Archive for the ‘Literary adaptation’ Category
Saturday, June 20th, 2009
“For the love of Thomas Hardy!” To hear the review
To hear the review
Boy, the people in Inkheart sure love their books and authors. References to a bunch of different books are made, dozens of books are shown, and of course books are central to the movie’s theme. I was kind of hoping to see some more obscure books than The Wizard of Oz and The Hound of the Baskervilles, I suppose that since it’s a kids movie the books referenced ought to be kid-friendly. But there was a pretty heavy over-reliance on The Wizard of Oz. The movie is about Mo (Brendan Fraser), who is a silver-tongue. Which means that he is one of the people in the world blessed with the unique ability to read written words and have those words come to life.
Years ago, he read a book aloud to his infant daughter, a book called Inkheart. When the book came to life, and the bad guys appeared, Mo’s wife (Sienna Guillory) disappeared into the book. The bad guys decided they liked our world, and staked out an area away from the authorities. We are to assume here that a giant castle a few miles from a major city where murders and kidnappings and slavery are taking place would escape the notice of the people in the surrounding area. We are also to assume that no silver-tongue ever once reads out loud before the age of thirty. (Otherwise, they might discover their gift earlier, which would be inconvenient for the plot.)
I can suspend my disbelief for a kids movie when it comes to minor problems like these. Which means that the single biggest flaw with the movie is Brendan Fraser. He’s still adequate at playing the slightly befuddled potential action hero that he plays in just about every kids movie. And although he is acting beside Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent, two extremely high-caliber actors, he does not look out of place because they’re phoning it in. Mirren and Broadbent, after all, are not Streep and DeNiro. And Brendan Fraser is not Pauly Shore. But they’re all pretty close.
So if Fraser is watchable and not irritating, and he is the worst part of this movie, it must be at least decent, right? Well, right. Inkheart is, at least, decent. A scenery-chewing performance by Andy Serkis, clearly having fun in the role of bad guy Capricorn, helps. And a lot of the time, other characters than Mo are on the screen. Less Fraser is better. But many other characters are pointless, and not just Helen Mirren. One of the 40 thieves is read out of the Arabian Nights, and joins our heroes for some time, for no discernible reason. The author of Inkheart himself is dredged up, again for no apparent reason. There are brief references to Peter Pan (a ticking crocodile), The Hound of the Baskervilles (a big wolf-dog with glowing eyes), and a unicorn and some flying monkeys.
The flying monkeys appear to just be updated versions of those from the movie The Wizard of Oz, rather than something new that could conceivably have been read out of the book itself. But no matter. The best character in the movie is Broadbent’s. He plays Fenoglio, a fire-juggler who was read out of Inkheart, and he just wants to go back into the book to rejoin his family. Which leads to the most criminally underused actress of the movie. Jennifer Connelly, who might be the best actress in the entire film, spends about three seconds of time on the screen as Fenoglio’s wife in the book. She has no line of dialogue whatsoever, and never appears again. Why bother? I am hoping that on the cutting room floor, there is an additional forty minutes of the movie that involves Connelly in some important way, footage that will show up when the director’s cut gets released two years from now. Here’s hoping.
There is no explanation of the origins of these “silver-tongues” – it would be nice to know how they originated, or what is the source of their powers, or something. Although when the obvious happens and Fraser’s daughter turns out to be a silver-tongue herself, I get to assume the whole thing is hereditary. In fact, Fraser’s daughter, played by the wonderful Eliza Bennett, is the heart of the movie, and the most compelling character. Her search for her missing mother and her confusion over her father’s powers rings true, and despite a really obvious and far too simple ending to the movie, she works hard at making it all reasonable.
Of course, it’s not all reasonable at all. The ending pretty much negates the movie entirely, in the sense that it’s something that, had it been done at the beginning (and it was the incredibly obvious thing to do), there would have been no need for the movie at all. And the postscript, where Fenoglio is sent home (to a wife whose face we never see - I suppose Jennifer Connelly had left the set by that time), conveniently ignores all the rules of silver-tonguery that have been laid out over the course of the rest of the film. There are many problems with Inkheart, and on one level it’s terrible.
But I preferred to watch Inkheart with an open mind, and a sense of awe, and certain scenes provide that awe. The special effects are solid for the most part, and Eliza Bennett and Jim Broadbent are good enough to convey the sense of power that comes from reading written words aloud and bringing books to life. Throughout, Inkheart is entertaining and well-paced, and although it misses the mark a lot, it hits the mark often enough to be at least decent.
Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
To hear the review
To hear the review
There are two double-feature DVDs coming out April 28th from Alliance Films. One, Monica La Mitraille and Dans L’Oeil Du Chat, pairs a pretty decent period piece with a pretty awful erotic thriller, which makes little sense. This one makes more sense. Romeo Et Juliette is another Quebec production that re-imagines the old Shakespeare play in a stylish modern way, like that Claire Danes – Leonardo DiCaprio movie in the 90s. It’s pretty good, and quite powerful. Aurore is a powerful emotional experience as well, but in a much different and more terribe way. Movies about child abuse and the death of children are rare, and don’t have huge box office potential, but they certainly pack a punch and this one is no exception. A review of both movies:
Romeo Et Juliette (*******7/10):
“A glooming peace this morning with it brings.”
I don’t know enough French to really say whether the flowery language of Shakespeare is well translated into flowery French for the purposes of this film. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Very little of it is actually quotes from Shakespeare, just a very few voiceovers and narrations. The concept of taking a Shakespeare story and updating it for modern times is a decent one, it often leads to good film, and you know the stories will work no matter how familiar they are. However, it’s also very easy to do something very bad with the idea (Ten Things I Hate About You, I’m looking at you).
Romeo Et Juliette, a film from Yves Desgagnes, is somewhere in the middle when it comes to Shakespeare adaptations. On the one hand, it feels lazy. The two main characters, after all, are actually NAMED Romeo and Juliet, and the story is followed just about scene-for-scene. And then there are other ideas thrown in that do not feel lazy, but rather contrived – Romeo’s gay friend is in love with him, and there is a strange scene with Juliet’s brother and the gay friend (the Mercutio and Tybalt of the story) that ends in the expected murders that set the stage for the final act. And I think we all know what comes in the final act.
But knowing what’s coming because of my familiarity with the story didn’t dull the power of the the tale at all. Although the film does feel alternately half-assed and then contrived, the performances by the actors are enough to carry the movie through any rough patches. Particularly Charlotte Aubin, who plays Juliet. She looks young enough to really be Juliet, and the scenes she shares with Romeo abound with youthful passion and puppy love. And the scenes toward the end of the movie where her brother has been killed, and she believes Romeo to be dead, are heartbreaking. Even though we know the story.
Thomas Lalonde plays Romeo, and he is very good too. Except that for some reason, I couldn’t shake the idea I had seen him somewhere before, and I was trying to place him for the first twenty minutes. Then it hit me – he looks very, very similar to Alexander Ovechkin. If Ovechkin was a superstar swimmer for CAMO in Montreal and not a superstar hockey player, and if he spoke French instead of Russian, and if he was much, much better looking, he would be Romeo in this movie. I was distracted by this once it occured to me, and I kept expecting Ovechkin - I mean, Romeo – to launch into a totally exuberant but overboard celebration every time he kissed Juliet.
The movie is very Montreal while still being very Shakespeare. Juliette’s father is a judge, presiding over the trial of a biker leader whose gang is accused of planting a bomb that killed a kid. That biker boss is Romeo’s father. So that’s how it all works…no attempt is made to hide the settings and the origins of the characters. When Romeo leaps into the pool to compete in his swim meets, he is very clearly wearing the CAMO cap and colours that stamp this movie as Montreal. It’s a nice touch on the movie, which ends up being quite good and ending strong. Much of the credit needs to go to Lalonde, Aubin, and I really ought to mention the strange, tortured, but terrific performance by Danny Gagne as Etienne, Juliette’s brother. It would have been cooler had he looked like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin…but no movie’s perfect.
“Every night the birds come to tell me you’re alright.”
A film about child abuse is necessarily going to be hard to watch. And Aurore is most definitely hard to watch. It’s heartbreaking and devastating and, worst of all, based on a true story. The movie is based on the story of a couple in turn-of-the-century Quebec who abused a child until she died. Their trial was a watershed moment in that province at that time, not only because of the horrific nature of the abuse itself, but also because of all the people who willingly looked the other way, not least of which was the local catholic church.
Aurore Gagnon starts the movie as a sweet, terrifically cute little girl, happily living with her sister and their mother and father, Telesphore. When their mother becomes ill, their father’s cousin Marie-Anne comes to visit. Soon, Marie-Anne has placed Telesphore under her femme fatale spell, and he is consumed with a desire for her. So much so that he hires her on under the guise of helping around the farm, and then stops visiting his sick wife in the hospital and basically ignores her until she dies. So much is he under this woman’s spell that he allows his standing in the community to be utterly destroyed. Before she came along, he was considered to be one of the nicest guys around, now he is a heel for cheating on his dying wife and marrying his cousin on the day of his wife’s funeral.
So initially, Marie-Anne is seen as a schemer and a temptress. Frankly, I didn’t see it. I wouldn’t have spent more than ten minutes with this woman. She tries way too hard to throw those “coy” looks around, and she comes off as irritating more than desirable. Also, Telesphore’s wife, even sickly and on her deathbed, is still far more attractive than his cousin. But as we soon find out, she is more than just a femme fatale out for money. She is also a complete psychopathic lunatic. One of the type so often seen in movies like this one – bible thumping, condemning the evils of liquor on the one hand, and heaping an enormous amount of devastating abuse on her step daughter behind closed doors.
There are some intensely brutal scenes in Aurore, most of them (mercifully) happening off screen. The reaction of the other children is enough to get the gist of what’s going on, and the movie would, frankly, have been impossible to watch had we actually seen the burnings, the beatings and the horrible things being done to young Aurore. The townspeople are already very suspicious of Marie-Anne and Telesphore. A few years earlier, two of Marie-Anne’s children died under suspicious circumstances, and everyone believes the couple was responsible.
However, they are hesitant to “stick their noses” into the business of others, even if it means saving the life of the young girl who is being abused so mercilessly. The catholic church, especially, is held to blame here, because the young priest in the town is one of the only people around with the authority to actually intervene. However, it has been his own words which (likely misinterpreted, or at least taken to the extreme by Marie-Anne) started the abuse in the first place. The more Aurore is abused, the more she rejects God, and of course the more she rejects God the more she gets abused. The vicious cycle (and it is certainly vicious) will end with her death.
Aurore is an absolutely devastating movie about a very, very difficult subject. It’s a testament to director Luc Dionne that he is able to walk the fine line between overly sentimental sadness and clinical storytelling. A stark picture of life in rural Quebec at the turn of the century, and also the story of a lovely young girl whose death was almost merciful in that it relieved such terrible suffering. And, worst of all, this is based on a true story.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
“There is a way to be good again.”
The Kite Runner is one of the most powerful and moving films of recent years, but it’s more than just a heartbreaking story about two little kids suffering through oppression and then achieving redemption later in life. Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing The Kite Runner on Blu-Ray, and the high definition format really highlights the brilliance of the filming.
The bleakness of the Afghanistan desert and the comparative vibrancy of the action within the cities there just leap off the screen in the Blu-Ray format, and it really makes this an even better film. I still like the book better, but The Kite Runner movie is awfully close. The actors are tremendous, the story is devastating, and it looks really good. And now, it looks even better. The Blu-Ray comes out March 24th.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
“You lost your manhood the day your child was conceived.”
Melodrama! Lunacy! Murder and adultery and evil and mayhem! If it sounds like I am describing a soap opera, well, I am. Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game IS, in fact, a soap opera. It may not be interminable like Days of Our Lives, which has, from what I understand, been following the same characters on the same story lines for forty-four years. And I say that it isn’t interminable, simply because it does, in fact, end. It takes an awfully long time to end. It takes two discs and about seven hours, but after watching a bit the finish line seems farther and farther away. It feels like eleven discs and seven weeks long.
I say that Master of the Game is a soap opera because it is melodramatic. And because it has a soap-opera-esque plot, involving bastard children, and paternity, and women who fight the men they love even though those men don’t love them and then in the middle of the fistfight the old feelings that lie dormant awaken in these men and they make out and have sex. There is diamond mining, but it’s soap-opera easy diamond mining that doesn’t require a huge set and lots of money. These diamonds, you see, just sit on the beach off the coast of Cape Town. And the acting is of a soap-opera quality, which means that this series feels like it was written the day before the actors received the script and it was acted out immediately on a cheap-ass soundstage.
Of course, none of this is actually the case. The sets are good, the story was written (appropriately) by Sidney Sheldon in his novel Master of the Game, and (some) of the actors are above the caliber of those on soap operas. Among those is Donald Pleasance, who shows up for Part One but ends up losing his daughter to a revenge-minded Ian Charleson, killing a bartender, and then blowing his own head off. So Part Two has no Donald Pleasance, and suffers because of it. Instead it has more Ian Charleson, playing Jamie MacGregor, a tycoon whose desire for revenge is eventually overcome by the wiles of his wife. They have children, and then they die, and the children are growing up, and so Part Two ends.
From there, Harry Hamlin and Dyan Cannon and David Birney are running the show, mostly Dyan Cannon. She is one of those evil wealthy women who is willing to cheat, deceive, steal, and murder if it means her will is done. She manipulates people, tricks people and does all kinds of mean crap over the course of the next four hours. And they are four interminable hours. Dyan Cannon was never much of an actress. She’s at least pretty hot though. I think this may well have been an interesting book, although I have never read any of the works of Sidney Sheldon. But with a book I can put it down, go on to other things, and forget about it for a while. It might take me seven weeks to read a book this size, but at least it would be on my terms.
With the DVD, we don’t get that, though. We get soap opera actors acting out a soap opera story hastily thrown together, with more emphasis placed on set design than on character development. Shouldn’t a seven hour miniseries involve almost all character development? This one seems to try, but has no idea how to go about doing it. Master of the Game comes out March 24th from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Until now, I was convinced that Ben Affleck wouldn’t know a good script if it walked up to him and kicked him in the stones. Now, I am not so sure. Either he just doesn’t care, as long as he’s acting, or he is such a bad actor that he will ruin any script by himself. But there is a third option. Perhaps the script to Gone Baby Gone not only walked up to him and kicked him in the stones, it also bit him in the face, chewed off part of his nose, ripped out his nipple ring, stabbed him twice and then gave him the people’s elbow. Or maybe it’s a combination, because Ben Affleck’s wisest decision as a director in Gone Baby Gone was not to cast Ben Affleck in any role in his movie. How many directors can competently direct themselves? Clint Eastwood and…yeah. Maybe just Clint. So that was good decision number one. A questionable decision was to cast his younger brother Casey in the starring role. Casey Affleck, as far as I was aware, existed only in movies that starred Ben, and even then he played some minor throw-away role. How good could he actually be?
Well, the answer, it turns out, is VERY good. Casey Affleck plays a private investigator who looks as though he is thirteen. This is great casting, because Casey Affleck does indeed look as though he is thirteen. And when the situation calls for him to act the tough guy, it somehow really works. Not only do we not expect it, neither do the bad guys. And it’s pretty convincing intimidation when this young, babyfaced guy all of a sudden gets Dirty Harry tough. Everyone is taken aback, realiztically so. It’s a great job by Affleck of handling the character. Somehow, with that Good Will Hunting Boston accent, you get the sense that this guy is a lot tougher than he looks. His wife is played admirably by Michelle Monaghan, an actress who is rising to the top of the heap of late with roles in movies like this one and North Country. The best performance in the movie, however, is turned in by Amy Ryan, who plays the mother of an abducted little girl. She is a coke-head, a drug mule, a drunk, in short, one of the worst mothers imaginable for a sweet young child.
Affleck and Monaghan are hired by the little girl’s aunt to help find her. They are joined in their pursuit by a pair of cops, played by the excellent Ed Harris and John Ashton, and their search takes them through the seedy underbelly of Boston, dealing with drug dealers (some good and some bad) and general thugs who cause problems at every turn. Every time the movie seems to be reaching a certain conclusion, the script throws a twist into the plot, and all of a sudden Affleck and Monaghan are careening toward a different outcome. By the end of the film, the whole story becomes clear, and there is a final “showdown” that presents a Sophie’s Choice kind of ending, although not nearly so dramatic. This is the only minor quibble I have with the ending. The decision reached by the characters, the course of action they choose to take, seems like a massive moral decision that would cause most of us to really wonder what we would do in that situation. But a closer examination of that choice makes it seem obvious that there is really only one choice that could be made there, the choice Affleck eventually does make. I won’t tell you the details, I haven’t really revealed anything here, but you’ll have to watch the movie yourself. It is being released by Alliance Atlantis on Tuesday, and really needs to be watched to be understood. Watch this movie.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Becoming Jane is ostensibly the story of Jane Austen, considered by many to be the greatest female novelist of all time. Of course, we have to put the qualifier “female” in front of “novelist”, because it’s such a … well … novelty. Like “male stripper”. Never mind the fact that the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Margaret Laurence, Mary Shelley and Alice Walker have written some of the most enduring classics in literature, they are still “female authors”. And in Jane Austen’s time, being a “female author” was a pretty big deal. George Eliot clearly had to operate under a pseudonym (I actually have no idea what her real name was) because women couldn’t write stuff! Women cleaned and cooked and made babies! (It was a different time.) Now, as a big fan of Jane Austen and her novels, I know a good deal about her life. Enough to know how Becoming Jane ends. (I won’t tell you, in case you end up watching this film. And I hope you don’t.)
Becoming Jane, the DVD from Alliance Atlantis that comes out today, comes with a free coupon for Pennington’s. If you purchase 100 bucks worth of clothes, you get a 20 dollar credit – free! This should indicate something about the target audience for this film. Young women who just don’t know any better, apparently. Jane Austen, one of the towering literary figures in history, gets the Hollywood “bio-pic” treatment here. And like everything else in Hollywood, no great historical tale can possibly be told without cramming in a love story. No one in history was interesting unless they were in love with someone. Think Titanic, Pearl Harbor, and so forth. Jane Austen’s life was interesting only because of her love story, it turns out. You see, her family is trying to force her to marry a young, rich man so that they can have money and she’ll be happy, because marrying rich is a must, if it is possible. But Jane (played by Anne Hathaway here) has a MIND of her OWN, and SHE wants to marry for LOVE.
Wait…this is familiar. So Jane Austen had a life that almost perfectly mirrored that of several other movies I have seen? Movies like Titanic, The Notebook, The Princess Bride, My Man Godfrey, Van Wilder, Wedding Crashers, Sweet Home Alabama, Clerks II, and four hundred others I won’t bother listing? Of course she did! It’s a little known fact that Kevin Smith based his Dante character in Clerks II on the life of Jane Austen. OK, I made that up. All these movies have something in common. Or many things. The girl doesn’t want to be forced into a match, because she’s rebellious and independant and she has a mind of her own! The man she is being pressured to marry has money and property and wealth, but is either a complete jerk and cad no girl would ever like, or a simpering sissy no girl would ever want. Becoming Jane goes the “simpering sissy” route. The heroine then meets a lower-class, poor working man. Possibly a brutish sort who fights and drinks and doesn’t bathe or shave, but God help him he’s his OWN MAN! They hate each other straight away, but that hate quickly turns to love.
An aside – this is actually how I got together with my girlfriend. I didn’t bathe for weeks, I fought with everyone I met while in her presence, every time she saw me I was falling down drunk, and I called her many horrible names. I ran over her dog so we could start out on terms of “hate”, but I knew that that always leads to love, because I watch a lot of movies. Worked like a charm! At the end of most of these movies, the heroine of course marries for love. But we’re worried about her! How can she live so poor? She’s pretty, and pretty girls can’t be poor! So the guy usually ends up being incredibly rich, inheriting some money or winning the lottery or inventing a hilarious talking fish that proves to be lucrative. Now, she has the best of BOTH worlds! Thank God. She would really have regretted that whole “love” thing if she had to work for a living the rest of her days. She will be a princess after all.
These movies also suppose two things. First, that rich, high-class people are incapable of being fun and exciting without also being callous and evil. And poor people can never be intelligent and interesting unless they are also very good looking. In Becoming Jane, this interesting good-looking lower class peasant is played by James McEvoy (Last King of Scotland). The script wants us to know, constantly, that we are talking about JANE AUSTEN here, and so it makes Anne Hathaway into a rather irritating screen character. She speaks in gigantic words all the time, and is so condescending to everyone outside her immediate family that one takes an immediate disliking to her. It’s supposed to show her “rebellious, girl with a mind” nature, really it makes her officious and annoying. The seduction scenes between her and McEvoy are painful in their attempts to be dialogue-clever. I promis, Jane Austen did not talk like this in real life. And I wasn’t even there.
In the end, Becoming Jane is a movie every one of us has seen hundreds, maybe thousands of times (many of them with Anne Hathaway). It’s the oldest story in movies, and to pretend you’re talking about a real human being, a literary titan such as Jane Austen, is insulting to the viewer. And to Jane Austen. Are we to believe this romance shaped her entire life and gave us all her books? That she never existed outside the framework of this relationship? Remember – she’s a real person, we KNOW how this ends. Far more interesting would have been watching her attempt to become a writer! She is a woman, it’s 1795 – it’s going to be tough to get people to read her stuff, to publish her, to use her name, a female name, on the books! That would have been far more interesting than just taking the easiest story in Hollywood and trying to make a real person fit that story. Don’t watch this movie. Just read Persuasion and Mansfield Park and enjoy those.
Shake Hands With The Devil – not the book, or the documentary, but the Roy Dupuis movie. (*******7/10)
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
I have long said that Roy Dupuis is the French Canadian version of Colm Feore. When you have a big Canadian icon that you want to immortalize on film or TV, you pick one or the other. Anglophone icon? Feore. (Pierre Trudeau, Glenn Gould.) A Francophone icon? Dupuis. (Maurice Richard, Romeo Dallaire.) And so there was no question in my mind when I heard that Shake Hands With The Devil was going to be made into a feature film as to who would play Dallaire. It was Dupuis, or the film would not have been made. By the way, in order to avoid those “do your research” and “get your facts straight” emails, I would like to state right now that I am indeed aware that Pierre Trudeau was a Francophone. But that movie was mostly English.
Dallaire’s book was a sensation in Canada when it came out. A tragic and devastating look at the genocide in Rwanda. It was later made into a documentary film, which helped make people aware of the horror a little more, and now this movie, which might help even a little more. The thing that made me saddest in watching this film was the fact that it came out so many years after the genocide was over. Same for the documentary and the book. Now, it’s not like Dallaire could have written his book while things were going on. But it’s sad to think that so many people pay attention now, and watch other films like Hotel Rwanda, and feel sad and mourn the tragedy and get enraged over things like “why didn’t somebody do something”. And yet, when we see those things on TV, on the news, in the papers, and we are aware it is taking place RIGHT NOW, we don’t do much. As Joaquin Phoenix says in Hotel Rwanda, we go back to our TV dinners and turn on the hockey game when the news is over.
Part of this, I feel, is because of the nature of the media. When genocide is taking place in Darfur, in Africa, way across the sea, it is treated as simply a news story. A two-minute piece on the horrors in Darfur gets as much importance as a two-minute piece on the possibility of the defeat of the budget in the House of Commons. Very often, it gets less. A school shooting is big news, front page on every paper, lead story in every newscast. That is a tragedy that hits close to home. But more people died in thirty seconds during the genocide in Rwanda than have died in all school shootings in North America combined. It doesn’t affect us. It is reported as “here’s what’s going on in a country that isn’t ours”, and is followed up with “a small town in France has outlawed public toilets!” and we forget all about it. Toilets! That’s hilarious! I think it’s safe to say that most of us know (myself included) know more about Columbine and Dawson College and Virginia Tech than we do about Darfur. Really, this isn’t exactly the fault of the media. This is really the way we want to be fed our news, and they are just complying with the wishes of the general population – you wouldn’t get many ratings if you showed machete massacres every night.
And so we get Shake Hands With the Devil, a movie that has been made only when it could be made, many years after the fact. And hopefully, it makes people aware that such things are still going on, or curious enough to find out. (Steven Spielberg has just pulled out of the Olympics in Beijing to protest China, feeling that they haven’t done enough to stop the genocide in Darfur.) And the movie is pretty good, as a movie. Dupuis is steely and tough as Dallaire, a man who carries himself with the utmost dignity and commands respect as a lifelong soldier. His supporting cast is for the most part excellent. Having just finished the book, I recognized most of the characters being protrayed just as I had imagined them. Especially James Gallanders as Major Brent Beardsley, who has a few tough scenes. This is a fascinating story, and that alone makes the movie worth watching.
But there is a little problem with the movie, looking at it solely in the context of a movie. It is a dramatization of real events, but somehow, it doesn’t feel dramatized enough. There are scenes taken directly from the book – a scene where Beardsley is confronted by a mob of machete-weilding Interahmwe, as he tries to get a wounded woman to safety, and he punches the man who stands in his way. In the book, the scene is tense, dramatic and poignant. In the film, it’s tough to tell what you’re seeing. Is that guy standing in his way…or not…or OK it’s over. Another scene where Dallaire and Beardsley are blockaded from a portion of the city and must get out of the car and walk through the barricade, as weapons are cocked and the bad guys say they will shoot. Again, in the book, this scene made me pretty nervous. In the movie, it is treated as a matter of course.
Doc hated Gone Baby Gone because he had read the book first, and he couldn’t reconcile what he saw on the screen with what he had imagined in his head when reading. I had the same problem with Shake Hands With the Devil, seeing scenes that were so familiar to me and yet not feeling their poignancy as much as I had while reading. But at the same time, I’m not sure anyone would understand this movie without having read the book first. There are so many factions and institutions – the RPF, the RGF, the Interahmwe, the president, prime minister, interim government, and countless others. Each with their own politics, their own attitudes, their own enemies and their own clandestine secrets. It is such a complicated picture that the movie can’t hope for a moment to make sense of it all in less than two hours. In the end, this film should be watched, and is certainly good, but if you had to make a choice, read the book.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
I am giving Beowulf the benefit of the doubt here. It is a movie that relies mainly on visuals, and the only TV I have where I can actually see the picture and hear the full sound is in the shop. I guess when I bought it, it had a faulty screen, and the warranty does indeed cover it. I sent it into this shop a week and a half ago. I called them yesterday to find out when I could have it back, and they said they thought perhaps, with some good luck, they might just have the parts they need to fix it within a month. Good thing I have that Blu-Ray player and pay for those HD cable channels. So, I had to watch Beowulf on a TV with a shaky, tiny screen and only one channel of sound. Which means that I will give the movie the benefit of the doubt and assume that the visuals ARE amazing and that the sound is impressive. Hey – anyone who has seen this film – can you tell me something? Angelina Jolie comes out of the water naked in the middle of the film, right? And she is all metallic or something, and there is no definition and no nipples. But at the end when she comes out of the water, there are nipples. Right? I couldn’t really tell.
But the animation seems strange to me. This movie is done sort of like 300, where it is live action actors which then have animation done over them. This worked with A Scanner Darkly, because it was constantly obvious. Right now, I’m not terribly certain why these movies are doing this. At least in 300, you forget the technique about halfway through the film. And then you just let the mindless entertainment wash over you. With Beowulf, it seems to come and go. Sometimes the actors look like real-life actors, and other times they look like computer animations from a kids’ movie. Which is bizarre. It also means that those computer-generated characters walk like the characters in Shrek. Shouldn’t they walk like, well, real people? Because they ARE real people? Again, I will assume that I thought this simply because of the lousy TV. Although I doubt it.
There are some cool scenes in the film, and it is fairly easy to make some decent entertainment out of the story. Not, of course, by following the original classic story line, but simply by pitting a mythic hero, Beowulf, against an indestructible monster, Grendel. After that, I guess people assume they can just do whatever they like. Much like 300, this involves a lot of yelling and flexing. The giant Grendel shows up first, and rips people apart in a Dansih banquet hall. As far as monsters go, he is more reminiscent of The Elephant Man or that kid in Mask than he is of any truly frightening creature. We watch him slink back to his lair to be comforted by his mother after his rampages, and I guess we’re supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for him? I guess. Then Beowulf shows up. For about half an hour after his arrival, I was expecting the punchline. I mean, this guy couldn’t possibly be for real, or played straight. He kicks open every door, flexes, screams “Beowulf!” at people…he’s like that kid on your high school football team who has permanently screwed up his brain with steroids, and can’t control the volume of his own voice, and the only word he really has command over is his own name. So he yells his own name over and over to get pumped up for that big football game. Then gets ejected for fighting on the first play. Don’t do ‘roids, kids. I’ve actually known this guy. He is now in prison.
Beowulf decides that since Grendel is unarmed and has no armour, that in order to make things fair, he will have to face him completely naked. This leads to an incredibly comical series of camera shots that cover up his wang with various objects, a la Austin Powers. I really don’t think it is meant to be funny. I think it is meant to suggest that Beowulf is hung like a telephone pole. The objects obscuring his junk are a sword, a spear, a mace…anything mean-looking and long. God, I hope it was done for comedic effect. Otherwise, it was the dumbest thing in the whole movie. So the woman looks at his wang and almost faints, he lies down naked among his men while they drink and carouse, and he waits for the monster. Then defeats Grendel, rather easily, while still being naked and still having those crotch-obscuring shots. Which makes the fight rather implausible. Grendel could possibly have won the fight had he not spent so much time putting his arms and legs in the right places so we can’t see Ray Winstone’s computer-generated penis. Poor Grendel. And I’m still waiting for the punchline.
Then we have naked Angelina Jolie. Only, she’s a cartoon. A very obvious cartoon. And there are no nipples or any kind of definition whatsoever, because that allowed Beowulf to keep it’s PG-13 rating. You see, in movies such as this one, all kinds of blood and gore are OK, because it is basically a cartoon. (In Kill Bill, Tarantino changed some scenes to black-and-white, and others to anime cartoons, so that the film would still be R-rated and not NC-17.) So you can show Grendel ripping guys in half, drinking their blood, chewing off their heads, and it is still PG-13. However, if you put nipples into the mix, this film would have been slapped with an R. So Angelina Jolie looks like the T-1000 from Terminator 2. Well, in it’s metal form, not it’s Robert Patrick form. Completely smooth, with no features at all, except for her face, which is a cartoon, and therefore not nearly as hot as she ought to be. And that’s the scene everyone seemed to be raving about.
There are many scenes that made me laugh out loud because they really did look like a set-up to a punchline. Ray Winstone’s Beowulf is a character begging to be mocked, yelling his own name at anyone who will listen, bragging about himself at every turn – this is the guy who, in any other movie, would be exposed for the fraud he is, and would receive his comeuppance. But in this movie, it just means he’s that much more heroic. If this was all it took to be a hero, Terrell Owens would be Superman. TERRELL! And while his performance is consistently laughable, so too is the monster Grendel. He rips a body in half, and then he cries, he drinks some blood and then covers his ears because the shrieks drive him nuts…apparently he was “played” in the film by Crispin Glover, but he’s just a giant computer-generated freak, and as such could have been “played” by me, my grandmother, a six-year-old, or Terrell Owens. And during the final, climactic battle scene, there is a dragon incinerating the world. It gets to the Danish castle where Beowulf’s wife and young concubine are hiding, for some reason, on a bridge. When the dragon appears, it pops it’s head up over the bridge in the same manner one would use to attempt to scare one’s younger sister by thrusting a sock puppet up from behind the couch upon which she’s asleep. Boo! It then tilts it’s head comically for some reason, before burning up the place with it’s fire-breath.
And John Malkovich is there too, apparently to provide some kind of human face to evil. He is set up, through the whole movie, as the dastardly back-room dealer who will usurp the king and take power himself through some kind of unscrupulous deed. But then he and Beowulf have a very laughable confrontation, he admits Beowulf’s superiority, and they bond. But we’re still given the feeling that this show of good faith is insidious and devious on Malkovich’s part, that he doesn’t mean a word of it. And then…he just keeps showing up through the movie, and nothing happens. He still looks and talks evil, and in this cartoon world of characters that must obviously mean he IS evil…but he stops doing stuff. Maybe his talk with Beowulf convinced him? Or maybe the film crew forgot he was evil. My money is on the latter. Based on what I saw, Beowulf gets 3 stars out of ten. but I’m giving it an extra two assuming that it would be far more visually brilliant were I to have my good TV back. If I could truly believe that the intention of Robert Zemeckis and his people was to make us laugh, that the intent of the movie was satirical, it would get 7 stars. Which means it’s campy enough for the bad-movie fans out there to really enjoy it.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
If you are going to make a movie starring just one actor, you could do worse than Will Smith. I Am Legend is a movie concept that isn’t exactly new, it’s basically a remake of the old Charlton Heston post-apocalyptic film, The Omega Man. The film opens with a cameo from Emma Thompson, who plays a scientist on TV announcing a cure for cancer. I suppose we are to believe that whatever that cure was is the same thing that unleashed the virus that wiped out humanity. The next thing we know, it’s three years later and Will Smith is the only man left alive, and he tears around New York City in sports cars shooting at deer, who apparently now live right in the city with the humans. He is accompanied by his faithful dog, Sam, and he lives a fairly quiet life. He has set up mannequins in the local video store to appear as though there are people around, and he rents movies there every night. He has to make sure he is home by sundown, and then he sits there with his dog watching the films.
The reason, it becomes clear soon enough, that he has to be home by sundown each evening, is that not everyone has died. There are strange, mutated human beings living in the darkness. Like vampires, they die in the sunlight, and therefore the daylight hours are perfectly safe for Smith and the dog Sam. Like the volleyball in Castaway, Sam becomes a very human character in the film, like a child who can’t speak. He helps Smith with his work – which is, basically, finding a cure for the virus. Because he is immune to it himself, he uses his blood to try to cure the infected mutants, which he captures by means of snares and traps, the kind one might lay for rabbits as a third-grade boy scout. He then takes them back to his underground lab and injects them with…something…that might cure them. All very experimental, all very high-tech.
But of course, something has to go wrong. And I don’t want to divulge the end of the movie, so I won’t say exactly what it is that goes wrong. But I will say it involves mutants, since that seems obvious, and it involves Will Smith, since that too is obvious. He behaves, toward the end of the film, exactly the way I expect I would behave were I utterly alone save for a dog for three long years. There are some good action scenes, and the mutants are suitably scary. They do seem old-hat by now, however. We have seen many similar scary mutants in movies like Blade II, The Descent, 28 Days Later, and so forth. But they work, and they serve their purpose, so I really can’t complain.
There are some problems with the plot. How come his house still has electricity so many years after the world disappeared? How do his various cars seem to have an endless supply of gas? How come he has those massive steel doors protecting every possible entry into his house, yet the mutants can so easily break in at the appropriate moments? How do the mutants remember where he lives when the time comes? And how can he have the lights on in his house at night if he is afraid those mutants may discover where he lives? Furthermore, if his lab is in the basement of his house, how can daylight get down there to protect people from the mutants when the need arises? And most of those deer-in-the-city shots are very obviously (and therefore poorly) computer-generated.
All problematic, but in the end, irrelevant. As I said before, a movie with (basically) just one actor needs someone like Will Smith, who can make his way through scenes completely solo and still keep our attention. We enjoy this movie because we enjoy Will Smith, plain and simple. And despite the fact I have seen it many times before, despite the problems involved, I did indeed enjoy this movie.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Atonement is the story of love between a sock puppet and a stick figure. The sock puppet is played by James McEvoy, who has become the go-to guy when you need a young, attractive, possibly rough-around-the-edges but with a heart of gold guy to appear in a period piece. Keira Knightley plays the stick figure, the female love interest in this period piece, which tells a tale of a time when food did not exist, and what food there was, was kept away from Keira Knightley.
The film starts out in a familiar way, in that different people watching the same events perceive them differently. That difference in perception stems from the innate bias each character brings to the scene, and becomes a difference in truth as well. Specifically, a couple of scenes between McEvoy and Knightley that are observed by Knightley’s younger sister, played by Saoirse Ronan. Ronan is fantastic in the role that won her a nomination for best supporting actress at the Oscars this year. Her character, Briony Tallis, is actually played by three different actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, who is terrific in her three minutes of screen time.
The first hour of the movie is fantastic, an hour that accentuates the distance between the characters by placing them all at great distances from each other in the country mansion in which they live and work. Briony Tallis intercepts a letter meant for her sister from McEvoy, and that begins a series of events that will destroy lives and crush romance. (By the way, this movie, and that letter, make the best use of the “c” word I have yet seen in a film.) The younger Tallis accuses McEvoy of a heinous act, one that we all know he did not commit. It remains unclear whether Briony knows, herself, that he didn’t, but we definitely know that she did not really see what she claims to have seen.
The second half of the movie becomes more conventional and boring in a period-piece sort of way, as McEvoy is released from prison directly into the army during World War II. There are some obligatory period-piece army scenes, and the lovers pine for each other from a distance as he gets evacuated from Dunkirk while she works as a nurse in a military hospital. This part of the movie (the second hour) sags immensely, and loses a lot of momentum. This part of Atonement could have been inserted in Becoming Jane, mid-way through, and no one would have blinked or realized it was a different movie. But the last three minutes redeem the movie almost entirely, as Vanessa Redgrave is magnificent as the older Briony, now a best-selling author, telling her tale and explaining the final result of her lie. Which the movie, with a running time of two hours and three minutes, is 51 percent excellent.
Atonement was nominated for best picture at the Oscars, and I think it was the least-deserving of the picks. Redgrave was more deserving of a best supporting actress nomination over Ronan, but Ronan is very good, and the new fresh face in Hollywood, so she will always get the nod over an elder Hollywood stateswoman. Atonement is good, but it is not Oscar-worthy. It’s just a well-done, well-written, well-acted period piece that will likely be forgotten in ten years. A far better choice for a nomination would have been either In The Valley Of Elah or Eastern Promises, two films that will likely have staying power and relevance far beyond what this one will manage.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Love In The Time Of Cholera is two and a half hours long. The tag line on the DVD box is “how long would you wait for love?” My answer is “not this long”. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it takes place in South America. I have always wondered this about period pieces. If the characters are in a time and a place where they would logically be speaking Spanish, why then do they speak English with Spanish accents? It makes more sense that the movie would be in Spanish with English subtitles, or in regular English. Why try to do half-and-half? At least in The Hunt For Red October and movies like that, the movie begins in another language with subtitles, and moves seamlessly into English so that we can watch the movie in that language. Either way, in any language, this movie blows.
Javier Bardem plays a man who is denied his true love (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) as a young boy, and waits 51 years for the woman’s husband to die so he can go after his dream girl once again. In the meantime, he becomes the ultimate ladies man and romantic, and sleeps with six hundred and twenty-two women. On the plus side, we get to see many of their boobs. On the downside, this is two and a half hours of…not much. Benjamin Bratt plays the husband, and somehow his Spanish accent is kind of laughable. Also, because the movie takes place over 55 years, the stars have to get made up to look older and older as the movie goes on. Which sometimes works seamlessly, as it does with Bardem, and at other times looks like…well, makeup and fake moustaches, like with Bratt.
Predictable, and occasionally silly, Love In The Time Of Cholera is occasionally fun, sometimes painful, but mostly boring and slow. Javier Bardem is great, but why watch this movie when No Country For Old Men is out there? Stay away from this one, and rent No Country For Old Men again.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Asian cinema loves the Shakespeare. Akira Kurosawa based half his work on the works of the bard, most notably Ran (King Lear) and Throne Of Blood (Macbeth). And of course, Shakespeare borrowed heavily from others in terms of stories and structure, which means that his stories, and the Asian movies that accompany them, are hundreds of years old. He wrote a play called “Hamlet” that was based on the legend of Amleth, as told by the thirteenth century scholar Saxo Grammaticus. The latest movie from Alliance Films, The Legend of Black Scorpion, is a re-telling of Hamlet. Therefore, the story is about 800 years old, and it feels that way, as it should. Black Scorpion does not credit Grammaticus in the credits, but then, neither did Shakespeare.
The Legend of Black Scorpion features the incomparable Zhang Ziyi, one of the most beautiful women in all of Asian cinema. (You might remember her from such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero.) One complaint I have with this film is that she doesn’t fight. I love watching her fight. The Emperor of China has been murdered by his own brother. That brother has usurped the throne, and taken the former Emperor’s wife as his own. The old Emperor’s son has been banished, since he is the only one who could topple the current empire and lay a legitimate claim to the throne. But when that young man fights through traps and assassins to reach the kingdom, things get all weird. And Shakespearean.
You see, this young man was once in love with the Empress. He wanted her for himself, but his father married her instead, and now she lives with the uncle who murdered his dad. They seem to still be in love, but there is another woman at the palace that he runs around with while he is waiting for his chance to take the throne, and, by extension, his step-mother. And aunt. Hmmm. How very Shakespeare. This nephew is an actor more so than he is a fighter, and he puts on plays for the amusement of the court, plays that are pointed and directed at his murderous uncle. In true Shakespearean style, these plays are carried out with all the performers wearing masks. There is some great dialogue, especially a speech about wearing a mask and acting and swordfighting. Which is really what the movie is all about.
Well, that and jealousy, betrayal, and the inability to contain one’s inner nature. There are some really cool fight scenes. Not as cool as the ones in Hero, but above-average, even for Hong Kong martial arts cinema. We are not sure whether or not we like the Empress, at least until the end of the film, and even then it’s ambiguous. There are relationships between other characters that add a lot to the movie, especially the relationship between Yin (one of the Emperor’s advisors) and his son. It reminded me a lot of the relationship between Robert The Bruce and his father in Braveheart. The old man wanting to be diplomatic, the young man headstrong and uncompromising. And yet, willing to defend his father to his last breath.
And there are a lot of last breaths in Legend of Black Scorpion. After all, it’s Hamlet. Anyone who has any knowledge of Hamlet or of Shakespearean tragedy can probably guess how this film is going to end, so it really won’t come as a surprise. But I would caution against skipping out too soon, before the credits begin to roll. The final shot in this movie is magnificent, a beautiful shot that caps everything so well it would be worth watching even if the movie was bad. But it isn’t. The Legend of Black Scorpion will not end up being a Hong Kong classic, but with good swordfights, solid acting, great dialogue and the incredible ability that Chinese directors seem to have of using colours effectively, it is well worth renting.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
The Kite Runner was one of the best books of the past few years, and now it is a great movie. If you have read the book, you know what takes place in the movie, and make no mistake, it is devastating. That being said, it is definitely worth watching. A young boy named Amir lives in Afghanistan with his father and their servants, one of whom is his best friend Hassan. They do everything together, including the big kite competition. Once a year, every child in Kabul gets a kite with razor wire and competes to cut the wires of the other kites. The one who is left at the end of the day is the champion. This is a big honour, and Amir is eager to impress his father Baba, who seems to favour Hassan for being more manly. Hassan is the best kite runner in Kabul, the boy who always brings home the big prize – the last kite to be cut.
On this particular day, however, a horrific event will change their lives forever. Hassan, who is Hazara, is assaulted by a group of older, racist boys who hate all Hazara. Amir witnesses the assault, but does nothing to prevent it. He is so ashamed of himself that he attempts to drive Hassan and his family out of the house. Many years go by, and Amir and Baba flee Afghanistan when the Russians invade. They make it to Pakistan and eventually to Cailfornia where Amir graduates from school and gets married. A phone call from Afghanistan plunges him back into the life he left behind, when Rahim Khan, a friend of the family, calls Amir and tells him “there is a way to be good again”.
Amir returns to Afghanistan, now run by the Taliban, a brutal regime that includes public stonings, racial intolerance, and the worst kind of oppression. His mission is to rescue a young boy, Hassan’s son, from the clutches of one of his childhood tormentors. I won’t explain the details of that rescue attempt, because I hope people will watch this movie and I don’t want to play spoiler. The only spoiler here is this: This movie will break your heart. It is devastating and sad and incredibly powerful, as is the book. If you choose one over the other, choose the book, because at least you can put it down for a while.
The other reason to choose the book is that so much more can be included in a novel than in a film. While reading, you understand all of Amir’s emotions, all of his thoughts and innate prejudices, and you sympathize with him a little more. In the movie, although he is just a child, you watch his actions and you hate him. If the movie was able to explain a little more in depth what his motivations were, it would be a little easier to stomach. You might still hate Amir, at least when he is a child, but at least you understand a little more. But The Kite Runner is a very good movie, and even without that extra detail it is an incredibly powerful piece of cinema. The performances by the children are outstanding, especially Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as the unfortunate Hassan. I certainly hope these kids get a chance to appear in other movies, perhaps movies that aren’t so soul-crushing.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
A movie based on a Stephen King novel is not always an indication that good things will happen. Most of us remember most of the movies based on his books as complete train wrecks. Dreamcatcher, Needful Things, Maximum Overdrive, Cujo…all awful films. There have been only two really successful movies based on King’s works – The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. (Although I didn’t like the Green Mile much, at least it wasn’t Graveyard Shift.) Both of those films were directed by Frank Darabont, who seems to do his best work when he collaborates with Stephen King. (He was also the screenwriter for The Fly 2 and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Which were as bad as Needful Things.)
The Mist is their third film together, and it does rise a little bit above the other King movies, but does not approach the quality of say, Shawshank. The biggest problem with the movie seems to be, remarkably, a disconnect between the writer and the director. Stephen King is successful because he understands that the scariest thing in the world is other people, far more so than any monsters or spirits or bugs that might hide in the mist. But Darabont is so intent on showing the dark side of human nature and the evil that resides within men that he is too anxious to show it. The premise of the story is that a mist descends over a small town, and there are horrible creatures that hide within that mist and kill people when they venture too far into that mist. A bunch of people are trapped inside the local grocery-hardware store, and they begin to self-destruct. Apparently, as far as this film is concerned, these people are so ready to turn on each other that they do so within one minute of the mist descending. They are instantly transformed into idiots, maniacs and evil-doers, in the time it would take normal people to finally understand there was anything wrong.
And am I the only one who notices that Aaron Eckhardt and Thomas Jane are the same person? Jane is the star of The Mist, a father who is protecting his young son at all costs against the creatures outside, and more importantly, the religious fanatic nutjobs inside. He is, for all intents and purposes, Aaron Eckhardt with less smiling. They are the same person, and I will not believe otherwise until I see them in the same movie together. In the same scene. I like Jane, and in this film, he is pretty good. So is Toby Jones, as a supermarket employee who looks like Andy Warhol but is able to channel his inner Rambo when the situation calls for bloodshed and firearms. This occurs almost right away, and the first monster attack comes early. It isn’t terribly scary, but then the monsters aren’t supposed to be the scary part of the story. It is the people.
The problem is with the people. Their conflicts feel forced, since they seem to go against what one would assume about human nature. No matter how much your neighbour might hate you, if you are put in a situation where creatures are attempting to eat you, you would try to get along with that neighbour, no? And if thirty people tell you that something in the mist is eating people, your first reaction is not likely to be “this must be an elaborate practical joke being played on me by everyone”. It would more likely be something like “there might well be things in the mist that want to eat me”. So the whole human-emotions-at-their-basest theme becomes a little comic bookish. There are also some cheesy, irritating speeches about the nature of humanity, which seem to have a greater purpose, but nothing really rings true.
The people in the store have been trapped there for two days. Two days, and already they have split into two factions. The reasonable people who want to work to get out of there, and the far larger group of people who listen to the horrible bible-thumping religious zealot woman and decide to sacrifice children. This could work if it was done better. But it isn’t. The Mist has two things going for it. First of all, it does what good horror movies are supposed to do. Which is to make some kind of social and political commentary out of the horror. That comment here is basically that if you scare people enough, you can get them to do anything and follow anyone. I wonder what that’s directed toward? And secondly, the ending. Although it doesn’t save the whole movie, it certainly comes as a surprise, and you can definitely chalk it up among the most shocking endings to a movie.
One more thing – if you’re going to have creatures from “another dimension” that “cross over into our world”, wouldn’t you expect those creatures to be something cool that you’ve never seen before? If they were just giant locusts and pterodactyl-men and monster spiders, wouldn’t you think someone had created them here? Just a thought.