The Wife (2018)

My favorite scene in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel is basically every scene where Glenn Close is speaking quietly and sparsely to a man who doesn’t realize he’s not the smartest person in the room and who is not catching on to what Joan Castleman is carefully not saying.

The choice to rely on a journalist to carry the historical content of Joan’s narration in the novel is clever and well done. It leaves Close the freedom to expose the difference between being unseen and being effaced, between standing off to the side and being pushed there. The film zeros on that subtle emotional distinction and in a brisk, focused hour-and-a-half shows a fiercely intelligent and grounded woman refusing to become a thing defined and moved about by others. She refuses too to love one bit less than she feels. It’s a beautiful performance of a beautiful character.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Hobbit- The Battle of Five ArmiesThe Hobbit movies all fail but this is the best of the three. (The first was awful, the second left me indifferent.)

Jackson’s early films were funny and were clearly works of enthusiasm and joy. The Lord of the Rings changed that register but their stretch matched the breadth of the material and the results were genuinely compelling cinema.

I may be imagining things, but in this last instalment of The Hobbit series, I felt like Jackson was fed up with the machine he’s built and even maybe wanting to laugh a bit despite the epic pretentiousness. It was subtle and maybe I was just projecting, but by the end, I found myself hoping that, finally free, he would go off and make something as brilliantly oddball and offensive as Meet the Feebles or Dead Alive.

WWZ

wwzAn archive novel organized without persistent characters. It’s an assemblage of moments that compound into an account of an event that is detailed yet intriguingly distant. A really brilliant piece of work that’s nothing like it’s adaptation.

My question: are the zombies necessary to make it work or could the same thing be done with ordinary events?

Maleficent

Maleficent

Maleficent is a character I was fascinated with as a child and who I remember today with glee because she is so wonderfully, elegantly awful. My pleasure is linked inextricably to the fact that my adoration is at odds with her mean-spiritedness and cruelty. Her character provokes what I consider to be a cautionary insight: villainy exists, it displays itself overtly, and yet, something in me is capable of finding its meanest qualities seductive. In fact, it is precisely these meanest qualities that are the most seductive.

Maleficent retells the villain’s story in a way that completely defuses this insight.  In this new version, beautiful and young people are good and act badly only when driven to do so by unattractive, older villains. And the wrongs people do (and suffer) can all be undone and forgiven if only the hard edges of the human heart can be softened. And they are, as if by magic, by the love of a child. In this version, villainy only hurts itself. These changes make this second look at an iconic villain feel wishful and childish, and I don’t like it.

That said, Angelina Jolie is just great, and she has brains and drive to burn. But I’d rather see her in a movie that let her be a better villain. An animated, sarcastic villain. Like Maleficent.

Maleficent (1)

 

Life of Pi

Life of PiAfter watching Ang Li’s adaptation, I decided to read the book. It was enlightening because I realized how much of what I liked about the movie was Li’s invention. What stood out for me: the spirituality of the movie, which seemed so extreme, is actually a renunciation of the even more extreme religiosity of the novel, and one that foregrounds the human agency of the story.

I got halfway through this book and stopped reading. It is well written, but the adaptation is so close that I was reading for the bits that weren’t in the film…and those bits were obnoxious to me.

(This is too harsh a comment on the book which really is quite good…but not for me.)

Life of Pi

I saw and loved Life of Pi by Ang Lee. My review for my friend Caitlin’s blog can be found here. Full text below. Caitlin’s review can be found here.

********************

Life of Pi: An Appreciation

Care

I love seeing places I know in film. They feel like a secret shared between me and the movie, a whispered “We know this place, you and I.” Here, Ang Lee uses recognizable locations in Pondicherry and Montreal in a way that maintains the integrity of the local geography alongside the imaginary geography of the story. He announces: Space matters and will be treated with care and attention to detail.

Depth

3D is a spectacle of depth attempting to deny the flatness of the screen. Objects are close or far. They are in front of or behind. In moments of frenzied action, Life of Pi uses 3D in this way. More often however, 3D is used to make empty spaces deep: air over flat water, light on rippled water. Space expands quietly offering room for thought.

Unexpectedly, during its most spectacular moments, the film arranges objects in the frame so as to flatten the image. A boat floats on a black pool of brilliant stars; or it floats in a field of buttery light, sky and sea indistinguishable except for the thin horizon drawn through the center of the frame. These moments of flatness are announced as a compositional strategy in the animal montage rolling under the opening credits, most memorably in the picture of a bird and the flowering branches of a tree. The 3D technology cuts the image’s foreground from its background, creating an illusion of depth, but the photography cancels that illusion by composing its subject in the manner of a silk painting.

The shallowness of objects pitted against the depth of emptiness. This strategy is thematic. It is also the only intellectual use of 3D technology that I have seen.

Love

The action of the story is both constrained and enabled by the geography of the lifeboat and raft. Distances between the raft and the lifeboat, between the front of the lifeboat and its back are crucial here. The 3D underscores the distinction, and here too, it is thematic. What after all is a dance between too close and too far if not a love story? And this film is about nothing if not love.

Two images capture that story for me. In the first, a tiger hangs to the edge of a boat by a claw, desperate and lost. A young man, ax in hand and desperate too to live, looks down from above and recognizes the tiger as real and alive and worthy of care. In the second image, a tiger sits in a boat as night falls waiting for the young man (who looks on from afar) to come back to their home. Between these moments is a story of generosity and kindness, both given freely until the giving becomes a habit and the habit a joy. That feels like a definition of love to me.

Happy Valentines Day.

The Hobbit

I saw The Hobbit with my brother the Friday it opened. We saw it in 48 fps XD digital. My expectations were sky-high and rock-bottom at the same time. So I was worried. But it was a great time and there were lots of things I liked about the movie. If that seems hesitant, it is because there was a lot I didn’t like about the movie too, but nothing damning. I’m eager to see (and to like) the next two films. Until I do, I’m not really sure I can make much of a judgement.

Two things for now though…

First, the story shifts the tone of the book substantially and in a way I’m not sure I like. As is, if the arc isn’t going to show the fall of Thorin as he becomes an evil-esque character I’m going to be disappointed. My favourite parts involved rabbits. All the pipes around dinner were great too.

Second, the tech is troubling. I’m not sure there are any brakes on the HD train and that is too bad. This film is too clear and often feels lifeless because of it. When classical Hollywood filmmakers wanted to make their stars transcendently beautiful they would soften the focus of the close-ups. The slight fuzziness of the image gave room for magic and imagination and made Garbo and Dietrich and Crawford icons. The symbolists of the late nineteenth century did something similar in their poetry. The HD fanatics have forgotten this trick.

The Hunger Games

Fair warning: I really didn’t like this movie.

I just don’t see the appeal of a movie that offers up the spectacle of kids brutally killing kids as its only raison d’être. And really, there is nothing else here.

Or if there is something else, it’s this: a supposed critique of the kind of world that would enjoy watching kids kill other kids. But, we are clearly that world. We made this movie a top-grosser for the summer. It’s impossible to defend the movie as a critique without being the objet of that supposed critique.

(A different objection to the same possibility arises from a quick look at the villains here. They are not the people organizing the bloodsport. In fact, the movie seems pretty unconcerned with them aside from suggesting they are weird, rich and mean-spirited (except for those helping the participants learn to survive). No the real villains in this movie are the bad kids who deserve to die. When they die we are supposed to cheer, or at least feel satisfied. By way of contrast, when the bad TV producer dies, it’s off-screen and only cleverly hinted at, and to the extent we pay attention to it, it seems we might even be expected to have some sympathy for him. All of this screams out that the central conflict is not between kids and their violent culture. It is between different kinds of kids, some of whom we like and the others who are simply bad kids who deserve to die.)

The other defence of the film I’ve heard a lot is that it offers a female role model. I think I get where it’s coming from and want to sympathize. The protagonist has skills and lord knows we need more strong, skilled, female role models. But I can’t help thinking: is hyper-violent masculinity layered over old-school maternal stereotypes really the best image of a strong woman we can imagine for young girls? Are we going to pretend Rambo-mom represents positive progress?* It’s infuriating that we seem ready to do just that.

But all that said, these possibilities are only theoretical: there’s nothing here but the spectacle of kids killing kids.

ps–It’s possible that the story might work very differently and perhaps better as a book. I recognize that. (But don’t really feel like reading about kids killing kids either.)

pps–the villain from Ghost Rider is one of the villains here (if you can be the villain with so little screen time and so little importance for the plot). Clearly there is some kind of comeback attempt underway. I’d say that equally clearly, it’s getting off to a slow start.

*–note to self: if we take Rambo-mom as positive progress, what does this say about what we value in individuals or about our sense of the meaning of violence?

True Grit

True Grit final coverI wanted to read some westerns on my trip through the southwest, and this one was on my shelf from where a colleague had given it to me last term. I’d picked it up back then but realized that the narration seemed to track the Coen Brothers’ adaptation very closely for the first few pages. A bit of skimming seemed to confirm this was the case throughout, and I put it aside. But now this trip: I was in a rush, didn’t get to a bookstore and so tossed it in my bag.

Reading it through I realized my initial hunch was both right and wrong. The movie and book are very similar, the one tracking the other in a way that, oddly enough, seldom happens with strong adaptations. But what I discovered was that the aspect of the movie that I found the most interesting–after the overt allegory of an old Hollywood ceding place to a new one–the elaborate, complex and beautiful language that I found so interesting it turns out is largely original to the adaptation. The difference is subtle–more a shift in emphasis than anything, a shift rendering the novel’s stylized comic voice a more stylized comico-allegorical one–but it is significant.

A book-movie combo to revisit.

Lord of the Rings (1978)

LotR 1978The Lord of the Rings

Watched this out of curiosity and liked it actually. This adaptation faces the same challenges as Jackson’s. The main one is length. This version makes many of the same exclusions as Jackson’s adaptation, no Bombidil, a large focus on Moria. But is different in that it stops with The Two Towers.

Jackson has taken visual cues from this version. This is obvious in the characters’ dress and the landscape, but it is also clear in the framing and blocking of specific scenes, e.g. the ringwraith sniffing out the hobbits on the road and the ringwraiths ritually killing the hobbits in beds they discover are empty. There is no other visual reference for these moments. So the duplication must come from here.

A few comments I typed up while I was watching it:

  • This tells the story of the original rather than adapts it. It is not looking for naturalism or immersion in the action. I think this is a smart choice that is closer to the novel’s structure as a tale of men telling stories to each other.
  • This version is also more interested in presenting the storytelling of the original in the film, e.g. Aragorn telling a story by the fire, the celebration when the hobbits arrive at Rivendale.
  • The discursive quality makes the mythic seem mythic. Myths are retooled to the moment. They imply a scene of storytelling.
  • The translation of Aragorn, “the man of the West” as an Indian makes this very British myth-making oddly American. The effect is very odd and very interesting, even if it is left undeveloped.
  • The multi-media stuff is great. It feels inventive and crafty (in both the literal and “off” senses of the word), and I really loved it.

Interesting detail: the random elf on the road at the end of the first book is changed in both adaptations in telling ways. In 1978, the change compresses the narrative by introducing Legolas and eliminating an unnecessary character. In 2000, it introduces a love interest absent from the original and necessary for the Hollywood production both because of narrative conventions of the new form and for the marketing demands (i.e. female movie stars to broaden the demographic appeal).

The Lord of the Rings, Book I

 The Lord of the RingsI decided to reread this book during the last week of winter break. I saw no need to rush though, so I’m going to read it book-by-book.

The first book breaks in half with Bree as the center point. The earlier bit is the dangers at home and is less interesting. As in the end of The Hobbit, I have the sense of Tolkien writing himself into bigger material. (But if it’s a working toward material why keep it in? My experience of it reading is that it allows me to move toward the larger, more complicated material as well. A useful strategy.)

After Bree, the book hits the tone that I remember defining the novel the last time I read it: lonely men telling stories to each other about a lost world they are trying to remember.

Two thoughts:

1. this is not a coming of age story. it is a coming to middle-age story. These are old men (50, 80, older even), who are confronted with a world that is less than they dreamed it might be and having to choose lives that are different from what they’d hoped for. However glorious when seen from the end, when seen from the moment of choosing, this life seems a lesser and more unpleasant destiny. In other words, this is not primarily a book about learning and discovering the world. It is a book about accepting the world and living through the mismatch of an inescapable reality and equally inescapable dreams.

2. The reader inhabits the same relation to the book as these characters inhabit vis-à-vis their world. Both the reader and the characters mourn the loss of a world that was more magical, more wonderful, more full of life and love than the one they live in. What they have are stories, and what they do in sharing them is to build relationships with people and try to figure out what is left for them to do. What is coming–but they don’t (and can’t) know–is glory.

To be continued…

The Hobbit

The HobbitI hadn’t read this book since I was a child. Rereading it now, my response repeats near exactly my reaction a few years ago when I reread The Lord of the Rings while I was in Paris. I was surprised at how good they are and how melancholy (The Hobbit less so). Tolkien’s talents as a writer are immense although–and I hate saying this–they are undermined by his subject. There’s no getting away from the fact that Middle Earth and all the rest, treated this carefully and this well, seem silly and more than a little embarrassing. Which is ridiculous, because I honestly love these books. But reading them, I can’t get away from wondering how a grown man (like me) could sit down and write this seriously about these things without chickening out. Which raises immediately the question: would Tolkien have written better or not at all if he had tried to write something else?

Reading this time, I was conscious of the shift of action off-stage and onto non-major characters in the last chapters of the book. Reading as a child, this shift always threw me. In fact, I was surprised how much of the book takes place after the Mirkwood. When I was younger, Bilbo’s adventures as he’s trying to keep up and keep it together attracted me. When (I now see) he begins to manage events that are larger than him and center on others, I dropped out of the story. Reading now, I see how important this shift is to what came after. It is as if Tolkien, like Bilbo, is inching his way out of the atmospheric but non-dramatic shire and discovering what might be possible elsewhere, and at what scale.

I was also caught off guard by the length of chapters. These are tightly narrated units that, especially early on, progress with the benefit of only a few line breaks to separate and organize action.

Finally, the illustrations were new to me. No other edition I read had them. Seeing them here, I was struck by how much the visual art interacted with and supported the literary art. Wikipedia has a nice run down of their history here.