‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

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

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

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

Episode 1 – Mark Rylance

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

Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas

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

Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan

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

Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter

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

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


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

Related Posts on the Pacific Front in WWII:

WWII Comfort Women Speak Out in The Apology

The Railway Man: Movie Review

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

Canada Reads 2018: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Binge-Watching on the Small Screen

If you’ve not ventured out to the Cineplex lately for larger than life spectacles, you’re not alone. And that’s what Steven Spielberg is worried about. The small screen is taking over: streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crave… are keeping movie goers at home. What more, these services are making their own productions; memory of last year’s Netflix original movie, multiple Oscar winner Roma may still be fresh.

If binge-watching is the new urban phenom, then binge-racing has to be the newest spectator sport on the couch. Binge-racing, a term not in the OED yet, just means watching a whole Season of episodes all within the first 24 hrs. of their release. That could amount to 12 hrs. of binge-viewing.

In recent months I too have discovered the joy of small-screen bingeing. I declare though, I’m not a racer; as the title of this blog implies, I’m a ripple rider when it comes to small screen viewing. So for a while I’ve been catching up with some interesting titles and I must admit, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the activity.

No, this is not a debate about which is better, watching big Hollywood productions in the theatre vs. streaming on your TV screen or just on your 6″ handheld device; it’s about accessing interesting human stories to watch in a continuous and user friendly mode, as you can pause to take care of more urgent needs that may arise, like heading to the snack counter, without missing a beat or having to wait for the next commercial break.

The following are some titles I’ve binge-watched in the past year or so. By ‘binge’ I just mean watching all the episodes in a Season in one sitting, or two. Some are mini-series, so it’s just like watching a slightly longer movie than you would in a theatre.

**

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video)

The-Marvellous-Mrs-Maisel

This is probably the best period series I’ve watched in recent years. 1950’s NYC, Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), wife, mother of two young children, devoted daughter of a Jewish family living in the Upper West Side, decides to choose a different path.

Inciting incident is when her husband Joel (Michal Zegen) one day packs up and leaves. Happy families can be turned into unhappy in the blink of an eye, for various reasons. One time at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, Midge rants about her domestic blues during open mike and is discovered, or rather, she hears her true calling, and that’s being a stand-up comedienne.

This must be kept a secret from her Columbia U. professor father Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) and her mother Rose (Marin Hinkle), a deep-rooted figure in the community. Midge hides her double life successfully at first, and her resolve to strike out on her own is strong. First she finds a day job at B. Altman Department Store, unheard of in her social circle, and at night does stand-up gigs as a comedienne, even more far-fetched. She lies low with her new persona, why, her newly acquired language is too foul for her family and friends, but foul is fair for Mrs. Maisel’s career. 

Period events and personalities add to the authentic build up of the story: Lenny Bruce is Mrs. Maisel’s supporter, Jane Jacob hangs around the Village, emergent artists perform at the Gaslight Café, albeit some are the deadpan material of the comedy. For the larger picture, the Cold War, secrets and spies, the Kennedys form the backdrop.

Very well written comedy, beautiful set design and period costumes, superbly performed by the wonderful cast. Rachel Brosnahan won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV series, Musical or Comedy (2019); the show won a GG for Best TV series, Musical or Comedy in 2018, and for 2019, it has snatched SAG Awards, Prime Time Emmy, AFI Award for TV Program of the Year. Enough said.

Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon Prime Video)

Mozart in the Jungle.jpg

No matter which classy name you put in, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert… it’s still a jungle. The series doesn’t just showcase the music of the fictional New York Symphony but probe their private, and not so private, life as well. In the jungle, you’d expect that’s where the wild things are. Their softball team is aptly named Wolf Gang (no doubt a playful pun on Mozart’s name). The Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner for Best TV series, Musical or Comedy, does have some inspiring musical scores and thoughtful lines.

To add some real-life flare, classical music figures Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax and Joshua Bell had made personal appearances. What more, while the regular cast members had to fake their instrument-playing, Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding, 1997) didn’t need to. In one episode as a guest star, he’d shown himself to be an impressive cello virtuoso.

Coincidentally, I’ve recently finished Jamie Bernstein’s memoir Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing up Bernstein. With her book, she had successfully destroyed the image of my American idol during my youthful days, Leonard Bernstein. Fact is stranger, or wilder, than fiction indeed. The classical music realm isn’t a ‘holier than thou’ kind of high-brow milieu. It’s occupied by humans after all.

 

Killing Eve (Crave)

Killing Eve

I don’t have Crave (HBO), so this one I watched on DVD, after a long wait for holds at the public library. Sandra Oh won a Best Actress Golden Globe for a TV series with her portrayal of MI5 agent Eve Polastri, obsessed with tracking down the psychotic killer Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Comer is good too, like a female version of Hannibal Lecter. Only difference is, she’s more humane than Lecter in that she’d rather put a fast bullet in her victim’s head than slowly eat the grey matter inside. Exactly, this is not for everyone, but for the thrill seekers and Oh fans. Slick and fast-paced, engaging performance and suspenseful storylines sprinkled with humor every now and then.

Collateral (Netflix)

Carey Mulligan in Collateral

I’ll watch anything that stars Carey Mulligan. The David Hare written, 4-Episode TV mini-series stands out, for it features a 7-month pregnant Mulligan as a London detective solving a street shooting. Exactly, why can’t a woman with a baby bump be a detective and fight crime, and along the way, exposes issues within the government about immigration policies and some dark secrets? Kudos to BBC, director S. J. Clarkson, and Carey Mulligan for taking on the challenge.

The Crown (Netflix)

The Crown.jpg

The series deserves all the accolades it has garnered. Claire Foy is superb as a younger Queen Elizabeth and the whole cast is notable. I’m eagerly waiting for the new Season with Olivia Colman as the Queen, continuing with the relay. QE is the longest reigning monarch in England’s history, so we’ll have many more Seasons to come(?) Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret would make one lively addition in the upcoming Season.

The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

A dynamic acting duo, Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin exude good chemistry. Douglas is Sandy Kominsky, an acting coach transforming young actors with his own Kominsky Method. Arkin plays his long-time friend and agent Norman who recently lost his wife to cancer. Confusion and insecurities abound in this stage of their life. What better companion they have than each other to ride into the sunset. The well-written script and nuanced performance from both make this series an enjoyable and inspiring character study.

Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon Prime Video)

Based on the book Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, who produced  the TV series and wrote the screenplays of several episodes. Beautiful set design, costume and makeup. Fowler’s book and the adaptation is framed from Zelda’s point-of-view, a writer in her own right and a tragic heroine when it comes to her marriage. Zelda (Christina Ricci) is an unhappy wife overshadowed by an alcoholic, egoistic writer. Only one Season so far has been produced and the biopic stops in midlife. I hope the production will eventually pick up to the end. It’s an image-questioning look at F. Scott Fitzgerald who’d given us some of America’s best loved novels.

The Highwaymen (Netflix)

A Bonnie and Clyde remake but this time from the the point-of-view of two Texas Rangers who come out of retirement to take down the notorious outlaw couple. No, it’s not a comedy but yes, lightweight. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are replaced by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, who join hands to offer a non-glamorous take on the capture. Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, 2009). A Netflix original movie.

**

What are you binge-watching these days?

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.

Wildlife
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.

Carey Mulligan.jpg
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.

 

 

 

 

 

Mudbound: From Book to Screen

The Book

Mudbound is Hillary Jordan’s debut novel, published in 2008. It won the Bellwether Prize for fiction, an award founded by author Barbara Kingsolver to promote literature of social justice and responsibility.

Mudbound Book Cover

The setting is WWII and its ending, as two American soldiers return from Europe to their families in Mississippi. One of them is Jamie, white, a flying ace whose co-pilot was shot dead right beside him in a fierce dogfight. The other, Ronsel, black, a decorated war hero who had fought in the tank battalion under General Patton. Both had experienced the war, seen the atrocity, now back home having to deal with the demons of the aftermath: for Jamie, traumatic shocks and survivor’s guilt; for Ronsel, another barbaric battlefront, racism in the Deep South.

Jamie comes back to a cotton farm owned by his older brother Henry McAllan and stays in the lean-to adjacent to the main house, itself but a shack with no running water or electricity. “Mudbound” is the proper name for it. When the rain pours and the wind blows, the mud drowns and pulls everything down, dirtying all from head to toe. A gloomy place to start anew as a farmer.

They weren’t all like that to start with. Henry has an engineering degree. Laura, Henry’s wife from Memphis, is also college educated. She learns of Henry’s intention to move to rural Mississippi and be a cotton farmer only weeks after her marriage. What’s worse, Henry’s obnoxious father, Pappy, will be coming to live with them.

Ronsel’s father Hap Jackson is the sharecropper working in the cotton fields owned by Henry. Fate brought the two families together. Hap and his wife Florence and all his children have been praying for Ronsel’s safe return from the war. Now their prayers are answered, but only pit Ronsel into another battlefront when he meets Jamie and the two strike up friendship, a despicable taboo.

Written in chapters that reveal the point of view of the various characters, the book is a sort of a literary ‘Rashomon’, how different people see the same event in their own light, or the lack of it. Such a writing structure evokes empathy as Jordan leads the reader to delve into the mind of the characters. And as the final climatic chapters come, we as readers get to know a crucial fact, an essential plot point we are privy to but which even other characters are not aware. We have Jordan to thank for such an insightful way to present the omniscient viewpoint in her storytelling.

The trajectory of the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is tragically predictable. But what’s not predictable is Jordan’s incisive writing. Sometimes adding a short little phrase at the end of a sentence could make it speak much more. It’s writing like this that makes the book enjoyable despite its subject matter. Take this as an example, simple and subtle, but revealing effectively Laura’s inner turmoil after a tumultuous night:

“… I got up and checked on the children. They were sleeping, with an untroubled abandon I envied.”

Or this line to wrap up a climatic chapter. Such descriptions are perfect cues for nuanced  performance on screen:

“What we can’t speak, we say in silence.”

No spoiler here. But this is the kind of writing that conveys powerfully the emotions and events that sweep the reader up while allowing space to mull things over.

***

The Movie

The cinematography (Rachel Morrison) is the most distinguished feature from the beginning. As the title suggests, the colour palette is a spectrum of browns, reminiscence of the paintings of Jean Francois Millet’s farmers toiling in the fields, or this Van Gogh’s Potatoes Farmers:

VVG Farmers-Planting-Potatoes

But before the mud swallows up life, there is the colourful, urbane, Memphis party scene, or the courtship under golden leaves. The contrast is heartbreaking. Laura (Carey Mulligan), who seems to have no say about her life and fate, has to follow her husband Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) from the city to move to a shack with no running water or electricity on a cotton field in rural Mississippi. Being a landowner is the sole ambition for him.

But of course, not just Laura, but everyone is drawn into the muddy swamp. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) is the sharecropper on the McAllan fields. His wife Florence–absorbing performance from “the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” Mary J. Blige–is soon asked to help Laura with caring for her two girls and household chores. The return of their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) from Europe after the war will eventually link the two families down an inescapable path.

Turning the chapters of internal worlds into visuals on screen is a tall order. Director Dee Rees, who co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, had done an effective job by voiceovers, which is sometimes frowned upon as they could mean an easy-way out. But here, the voiceovers are intimate and personal. The few simple lines in the voice of the characters draw the viewers closer in. With Carey Mulligan, I admit I’m totally partial. Her alto voice is moving and poignant.

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Picking the right events from the book is crucial. Director Rees has followed closely to the plot lines using many of Jordan’s words, but also taken the liberty to switch around and combine them in the movie adaptation. Juxtaposing Ronsel and Jamie’s traumatic battle scenes with accidents and illness at home are effective and emotionally engaging; all have to fight their battles, big and small, at home or the frontline.

The most moving juxtaposition comes at the intense, climatic scene where the singing of a hymn replaces dialogues. It’s a juxtaposition of the visual with sound and silence. Jordan’s impressive line from the book is aptly adapted onto screen:

“What we can’t speak, we say in silence.”  Or here, in song.

The ending of the movie is altered, and I’m glad, for they who have suffered so much, so long, deserve a cathartic ending. This is a good example of a fine adaptation. It’s not a page by page transposition from book to screen, ‘faithful’ to the dot. But Rees has taken the liberty to unleash the dramatic, or maybe, melodramatic. It’s always cathartic to see love triumph after all. Mary J. Blige’s “Mighty River” is an appropriate wrap as the end credits roll.

***

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Book and Movie

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

Here’s the paradox of books to movies. The more you know about the book, the more critical you’ll be when watching the movie, and the less likely you’ll enjoy it. Here’s a case in point. If you want to enjoy this current version of Far From the Madding Crowd without hindrance, do not read or reread Hardy’s novel before you see it. For me, alas, I’ve read it twice in the last few months. So, who can I blame if I find the movie disappointing?

Now, I know exactly that I need to judge a movie on its own merits and not according to how ‘faithful’ it is to the source. I’ve written a post on this view. This current adaptation misses the mark not because it’s not ‘faithful’ but because it has been mishandled. The script, the direction, and for that matter, the casting. Now hear me out. far-form-the-madding-crowd I had high expectations for it. Here we have an Oscar nominated director, Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, 2012), offering a new version from John Schlesinger’s 1967 production which touted a high calibre cast of Julie Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terrance Stamp. After almost fifty years, should one not hold a certain high level of excitement in welcoming a new version with a modern cast?

To start off, I must give credit where it’s due and that’s to the director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt) for bringing the beautiful Dorset country to the big screen so we can visualize Hardy’s ‘Wessex’. The camera captures the lush green fields and gentle rolling hills at dawn and dusk, the farming life, the harvesting under the golden sun. Reminds me of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The scenic and authentic location of the filming is an alluring backdrop to the story.

Now to the screenplay. David Nicholls is no stranger to simplified versions of classics. His last Hardy light Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a TV mini-series (2008), had four episodes to tell the story. But here as a full-length feature, this new Madding Crowd script could make CliffsNotes writers feel they are doing some heavy lifting. Actually, the movie is not far from the source material, almost all of the scenes and many of the dialogues come from the book, with some alterations, but this is understandable. One would think alterations should be for the purpose of dramatization; so it’s just mind boggling that certain scenes that are essentially dramatic in the novel have been left out, ones that could have enhanced the tension substantially. Two readily come to mind: First is the circus scene where Sergeant Troy was nearly recognized by Bathsheba, and the second is right at the climax of the story, Boldwood’s Christmas party, not omitted but with its tension substantially lessened.

Danish director Vinterberg’s previous work The Hunt – a 2014 Oscar Best Foreign Language Film nominee – was a riveting and psychological piece of work. He could have operated in that mode here. With the scenes sweeping by, and leaving out some pivotal cinematic moments, he has missed chances to engage the audience. The altered state of the climatic scene is regretful. Take that crucial act when Boldwood was driven by mad passion (I’m trying to avoid spoiler here in case you haven’t read the book) during that fateful Christmas party in his home. Instead of displaying the conflict and tension in full public view, Vinterberg has taken the action out into the dark of night. Without all the guests as witnesses, the gravity of the conflict and Boldwood’s ultimate action is effectually diminished; not only that, the handling is incredulously haphazard and swift. While Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd exudes a lighter mood compared to the cosmically burdened Tess of the U’Derbervilles – and I chuckled at many of his lines while reading – I don’t expect movie viewers would take this film as a comedy. But this was exactly the audience’s reaction in the theatre. When you hear loud laughter at the climax of the movie, you know the director has missed the mark.

The story is about the characters, more so here when you have one headstrong female being wooed by three vastly different men. What’s intriguing is the emotional ‘trilemma’ of our heroine. The effervescent Bathsheba Everdene, the independent, new mistress of the Weatherbury farm is, alas, misdirected. Carey Mulligan can be a convincing Bathsheba, but the strength of character is diminished by the breezy script and a director who fails to draw out her potential. From the “I shall astonish you all” first meeting with her farmhands to the “Please don’t desert me, Gabriel!” plea to Oak so he would come back to rescue her ailing flock, there are pages of Hardy descriptions. Surely, time is of the essence in a 120-minute movie, but at least show visually the gravity of her situation before she so readily rides horseback and race to Gabriel. As a transition, let the camera frame a wide angle shot of the field littered with sheep lying helpless, ready to expire, for she’s about to lose them all. But just showing a sheep in distress doesn’t warrant the quick change in character, from leading to pleading. It looks like Vinterberg has crafted a feeble and even exploitive Bathsheba who gets her way by her outward charm. In several scenes she could have been more intense; we see no Hardy’s expression of ‘nether lip quivered.’

Among the three suiters, the strongest performance comes from Michael Sheen as William Boldwood. His nuanced facial expressions speak louder than words. Whether intentioned by Vinterberg or not, Sheen has turned the truly, madly, deeply love-sick Boldwood into a comic character, more so than Hardy’s portrayal. Or, were the laughters not intended? No matter, Sheen’s performance compensates for the lack of in the other two men.

Gabriel Oak the resourceful shepherd is the strong and silent type. Not only is he a man of few words, the Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts has turned him into a man of few expressions as well. Schoenaerts is fine in action thrillers like The Drop (2014) but just not in a romantic lead, as in Rust and Bone (2012), and now Madding Crowd, for he fails to command the image of either a lead or a romantic. In several scenes, we as audience are left hanging, ungratified, for his lack of verbal response to Bathsheba’s sincere words. 

If Schoenaerts is expressionless, here is an equal rival, Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy. The George Wickham parallel who dazzles with his brass and scarlet, Sergeant Troy is a subdued character here who lures with his sword. Is it the director or the screenwriter, the few lines given him are mostly sparse and one-liners like “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face as beautiful as yours.” Sure, that’s from Hardy, but in richer descriptive context. Or, another short line to explain (away) pages of happenings absent on screen.

I’m writing this not in disrespect but disappointment in that a good chance to do justice to Hardy’s illuminating work is missed. Yet, all is not lost; there still remains a synopsis of a Hardy story and Hardy country in full cinematic view. Further, we are confirmed, again, that Carey Mulligan can sing, in a particular folksy, soulful way. So far, I’ve heard her sing in three movies, and each time it enriches the storytelling. When Awards Season comes this fall, I look forward to a stronger performance from her in Suffragette. Simply by virtue of the release date, it is an award hopeful. Some are already predicting Oscar nods for her role in that production.

As for Madding Crowd, let’s just note that it’s a May-released movie.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples 

________________

Other related review posts:

Tess of the d’Urbervilles (2008, TV)

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Never Let Me Go (2010)

An Education (2009)

Can a Movie Adaptation Ever be As Good As the Book?

Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

As preparation for the movie, I bought the CD soundtrack a few weeks before. This has proven to be a mistake, for I’d been listening to it so much that when I watched the film, I wasn’t surprised by the music at all. I consider that a loss. It would have been much better that I were mesmerized by that haunting voice of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for the first time as I watched the movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis copy

Music is a major player in many Coen brothers movies, often used to comedic and acerbic effects. The whole odyssey in O Brothers Where Art Thou (2000) comes to mind readily, or Jefferson Airplane in A Serious Man (2009) where ‘Somebody to Love’ reinvents itself, or even in True Grit‘s (2010) ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ as we see the one-arm Mattie Ross riding into the sunset.

But in Inside Llewyn Davis, music is no laughing matter. Llewyn is the serious man here, a folksinger down on his luck. T. Bone Burnett has crafted an impressive music production. It should be noted too that Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford and Sons and husband of Carey Mulligan, is also involved in the song arrangement and singing, in particular, the part of Llewyn’s duo partner Mike in ‘Fare Thee Well’.

The setting is New York City’s Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn is a folk music purist, an idealist. All he wants is a gig to kick off as a solo performer. The backstory is that his singing duo partner had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The record he has produced as a soloist isn’t selling. It’s cold in NYC, Llewyn is homeless and coatless. Maybe it’s arrogance coming from being a music purist that makes him callous and abrasive, even to fellow folk singers, or maybe he needs to have that aloof hardness as an armour to sustain the slings and arrows life hurls his way.

O, if only Llewyn’s personality were as charismatic as his voice, he probably would have done better in life. Despite his musical talents, our protagonist, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, is trapped by his own character flaws and tripped by no small amount of fate, he slips slides into the wayside. Sadly, that’s exactly where he lands at the end of the movie.

He has friends and acquaintances, but there’s not much that they can do to help. He has already made the best use of their couches, and some of their wives. The latest to get pregnant is Jean, played against type by the sweet Carey Mulligan, all wrapped up in anger, understandably so, for her friend Llewyn is more concerned about a lost cat than her upcoming abortion. Jean has a very limited vocabulary to express herself except the overused expletive. Not a pleasant role to play I’m sure. Her character could have been written with a bit more depth.

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Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are also folk singers but ‘careerists’ according to Llewyn. They would one day concede to life in the suburb, settle down and have kids. ‘Is that so bad?’ Jean asks Llewyn. The answer is obvious. Llewyn is definitely not going down that path.

Talented folk singers converge at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village during the 1960’s. Why some succeed and others don’t, the Coen brothers seem not so much to offer rational explanations than to depict the misfortunes of one. In that dim, brick-walled and smoke-filled Café, we hear some fantastic singing. We hear Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands) perform ‘Five Hundred Miles’, evoking Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, to an oblivious Llewyn, we see the silhouette of what looks like Bob Dylan and hear his voice singing ‘Farewell’.

Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) sets the mood from the opening scene. In that basement Café, we see the place dimly lit with spotlight on Llewyn’s face, as his ‘Hang Me, O Hang Me’ captivates us right away. We follow him later as he steps outside to a pitch-dark alley where he meets his nemesis. Even during the day, we see him walk on wind-swept streets under dull, grey sky. The overall bleakness can be soothed only when Llewyn picks up his guitar and sing. His voice seems to be able to neutralize any outrageous fortune.

Llewyn takes a surreal road trip to Chicago to try his luck with a club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, a double for Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman?) He is stuck in the car with the old and sardonic Roland Turner (John Goodman) who wraps up his opinion in one short line: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.” If the trip seems absurd, it could well be the exact impression the directors intend. We follow one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a week of failed attempts, gloomy encounters, and bleak prospects. The only light is the voice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)

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The Great Gatsby (2013): Movie Review

In just 172 pages, F. Scott Fitzgerald has captured the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age, and told the stirring story of love and loss. In this new adaptation of the book, director Baz Luhrmann has used an estimated $127 million, glamorizing with 3D and over the top cinematic effects.

Here is a prime example of ‘the medium is the message.’ Instead of depicting extravagance and excess, the production has become that.

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I went in with an open mind. After all, I had expected a mashed-up, postmodern fusion Luhrmann style. So, even the Jay-Z curated hip hop selections a la Gershwin cacophony was fine with me. After all, it was the unruly Jazz Age, so be it. Gatsby’s creamy yellow roadster speeding towards Manhattan, zigzagging its way through busy streets, Fast and Furious 1920’s version is still acceptable. By the way, the movie was shot in Australia. So, all the Manhattan scenes are visual remixes.

But the main issue for me is the 3D. Not much to be gained there but hindrances. The effects make me feel like I’m looking into a View-Master, artificial and gratuitous. For Gatsby, the extravaganzas in his mansion are only means to an end, to attract his love, Daisy; in Luhrmann’s hands, they are an end in themselves. The flamboyant and ostentatious parties, like their uninvited guests, overstay their welcome in the first part of the almost 2.5 hour production.

If Luhrmann had only used more of his wealth of resources: the rich and talented cast, to explore the story more and go deeper into characterization, and less partying, the movie would have been a wonder.

After all the glitz and glam in the first act, my enjoyment begins when Gatsby meets Daisy in Nick’s humble abode, a set up masterminded by Gatsby. It has taken him five years to this very moment. It is this scene that draws me in from being just an aloof onlooker. From without to within, it is the story and the characters that engage me more than the visual spectaculars.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine Gatsby, convincing and comical at times. Carey Mulligan may not be the Daisy I had conjured up from reading the book, but she has mastered her role well on her own terms. She’s a much sweeter, less careless Daisy than I had in mind. Elizabeth Debicki is an apt Jordan Baker. Joel Edgerton as sneaky and snobbish Tom Buchanan needs to smile more, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway less. The veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan is a good choice for Meyer Wolfsheim. Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, what a change from a shopaholic, and Jason Clarke too much a hunk to be wimpy Wilson.

One major alteration that I’ve appreciated is Nick writing out the story as a therapy recommended by his doctor, apparently a psychiatrist. The story of Jay Gatsby is also Nick’s own story as a writer. By articulating his experience in words he pays tribute to an unforgettable character, a dreamer who always sees the green light. Without giving out a spoiler, let me just say, the little twist at the end is a nice touch to this new adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

Does it worth a watch? I’d say yes, even in the 3D version. Curiosity is insatiable. And hopefully, the visual spectaculars can draw the viewer back once again to the literary offering Fitzgerald had first created.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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A related Post I wrote 3 years ago at the announcement of this new adaptation. My open letter to Baz Luhrmann:

The Great Gatsby: A New Version

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Great Film Expectations

For an updated list of 2012 premieres of film adaptations, CLICK HERE.

With written works from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus materialized on the big screen, what else can we anticipate in this year and next?

Here’s an update of some upcoming film adaptations from literary works. Great choices for book groups too.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

On the heels of the acclaimed “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, this time, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the man. Directed by Anton Corbijn whose last film was the deep and thoughtful “The American, a film I found to be much better than the book.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Finally, dates are set for the premiere: Sept. 7 in the UK, Nov. 9 in the US. I look forward to this one: Tom Stoppard screenplay, Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) directs, Keira Knightly as Anna, Matthew MacFadyen Oblonzky, Jude Law Alexai, Aaron Johnson Count Vronsky, and Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) as Princess Myagkaya, plus many other British stars.

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 

Winner of multiple awards and shortlisted for a Booker in 2004, the apocalyptic novel is adapted by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and The Wachowski’s (Matrix’s). Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw (Bright Star), Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent. Here’s Susan Sarandon’s take on the production.

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The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud 

Some big names affiliated with this project are Richard Gere, Eric Bana, Keira Knightly, Emma Thompson, Rachel McAdams. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) on board. But I can find no more news after this announcement, which is fine, gives me more time to get to the book first. It’s been on my TBR list for a few years now.

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

To coincide with the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens and the Olympics in London, Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral) directs, screenplay by David Nicholl (One Day, Tess of d’Urbervilles, When Did You Last See Your Father) who may be also writing the third Bridget Jones movie. Ralph Fiennes is Magwitch, Helena Bonham Carter Miss Havisham, Jeremy Irvine, Pip.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

What will F. Scott think when he sees his masterpiece produced in 3D in the 21st Century? Woody: do give us a sequel to “Midnight In Paris” with your brilliant imagination. Australian director Bez Luhrmann is poised to bring us this new version of Gatsby in 3D, which I’m sure will stir up lots of discussions. It has already. But no matter how I dislike 3D (except Hugo), I want to see Leo DiCaprio play Jay G., Carey Mulligan, Daisy B., and Tobey Maguire, Nick C. Do Click Here to read a Guardian preview close to 3D.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Kenneth Branagh will direct Kate Winslet in this popular novel about the power of literature in desperate wartime. This is a reprise of their cooperation from 1996, when Branagh, as Hamlet, also directed Winslet as Ophelia. No dates have been set for its production or release, but something to keep in mind.

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The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Coming out in three parts. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012, and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of  Smaug’ in Dec. 2013, and ‘The Hobbit: There and Back Again’ in July, 2014. Peter Jackson attempts to reprise his Rings Trilogy magic. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom… the whole gang. Again, we’ll get to see beautiful New Zealand as setting.

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The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin’s account of Charles Dickens’ affair with the young writer Nelly Ternan will be brought to screen with script from Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, who will play Dickens himself. To add to the rave, Kristin Scott Thomas is also on board. Felicity Jones will be playing Nelly Ternan. Fiennes never ceases to amaze us with his versatility, after directing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in postmodern style.

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Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Tom Hooper of “The King’s Speech” directs an all star cast in this musical offering. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert (is he going to sing too?), Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway join in the chorus. Just too bad Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are missing here. Release date for North America is Dec. 2012, which means it can be a contender in next Awards Season.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Director Ang Lee picked 17 year-old Suraj Sharma of Delhi, India, from 3,000 teenagers to play Pi Patel. Interesting that Tobey MacGuire will play Yann Martel, the author of the book which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize. The film to be shot in 3D has a December 2012 release date. Again, films opening in December usually have eye on the next Awards Season. Will keep our eyes peeled.

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Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Booker of Bookers winning work will see its author Salman Rushdie team up with acclaimed Canadian director Deepa Mehta in the film adaptation. Mehta in a recent interview hinted it will debut either at the Venice or the Toronto Film Festival this fall. You can still join us for a slow Read-Along of Midnight’s Children before the film comes out.

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Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier 

On the drawing board of Dreamwork and Working Title. Who can take the helm to reprise an adaptation made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, and actors to replace Sir Laurence Olivier as Mr. de Winter and Joan Fontaine as the new Mrs? Now, why does Carey Mulligan emerges in my mind… and Michael Fassbender

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What Maisie Knew by Henry James

Looks like a good classic to read before seeing the movie. Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård lead the cast. I’ve enjoyed previous Henry James adaptations of The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Portrait of a Lady. Look forward to this one.

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Books to be turned into TV series:

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

To be adapted into an HBO TV series with an all-star cast under the helm of Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Stars include Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper and Greta Gerwig. But, will the author be involved in any of the writing?

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A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Again, HBO has bought the rights to this one. The 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner is to be adapted into a half-hour TV series.

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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Yet again, it’s HBO that will be developing the novel into a TV drama series, another project by the “uber producer” Scott Rudin, who also oversees “The Corrections.”

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What are some of  your most anticipated films or books in the coming year(s)?

Looking for “Intrusions of Grace” in Films: Pickpocket and Drive

“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.”     — Flannery O’Connor (as quoted in my previous post)

Flannery O’Connor made this remark back in 1963. It was not only a sharp social commentary and prophetic, but to me, it also stands as one of the signs of a good film. Amidst the violence and ugliness a film may depict, the presence of grace, however small, or a mere spot of purity, could bring out a powerful contrast. Usually that is what’s needed to emit a redemptive spark, offering a glimpse of light pointing to the transcendent.

With this frame of grace among violence, I go back to the films I’ve watched and try to find some good examples. My task proves to be more difficult than I first thought. But after some deep searching through my mental archive, several films came to mind. I’ll just mention two for this post.

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Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson’s modern version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Caught in his own desensitized internal world, our protagonist Michel commits acts of theft as a desperate measure to fill the void in his existence. He goes through his days in a haunting vacuum devoid of meaning and emotions. He is unfeeling even towards his own dying mother, reminds me of Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger. Although not an axe murderer, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Michel theorizes that those with superior talents and intelligence, the supermen in society, should be free to disobey laws in certain cases. He is numbed by his own hubris, and stifled by his cold and absurd worldview. Outright violence is not visible here, but we see the battle of wits he engages with the police inspector behind his trails, and we see him struggle in an amoral and meaningless existence.

Grace comes as Jeanne, a neighbor and carer of Michel’s ailing mother. Jeanne lives on her own looking after her younger brother. Her father is a drunk and her mother has deserted them. But she continues to live and care. She accepts her circumstances calmly, and extends kindness to those unrelated to her, caring for Michel’s mother, a neighbor on another floor. She stands as a stark contrast to Michel’s aloofness. At the end of the film, Jeanne came to visit Michel in prison after he was arrested, the two separated by the cold iron bars. For the first time, Michel feels love and wants to reciprocate it. And thus the cathartic ending as he totally melts in the presence of pure love and grace, wrapping up the film with this last line:

“Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.”

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Drive (2011)

A current release that comes with high acclaims. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or and Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival this year. With slick and dashing camera work, the violence in “Drive” is visceral and graphic, a big contrast to the black and white, internal “Pickpocket”. However, I see some parallels between these two films made 50 years apart.

Ryan Gosling is “the Driver”. He does not even have a name. He is an expert stunt driver for movies and works at an autobody shop by day, drives a get-away car in the underworld of crimes by night. Like Michel in “Pickpocket”, he drifts in existence, numb and desensitized to the world around him. That is, until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbor.

Mulligan’s almost angelic presence in the film is most effective as a stark contrast to those around her. She lives alone looking after a child and works as a waitress in a diner. She appeals to the Driver by being herself, innocent, taking life as it is, responsible, caring for a child alone while her husband is locked up in prison. Irene is a spot of purity in a rough environment. Her mere presence has transformed the Driver. From being aloof the Driver has become engaged emotionally, friendly and protective of both mother and son.

The plot thickens as Irene’s husband is released from prison and rejoins his family. The Driver is caught in an awkward situation. But he soon realizes that the husband’s resolve for a new start is genuine. The power of transformation is so thorough that the Driver is willing to go out on a limb to help the husband with one last heist in order to break the hold a gang has on the man and his wife and kid. While things go awry terribly and the ending is not as clean-cut as “Pickpocket”, we learn that the Driver remains a changed man from the ephemeral friendship he once had with Irene and her child.

I’ve heard a critic say Mulligan is a miscast, that she’s not “damaged enough”, and would prefer a ‘stronger’ character. I disagree. I feel that Mulligan has portrayed Irene’s innocent persona aptly, and yes, those ethereal dimples can just melt any heart. Hers is the perfect role for exactly the right reason. In the dark underworld of gangs, violence and crimes, she stands out as a tiny source of purity, a spark of grace. It all shows that what may look weak and vulnerable can have transformative power over the strong. A thought that may well be unpopular today.

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Other related posts from Ripple Effects:

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

Upcoming Books Into Films

Looking for book suggestions for yourself or your book group in the coming year? The following is a list of books being planned for a movie adaptation. Books turning into movies always generate a lot of debates and discussions.  Better still, read the book then watch the movie together… I’m sure more debates will ensue.

Hope the following list can furnish you or your group with some ideas. Do note that these titles are in various stages of development, meaning some may come out in the next year or two, some may take longer if they get started at all.  Click on titles (links) for more details.

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1984 by George Orwell

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Adjustment Team (short story) by Philip K. Dick (Film: The Adjustment Bureau)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn by Hergé

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (Daniel Radcliffe)

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Keira Knightly)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant (short story)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Carey Mulligan, Leonardo DiCaprio)

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Ivan the Fool by Leo Tolstoy

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Middlemarch by George Eliot

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

One Day by David Nicholls

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

Paradise Lost by John Milton

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (A new take: Jane Austen Handheld)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw (My Fair Lady, Carey Mulligan, Emma Thompson script)

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (A Latina spin: From Prada to Nada)

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Matt Damon, Keira Knightly)

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Tiger by John Vaillant

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré (Colin Firth)

Water for Elephant by Sara Gruen

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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For a more updated list, click here to “More Upcoming Books Into Movies”.

If you know of any other titles, you are welcome to add to this list by leaving the info in the comment section.

CLICK HERE for WordPress Tag: Book Into Film.


The Great Gatsby: A New Version

UPDATE: To read my review of The Great Gatsby (2013), CLICK HERE.

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Well… not yet.  But seldom has a movie generated so much buzz even before it is made. The debates take on several fronts.

First off, there’s this argument of whether we need another Gatsby adaptation. There have been three full feature film versions of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as early as 1926, then in 1949. The most familiar for us modern day viewers is the 1974, Francis Ford Coppola screenplay, Robert Redford and Mia Farrow version. So more than thirty years now.  It would be interesting to see what a 21st century interpretation is like.

Then there’s the cast.  It’s been reported that Leonardo DiCaprio is the new Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire the narrator Nick Carraway, and stirring the frenzy, director Baz Luhrmann’s announcement of Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan.

I’m totally delighted with the cast selection.  While he may not be very convincing as an aging Howard Hughes (The Aviator, 2004), DiCaprio could make a very natural Jay Gatsby. Tobey Maguire’s quiet, observant demeanor, like his role in Cider House Rules (1999), would be a suitable Nick Carraway, although he might not have the poise as Sam Waterston back in 1974.

I’m all for Carey Mulligan, but still I feel she would have to fight against type to play Daisy Buchanan. Far from the innocent school girl in An Education, or the caring and sensitive Kathy in Never Let Me Go, it could be a challenge to portray a frivolous and capricious Daisy.  But if she could beat out names such as Natalie Portman, Abbie Cornish, Michelle Williams, Blake Lively, Scarlett Johansson, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall and Kiera Knightly in her audition to get the part, I trust she has what it takes to deliver. I’m excited to see her given a chance to extend further her acting talents.

That leaves us with the debate of whether the new interpreter could do Fitzgerald’s novel justice.  Director Baz Luhrmann’s previous works seem to embody a Gatsby house party: Moulin Rouge (2001), Strictly Ballroom (1992), Australia (2008), and his very postmodern take of Romeo + Juliet (1996), which, I admit, is one of the few movies that I had to quit watching after the first 15 minutes.

The online arguments against Luhrmann’s directing surround his over-the-top and superficial renditions of his previous movies.  His ability to translate the layered and nuanced descriptions of this literary classic into film is challenged outright.

That leads us to a more fundamental issue.  In my review of the film The Hedgehog (2009), one reader has left this thought-provoking question in the comment:

Is it possible that, no matter how well or poorly the job is done, there are some books that simply don’t make the transition from print to film with their essence intact?

As the postmodernists would have it, books and films are two different textual entities.  Fidelity is no longer something to strive for, but the appreciation of intertexuality.  Both ought to be taken in its own right, can’t be literally tranlated, can’t be compared.  And if Barthes has the final say, you just have to take it as is with whatever Luhrmann brings us since that’s his interpretation.  The author is dead… here literally and metaphorically.

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No matter what, I won’t judge before it’s even being made. Nonetheless, I do have a few words to appeal to Mr. Luhrmann:

Please don’t waste a talented cast, and a brilliant literary work. Offer us quality and depth of interpretations and not just the frothy splendour of the Jazz Age.  Consider lines like these and create the complexity and ambivalence in your characters:

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair.  Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering.  I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

While there’s no doubt you are capable of capturing the “gleaming, dazzling parties,” reveal also the undercurrents of anxiety, sadness, and ennui.  And in the midst of the seeming conviviality, give us the nuanced actions of inner quest, the search for real relationship in a mansion of party crashers, and the lingering hope of love:

A wafer of a moon was shining over Gatsby’s house, making the night fine as before, and surviving the laughter and the sound of his still glowing garden.  A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.

And above all, do justice to Jay Gatsby, honor his deep devotion for his love and not mock his attempt.  For behind the façade of materials and wealth, he is the one with the heart.  Show us how “the vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man.”

Remember, it is the heart that gratifies your viewers, not the glitz and glamour.

And please, not a musical.

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Never Let Me Go: Book and Movie

(Update Oct. 5, 2017: Kazuo Ishiguro has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature)

I must first declare this Spoiler Alert: It is impossible to write about the book and the movie clearly without stating the crux of the story. It is this key ingredient in the plot that instills meaning to the novel and now the film. While Never Let Me Go is a story of slow revealing, author Kazuo Ishiguro, in a Time magazine interview, admits that:

” … in a funny sort of way, I almost wanted the mystery aspect to be taken away so that people could conentrate on other aspects of the book.”

So there, even the author himself condones spoilers, for he knows there are much more to be pondered upon once the veil is removed.

Never Let Me Go (2005): The Book

Born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro‘s family moved to England when he was six. He is one of the most acclaimed English language writers today, listed by The Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro’s fourth nomination short-listed for the Booker Prize, which he won in 1989 with The Remains of the Day.

Based on a scientific premise, Never Let Me Go is a beautiful love story told with aching poignancy. Children of the exclusive boarding school Hailsham are told they are special from a very young age. They are to keep their bodies healthy and strong for that’s the purpose of their lives. They are told and yet not told, for theirs is a vague notion of who they really are or what is in store for them in the future. Knowing no other worlds, the children grow up in the sheltered, fenced-in compound of Hailsham, accepting their predetermined fate with docility.

Scientific advancement has made it possible. The children of Hailsham are clones, copied from an original, raised to have their organs harvested once they reach the prime stage of adulthood. While sports keep their bodies strong, they are particularly encouraged to pursue art and poetry. A mysterious figure they called Madame comes by regularly to collect their art work to keep in her Gallery.

The story focuses on three students, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Their friendship on the outset matches the idyllic backdrop of the school in the 1960’s English countryside. Kathy is kind, caring and gentle, always watching out for Tommy, who is inept and temperamental. Seeing the bond forming between the two, Ruth slyly moves in and silently snatches Tommy to her side.

After reaching their eighteenth year, the three are transferred to the Cottages to live. There are just two roads ahead of them, donation of their organs and after 3 or 4 times, meets completion, death. Or they could apply to become carers of donors, but only temporarily until they too must fulfill their purpose. Living with other grown-ups who fall into the same destiny, the undercurrents of their love triangle begin to expose. For the first time in their lives, they hear about ‘deferrals’. If genuine love is evident between a couple, they could apply to have their donations deferred for a few years. When you are in love, just another day is precious enough. But what is love, and how do you prove it? There might also be another way out, and art could be the key. Ishiguro has masterfully handled layers of thematic complexity in a shroud of suspense.

While the story is based on an imaginary scientific scenario, the book is not a debate on the medical ethics of cloning. The events that take place which ultimately lead to their determined end explore, ironically, what it means to be human. Using the intricate relationships of the threesome, Ishiguro goes deep into issues of love and loss, dreams and reality, wrongs and their amends, and the ultimate search for the source of being, the very purpose of existence.

Using a first person narrative from Kathy, now a carer at 31 looking back at her past experiences, Ishiguro presents his story with detailed internal depictions and nuanced dialogues. Kathy’s voice is innocent and gracious, and all the more moving when it comes to the end when the story is fully unfurled. The three friends have since parted after the Cottages, but now after years have gone by, they meet again as carer and donors. On the canvas of imminent destiny, against the overwhelming tone of grey, we see three brisk strokes of colours, three lives, however temporal, serving their purpose, and above all, having tasted what it means to be human.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Never Let Me Go (2010): The Movie

Update Dec. 6: Carey Mulligan won Best Actress for Never Let Me Go at the British Independent Film Awards last night. This is her second BIFA win after An Education.



Directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo, 2002), screenplay by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, 2002), the film was screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in September, and chosen to open the 54th London Film Festival on October 13th.

The mood is nostalgic, shot in greyish greens and blues, effectively capturing the general atmosphere of the book. When the future looks dim, the best one can do is to look back and savour what has been. Screenwriter Alex Garland has done an admirable job in being loyal to the source material, visualizing the key events and pertinent scenes, bringing to life the haunting memories of Kathy’s, whose narratives are taken straight out of the book.

Corresponding to the novel, the film is structured in three parts. It follows Kathy (Carey Mulligan, An Education, 2009), Ruth (Keira Knightly, Pride & Prejudice, 2005) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network, 2010) through Hailsham in the 1960’s, young adulthood at the Cottages in the 1970’s, and lastly in the 1990’s where we see the final destination of their lives in completion. While the beginning part is the weakest, lacking the depth and details of the book, such a shortfall is compensated by the excellent performances of the three child actors as the young counterparts, Izzy Meikle-Small (Kathy), Charlie Rowe (Tommy) and Ella Purnell (Ruth). The congruence of young Kathy with her adult role played by Mulligan is particularly impressive.

As the story moves along, almost to midpoint, the unfurling of facts and feelings becomes more pronounced, calling forth some intricate and nuanced performance from Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightly. The three actors are the pillars of the production. While the original music by Rachel Portman (Academy Award Best Music, Emma, 1996) is affective and heart-wrenching, and the cinematography by Adam Kimmel (Capote, 2005) captivating, it is the performance of the threesome that makes the film so real and stirring.

Mulligan’s portrayal of Kathy and Garfield’s Tommy are particularly riveting. The hidden love Kathy has been holding for years is given a channel for expression only briefly at the end. All through Mulligan has carried her role with admirable restraint. Garfield’s portrayal of Tommy is achingly real, especially when he ultimately realizes the finality of his fate, the cry in the dark is haunting and powerful. And kudos to Knightly for accepting a role that puts her in a less than glamorous light. Her change at the end too is moving, giving depth to the exploration of what makes one human… other than love, there is also the courage to admit wrong, seek forgiveness, and the attempt to make amends.

Is it melodramatic or is it evoking deep emotions? Within context here, emotional sentiments or even a few tears at the end of the film might well be a healthy response, nothing to shy away from. Should the scenario arise some day in the future when we need to prove that we are human, and that we have a soul, what better ways to demonstrate but by our capacity to emote love, empathy, compassion, pathos, and the fear of facing such a scenario. May this all remain as science fiction for our enlightenment only.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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