Tag Archives: movies based on books

Extraction

Happy weekend, everyone! Shall we celebrate with Netflix’s new action flick starring Chris Hemsworth? Let’s discuss.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed up in only one word, which they’ve helpfully made the title: extraction. Picture this: two rival drug lords, one imprisoned and ruthless, the other not currently imprisoned and also super ruthless. The unimprisoned one kidnaps the imprisoned one’s kid, even though the imprisoned drug lord seems not to be the most doting or devoted of fathers, but it’s the principle of the thing, and he’s pissed. Pissed enough to take it out on his own people, threatening to execute their children if they fail to retrieve his. His henchman is a little more fond of his kids, so he goes straight to the best in the biz, Australian Tyler Rake (Hemsworth), a fearless black market mercenary.

Rake drops into India like it ain’t no thing, yoinks the kid (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) out of the evil clutches of his kidnappers, but then has the nearly insurmountable task of navigating an incredibly dense city teeming with an underworld of weapons dealers and traffickers where good guys, if there are any, are indistinguishable from the baddies. Also: Tyler Rake is a sad and broken man, so he may not be as motivated to stay alive as you’d normally like your rescuer to be.

Sean thought this movie was “not very good” and I thought it was “definitely an action movie.” It should be said that Sean generally likes action movies and I’m a little harder to impress. Evidence you’ll need to decipher whether this particular action movie is for you:

1. Hemsworth is only shirtless once, from behind

2. great close combat scenes, very slice and dicey

3. no time wasted on “story” or “character” or “reality”

4. 12 minute long single-take action sequence that really satisfies the bloodlust

5. based on the graphic novel Ciudad by Ande Parks and the Russo brothers

6. the violence is graphic, aimless, and relentless, and often perpetrated by (and against!) children

7. feels a bit like a first person shooter game

8. the stunts are pretty spectacular

9. if you squint hard enough, an assault rifle sorta looks like Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer)

10. doubles as psa for road safety

Call of the Wild

This is the story of Buck, a behemoth St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix, a sweet pup enjoying a life of dog luxury in California when he’s dognapped all the way up to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. First he’s conscripted into a dogsled team for a mail delivery service, running across Canada’s northern frozen tundras until the telegraph makes his work obsolete. Next he becomes companion to John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who takes him out to the Arctic Circle where Buck can rediscover his primal roots.

Devoted fans of the 1903 Jack London novel will notice that neither Buck nor his dog colleagues closely resemble their characters in the book. In fact, the other sled dogs are also largely mutts, not the traditional Husky, and their personalities seem based upon the seven dwarfs. I’m not sentimental about the book so I don’t really mind the liberties taken with the literature so much as I mind the liberties taken with dogs. Because for a movie about a dog, and several of his doggie friends, there are no actual dogs in the movie. They’re all CG. And not only are they computer-generated, their expressions, especially Buck’s, are hyper real. Cartoonish. So they look out of place and they make it harder for me to relate to their characters. Buck and his pals get into some real danger. And of course, even out in the wilds, man is always any animal’s greatest threat. It’s likely too scary for very young kids, and yet it didn’t move me half as much as you’d expect from a bleeding heart with a recently deceased, dearly beloved dog. Because Buck’s movements and responses never feel real.

I have a slightly smaller pack now, but even with three dogs I’m very familiar with their methods of communication. If you live with a dog or a cat, and many times even a smaller pet, a bunny or a bird, then you’re likely pretty good at reading their expressions. You know what a tentative paw means, or a head tilt, or a lowered tail. You don’t need some ridiculous CGI eyebrows giving you Scooby Doo vibes. The constant reminder that these dogs aren’t real dilutes the story’s warmth and reduces our interest and empathy.

Ford is pretty solid, especially since he was almost always completely alone, perhaps acting only opposite a tennis ball on a stick that he had to imagine was man’s best friend. There’s a good story under all the effects, I think, but much like Tammy Faye Bakker, the message is lost, and the only story reported is the bad makeup.

Sergio

When we first meet UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura), he’s just been injured in a bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. How did he get there and how will he get out? The film rewinds three years or so to trace his path as a high ranking special representative of the United Nations. Previously he’d worked to make East Timor an independent state, learning valuable lessons in open and honest communications with the very people he’s trying to help. It’s also where he meets Carolina (Ana de Armis), a woman so special that she’ll follow him to him to his next posting, in Iraq.

It’s 2003 and the U.S. has just declared war on Iraq. It’s a war neither Sergio nor Carolina believe in, but Sergio believes in his work and believes he has one last contribution to make before retiring to Brazil with his new love. Setting up headquarters in the Canal Hotel, he dismisses the U.S. troops guarding the building, taking pride in the fact that Iraqis would feel welcome to approach their offices. He was adamant that the UN remain neutral, unaffiliated with the US invasion. But this decision left the building vulnerable, and Al-Qaeda seized the opportunity, using a suicide driver to detonate a bomb under his office’s window. The blast injured over 100 people and killed at least 22. Sergio and Gil Loescher (Brían F. O’Byrne), a consultant to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, are alive but trapped in the rubble. If nothing else, it gives Sergio plenty of time to reflect on his past.

Sergio de Mello is clearly important, if mostly unknown, and his peace-making ideals are admirable. It’s clear director Greg Barker wants to pay tribute to the man but in doing so, the story splinters. The love story is given equal if not more screen time than his storied political career, which inevitable gets simplified, complex situation distilled into soundbites, which actually seems to be the antithesis of what de Mello stood for.

Still, it’s an incredible performance from Moura and a competent one from de Armis. It is likely worth watching for that alone. It’s surprisingly slow at times for a movie that starts with an explosion, and I wish we knew more about the man and his motivations. But since this bombing resulted in a profound and lasting change to the way UN administers its practices globally, this event is worth commemorating.

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.