Top Ripples 2020

This is the most unusual year… I’ve read and listened to more books than I’ve watched feature films. Actually, this is probably the year that I’ve watched the least number of movies. I haven’t gone to the theatre since March nor attended any film festivals in person, but am most gratified by the few titles I watched online. Two particularly stand out, the first two spots of my very short Top Ripple list for 2020.

Movies

1. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt

A fresh take on the subject of friendship, set in 1820’s Oregon among fur trappers and opportunists, with the arrival of a dairy cow as the inciting incident. Monetary gain is no match for selfless loyalty in human relations. A moving tale of an unlikely friendship, the cinematography augmenting the enjoyment. It has also prompted me to look up the recipe for Fruit Clafoutis. Adapted from the book Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, who had inspired Kelly Reichardt’s previous films. I won’t miss any of her works, poignant richness belying the minimal, naturalistic renderings. Full review to come.

2. Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao

Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland features Frances McDormand as a widow who chooses to live in the community of modern nomads, van and RV dwellers in the Western States of America. Zhao is a master of realistic filmmaking. Nomadland is shot in situ among these older itinerant workers called ‘Camperforce’. A revealing docudrama with stunning cinematography and thought-provoking perspective on the essence of living. My review on Vague Visages.

3. Driveway, directed by Andrew Ahn

One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his passing in April this year at 81. A Korean War veteran strikes up friendship with a lonely eight-year-old boy. Here’s an excerpt from my review on AAPress: Driveways shows us the power of caring human relationships and the change love can bring, yet painfully unfurls the precariousness of life. On a large existential canvas, it paints with personal, relatable strokes.

4. House of Hummingbird, directed by Bora Kim

Based on Kim’s encounters growing up in South Korea, the drama is a coming-of-age story of a teenage school girl in a male-dominated family. Young Eun-hee has to live with parental discords, deal with sibling bullying, and face a health issue and a precarious future all alone, but is fortunate to find a mentor in a teacher. Sensitive directing and nuanced performance. My review on AAPress.

Books

For the ones published in the year 2020, here are my Top Ripples. Links to my reviews:

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani

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The following are some Worthy Mentions, not all 2020 books or TV, but all have made an impression in my isolated mind this year as I binged on them without needing to snack on chips and sodas. That says a lot.

Normal People (TV Mini-Series, 2020) – Based on the 2018 book by Sally Rooney. A taste of ‘millennial literature’ and adaptation. I first listened to the audiobook, found it absorbing. Then watched the series and then read the book again, this time, word by word. Available to stream on CBC GEM and Hulu.

The Morning Show (2019) – Didn’t realize Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon can be so intense. Streamed on Apple TV+

The Crown (2020) – Season 4. Wonder how the Royal Family reacted to this scandalous take on the Charles, Camilla, & Diana affairs. Or, maybe just me… no surprise to them. On Netflix.

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) – The chess moves might be intriguing, but the overall pace can be more riveting if the TV Mini-Series is cut short by two or three episodes. On Netflix.

Defending Jacob (2020) – When parental love and truth collide. After watching the series on Apple TV+, I went directly to the source material, the 2012 novel by William Landay, a fascinating psychological suspense-thriller. After that went on to read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oh… the hazard of parenting.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder – the non-fiction book that inspired Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand to make the movie, one of the front runners for next year’s Oscars. McDormand will likely get a Best Actress nom and hopefully, Zhao and the film will also be honored.

Turning: A Swimming Memoir (2017) by Jessica J. Lee – Lee is a newly emerged voice of nature writing à la memoirist. Coming from a fusion of cultural and geographical background: Canada, Taiwan, Britain, Germany, the environmental historian offers personal and fresh takes relevant in our contemporary society of multiplicity.

****

‘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

‘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

‘The Booksellers’ is a Film for Book Lovers

Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.

Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.

As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.

The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.

Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.


At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.

Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.  

Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”

Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.

Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.  

Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.

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A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.

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An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.

Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.

Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.

A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

I watched this on CBC Gem. If you’re outside Canada, here’s a link to where you can watch it at home.

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Top Ripples 2020

This is the most unusual year… I’ve read and listened to more books than I’ve watched feature films. Actually, this is probably the year that I’ve watched the least number of movies. I haven’t gone to the theatre since March nor attended any film festivals in person, but am most gratified by the few titles … Continue reading Top Ripples 2020

Merry Christmas!

That first crack of Light, the epitome of Grace. +++

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Rewatching Little Women


Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) is on Amazon Prime Video now. I watched it twice in the theatre last year, now rewatching it at home gives me another kind of pleasure: more intimate, easier to observe nuances, and replay memorable lines on demand. It remains one of the best films I’ve watched in recent years.

Reposting here my review. Hope you have a chance to watch it.

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Little Women is not just about heart, but mind, aesthetics, and other enjoyment

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.

So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.

The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.

Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.


The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War.

A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.

The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.

A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.

Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:

And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.

In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:

Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.

The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth. 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts:

Top Ripples of 2019 and the Decade

Women Directors of my Favourite Films

Certain Women: To Connect on a Vast Landscape

Recent Movies and Series Directed by Women

Yesterday while driving I heard the stirring theme music of the movie The Piano (1993) played on CBC Radio 2. Memories flooded my mind. I recalled watching it in the movie theatre way back then. A deaf-mute unable to speak but can overwhelm others as she plays the piano to express herself.

I thought of Jane Campion, writer/director of the film, marvelled at her skills in conveying thoughts and emotions via the visual medium, and thought of other women directors who’d helmed many of my favourite films. I’ve had two previous posts on Women Directors here and here. Now taking stock mentally of the recent movies and series I’ve watched on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy while home-staying, I notice several of them are created and/or directed by women.

The Piano

Consider the following list with my capsule reviews an update of my previous Women Directors posts.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Amazon Prime) – Directed by Marielle Heller 

Director Heller and the screenwriters transport Mr. Roger’s child-friendly, essential human wisdom to realistic, adult situations. The film isn’t so much about Mr. Rogers but the real-life story of journalist Tom Junod’s life-changing encounters with Fred Rogers for a magazine assignment. Tom Hanks is ideal as Mr. Rogers, and Matthew Rhys is effective in playing journalist Lloyd Vogel.

Who’s Matthew Rhys, you might ask? I highly recommend you watch “The Americans” series. Or, if you’re an Austen spinoffs fan, he’s Mr. Darcy in the mini-series “Death Comes to Pemberley”, adaptation of the novel by P. D. James. And, if you were around to watch the original Raymond Burr detective series on TV, the Wales-born actor is the new Perry Mason in our time.

Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime) – Created and screenplay by Liz Tigelaar, Directors Lynn Shelton and Nzingha Stewart. 

The 8-Episode mini-series is the screen adaptation of Asian American novelist Celeste Ng’s second novel. My full book review can be found here. The thematic elements of race, motherhood, family secrets, clashes of generations and values are visualized and made more acute as Kerry Washington is cast as an African-American artist playing against Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Richardson, the gatekeeper of the white upper-middle-class community of Shaker Heights, OH. The artist Mia Warren in Ng’s novel isn’t black, but turning her into one makes the conflict of the story more timely and pressing.

Four episodes are directed by Lynn Shelton who sadly died in May, 2020. Another female director Nzingha Stewart helmed two.

Never have I Ever (Netflix) – Created by Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling. Directors Linda Mendoza and Anu Valia 

Here’s a recent trend that’s encouraging. Movies and series are created to feature minority cultures in America. The talented Mindy Kaling, who wrote the screenplay and co-starred with Emma Thompson in Late Night (2019) plus many other credits, created this comedy series about high school girl Devi’s experience growing up Indian-American, something Kaling knows full well. Many LOL situations and dialogues throughout the ten episodes. Kaling scouted Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in Mississauga, ON, Canada, to play Devi. A fresh look into the multi-cultural humanity that our North American population comprises. In recent years we talk a lot about representation. This is a humorous and realistic look into a vibrant sector.

The Half of It (Netflix) – Directed by Alice Wu

Here’s another lens to look into our younger generation growing up bi-cultural. The full length feature directed by Chinese-American Alice Wu is this year’s Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Narrative Feature winner. A shy academic ace, Ellie Chu, earns her pocket money from writing essays for her fellow classmates. When one day, she’s recruited by the school jock Paul Munsky to be a ghost writer of poetic love letters to a girl he tries to date, Ellie begins to feel a moral dilemma. The characterization and storyline make this feature a contemporary twist on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Humor is situational with some poignant scenes, making the film all the more enjoyable.

Unorthodox (Netflix) – Created by Anna Winger, Directed by Maria Schrader

Inspired by the memoir of Deborah Feldman, who broke away from her strict Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and escaped to Berlin where she changed into a new persona and started a different life. I haven’t read the memoir but I know the four-part mini-series take the liberty to re-imagine how she goes about changing her life while in Berlin. The series is captivating as viewers are introduced to the Hasidic, male-dominated and authoritarian community. Again, there are many cultural sectors in our society and through films we get to know a little bit more of how others live and the struggles they go through.

Ophelia (Netflix) – Directed by Claire McCarthy

Adaptation of the book by Lisa Klein, screenplay by Semi Chellas, Ophelia is a re-imagined story of what happened in the royal castle of Elsinore and in particular, Hamlet’s sweetheart. Lots of liberty in tweaking and twisting but still interesting to watch, albeit a lightweight Hamlet compared to the original. Notable cast includes Naomi Watts as Gertrude, Clive Owen as Claudius. Hamlet is played by George MacKay before his titular role in the WWII movie 1917, and Ophelia is Star War‘s Rey Daisy Ridley.

Hamlet (Kanopy) – Film Direction by Margaret Williams, London Stage Direction by Sarah Frankcom

A filmed recording of the play performed in Royal Exchange, Manchester. This Hamlet is a fresh take with Maxine Peake as the emotionally devastated and revengeful Prince of Denmark. Only after watching that I Google search to find the first female to play Hamlet dates back to 1796 in London Drury Lane, then 1820 in New York. Several others had followed since. But this is my first time watching. Maxine Peake’s performance almost instantly cast away all my preset feelings. She’s high-octane energy; her voice, physical stage presence totally captivate, convincing yet delicate. She’s herself and not an impersonator. Modern costume makes it more natural and, love her haircut. Peake makes me look at her not as a female taking up a male role, but a superb actor playing the ‘Everest of roles’.

‘Benjamin Button’: A Curious Look at the Movie Adaptation

The idea of a baby born as an old man and then grows younger––a reverse trajectory of the human experience––is the premise in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story published in 1922, reviewed in my previous post. Prompted by a remark made by Mark Twain, Fitzgerald unleashed his imagination and wrote the story.

The tale was adapted into a 2008 movie directed by David Fincher who brought it all the way to the Oscars with 13 nominations the next year. I watch it for the first time in 2020 and am surprised to find its relevance: the fear of strangeness in our age of xenophobia.

As for the 13 Oscar nominations, the movie won only three: Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects. These are difficult feats and deserving wins. Unlike the Academy’s (and some critics’) aloofness in embracing the film’s other achievements, I much appreciate the adapted screenplay and Fincher’s 166 minute visual rendition.

Here’s an exemplar of how a film adaptation diverges from the original literary source and yet still keeps its main concept, but instead of faithfully following the thin, short story, carries it to a different direction, creating an expanded and more gratifying version.

Benjamin Button

Screenwriters for the adaptation are Eric Roth and Robin Swicord. Roth is known for his Oscar winning adapted screenplay for Forrest Gump (1994), and Robin Swicord for her 1994 version of Little Women. They had chosen to turn Fitzgerald’s farcical, acerbic fantasy into a serious film in the vein of magical realism. The magic lies in the imaginary, reverse growth trajectory; the realism is love.

This is not just about love between two star-crossed lovers, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett), but about a woman with a huge heart, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who embraces a Gollum-like baby abandoned at her doorstep. Instead of a non-mentioned mother in Fitzgerald’s story, Queenie raises Benjamin with devoted affection. There’s love and acceptance as well from those in the old folks lodging house where Queenie works. Further, the movie adds one more layer, and that’s Daisy at her deathbed, sharing the story of her lost love with her daughter Caroline (affectively played by Julia Ormond), leaving her with a legacy of love.

The film makes amends to the sardonic tone of the short story by creating a moving love story. For a short period in their lives, both Benjamin and Daisy are of approximate age, but such joy doesn’t last as one grows older and the other younger. Yet unlike the short story, their love endures, for as long as one can hold on to it despite separation. And we find out that one can, all the way to her deathbed; the other is just too young to remember. What’s left is the transience of time and inevitable fate.

The setting is early 20th century on the cusp of WWI in New Orleans where Benjamin is born, and not 1860 Baltimore. As he grows younger, Benjamin goes through WWII instead of the Spanish-American War in the short story. The movie starts off with a modern time with Daisy’s final hours revealing to her daughter who her real father is. That’s 2005 New Orleans, during a hurricane when the hospital is preparing to evacuate. A disastrous storm as a backdrop in the telling of a billowy story. A name to denote the significance: Katrina. 

The movie is a divergence for Fincher too considering he’s a master of crime thrillers –– Zodiac came out just a year before in 2007, and more recently Gone Girl in 2014, Benjamin Button is Fincher’s only ‘romantic’ drama (The Social Network, 2010, is drama but definitely not ‘romantic’). Crafted in signature Fincher styling with low-light, sepia colour to enhance the period effects, the aesthetics in set design and cinematography bring out the notion of ‘every frame a painting’. 

Brad Pitt’s understated performance characterizes Benjamin aptly. Instead of remaining ‘the other’, Benjamin strives to connect, albeit in a gentle and quiet way. His love at first sight with then 7 years-old Daisy is a poignant encounter. Elle Fanning is a perfect cast. A child who holds no prejudice, she’s fascinated by the ‘strangeness’ in Benjamin. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter comes to mind.

Other curious finds: music by Alexandre Desplat, Tilda Swinton in some memorable sequences, Queenie’s husband Tizzy played by now two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Green Book, 2018 and Moonlight, 2016).

You probably have watched it before when the film first came out. How the world has changed in just twelve years. Watching it again now would probably bring you a different feel, and more relevance.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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‘Downhill’: Faux Majeure

Here’s a quote I’ll use again and again, from South-Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech for Parasite winning Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film award in January:

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Downhill

Downhill is a case in point. If one is willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier called subtitles (they are in English, mind you), one will be amazed how true and powerful and entertaining the Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is, and that watching the Ruben Östlund directed original would likely reap the most enjoyment and provoke some deep thoughts. Maybe an American version isn’t needed to begin with.

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with the Oscar nominated Jesse Armstrong as co-writer, if they’re to make an American version, there could have been potential for a fresh take. Force Majeure‘s literal meaning is a superior force, an unavoidable, overtaking power. Here’s the premise of the movie, which in itself is an interesting case for discussion:

A well-intentioned family holiday at a ski resort for bonding is shattered as the result of an instinctive reaction on the part of the husband/father. It happens when a controlled avalanche strikes a little too close to his family sitting at an outdoor dining table, he runs for his life while his wife huddles and protects their two boys. What follows is the underlying current of discontent and anger of the wife’s surfacing like a geyser. 

The producers must have seen the potential comedy in such a scenario. One of them is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Emmy and Golden Globe winning comedy actor, and a fan of the original Swedish film. Playing the wife Billie, Dreyfus shows she has her heart in it. In several scenes, she’s effective in bringing out Billie’s frustration. However, the issues of the movie are beyond her control, a real case of force majeure?

First is the casting of the husband Pete with Will Ferrell. Surely, for a comedy, Ferrell would be a natural choice. Call it irony, the indifferent demeanor Ferrell gives out as an actor in this movie actually parallels the husband Pete’s attitude, as if he’s being dragged up the ski hill. Have cell, will travel. His phone is what he’s resorted to as companion on a family holiday that he’s not ready to go on.

Pete’s work friend Zach (Zach Woods) and his girl friend Rosie (Zoe Chao) happen to be near where they vacation, so Pete secretly texts them to come over to their hotel in the guise that it’s their initiative to drop in. Here’s a pair of supporting roles if given more to play can add substance and context to the thin storyline, but they don’t have the chance. In the original Force Majeure, this couple plays a crucial part, especially with Kristofer Hivju’s performance as Mats, who’s full of humor. Hivju is also in Downhill, but only with a very minor role as the ski hill manager.

Other issues pervade, the script could well be a major one. As a comedy, there’s not much for laughs. It presents a problem but doesn’t delve into it; a comedy doesn’t mean superficial treatments. As a film that’s supposed to capture a sporting vacation, it lacks energy. No wonder the kids are so bored. The title is prophetic; I’m sure that’s unintentional. 

If an American version is the intent, then make it truly American, tell an American marriage story with this scenario. With Downhill, however, the European location, the ski resort surroundings, the actual scene of the controlled avalanche mishap, the set design, even the teeth-brushing moments in the hotel bathroom look almost the same as the Swedish original, other than the fact that the actors speak English. With its loose editing and scattered thematic matters, Downhill looks more like a parody of Force Majeure than a stand-alone comedy on its own.

 

~ ~ Ripples 

 

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CLICK HERE to read my review of Force Majeure

 

‘Little Women’ is not just about heart, but mind, aesthetics, and other enjoyment

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.

LITTLE WOMEN (1)

So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.

The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.

Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.

The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War. A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.

The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.

A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.

Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:

And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.

In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:

Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.

The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth. 

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Related Posts:

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?

‘A Hidden Life’: A Film for the Season

For over 10 years at Ripple Effects around this time, I’ve a Christmas post entitled Reading the Season. That’s when I post a book or collection of poetry that I find relevant for Christmas. This year I’ve something different. It’s a film that could offer some quietude among the cacophony of the season.

I first saw A Hidden Life at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It’s now showing in selective cities.

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Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refused to take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler to fight for the Nazis in World War II, for he saw Hitler’s war unjust and evil.

A Hidden Life
Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo Courtesy of TIFF.

The title alludes to George Eliot’s ending of Middlemarch:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A quest for spiritual meaning is the signature of the reclusive director’s works. They are often expressed in whispered voiceovers from the characters, revealing their doubts and questions, anguish and insights.

Days of Heaven (1978) establishes Malick’s aesthetic style of using natural light to shoot his films, every frame exudes cinematic poetry. The Thin Red Line (1998) begins his signature whispering voiceovers to express inner thoughts and spiritual quests. But it’s The Tree of Life (2011) that makes such whispers monumental as Malick situates the microcosm of a Texan family within the cosmos, and asks questions of the Creator the problem of pain and death, the struggle with human nature, with love and hate, and despite all human failings, the presence of grace.

Since The Tree of Life, Malick has produced several ‘misses’, films that are not well received as they are elliptical and experimental but visionary no less. To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) all point to one common quest: in the materialistic world of the rich and famous, what makes life meaningful? And, can true love be found?

A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick back to his form in a more traditional style of filmmaking, and more explicitly spiritual as he tells the story of a faithful, historic figure, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter of St. Radegund, a village in Upper Austria. Before Germany’s ‘annexation’ (Anschluss) of his country, family life is blissful and easy for Franz. He farms the land among natural vistas, stays rooted in a close-knit community, happily fathers three young daughters, and is deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). The arrival of a conscription letter in 1943 changes everything.

Franz knows he cannot join Hitler’s military, but the refusal to do so means certain death and the risk of endangering his family. He struggles hard to deal with the dilemma and seeks guidance from his Catholic church, but his priest tells him patriotism is what’s demanded of him. His village folks ostracize him; the mayor urges him to comply with Hitler’s demand, for one traitor among them can endanger them all. But Franz stands his ground even with the consequence of execution, a stance reminiscent of the Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died under Nazis hands for refusing to let Hitler’s doctrine to supplant his church.

In this way, A Hidden Life offers an opposite stance different from Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel. Here we have a courageous conscientious objector willing to suffer the loss of everything and the risk of harm to his family and kinsfolks in defying a ruthless ruler. A Hidden Life is a real-life testimonial of a believer while in the face of persecution, still refuses to step on the Nazi fumie to renounce his faith.

After incarcerated in the German military prison near Linz then transferred to Berlin to await trial, Franz is allowed to write one letter to Fani every month. The love the couple share in the film has its basis on these poignant letters which have since been compiled and published by Orbis Books. Franz’s absence from home brings Fani back-breaking hardships on top of social ostracizing. Her mother and sister come to live with her to offer whatever support they can give.

Capturing mainly natural light for his filming, Malick contrasts the idyllic family life in the beauty of the natural landscape of Franz’s home setting with the harshness of his imprisoned existence. What’s more tortuous though is his internal struggle. While in prison, his captor Captain Herder (Matthias Schoenaerts) says to him: “What purpose does your defiance serve? No one knows about you.” Yet Franz is convinced that his action isn’t to please others or to glorify himself, but to do what’s right in the eyes of his God. Franz’s own hidden spiritual life empowers him to stay strong.

In his trial, again he is being challenged: “Will anyone outside this court hear you? No one will be changed.” Yet he says nothing in his own defence, an allusion to the One who had stood trial in front of a ruler and said nothing in the face of death.

In a voiceover we hear these inner thoughts, Franz’s words to Fani:

“Time will come when we’ll know what all this is for, and why we live.”

There are plenty of quiet moments, long takes and slow pacing for viewers to think and ponder. The 174 minutes of screen time offers an opportune respite from the hustle and bustle of the Season, a quietude to evaluate, if you will, now that we’re at the end of another decade and in a time of tumultuous change.

The soul-stirring music is another reason to sit down in the theatre and quietly let the story unfold. Film composer James Newton Howard has created a full orchestral score complementing the cinematography, not only in capturing the beauty of the vistas but in his own words: “… to focus on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters—writing music to reflect their story.” Listen for the solo violin representing the sentiments of Franz and Fani, masterfully played by the Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes.

What’s hidden could be more precious, like treasure in jars of clay. And these words came to mind as I give A Hidden Life further thoughts:

… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Reading the Season Posts:

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

For my review of The Tree of Life and Silence, click on the links embedded in the titles.

 

‘The Farewell’ transcends cultural borders to bring out the universal

When an elderly, beloved family member is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and has only three months to live, will you let her know the prognosis or hide it and spare her of fear and burden? Chinese-American director Lulu Wang has turned her real-life family experience into first, a radio program on “This American Life” (aptly entitled ‘In Defense of Ignorance’), and subsequently adapted it into a movie, The Farewell. The Chinese title is more direct: 別告訴她, “Don’t tell her.”

The-Farewell-movie-poster

In the film, the family decides not to tell their beloved matriarch grandmother, Nai Nai, (Shuzhen Zhao), about her health status. She’s living contentedly, doing her morning exercise with gusto, relatively independent, with her younger sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) keeping a watchful eye on her.

To arrange for everyone to say farewell and see Grandma Nai Nai one last time, older son Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) and his family will return from Japan, staging a hasty wedding of their son Hao Hao (Han Chen) to his Japanese girlfriend of just three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Their plan is to have the celebration in the city where Nai Nai lives, Changchun.

Nai Nai’s younger son Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and his wife Jian (Diana Lin) will go back from New York for the wedding. Such a ruse is not received well by their daughter Billi (Awkwafina), born in China but raised in America, who upholds the values of individual rights and transparency.

Easy, her parents tell her she doesn’t need to go as they are afraid her Americanized expressiveness will give it away the moment Nai Nai sees her face. Billi won’t stand for that either, for she loves her grandma, with whom she’d had a close bond as a child until she left for the U.S. at the age of six. She still keeps in touch with Nai Nai by phone with her passable Mandarin. So Billi goes to China on her own, a surprise for the whole family––a pleasant one for Nai Nai, but a precarious risk for everyone else.

Since its debut at Sundance early this year, The Farewell has been winning audience’s hearts. Wang’s film is greeted as another strong voice in the diversity movement within the movie industry, following the flagship crowd-pleaser Crazy Rich Asians last summer. With a mostly Chinese main cast, shot in Changchun and New York City, Wang’s feature aptly depicts the cultural clashes immigrants face when leaving their home and settling in the West, or the older, first generation with their America born or raised children.

The wide reception the movie has been garnering is a reflection that this kind of dilemmas or conflicts are not limited to one cultural group. The issues families face, illness and death, parenting our own elderly parents, resolving disagreements and maintaining relationships are but some universal experiences joining us all.

The Farewell is Wang’s second directorial work after her 2014 debut feature Posthumous. In this her sophomore film, looks like she has established a personal style of her own. The slow pacing depicts effectively the internal world of the characters. While the middle section feels a little bogged down, the ensemble performance of the whole cast soon lifts us up and lands us on a higher plane.

Awkwafina’s (a.k.a. Nora Lum) performance is spot-on in depicting the conflicting emotions Billi is riding through. It’s obvious she has found her niche and developed into a full-fledged actor who can carry a story soundly on her own. She has morphed from rapper to actor, from being just a sidekick in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians to a dramatic lead. Thanks to Wang’s script, Awkwafina has several cathartic, moving moments showcasing her skills. For this role, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and became the first actor of Asian descent to capture that top prize.

Humor is the key to the heartstrings of the audience, and Wang has splashed it throughout readily, however deadpan it may come in. While the subject matter is somber, the comedic elements are ubiquitous. Some may require discernment from the audience to laugh where it’s meant to laugh, and refrain from it when it’s meant to be serious; that’s an interesting observation I got as I sat in the theatre. Dramedy? Dark comedy? Light drama? Genre fusing no doubt.

The music of the film particularly stands out. The selections could well be influenced by Wang’s own classical music training before her filmmaking career. During the pivotal scene of the wedding banquet, the operatic aria “Caro Mio Ben” is performed (soundtrack sung by South Korean soprano Hyesang Park with piano accompaniment by Wang herself.) The longing tune alone captivates, but knowing the lyrics will add credit to the mindfulness of Wang’s selection: “Dearest, my beloved, believe me at least this much, without you, my heart languishes.”

Composer Alex Weston’s original score augments the emotional power of the story by weaving a soulful voice motif across the scenes, stirring up a reflective and poignant tone throughout. Indeed, the fusion of Western music in an Eastern culture is all realistic in our contemporary world, its purpose could well be drawing out the universal, uniting us all in our humanity.

Overall, the ingenuity of Wang’s feature has effectively bridged two seemingly dichotomized cultural views, the East and the West, regarding the serious issue of to tell, or not to tell when a beloved, elderly family member is diagnosed with terminal illness. In just 100 minutes of screen time, Wang has brought a contentious, ethical issue to a human level and wrapped it with heart. The Farewell is a worthy addition to a hopefully sustaining trend of diversity and representation in the film industry.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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