Tag Archives: movies based on books

Black Beauty (2020)

Black Beauty has been adapted many times, but in Ashley Avis’ movie, Black Beauty is female, and so is the little girl who loves her.

When we meet Black Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet), she is a young Mustang running wild and free, just starting to be wary of new animals encroaching upon the land. Not wary enough, as it turns out; Black Beauty is captured and sent to live in a stable so she can be broken and sold. John (Iain Glen) who runs the stables and trains the horses isn’t a bad man, and he’s soon joined by his orphaned niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy). Jo is not your classic Horse Girl; in fact, she’s never ridden. But she must see a bit of herself in Black Beauty, who is also adjusting to new surroundings having just lost her parents and her home. Their bond is immediate and undeniable. Jo insists not on breaking Beauty, but on “partnering” her, based on friendship , respect, and gentleness. But the stables are a business, and Beauty is leased out to a wealthy family whose daughter is training to be competitive in dressage. Georgina (Fern Deacon) isn’t a natural horsewoman but makes up for what she lacks with spurs and whips. She is not kind to Beauty (nor to Jo), but sadly nor is she the worst owner that Black Beauty will encounter in her life.

Told from Black Beauty’s unique perspective (don’t worry, she’s not a talking horse, we merely hear her thoughts voiced by Winslet), we follow her as she’s transferred from home to home, owner to owner, many more pitiful or abusive than the last. Anna Sewell’s wildly popular novel from many moons ago opened people’s eyes to the mistreatment of horses, but it’s clear from Avis’ adaptation that things have not changed nearly enough for horses in nearly 150 years. Set in various modern American environments, Black beauty knows pain, overwork, and perhaps worse still, loneliness. The bond she shared with Jo endures and holding her memory in her heart is the only reason Beauty has the strength to go on.

I didn’t expect to like Black Beauty as much as I did. It doesn’t feel emotionally manipulative – Black Beauty is a horse, and though we inevitably anthropomorphize her, she isn’t asking to be pitied. But her indominable spirit is enviable and some pretty cinematography, we feel a sort of empathy, a sort of kinship with animals of all kinds, and an emotional attachment to Beauty herself, whose loyalty and resilience remind us of the four-legged family members in our own homes. Not without its flaws, Black Beauty is still a worthy version for 2020 audiences and a nice little treat on Disney+.

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance has a story to tell – his own. Many would call it a rags to riches story, or perhaps a successful escape from an impoverished childhood; director Ron Howard and the movie studio went with “inspiring true story” but all of these seem slightly condescending. Vance himself went with “elegy,” a tribute to the place he came from and perhaps a lament to its end.

Older J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has overcome some rather humble beginnings to attend law school at Yale. It’s interview week, especially crucial to him because even with financial aid and 3 jobs he can’t afford next semester’s tuition without a summer internship. Meeting prospective employers over dinner, he’s overwhelmed by the trappings of etiquette and fine dining that seem to come so easily to others. It’s clear he doesn’t feel he belongs, and a phone call from back home only cements it. It’s his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), calling to say that mom Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital. Again. A heroin overdose. His help is needed, urgently.

Over the next 24 hours of trying to install Bev in yet another rehab manage a facility despite Bev having let her insurance lapse, J.D. is flooded with difficult memories from his challenging childhood.

Critics have been plenty harsh about Hillbilly Elegy, and I can appreciate their concerns. It delivers heavily on the Oscar bait melodrama, and instead of inspiring important conversations about cultural and economic gaps, it’s got some pretty soft platitudes instead of real insight. Not that a Netflix movie was going to solve the wage gap or cure the generational impacts of trauma.

No one can deny that Glenn Close and Amy Adams give everything to their roles. Close manages a bark that bites, with just a nibble of vulnerability, a terrific performance that just doesn’t have anywhere to go, there’s no arc, it’s mostly just an act of observation. Amy Adams’ character, on the other hand, is more like a series of attacks. She gnarls and gnashes her teeth and we get small glimpses or what triggers her explosions, but it’s not enough to piece together something truly satisfying. The characters lack insight and we can only guess that this cycle will be very hard to break.

Greyhound

When the Americans were finally self-interested enough to join WW2, they needed a lot of boots on the ground, and some in the air, and a few if by sea.

Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) is in command of an escort force protecting an Atlantic convoy consisting of 37 Allied ships on their way to Liverpool. They’re passing through the Mid-Atlantic gap, so called because no antisubmarine aircraft are able to reach them. They’re on their own. Still three days out of range from protective air cover, they intercept German transmissions. It is likely U-boats are near. This is merely the start of 13 back to back covers (or 52 hours) on the Greyhound’s bridge as Krause fights to save his ship, protect those in his convoy, and rescue those who succumb.

As a war movie, director Aaron Schneider makes very effective use of his 90 minute runtime, keeping the focus on a very intense combat. It’s basically a race against time, a fight for survival until they reach precious, essential air cover once again.

But the reason Greyhound really shines, as did its source material, The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, is in its fascinating and intricate character study of the man behind the wheel. Captain Krause has been a career Navy officer for many years. His seniority is unquestionable, but in truth, this is his first wartime mission. The other captains are younger and junior to him in rank, but they’ve been at war for two years already. Although we see him act in competent and level-headed ways, we are also privy to his self-doubt. The combat is relentless as the minutes and hours tick by, Krause unwilling to leave his post, and only the kindness of a mess attendant (Rob Morgan) ensures he doesn’t go hungry.

Hanks adapted the material himself, and though we never see the guy make an acting misstep, he is clearly suited to this character, slipping on the captain’s skin as if it were a comfortable, monogrammed slipper. You feel his fatigue, and inklings of inferiority, but with the weight and fate of an entire fleet on his shoulders, he never gives less than his best. The constant danger is exhausting, the many snap judgments that must be made while in command are overwhelming, and above all, we see Krause struggle with his conscience – muttered prayers for the souls on board, but also a refusal to celebrate enemy kills, a necessary part of war perhaps, but one with which Krause is not entirely comfortable. It’s a facet rarely explored in war movies and Hanks is up for its portrayal, but cleverly, the points are merely plotted, the lines themselves drawn by the audience.

I expect nothing less that complete satisfaction from the material Hanks is choosing, and he’s so unvaryingly good it’d be almost tedious if it wasn’t so wonderful. And this, too, is wonderful, and not even annoyingly so. Hanks truly is a master and Forester’s carefully observed novel cannot be over-rated.

The Outpost

In northern Afghanistan circa 2006, the Americans had a series of outposts to promote counterinsurgency and “connect with locals”. Camp Keating was nestled in a valley surrounded by Hindu Kush mountains in an attempt to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters from nearby Pakistan.

The camp is an exhausting place to be with near constant firefight. It’s also nearly indefensible, and what personnel survive quickly burn out. But this movie primarily covers the Battle of Kamdesh of October 3, 2009, one of the bloodiest for US forces in the war in Afghanistan. They were assaulted by hundreds of Taliban insurgents who breached the bases’s perimeter defenses in just 48 minutes and lit the outpost on fire. There had been a systematic failure to adequately support the base, but the the troops on the ground repulsed the attack “with conspicuous gallantry, courage and bravery.” Due to a lack of available aircraft and density of terrain, help was slow to reach them – most didn’t arrive until after the 14 hour battle was over. The small contingent of American troops lost 8 soldiers that day, with 27 more wounded; those that survived did so thanks to bombers arriving to coordinate airstrike.

If you like war movies, this one is well-made. If you’re prone to migraines, this one’s constant gunfire makes it a major trigger. Once the battle starts, it’s unrelenting, and it wasn’t exactly easy going before that either. The intensity is real, and the realism is ugly.

The movie thinks that SSG Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) is our hero, but he’s just the guy who wrote the book. Caleb Landry Jones, the much much better actor, as SPC Ty Carter, is the guy you can’t take your eyes off of. I dare you to try. Aside from Jones, I won’t say the acting impressed me much. The lesser roles are sprinkled with real-life soldiers, but they aren’t shouldering enough to ruin anything. It’s the Hollywood royalty who’s mucking things up, and I don’t just mean Scott Eastwood, though I definitely do put him first on my list. A smolder is not enough, Scott. A famous dad apparently is, and he clearly shares a tendency toward a certain kind of film as his old man. Milo Gibson is of course Mel’s son. James Jagger belongs to Mick. Will Attenborough is the grandson of Richard. Scott Alda Coffey is grandson to Alan Alda. And of course Orlando Bloom is Mr. Katy Perry. No one need win a role by merit here!

The unit from Combat Outpost Keating became the most decorated, though I doubt that’s much comfort: 27 soldiers were awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat, 37 were awarded the Army Commendation Medal with “V” for valor, 3 soldiers were awarded the Bronze Star Medal, and 18 others the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor. Nine soldiers were awarded the Silver Star for valor. Two were later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. The Outpost is a fitting tribute to the kind of hard work and heroism that earn those medals. For me, it was too much. It was non-stop violence while I felt no emotional connection to any of the characters. But I’m confident that fans of the genre will find a lot to like here – a stunning, expertly and respectfully made modern war movie.

True History of the Kelly Gang

The ‘true’ in the title is false of course, or debatable anyway, which I suppose means the ‘history’ part is too, although our story does take place in the past. Peter Carey’s vital and vigorous novel is a work of fiction, using many true aspects of the Kelly Gang story but inventing others as well. The film poses as Ned Kelly’s autobiography, mostly written and narrated by himself to an unborn child that Carey made up. But if Ned Kelly had had a pregnant wife, if she had half a brain she would have wondered if Ned would live to meet his daughter, and might have encouraged him to leave behind a written legacy, just in case.

The film is a departure not only in story but in tone and in telling, the violence crazed and stylized but the main concern more character than plot. You may already be familiar with the banks that were robbed and the cattle stolen, but this “true history” is more interested not in what they did but why they did it. The class struggle is palpable enough, the sense that there is no place for these young men, no future. There is real rage here, and a dangerous accumulation of testosterone with no constructive outlet.

Ned’s (George McKay) legacy has of course had a lasting impact on Australian culture; this film gives him a punk rock makeover for the 21st century and adds to the myth if not the man. With stunning cinematography, a gritty feel, and anarchic energy, there is much to be admired in Justin Kurzel’s film. Too bad I just didn’t like it. There was a lot of muck, a lot of exaggerated portrayals of machismo, and for me it was just too much crazy and not enough cohesiveness. But, if you’re looking for a western with a distinctly Aussie flavour, this one’s got that, plus lads in dresses, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Nicholas Hoult, if you needed more convincing.

Spontaneous

Spontaneous combustion is a cool concept unless you’re the one suffering from it. Unfortunately, the reality is pretty disappointing – it’s probably mostly obese, alcoholic women who fall asleep while smoking. Not exactly “spontaneous” but between the fat and the alcohol in their blood, they go up like wicks.

Spontaneous is not about spontaneous combustion, it’s about spontaneous explosion, which is even more dramatic. Mara (Katherine Langford), a senior in high school, is just minding her own business in class one day when the student sitting in front of her goes boom. She just…pops, like a water balloon full of blood. So that’s weird. And it gets weirder; the next time it happens, and it does happen again, and again, it attracts the attention of the media and the government, and Mara’s whole graduating class gets quarantined while the CDC tries to work out a cure.

Of course, teenagers + mortality + hormones = hella humping. Living each day like it could be their last (because it really could), Dylan (Charlie Plummer) gets the courage up to tell Mara how he feels – how he’s been feeling for the last two years. Crush reciprocated, Mara and Dylan are instantly an item, but their hot and heavy romance is constantly interrupted by another teenage eruption. Er, I regret that turn of phrase. But the kids just keep detonating like flesh bombs, painting the walls (and the bystanders) red.

The movie is cheekier than I’d expected, funny in a dark way, with a clever script adapted by director Brian Duffield from Aaron Starmer’s novel. It’s a horror movie – teenage romance – satirical comedy hybrid that just kind of works in a weird and refreshingly unique way with a pretty sick twist.

Langford is magnetically pretty of course, but away from 13 Reasons Why, she proves herself talented, delivering a surprisingly and appropriately low-key performance, the anchor in a pretty tumultuous storm. Duffield is a first time director but a serious talent. Spontaneous isn’t a perfect movie but it takes risks that pay off. It’s absurd, it’s electric, and if you feel something wet at your eye, it’s just as likely to be blood spatter as tears. Not all of these kids are going to make it to the end. Some will get to grow up, others will simply blow up, but either way, you’ll be sickly and slickly entertained.

Doctor Sleep

You remember Danny Torrence, right? Loved to ride his Big Wheel down quiet, carpeted hallways. Called his index finger Tony and spoke for him in a creepy voice? Avoided being chopped up into tiny pieces by his father by outsmarting him in a hedge maze?

Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining you didn’t know you’d been waiting 40 years to see, starring survivor Danny Torrence, now all grown up and going by Dan (Ewan McGregor). Dan is an alcoholic, struggling to beat the disease that claimed his father. He’s alone in the world, nothing but a string of bad decisions behind him, not to mention some haunting memories which he tries to repress. He’s trying for a peaceful life these days but when teenager Abra (Kyliegh Curran) reaches out to him via their mutual power (we’re still calling it the shining), he can hardly ignore her, especially because she’s in danger. Her powers are pretty significant and she can feel other kids like her getting brutally murdered. A mysterious cult known as The True Knot, led by Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), preys on children with powers, drinking their pain and eating their fear to remain immortal.

Of course this struggle will ultimately end up at the Overlook Hotel, where the final showdown takes place. It’s been abandoned literally since the last time Danny was there, and it’s got plenty of trauma triggers just waiting to trip him up. The hotel itself is not unlike the True Knot, sucking at whatever shining powers it can get, and Dan’s presence certainly revives this.

The film has a great supporting cast including Emily Alyn Lind, Zackary Momoh, Alex Essoe, Henry Thomas, and especially Carl Lumbly, Jacob Tremblay, and Cliff Curtis. Director Mike Flanagan knows how powerful it is to situate us back into the setting of one of the most famous and successful modern horror movies ever, but he wisely uses it sparingly, creating his own almost separate story that merely feels adjacent to the great Stanley Kubrick oeuvre. Likewise, he doesn’t seek to recreate Kubrick’s style, though the temptation must be great. Doctor Sleep takes a more brooding, almost meditative approach, which might be a nice way of saying slow. It is a bit slow because we take the time to get reacquainted with Dan Torrence and incorporating his infamous past with what we know of him today, because those events have certainly shaped him. There has always been a reason to revisit The Shining; in the first film, Danny’s special powers are relegated to subplot and never get fully addressed. The Shining seems like it’s named after Danny but it’s his father’s story; Jack’s writer’s block and cabin fever and alcoholism and isolation culminate in a rather explosive way. The fact that his son is ‘weird’ is a relatively minor factor in his downward spiral. Finally with Doctor Sleep we get some answers – what is it more than why is it, but it’s still satisfying to tie up some long-nagging loose ends. Of course, it also opens up its own universe of terror and intrigue.

Mike Flanagan’s film hits different notes than Kubrick’s did, though, apart from the synth ones in the score that inspire instant dread. It’s respectful of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but draws a lot on the book by Stephen King, and winds up forging its own identity. To be honest, I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. Flanagan is smart to build his sequel on familiar bones but not to make the film in Kubrick’s image. It helps that they’re very different stories about very different family members. Rebecca Ferguson is a lot of fun as Rose The Hat, and Kyliegh Curran is clearly going to be a huge star. It takes a while to get them together but not only is it worth the wait, it doesn’t feel like a wait, it’s a genuine pleasure to have this creep up on you on all sides until you’re surrounded and the only thing to do is to surrender.

Rebecca

Lily James plays a lady’s companion, a woman paid to accompany her mistress as she travels about Europe, but when Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) gets sick, her companion, used to attending to her mistress’s every need, suddenly has a lot of time on her hands but few options to fill it. As paid staff, Lily James’ character isn’t allowed to use the hotel’s amenities intended for guests. Luckily, the handsome if brooding Maximus de Winter (Armie Hammer) comes to her aid. A mysterious young widower, Max and his beautiful estate Manderley are often gossiped about, and it is whispered he has been terrorized by grief since his wife’s sudden passing a year ago. But on outings with the lady’s companion, he’s a perfect gentleman and charming company. Sadly, Mrs. Van Hopper eventually recovers only to catch wind of her companion’s secret rendez-vous, and she immediately books them passage back to New York. Facing a sudden goodbye, Max de Winter proposes to the young, naïve girl of lowly station, and they share a passionate honeymoon before he brings her home to Manderley.

Rebecca is a ghost story, written by Daphne du Maurier and newly adapted for Netflix by Ben Wheatley. The new Mrs. de Winter is haunted by two malevolent forces. First, the house itself, which is demanding in its size and responsibilities, and isolating too. Manderley is spooky because it is simply too large for just two people. It never feels like it belongs to her, in part because it’s been passed down for generations by the de Winter family, and partly because Rebecca, the dearly departed former Mrs. de Winter, had so confidently left her mark. Manderley is also a symbol of a growing class divide. It reminds us that not long ago, our young protagonist was staff herself, but even as a lady’s maid she’d never worked in or even seen such a massive estate. As its current mistress, she is uncomfortable in the position and feels out of place among Max’s friends and family. And then there is the spectre of Rebecca herself. The new bride experiences two very different encounters when it comes to Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the housekeeper, seems nearly obsessed with her, and speaks reverentially of Rebecca. Rebecca’s routines and methods and preferences are considered by Mrs. Danvers to be the ‘right’ ones, and the new Mrs. de Winter can never quite measure up to a ghost. Max, on the other hand, will never speak of her, and loses his temper when the subject is broached. His new wife is cowed by how much he must still love Rebecca to be so sensitive, and realizes that there are perhaps 3 people to this marriage.

It’s a brilliant gothic exercise in gas-lighting and gender roles, and Ben Wheatley’s added some drop dead visuals to the mix, taking full advantage of every second they’re not in that house. It kind of feels that Ben Wheatley, known for his twisted, psychological horror films, went in the opposite direction, flexing new muscles with a talkier script and dazzling production values. However, because it was Ben Wheatley attached to direct, I imagined dizzying psychological warfare, and on that he under-delivered. Directing for a broader Netflix audience for the first time, he’s erred in favour of conservative and pretty. But Du Maurier’s source material is actually a good match for Wheatley’s usual directing style. I would have loved to see him seize on the madness, make Manderley as sinister and foreboding as High-Rise. Manderley is haunted, if not by Rebecca’s ghost, by secrets and resentments and insecurity. The house feels like a prison, and gender norms are the new bride’s shackles. Between her husband and the housekeeper, she is made to feel crazy. There is so much potential for psychological horror that went wasted.

Ben Wheatley, you are a talented man with a unique directorial voice. The world is improved by your personal brand of weird, and I wish that Netflix money hadn’t robbed you of the courage to just be you.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

Kelly (Tamara Smart) opts out of the class-wide Halloween party but isn’t exactly thrilled when her mother books her a babysitting gig instead. Five year old Jacob (Ian Ho) is a bit high maintenance, with his 3-hour bedtime routine, but Kelly would likely have preferred a 5 hour routine, even a 10 hour one, compared to what she got. Which was a visit from the Boogey Man himself, the actual Boogey Man, and his trollies, who’ve come to kidnap Jacob, who has the ability to make nightmares come true.

Thankfully Liz (Oona Laurence) shows up, chapter vice president of the Order of Babysitters, charged with protecting special dreamers like Jacob against the Boogey Man (aka Guignol, played by Tom Felton), and his little monsters. The Order of Babysitters is James Bond lite – all the cool tech, fun gadgets, and special ops, but none of the booze or women. In fact, now that I’m hearing myself say it, scratch that, the Order of Babysitters is like James Bond 2.0: all the spy stuff without the misogeny.

The film looks slick and is packed with action-adventure, although when a battle of sorts is taking place at a children’s indoor playground, the worst part is just imagining the gallons of COVID-19 that probably lurks in your average ball pit. Ew. What I’m saying is, the peril is never too overwhelming, and the monsters are, with a few exceptions, actually pretty cute, endearing enough you have to struggle to remember they’re bad guys. Kelly is a great protagonist and well portrayed by leading lady Tamara Smart. Liz is a little more mysterious, having just been dropped into the action from literally out of nowhere. The Order of Babysitters headquarters is production design eye candy, and introduces us to some fun supporting characters, as every secret service needs an M and a Q, and whatever other alphabet R&D people are necessary to keep their organization running smoothly.

The Grand Guignol’s lair is where the real work goes down. Guignol is trying to extract something from Jacob’s dreams, but I guess someone didn’t hear about that infamous 3 hour bedtime ritual. I don’t know much about Tom Felton, and I’d wager he’s all but unrecognizable in this, but he is clearly enjoying the eccentricities of the role, he’s playing and flexing and savouring being larger than life. He’s generous enough as an actor no to steal the scene from our teenage protagonists but he is a true source of animation and energy.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting is half Babysitter’s Club and half Artemis Fowl, the best of both, an entertaining watch fit for the whole family.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

You know what they say – “don’t wait for college to start having fun” – or at least that’s what Sarah’s crush tells her out of no self-interest whatsoever. He’s inviting her to some show that Sarah (Madison Iseman) can’t go to because she’s locked down all week between the writer’s block hampering her college essay on fear, and babysitting her younger brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who are running a secret junk removal business to bolster their true aim of treasure hunting.

Of course the mysterious old lady who contacts them for junk removal refers them to an undoubtedly haunted house, completely abandoned and filled with dusty junk but also an actual treasure chest! Disappointingly, it contains only an old book. Until it suddenly also contains a creepy ventriloquist puppet that is not only sentient, but make shit happen (like homework, and revenge on bullies).

But, because this is a Goosebumps movie, you know this puppet isn’t exactly going to work out like a genie in a magic lamp. This puppet (his name is Slappy) has his own ambitions, and you bet your candy stash they’re evil. So poor babysitting Sarah is going to have an awful lot of trouble on her hands and you know she’s not getting paid nearly enough for this shit (like most oldest sibling babysitters, she’s probably not getting paid at all).

This movie has just been added to the Netflix library, so if you missed it the first time, it’s perfect for your Spook-tober movie nights – family movie night, at any rate. It’s got a PG rating and does have some scary monsters, so depending on the kid and the age, it may not be appropriate for everyone but it will appeal to most kids, at least in the 7-11 range. We’re diving quickly toward our second wave of COVID-19 here so I’m not sure exactly what Halloween will entail this year; trick-or-treating may be off the table. But you can still plan for a special evening (it helps that it’s a Saturday this year!) and a movie like this might be just the ticket. One note, however: while we at Assholes Watching Movies 100% endorse movie snacking, you may want to leave gummi bears off the list, just this one time.