From Dr. Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy to Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, chair of Pembroke University’s English Department, Sandra Oh has proven to be an effective voice for inclusion in the entertainment industry.
The Chair is a notable addition to Netflix’s original series, newly released in August 20, 2021. The six, 30 min. episodes pack subject matters that are relevant in academia and society today. So, if you feel it has not fully delved into such issues, I hope a second season would allow it to elaborate.
The most obvious one is the academic chair, the symbol of authority in academia. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, aptly played by Sandra Oh in an astute mix of comedic and realistic fervour, is the first Asian American and woman of colour to chair the English Department of Pembroke University, a second tier liberal arts college striving to remain relevant. Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim’s obstacles are duly multiplied just because of who she is, a woman English professor of Korean ancestry.
When talking with Yaz (Nana Mensah), a young, black woman faculty whom Ji-Yoon wants to appoint as distinguished lecturer, Ji-Yoon says, “when I first started, it was like ‘why some Asian lady teaching Emily Dickinson?'”
Ji-Yoon’s troubles are manifold. Enrolment in the English Department has dropped more than 30%, budget has been chopped, and many of the 87% white male faculty have long passed the borderline of retirement. Ji-Yoon’s department is striving to recover its raison d’être. Her own daughter Ju Ju asks her, “Why are you a doctor? You never help anybody.” A question must have lodged in many a minds.
As for Ju Ju, a role superbly played by Everly Carganilla, she’s a heart-breaker. Ji-Yoon faces single-parenthood with added difficulties as Ju Ju is an adopted daughter of Hispanic heritage. Mother-daughter bond doesn’t come easily, especially with an intelligent and challenging child. Ji-Yoon has no other childminding support other than her reluctant, Korean father. The traditional Korean family event (E5) where a baby chooses her future career is interesting and adds spice to the academic scenes.
Characters are realistic, albeit in a comedy it’s expected to see overly dramatized ones like Bill (Jay Duplass), too stoned or drunk to remember he has a class to teach. His excuse, he’s still recovering from the loss of his wife, and a daughter who has just gone away for college and has no intention to return. The class he teaches, Death and Modernism, draws a full capacity all because of his popularity… but not for long.
As a comedy, the writing isn’t your LOL funny type. The humour, especially on the ripe old professors, tends towards cliché; nevertheless, the writing is interesting, especially when they try to include literary allusions into the dialogues. Knowing T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock just might enhance one’s enjoyment.
Overall, a subject matter that’s long due and a new series that deserves many more seasons to come.
Enjoying your summer reading by the lake? Here are some upcoming adaptations to be released this year or in 2022, books you might have read or to lengthen your TBR list:
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
This is the first of the eight published novels by Toews to be adapted into film. Her Mennonite background growing up in Steinbach, Manitoba, informs her writing. A story of two sisters as the elder, an accomplished concert pianist, struggles with severe depression. To premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September.
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Coming out as a British mini TV series in the fall of 2021. Marital relationship, or extra, the issue of consent, and courtroom drama. Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley of Downton) is a good choice for a prosecutor with a baggage, and Rupert Friend looks just right as a cunning politician. The audiobook is a good summer listen by the pool.
The Last Duel by Eric Jager
Historical thriller based on a true story (so says the trailer) during the Hundred Years’ War, a knight came home from combat to hear his wife accuse the squire of rape. Indecision in the court of law leads to decision by a duel. A stellar cast with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck. To premiere at the Venice Film Festival this September.
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
After the underwhelming 2011 movie that starred Matthew McConaughey, a remake as a Netflix TV series developed by David E. Kelly sounds exciting. Kelly is a writer/producer who has eleven Primetime Emmys under his belt, his latest for Big Little Lies. Good to hear Christopher Gorham the CIA super tech in Covert Affairs (2010-2014) also on board.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s full feature directorial debut. Enticing cast: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal, Ed Harris. A woman enjoying some alone time at the beach helps a mother to find her lost daughter, an experience that triggers her memory of lost and found.
The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Not till I started reading Horowitz did I find out several TV series are based on his works, e.g. Alex Rider and Foyle’s War, or with some of his screenplays like Midsomer Murders, just to name a few. The Magpie Murders is now a mini-series on PBS Masterpiece. I’m eager to see Lesley Manville play Susan Ryeland, the publisher turned amateur sleuth in the book.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Since its publication in 2017, buzz of the adaptation of this National Book Award finalist has been sounding and now, finally, Lee’s fan of the Korean family saga will be pleased to know it’s coming out as an Apple TV series this year. K-drama aficionados will appreciate the star-studded cast. What more, the newest Oscar best actress winner Youn Yuh-jung, the eccentric grandma in Minari, will be on board.
The Silent Patient / The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
After working as a relatively unknown screenwriter, Michaelides hit the mark with his psychological thriller The Silent Patient and catapulted to the bestsellers lists. His debut novel has since been optioned by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production. The Maidens is in development as a TV series. Looks like a screenwriter has the insider knowhow to write a novel that’s screen-ready, big or small.
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
There’s no shortage of crime mystery and thrillers to feed the streaming platforms and production co’s. Another Netflix series adapting another prolific crime writer. This is the first of Slaughter’s 18 novels to be adapted for the screen. A violent incident at the mall exposes a secret past of a mother whose daughter suddenly realizes she doesn’t know her mother at all. Toni Collette stars.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
A cast to remake the 200+ year-old novel for a new era. This is British theatre director Carrie Cracknell’s (National Theatre Live) film debut, helming a production with Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot and Henry Golding, of Crazy Rich Asians fame, as Mr. Elliot, obviously not the gout-ridden old man but Anne’s cousin. I’d like to see him as Captain Frederick Wentworth though.
Three Pines by Louise Penny
Left Bank Pictures is producing a series based on the acclaimed Canadian crime writer Louise Penny’s novels for Amazon. French Canadian Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the fictional community of Three Pines in Quebec will have a life on the streaming platform. Left Bank is the producer of The Crown on Netflix.
The pandemic has made armchair travellers of us. As many countries are still keeping Covid restrictions intact, some requiring quarantine for international arrivals, the best way to travel, at least for now, could well be sticking to your imaginary itinerary.
For the highly motivated, the prestigious Cannes Film Festival will resume July 6-17 this year, after a cancelled 2020 event. For filmmakers, this is good news, Cannes is bursting with films that have accumulated since 2019. So, put on your running shoes and head to the Promenade de la Croisette (photo above, source: Wikipedia Commons) and walk up the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals. After Covid, I’m sure the Cannes gate keepers will loosen up a bit with the high-heel code. Instead, Covid measures will be in place.
Saftey protocols include face coverings, social distancing, showing of full vaccination, if unable to provide, there’ll be Covid tests onsite. And, according to Reuters, while there will be ‘no kissing at the top of the red carpet’, festival director Thierry Fremaux said restrictions should not be too onerous.
Imagine you’re at the Palais des Festivals, the venue of the Cannes Film Festival, here’s what you’ll see…
Jodie Foster will kick off the 74thFestival de Cannes as the special guest of the Opening Ceremony. Foster first stepped on the red carpet at Cannes in 1976 when she was only 13 years old as the film she was in won the Palme d’Or, that’s Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. This time, she will be awarded an honorary Palme d’Or.
You might also catch a glimpse of the jury president Spike Lee on the Croisette. Other celebs sightings could well be the stars in the official selections. The following are the ones I anticipate watching (For the full list, click here to the Cannes website)
Annette (France) – Opening Film, Leos Carax directs Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver
Bergman Island (France) – Mia Hansen-Løve directs Mia Wasikowska, Tim Roth
Drive My Car (Japan) – Ryûsuke Hamaguchi directs Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masaki Okada
Flag Day (USA) – Sean Penn directs Katheryn Winnick, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn
Memoria (Thailand) – Apichatpong Weerasethakul directs Tilda Swinton, Daniel Giménez-Cacho
The French Dispatch (USA) – Wes Anderson directs Timothée Chalamet, Elizabeth Moss, Frances McDormand and all the Wes Anderson usuals
A Hero (Iran) – Asghar Farhadi directs Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh
When did women first direct films? If you type these words in your search engine, you’ll see this year pop up: 1896 and the name Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968). In her filmmaking career that spanned over two decades, Alice Guy had written, directed, or produced more than a thousand films in France and later in America. She was a pioneer in fictional narratives, comedies, actions, travelogues, musicals (yes, films with sound), just to name a few categories of her cinematic works.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018), directed by Pamela Green and narrated by Jodie Foster is a fascinating documentary, a must-see, now streaming on the free platform Kanopy.com. “Be Natural” were signs Alice Guy put up in her studio for her actors as a reminder.
Cut to 2010. In the annual study The Celluloid Ceiling on women behind-the-scene employment in filmmaking, only 2% of the top 250 films made that year in the US were directed by women. In 2018, it was 4%. Then there was a big jump in 2019 to 12%. In 2020, due to the pandemic, the study included 100 top films instead of 250, the percentage of women directors increased to 16%.
2019 appears to have marked a tipping point, hopefully a trend that stays, as more women are being recognized as ‘profitable’ in the filmmaking business. Further, people also found out women can direct various genres, including action and superheroes movies too. Just wonder what Alice Guy would had thought if she were around.
On this day, March 8, 2021, in honor of the many woman directors working, I’m posting a list with their names first then their works released for the year back to 2019. This is only a selection and mainly for films distributed in North America. You might recognize some names or titles of books. In alphabetical order:
Ana Lily Amirpour – Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Clio Barnard – Ava & Ali
Camilla Belle – Phobias
Shari Springer Berman (co-director) – Things Heard and Seen
Halle Berry – Bruised
Kay Cannon – Cinderella
Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
Nia DaCosta – Candyman
Livia De Paolis – The Lost Girls
Julie Delpy – My Zoe
Claire Denis – Fire
Augustine Frizzell – The Last Letter from your Lover
Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter
Rebecca Hall – Passing
Sian Heder – Coda
Joanna Hogg – The Souvenir: Part II
Eva Husson – Mothering Sunday
Lisa Joy – Reminiscence
Dea Kulumbegashvili – Beginning
Mélanie Laurent – The Nightingale
Lena Khan – Flora & Ulysses
Castille Landon – Fear of Rain
Mia Hansen-Løve – Bergman Island
Lila Neugebauer – Red, White and Water
Megan Park – The Fallout
Amy Poehler – Moxie
Céline Sciamma – Petite Maman
Cate Shortland – Black Widow
Liesl Tommy – Respect
Kate Tsang – Marvelous and the Black Hole
Lana Wachowski – The Matrix 4
Olivia Wilde – Don’t Worry Darling
Robin Wright – Land
Robin Wright, Catherine Hardwicke – Together Now
Chloé Zhao – The Eternals
Niki Caro – Mulan
Sofia Coppola – On the Rocks
Autumn de Wilde – Emma
Josephine Decker – Shirley
Clea DuVall – Happiest Season
Mona Fastvold – The World to Come
Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
Nisha Ganatra – The High Note
Liz Garbus – Lost Girls
Julia Hart – I’m Your Woman
Eliza Hittman – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Patty Jenkins – Wonder Woman 1984
Natalie Erika James – Relic
Miranda July – Kajillionaire
Regina King – One Night in Miami
Roseanne Liang – Shadow in the Cloud
Phyllida Lloyd – Herself
April Mullen – Wander
Mira Nair – A Suitable Boy
Gina Prince-Bythewood – The Old Guard
Dee Rees – The Last Thing He Wanted
Adriana Trigiani – Then Came You
Cathy Yan – Birds of Prey
Jasmila Zbanic – Quo vadis, Aida?
Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
Elizabeth Banks – Charlie’s Angels
Chinonye Chukwu – Clemency
Mati Diop – Atlantics
Lisa Barros D’Sa – Ordinary Love
Anna Boden (co-direct) – Captain Marvel
Gabriela Cowperthwaite – Our Friend
Nora Fingscheidt – System Crasher
Nisha Ganatra – Late Night
Sarah Gavron – Rocks
Greta Gerwig – Little Women
Rose Glass – Saint Maud
Kitty Green – The Assistant
Alma Har’el – Honey Boy
Marielle Heller – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers – The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open
Don’t judge a movie by its title. The seemingly uninspiring title packs a lot of story and ideas. Based on a true event and the novel of the same name by John Preston, the dig refers to the historic excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship and the treasures inside its burial chamber, the medieval grave of possibly a warrior king dating back to 600’s AD. The archaeological event took place at the start of WWII in 1939 on Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo property in Suffolk, England. For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.
Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the widow of a Colonel whom she still mourns at his grave while raising their young son Robert (Archie Barnes). As an amateur archeology enthusiast, she has a feeling the mounds on her grounds have something significant buried. Hiring a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), she watches her hunch realized.
However, Edith’s deteriorating heart condition is a constant reminder of her own mortality, a tug at her soul, brewing a deep concern for her son Robert after she’s gone. Mulligan acts not just with her facial expressions; her whole body speaks to the fragility of life. While treasures are unearthed, her fears and sentiments are buried deep within.
To interplay with Mulligan’s delicate demeanor, Fiennes delivers an understated performance with the unglamorous character Basil Brown. A country excavator, stooped in posture, quiet yet determined, apparently knowing much more than he shows. It is gratifying to see the two of them interact in a naturalistic way, their expressions equally sensitive and nuanced.
Reading about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tuktankamun, Edith is apprehensive about finding human remains in the dig, as that’s like disinterring the dead. Brown answers with his view of the philosophy of the discipline: “… that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.” And, as his wife May (Monica Dolan) points out, it’s about continuity for the next generations, so they know where they come from.
The ‘untrained’ Brown––with no academic credentials but learned the skill from his father passed down from his grandfather––has to yield to the authority of the famous archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Phillips takes over the dig as soon as he arrives on the site with his team of specialists.
Among them are the archaeologist couple Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). Their incompatibility is obvious; Stuart is happier with fellow team member John Brailsford (Eamon Farren) than with his wife. Later, the arrival of Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Mr. Knightley of Emma, 2020) further alters the relational dynamics. While at the dig, Rory is called up by the RAF, a worrisome commission as war with Germany breaks out.
There’s interesting play with sound, or the lack of. For some short moments in certain scenes, there’s just silence. All sound and music halt. Most other times, the score is meditative, quiet piano playing. There are often juxtapositions of scenes linked by voice-overs, offering a fresh way of storytelling. This is effective not just to show what’s happening at different places or time, but that the dialogues can be relevant for different people in other situations as well.
Cinematographer Mike Eley captures on screen some exquisite sights of the English open country, wide shots shrouded with a hazy light, sometimes teal, sometimes golden. Terence Davies’s Sunset Song comes to mind, albeit The Dig is a much quieter film.
Young Robert’s fantasy with the cosmos and his imaginary tales cannot be brushed away as just spice to animate the mood. Kudos to Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the film wraps up with mother and son laying close together in the dug-up ship under a starry sky at night, as Robert tells his mother and Brown observing nearby, his woven tale of the ship taking the queen home to the stars to meet the king, leaving everyone behind, a poignant metaphor and a fable-like send off. Mulligan and Barnes are treasures here. That aerial shot is magical.
The Dig begins streaming January 29, 2021 on Netflix. I’ve watched it twice so far, once isn’t enough to capture all that need to be noted to appreciate.
For the first 30 minutes before the title comes out on screen, viewers follow almost in real time a home birth gone awry. They witness the intense moments of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) giving birth, the contractions, the unbearable pain, the difficult labor, the birth, the joy, and then the tragedy. That first section is absorbing and the shaky handheld camera increases the intensity.
The movie is inspired by screenwriter Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó’s real-life experience of losing a baby during pregnancy. In Pieces of a Woman, the duo depict not just the court of legal proceedings, but the court of public opinion, and within the family, generational and relational adversary when faced with the loss of a baby.
Martha and her partner Sean (Shia Labeouf) maintains a precarious relationship to start. She dresses chicly, works in a modern tower and has her own office; he works in construction outdoor building a bridge. It’s not so much their jobs but the incompatible personalities between them. Martha is soft spoken and reflective; Sean, sporting a bushy beard, is boorish (his own word, albeit sarcastically) and physically abusive. The dashed hope of a child tears apart an already fragile relationship.
Kirby doesn’t let her previous role as Princess Margaret in The Crown S1 & 2 define her. Here as Martha, she is everywoman expecting her first baby, mixing hope with trepidation. Reticent in her demeanour, after the death of her newborn, she withdraws deeper into her own self, grieving in her own way, picking up the pieces of what’s left of a woman. She is the main attraction of the movie.
Labeouf’s psyche is a mixed bag too, but with different elements. His hopeful excitement of imminent fatherhood is obvious, but is it another aspect of domination? Considering Labeouf’s real-life legal charges against him of domestic violence and sexual battery, it’s eery to watch him befitting the role of a needy abuser.
It is the veteran actor Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the overbearing mother of Martha’s that bring out the two main characters. Burstyn plays Elizabeth, domineering and combative. The beginning scene sets the tone as she buys a minivan for Martha and Sean. Not a good thing to let your mother-in-law buy you a new car, or the mother of your girlfriend, same thing. Elizabeth despises Sean and belittles her own daughter. So much for the symbol of the big gift.
Elizabeth’s reaction to the tragic home birth is to push Martha to sue the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) for negligence. In her view, that’s the way to get justice and compensation. While the legal trial leads to an unexpected resolution at the end, the climax of the movie comes a little earlier, in Elizabeth’s classy, tastefully decorated home. It highlights the court of domestic interactions, setting up a scene reminiscence of August: Osage County (2013). Elizabeth’s survival and combative instinct challenges Martha’s reticence. This is one of the two best scenes of the whole movie. The other during the court recess of the trial, but I won’t elaborate or it will be a spoiler.
Here in Elizabeth’s home where the family has gathered, the camera follows Martha in a long take as she moves agitatedly around the living and dining room, a woman reacting to pieces of casual conversations aiming at making the mood light, but which soon crescendos into a full blown mother-daughter confrontation.
Well acted and absorbing. A takeaway could be that, experience is subjective and personal; what one generation has gone through and even lessons learned can best be shared and hopefully inspire but can’t be transferred or expected to elicit the same results in the next generation. Amidst the tension, Elizabeth relays her wartime moment of resilience when as a young child, how a doctor held her weak body up by her feet and said, “if she tries to lift her head, then there’s hope.” And, she did. Now that she’s an ageing mother, a new lesson to learn might be to realize that such an experience cannot be imposed on her daughter, for Martha has her own way to deal with grief and ‘lift her head’, as shown at the conclusion of the trial.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Pieces of a Woman won the Arca Cinema Giovani Award and Vanessa Kirby Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival 2020. Now streaming on Netflix.
2020 is history. Hopefully 2021 will resume as 2019 was. Huh? Right. Things fall apart and don’t appear as they used to be. We’re learning to live with uncertainties. But books are still being written; movies are still being made. Here’s a list of upcoming adaptations. Some have just been announced, some are filming, some completed.
Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway (1950)
The last of Hemingway’s novels published in his lifetime. A love story about a war-ravaged American Colonel, Richard Cantwell, in post WWII Italy. His encounter with a Venetian countess stirs up reminiscences and pondering of love, youth, war, and death. Liev Schreiber and Josh Hutcherson star. Spanish director Paula Ortiz takes the helm.
Anatomy of A Scandal by Sarah Vaughan (2018)
A British upper-class wife Sophie believes her husband James is innocent of the serious criminal charge against him. Prosecutor Kate sets out to prove her wrong. A timely legal case about consent. Michelle Dockery is Barrister Kate, Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend the elite couple trying to hang on to their marriage. The popular thriller will be adapted into a six-part series on Netflix, created by David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, but all the more, the creator of legal series like Ally McBeal, Boston Legal…), directed by S. J. Clarkson (Jessica Jones).
The Dig by John Preston (2007)
The historical novel is about the 1939 Sutton Hoo dig in Suffolk, England. On the verge of WWII, the burial ship and treasures of a 7th Century Anglo-Saxon ruler were excavated. Book reviewer Michael Pye in the NYT called it “an archaeological event almost as glamorous as the finding of Tutankhamen.” Filmed on location of the actual site, starring Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, from whose property the treasures were unearthed, and Ralph Fiennes as the archaeologist Basil Brown. Lily James joins in the search. With this cast, I hope it’s not just about dust and mound.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (2020)
Even before its publication, Alam’s third novel has already been longlisted for the National Book Awards and rights snatched up by Netflix, with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington on board. A middle-class white family rents a remote dwelling in Long Island for a weekend getaway ends up having to share the place with strangers––the owners, a black couple. An interesting and realistic scenario in our polarized society. Throw in a lockdown, the tension and suspense can be Hitchcockian. Will see how Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot, Homecoming) scripts and helms it.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
Larsen’s novel (Harlem Renaissance) would be ever relevant now as it tells the story of two biracial women, Clare and Irene, ‘passing’ from black to white. The issue is multi-layered and never simple, involving the search for identity, loyalty, social construction of self, ideology of race, and the agency of choice in matter of racial affiliation. The adaptation is the directorial debut of British actress Rebecca Hall. Now, that can become another contentious issue. Nevertheless, just shows nothing is as simple as black and white.
The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1959)
Howard’s novel depicts the relational dynamics of a playwright’s entourage which darts between England and America: his wife, his manager, and later a young secretary. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the wife as well as takes the helm of the movie. Can she add some spice in this her directorial debut? Playing the young secretary is The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy, aka Emma Woodhouse. Hopefully the interactions of the two women, no, all four characters, can generate some cinematic sparks. Actors for the men have yet been announced. Your choice?
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
How about this as reality TV. A Shakespearian theatre troupe tries to rebuild civilization in an apocalyptic society after a flu pandemic had wiped out most of the world’s population. Canadian author Mandel’s fourth novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015, and was a nominee for the National Book Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. On HBO in 10 episodes. And yes, you’ve guessed it. The Glass Hotel is also on the drawing board. More info later.
‘First Impressions’ sounds like a disclaimer, implying that I could change my mind upon second or further viewing. However, first impressions last; hence, I just might not watch the Netflix movie again. If I do, it would be just the first part, which is the more enticing.
Nobody likes to be compared to, especially to something more definitive, but Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel inevitably creeps into my mind. It’s all subliminal. Ben Wheatley, the versatile English director of some quirky, arthouse works like the surreal adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (2015), could transpose a book onto the screen in whatever way he chooses. But I’m just baffled by his taking up this traditional du Maurier classic.
First off, the colour palette in the first act is aesthetically pleasing. The pacing moves along well and camera agile and inviting. The Gatsby-esque setting and set design give it a free-wheeling, romantic mood, the golden overtone exuding a reminiscing perspective which is apt as the novel is a remembrance of things past.
Our protagonist, a naive, young assistant (Lily James) to rich and snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in a Monte Carlo hotel, meets the aristocratic, widowed master of Manderley, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who falls for her in no time. An instant marriage and our protagonist is zoomed back to the iconic estate as its new mistress, an irreplaceable position owned by her predecessor Rebecca, who drowned in a boating accident a year ago.
This is where things begin to unravel, for both the new Mrs. de Winter and the storytelling. Lily James is ubiquitous ever since her breakout role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. Her performance is effective in Cinderella, Mamma Mia!, Darkest Hour, just to name a few. For some uncanny reasons, she doesn’t fit in that well as the new Mrs. de Winter. Her performance lacks the power to elicit empathy or to engage. I doubt this is a matter of capability. A shortfall in directing, or maybe not? She’s unsure of her role––a parallel with the new Mrs. de Winter––is this some kind of intended effect in method acting?
Another thing I noticed. Here’s a real disclaimer. I’m definitely not into fashion. But a look at Mrs. de Winter’s costume, I find it odd that she wears pants all the time, except in the very short-lived scene at the ball when she is ordered back up to her room to change by an infuriated Maxim after appearing in Rebecca’s dress. Anyway, her attire looks like the casual wear of the 1960’s or even 70’s, a bit incompatible with a character in this movie setting. I remember how avant garde it was to wear pants in that era as Lady Sybil and Lady Mary demonstrated the new, stylish fashion. Yes, a Downton revelation.
Hammer as Maxim seldom appears in Manderley and doesn’t leave much of an impression, maybe except for his mustard-colour suit. But it is Kristin Scott Thomas that rescues the acting front as the eerily stern and mysterious Mrs. Danvers. Why, of course, with her calibre, she can deliver even without any strong directing. She articulates superbly, her stage presence poised, her expressions nuanced. In this new adaptation that borders on an identity disorder, Scott Thomas’ performance is the one good thing that offers clarity.
The Manderley mystique relies on sound and special effects to elicit outcomes akin to the horror genre. I miss Hitchcock’s subtlety and suspense, and his calmly drawing out the essence of his characters. Without further comparing, judging on its own, this new Rebecca is choppy in its editing, neurotic in mood, and its altered ending leaves viewers with an unresolved moral issue.
[Hereafter Spoiler Warning] While du Maurier did not spell out that the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter live happily ever after, Wheatley’s Rebecca declares such a happy ending explicitly. Even Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) poses the ethical problem at the end of the movie, but here there’s no dilemma. This new Rebecca wraps up like a version of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and offers a dubious way to finding love.
Vikram Seth’s epic novel (1993) of over 1,300 pages is turned into a 6-episode TV mini-series. The setting is India during the 1950’s. The story is the all-consuming duty of a mother finding a suitable boy for her daughter. The story might be culturally specific, but the mission definitely surpasses ethnic boundaries. The BBC production is helmed by the acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe, 2016; The Namesake, 2006). Screenplay by Andrew Davies, who scripted Pride and Prejudice (1995). He’s done plenty since, more Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo… now Seth. This did stir up some dissatisfied ripples questioning whether he’s a suitable scribe for this series.
Frank Herbert’s 1965 acclaimed sci-fi series is one of the highly anticipated movies to come out in 2020. Helmed by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, a notable name with works such as Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Arrival(2016). Screenplay by Villeneuve and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 1994, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008). Appealing cast with Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, 2014, Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013) and Timothée Chalamet (Little Women, 2019) as father and son travelling to the planet Arrakis. Top supporting cast with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem (Skyfall, 2012), Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia! 2008), Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling (Never Let Me Go, 2010).
Another book by Canadian author Patrick DeWitt after his Sisters Brothers was adapted for the big screen in 2018. French Exit is a good one for those looking for short and quirky reads. A New York socialite, using up most of her fortunes and years is moving to Paris with her adult son and their cat to escape financial woes. The book isn’t much of a story I feel, so hopefully the movie will work better. Considering the cast, I remain hopeful: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Imogen Poots, and Tracy Letts (the cat).
Paulette Jiles’s National Book Award nominated novel is a Civil War era story about an aging itinerant news reader who agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people. Goodreads says: “exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel … that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.” Tom Hanks is tasked to portray this character, reuniting with his Captain Philips (2013) director Paul Greengrass. Adapted screenplay by Luke Davies (Lion, 2016).
Directed and screenplay written by Joel Coen, I’m curious to see if this is a deadpan version of the Bard’s play. But then again, when I think of No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens or just Joel here, could make it double toil and trouble, plain bloody too. Denzel Washington is Lord Macbeth, Frances McDormand is his Lady. Think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), this lady can wreak some havoc.
And then there are the remakes. West Side Story and Rebecca are two of the more anticipated ones.
West Side Story (2020)
A cast of 130+ will join the Spielberg team with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, 2012) and cinematographer, two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, 1998, and Schindler’s List, 1993). Additional new music by David Newman. Ansel Elgort plays Tony, and Maria is Rachel Zegler, chosen from 30,000 auditioned. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie, also stars in this remake.
Directed by Ben Wheatley, Armie Hammer is Maxim de Winter, Lily James, Mrs. de Winter, and Kristin Scott Thomas is Mrs. Danvers. What I’m most interested in, however, is the production design, which will be all burned down or undergo some tricky CGI effects is to be seen. Six-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood heads up that department. Her works include Darkest Hour (2017), Anna Karenina (2012), and Atonement (2007) among many other titles. So, I think Manderley the set is in good hands. But will the whole production beat the classic 1940 Alfred Hitchcock noir with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine?
(Updated Oct. 10, 2020) As this has been a strange year with lots of uncertainties, the dates and where to see them could change in the coming days or months:
A Suitable Boy – on BBC One TV now. E1 started on Sunday July 26 at 9 pm, and the rest on five consecutive Sundays after that. It’s not available in North America yet. It’s a selection at TIFF2020 Update: Scheduled to stream on Netflix on October 23, excluding the US, Canada and China.
Dune – Release date delayed till Fall, 2021
French Exit – Premiere at New York Film Festival, October, 2020. After that not sure about distribution.
News of the World – in theatres December, 2020 still, but may change.
Macbeth – to be released in USA 2021, details unknown.
West Side Story – Pushed back to December, 2021
Rebecca – Oct. 16 limited theatre release, on Netflix beginning October 21, 2020
Click on the links embedded in this post to read my Ripple reviews.
As an homage to E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, as well as a nod to the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation (1985), Asian American author Kevin Kwan has crafted another satire seven years after his Crazy Rich Asians started a surprise breakout trilogy.
If Forster were to read Kwan’s latest work, the stand-alone novel Sex and Vanity, would he be baffled by 21st century opulence, or shocked to see the social issues he wrote about in A Room with a View such as class and gender inequality still exist more than a century later? Kwan also throws in racism, of which Forster was keenly critical in his writing; A Passage to India comes to mind.
While the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians was met with resounding applause from the Asian community, not everyone who shared the ethnicity felt represented, for they might not have been Asian born, or have never set foot in Singapore, Hong Kong, or China. This just speaks to the fact that there’s a myriad of cultural and geographical lineages when one uses the umbrella term ‘Asian’ or, ‘Chinese’.
This time, the net is cast out to those who are American born, second and third generations of the Asian diaspora, and in particular, the hapas, Hawaiian for ‘half’, people of mixed Asian and white heritage. The net reaches to others too, in particular New Yorkers, and fans of the Big Apple. Indeed, Kwan’s book reads like a love letter to New York City, to which the author pays tribute as: “The City that took me in, nurtured me, and changed me forever.”
Sex and Vanity follows the same structure and plot development as A Room with aView, even keeping the first names of the main characters. Kwan only needs to plug in the modern-day parallels splashed with his over-the-top descriptions of opulence and extravaganzas.
For those who’re apprehensive to pick up the book because of the two words in its title, maybe this would bring some relief: the former wouldn’t even make half a page of note in Normal People (by Sally Rooney) and the latter is wrapped in mirth. The book is pure escapism for summer reading fun.
To his credit, Kwan has a keen eye for social prestige other than materialism. When first mentioned, character names are followed by a list of schools they have attended. Surely, in America and many parts of the world, one is defined by one’s alma mater. Naming even the kindergarten is exactly the case in point. Prestige starts early.
Part One takes place in Capri. Nineteen-year-old, Upper East Side born and raised hapa Lucie Churchill (92nd Street Y Nursery School / Brearley / Brown, Class of ’16) is on the Italian island with her cousin, forty-something Charlotte (Rippowam / Miss Porter’s / Smith) as chaperone. The fun doesn’t end with these bracketed school names. For further reading pleasure, Google them if not familiar.
The cousins are there to attend the week-long celebrations of Lucie’s childhood friend, Taiwanese heiress Isabel Chiu’s marriage to the son of an Italian mogul. The Hotel Bertolucci fails to give them a room with an ocean view which Charlotte had requested.
Overhearing Charlotte’s complaint, fellow wedding guest Rosemary Zao offers to exchange with them their view rooms she and her son George occupy. Why, she’s inundated with ocean views. Her home overlooks the Hong Kong harbour and she has beach front properties in Sydney and Lanikai, Hawaii. But Charlotte doesn’t take this easily. The Churchills have their pride, and prejudice.
Unlike his mother, George (Diocesan Boys’ School / Geelong Grammar / UC Berkeley, Class of ’15) is a man of few words. Actually, he is the perfect son-in-law for any Tiger Mom: on top of his “surfer, pretty boy physique,” he’s a high achiever. He can keep his cool and administer CPR to save a stranger and play “Goldberg Variations” in spontaneity in front of an admiring crowd (not at the same time). What more, George is honest with his feelings and passion.
The week-long wedding celebration is screen-ready with Capri’s natural and architectural beauty as backdrops.
Throughout the book, Kwan has dropped a ‘Where’s Waldo’ search for famous names, real-life or fictional, like the Crawleys of Downton, Darcy of Pemberley, “The World of Suzie Wong” (The actress Nancy Kwan being the author’s distant cousin), Monsieur de Givenchy, who comes out of retirement to design the wedding dress, and sightings of one Elizabeth Merchant and Lord Ivory.
What more, the renown diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs in the wedding celebration, singing several operatic numbers and culminating with “O mio babbino caro”, the aria with which she’d swept the film with such a romantic overtone. And yes, Kwan is a Downton fan, remember S4 E3? The diva is a guest at the house party.
For Lucie, however, the short yearning in her heart for George is soon suppressed as the week-long Capri escapade draws to a close.
Part Two sees Lucie in her niche, NYC, five years later. An up-and-coming art consultant, Lucie is engaged to Cecil Pike, a billennial (billionaire millennials) raised with new money from oil-rich Texas. A Venetian canal flows through his New York West Village town house with full-time gondoliers in service. His marriage proposal to Lucie outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art involves the NYC Ballet, a marching band, the Mayor’s office, and the Big Apple Circus. Exactly.
Lucie has always been torn about her bicultural heritage, especially when she and her brother Freddie were left on their own with their mother after father Reggie Churchill died of a heart attack when she was just a child. The Churchills always boast about their pedigree being Mayflower descendants, rising in financial prowess through banking and inheriting Gilded Age fortune. In the building that matriarch Granny Churchill lives, even the doormen are snobbish.
Not that Luci’s Chinese lineage has nothing to be proud of. Her mother Marian Tang (Seattle Country Day / Lakeside / Harvard / Columbia PhD) is a well-established academic endowed with skin so young to look like a twenty-something. Despite being born in America, to the Churchills, Marian is a foreigner.
Lucie sees her situation clearly: “To Granny, no matter how graciously she behaved, no matter what she accomplished, she would always only ever be the poor little china doll.” So, marrying her WASP, crazy rich fiancé Cecil Pike should end all spite. But what she lacks is the view that she’s just a thing to boost Cecil’s ego and his brand.
Then George reappears. Kwan keeps his cues interesting to lead Lucie to see a clearer view of her situation, an obvious parallel with Forster’s story. Further, Kwan pinpoints racism even within families, as Lucie notes “it’s possible to love someone without realizing you’re being racist toward them.” Without getting serious and didactic, he handles these issues with bold, comical strokes.
If by the likely chance the book is picked up for a movie adaptation, my choice for a director would be New York born and raised Whit Stillman (Collegiate School / Millbrook School / Harvard) to balance with some soul and subtlety. Indeed, Kwan and Stillman (Love & Friendship, 2016; Metropolitan, 1990) would make a fine filmmaking hapa.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
NOTE: Reading Forster’s A Room with a View and watching the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation would enhance your reading pleasure of Sex and Vanity.
UPDATE: Sony Pictures and SK Global have acquired the film rights to Sex and Vanity.
I thank Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer copy of Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Far Eastern Kindergarten / ACS / Clear Lake High / UHCL / Parsons School of Design), 315 pages, 2020.
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’.