Film

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

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Despite being a bunny, Judy has always dreamed of becoming a police officer and helping make the world a better place for animals to live in harmony.  And thanks to the mayor’s new program to get underrepresented animals onto the police force, her dream is about to become a reality.  Judy is so excited to start her new job in the big city–until she finds out that the police chief doesn’t share the mayor’s faith in her and has assigned her to writing parking tickets.  But when Judy promises to help a distressed otter locate her missing husband, the chief gives her 48 hours to break the case–or else she must resign the force.  With the help of a cynical con-artist fox, Judy begins to follow the clues.  But as she begins to uncover a sinister conspiracy, Judy’s efforts to make the world a better place begin to tear her community apart.

My husband and I rented this movie for our grown-up date night (we saw the trailer with the all-sloth DMV and were instantly sold; well done, Disney marketing department), and we were not disappointed.  There was plenty of humor to appeal to kids and adults, they mystery was compelling, and the message about prejudice and discrimination was timely.  A great family film with appeal for a variety of ages!

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

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Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 141 min.

After recovering Loki’s scepter from Hydra scientists, Stark attempts to harness its power in order to create an artificially intelligent, peacekeeping android called Ultron. But when his experiment decides it would like to be its own master, the Avengers are faced with the difficult task of shutting him down before he destroys the entire human race.

Some of the same problems that existed with the first Avengers movie resurfaced in this film, namely the sheer number of major characters limiting the amount of character development for each one. This film divided the bulk of its character development between Hawkeye, Black Widow, Hulk, Iron Man, Ultron, and the Scarlet Witch. But Iron Man, Ultron, and Quicksilver needed more. As much as I love Hawkeye, had some of his screen time been given to others, the story would have been far more powerful. Essentially an anthropomorphic computer virus, Ultron was not as frightening as an external enemy, like the Chitauri and of course Loki. What made him compelling were the human emotions that he exhibited and his similarities to his creator/nemesis, Stark. Yet neither Stark nor Ultron is forced to come to terms with how much they each resemble the other, although the theme appears frequently throughout the middle of the film. And as a new character for this particular run of Marvel films, Quicksilver needed more screen time and development for me to become truly invested in him.

In addition to these character development issues, the film was less humorous than the first Avengers movie or the Iron Man films. The less compelling enemies made the stakes seem lower. And there was realy no moment that compared to the death of Coulson in Avengers 1 as a tragic and unifing climax since the dramatic threads were more scattered. There were still plenty of great lines, great action sequences, and interesting character scenes, but it fell short of many of the other Marvel films. I would put Age of Ultron somewhere in the middle of my list, after the Captain America films, Iron Man 1 and Iron Man 3, and the first Avengers. But it was definitely better than the Hulk and the Thor movies!

THE GREAT COURSES: THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES taught by Professor Philip Daileader (2004)

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Nerds that we are, my husband and I enjoy watching educational television programs in the evenings. We have found this one to be particularly exceptional. Taught by one of my favorite college professors from William and Mary, this course includes 24 lectures about the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages. Professor Daileader has a dry sense of humor and inserts amusing historical tidbits, jokes, and anecdotes throughout his lectures, such as Diocletian’s penchant for cabbage growing or Justinian’s wife’s rumored association with geese. We have found these lectures both informative and entertaining and would highly recommend them to anyone interested in learning a little more about this period in history.

INTO THE WOODS (2014)

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Director: Rob Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 125 min

In a small village at the edge of the woods live a baker and his wife who long for a child. When they learn that a witch has placed a curse on their house which can only be broken in three days on the night of the blue moon, they rush into the woods to collect the ingredients they will need for the magic potion. Their paths cross with Cinderella, Jack and his cow, and a little girl in a red cape–all struggling to make their wishes come true. But even wishes have consequences.

The play Into the Woods is my favorite musical, so it is difficult for me to separate the cuts that disappointed me because I happen to love certain lines and songs from the cuts that actually hurt the story. But I think I am being fair when I say the film was enjoyable and true to the spirit of the play, but the play is definitely better.

Let me start with the good. The screenplay was written by the original playwright (James Lapine), and Sondheim adapted the music and lyrics. Meryl Streep’s witch was arguably better than Bernadette Peters (who originated the role). Lilla Crawford was a phenomenal Red Riding Hood, never faltering on the difficult vocal lines. Young Daniel Huttlestone as Jack held his own on a vocal part written for an adult tenor. Although I missed the snarkiness of Joanna Gleeson’s Baker’s Wife, Emily Blunt’s realistic and powerful portrayal fit with the overall more serious tone of the film. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella was more realistic and nuanced than Kim Crosby’s (again, a trend of the film). Tracy Ullman was perfect as Jack’s mother. Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine were appropriately hilarious as the two princes.

But the cuts (many of them necessary to translate into the film medium) took away some of the thematic depth of the play. The play is divided into two complete acts. Act one shows a complete set of fairytales from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” In fact, act one is often performed on its own. Act two shows what happens after happily ever after. The characters all have new wishes (getting their first wish hasn’t satisfied them). They feel trapped by their stories and wind up feeding the Narrator (a human character) to the giant. Having a narrator as a character wouldn’t have worked the same way in a film. His character is eliminated. And the two acts are squished together into one continuous story arc, which mostly works. But the idea of the secondary wishes is lost. The prince’s remark “I thought once I found you that I would never wish for more” applies only to himself in the film. The Baker’s Wife and the Baker never transition from new baby bliss to bitter squabbling, giving less context to later events. And because the Baker’s father is mostly eliminated as a character, references to the Baker’s fear of becoming his father are awkwardly direct and heavy-handed. Rapunzel gets a happy ending, which could diminish the witch’s cause for despair (and eliminates the grief-stricken “Children Won’t Listen” which is reprised more optimistically at the end of the play) but Meryl Streep actually handles it really well so I wasn’t too disappointed on that front.

Am I being nitpicky? Yes. It was a good film–more family-friendly than the play, enjoyable, very well-acted and well-sung. It may be even more accessible than the play–less thought required to puzzle through the meaning and numerous symbolic connections between acts one and two. But it is the thought-provoking nature of the play that makes it truly brilliant and that is lessened in the film.

ENDER’S GAME (2013)

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Director: Gavin Hood

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 114 min

Ender Wiggins was born to be a commander.  After his brilliant but sadistic older brother, Peter, was deemed too brutal, and his compassionate older sister, Valentine, deemed two mild, his parents were given special permission to have a third child.  And when Colonel Graff witnesses Ender thoroughly defeat a group of bullies, he knows that this boy is the one to lead the Earth’s forces to victory against the vicious aliens that attacked Earth a century earlier–the buggers.  Graff whisks Ender off to an outer space battle school where he is isolated and miserable.  But as he gradually learns how to beat the games the teachers throw at them, he quickly advances from launchy to soldier to commander, and earns the trust of many of his peers–and the hatred of others.

This film captures the important basics of the incredibly nuanced and complex novel of the same name.  I agree with the decision to condense the timeline from the book’s five years to only a year or two.  This allowed them to have one actor play Ender through the whole film and to create a story arc that could easily be followed in a two hour film.  But this meant seeing less of Ender’s transformation over time (they hit the highlights) and far fewer characters (a good choice–easier to keep track of).  The military strategy was also simplified and Peter and Valentine’s political personas eliminated entirely.   Despite these simplifications, the major themes of the book still came through strongly.  The visualization of battle school was very accurate and cool to see (I reread the book to see the descriptions again).  And it was an exciting and suspenseful film that you would be able to follow even if you had not read the book.

In short, a good film and very well done adaptation of the story of Ender’s Game, but not a substitute for the nuanced and thought-provoking novel.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)

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Director: Josh Boone
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 min

Hazel does not particularly enjoy support group.  It consists of sitting in a church with a bunch of other teenagers with cancer of various kinds at various stages, all in the process of dying.  It is really just one of those things she does to make her parents happy, since her greatest fear is the knowledge that someday soon, she will die and leave them alone and in grief.  But it is at support group that Hazel first meets Augustus Waters, an attractive and witty guy with an affinity for metaphorical cigarettes.  Their friendship forms quickly after Gus reads Hazel’s favorite book–a philosophical novel by a reclusive author.  Peter Van Houten’s novel has had a profound influence on Hazel and her worldview, but there is one problem.  It ends mid-sentence with the main character’s death.  Not a very satisfying conclusion.  As Hazel tries to balance her feelings for Augustus with her reluctance to begin a relationship that must inevitably soon end with her death, Augustus tries to track down Van Houten to find out how the novel ends.

This was everything a film adaptation should be.  It was true to the book and true to the characters.  The dialogue was taken directly from the book.  The writers decided to go with voice over and committed to that decision consistently; in this film it was a very effective technique.  Cuts to the content and the text were judicious.  Flashbacks were incorporated smoothly and artistically.  And the story arc of the film tied the introduction and conclusion together beautifully.  Some of the complexity of the book was lost, such as Gus’s ex-girlfriend and a number of Isaac scenes, including his second funeral speech which happens to contain my favorite line.  But some losses were inevitable and the writers were very conscientious about preserving the major themes from the book, the contemplation of infinity, the beautiful scene in the Anne Frank house, etc.  I was very impressed, and I highly recommend it.

THE BOOK THIEF (2013)

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I finally got up the courage to watch the movie adaptation of my favorite book…
Director: Brian Percival
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 131 min.

Death is usually impartial to the humans he encounters as he travels the world, gently collecting souls.  But when young Liesel Memminger catches him in the act of taking her little brother, Death is entranced.  He stays and watches Liesel as she and her mother bury her brother beside the train tracks.  He watches as Liesel steals a small book that fell out of a gravedigger’s pocket.  Then he follows Liesel to her new home with her foster family on Himmel Street.  Being accused of communism in Hitler’s Germany is a dangerous thing, and her mother has been forced to give Liesel up to ensure her safety.  Death watches Liesel grow up under the gentle care and guidance of her stepfather and thunderous love of her stepmother.  He watches her struggles and triumphs as she learns to read and her blossoming friendship with Rudy Steiner across the street.  And when a Jew arrives on her doorstep begging to be hidden from the Nazis, Liesel finds that as with reading, the greatest joys are often wrapped up in struggles and pain.

 

The Short Assessment:

The Book Thief is my Favorite Book Of All Time, so I feared a film adaptation would anger or disgust me.  But I actually found this to be a very conscientious adaptation.  The book was better.  And I think that there were a few shortcomings as a film (places where without prior knowledge from the book, some things would fall flat or seem disconnected).  And there was one scene they changed that did really annoy me because it was unnecessary, dumb, and cliche.  (The ending for Rudy Steiner.  If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about.)  But there were also a number of strengths (acting being at the forefront) and beautiful moments.  If you have read the book, you may truly enjoy the film as well.  I did.

The Long Assessment (some spoilers):

Geoffrey Rush is the real reason I was willing to watch this film, because I knew he would be awesome, and he was.  And Sophie Nelisse blew me away.  She is a phenomenal young actress.  It is a testament to every actor, as well as the writers and director, that at no point did I feel like the portrayal of a character in the film clashed with my imagining of the character from reading the book.  This is why I say it was a conscientious adaptation.  It was clear that those involved had studied the characters Zusak wrote and became them.  Hans Hubermann melted my heart.  Liesel and Rudy were simultaneously carefree, reckless children and premature adults, aged by the burden of war and responsibility.

There were major cuts made to the text; these were by and large necessary to turn a 500+ page novel into a feature-length film.  For the most part, it ran smoothly.  I regretted losing the theme of how words change the world (Max’s story “The Word Shaker” is cut).  I also regretted losing the many complex auxiliary characters, such as the Nazi sympathizing Frau Diller, which helped create the book’s incredibly nuanced picture of the German people and their motivations.  But too many characters in a short film is confusing, so I do not begrudge the screenwriters this cut; as we still had Ilsa Hermann, I think it was a wise decision.

But I think we needed more narration from Death in the film to make it more cohesive.  There is a very long break between Death’s early narration and his return, and I found it jarring.  Additionally, they chose to end the film with Death’s line “I am haunted by humans.”  But because we did not get as much character development from Death in the film, this fell flat for me.  In the film, Death does not cradle the souls of the Jews killed in concentration camps; he does not walk with Hans Hubermann in the war.  He tells us at the beginning that he is entranced by Liesel, but in the end, he does not take her journal (as he does in the book).  A few of these moments would have gone a long way toward making that final line more impactful and driving home the point that although their lives are brief, they are so meaningful that an eternal being like Death carries them with him forever and feels compelled to tell their story.

I also think the post-bombing scene didn’t quite work.  Full marks for effort–they really tried to capture the gentle grief of Himmel Street’s final moments that we see in the book.  But in the book, we had forewarning.  Death told us in the beginning that one of the three times he met the book thief, there were bombs falling all around.  We knew it was coming.  As we got closer, we got a clearer picture of who would live and who would die.  We had time to process.  So in the end, there was no numb shock or anger or vain hope that someone would survive.  Instead, we grieved at the loss.  In the film, events were strictly chronological.  Those who had not read the book would have no forewarning.  So in the film, Death explains about collecting the souls while we see the people peacefully sleeping.  Then we viewed the bombs falling from a distance.  I liked this choice.  Unfortunately, though, I didn’t feel much momentum when Liesel was rescued from the basement.  I think in the book, the momentum of the bombing carried over into Liesel’s frantic discovery of the bodies.  In the film with the scene break, it didn’t carry over for me.  And then of course, Rudy.  Perhaps that added dialogue was meant to replace Death’s frequent “Kiss him, Liesel!” in the book, to give the kiss its due heartbreaking drama.  But it still seemed far more tragic in the book–when it was already far too late when she found him and they never shared an “I love you” moment at all.  And let’s face it–the whole “I have to tell you…I…lov….” thing: disgustingly cliche.

So as an adaptation of the book, it was faithful to the characters and themes, but lost some of the depth and nuances.  As a film, there were a few points where prior knowledge from the books would fill in gaps and make the significance more clear.  But overall, it had a story arc and hung together well.  The acting was fantastic, and it was lovely visually.  I was impressed and enjoyed it.