WWJW: What Would Jane Write?

thejaneaustenbookclub2

The Jane Austen Book Club

Calgary International Film Festival 2007

Some time ago, I was using the phrase “intellectual chick lit” to describe the book Literacy and Longing in L.A. to a friend and was instantly retorted with: “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”  I had no reply.  Maybe to respond to the bad rap “chick lit” and “chick flicks” have been getting, a few writers have infused literary ingredients in their concoction in their attempt to create more intelligent work.  The Jane Austen Book Club falls into this short list.  The book written by Karen Joy Fowler (2002 Pen/Faulkner Award finalist) was turned into sceenplay by Robin Swicord (Screenplay, Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) who made her directorial debut in the movie.  I had the chance to view it on the first day of the 2007 Calgary International Film Festival.

The book club is established with the original intent of consoling Sylvia, who is recently divorced from her husband Daniel.  It is a plan conceived by her good friend Jocelyn, a never-been-married dog breeder.  Following the theme of Austen’s Emma, Jocelyn has brought along the only male, Grigg, to the club, intended for her friend Sylvia.  What follows is the expected outcomes, Grigg falls for Jocelyn instead of Sylvia, who later reconciles with her estranged husband, while the other members of the group also are either hooked up with new found love or have their relationships mended.  Very neat, very happy, very clean ending.  Is this what Jane would have written if she were around today?

TJABC reminds me of the British movie Love Actually, which was released during the Christmas season in 2003.  Dealing with the love affairs of eight different couples in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the season has got to be a swift and jolly feat.  The movie remains a montage of famous British faces delivering superficial Christmas cheers under the banner of love.  TJABC has just slightly fewer characters, with six members in the group responsible for leading discussion on one of the six Austen novels.  Despite the juxtaposition and parallels of Austenian motifs and plots, I feel that both the movie and the book circumvent the periphery of contemporary life and relationships without offering much depth and insights as Austen’s own work. But of course, who is comparing Fowler with Austen?  Having said that, I must say I’ve enjoyed the acting of some of the characters, especially Prudie (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), and Hugh Dancy (who would have thought he’s a Brit?)

Coming back to my original question:  What would Jane Austen write in this 21st century?  Would she fall for “chick lit” that can be turned into romantic comedies, for good cheers or box office successes?  Would Jane Austen be a mere romance writer, or “chick flicks” producer? Carol Shield noted that Austen’s heroines “exercise real power”, given their disadvantaged social positions.  Martin Amis stated “her fiction effortlessly renews itself in every generation.”  Virginia Woolf said about Austen’s writing: “That was how Shakespeare wrote.” Harold Bloom commented on the somberness of her work.  Thornton Wilder claimed that Austen’s “art is so consummate that the secret is hidden.”   Fay Weldon summed it up well:  “I also think … that the reason no one married her was … It was just all too much.  Something truly frightening rumbled there beneath the bubbling mirth:  something capable of taking the world by its heels, and shaking it.”  Thanks to Fowler for including such commentaries at the back of her book.

Austen is a sharp and incisive social commentator of her time, a progressive thinker holding a sure sense of morality, and a brilliant observer of human nature and relationships.  Her wisdom is well crafted in the disguise of humor and satire, her vision covered under seemingly simple, idealistic fervor.   Her critique of the manner and injustice of society, if transferred into modern day context, might not appeal as “chick” or as “romantic” as many of us would want to see, or can accept.

What would Jane write?  Definitely not “chick lit”.

~~1/2 Ripples for both book and movie

When Did You Last See Your Father?

when-did-you-last-see-your-father

I have the chance to soak in the frenzy of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) these past few days in the big TO. The largest film fest in the world, this year TIFF offers over 300 films from 60 countries from September 6 to 15, a delectable smorgasbord for movie lovers . On Saturday, Sept. 8th at 7:00 pm, while the enthusiastic crowd gathered along the barricades outside the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, hoping to get a glimpse of Brad Pitt on the red carpet, I lined up patiently with a less boisterous group of ticket holders outside the same building an hour early to get into the Winter Garden Theatre for the premiere screening of When Did You Last See Your Father?

Based on the award-winning and highly acclaimed memoir written by British author Blake Morrison, WDYLSYF is a fine piece of artistry crafted by some of today’s top British talents. Director Anand Tucker’s work includes the Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning Hilary and Jackie (1998), and co-producing Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003), another Oscar nominee and numerous European film award winner. The stellar cast of WDYLSYF is led by Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth, playing father Arthur and son Blake Morrison, with strong supporting roles from Juliet Stevenson as the mother and newcomer Matthew Beard, who plays the teenage Blake.

When Did You Last See Your Father

The words “A True Story” in the opening credits prepared the audience for something real and meaningful. We were led to explore a multi-layered and poignant story about a fragile father-son relationship that is brought to the forefront at the father’s imminent death from cancer. Jim Broadbrent could well deserve an acting nomination as the ailing father, headstrong, overbearing, and ever the victor in whatever circumstances, even in the face of terminal illness. Colin Firth aptly portrays the middle-aged Blake, already an acclaimed writer and poet, yet still waiting to hear from his father the two precious words he has longed for all his life: “well done”.

Intense but not draining, the director effectively sprinkles enough comic relief at the right moments to move the story along with poignancy but steers the viewers away from sentimentality. I always think that Colin Firth excels in subtle, understated acting, his every gaze speaks volume. Here again he has shown once more that he is a master of this craft.

However, I must admit that Matthew Beard, a first time film actor who plays the teenage Blake shines with his natural and superb performance, bringing out the love/hate sentiments he has harboured towards his father from the various situations he has been pushed into, such as the reluctant camping trip, the impromptu driving lesson, the numerous embarrassment and even public humiliation he has suffered from his father’s brash and insensitive comments…but above all, from the burden he has to bear as a witness to the wrongs of his own parent.

The restrained acting by the stellar cast effectively conveys the pathos and conflicting family relationships as well as the ambivalence of a son trying to come to terms with resentment towards a callous, egotistic, and dying father. Firth’s subtle characterization of the adult Blake poignantly portrays the crux of his torments. It is a painful relief at the end of the movie when he realizes that sometimes one has to resolve anger and disappointment on one’s own, unilaterally, including the most difficult discipline, forgiveness and the letting go. If the victim has forgiven, should the witness keeps on holding grudges? There’s no simple answer, and the film has successfully dealt with such conflicts through the multi-layered characterization and the reflective shots through mirrors in many scenes.

Filmed mostly on location in beautiful Derbyshire, England, the movie’s inspiring cinematography works like a soothing balm, together with the light-hearted and nostalgic childhood scenes, the film is an enjoyable visual treat. Again, such is the real portrayal of the issues we face, natural beauty can sometimes offset the darker side of human nature. Humour and pathos can co-exist.

A bonus in going to film festival screening is the chance to hear the makers of the movie reflect on their work. The audience was pleasantly surprised to see the director Anand Tucker and actor Jim Broadbent come on stage to answer questions after the movie. Listening to them, I felt that I’d only discovered the outer layer of a very complex and pleasurable artifact that I wanted to see the movie all over again.

And so I did two days later.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

______________________

 

To read my review of the book And When Did You Last See Your Father? Click here.

Stranger Than Fiction

 

“Stranger Than Fiction” (2006)–I always believe that the script is probably the most important element in a movie. If you’ve nothing to say, you’ve got nothing to show, and no story to tell. This may well be an oversimplification. However, watching Stranger Than Fiction, I felt my view confirmed.

The excellent writing by Zach Helm handles a serious subject with style and humor. Reminiscence of “The Truman Show”, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a fresh and classy treatment of the existential questions of free will and fate. Will Ferrell is Harold Crick, an IRS agent. He lives by himself, eats by himself, and his favorite word is ‘integer’. Every morning, he counts the same number of strokes as he brushes his teeth, ties his tie in exactly the same number of seconds, takes exactly the same number of steps to catch his bus. His daily routine runs like clockwork…and he thinks he is in control of the minutest item of his life.

His secure, mundane world is turned upside down one day as he finds out that his life is being narrated, written by someone else. He is in fact a character in a novel, and what’s most devastating is, the author (Emma Thompson) is planning his imminent death. Sunddenly faced with his own impending demise, Harold Crick curses his fate, yells at heaven and protests in vain. Poor Harold is certainly not ready to die, for he hasn’t even begun to live. With the help of a literature professor, aptly played by Dustin Hoffman, Harold tries to turn a tragedy into a comedy. He soon finds out that although he cannot change his own fate, he can change himself, and he can become a happier person if he chooses to be, despite his ominous fate. In the baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whom he audits, he discovers for the first time in his life, love. Little does he know that this new found sentiment is a powerful force that has altered his myopic view so much that in an act of altruistic bravery, he steps right in the path of death and stares fate in the eye.

The message of the movie and the subject matters of life and death, fate and free will can easily be perceived as didactic and preachy if not being handled properly, but “Stranger Than Fiction” has successfully dealt with these issues with light-hearted humor and intelligent dialogues and characterization. Overall, an entertaining work of fiction, or, is it a whimsical portrayal of real life? … Strange, they’re so similar.

~~~3 Ripples

Mr. Brooks

Mr. Brooks (2007)– What a departure from his past filmography! Mr. Brooks is Kevin Costner’s attempt to cross the great divide, from the heroic and noble to the villainous, from Eliot Ness, Mafia annihilator to Earl Brooks, serial killer. Wait, did he cross that divide or has he got one foot on each side, straddling in a precarious position with shifting identity? Maybe that’s the point this movie is trying to get across. Mr. Brooks is a successful businessman, philanthropist, loving husband and father, and at the same time, serial killer. What an interesting theme to explore, but ironically, the purpose seems to be marred by the attempts at making it work. The film itself is a schizophrenic struggle between classic Hitchcockian psychological thriller and dark humor with a contemporary flare, thanks to comedian Dane Cook fanning the flame. William Hurt’s role as Brooks’ alter ego also is both effective and self-defeating. At times he is the tempter, at other times he is the companion and friend, still other times he is the clairvoyant, predicting the future…Seems like he too has crossed that line from reality to fantasy. The action sequence though is crisp and captivating, particularly in the kidnapping scene of detective Tracy Atwood, played by Demi Moore. Unfortunately, the intersection of Costner and Moore is a story line that the film fails to dwell into, one that could enhance both character development and certainly thicken the plot. Such lack is compensated by the twists in the story, and the ending is thought provoking. Mr. Costner, nice try at being nasty, but somehow your look and demeanor betray your attempt. This movie makes me appreciate all the more the many heroic and redemptive roles you have played in the past. Having said that, I look forward to the new turn of film making you’re venturing out into and I must say, for love of the game, go for it.

~~1/2 Ripples

A Perfect World

A Perfect World (1993) — The title itself is hint enough that Eastwood is not bringing out another Dirty Harry sequel, even though it has all the ingredients: an escaped convict, a kidnapped child, an eager sheriff, a host of law enforcement officers whose ammunition is hubris and self-importance. In A Perfect World, the convict is a conscientious man torn between good and evil, a typical human being in any typical town. A kidnapped child is a friendly ghost, just wanting to have some fun, and willingly went along for the ride. And the Law, the law is the ever uncompromising, unbending authority seeking justice without mercy, revenge without compassion. At the end, Eastwood has us thinking, who actually is the good, the bad, and the hybrid? Costner has presented a very convincing character, tormented by his own demons, yet striving to right any wrongs driven by almost quixotic passion, an imperfect man righting the wrongs in an imperfect world. What do we know? As Eastwood’s character concludes at the end…nothing….well worth the time in finding out.

~~~ 3 Ripples