Tag Archives: adaptation

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

The Darkest Minds

[3 stars]

I have to admit, this movie was a good deal better than I expected given how badly it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it was watchable…with occasional moments of yelling at the screen for dumb story choices. I’ll get back to the writing, but better first to compliment the cast who shouldn’t be overlooked for the weaknesses in the production.

Amandla Stenberg, who got her first big break as Rue in The Hunger Games, leads the cast of young actors through this latest hellish landscape of a dystopian future. She does so with a good deal of charisma and a nice emotional journey. Along with her companions, Harris Dickinson (Trust), Skylan Brooks (The Get Down), and Miya Cech, they battle their way to a potential future. And, of course, there’s the only slightly veiled, slightly creepy (and much toned down from book) Patrick Gibson (The OA) who joins them along the way.

The young cast hang onto control of the movie well, even when there are much more practiced adult actors sharing the stage with them. Among those, Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down), Gwendoline Christie (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Wade Williams are the ones that pop. And then, of course, there is the amusing West Wing revenge of Bradley Whitford (The Post) who finally gets to sit in the President’s chair for this one.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda) managed her cast and the material she had well. But that is the problem, the material, which is solidly tween/teen in its maturity.

So, now back to the story itself.

Writer Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) delivered a very un-adult script. Why things happen and how the world deals with them are lensed through the mind of a teen, with a teen’s understanding of how the world works. I’m not talking about perspective of the film, I’m talking about the writer and the amount of thought and research he put into their plot. If I’d known it was Hodge behind the keyboard going in I’d have been less surprised.

Dystopian stories are currently all the rage, but they are all riding the coattails of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games didn’t create YA dystopias, but it certainly set the expectation bar for how much money could be made by turning them into movies. The problem is, the studios have never understood why that movie took off and others (The Host, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) never really did.

Certainly there was a difference in the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the quality of the casting and/or directing. But really the answer is much simpler. Hunger Games, for all its futuristic framework, looks like this world and acts (mostly) like this world, and included adult thinking in its plot choices. It also took an important lesson from the Harry Potter series.

People who don’t read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy are not comfortable in thoroughly made-up worlds they are unfamiliar with. Hunger Games, like Potter, slowly acclimated a generation of readers into its world. Potter spent more than the first half of the first book in an English town and then only slowly opened the world around Hogwarts over the next 2 books. By the time they got there, most readers were completely unaware of the journey they’d taken and were willing to accept all amount of strangeness, because now it was familiar. Hunger Games managed a similar, if a bit more rapid, immersion.

Darkest Minds is a familiar world, but almost immediately has people with powers, which jumps the credibility line for a good deal of the viewing public. They’ll buy into it, but in fewer numbers and with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek nodding. It’s a shame, really, as almost all fiction these days is really genre based…Michael Crichton started that trend in spades decades back. But if the world is familiar enough to start, you can get an audience to go with you. This movie leaps too quickly into the weird and different to bring a large audience with it.

If you’re looking for distraction and some reasonable performances from up and coming young adults, it isn’t a bad afternoon. Certainly it is no more than a popcorn flick with grand intentions that are never achieved. Reaching for franchise had it stumbling. They should have gone for a standalone and hoped for the chance to take it further. The meat of a story was in there. The script let it down.

The Darkest Minds

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

[2.5 stars]

When Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he left us all hanging on the intended fate of Lisbeth Salander. His first three books weren’t the entire journey he’d envisioned. His fourth book will never see the light of day due to legal stupidity and family greed. And the final six lived only in his head. However, his remaining legal family licensed out the characters and commissioned more books, starting with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I refused to support the ongoing book series, but I couldn’t resist checking out the movie. I wish I had.

Despite some real effort on the part of Claire Foy (First Man), this is a hollow movie with no heart at the core. The gap is in the plot and the script, which assume you know the previous stories (and are willing to forget parts of it as well). The story also veers radically from the central drives for Salandar and her relationships in the world.

This is most notable with Sverrir Gudnason (The Circle), who does a fine job of acting, but he isn’t Blomkvist. He’s far to young and pretty. And he has no emotional thread to grasp; though one is indicated in the script, the story isn’t there. He is a complicated man with complicated relationships, not just a foil or convenience with which to move the plot. Even the usually entertaining hacker Plague, Cameron Britton (Mindhunter), was somewhat flat in this story.

Three new characters were introduced into the series. Stephen Merchant (Logan) probably had the most levels to play with because the writers had to give him a story; we knew nothing about him from the beginning and it is his actions that start the plot. On the other hand Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) is OK, but sort of cookie-cutter American NSA from a European point of view. The writers assumed actions would obviate the need for character on his part. They were wrong.

More surprising was the lack of a character for Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049) playing Lisbeth’s sister. Forgetting how this and the rest of the revised/ignored backstory affects the series canon, there were rich possibilities for this woman, none of which were plumbed.

Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did a beautiful visual job with the film. He also managed to capture the Swedish emotional sense with a lot of the characters. But he failed to recognize the weaknesses in the script and fight for better. And he allowed cliche to triumph over effort by some of his cast.

So the core issues of this come back to the script by writers Steven Knight (November Criminals) and Jay Basu. It feels like they took a passing knowledge of the books and decided to take those characters and throw them into a standard story. There is a small nod to the core of Salander’s, saving women or reacting to injustice, but that is simply there as a short grace note before dropping her into a Bond-like story that just isn’t a good fit and doesn’t further her purpose. However, and in some ways worse, some of the law enforcement research is awful, making the Swedish police and secret service into idiots.

So, to sum up, this is a somewhat mediocre action film and a very poor continuation of the Millennium series. Foy does a game job capturing the character, but never really gets to emotionally explore or expand her. As a stand-alone flick, without any knowledge of the base tale, you’d be watching a rather empty action movie with some clever bits to it. And there are some good moments and aspects, but this could have been a triumph, especially in the current climate. I’ll leave it to you whether or not to spend you time with it.

Bel Canto

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Paul Weitz (Grandma) has always enjoyed the unusual and quirky in stories. Bel Canto is certainly in that group, though a good deal darker than the rest of his opus. Unfortunately, it is also clear he isn’t very comfortable in that area. He was constantly dragging this story back more toward the lighter side, which diminished its tension and credibility.

Normally, Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars) would have overcome those issues and provided a performance to balance the lacks. Not in this case. Her Roxanne Coss is neither Diva nor wilting violet. And worse, she had no credibility as a singer. It is close, but her posture is all wrong, which ruined several key moments in the movie for me.

Ken Watanabe (Sea of Trees), as well, just never quite gains control of the story to give us someone to focus on, though he has nice interaction with Moore and Ryo Kase. Kase, more than these two, turns in a nice performance; perhaps the most believable of the cast.

The other half of the cast, the rebels, are all fine if not brilliant. The most interesting characters are Tenoch Huerta and María Mercedes Coroy who get to stand out by virtue of interactions with Moore and Kase.

In important side roles, Christopher Lambert (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) and Sebastian Koch (Bridge of Spies) make an impression as well.

Most of the movie issues are down to script and direction. There are powerful and interesting ideas in Bel Canto, but to absorb them you have to let go of reality and treat it as a near-surreal play. To really succeed it needed to stay more realistic. Without that there is no sense of threat and danger, not to mention loss. Weitz’s script is clear about what the story is from very near the beginning. For that approach to work we need to invest in the growing sense of connection and recognition of rebels as people without losing touch of the underlying realities. Koch’s character is intended as that interlocutor, but it just never comes together, at least not fully.

This is a movie for completists, whether for the director or the cast. I can’t say it is worth the investment solely on its own merits despite its message and reflection of current society.

Old Man & the Gun

[4 stars]

Whether or not this is Robert Redford’s (The Discovery) final film, as he claims, it would be a solid one to go out on in performance and message. Redford is in full charm offensive and as wonderfully subtle as ever in his acting. Though he has Danny Glover (Proud Mary) and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as his partners-in-crime, his gang and this story is really a cult of personality: his.

And from the fringes and the pews, Redford brings along a motley group of additional folks. Primarily he pulls Sissy Spacek (A Home at the End of the World) into his orbit, who is every bit Redford’s equal in performance. Along with Spacek was an understated but effective Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story) as a disaffected cop looking for justice and what’s “right,” even when the choices aren’t easy or obvious. And, in a smaller role supporting Affleck, Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) is magnetic.

Writer/director David Lowery gathered Redford and Affleck from his previous efforts to pull off this rather impressive film: Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story respectively. What makes Old Man & The Gun so good is that Lowery gets us to gets us to react just like the people Tucker robbed. We cheer for Forrest Tucker and don’t feel bad about doing it. Lowery leaves us feeling both great about Tucker and about our own possibilities.

Lowery also did some clever work with the film to make it feel like the early 80s; from shaky credits, to washed out color, to the choice of fonts, a sense of appropriate nostalgia and current action was established. Amusingly, it was also screened for me on an old, reflective screen at an aging theater, which added an unintended layer to Lowery’s efforts that was wholly appropriate.

While this isn’t a big screen must, it is a wonderfully entertaining and, ultimately, positive film. It will be part of the awards buzz this year, so see it now rather than wait. And it doesn’t hurt to remind studios and distributors that there is a big market out there for just good film. Not everything has to flash, buzz, or blow-up to keep our attention. Though I certainly don’t mind that occasionally either, I like variety in my entertainment diet.

First Man

[3 stars]

Let’s first talk about what director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) did right and well with First Man; I’ll get to the frustrations later. Unlike The Right Stuff, this is a story about real people, not demigods. It really tries to tell the story of a man in the middle of history without knowing he’s in the middle of it. And while the space race was undoubtedly a point of national pride, the level of jingoism, as compared to previous tellings, was much reduced and was in context rather than propaganda and the point of the story.

Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) brings a humanity to Armstrong I’ve never seen. Perhaps a bit too much as I question his strength of mind for what he has to do, but nevertheless it made him more relateable. As his wife, Claire Foy (The Lady in the Van) is a balancing influence with some nice moments and layers to her as well.

Quite frankly, the rest of the cast, while all good, just don’t matter. This is Armstrong’s tale, and his family’s.

Pablo Schreiber (Den of Thieves), Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), Ethan Embry (Grace and Frankie), Ciarán Hinds (Woman Walks Ahead), Jason Clarke (Winchester), Kyle Chandler (Game Night), Corey Stoll (The Seagull), Shea Whigham (Cop Car), Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl), Lukas Haas (The Revenant) get a mention here simply because it feels wrong not to acknowledge their efforts. Without them as backdrop, the Armstrong story couldn’t have been told.

Now, about that story…

Writer Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) is clearly comfortable adapting stories both from books and from history. However, in this case what he delivered, and what Chazelle accepted, is part of what was so wrong with the film. Had it released a couple of years back, it probably wouldn’t have stood out so baldly. But, after Hidden Figures, how do you show NASA and this particular story without showing even one of the women, let alone black women, involved in the success? How do you only have housewives helping out by only “supporting their men?” How do you present the landing on the moon as the success of old white men only? It is a glaring and frustrating aspect, even if it was the perspective of the time.

Another choice of Chazelle’s caused some loud chatter, but that one didn’t bother me at all. I support not showing the planting of the flag, given the focus of the movie on people rather than countries; it was a story choice, not a political statement and you do see it in tableau. However, I didn’t find the most famous of the moments, that first step, all that triumphant. Perhaps because I knew it would happen. Perhaps because I remember watching it happen. But I think, really, it was because Chazelle lost the build-up and payoff in his structure and it whittered away rather than came home. Of course, the focus for being on the moon is shifted rather sharply for Armstrong. Very poignantly shifted, if the moments on the moon are to be believed. But if Chazelle didn’t want to focus on that iconic moment, he shouldn’t have focused on it for 20 minutes and then lost the tension.

Finally, from a film craft point of view, when the heck are directors going to understand that hand-held and large format movies don’t mix well. If you must use hand-held, do it sparingly. On IMAX it simply gets nauseating, throwing you out of the story. Chazelle used shakeycam all over the place. Some made sense, but a huge portion didn’t. I understand the use during the flights and tests, but we didn’t need the 8mm effect to have it feel like old home movies. There were specific moments he could have used it to emphasize Armstrong’s personal struggles, but because it was so overused, it lost all emotional value.

For only his third film, Chazelle continues to impress. This may not be the huge success that was hoped for, but he does show an ability to take on different types of stories and to continue to deliver interesting characters. I think, in this case, he needed to do more research and be more aware of the current times to tell the story well and fully. As it is, it is certainly impressive at moments and worth seeing overall, but the flaws are somewhat fatal for me in terms of ever needing to see it again (unlike his other films).

Final Portrait

[3 stars]

The lives of the famous and artists fascinate us. Whether it is the fictional as in A Star is Born, or the mysterious such as Loving, Vincent, or the brainy like The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, or any of the many biopics about Oscar Wilde, the movies keep getting made. Perhaps we watch because we want to understand fame. Or maybe genius. Whatever the impetus, their lives are often, to be honest, fascinating.

While the artist Alberto Giaocometti probably isn’t one of the names that would jump to most people’s minds as possible subject, this true tale documented by the portrait’s subject, James Lord, is full of humor along with insights as to the nature of artistic drive. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) brings the artist to life in a wonderfully funny and darkly intense portrayal that draws us in just as it did the world and Lord, played by Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name). We watch Hammer’s Lord get pulled into Gioacometti’s spell, torn between having his portrait completed and frustration with a process he had no understanding of prior to agreeing to sit. Through the unexpected several week process Lord becomes our eyes into Giaocometti’s life, joys, thinking, and fears.

Around the two swarm Tony Shalhoub (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel), and Sylvie Testud who each highlight different aspects of the household and the times. And each deals with the challenges differently. What keeps them in his orbit is all part of the story.

The insanely prolific actor Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) took on this adaptation of Lord’s book about the experience as one of his few writing and directing challenges. He’s only done a handful over the year; his first was the wonderful Big Night and you can see how that sensibility and love of character has matured. Tucci has a great eye and keeps the energy up, even during long silences, by making us invest in the portrait’s completion ourselves. Though more of a slice-of-life than a full story, it is a fun, funny, and fascinating 90 minutes, with wonderful performances worth seeing.

Midnight’s Children

[3 stars]

Salman Rushdie has an obsession with dualities, starting with, or at least most notably with, his infamous Satanic Verses. He loves pitting good against evil, rich against poor, strong against weak. His stories are also rarely to be taken at face value. Midnight’s Children is no exception. This fable, ostensibly about two boys born at the same time on the eve of India’s independence, is more about the history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh than it is the characters on the screen.

Narrated and written by Rushdie, the movie is a slightly fantastical tale told primarily in English. The story is fascinating, but a lot of the layers I’m sure were lost on me since it was all metaphor for the country, politics and culture. But even with the cultural gaps, it was a gripping story. It was certainly helped by Deepa Mehta, who has trod these themes before in her Water, Earth and Fire trilogy. She was a perfect director to take on the emotions and approach Rushdie intended.
This is an epic, so be prepared to strap in for 2.5 hours. But it is also done across three or four timeframes (depending on how you slice it) as the boys grow up and the country evolves. The time is necessary to set up and expose all of the issues. It is a rather light approach to the whole thing, by admission of the narrator and omission of the writer, but its points are unmistakable even if its punches are somewhat pulled.

Midnight

Venom

[3 stars]

Bottom line: It’s not bad, but it’s so not Marvel Studios.

When Sony last attempted to bring Venom to screen it was one of Sam Rami’s misfires: Spider-Man 3.  Their record hasn’t been the best with this universe from there forward (Spider-Man: Homecoming is really a Marvel film, so that doesn’t count). So, needless to say, I went into this movie with concerns but with an open mind and hope. There are some good aspects to what they delivered, but overall it is full of short cuts, almost unwatchable fight scenes (especially on IMAX), and comic-book logic full of science and plot holes, not to mention bad character choices. At only about 90 minutes of story (and 18 of credits) they didn’t take the time the story deserved. Entertaining? Sure, but not brilliant.

Despite this being a tent-pole flick, the entire movie spins around only three characters. Tom Hardy (The Revenant) toplines. He brings an interesting aspect to Eddie, but he isn’t very credible as a star investigative reporter. There is something just a bit dim about Hardy’s portrayal and the story has him just a bit too reckless to have gotten to such a height in his career.

Michelle Williams (I Feel Pretty) character holds her own better and has a bit more built in to make us respect her. Is she tough and judgmental? Yes, but with cause and she is anything but dumb.

On the other side of the coin is Riz Ahmed (Una), who presents a particular kind of sociopath impressively. He is a chameleon at the edge of social norms and, at this point in his life, often unconcerned about wearing his mask of normality. It isn’t a mustache twirling lord of evil, but he does borderline the geography. And, of course, it becomes a heavy-handed metaphor for the story.

A few smaller roles add to the mix, in particular Jenny Slate (Gifted). And, of course, there is the small cameo of Wood Harrelson (Shock and Awe) to hint at things to come. For the sharp eye, there is also Michelle Lee (Altered Carbon) floating around for a while.

Primarily used to TV, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) has had mixed success on the big screen. Despite its record opening, I don’t think this is setting him apart. The script, though co-written by the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle team, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, along with Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), doesn’t really capitalize on any of their talents fully and devolves into easy things from the genre rather than breaking new ground or showing us something new. In fact, Venom doesn’t even acknowledge the rest of the MCU…no Spider-man, no Avengers, no aliens and alien tech. It is completely stand-alone and isolated, which just feels weird given Homecoming and the other 17 films that have built out that world.

Sony may have been mostly responsible for the comic-book Renaissance on screen thanks to the Rami trilogy they had the guts and vision to produce, but they’ve yet to learn how to do it well. The fear is that they will drive the Spidey universe into the ground yet again. And, given what they have planned on slate for the next several years, it is almost a guarantee. They are rushing to monetize the success of their partnership with Marvel without understanding why and how what they did with them worked. I will grant them the acting talent in the popcorner, they just have to get better scripts and someone solid to run the franchise with a longer vision.

All that said, this is a 90 minute romp with some good moments and some nice humor. It is far too short for an origin film of this complexity, but if you don’t care about the longevity of the series, it will probably do. I don’t suggest IMAX as it didn’t add much and some of the filming is too tight for the format.

Venom

A Star is Born (2018)

[4 stars]

The bones may be old on this fifth remake of the 1937 classic, but Bradley Cooper (JoyGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) put fresh flesh on them in the roles of director, co-writer, and even co-star.

Cooper brought his own life to bear on the tale, enriching it with a sense of reality not to mention driving passion and real romance. While he did this for his own reasons, he also recognized he had an opportunity. Once in every generation or so a performer comes around who has the presence, charm, and ability to take on this role.

In 2018, it is Lady Gaga (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, American Horror Story), a woman of incredible talent. I’m not a huge fan of her music, but I respect her abilities both musically and in business (much as I did Madonna’s in the 80s). She has both the chops and the confidence to be part of something rather than having to dominate it. Because while A Star is Born is clearly her story, it is also very much Cooper’s. If she simply took it all over, there wouldn’t have been a film worth seeing. And the story is a heartrendingly beautiful one, danced by these two performers. Along with Sam Elliott (Grandma), and a surprise performance by Andrew Dice Clay, their lives unfold and their pasts exert their inevitable influence.

Cooper gets great performances out of everyone, including himself. Choosing to record all the music live adds a sense of reality and credibility to the entire endeavor as well. And though the story has been updated and made his own, he manages to hold onto a sense of nostalgia thanks to his choices in color timing the film to give it a slightly washed-out feel. The third act of the story drags a bit, but the overall impact is only slightly diminished for that drop in urgency. This isn’t a car chase movie, it is a paced tale of love, art, and family. For a first time director, it is also a major triumph. This is sure Oscar-bait, and it even has a chance at securing a statuette or two come next year’s ceremony.

Grab some popcorn and, maybe, even a few tissues and take someone you really care about to this for a date night. The movie is worth your time and it reminds you of what is important in your life in many expected and unexpected ways.

A Star Is Born