Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Bell Jar: An interview with Sylvia Plath pre-publication

Sylvia Plath from her Mademoiselle Photo Shoot

I finished Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar the other day and find I’m newly fascinated by everything about the short life of the acclaimed poet and writer. The novel, famously inspired by Plath’s summer as an intern at Mademoiselle magazine in NYC and her own institutionalization is getting it’s second adaptation at the hands of Kirsten Dunst in the director’s chair with Dakota Fanning as Esther Greenwood. The material was first adapted in 1979 with a very 70’s cast that included Marilyn Hassett as Esther, Jameson Parker as Buddy with Julie Harris as her mother.

Plath, with husband Ted Hughes

Poor Sylvia Plath. She was just 31 when she committed suicide at the London home she shared with Ted Hughes and their two children. Putting those two babies in their bedroom with the windows wide open, Plath taped up the gaps around their bedroom door before turning the gas on, putting her head in the oven and taking her own life. It’s hard to reconcile those deliberate actions with what feels like such an act of desperation. But as we know, she had been hearing the call to kill herself from her teen years. 

As I said, I’m newly obsessed with Plath which led me to this 1962 radio interview with Plath and an unidentified British interviewer. While she talks about wanting to write a novel—and was likely working on the novel at the time—she was there to talk about her poetry, the work for which she’d been getting prizes all her life. Her novel would be published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in January, 1963 to lackluster reviews. Plath, her marriage to Ted Hughes in tatters, killed herself a month later.

Mad Girls Love Song was included at the back of my copy of The Bell Jar.

Mad Girl's Love Song
"I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)"

Book: The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

What did you think of the interview? I was struck by the tone of her voice, the deepness and maturity of a woman who sounds much older than thirty, that accent from another time that almost reads as British. And of course, the clear point of view of an accomplished and recognized poet with no signs of what was to come, except perhaps, for her own interest in the subject of mental illness.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Robert Downey star in Dr. Dolittle ReDo: Let's watch the trailer for the 1967 version

You were expecting something about Beauty & the Beast perhaps? The truth is I’m both crowd-phobic and lazy so I’ve avoided the theater for the movie’s opening period where the film is drawing hordes. Beauty & the Beast has made over $170 million already, setting some kind of record. The overall feeling is that it is FABULOUS!  I plan on seeing a matinee sometime this week and adding my voice to the gazillions already out there.

But speaking of movie musicals ... I’m old enough to have seen the original Dr. Dolittle movie musical in the movie theater. It came out in 1967 and somehow the song If I Could Talk to the Animals found its way into my fourteen year old heart, sitting alongside Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from the Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The tune—despite Rex Harrison’s talk/singing style won the Best Song Oscar that year. For me, it didn’t hurt that while the film starred Rex Harrison as the good doctor, it also featured a floppy-haired Beatlesque Anthony Newley and a love triangle.

With that warm fuzzy memory in mind, I was delighted to learn that Robert Downey Junior is going to reprieve the role. The new Dr. Dolittle will be based on the original book The Voyage of Dr. Dolittle written by Hugh Lofting in 1920. Will it be a musical? With the current popularity of the genre, it could be. 

About the book

Doctor Dolittle heads for the high seas in perhaps the most amazing adventure ever experienced by man or animal. Told by nine-and-a-half-year-old Tommy Stubbins, crewman and future naturalist, the voyages of Doctor Dolittle and his company lead them to Spidermonkey Island. Along with his faithful friends, Polynesia the parrot and Chee-Chee the monkey, Doctor Dolittle survives a perilous shipwreck and lands on the mysterious floating island. There he meets the wondrous Great Glass See Snail who holds the key to the greatest mystery of all.

It may be just because I can picture Robert Downey Jr. in the period costume—thanks to his role in the Sherlock films—but I’m ready to buy in to the American actor as the good doctor.
How about you? Are you in?

Monday, March 20, 2017

T2: Trainspotting starring Ewan McGregor and all the boys are back in town — the trailer en français

Dreaming of France this week? Moi aussi as my husband and I are planning on spending a week in Paris and several days in the south of France when we head to Europe in May. Watching this trailer for T2:Trainspotting in French (I guess there's no French equivalent for trainspotting), sans subtitles, makes me realize how much I need to practice my own limited knowledge of the language before our trip. I didn’t understand a thing except the occasional “choisi Facebook.’’
At my current level of knowledge when I ask for directions I’ll be lucky if I don’t get directed straight out of the country. Can I make up the lack in a little over a month? Nope, but I’m sure there are a few apps to help us out. 
It would be a bit easier if the French trailer for T2 (based on the novel Porno) included English subtitles but c’est la vie, eh? English or French, it’s pretty wild. Along with Ewan McGregor as Renton, all the boys are back in town: Ewen Bremner as Spud, Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy and Robert Carlyle as Begbie.

Here’s a short trailer in English as a point of reference, but I couldn’t find matching footage so I’m not sure how helpful it is. I suggested seeing it to my husband but he’s not interested, the violence, especially the way the poor baby was treated in the first one, totally turned him off. I told him this one is getting good reviews and the guys have aged—which hopefully means mellowed a bit—but he’s adamant. How about you? Are you planning on seeing T2: Trainspotting in English, French or any language? And can you recommend a decent, affordable translation app for a couple of budget travelers? Merci!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Watch the trailer for The Secret Scripture starring Rooney Mara

Ignore the date on the poster. Release date in UK & Irland is 5/19

Something is afoot! We’ve been watching the progress of the adaptation of The Secret Scripture for ages.  Based on the book by Sebastian Barry, the film starring Rooney Mara, Theo James, Aidan Turner, Jack Reynor, Eric Bana and Vanessa Redgrave has finally released a trailer. We learned back in 2015 that the movie was held up in a studio’s bancruptcy proceedings, then it finally made a debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 to mixed reviews. With a trailer hitting the net, we could be seeing the film in American theaters sometime soon. 

I read the book back in 2014, at which point we heard Jessica Chastain was going to star as Rose, a woman involved in a love triangle with a pair of brothers (Jack Reynor & Aidan Turner). Rooney Mara replaced Chastain who unfortunately left the project to make The Zookeeper’s Wife   Vanessa Redgrave plays the 100 year old Rose and I would have loved to see Chastain in the role with her flaming red hair in accordance with my memory of Redgrave’s once auburn locks. 

Shunned in her Irish village for what a local priest (Theo James) judges as condemnable personal behavior, Rose is ultimately confined to an insane asylum for life where we see the older Rose telling her story to psychiatrist Dr. Grene (Eric Bana.) It’s a labyrinthine tale, fascinating and complex, set in period of conflict between England and the IRA during the early 1920’s. 

In the UK and Ireland The Secret Scripture is already set to open on May 19th, no word on exact;u when we’ll see the movie in the U.S. but it’s on my must see list.

How about you? Did you read the book? You still have plenty of time ...

My take on the book The Secret Scripture

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Dead Man Walking starring Susan Sarandon: #SaturdayMatinee

What with The Feud: Bette and Joan and her controversial political stance, it’s hard to avoid Susan Sarandon these days. For men like my husband and a lot of you guys out there, why would you want to? At 70ish the actor is still turning heads partly because she exudes sensuality and partly because her brain is as impressive as her physical assets. 

For today’s Saturday Matinee let’s go back in time and take a look at Sarandon’s Best Actress Oscar winning performance in Dead Man Walking. Directed by husband Tim Robbins, Sarandon played Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who wrote a book about her experience as spiritual advisor to a convicted killer.

About the book

In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean became the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. In the months before Sonnier’s death, the Roman Catholic nun came to know a man who was as terrified as he had once been terrifying. She also came to know the families of the victims and the men whose job it was to execute—men who often harbored doubts about the rightness of what they were doing.
        Out of that dreadful intimacy comes a profoundly moving spiritual journey through our system of capital punishment. Here Sister Helen confronts both the plight of the condemned and the rage of the bereaved, the fears of a society shattered by violence and the Christian imperative of love. On its original publication in 1993, Dead Man Walking emerged as an unprecedented look at the human consequences of the death penalty. 

About the movie

Both Robbins and Sean Penn who played the killer were nominated as was the movie’s song but only Sarandon—in a role that notably leaves her undeniable physical beauty by the wayside— took Oscar home.

In the words of the late Roger Ebert

Sister Helen, as played here by Sarandon and written and directed by Tim Robbins (from the memoir by the real Helen Prejean), is one of the few truly spiritual characters I have seen in the movies. Movies about "religion" are often only that - movies about secular organizations that deal in spirituality. It is so rare to find a movie character who truly does try to live according to the teachings of Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) that it's a little disorienting: This character will behave according to what she thinks is right, not according to the needs of a plot, the requirements of a formula, or the pieties of those for whom religion, good grooming, polite manners and prosperity are all more or less the same thing.

Dead Man Walking is available to stream for $2.99 on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. The film also happens to be running on Encore Suspense on Sunday 3/19. 

I can’t find a trailer online but I did dig up an Oprah ‘Master Class’ session about Dead Man Walking. Let’s watch.

I have to say guys, she’s really something, isn’t she?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Dreams do Come True! Benedict Cumberbatch is set to star in adaptation of Matt Haig's upcoming “How to Stop Time”

From Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

I follow British author Matt Haig on Twitter mostly because he’s both funny, sympatico with my political bent, and frank in his revelations about his own depression, how he recovered, and continues to recover, helping his audience understand mental health issues, broadening our understanding both of what it is and those who suffer from it. His book on the subject, Reasons to Stay Alive is on my TBR pile. Haig is also the author of several works of fiction including Humans, his acclaimed sci fi novel; A Boy Called Christmas about Father Christmas (Santa) as a child which is being developed for film as is its sequel, The Girl who Saved ChristmasThe Last Family in England, a retelling of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 with the protagonists as dogs; and Dead Fathers Club based on Hamlet. 

The author has a new book coming out in July, How to Stop Time—the title comes from Reasons to Stay Alive a book that Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company SunnyMarch, together with StudioCanal, has already picked up the movie rights for! In a lovely bit of synchronicity and what the author calls “a glorious coincidence’’ Haig says he pictured Cumberbatch as Tom Hazard, the protagonist of the novel when he was writing! Hazard, on the surface an ordinary 41 year old London-based history teacher, is actually hundreds of years old, having lived through everything from Elizabethan England to the jazz age in Paris.

Haig is thrilled Cumberbatch is actually starring in the film, telling the Guardian ‘‘There is no one else with that same mix of intensity or mystery’’ and that he had to pinch himself ‘‘because it is like my dreams have come true.”

Cumberbatch devotees will likely feel the same way! Adding another one to my TBR pile. 

I’m currently on page 38 of The Bell Jar, the acclaimed Sylvia Plath novel which is also headed to the screen with Kirsten Dunst directing and Dakota Fanning starring as Esther. 
How about you? What are you reading? What’s at the top of your TBR pile?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Beauty & the Beast: Hear the music

Dan Stevens, the beast transformed

John Legend and Ariane Grande sound gorgeous together on the trailer for Beauty and the Beast. 

Beauty and the Beast opens Friday, March 17
Here, several songs from the soundtrack, released by Disney to whet your appetite.

The most recent song released is How Does a Moment Last Forever by Celine Dion. It’s one of three new songs crafted by Alan Mencken and Tim Rice for the Disney movie. Apparently it’s playing over the ending credits too.

I wish I liked it as much as I love Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts singing the iconic Beauty & the Beast (Tale as Old as Time) theme song. 

Hard to believe this is Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as the Beast—I didn't expect him to have such a rich, deep singing voice! Evermore was newly created for the film. Disney has also released a version by Josh Groban. Listen to both, see which one you like better. Groban’s version plays over the closing credits.

Another of the new songs composed by Alan Mencken and Tim Rice is called Days in the Sun. Described as a lullaby, the song features the castle’s enchanted objects remembering what their lives were like before they were cursed.

And finally, the finale. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Sense of An Ending: My take on the movie starring Jim Broadbent

I’m fascinated with time, aging, memory. Because I write a bit of memoir I’m constantly looking back at my life and battling my own beliefs about the way it was. I’m aware that there are periods from my past that I’ve swept under the rug, incidents that I’ve whitewashed, memories that I’ve transformed, albeit unintentionally, into more digestible pieces of personal history. I think we all do that from time to time, otherwise how could we live with ourselves and our bad decisions and poor choices? Was that break-up your fault or his? What did you do that tipped the scale? Was quitting that job, leaving that part of your life behind ultimately for the best or was it the worst decision you ever made? Who have you hurt? Who left you dealing with a damaged heart?

That’s the landscape Jim Broadbent’s character travels in The Sense of an Ending, the just released film based on the Man Booker prize winning book. 

About the movie

“A man becomes haunted by his past and is presented with a mysterious legacy that causes him to re-think his current situation in life.”

Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a divorced man in his sixties who has to deal with his past in a way that brings the reality of his behavior, rather than his own faded memory of his actions, to the forefront. He’s genuinely shocked at the young man he’s revealed to have been. Billy Howle is that young man. Sweet, smart, virginal, somewhat awkward.

Charlotte Rampling plays the present day Veronica, the aged version of the beautiful, flirtatious girl (Freya Movar) he knew during his college days. The film travels back and forth between the present, where Tony becomes newly obsessed with Veronica and the past where we see what happened, how their personal history unraveled. Tony’s friend, Adrian (Joe Alwyn) has something to do with that unraveling. It’s Tony’s reaction to what he sees as a betrayal that’s at the crux of the film.

It may be that I enjoyed the movie so much simply because of my preoccupation with my own past. It certainly has a lot to do with my age. At sixty-three I enjoy more slowly paced films and this one is very, very slow. Having read the book I was interested in the way the screenwriter Nick Payne unpacked the tale and director Ritesh Batra indulged in it. They’ve made old Tony the owner of a tiny camera shop, having picked up a love of photography from the young Veronica. A neat trick, absent in the book, to illuminate how we might bump up against and impact the people that pass through our lives.

It is Broadbent’s film and he’s mesmerizing with his expressive eyes and quivering lip under his bristly grey beard. Charlotte Rampling in a smaller but key role still oozes charisma with her dignified bearing and enigmatic smile. I have the feeling though that one has to be closer in age to Broadbent and Rampling—as I am—than to Billy Howle (who we’ll be seeing in On Chesil Beach) and Freya Mavor to be as deeply moved by the film as I was. I think you have to have a few mistakes under your belt, to know how it feels to look back with regret and remorse to truly appreciate the story.

The excellent cast includes Emily Mortimer and Harriet Walter along with Matthew Goode and Michelle Dockery. While Dockery as Tony’s pregnant daughter and Goode as an influential teacher from Tony’s past don’t appear onscreen together, as a Downton Abbey fan, I find myself hoping they’ll have a cinematic reunion sooner rather than later.

As slowly as the film started I confess that when it ended I had to take a few moments to compose myself as the credits rolled. If you like films like The Remains of the Day while set in a completely different time period, I think you’ll like The Sense of an Ending. I enjoyed it so much I’m looking forward to seeing director Ritesh Batra’s next project, the screen adaptation of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. It’s another story about older men and women. He has a gift for it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

From the vault: The Constant Gardener starring Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes

Saturday Matinee

I rediscovered this old post from 2012, back when my son was just 18 and still living at home. He's just turned 24, an indicator as to how long I've been doing this. You'd think I'd get a life! Actually doing this is my life, blogging about movies based on books every morning anchors my day. It's the first thing I do when I wake up, still in bed, a cup of coffee by my side. My obsession with films based on books seems silly sometimes when I think about all the movies that aren't adaptations or all the books that will never see the light of a tv or movie screen. The interest has helped channel both my reading and my watching, and I like to think sharing my passion here interests some of you out there too. 

Originally posted 1/29/2012
My husband and I found ourselves at home with our son last night; he was in the mood for a movie. The Saturday night presence of our eighteen year old is such a rarity that we joyfully acquiesced. He gave us choices: Marathon Man, The Constant Gardener, and a French film, the title of which I've forgotten. Apparently all three were available instantly on Netflix.

Not having seen it, and because it wasn't subtitled, we chose The Constant Gardener based on the book by John LeCarre. Since we'd all seen and been crazy about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  this seemed a good choice.

The film, starring a luminous, ebullient Rachel Weisz as Tessa, a human rights activist, and Ralph Fiennes, as Justin Quayle, the quintessential, self-effacing, polite British diplomat, more than met our expectations. Set in Kenya, where Quayle is stationed, the story revolves around the murder of Tessa, and the whereabouts Dr. Bluhm, her African colleague played by Hubert Kounde.  Tessa and Dr. Bluhm have uncovered the big pharmacutical's company's use of powerless Kenya people as medical guineapigs; in order to get their AIDS medication (a simple fact of life in this part of the world) they must also take medicine which is part of a TB test case. The fact that the drug is killing people is ignored; after all these are simply Kenyan natives - who cares what happens to them?

The entire cast was exceptional. Weisz is so beautifully natural as the pregnant Tessa, the makeup department have equalled the actress' in their job. The pregnancy prosthetic is so believable, I'm still not quite sure she wasn't really pregnant. Aside from that, her eyes, her mouth speak volumes. What a wonderful contrast to the very restrained Fiennes. As the gentle garden loving Quayle, Fiennes is so polite, so caring about others,that when Sandy tells him his wife may have been murdered, he says "Thanks for telling me Sandy. That must have been difficult for you."  During the course of the film Fiennes grows some bigger cojones and is relentless in tracking down the truth. Danny Huston as Sandy, the British High Commissioner, Justin's boss is at once pathetic and manipulative. Bill Nighy as Pellegrin, the top man at the Foreign Office "Africa desk'." is absolutely and blithely ruthless.

As with all things LeCarre, it isn't easy. You have to have your head turned on to follow the story but it's worth it if you do! And sadly, the whole bleak picture rings so very true. Of course, big drug companies are taking advantage of this huge pool of voiceless people. It is all too easy to see that corruption, money and power wins the day every day, leaving the victims to endure their short, sad, overcrowded, poverty stricken lives.

Rachel Weisz won the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her passionate performance in The Constant Gardener which was also nominated for the screenplay based on John LeCarre's novel. We like to complain it wasn't as good as the book. Sometimes it is.

You can stream The Constant Gardener on iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, GooglePlay and Amazon for $2.99. Not a bad price for a Saturday Matinee.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Sense of an Ending: Reading the Book Behind the Movie starring Jim Broadbent

Some of you know that I have another site where I mostly muddle around with memoir. I’m only half-joking when I say that memoir begins with me, fitting for what can amount to a narcissistic fascination with one’s own life. French for memory, the trouble with writing memoir is that memory is so very fuzzy, not only because memories fade with time, but also because they change. We are occasionally guilty not only of forgetting, but of rewriting our own history, blurring the facts to fit our own carefully curated images. We have created a life for ourselves, smoothing our own rough edges, polishing up moments where we shine, relegating those less than brilliant times, evidence of our own failures and disappointments to darker corners where they lay gathering dust, gladly forgotten. 

That’s why The Sense of an Ending, coming out tomorrow, March 10, is high on my must-see list. I’m reading Julian Barnes’ book, a slim 118 page volume, on my Nook™ now. I’m only 1/3 of the way in, finding that despite its’ length, the novel about re-visiting old friendships and relationships, is dense with notions about life, the passage of time, and self-preservation that make you stop and think, reflecting on your own re-imagined history.

“And that’s a life, isn’t is? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand. 
I survived. “He survived to tell the tale’’—that’s what people say, don’t they? History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.’’

The Sense of an Ending stars Jim Broadbent as Anthony, our narrator, with Charlotte Rampling as Veronica, the current manifestation of an early ‘girlfriend’. Billy Howle is young Tony, his friend, the Adrian referred to in the quote, played by Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). The cast includes Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Freya Morva as the young Veronica and Emily Mortimer as her mother

Are you old enough to have started wondering how you ended where you are now? Is this the destination you had in mind?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Prague plays Warsaw, Poland in The Zookeeper's Wife starring Jessica Chastain

Some people call it the Paris of Eastern Europe. Looking at this gorgeous photo of Prague, the Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River, that’s easy to understand. But for Jessica Chastain, who tweeted the photograph back in September 2015, Prague is playing Warsaw, Poland in the upcoming film The Zookeeper’s Wife. 

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife via The Daily Mail

I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks in the city back in 2001 when my husband was there shooting a film. The movie, Bad Company starring Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock didn’t do very well with critics or at the box office, but for our family—we pulled our son, in the second grade at the time, out of school for the trip—it was a hit. Praha is a beautiful place, full of old architecture and mind-bending narrow streets paved with cobble stones that are impossible not to get lost in! There’s a castle on a hill, Old Town, Wenceslas Square, the Jewish ghetto, dazzling river views and the ornate Astronomical Clock featuring saints who come out on the hour like a glockenspiel, and spires. Lots and lots of spires.

Prague via Vanity Fair

image via 16countriesin30days

I’m going to see if I can dig up some our personal photos to share with you here. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing The Zookeeper’s Wife which makes its debut at the end of the month. I’ll be checking to see if I recognize any of the Prague locations doubling as Warsaw but I have a feeling the film will be so compelling, I’ll get as lost in the story—based on the book by Diane Ackerman— as we did one day in the myriad of winding streets.

Let’s watch the trailer.

Did you read Diane Ackerman’s book? What do you think of this amazing real-life story plucked from the history books?

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Women Telling Those "Big Little Lies": The Real Housewives of Monterey

Are watching Big Little Lies? If you’ve read the book, you know the secret behind the murder already but that is almost beside the point of both the book and the series which has been dubbed ‘The Real Housewives of Monterey’

The real story is the women, the mothers that they portray and reflect back to us. In a period of filmtime where we complain about the dearth of female roles, the HBO series throws them at us. If you’re watching the show starring Reese Witherspoon as Madeline, Nicole Kidman as Celeste, Shailene Woodley as Jane and Laura Dern as Renat, take the poll and let us know your favorite mum.

Oh, by the way, I can’t help but wonder, what if instead of David E. Kelly writing the script based on Moriarty’s best selling book, and Jean-Marc Vallée directing, executive producers Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon had selected a couple of women to do the heavy lifting??? Just sayin'.

Anyway ... I read Emily Nussbaum’s take on the series in The New Yorker and found it so compelling, I wanted to share it with you here. 


While the show begins with a Schadenfreudian air—a prestige-TV twist on “Real Housewives”—it deepens, and becomes a sensitive reflection on trauma.
By Emily Nussbaum


‘‘The show is most interesting when it’s examining the aftermath of violence.

Illustration by Keith Negley

The trailer for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” made my heart race, but it also made me wary. The whole project felt like a seduction by someone with big, shiny teeth: so many A-list Hollywood stars, running barefoot on California sand, hands clutching muscular backs in ecstasy, all scored to the urgent bounce of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” A murder mystery set on beachfront property, the show seemed, much like “The Affair” and “Revenge” before it, to be aimed squarely at my demographic: women with an equal craving for murder mysteries and beachfront property. More suspiciously, it was written by David E. Kelley, the creator of “Ally McBeal,” my least favorite anti-feminist fantasia.

But sometimes a seduction, like a beach house, rewards the investment. “Big Little Lies” is based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, one of many recent dishy dark comedies about liberal moms chafing in their marriages, reduced to competing for spots in the school parking lot. The adaptation trades the book’s Australian setting for gleaming Monterey. It’s directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” and he does a wonderful job capturing the luxe bohemia of velvet-rope yoga classes and shabby-chic seaside restaurants, Nancy Meyers kitchens and decks made for perfect sunsets. But while the show begins with a Schadenfreudian air—like a prestige-TV twist on the “Real Housewives” franchises—it deepens. Generous to its characters, even those who begin as clichés, the series becomes a reflection on trauma; at its best moments, it makes risky observations, especially about the dynamics of domestic abuse. Even when it doesn’t dig so deep, it’s still full of strong performances, including those by a terrific set of child actors, whose unforced sweetness is a reminder of who the victims are when family life turns ugly.

The story begins with the sound of a person gasping, in either panic or passion. Someone—the identity of the victim is itself a mystery—has been killed during a fund-raiser for a school called Otter Bay. Initially, we learn the details via cable drama’s latest pet structure: interrogations by the police, punctuated by flashbacks of the events leading up to the crime, doubling as unreliable voice-overs. “True Detective” pioneered the technique; “The Affair” has used it, too. In “Big Little Lies,” the witnesses being questioned aren’t the suspects but a Greek chorus of Otter Bay parents, whose put-downs reminded me of the narrator of the opening of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” a voyeur who sees the book’s main character in coldly satirical terms. If the story were all this contemptuous, it would be brittle stuff.

Instead, those camp zingers (“She grew up wanting to be Betty Grable, I think—ended up Betty Crocker”) work in counterpoint to the flawed but not cartoonish women we come to know—and it’s that tension that drives the series. Like cast members on a reality show’s third season, each woman is hyperconscious of her own “type,” and, by extension, how the culture sees her story, through condescending lenses like chick lit and mommy wars. At times, the women embrace those roles. The chirpy, know-it-all Madeline Martha Mackenzie—a Reese Witherspoon character played perfectly by Reese Witherspoon—introduces herself with a showoff’s humility. “It doesn’t really count,” she says, of her side gig in community theatre, contrasting herself with the school’s “career mommies.” Like Jane Austen’s Emma, she adopts a project: Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a lower-middle-class single mother, an outsider who gets dismissed by the Greek chorus as “a dirty old Prius parked outside of Barneys.” There’s also Nicole Kidman, as Celeste, a corporate lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, and Laura Dern, as a Silicon Valley macher whose daughter is bullied at school. Madeline is married to a nice-guy Web designer, played by Adam Scott, but she’s rattled by the presence of her ex-husband, a V.C. type who flaunts his yogafied new wife, played by Zoë Kravitz; their second child, who attends Otter Bay; and the family’s ostentatiously Zen life style.

As a school battle builds over whether Jane’s sweet son Ziggy is the bully in question, Madeline, Jane, and Celeste bond, and not merely in the Team Madeline sense. Six episodes in (I haven’t seen the finale), it’s pretty clear what sort of revelation is emerging—an overlap of family-abuse histories. But the show isn’t, at its core, a whodunit. Like “Happy Valley” and “Top of the Lake,” “Big Little Lies” is most interesting when it’s examining the aftermath of violence—and the false faces that women put on, rather than risk pity. “I still hope that whoever he is is a nice guy,” one character says, musing over an incident from her past. “That, like, maybe that night was just a bad misunderstanding? Or a night gone wrong. Or he had a bad day.” It’s an exchange that captures the crazy-making quality of abuse, the temptation to rewrite history, erase it—anything to avoid that other standard female role: the victim in a Lifetime movie of the week.

The standout performances are by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård, as a couple who are the subject of titillated envy. Celeste is the town’s most stylish hostess; Perry is the hot, younger jet-setting husband who can’t keep his hands off her. They’ve got Instagram-pretty twins and a house out of Architectural Digest. They’re too showily sexual to be grownups—or, at least, that’s how the Greek chorus sees them. It’s quickly apparent that something else is going on: whenever they’re alone, he picks a fight, getting physical fast. Although they seem to have sex non-stop, the arguments and the sex aren’t really separate, and the sex itself is only superficially consensual—as episodes go by, it’s hard not to suspect that Celeste is consenting, in part, so that she doesn’t have to admit that if she didn’t agree he wouldn’t stop.

These scenes of gray-area marital rape are filmed in ways that hover queasily between pornography and horror. When Celeste struggles, it could be violence or a power play—both she and Perry are complicit in the decision not to clarify that. But the violent sequences also help us understand the story the couple has sold not just to the neighbors but to themselves: that they are simply more passionate than normal people. When this notion begins to unravel in therapy, it’s peculiarly touching. As chilling as his character is, Skarsgård makes him more than a Lifetime monster; often, Perry seems to buy his own con, in which he’s merely the boyish, insecure satellite of his beautiful wife. The fact that her cage looks enviable makes it harder to acknowledge how dangerous he is; it’s easier to carry on their shared mythology.

While I watched Kidman, it was impossible not to think of all her other roles. I first saw her in the terrifying “Dead Calm,” in which she faked love for her rapist in order to survive. Then, there was “Eyes Wide Shut,” about a woman whose tightly wound husband (played by her tightly wound then husband, Tom Cruise) goes crazy, because he suspects that she once had a sexual fantasy—not even an affair!—about someone other than him. She was even better as the manipulator in “To Die For,” playing a girlish spider whose flies had no chance. In each role, there is something waxen and watchful and self-possessed about Kidman, so that, even when she’s smiling, she never seems liberated. While other actors specialize in transparency, Kidman has a different gift: she can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.

As Celeste, she keeps lowering her head and raising her eyes, always feminine, glamorous, and diplomatic. It makes it all the more powerful to watch Kidman’s eyes connect with someone else’s whenever something big happens—when she realizes, over drinks, that Madeline is lying about her marriage, too; when she bubbles with taboo joy at the notion of going back to work. In one lovely scene, Jane tells her new friends how detached she feels, as if she were peering at them from far away rather than sitting with the two of them. As Madeline chatters, Celeste stays quiet, locking eyes with Jane. The camera holds on the two of them, capturing the early alchemy of a friendship—and the suggestion that, even in mean-girl world, women might choose to be allies instead of enemies. ♦’’

Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker. 

Dreaming of France: La Belle et la Bete

If you can’t wait for Beauty & the Beast starring Emma Watson and you’re in the mood to get your French fix, think about streaming the French version of the movie starring Lea Seydoux with Vincent Cassel as the beast. Released in France in 2014, it’s truer to the original which means no songs but all the fantasy of the fairy tale. 

Complete with English subtitles so for those of us lacking French can follow along. The production design won a Cesar, and the cinematography and costume design were both understandably nominated. Take a look, it’s gorgeous.


Available to stream on YouTube, Vudu and Google Play for about four bucks.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"The Sense of An Ending" is on the list of Must See Movies Based on Books 2017

"This was another of our fears; that life wouldn't turn out to be like literature."  

This is an update to my original post when the adaptation of The Sense of an Ending was just getting started in August of 2015. The film is in the can and coming out on March 10, 2017 and we’ve got the trailer. Scroll down to see it. 

Note the director is Ritesh Batra, the same director now helming the Robert Redford/Jane Fonda starrer based on Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night. Sounds like Batra, a youthful 37, has a real affinity for older people and their stories! 

Oh my! What an amazing cast for the movie based on Julian Barnes Man Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending. 

What a great excuse for me to put Barnes book at the top of my TBR list!  I haven't had the pleasure of reading this author yet—slaps self on hand—but just reading the novel's description on the author's website has me twitchy with excitement.

The story of a man coming to terms with the mutable past, Julian Barnes's 2011 novel is laced with his trademark precision, dexterity and insight. It is the work of one of the world's most distinguished writers. 
Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian's life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget. 
Now Tony is in middle age. He's had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He's certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer's letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?

Seeing the trailer, I wish I'd already read the book! 
Jim Broadbent in London Spy

Charlotte Rampling in Broadchurch

Jim Broadbent plays Webster. Frankly it seems a bit of a stretch to call Broadbent who is 66, but always seems older, middle-aged but as I'm a handful of years younger, and wondering at the line between middle aged and just plain 'old', I'm grateful. Besides which, he's a remarkable actor, no matter what age. Variety announces Broadbent is being joined by the equally remarkable Charlotte Rampling who has been working since the mid-1960's. 

Joe Alwyn
 Michelle Dockery in Self/lessEmily Mortimer in The Newsroom

New kid in town, Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn in Ang Lee's adaptation of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk ) also stars. Michelle Dockery, Emily Mortimer, Harriet Walter round out the cast. 

Is The Sense of An Ending on your bedside table or in your reading device (I use a Nook)? Have you started reading it or did you finish years ago? Or is your copy back at the bookstore waiting for you to pick it up? I can't believe after first posting about this film back in 2015 I still haven't read it!


Follow British films and telly? Take a look at Joy Weese Moll's British Isles Friday meme. I join her every Friday with my armchair travel series Above Ground on the London Underground, sometimes book-to-movie news or a bit of memoir.

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