‘Roma’ and the Power of Childhood Memories

This awards season, a black-and-white film stands out. Many have noted its cinematography and director Alfonso Cuarón’s versatility, from his multiple Oscar-winning space drifting Gravity (2013) and adaptation of P. D. James’s dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006) to the current Roma, a semi-autobiographical work. Surely I agree to all these, but it’s the personal resonance that the film evokes that makes it so memorable for me.

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Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

I first saw Roma at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September. The large screen effects are enfolding. Cinematography is thoughtful and the state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound mixing–especially the climatic ocean scene towards the end of the film–was totally engulfing, as if I was alone in the raging sea, despite sitting in a fully packed theatre.

Watching it again this time on my laptop streaming from Netflix is another experience. The intimacy and allowance for repeat viewing and listening to specific dialogues (re-reading the subtitles) are the obvious benefits. Especially with our local theatres not screening the film, the streaming service has a definite role to play in bringing the worthy feature to more viewers. Certainly if Roma plays in your local theatre, do watch it on the big screen as the production was meant to be seen.

What’s most moving is the director’s gentle rendering of his maid and nanny Cleo (first-time performance by Yalitza Aparicio) in his childhood home in Roma, an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Mexico during the years 1970-71. Cuarón juxtaposes Cleo’s personal ordeal with the political backdrop of the time, and weaving an unassuming life of a maid with episodes of an earthquake, a fire and a threatening ocean climatic scene. Other than these, the everyday work of a maid are deceptively mundane, for underlying are the emotive elements of human relationships.

Cleo is an essential member of the household, cleaning, cooking, serving, and taking care of the four children and their parents. She’s the one who puts the younger ones to bed and wakes them up in the morning. From the nuanced, naturalistic framing and some deeply affective moments, Roma is an ode to those who care for children not just out of duty but genuine love.

The reciprocal sentiments from the children, mom Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandma Teresa (Verónica García) make the glue that hold the family together at a critical time when the father (Fernando Grediaga) disappears, supposedly on an academic trip to Quebec but coincidentally is seen on the street with another woman. Here the role played by Cleo, a maid, is delicate and precarious. “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone,” wife Sofia says to Cleo one night returning home by herself half drunk. Cleo shares her pain.

The film belongs to Yalitza Aparicio who plays Cleo with unadorned naturalness. Before this first time acting, she was a preschool teacher. This could well explain her instinctive fondness for the children under her care in the film. Cleo has her personal sad experience with a young man with a different agenda, and it is the family and the children that rekindle her zeal after a personal tragedy, a remarkable exchange of mutual support and kindness.

As the cinematographer himself, Cuarón’s planning of shots is meticulous and masterful. The camera captivates from the opening credits. We see the close-up frame of what looks like clay tiles of the ground, yes, they are, as water is splashed on them and sounds of sweeping and cleaning are heard. As the story unfolds we learn that it is Cleo cleaning dog wastes in the family porch. But don’t lose sight of this seemingly mundane scene. Once water is splashed on the flat, dirty tiles they reflect an open sky above with an airplane flying across from afar. That is the exact ending shot of the film. From waste-filled clay tiles on the ground to the open sky, water is the agent of reflection, a cleansing element, and towards the end, water marks a confirming love and new zest for life.

Last week, I made a long distance phone call to the maid and nanny of my family when I was growing up in Hong Kong. She is 97 years old now and living on her own, still goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients to cook for herself. I was able to chat with her and send well wishes. Childhood memories are powerful markers of identity and experiences; thanks to Roma for evoking such while one is unaware, as it works magic in creating new imagery to sustain them.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

***

‘Burning’: From Short Story to Big Screen

Burning is based on the short story “Barn Burning” by the popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, the translated English version first published in the November issue of The New Yorker in 1992. Acclaimed Korean director Lee Chang-dong has fleshed out the minimalist narrative of Murakami’s story and created an extended ending, turning Burning from mere rumination into a dramatic suspense thriller, shedding traces of a myriad of literary allusions. That is the appeal of the works by the Korean novelist-turned-filmmaker.

Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and a nominee for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Burning had its North American premiere on September 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival. As well, South Korea has announced that Burning will be its official entry to the Best Foreign Language Film race at the 91st Oscars in 2019. The acclaimed film will be released in November in selective cities.

More than fifty years before Murakami’s short piece appeared in The New Yorker, back in 1939, a short story of the same name, “Barn Burning”, was published in Harper’s Magazine. Its author was William Faulkner. It was a dramatic story of class discrepancy in the American South, the chasm between the rich and the poor and the hateful revenge of a tenant farmer burning down the properties of his land owner. Interesting to note that Murakami made no mention of Faulkner in his story, which can be seen as a modern-day version of the American author’s work.

Director Lee’s adaptation shares similar meaning-imbued elements as his last feature Poetry from eight years ago. While his previous work is a character study of a grandmother trying to seek out a way to renew her life, in Burning, Lee focuses on the young, specifically, the millennials, and contrasting the social chasm between the rich and the poor with two characters.

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Yoo Ah-in as Jongsu in ‘Burning’. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) graduated from university majoring in creative writing. At present he is doing menial jobs as a living while trying to write a novel. On a delivery one day he comes across an old schoolmate, Haemi—impressive performance by newcomer Jun Jong-seo—working as a raffle promoter on the street. She recognizes Jongsu as according to her, they used to live in the same community when they were children. That brief encounter sparks off a precarious relationship between the two.

Due to some legal entanglement of his father’s, Jongsu has to leave the city to return to his father’s impoverished farm to look after it. He sleeps in a run-down shack, drives a rusty truck and clears the waste of the only cow left. At the same time, Haemi is going on a trip to Africa, and has asked Jongsu to go to her small apartment to feed her cat while she is away. This he gladly obliges.

But when Haemi returns after some time, she brings with her another man, Ben (Steven Yeun of the TV series ‘The Walking Dead’), a third person to the intimate relationship Jongsu had wanted to establish with Haemi.  Ben is more than just a disruptor but an enigma. He lives in a high-end apartment, dresses stylishly, drives a Porsche and exudes sophisticated tastes. He does not hold a job nor seem to mind Jongsu’s presence, but invites him home and brings him into his circle of friends. “The Gatsby in Korea” as Jongsu figures him, Ben is a man with a mysterious past and unsearchable intention.

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Steven Yeun as Ben, ‘The Gatsby in Korea’.

Things become more intriguing and uncomfortable when one night, Ben confides in Jongsu that he burns greenhouses for his own pleasure. He would scout out his target and set fire to it while watching from afar. The next one he has in mind actually is quite close to where Jongsu is staying, near his father’s farm. Here we see Murakami’s interesting flip of Faulkner’s story. Instead of a hateful man from a lower economic class driven by jealousy and bitterness to commit arson, we have the resourceful rich burning down greenhouses, but for what reason?

Unlike Murakami, Lee alludes to Faulkner, but also takes up Murakami’s suggestion that it is not only poverty or revenge that drives one to commit incendiary acts, but ennui, self-indulgence, or mere emptiness can also prod one towards inexplicable behaviour.

Steven Yeun, the Korean-American actor known for the TV series “The Walking Dead”, takes up his first major role in a Korean film. Yeun’s portrayal of an amoral, metrosexual may well be a modern-day parallel of Camus’s L’Etranger, The Stranger.  His often expressionless, but not unpleasant, face could well have conveyed the inner psyche of a rootless and purposeless existence.

One time at a social gathering, Haemi imitates the African ‘hunger dance’ in front of Ben and his friends. First, she acts with small, silent gestures showing the ‘little hunger’ of the literal, physical pang then changing to the ‘great hunger’ with her arms reaching upward and swaying to signify the empty soul reaching out in search of fulfilment. Watching her, Ben’s response is a yawn and a slight smile when Jongsu catches his bored reaction. Then a quick cut to a loud, electrifying night club scene with Haemi dancing wildly in a smoky, hazy atmosphere. Lee’s cinematic storytelling is stark and to the point.

The director’s rendering of passion and the human psyche is enhanced by Hong Kyung-pyo’s mesmerizing cinematography and the engaging score by Mowg and other incidental music, presenting sequences that are at times dreamlike, and at times, sadly realistic. In a stirring scene, Haemi dances again, this time against the setting sun out in Jongsu’s farm, her silhouette captivating her two audience, subtle rivals, one genuine, the other, unsearchable.

The plot thickens towards the last section when Jongsu tries to connect with Haemi after some time but finds her missing. Her apartment has been vacated, her phone disconnected. The next time he sees Ben, Ben is with another woman and admitted no knowledge of Haemi’s whereabouts. The disappearance of Haemi ignites Jongsu’s suspicion and drives the tension towards an explosive denouement which Lee adds to Murakami’s short story. It is an ending that is a surprise and yet also natural in context. Lee brilliantly brings his viewers full circle back to Faulkner with his layered storytelling.

Just like his previous works Poetry (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007), Lee has shown once again that he is not only a masterful director but an astute observer of human psyche and behaviour.

***

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

Note: My review above was originally published in Asian American Press on Sept. 12, 2018. I thank AAPress for permission to repost here.

***

Update Nov. 16: “Burning” just nominated for Best International Film (South Korea) at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

A Star is Born and the Dilemma of Success

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga walked the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September for the North American premiere of their movie “A Star is Born”, a Gala presentation at TIFF. Now the movie reaches the general public as it is released in theatres worldwide.

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Bradley Cooper as Jack and Lady Gaga as Ally in “A Star is Born”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

This is a bold and spectacular debut for both of them, Cooper as first time director, and the superstar singer her first leading movie role. The two manifest great chemistry on screen, casual and heartfelt. Cooper plays a famous singer Jackson Maine discovering the sensational voice and talent of a struggling singer/songwriter, restaurant worker Ally, a stripped-down, no (or minimal?) make-up Lady Gaga. It’s also a sad story as one star rises just as fast as the other falls like a meteor, self-destruct by alcoholism.

The love story begins with Maine searches for a drink after a performance one night as he has emptied the bottle in his car. His driver roams the streets for any bar that’s still open. They find one and Maine stumbles in just in time to hear Ally begin her gig. The song that she performs hooks and wows him. It’s “La Vie en Rose“, the iconic number by the legendary French singer Edith Piaf. That’s the inciting incident of the movie.

After the song he goes backstage, needing no introduction; he is Jackson Maine. He sits beside her and watches her take off her make-up, then with her permission, helps her peel off the Edith Piaf thin-lined eye brow. It’s just pasted on, not real. But what’s authentic is her voice, which Jack already knows, and he’ll soon discover, her heart as well.

That night, the two sit in the parking lot outside a grocery mart and chat into the night. Why doesn’t she write songs and sing her own work? People like her songs alright, but not her looks, she tells him. She’s self-conscious about her nose. He traces her facial features tenderly with his finger and tells her she’s beautiful. When his driver drops her off, as she’s walking up to her front door, he calls out from the car window: “Hey”. She looks back, he says: “I just wanted to take another look at you.” This line will later become the ominous turn into a heartbreaking end.

It’s Cooper’s directorial debut, and from this feature, we can see he’s a meticulous, sensitive and conscientious helmer. He catches and releases the right amount of tension and emotion with expert timing. His love lines are nuanced, casual yet touching. His singing is seasoned, a bit raspy and therefore quite moving. A Star is Born is remarkable achievement considering he’s the director, co-writer, actor, singer, and co-songwriter, with Lady Gaga and Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) of the 17 original songs in the production.

Kudos to Lady Gaga, other than a mesmerizing voice, her acting looks to be another talent that’s authentic; indeed, a star is born with this movie debut. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. She’s been a bold and versatile performer for a long while. It’s the unplugged looks and demeanour in the movie that’s a pleasant surprise. In reality, she’s already a supernova, so where will this further catapult her career? How will movie success affect other aspects of her life?

In the film, the change of Ally from a plain-looking, struggling artist to a performing star with dyed hair, showy costumes and vibrant dance steps stir Jack to remind her to go deep into her soul. Nothing’s perfect. Success comes with a price. Ally handles it relatively well. What is authentic? Surely not the appearance, the stage persona. At least, she still knows her heart. It looks like Jack has a harder time dealing with Ally’s success than the crumbling of his own. That still may be the easier part when compared to conquering the demon of alcoholism.

The very story of A Star is Born is itself a cautionary tale. Interestingly, Hollywood loves this story. The Cooper and Gaga version is the fourth time the tale is told. The very first A Star is Born back in 1937, its screenplay by Dorothy Parker, was based on a 1932 movie What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor. Imagine someone back in 1932 was already mulling on this question.

Cukor later directed Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 remake. Fast forward to 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson starred in another version, this time Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunn co-wrote the screenplay, turning the limelight to the musical stage from the movie industry. The 2018 Cooper-Gaga reprise gives credit to Didion and Dunn’s script.

In a perfect world, artistic success can find an ideal integration and balance with popularism and consumerism, while addictions are absent, superficiality and shallowness all but banished. A perfect scenario, but not in the real world. In the real world, we have stories, some repeated and same old but in different versions. No matter how many times they’ve been told, we still embrace them. All because they are real.

***

TIFF-launched foreign language films shooting for Oscars 2019

Watching foreign language films could be an acquired taste for some, not unlike eating sushi. Once you’ve gotten over the seemingly counter-intuitive idea of eating fish raw and allow the soft texture to melt in your mouth, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the cold freshness and welcome the brain-stirring sting of the wasabi, as well, appreciate the sweet taste when lightly dipped in soya sauce, balanced by the blandness of the vinegared rice morsel. A delightful exploration.

Film festivals are the best venues for one to have a taste of these international, cinematic delicacies. And as usual, the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September was a launching pad for films from all over the world, several were subsequently announced as their country’s official entry to the upcoming Oscars Best Foreign Language Film race.

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“Shoplifters”, this year’s Palme d’Or winner and Japan’s official entry to the
91st Oscar Best Foreign Language Film race.  Photo courtesy of TIFF

The following is the list of TIFF selections that made it to represent their country at the 91st Oscars. Posted also are their premiere status at TIFF. Some of these I’d seen at the Festival and since reviewed (just click on the links). More reviews are forthcoming. The Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.

**

El Angel, Argentina, dir. by Luis Ortega, North American (NA) Premiere

Hidden Man, China, dir. by Jiang Wen, International Premiere

Birds of Passage, Columbia, dir. by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra, Canadian (CA) Premiere

Sergio and Sergei, Cuba, dir. by Ernesto Daranas, NA Premiere

Winter Flies, Czech Republic, dir. by Olmo Omerzu, International Premiere

Never Look Away, Germany, dir. by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, NA Premiere

Sunset, Hungary, dir. by László Nemes, NA Premiere

The Cakemaker, Israel, dir. by Ofir Raul Graizer

Dogman, Italy, dir. by Matteo Garrone, CA Premiere

Shoplifters, Japan, dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda, CA Premiere

Capernaum, Lebanon, dir. by Nadine Labaki, NA Premiere

Roma, Mexico, dir. by Alfonso Cuarón, CA Premiere (Review forthcoming)

Cold War, Poland, dir. by Pawel Pawlikowski, (Review forthcoming)

Burning, South Korea, dir. by Lee Chang-dong, NA Premiere

Border, Sweden, dir. by Ali Abbasi, NA Premiere

The Wild Pear Tree, Turkey, dir. by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Review forthcoming)

**

The 91st Academy Awards ceremony will take place Sunday, February 24, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Hotel Mumbai’ captures both terror and resilience in the tragic attack

On November 26, 2008, the City of Mumbai, India, was under siege by terrorists in a co-ordinated shooting and bombing attack that lasted four days. For long hours until security forces arrived from outside of the City, twelve sites in Mumbai were attacked and civilians were gunned down defenceless or taken hostage.

An Australian production, Hotel Mumbai had its world premiere at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2018. Director Anthony Maras in this his debut feature captures the horrific attack ten years ago with a pace that is intense and sweeping, leaving viewers breathless as they watch terror unfold on screen, acts after acts of senseless violence. But don’t let this drive you away.

The setting of the thriller Hotel Mumbai is the luxury heritage Hotel Taj Mahal Palace, or the Taj, where many foreign, renowned personalities had frequented. It was one of the twelve targets of the terror attacks, for obvious reason. Gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifle and hand grenades took foreigners hostage at the five-star hotel and shot point-blank many others. In the aftermath, 31 in the hotel were killed, almost half were staff refusing to escape but stayed to defend and assist the trapped hotel guests.

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Dev Patel as Arjun in “Hotel Mumbai”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The storylines following several guests in the hotel are particularly gripping, like Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) hiding in a closet caring for a baby who wouldn’t stop crying as the baby’s parents David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are trapped somewhere else in the hotel, trying to get to their infant son.

Dev Patel plays staff server Arjun. The turban he wears makes one of the guests fearful. A crisis situation could tip either way, as an opportunity for understanding and the breakdown of barrier, or an incendiary fuse leading to deeper hatred and animosity. In a volatile situation as the hotel is besieged, complications could be deadly. But Arjun exudes ample dignity and generosity. That turban will later become a symbol of selfless grace.

The consoling breathers and the meaningful elements in the film then were these acts of kindness and courage. Maras captures the human foibles in the face of dangers, as well the strength of the hotel staff in protecting their guests. Their sacrificial, heroic acts render the film not merely a record of atrocity, but a gratifying chronicle of resilience and bravery.

The bullet-riddled and fire damaged five-star hotel was fully reopened after only twenty-one months. A special commemoration was held and a monument set up to honor those who died.

 

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“Hotel Mumbai” Press Conference at TIFF. From left: Director Anthony Maras, actors Dev Patel, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, and Armie Hammer (back). Photo by Diana Cheng

There was a good representation of main cast members at the press conference of the film, moderated by Richard Crouse of CTV. Present were director Anthony Maras and actors Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and Anupam Kher. They all commended the hotel staff for their extraordinary courage, some they had met in person who were survivors of the attack.

Upon talking with hotel staff and understanding the actual events, the actors were impressed that small acts of kindness were the essence of resistance. There were staff who had escaped but went back to save hotel guests. Some in the kitchen would put cookie sheet inside their clothes as shield to protect themselves in order to cover guests as they escape. One particular poignant observation they all felt was the breakdown of barriers as both staff and guests were all victims of the horrific act of violence. All racial and financial barriers came down in the face of crisis.

The cast also stressed the point that the perpetrators were all misguided and brainwashed young men. Nine of the ten gunmen were killed. But the mastermind, called “the Bull” in the film—who was in constant contact, directing the attackers throughout by means of their cell phones—was never caught.

 

***

 

Diversity Wins at TIFF 2018

It’s a wrap for the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival as the awards were handed out on Sunday, September 16, 2018, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre 1. The top prize, the Grolsch People’s Choice Award went to Green Book, a world premiere at TIFF18. Directed by Peter Farrelly, the comedy-drama stars Mahershala Ali as classical pianist Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as a working-class Italian-American bouncer getting the job to drive Ali on the road in the American South during the 1960’s. Ali won an Oscar for his role in Moonlight (2016), Mortensen is a two-time Oscar nominee. Looks like the film has just got a huge boost with this win and will travel far in the upcoming Awards Season.

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Viggo Mortsensen driving Mahershala Ali in “Green Book”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

If Beale Street Could Talk, a world premiere at TIFF18 and director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight (2016) was the People’s Choice Award First Runner-Up. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, the film tells the love story of a young African American woman trying to prove her imprisoned lover’s innocence. In the TIFF webpage, the film is described as a ‘gorgeous tone poem on love and justice.’

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KiKi Layne and Stephan James in “If Beale Street Could Talk”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (my review) came third in the People’s Choice Award. A Canadian Premiere at TIFF18, it is an artistic rendering of a young maid’s experience in a middle-class home in Mexico City during the 1970’s. Of note is the black-and-white film is regarded as a semi-autobiographical account of Mexican director Cuarón, the first Hispanic and Mexican to win the Academy Awards for Best Director with his sci-fi work Gravity (2013).

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Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The high-profile contenders First Man directed by Damien Chazelle with Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born did not place.

TIFF’s People’s Choice Award winner is often regarded as a predictor of the next Oscar Best Picture. Past winners that went on to capture the Oscar include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years A Slave.

Capturing the People’s Choice Documentary Award is Free Solo, International premiere at TIFF18, directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Chinese-American mountaineer/photographer Jimmy Chin. The duo chronicled the renowned rock climber Alex Honnold’s scaling free solo — without safety ropes — up the 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.

People’s Choice Award from the Midnight Madness program went to the The Man Who Feels No Pain, World Premiere at TIFF18, directed by Vasan Bala, one of the young, new wave filmmakers in India. This is a cinematic fusion throwing in Hong Kong martial arts comedy Stephen Chow styling, the agility of Jacky Chan, the Bollywood sensation, the American Superhero momentum, and the inspiration of Buster Keaton. Fits right in the Midnight Madness program of introducing new works by a new generation of filmmakers.

Platform Prize went to Cities of Last Things, directed by Ho Wi Ding. This world premiere at TIFF18 is a collaboration of filmmakers from Taiwan, China, USA, and France. From TIFF’s webpage, “a seamless blending of genres, from sci-fi to noir to romance, the Malaysian-born Ho commandingly employs cinematic language as a tool to discuss the root of our collective sadness, which is perhaps the very thing that makes us human.”

NETPAC Award for the world premiere of international and Asian film went to The Third Wife from female writer-director Ash Mayfair of Vietnam. A film about a 14-year-old girl’s struggles after she becomes the third wife of a wealthy landowner, set in 19th century rural Vietnam.

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dano’s ‘Wildlife’ elicits showcase performance from Carey Mulligan

Wildlife is a detailed capture of the dissolution of a marriage, from the point of view of the couple’s only child. It is also a coming-of-age story as 14 year-old Joe comes to realize the elusiveness of permanence in his parents Jerry and Jeanette’s once loving relationship. If all these names sound too common, that just might be one implication of the film – a specific look into a general human condition.

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Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeanette and Jerry in ‘Wildlife’. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The film adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel is a selection in the Special Presentations program at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, screened as a Canadian premiere. It is the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, co-writing the screenplay with Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick, 2017).

To those unfamiliar with Dano, maybe these titles will help you locate where he’s coming from and appreciate the variety of works he’s been in. Remember Little Miss Sunshine (2006)? He’s Olive’s older brother Dwayne who reluctantly gets into the yellow VW Beetle van and takes a vow of silence, or the dubious preacher confronting Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007)as the harsh slave driver in 12 Years a Slave (2013), or in the 2016 TV mini-series War & Peace as Pierre. Not the handsome leading man but always the character actor.

The small family in Wildlife consists of Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), a golf pro who has just moved into the town of Great Falls, Montana, with his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Just as they thought they’re settling in Jerry is fired from his job as a golf instructor in a country club. After waiting for a while for her husband to absorb the loss of job and pride but with no solution in sight to the household finance, Jeannette decides to come out of the home to look for work, ultimately finding a position as a swimming instructor at the Y.

That just may not be the cause of the conflict. What begins the total meltdown is when Jerry, out of the blue, packs up and follows a group of men heading to the forests to fight a wild fire fiercely raging near Great Falls, not knowing when he will return or if he can get out of it unscathed. Feeling utterly alone and abandoned, Jeanette begins to react to her precarious situation by venting with some out-of-character behavior. The successful businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp), Jeannette’s swim student at the Y, just happens to be a convenient escape route. All these familial changes and development are observed uncensored by their sensitive teenaged son Joe.

From this his first attempt at directing, viewers would be gratified to find Dano to be an actor’s director; especially with the excellent cast he has under his helm, this is doubly rewarding. Dano lets the camera rest on the close-up faces of his characters to elicit superb performance, taking his time to capture the nuances in restraints, outburst, or just about any sort of inner feelings to surface.

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Carey Mulligan in ‘Wildlife’. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

This is one of the best, if not the best, performance I’ve seen Carey Mulligan in, changing from the loving wife and devoted mother to the angry and desperate single mom with a son to raise, to totally losing it, testing the boundaries of norms and behavior, and finally to the determined woman striking out on her own yet still bound by unseverable, familial ties. Mulligan deserves an Oscar nom for her role as Jeannette.

Watching his mother get close to Miller, Joe is torn between devotion and incredulity.  Although a successful businessman, Miller is a limping, older man. Joe is utterly perturbed by his mother’s capricious turn. Dano creates some poignant scenes depicting the interactions between mother and son during dad’s absence from home. Often the passive observer, Joe is restrained with countless questions he cannot express in words.

Mulligan gets all the juicy lines. After Jerry is gone to fight the wild fire, Jeanette brings Joe along to Miller’s house for dinner, putting on heavy make-up and dressing in a seductive night gown. She dances with the man intimately in front of her son. In another occasion, she dons cowgirl attire and admires herself in front of the mirror, reminiscing her younger days. Jeanette answers her son’s dazed expression with this line:

“It’s good to know your parents were once not your parents.”

There is a former life in every parent that even the closest child would not have known or understood. There are many thought-provoking lines in the film, but this one is particularly poignant.

Dano takes the liberty to follow the spirit of the text and creates a cinematic ending. His visual wrapping up is clear and spot-on, especially the scene at the studio where Joe works part-time. The final frame of the three sitting down together for a studio shot with Joe between his parents speaks volumes. A wild fire may have been put out, but the smouldering lingers; and the one keeping it under control may well have been a teenaged firefighter.

 

***

 

Update Nov. 16:

3 Nominations for “Wildlife” at the Film Independent Spirit Awards – Best First Feature, Best Female Lead, and Best Cinematography.

 

 

 

 

 

It Takes an International Film Festival to Remind Us

It takes an International Film Festival to remind us that we live in a world with many countries and myriad of cultures, languages and experiences beyond our own. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) opens a window looking out towards such a diverse human kaleidoscope. (All photos in this post are by Diana Cheng, Sept. 2018)

TIFF on Festival Street

What better time than now for us to press on to connect and share when it seems the progress we had made in recent decades had been dismantled in no time. What better means than through the visceral medium of film art in exposing views, eliciting empathy, and inspiring minds. Films could well be the best avenue to reach out and understand, as well, to be understood.

TIFF is the largest public film festival in the world. Its top prize is judged by the audience. Named the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, the annual winner is often a predictor of the next Oscar Best Picture. Some past winners include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, 12 Years A Slave.

Glamour aside, the variety of its film selections are examples of diversity and opened doors to places and issues that are foreign to many in the Western world. But then again, finding the gem of universality may just be the serendipitous reward.

This year, the number of films in TIFF’s various programs comes to about 342, representing 83 countries, from Algeria to Kazakhstan to Vietnam, just to go down the alphabetical list. These official selections are chosen from a total of 7,926 submissions, 6,846 from around the world, 1080 from Canada domestically. Among these three hundred some titles, over 80 languages are used. After watching half a dozen of the international entries, reading subtitles at the bottom and watching the whole screen at the same time will become a skill you’ll be happy to have acquired.

Share Her Journey

Further, the Share Her Journey Rally on Saturday, September 8, lends a voice to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, pressing for respect and equality for women on both sides of the camera. Attended by hundreds and led by actress Geena Davis among other distinguished guests, the Rally represents a united front to shatter the glass ceiling in the film industry. This year at TIFF, 35% of films are by women filmmakers, a statistic that TIFF is aiming at improving.

During the first few days kicking off the Festival, King Street West was closed for a few blocks for pedestrians to enjoy the fun, food, and free samplings. Here are some sights on Festival Street.

Fusion food is the best sign of diversity. Check these menus out:

Food Truck Menu where East meets West

Fusion

Or, be transported to Paris just for a dream trip:

On Festival Street

and stop for a latté and croissant at Bistro Air France, if you don’t mind waiting:

Bistro Air France

To many, the fun part of TIFF is waiting. Many wait for hours to get just one glimpse of their favourite stars to arrive at a red carpet, there are several in different venues in downtown Toronto:

Star Gazing

Here’s another one, also waiting for their faves:

Still Waiting

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(All photos in this post are by Diana Cheng, Sept. 2018)

In the days ahead, my list of film reviews on both Asian American Press and Ripple Effects will include (director’s name after title):

Burning, Lee Chang-dong, S. Korea, N. American Premiere
Capernaum, Nadine Nabaki, Lebanon, N. American Premiere
Hotel Mumbai, Anthony Maras, Australia, World Premiere
Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg, Belgium, Luxembourg, World Premiere
Maya, Mia Hansen-Løve, France, World Premiere
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón, Medico, Canadian Premiere
Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, Canadian Premiere
Shadow, Zhang Yimou, China, N. American Premiere
The Wild Pear Tree, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, France, Germany, Bulgaria, North American Premiere
Wildlife, Paul Dano, U.S.A., Canadian Premiere

Just to name a few. More reviews coming up. Check out the details of the programs from tiff.net

 

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Arti at TIFF and Ripple on Rotten Tomatoes

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Two major news. Yes, the above title says it all.

I’m in Toronto now, all geared up to watch the screenings of a dozen films I’ve selected at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 6 – 16. Will keep you posted on the sights and sounds here.

There are 342 films in TIFF’s various Programs, submitted by filmmakers from 84 countries. Among the selections, 254 are full feature films, 88 shorts. These are selected from 7,926 submissions from all over the world.

Following a Ripple tradition, presenting titles from book to screen, here are some of TIFF’s feature productions that are adaptations from published, written sources:

First Man, dir. by Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong by James R. Hansen

Beautiful Boy dir. by Felix Van Groeningen based on two memoirs, Beautiful Boy by father David Sheff and Tweak by son Nic. Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet play father and son.

Burning dir. by Chang-dong Lee, based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, which (in my opinion) is in turn based on the short story of the same name by William Faulkner.

The Hate U Give dir. by George Tillman Jr., based on the book of the same name by Angie Thomas (2017 National Book Award longlist, Young People’s Literature)

If Beale Street Could Talk dir. by Barry Jenkins (2017 Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’), based on the book of the same name by James Baldwin.

The Front Runner dir. by Jason Reitman, based on the book All the Truth Is Out by Matt Bai. Hugh Jackman as the 1987 presidential candidate Gary Hart.

The Sisters Brothers dir. by Jacques Audiard, based on the book of the same name by Patrick Dewitt (shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2011)

Wildlife dir. by Paul Dano, based on the book of the same name by Richard Ford. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal star.

A Million Little Pieces dir. by Sam Taylor-Johnson, based on the (controversial) memoir by James Frey

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The second piece of news actually is equally exciting. My movie reviews on Ripple Effects are now approved to be included in the Rotten Tomatoes® review aggregation website. That means, yes, my two pebbles will be counted in the Tomatometer® score for a movie which I’ve reviewed on Ripple and submitted to them. (This actually is a spin-off as they first approved me for my reviews on Asian American Press.)

Nothing’s changed. Just feeling good that the Ripples from the Pond can have far-reaching Effects.

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