Little Women (1933)

Why do I feel like there was too much shouting? (Also, too much crying? Sheesh, Kathy, calm the heck down.)

The 1933 Katharine Hepburn film is an unsubtle adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel Little Women. Then again, the book at times is less than subtle in its advocacy of Christian selflessness. Moreover, I get the sense that compared to the films of the day, Little Women represented a victory for realism: it was a departure from overblown, melodramatic, stereotyped adventures.

I decided to watch Little Women (1933) after the Hungry Hundred Book Club meetup, when I saw three classic film adaptations—Little Women 1933, Little Women 1949, and Little Women 1994—listed in a friend’s copy of the book. Many critics seem to consider the 1933 adaptation the best of the bunch.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/little-women-1933/id298739825

See below for more of what I thought of it, as well as a plot summary in the form of a list of incidents included in the movie.

Continue reading Little Women (1933)

City of Ember (2008)

Never judge a book by its movie. City of Ember (the movie) is only okay, but City of Ember (the book) is fantastic.

Deep underground, the people of Ember have never seen the sun and don’t even know it exists. The builders of their city planned for them to emerge, but that plan was lost and forgotten, and now Ember is running out of supplies, and its generator, without which there is no light, is breaking down. Will the builders return to save the people of Ember, as some believe? Will the mayor come up with a plan for his people? Or will it be up to Lina and Doon to rediscover the lost exit to the surface?

The premise is great. However, the movie lacks the focus of the book because some added elements don’t quite fit, some of the positive thematic messages are missing, and some of the action shots were created with awkward CGI. Also, personally, I’m not fond of Bill Murray.

I think The City of Ember would be great as a television series, because a TV show could spend a lot more time developing the characters and exploring the unique underground world.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/city-of-ember/id299413486

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 City of Ember (2008)

The Darkest Minds (2018)

Starring the actress who played Rue in The Hunger Games (2012), The Darkest Minds was like Wrinkle in Time (2018) plus X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), but better in some ways than either one.

I wish I’d known it was based on the first book in a series and not a standalone story; then the pacing would have made more sense.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-darkest-minds/id1412296702

The reviews reflect a general consensus that though the cast was good, the movie feels like a timid, bland echo of other dystopian stories. I dunno, sweet and safe isn’t necessarily bad. Here’s a representative “meh” kind of review, from IGN.

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)