‘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.

‘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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Women Direct Films 2022

Director Jane Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner on the set of
The Power of the Dog (Source: Netflix)

Last year on this day, March 8, I listed films directed by women in recent years. A month later, Chloe Zhao became the second woman in the 93 year history of the Oscars to win Best Director with Nomadland. And this year, in the upcoming 94th Academy Awards on March 27, two of the ten Best Picture nominees are directed by women, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Sian Heder’s CODA.

This may look bright and hopefully the trend will hold. After all, women first directed films in 1896! I wrote about that in my March 8 post last year. However, the latest data aren’t that promising. According to the Celluloid Ceiling Report (Figure 2) published in January 2022, the percentage of women directors working on the top 100 films decreased from a record high of 16% in 2020 to 12% in 2021.

For this March 8, 2022, here’s a new list of some upcoming movies directed by women. There are, needless to say, many more women working behind the scenes as film editors, script writers, cinematographers, production designers, sound professionals, costume and makeup artists, composers, casting directors, producers… all striving to break through the celluloid ceiling.

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Aline directed by Valérie Lemercier, a fictionalized biopic of Céline Dion.

Where the Crawdads Sing directed by Olivia Newman, adaptation of the popular novel by Delia Owens.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Dream, A Song a documentary co-directed by Dayna Goldfine

She Said ­­directed by Maria Schrader, based on the book that chronicles the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of a movement. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan star.

Barbie directed by Greta Gerwig, the cast that brings a doll to life includes Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Simu Liu.

Turning Red directed by Domee Shi, whose animated short Bao won her an Oscar in 2019. Sandra Oh, Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell lend their voice and talents.

Don’t Worry Darling directed by Olivia Wilde, who has been called ‘a modern-day renaissance woman’. Attractive cast includes Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan.

I Wanna Dance With Somebody directed by Kasi Lemmons, acclaimed director of Harriet (2019) turns her attention to depict the life of Whitney Houston.

The Stars at Noon directed by Claire Denis, who just won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Director at Berlinale 2022. Adaptation of the 1986 novel by Denis Johnson.

Catherine, Called Birdy directed by Lena Dunham, based on the children’s novel by Karen Cushman, on the adventures of a 14 year-old girl in medieval England.

The Mother directed by Niki Caro, who has helmed an interesting variety of works like Mulan (2020), The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), Whale Rider (2002). An action thriller, The Mother stars Jennifer Lopez and Joseph Fiennes.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s classic novel.

Persuasion directed by Carrie Cracknell. Another Jane Austen classic to be transposed onto screen coming out this year.

Rosaline directed by Karen Maine. A comedic take on Romeo and Juliet from the POV of Rosaline Capulet, Juliet’s cousin and Romeo’s first love.

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‘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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Top Ripples 2021

December 2021 was a hectic month, thus the delay of this year-end wrap up. 2021 was another unusual year. No in-person at a theatre to watch movies, but there were several excellent titles. Glad I could watch them online. As for books, I surprised myself as I counted over 50 books from my list on Goodreads, albeit I admit, many of them are audiobooks.

Here are the Top Ripples of my 2021. Links are to my reviews.

MOVIES

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in The Dig, based on an historic event in Suffolk, England, 1939.

The Dig – I’d left this one out on my last list by (a huge) mistake, now corrected. This is one of the best movies I’ve watched during the pandemic. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in their unusual roles based on a true, historic event. Beautifully shot.

Passing – Both book and movie adaptation are very well done.

Nomadland – Oscar 2021 Best Picture, Director and Actress. Both book and film are inspiring.

Minari – Autobiographical pic of Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung. Yuh-Jung Youn won the Oscar Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing the eccentric grandma.

The Father – Anthony Hopkins nails it as the father afflicted with dementia and deservedly won his second Oscar at 84, the oldest Acting Oscar winner.

Promising Young Woman – Excellent Oscar winning screenplay by debut director Emerald Fennell. But it’s Carey Mulligan’s performance that speaks most poignantly for promising young women.

Drive My Car – Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has created a play within a play while adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami. How ingenious is that? Japan’s official entry to the coming 94th Academy Awards. (Link to my review on Asian American Press)

BOOKS

Joan Didion, Dec. 5, 1934 – Dec. 23, 2021.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

The Education of an Idealist: a Memoir by Samantha Power

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Passing by Nella Larsen

Brat: an 80’s Story by Andrew McCarthy

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write by Claire Messud

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Books to Screen in 2022

What to read and watch in this new year? Here’s a list of movie adaptations, some just announced, some in development and some filming. If Omicron doesn’t have its way and productions can continue, we’ll likely see them come out this year. Of course, things are as fluid as ever, but the books are always there for us to explore.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

To be directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, 2017) with a star-studded cast including Andrew Garfield, Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Joe Alwyn and Rooney Mara. Although the 2008 rendition is a fine one, I welcome a fresh take. Andrew Garfield has proven to be highly versatile, would make an effective Charles Ryder. I’m eager to see Cate Blanchett as Lady Marchmain, and Ralph Fiennes would likely deliver lots of drama, especially under the helm of Guadagnino.

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

Published in Jan 2018, selected as Reese’s Book Club pick in June 2019, the adaptation will likely star Reese Witherspoon as the protagonist Susan Green, who is unexpectedly pregnant at 45. Currently a feature film in development by Netflix. The short phrases on the cover make an effective blurb: ‘It’s never too late to bloom,’ and this one: ‘Even the prickliest cactus has its flower.’

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

With every book she published, Irish author Rooney is shot to a higher plane. Conversations with Friends is her debut novel, followed by the acclaimed Normal People, which already has an impressive screen adaptation. Beautiful World, Where Are You is her notable latest whose film rights will likely be snatched up soon I presume. Conversations with Friends is a simpler and more quiet novel, not less entangled with human relationships, with two young people grappling with love and life. Coming out this year as a series on Hulu.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

The film rights of this wildly popular, food-rich memoir of Zauner growing up Korean American has been sold to MGM’s Orion Pictures. Zauner will be adapting her book to the screen, chronicling her growing up as a mixed race gal in Oregon, and how her relationship with her cancer stricken mother has led her to discover her Asian root. Zauner will also provide the soundtrack for the feature with her own indie music band Japanese Breakfast.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico

Several of Paul Gallico’s stories had been adapted onto screen, on top of his own screenwriting work. This one sounds cheery, just right for an uncertain new year. Mrs. Harris, a London charlady, discovers Dior when tidying the fancy wardrobe of one of her clients, Lady Dant. Paris becomes her dream and goal. When finally she has saved enough to head over to the House of Dior in Paris, she finds a new world and adventure awaits her. Delightful, isn’t it? What’s more enticing is the cast, two ladies, Leslie Manville and Isabel Huppert.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

This will be the second adaptation of Ferrante’s works, after The Lost Daughter (my Ripple review coming soon.) Another Netflix development, The Lying Life will be a series to be shot in Naples. Giovanna is a young woman growing up in Neapolitan society struggling to navigate the adult world and seeking for what’s real. The series will be in Italian, but just like Ferrante’s books, the appeal and relevance will be international.

She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

Subtitled: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. NYT journalists Kantor and Twohey were winners of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for their work in exposing the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s longtime sexual misconduct, incendiary journalism that led to the #MeToo Movement. Screen adaptation directed by Maria Schrader; Carey Mulligan plays Twohey, Zoe Kazan as Kantor, Patricia Clarkson, editor Rebecca Corbett. Mulligan is an ideal cast on the heels of her impressive Oscar nominated role in Promising Young Woman.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A. J. Fikry is a bookseller whose personal life is just as disappointing as the sales of his books. While there are people around him who are steadfast in their support for him, it’s an unexpected package, a baby, outside his door one fateful day that turns his life around and gives him a new view of things. A booklovers’ story. Screenplay written by the author Zevin, directed by Hans Canosa.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Reviewed on the NYT as a Mennonite #MeToo novel, this time the Mennonite community Canadian author Toews writes about is fictional, and the horrors the girls and women experience therein make this a crime thriller. But Toews apparently intends more than just to shock. Deeper issues such as collective guilt, the existence of evil, and forgiveness are explored. Movie adaptation directed by the acclaimed Sarah Polley (Oscar nom Adapted Screenplay for Away From Her), great cast with Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara.


Why Didn’t They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie

This Christie mystery without Hercule Poirot but featuring two amateur sleuths was a beloved novel of British actor Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) back in his youth. He’ll write and direct the 3-part adaptation. Christie’s book, published in 1934, tells the story of two friends while looking for a golf ball discover a dying man whose last words––the eponymous title of the book––lead them to the investigation of the mystery. Laurie fans would be glad to actually see him in a role as Dr. Nicholson.

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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‘The Truth’ Movie Review

When you have a cast consisting of French actresses Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche together with American actor Ethan Hawke, that’s attraction enough. Further, a film written and helmed by the Cannes winning Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (Shoplifters, 2018) adds an intriguing element, as this is his first non-Japanese film shot outside of his home country.

Deneuve plays an aging French film actress, Fabienne Dangeville, who has just written a memoir. Already 50,000 sold––and boasting to her daughter twice that number––the success in book sales, however, cannot rescue her from the dimming of her career as a film star.

Reminiscent of French director Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) where Binoche herself plays a French actress sinking into oblivion as prime acting roles go to the younger and much more popular personalities. But The Truth is lighter in mood and sprinkled with comedic effects and subtle humour.

Fabienne’s daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter living in New York, comes all the way to Paris on the occasion of her mother’s book publishing, her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), an actor, and daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) in tow. To Lumir, it’s a homecoming after a long while. Cracks between her and her overbearing mother surface as soon as she enters the house.

First off, she’s upset that Fabienne didn’t let her read the manuscript before publication as she had promised. Now reading it for the first time that night, anger replaces disappointment. She confronts her mother the next morning:

 “Who are you kidding? I can’t find any truth in here.”

Fabienne, of course, doesn’t care what her daughter thinks. It’s her memoir, her take. In the book, she presents herself as a loving mother, like finding joy in picking her daughter up from school. Lumir says it’s untrue, for her mother had never picked her up from school, always her dad Pierre (Roger Van Hool) or the family’s faithful servant Luc (Alain Libolt). Her memory of Fabienne is an absent mother who basks in the limelight of her own stardom. In reply, Fabienne says:

“I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth. It’s far from interesting.”

As for Hank, effectively played by Hawke, his duty seems to be there only to support his wife. Not knowing French, Hank is a complete outsider. And in the eyes of his celebrity mother-in-law, he can hardly be called an actor. Daughter Charlotte has a few delightful scenes on the subject of truth and fantasy.

The next day, they all follow Fabienne to the studio for the rehearsal of a film she’s in, but playing a minor role with the major star being a younger, reputed actress Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel). Now the conflict shifts from mother daughter to that of the fading star and rising talent.

The studio setting is another layer Koreeda has created to bring out cinematic ‘truth’. The green screen itself by its very function works as a fake background, ‘deceiving’ in its purpose. Further, special touch up can alter even the eye colour of the actor. And most hilarious of all, but all wrapped in a serious tone, what we see is an intense scene between two characters alone on screen is actually hovered over in a short distance by a horde of people who are not in costume doing their real-life job. Sarcasm and humour are the subtle effects from scenes like that. Koreeda’s insight is astute in revealing what filmmaking is: fiction pretending to be real.

The middle part of The Truth about the studio shooting is a little weighed down as a play-within-a-play based on a short story by the acclaimed science fiction writer Ken Liu. This section of the movie is complex and multi-layered. While intriguing, it requires more than one viewing for clarity. This too, could well be Koreeda’s intension as he directs a French film, inserting a story within a story, which is a French artistic device, the mise en abyme. Like standing between two mirrors, one can see multiple images.

Overall, The Truth is a light-hearted feature, leisurely paced with embedded humour. Koreeda’s intention might be more cerebral than comical. The cast in itself is appealing enough, presenting a piece of cinema verité showing that truth is elusive even among the closest of family or the most sincere of artistic expressions.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Truth is now on Netflix.

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In participation of Paris in July hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea

Related Ripple Reviews:

Clouds of Sils Maria directed by Olivier Assayas

Our Little Sister directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

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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‘The Father’ depicts dementia in suspenseful realism

Dementia is a land where its inhabitants can never come out, and visitors can only look in from the outside. To add to the isolation, they speak a different language outsiders don’t understand.

In his role as an 80-year-old man afflicted with dementia in The Father, Anthony Hopkins has shown he’s an apt interpreter of that language. With his astute performance, the iconic British actor becomes the oldest person to win an acting Oscar this April, his second after The Silence of the Lamb in 1992.

The Father is based on the 2012 play Le Père by French playwright director Florian Zeller. It received the Molière Award for Best Play in 2014. The English version was translated by Christopher Hampton in 2016 and performed on Broadway. Hampton and Zeller co-wrote the adaptation to film. At this year’s Academy Awards, they won Best Adapted Screenplay. This is Hampton’s second Oscar win for writing; his first was for Dangerous Liaison in 1988. And for Zeller, his debut feature garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

Zeller’s intriguing way of storytelling lets viewers experience vicariously what a dementia sufferer goes through. First off, it is uncanny that Hopkins’s character is named Anthony. The film is shot from his point-of-view.

The editing by Yorgos Lamprinos strings together seamlessly the conflicting perspectives of Anthony’s: the mingling of memories, the confusion of happenings and imagination, the loss of a timeframe for past events, the distortion of present realities, and perhaps most disturbing for those close to him: unrecognizable faces. Describing how Zeller achieve these effects will be like giving out spoilers. I’ll just say this, The Father is like the Rashomon of dementia.

Zeller’s film is cinematic realism depicting the condition of dementia. The confused, bewildered look of Hopkins in close ups is accompanied by repetitive, eerie music, rendering the scenes suspenseful, not far from a Hitchcockian thriller. When one has lost the capacity of one’s brain, it is a scary experience. Anthony knows his way down the hallway to his room, but is this his flat? Where’s his watch, again? And, what happened to that painting that used to be hanging on the wall? The cast of seven brings out a powerful narrative in just 97 minutes.

Another realistic portrayal is Olivia Colman as the daughter Anne, who has to convince her father that he needs help. She struggles with the conflict between filial love and personal freedom, her husband (Rufus Sewell) does not make things easier for her either. And to complicate matter further, Anne is not her father’s favourite but her younger sister Lucy…

We’ve had a couple of excellent films on the subject of aging and dementia in the past. Away from Her (2006) directed by Sarah Polley who adapted Alice Munro’s short story is about a wife stricken by Alzheimer’s, and Michael Heneke’s Amour (2012) narrates an aging husband caring for his debilitated wife after her stroke, both received Oscar nods. Zeller has contributed to this repertoire of films with a perspective from the point-of view of the patient, adding to it a daughter’s internal conflicts.

No matter how much Anne tries to keep her father living with her, his condition needs professional care and monitoring, something she finds hard to get through to a dementia patient who is determined to be self-reliant. Colman’s performance is sensitive and moving.   

A very clever man, this father hasn’t totally lost it. The scene where he meets his new caregiver Laura (Imogen Poots) in Anne’s home shows how sharp he can still be, and not just Anthony the character, but Hopkins the actor, who is in his top form.

Original music is by Ludovico Einaudi (Nomadland, 2020) whose score reflects the mental state of Anthony’s, enhancing the cinematic effects. The opera music at the beginning of the film which Anthony is listening to, and later reprises is from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. The poignant piece is his link to the person he once was, the song entitled Je crois entendre encore: ‘I believe I still hear.’

Eventually, the inevitable question has to be asked by Anthony, an antithesis to a cathartic ending: ‘Who exactly am I?’

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Away From Her

Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

And When Did You Last See Your Father

Asian Heritage Month Movie List

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In Canada, it’s Asian Heritage Month. Asia is the largest continent in the world, encompassing countries from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands. As this event is celebrated in North America, the term refers to North Americans born or naturalized and living in the US and Canada with ancestral heritage from these countries. Interestingly, I find this Good Housekeeping site highly informative regarding the AAPI references.

There are many movies made by filmmakers of this demographics in North America. The following are some worthy titles, each has its unique way of leaving a mark. Links are to my reviews on Asian American Press or Ripple Effects.

I’m presenting my list in chronological order to highlight the historical development.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Movie poster from 1993

The first studio film with a mostly Asian American cast flying into the ‘mainstream’ radar. Adapted from Amy Tan’s debut novel, it tells the stories of multigenerational Chinese immigrant families in America. The breakout film of director Wayne Wang, who at that time had been making movies for over 10 years. Unfortunately, it would take twenty-five more years for another feature of the kind to come out.

Water (2005)

India born Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s final work in the Elements Trilogy, Water was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film representing Canada in 2007. The heart-wrenching plight of a little Indian girl is told with beautiful cinematography. A ‘Foreign Language Film’ from Canada? Yes, just shows the multiplicity of our identity and the blurring definition of the word ‘foreign.’ This Oscar category was renamed Best International Feature Film in 2020.

The Namesake (2006)

Here’s a prime example of the multiplicity of identity. A film adaptation by the acclaimed Indian-American director Mira Nair. The Namesake (2003) is the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the London born American Pulitzer winning writer of Indian descent, who now resides in Italy and writing in her adopted language, Italian. The story depicts a colourful and conflicting journey of the America born second generation visiting their parents’ homeland.

Life of Pi (2012)

This adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel was the winner of Oscar Best Picture in 2013 and with it, Taiwanese American Ang Lee won his second Oscar for directing. Stunning CGI visuals transfer Martel’s magical realism onto the big screen to tell the story of a 16 year-old youth adrift in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. Opportune time and place to explore existential issues. Both book and film are worthy of the accolades they had garnered.

The Big Sick (2017)

The real-life, mixed-race marriage of actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his therapist wife Emily V. Gordon co-wrote this screenplay about a mixed-race courtship between a Pakistani American comedian and his love interest, a white young woman played by Zoe Kazan, with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents. An entertaining depiction of cultural clash and final resolution.

Columbus (2017)

A quiet, visual depiction of the interplay between modern architecture, human relationships, and the existential search for meaning and connection. A most unusual subject matter aesthetically handled by Korean American director Kogonada. John Cho breaks away from the type cast as Sulu in Star Trek to prove himself worthy as a character actor of quality.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

The new trend Asian American filmmakers and talents hope to see, twenty-five years after The Joy Luck Club. Director Jon M. Chu turns Kevin Kwan’s breakout novel into a blockbuster hit, catapulting Asian American talents to mainstream fame: Constance Wu, Awkwafina, Henry Golding (ok, so he’s a British Chinese), Gemma Chan (she too), with the full support of international star Michelle Yeoh (the first Asian Bond Girl in Tomorrow Never Dies.)

Free Solo (2018)

Husband-and-wife directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi captured the stunning climb made by Alex Honnold up the 3,000 feet vertical wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with only his bare hands and feet, solo and free from ropes and safety gears. Chin is himself a renown mountain climbing legend and photographer, having mounted Meru Peak in the Himalayas, as well as Everest several times. Oscar winner of Best Documentary Feature in 2019.

Driveways (2019)

Korean American director Andrew Ahn tells the story of an ageing Korean war veteran’s friendship with a shy 8-year-old boy (Lucas Jaye) who shows up with his single mom (Hong Chau) next door. A quiet and poignant portrayal of friendship that crosses the borders of age and race. One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his death in 2020 at age 81. A nominee for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019.

Late Night (2019)

Daughter of Indian immigrants, Mindy Kaling has made a name for herself with her versatility as a comedian, actor, writer, producer, and director. Late Night is her own story, parallel with her career starting out in The Office as a writer and actor. Here, a girl of Indian ethnicity enters into a late night TV show as a writer, serving the very demanding host Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, a Canadian American of Indian descent. A delightful film.

The Farewell (2019)

Chinese American director Lulu Wang shares her own family experience boldly in this semi-autobiographical film. The cultural perspectives of how to deal with a family member with terminal illness could be totally opposite. Instead of a judgemental tone, the film uses an artistic styling and humour to tell a very personal story. Awkwafina became the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe Best Actress in a Motion Picture for her fine performance.

Minari (2020)

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

The trend continues. With six Oscar nominations this year and one win by South Korean veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung who plays the eccentric grandma of the family. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is an autobiographical drama of Chung’s childhood growing up in an Arkansas farm operated by his immigrant father from South Korea. Gentle and slow-paced storytelling with a powerful punch.

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