War Horse (2011)

Next time someone says to me, “The book is always better than the movie,” I can say: “Hah! You have not seen War Horse!”

Stories evolve. Later versions are not necessarily better, and stories told using different media have different strengths and different constraints. Nevertheless, though the movie owes much to both its predecessors—the children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo and the stage play that uses puppets by Handspring—the movie is hands down the best version.

Why?

The relationships between the characters have been tweaked to support the story better. The story itself has been tweaked to smooth the pacing and heighten the drama. Moreover, the settings shine. A book can describe a setting evocatively, but not every book does. Spielberg’s pictures are worth many more thousands of words than Morpurgo gave us. Meanwhile, the anti-war didacticism, which sometimes upstaged Handspring’s puppets in the play, is toned down to the point that it’s almost absent from the dialog of the movie. After all, on the big screen, the horror of war speaks for itself, and anyway, there are other stories that better show its terrible cost. This is not the story of the lives and deaths of human soldiers, nor even the story of a boy who loved his horse. This is the story of a horse that went to war.

It’s beautiful, and so absorbing that I didn’t realize until after I’d watched it twice that it’s two and a half hours long!

According to the reviews, not everyone likes the old-fashioned “honest, emotionally direct” storytelling, calling it overly sentimental, and some deride it as mere family-friendly entertainment, too clean to be serious about its ostensibly grim subject matter.

I refuse to dislike the movie on those grounds. Is it calculated to be emotionally satisfying? Maybe. But it satisfies, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies.

See below for a short summary, a very very detailed summary (with SPOILERS), a list of the changes I liked in the movie, a list of some of the movie reviews, and a few other thoughts.

Continue reading War Horse (2011)

War Horse (the film of the stage play)

Sometimes the medium is the message. When I watched a Singapore screening of the play War Horse which had been performed in London at the National Theatre, I was underwhelmed by the plot and script but full of admiration for the puppetry that brought horses (and a hilarious goose) to life on the stage. Hats off to Handspring Puppet Company for an awesome performance and the engineering and practice that went into it.

Continue reading War Horse (the film of the stage play)

Inala: A Zulu Ballet (Singapore 2019)

I found this performance to be a bit mystifying. It featured the Soweto Gospel Choir and an international fusion dance group. The choir moved around and danced during the performance. Overall, I would say there was a lot of energy and movement and skill, but I felt the lack of a discernible story to tie it all together.

Continue reading Inala: A Zulu Ballet (Singapore 2019)

John Wick (2014)

I was impressed with the first bit of this movie, which had very little predictable dialog—very little dialog at all. It’s just scenes of Sad Keanu, basically…

John Wick is alone except for his vintage hot rod and a puppy thoughtfully gifted to him by his late wife. So when the entitled, oblivious son of a Russian crime boss takes a fancy to his car, steals it, and kills the puppy, leaving him completely alone, what does he do? Why, he goes back to his life as the best professional assassin ever, letting nothing stand between him and his doomed target. (I mean, you know it’s a revenge plot, right?)

Gone are the days when noir was black and white and grey; here you’ve got grey, sure, but also yellows, reds, blues, and greens. It’s slick and modern and moody. I guess the stylization is a big reason the violence was not unenjoyable. There’s a lot of death, but it’s not a lot of senseless grunting and bloody messes. It feels clever. More than that, it feels just. It’s also got some rather funny deadpan moments that keep it from feeling too heavy.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/john-wick/id928911988

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS.

Continue reading John Wick (2014)

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)

Loving Vincent (2017)

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian aptly calls the film “impressive but weirdly exasperating”. I did enjoy the film, but I do wish I’d sat a bit farther back from the screen. I also wish I had watched Loving Vincent on DVD (rather than in a theater) so that I could watch the special features. For one thing, I’m not so familiar with the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh. For another, I would love to know more about the technique that was used to create this strange film. The medium is the message.

Some of the frames are copies of Van Gogh paintings—over a hundred of them. The color parts of the film seemed to have been actually painted (in the style of Van Gogh); the black-and-white parts seemed to consist of live-action film that had been modified with some kind of filter. In any case, the realism of the people and their movements can be explained by rotoscoping: the movie was filmed first; then artists used the film frames as templates for paintings on canvas. What we see was made using images of those paintings. (And I thought stop-motion animation was pains-taking!)

The story of the film is sad, as is the life of many a starving artist; Van Gogh only became famous after his untimely death. The end credits said he sold exactly one painting in his lifetime, but created over 800 in the decade before he died—and he died when he was younger than I am now.

It goes to show that having a skill is not enough; you also need the skill or connections to advertise that skill in the right place at the right time, or you are no more noticed than a tree falling in the forest where no ears can hear it.

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 Loving Vincent (2017)

Risky Business (1983)

People associate Tom Cruise with the 1986 action drama Top Gun, an early success, but his breakthrough film was the artsy 1983 teen comedy Risky Business.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/risky-business/id571721656

It is strange to see the nineteen-year-old version of Tom Cruise on screen. He looks really different, and yet he’s also the same guy, smiling the same million-dollar smile.

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)

Collateral (2004)

In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise somehow made dying funny. In Collateral, he somehow makes killing funny. And also sad.

The premise is that Tom Cruise, playing contract killer Vincent, hires Jamie Foxx, playing taxi driver Max, to chauffeur him around LA all night, without, of course, explaining that he will be murdering five people before skipping town. What’s a hardworking, law-abiding taxi driver to do, apart from cooperate? Can he improvise a way out of his horrible predicament?

Collateral seems like it could have been an action movie, but it’s kinda not. Although it features crazy driving, shooting, Tom Cruise running, and a police hunt, it’s a drama as much as it is a thriller. The whole story takes place in one night, and dialog seems to take up the bulk of the screen time. It’s more serene than frantic.

The theme is carpe diem. Don’t postpone your dreams! Don’t be afraid of taking risks! Also: Don’t hire yourself out as a contract killer, because if you do, when you die, no one will care!

I hated Tom Cruise’s hair. Was that style fashionable back in 2004? Clamshell phones were. Those are a joke now that smartphones have taken over the world…

All nitpicking aside, I enjoyed the movie. Sure doesn’t make me want to live in LA, though!

The plot summary on Wikipedia is not bad.

This Roger Ebert review is full of praise.

This review at Pajiba calls the movie melancholy and soulful, claiming it may be the best movie Tom Cruise will ever make.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/collateral/id291825916

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

When I started seeing movie posters for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I was curious but apprehensive. Watching the movie, I was pleasantly surprised.

Unlike the 1993 film featuring ballet student and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, the movie is not merely a recording of a stage performance of the ballet, nor is it a musical, nor does it follow the “story” of the ballet. It’s a through-the-looking glass version, a mirror image, or echo of the story in the ballet. The film includes a bit of ballet and some of the musical themes, but mostly it is a beautiful, original, inspiring fantasy.

The sets, CGI, and costumes are impressive, but the strength of the movie is the theme it expresses: how to deal with the loss of a loved one. There are healthy ways and unhealthy ways, both demonstrated dramatically.

Other solid, admirable themes are family togetherness, friendship and loyalty, creativity and curiosity, bravery, compassion and forgiveness, choice, and belief in one’s self.

With so much for the protagonist to learn on her adventure, I don’t see how detractors can call the movie ‘soulless’. Did we even watch the same movie? Whatever their reasons, critics and audiences don’t seem to like this movie nearly as much as I did, saying it’s as clunky as that ambitious 2018 flop, A Wrinkle in Time. That’s not fair at all. Four Realms is miles better than A Wrinkle in Time.

Maybe the detractors don’t award as many points for theme as they do for how subtly those themes are expressed. Some hoped for more ballet, others hoped for more music. Some wanted it to be scarier, others wanted it less scary. Maybe they all simply had higher expectations. Maybe nobody quite knew what to expect at all. I agree the film could have been better, but I think it was actually pretty decent. This review at Empire Online agrees with me.

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 The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)