Tag Archives: adaptation

The Swimmer

[3 stars]

This blast from the past about a man swimming home via his neighbor’s pools is actually an unexpected commentary on Hollywood and privilege, and it predates #metoo by about 50 years. Frank Perry (backed silently by Sydney Pollack [Amazing Grace]) were surprisingly, and quietly, subversive in their directing choices.

You know there is something off with Burt Lancaster from the opening moments of the movie. It takes a good part of the film before you know generally what that is (and we never know exactly, though you can guess). We watch his interactions with a slew of recognizable faces as well as a few surprises like Joan Rivers and even Diana Muldaur in one of her few big screen roles. But it is Lancaster who is turned into an object from the outset of the story.

He is quite literally stripped bare (or nearly) and exposed to the effects of the world. The approach riffed against this movie’s time (1968) even though it was concurrent with the Women’s Lib movement. And as we follow Lancaster’s episodic journey, our perceptions and assumptions keep shifting, which helps drive the otherwise mundane, if odd, tale forward.

The foundation of this layered and pointed tale was driven by scriptwriter, and wife of the director, Eleanor Perry who adapted Cheever’s story for the screen. She structured the reveals carefully and subtly to help drive the improbable tale; it serves as its own metaphor as well as a sort of absurdist presentation of the action. I suspect that part of the success of the finished piece is due to her close relationship with the director providing some broader perspective to the events.

Whatever the realities, it ends up an unexpected gem that is hewn from a pile of rough material and realities. If you’re looking for something a bit different but still surprisingly relevant, seek this out.

Cyrano de Bergerac (2008)

[4 stars]

I haven’t seen Cyrano for many years…and had totally forgotten just how wonderful a story it is. And this production of it, with Kevin Kline (Last Vegas) as the titular man with the nose, is transcendent. His control of the language and the emotion is gripping.

And then there is the rest of the cast. While Jennifer Garner (Wonder Park), as Roxanne, eventually finds her feet in this play, she’s nothing particularly wonderful. On the other hand, Chris Sarandon (Fright Night) is more than up to the task of playing Kline’s nemesis, as is Daniel Sunjata (Manifest) for playing his handsome but dim-witted rival.

Filmed stage plays aren’t always successful. They often feel too distanced or too forced. But director Matthew Diamond guided the play and preserved the performance wonderfully. And the staging and set are clever, functional, and flexible. In other words, it is a feast for all the senses and aspects of theatre love.

Make time for this when you can. Honestly, it is so much better than you likely remember, in large part due to the fabulous Anthony Burgess translation, but also for the sheer romance and comedy of it all, no matter how dark some of it may get.

Cyrano de Bergerac

Color Out of Space

[2.75 stars]

Tackling HP Lovecraft is an act of hubris most of the time, especially if done in complete earnest rather than humor (such as Cast a Deadly Spell).  But what do you expect when you’re dealing with subjects like elder gods that can make you insane just by looking at them? It isn’t easy to make that serious and genuine without a nod and a wink.

Despite the risk, Color Out of Space tackles the material head-on. And there are some good aspects to the result. The cinematography and production design of the landscape are exceptional. However, the script and direction by Richard Stanley (Hardware) lacks credibility for almost every character. The only one even close to believability is Elliot Knight (Life Sentence). However, I will admit happily that the script doesn’t talk down to its audience. There is a lot of subtle and unexplained action where the answers are in the background or obvious when paying attention.

I can’t say I understand why Joley Richardson (Emerald City) agreed to join this adventure, but credit to her for committing to it utterly. And Tommy Chong (Zootopia) adds a certain sort of meta fun to it all. The two young adult actors, Madeleine Arthur (Magicians) and Brendan Meyer (The OA), tackle what they can with what they’ve got. Sadly, poor Julian Hilliard (Haunting of Hill House) is only allowed to stare emptily most of the time rather than exercise any real craft. And despite a lot of chatter likening this to Nick Cage’s recent Mandy, this film at least has an understandable and semi-logical plot (as logical as Lovecraft ever was). It does, however, allow Cage to cut loose again as he loses his grip on control and reality.

Perhaps the best way to think of this is as a horror version of Annihilation since it shares some ideas at the root. Color Out of Space, however, veers away from Annihilation’s intellectual path and quickly devolves into a slaughter-fest once it gets going. I can’t say that the resolution and implications are exactly clear, even with some of the explanation, but at least it tries to wrap it up into something complete. Ultimately, this is going to depend on your personal taste. I would have been fine if I hadn’t seen it, even having appreciated some of its better qualities, but if you love Lovecraft or enjoy purely grim slasher events, this may fill the bill at a reasonable level for you.

Color Out of Space

Four Staples Enter New Cycles

Tis the killing season again. And by that I mean the return of four mystery series who continue to prove it is almost impossible to depopulate small English villages (or even cities or small islands) no matter how many people you kill off.

Back for their latest runs are:
Endeavour (series 7)
Vera (series 10)
Grantchester (series 5)
Death in Paradise (series 9)

What they all have in common this year, despite being spread across different decades (70s, 2020, 60s, and 2020 respectively), is that they are all shaking up their formulae to bring a fresh energy and potentially purpose into their series.

Endeavour is moving in earnest to close the gap to Morse.  Continuing to build on the previous round, they literally have him building the home we got to know Morse in, while also finally turning the corner on his personality. Endeavour is starting to show that Morse cockiness and total lack of self-awareness when it comes to women…which they’ve played with, but we are finally meeting the woman that broke Morse permanently. DS Strange has taken a step forward toward the character we know from his future, as well. Neither leap is completely clean…it feels like we missed some steps…but the shift is a necessary one if not a fluid one. This is also a much shorter season than previous, with a single arc pulling together three episodes. The cost of the show and the age of the bridging actors is making that a necessity…and with only a few years to go before Morse would abutt the stories, you can see the acceleration in their plan.

Vera remains at four episodes, but our dear Brenda Blethyn is getting crankier and more brittle this year. Not that she was ever a total teddy bear, but there is an edge and weariness starting to creep into Vera and I’m feeling like they’re headed toward wrapping her up or handing off the show in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the mysteries continue to be nicely complex and full of human foible and foolishness.

Grantchester has moved fully into its new phase with its new priest. A number of the original struggles remain, but with Tom Brittney owning the whole season for the first time, they have a different foundation. And while he has his own personal demons and challenges, there is something a bit less soapy about it all. That aspect has been load-balanced onto the rest of the cast in some interesting ways. By the end of the series, we’ve entered into yet another new phase for the characters and the show. Grantchester is one of those rare series that has managed to weather a complete shift in the driving core of the show while hardly changing at all. It really is a remarkable thing to examine as a writer. As a viewer it simply keeps it all familiar and yet still fresh.

And, finally, Death in Paradise is the odd outlier here in format. Primarily a cozy with a lot of comedy, it still has plenty of murder and mayhem on St. Marie. And while evolution has been part of its bones from the beginning, with a series of detectives and police staffing, it has approached the rhythm of this series differently than previously. More importantly it’s starting to shift the focus onto the St. Marie police force from the English interlopers…at least in part. Of the shows discussed here, Death in Paradise is by far the lightest fare, but it is definitely trying to stretch its muscles into some new areas and breadth of action.

Vera Endeavour Grantchester Death in Paradise

The Pale Horse

[3 stars]

Sarah Phelps (The ABC Murders) is becoming the preeminent adapter of Agatha Christie. Her skills are best when she sticks close to the original material, as she did for Ordeal By Innocence. But when we she veers from that material, like The ABC Murders, the work is less worthy. It should be noted that she also works outside Christie’s ouvre, with intriguingly built adaptations like Dublin Murders. In other words, the writer/creator has chops.

The Pale Horse is one of those lesser known, rarely (if ever?) produced stand-alone Christies. Previous incarnations of it dragged it inappropriately into the Marple or Poirot worlds, as I recall. It is, as a book, still in the cozy category, with a pair of intrepid lovers discovering and solving a string of murders. Phelps reconceives the tale as something closer to Turning of the Screw crossed with Crime and Punishment, bringing it squarely into the psychological horror arena and putting the lovers at odds with one another. It has a highly stylized presentation, with a lot of creep factor; think Midsommar (the horror film, not the series).

Led by, and generally through the eyes of, Rufus Sewell (Judy), the story begins as a dark mystery of loss and fear and spins out from there. As a horror story it is effective, if not entirely satisfying by the end. Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gets to stretch her muscles into a role that is more adult than teenager for the first time. Her stressed 60s housewife is both darkly funny and depressing. Sean Pertwee (Gotham), on the other hand, gets somewhat abused as Inspector Lejeune. And Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) has some fun in the mix, getting to wear a pair of the ugliest dentures ever seen on TV. But, generally, all of the cast do well filling out the world, victims, and those pulling the strings.

Perhaps part of the delivery gap of this series is down to young director Leonora Lonsdale. This is only her second full-length delivery. While the result, absent context, is fun, she allowed Phelps script to lead her too far astray from the source material. Depending on your relationship with Christie, your opinion and enjoyment of the story will vary. It is definitely not a light tale of murder on the green, but it is a complicated and layered tale of loss and greed, with just a suggestion of the supernatural.

Wisting

[3.5 stars]

You may be thinking: yet another Scandinavian mystery series? But there are reasons to take a look at Wisting. While the feel and flow of the mysteries may seem familiar, the series has an intriguing structure.

First, there are two main mysteries in two five-episode chunks. But there are several smaller mysteries as well, not all of which connect (but some of which that do) over the ten episodes. That alone helps provide a more interesting journey through the season; we see cause an effect of various decisions within the season rather than from season to season.

Second, to help gain a broader audience, the first five episodes include an American element. Carrie-Ann Moss (Jessica Jones) is a core part of the first mystery as a semi-rogue FBI agent on the heels of an old murder.

There are some challenges with the series. Part of that stems from the difference in culture (and that Wisting’s family is messed up on top of that). The other part stems from different power structures and laws in Norway. If you’re a procedural fan, the stories here will hurt your head at times as you try to figure out why some things are such a big deal and who is really exposed by aspects.

That said, as a whole it is a solid start that adapts several of Jørn Lier Horst’s books into a fairly satisfying series, and whets the appetite for the next.

Wisting

As You Like It (2006)

[3 stars]

Kenneth Branagh (All Is True) has been associated with Shakespeare since he burst onto the international scene in 1989 with Henry V. Though his career ranges wide, he has continued to circle back to the Bard, investing in and reinventing the canon as actor, director, and writer. This particular comedy is no exception, but it also marked the beginning of his departure from standard period presentations of the tales.

Branagh sets his As You LIke It in feudal Japan, though with a cast of British ex-pats in the main roles. And quite the cast he pulled together as well…frankly too long to list, but with a number of established as well as up-and-comers to enjoy. The important aspect of this transposition is that it provides a nice foundation for the initial coup and sense of danger necessary to get the tale rolling, and it adds a sort of magical aspect to the feeling of the piece.

The play itself, like all the comedies, is somewhat interchangeable with most of Shakespeare’s other secondary tales. It explores love in many aspects through four different couples and three sibling relationships. And thanks to Branagh’s deft directing and writing, those reflections and comparrisons stay crisp and interesting rather than just seeming happenstance as they often do in the longer play. He even shfits the coda to further embrace his theatrical audience and to remind the audience to not take anything too seriously.

There is little believable in the the actual story of As You Like It, other than the emotions and desires. It is simply a romp with reminders that our relationships and our hearts are more important than our possessions and power. It is a comedy, so despite any of the darker aspects, no one is left unredeemed or saved in some way. And it is, of course, funny (often laugh-out-loud funny). So for a light evening of entertainment in iambic pentameter, settle in for some pleasant escape and great performances.

As You Like It

The Addams Family (2019)

[3 stars]

The first 10 minutes of this remake do a wonderful job setting up the tone, humor, and new origin story of the creepy, kooky, ooky family we’ve known for so long. And while there remains, peppered throughout, a number of wonderful moments, the inventiveness pretty much ends there.

This latest iteration of the Addams Family tells the same story we’ve seen for decades: people fear them, then hate them, then apologize to them. And, if you’re going to remake it, at least bring it into today (it was somewhat stuck in the 50s in style if not in fact) and give me a new challenge. I will admit that they do tackle some topical aspects of today and manage to make it a mostly woman-powered plot. The men are generally treated as jokes…effective and useful, but not particularly bright.

While there is a lot of top-shelf voice talent, Charlize Theron (Bombshell) as Morticia and Chloë Grace Mortez (Greta) as Wednesday are the real standouts, delivering lines with dry aplomb. The rest of the cast is servicable, though nothing particularly brilliant, though Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) takes a good run at her role to make it more than a cookie-cutter middle schooler.

Generally, this is a diverting, but not fabulous, animation. There are clever bits and, perhaps, if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep with decades of baggage, it may even have seemed inventive. But in trying to reboot it all, I can’t help but compare it to the past and judge its lack of originality. Heck, at the end they literally recreate the opening of the TV show, so how do you not consider that as part of your viewing? But, if you don’t have that nostaligia, or aren’t as attached to the original comics and other iterations, it may impress more. IOW, YMMV.

The Addams Family

Luce

[4 stars]

Powerful and tense, this is a challenging film in most of the right ways. It has a good story and some very intelligent plotting to force internal conflicts for the viewer as the plot unfolds. Adapted by Julius Onah and J.C. Lee from Lee’s play, it is also a solid conversion from stage to screen. There is nary a hint of its physical roots other than, perhaps, the level of the language utilized. Onah’s direction is also subtle, keeping the charged situations contained to pressurize them until they are at full steam…and even then it’s a controlled release.

At the center of the film is the young Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves), who navigates the ridiculously layered title character. Octavia Spencer (Instant Family) as his teacher brings it as well; her character is well meaning, misguided, and completely out of her depth. Both are unexpectedly grounded performances in roles that could have easily gotten out of control.

Naomi Watts (The Book of Henry) and Tim Roth (The Hateful Eight) as Luce’s parents are good and evolve through their story. Though, honestly, I had great difficulty buying either of them entirely. Some of that was purposeful on Onah’s part in his direction and casting, but I’m not sure it was compeltely effective.

Luce is also surrounded by a number fellow students in his school. There are some nice turns, but Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience) is the one standout. She not only delivers but manages to remain an intriguing cypher through to the end.

Luce isn’t an easy film to watch at times, but it is beautifully real and subtle, playing with your better angels and quiet devils while setting them to war. And though the story is essentially a small tale of a young student, its reach is much broader than that because of Luce’s history. It isn’t perfectly acted or executed at times, but I forgive all its small flaws for the success of its bigger aims and I suspect most viewers would.

Luce

Bless Me, Ulima

[3 stars]

How much has changed since 1944 New Mexico? Well, after watching Carl Franklin’s adaptation of the same named novel, I fear not much.  That isn’t Franklin’s point, but I’m watching this 9 years after its release and art is nothing if not contextually interpreted. Though, to be fair, some of those aspects (inequality, power, prejudice) were Franklin’s intent, they just resonate a bit differently in a world where we’re slamming shut our borders and separating families out of fear and greed.

While there is some nice storytelling through the eyes of a young boy which borders on magic realism, this isn’t a great adaptation. The use of voice over, in particular, is somewhat cheap and distracting. The plot also leaps along in some odd ways, and aspects of the world are a bit forced. Fortunately, the main message of being bonded to the world and each other, never really goes out of style. And Franklin found a unique time and family to deliver that idea. But for all the plot, it feels more like a slice of life than a deep tale worthy of feature film. An interesting slice at times, but incomplete. So, while this is a somewhat interesting film, I can’t strongly recommend it. However, as a brake from all the standard fare out there, it is certainly a different world and set of characters.

Bless Me, Ultima