Tag Archives: adaptation

Going in Style

This is more Tower Heist than Hell or High Water, which is a bit of a shame as the talent in the film is pretty stand-up. Top lining are Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Alan Arkin (Love the Coopers), and Michael Caine (The Last Witch Hunter); three guys who have massive presence on screen and can still share it with others.

And this bouncy comedy, with a tinge of seriousness, has a great supporting cast as well. Ann-Margret, John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island), Joey King (Independence Day: Resurgence), Matt Dillon (Wayward Pines), and some extra silliness by Christopher Lloyd fill out the lives of our main characters with some nice color.

The thing is, the story had more potential than that. Much like a ton of other options like Now You See Me, Stand Up Guys, Lavender Hill Mob, Topkapi, there were depths to be plumbed. It starts off more serious and on a note that will resonate with much of the audience out there. But that note, instead, is just a MacGuffin that has little bite and barely any threat.

A better script would have helped. Writer Melfi (St. Vincent), despite some good moments, really fell into cliche and obvious choices. Some of that blame, though, has to go to the director, Zach Braff (Scrubs), who has little sense of subtlety and who clearly played this for broad laughs rather than something, potentially, richer. It still could have been fun and funny, but it could also have had a bit more grounding to raise the stakes and involve the audience rather than solely using cheap tricks, like kids and hospitals, to win our affections.

I’m not saying don’t watch this movie. It is diverting. It is funny. It is relatively satisfying. But, much like eating a single Cheeto, once it dissolved I found I was still hungry.

Going in Style

The Boss Baby

The ideas behind this silly bit of fluff are wonderful: how does an older child deal with the arrival of new baby, particularly an older child with a rampant imagination. The execution, however, is mediocre. The issue is deep in the conceit of how the tale is told. What is fantasy and what is reality gets more than a little munged and, frankly, confusing.

The voice talent is solid, but nothing groundbreaking. It is a long comic stand-up routine that provides a lot of one-liners, but very little acting. For that purpose, they found the right talent. For emotion, it relies on cheap tricks, like singing Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird to pull the heart strings and giant anime eyes on everyone to pull out a physiological response.  If I sound a bit cranky on these subjects, I am. I prefer movies to earn their moments rather than manipulating the audience. And, honestly, a good part of the movie left me nonplussed as it focused on absurd aspects. And we shall not even discuss the climactic scene and results. It may well have been intended as all fantasy, but that isn’t how it was presented as we see non-fantasy points of view of the action at least a few times which means it has to be actual events, not just Tim’s imagination.

Writer Michael McCullers (Peabody & Sherman) had a clear blast slipping in all manner of old references, from music cues, to visuals, to puns. There is plenty of private joking going on for the adults, if they’re paying attention.  And, of course, there is a lot of cheap baby humor. Director Tom McGrath (Megamind, Madagascar 3) tackled this script relatively well on the voice side, but didn’t manage to overcome the oddities of the story telling. He should have committed to it being complete fabrication or complete reality. The in-between state appears to entertain, but also manages to confuse and leave it all incomplete. 

What you end up with is an entertaining mess, from a pure movie point of view. However from an entertainment perspective, it will connect with anyone who has had or taken care of a baby. I’m not entirely sure it connects on the sibling level the way it was intended, but perhaps that is because it took almost half the movie to focus on that in earnest. If you approach this as just a way to see a bunch of short, funny moments, with a thin thread of plot, you’ll have enough fun to make it through the 90+ minutes. But a classic this most definitely is not. 

The Boss Baby

Wilson

It’s a good idea to be in a relatively good mood before you sit down for this disturbing, little flick. It is funny, in its way, but it is also a sort of dark Forrest Gump. Wood Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) delivers a curmudgeon you can almost understand. Unlike similar kinds of stories, like St. Vincent, the path for the main character is less sure and not entirely uplifting.

Moving along his trail of tears and cheers is a collection of oddly broken women including Laura Dern (99 Homes), Judy Greer (Men, Women, Children),  Cheryl Hines (Nine Lives), and relative newcomer Isabella Amara (Spider-Man: Homecoming). 

There are some dark laughs to be had as Wilson navigates his life with wide open eyes and and an even larger open mouth. But it is just as often painful. I think director Craig Johnson’s (Skeleton Twins) control of first-time script writer Daniel Clowes was solid and there was no residual sense of its graphic novel roots, other than the left turns in the plot. When you have the urge for a story that is more true to life than true to Lifetime, this may do.

Wilson

The Calling

Navigating a dark world of pain and murder in the Great White North, Susan Sarandon (3 Generations) leads a solid suspense story (if a bit flawed in the police procedure). Of course, I am partial to good serial killer tales, if you hadn’t noticed, so I’m in the target audience for this one.

Sarandon is supported by a surprisingly well-heeled cast: Gil Bellows (Ascension), Topher Grace (The Big Wedding), Ellen Burstyn (The Age of Adaline), Donald Sutherland (Hunger Games), and Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels). Their abilities and experience keep it all fresh and intriguing. 

What makes this particular story a bit different is the efforts by director, Jason Stone and writer, Scott Abramovitch; both having their first time at bat for a feature. In the script and the direction, the characters all act just a bit different than you expect. The plot, even when obvious, still has some very nice reveals. I will admit that the final moment, probably from the original material, is a tad eye-rolling, but not unanticipated, and it doesn’t diminish all that came before. It simply is a bit too, for lack of a better word, cutesy. 

If you like good suspense tales (and this is more suspense than mystery), it is worth your time investment. The driving purpose and the path to the resolution are really very clever. It would have made a great mini-series, but it manages not to feel too rushed, even in a two hour format.

The Calling

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

Speech & Debate

If you ever spent time in a fringe club in High School or, in particular, worked for the school paper, in drama, or on the forensics team, this movie will ring many bells for you. Even if you haven’t, it captures the frustration and sense of awakening that everyone goes through at around that age, and, for some, the need to act. It is on that point where the reality of this tale gets delightfully stretched…but only a little.

The three young leads that carry the film are an unlikely crew thrown together by need. Their surety and fearlessness tested at every turn, they simply move forward until they can’t.

Sarah Steele (Adult Beginners), reprises her role from the original stage production while Liam James (The Way Way Back) and Austin P. McKenzie (When We Rise) join her to complete the group. They are all endearing and frustrating in their ways, and each has their own challenges outside the main plot to overcome. Together they find a sense of strength and belonging, as you’d hope.

This film began life as a well-received Stephen Karam play before he adapted it for this film version. As a credit to his writing, you’d never know it started in a different medium.

The adults in this story are definitely secondary characters with small, implied storylines of their own. Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp), Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect 2), suggest rich, unseen interactions in particular.

This is a funny and painful romp through old memories and the new ways of the world (and how they haven’t really changed). Or, if you’re contemporary to the characters, a reminder that everyone is struggling through the same junk and can do so in quiet or with style. Regardless, watch through the end of the credits for an amusing coda.

Speech & Debate

Spider-Man: Homecoming

So here we are: the third bite at the apple for Sony. Say farewell to the Rami trilogy and the misfired Amazing Spider Man duo. I have to admit, when I heard this was all in the works, my enthusiasm was low. The trajectory of the character has been driven at Sony more by the drive to hang onto the rights than to make good films. But let’s put that aside for the moment. The fact is this reboot is really quite good and finally has a young kid playing Peter Parker at the right age for a change.

From the casting of Tom Holland (The Secret World of Arrietty) to starting off with The Ramones for the soundtrack to kick it all off, this co-release with Marvel really hit all the right marks. Holland is young enough to really feel like a gangling 15  year old who, limbs at all angles, fearlessly swings around NYC and environs trying to do good. He isn’t an antihero like Deadpool, but he isn’t the typical superhero either.

And this is where Marvel and the six credited writers (yes, six) really deserve some applause. They know that we’re fatigued with these films. They know that we find it all just a bit silly. They play into that idea, allowing Peter Parker to be both superhero and little hero. He bumbles around and is more an Everyman than ever before. It really helps sell the movie as both a fun ride and as something relatable. But they also weave him into the Avengers universe with clips from Captain America: Civil War so that we have context. It works wonderfully. But, most importantly, it isn’t entirely predictable. It keeps throwing in curve balls and surprises, and of course, humor. I have no idea who to really credit with all that given the number of people involved, but that it all works together with that many cooks is a feat unto itself.

Along with Holland are some great, supporting roles. Michael Keaton’s (Robocop) role is particularly nuanced. He starts in the prologue with solid motivation, and then, like many things, it morphs into something else. And the prologue is worth mentioning as it winds back the clock to just after the first Avengers movie, in a world shattered and newly aware of aliens and superheros. Spider-Man can play-out in parallel to the movies that followed, though the Civil War reference gives them a bit of a time paradox problem, but just blink through it and it won’t bother you too much.

There are other main adult roles. Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is sadly underused in this movie, though she definitely has some important moments, and is there in Peter’s mind at all times. Jon Favreau (Chef) however, gets a bit more screen time and his own little subplot through the movie. And Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets some moments as well. The biggest surprise in the adult cast for me was the very nice turn by Donald Glover (The Martian). I’ve like the actor for a while, but he delivered this part, small as it was, with great skill. There are other surprises as well, but I won’t expose them here.

The film really focuses, rightly so, on the younger cast. Jacob Batalon quietly carries a lot more of the story than you expect. Laura Harrier and Zendaya add some nice confusion and, let’s say goals for Peter Parker to focus on. Only Tony Revolori (Dope), really feels forced in this group. Here I mainly blame director Jon Watts (Cop Car) for not holding him in check.

This is a rocket-fueled adventure, but very much from an adolescent’s eyes, even if there is plenty for adults to both relate to and enjoy. It is a great addition to the Marvel Universe, but I am dubious that Sony will recognize what they have and keep their mitts off of it. We’ll see if they can sustain the franchise this time. They have made it clear it is only leaving their hands when they’ve turned to dust, so that means a movie every three years, regardless of quality or value. If I sound concerned, suffice to say that whispers from the industry already suggest that the future is heading off the rails, which would be a damned shame. They really have something here, and a star that can sustain them for a good long while before he’s too old to play the part. Here’s hoping they see that and protect it.

Meantime, go and give your summer a kick to get it rolling again after several weeks of disappointing releases.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

You’ve probably already seen this (I hadn’t) and nothing I’m going to say here will change your mind.

So, if you loved this film, power to you and move along, you’ll probably think I’m being sour and unromantic, but I’m not. I love this story, and am particularly fond of the Grimm’s version and the Cocteau film, which leans heavily on that source. I even like the TV version (but, hey, that gave us Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, not to mention George RR Martin). But this Disney version is simplified and just not as engaging.

Like all fairy tales, there is a base truth Beauty wishes to convey, to teach. There are many ways to get there if you want to do variations of the story, but to really get there, in all cases, you have to truly care for the characters and their situations. You need to feel their fear and see their changes. Disney’s offering is all distraction and almost no emotion. That doesn’t make it un-entertaining, it just makes it empty entertainment, however pretty. And, to be fair,  the production design (real and digital) is truly a thing of beauty and imagination. Also, the nods to Sound of Music and Esther Williams, among others, are a riot.

But the story itself is rushed and almost utterly without tension or sense of time. It all seems to happen over the course of, at most, five days. I certainly believe in immediate connections between people, but they don’t usually involve kidnap, threats, and imprisonment. That takes time to overcome. In this case, everyone walked in knowing what would happen and didn’t even try to pretend it wouldn’t…the closest feint was the faked, depressing ending which the Enchantress (whom we’ve been spotting hanging out all along) deals with silently and completely without comment.

Does it still work? In its way, yes, but not because it is on the screen, but because it is in your mind. That is not only a cheat, but ultimately unsatisfying. It didn’t really do anything new for us. Frankly, there was too much other stuff to allow there to be characters and acting so that we actually cared about Belle, the Beast, her father, etc., and not just about the “story.”

There were other annoyances as well. The forced amount of diversity in the cast, seemingly without purpose, meaning, or basis. The continuity gaffs with the horse who magically appears at either end of the journey as needed, with or without tack. Peasants that suddenly have fancy dress. And then there was the great “controversy,” which was over so fast I actually almost missed it. Man people are screwed up if that was what flipped them out.

Ultimately, this is an OK piece of distraction, but not a great or classic film; it is simply big and flashy. Sure, it’s worth a single watch, but there isn’t a single performance worthy of mention, nor specific results calling out.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Before I Fall

I don’t think I speak out of turn by saying this is a Groundhog Day for teenagers, in fact I may even be helping your enjoyment. If I hadn’t know that, I think the first 10-15 minutes would have sent me running as the young leads are far too good at their clique-ish hatefulness to make me want to stay. It isn’t a trait I find attractive or even compelling. However, knowing it was the base from which change was going to come, I understood the extreme start of the tale and just strapped in for the ride.

The success of the movie is down to Zoey Deutch (Why Him?). While there is nothing particularly surprising in this tale of growing up and coming to terms, but it is effective in its message. But leaping past that, the journey that Deutch’s character takes is very gripping. She is allowed to find the frustration, anger, and even humor of it all so that she can also finally find the solution (which is painfully obvious from the outside looking in).

Anchoring the story with Deutch are alumns from Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Logan Miller and Halston Sage who both put in solid performances. Miller, in particular, is a nice and unexpected choice for his role. Jennifer Beals (Taken) and Nicholas Lea (Continuum) as Deutch’s parents add a small balance to the teenage-run-amok feel of the rest of the story, which helps keep it the least bit credible.

Oddly, though Deutch drives the tale, she is also part of the problems the film runs into. Deutch is just a couple years too old to believably play High School. In fact, though the main cast is all within a couple years of their character ages, those couple years really do make a difference visually, especially for Deutch. It isn’t a constant problem, but every once in a while it pulled me out of the story, which became a distracting issue.

Issues aside, this movie, at the right time, could be very powerful for an audience. It is a great reminder to live life, really live it. It isn’t a new message and this doesn’t dress it up in a new way, but it does it competently and with enough flair and earnestness to make it work. It is certainly aimed at young women, which is also why it could make a solid date movie for a lot of folks as well. Having seen this, I may need to go read Oliver’s book now as well given how much must have been internal monologues.

Before I Fall

Mindfulness and Murder (Sop-mai-ngeap)

Imagine a modern Brother Cadfael in Bangkok and you have an idea of what you’re in for. It isn’t quite as good, but it probably isn’t what you’re expecting either. While the monastery in both series appears to have much going on under the surface, there is an earnestness to Cadfael that this modern Buddhist temple has had to shed in order to survive and serve its purpose. It is also less about the intellectual pursuits of our main Father, Ananda played by Vithaya Pansringarm (Mechanic: Resurrection) then it is his background as a ex-detective.

Sadly, this appears to have been the only story adapted in the series. It could have been interesting to see what came next.

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