Tag Archives: movies based on books

The Golden Compass

I watched this back in 2007 because I adored the book(s) (by Philip Pullman) and was optimistic. Oh 2007, the days of wild optimism.

The movie is…not good. It’s not rotten, there are some attempts at goodness, especially from Nicole Kidman and the visual effects department. But it’s like someone put The Golden Compass through a strainer to sift out all the best bits and made a movie with the wrong bowl.

Yes, movie studios were desperate to recreate that Harry Potter magic, but Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was always a little more cumbersome than its wizarding counterpart; Pullman’s work was not specifically meant for young audiences. But some intrepid readers found him anyway, and loved the way he combined physics, philosophy, and theology but made them accessible via a young protagonist. Those are not exactly movie-friendly themes, and the trilogy’s criticism of religion was of course controversial. When the film got released, christians boycotted it for its anti-religion reputation but secularists balked at this theme’s dilution (and some would say absence).

The film shows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan living in a parallel universe where a dogmatic ruling power called the Magisterium opposes free inquiry and every person has their inner spirit manifested as an animal, which they call a daemon. Before settling into a single shape in adulthood, the deamons of young children tend to shape shift quite a lot. Which is not much use when children are being kidnapped by an unknown group called the Gobblers who are supported by the Magisterium. Lyra joins a tribe of seafarers on a trip to the far North, the land of the armoured polar bears, in search of the missing children.

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There’s more to it than that, a lot more to it. It’s not so bad when you’ve got the book in your hands. You can take a break when you need to think on things, or digest others. You can flip back a few pages, read with new insight and understanding. But movie audiences have to take what you’re given, and if a director foolishly tries to stuff too much detail into too thin a story, it’s not just overwhelming but it turns what should be a fun entertainment or a version of escapism into an exercise in fact sorting and memory retention.

There are some dazzling effects and I’m not going to lie: armoured polar bears are kinda the best. Which is why so many of us rooted so hard for the movie. But the movie was too self-important, too busy setting up the next in the series that it forgot to give us a satisfying experience in the present. Which, as you know, not only resulted in its poor performance at the box office, but it ground production on the next two to a complete and final halt. No one will reattempt this for another quarter century. Which is really too bad, because if you’ve read the book(s), you know there’s a compelling story in there, and it shouldn’t be this hard to tease it out.

Stargirl

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce the new Michael Cera, Graham Verchere.

I know, I know, where has the time gone if we’re already putting Michael Cera out to pasture. Well, technically he’s going to be the new Jon Cryer and Jon Cryer’s going to be the new Steve Buscemi and so on.

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression and I apologize. We first saw Graham Verchere at a film festival in Montreal where he was starring in a horror movie (a good one) called Summer of 84. And now here he is all grown up on Disney+, working for the very talented director Julia Hart, who we first saw at a film festival in Austin, alongside Giancarlo Esposito, whom we also met at SXSW, albeit the year before, directing a movie that was called This Is Your Death at the time and later got renamed rather lamely, The Show. Anyway, this was another digression because we’re already seeing film festivals (including SXSW) cancelled due to corona virus and we may lose our whole festival season, which is sad because it’s where we’ve discovered so many gems over the years.

Anyway, if Graham Verchere is the new Michael Cera then I suppose that makes his costar Grace VanderWaal the new Emma Stone (move over, you old cow). Which isn’t a bad comparison, really, because VanderWaal is both luminous and a talented singer. But Stargirl is no Superbad, and that’s not a (super) bad thing. While my generation settled for movies where boys were obsessed with popularity and sex and girls where afterthoughts at best (and often just a means to an end), Stargirl is a movie that embraces awkwardness and gives it a starring role.

Leo (Verchere) moved to a new town with his mom after his dad died. His sartorial tribute to his dearly departed father made Leo a target for bullies, so he learned to keep his head down and fit in. This all changes around his 16th birthday when a new girl, Stargirl (VanderWaal), starts attending class and soon disrupts the whole school. Stargirl is the kind of girl who can completely dismantle a marching band. Well, technically one lonely boy who falls out of step can dismantle a marching band, but Stargirl is the cause and the crush either way. She’s weird from the barrettes in her hair to the pompoms on her shoes, and startlingly, she’s unashamed. She owns her oddness in a way that is immediately fascinating to all, and her penchant for ukulele serenades is not just tolerated but celebrated, propelling her toward not just popularity but a spot on the cheer-leading squad. Sure it’s for the losingest football team in the history of sports, but still. Even her uniform outshines the rest. And it’s okay! Have these same kids who once bullied Leo for his porcupine tie are somehow woke enough to embrace Stargirl without a trace a jealousy.

At least for a while. Don’t worry: kids today can still be dicks. Interestingly, Stargirl is more than just a manic pixie dream girl – sure she casts a magical spell on everyone, but she has her own inner workings, her own growth, her own arc.

Stargirl is a John Hughes movie for the modern age – without all the racism.

Thank You For Your Service

A trio of buddies and U.S. soldiers return home from the war in Iraq. Their group used to be bigger but one guy went home early with a couple of inches missing from his brain, and another didn’t return at all. His wife (Amy Schumer) accosts Adam (Miles Teller) as soon as his feet hit the tarmac, begging to know how her husband died. Adam’s wife Saskia is upset that his welcome home is ruined, but she doesn’t know yet that nothing about his return home will go as she planned.

Adam, Tausolo (Beulah Koale), and Billy (Joe Cole) are all having trouble adjusting. Haunted by the things they’ve seen and the things they did to survive, they are shamed for seeking help from the army and their brave persistence only means their names are on a 6-9 month waiting list. Twenty two veterans a day are killing themselves and Billy is soon one of them. His mother knew he needed help beyond what the army was providing and had arranged a treatment facility out of pocket. Since he’s no longer around to take it, there’s one spot open, and two remaining friends. In a game of “who needs it the most” there truly is no winner.

Adam and Tausolo are both putting their families at risk reliving the war in real time; their dead comrades not just visiting their dreams but their waking life as well. This is hallmark PTSD but veteran’s affairs are backlogged and useless. Of course there is no cure. The only way forward is to talk through all of the things they’d rather forget, and learn to manage the pain. Even people with ‘Support our troops’ magnets on their cars forget them as soon as they return to American soul, but in truth that’s when their own personal war begins.

Based on Adam Schumann’s memoirs, Thank You For Your Service is an incomplete picture since thankfully Schumann was still alive to tell it. But it paints a very sobering portrait of a complete lack of support for warriors turned civilians. The film retreads some familiar ground and if anything, director Jason Hall deprives the movie of some well-deserved righteous anger.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

There’s flooding in Mozambique, and when the rains finally come in Malawi, they come heavy. The farmers have been struggling for years, unable to cope after the big tobacco farms went elsewhere. The wealthy estates take advantage, offering a lump sum in exchange for the lumber on their lands. Cash-strapped, many are tempted, but the village chief warns that these trees are they only resource they have to protect from serious flooding.

William (Maxwell Simba) must drop out of school when his family’s money runs out. The harvest is poorer than anyone predicted; his father Trywell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) manages less than 70 ears of corn, and that’s all the family will have for the entire dry season. The government denies a food shortage but hunger makes people do bad things. Whole villages are starving.

William thinks he can generate power by building a windmill that would operate a water pump, extending the growing season, but to do so he’d need to sacrifice the family’s only possession, a bicycle. Trywell refuses. You might guess from the title that William will prevail. And if a movie is willing to spoil itself right in the title, then you know it’s about the journey, not the destination.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is about hunger. Not just an empty belly, but a need for something, a strong desire. And that kind of hunger can be very motivating. But a child surpassing his parent is hard on both.

Chiwetel Ejiofor directs himself in the film; he bought the rights to the book after reading it and set to learning Chichewa, the Malawi dialect spoken in the film. He shot it on location in Malawi, helping to bring authenticity and context to a true story. Farming is getting harder for everyone, everywhere. Global warming makes weather unpredictable, too wet, too dry. In Africa, where so many have so little, there is little margin of error. A thirteen year old boy saved his village from famine by cobbling together a wind generator built out of garbage. He was self-taught from books he wasn’t technically allowed to read, not having paid his school fees. He makes it look easy, but for him, it was simply and urgently necessary. This impressing directorial debut from Ejiofor communicates both the hope and the despair, but above all, ingenuity.

 

All The Bright Places

Violet and Finch meet atop a bridge. He is running across it, she is teetering on its ledge. He offers her a hand, and she takes it.

It’s a powerful and awful way to start a relationship, saving someone’s life. Violet (Elle Fanning) goes to Finch’s school. She is struggling with her sister’s death, a car accident Violet was in the passenger seat for. Finch (Justice Smith) sort of takes her under his wing, coaxing her out of her comfort zone under the guise of a school assignment. They travel to the wondrous places of Indiana, which will kill any thoughts of tourism you may have been harbouring because the wonders are underwhelming at best but Finch presents them with whimsy and charm, and how can Violet resist? But for all his saviour posturing with Violet, Finch has some pretty deep emotional scars of his own.

Despite its title, All The Bright Places can go to some very dark places. The leads are meant to be 17 but the story gives their characters some pretty heavy burdens and some serious sophistication. Fanning and Smith have great chemistry and give grounded performances, saving the film for what might have been maudlin or overwrought. Still, with Violet and Finch confronting grief, abandonment, and struggles with mental health, All The Bright Places is quite weighty for a teenage romance. I’m not sure the film quite handles itself correctly all the time; at times it feels a little superficial and easy. But on the whole I found it quite enjoyable. It’s based on a YA novel by Jennifer Niven and it feels like it. Which is not a criticism, actually, and it does deviate quite a bit from the book, it’s just that it wants to impart some wisdom, it wants to make some profound discoveries, and it doesn’t mind being rather obvious about it, like a parent or a guidance counselor might. Like, if you wanted to extrapolate that you should become your own bright place, the film will nod at you encouragingly while quietly nudging a box of tissues in your direction. Take the box.

The Last Thing He Wanted

Do you like drama and intrigue and secret ops and exposing deeply classified cover-ups? Oh that’s too bad. This movie has none of that. The Last Thing He Wanted is the last thing anyone wants when they sit down to a movie. It’s sort of counting on you to turn it on and either take a two hour nap take a nap or walk out of the room for a snack and never come back.

Elena (Anne Hathaway) is a journalist who…covers foreign correspondence. She has a kid in boarding school since she’s never home and I have no idea what happened to the kid’s father other than he is indeed alive. Rosie Perez plays her friend/photographer. I think they get reassigned to cover the election at home, which pisses off Elena. She has a kooky father (Willem Dafoe) who is definitely into some shady business and possibly has dementia. He implores Elena to take care of a deal he’s sunk half a mil into but now cannot himself follow through. She does. Or she tries. And things get really shitty. Ben Affleck is around…pretty sure he’s CIA, possibly also into politics? Hard to say.

 

So this is a brand new Netflix Original that did two things very well: it confused me and it bored me. Granted, those aren’t generally things movies are trying to do, and maybe this one isn’t either, but that’s hard to believe given what a big fat mess it is.

IMDB seems to think it’s about a veteran D.C. journalist (that would be Hathaway) who loses the thread of her own narrative when a guilt-propelled errand for her father (Willem Dafoe) thrusts her from byline to unwitting subject in the very story she’s trying to break. So it turns out I did have the gist. I just didn’t give a fuck. I’m horrified to see this has been adapted from a Joan Didion novel. I hope she doesn’t have a Netflix subscription.

This isn’t a swing and a miss because it was never going to be more than a bunt. I lost track of motivations first, then plot. Anne Hathaway is…dogged. Either survived breast cancer or had a horrific boob injury. Her signature look is a chest covering scarf. She’s mad at everybody. She’s suspicious of nearly everyone but not suspicious enough. It’s so hard to get a handle on this and yet it was so underwhelming I can’t even be bothered to look it up.

Despite the brand name cast and director Dee Rees’ other successes, The Last Thing He Wanted is a real dud. It’s too late for me, but save yourself.

 

 

Kuessipan

In northeastern Québec lies an impossibly small village, an Innu community where many band members still live off the land and almost no English is spoken. Two young girls grow up inseperable; Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) has a close and loving family, while Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire), like too many First Nation peoples, is picking up the pieces of a fractured family and broken childhood. And while their girlhood games of midnight fishing may not feel familiar, their little girl giggles are universal. Best friends forever, they vow to always stick together.

But just a few years later, when the girls are nearly 17, life is driving them apart. Shaniss has an abusive partner and a baby to care for while Mikuan is learning to express herself and pay tribute to her community through poetry. She falls in love with a white boy (Étienne Galloy) and dreams of leaving the small reserve to go to school. Shaniss, already grieving the loss of her friend, starts to feel abandoned.

Kuessipan, which means “your turn” in Innu, is adapted from a novel by the same name written by a young woman from this same reserve, Naomi Fontaine, who helped directed Myriam Verreault write it for the screen. Shot in and around the Innu Takuaikan Uashat Mak Mani-Utena reserve, the film uses band members rather than professional actors, which lends an authentic but not amateur feel.

The film, wise beyond the 21 years of its young author, is about finding one’s voice and one’s path, and having the courage to do so even when it means leaving people, and the comfort of familiarity, behind. With beautiful Indigenous imagery and stark cinematography, it’s also a look at contemporary life on a First Nations reserve, an infrequent subject in film or in literature. With a history of oppression and colonization, many First Nations people in Canada are still living impoverished, wounded lives. And yet their culture survives and thrives in many small communities across the land, their stories told through art that moves and inspires not just their own people, but Canadians across the country and people beyond its borders as well. Kuessipan tells the story of not one but two young women succeeding in their own way, leading lives that will pave the way for generations to come.