Tag Archives: movies based on books

Brewster's Millions

Monty Brewster (Richard Pryor) is a minor league relief pitcher who still dreams of the majors even though he’s a little long in the tooth. His best friend and catcher, Spike Nolan (John Candy), seems a little more content with their lot in life, just happy to still be playing ball alongside his best bud. But life is about to change.

A long, long, long, long-lost uncle of Monty’s has just died, leaving him, his sole living heir, millions of dollars. But there’s a catch:

  1. He has 30 million dollars to spend in 30 days.
  2. He MUST spend the entire 30 million, and if he does so, he’ll inherit a further $300M.
  3. But he can’t acquire assets. At the end of 30 days, all the money has to be gone, to the penny, but he can’t have a single thing to show for it.
  4. He can’t willfully destroy the stuff either.
  5. He can donate 5% and gamble 5% but that’s it – the rest must be spent.
  6. He can’t tell anyone what he’s doing. Not his best friend Spike, not even the paralegal Miss Drake (Lonette McKee) hired to keep tabs on all his receipts.

Ready, set, go! Imagine. Imagine leaving that meeting with a frothy sense of urgency. Imagine leaving the bank vault (this is 1985: it’s all cash) with a pile of money. What’s the first thing you’d do?

Monty makes a valiant attempt: he buys priceless stamps and slaps them on postcards, he prepares his minor league team to play the New York Yankees, he runs a phony mayoral campaign, he treats a lot of people to a lot of champagne lunches. But some of his attempts backfire; his high-risk investments somehow pay off, even his long-shot gambles hit big. Now he’s got to spend those dividends as well!

But the real comedy is that the people close to him look on in horror. To them, he seems to be burning through his windfall at an alarming rate. He seems crazy. And he is, more or less: this mandate to burn through money recklessly is crazy-making. Richard Pryor is a lot of fun to watch in these moments. He can hardly believe his “luck.” And the chemistry with John Candy is pure pleasure. But it leaves you wanting more: more Pryor, certainly, and more unfiltered Pryor in particular. Brewster’s Millions is a PG comedy, and Pryor is not at his best at that rating. So there are times when you’re almost seeing him reigning himself in. I’m certain that a very exciting director’s cut of this movie exists somewhere – or at least out-takes worth their weight in gold. Still, this is a fun, silly movie, not quite as good as others in its genre, but worth it for Pryor alone.

The Great Gatsby

Nick Carraway meant to be a writer but is lured by the temptation of easy money to New York City for work, and a shack to stay in outside the city, on Long Island. He’s sandwiched between mansions, and across the bay dwells the old money, including his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. But everyone’s gossiping about Nick’s mysterious neighbour, Jay Gatsby.

There’s almost no one more suited to the decadence of The Great Gatsby than director Baz Luhrmann. Certainly Gatsby’s epic parties, brimming with booze, booming music, and beaded dresses, are brought to life with enthusiasm and an orgasmic level of detail under his direction.

But F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel isn’t just about the excess, but its flip side as well, the roaring/rotten 20s, the social upheaval and the resistance to change. But maybe a novel as ambitious as this, a book that has spoken to us for generations, belongs strictly to the page. Because as much as Baz Luhrmann gets right, the movie never quite grabs you the way it’s meant to. The way it should. Sean is a philistine who’s never actually read the novel (gasp!) and I wonder how his experience of the film differs from mine. For that matter, his experience of life.

Gatsby, you see, is the mysterious figure who haunts the pages of Fitzgerald’s genius work, but in the film, he’s all too knowable, especially when navigated by Leonardo DiCaprio, a muse of Luhrmann’s and an extremely familiar face to American moviegoers. And Tobey Maguire was already over when Luhrmann cast him as Carraway, the news just hadn’t quite made it to Australia yet. But Carey Mulligan as the luminous, quintessential, ethereal Daisy Buchanan? That was right. Inspired, even.

The best thing about this movie is and always has been Jay-Z’s genre-defying soundtrack. Luhrmann is no stranger to pairing period films with modern music to dazzling effect, but hip hop fits 1924 like it was always there, nestled between the cigarette holders and the champagne fountains and the bobbed haircuts. The costumes are a close second of course, every woman dripping with pearls and jet beads and scandalously raised hemlines. The accoutrements are perfection, so right that they almost distract from the fact that the movie itself is just wrong. And it’s not that anyone could have done it better. It’s probably just that no one should have even tried.

Matilda

Matilda is a precocious little girl who just doesn’t fit in with her family. Her father’s a crook, her mother’s a bingo hound, and her brother is a bully and a dullard. Six year old Matilda is mostly left to her own devices, which is probably for the best. She devours books from the local library but isn’t sent to school until the elementary school’s principal buys a lemon from her sleazy salesman father and her fate is sealed. Now poor Matilda’s got three adults on her case: her buffoon of a father (Danny DeVito), her flighty mother (Rhea Perlman), and the horrid Mz. Trunchbull (Pam Ferris).

It turns out Principal Trunchbull doesn’t just terrorize the students at her school, but the teachers too, and Matilda’s sainted teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) in particular because it turns out Trunchbully is also the mean old aunt who raised her. So Miss Honey and Matilda have loads in common, aside from the fact that they both read at the same level. They’re both looking to replace the misfit families they were born into.

As a story for children, Matilda is a bit of a weird one. It turns out that Matilda has special powers that come in handy when an adult in her life treats her unfairly. And objectively, the adults in her life are deserving of her scorn, but they’re wildly drawn caricatures, sadists and criminals. I suppose Roald Dhal wanted to acknowledge that sometimes children feel powerless and small and Matilda gets to confront this imbalance in a way that most little kids never will. They’ll simply wait to grow up and hopefully do it to their own kids one day. Such is life. Matilda gets to exact her revenge now, and it’s exactly the kind of revenge a 6 year old would think up.

Danny DeVito directs this little ensemble and though the effects have aged incredibly poorly, it must be said that the casting of Mara Wilson as the eponymous star was a stroke of genius. She is believable as a little know it all but somehow always sweet, never obnoxious. She never seems like a brat. She’s the kind of kid you might just want to scoop up and take home – so it’s almost understandable when the lovely Miss Honey does just that. Okay, not really. In real life I think it’s much harder to adopt a kid who has two living parents. But in the movie, both Matilda and Miss Honey get their happy ending, and it’s hard to argue that.

However, it’s easier to argue other things. Like when Miss Honey confides in Matilda that her father’s suicide was actually probably murder, and Principal Trunchbull the murderer. Which is a weird thing to unload on a kid. And to not share with the authorities for decades. But Miss Honey isn’t exactly the angelic teacher we’re led to believe she is. She rather passively stands by and watches her wee tiny students get abused on a regular basis. She actually seems a bit like an idiot. But who’s counting?

The Lorax

Once upon a time, a lovely young woman named Jay flew first class. Yup, all those travels, and it was just the one time. I don’t even remember where we were going. What I do remember: 1. it was an early morning flight 2. the breakfast was good 3. I had a mimosa 4.The Lorax was playing 5. I almost immediately fell asleep and missed the whole thing. I think we got a pretty good deal on the upgrade but still, it was disappointing to have slept through all the luxury. Of course, it was probably only because of the luxury (read: space) that I could sleep. Still. I kicked myself. I kicked Sean too; he also slept, though it’s a less a rarity for him.

But all this time, I’ve wondered: is The Lorax boring, or did I just fall asleep because it was a 6am flight and I was incredibly tired?

The Lorax is based on a Dr. Seuss story in which a 12 year old boy, Ted (Zac Efron), decides to impress a girl, Audrey (Taylor Swift), by bringing her a tree. A real, live tree. Which no longer exist. They live in a place where the trees were replaced long ago by sculptures of plastic lit up by dozens of C batteries. Their whole town is utterly devoid of nature. They’ve been denuded. But Ted has a pretty big crush on this chick Audrey so he treks out to an isolated home where he meets the elderly Once-ler (Ed Helms), the one responsible for the world’s current problems. As a young man he was so determined to have his company succeed that he thought nothing of cutting down all the trees. He butted heads with the guardian of the forest, The Lorax (Danny DeVito), but he wouldn’t change his mind until it was too late. And the thing about too late is that it’s true to its name: too late.

Sean asked me how heavy-handed the environmentalism theme was, but I actually consider it to be more anti-capitalist than anything. The Onceler’s greed costs them everything. And yet this kid-friendly, animated family film is basically one long commercial, replete with product placement, basically neutering its message.

The animation is lovely. Illumination has done several Dr. Seuss adaptations at this point and they’re pretty adept at the translation. Their trees look like swirls of cotton candy. The town is fairly bursting with brilliant details. And yet once again this film has failed to truly grab me.

The Operative

Rachel (Diane Kruger) calls Thomas (Martin Freeman) and says “My father died. Again.” It’s code for: get me the hell out of here. She is the operative, he is her handler, and she worked undercover in Tehran for the Mossad where things got…sticky. Her subject, Farhad (Cas Anvar) becomes her entanglement and if things were complicated before, well, they only get more so. Is she working both sides? Have her allegiances shifted? Dude it’s hard to trust a spy. Now, years later, she’s bringing Thomas back in. But why?

And also: who cares? The truth about spy work is that it’s probably boring like 99% of the time. Lots of sitting and waiting. Reading. Researching. Waiting some more. Blending in. Not getting up to much. Waiting for the phone to ring. Movies cut that shit right out. To be fair, The Operative edits out those same things as well, gets right to the getting-the-hands-dirty in the field bits. And yet it still, amazingly, manages to be incredibly boring. Incredibly.

Neither the story nor the characters were compelling. I love Martin Freeman but despite him being as animated as this movie got, I still couldn’t muster much enthusiasm. Diane Kruger was as remarkable as a boiled potato. More than once I asked Sean how much longer this movie had left, and more than once that Netflix progress bar seemed barely to have moved.

Yuval Adler’s film is unflashy and unstylish. Calling it forgettable is an insult to films I’ve merely forgotten. This one caused a fair bit of frustration even as I forgot it. I could hardly keep my attention even half on the film, snapping it back only to be disappointed by instant boredom yet again. And then it ended. Well, not so much ended as stopped. It just stopped being a movie exactly when it seemed it might have justified its existence. But no. The thing you’ve hung in there for 2 hours for…it never materializes. And yet you’re only half mad because even if you didn’t get a satisfying ending, at least it’s over.

 

 

 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Richard Linklater managed to get his hands on best-selling source material (the book, by Maria Semple, spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list) and systematically removed everything that was good and charming and unique about the novel to produce a bland and facile piece of film.

In the book, Bernadette is a reclusive but loving mother who suddenly disappears. Her husband and daughter believe her to be dead. Her teenage daughter Bee more or less narrates the story, mostly told through uncovered documents of her mother’s, piecing together her mother’s life, and discovering hidden depths and wells of sorrow. In the film, Bernadette’s whereabouts are never in question – we witness her escape and follow her on her adventure and see things through her eyes. You can hardly blame Linklater for this transition; with Cate Blanchett in the role, it would feel almost sacrilegious not to. But it does change the nature and structure of the story significantly, not to mention negates the mystery completely.

But that’s hardly the film’s only problem. I mean, the characters are just not likable. Bernadette, of course, is not meant to be likable – she has retreated from society, she burned out on humanity and doesn’t suffer fools, or many non-fools either. But her husband (Billy Crudup) is a workaholic, disloyal asshole. Her neighbour (Kristen Wiig) is an entitled twat. Her assistant is a scam artist. His assistant is a homewrecker and a gossip. Their therapist (Judy Greer) is an unprofessional over-stepper. It’s an unrelenting parade of unappealing characters, the only bright spot daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) and we’ve already discussed how Linklater chose to shine the spotlight elsewhere. Oof. But only a few of these characters are without sympathy. Mostly the problem is that Linklater never takes a stance. His indecision is stamped all over this movie. He clearly wasn’t up to making the book spark on screen so he neutered it, shot it very conventionally, and then acted surprised when no one was overly impressed by his mess.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is actually about what happens to a creative genius when she stops creating. That’s the core theme in the book: Bernadette lost her creative outlet and just started wilting. But in the movie, she just comes off as a crazy lady who has a mental breakdown and then flees to Antarctica on some hair-brained mission. And her husband makes so many poor decisions you just wish someone would throw him overboard and give the narwhals a hearty lunch.

The only thing that remotely saves the movie is Cate Blanchett, who is luminous and quirky and vibrant, doing much of the heavy lifting that realistically, both Linklater and a solid script should have done for her (and frankly, for us). She is a delight to watch but you never shake the feeling that this film should be so much more than it is – and that’s true even if you haven’t read the book and you aren’t watching it next to me, a person who is loudly bemoaning the very substandard adaptation. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is sadly lost in translation.

I Lost My Body (J'ai perdu mon corps)

I forget sometimes that I speak French. Well, maybe not forget so much as don’t think about it. Much like I don’t specifically think about speaking English. I just do. If I hear or see French, my brain understands without me having to engage anything in particular. It’s just effortless. Growing up we spoke both at home, both at the same time, every sentence seasoned with both languages, choosing whichever words or expressions suited us most. So when I started watching this French film on Netflix, I listened without thinking, and since I was also doing work on my laptop, I didn’t even realize there were subtitles, and may not have consciously realized it was French until I glanced up and my brain shuddered: the subtitle had a mother calling her son “sweet pea” when in fact what she called him was a “soft caramel.” Soft caramel isn’t really a thing in English. I mean, it’s a thing you can eat, but it’s not a term of endearment. So the subtitles substituted for something that made more sense but wasn’t a direct translation. This happens all the time of course, sometimes with hilarious results, but when you’re understanding both at the same time, it can be a little jarring. I’m positive Netflix must have an option for turning off the captions but I’m also positive that about 4 minutes of bumbling through buttons netted no results.

So here I am, watching an animated movie with two tracks, basically: spoken French and written English, and the two are in basic agreement. It’s about a little boy named Naoufel who dreams of becoming a concert pianist and an astronaut. And about the same young man, grown up, who is a pizza delivery guy. Which I feel is supposed to be some sort of humbling come down, but what has an astronaut ever done for me? And yet the pizza guy routine brings joy, hot and cheesy, to my front door. My life would be worse without him. Anyway, Naoufel isn’t exactly the most exemplary of deliverymen, and one night when he’s struggling even more than usual, he just gives up, gives in, sits down in an apartment lobby talking to a woman on the intercom while he eats her undeliverable pizza. He falls in love and devises an elaborate scheme for stalking/wooing her.

Meanwhile, across town, a disembodied hand escapes from a laboratory fridge. The hand goes on an epic Parisian journey through the city’s gutters, fending off pigeons and rats. The hand is sad, I think.

Yeah, it’s weird. That might be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written here. It’s damn weird to have a stalker love story be intercut by a dirty roaming hand. And all the dirty, greedy flies who follow it. And yet it is strangely beautiful, poetic, almost hypnotizing. The animation is soft, subtle. The story is intimate and sad, truly something unique and unforgettable.