Film Festivals 2021 Virtual Visit

Due to the pandemic, I haven’t attended a film festival in-person for two years. I miss the atmosphere of being in the midst of activities, the excitement of rushing across downtown Toronto in between screenings, dashing back to the pressroom to write up a timely review, and watching three to four films a day.

Here’s an imaginary list of films I would have watched if I were at TIFF and NYFF in Lincoln Center this September/October. Now, I’ll just have to wait patiently for them to trickle down to our local theatres or the streaming platforms.

TIFF 2019

Belfast

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Award Winner, and historically, that means a path leading to next year’s Oscars Best Picture race. A semi-autobiographical narrative of a nine-year-old boy in 1969 Belfast, and as they say, the rest is history. Stars Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds… that’s enough for me.

Bergman Island

High on my list of films to watch when it becomes available to the general viewers. French director Mia Hansen-Løve builds her story on Swedish Fårö Island where director Ingmar Bergman lived and made many of his films. A parallel story of a filmmaker couple heading there for retreat and inspiration interfacing with their film characters, blurring fantasy and reality.

The Power of the Dog

Directed by Jane Campion, who just won Best Director with this work at Venice FF. In an interview, Campion pointed out that she got the title from Psalm 22:20, and that Benedict Cumberbatch was spot-on in his portrayal of a Montana rancher. Kirsten Dunst co-stars. Based on the novel by Thomas Savage. TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Award runner-up.

All my Puny Sorrows

The first of Miriam Toews’ eight novels to be adapted to screen. Toews’ writing describes the conflicts and struggles growing up in her Canadian Mennonite community. Curious to see how Toronto director Michael McGowan deals with the internal world of the characters.

The French Dispatch

I won’t miss a Wes Anderson film. Always quirky and colourful, with creative set design and the usual gang is always entertaining, even though the story might not make much sense. Here they are, the usual suspects plus a few more: Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Elizabeth Moss, Adrian Brody, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson…

I’m Your Man

Directed by Maria Schrader and based on a short story by German writer Emma Braslavsky. A humanoid cyborg is created to match all your needs, conscious and subconscious. Scientist Alma Felser (Maren Eggert) is skeptical, but when she meets her ‘man’, played by Dan Stevens (far from Downton), will she change her mind? A sci-fi rom-com with Stevens speaking fluent German in the whole film. Curious?

The Humans

From stage to screen, playwright director Stephen Karam adapts his Tony Award-winning play. Here’s TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey’s succinct intro: “the Blake family disagrees on everything from religion to politics to the value of work, but each understands that their differences make them stronger, and their joys and sorrows are more meaningful for being shared.” Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein and Oscar noms Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun and June Squibb star.

The Lost Daughter

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name. Gyllenhaal has already garnered a Best Screenplay at Venice FF this year. While the setting may be on a beach during a vacation, the relational conflicts of characters are what make me so eager to see how the talented cast deliver: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, just to name a few.

Spencer

After S4 of The Crown, a Diana musical and a Diana feature on Netflix, isn’t it time for a hiatus about Diana, Princess of Wales? Nope. Especially when it’s Kristen Stewart playing her, and the title Spencer could well define what the film might focus on, her identity as herself. Directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín who brought us Jackie in 2016.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

From a van dweller in Nomadland with which she won her third Oscar Best Actress award, Frances McDormand turns into Lady Macbeth here, partner in crime, or rather instigator, with Denzel Washington as the ambitious Scottish lord. Her real life hubby Joel Coen directs this newest, classy looking b/w interpretation of the Bard’s masterpiece.

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Cannes Film Festival 2021, July 6-17

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 74th Festival 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)

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In Competition:

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

Un Certain Regard:

Blue Bayou (USA) – Justin Chon directs Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander

After Yang (USA) – Kogonada directs Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith

Cannes Premiere:

In Front of Your Face (Korea) – Hong Sang-Soo directs

Mothering Sunday – Eva Husson directs Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Josh O’Connor

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‘Minari’: The Little Seed that Could

Minari is a semi-autobiographical narrative based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood experience. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant father striving to succeed in America while his wife strains to keep their family together. In the midst of the struggle for a better life, two children watch and learn and grow. 

Chung’s counterpart in the movie, seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), follows his parents Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), together with his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), to relocate from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s. Driven by the ambition to be successful, especially in the eyes of his children, Jacob has purchased 50 acres of land to start a farm growing Korean produce. With the influx of Korean immigrants coming into the country during that time, Jacob sees a wealth of opportunity.

MINARI_00195_R Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

Jacob and Monica still hold a day job at a hatchery doing chicken sexing, separating the male chicks from the female, but Jacob sees no future in the routine work. The farm is his dream. In the sexing process, the male chicks are discarded, for they don’t taste as good and can’t lay eggs. A ready object lesson for him to teach his young son: be useful. And when he digs a well, he dismisses the dowsing method offered to him. “Koreans use their heads,” he tells David.

Monica, however, sees a very different picture. The dream home in the country for Jacob is for her, realistically, a trailer on wheels held up by cinder blocks. Water is from a well which later is drained dry to the crops. There’s no community nearby. Her main concern is living far from a hospital as David has a life-threatening heart murmur. “Don’t forget to keep praying,” she tells David. The couple’s opposing views lead to frequent conflicts in front of the children.

The tipping point comes when Monica’s mother is recruited to help with the kids. Arriving from Korea, Grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) brings with her Korean spices and rarity not found in America, as well as Korean songs, memory of courtship that has long been buried by her daughter and son-in-law.

For David, Grandma is far from what he has expected. She is a raucous card player, swears, doesn’t cook or bake, uses half his room and, aggravating his annoyance, snores. The interplay between grandma and grandson make up some light-hearted scenes which elicit from Kim performance in his natural poise alongside the veteran, seasoned Youn. The key element in their eventual bonding is love. Kudos to Chung for his screenplay and directing.

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

Another supporting role that has added spice to the film is Paul (Will Patton), a practical farm help to Jacob. A devout Pentecostal, Paul’s eccentricity is a laughing stock even with church kids. Jacob does not subscribe to his beliefs. Admirably, the two can still work in harmony.

Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and winning both its Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Minari has come a long way this past year garnering accolades. The film is now an Oscar nominee in six categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay for Chung. Yeun becomes the first actor of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor. Youn gets a nod for Best Supporting Actress and composer Emile Mosseri for Best Original Score.

Compared to his acclaimed debut feature Munyurangabo (2007), an arthouse, experimental film about two youths in post-genocide Rwanda, Minari is a conventional take on a personal, family story. The storytelling is linear and captured in realism, as we follow the Yi family’s first arrival to rural Arkansas and the daily struggles as an immigrant, farm family. The film’s subject matter and Chung’s handling is deceivingly simple.

Thanks to the eponymous vegetable, the minari, Lee transfers the specific to a wider scope in different layers. Minari is a Korean watercress that grows hardily in wet soil. Grandma has brought some minari seeds with her from Korea and sows them beside the creek near their home. As days go by, the plants thrive on their own, an apt metaphor for the resilience and adaptability of immigrants taking roots in a new soil. 

In contrast to a grim lesson of discarding the male chicks at the hatchery David learns from his father, the minari along the creek is a visual reminder of being alive and useful. Grandma sings its praises, for the versatile vegetable can be put in kimchi, stew, and soup, and used as medicine when sick. “Minari, Wonderful.” Grandma and David burst out in an impromptu song. A delightful scene is captured by the camera. As the wind blows, the plants bow as if acknowledging their praises. A moment of magical realism.

As time goes by, the minari plants thrive, and David’s heart condition has improved on its own such that surgery is no longer needed. In the climactic scene and its fallout, a contrast is particularly notable. Jacob sweats and labors on his crops which can be gone in an instant, but the minari grows naturally in the wild and David’s illness healed, pointing to a harvest of transcending grace that is beyond human efforts. The denouement is a gratifying close to a chapter of childhood memory.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.

Women Direct Films

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:

2021

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

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2020

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

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2019:

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

Nahnatchka Khan – Always Be My Maybe

Jennifer Lee (co-director) – Frozen II

Kasi Lemmons – Harriet

Melina Matsoukas – Queen and Slim

Shannon Murphy – Babyteeth

Lydia Dean Pilcher – A Call to Spy

Kelly Reichardt – First Cow

Lorene Scafaria – Hustlers

Angela Schanelac – I was at Home, But…

Céline Sciamma – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Lulu Wang – The Farewell

Olivia Wilde – Booksmart

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Related Ripple Reviews:

Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell

Ripples from the history-making 78th Golden Globes

Last night I dreamt I was interviewing Chloé Zhao. Not just a sit-down interview, but I actually hung out with her as buddies. That was a dream, and that much is true.  

Before the dream, I was watching the 78th Golden Globes Awards show aired live last Sunday night. This year, it’s a much scaled down, stripped to the minimal, virtual event. The show must go on, as they say. So, we have Amy Poehler from the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles and Tina Fey from the Rainbow Room in New York being pulled together on one screen as if they were standing side-by-side for the fourth time hosting. A technical marvel.

Nominees were at home or wherever they were at that moment, wearing whatever they felt like, watching and giving acceptance speech via their own small screen. A few of them were at the Beverley Hilton adorning glamorous, designer gowns, a reminder of previous Globe glitters and the red carpet.

Other than the unprecedented format, history was made last Sunday night.

Chloé Zhao became the second woman to win the Best Director Golden Globe award in the 78-year history of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual extravaganza. She is also the first Asian woman to do so. What more, her film Nomadland won the top prize, Best Motion Picture – Drama. As a co-producer, she became the first woman producer of Asian descent to receive that accolade.

For a historical reference, Barbra Streisand was the first female to win a Best Director Golden Globe with Yentl in 1984. Taiwanese-American Ang Lee claimed that honor twice with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001 and Brokeback Mountain in 2006, the only other Asian American to take that award.  

If it’s not due to Covid 19, never could there be a Best Director and Best Motion Picture winner accept the Golden Globe dressed in an olive color t-shirt, hair in pigtails. She probably might not be at home, maybe at work on location. But still, I remember the Cannes controversy where female stars were frowned upon––no they didn’t outright say ban––for not wearing heels on the red carpet.

It’s in this unassuming manner that Chloé (I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me calling her by her first name) picked up her color-matching mug to toast everyone and gave her virtual acceptance speech. Quoting the ‘guru’ among the nomads, Bob Wells, she said:  

“Compassion is the breakdown of all the barriers between us. A heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain. It’s mingled and shared between us.” She then went on to say, “this is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories cause it gives us the chance to laugh and cry with each other, to learn from each other, to have more compassion for each other.”

An iconoclast, no doubt. If not because of the pandemic, I can’t imagine a female Globe winner in a t-shirt and I assume, no make-up, and speaks from her heart, not to shun the glitter of the gold but just to be her normal self of a human being, most likely here too, as an identification with the nomads in her film.

Accepting the Best Motion Picture – Drama award, she said about Nomadland:

“At its core, for me, it’s a pilgrimage through grief and healing. So, for everyone who has gone through their difficult and beautiful journey at some point in their lives, this is for you. We don’t say goodbye, we say see you down the road.”

Maybe that image rippled in my mind as I went to sleep and conjured up that dream…

Well, see you down the road, Chloé. And hopefully then, not in a dream, but for real.

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Related Ripple Posts:

Nomadland Book Review

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Top Ripples 2020

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)
..

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.
..

 

 

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.
    .
  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.
    .
  3.  Ida (2013) –– Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s gripping depiction of a young woman’s choice of the sacred or the secular.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.
    .
  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.