Drama

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.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (2012)

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Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 109 min.

Finally got to watch this adaptation of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays by one of my favorite directors!  There were things I loved and things I found uninspiring, but overall, I liked it.

Since their one-night-stand, Benedict and Beatrice can’t seem to see one another without slipping into a biting, witty banter, until someone’s feelings get hurt.  Unfortunately, when Benedict and his friend Claudio return from the war, they will be staying in the same house as Beatrice and her uncle.  What’s more, Claudio falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, and suddenly everyone is planning a wedding.  But Claudio, Hero, and their friends devise a plan to trick Benedict and Beatrice into falling in love with one another.  Meanwhile, the Prince’s rebellious brother, Don John, decides to get revenge on his brother by spoiling the marriage of his right-hand-man, Claudio.

What I liked about this adaptation:

I am willing to own that this might be a Firefly bias (though I do think I’m being reasonably objective) . . . but two of my favorite things about this adaptation were Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry and the dynamic between his deputies and Sean Maher’s Don John and the dynamic between his minions.  I often find Dogberrys to be overdone and Don Johns to be boring–hence my delight at Nathan Fillion’s understated, deadpanned comedy and Sean Maher’s petulant, hedonistic villainy.  Favorite moment of the movie: Don John swiping a cupcake off the display after defaming Hero at the wedding.  Because a) it was hilarious, and b) it helped show his immaturity, opportunism, and self-indulgence.  Making Conrade female also provided significant opportunity for this character development.  Even Boracchio got more character development than I often see, by making his motivation for plotting against Claudio revenge for love of Hero.  As for the fools, Fillion’s Dogberry emphasized the humor of his malapropism (severe language confusion) by leaving most of the physical comedy to Verges.  I have frequently seen that done the other way round, making Dogberry entirely ridiculous.  But this interpretation allowed us to truly pity Dogberry as he works through his hurt and confusion at being called “ass” (when he may or may not know what the word means or even if it is an insult…).

My other favorite thing about this adaptation was the scene in Act V between Benedict and Beatrice where they publicly declare their non-love for each other.  Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof did this perfectly.  It was obvious how unsure they both were–unwilling to publicly declare their love if they weren’t sure the other was going to do the same, each trying to determine if the other was really sincerely in love without betraying his/her own feelings and while keeping up the proud facade their friends had come to expect.  Very well done.

What I did not like:

Despite the awesomeness of the final scene, I was overall uninspired by Alexis Denisof’s Benedict.  His delivery was too understated for me.  He did not use much inflection, and I felt a lot of the humor in his lines was lost.   There were definitely moments I enjoyed (his dramatic “stretching” display for Beatrice was pretty great).  But a lot of his soliloquies and even his banter with other characters fell flat.

Definitely an enjoyable adaptation, though, and one I will certainly watch again!

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

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Director: Zack Snyder
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time 143 min.

With the planet’s core on the verge of destruction, General Zod attempts a military coup to eliminate the foolish Council and preserve Krypton.  But Jor-El realizes that the planet is beyond saving.  He and his wife, Lara, have had a child—the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries.  Jor-El steals the genetic codex from the Genesis Chamber where other children of Krypton are created (each with a specific predetermined role in society).  As the coup rages outside, Jor-El and Lara send their son, Kal, and the codex in a small space craft destined for Earth.  General Zod is too late to stop the launch, but he kills Jor-El and vows to track down and eliminate Kal-El, who he views as a blasphemy against Krytpon’s ideals.

While Zod and his soldiers search the universe for Kal-El, Clark Kent grows up on a small farm in Kansas, struggling to hide his unique abilities, but unable to resist helping when he sees someone in danger.  He succeeds anonymity for over three decades, until a journalist named Lois Lane stumbles upon him in the arctic wilderness while investigating a frozen spaceship.  Clark is about to discover his past—and the world to discover its hero.

This film was an artsy, angsty reimagining of Superman. I loved getting all of the history of Krypton and the psychology of General Zod (and of Superman, of course).  But after the fall of Krypton, the plot was very slow moving for quite a while, and unfortunately the dialogue was not very well written.  (Let’s just say this film has nothing on The Avengers , Iron Man, or Captain America.)  That said, I enjoyed watching it; it was an interesting twist on the Superman story.  And I thought Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon were both quite good.  Still, if I had to pick a Superman movie to watch again, I’d definitely stick with 1978.

 

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

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Director: Ben Stiller
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 114 min

Walter can’t think of anything interesting to say on his eHarmony profile that might catch the attention of his creative coworker Cheryl; his life is just too ordinary.  But in his imagination, Walter has incredible adventures—adventures like the ones photographed by the legendary Sean O’Connell for Life magazine.  For over a decade, Walter has worked at Life collecting and developing Sean’s negatives.  But when new management puts an end to the printed Life magazine, Sean sends Walter one last roll of film.  In a telegram to the management, Sean announces that negative 25 is the best photograph he has ever taken and should be used as the cover for Life’s final issue.  The only problem: Walter can’t find negative 25.  It seems to have been left out of the roll.  And Sean O’Connell has no phone and no permanent address.  The only clues to Sean’s whereabouts are the other negatives on the roll.  Inspired by his affection for Cheryl and a desire to live the kind of life he’s been dreaming about, Walter boards a plane to Greenland in search of Sean O’Connell and adventure.

I loved this movie!  I wouldn’t indiscriminately recommend it to everyone (it may be too artsy for some), but I thought it was hilarious and beautiful.  It felt to me like a cross between Office Space (1999) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).  There was a lot of humor (witty, slapstick, and quirky), but the plot focused on Walter’s personal journey of self-discovery.  The filming style deliberately called the viewer’s attention to the camera techniques—which seemed appropriate for a film about photography.  If you enjoy kind of artsy films, but also like the type of humor in films like Office Space, definitely give this one a try!

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

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Director: John Lee Hancock
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 min

With her finances in a desperate state, eccentric English author P.L. Travers finally must consider doing the unthinkable—selling the rights to her novel, Mary Poppins, to the American animator Walt Disney, who has been pestering her about it for twenty years.  But Mrs. Travers will not sign the contract unless she is sure the film will meet her standards.  First and foremost, it cannot involve any animation, and it certainly cannot be a musical.  (Mary Poppins would never, ever sing!)  Mrs. Travers flies to Los Angeles to meet with Walt and his writing team, and while the Disney crew struggles to please the demanding author, Mrs. Travers struggles with the painful memories that the story stirs.

I couldn’t stop smiling after watching this film.  It was funny, nostalgic, and overwhelmingly heartwarming.  Emma Thompson was perfect (as usual).  I was surprised at how little the real life “Mary Poppins” figure appeared in the back story, but I suppose that was somewhat the point; the aunt was not really Mary Poppins, and the story wasn’t really about Mary Poppins (at least not in the author’s mind).  So the focus on Helen and her father makes sense.  And while some of the subject matter was a bit dark, the film as a whole was not heavy.  It was sweet and touching—and funny.  It was a very good script; I laughed a lot.  I highly recommend this to anyone who grew up loving Mary Poppins, and/or anyone who likes based-on-a-true-stories about the lives of eccentric people (and has seen Mary Poppins at least once).  I loved every minute of it!

 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

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I rarely blog sequels, but since I defended Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit installment, I feel obligated to comment on the second part of The Hobbit.  Or whatever it is you want to call that ridiculous thing I watched yesterday…

The Good:
The dragon animation was awesome.  Also, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is simultaneously sexy and soul-crushingly terrifying.

The Bad:
Pretty much everything else.

Naively, I defended part one of The Hobbit trilogy.  “It’s not an adaptation of The Hobbit,” I thought.  “It’s a prequel to LOTR, bringing in material from the Appendices and The Fellowship and the Sillmarillion!”  And for part one this was true.

But wiser people said “What will they do in Part 2 and 3?  Where will they get the content?”

Naively, I thought, “Maybe their adventures in Mirkwood will lead us to a new understanding of the elves with bits of the elf history that was alluded to in the LOTR films but much more detailed in Tolkien’s writings.  Maybe we’ll see Aragorn kidnap Gollum, or form the Rangers, or just generally do all of the awesome stuff he does before the start of the Fellowship.  Or maybe we’ll get to see the start of Aragorn and Arwen’s relationship and finally come to understand why on Middle Earth he would prefer her over Eowyn!”

But no.

Instead we get 2 hrs of stuff that was not even alluded to in the books with maybe 30 minutes of content that was loosely based on events from the book.  Very loosely.

And here’s the kicker it wasn’t even a good film.  Maybe I can accept that it was a terrible adaptation (although really, I can’t, because the LOTR films were such good adaptations and should have been much, much more difficult to get right). But it was also completely useless as a stand-alone film.  There was absolutely no story arc.  The company traveled several miles, fighting orcs pretty much non-stop; they got to the mountain and fought the dragon for a bit; and then the movie ended.  There was a lot of action, but nothing was achieved and no characters were developed–except for some minor characters who were barely mentioned in the books or completely made up for the film.  

And it kills me because I know that Peter Jackson can do story arc.  I think the adaptation of The Two Towers was brilliant.  He took a book which has no real climax, consisting as it does of two largely unrelated adventures told in separate halves of the book (no offense to Tolkien–his story arc is really more in the entire three book work as a whole).  But by entwining the stories together, Jackson created a powerful story arc.  He even helped assuage the utter, agonizing, boringness of two hobbits hiking across Middle Earth for hundreds of pages (at least a little).  Another great example of his good story arc sense in the LOTR films is his choice to end The Fellowship with Boromir’s death and Frodo and Sam striking off on their own while the rest of the company follows the trail of the kidnapped Merry and Pippin.  Tolkien splits this content between the end of the Fellowship and beginning of the Two Towers–he doesn’t care about the story arc in the individual books and instead lets them run together.  Peter Jackson saw the superior breaking point, completing the collapse of the Fellowship in film one and setting us up for the new quests in film two.

And as for character development, look what Jackson did with Aragorn in the LOTR films.  In the books, most of Aragorn’s development as a character has occurred prior to the start of the plot.  He comes into the Fellowship holding the sword of Elendil proudly and takes command of the quest.  He goes into every battle confident of victory, and he always wins.  He is the triumphant battlelord/king of Medieval lore.  But Jackson makes some bold changes in his adaptation.  He takes away Aragorn’s sword, makes him self-conscious, full of guilt, and reluctant to command.  Jackson gives charge of the quest to Gandalf, even giving the wizard a bunch of Aragorn’s lines (notably, it is Gandalf, not Gimli who wishes to travel through Mordor and Aragorn who cautions against it and predicts Gandalf’s death).  But gradually, Aragorn gains confidence.  The battle of Helm’s Deep is not just a pit stop on the road to victory, but the turning of the tide when King Aragorn comes into his own.  These are pretty big changes, but they are purposeful.  They create a story that is a little bit different from Tolkien’s, but powerful and more accessible and inspiring to a modern film audience.

So I ask you, Peter Jackson, where was all of this brainpower when you were doing The Hobbit?  Here was a chance to create an awesome prequel trilogy for your Academy Award dominating masterworks and instead we experience Star Wars prequel-esque let-down.

At least the CGI dragon was cool. . .