More Films by Female Directors

Let’s continue to celebrate women beyond just one day or a weekend.

Previously on Ripple, I posted a list of my favorite films that happened to be directed by women. Here’s another list, not a personal favourite list but one just to show the variety of movies female directors have helmed, to shatter the myth and misconception that some might hold: ‘if we leave it to them, they’ll only churn out chick flicks.’

In alphabetical order, not ranked, director and year released in brackets, a list to hopefully inform, remind, and maybe surprise. There are many more, of course, but I’ll just stop at 65. How many have you seen? Which other ones you’d like to add?

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, 2019)

A Thousand Suns (Mati Diop, 2013)

A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay, 2018)

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

The Arch (Cecile Tang Shu Shuen, 1970)

The Assistant (Kitty Green, 2020)

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002)

         Big (Penny Marshall, 1988)

Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)

Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)

Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018)

Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, 2018)

Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, 2019)

Captain Marvel's Carol Danvers

Charlie’s Angels (Elizabeth Banks, 2019)

Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)

Cloud Atlas (The Wachowskis co-direct, 2012)

Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Frozen / Forzen II (Jennifer Lee co-directs, 2013 / 2019)

High Life (Claire Denis, 2018)

The Hitch-hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)

Late Night (Nisha Ganatra, 2019)

Leave no Trace (Debra Granik, 2018)

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)

The Matrix / Reloaded (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999 / 2003)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Miss Julie (Liv Ullmann, 2014)

Money Monster (Jodie Foster, 2016)
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Jodie Foster directs

 

Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

Mulan (Niki Caro, 2020)

Mustang (Deniz Ganze Ergüven, 2015)

My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979)

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2009)

Pay It Forward (Mimi Leder, 2000)

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015)

Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

…….The Prince of Tides (Barbra Streisand, 1991)

Queen and Slim (Melina Matsoukas, 2019)

Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016)

Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmüller, 1975)

Selma (Ava Duvernay, 2014)

selma-bridge

Shrek (Vicky Jenson co-directs, 2001)

Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, 2003)

The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996)

The Secret Garden (Agnieszka Holland, 1993)

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)

Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)

Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2012)

Washington Square (Agnieszka Holland, 1997)

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002)

What Women Want (Nancy Meyers, 2000)

Winter’s Bones (Debra Granik, 2010)

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

The Zookeeper’s Wife (Niki Caro, 2017)

 

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Women Directors of My Favorite Films

In 92 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director:

Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1976), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 2017).

How many of them had won? One. Kathryn Bigelow in 2010.

Does that mean there aren’t many women directors around? Definitely not. It just reveals how things are for these artists striving under the glass ceiling. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research is a good frame of reference for annual facts and trend of women in the film industry. According to their newest study entitled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of director Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across 1,300 Top Films from 2007 to 2019” (Jan. 2020), female directors of top-grossing films reached a 13 year high in 2019: 10.6%, breaking an average of just 4.8% throughout the past 12 years. Maybe studios have begun to see women can be trusted to make profitable movies after all.

Yet, how many women are nominated for Best Director in the 2020 Academy Awards?

None.

This is not a post of protest, nor of analysis, but of reminiscence. I’ve made a mental inventory of some of my favorite films, ones that have stirred some ripples in the Pond, and found many of them are directed by women. Their works might not have made it to the ‘top-grossing’ list… but, this just shows where my interests lie.

Varda by Agnes
Agnès Varda in the director’s chair. Photo Courtesy: TIFF19

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Here they are in alphabetical order, with my favorite films bolded. Links are to my reviews:

Kathryn BigelowThe Hurt Locker (2008, Best Picture Oscar, Best Director), Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Bigelow is the only female to have won an Oscar in Directing. She has shown that when a woman takes on a military movie, she can master the conflicts both external and within.

Jane Campion – The New Zealand director is one of the five women in Oscar history to be nominated for Directing. The Piano (1993) is visually stunning and bold in its depiction of the yearnings of the human heart. Campion is the first (and only, so far) woman to have won the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes with this film. Bright Star (2009) is a lyrical portrayal of English poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne before his untimely death at 25. A beautiful tapestry weaving together the visual and the word.

Nora Ephron – I miss Nora Ephron. It seems with her passing in 2012, romantic comedies aren’t the same anymore. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) will remain iconic from a period that still valued face-to-face meeting over the telephone or emails. And for some reasons, Meg Ryan seems to have gone out of sorts too. Hopefully she’ll make a come-back like Renée Zellweger did with Judy (2019).

Sarah GavronBrick Lane (2007) prompted my interest in the British director with her focus on a Bangladeshi wife in London; Suffragette (2015) depicts women’s personal struggles against a monumental period of British social history, but Rocks (2019) is the gripping, down-to-earth drama following a black teenage girl being left alone to fend for herself and take care of her little brother when their single mom deserts them, achingly real.

Greta GerwigLittle Women (2019) is a production that I’d enjoyed far more than Lady Bird (2017) for which Gerwig got a Best Director Oscar nom in 2018. It’s plain snubbing of her achievement in this year’s Academy Awards where the slate of Directing nominees are all males. Recognized at the Oscars or not, Gerwig’s Little Women will remain a definitive and worthy contemporary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic.

Mia Hansen-Løve – In Things to Come (2016), the French actor-turned-director Hansen-Løve presents a woman at the crossroads of life. Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy professor whose husband leaves her for a younger woman, while her elderly mother with dementia needs her constant care, her publisher finds her text book no more relevant, and her two children have grown and lead lives of their own. What are the things to come for her?

Mira NairThe Namesake (2006) is the movie adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel. A delightful and humane look at the generation gap within an immigrant family from India, and the clash the son has to face being caught between his present American life and his cultural roots.

Sarah Polley – Polley adapts Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s short story for the film Away from Her (2006). At age 27, the Canadian actor-turned-director wrote the screenplay of an elderly couple facing separation as the Alzheimer stricken wife has to move away to live in a care home. Polley’s directorial debut sent veteran British star Julie Christie to the Academy Awards as a Best Actress nominee, and Polley herself for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Dee ReesMudbound (2007) is the adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel set in the American South at the end of WWII. Two military men, one white, Jamie, and one black, Ronsel, came back from Europe’s war zone to their home in Mississippi, each faces a different predicament. And for Ronsel, a decorated soldier who had fought under General Patton, home is a totally new battlefield.

Kelly Reichardt – Reichardt’s styling is naturalistic, casual but nuanced. Certain Women (2016) is a triptych of three short stories by Maile Meloy. Against the vast landscape of Montana, lives can be very ordinary, but Reichardt shows there’s no ordinary life. Similarly, Wendy and Lucy (2008) is a simple narrative about a young woman looking for work drifting through the Pacific Northwest with her dog Lucy. Reichardt has major stars in her cast who all look very comfortable being anonymous.

Lone Scherfig ­– Scherfig’s forte is her pleasant styling even when depicting a troubling story. Their Finest (2016) is England in her darkest hour during the Blitz in WWII but with the mood of a romantic comedy. And in 2009, Scherfig tells the story of an innocent teenage girl and her parents being duped by a man in An Education (2009). Carey Mulligan in her breakout role, landing her with a BAFTA win and an Oscar nom for Best Actress.

Agnès Varda – In her last film shortly before her death in 2019, Varda by Agnès, the French New Wave icon stated three crucial concepts in her filmmaking: Inspiration (the why), Creation (the how), and Sharing. The soft-spoken but astute artist has left us with a treasure trove of works, albeit not readily accessible in N. America. I’ve been able to watch several, including my favorites Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Faces Places (2017).

Lulu Wang – The premise of the Chinese American director’s real-life family experience in The Farewell (2019) could be shocking to Western viewers, but that just shows the divides separating us who are framed by different cultures: to tell or not to tell an elderly family member of her terminal illness diagnosis. What Wang has ingeniously achieved in her film is to bridge the chasm separating the two sides with a human touch that transcends borders. Amazing feat.

Chloé Zhao – I hope this is a new trend, that is, let Asian Americans, or any underrepresented Americans of various cultural roots, to have the chance to showcase deserving works. The Rider (2018) is a poetic narrative of a contemporary cowboy–a rodeo bronco rider– recovering from debilitating head injury. Chinese American director Zhao is an unlikely person to tell the story; yet this is her vision after befriending the Sioux community in a South Dakota reservation.

 

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‘Parasite’ Makes Oscar History and more…

This morning you’d probably waken up to Parasites everywhere. What is Parasite, you might ask. In case you’re one of those who avoids watching the perennial award show of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, after 92 years, they have opened their door and allowed a non-English film to win the top prize, Best Picture of the Year.

 

Parasite
Looking for Wi-Fi connection are brother and sister Woo-sik Choi and So-dam Park, a scene in “Parasite”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Last night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the South Korean, genre-bending dark comedy directed by Bong Joon Ho garnered four Oscars. Other than Best Picture, it won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. Haven’t heard of Best International Feature Film either? It’s the new name for the old category Best Foreign Language Film, an effort to dispel the awkwardness of the term ‘Foreign’. Even within the continent of North America, many languages are spoken.

Previously, no non-English film had ever won Oscar Best Picture even though nominated: Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1974 Oscar), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Michael Haneke’s Armour (2013), Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2019). Parasite makes a monumental win in Oscars’ 92 years history by being the first non-English language film to reach the highest prize.

By opening this door, the Academy begins to reach out to tap its potential, international stature. The closest I can think of is Cannes. The most prestigious film festival in the world that takes place annually in the small resort town in the French Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur has maintained its status of bestowing the highest cinematic accolades across national borders.

About borders, director Bong’s vision is global: “I don’t think it’s necessary to separate all the borders of division if we pursue the beauty of cinema.” Referring to Chinese American filmmaker Lulu Wang’s Indie Spirit Best Picture win for her film The Farewell just the day before the Oscars, Bong said: “Like Lulu, we just all make movies.”

When it comes to breaking down barriers, Bong’s own acceptance speech at the Golden Globes is succinct and spot-on. As translator Sharon Choi relayed in English, the director’s commentary on differences and the language that unites is inspiring for our divisive world:

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. Just being nominated along with fellow amazing international filmmakers was a huge honor.” And in English, he added, “I think we use only one language: the cinema.”

I’ve had the chance to enjoy some refreshing cross-border collaborations at Film Festivals. Just to name a few from last year:

Frankie – the Cannes nominated American Ira Sachs directing two veterans of the cinema, French actress Isabelle Huppert and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson in a film shot in Portugal. Language: English, French, Portuguese.

To the Ends of the Earth – Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa shot the film in Uzbekistan (a former Soviet republic close to the Eurasian border) on a commission to celebrate the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Uzbekistan. Language: Japanese, Uzbek

The Truth Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda directing the legendary Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke (no need to declare nationality, I think you got the idea) Language: French, English

Maybe the art of cinema could well be the lingua franca to unite us all.

 

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Related posts on Ripple Effects:

My review of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell

 

 

More Movie Adaptations 2020

Previously on Ripple, a list of movie adaptations coming out this year was posted. Here are a few more, not only from books, but Broadway musicals (not as scary as Cats, so give them a try), and a Chinese poem.
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Emma by Jane Austen

EMMA

While there have been many TV miniseries, and the modern-day spinoff, Clueless (1995), the only full-length movie adaptation of Austen’s Emma is back in 1996 with Gwyneth Paltrow as the heroine, Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley, and Toni Collette, Harriet Smith. The 2020 version stars Anya Taylor-Joy, born the year the last Emma adaptation came out. This 24 year-old rising star has already won acting awards in the US, UK, and at Cannes. This updated version sees Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, Bill Nighy, Mr. Woodhouse, and Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown, S3) as Mr. Elton. Do you want to see a new full-length movie adaptation of Emma? Or another Austen book?

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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
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THE TURN OF THE SCREW
Movie title is The Turning, perhaps to take in the vibes of the horror classic The Shining. Why this genre is so popular is beyond me. Back in 1898 when Henry James published his horror novella as a serial, he couldn’t have imagined his writing would be turned into a motion picture projected on a huge screen 122 years later. Directed by Canadian photographer/filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, who’d made music videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, and many others. Her disturbing style just might be what James had intended. Cast includes TV Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project, 2017).


Deep Water
by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water

Highsmith specialized in psychological thrillers. Several of her novels had been adapted into successful movies: Strangers on a Train (1951), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Carol (2015). Coming out this year is a marital thriller that Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn had identified as her favorite book and is, in her words, “a thriller about a suburban couple bent on mutual destruction.” Ben Affleck (Gone Girl, 2014) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out, 2019) star. Directed by Adrian Lyne, also a marital thriller specialist, whose works include Fatal Attraction (1987), Indecent Proposal (1993), and Unfaithful (2002), which was the last film he directed until now.
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West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

WEST SIDE STORY POSTER (1).jpegSteven Spielberg directs this remake of the Bernstein/Sondheim musical (1957) and the 1961 Jerome Robin/Robert Wise movie for our time. In Dec. 2020, we’ll witness a new version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A cast of 130+ will join the Spielberg team with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, 2012) and cinematographer, 2-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, 1998 and Schindler’s List, 1993). Additional new music by David Newman. Ansel Elgort plays Tony; Maria is Rachel Zegler, chosen from 30,000 auditioned. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie, also stars in this remake.

 

 

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In the Heights
by Lin-Manuel Miranda

IN THE HEIGHTS.jpeg

Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights, Miranda’s breakout musical that won 4 Tony Awards in 2008. The musical is based on the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who now writes the screenplay transposing it onto the big screen. Miranda stars in this story set in the Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in NYC. The movie is shot on location there. Directed by Jon M. Chu, whose Crazy Rich Asians became the summer sensation of 2018, showing Chu could create some spectacles. Would Miranda fans want to see a movie version of his works? In the Heights could well be a pilot project, as Hamilton the movie is currently in development.


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Mulan
, legendary heroine from “The Ballad of Mulan” (in Chinese: 木蘭辭)

Hua Mulan.jpeg

According to the legend described in the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan”, Hua Mulan (Chinese: 花木蘭) is a female warrior in China during the Northern Wei period (386-536). To fulfill the conscription for military service for every family and for love of her ageing father, Mulan disguised as a male to join the army in her father’s place to protect her country from their northern enemies, the Huns. The rhymed verses in “The Ballad” provide vivid descriptions of Mulan’s determination and how she goes to nearby towns to buy a horse, a saddle and a whip, equipping herself for military service. After 10 years of fighting, she comes home to her overjoyed parents a decorated military commander.

Disney had wielded its creative license to introduce imaginary characters and songs in its original 1998 animation. Now 22 years later, a live-action feature film carries the legend further, albeit with no place for an actual pet dragon, so, no Mushu. Helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, 2017), it should be noted that all four screenwriters are non-Chinese. No matter, at least the heroine and her purpose is true to the source material. Top-notch Chinese stars are on board: Gong Li, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, screen veteran Cheng Pei Pei, Tzi Ma from The Farewell, and Rosalind Chao from The Joy Luck Club, to name a few. Playing Mulan is multi-talented Liu Yifei who reportedly was selected after a five-continent search and auditioning a thousand candidates. Braced for a Westernized version of the age-old Chinese legend.

 

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Top Ripples of 2019 and the Decade

Best of the decade lists have been sprouting up everywhere now that we’re wrapping up  the second ten years of the 21st century. As Ripple Effects has been around for over 12 years now, I too have the privilege to post my own decade favourites, with links to my reviews. A disclaimer is, obviously, I can only rate films that I’ve seen. For 2019, I’ve yet to see 1917 and Bombshell.

But first off, before looking back to the decade, here’s the list of

Top Ripples of 2019:

  1. Little Women
  2. A Hidden Life
  3. Varda by Agnès
  4. An Elephant Sitting Still
  5. Pain and Glory
  6. The Farewell
  7. Parasite
  8. Marriage Story
  9. American Factory
  10. Rocks

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Top Ripples of the Decade:

  1.  The Tree of Life (2011) –– Director Terrence Malick’s visual treatise on life, death, and everything in between… and after.
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  2.  Roma (2018) –– Nothing’s too mundane for a filmmaker, especially with childhood memory. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical work that won him 3 Oscars, Best Directing, Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film.
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  3.  Ida (2013) –– Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s gripping depiction of a young woman’s choice of the sacred or the secular.
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  4.  An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) –– A last outcry of a young talent, the first and last masterpiece of Chinese writer/director Hu Bo who took his own life after making the film at age 29.
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  5. Little Women (2019) –– No matter what your previously held memory of the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic is, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century. Surely lots have to be left out in a 2 hr. movie; take it as a good prod to go read the book.
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  6.  A Hidden Life (2019) –– Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter gave up everything to stand by his conviction, refusing to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. Terrence Malick’s newest film is a meditation on the meaning of life, and death.
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  7.  Silence (2016) –– Martin Scorsese’s epic adaptation of Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s novel, a harsh and audacious look at the persecution of Christianity during 1600’s Japan. Similar to Malick’s A Hidden Life but depicts a totally different choice and outcome for its protagonist.
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  8.  Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) –– French director Olivier Assayas’s mesmerizing tale of being famous, ageing, becoming obsolete, and the young rising. Juliet Binoche and Kristen Stewart offer interesting interplay, but it’s Stewart who stands out.
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  9.  12 Years A Slave (2013) –– Two Brits takes over the American story: Director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Solomon Northup. I wrote this in my review: the subject matter may be ugly, but the medium depicting it can be artistically gratifying, thus, conveying the message with even greater potency and inspiration.
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  10.  Certain Women (2016) –– Director Kelly Reichardt has chosen three short stories by Maile Meloy to form a cinematic triptych. The seemingly mundaneness of life is actually the very essence of it. The women are what make this film quietly impressive: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristin Stewart.
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  11. Pain and Glory (2019) –– “The child is father of the man”, iconic Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical sketch of his childhood, later life and career up to this point. Beautifully shot, a film for artists.
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  12. The Farewell (2019) –– Chinese American director Lulu Wang has put her family story on screen and captured the hearts of many, making Awkwafina the rising star this awards season. To tell, or not to tell, that is the question… and the answer is obvious depending on where you’re from.
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  13. Faces Places (2017) –– Agnes Varda at 89 goes on a road trip with photographer/artist JR, adorning dilapidated buildings and unlikely places with human portraits larger than life.
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  14. The Rider (2017) –– Chinese-American Chloé Zhao tells the rarely told story of a modern day cowboy’s existential crisis after he suffers a debilitating head injury. How she tells it is poetry on screen.
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  15. Arrival (2016) –– Admirable collaboration: French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s adapts Chinese American sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, rendered with sensitive performance by Amy Adams. A film packed full of ideas, condensed sentiments, yes, like poetry.
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  16. Frances Ha (2012) –– Noah Baumbach has created a character that’s a perfect fit for partner Greta Gerwig, an aspiring dancer trying to find her place in NYC. The scene of Frances running and dancing through the streets of NYC has become an archetype for freedom and exuberance. (Look for it at the beginning of Little Women)
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  17. Varda by Agnes (2019) – The only female director of the French New Wave, Agnes Varda had left us with an inspiring legacy. This is her summing up, her last work wherein she went through every film she’d made, commenting with valuable insights and wisdom.
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  18. Our Little Sister (2015) –– I’ve to say this could well be my favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda movie. Koreeda is a master in filming family relationships, reminiscent of Ozu but with contemporary scenarios. This is a heartwarming film for the unhurried heart to savour.
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  19. Life of Pi (2012) –– What Canadian author Yann Martel has succeeded in literary form, Ang Lee has realized in this visually stunning cinematic offering, filming what is considered the ‘unfilmable’. Aligned with its magical realism, Lee ventured into flashy 3D.
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  20. The Past (2013) –– Iranian Director Asghar Farhadi elicited some amazing
    performance with this absorbing story. The film came out two years after A Separation, his Oscar winning film. I’d enjoyed The Past more.
    .

 

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Other Top Ripples not on the above lists can be found on the sidebar. Click on the image to read my review.

 

 

 

 

‘A Hidden Life’: A Film for the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Reading the Season Posts:

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

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

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

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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

 

‘Marriage Story’ is a realistic look at an all too common topic

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, now in limited release, Marriage Story will be available for streaming December 6.  The Netflix original movie is gathering a lot of buzz as one of the front runners for Oscar noms. I saw it first at TIFF, now again in the theatre, trying to confirm my initial feelings about the film.

Directed by Noah Baumbach with a stellar cast, the title would be more apt if it’s called ‘Divorce Story’, for the film is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber going through the separation and divorce process, culminating with the final custody case of their 8 year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Marriage Story
Scene from Marriage Story with Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, and Scarlett Johansson. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Nicole is an aspiring film actor in LA before following avant-garde theatre director Charlie to NYC to become a stage actor with his company, his muse, and later, his wife and the mother of his child Henry. Exactly, the emphasis on the possessive ‘his’, and hence, the reason for Nicole’s discontent. 

At this point in her marriage, Nicole finds herself oddly unhappy, although she doesn’t show it that much. Looks like Charlie has everything going for him. Nicole describes it: he’s alive while she’s in a coma. As he becomes more and more successful, “I got smaller,” she laments. Charlie has distinguished himself as a theatre artist and akin to his professionalism, is honest in his critique of Nicole’s acting. One time after a performance, he takes out his notes, “I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.”

So, with the offer to star in a new TV series, Nicole jumps at the opportunity and goes back to LA, with Henry in tow. 

The film starts off with a voiceover as we hear Charlie and Nicole read out something they’ve written on what they love about each other. A marriage counsellor is trying to lead them down memory lane to revive their relationship, to think on why they got married in the first place. But looks like they’ve passed this point. They want to stroll down the divorce lane, casually, no lawyers. Soon they find there’s no gentle way to go about this.

Humor comes as situational irony. Here’s one of those scenes. In her mother’s kitchen in LA, Nicole is figuring out how and who to serve Charlie with the divorce papers, documents in a brown legal envelop placed on the kitchen counter. Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty) loves Charlie and isn’t cool with the task. The duty falls on sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). The three nervously prepares the scene quickly just before Charlie enters, arriving from NY and bursting with excitement of winning a MacArthur Fellowship and is spontaneously met by good cheers from all, just might not be the right mood to serve any legal papers.

Marriage and family relationships have long been Baumbach’s subject matter. His semi-autobiographical, breakout work The Squid and the Whale (2005) is edgy and personal. Through the eyes of the sons, teenager Walt and his 12 year-old brother witness the nasty demolition of their literary parents’ marriage. Walt finds out at the end of the film that the model he’d seen as a child at the Natural History Museum of a sperm whale swallowing up a giant squid is a visual metaphor of his parents’ relationship. That film is impressionable as it shows not only a marriage breakdown but the emotional and psychological damage of their sons. A dark comedy full of fresh takes on a common subject matter, with Baumbach’s signature quirkiness and eccentric characterization.

In Marriage Story, however, Baumbach doesn’t need a metaphor as he tells his story in stark realism with a low-risk, conventional approach. This is probably the director’s least quirky and idiosyncratic feature in his oeuvre. His vivid depiction of the love/hate ambivalence between Charlie and Nicole is nuanced and vivid. Heavy on dialogues, reminiscence of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974), but Marriage Story is more an updated version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) exactly 40 years ago. 

Love lingers. Even though they are separated as far as the east coast is from the west, every time Charlie visits Nicole and Henry in LA, tenderness surfaces readily. Just begs the question though, as the counsellor wants them to think about why they got married in the first place, looks like they now need to ponder on why they want a divorce.

Reality is, our legal system is adversarial. Nicole’s aggressive lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) tells her, “the system rewards bad behavior.” The harder you stab, the more likely you’ll win. They’re charged to combat each other, and when it comes to digging up dirty laundry in favor of their case, the lawyers leave no stone unturned. This is something both Charlie and Nicole don’t expect. Instead, they’re pushed into the legal torrents reluctantly. Empathy as expressed from the older, semi-retired lawyer Bert (Alan Alder) means incompetence. Charlie finally has to hire the high-priced legal shark Jay (Ray Liotta), for the stakes are too high.

If Baumbach has sprinkled his newest film with a bit more squid and whale quirks, it will make it more interesting. Surely, the strong cast overall delivers, with Driver and Johansson offering some fine performance. But with such a commonplace subject matter, and so many movies have already done it, what’s amiss is the very quirkiness and eccentricity Baumbach leaves out.

Another consideration is, do we need all the 136 minutes to tell the story of Barber vs. Barber? Maybe not. However, since it’s a Netflix original movie, viewers have total control over how long to sit in front of the small screen to view it; chopping it up into shorter segments is what I predict to be the viewing habits of many. Herein lies the problem with streaming movies from a device, i.e. the trivializing of the experience. But that’s beyond the present discussion. Some day maybe, another post: Theatre vs. Netflix.

So what was I trying to confirm in this second viewing? It’s the reason for my detachment. Twice now, I was an observer of a performance, appreciating the nuances, the humor, but not being drawn in in terms of feelings. Could it be, at times, I find there’s pushing for the emotion?

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

While We’re Young: Wearing the Hat of Authenticity

Paterson: Of Pug and Poetry

Original Screenplays Written Directly for the Screen: What to Watch in Nov. and Dec.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Original Screenplays Written Directly for the Screen: What to Watch in November and December 2019

The Academy has separate award categories for writing: Screenplay adapted from another source and screenplays written directly for the screen. My last post is a list of movie adaptations coming out this fall/winter. In this post is a list of some highly anticipated features based on an original screenplay, all poised for the Awards Season, eyeing the 2020 Oscars race.

 

1917

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Director Sam Mendes takes a fragment of a story his grandfather Alfred Mendes had told him and wrote this original screenplay. During WWI, two young privates (one apparently represents his grandfather) race against time to deliver a message deep into enemy territory to save 1,600 British soldiers from heading into a death trap. In real life, Alfred Mendes was given a Military Medal for his bravery in taking up the mission voluntarily. So, the movie has a particular personal meaning for the younger Mendes. The Oscar winning director (for American Beauty) has an exceptional track record of top features including Bond movies Skyfall, Spectre, and the adaptation of Richard Ford’s Revolutionary Road. In 1917, Mendes has a stellar cast to work with, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Mark Strong. Roger Deakins just might get another Oscar nom for cinematography.

 

A Hidden Life 

A Hidden Life

Here’s another hero’s story but of a very different nature. This time in WWII during Nazi occupation of Austria. Franz Jägerstätter is a farmer in a small village, leading a simple and idyllic family life. Everything changes when he’s conscripted to serve in the German army. Jägerstätter refuses to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler as he considers Hitler’s war unjust and evil. Not a pacifist, but a conscientious objector due to his Christian faith. The consequence of refusing to take the oath is death. Director Terrence Malick after The Tree of Life offers us a poignant and beautiful meditation on this hidden hero, bravery no one would have noticed, on the contrary, bravery that is met with spite and hatred even by his own village folks. I watched this at TIFF and can attest that these could well be the most meaningful 3 hours in this holiday season.

Harriet

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Yet another hero’s story. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad and became an abolitionist and leading ‘conductor’, helping many slave families to freedom. During the American Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union Army in various capacities. Director Kasi Lemmons researched and wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. This is the kind of movies where historical facts and dramatization would usually come under scrutiny. In an interview with IndieWire, Lemmons has made this statement: “Of course I embellished, I’m a screenwriter… I added to the story because anybody that’s a writer that approaches a real story has to embellish.” Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet, Leslie Odom Jr. and Joe Alwyn co-star.

 

The Aeronauts

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British duo Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite for another scientific venture after their Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of EverythingThe Aeronauts has these two stuck in a hot air ballon 40,000 ft. above ground. The movie is loosely based on the real-life feats achieved by James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell, who, in 1862, flew higher into the atmosphere than anyone had ever done before. For story appeal, Coxwell is replaced by the female balloonist Amelia Rennes. Looks like the dramatization of historical discoveries and scientific breakthroughs has developed into a genre of their own, such as The Current War, The Imitation Game, and Hidden Figures. Directed and co-written by Tom Harper. In N. American theatres Dec. 6 then on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 20. But looks like this one should be watched on the big screen.

Marriage Story

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Back on the ground, a very realistic depiction. Noah Baumbach has written an insightful script on the dissolution of a marriage. I watched this at TIFF. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver a superb performance as a couple going through a divorce. You’d think the process involves the husband, the wife, and the child only. But no. It looks like the lawyers are the major players in our adversarial legal system. Things get much more complicated and pricier than the couple have first thought and uglier than they’d wanted to go. Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda are the lawyers, solid casting. A strong Oscar hopeful. After a limited release in theatres, this will go straight to Netflix.

The Two Popes

The Two PopesFor originality of a screenplay this probably is a good example. Imagine the conservative Pope Benedict XVI meeting the relatively more progressive Pope Francis I as they hang out with each other, a few years before Francis became Pontiff. Maybe a get-to-know-you, pre-screening interview for the Pope-in-waiting. Anthony Hopkins plays the conservative and Jonathan Pryce, the liberal. Helmed by acclaimed Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles whose past works include the Oscar nominated City of God and The Constant Gardener where Rachel Weisz won her Oscar. Screenplay by Anthony McCarten, 3-time Oscar nominee for Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, and The Theory of Everything. Again, Netflix will have it after a limited theatrical run in December. 

 

 

 

 

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Related Posts:

Movies Based on Books in Nov. and Dec. 2019

David Copperfield: From Book to Film

Downton Abbey the movie not just for fans

Movies based on books in November and December 2019

Here are several films coming out this fall/winter that are based on books. Usually features given a release date during this time come with some buzz as the awards season has kicked off. Surely there are also those that are from original screenplays, a few are highly anticipated titles as well. Another post for them.

Here’s a list of upcoming book to screen features. Some are in theatres already.

 

The Good Liar

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This is an interesting premise: From an online dating site, two people meet, each having an agenda of his/her own. They are octogenarian con artist Roy and his seemingly easy, slightly younger prey Betty, a wealthy widow. Played by two veterans of the stage and screen, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, just to watch their performance would be pleasure enough, not to mention how the plot thickens. Bill Condon directs. Based on the debut novel by Nicholas Searle; the name BTW, is a pseudonym. The author is a former UK intelligence officer before turning full-time writer. Now that’s intriguing.

 

The Irishman 

The Irishman.jpg

A highly anticipated Scorsese movie and it’s based on a book; many of the director’s works are.  This one is adapted from Charles Brandt’s true crime novel about the ‘Irishman’ Frank Sheeran, the hitman who murdered Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Screenplay is by Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winning writer who adapted Schindler’s List for the big screen. A Scorsese cast with Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin. Limited release in theatres, then on Netflix, which makes it another potential clash with studio gatekeeper Spielberg.

 

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit Movie Still

 

Winner of the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at TIFF 2019. The award has always been cited as an indicator of Oscar Best Picture, like last year’s The Green Book. But just like last year, the feature is embraced by viewers but received mixed reviews by critics. Billed as an ‘Anti-Hate Satire’, the farcical rendition is helmed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi who also stars as Adolf Hitler, a caricature and imaginary friend of 10 yr. old Jojo going through tough times towards the end of WWII. Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell co-star. The movie is loosely based on the book Caging Skies by New Zealand-Belgian novelist Christine Leunens. How much has Waititi taken out from the book and how much is his own imagination? A good case study of the boundary and definition of movie adaptations.

 

Motherless Brooklyn

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Edward Norton has wanted to make the movie ever since he read Jonathan Lethem’s detective novel, a 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner. So, it’s taken him 20 years to do it, himself being the screenwriter, director, actor, and producer. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder which afflicts him with involuntary tics. While keeping the location in NYC, Norton has changed the time to the 50’s from 1999, thereby introducing some nostalgic designs and costumes, and noir for taste. Cast includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Defoe, Bruce Willis, and Alec Baldwin.

 

Little Women

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It has been 25 years since the last full feature adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. This updated remake is in the hands of Greta Gerwig, whose Lady Bird (2017) brought her two Oscar noms, for Best Director and Original Screenplay. But what left an indelible memory for me is her role as Frances in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012). Now thinking back to her character Frances, a young dancer striving on her own in NYC, it shares the spirit of Jo March in Little Women: independent, fresh, and authentic. Great cast with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep. A film I most look forward to this holidays season.

 


Cats

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For all ye ailurophiles and musical lovers. Based on T. S. Eliot’s collection of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is hailed as one of the biggest hits in theatrical history on their website. Director Tom Hooper has another musical-turned-movie under his belt: Les Misérables (2012) which won 3 Oscars. Attractive cast in Cats the movie: Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Taylor Swift.

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TIFF19 Review: Military Wives delivers a soothing tune

If being called a ‘feel good movie’ would right away make you think of a thoughtless and syrupy offering aiming just to please, Military Wives would shatter that myth. The reason for the ‘feel good’ effect in this case is largely because it is based on inspiring, real-life events. The spouses and partners of a British military base band together for mutual support and socializing when their loved ones are deployed to Afghanistan on a 6-month tour. At first just for coffee and a sip of wine, later they discover the joy of singing together as a choir. The subsequent events lead them to the Festival of Remembrance at Royal Albert Hall, deep friendship, and healing beyond their expectations.

Military Wives
Kristin Scott Thomas in Military Wives. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF.

The Military Wives Choir phenomenon had inspired the development of the BBC TV series The Choir. And now its movie version Military Wives has just world premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. According to their website: There are over 2,000 women with a military connection in 74 choirs based across the UK and in British military bases abroad, including Cyprus, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. As well, other countries’ military wives have followed suit, organizing their own choirs. Those with no prior knowledge of this global movement would find this a fresh and interesting subject to put on screen.

Directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty, 1997) and written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, Military Wives touts an effective cast to augment their singing. Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as Kate, the Chair of the social committee on the fictional Flitcroft military base. As the wife of a Colonel, she comes with certain prescribed authority but her bossy personality denies her genuine friendship. Kate has to work together with the leader of the women’s social group, the casual and congenial Lisa (Sharon Horgan). During a brainstorming session, the idea of a choir comes up, something which neither of them has the expertise, or that the group is particularly well-tuned for the task. But living in an isolated military base, the two leaders have to take up the challenge on their own.

Scott Thomas and Horgan are lively foils playing off each other with spot-on comedic timing, both trying to lead the choir in their own way at the same time. Kate is formal and traditional; Lisa is spontaneous and contemporary. While hymns are Kate’s choice for their repertoire, Lisa has no trouble getting the group to belt out pop songs and spark up camaraderie.

Their story however, is deeper than just the catchy tunes. Kate’s son was killed in a previous deployment. Despite her gung-ho and cheery surface, deep down she is still grappling with her loss, and now her husband has gone off to a war zone yet again. Scott Thomas has no trouble bringing out the complexity of her character.

While Kate has to deal with personal loss, Lisa has to raise a rebellious teenaged daughter at the brink of endangering herself. Clashes between Kate and Lisa are inevitable. But instead of telling a mundane, formulaic story, Military Wives succeeds in eliciting genuine emotions and poignancy. These words from a young wife well express their precarious daily life: “every time the phone rings and the doorbell goes, I feel sick.” So, when one of them does meet such a tragic fate, the story gets especially real and poignant.

The ‘feel good’ element is how the women deal with their own personal issue and accept each others’ foibles to work together in harmony, reaping mutual support and deep friendship. The motto of the Military Wives Choir is ‘Stronger Together’. The movie brings out this credo movingly.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Read my other TIFF19 Reviews:

Coming Home Again directed by Wayne Wang

Interview with director Wayne Wang

Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho

A Girl Missing directed by Kôji Fukada

 

With Bernadette missing, time to revisit Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy

Watching Where’d you go, Bernadette has prompted me to reminisce on Linklater’s dialogue-filled trilogy. Re-posting my review of Before Midnight in the following.

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We are gleaners of memories. An interesting parallel applies to the two characters Celine and Jesse as well as ourselves as audience. But if you haven’t seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, it would enhance your viewing pleasure to watch them first.

Flashback: Before Sunrise (1995)

Before SunriseTwo young people, Parisian Celine (Julie Delpy) and American Jesse (Ethan Hawkes) meet on a train passing through Europe. They strike up a conversation and become so in-tuned with each other that when the train arrives Jesse’s stop in Vienna, he convinces Celine to get off with him even though her destination is Paris. There for just one night until sunrise, they walk around the city and talk about life, death, love, religion, relationships, and being transients… for they know this may well be their only encounter with each other in both of their lives. The next morning Jesse has to fly back to the U.S. As they part, they promise to meet again in six month at the same hour, on the same train platform. Throughout the film, we feel fate, or whatever you call it, has a strong presence in their short few hours together. We feel their sincerity in capturing those precious  moments, as we hear Celine’s words ring true:

“If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.”

Flashback: Before Sunset (2004)

Before SunsetNine years after that chance meeting, Jesse is in Paris on the last leg of a book tour. He has written a book based on that memorable encounter nine years ago. At the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Celine shows up. They now meet for a second time, again for a short few hours before Jesse has to leave on a plane to fly back to the U.S. Their conversation reveals that, alas, their well intended reunion six months after their first chance meeting has turned into a star-crossed, missed opportunity. After that, fate has led them down separate paths. Jesse is now married and has a son. Celine, still on her own, yearns for that first romance to develop but now seems even more elusive.

To the present: Before Midnight (2013)

Before Midnight

So we have been following Jesse and Celine like a longitudinal study, albeit meeting them just twice within this eighteen year period. In the first two films, director Richard Linklater has us follow Jesse and Celine in real time through long takes, walking along with them in Vienna and Paris, listening in on their conversations and see them pour their hearts out, just to be heard, to be known. Those were romantic moments. This time is summer in Greece; this time is reality check.

We see Jesse and Celine now married. What happens in between those nine years is that Jesse has divorced his wife in Chicago, come over to Paris, married Celine and together they have two lovely twin daughters. But things aren’t so idyllic, for Jesse is troubled by not being around for his now young teenaged son Hank from his previous marriage and whom he can only see in the summer. The film begins with Jesse seeing his son off at the airport.

For the next 15 minutes and in one stationary take through the front windshield of the car, we see a happy couple Jesse and Celine driving from the airport to a Greek country house, with their twin daughters sleeping in the backseat. We hear them talk, yes, they love to talk to each other, just as we’ve seen in the past.

In the setting of an idyllic seaside residence, Jesse and Celine join a small gathering of writers. we see them prepare and eat healthy Greek salads and discuss equally idyllic topics such as writing, love, knowing each other, virtual reality (yes, for the contemporary effect), and being transients in life. Again, that first train encounter comes to mind. In conclusion they drink to ‘passing through’.

The next act is reminiscence of previous Before films… Jesse and Celine walk to a hotel paid for by their writer friends, who have also taken up the duty of babysitting their twins so the two of them can fully enjoy each other for the night. For twenty minutes the camera follows them in real time strolling through some scenic rural town toward their country hotel, exchanging thoughts like before. But no, not totally like before, for now they are eighteen years older, 41, and each with emotional undercurrents running deep.

Five minutes in the hotel room, discordant riptides begin to surface. Talk turns into quarrel. Why, this is just too real. In the past, we see them only in romantic mode. Now as they expose their underlying thoughts and suspicions, tempers flare, words turn callous. We would silently say ‘ouch!’ occasionally.

The beginning scene of the first film, Before Sunrise, has become a stark foreshadowing… sitting near Jesse and Celine on that train, two middle-aged couple argue fiercely in German. Seeing their temper flare but not understanding what they were arguing about, Jesse and Celine ponder on the question of how two people can grow old together in harmony.

Now here in what is supposed to be an ideal get-away, for twenty minutes we are the invisible witnesses of a marital conflict, and we would want to stay in there to see what happens next, not because of the schadenfreude effect, but because this is just too real.

Romance is holiday, marriage is work.

Hawke and Delpy own these scenes depicting realistically what marriage could entail. Other films readily come to mind… Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (1973) and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992). Before Midnight is a contemporary version, with a highly watchable backdrop and natural performance. Unlike Bergman and Allen, Linklater is commendable in crafting a more positive ending. It’s refreshing to see a glimmer of hope at the end of nasty quarrels.

In the final act, Jesse attempts to woo his wife back. How he does it is most endearing. Every moment in the present is an opportunity to create a fond memory to look back to in the future. This complicated package called love is a piece of work. Director Linklater and his two stars, who co-wrote the screenplay with him, might well have passed to us the secret of marital success… Before too late, glean fond memories from the past to sustain the relationship at present; before too late, create more loving memories to carry it into the future.

One line from Celine in Before Sunset is most apt here: “Memory is a wonderful thing if we don’t have to deal with the past.” Jesse might have known this too well, not to leave the present a mess for future to deal with, but leave it as a pleasant memory to cherish in the days ahead.

With a trilogy of films beginning with the word ‘Before’ in the title, we should know that time is of the essence. Time to make the present a memorable past for the future, before too late.

That line still lingers as the film ends… ‘To passing through.’

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples for all three films

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