adaptation

True Grit

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True Grit

Full disclosure: The first two times I tried to watch this Coen Brothers remake of John Wayne’s 1969 film, I fell right asleep.

I’m a fan of the Coens’ sensibility nearly across the board, and of stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I was impressed by Hailee Steinfeld’s turn as 14 year-old spitfire Maddie Ross and tickled to see my long-ago acting teacher have a nice long chewy courtroom scene with Bridges. Is it just that it’s a western that sent me packing with the sandman? Twice?

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Never Let Me Go

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Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Matinee with Snacks

Based on the quiet and elegant book by Kazuo Ishiguro (he also wrote Remains of the Day), Never Let Me Go is a wonderful adaptation. Not only does director Mark Romanek (most notably One Hour Photo) capture the tone and sense of mystery of the novel, but director of photography Adam Kimmel gives the alternate world a grounded and even quaint feel, which belies the cold ethical questions at hand. It’s foggy and cold, even on sunny green days, a world whose back is turned (not from scorn, from discomfort) on this anachronistic institution. If you go in ignorant of the real premise, you may still feel like something is off about this small world. Halisham is a boarding school in the 1978 British countryside. The drab grey clothes and the rigorous yet permissive environment all feel foreign and false. Screenwriter Alex Garland (notably Sunshine and 28 Days Later) feeds out what you need to know with grace; by the time you’re watching what in lesser hands could have been The Island or Dollhouse, you’re hooked on the characters.

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Rabbit Hole

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Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole

Matinee with Snacks

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — often times, plays that are adapted into movies feel weird and stilted in their dialogue. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire adapted his own play, and he does a marvelous job de-theatricalizing his won work. Why does thus matter? What’s wrong with theatrical language? Nothing, as such. But Rabbit Hole is a delicate piece of drama, involving high states of emotion and confrontation — and for it to work as a movie, it absolutely must not sound anything but real and natural. Well done, Lindsay-Abaire. Director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Shortbus) is no stranger to intensity or discomfiting levels of intimacy (emotional or otherwise), nor is he a stranger to the theatre. He’s the perfect director for a story that could have been maudlin, depressing, or self-indulgent in other hands. I had resisted watching this one for a while, concerned that it would be too crushingly sad or psychologically disjointed.

The premise is simple — eight months after the accident death of their young son, Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman (also consummate stage and screen crossovers) are struggling to keep their marriage afloat. Their coping, their mourning, but also their attempts to bounce back to some kind of new normalcy go in all directions, not always the same ones. We’ve got high drama fights and tony moment of sousal understanding — explosions and swallowing, love and fear and confusion. I haven’t enjoyed Kidman this much in some time; much is made of her ice-queenly, frozen forehead, but she is not anything but raw and uncontrolled here. Eckhart is always solid and here is no different — his time spent with Sandra Oh in group therapy reminds us of the husband he must have been Before The Tragedy, so we, like Kidman, can miss that guy all the more.

The supporting cast is also great, with Oh and Dianne Wiest as Kidman’s well-meaning mom, and Miles Teller as Jason, the teenager down the block. We don’t realize why he is significant until all in a rush we find out and it’s such an impact after his quiet teen presence. Each of these people help Kidman and Eckhart move through this moment in their lives and on to the next one. The next one will also be filled with a sense of loss, and love, and all the things currently crowding this one, but it’s at least the next moment, and not a state of permanent freeze as they fear. Rabbit Hole is a lovely contemplation on the grief process, on people just doing their best (failing and not), and the importance of comfort in all its many forms. Perhaps it would even be something that someone in a group therapy as these characters are in would benefit from.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/17/10
Time in minutes 91
Director John Cameron Mitchell
Studio Lionsgate

Tangled

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Tangled

Disney’s trumpeting Tangled as its 50th animated feature seems a bit defensive at first.They pioneered the medium of animation in terms of technique, story adaptation, and marketing, paving the way for those young upstarts like Pixar and Dreamworks to take the ball and run with it later.

Still, 72 years later, people still think of animation as a genre of itself, not a storytelling medium, a kid’s parlor trick rather than a means of telling a story. Tangled, as an adaptation of the centuries-old tale of Rapunzel, can do little to defend against these stodgy critics. However, Tangled is about growing up, and it’s a testament to its 49 predecessors in demonstrating how much Disney itself has also grown up.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Matinee with Snacks

It should go without saying that if you haven’t seen the previous six movies, you shouldn’t see this one. Unlike some of the films, however, I think you don’t need to have read the book (as long as you are current on the movie), which is a testament to its script. My companion sees the movies before he reads the books (a novelty in my usual HP crowd) and then reads them right afterward. Since this is only part 1 of 2, that book will sit idle until next June. I, having read the book, loved the movie. It handled some of my favorite scenes well, and the simple and effective opening scenes of the movie are a gift from Kloves to fans of the characters (particularly Hermione). It may not be my favorite (as Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince continue to wrestle for primacy in my heart), but it does contain my favorite sequence (the Tale of the Three Brothers). My stars!

What Prisoner of Azkaban did for Hogwarts, Deathly Hallows Part 1 does for Great Britain. Shot entirely in England and Wales, HP7.1 drags our travelers through some incredible, otherworldly locations. As when I saw The Road, I would snap out of the story briefly to goggle at the scenery. Not only the locations, but also the cinematography grabbed me as much as the affecting tweaks given the narrative by screenwriter Steve Kloves, king of J.K. Rowling interpretation. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra also shot Defiance, Blood Diamond, Beyond the Sea, Girl With A Pearl Earring, Unbreakable… you get the idea. It may even be more gorgeous — and less showy — than Michael Seresin’s work on Azkaban. Why dwell so much on the visuals? If you’ve read the book, you may agree that this half of the story is the slower-moving, more contemplative chunk of the story, generally. As a result, Serra sets the mood of ever-present danger and menace while still keeping us in the beloved fantasy world that Rowling has given us. Camping just isn’t all that visually compelling on its own. I really got a better feel for their peril and tension with his help.

Composer Alexandre Desplat takes over from Nicholas Hooper with a less noticeable but beautiful score. Sophie Thompson, David O’Hara, and Steffan Rhodri get a fantastic sequence all for themselves in the Ministry of Magic — fans will giggle at their subtle but terrific work. Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood? Brilliant! Without revealing too much, the film ends shortly after a key scene at Shell Cottage, and I have to say this one better evoked the book’s emotional experience than did the previous installment’s big key moment. I did not know my companion’s ignorance of the book until afterward — I wonder at its effectiveness for him. I walked out of this film hungry for the rest, already wondering if they will wait and release it as one big fat DVD, and altogether confidence that Kloves and director David Yates have it under control.

I’ve said this about Pixar, and I’ll say it now about the Harry Potter franchise. It’s such a wonderful thing that such a beloved property has landed in so many trusted hands, with such a phenomenal cast. Bless Chris Columbus for setting the stage and plowing through the requisite exposition — the least fun part of the job but the all-important foundation upon which even these darker, different sequels depend. No hate for you, Chris. The whole Harry Potter phenomenon is such a miracle of quality, love, popular adoration, and genuine beauty, I am just grateful to have experienced the books and movies as originally intended — new and large and with the anticipation of the next thing. Pottermaniacs, I think you will love it.

MPAA Rating PG-3
Release date 11/19/10
Time in minutes 146
Director David Yates
Studio Warner Brothers

127 Hours

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127 Hours

I did watch it without looking away. Absolutely yes, it’s worth seeing. Oh, sorry, what was the question?

Oh, yes, you do need to be in a pretty serene frame of mind, for certain. Finding a companion to watch a movie named after five days of time but that’s really about around 50 minutes of time is difficult. The intense, unimaginable 50 minutes that you spend only about 5 minutes of your comfortable existence watching is probably the lead reason you go see the movie in the first place, but that does the other 89 minutes of the movie a grave disservice. The film as a whole is fantastic.

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Let Me In

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Let Me In

Let Me In

Matinee with Snacks

For those fans of the Swedish original (Let The Right One In) who are all up in arms about an Americanized remake, calm yourself. Director/screenwriter Matt Reeves was a fan of that film too and did not at all want to interfere with the sanctity of the original — and, in fact, took ownership by writing and directing this film, specifically to prevent the inevitable Hollywood slaughter. In a way, this film is a love letter to the original, drawing attention to it while also serving as a solid movie in its own right. All that said, I have to confess that while I found myself lulled to sleep by the original, I was chewing my fingernails off during the remake. Stylistic differences? Am I just a populist and not a cineaste? Or is my couch just that comfortable? You can decide. All I’m saying is while I admired the bravery and beauty of the original, this one “worked” for me.

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The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

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The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Matinee with Snacks

I went into this movie with pretty low expectations. The previews are gorgeous, but what computer animated film has any excuse not to be gorgeous these days? The whole thing seemed like something Elijah Wood would headline (and by that I mean Happy Feet and not Lord of the Rings). Well, it’s more like Lord of the Rings than you might imagine, and well worth the 3-D surcharge at that.

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Easy A

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Easy A

Emma Stone finally gets the lead in a movie, as she has clearly deserved since she appeared in Superbad. Lucky her, this movie is a tremendous vehicle for her. How can one teen girl be so impossibly cool, sexy, erudite, and funny? Any child of the on-screen union of Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson would be — and thus any “she’s too prodigal” complaint goes right out the window.

The premise is simple — a sweet but invisible girl gets caught up in society’s terrible Puritanical double standard about women and sex when she lies about having had sex, and soon her life and reputation is in tatters. The very folks who pressured her to be cool and Do It now vilify her (and/or try and engage her services) for doing so.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

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San Diego Comic-Con was a huge love fest for this, director Edgar Wright’s latest movie. (Previous beloved outings: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz.) Some may complain of Michael Cera fatigue, but Scott Pilgrim gives Cera’s tender appeal some post-punk juice. This movie makes full use of Brian Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel source material (graphic renditions of feelings, quick short cutaways like individual panels) as well as its target demographic’s love of video games, anime, and epic epics of epic epicness. Wright fully commits to a style that is loud and bright and snarky and dynamic — and the key words here are “fully commits.” Even small reaction shots get a sound sting and/or an effect or camera move. Be sure to take your seizure medication before seeing Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. I’d say overall that the movie is about 90% style and 10% substance, but the style is so fully realized, so lush and different and dynamic, that it in itself becomes substantive.

Cera’s 22 year-old title character lives with the not-seen-enough Kieran Culkin and has a “fake high school girlfriend” named Knives (the adorable Ellen Wong), that is, until he meets Ramona Flowers (a detached Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona is a punky funky fuschia-haired chick who has a League of Evil Exes that any new swain of hers must battle to the death in order to date her. Is she worth it? The movie doesn’t bother to answer that (hence the 10% substance). It doesn’t matter. Scott thinks she is. Not all the Evil Exes have supernatural powers, but some of them happen to. It’s pretty great how Wright can plop the extraordinary into a sea of ordinary and still keep his feet on the ground, even with this hyper-real video game-like world. I wonder what he might do with a franchise like X-Men. Pilgrim battles, the loser drops loot, achievements are unlocked, and his levels increase. Meanwhile he still needs to deal with Knives, his roommate situation, and the struggle of his band, the Sex Bob-Ombs. Sure, in real life we all struggle with multiple challenges, though little of it so publicly.

If you have watched or played Mortal Kombat and its ilk, or seen big one-on-one battles in anime movies, the visual language of the film will be clear enough. After seeing the film I was able to flip through one of the graphic novels, and the frenetic-but-never-frantic tone is dead on. If the last video game you played was a table-top console of Ms. Pac Man at a pizza joint, go with a high schooler who can translate between yelping “Pwned!” The story itself is pretty pedestrian, more like a quest than a full narrative with full characters. The people get a lot of pyrotechnics and fantastic editing behind their stories and performances — and by behind, I mean in the classic sense of upstaging. But really, the pleasure of this movie, and it is hyperactively pleasurable, is in digging the mechanics of it; the gamifying of life, if you will. The animations, the floating words and jump cuts and witty barbs, the funny villains and Cera’s unlikely but solid bad-assitude, these all make a potent and spicy sauce you may not have seen before.

Remember in Shaun of the Dead, the Requiem-for-a-Dream quick montages of Shaun getting ready to go out for the day? Take that pace and sense of overly vital importance, and add tons of insane anime-inspired fight scenes; then take script pages from Better Off Dead, Mean Girls, and Kick-Ass and put it all in a blender with Cera and Culkin. Did I enjoy it because it made me feel young and in touch with the kids today? More so I enjoyed its balls-to-the-wall full-on appropriation of the concept and the merry, antic pace for what is really just a sweet romantic comedy about nerds.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 8/13/10

Time in minutes 112

Director Edgar Wright

Studio Universal Pictures