‘Living’: The Old Becomes New

Living is based on the Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru (1952, meaning of title: ‘to live’). Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro adapted it to make an English version with Bill Nighy in mind when he wrote the screenplay, creating a setting in 1950’s London. Interestingly, Kurosawa himself was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich when he made Ikiru, and with his eloquent camera, transposed the Russian master’s novella into a Japanese story on screen.

With Living, the Japanese-British novelist Ishiguro has succinctly condensed Kurosawa’s 142 minute film into a shorter feature of 102 minutes, helmed by South African director Oliver Hermanus. It’s interesting to note the cross-cultural transferral, for the film is about the universal theme that we all share as a humanity, living a meaningful life in the face of death.

This is one of the less-hyped movies during the 2022 Awards Season, despite the film getting two Oscar nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay for Ishiguro, and Best Actor for Bill Nighy, his first and long due Oscar nod.

It’s timely that I finally get the chance to watch Living now in April, a month that signifies new births. Considering the change in the main character Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), even the idea of resurrection is apt when taken metaphorically, from death to life, ironically, for a man who has just been diagnosed with terminal illness.

As the head of the public works department at County Hall for numerous years, Williams is contented with following the bureaucratic daily routine by the clock, pushing papers to other departments, or, if the file has to stay in his, stalling it till it becomes extinct.

The camera angles give us a vivid perspective. From the overhead shot above the train station, we see a mass of uniformity, men in dark suit and bowler hat heading to work. Looking down from above, they are small and insignificant. And from the slow motion of them walking, we see the wheel of work turning, ever so slowly, in mundane routine heading to the office and the same vehicle bringing them home at the end of the day.

After Williams gets the confirmed diagnosis of cancer and that he will have just six months to live, there appears the audio motif of a clock ticking; this time, it’s not to remind him of work routine but the limited time of life remaining.

In the wake of the ominous news, Williams’ reactions change from stoically bearing the shock to actively seeking a meaningful existence, and ultimately finding a purpose that he feels can fulfill his life. Nighy’s performance is immersive, reserved, and nuanced, and at times, allowing a ray of deadpan humour to seep through. If the restrained ‘Englishness’ is what the actor naturally possesses, or one that he has fully grasped in his cultural milieu, then it has served him perfectly in this role.

In an online interview, Ishiguro explains this ‘Englishness’ as a metaphor:

A certain type of Englishness becomes a universal metaphor for something that is inside all human beings, the need to conform, perhaps a fear of emotions, the frustration of wanting to express yourself but not being able to break out of your professional role, or the role that society has given you. There were many things I thought we could talk about of the whole human condition by looking at this type of figure.

Many scenes in Living are direct parallels of Kurosawa’s Ikiru with his protagonist Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura). Both men confide their terminal illness not to their son who lives with them, but to a stranger in a restaurant, sharing their last wish, that is, to live life, for a change. The sympathetic listener brings the despondent man to various places for him to ‘live it up’. In both films, we see the same places but in different cultural context, amusement parks, bars, dance hall, strip club, but what Williams and Watanabe find are but superficial, ephemeral flares.

The ultimate change in Williams is sparked by a young, female staff Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), who needs his reference as she has found a new job. Meeting her by chance on the street, Williams invites her to have a ‘simple’ lunch with him at the Fortnum, where he can write her reference letter. It’s there that we see Williams break out with a genuine smile for the first time, forty-one minutes into the movie. Harris’s youthful and vivacious spirit later inspires Williams to go back to the office as a new man after his few days of escapade, to get down to work and this time, doing something that’s meaningful and benevolent.

A crucial addition in Living, and kudos to Ishiguro, is bringing in a young, new worker, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), to the public works department, first day on his job. From his fresh, untainted eyes, we see the novice civil servant being open and ready to accept whatever the bureaucratic system requires of him. His boss Williams’ new-found purpose and subsequent change at work has left him with an indelible impression. And with co-worker Miss Harris, a warm storyline of budding romance adds flavour to the film, albeit introduced a bit late towards the end.

One poignant scene in both films is the protagonist singing in a bar. For Nighy, this is probably the best cinematic moment for him to leave his mark as a soulful singer, a deep and heartfelt performance in contrast to his farcical ‘Christmas is all around’ in Love Actually (2003). The scene here in Living is when a slightly drunk Williams asks the pianist at a pub to play as he sings ‘The Rowan Tree,’ a Scottish folk song that evokes longing for the past and loved ones gone.

Later, in the remake of Kurosawa’s iconic scene from Ikiru, we see Williams sitting on a swing and hearing his moving reprise of the song, this time sober and clear of what’s waiting for him. As the final credits roll, the mesmerizing voice of Lisa Knapp stirs ripples in my heart long after the visuals end.

‘The Rowan Tree’ sung by Lisa Knapp

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~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’: An After Oscar Review*

In this the universe that we all know, a movie from the indie studio A24 called “Everything Everywhere All at Once” just won seven Academy Awards out of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Editing. The date is March 12th, 2023, at the 95th Academy Awards held in the Dolby theatre in Los Angeles, California. 

A historic night as this is the first Sci-Fi genre movie to win Best Picture, and Michelle Yeoh the first Asian to garner the Best Actress honor in the ninety-five years of Oscar history. As well, the movie has set a record of the most acting wins together with Best Picture and Best Director wins from a single movie. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is now A24’s highest-grossing feature of all time, surpassing $100 million at the box office. Surely there are still laundry and taxes to do, but at this point in time in this universe of ours, this is a defining moment in the film industry.

Oscar winning directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the Daniels, have created more than just a Sci-Fi movie. Calling it genre bending sounds outdated now as its multiverse jumping idea in their Best Original Screenplay fuses science fiction, action, comedy, and family drama all at once. Genre jumping might be a better term to describe the Daniels’ creative mode of filmmaking.

Never underestimate a middle age immigrant laundromat owner, wife and mother. Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) has lots on her plate as she has to deal with the mountainous paperwork facing an IRA audit, a daughter dangerously depressed, and husband Waymond initiating a divorce proceeding. Unbeknownst to her is that in another universe, she is Evelyn the superhero whose mission is to save the multiverse from the villain Jobu Tupaki, who, lo and behold, is her daughter Joy’s destructive alter ego. 

Ke Huy Quan’s comeback to the acting scene after decades of absence and winning the Oscar Best Supporting Actor is extraordinary. Credits to the casting director (Sarah Halley Finn) and the Daniels’ foresight, for Quan is the perfect guy to play Waymond. His movie role and his real-life persona look to be a perfect match. Quan has won over sixty awards for this role and now garnering the ultimate acclaim. After his magnificent action sequences in the IRS building, the fanny pack just might enjoy a comeback as well. 

From a background in New York City’s comedy and improv scene, Stephanie Hsu goes all out in her dual portrayal as Joy, the despondent daughter who feels unseen and unloved by her mother Evelyn, and her alter ego in another universe: Jobu Tupaki, the powerful and destructive villain in the multiverse taking everyone with her into a nihilistic hole, sucked into the everything bagel which she has created and pitted all her despair, pain and guilt on it, an absurdist escape from her meaningless existence.

Creating a multiverse action movie to tell a family story with all its generational dysfunction and disappointment is outside the box thinking. The Daniels’ concept and execution are audacious and innovative, incorporating multiple forms of visuals, animations, and symbolism. Every battle between Superhero Evelyn and Jobu Tupaki is a metaphor for the mother/daughter conflict. As a daughter whose self-image has hit rock bottom, Joy is in despair having failed to live up to her mother’s expectations, choosing to jump right into the everything bagel. Evelyn, not just a superhero but more importantly, a mother, fights to snatch her daughter back. 

In a silent scene without spoken dialogues––a much-needed respite from the chaos and sensory overload––Joy the rock chooses to fall off the cliff into oblivion. And what does the mother rock do? She moves to the edge of the precipice and rolls down after her daughter. This may sound ludicrous, but this soundless scene with the two rocks is one of the most poignant cinematic moments in the movie.

IRS paper pusher Deirdre, played by Oscar winning Best Supporting Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, is a follower of Jobu Tupaki in another universe. Her interactions with Evelyn offer some of the spontaneous fun in the movie. Action comedy at its best, not just in the fight scenes, but also in the universe where they have hotdog fingers, their feet and toes ever versatile. Debussy would have been impressed to hear Deirdre’s version of ‘Clair de Lune’ on the piano.

The last person to make up the award-winning ensemble cast is 94 year-old James Hong as grandfather Gong Gong. Hong’s earliest roles in his seventy years of acting were with such classic figures like Cary Grant and Groucho Marx. Here his role is understated but nuanced. Just the scene in the elevator where Waymond urgently tells Evelyn her multiverse mission, using an umbrella to block out the security camera, the oblivious Gong Gong is sitting in his wheelchair casually picking his teeth, one of the many hilarious scenes in the movie.

Finished shooting in just thirty-eight days, the Covid lockdown gave Oscar winning editor Paul Rogers solitary time to complete a tall order, putting together scenes from multiple universes, of multiple timelines, and in extreme variation of locales, real and imaginary, to make sense of a story that needs multiple viewings for one to grasp its layered meaning. 

Within the dense and oversaturated visuals and actions, the Daniels have packed in homages to iconic filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai and Stanley Krubrick, fun and significant insertions. Memorable is the scene emulating Wong’s “In the Mood for Love,” when Waymond reveals to Evelyn his romantic self: “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” This is the way he fights, with kindness and love. And that’s the key to Evelyn’s ultimate change.

And what’s with the googly eyes? That’s Waymond’s mark of existence, harmless fun. He puts them on everything. Evelyn dislikes them at the beginning. In the final battle against Jobu Tupaki and her forces, she puts one on her own forehead. Like a third eye, she begins to see things from a new perspective.

Waymond, seemingly weak, holds a powerful weapon: kindness. “This is how I fight,” he says, moving Evelyn to emulate in the last action scene. When everyone has their googly eyes on, their deadly weapons are turned into innocuous objects; a hand grenade now becomes a perfume atomizer. Universal human kindness wins the final battle. 

Didn’t get the metaphors and wacky symbolism? Good reason to re-watch. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a movie that demands multiple viewings. Outside the box filmmaking requires outside the box viewing. Those familiar with the Marvel, DC, or Manga universes could be more ready to appreciate it. 

A thought about diversity. The Daniels are themselves an exemplar of mixed-race collaboration. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” succeeds not just because of diversity but universality: The mother daughter reconciliation, the husband wife rekindling of first love, and the theme of kindness and love overcoming malice would override any specific cultural or racial border. And here’s my hope for the future of filmmaking, go for universality. That which joins us as a humanity will naturally include diversity. Specific representation is important, but the utopic end would be one when race and color are not the defining focus but the common ground that we share as a human society.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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*This article first appeared the day after the Oscars in Asian American Press, on Monday, March 13th. I thank AAPress for allowing me to re-post my review in full here on Ripple Effects.

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The Banshees of Inisherin: To be friend or not to be friend

Like his previous movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), writer director Martin McDonagh opens The Banshees of Inisherin with a quiet and peaceful song. The lush green landscape of the island of Inisherin merging with the calm and harmonious chorus pulls us into this cinematic fable right away. McDonagh loses no time to bring out the heart of the matter, the sudden fallout of a lifelong friendship between Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson). In parallel, across the island on the mainland, the Irish civil war rages. The year is 1923. 

The juxtaposition of mellow, ponderous music with outward conflicts always makes interesting contrasts, just like mixing comedy with drama, humour and sadness, which McDonagh is so apt in doing. An acclaimed British-Irish playwright whose plays have been performed in the West End and on Broadway, McDonagh is astute in his dialogues, embedding them with humour and poignancy to reveal the nature of the characters:

Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) likes to read and is the most sensible character in the movie. In one scene, Siobhán is reading.

Pádraic: How’s the book?
Siobhán: Sad.
Pádraic: Sad? You should read a not sad one, Siobhán, else you might get sad.
Siobhán: Mm.
(pause)
Siobhán: Do you never get lonely, Pádraic? 
Pádraic: Never get wha?
Siobhán: Lonely.
Pádraic: (mutter in annoyance) No. “Do I never get lonely?” What’s the matter with everybody? 

That could give a hint why Colm stops being friends with Pádraic because “he’s dull”. Colm is older and he now thinks more about how he will be remembered when he’s gone. A fiddle player, Colm spends his time playing and composing music. “I just don’t have a place for dullness in my life anymore,” he tells Siobhán. So, when Pádraic, baffled and hurt, confronts his old friend, “you used to be nice,” Colm engages with him about the value of being nice versus being remembered. Mozart, though living in the 17th century, he says, is still being remembered today for his musical legacy. Paintings last; poetry lasts. Who’s going to remember your niceness?

Even though happy go lucky, Pádraic is now saddened by the sudden termination of friendship. He doesn’t care about Mozart, or whatsisname Borvoven, but he remembers his Mammy and Daddy, they were nice, and his sister, “she’s nice. I’ll remember her, forever.” But Colm counters, no one else would remember them other than you. Colm may be facing an existential crisis, seeking for something more permanent or trying to leave a legacy, but McDonagh’s humour seeps through simple dialogues and not let the high ideals of his character be taken too seriously by movie viewers. In this scene, Siobhán has the last word. She corrects Colm, “it was the 18th century, anyway. Mozart. Not the 17th.” Then turns and walks away. This is a dark comedy, after all. 

The superb cast brings out McDonagh’s writing perfectly. Farrell and Gleeson reunite after In Bruges (2008, Oscar nom for McDonagh’s original screenplay). It’s fun watching the pair engage, a simple, usually happy Pádraic stonewalled by his best friend’s sudden withdrawal of friendship, not only that, but shocked by his drastic action to cut off one of his own fiddler finger every time Pádraic talks to him.

Condon as Siobhán is most apt in representing the rational mind amidst this absurd development. Her later decision to seek a saner and more meaningful existence is poignant. The yellow coat she wears is a bright symbol of hope. The fourth character that makes up this outstanding ensemble of actors is Barry Keoghan as Dominic, the jester who is probably the saddest of them all and one who sees more clearly than he appears.

One more crucial character must be credited, and that’s Jenny the miniature donkey (Jenny), which plays a pivotal role in the final act, inciting a drastic action from Pádraic. Friendship between man and animal just might be more steadfast than between humans. And that last vengeful resort by Pádraic brings back a similar scene in Three Billboards.

Director of photography Ben Davis’s camera is crucial in revealing the deeper meaning of McDonagh’s fable. Often we see Pádraic on the outside peering through the window into Colm’s home, or into the pub looking for Colm. Poor Pádraic now is an unwanted outsider, rejected and isolated, reminiscence of similar shots in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Or, the metaphor of the Banshee, the omen of death, represented by Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), her creepy appearance exemplifies the ever-present threat of mortality, just like the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). They don similar costume too. And the ubiquitous religious symbols and activities––the statue of the Virgin Mary on the island, the cross, the Latin mass––just make one question how their faith is relevant in the actions of these islanders.

The Banshees of Inisherin is nominated for nine Oscars in the coming awards night to be held on March 12: Best Picture, Martin McDonagh for Directing and Original Screenplay, Colin Farrell for Best Actor, Kerry Condon Supporting Actress, Brendan Gleeson and Barry Keoghan both for Supporting Actors, Film Editing, and Music (Original Score).

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related posts mentioned in this review:

Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation (1951)

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March is Read Ireland Month 2023 at Cathy 746 Books. You can read the screenplay of The Banshees of Inisherin online here.  Upcoming posts will include books by Irish writers and possible book to screen adaptations. 

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Tár: To Catch a Falling Star

There are movies that you admire especially upon rewatching but still leave you emotionally detached. The overall tone is artistic and elegant, the camera clever, editing seamless, fantasy sequences enhance the tension, and needless to say, superb acting delivered by the cast. You admire and appreciate the director’s execution, yet you’re not emotionally engaged. Tár is one such movies for me.

Writer director Todd Field’s masterpiece is a film packed with ideas and layered with symbolism conveyed through technical brilliance. It explores power and ambition, identity politics, the separation of the art from the artist, and cancel culture in our contemporary society. Using a phrase ubiquitous in this awards season, it is everything, everywhere, all at once.

At the beginning of the film, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) introduces conductor and composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) by reading out a list of her accolades for his live audience and us, movie viewers who would see, in the next two and a half hours, how a radiant star fall from grace. As the film opens, Tár is at the summit of the classical music world, helming the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. A Harvard PhD, she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein in the emergence of her career, and is currently one of only 15 EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony); her upcoming book Tár on Tár will no doubt be a bestseller.

Field’s feature is nominated for six Oscars in this awards season. It is a forceful narrative and an astute study of power set within an artistic and cultured realm. Blanchett’s Tár embodied success driven by ambition and sustained by ruthless arrogance. She may appear courteous and mild mannered, and that’s where the danger lies. She doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.

From the beginning of the movie, the sequence of the custom tailoring of her suit––a symbol of power––sets the premise. The film is not about gender politics, for Tár’s position is a given; she is already at the podium leading a world renown orchestra and is hailed as one of the best living composers.

There are, of course, higher mountains to scale. The self-propelled driving force soon turns Tár into a delusional egotist, her self-will overriding all that comes in her way, destroying not just her career but her relationship with her spouse Sharon (Nina Hoss), concert-master in the orchestra. Field wrote the screenplay with Blanchett in mind. He had mentioned in an interview that if she declined the role, he would not go ahead with the movie. Blanchett delivers with convincing mastery. 

While being a fictional character, Tár embodies some real-life issues with much relevance in contemporary society. Her being in a lesbian marriage exemplifies the fact that power can corrupt regardless of gender and sexual orientation. She has the power to endow opportunities and thereby raising the career of young musicians to new heights, or, destroy them. Her obsession with success soon becomes unmanageable, distorting her view of reality, pulling her into the abyss of delusion and even madness. 

Among the various issues the film touches on, the Juilliard teaching scene is particularly telling. Tár is teaching a conducting class in a lecture theatre. The camera expertly captures the ten-minute scene with one long take (no cutting). The blocking of the two main characters––Tár and the student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist)––speaks volumes.

Max chooses a contemporary piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir to conduct. Stopping him midway, Tár brings up the importance of Bach’s work, sitting down beside him as equal to discuss and ask if he would consider conducting a Bach piece. Here’s Max’s response:

“Honestly, as a BIPOC, pangender person, I’d say Bach’s misogenystic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.” He’s referring to the composer having had fathered 21 offsprings. 

Boycotting Bach for his brood of children?

Here’s Tár’s restrained response: “I’m unclear as to what his prodigious skill on the marital bed has to do with [his Mass in] B minor.” Pointing out the issue of separating the art from the artist.

Drawing out the thought in Max, she says: “Can classical music written by a bunch of straight Austro-German church going white guys exalt us?” To answer that, she invites Max to sit by her side at the piano, going through with him some Bach pieces. To her credit, in both instances, her persuasion is gentle and egalitarian as the camera captures teacher and student sitting at the same level.

Max’s viewpoint is a biting issue today: can a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), pangender person acknowledge the contribution of straight, ancient white guys? Tár’s response is obvious. The artists’ works override their nationality, colour and gender. Likewise, she challenges Max to look at the composer of his own choice, Icelandic, female composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. What is the resemblance that Max has to identify with her?

Brilliant question. To which Max responds by picking up his stuff and walks out, with a verbal swipe of expletive for his teacher. Tár replies: “And you’re a robot. The architect of your soul appears to be social media.”

Who wins this debate? Field leaves it to his viewers to decide. As with the other issues laid out in the film as well as the ending, there are more questions than answers. Yes, Blanchett’s performance is top-notch, but I come out having a higher appreciation of Field’s writing.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery with a Magic Fugue

Even before we see anything with the screen black, we hear the subject melody, the quiet and ponderous single line of piano music. What piece is this? One might ask. Eight minutes into the movie, in a convivial house party, we get the answer.

Fashion icon Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is intrigued by the tune as well when she tries to open a mystery box sent to her by the tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Before she can Shazam it, the answer is given by none other than the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma himself. That’s Bach’s ‘Little Fugue’ in G minor, he explains to Peg (Jessica Henwick) while munching on some sort of finger food in her house party.
“A fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change and turn into a beautiful new structure,” the virtuoso casually points out. An apt description of what’s to come.

And, of course, Birdie Jay can’t get her answer, for she’s talking to a lamp to Shazam the tune thinking it’s Alexa.

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s sequel to Knives Out (2019) is a totally different offering in sight and sound. A comedic murder mystery in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel with the Knives Out detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, never mind his accent), a dapper Columbo, a sunny locale, striking set design, a well-written screenplay and seamless editing, and not least, an animated ensemble cast, we get an entertaining feature.

The connections are multiple, watching it viewers become sleuths themselves to decipher the associations and allusions, visually, musically, and cinematically. Spotting all those cameos is fun too: Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Serena Williams. Or check out what’s Ethan Hawke and Hugh Grant are doing there.

Miles is a friendly egotist, seen as a genius by some, extreme danger by others, probably knowing his personal philosophy is “fake it till you make it.” The tech titan has invited his insider group of ‘Disruptors’ to an annual reunion weekend. This time the event takes place on his private Greek island in the form of a murder mystery party; his guests are to solve his own murder. The Disruptors are fashionista Birdie Jay, social media influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), politician Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), and scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.)

The key person to show up shocking them all is Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) who used to be Miles’s business partner. So, some background story needs to be peeled off. Miles’s home on the island is the Glass Onion, a spectacle of an architecture that looks exactly as its name denotes, a metaphor for the core truth actually is hidden in plain sight through visible layers.

The sounding of the hourly dong that echoes through the island (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of those moments in the movie that evokes a chuckle, especially when we hear Miles say he got Phil Glass to compose that. Yes, that’s Philip Glass, the minimalist composer creating that one note sound of the gong for Miles. No, not a joke on Glass but more on the self-importance of the tech mogul himself.

Same with the Mona Lisa encased in a sensitive glass protective display case. More chuckles from that too. The world famous painting is on loan to Miles from the Louvre via the French government during the pandemic when all arts venues are closed and revenues lost. Miles is pleased that the art world, even government, bows to his whims, “I wanna be responsible for something that gets mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. Forever.” And now he has it in his palm, no, not the Mona Lisa, but a little solid hydrogen fuel crystal which will be a gamechanger in global energy source. His plan is to invite national leaders to the Glass Onion to unveil it.

As the story begins to peel off layer by layer, we know each of these Disruptors have their reasons to be loyal to Miles as their personal interest depends on his patronage. Ironically, they also harbour resentment towards him.

Half way into the movie an important layer peels off, revealing the backstory. I have no issue with such a twist, for now I anticipate new conflicts on a different level, heightening the tension. From here on, viewers are shown the point of view of Andi’s character. Reminiscence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we can now see more clearly what actually happened in the previous sequence of events, this time, from the perspective of Andi’s; now we understand her as our reluctant heroine.

Repeating the scenes isn’t necessarily redundant, Bach would have said. That’s exactly what he did with the fugue, the same tune appearing in a different context in the contrapuntal composition. While he would probably have found the movie ending shocking, he’d likely be curious to hear songs by singing groups called The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Bee Gees… among others, or listen to the harpsichord and orchestral theme by a 21st century composer called Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin).

From Bond to Blanc, Craig’s collaboration with the Johnsons has made the Knives Out movies a promising and entertaining franchise.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ is a respite for any season

Like a gentle breeze under the shade of a full, oak tree to dispel the summer heat, this little gem of a movie is a fairy tale, surely pure escapism from a harsh and scorching world. Newly released on July 15, this is a delightful watch not just for the summer.

Mrs. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a cleaning lady and war widow in 1957 London, scraping by counting pennies cleaning people’s homes and offering to do invisible mending in her spare time. One day, seeing a Christian Dior dress while cleaning the home of Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) sets off an adventure of a lifetime. Mrs. Harris wants to save enough money to go to Paris and buy one for herself. Dreams are for everyone; Mrs. Harris has the will, and she’ll find the way somehow.

Adapted from Paul Gallico’s novella, director Anthony Fabian brings to the screen a fairy tale for adult viewers, and with the cooperation of Christian Dior in Paris, turns the haute couture of fashion into a down-to-earth story of the ordinary people. Mrs. Harris is as invisible as her mending, but her heart and personality stand out to be noticed and exude her vibes in gentle persuasion.

Paul Gallico (1876-1976) is a wonderful weaver of tales. The Snow Goose is the most memorable read from my growing up years. I have not read his Mrs. Harris Goes to... series, but after watching this movie, it’s on my TBR list. Not as soul stirring as The Snow Goose or dramatic as The Poseidon Adventure (1972 movie adaptation), Mrs. Harris nonetheless reaffirms kindness, beauty and hope still exist and are much needed to dispel the harshness of our times.

Lesley Manville is the driving force in this movie. The versatile actor first caught my admiration in Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) playing the vulnerable and lonely character Mary, for which she was nominated and had won several acting awards. Manville can also be brutal and violent, like the powerful matriarch in Let Him Go (2020), and then turn into Princess Margaret in The Crown (S5, 2022). But to be more in line with this current film is her role in Phantom Thread (2017) playing Daniel Day-Lewis’ co-dependent sister, a role for which she received an Oscar nom.

Supporting cast is strong. Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, 2016; Gabrielle, 2005) plays the manager and gatekeeper of the Dior fashion house, Mrs. Colbert, a character that reminds me of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). In a scene towards the end of the movie, we see a different Mrs. Colbert in her humble home, stripped down, ordinary and vulnerable. A poignant moment. Other supporting roles are also effective, like Mrs. Harris’ loyal friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), the gentle and caring Archie (Jason Isaacs), and the young pair of fresh faces, Alba Baptista playing Natasha, the model with a deeper aspiration and her secret admirer André (Lucas Bravo, Emily in Paris).

What caught my attention from the start was the original soundtrack composed by Rael Jones (Suite Française, 2014). The music corresponds perfectly with the lighthearted mood, flowing by smoothly like a whimsical character. At the end as the credits roll, there’s a piece with a waltz styling. I noticed as the audience exited, what looked like a mother and her adult daughter dancing to the tune, the first time I saw such a spontaneous ripple effect in a movie theatre.

There are some down period in the middle of the film, however, the cast and the camera make up for such moments. Overall, a delightful two-hour respite from the summer heat, or any season.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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A Paris in July 2022 post, event hosted by Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz.

Paris in July: Isabelle Huppert & Pascal Greggory superb in ‘Gabrielle’

Paris in July is a good opportunity to explore French films. I’ve watched a few in the past weeks. Here’s one that I’d like to write about, Gabrielle (2005). I found it on Kanopy, free streaming if you have a library card.

Language here makes an interesting transference. The film Gabrielle is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella entitled The Return. Polish-born Conrad wrote it in English (available online here.) The end credits of the film note that the script is based on the French version Le Retour, translated by Georges Jean-Aubry. Screenplay co=written by director Patrice Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic. The title is changed to Gabrielle. Lastly, the literary is transposed into the visual form.

Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, 2016)) and Pascal Greggory (La Vie en Rose, 2007) bring to the screen expert performance of a marriage in dissolution. Knotted ten years in a loveless marital relationship, the high society couple Gabrielle (Huppert) and Jean (Greggory) Hervey, a self-assured businessman and newspaper financier, keep up appearances by throwing lavish dinner parties in 1912 Paris.

They entertain no less than fifty of their friends and acquaintances every week in their mansion served by numerous maids. Interestingly, no butler or footmen. The film won Best Production Design and Best Costume Design César Awards in 2006. A visually gorgeous setting, especially at the dinner table with guests.

In ironic contrast to the aesthetic beauty and richness of interior design, Jean and Gabrielle are impoverished in their passion for each other. Ten years ago, Jean claimed a trophy wife. In his voiceover narrative, Gabrielle is “well bred and intelligent… no ordinary woman. I love her as a collector does his most prized item.”

Camera work is captivating. Director Patrice Chéreau uses mirrors around the house to capture his characters in psychological reflections. Stylistically, he adopts two visual modes on screen, interchanging colour with black and white to juxtapose present reality with memory or imaginary scenario. Interesting is that in a film with the title of the female character, the wife, the voiceover narrator and point of view is the husband’s, conveying subliminally who holds the control of the relationship. Throughout, a film exudes with realism and at times, a touch of Hitchcockian suspense. Occasionally, large written words are flashed on screen like silent movies, a whimsical stroke that well serves as comic relief.

The tipping point crashes down when Jean comes home one day to find a note left by Gabrielle saying she has left him with another man. The short note is like a bombshell to Jean, for he hasn’t noticed any issue with their marriage. His immediate concern is how this will look in front of his servants and in society? And there’s a Thursday dinner party coming up.

His devastation is short however, for in just a few hours, Gabrielle returns. On the surface, her return seems to bring back the status quo, but it only rings in the death knell of a dissipating marriage. Huppert and Greggory bring out their characters’ boiling psychological turmoil and relational conflicts to the surface expertly; the intense emotional transactions in their dialogues are rare in today’s movies. These lines follow Jean’s questioning of his wife:

Gabrielle: When I decided to go to him, I wrote the note.

Jean: So you saw a lot of him? Then this letter is not the worst of it?

Gabrielle: The worst is my coming back.

Jean, the smug and successful businessman assures himself that ‘the law is on my side.’ It’s only Gabrielle who suffers the more damage if she chooses to leave. But of course, Gabrielle cares more for finding true love than fame or fortune. Anna Karenina comes to mind. As well, the power imbalance in their relationship reminds me of the tragic heroine Isabel Archer in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

The very literary rendition of the film makes quotable quotes out of many verbal exchanges and the voiceover narrative throughout the film. Why is appearance the main concern for Jean to start with? Because the society people coming to their home every week are “men and women who fear emotion and failure more than fire, war, or fatal disease.”  

The twist at the final scene see a change come to Jean when Gabrielle, with a passive-aggressive undercurrent, offers her physical body unreservedly to Jean only to let him see intimacy doesn’t mean love, and without which, all is meaningless. He breaks away from her suddenly, staggers down the stairs and stumbles out of the house like a man gone mad. At the risk of leaving any spoilers, for this is after all a classic written in the late 19th century, I’m sure this can be excused: the last words flashed on the screen are the exact three words that end Conrad’s story.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Paris in July 2022 is co-hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea and Deb of Readerbuzz

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Other French films reviewed on Ripple Effects:

Faces Places dir. by Agnes Varda

Coco Before Chanel dir. by Anne Fontaine

Things to Come dir. by Mia Hansen-Løve

Cleo from 5 to 7 dir. by Agnes Varda

Diary of a Country Priest dir. by Robert Bresson

Clouds of Sils Maria dir. by Olivier Assayas

‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ offers an enjoyable ride

The trailer for this second Downton movie may give one the impression of entering a patisserie filled with colourful macaroons with its delicious decor and the pastel colour of a French villa in the Riviera, with matching costume too. In that short clip, the stylish zeitgiest of the Jazz Age could spark one’s imagination of Gatsby-esque frivolity. I’m glad to find these notions misleading, for the movie is not a gratuitous show of glamour or a fancy facade.

Reprising the success of the original TV series, Julian Fellowes focuses on the characters and their stories; the setting is exactly as it is, a beautiful backdrop, which is always a plus. All the details of story development are the very essence of the movie, tiny bits of delicious morsels for fans of Downton to savour. Indeed, I’m afraid this is a movie for those who are familiar with the characters as Fellowes continues with their life at Downton, the twists and turns. Clever dialogues and funny scenes, all gratifying to watch.

Downton Abbey: A New Era reminds me why the original TV series back in 2011 could sustain six seasons and a feature movie three years after it wrapped, and now three years further, another one. Why, it’s all about the characters and their stories. We want to follow them and find out what’s going on in their lives as time goes by and how they would act given different scenarios… and in this newest offering, see them grow old in real time. Not just for the adults, the kids too; George and Sybbie are the same child actors now much taller.

In A New Era directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, 2011), two storylines intertwine seamlessly. First off, the Dowager Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) once had a short but juicy liaison d’amour in the south of France when she was young. Now decades later she learns that she has inherited a villa in the French Riviera as her one time beau had apparently took the love affair much more seriously than she did. Now she in turn bequeaths the property to Sybbie, Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) daughter, a most kind and generous act. So, some of the Crawleys are going there to check it out and face up to a disgruntled widow.

Staying behind is Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) who has now taken over the helm of the property management at Downton. The year is 1928 heading towards 1929, while they can’t foresee the coming economic woes, Mary can see the leaky roof of Downton badly needing repairs. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has never been up in the attic for years, but now looking at the buckets catching the dripping water, he agrees reluctantly to allow a film crew to shoot on location at Downton, all for the financial benefits that comes with it.

Both storylines are interesting subjects. While the expedition to the French villa is gorgeous visually—attracting an Architectural Digest article on the property––the filmmaking at Downton is no simple matter. At that time, silent movies are coming to the end replacing by the talkies. Fellowes has written not just an interesting scenario but informed viewers of the complexity of movie making at that time. No spoilers here, but the servants from downstairs have contributed effectively to this movie within a movie.

The storytelling is clear and enjoyable, kudos to some smooth editing and aptly paced scenes, some take longer to draw out the underlying significance of the dialogues, some faster just to pinpoint without dragging.

The smart opening is a succinct re-introducing of all the characters in one setting, at the church wedding of Tom and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Just about everyone is there. The camera follows the newlyweds as they walk down the aisle, greeted by all the Downton characters and related figures. Absent are Henry Talbot, who’s somewhere else in the world, ominous future for Mary. How I miss Matthew. And no mention of Rose.

New faces are the filmmakers at Downton, Hugh Dancy as director Jack Barber, Laura Haddock as the rude and insecure silent film star Myrna Dalgleish, and Dominic West (Prince Charles in The Crown S5) as co-star Guy Dexter. Three Downton figures play an important role in this segment, Mary, Molesley (Kevin Doyle), and surprisingly, Daisy (Sophie McShera).

Listening to the Downton theme music in the dark theatre––my first post-Covid movie viewing outside the home––via its state of the art sound system is a heart-stirring experience. What a difference it makes watching Highclere Castle on the big screen and hearing the theme music emerge. A New Era is a better movie than the first one three years ago. A must-see for Downton fans, and a fantastic prompt for those who have never watched the TV series… never too late to get on the ride.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Book to Screen Bingeables

The word is in the OED, could well have gained relevance during the pandemic. Currently, two 2022 Netflix series can be described as such, bingeable. Both are adaptations from books in the genre of crime and courtroom drama. One major factor that makes them watchable is that both are created by David E. Kelly. A legal series associated with Kelly is likely to be of quality. His filmography too long to list.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER

Maggie and Mickey in the Netflix series The Lincoln Lawyer

Based on Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict (2008), the second book in his Mickey Haller series. The successful LA criminal defence attorney works mostly in his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, hence the namesake of the title. Unlike the book and Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal in the 2011 movie adaptation, Mickey here in the Netflix TV series (S1, 10 episodes) is more vulnerable, less self-assured, yet unrelenting in seeking the truth, and above all else, possessing genuine care for his daughter and ex-wives; in other words, a better man.

Other than the writing, a major asset is the cast. No big name A-listers, but the roles are aptly filled: Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Mickey, Neve Campbell as ex Maggie the prosecutor, Krista Warner as their teenage daughter Hayley; and at the office, yes there’s an office other than the back of the Lincoln, Becki Newton as Lorna, another ex, Angus Sampson as Cisco. Jazz Raycole as driver Izzy whom Mickey offers the job after defending her in court. Must mention is Christopher Gorham (Auggie Anderson back in Covert Affairs 2010-14) as the high profile client Trevor Elliot accused of the double murder of wife and her lover.

The 10 episodes flow well with several storylines going at the same time, adding interest and complexity. And as author Connelly has generously sprinkled in his books, the human side of his characters is the driving force behind the stories and conflicts. Mickey needs to come back from rehab, having developed drug dependency for pain relief after a surfing accident, on top of that, to gain back the trust and love from his ex-wife and in sharing the responsibility of parenthood… and wishful thinking it might seem, pursuing a second chance in a failed marriage.

Career wise, the high-profile case of defending video game developer Trevor Elliot could catapult him back on the track of success after his hiatus. What’s intriguing is that we see Mickey and Trevor often in a cat and mouse game. Newly handed down by a judge this case as the previous defence lawyer was gun down just days before the trial, and with not much to go on, Mickey has to rely on instinct, logical thinking, gut, as well as Lorna and Cisco’s unconventional investigative techniques.

The adaptation has an updated storyline that’s different from the 2008 book, but Connelly’s mark is there, as well as Kelly’s smart screenplay and direction. The meaning of the title? Disclosed at the end, the hidden key to this bingeable series.

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ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL

The main cast of Anatomy of a Scandal

Across the Atlantic, we have a notable British court case dealing with a reputable Member of Parliament being charged with the rape of his staff researcher, a 6-episode adaptation of the 2018 novel by Sarah Vaughan.

Some well-known actors make up the cast of this Netflix mini-series. Rupert Friend plays MP James Whitehouse, Sienna Miller as wife Sophie, who stands by him until the truth is revealed. Prosecutor is Kate Woodcroft played by Michelle Dockery––Lady Mary Crawley of Downton––donning a wig, gown and glasses, convincing as a Queen’s Counsel. The victim is Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott); defence barrister for James is Angela Regan (Josette Simon).

A rape case hanging on the issue of consent, both the prosecutor and defence offer persuasive arguments. Both sides contributed to some intense scenes in a sexual, criminal trial that involves, by its very nature, the need to be explicit and exact in its language and graphic in its description. Can the concept of ‘boys will be boys’, or, the misunderstanding of intent, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, be a viable defence for rape?

Similar storylines had appeared in movies such as The Riot Club (2014), very similar indeed, as the privileged boys from Oxford University, like the Libertines here, exercise freely their liberties and vulgarity. More recently, the Oscar winning Promising Young Woman (2020), written and directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, delivers a U.S. medical school version.

More than just courtroom drama. The backstory of these characters is intriguing and as the truth reveals itself, the moral complexity multiplies. Interestingly, the ‘brass verdict’ concept in The Lincoln Lawyer finds affiliation here. Cinematography is slick and editing is fast-paced. An apt transposition of Vaughan’s novel.

~ ~ ~ Ripples for both

Hamaguchi takes ‘Drive My Car’ to the highway of life

Among the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, one is Japan’s official entry for Best International Feature Film. That Drive My Car is nominated also in the Best Picture category as well as in Directing and Adapted Screenplay is a major boost for director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The most recent precedent would be the South Korean feature Parasite in 2020.

The following is my review of Drive My Car, a screen adaptation based on Haruki Murakami’s short story. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to repost it in full here on Ripple Effects.

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Ever since his five-hour epic Happy Hour garnered accolades in 2015, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has continued to fascinate juries in the festival circuit. During a pandemic year, he made two features, both screened to high acclaims. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the 2021 Silver Berlin Bear Jury Prize and Drive My Car swept Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in “Drive My Car”

Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s creative and imaginative extension of Haruki Murakami’s minimal short story included in his collection Men Without Women. Two individuals unlikely to meet in ordinary circumstances, bare their soul to each other, one a stage actor and director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the other, a young female driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). The conversations that take place in the car prompt them to confront their own past.

The film opens with a long backstory. Kafuku has a loving and intimate relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV writer. Her story ideas come while the couple is making love. Both being in the arts, they support each other in an intimate way until one day Kafuku comes home unexpectedly and finds Oto in bed with another man. Kafuku walks back out quietly. The next day, Oto suggests they talk that night when he returns from work. Deeply hurt but fear for the collapse of their marriage, he delays coming home. When he finally gets home late that night he finds Oto has collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage. She dies later without regaining consciousness. 

This prologue takes 40 minutes and that’s when the introductory credits appear on screen. Hamaguchi will take another two hours and more to tell the rest of his story which begins two years after Oto’s death. Despite the three-hour duration, the film captivates with thought provoking parallels between art and life and reveals the characters’ existential anguish with a quiet poignancy. 

Kafuku loves to drive his fire red Saab 900. He practices his lines while driving by interacting with dialogues recorded by his late wife Oto. As this main section of the movie begins, Kafuku is driving to Hiroshima to direct Anthon Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival. However, upon arrival, he is disappointed to learn that due to insurance stipulations, he is not allowed to drive but the festival has provided him with a driver to drive his car. She is twenty-three year old Misaki (Toko Miura). 

The audition soon takes place. Kafuku has chosen actors from various Asian countries who deliver their lines in their native language including Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean sign language used in a most poignant way by a deaf actress. With such a cast, this performance of Uncle Vanya will be a powerful display of shared humanity.

Coming to the audition is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku recognizes him right away as the man he had seen making love to his wife in his home. To Takatsuki’s surprise, Kafuku casts him in the lead role. The two start to have talks with each other outside of the rehearsal, the subject they share: Oto.  

The parallel between the lines in Uncle Vanya Kafuku practices in the car and his real-life predicament is startling, and poignantly so. If he had returned home earlier that fateful night he might have been able to save Oto. Seized with guilt and grief, he recites the lines, ‘I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them? … If only I could live the rest of my life in some new way!’

A play within a film and lines corresponding to the real-life situation of the character is an intriguing way to tell a story. The mirroring effect can be emotionally gripping. Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) comes to mind. As Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) practices the lines of the play she’s going to perform with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), she is actually describing her own predicament. 

Reticent and appearing nonchalant, driver Misaki has a scarred childhood. Hearing the lines spoken in the car and as Kafuku talks about his guilt and loss, she too opens up. Two characters with a shattered past is thrown into each other’s internal turmoil, thus begins the healing of wounds and a step towards recovery. The aerial shot of the red Saab smoothly moving on the highway could well be a metaphor for the tranquility and freedom both occupants are seeking desperately.

A twist in the plot makes Takatsuki unable to perform in the play. Kafuku takes up the role as Vanya, a miserable man despondent with life. In a cathartic, final scene of the play, the lines are delivered in silence as the deaf actress playing Sonya encourages Vanya with her expressive sign language. The audience in the theatre, close up on Misaki, read the subtitles above the stage: ‘We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll patiently endure the trials that fate sends our way…’ As she finishes her speech pointing to eternal rest when they see God, the stage lights dim, with an oil lamp offering a tiny flicker of flame.

The last few minutes of the epilogue wraps the feature with a gratifying end.

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~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

‘The Power of the Dog’: Exquisite Cinematic Storytelling

From the very beginning as the opening credits appear, the premise of the story is laid out for the viewers. This is a crucial introduction as it sets the stage for what the story is about, how a son would do all he could to save his mother from suffering. The narrator is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) via a voiceover: 

“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of a man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?’

It is Montana in 1925. Peter’s mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) runs The Red Mill restaurant and lodge in the remote landscape of the wild. One day a group of cowhands driving their cattle passes by. While dining at the restaurant, their leader, rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), picks on the effeminate Peter as he serves them. Rose is distraught, but the kindness and love of Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) wins her over. Not long after that the two are married. The downside of an otherwise beautiful relationship is having to live under the same roof with Phil in the Burbank family ranch home. 

The Burbank family ranch in The Power of the Dog. Photo: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Rose lives in fear of Phil, a bully who can crush her fragile psyche by just whistling. Phil’s masterful banjo playing is a slap in the face and a show of force as Rose struggles to learn to play the piano. George while loving is oblivious or rather subdued by Phil as well. Peter has gone away to study medicine but is back in the summer to be with his mother, observing keenly her deteriorating psychological state and addiction to alcohol for relief. The relevance of the opening lines in the voiceover begins to brew. 

New Zealand born director Jane Campion, one of only seven women ever to have been nominated for an Oscar in directing (The Piano, 1993), comes back with an exquisite production shot on location in New Zealand, twelve years after her last feature film. The Power of the Dog is an exemplar of superb cinematic storytelling.

Campion has an exceptional team under her helm. The four main characters are strong talents. Cumberbatch’s nasty streak is conveyed not only by his demeaning words but his posture and the confident way he walks and rides. However, nothing pierces as sharply as his often silent and chilly manner, staring his opponent down with his ominous gaze, a role that’s against type for the British actor who had brought Sherlock to a new generation and had since been nominated for an Oscar playing WWII math genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). Cumberbatch’s performance here is in top form, likely getting him another Oscar nomination.

It is Smit-McPhee who steals the scene as the effeminate, slim and pale Peter. Underneath his appearance of weakness is his tenacity and a smart mind, especially when his self-imposed mission is to save his mother. Discovering accidentally Phil’s secret hideout, Peter comes to realize that hidden behind Phil’s macho front is a gay man. Knowing this, he gains Phil’s trust and admiration to turn the tables on him. The whole revealing of the plot flows out seamlessly; no doubt, credits also to the author of the 1967 novel the film is based on, Thomas Savage.

Campion’s storytelling is masterful in that she drops hint after hint as the film moves on, all important cues leading to the ultimate end. Without spilling any spoilers in this review, look out for these scenes: cows dead from anthrax, Peter’s anatomy exercise in his room, his exploring the mountains by himself and skinning the hide of a dead cow he comes across there, his gloved hands.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner frames her shots exquisitely and imbues them with contextual meaning to move the story along. The topography of the New Zealand location in place of Montana’s wild west exudes the beauty of the natural landscape, creating a colour palette of the open range with shades of brown, teal, and dusty rose for Dunst, at times capturing the natural light of the golden hour; Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven comes to mind. From her camera, the interior set design of the ranch home and the barn are framed with superb aesthetics.

The score composed by Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread, 2017) augments the suspenseful mood, particularly effective is the dissonance of the strings, revealing the discords among the characters and their internal strife.

A Western only in its setting, with no shootouts but no less intense, characterization astute, conflicts psychological. The finale leaves a slight, nuanced smile on the face of the victor. He can now ride off into the sunset with relief as the Bible verse the title comes from, Ps. 22:20, is fulfilled: ‘deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.’ A new chapter begins for Rose and George as they step back into the ranch home as a free and happy couple.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.

The Lost Daughter: From Book to Screen

Elena Ferrante’s book The Lost Daughter (2006) is a harsh look at motherhood, shattering the romantic view associated with the word like maternal love and sacrificial nurturing. The protagonist Leda is torn between the demanding duties of caring for two young daughters and her own academic career. Overwhelmed and feeling suffocated, she abandons her children Bianca and Martha, 7 and 5, for three years.

Years later, Leda has become a successful academic and divorced. Her two daughters are now grown up and living with their father in Toronto. While taking a working holiday at the Ionian seaside, a boisterous family disrupts her peace and solitude on the beach. Though annoyed by their rowdy interruption, she’s drawn to a young mother, Nina, who has to constantly attend to a clingy three-year-old daughter Elena. Memories gush out from her own experience as a young mother, and with that, guilt. However, her guilt may not be so much about her abandonment of her daughters but that she “felt amazing without them.”

For a short while on the beach, Elena is lost. Nina and all the family are frantic in search of her. Leda finds her and brings her back to the fold. Just as she does this good deed, she hides a doll that Elena is attached to dearly. The family is now frantic in finding the lost doll as Elena is inconsolable. She later admits to Nina that “I’m an unnatural mother.” Is that enough to excuse herself?

While Ferrante doesn’t offer a psycho-analytical explanation, she does drop hints as to Leda’s own family background in Naples, her father coming from violent and vulgar association. Her mother had threatened abandonment verbally to her children but never did. To Leda, her mother was better off escaping and disappeared. “How ashamed I was to have come out of the belly of such an unhappy person,” she laments. 

Leda left her family at eighteen to go to Florence for more cultured and academic pursuit, determined to sever an undesirable family tie. While the little girl Elena is lost for a short while on the beach, Leda herself could well be the lost daughter that had never been found.

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Olivia Colman as Leda in The Lost Daughter directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Lost Daughter movie adaptation is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. She has a strong cast, notably Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) as Leda. Colman slips into the character perfectly and gives a natural and nuanced performance. Jessie Buckley as young Leda is another appropriate choice. The talented singer actor plays an exhausted mother convincingly. While away from her daughters and husband at a conference, she has an affair with a prominent academic, Professor Hardy, played by Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter Sarsgaard, whose performance carries traces of another role he’d played years ago as the smooth seducer David in Carey Mulligan’s breakout feature An Education (2009).

Other supporting cast is also strong with Dakota Johnson as Nina and Ed Harris as Lyle the seaside rental caretaker. It’s interesting to see his short interactions with Leda reveal Leda’s unreliable perception of others. Paul Mescal plays Will who works at the beach, reprising an understated performance as in Normal People (2020, TV series), adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel.

Gyllenhaal has mastered the story idea aptly, developing the screenplay like a character study which it ought to be. The effect of a handheld roving camera adds immediacy and suspense as we follow Leda in her short but eventful seaside vacation. Patricia Highsmith comes to mind. Gyllenhaal has altered the Neapolitan protagonist and the rowdy family into American, Leda from Cambridge near Boston, and the disruptive family as American tourists.

The present is interspersed with flashbacks seamlessly to depict Leda’s early years as a young mother torn between the constant demands of child-caring and her personal needs and ambition. Professor Hardy during his lecture in the conference mentions a quote by Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” At the time, to a young and rising academic, the relevance had not sunk in for Leda.

Overall a stirring screen adaptation with superb performance. However, one crucial element in the book has been left out and just replaced with a few dialogues and that’s Leda’s own family background and a mother who had always wanted to abandon her children. The lack of a more solid backstory about Leda’s own upbringing stirs up questions as to her present behaviour. Of course, as a two-hour movie, Gyllenhaal has the difficult task of choosing what to leave out from the book. The missed component of Leda’s own lack of maternal attention while growing up could have stripped off a deeper layer in the storytelling.

The ending is reaffirming. It’s good to know that Leda’s two daughters are forgiving young women, as they care for their mother and check up on her via long distance while she’s by herself on a seaside vacation in Greece. It’s good to see too that ‘bad mothering’ doesn’t need to perpetuate. 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix.

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