‘Living’: The Old Becomes New

Living is based on the Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru (1952, meaning of title: ‘to live’). Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro adapted it to make an English version with Bill Nighy in mind when he wrote the screenplay, creating a setting in 1950’s London. Interestingly, Kurosawa himself was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich when he made Ikiru, and with his eloquent camera, transposed the Russian master’s novella into a Japanese story on screen.

With Living, the Japanese-British novelist Ishiguro has succinctly condensed Kurosawa’s 142 minute film into a shorter feature of 102 minutes, helmed by South African director Oliver Hermanus. It’s interesting to note the cross-cultural transferral, for the film is about the universal theme that we all share as a humanity, living a meaningful life in the face of death.

This is one of the less-hyped movies during the 2022 Awards Season, despite the film getting two Oscar nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay for Ishiguro, and Best Actor for Bill Nighy, his first and long due Oscar nod.

It’s timely that I finally get the chance to watch Living now in April, a month that signifies new births. Considering the change in the main character Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), even the idea of resurrection is apt when taken metaphorically, from death to life, ironically, for a man who has just been diagnosed with terminal illness.

As the head of the public works department at County Hall for numerous years, Williams is contented with following the bureaucratic daily routine by the clock, pushing papers to other departments, or, if the file has to stay in his, stalling it till it becomes extinct.

The camera angles give us a vivid perspective. From the overhead shot above the train station, we see a mass of uniformity, men in dark suit and bowler hat heading to work. Looking down from above, they are small and insignificant. And from the slow motion of them walking, we see the wheel of work turning, ever so slowly, in mundane routine heading to the office and the same vehicle bringing them home at the end of the day.

After Williams gets the confirmed diagnosis of cancer and that he will have just six months to live, there appears the audio motif of a clock ticking; this time, it’s not to remind him of work routine but the limited time of life remaining.

In the wake of the ominous news, Williams’ reactions change from stoically bearing the shock to actively seeking a meaningful existence, and ultimately finding a purpose that he feels can fulfill his life. Nighy’s performance is immersive, reserved, and nuanced, and at times, allowing a ray of deadpan humour to seep through. If the restrained ‘Englishness’ is what the actor naturally possesses, or one that he has fully grasped in his cultural milieu, then it has served him perfectly in this role.

In an online interview, Ishiguro explains this ‘Englishness’ as a metaphor:

A certain type of Englishness becomes a universal metaphor for something that is inside all human beings, the need to conform, perhaps a fear of emotions, the frustration of wanting to express yourself but not being able to break out of your professional role, or the role that society has given you. There were many things I thought we could talk about of the whole human condition by looking at this type of figure.

Many scenes in Living are direct parallels of Kurosawa’s Ikiru with his protagonist Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura). Both men confide their terminal illness not to their son who lives with them, but to a stranger in a restaurant, sharing their last wish, that is, to live life, for a change. The sympathetic listener brings the despondent man to various places for him to ‘live it up’. In both films, we see the same places but in different cultural context, amusement parks, bars, dance hall, strip club, but what Williams and Watanabe find are but superficial, ephemeral flares.

The ultimate change in Williams is sparked by a young, female staff Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), who needs his reference as she has found a new job. Meeting her by chance on the street, Williams invites her to have a ‘simple’ lunch with him at the Fortnum, where he can write her reference letter. It’s there that we see Williams break out with a genuine smile for the first time, forty-one minutes into the movie. Harris’s youthful and vivacious spirit later inspires Williams to go back to the office as a new man after his few days of escapade, to get down to work and this time, doing something that’s meaningful and benevolent.

A crucial addition in Living, and kudos to Ishiguro, is bringing in a young, new worker, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), to the public works department, first day on his job. From his fresh, untainted eyes, we see the novice civil servant being open and ready to accept whatever the bureaucratic system requires of him. His boss Williams’ new-found purpose and subsequent change at work has left him with an indelible impression. And with co-worker Miss Harris, a warm storyline of budding romance adds flavour to the film, albeit introduced a bit late towards the end.

One poignant scene in both films is the protagonist singing in a bar. For Nighy, this is probably the best cinematic moment for him to leave his mark as a soulful singer, a deep and heartfelt performance in contrast to his farcical ‘Christmas is all around’ in Love Actually (2003). The scene here in Living is when a slightly drunk Williams asks the pianist at a pub to play as he sings ‘The Rowan Tree,’ a Scottish folk song that evokes longing for the past and loved ones gone.

Later, in the remake of Kurosawa’s iconic scene from Ikiru, we see Williams sitting on a swing and hearing his moving reprise of the song, this time sober and clear of what’s waiting for him. As the final credits roll, the mesmerizing voice of Lisa Knapp stirs ripples in my heart long after the visuals end.

‘The Rowan Tree’ sung by Lisa Knapp

________________

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

‘The Quiet Girl’ Movie Review: From the literary to the visual

The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) is the first Irish-language film to be nominated for an Oscar, representing Ireland in the Best International Feature category in this year’s 95th Academy Awards held on March 12th.

In this his debut feature, Irish director Colm Bairéad adapts Claire Keegan’s short story “Foster” in a style that’s akin to the literary source. Together with director of photography Kate McCullough (Normal People, 2020), Bairéad has created on screen a sparse and sensitive rendering of Keegan’s story, camera shots that are calm storytelling and restraints that convey emotional depth. The choice of the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio gives the feeling of a time past, like an old home video preserving a young girl’s memorable experience.

Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is sent away to spend the summer with her mother’s relatives, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán Cinnsealach (Andrew Bennett). Having lived in an impoverished household full of siblings and one more expecting, with a father who takes ‘liquid supper’ before coming home and an overburdened mother, Cáit experiences for the first time in her short stay at the Cinnsealach’s quiet and childless farm home what it means to be cared for, and towards the end, learns that keeping silent can be an act of love.

Just like Keegan’s style of using the minimal to convey much, The Quiet Girl is sparse and sensitive in its visual storytelling. Eibhlín is shown to be kind right from the beginning, Seán less so, hardly acknowledges Cáit. His reticence is nuanced though, a slight turn of his head even when he’s facing the TV and with his back to the child betrays a moment of thought, of self-reflection. Seán’s coming around is endearing, like the moment he leaves a single cookie on the table as he walks by Cáit in the kitchen. Actions speak louder than words.

In the bedroom she’s in, Cáit observes the wallpaper with train images and the boy’s clothing she now wears, as her own suitcase is still in her Da’s car trunk as he has forgotten to leave it with her in his rush to leave. She observes her new environment and the people she’s with, and gets some shocking information when a nosy neighbor spills out the Cinnsealachs’ tragic past to her.

As one who has just read Keegan’s short story and been deeply moved by her writing, I come to this review not to compare how ‘faithful’ the film adaptation is, which it is, but that how some of the ‘cinematic moments’ in the book are transposed on screen.

Writer director Bairéad has added some scenes of Cáit in school and at home at the beginning of the film, enhancing the characterization of the girl, quiet and alone, even at home. While the ponderous visual storytelling deserves praise, I do find in certain moments, Bairéad could have added just a bit more dramatic effects, not for gratuitous purpose, but to elicit a more powerful punch towards the cathartic end.

[The following contains spoiler]

Two examples I have in mind. First is when Seán decides they should stop letting the girl wear the boy’s clothes and that he’ll drive them to town to buy Cáit new clothes for herself. That’s a defining moment bringing up a painful, unspoken past, and stopping their substituting Cáit for the one they had lost. Eibhlín is picking gooseberry at the kitchen table with Cáit. Here’s the excerpt from Keegan’s story about the very moment her husband tells them to go change and get ready to go into town to buy clothes for Cáit:

The woman keeps on picking the gooseberries from the colander, stretching her hand out, but a little more slowly each time, for the next. At one point I think she will stop but she keeps on until she is finished and then she gets up and places the colander on the sink and lets out a sound I’ve never heard anyone make, and slowly goes upstairs.

That sound that the girl has ‘never heard anyone make’ is bone chilling even when I was just reading the words, and would have been a most effective cinematic moment to convey pain and grief. Unfortunately what could have been a stirring moment for viewers did not materialize in that scene.

The second is more crucial, a scene that I take as the climax of the story, the girl’s accident at the well. More intensity in visual storytelling, or even just sound instead of the subtle handling of the incident––not for the sake of mere dramatic effects but to show the gravity of the mishap and its implications–– is needed to elicit more potently the poignant act of silence later when Cáit is determined not to mention the accident to her mother who has sensed something must have happened when the girl comes home sneezing.

The cathartic ending of the film is to be applauded for it has brought out Keegan’s powerful writing most vividly. What’s more heartrending than just reading is that we can see the face of the girl running and hear the final word she utters to Seán as she flies into his embrace. That is the power of film.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

__________________________

This is my third post participating in the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy 746 Books.

Previous posts:

“Foster” by Claire Keegan: Short story review

The Banshees of Inisherin: Movie review

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’: An After Oscar Review*

In this the universe that we all know, a movie from the indie studio A24 called “Everything Everywhere All at Once” just won seven Academy Awards out of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Editing. The date is March 12th, 2023, at the 95th Academy Awards held in the Dolby theatre in Los Angeles, California. 

A historic night as this is the first Sci-Fi genre movie to win Best Picture, and Michelle Yeoh the first Asian to garner the Best Actress honor in the ninety-five years of Oscar history. As well, the movie has set a record of the most acting wins together with Best Picture and Best Director wins from a single movie. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is now A24’s highest-grossing feature of all time, surpassing $100 million at the box office. Surely there are still laundry and taxes to do, but at this point in time in this universe of ours, this is a defining moment in the film industry.

Oscar winning directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the Daniels, have created more than just a Sci-Fi movie. Calling it genre bending sounds outdated now as its multiverse jumping idea in their Best Original Screenplay fuses science fiction, action, comedy, and family drama all at once. Genre jumping might be a better term to describe the Daniels’ creative mode of filmmaking.

Never underestimate a middle age immigrant laundromat owner, wife and mother. Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) has lots on her plate as she has to deal with the mountainous paperwork facing an IRA audit, a daughter dangerously depressed, and husband Waymond initiating a divorce proceeding. Unbeknownst to her is that in another universe, she is Evelyn the superhero whose mission is to save the multiverse from the villain Jobu Tupaki, who, lo and behold, is her daughter Joy’s destructive alter ego. 

Ke Huy Quan’s comeback to the acting scene after decades of absence and winning the Oscar Best Supporting Actor is extraordinary. Credits to the casting director (Sarah Halley Finn) and the Daniels’ foresight, for Quan is the perfect guy to play Waymond. His movie role and his real-life persona look to be a perfect match. Quan has won over sixty awards for this role and now garnering the ultimate acclaim. After his magnificent action sequences in the IRS building, the fanny pack just might enjoy a comeback as well. 

From a background in New York City’s comedy and improv scene, Stephanie Hsu goes all out in her dual portrayal as Joy, the despondent daughter who feels unseen and unloved by her mother Evelyn, and her alter ego in another universe: Jobu Tupaki, the powerful and destructive villain in the multiverse taking everyone with her into a nihilistic hole, sucked into the everything bagel which she has created and pitted all her despair, pain and guilt on it, an absurdist escape from her meaningless existence.

Creating a multiverse action movie to tell a family story with all its generational dysfunction and disappointment is outside the box thinking. The Daniels’ concept and execution are audacious and innovative, incorporating multiple forms of visuals, animations, and symbolism. Every battle between Superhero Evelyn and Jobu Tupaki is a metaphor for the mother/daughter conflict. As a daughter whose self-image has hit rock bottom, Joy is in despair having failed to live up to her mother’s expectations, choosing to jump right into the everything bagel. Evelyn, not just a superhero but more importantly, a mother, fights to snatch her daughter back. 

In a silent scene without spoken dialogues––a much-needed respite from the chaos and sensory overload––Joy the rock chooses to fall off the cliff into oblivion. And what does the mother rock do? She moves to the edge of the precipice and rolls down after her daughter. This may sound ludicrous, but this soundless scene with the two rocks is one of the most poignant cinematic moments in the movie.

IRS paper pusher Deirdre, played by Oscar winning Best Supporting Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, is a follower of Jobu Tupaki in another universe. Her interactions with Evelyn offer some of the spontaneous fun in the movie. Action comedy at its best, not just in the fight scenes, but also in the universe where they have hotdog fingers, their feet and toes ever versatile. Debussy would have been impressed to hear Deirdre’s version of ‘Clair de Lune’ on the piano.

The last person to make up the award-winning ensemble cast is 94 year-old James Hong as grandfather Gong Gong. Hong’s earliest roles in his seventy years of acting were with such classic figures like Cary Grant and Groucho Marx. Here his role is understated but nuanced. Just the scene in the elevator where Waymond urgently tells Evelyn her multiverse mission, using an umbrella to block out the security camera, the oblivious Gong Gong is sitting in his wheelchair casually picking his teeth, one of the many hilarious scenes in the movie.

Finished shooting in just thirty-eight days, the Covid lockdown gave Oscar winning editor Paul Rogers solitary time to complete a tall order, putting together scenes from multiple universes, of multiple timelines, and in extreme variation of locales, real and imaginary, to make sense of a story that needs multiple viewings for one to grasp its layered meaning. 

Within the dense and oversaturated visuals and actions, the Daniels have packed in homages to iconic filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai and Stanley Krubrick, fun and significant insertions. Memorable is the scene emulating Wong’s “In the Mood for Love,” when Waymond reveals to Evelyn his romantic self: “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” This is the way he fights, with kindness and love. And that’s the key to Evelyn’s ultimate change.

And what’s with the googly eyes? That’s Waymond’s mark of existence, harmless fun. He puts them on everything. Evelyn dislikes them at the beginning. In the final battle against Jobu Tupaki and her forces, she puts one on her own forehead. Like a third eye, she begins to see things from a new perspective.

Waymond, seemingly weak, holds a powerful weapon: kindness. “This is how I fight,” he says, moving Evelyn to emulate in the last action scene. When everyone has their googly eyes on, their deadly weapons are turned into innocuous objects; a hand grenade now becomes a perfume atomizer. Universal human kindness wins the final battle. 

Didn’t get the metaphors and wacky symbolism? Good reason to re-watch. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a movie that demands multiple viewings. Outside the box filmmaking requires outside the box viewing. Those familiar with the Marvel, DC, or Manga universes could be more ready to appreciate it. 

A thought about diversity. The Daniels are themselves an exemplar of mixed-race collaboration. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” succeeds not just because of diversity but universality: The mother daughter reconciliation, the husband wife rekindling of first love, and the theme of kindness and love overcoming malice would override any specific cultural or racial border. And here’s my hope for the future of filmmaking, go for universality. That which joins us as a humanity will naturally include diversity. Specific representation is important, but the utopic end would be one when race and color are not the defining focus but the common ground that we share as a human society.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

__________________

*This article first appeared the day after the Oscars in Asian American Press, on Monday, March 13th. I thank AAPress for allowing me to re-post my review in full here on Ripple Effects.

__________________

The Banshees of Inisherin: To be friend or not to be friend

Like his previous movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), writer director Martin McDonagh opens The Banshees of Inisherin with a quiet and peaceful song. The lush green landscape of the island of Inisherin merging with the calm and harmonious chorus pulls us into this cinematic fable right away. McDonagh loses no time to bring out the heart of the matter, the sudden fallout of a lifelong friendship between Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson). In parallel, across the island on the mainland, the Irish civil war rages. The year is 1923. 

The juxtaposition of mellow, ponderous music with outward conflicts always makes interesting contrasts, just like mixing comedy with drama, humour and sadness, which McDonagh is so apt in doing. An acclaimed British-Irish playwright whose plays have been performed in the West End and on Broadway, McDonagh is astute in his dialogues, embedding them with humour and poignancy to reveal the nature of the characters:

Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) likes to read and is the most sensible character in the movie. In one scene, Siobhán is reading.

Pádraic: How’s the book?
Siobhán: Sad.
Pádraic: Sad? You should read a not sad one, Siobhán, else you might get sad.
Siobhán: Mm.
(pause)
Siobhán: Do you never get lonely, Pádraic? 
Pádraic: Never get wha?
Siobhán: Lonely.
Pádraic: (mutter in annoyance) No. “Do I never get lonely?” What’s the matter with everybody? 

That could give a hint why Colm stops being friends with Pádraic because “he’s dull”. Colm is older and he now thinks more about how he will be remembered when he’s gone. A fiddle player, Colm spends his time playing and composing music. “I just don’t have a place for dullness in my life anymore,” he tells Siobhán. So, when Pádraic, baffled and hurt, confronts his old friend, “you used to be nice,” Colm engages with him about the value of being nice versus being remembered. Mozart, though living in the 17th century, he says, is still being remembered today for his musical legacy. Paintings last; poetry lasts. Who’s going to remember your niceness?

Even though happy go lucky, Pádraic is now saddened by the sudden termination of friendship. He doesn’t care about Mozart, or whatsisname Borvoven, but he remembers his Mammy and Daddy, they were nice, and his sister, “she’s nice. I’ll remember her, forever.” But Colm counters, no one else would remember them other than you. Colm may be facing an existential crisis, seeking for something more permanent or trying to leave a legacy, but McDonagh’s humour seeps through simple dialogues and not let the high ideals of his character be taken too seriously by movie viewers. In this scene, Siobhán has the last word. She corrects Colm, “it was the 18th century, anyway. Mozart. Not the 17th.” Then turns and walks away. This is a dark comedy, after all. 

The superb cast brings out McDonagh’s writing perfectly. Farrell and Gleeson reunite after In Bruges (2008, Oscar nom for McDonagh’s original screenplay). It’s fun watching the pair engage, a simple, usually happy Pádraic stonewalled by his best friend’s sudden withdrawal of friendship, not only that, but shocked by his drastic action to cut off one of his own fiddler finger every time Pádraic talks to him.

Condon as Siobhán is most apt in representing the rational mind amidst this absurd development. Her later decision to seek a saner and more meaningful existence is poignant. The yellow coat she wears is a bright symbol of hope. The fourth character that makes up this outstanding ensemble of actors is Barry Keoghan as Dominic, the jester who is probably the saddest of them all and one who sees more clearly than he appears.

One more crucial character must be credited, and that’s Jenny the miniature donkey (Jenny), which plays a pivotal role in the final act, inciting a drastic action from Pádraic. Friendship between man and animal just might be more steadfast than between humans. And that last vengeful resort by Pádraic brings back a similar scene in Three Billboards.

Director of photography Ben Davis’s camera is crucial in revealing the deeper meaning of McDonagh’s fable. Often we see Pádraic on the outside peering through the window into Colm’s home, or into the pub looking for Colm. Poor Pádraic now is an unwanted outsider, rejected and isolated, reminiscence of similar shots in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Or, the metaphor of the Banshee, the omen of death, represented by Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), her creepy appearance exemplifies the ever-present threat of mortality, just like the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). They don similar costume too. And the ubiquitous religious symbols and activities––the statue of the Virgin Mary on the island, the cross, the Latin mass––just make one question how their faith is relevant in the actions of these islanders.

The Banshees of Inisherin is nominated for nine Oscars in the coming awards night to be held on March 12: Best Picture, Martin McDonagh for Directing and Original Screenplay, Colin Farrell for Best Actor, Kerry Condon Supporting Actress, Brendan Gleeson and Barry Keoghan both for Supporting Actors, Film Editing, and Music (Original Score).

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Related posts mentioned in this review:

Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation (1951)

***

March is Read Ireland Month 2023 at Cathy 746 Books. You can read the screenplay of The Banshees of Inisherin online here.  Upcoming posts will include books by Irish writers and possible book to screen adaptations. 

***

Tár: To Catch a Falling Star

There are movies that you admire especially upon rewatching but still leave you emotionally detached. The overall tone is artistic and elegant, the camera clever, editing seamless, fantasy sequences enhance the tension, and needless to say, superb acting delivered by the cast. You admire and appreciate the director’s execution, yet you’re not emotionally engaged. Tár is one such movies for me.

Writer director Todd Field’s masterpiece is a film packed with ideas and layered with symbolism conveyed through technical brilliance. It explores power and ambition, identity politics, the separation of the art from the artist, and cancel culture in our contemporary society. Using a phrase ubiquitous in this awards season, it is everything, everywhere, all at once.

At the beginning of the film, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) introduces conductor and composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) by reading out a list of her accolades for his live audience and us, movie viewers who would see, in the next two and a half hours, how a radiant star fall from grace. As the film opens, Tár is at the summit of the classical music world, helming the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. A Harvard PhD, she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein in the emergence of her career, and is currently one of only 15 EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony); her upcoming book Tár on Tár will no doubt be a bestseller.

Field’s feature is nominated for six Oscars in this awards season. It is a forceful narrative and an astute study of power set within an artistic and cultured realm. Blanchett’s Tár embodied success driven by ambition and sustained by ruthless arrogance. She may appear courteous and mild mannered, and that’s where the danger lies. She doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.

From the beginning of the movie, the sequence of the custom tailoring of her suit––a symbol of power––sets the premise. The film is not about gender politics, for Tár’s position is a given; she is already at the podium leading a world renown orchestra and is hailed as one of the best living composers.

There are, of course, higher mountains to scale. The self-propelled driving force soon turns Tár into a delusional egotist, her self-will overriding all that comes in her way, destroying not just her career but her relationship with her spouse Sharon (Nina Hoss), concert-master in the orchestra. Field wrote the screenplay with Blanchett in mind. He had mentioned in an interview that if she declined the role, he would not go ahead with the movie. Blanchett delivers with convincing mastery. 

While being a fictional character, Tár embodies some real-life issues with much relevance in contemporary society. Her being in a lesbian marriage exemplifies the fact that power can corrupt regardless of gender and sexual orientation. She has the power to endow opportunities and thereby raising the career of young musicians to new heights, or, destroy them. Her obsession with success soon becomes unmanageable, distorting her view of reality, pulling her into the abyss of delusion and even madness. 

Among the various issues the film touches on, the Juilliard teaching scene is particularly telling. Tár is teaching a conducting class in a lecture theatre. The camera expertly captures the ten-minute scene with one long take (no cutting). The blocking of the two main characters––Tár and the student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist)––speaks volumes.

Max chooses a contemporary piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir to conduct. Stopping him midway, Tár brings up the importance of Bach’s work, sitting down beside him as equal to discuss and ask if he would consider conducting a Bach piece. Here’s Max’s response:

“Honestly, as a BIPOC, pangender person, I’d say Bach’s misogenystic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.” He’s referring to the composer having had fathered 21 offsprings. 

Boycotting Bach for his brood of children?

Here’s Tár’s restrained response: “I’m unclear as to what his prodigious skill on the marital bed has to do with [his Mass in] B minor.” Pointing out the issue of separating the art from the artist.

Drawing out the thought in Max, she says: “Can classical music written by a bunch of straight Austro-German church going white guys exalt us?” To answer that, she invites Max to sit by her side at the piano, going through with him some Bach pieces. To her credit, in both instances, her persuasion is gentle and egalitarian as the camera captures teacher and student sitting at the same level.

Max’s viewpoint is a biting issue today: can a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), pangender person acknowledge the contribution of straight, ancient white guys? Tár’s response is obvious. The artists’ works override their nationality, colour and gender. Likewise, she challenges Max to look at the composer of his own choice, Icelandic, female composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. What is the resemblance that Max has to identify with her?

Brilliant question. To which Max responds by picking up his stuff and walks out, with a verbal swipe of expletive for his teacher. Tár replies: “And you’re a robot. The architect of your soul appears to be social media.”

Who wins this debate? Field leaves it to his viewers to decide. As with the other issues laid out in the film as well as the ending, there are more questions than answers. Yes, Blanchett’s performance is top-notch, but I come out having a higher appreciation of Field’s writing.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery with a Magic Fugue

Even before we see anything with the screen black, we hear the subject melody, the quiet and ponderous single line of piano music. What piece is this? One might ask. Eight minutes into the movie, in a convivial house party, we get the answer.

Fashion icon Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is intrigued by the tune as well when she tries to open a mystery box sent to her by the tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Before she can Shazam it, the answer is given by none other than the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma himself. That’s Bach’s ‘Little Fugue’ in G minor, he explains to Peg (Jessica Henwick) while munching on some sort of finger food in her house party.
“A fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change and turn into a beautiful new structure,” the virtuoso casually points out. An apt description of what’s to come.

And, of course, Birdie Jay can’t get her answer, for she’s talking to a lamp to Shazam the tune thinking it’s Alexa.

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s sequel to Knives Out (2019) is a totally different offering in sight and sound. A comedic murder mystery in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel with the Knives Out detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, never mind his accent), a dapper Columbo, a sunny locale, striking set design, a well-written screenplay and seamless editing, and not least, an animated ensemble cast, we get an entertaining feature.

The connections are multiple, watching it viewers become sleuths themselves to decipher the associations and allusions, visually, musically, and cinematically. Spotting all those cameos is fun too: Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Serena Williams. Or check out what’s Ethan Hawke and Hugh Grant are doing there.

Miles is a friendly egotist, seen as a genius by some, extreme danger by others, probably knowing his personal philosophy is “fake it till you make it.” The tech titan has invited his insider group of ‘Disruptors’ to an annual reunion weekend. This time the event takes place on his private Greek island in the form of a murder mystery party; his guests are to solve his own murder. The Disruptors are fashionista Birdie Jay, social media influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), politician Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), and scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.)

The key person to show up shocking them all is Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) who used to be Miles’s business partner. So, some background story needs to be peeled off. Miles’s home on the island is the Glass Onion, a spectacle of an architecture that looks exactly as its name denotes, a metaphor for the core truth actually is hidden in plain sight through visible layers.

The sounding of the hourly dong that echoes through the island (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of those moments in the movie that evokes a chuckle, especially when we hear Miles say he got Phil Glass to compose that. Yes, that’s Philip Glass, the minimalist composer creating that one note sound of the gong for Miles. No, not a joke on Glass but more on the self-importance of the tech mogul himself.

Same with the Mona Lisa encased in a sensitive glass protective display case. More chuckles from that too. The world famous painting is on loan to Miles from the Louvre via the French government during the pandemic when all arts venues are closed and revenues lost. Miles is pleased that the art world, even government, bows to his whims, “I wanna be responsible for something that gets mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. Forever.” And now he has it in his palm, no, not the Mona Lisa, but a little solid hydrogen fuel crystal which will be a gamechanger in global energy source. His plan is to invite national leaders to the Glass Onion to unveil it.

As the story begins to peel off layer by layer, we know each of these Disruptors have their reasons to be loyal to Miles as their personal interest depends on his patronage. Ironically, they also harbour resentment towards him.

Half way into the movie an important layer peels off, revealing the backstory. I have no issue with such a twist, for now I anticipate new conflicts on a different level, heightening the tension. From here on, viewers are shown the point of view of Andi’s character. Reminiscence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we can now see more clearly what actually happened in the previous sequence of events, this time, from the perspective of Andi’s; now we understand her as our reluctant heroine.

Repeating the scenes isn’t necessarily redundant, Bach would have said. That’s exactly what he did with the fugue, the same tune appearing in a different context in the contrapuntal composition. While he would probably have found the movie ending shocking, he’d likely be curious to hear songs by singing groups called The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Bee Gees… among others, or listen to the harpsichord and orchestral theme by a 21st century composer called Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin).

From Bond to Blanc, Craig’s collaboration with the Johnsons has made the Knives Out movies a promising and entertaining franchise.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

‘Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon’ by Malcolm Gladwell

This is the best use of the audiobook format. You listen to conversations held by Malcolm Gladwell and his colleague, journalist Bruce Headlam, with the legendary singer songwriter Paul Simon; you hear him talk about his creative process and share interesting tidbits along the way; you hear myths debunked from Gladwell’s trademark inquiries; you discover new personal insights. Above all, you can hear the music icon who had created many world famous tunes over his 65 year career, now at 80, pick up his guitar and sing his own songs or listen to the recordings that had made him and his singing duo Art Garfunkel a household name. And more, you can hear reflections from other influential musicians like Renee Fleming, Sting, Herbie Hancock… For me, this listening experience has opened the floodgate of reminiscence and memories.

A myth debunked. No, Simon didn’t write his breakout hit “The Sound of Silence” in the subway under hauntingly existential circumstances, but in the bathroom of his parents’ house. The walls were tiled and the water running, he played his guitar in the dark and could hear echoes. He was 22. That was all he remembers now. No matter, that tune and the lyrics had sent echoes to the heart and soul of millions around the world.

The inspiration of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” came from a line in the Black Gospel singer Rev. Claude Jeter’s (1914-2009) song “Mary Don’t You Weep”–– it says “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name,” a Biblical metaphor. While the title and lyrics were sparked by Jeter’s Gospel song, the melody was inspired by J. S. Bach. Another interesting tidbit is that sound engineer Roy Halee reminisces that it took him more than 100 hours to make the recording of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as they explored different mixes of sound effects. Simon notes that the song had rippled to many different stylings and sung by so many others that he doesn’t feel it’s his own anymore. And he’s fine with that. In particular, he pays tribute to Aretha Franklin’s soulful rendition.

A poignant moment. When the first “Saturday Night Live” came back on after the tragedy of 9-11, the producer called Simon and asked him to perform in his show. I think you have to do “The Boxer”, he said. An iconic New Yorker song, a fighter that carries the reminders of being struck down yet still remains with resilience and tenacity. In the audiobook, Simon recollects that he had tried to put words in the bridging stanza but none came and so he decided to just use “lie la lie…lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie la lie…” not knowing such wordless echoes would cross linguistic borders when live audience around the would join in spontaneously when he performed.

Where to locate Paul Simon? He refuses to be called a folk singer. His songs inspired by very different sources. His creative process often sparked by distant memories of tunes and rhythms. After the breakup with Garfunkel, he ventured into a musical fusion of cultures and stylings. Gladwell spends some time talking with Simon about how the song “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” came to be. There are at least five sources of creative contributions: the Black Gospel singer Claude Jeter, R & B musicians from Alabama, a New Orlean jazz brass band, Jamaica reggae, and plausibly, according to Gladwell’s instinct, a Yiddish riff. Such freedom to adapt different cultural roots in his compositions leads him later to his album “Graceland.”

Herein lies Gladwell’s sensibility, one I totally embrace and thanks to him, lays out in words the notion that has long lodged in my mind. Using Simon as an exemplar, a Jewish singer songwriter from Queens, NY, Gladwell says:

As a New Yorker, your cultural identity is something you get to hold loosely. It influences you, but it doesn’t define you. You’re free to roam and window shop and come up with your own combination.

The melting pot theory debunked––as attuned to Nathan Glazer’s social theory in Beyond the Melting Pot––well, at least in NYC during Simon’s early creative decades, this kind of freedom existed. But isn’t that a true requirement for one to be a global citizen, a member of our shared humanity, transcending ethnic borders and arbitrary barriers? Unfortunately, such a fluid cultural perspective has shifted in recent years to a narrow view demanding artists, writers, filmmakers… to stay in their cultural lane, to use Gladwell’s metaphor.

Another fascinating tidbit…wait till you get to where Gladwell links taste with memory when he talks about how Stephen Sondheim regrets that his lyrics in the “West Side Story” song “Maria” aren’t quite right, and then goes on to discuss with Simon about finding faults in his own compositions. BTW, “Homeward Bound” is Simon’s “Maria.”

Another issue Gladwell investigates is the mystery of longevity in the creative process, using David Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses to compare and analyze why some artists hit their peaks as young prodigies while others are late bloomers, sustaining a long creative journey. Where to locate Paul Simon in this spectrum? I’ll leave that interesting topic for you to experience when you listen to this exceptional audiobook.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam with Paul Simon, audiobook ©2021 Pushkin Industries and Paul Simon (P)2021 Pushkin Industries and Paul Simon

***

‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ is a respite for any season

Like a gentle breeze under the shade of a full, oak tree to dispel the summer heat, this little gem of a movie is a fairy tale, surely pure escapism from a harsh and scorching world. Newly released on July 15, this is a delightful watch not just for the summer.

Mrs. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a cleaning lady and war widow in 1957 London, scraping by counting pennies cleaning people’s homes and offering to do invisible mending in her spare time. One day, seeing a Christian Dior dress while cleaning the home of Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) sets off an adventure of a lifetime. Mrs. Harris wants to save enough money to go to Paris and buy one for herself. Dreams are for everyone; Mrs. Harris has the will, and she’ll find the way somehow.

Adapted from Paul Gallico’s novella, director Anthony Fabian brings to the screen a fairy tale for adult viewers, and with the cooperation of Christian Dior in Paris, turns the haute couture of fashion into a down-to-earth story of the ordinary people. Mrs. Harris is as invisible as her mending, but her heart and personality stand out to be noticed and exude her vibes in gentle persuasion.

Paul Gallico (1876-1976) is a wonderful weaver of tales. The Snow Goose is the most memorable read from my growing up years. I have not read his Mrs. Harris Goes to... series, but after watching this movie, it’s on my TBR list. Not as soul stirring as The Snow Goose or dramatic as The Poseidon Adventure (1972 movie adaptation), Mrs. Harris nonetheless reaffirms kindness, beauty and hope still exist and are much needed to dispel the harshness of our times.

Lesley Manville is the driving force in this movie. The versatile actor first caught my admiration in Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) playing the vulnerable and lonely character Mary, for which she was nominated and had won several acting awards. Manville can also be brutal and violent, like the powerful matriarch in Let Him Go (2020), and then turn into Princess Margaret in The Crown (S5, 2022). But to be more in line with this current film is her role in Phantom Thread (2017) playing Daniel Day-Lewis’ co-dependent sister, a role for which she received an Oscar nom.

Supporting cast is strong. Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, 2016; Gabrielle, 2005) plays the manager and gatekeeper of the Dior fashion house, Mrs. Colbert, a character that reminds me of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). In a scene towards the end of the movie, we see a different Mrs. Colbert in her humble home, stripped down, ordinary and vulnerable. A poignant moment. Other supporting roles are also effective, like Mrs. Harris’ loyal friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), the gentle and caring Archie (Jason Isaacs), and the young pair of fresh faces, Alba Baptista playing Natasha, the model with a deeper aspiration and her secret admirer André (Lucas Bravo, Emily in Paris).

What caught my attention from the start was the original soundtrack composed by Rael Jones (Suite Française, 2014). The music corresponds perfectly with the lighthearted mood, flowing by smoothly like a whimsical character. At the end as the credits roll, there’s a piece with a waltz styling. I noticed as the audience exited, what looked like a mother and her adult daughter dancing to the tune, the first time I saw such a spontaneous ripple effect in a movie theatre.

There are some down period in the middle of the film, however, the cast and the camera make up for such moments. Overall, a delightful two-hour respite from the summer heat, or any season.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

__________________

A Paris in July 2022 post, event hosted by Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz.

Paris in July: Isabelle Huppert & Pascal Greggory superb in ‘Gabrielle’

Paris in July is a good opportunity to explore French films. I’ve watched a few in the past weeks. Here’s one that I’d like to write about, Gabrielle (2005). I found it on Kanopy, free streaming if you have a library card.

Language here makes an interesting transference. The film Gabrielle is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella entitled The Return. Polish-born Conrad wrote it in English (available online here.) The end credits of the film note that the script is based on the French version Le Retour, translated by Georges Jean-Aubry. Screenplay co=written by director Patrice Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic. The title is changed to Gabrielle. Lastly, the literary is transposed into the visual form.

Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, 2016)) and Pascal Greggory (La Vie en Rose, 2007) bring to the screen expert performance of a marriage in dissolution. Knotted ten years in a loveless marital relationship, the high society couple Gabrielle (Huppert) and Jean (Greggory) Hervey, a self-assured businessman and newspaper financier, keep up appearances by throwing lavish dinner parties in 1912 Paris.

They entertain no less than fifty of their friends and acquaintances every week in their mansion served by numerous maids. Interestingly, no butler or footmen. The film won Best Production Design and Best Costume Design César Awards in 2006. A visually gorgeous setting, especially at the dinner table with guests.

In ironic contrast to the aesthetic beauty and richness of interior design, Jean and Gabrielle are impoverished in their passion for each other. Ten years ago, Jean claimed a trophy wife. In his voiceover narrative, Gabrielle is “well bred and intelligent… no ordinary woman. I love her as a collector does his most prized item.”

Camera work is captivating. Director Patrice Chéreau uses mirrors around the house to capture his characters in psychological reflections. Stylistically, he adopts two visual modes on screen, interchanging colour with black and white to juxtapose present reality with memory or imaginary scenario. Interesting is that in a film with the title of the female character, the wife, the voiceover narrator and point of view is the husband’s, conveying subliminally who holds the control of the relationship. Throughout, a film exudes with realism and at times, a touch of Hitchcockian suspense. Occasionally, large written words are flashed on screen like silent movies, a whimsical stroke that well serves as comic relief.

The tipping point crashes down when Jean comes home one day to find a note left by Gabrielle saying she has left him with another man. The short note is like a bombshell to Jean, for he hasn’t noticed any issue with their marriage. His immediate concern is how this will look in front of his servants and in society? And there’s a Thursday dinner party coming up.

His devastation is short however, for in just a few hours, Gabrielle returns. On the surface, her return seems to bring back the status quo, but it only rings in the death knell of a dissipating marriage. Huppert and Greggory bring out their characters’ boiling psychological turmoil and relational conflicts to the surface expertly; the intense emotional transactions in their dialogues are rare in today’s movies. These lines follow Jean’s questioning of his wife:

Gabrielle: When I decided to go to him, I wrote the note.

Jean: So you saw a lot of him? Then this letter is not the worst of it?

Gabrielle: The worst is my coming back.

Jean, the smug and successful businessman assures himself that ‘the law is on my side.’ It’s only Gabrielle who suffers the more damage if she chooses to leave. But of course, Gabrielle cares more for finding true love than fame or fortune. Anna Karenina comes to mind. As well, the power imbalance in their relationship reminds me of the tragic heroine Isabel Archer in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

The very literary rendition of the film makes quotable quotes out of many verbal exchanges and the voiceover narrative throughout the film. Why is appearance the main concern for Jean to start with? Because the society people coming to their home every week are “men and women who fear emotion and failure more than fire, war, or fatal disease.”  

The twist at the final scene see a change come to Jean when Gabrielle, with a passive-aggressive undercurrent, offers her physical body unreservedly to Jean only to let him see intimacy doesn’t mean love, and without which, all is meaningless. He breaks away from her suddenly, staggers down the stairs and stumbles out of the house like a man gone mad. At the risk of leaving any spoilers, for this is after all a classic written in the late 19th century, I’m sure this can be excused: the last words flashed on the screen are the exact three words that end Conrad’s story.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

Paris in July 2022 is co-hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea and Deb of Readerbuzz

______________

Other French films reviewed on Ripple Effects:

Faces Places dir. by Agnes Varda

Coco Before Chanel dir. by Anne Fontaine

Things to Come dir. by Mia Hansen-Løve

Cleo from 5 to 7 dir. by Agnes Varda

Diary of a Country Priest dir. by Robert Bresson

Clouds of Sils Maria dir. by Olivier Assayas

Paris in July: A Culinary Sojourn

In 2008, Ann Mah, food writer and Francophile wife of an American diplomat, had her deepest desire realized when her husband Calvin was appointed a post in Paris. Having moved to three different cities in the previous five years: New York, Beijing, Washington, D.C., a three-year sojourn in Paris was beyond her wildest dream.

Then came the rub. Soon after they arrived in the City of Light, Calvin was called away to another diplomatic mission: in Baghdad, Iraq, by himself for one year. Just months arriving in Paris, Ann had a taste of fate in the most ironic form: to live in her dream City, alone. She knew that would probably be the hardest year of her life.

To fight off the loneliness and isolation she was experiencing, Mah began to look to another diplomat’s wife in Paris sixty years earlier for inspiration and channel her pioneering gusto: Julia Child.

The title is a giveaway. Mastering the Art of French Eating––instead of ‘Cooking’ as Child’s book––is a humble homage to the food journalist’s heroine. While she didn’t follow Child to the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, in her year of living in France all by herself, Mah charted her own culinary journey to various regions in the country to taste and research on the cuisine of the land. The subtitle is also enticingly delicious: Lessons in food and love from a year in Paris.

In ten chapters, Mah presents the ten places she had visited, from Paris bistros to farmhouse kitchen, haute cuisine to communal cooking, she records her experience in the specific locales and their signature dish along with historical perspective. And at the end of each chapter, the recipe:

Paris / Steak Frites
Troyes / Andouillette
Brittany / Crêpes
Lyon / Salade Lyonnaise
Provence / Soupe au Pistou
Toulouse, Castelnaudary, Carcassonne / Cassoulet
Savoie & Haute-Savoie / Fondue
Burgundy / Boeuf Bourguignon
Aveyron / Aligot

From her last name, you might also be curious about her own background. Yes, within this little food memoir are sprinkled with stories of Mah growing up Chinese American in California. While her love of France brewed very early in her life following her family tour there as a child, she wasn’t given the chance to learn the language that she loved, French, but had to go to Chinese school on Saturdays as stipulated by some sort of a ‘tiger mom’. Within these chapters, then, embeds the quest for identity and personhood. Here’s a quote that more or less sums it up:


“Diplomacy has been called the world’s second-oldest profession, and ever since the sixteenth century––and maybe even before––other wives of diplomats have endured similar existential crises, fading into obscurity while their husbands’ achievements were recorded in history. Perhaps, then, that is why I turned to Julia [Child] for inspiration… not just because she loved food, and had also lived in China, and was also a trailing spouse, just like me––but because I was looking for proof that professional success and marriage to a diplomat were not mutually exclusive.” –– P. 218

A delightful read for Paris in July and actually, anytime.

Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz are the hosts of this annual blogging event.

***

I listened to the audiobook first then read the hardcopy: Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah, Viking Penguin Books, 2013. 273 pages. The audiobook is narrated by the actress Mozhan Marnò (The Blacklist, House of Cards), ideal for learning the pronunciation of the French words. Hardcopy is good for getting the recipes, and makes the narratives and anecdotes more memorable.

‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ offers an enjoyable ride

The trailer for this second Downton movie may give one the impression of entering a patisserie filled with colourful macaroons with its delicious decor and the pastel colour of a French villa in the Riviera, with matching costume too. In that short clip, the stylish zeitgiest of the Jazz Age could spark one’s imagination of Gatsby-esque frivolity. I’m glad to find these notions misleading, for the movie is not a gratuitous show of glamour or a fancy facade.

Reprising the success of the original TV series, Julian Fellowes focuses on the characters and their stories; the setting is exactly as it is, a beautiful backdrop, which is always a plus. All the details of story development are the very essence of the movie, tiny bits of delicious morsels for fans of Downton to savour. Indeed, I’m afraid this is a movie for those who are familiar with the characters as Fellowes continues with their life at Downton, the twists and turns. Clever dialogues and funny scenes, all gratifying to watch.

Downton Abbey: A New Era reminds me why the original TV series back in 2011 could sustain six seasons and a feature movie three years after it wrapped, and now three years further, another one. Why, it’s all about the characters and their stories. We want to follow them and find out what’s going on in their lives as time goes by and how they would act given different scenarios… and in this newest offering, see them grow old in real time. Not just for the adults, the kids too; George and Sybbie are the same child actors now much taller.

In A New Era directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, 2011), two storylines intertwine seamlessly. First off, the Dowager Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) once had a short but juicy liaison d’amour in the south of France when she was young. Now decades later she learns that she has inherited a villa in the French Riviera as her one time beau had apparently took the love affair much more seriously than she did. Now she in turn bequeaths the property to Sybbie, Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) daughter, a most kind and generous act. So, some of the Crawleys are going there to check it out and face up to a disgruntled widow.

Staying behind is Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) who has now taken over the helm of the property management at Downton. The year is 1928 heading towards 1929, while they can’t foresee the coming economic woes, Mary can see the leaky roof of Downton badly needing repairs. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has never been up in the attic for years, but now looking at the buckets catching the dripping water, he agrees reluctantly to allow a film crew to shoot on location at Downton, all for the financial benefits that comes with it.

Both storylines are interesting subjects. While the expedition to the French villa is gorgeous visually—attracting an Architectural Digest article on the property––the filmmaking at Downton is no simple matter. At that time, silent movies are coming to the end replacing by the talkies. Fellowes has written not just an interesting scenario but informed viewers of the complexity of movie making at that time. No spoilers here, but the servants from downstairs have contributed effectively to this movie within a movie.

The storytelling is clear and enjoyable, kudos to some smooth editing and aptly paced scenes, some take longer to draw out the underlying significance of the dialogues, some faster just to pinpoint without dragging.

The smart opening is a succinct re-introducing of all the characters in one setting, at the church wedding of Tom and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Just about everyone is there. The camera follows the newlyweds as they walk down the aisle, greeted by all the Downton characters and related figures. Absent are Henry Talbot, who’s somewhere else in the world, ominous future for Mary. How I miss Matthew. And no mention of Rose.

New faces are the filmmakers at Downton, Hugh Dancy as director Jack Barber, Laura Haddock as the rude and insecure silent film star Myrna Dalgleish, and Dominic West (Prince Charles in The Crown S5) as co-star Guy Dexter. Three Downton figures play an important role in this segment, Mary, Molesley (Kevin Doyle), and surprisingly, Daisy (Sophie McShera).

Listening to the Downton theme music in the dark theatre––my first post-Covid movie viewing outside the home––via its state of the art sound system is a heart-stirring experience. What a difference it makes watching Highclere Castle on the big screen and hearing the theme music emerge. A New Era is a better movie than the first one three years ago. A must-see for Downton fans, and a fantastic prompt for those who have never watched the TV series… never too late to get on the ride.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Book to Screen Bingeables

The word is in the OED, could well have gained relevance during the pandemic. Currently, two 2022 Netflix series can be described as such, bingeable. Both are adaptations from books in the genre of crime and courtroom drama. One major factor that makes them watchable is that both are created by David E. Kelly. A legal series associated with Kelly is likely to be of quality. His filmography too long to list.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER

Maggie and Mickey in the Netflix series The Lincoln Lawyer

Based on Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict (2008), the second book in his Mickey Haller series. The successful LA criminal defence attorney works mostly in his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, hence the namesake of the title. Unlike the book and Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal in the 2011 movie adaptation, Mickey here in the Netflix TV series (S1, 10 episodes) is more vulnerable, less self-assured, yet unrelenting in seeking the truth, and above all else, possessing genuine care for his daughter and ex-wives; in other words, a better man.

Other than the writing, a major asset is the cast. No big name A-listers, but the roles are aptly filled: Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Mickey, Neve Campbell as ex Maggie the prosecutor, Krista Warner as their teenage daughter Hayley; and at the office, yes there’s an office other than the back of the Lincoln, Becki Newton as Lorna, another ex, Angus Sampson as Cisco. Jazz Raycole as driver Izzy whom Mickey offers the job after defending her in court. Must mention is Christopher Gorham (Auggie Anderson back in Covert Affairs 2010-14) as the high profile client Trevor Elliot accused of the double murder of wife and her lover.

The 10 episodes flow well with several storylines going at the same time, adding interest and complexity. And as author Connelly has generously sprinkled in his books, the human side of his characters is the driving force behind the stories and conflicts. Mickey needs to come back from rehab, having developed drug dependency for pain relief after a surfing accident, on top of that, to gain back the trust and love from his ex-wife and in sharing the responsibility of parenthood… and wishful thinking it might seem, pursuing a second chance in a failed marriage.

Career wise, the high-profile case of defending video game developer Trevor Elliot could catapult him back on the track of success after his hiatus. What’s intriguing is that we see Mickey and Trevor often in a cat and mouse game. Newly handed down by a judge this case as the previous defence lawyer was gun down just days before the trial, and with not much to go on, Mickey has to rely on instinct, logical thinking, gut, as well as Lorna and Cisco’s unconventional investigative techniques.

The adaptation has an updated storyline that’s different from the 2008 book, but Connelly’s mark is there, as well as Kelly’s smart screenplay and direction. The meaning of the title? Disclosed at the end, the hidden key to this bingeable series.

_________________

ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL

The main cast of Anatomy of a Scandal

Across the Atlantic, we have a notable British court case dealing with a reputable Member of Parliament being charged with the rape of his staff researcher, a 6-episode adaptation of the 2018 novel by Sarah Vaughan.

Some well-known actors make up the cast of this Netflix mini-series. Rupert Friend plays MP James Whitehouse, Sienna Miller as wife Sophie, who stands by him until the truth is revealed. Prosecutor is Kate Woodcroft played by Michelle Dockery––Lady Mary Crawley of Downton––donning a wig, gown and glasses, convincing as a Queen’s Counsel. The victim is Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott); defence barrister for James is Angela Regan (Josette Simon).

A rape case hanging on the issue of consent, both the prosecutor and defence offer persuasive arguments. Both sides contributed to some intense scenes in a sexual, criminal trial that involves, by its very nature, the need to be explicit and exact in its language and graphic in its description. Can the concept of ‘boys will be boys’, or, the misunderstanding of intent, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, be a viable defence for rape?

Similar storylines had appeared in movies such as The Riot Club (2014), very similar indeed, as the privileged boys from Oxford University, like the Libertines here, exercise freely their liberties and vulgarity. More recently, the Oscar winning Promising Young Woman (2020), written and directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, delivers a U.S. medical school version.

More than just courtroom drama. The backstory of these characters is intriguing and as the truth reveals itself, the moral complexity multiplies. Interestingly, the ‘brass verdict’ concept in The Lincoln Lawyer finds affiliation here. Cinematography is slick and editing is fast-paced. An apt transposition of Vaughan’s novel.

~ ~ ~ Ripples for both