Film

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!

THE IRON GIANT (1999)

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Director: Brad Bird
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 86 min.

Hogarth Hughes loves collecting unusual pets.  Unfortunately, his pets have a habit of getting loose and wreaking havoc—like the squirrel at the diner.  But when Hogarth discovers a giant alien robot in the woods behind his house, he is a little afraid to bring this particular creature home.  What would his mom say, after all!  The robot is determined to follow him, however, and once Hogarth discovers that a ruthless government agent is tracking the robot to destroy it (fearing it to be Soviet spy technology), Hogarth is determined to protect his giant friend.  With the help of a friendly junkyard artist, Hogarth is able to hide the iron giant for a time.  But the persistent government agent has no intention of backing down…

Although the animation leaves something to be desired, this story is sweet, suspenseful, and filled with the Brad Bird humor that made his later film The Incredibles (2004) so great.   It is not as good as The Incredibles (but then, few films are), but kids and parents will all find something to love in this great family film.  I highly recommend it!

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

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Director: Bryan Singer
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 131 min.

In a bleak future world, mutants are hunted by machines called Sentinels.  In the 1970s, scientist Bolivar Trask experimented on and dissected mutants in order to create the Sentinels.  He was assassinated by the shape-changing mutant Mystique, but ironically Mystique’s arrest gave the surviving scientists access to her genetic code which they used to perfect their lethal machines.  Now, Professor X, Wolverine, Magneto, and the other mutants are facing extinction.  Their only hope is for Kitty Pryde to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to end the feud between Magneto and the Professor and convince Mystique to choose a better path.

If you are familiar with the X-Men comics, this is a very fun movie.  A bunch of characters make brief appearances (Quicksilver’s 15 minutes of screen time was absolutely the highlight of the film!) and there are some great inside jokes.  If you are not familiar with the X-Men comics, though, I suspect it will fall a little flat.  The intensity of the dystopian framing story depends on you having an emotional investment in the characters—and for the most part, the framing story drives the suspense of the plot.  But you get limited characterization of minor characters in this film (Quicksilver excepted).  I think that is something that is consistently a struggle in the X-Men movies:  so many characters, so little time.   Marvel has done a much better job of dealing with the Avengers by isolating them in origin stories—something that is more difficult if not impossible for the X-Men.

My gut reaction would be to recommend this film only if you are somewhat familiar with the X-Men characters and comics.  But I’d love to hear from folks who watched this film without any prior knowledge; let us know what you thought in the comments!

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!

Marvel’s Avengers Movies Ranked: Update

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I’m back from a trip overseas, and you know what that means:  hours and hours of airplane movies!  In the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World, I rewatched a bunch of the Marvel movies and added the new ones to my ranking.  So check it out!  And stay tuned for more movie posts this week.

In other news, Orphan Black comes back on Saturday night.  I won’t get to watch the premier in real time because it’s Easter (so no spoilers!) but I’m excited for the new season!  Sci-fi fans, if you haven’t checked it out yet, do it.  It’s awesome.