Emma (Paltrow 1996)

Having just read Jane Austen’s Emma, I thought this movie version of Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow felt shallow and rushed. It’s conventional to say, especially with classics, that the book is better than the movie, but let’s go beyond that and attempt to say why.

One reason is that the movie must show where the narration can tell, and in this case, telling is better than showing, because Austen’s conveyance of characters’ feelings and attitudes is masterful. Her storytelling will be remembered when the names on the avenue of stars cease to evoke even the faintest flickers of recognition.

Another reason is that since in the novel there is a lot of narration, and the “action” consists primarily of people having conversations, the moviemakers invented “plausible” activities for the characters so that the actors have something to do in each scene apart from talk. The activities came across as contrived, though. I’d rather have been a bit bored by the characters’ social lives than feel distracted because the characters were acting like puppets on strings pulled this way and that by the needs of modern Hollywood.

The scene in which Emma and Mr. Knightley practice archery was particularly unsubtle, since it showed that her conclusions were, shall we say, totally off the mark, while his were, you guessed it, right on target. If you’re not already groaning from the overbearingness of the metaphor, consider that Emma’s mistakes are matchmaking errors; she’s trying to play cupid (as the text on DVD cover informs us, lest we fail to notice this entire bit of cleverness).

A third reason this version of Emma was slightly disappointing was that it pales in comparison to the just as short but more authentic A&E version of Emma starring Kate Bekinsale (also released in 1996). I remember the raw emotion of the scene at Box Hill vividly, though I watched it almost two years ago.

I must have remembered how the actors in the Beckinsale version looked and behaved, because the characters all seemed off in the Paltrow version. I don’t think it was just that I saw the Beckinsale version first. Can anyone believe a beauty like Gywneth Paltrow could be vulnerable, let alone mistaken? She’s the embodiment of smug confidence. Bekinsale portrays Emma’s characteristic overconfidence without the uncharacteristic hotshot attitude shown in the photo that adorns the cover of the Paltrow DVD.


I had a similar issue with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice. She’s just too spunky and exaggerated for the character to be historically believable. As in 2005, Hollywood tried to up the entertainment value, and that spoils it for me.

Give me history or give me death.

Or rather, if you’re going to modernize Emma, go all the way.

Clueless (1995)

I watched Clueless to be able to compare it with Jane Austen’s Emma, on which it was based. I’d never seen it and had no 90s nostalgia for it at all. It was a decent retelling for its length, but I wasn’t amazed.


Details comparing the Austen novel with the movie follow below, with SPOILERS.

Continue reading Clueless (1995)

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Ex-Major Jack Reacher gets in plenty of fight scenes in the Halloween-themed sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, but this movie is as much a family drama as a thrilling whodunit. I liked it less than Jack Reacher (2012) because it was less funny.

Reviewers seem to rate this sequel adequate at best, which means it’s unlikely this book series will continue on film. (Tom Cruise will just have to find another way to make money.)

The premise is that when Reacher arrives in Washington D.C. to meet up with Major Turner, a friendly woman he’s only spoken with on the phone, he finds out that she’s been arrested by the military police. He doesn’t believe for a minute that she’s guilty. Those who framed her are dangerous and determined to keep their secret safe; Reacher has to rescue Turner, protect a girl who might be his daughter, and solve the mystery that cost two of Major Turner’s men their lives.


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 Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

V for Vendetta (2005)

Julia Roberts is good at smiling, as is Tom Cruise, but Hugo Weaving’s specialty is frowning. We’ve seen him as Elrond in LOTR, as Agent Smith in The Matrix, and as Old Georgie et al. in Cloud Atlas… the man is seriously good at frowning! Sadly, in V for Vendetta, we don’t get to see his face any more than we do when he voices Megatron.

Roger Ebert says:

“I was reminded of my problem with Thomas the Tank Engine: If something talks, its lips should move.”

I’m with you, Roger. The mask makes the quasi-romance between Evey and V particularly weird. By the way, which one is the protagonist? Evey is the, um, vehicle for our vicarious viewpoint, and the more prominent face on what seem to be the official materials promoting the film (see above).

If Evey once was the protagonist, certainly V has now eclipsed her. Or rather, the mask has. It now has a life of its own. It’s been appropriated (perhaps ironically; buy one here) by various groups, especially the hacker network Anonymous, as a symbol of their desire to stick it to the man. I mean, okay, I guess. It’s a handy symbol, for sure, since apparently it can mean almost anything you want it to, as long as you’re, you know, against something.


For more thoughts, including SPOILERS, see below.

Continue reading V for Vendetta (2005)

Cloud Atlas (2012)

From the Wachowski siblings who created pop-culture touchstone The Matrix (1999) as well as personal favorite Speed Racer (2008) comes Cloud Atlas (2012), a clever and ambitious positive spin on the novel of the same name by David Mitchell. I like it in some ways but not others.

It’s not a movie that can be easily summarized; it spans six different timelines that are tied together in surprising ways.

I’ve now watched the movie three times: once on a tiny screen on the plane, where much of the subtlety went straight past me; again via iTunes on a laptop screen; this time via iTunes on a huge TV shortly after reading the book.

For more on what I noticed about it this time (including SPOILERS), and ways the movie differs from the book, keep reading.

Also see my post on the book Cloud Atlas.


Continue reading Cloud Atlas (2012)

Mansfield Park (1999)

I must have seen Mansfield Park on a plane before I watched this DVD.

I remembered only the oddly sexualized parts, which surprised me both times, since the sex in Jane Austen’s romances is, in the novels and the other movie adaptations I’ve seen, all much more implicit.

Another weird thing about this movie is that bits of Jane Austen’s letters were put in as part of the character Fanny Price, who sometimes speaks directly to the camera.

Finally, the movie adds in a didactic subplot to remind us that Slavery Is Bad.

Although the movie seemed well received, personally, I can’t recommend it.



Continue reading Mansfield Park (1999)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a surprisingly straightfoward plot, but it was pretty enjoyable.

Premise: Dragons, formerly a menace to the people of Berk, are now a cherished part of Berk’s peace-loving culture. Menace lurks on the horizon, however. Dragon trappers are hunting dragons to sell to a warlord who is building a dragon army, and they’re not about to let a bunch of dragon riders get in their way, attacks from a mysterious giant ice-spitting dragon notwithstanding. Can Hiccup accept his role as future chief and protect his people… and the dragons? He and Toothless are going to have to fight that warlord, obviously. With help from an almost totally unexpected source…

Frankly, even if the plot had been a lot worse, the dragon joyrides would have made it totally acceptable. You know, kind of like The Rescuers Down Under. I’m a sucker for friendships with flying animals. (Free Willy, on the other hand, you can keep.)

Looking forward (waaaay forward, to 2018) to the third and final movie in the series. Considering reading the books, but I understand there are a lot of them and they’re only loosely related to the films. Not interested in the TV show.


More about this movie, and only this movie, since apart from the tame-the-injured-beast montage I don’t remember much about its 2010 predecessor, below. There are SPOILERS, including a detailed plot summary in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Wrinkle in Time (2003)

Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time is an odd mix of fantasy, science-fiction, and Christian self-improvement pitched at young readers and published in 1952. Some aspects of the story lend themselves well to cinematic depiction, but unfortunately the climax is hard to dramatize. That didn’t stop Disney from trying. Although it’s not a great movie (it was made for television, not theaters), I’m glad it exists. I’ve now watched it twice. Yes, that’s a VHS tape.


See below for more thoughts on this adaptation. Beware SPOILERS.

Continue reading Wrinkle in Time (2003)