The Remains of the Day (1993)

After Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club chose The Remains of the Day for April 2018, I decided I was going to skip out on reading it. I read it half a lifetime ago, and remembered enough not to want to read it again. (It’s poignant, not my preferred mood for fiction.)

Among the DVDs I bought second-hand from a neighbor over a year ago was a copy of the 1993 Anthony Hopkins / Emma Thompson film version, so I figured I could just watch the movie instead of reading the book. (Normally that’s cheating, but like I said, I already did read the book. Also, it was a particularly well-made movie.)

I remembered that the book was about a butler who passed up his opportunity for love because he was too busy doing his job, and that there was something wrong with his master’s politics, such that the butler’s devotion was somehow even more thoroughly wrong-headed than it would have been otherwise.

The wistfulness of looking back on a wasted lifetime is nicely captured in a poem by Edgar Lee Masters called “George Gray”. Even more succinctly: A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-remains-of-the-day/id540710212

Although I did not re-read the book, and in some ways found the movie painful to watch, I very much enjoyed the book group meetup. See below for some of the themes and scenes we discussed.

Continue reading The Remains of the Day (1993)

Jumanji (1995)

Jumanji is based on a creepy-looking picture book by Chris Van Allsburg that’s also called Jumanji.

It’s an expensive, high-tech movie, but the plot (perhaps unsurprisingly) ends where it starts (in the past), and all the accumulated damage is reversed.

I have trouble believing the giant crocodile was ever convincing, and the effects team admits to basing the monkeys on no monkey in particular, but the plants were pretty cool, and the stampede was amazing.

The running gag with the car was hilarious, and it was fun to see Robin Williams act the part of the man-child from the jungle. He’s awfully good at being silly and yet serious, as he is in Hook (which I liked better).

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/jumanji/id532055046

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

This ambitious film adaptation of a ground-breaking children’s sci-fi novel was faithful to the book in fits and spurts, and in some ways it was better. Still, I agree with the box-office receipts on this one: not a winner.

I’m biased towards the book because I read it growing up and remember it vividly. Since screenplays can’t accommodate as many details as even the shortest of novels, liking this movie was going to be difficult in any case. That being said, the movie has some real flaws, about which, more below.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/a-wrinkle-in-time-2018/id1353642886

See below for some comparisons with the book and a list of reviews as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

If you thought all Tom Cruise movies had a scene showing Tom Cruise sprinting, you were wrong. Vampires don’t sprint, and in this movie… Tom Cruise is a vampire. So is Brad Pitt. Tom Cruise plays the bloodthirstier of the two. There’s a lot of blood and death in this movie. It’s not really my genre. At all.

Hah. I wanted to know about the financial aspects of being an immortal vampire. Do they steal? Do they invest? Do they work for pay? They could do any or all of those things, but we are shown zero of them. We also don’t see the legal or even social consequences of any of their murders, some of which really seem like they would have been noticed. Oh well…. In the positive column, Kristen Dunst, age 12, did a great job of playing an eternal woman child.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/interview-with-the-vampire-the-vampire-chronicles/id279599100

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Interview with the Vampire (1994)

The Foreigner (2017)

Jackie Chan is still kicking, punching, and jumping out windows. In this action thriller, he’s a sad dad with special forces training, trying to track down some anonymous bombers. The two main characters, Quan and Hennessey, are enemies, but I would say this is a buddy movie because they are trying to solve the same mystery. The movie is serious and satisfying but has a few funny moments in it.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-foreigner-2017/id1317020207

Update (27 Nov 2017): at Kinokuniya when I was looking for the illustrated Dream of the Red Chamber, I spotted the book the movie was based on:

The Chinaman by Stephen Leather

See below for a plot summary of the movie with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading The Foreigner (2017)

Heidi (2015)

In this German-language tale based on a bestselling work of Swiss children’s literature, orphan girl Heidi is left at the mountain hut of her grouchy grandfather when her money-grubbing aunt finds a job in the city. Heidi befriends her grandfather and a goatherd named Peter and is enjoying mountain life when her aunt returns, insisting she leave the Alps to become the companion of a crippled city girl, at least temporarily…

The story of Heidi bears a resemblance to the English children’s classic The Secret Garden. In both works, you have an isolated wealthy child who is transformed with the help of nature and a kind of wild child.

The story of Heidi also has religious overtones; the movie incorporates the parable of the shepherd who (presumably) leaves his flock to find the lost lamb.

On the surface, the story is beautiful and uplifting, but I can’t help thinking that nature is overly romanticized. I think it’s all too easy for city people suffering from urban ennui to dream of going “back” to nature, even though they’ve never been there. It’s my understanding that the author of the book (Johanna Spyri) lived a city life.

The rejection of civilization is not complete, however, because Heidi learns to read. Reading, her friend Peter argues, is not a skill a goatherd needs; nevertheless, it is a skill Heidi finds she wants. Therefore, overall I approve of the movie and the messages it has about family, friendship, identity, and pursuit of happiness.

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Trying to write down what I think about Mao’s Last Dancer is like unpacking a Russian doll. There are stories within stories within stories.

The reviews tell a story about the film’s reception. Critics were harsher than I expected, oddly saying both that the movie was bland and that it was melodramatic.

Included on the disc is the filmmaker’s story of how the movie was made, which made the whole thing sound like a minor miracle. The casting was challenging because in addition to a fantastic Chinese-speaking ballet dancer who could play Li, they needed a whole set of kids to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 11, and a whole set of teenagers to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 15. They also had to choreograph and stage a bunch of different ballet performances in different styles: a Chinese imitation of a Western ballet, a Chinese revolutionary ballet, Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (familiar to me as the cartoon evolution of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia).

In 2003 Penguin published Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who is still alive and was consulted during filming. It must be strange to see your life made into a movie. I don’t think I’d like it.

Two cultures clash: Mao’s communist ideals and the American dream. Unsurprisingly, the movie teaches that it is better to live rich and free in the West than poor and oppressed by Party members who do not tolerate ideas that conflict with their doctrines.

And there is the plot of the movie itself (see below).

You see what I mean about the recursive nature of the story? There’s the story of the reception of this particular biopic; the story of the making of the film; the story in the film itself; the story in the autobiography the film was based on; the memories that the autobiography was based on; and the real-world cultural backdrop of the dancer’s life.

I’m still not clear on the title. The name “Mao” conjures up the Chairman, but Li was chosen by representatives of Madame Mao, not Chairman Mao, to learn ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. I’m not sure why he was called the “last”, unless perhaps he was the last child selected during tryouts.

This movie, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, was a gift from my in-laws.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/maos-last-dancer/id424153088

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Jane Eyre (2006)

In this four-hour BBC miniseries version of Jane Eyre, there is much that’s missing; despite its length, it still felt rushed compared to the book. I’m sure the 2011 movie is even more rushed in comparison.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/tv-season/jane-eyre/id1346185051

See below for some differences between the miniseries and the novel.

Continue reading Jane Eyre (2006)

Blade Runner (1982)

Note to self: There is no need to ever watch Blade Runner again.

I think we Netflixed it sometime in the New Jersey era (2003–2008), and parts of it seemed vaguely familiar this time around. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it this time, either.

Yes, Blade Runner is a classic. And yes, the rainy/neon Japanese/German/Spanish vision of the future, with giant pyramid skyscrapers, is wonderfully creative (if not realistic for 2019). And yes, the movie has an interesting, philosophical sci-fi premise. But it’s just brutal. And it goes on for too long.

We watched the theatrical version this time; maybe the international version? I dunno, there are lots of versions. In the version we watched this time, there were silly voice-overs, a happy ending, and no unicorn dream.

The premise is that bio-engineered people (originally created to do dangerous work off world) have developed realistic emotions and thus resent their short lifespans. Four of them are back on Earth for some reason and Harrison Ford’s character is supposed to “retire” (execute) them, which is a creepy thing to have to do because they’re not that different from regular people.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/blade-runner/id594314564

The reason my husband and I watched Blade Runner again was that we are typically intrigued by movies made from Philip K. Dick stories.

Have not seen:

  • Radio Free Abelmuth (2010)
  • A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Okay, I guess I would watch Blade Runner 2049, which is supposedly going to be released later this year. Not a remake, but rather some kind of sequel. With Harrison Ford in it.

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

To call this movie didactic is to make ‘didactic’ a compliment! The story is a clever allegory about a boy who’s bored because he’s lazy, jaded, or both. When he suddenly finds a huge gift box in his bedroom one day after school, he pulls it open to find a tollbooth and a car that takes him through a gate to another world, where he must convince two kings to allow Rhyme and Reason to return to a land suffering from chaos and discord. On the way he has to learn to value knowledge and thinking using words and numbers as tools to defeat the demons that lurk in the Mountains of Ignorance.

Much of my love for this movie is probably nostalgia, but even if you’ve never seen it before, I think you’ll love the colorful Dr. Seuss–like visuals, the allegorical names, and the thrilling adventure quest itself.

The movie is mostly a cartoon, but opens and closes with live-action sequences filmed and set in San Francisco.

I was so pleased when Warner Brothers released The Phantom Tollbooth on DVD. I loved the movie for years. I must have seen it by borrowing it on VHS tape from the library, Turtles, or Blockbuster, and I probably only read the classic 1961 book years after the fact.

I was reminded of The Phantom Tollbooth when I watched Disney’s Robin Hood because one of the voice actors (Candy Candido, who has a very distinctive, very low voice) is in both. In this movie, as the Awful Din, he sings: “Haaaaave youuuuu… ever heard an elephant tap dance, on a tin roof late at night? That’s noise! Beautiful noise!”

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-phantom-tollbooth/id386179275

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)