Joanne’s Picks

This page is just for fun and ever-changing (with the exception of the late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin who has been archived here). I’m Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. I like books (and you might like mine), I like music, I like movies, I like TV. So, I’m just sharing some of what I like. Keep checking back as I’m always keeping things fresh.

I’ve always liked director Ang Lee but I never knew anything about him – apart from him being from Taiwan, and he and Spike Lee going to NYU together and working on each others’ thesis films. Recently, I viewed a retrospective of Hugh Grant’s career (I should do him too because I’ve liked a number of his rom-coms) in which he mentioned working with Lee on Sense and Sensibility. He commented particularly on Lee’s gruff communication style (“very…boring” he told Hugh and Emma Thompson after they looked for his reaction to one of their first scenes). The way Hugh told it, it was funny – and the several actors I’ve seen comment on Lee have had good things to say while speaking to that same gruff directing style. It’s a language and cultural issue (I believe), no malice intended. I also learned that Lee – like so many artists – had a rough start before finding success. Though signed to William Morris on the strength of his thesis film, he remained unemployed for six years (well, technically unemployed, as he was a stay at home husband and dad while his wife brought in the bacon). I don’t see a problem with this apart from the frustration he undoubtedly felt in terms of his dreams deferred (something to which many a woman can relate). Cool to read that his wife was supportive of his dreams – that’s what you need in a partner as a man or woman. He busied himself writing, and submitted two of his screenplays (which would later become films) to a competition in which he won first and second place. The contest wins brought him attention that led to the development of one of those films – his directorial debut – as his first feature.

I like sharing stories like this as a reminder to keep creating during the dry patches and pitching and submitting and especially, especially believing. Reminder to self and reminder to anyone else who needs to hear it.

All of that preamble to say that I’m going to be sharing my favourite Ang Lee films – the absence of some films (e.g. his Academy award winning Life of Pi; first film Pushing Hands and Sense and Sensibility – both of which have since been added to my to watch list; Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Lust Caution, actually as it happens most of his filmography) may be because I haven’t seen them yet. But of the ones I have seen, I loved:

The Wedding Banquet – the first Ang Lee film I saw (I think I rented it on DVD without knowing what it was). It is still my personal favourite because of the mix of humor and pathos as a young Taiwanese businessman resident in America hides his state of domestic homosexuality from his parents who are intent on seeing him suitably married…until they come to visit. There’s an entertaining screwball aspect to it, with the convoluted pretend-wife plotline, but also a lot of heart especially as relates to the stoic father who bonds with his son-in-law and reconnects with his son. Small, domestic, culturally specific (re tradition), universally appealing (re family), beautiful film.

Brokeback Mountain – Coming much later in his career, this is a technically better executed and more visually poetic riff on a similar subject as The Wedding Banquet – at least the part of it having to do with denying one’s sexuality in deference to societal pressure. In fact, I was more moved by its heartbreaking story and the acting was superb (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, of course, but no missed steps from the rest of the cast either – in fact, for me, Michelle Williams was a standout, just from that moment when it hit her that her marriage was a lie). It was one of those films that shifted the culture as well. It was considered brave for A-listers to sign on to the ‘gay cowboy’ film. Also when it came out, it stirred conversation the way films that are a part of the zeitgeist or just boundary pushing can. So it was just more impactful than The Wedding Banquet which I talk up no doubt in part because so few people have seen it, comparatively speaking. Though it was reportedly The Wedding Banquet that made the producers of Sense and Sensibility think a Taiwanese director who was not a native English speaker and who had never read Jane Austen would be a good fit for their independent and very British film. Should Brokeback have won best picture? There’s a strong case to be made, easily, especially with Lee taking the Best Director trophy, but I’m not one of the people who trashes Crash, the eventual Best Picture winner, to talk up Brokeback. That would be disingenuous as I remember liking Crash when I saw it. Though I can, in retrospect, note its contrived and simplistic approach to race, some things rang true, and there were good performances and intersections, and moments that resonated and ones that caught me off guard. It’s easy to understand why Brokeback inspires such passionate advocacy though as it is breathtakingly shot, engages with its subject honestly and with complexity, trusts its story, and draws you in to the very human, very tragic, beautiful love of Ennis and Jack.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – I don’t like karate movies and yet I love this film (and I wasn’t the only won as it was a multi-award winning box office bonanza)- let me overuse the word poetry again but that’s just what the fights in this movie are, visual poetry; well choreographed, high stakes, emotionally resonant. The visuals stuck even if the plot hasn’t, all these years later…and to think I might not have gone to see it at the time if it wasn’t for a guy.

And, well that’s it, except I don’t think Lee’s version of The Hulk was the worst thing ever and I don’t know if I’m going to see Gemini Man as I’m a bit creeped out already by the two versions of Will Smith interacting with each other. But Lee is a master and, if you’ve been following, not married to genre (but rather interested, it would seem, in convincingly tackling different genres).