As things go these days, uncertainties abound as to when movies will come out and in what way, big or small screen. So, for those who like to read before you leap, summer’s the best time to catch up with some of these books before their adaptations are released.
Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
The runaway bestseller of 2016 is now an upcoming movie on Netflix, directed by Ron Howard. Born and raised a ‘hillbilly’ in Ohio, Vance’s memoir narrates his struggles to arrive at Yale Law School, a personal victory over poverty and a dysfunctional family and culture. He shares insights as an insider of an impoverished social sector. Screenplay by Oscar-nominated Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, 2017). Early Oscar buzz for next year’s Academy Awards and Amy Adams a possible nom.
Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith is no stranger to fans of suspense and psychological thrillers with Carol (2015), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train (1951). Deep Water (first pub. 1957) is another marital suspense thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne, who’d given us Fatal Attraction (1987), Unfaithful (2002) and the like. So, we know it’s in good hands. Gone Girl‘s Ben Affleck should be quite familiar with playing such genre, add in Ana de Armas, who’s superb in Knives Out, this one should be a thrilling escape.
The Last Duel by Eric Jager
The historical novel is The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, sounds like a sensational movie subject. Author is Eric Jager, medieval literature prof at UCLA. Director is the iconic Ridley Scott, who has brought us numerous big screen epics, Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), Alien (1979, 2017), just to name a few. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon co-write and co-star, with Jodie Comer of Killing Eve fame also in.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Another TV series (Hulu) from popular Australian author Liane Moriarty whose Big Little Lies has been turned into two successful, star-studded Seasons on HBO. Nine strangers meet at a wellness resort dealing with their own issues and discovering secrets behind the place. Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy co-star. Moriarty has written 8 novels, so far, 5 of which are in various stages of development for the screen.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Nowadays you hear a lot about migrant workers. Back in the time after the Great Recession, there were workers living like nomads in their trailers and vans, travelling across the western states to look for work. Bruder’s book is about one such ‘workampers’, a woman in her sixties who becomes a nomad worker after losing her home. Frances McDormand stars. Written for the screen and directed by Chloé Zhao, who gave us the soulful The Rider (2017).
Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell
Based on the second novel by Merrell published in 2014. Shirley here refers to the American horror/suspense writer Shirley Jackson, played by Elisabeth Moss. The story’s about a graduate student Fred and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) move in to live with professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic teaching at Bennington College and his wife Shirley Jackson. Drama ensues when the characters interplay in their peculiar relational dynamics. Directed by Josephine Decker.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Irish millennial lit turned TV. And you thought the upstairs-downstairs kind of stories happen only in Downton Abbey. Rooney’s acclaimed book is about the clandestine romance between rich gal Marianne and Connell whose mother cleans Marianne’s house. The 12 episode TV series adaptation is affective and well performed by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal under the helms of Lenny Abrahamson (Room, 2015) and Hetti Macdonald (Howards End, 2017) On Hulu, BBC3, and CBC Gem now.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Just announced. Booker Prize winning author Graham Swift’s novel will be adapted into film with a stellar British cast. Mothering Sunday was a day given to domestic servants time off so they could go back home to visit their mother and family. Again, a clandestine romance between two young people of different classes. Eva Husson (Hanna, 2020) directs onscreen royalty Olivia Coleman (QEII in The Crown), Colin Firth (KGVI in The King’s Speech), Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown), and Odessa Young.
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.
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’.
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.
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
The One who had gone through utter isolation and known our griefs laments with us at this time.
A man of sorrows who had experienced the ultimate separation: In a crisis, his followers deserted him, even his closest denied him; above all, the physical torments on the cross couldn’t match the pain of searing separation from his Father, forsaken.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
–– Isaiah 53: 2-5
This song has been on my mind all week. An apt meditation on this Good Friday as we’re all going through separation like never before. I chose a minimal video with just the words and the music. Take a 3 minute respite in your isolation this Good Friday.
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 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
A list of upcoming book to screen titles for the new year, eclectic choices for different tastes, varied classics and contemporary notables. Looks like classic literary works of all sorts are enjoying a comeback on the big and small screens.
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Kenneth Branagh returns after his first Hercule Poirot take in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) which he directs. Once again, the prolific screenwriter/adaptor Michael Green pitches in. Interesting cast with Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Annette Bening.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Lily James is ubiquitous ever since she comes out of Downton as Lady Rose. Now she’s the young and naive Mrs. De Winter in a psychological warfare with her nemesis, housekeeper Mrs. Danver played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Can the master of Manderley save her? But of course, he must save himself first. That’s Armie Hammer, equally ubiquitous.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Harrison Ford heeds the call with action star Karen Gillan, Dan Stevens, and the Calgary-born, The Expanse star Cara Gee. Partially filmed in Yukon and some in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Never heard of the Yukon Territories? This should be a good intro. I’m all for old classics, be they books or actors.
Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
Movie title Dolittle, an adventure spectacle with Robert Downey Jr. as the eponymous Doctor. See if you can identify the voices of these animals: Rami Malek, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Marion Cotillard, Octavia Spencer… just to name a few of the stars in this production. Coming out January 17.
The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
Classic sci-fi gets a resurrected boost. Wells’ novella and cautionary tale was first published in 1897. Now 123 years later in the 21st century, it’s adapted into a movie for the big screen. The Handmaid’s Tale Elizabeth Moss stars.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s dystopian, imagined future written in 1931 is adapted into a TV series almost 90 years later. Again, a mark of what makes a book a classic, especially a sci-fi work. Downton early-exit Lady Sybil Jessica Brown Findlay’s in.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Another sci-fi classic, but closer to our time. A project by the acclaimed French Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve who has done some remarkable works like the Oscar nominated Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Sicario (2015). Adapted into screen by Oscar winning writer Eric Roth (Forest Gump, 1994; A Star is Born, 2018). Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac star.
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
The first of Colfer’s popular series is a Disney production with Kenneth Branagh directing. A trending genre, the YA fantasy series has great potentials to be successful. A strong cast including Hong Chau, Judi Dench, Josh Gad.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Like Little Women, this classic young reader novel has had several screen adaptations. I have no qualms about this; it only helps to spark renewed interest in the book. This new adaptation will have Colin Firth who was in the 1993 version to play Lord Archibald Craven and Julie Walters as Mrs. Medlock.
I Know this much is True by Wally Lamb
Lamb’s novel about a twin brother’s advocacy and care for his paranoid schizophrenic sibling is adapted into a 6 episode TV miniseries. Mark Ruffalo will play both brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Director Derek Cianfrance has a few fine works, the Cannes nominee Blue Valentine (2010), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), and The Light Between Oceans (2016).
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Goodreads Choice of the Year Best Fiction (2017) and Novel of the Year on other sites, Chinese American writer Celeste Ng’s novel on class/race differences and aspirational conflicts in the idyllic community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is adapted into a TV miniseries. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington star.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Moriarty’s website states her books had sold over 14 million copies worldwide. On the heels of her successful Big Little Lies turned into the small screen, Nine Perfect Strangers has already secured Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy on board for the miniseries on Hulu. Her other books will follow.
The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn
A shaky narrator seeing a crime happening or being caught in one, Gone Girl was the first to kick off the trend. The Woman in the Window alludes to the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Directed by Joe Wright (Darkest Hour, 2017; Anna Karenina, 2012), screenplay by Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, 2013), and an A-list cast with Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore.
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
At the end of every Downton TV Season, there’s a two-hour Finale. Downton Abbey the movie feels like one of those grand finish. If there’s any TV series that can move to the big screen with just a TV script, Downton Abbey will be it. The iconic Jacobean styled mansion, superb cast, beautiful costumes and set design, not to mention creator/writer Julian Fellowes’ screenplay are its assets. Nothing close to the caliber of Gosford Park (2001) which brought Fellowes a Best Writing Oscar, but this will do. Nothing deep and poignant as some of the TV episodes, but for two hours of viewing time in the theatre, there are a lot to see and savour.
Just by listening to the rhythmic rumbling bringing out the single melody line of the theme music can send vibes of excitement. The majestic aerial shots in the setting sun (or is it rising sun?) establishing the grand manor Downton Abbey’s stature on the big screen is a thrilling experience for fans. In the theatre I was in, almost full house with fans obviously, laughing out loud at all the jokes and witty lines, embracing the film with a celebratory mood. After 6 Seasons, 3 Golden Globes and another 54 wins and 219 nominations (according to IMDb) plus three years of absence, a Downton movie is something worth celebrating.
But this isn’t just for fans. For those who come to Downton the first time, they might have missed six Seasons and 52 episodes of backstory, the movie could be an appetizer whetting their appetite for the full feast that’s offered in the PBS Masterpiece series. The estate that they must have heard in recent years called Downton Abbey, possibly wondering if it’s a cloister for monks or nuns, is now magnified on the big screen with stunning establishing shots. No medieval garbs or habits but 1920’s, Gatsby-styled fashion and hairdo. Inviting cinematography both exterior and interior familiarize them with the setting, albeit fans might find watching in a theatre is more dim with the cinematic mode, less vibrant than via their home TV which they can adjust the brightness.
Those not comfortable with the priggish social system of the past (and present to be sure, and not only limited to England) can look deeper into the series for some revelatory themes. While The Crawley’s are originally contented with their status quo and privilege, and some rejecting all forms of modernity, like Violet’s complaint about the ‘blinding’ electric lights or Mr. Carson’s fear of the telephone, the Great War (1914-1918) changes everything. Lady Sybil goes into nursing to contribute to the war effort, the whole Downton is turned into a convalescent hospital for the wounded (a historic fact of Highclere Castle), heir Matthew Crawley and footman William fight side-by-side in the trenches, and later Lady Edith venturing out on her own to start a journalism career. The most significant is probably Lady Sybil marrying Tom Branson, the driver of Downton who’s on the ‘wrong’ side of politics, Irish republican. In this movie, he reiterates his stand: “You can love people you disagree with.”
Director Michael Engler picks up from Season 6 Finale and set the time to a year later, 1927. The movie starts with a reminiscence of the very first episode in the first Season with a train pulling into the station and a telegram delivered to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). No Titanic bad news this time but earth-shattering nonetheless, King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be coming to Downton Abbey and stay for one night while on route to the Yorkshire area.
The household is in warp speed mode preparing for the royal visit in just two weeks. Before the arrival, the royal management team plus chef come to set up their commanding post, brushing away the Downton stalwarts downstairs. A coup is planned subsequently to offset such an invasion. Thus the movie diverge from its realist styling to a bit of a comedic/fantasy mode. That storyline lasts for the first hour. Then the subplots begin, allowing more interesting development.
Why Downton hasn’t lost its appeal through the years is highly due to the characters and how the actors slip into their skin so perfectly. Every character has his/her own back story, idiosyncrasy, viewpoint, and despite the class system that seems to segregate upstairs from downstairs, they are relatively free individuals who can and usually speak their minds. Take Daisy (Sophie McShera), for example, a kitchen maid, expresses her view against royalties, while Tom (Allen Leech), despite his stance for a republic Ireland, chooses to support his father-in-law Lord Grantham nonetheless. Just reflects the complexity of each individual character, a key asset of the TV series which a two-hour movie is impossible to delve into.
Thanks to scribe Fellowes, there are more duels of dialogues between Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), two darlings of opposing views. Here are some samples from the movie:
(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to skip these lines so you can experience them first hand.)
When talking about the coming royal visit, Violet and Isobel have the following exchange.
Violet: Will you have enough clichés to get you through the visit?
Isabel: If not, I’ll come to you. (Not missing a beat.)
Or here, as the family talk about a relative who’ll be coming with the royalties:
Isobel: You’re plotting something. I see a Machiavellian look in your eye.
Violet: Machiavelli is frequently underrated. He had many qualities.
Isobel: So did Caligula — not all of them charming.
As with the finale of the last Downton Season, we see romantic pairings and the movie picks up where it left off. Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) are happily married, so are Isobel and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith); Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) finally living in bliss, Tom meets a comparable mate, and that dancing scene outdoor with the two of them in silhouette is nicely shot. Downstairs Andy (Michael Fox) makes his intention known to Daisy, and Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finds a friend. While Molesley (Kevin Doyle) isn’t seen with Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), he has the time of his life serving the King and Queen.
New members to the cast include Imelda Staunton (spouse of real-life Mr. Carson, Jim Carter) as the Queen’s lady-in-waiting Lady Bagshaw and Tuppence Middleton playing her maid Lucy Smith, a pleasant addition and a character with some significance. The short vignettes of Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) unhappy marriage to Henry Lascelles (Andrew Havill) has historic basis and it’s side stories like these that make the movie more interesting. Surprisingly, Tom Branson is the thread that weaves these characters together, and saves the day too.
An important conversation between Violet and granddaughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) towards the end may have dropped a hint for the future. And what of Mary’s new hubby Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode)? He appears like a flash and cameo. I just wonder if Dan Stevens (Mary’s first love Matthew Crawley) ever regretted leaving Downton so soon.
Beautifully shot, classy costumes, and as always, top performance from a great cast, while not delving into deeper stories, the movie overall can satisfy fans’ longing and make a good introduction to pique the interest of first timers, hopefully prodding them to binge on the full-fledged episodes.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
I’ve a write-up for every episode beginning with Season 3 of Downton Abbey here on Ripple. The following post has the links to all of them plus some other related topics:
I watched An Elephant Sitting Still while covering the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April. It remains one of the most unforgettable films in my recent memory, the directorial debut of Hu Bo, a Chinese writer-turned-filmmaker. Hu’s incisive narratives of the human condition won Best First Feature and the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin International Film Festival in 2018. Sadly, this is the young director’s first and last film, for his career trajectory ended abruptly in October, 2017. Hu took his own life during post-production. He was 29. The feature has since played in numerous international film festivals garnering accolades which Hu himself would never have known.
Hu Bo graduated from Beijing Film Academy majoring in directing. Later went to Taiwan to further his training and came under the mentorship of the venerable auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Assassin, 2015) and subsequently the Hungarian art film director Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011). Other than making short films and writing screenplays, Hu had authored short stories and an award-winning novella. His debut feature An Elephant Sitting Still was adapted from his short story of the same name.
At the 55th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan last November, An Elephant Sitting Still won Best Feature Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Audience Choice Award. The Best Film prize was presented to Hu’s mother by the Taiwanese American director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, 2012; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) who reached out to her with a poignant embrace.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a 230-minute cinematic allegory wrapped in haunting realism. In an unnamed town in Northern China, four characters struggle with their own personal predicament too messy to untangle, all in a day’s time. The four narratives intersect in Hu’s incisive screenplay.
A high school student, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), while defending a friend, accidentally pushes a school bully down the stairs leading to his death. Even more tragic, Wei later finds out he has been deceived by the very friend he tries to protect. Wei has to run away as the bully’s older brother Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang), a local gangster, is out looking for him. Yu himself is a man riddled with guilt as he has just witnessed his best friend dash out of the window to his death upon finding out Yu has been sleeping with his wife.
Meanwhile, Wei tries to persuade his unrequited crush, schoolmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) to leave with him. Huang herself has to deal with her alcoholic single mother and is further troubled by the reverberation of her scandalous relationship with her school’s vice dean. The fourth character is a grandfather, Wang Jin (Li Congxi), who is pushed out of his son’s home as the young family needs to move to a smaller apartment in another place so to register their daughter for a better school. A dismal future awaits him away from his granddaughter.
Hu parallels the dilapidated urban environs with the inner world of his characters. Long takes and tracking shots place viewers right in the midst of relational conflicts. A Steadicam follows their uncertain footsteps; blueish-grey overtone transmits the bleakness of their situation. Hu takes time to let the camera linger on his characters’ faces, capturing their troubled psyche. Their seemingly emotionless appearance is reminiscence of Bresson’s ‘non-actors’. Often, their reticence conveys depths that words deem unnecessary.
There’s still another character which is mentioned but remains invisible, and that’s the Elephant. We’re told at the start of the film that it sits very still in a circus in the city of Manzhouli, a distance away. It’s indifferent to people’s taunting and objects thrown at it. The Elephant’s quiet composure exudes a mythical element these characters seem to yearn for. Here, realism is mixed with a touch of magic. As the four-hour film draws to an end, the sequence transcends rationale. Two young people, Wei and Ling, together with the grandfather Wang and his granddaughter depart on a journey to Manzhouli in search for the Elephant.
The ending shot is mesmerizing as the bus to Manzhouli stops temporarily in the night, the passengers get down for a stretch. From a distance, we see our protagonists stand in front of the beam from the bus and start playing hacky sack. The long stay of the camera on them is surreal but needed. The quest for the mythical being is motivational zeal for life, even just for a momentary pleasure. Then we hear off screen the sound of an elephant braying.
The Book Big Crack
In April I took a trip to Hong Kong and there in a bookstore I found the source material for the film, Big Crack*, written by Hu under his pen name Hu Qian. The book is a compilation of short stories, one of them being ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’, as well as Hu’s award-winning novella ‘Big Crack’. I was eager to explore Hu’s worldview and compare his writing with his cinematic work.
‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a 15-page short story. Its protagonist is Yu in the movie, having slept with his best friend’s wife and struggling with guilt as he’s the reason for his friend’s suicide. Yu is drawn to search for the Elephant in Manzhouli, maybe for a redemptive reason. Towards the end, he finds the mythical beast, jumps into its cage and submits himself to let it deal a deadly blow to him, a fate he’s all too willing to accept, a soul that has been hinged on a meaningless existence. The other film materials are mostly philosophical concepts from the novella ‘Big Crack’.
Hu’s writing is more direct and visceral than his cinematic creation. In the novella ‘Big Crack’, his characters are students in a bottom-tiered art college somewhere near a remote northern town. The term ‘waste land’ is used to refer to the campus and its adjacent town. The term is also used in the movie. In the book, the words ‘waste land’ are ubiquitous, together with Existential, nihilistic concepts like having no exit and nauseating stenches – as in the beginning of the film with Wei’s father’s furious complaint. In the novella, rampant violence is frequent among different dormitories of the school, often exploding in bloodshed. Violence is more restrained in the film, but often leading to tragic end.
I presume Hu’s use of the phrase ‘waste land’ is an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s epic poem. Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ after WWI as the poet lamented the cultural and spiritual breakdown of Europe. Physical ruins could be rebuilt, but the collapse of moral and spiritual values was hard to replaced.
In what I think is a defying act in a country that monitors and censors Christianity in the public arena, Hu quoted the following verses from the Bible, words printed in bold:
“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time…. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.”
The Invisible Elephant
Hu is piercing in his observation of the moral void and dry, cracked condition of the human soul; the meaninglessness of life as he saw it could have become too overwhelming for him. But what about the Elephant? Is there a sliver of light coming through that crack?
Some had interpreted the Elephant as a symbol of the government, but considering the way that the beast appeals and draws the protagonists to seek for it, almost like a pilgrimage, that parallel just isn’t probable. Some critics had attributed it to the endurance needed to forsake the world and confront troubles with passive resistance.
When I first came across the mention of the Elephant sitting still, the Beatles song “The Fool on the Hill” came to mind. The lyrics point to a similar quietude and peaceful being, some see the lyrics as a reference to God, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth…” I incline to interpret as this, for evidence is overwhelming in Hu’s writing that he was troubled by the depravity of the world as he saw it and wanted to seek for what or who could have been the redemptive way.
As the closing credits roll to the end, we hear the mood has changed from the past three plus hours. We hear jubilant singing voices mixed with the theme music ‘Elephant’, sound of joy for the first time. And in the credits the following acknowledgement appears, ending the whole film:
“Original Acappella, Laomudeng Church Sunday Service Hymn”**
Before his death, a second feature was on the drawing board. Hu named it The Gate of Heaven. The spiritual yearning of this young talent is achingly apparent.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
*It’s my understanding that the book comes in only its original Chinese edition. There has yet been an English translation.
** Upon online research, I found that the Laomudeng Christian Church is serenely situated on the top of a mountain in Yunan, famous for its secluded and peaceful environs. The high-pitched A Cappella singing of its congregants is well-known.
Film still from Ripple file originally from MSPIFF
Hu Bo photo from Festival Scope Pro
Big Crack book photo from Amazon.com
From the beginning, all the ingredients seem to be in place for a satisfying period movie. Sumptuous set design, beautiful costume and makeup, even the rubbles and chaos are realistic. What more, three seasoned, popular actors under a helmer who had proven he could do war movies with his Testament of Youth (2014).
Director James Kent is all set to pull us into great expectations from the start. British military wife Rachel Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives by train in Hamburg, Germany, in the year 1946. She is greeted warmly by her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British Colonel stationed there to enforce order in the aftermath of the War.
The Morgans are staying in a mansion requisitioned from the Nazi’s. But due to Lewis’s benevolence, the former owner, handsome German widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his troubled teenaged daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) are allowed to stay until they are sent to the camp. Why the delay is not explained, an arrangement definitely isn’t going to be too comfortable. Just look here, Rachel, who has lost her young son in the war, refuses to even shake hands with the enemy, now cohabitant of the mansion.
No sooner had they settled than Lewis needed to go away on military duties, leaving his wife behind. What ensues is predictable, but unfathomable: How a woman who still mourns her lost young son and holds animosity against the enemy, and a German widower who’d lost his wife during the war and with her memory still vivid in the house, can come together so quickly just days of living under the same roof. From refusing to shake hands to sleeping with the enemy in just a few scene changes, the unconvincing storyline abruptly stops any appreciation I’ve had of other cinematic elements up to that point.
Adapted from the novel by Rhidian Brook, the screenwriters, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, must have thought celebrity actors have the power and charisma to jazz up a weak script. Fact is, even talented actors are bound by the writing, or, hampered by it. Just look at some other works by Knightley, for example, Atonement (2007) or her latest Colette (2018), comparing her performance in those films with her role here in The Aftermath seems like we’re watching the living in contrast to a pedestal decorative that can tear up on demand.
Alexander Skarsgård can release much intensity if the script allows, case in point is his role in Big Little Lies (2017), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe. Instead, his character as Stephen in The Aftermath is bland, driven by inexplicable motive, except maybe an act of violation to avenge. But no, he and Rachel, who are practically strangers, seriously mean love here. Whatever happened to his late wife’s memory at the piano? With Rachel playing her music still placed on the Steinway, even Debussy’s Clair de Lune can’t shine a light on the blurry motive.
Jason Clarke is repeating his demeanour as in Mudbound (2017), a husband oblivious of what’s going on with the affair of his wife. Here in The Aftermath, the underlying motivations of each character and backstory is just slightly touched on without much elaboration. Are the visuals in bed more important than the rational for modern viewers? I sure hope not.
Movies set during the World Wars work only if there are more to mull on rather than just the actions and the aesthetics. Complexity of characters and conflicts are what pull viewers in, eliciting empathy. Some thought-provoking or a bit challenging ideas and dialogues could help too. Several recent examples are Their Finest (2016) and Darkest Hour (2017), or director Kent’s own Testament of Youth (2014); the other end would be the emotionless The Monuments Men (2014).
I can’t help but think of a WWII classic. Why Casablanca (1942) works, among many factors, are the intelligent dialogues and a surprise ending, surprising to the character involved, but gratifying for the viewers, leaving them with much to mull on, values, priorities, and a lingering feeling for two star-crossed lovers. Unfortunately, that kind of emotions, thoughts and admiration for the characters were not the aftermath as I left the theatre.
~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
A Korean director shooting a film while attending the Cannes Film Festival, with two prominent Korean and French actors in his cast, taking just days in shooting to make what seems like a spontaneous gig had resulted in this whimsical 69-minute dramedy. Looks like something only the prolific, Cannes-honored director Hong Sangsoo can pull off. The versatile Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, Elle) in one of her interviews said it took her only five days to do Claire’s Camera with Hong, with no script, except a daily run-through of the day’s story and lines.
This is Huppert’s second time collaborating with Hong. The parallels in Claire’s Camera with real life are the very elements that lends to the film’s subtle humour. Claire (Huppert) is a school teacher from Paris visiting Cannes for the first time, accompanying a friend to the Film Festival. While wandering alone in this seaside resort taking pictures with her camera, Claire bumps into a triangle entanglement: a Korean director So (Jung Jinyoung), his film’s sales rep Yanghye (Chang Mihee) who has more than just a business relationship with So, and separately, her sales assistant Manhee (played by Hong’s muse Kim Minhee, On the Beach at Night Alone), whom she fires as she finds out Manhee’s one-night stand with the director.
Claire makes fast friends with Manhee after they meet on the beach. Here we see two actors from different countries using English to communicate, a language that’s not their own mother tongue. The verbal limitations may be a bother for some watching the film, but apparently not a hindrance for the two of them striking up an instant, equal friendship. They seem to know what the other is trying to say, and they care to ask each other questions, some quite personal, in order to know the other more.
Contrast that to a conversation where Manhee has with her boss Yanghye over coffee when she gets the message that she’s fired. They share the same Korean language, yet their interlocution is marked by unspoken sentiments and the boss’s minimal attempt to make it a two-way flow. Here’s a realistic depiction of a lopsided communication, one that’s not exclusive to the Korean culture. Those in authority hold the key to conversations.
In another scene, the lack of communication is what makes the naturalistic, deadpan humor work. When Claire first meets director So, the two are sitting at adjacent tables outside a café. As conversation begins, So asks Claire if he can sit with her at her table. She agrees and he stands up and moves to sit by her. But then the two have nothing more to say to each other, maybe due to language limitations. Claire then goes on to Google him on her phone to find out more about this director who’s sitting beside her. One has to take this as a comedic scene to appreciate the irony.
The film is breezy and leisurely as the Cannes seaside, refreshing as the yellow jacket Claire is wearing; incidentally, her ‘costume’ is the actual wardrobe Huppert had brought when she was attending Cannes at that time. The setting is scenic and pleasant, whether it’s the pounding waves or the small lanes winding along cafes. No, we don’t get to see the red carpet or any of the glamour of the Cannes Film Festival, but we’re led into the side streets of storytelling.
The pitfall for those not familiar with Hong’s eccentric style could be the naturalistic, seemingly unscripted demeanours of his actors and their haphazard dialogues, and in this case especially sound laboured when characters try to interact with each other in a foreign language. And speaking of communication, the usual hard-drinking of his characters—director So here—could well be a language of expression in itself.
As for the camera Claire is always carrying, one would wish Hong could have used that a bit more, cinematically and imbued with deeper meaning. Hers is a Polaroid, so the image appears slowly on a hard copy. But we don’t get to see this effect or be led to any deeper relevance. However, in one notable dialogue towards the end when Manhee finally asks Claire a question that must have been on her mind all along, we finally hear something revealing:
Manhee: Why do you take pictures?
Claire: Because the only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly.
Manhee: That sounds very nice.
The unfinished part seems to be, “but do we do it?”
Considering Hong Sangsoo’s signature style of repeating his film sequences in a movie like we’re watching it all over again but towards different results, Claire’s words could be more layered than they appear, and the slow appearing of an image on the Polaroid print could well be a mirroring for reflection.
Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2017, Claire’s Camera has since been playing in film festivals all over the world. Cinema Guild will be releasing the film on Blu-Ray and DVD beginning Nov. 6, 2018. For more details click here: http://www.cinemaguild.com/theatrical/clairescamera.html
~ ~ ~ Ripples