story of a faithful, historic figure, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter of St. Radegund, a village in Upper Austria. Before Germany’s ‘annexation’ (Anschluss) of his country, family life is blissful and easy for Franz. He farms the land among natural vistas, stays rooted in a close-knit community, happily fathers three young daughters, and is deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). The arrival of a conscription letter in 1943 changes everything.
Franz knows he cannot join Hitler’s military, but the refusal to do so means certain death and the risk of endangering his family. He struggles hard to deal with the dilemma and seeks guidance from his Catholic church, but his priest tells him patriotism is what’s demanded of him. His village folks ostracize him; the mayor urges him to comply with Hitler’s demand, for one traitor among them can endanger them all. But Franz stands his ground even with the consequence of execution, a stance reminiscent of the Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died under Nazis hands for refusing to let Hitler’s doctrine to supplant his church.
In this way, A Hidden Life offers an opposite stance different from Martin Scorsese’s Silence(2016), adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel. Here we have a courageous conscientious objector willing to suffer the loss of everything and the risk of harm to his family and kinsfolks in defying a ruthless ruler. A Hidden Life is a real-life testimonial of a believer while in the face of persecution, still refuses to step on the Nazi fumie to renounce his faith.
After incarcerated in the German military prison near Linz then transferred to Berlin to await trial, Franz is allowed to write one letter to Fani every month. The love the couple share in the film has its basis on these poignant letters which have since been compiled and published by Orbis Books. Franz’s absence from home brings Fani back-breaking hardships on top of social ostracizing. Her mother and sister come to live with her to offer whatever support they can give.
Capturing mainly natural light for his filming, Malick contrasts the idyllic family life in the beauty of the natural landscape of Franz’s home setting with the harshness of his imprisoned existence. What’s more tortuous though is his internal struggle. While in prison, his captor Captain Herder (Matthias Schoenaerts) says to him: “What purpose does your defiance serve? No one knows about you.” Yet Franz is convinced that his action isn’t to please others or to glorify himself, but to do what’s right in the eyes of his God. Franz’s own hidden spiritual life empowers him to stay strong.
In his trial, again he is being challenged: “Will anyone outside this court hear you? No one will be changed.” Yet he says nothing in his own defence, an allusion to the One who had stood trial in front of a ruler and said nothing in the face of death.
In a voiceover we hear these inner thoughts, Franz’s words to Fani:
“Time will come when we’ll know what all this is for, and why we live.”
There are plenty of quiet moments, long takes and slow pacing for viewers to think and ponder. The 174 minutes of screen time offers an opportune respite from the hustle and bustle of the Season, a quietude to evaluate, if you will, now that we’re at the end of another decade and in a time of tumultuous change.
The soul-stirring music is another reason to sit down in the theatre and quietly let the story unfold. Film composer James Newton Howard has created a full orchestral score complementing the cinematography, not only in capturing the beauty of the vistas but in his own words: “… to focus on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters—writing music to reflect their story.” Listen for the solo violin representing the sentiments of Franz and Fani, masterfully played by the Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes.
What’s hidden could be more precious, like treasure in jars of clay. And these words came to mind as I give A Hidden Life further thoughts:
… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, now in limited release, Marriage Story will be available for streaming December 6. The Netflix original movie is gathering a lot of buzz as one of the front runners for Oscar noms. I saw it first at TIFF, now again in the theatre, trying to confirm my initial feelings about the film.
Directed by Noah Baumbach with a stellar cast, the title would be more apt if it’s called ‘Divorce Story’, for the film is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber going through the separation and divorce process, culminating with the final custody case of their 8 year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Nicole is an aspiring film actor in LA before following avant-garde theatre director Charlie to NYC to become a stage actor with his company, his muse, and later, his wife and the mother of his child Henry. Exactly, the emphasis on the possessive ‘his’, and hence, the reason for Nicole’s discontent.
At this point in her marriage, Nicole finds herself oddly unhappy, although she doesn’t show it that much. Looks like Charlie has everything going for him. Nicole describes it: he’s alive while she’s in a coma. As he becomes more and more successful, “I got smaller,” she laments. Charlie has distinguished himself as a theatre artist and akin to his professionalism, is honest in his critique of Nicole’s acting. One time after a performance, he takes out his notes, “I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.”
So, with the offer to star in a new TV series, Nicole jumps at the opportunity and goes back to LA, with Henry in tow.
The film starts off with a voiceover as we hear Charlie and Nicole read out something they’ve written on what they love about each other. A marriage counsellor is trying to lead them down memory lane to revive their relationship, to think on why they got married in the first place. But looks like they’ve passed this point. They want to stroll down the divorce lane, casually, no lawyers. Soon they find there’s no gentle way to go about this.
Humor comes as situational irony. Here’s one of those scenes. In her mother’s kitchen in LA, Nicole is figuring out how and who to serve Charlie with the divorce papers, documents in a brown legal envelop placed on the kitchen counter. Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty) loves Charlie and isn’t cool with the task. The duty falls on sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). The three nervously prepares the scene quickly just before Charlie enters, arriving from NY and bursting with excitement of winning a MacArthur Fellowship and is spontaneously met by good cheers from all, just might not be the right mood to serve any legal papers.
Marriage and family relationships have long been Baumbach’s subject matter. His semi-autobiographical, breakout work The Squid and the Whale (2005) is edgy and personal. Through the eyes of the sons, teenager Walt and his 12 year-old brother witness the nasty demolition of their literary parents’ marriage. Walt finds out at the end of the film that the model he’d seen as a child at the Natural History Museum of a sperm whale swallowing up a giant squid is a visual metaphor of his parents’ relationship. That film is impressionable as it shows not only a marriage breakdown but the emotional and psychological damage of their sons. A dark comedy full of fresh takes on a common subject matter, with Baumbach’s signature quirkiness and eccentric characterization.
In Marriage Story, however, Baumbach doesn’t need a metaphor as he tells his story in stark realism with a low-risk, conventional approach. This is probably the director’s least quirky and idiosyncratic feature in his oeuvre. His vivid depiction of the love/hate ambivalence between Charlie and Nicole is nuanced and vivid. Heavy on dialogues, reminiscence of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974), but Marriage Story is more an updated version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) exactly 40 years ago.
Love lingers. Even though they are separated as far as the east coast is from the west, every time Charlie visits Nicole and Henry in LA, tenderness surfaces readily. Just begs the question though, as the counsellor wants them to think about why they got married in the first place, looks like they now need to ponder on why they want a divorce.
Reality is, our legal system is adversarial. Nicole’s aggressive lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) tells her, “the system rewards bad behavior.” The harder you stab, the more likely you’ll win. They’re charged to combat each other, and when it comes to digging up dirty laundry in favor of their case, the lawyers leave no stone unturned. This is something both Charlie and Nicole don’t expect. Instead, they’re pushed into the legal torrents reluctantly. Empathy as expressed from the older, semi-retired lawyer Bert (Alan Alder) means incompetence. Charlie finally has to hire the high-priced legal shark Jay (Ray Liotta), for the stakes are too high.
If Baumbach has sprinkled his newest film with a bit more squid and whale quirks, it will make it more interesting. Surely, the strong cast overall delivers, with Driver and Johansson offering some fine performance. But with such a commonplace subject matter, and so many movies have already done it, what’s amiss is the very quirkiness and eccentricity Baumbach leaves out.
Another consideration is, do we need all the 136 minutes to tell the story of Barber vs. Barber? Maybe not. However, since it’s a Netflix original movie, viewers have total control over how long to sit in front of the small screen to view it; chopping it up into shorter segments is what I predict to be the viewing habits of many. Herein lies the problem with streaming movies from a device, i.e. the trivializing of the experience. But that’s beyond the present discussion. Some day maybe, another post: Theatre vs. Netflix.
So what was I trying to confirm in this second viewing? It’s the reason for my detachment. Twice now, I was an observer of a performance, appreciating the nuances, the humor, but not being drawn in in terms of feelings. Could it be, at times, I find there’s pushing for the emotion?
When an elderly, beloved family member is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and has only three months to live, will you let her know the prognosis or hide it and spare her of fear and burden? Chinese-American director Lulu Wang has turned her real-life family experience into first, a radio program on “This American Life” (aptly entitled ‘In Defense of Ignorance’), and subsequently adapted it into a movie, The Farewell. The Chinese title is more direct: 別告訴她, “Don’t tell her.”
In the film, the family decides not to tell their beloved matriarch grandmother, Nai Nai, (Shuzhen Zhao), about her health status. She’s living contentedly, doing her morning exercise with gusto, relatively independent, with her younger sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) keeping a watchful eye on her.
To arrange for everyone to say farewell and see Grandma Nai Nai one last time, older son Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) and his family will return from Japan, staging a hasty wedding of their son Hao Hao (Han Chen) to his Japanese girlfriend of just three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Their plan is to have the celebration in the city where Nai Nai lives, Changchun.
Nai Nai’s younger son Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and his wife Jian (Diana Lin) will go back from New York for the wedding. Such a ruse is not received well by their daughter Billi (Awkwafina), born in China but raised in America, who upholds the values of individual rights and transparency.
Easy, her parents tell her she doesn’t need to go as they are afraid her Americanized expressiveness will give it away the moment Nai Nai sees her face. Billi won’t stand for that either, for she loves her grandma, with whom she’d had a close bond as a child until she left for the U.S. at the age of six. She still keeps in touch with Nai Nai by phone with her passable Mandarin. So Billi goes to China on her own, a surprise for the whole family––a pleasant one for Nai Nai, but a precarious risk for everyone else.
Since its debut at Sundance early this year, The Farewell has been winning audience’s hearts. Wang’s film is greeted as another strong voice in the diversity movement within the movie industry, following the flagship crowd-pleaser Crazy Rich Asians last summer. With a mostly Chinese main cast, shot in Changchun and New York City, Wang’s feature aptly depicts the cultural clashes immigrants face when leaving their home and settling in the West, or the older, first generation with their America born or raised children.
The wide reception the movie has been garnering is a reflection that this kind of dilemmas or conflicts are not limited to one cultural group. The issues families face, illness and death, parenting our own elderly parents, resolving disagreements and maintaining relationships are but some universal experiences joining us all.
The Farewell is Wang’s second directorial work after her 2014 debut feature Posthumous. In this her sophomore film, looks like she has established a personal style of her own. The slow pacing depicts effectively the internal world of the characters. While the middle section feels a little bogged down, the ensemble performance of the whole cast soon lifts us up and lands us on a higher plane.
Awkwafina’s (a.k.a. Nora Lum) performance is spot-on in depicting the conflicting emotions Billi is riding through. It’s obvious she has found her niche and developed into a full-fledged actor who can carry a story soundly on her own. She has morphed from rapper to actor, from being just a sidekick in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians to a dramatic lead. Thanks to Wang’s script, Awkwafina has several cathartic, moving moments showcasing her skills. For this role, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and became the first actor of Asian descent to capture that top prize.
Humor is the key to the heartstrings of the audience, and Wang has splashed it throughout readily, however deadpan it may come in. While the subject matter is somber, the comedic elements are ubiquitous. Some may require discernment from the audience to laugh where it’s meant to laugh, and refrain from it when it’s meant to be serious; that’s an interesting observation I got as I sat in the theatre. Dramedy? Dark comedy? Light drama? Genre fusing no doubt.
The music of the film particularly stands out. The selections could well be influenced by Wang’s own classical music training before her filmmaking career. During the pivotal scene of the wedding banquet, the operatic aria “Caro Mio Ben” is performed (soundtrack sung by South Korean soprano Hyesang Park with piano accompaniment by Wang herself.) The longing tune alone captivates, but knowing the lyrics will add credit to the mindfulness of Wang’s selection: “Dearest, my beloved, believe me at least this much, without you, my heart languishes.”
Composer Alex Weston’s original score augments the emotional power of the story by weaving a soulful voice motif across the scenes, stirring up a reflective and poignant tone throughout. Indeed, the fusion of Western music in an Eastern culture is all realistic in our contemporary world, its purpose could well be drawing out the universal, uniting us all in our humanity.
Overall, the ingenuity of Wang’s feature has effectively bridged two seemingly dichotomized cultural views, the East and the West, regarding the serious issue of to tell, or not to tell when a beloved, elderly family member is diagnosed with terminal illness. In just 100 minutes of screen time, Wang has brought a contentious, ethical issue to a human level and wrapped it with heart. The Farewell is a worthy addition to a hopefully sustaining trend of diversity and representation in the film industry.
Here are several films coming out this fall/winter that are based on books. Usually features given a release date during this time come with some buzz as the awards season has kicked off. Surely there are also those that are from original screenplays, a few are highly anticipated titles as well. Another post for them.
Here’s a list of upcoming book to screen features. Some are in theatres already.
The Good Liar
This is an interesting premise: From an online dating site, two people meet, each having an agenda of his/her own. They are octogenarian con artist Roy and his seemingly easy, slightly younger prey Betty, a wealthy widow. Played by two veterans of the stage and screen, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, just to watch their performance would be pleasure enough, not to mention how the plot thickens. Bill Condon directs. Based on the debut novel by Nicholas Searle; the name BTW, is a pseudonym. The author is a former UK intelligence officer before turning full-time writer. Now that’s intriguing.
A highly anticipated Scorsese movie and it’s based on a book; many of the director’s works are. This one is adapted from Charles Brandt’s true crime novel about the ‘Irishman’ Frank Sheeran, the hitman who murdered Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Screenplay is by Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winning writer who adapted Schindler’s List for the big screen. A Scorsese cast with Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin. Limited release in theatres, then on Netflix, which makes it another potential clash with studio gatekeeper Spielberg.
Winner of the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at TIFF 2019. The award has always been cited as an indicator of Oscar Best Picture, like last year’s The Green Book. But just like last year, the feature is embraced by viewers but received mixed reviews by critics. Billed as an ‘Anti-Hate Satire’, the farcical rendition is helmed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi who also stars as Adolf Hitler, a caricature and imaginary friend of 10 yr. old Jojo going through tough times towards the end of WWII. Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell co-star. The movie is loosely based on the book Caging Skies by New Zealand-Belgian novelist Christine Leunens. How much has Waititi taken out from the book and how much is his own imagination? A good case study of the boundary and definition of movie adaptations.
Edward Norton has wanted to make the movie ever since he read Jonathan Lethem’s detective novel, a 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner. So, it’s taken him 20 years to do it, himself being the screenwriter, director, actor, and producer. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder which afflicts him with involuntary tics. While keeping the location in NYC, Norton has changed the time to the 50’s from 1999, thereby introducing some nostalgic designs and costumes, and noir for taste. Cast includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Defoe, Bruce Willis, and Alec Baldwin.
It has been 25 years since the last full feature adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. This updated remake is in the hands of Greta Gerwig, whose Lady Bird (2017) brought her two Oscar noms, for Best Director and Original Screenplay. But what left an indelible memory for me is her role as Frances in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012). Now thinking back to her character Frances, a young dancer striving on her own in NYC, it shares the spirit of Jo March in Little Women: independent, fresh, and authentic. Great cast with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep. A film I most look forward to this holidays season.
For all ye ailurophiles and musical lovers. Based on T. S. Eliot’s collection of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is hailed as one of the biggest hits in theatrical history on their website. Director Tom Hooper has another musical-turned-movie under his belt: Les Misérables (2012) which won 3 Oscars. Attractive cast in Cats the movie: Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Taylor Swift.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be in Toronto covering the 44th TIFF taking place Sept. 5 – 15. TIFF is my annual destination away from the Pond, my chance to immerse in the celebration of film arts, world premieres of new works, festivities on King Street, and be swept up by the excitement of crowds catching a glimpse of the talents and filmmakers converging there.
For those inclined towards numbers, here are some figures: TIFF19 will screen 333 titles in total, including 245 features, 86 shorts, and 6 series, selected from 6,866 international and 1,059 Canadian submissions. There will be 133 World and 71 North American Premieres. 84 countries are represented with 36% of titles directed, co-directed, or created by women.
It’s a major task to organize one’s own viewing schedule. Films that I want to watch have time conflicts. After several days of juggling and regretful eliminating, I’ve finalized my list, more or less.
The following are some of the feature films on my To-Watch List (All images courtesy of TIFF):
A Girl Missing directed by Koji Fukada (Japan) North American Premiere. Fukada’s previous film, Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner Harmonium (2016) grabbed me as a concoction of Hitchcockian suspense and poignant family drama. Excited to see his newest work at TIFF.
A Hidden Life directed by Terrence Malick (USA, Germany) Canadian Premiere. Based on the true story of Austrian farmer and conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to join the German army in WWII. I expect this newest Malick film to be another soul-stirring work.
The Audition directed by Ina Weisse (Germany, France) World Premiere. Women play major roles in this production as director, screenwriter and cinematographer. But the main attraction for me is actor Nina Hoss, whose riveting performance won her high acclaims in the German films Phoenix (2014) and Barbara (2012).
Coming Home Again dir. by Wayne Wang (USA/Korea) World Premiere. Wang brought Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to mainstream cinema in 1993, telling generational stories of Chinese-Americans. His newest is based on a personal essay by acclaimed writer Chang-rae Lee about a son coming home to his ailing mother.
The Personal History of David Copperfield dir. by Armando Iannucci (UK) World Premiere. As a book-to-movie enthusiast, I won’t miss this one. What more, the cast looks impressive, and postmodern. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) fame will play Davy, Tilda Swinton as Betsey, Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, and Ben Whishaw the villain Uriah Heep. Turning a 800+ page classic into a two-hour movie is as daunting as Davy’s life journey. But I reserve my judgement.
The Goldfinchdir. by John Crowley (USA) World Premiere. The adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is helmed by the same director as Brooklyn (2015), with adapted screenplay by Wolf Hall and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy scribe Peter Straughan. Looks like a top-notch collaboration.
Hope Gap directed by William Nicholson (UK) World Premiere. This is Nicholson’s second directorial feature which he also wrote. His other screenplays include Les Misérables (2012) and Gladiator (2000) among many others. But what draw my attention are the duo who play a couple at the brink of a marriage breakdown, Bill Nighy
and Annette Bening.
Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho (S. Korea) Canadian Premiere. This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. From the description, it echoes Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, last year’s Cannes winner. But Bong’s audacious and creative styling could make this a fresh approach to the subject of social inequality. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) also comes to mind.
Varda by Agnès directed by Agnès Varda (France) Canadian Premiere. After watching the late French New Wave auteur Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places (2017), I’d been looking for this, her last work. Excited to know there will be a special event at TIFF 19 with the screening of Varda by Agnès plus a bonus post-film discussion by a panel of filmmakers.
For the full lineup, schedule, and tickets go to tiff.net
From high art in the gallery (my last post) to street art, here catching the last chance for a Paris in July entry, I’m presenting the fascinating documentary, a road movie of making art in the open milieu of villages and among the working populace. Faces Places (2017) is an account of the venerable auteur of the Nouvelle Vague (The French New Wave: Goddard, Truffaut…) Agnès Varda (1928-2019), then at 89, going on a road trip with photographer and artist JR to scout for ordinary people to photograph in various obscure locales in France.
Their larger than life photo prints are then pasted onto buildings or open places for everyone to view, evoking the shared joy of living, working, and the collective memory of a meaningful past. Like this one with photos of pioneer miners pasted on a row of dilapidated homes slated for demolition in a miners’ community. The one remaining homeowner who refused to vacate her house was moved to tears upon seeing the completion of the project.
Art undefined and unconfined, once pasted onto these surfaces, JR’s black-and-white photographic images convert the whole building or structure into an art form. The world is his canvas. Unlike Banksy, JR is transparent with his creative process, and lets the public view his work in progress. A TED Prize winner (2011), his large-scale, participatory art projects are installed all over the world, albeit sometimes illegally according to local laws, but the people welcomed him.
At age 89, Agnès Varda became the oldest nominee in Oscar history when Faces Places was nominated for Best Documentary for the 2018 Academy Awards. It’s now on DVD and Blu-ray. Her numerous older works may not be accessible for us so readily. Check your streaming or on demand services. I was able to watch two of her excellent films Vagabond (1985) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962, click on link to my review). Don’t miss this short clip on IMDb “Agnès Varda in Memoriam”.
The soul-stirring original music by Matthieu Chedid complement the meaningful duo collaboration. At the beginning, JR talks with Varda to organize the making of their joint project. We see them exchange the following dialogues:
AV: What I like was meeting amazing people by chance.
JR: So you want to carry on that way, with no plan or itinerary?
AV: Yes. Chance has always been my best assistant.
JR: Do you think chance will work for both of us?
From the film, we can see chance had worked for both of them marvellously.
I didn’t go to Paris for these, but Vancouver, B.C. I visited the Vancouver Art Gallery for their exhibition “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950” in March this year. Here’s a description from their poster:
The works in French Moderns exemplify the avant-garde movements that defined Modern art from the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries, tracing a formal and conceptual shift from depicting the pictorial to evoking the idea, from a focus on naturalism to the ascendance of abstraction.
Before the art, there’s the architecture and interior, an art piece in itself:
Some of the works with their description:
Claude Monet, Rising Tide at Pourville, 1882. Along the Normandy coast.
Eugène Louis Boudin, mentor of Monet. Sur les bords de la Touques, 1895.
Berthe Morisot, Madame Boursier and Her Daughter, c. 1873.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Still Life with Blue Cup, c. 1900
Camille Jacob Pissarro, The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, 1875.
Henri Matisse, Flowers, 1906
Gabriele Münter, Nightfall in Saint-Cloud, 1906. (Don’t you wish nightfall is like this?)
Paul Cézanne, The Village of Gardanne, 1885-86.
I like this one the most:
Marc Chagall, The Musician, c. 1912-14
This is my last post for Paris in July, 2019, hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea.
According to the French Ministry of Culture department that produces and promotes French cinema, 27 percent of French movies were directed or co-directed by women in 2017 compared to 20.8 percent in 2008. (source article here) An improvement, but they are still not pleased with the disparity and working towards a more equal representation.
For comparison, in Hollywood, according to the annual USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study (Jan. 2018), the figure is 4%, after examining 1,100 popular films. Now this result is found in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. For those interested to find out more, here’s a comprehensive report from Annenberg (July, 2018) comparing many more aspects of the film industry.
I just find these stats alarming. This is not a post to present an analysis of the issue, that warrants a thesis, but these figures just need to be shared. For Paris in July this week, I’ve chosen a film that showcases a woman succeeding in a man’s world, overcoming what looked to be insurmountable odds. Among its many accolades, I find this one notable: Best Movie About Women, given by the Women Film Critics Circle Awards (2009).
Another film from French director Anne Fontaine. Unlike Gemma Bovery in last week’s movie, this is a real-life heroine.
Coco Before Chanel (2009)
I’ve appreciated filmmaker Fontaine not doing a whole life biopic on the fashion icon, but focuses on her early years. What was her background? How did she overcome life’s obstacles to create a path for herself? The intermingling of fate and choice is one important theme Fontaine had touched on in this cinematic account.
Gabrielle Chanel’s life is an extraordinary story, and Fontaine respects that. Before she became the world famous icon Coco Chanel, she was Gabrielle Chanel born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France.
The film opens with the camera following two young girls being driven to an orphanage. We soon find out they are sisters Gabrielle and Adrienne. What makes the scene sadder is that the driver of the horse-drawn cart in which the sisters are transported is their father. We never see his face. He doesn’t turn to say goodbye. He never visits.
That’s a short beginning. The next scene Fontaine shows us is fifteen years later in a cabaret where the sisters sing and dance. In there, Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) meets Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), an older military man, paying passing interest in Coco, a name he’s created for her. Fontaine is effective to show us what Coco is like within just a few minutes of the cabaret scene. She’s a calm, self-assured woman, won’t sell herself to appease the guests; as a consequence, she and her sisters are fired. Looks like they’re happy to leave the place too.
They keep their day job as seamstresses but soon part as Adrienne is leaving with a man to live in Paris. Coco decides to go to Compiègne to look for Balsan. Balsan agrees to let her stay there in his country mansion temporarily but Coco has her resourcefulness to change Balsan’s mind. She learns to ride a horse on her own in a day, and soon breaks into the social circle of Balsan’s by distinguishing herself as a woman with style, talent and skills.
A raiser of race horses, Balsan’s social milieu and the horse races where members of the fashionable class exhibit their haute attires inspire the ingenuity of Coco. She begins to design hats for the ladies, and establishes herself as a unique contrarian. She wears a simple straw hat, alters a vest, a white shirt and a tie from Balsan’s closet to suit herself. Her style is “dresses without corsets, shoes with no heels, and hats with no feathers.”
Among Balsan’s business acquaintances is Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a young Englishman. Coco’s short, intimate relationship with him soon changes her outlook in love and life. After a sad incidence, Coco becomes more independent, confident with herself and her skills, and determined to move to Paris to open a hat boutique. With the financial help from Balsan, she begins that first step, and the rest is history.
Tautou has come a long way from her role as Amelie. She is suitably cast as Coco, reflecting the character of the self-made persona. The signature suits she tailors for herself exude elegance devoid of adornments; the simple hats she designs for herself well-match her cool subtlety. Fontaine captures Coco with meticulous care, from nuanced expressions to her confident posture. Of course, kudos goes to costume designer Catherine Leterrier who won, deservedly, a César Award for Best Costume Design and garnered an Oscar nom.
Composer Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the enjoyment. Not an epic of extraordinary stature, but like the hat Coco wears, the film is stylish without overstating, composed and effective.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Coco Before Chanel is on Netflix.
This is a review for Paris In July hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea.
Some Other Related Ripple Reviews of French Films: