‘Minari’: The Little Seed that Could

Minari is a semi-autobiographical narrative based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood experience. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant father striving to succeed in America while his wife strains to keep their family together. In the midst of the struggle for a better life, two children watch and learn and grow. 

Chung’s counterpart in the movie, seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), follows his parents Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), together with his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), to relocate from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s. Driven by the ambition to be successful, especially in the eyes of his children, Jacob has purchased 50 acres of land to start a farm growing Korean produce. With the influx of Korean immigrants coming into the country during that time, Jacob sees a wealth of opportunity.

MINARI_00195_R Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

Jacob and Monica still hold a day job at a hatchery doing chicken sexing, separating the male chicks from the female, but Jacob sees no future in the routine work. The farm is his dream. In the sexing process, the male chicks are discarded, for they don’t taste as good and can’t lay eggs. A ready object lesson for him to teach his young son: be useful. And when he digs a well, he dismisses the dowsing method offered to him. “Koreans use their heads,” he tells David.

Monica, however, sees a very different picture. The dream home in the country for Jacob is for her, realistically, a trailer on wheels held up by cinder blocks. Water is from a well which later is drained dry to the crops. There’s no community nearby. Her main concern is living far from a hospital as David has a life-threatening heart murmur. “Don’t forget to keep praying,” she tells David. The couple’s opposing views lead to frequent conflicts in front of the children.

The tipping point comes when Monica’s mother is recruited to help with the kids. Arriving from Korea, Grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) brings with her Korean spices and rarity not found in America, as well as Korean songs, memory of courtship that has long been buried by her daughter and son-in-law.

For David, Grandma is far from what he has expected. She is a raucous card player, swears, doesn’t cook or bake, uses half his room and, aggravating his annoyance, snores. The interplay between grandma and grandson make up some light-hearted scenes which elicit from Kim performance in his natural poise alongside the veteran, seasoned Youn. The key element in their eventual bonding is love. Kudos to Chung for his screenplay and directing.

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

Another supporting role that has added spice to the film is Paul (Will Patton), a practical farm help to Jacob. A devout Pentecostal, Paul’s eccentricity is a laughing stock even with church kids. Jacob does not subscribe to his beliefs. Admirably, the two can still work in harmony.

Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and winning both its Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Minari has come a long way this past year garnering accolades. The film is now an Oscar nominee in six categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay for Chung. Yeun becomes the first actor of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor. Youn gets a nod for Best Supporting Actress and composer Emile Mosseri for Best Original Score.

Compared to his acclaimed debut feature Munyurangabo (2007), an arthouse, experimental film about two youths in post-genocide Rwanda, Minari is a conventional take on a personal, family story. The storytelling is linear and captured in realism, as we follow the Yi family’s first arrival to rural Arkansas and the daily struggles as an immigrant, farm family. The film’s subject matter and Chung’s handling is deceivingly simple.

Thanks to the eponymous vegetable, the minari, Lee transfers the specific to a wider scope in different layers. Minari is a Korean watercress that grows hardily in wet soil. Grandma has brought some minari seeds with her from Korea and sows them beside the creek near their home. As days go by, the plants thrive on their own, an apt metaphor for the resilience and adaptability of immigrants taking roots in a new soil. 

In contrast to a grim lesson of discarding the male chicks at the hatchery David learns from his father, the minari along the creek is a visual reminder of being alive and useful. Grandma sings its praises, for the versatile vegetable can be put in kimchi, stew, and soup, and used as medicine when sick. “Minari, Wonderful.” Grandma and David burst out in an impromptu song. A delightful scene is captured by the camera. As the wind blows, the plants bow as if acknowledging their praises. A moment of magical realism.

As time goes by, the minari plants thrive, and David’s heart condition has improved on its own such that surgery is no longer needed. In the climactic scene and its fallout, a contrast is particularly notable. Jacob sweats and labors on his crops which can be gone in an instant, but the minari grows naturally in the wild and David’s illness healed, pointing to a harvest of transcending grace that is beyond human efforts. The denouement is a gratifying close to a chapter of childhood memory.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.

Women Direct Films

When did women first direct films? If you type these words in your search engine, you’ll see this year pop up: 1896 and the name Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968). In her filmmaking career that spanned over two decades, Alice Guy had written, directed, or produced more than a thousand films in France and later in America. She was a pioneer in fictional narratives, comedies, actions, travelogues, musicals (yes, films with sound), just to name a few categories of her cinematic works.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018), directed by Pamela Green and narrated by Jodie Foster is a fascinating documentary, a must-see, now streaming on the free platform Kanopy.com. “Be Natural” were signs Alice Guy put up in her studio for her actors as a reminder.

Cut to 2010. In the annual study The Celluloid Ceiling on women behind-the-scene employment in filmmaking, only 2% of the top 250 films made that year in the US were directed by women. In 2018, it was 4%. Then there was a big jump in 2019 to 12%. In 2020, due to the pandemic, the study included 100 top films instead of 250, the percentage of women directors increased to 16%.  

2019 appears to have marked a tipping point, hopefully a trend that stays, as more women are being recognized as ‘profitable’ in the filmmaking business. Further, people also found out women can direct various genres, including action and superheroes movies too. Just wonder what Alice Guy would had thought if she were around.

On this day, March 8, 2021, in honor of the many woman directors working, I’m posting a list with their names first then their works released for the year back to 2019. This is only a selection and mainly for films distributed in North America. You might recognize some names or titles of books. In alphabetical order:

2021

Ana Lily Amirpour – Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

Clio Barnard – Ava & Ali

Camilla Belle – Phobias

Shari Springer Berman (co-director) – Things Heard and Seen

Halle Berry – Bruised

Kay Cannon – Cinderella

Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog 

Nia DaCosta – Candyman

Livia De Paolis – The Lost Girls

Julie Delpy – My Zoe

Claire Denis – Fire

Augustine Frizzell – The Last Letter from your Lover

Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter

Rebecca Hall – Passing

Sian Heder – Coda

Joanna Hogg – The Souvenir: Part II

Eva Husson – Mothering Sunday

Lisa Joy – Reminiscence

Dea Kulumbegashvili – Beginning

Mélanie Laurent – The Nightingale

Lena Khan – Flora & Ulysses

Castille Landon – Fear of Rain

Mia Hansen-Løve – Bergman Island

Lila Neugebauer – Red, White and Water

Megan Park – The Fallout

Amy Poehler – Moxie

Céline Sciamma – Petite Maman

Cate Shortland – Black Widow

Liesl Tommy – Respect

Kate Tsang – Marvelous and the Black Hole

Lana Wachowski – The Matrix 4

Olivia Wilde – Don’t Worry Darling

Robin Wright – Land

Robin Wright, Catherine Hardwicke – Together Now

Chloé Zhao – The Eternals

_______

2020

Niki Caro – Mulan

Sofia Coppola – On the Rocks

Autumn de Wilde – Emma

Josephine Decker – Shirley

Clea DuVall – Happiest Season

Mona Fastvold – The World to Come

Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman

Nisha Ganatra – The High Note

Liz Garbus – Lost Girls

Julia Hart – I’m Your Woman

Eliza Hittman – Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Patty Jenkins – Wonder Woman 1984

Natalie Erika James – Relic

Miranda July – Kajillionaire

Regina King – One Night in Miami

Roseanne Liang – Shadow in the Cloud

Phyllida Lloyd – Herself

April Mullen – Wander

Mira Nair – A Suitable Boy

Gina Prince-Bythewood – The Old Guard

Dee Rees – The Last Thing He Wanted

Adriana Trigiani – Then Came You

Cathy Yan – Birds of Prey

Jasmila Zbanic – Quo vadis, Aida?

Chloé Zhao – Nomadland

_______

2019:

Elizabeth Banks – Charlie’s Angels

Chinonye Chukwu – Clemency

Mati Diop – Atlantics

Lisa Barros D’Sa – Ordinary Love

Anna Boden (co-direct) – Captain Marvel

Gabriela Cowperthwaite – Our Friend

Nora Fingscheidt – System Crasher

Nisha Ganatra – Late Night

Sarah Gavron – Rocks

Greta Gerwig – Little Women

Rose Glass – Saint Maud

Kitty Green – The Assistant

Alma Har’el – Honey Boy

Marielle Heller – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers – The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open

Nahnatchka Khan – Always Be My Maybe

Jennifer Lee (co-director) – Frozen II

Kasi Lemmons – Harriet

Melina Matsoukas – Queen and Slim

Shannon Murphy – Babyteeth

Lydia Dean Pilcher – A Call to Spy

Kelly Reichardt – First Cow

Lorene Scafaria – Hustlers

Angela Schanelac – I was at Home, But…

Céline Sciamma – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Lulu Wang – The Farewell

Olivia Wilde – Booksmart

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Related Ripple Reviews:

Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell

Ripples from the history-making 78th Golden Globes

Last night I dreamt I was interviewing Chloé Zhao. Not just a sit-down interview, but I actually hung out with her as buddies. That was a dream, and that much is true.  

Before the dream, I was watching the 78th Golden Globes Awards show aired live last Sunday night. This year, it’s a much scaled down, stripped to the minimal, virtual event. The show must go on, as they say. So, we have Amy Poehler from the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles and Tina Fey from the Rainbow Room in New York being pulled together on one screen as if they were standing side-by-side for the fourth time hosting. A technical marvel.

Nominees were at home or wherever they were at that moment, wearing whatever they felt like, watching and giving acceptance speech via their own small screen. A few of them were at the Beverley Hilton adorning glamorous, designer gowns, a reminder of previous Globe glitters and the red carpet.

Other than the unprecedented format, history was made last Sunday night.

Chloé Zhao became the second woman to win the Best Director Golden Globe award in the 78-year history of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual extravaganza. She is also the first Asian woman to do so. What more, her film Nomadland won the top prize, Best Motion Picture – Drama. As a co-producer, she became the first woman producer of Asian descent to receive that accolade.

For a historical reference, Barbra Streisand was the first female to win a Best Director Golden Globe with Yentl in 1984. Taiwanese-American Ang Lee claimed that honor twice with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001 and Brokeback Mountain in 2006, the only other Asian American to take that award.  

If it’s not due to Covid 19, never could there be a Best Director and Best Motion Picture winner accept the Golden Globe dressed in an olive color t-shirt, hair in pigtails. She probably might not be at home, maybe at work on location. But still, I remember the Cannes controversy where female stars were frowned upon––no they didn’t outright say ban––for not wearing heels on the red carpet.

It’s in this unassuming manner that Chloé (I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me calling her by her first name) picked up her color-matching mug to toast everyone and gave her virtual acceptance speech. Quoting the ‘guru’ among the nomads, Bob Wells, she said:  

“Compassion is the breakdown of all the barriers between us. A heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain. It’s mingled and shared between us.” She then went on to say, “this is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories cause it gives us the chance to laugh and cry with each other, to learn from each other, to have more compassion for each other.”

An iconoclast, no doubt. If not because of the pandemic, I can’t imagine a female Globe winner in a t-shirt and I assume, no make-up, and speaks from her heart, not to shun the glitter of the gold but just to be her normal self of a human being, most likely here too, as an identification with the nomads in her film.

Accepting the Best Motion Picture – Drama award, she said about Nomadland:

“At its core, for me, it’s a pilgrimage through grief and healing. So, for everyone who has gone through their difficult and beautiful journey at some point in their lives, this is for you. We don’t say goodbye, we say see you down the road.”

Maybe that image rippled in my mind as I went to sleep and conjured up that dream…

Well, see you down the road, Chloé. And hopefully then, not in a dream, but for real.

***

Related Ripple Posts:

Nomadland Book Review

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Top Ripples 2020

Love Classics from Book to Screen

Love in all its forms: steadfast, unrequited, hidden, or blind… These classic novels aren’t just about romance, but deal with their subject matters in the context of their social milieu, gender relations, class disparity, individual aspirations and angsts, as the authors explore that elusive entity called love.

What better time than now to watch these movie adaptations again, or for the first time, since many of us can’t go anywhere under pandemic restrictions. So, here they are, the Ripple list of stay-at-home viewing for Valentine’s 2021. Links are to my Ripple reviews.

The grounds in The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home from
1902-1911. Photo taken by Arti, Oct. 2015.

***

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – With this novel, Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer in 1921, which makes this year the 100th anniversary of her Prize honour. Wharton’s depiction of the Gilded Age and Newland Archer’s inner torments are aptly captured by Martin Scorsese (1993), and of course, Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.

A Room with A View by E. M. Forster – Merchant Ivory’s 1985 production remains the definitive classic. Lucy opening the window of her (exchanged) room in the Pensione Bertolini to see the view of Florence, enwrapped by the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa singing “O mio babbino caro”. And what a cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Here’s a story of an unhappy family; true enough, epic in its unhappiness, as the ending shows. The Joe Wright directed, Tom Stoppard scripted adaptation (2012) is worth a look for its highly stylized rendition. How many other versions? At least three dozen.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn make ideal screen lovers, but life isn’t ideal. Holly Golightly singing “Moon River” by the fire escape of her NY apartment is heart-tugging. Yes, that’s her own voice. But major flaw I try to ignore is Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi. Have to forgive and forget that dated, racially stereotyped portrayal.

Emma by Jane Austen – It has been 24 years since the last full-length feature of Emma was made for the big screen, time for a millennial version (2020). Rising star Anya Taylor-Joy got two 2021 Golden Globe Best Actress nominations for her roles in Emma and The Queen’s Gambit. The multi-talented Johnny Flynn (The Dig) is the updated Mr. Knightly.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene – The 1999 movie came out three years after The English Patient, another one of Ralph Fiennes’s dead-end passion for someone he can’t have. Graham Greene’s classic is Colin Firth’s choice to record for UK Audible, a series by famous actors reading their favourite classic novel. What more can you ask?

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – As much as I enjoy Carey Mulligan’s works, for this one, I think the director and screenwriter had mishandled the adaptation, albeit I must say I love the lush green Dorset landscape. For nostalgic reasons, maybe it’s time to revisit John Schlesinger directing Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene (1967), with Alan Bates and Peter Finch.

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton – May not be on the list of early 20th C. classics, but the 1969 film is a gem. Peter O’Toole won a Best Actor Golden Globe for his role as poor old Mr. Chips, and Petula Clark is a natural. The scene where she sings out ‘Fill the World with Love’ at the school assembly is hilariously inspirational.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I like Robert Redford as Gatsby (1974), but Carey Mulligan as Daisy (2013), so, it’s a toss-up between the two versions. Also, I think Gatsby is great not because of his extravagance and opulence, on which Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version focuses. He’s great because of his steadfast, and you could say, blind, love for Daisy. The only reason he strives to climb to the top is to win her back. The 1974 version is more subtle, screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola.

Howards End by E. M. Forster – The 1992 Merchant Ivory production is classic, the more recent adaptation derivative of it. James Ivory directing, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Best adapted writing Oscar), cast Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson (Best Actress Oscar), Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter. Book and film worth revisiting time and again.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – With over twenty adaptations for the big and small screens, which one do you choose? I appreciate the newest 2011 full-length feature directed by Cary Fukunaga. The storytelling is fresh and cinematography stylish, screenplay by Moira Buffini who 10 years later scripted The Dig. As for the actors, I can’t say whole-heartedly that the Fassbender and Wasikowska duo are as good as Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton though.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life, and paints for us what love is all about. One of the best films I’ve watched in recent years and an updated version for today. This would make a fine 2021 Valentine’s stay-at-home viewing.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen – Best to be an armchair traveller during a pandemic, and let the movie transport you to a freer landscape. As for this one, lament a love unrequited. Being in Africa, Karen (Meryl Streep) should have known that she can’t chain a lion to one spot. Denys (Robert Redford) has to roam the mountains on his own. While Mozart might be able to subdue him momentarily, the wildness inside him can’t be tamed.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford – Ford’s tetralogy was adapted into a 5-episode BBC mini-series (2013), which didn’t get much attention this side of the Atlantic. The love between Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) is latent and restrained, and does not surface in more realistic way until the last episodes. Why, there are more important issues to deal with such as a World War, women suffrage, and Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall).

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Here’s a dreamy scenario: time rolls back 25 years for Colin Firth to do a remake. This time, let’s have Carey Mulligan to play Elizabeth Bennet, ok, roll back 10 years for her, and never mind that she was Kitty in 2005. Failing these, I’ll settle for the 1995 BBC series again. But thanks to our dear Jane, we can always revisit her characters in our literary dreamscape,

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – I’m sure Emma Thompson would want to roll back 25 years too, when in 1996 she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her adapted screenplay of this first novel by Jane Austen. She’d no doubt want to bask in the limelight again, for that night she gave her Golden Globe acceptance speech that Jane herself would have applauded.

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A shout-out to The Classic Club, an admirable endeavour.

‘The Dig’ is a Visual Meditation on Time and Life

Don’t judge a movie by its title. The seemingly uninspiring title packs a lot of story and ideas. Based on a true event and the novel of the same name by John Preston, the dig refers to the historic excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship and the treasures inside its burial chamber, the medieval grave of possibly a warrior king dating back to 600’s AD. The archaeological event took place at the start of WWII in 1939 on Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo property in Suffolk, England. For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.

Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the widow of a Colonel whom she still mourns at his grave while raising their young son Robert (Archie Barnes). As an amateur archeology enthusiast, she has a feeling the mounds on her grounds have something significant buried. Hiring a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), she watches her hunch realized.

However, Edith’s deteriorating heart condition is a constant reminder of her own mortality, a tug at her soul, brewing a deep concern for her son Robert after she’s gone. Mulligan acts not just with her facial expressions; her whole body speaks to the fragility of life. While treasures are unearthed, her fears and sentiments are buried deep within.

To interplay with Mulligan’s delicate demeanor, Fiennes delivers an understated performance with the unglamorous character Basil Brown. A country excavator, stooped in posture, quiet yet determined, apparently knowing much more than he shows. It is gratifying to see the two of them interact in a naturalistic way, their expressions equally sensitive and nuanced.

Reading about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tuktankamun, Edith is apprehensive about finding human remains in the dig, as that’s like disinterring the dead. Brown answers with his view of the philosophy of the discipline: “… that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.” And, as his wife May (Monica Dolan) points out, it’s about continuity for the next generations, so they know where they come from.

The ‘untrained’ Brown––with no academic credentials but learned the skill from his father passed down from his grandfather––has to yield to the authority of the famous archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Phillips takes over the dig as soon as he arrives on the site with his team of specialists.

Among them are the archaeologist couple Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). Their incompatibility is obvious; Stuart is happier with fellow team member John Brailsford (Eamon Farren) than with his wife. Later, the arrival of Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Mr. Knightley of Emma, 2020) further alters the relational dynamics. While at the dig, Rory is called up by the RAF, a worrisome commission as war with Germany breaks out.

There’s interesting play with sound, or the lack of. For some short moments in certain scenes, there’s just silence. All sound and music halt. Most other times, the score is meditative, quiet piano playing. There are often juxtapositions of scenes linked by voice-overs, offering a fresh way of storytelling. This is effective not just to show what’s happening at different places or time, but that the dialogues can be relevant for different people in other situations as well.

Cinematographer Mike Eley captures on screen some exquisite sights of the English open country, wide shots shrouded with a hazy light, sometimes teal, sometimes golden. Terence Davies’s Sunset Song comes to mind, albeit The Dig is a much quieter film.

Young Robert’s fantasy with the cosmos and his imaginary tales cannot be brushed away as just spice to animate the mood. Kudos to Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the film wraps up with mother and son laying close together in the dug-up ship under a starry sky at night, as Robert tells his mother and Brown observing nearby, his woven tale of the ship taking the queen home to the stars to meet the king, leaving everyone behind, a poignant metaphor and a fable-like send off. Mulligan and Barnes are treasures here. That aerial shot is magical.

The Dig begins streaming January 29, 2021 on Netflix. I’ve watched it twice so far, once isn’t enough to capture all that need to be noted to appreciate.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

‘Pieces of a Woman’ Review

For the first 30 minutes before the title comes out on screen, viewers follow almost in real time a home birth gone awry. They witness the intense moments of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) giving birth, the contractions, the unbearable pain, the difficult labor, the birth, the joy, and then the tragedy. That first section is absorbing and the shaky handheld camera increases the intensity.

The movie is inspired by screenwriter Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó’s real-life experience of losing a baby during pregnancy. In Pieces of a Woman, the duo depict not just the court of legal proceedings, but the court of public opinion, and within the family, generational and relational adversary when faced with the loss of a baby.

Martha and her partner Sean (Shia Labeouf) maintains a precarious relationship to start. She dresses chicly, works in a modern tower and has her own office; he works in construction outdoor building a bridge. It’s not so much their jobs but the incompatible personalities between them. Martha is soft spoken and reflective; Sean, sporting a bushy beard, is boorish (his own word, albeit sarcastically) and physically abusive. The dashed hope of a child tears apart an already fragile relationship.

Kirby doesn’t let her previous role as Princess Margaret in The Crown S1 & 2 define her. Here as Martha, she is everywoman expecting her first baby, mixing hope with trepidation. Reticent in her demeanour, after the death of her newborn, she withdraws deeper into her own self, grieving in her own way, picking up the pieces of what’s left of a woman. She is the main attraction of the movie.

Labeouf’s psyche is a mixed bag too, but with different elements. His hopeful excitement of imminent fatherhood is obvious, but is it another aspect of domination? Considering Labeouf’s real-life legal charges against him of domestic violence and sexual battery, it’s eery to watch him befitting the role of a needy abuser.

It is the veteran actor Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the overbearing mother of Martha’s that bring out the two main characters. Burstyn plays Elizabeth, domineering and combative. The beginning scene sets the tone as she buys a minivan for Martha and Sean. Not a good thing to let your mother-in-law buy you a new car, or the mother of your girlfriend, same thing. Elizabeth despises Sean and belittles her own daughter. So much for the symbol of the big gift.

Elizabeth’s reaction to the tragic home birth is to push Martha to sue the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) for negligence. In her view, that’s the way to get justice and compensation. While the legal trial leads to an unexpected resolution at the end, the climax of the movie comes a little earlier, in Elizabeth’s classy, tastefully decorated home. It highlights the court of domestic interactions, setting up a scene reminiscence of August: Osage County (2013). Elizabeth’s survival and combative instinct challenges Martha’s reticence. This is one of the two best scenes of the whole movie. The other during the court recess of the trial, but I won’t elaborate or it will be a spoiler.

Here in Elizabeth’s home where the family has gathered, the camera follows Martha in a long take as she moves agitatedly around the living and dining room, a woman reacting to pieces of casual conversations aiming at making the mood light, but which soon crescendos into a full blown mother-daughter confrontation.

Well acted and absorbing. A takeaway could be that, experience is subjective and personal; what one generation has gone through and even lessons learned can best be shared and hopefully inspire but can’t be transferred or expected to elicit the same results in the next generation. Amidst the tension, Elizabeth relays her wartime moment of resilience when as a young child, how a doctor held her weak body up by her feet and said, “if she tries to lift her head, then there’s hope.” And, she did. Now that she’s an ageing mother, a new lesson to learn might be to realize that such an experience cannot be imposed on her daughter, for Martha has her own way to deal with grief and ‘lift her head’, as shown at the conclusion of the trial.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Pieces of a Woman won the Arca Cinema Giovani Award and Vanessa Kirby Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival 2020. Now streaming on Netflix.

Page to Screen Adaptations 2021 and Beyond

2020 is history. Hopefully 2021 will resume as 2019 was. Huh? Right. Things fall apart and don’t appear as they used to be. We’re learning to live with uncertainties. But books are still being written; movies are still being made. Here’s a list of upcoming adaptations. Some have just been announced, some are filming, some completed.

Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway (1950)

The last of Hemingway’s novels published in his lifetime. A love story about a war-ravaged American Colonel, Richard Cantwell, in post WWII Italy. His encounter with a Venetian countess stirs up reminiscences and pondering of love, youth, war, and death. Liev Schreiber and Josh Hutcherson star. Spanish director Paula Ortiz takes the helm.

Anatomy of A Scandal by Sarah Vaughan (2018)

A British upper-class wife Sophie believes her husband James is innocent of the serious criminal charge against him. Prosecutor Kate sets out to prove her wrong. A timely legal case about consent. Michelle Dockery is Barrister Kate, Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend the elite couple trying to hang on to their marriage. The popular thriller will be adapted into a six-part series on Netflix, created by David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, but all the more, the creator of legal series like Ally McBeal, Boston Legal…), directed by S. J. Clarkson (Jessica Jones).

The Dig by John Preston (2007)

The historical novel is about the 1939 Sutton Hoo dig in Suffolk, England. On the verge of WWII, the burial ship and treasures of a 7th Century Anglo-Saxon ruler were excavated. Book reviewer Michael Pye in the NYT called it “an archaeological event almost as glamorous as the finding of Tutankhamen.” Filmed on location of the actual site, starring Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, from whose property the treasures were unearthed, and Ralph Fiennes as the archaeologist Basil Brown. Lily James joins in the search. With this cast, I hope it’s not just about dust and mound.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (2020)

Even before its publication, Alam’s third novel has already been longlisted for the National Book Awards and rights snatched up by Netflix, with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington on board. A middle-class white family rents a remote dwelling in Long Island for a weekend getaway ends up having to share the place with strangers––the owners, a black couple. An interesting and realistic scenario in our polarized society. Throw in a lockdown, the tension and suspense can be Hitchcockian. Will see how Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot, Homecoming) scripts and helms it.

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Larsen’s novel (Harlem Renaissance) would be ever relevant now as it tells the story of two biracial women, Clare and Irene, ‘passing’ from black to white. The issue is multi-layered and never simple, involving the search for identity, loyalty, social construction of self, ideology of race, and the agency of choice in matter of racial affiliation. The adaptation is the directorial debut of British actress Rebecca Hall. Now, that can become another contentious issue. Nevertheless, just shows nothing is as simple as black and white.

The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1959)

Howard’s novel depicts the relational dynamics of a playwright’s entourage which darts between England and America: his wife, his manager, and later a young secretary. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the wife as well as takes the helm of the movie. Can she add some spice in this her directorial debut? Playing the young secretary is The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy, aka Emma Woodhouse. Hopefully the interactions of the two women, no, all four characters, can generate some cinematic sparks. Actors for the men have yet been announced. Your choice?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

How about this as reality TV. A Shakespearian theatre troupe tries to rebuild civilization in an apocalyptic society after a flu pandemic had wiped out most of the world’s population. Canadian author Mandel’s fourth novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015, and was a nominee for the National Book Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. On HBO in 10 episodes. And yes, you’ve guessed it. The Glass Hotel is also on the drawing board. More info later.

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‘Defending Jacob’: When Love and Truth Collide

Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Chris Evans in ‘Defending Jacob’

I usually read the book before watching its adaptation. When the reverse occurs, it’s because the movie or TV series is so absorbing that it leads me to explore how the original story is written and more importantly, how it ends.

Defending Jacob is a 2012 crime novel written by award-winning author William Landay. The story is character-driven and deals with issues such as the essence of parental love, nature vs. nurture, certainty and doubts. Without giving out any spoilers, I can say that the ending of the book is a darker reality while the TV adaptation offers a glimmer of light.

One morning in the quiet town of Newton, MA, a 14 year-old boy, Ben Rifkin, is found stabbed to death in a park on his way to school. Another 14 year-old schoolmate Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is later charged with first degree murder and tried as an adult according to the law of the State.

What turns this from just another murder mystery into a captivating 8-episode TV mini-series is the character depiction and the intriguing perspectives it presents. Parents Andy (Chris Evans) and Laurie Barber (Michelle Dockery) are totally loving and devoted to their only child Jacob, but their inner voices differ.

Andy, an assistant DA who is involved in the investigation initially, is convinced of his son’s innocence. While equally fervent in her love, as the trial reveals some incriminating evidence against Jacob, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) begins to doubt and is willing to seek the truth, even if it’s devastating.

Does love for your child mean unequivocal loyalty and trust? Is doubt a form of betrayal? Do genes determine actions? What about family background and upbringing, nature or nurture? And above all, can you know a person fully? Your spouse? Your child?

The eight episodes are not too long to explore these issues. I finished them in two days. Then right away to the book. After that, rewatched again. What first drew me to the series was Michelle Dockery. Yes, I’m always curious to see the post-Downton transfiguration of the cast… Lily James, Dan Matthews, and others. Dockery’s performance is effective and convincing here. Playing opposite the highly popular Chris Evans, they make an admirable couple, albeit maybe ten years younger than the book’s characters.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob is mystifying, not giving viewers any clues to his inner self, which is effective in a way so we can sense his parents’ frustration. Unlike Kevin (Ezra Miller) who instigates a school shooting in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Jacob doesn’t appear to be a monster or the devil incarnate. His innocent look elevates the suspense. How much do we actually know our children? How much can we know?

Supporting cast is equally judicious. Cherry Jones as Jacob’s lawyer Joanna Klein is an apt choice and portrayal, as well as Detective Duffy (Betty Gabriel), instead of the male characters in the book. J. K. Simmons is eerily convincing as the grandfather, a figure Andy tries to bury in his memory. Jacob’s classmate Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) deserves a mention for her natural poise, an altered and a more fully developed character from the book.

This I disagree with some prominent critics: it is not too long. The 421 page book works well as a novel. The 8 episodes work well as an elaboration and interpretative performance of the novel. Those too impatient to go through them might have missed some fine details. The side stories are necessary to bring out the characters and give actors their chances of more fleshed-out, nuanced performance. Every episode moves the story forward with its smooth editing.

The ending of the mini-series offers a different scenario in contrast to the book. It’s a softer landing, which is acceptable but not as powerful and intense as the book’s harsher reality. The creator/screenwriter could have been tough enough to follow the book, as Landay’s plotting is remarkable. Nevertheless, the twists and turns of the story development remain intact overall. Defending Jacob is a highly watchable and riveting adaptation.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Defending Jacob is created by Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, now playing on Apple TV+

New ‘Rebecca’: First Impressions

Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. Kerry Brown/Netflix

‘First Impressions’ sounds like a disclaimer, implying that I could change my mind upon second or further viewing. However, first impressions last; hence, I just might not watch the Netflix movie again. If I do, it would be just the first part, which is the more enticing.

Nobody likes to be compared to, especially to something more definitive, but Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel inevitably creeps into my mind. It’s all subliminal. Ben Wheatley, the versatile English director of some quirky, arthouse works like the surreal adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (2015), could transpose a book onto the screen in whatever way he chooses. But I’m just baffled by his taking up this traditional du Maurier classic.

First off, the colour palette in the first act is aesthetically pleasing. The pacing moves along well and camera agile and inviting. The Gatsby-esque setting and set design give it a free-wheeling, romantic mood, the golden overtone exuding a reminiscing perspective which is apt as the novel is a remembrance of things past.

Our protagonist, a naive, young assistant (Lily James) to rich and snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in a Monte Carlo hotel, meets the aristocratic, widowed master of Manderley, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who falls for her in no time. An instant marriage and our protagonist is zoomed back to the iconic estate as its new mistress, an irreplaceable position owned by her predecessor Rebecca, who drowned in a boating accident a year ago.

This is where things begin to unravel, for both the new Mrs. de Winter and the storytelling. Lily James is ubiquitous ever since her breakout role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. Her performance is effective in Cinderella, Mamma Mia!, Darkest Hour, just to name a few. For some uncanny reasons, she doesn’t fit in that well as the new Mrs. de Winter. Her performance lacks the power to elicit empathy or to engage. I doubt this is a matter of capability. A shortfall in directing, or maybe not? She’s unsure of her role––a parallel with the new Mrs. de Winter––is this some kind of intended effect in method acting?

Another thing I noticed. Here’s a real disclaimer. I’m definitely not into fashion. But a look at Mrs. de Winter’s costume, I find it odd that she wears pants all the time, except in the very short-lived scene at the ball when she is ordered back up to her room to change by an infuriated Maxim after appearing in Rebecca’s dress. Anyway, her attire looks like the casual wear of the 1960’s or even 70’s, a bit incompatible with a character in this movie setting. I remember how avant garde it was to wear pants in that era as Lady Sybil and Lady Mary demonstrated the new, stylish fashion. Yes, a Downton revelation.

Hammer as Maxim seldom appears in Manderley and doesn’t leave much of an impression, maybe except for his mustard-colour suit. But it is Kristin Scott Thomas that rescues the acting front as the eerily stern and mysterious Mrs. Danvers. Why, of course, with her calibre, she can deliver even without any strong directing. She articulates superbly, her stage presence poised, her expressions nuanced. In this new adaptation that borders on an identity disorder, Scott Thomas’ performance is the one good thing that offers clarity.

The Manderley mystique relies on sound and special effects to elicit outcomes akin to the horror genre. I miss Hitchcock’s subtlety and suspense, and his calmly drawing out the essence of his characters. Without further comparing, judging on its own, this new Rebecca is choppy in its editing, neurotic in mood, and its altered ending leaves viewers with an unresolved moral issue.

[Hereafter Spoiler Warning] While du Maurier did not spell out that the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter live happily ever after, Wheatley’s Rebecca declares such a happy ending explicitly. Even Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) poses the ethical problem at the end of the movie, but here there’s no dilemma. This new Rebecca wraps up like a version of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and offers a dubious way to finding love.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix

One Duck at a Time

I went to the Inglewood Bird Scanctuary last weekend. The famous migratory visitors there are the Wood Ducks. They come every spring to breed, stay for the summer, and fly away in the fall. But strangely, you can’t always see them there. So it’s a delight just to catch one or two hanging out.

Last weekend, I was excited to find not just a couple but a flock of Wood Ducks there. That could well be my last glimpse of them before they take leave. How we need something beautiful to look at this fall. Like canning your summer harvest for winter enjoyment, the photos I take will be my winter treats.

See the fallen tree trunks in the centre of the water in the above photo? That’s their hub. See them? Here’s a closer look:

Some might just walk by and not give them a second look, just some ducks they might think. But in my limited birding experience, the Wood Duck is probably the most beautiful ducks I’ve seen.

Beauty in a tangled mess of broken trunks and decaying wood makes me think of the Japanese notion of Wabi-sabi:

They like to gather on the branches, often just sleeping, preening, or sunbathing. So, it’s a real treat to see them swim out so I can take these photos. I can see how Monet would paint the scene if he were here:

Check out this slide show below:

Don’t know if I have the chance to see them again this fall, so I’ll just bid them adieu until next year. Don’t know much about anything these days, but I’ll take one duck at a time, and be glad to count my blessings, bird by bird.

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‘Nomadland’ by Jessica Bruder: A Book Review


When you hear the word nomad, what do you think of? The Bedouin in the Arabian desert? Now, what about American nomad? Maybe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind, dust bowl families on a wagon heading to California to escape poverty. Or, maybe the famous image of the migrant mother with her children captured by photographer Dorothea Lange (1936). Or in more recent years, Jeannette Walls’ family when she was a child in The Glass Castle (2005).

Journalist Jessica Bruder has followed some modern-day nomads and chronicled their lives in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. These are van and RV dwellers in California, Nevada, Arizona and several other Western States. Many of them are fallout of the 2008 financial meltdown when they lost their homes, jobs and investments. In the book, Bruder stayed close with them for a year, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, LaVonne and many others, all in their 60’s and 70’s but still active as itinerant workers. What she has revealed in her book is eye-opening.

Linda is a sixty-four-year-old grandmother. She drives a salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Towed behind the jeep is her home, a trailer she calls the “Squeeze Inn.”  It’s a “fiberglass relic” built in 1974. Inside dimension is ten feet from end to end and room enough for Linda to stand up straight. “It’s 5’3” inside and I am 5’2”… Perfect fit,” she says. A positive outlook is the sustenance of the nomads Bruder has come to know personally in her research in situ.

Linda has worked as a Camp Host, which pays $8.50 per hour for her to welcome campers, settle them in, clean toilets, maintain campground, and be a service person and problem solver at all hours. She also belongs to CamperForce, an Amazon labour source made up of mostly workers in their 60’s and 70’s living in vans and trailers parked on RV lots near Amazon warehouses. When not walking miles on the concrete field of these warehouses during her 10-hour night shift, Linda would find work at outdoor crop harvests or camp sites.

In 2011, United States Gypsum shut down its mine in Empire, Nevada. As a result, the USG company town was emptied as its whole population rented their homes from the company. Empire became a ghost town, its Zip Code discontinued. Seventy miles to the south of Empire was a convergence of a different kind of town around Fernley. They were itinerant workers living in RV, trailers, and vans parked on RV lots. They belong to a population described by the new term ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs for low wages.

In her book, Bruder points to Bob Wells’ influence on many of these homeowner-turned vandwellers. For twenty years, Wells has been preaching anti-consumerism. The guru of modern-day nomadic life spreads his message of simple and mortgage-free living on his YouTube channel and website CheapRVLiving.com, bonus is staying close to the land and nature, but above all, being self-sufficient. With the 2008 economic meltdown, many saw the positive message Wells was preaching.

Wells also created RTR, Rubber Tramp Rendevous, which takes place every January in Quartzsite, Arizona. It is a popular annual meet-up of campdwellers coming together for support, camaraderie, and education. There are seminars and classes to learn all sorts of essential knowledge and skills related to RV living or just general living. Some of these courses include solar cooking, get out of debt, living in small cars, and the art of stealth parking (puzzled? Google it)

Bruder’s book is a detailed coverage of a marginal population. It’s full of relevant statistics, background information and interviews, all approached and presented to highlight their humanity as she followed and befriended the vandwellers. We come to know them as respectable human beings seeking an alternative way of living away from the rat race. Unfortunately, their toiling inside humungous Amazon warehouses could well be an inevitable but poignant irony. It might not convert you to become a vandweller, but Bruder’s matter-of-fact reportage could have its effects in loosening our grip on consumerism and the necessities of living.

Now, can such a non-fiction book be turned into a movie? It’s been done and the feature film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in their scaled-down, Pandemic mode. Indeed, Covid-19 has made us re-think many basic assumptions of life and modern day living. Nomadland the film has the power to shake us to the core.

Directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017), a master in blending documentary and fiction, the film puts Bruder’s book subjects Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells onto the big screen. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017) mingles in with her self-effacing role as a vandweller, perfect casting in this inspiring docudrama. The cinematography is exceptional, the score soul-stirring. Look for it when it is released in December later this year.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 273 pages.

My review of Nomadland the movie is now published on the film website Vague Visages. Free to read one day only Monday, September 28, 2020.

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Related Posts:

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Glass Castle from Book to Screen

‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history.

Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of them appear in natural situ, devoid of showy costume or make-up but instead, wrapped in authenticity. A remarkable documentary series.

What’s in common is the intriguing fact that these grandchildren had known little about the wartime happening or even heroics of their grandparents until now, and the main reason is due to the older generation’s own reticence about their experience in a traumatic chapter of their life. This in itself is poignant and revealing.

Episode 1 – Mark Rylance

From Shakespearean drama to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, stage and film actor Mark Rylance discovers a real-life horror story as he ponders the facts and conditions of his grandfather Osmond Skinner as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. He travels to the former British colony and walks the path and talks to those who show him records, and meeting the daughter of his grandfather’s fellow prisoner. Views from both sides of the war are presented.

Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather was Royal Navy Captain William Scott Thomas whose heroics include a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation and D-Day, as well as the arduous and deadly missions of the Arctic Convoy to transport supplies to Russia. A moving personal journey as she learns the facts and visits Dunkirk to meet a descendant of an evacuee. The tragic death of Kristin’s pilot father in a plane crash when she was young could have severed a link between grandfather and grandchildren in terms of war stories.

Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan’s grandfather Denzil Booth was just a teenager from Wales when he was fast-tracked to join the Navy. He was A radar operator on a war ship when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane. Touching moments when she goes searching for the details of her grandfather’s ship and conflicting emotions when she finds out the truths about the pilots of these Kamikaze missions when she sets foot in Japan.

Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter

While they did not actively fight in the battlefield, both sides of Helena Bonham Carter’s grandparents had performed remarkable heroics during the War. Her maternal grandparents were Jews living in Paris. During the Holocaust, Helena’s grandfather used his Spanish diplomatic influence to save thousands of Jews. While in England, her paternal grandmother was an activist denouncing anti-semitism and was marked by the Nazi’s to be eliminated once they took over. An uplifting episode.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


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My Grandparents’ War is now on CBC Gem. If you’re in Canada, it’s free download. Here’s the link to the trailer. If you’re not in Canada, try to find this documentary series. A must-see.

Related Posts on the Pacific Front in WWII:

WWII Comfort Women Speak Out in The Apology

The Railway Man: Movie Review

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

Canada Reads 2018: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto