Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

I watched another highly recommended classic recently: Kind Hearts and Coronets. I must admit I was bored already by the title. When my husband told me Alec Guinness played eight different characters in the movie, I was only vaguely interested, my first thoughts being, "Who's Alec Guinness?" and "All those guys in old black and white movies look alike anyway." I know, I know, how can I call myself a movie reviewer, right? Perhaps my antagonism toward B&W movies stems from the enormous amount of mystery science theater I have been tortured with. Most of those are old movies and overwhelmingly awful. But it is true that the movies I have seen from this movie's era are quite good. While they are not my first pick for a Friday movie night, I am always surprised by how good these movies end up being.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is the story of a man whose mother was kicked out of her home for eloping with someone beneath her station and then denied her right to be in line for duchess or to have her son be an heir to the duke. Louis Mazzini grows up poor, not even able to pursue a career...until his mother dies and his "career" becomes vengeance through killing the 7 heirs and current duke (all played by Alec Guinness) standing in his way to the dukedom.

It's extremely dry humor, and you have to pay close attention to catch everything through the British accent. But the subject matter is entertaining. You almost feel bad for wanting Louis to succeed by the end, but without his success, there is no movie. So, you watch in mixed horror and fascination as he proceeds closer and closer to his goal.

I watched the British copy of the movie, which contains the old, offensive version of the nursery rhyme "Eenie-Meenie-Minie-Mo," as well as a more open-ended conclusion. Apparently the American version has parts edited out and a longer, more conclusive end. Personally, I like the mysterious uncertainty of the version I saw.

This movie also provides comic illustration to the phrase, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and I will leave you wondering at that.

I won't say this is an absolutely necessary see, but there is certainly entertainment value here, in a sort of darkly humorous way. Three stars.

You Again (on DVD)

Just a short review here, but I wanted to showcase this movie, chick flick though it is, for its morality! There's no reason to cover your eyes or ears in You Again, rated PG. Plus, it's fun and funny and surprisingly full of renowned actors, including Kristen Bell (lead role), Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Victor Garber, Betty White, Kristin Chenoweth, and just a few others you might recognize.

The movie is a bit cliched. (Spoilers here!) How many times are we going to see someone's rehearsal dinner ruined by a horrible video? And then there's the main focus of the movie: girl gets picked on in high school, grows up and becomes beautiful, and returns home to find her brother marrying her nemesis. But the movie also plays with its cliches. By the movie's end, three generations of women have been forced to reunite with their nemeses, hence the title.

The movie tugged at my emotions, making me angry at the injustices done to Marni, ill at ease when she fought back, angry again that everyone kept telling her it was all in the past and she should just get on with her life, happy with how things turned out in the end.

If you're looking for a laugh and a little light, clean entertainment, You Again is just right.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Social Network (on DVD)

I finally caught up with the buzz on The Social Network, nominated for a bunch of Oscars and detailing what went down to create our much-beloved Facebook. It's incredible and awful and amazing all at once, and you can't help but wonder where to separate fact from fiction, especially when the last scenes of the movie tell you that the people involved signed nondisclosure agreements.

Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, wrote the screenplay for The Social Network, and this is evident in the opening lines of the movie. There's no musical introduction, no musical background even, as you are thrust into the middle of a conversation between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend. It's at least five minutes, maybe more (it feels so long for a movie, but it works), of pure repartee. And the movie starts here with Mark's break-up because that's where Facebook started, according to the movie (the reality is not as certain; see the end of this post). A guy got mad, got drunk, blogged meanly about his break-up, and hacked a bunch of dorm facebooks (you know, the old definition of the word, a school directory of everyone), and created Facemash, a program for people to vote between two girls at a time, hot or not. His online work that night was so big and had so many hits it crashed the Harvard University network. From there it was a matter of weeks, barely months, until the first version of Facebook was up and running, just for Harvard students.

The rest of the movie revolves around how Facebook continued to expand through help from the morally and ethically corrupt Sean Parker (Napster creator) and how Zuckerberg was sued by three young men, who believed he'd stolen their idea after they offered to help him, as well as by his own former CFO, who fronted him the money but was later cut out of the shares.

It's a messy business, and if it's true, it almost makes you feel bad about using Facebook. Actually, what potentially makes me feel worse about using it is the moral degradation of everyone involved in the whole affair. Mark Zuckerberg gets jealous of his CFO for getting into one of Harvard's most prestigious clubs, but the club itself is full of women taking off their clothes and getting drunk, not somewhere I'd ever want to find myself. Sean Parker, while having the smarts to help Zuckerberg to the top, doesn't care whom he steps on to get there, and drugs, alcohol, and half-dressed women seem to follow him wherever he goes. The amount of empty, meaningless partying that goes on in this movie and undoubtedly in the schools it portrays just makes you kind of sick. How can that appeal to people?

As real as it probably is, it was the one huge downer of the movie. It made me feel gross to watch it and left me with a bit of a sick feeling at the end. To think that Facebook arose out of all of that craziness gives me pause when I type my log-in now.

I wonder, if Zuckerberg hadn't been pushed and angered as he was in the movie, would he have had the drive to accomplish all he did? Or, if he had been more level-headed, less of a drunk, could he have gone further? Honestly, I think some of the greatest stuff comes out of pain because pain provides the drive. Do I hope Zuckerberg is a better person than that in real life? Yeah! For his sake. Would a better person have cost us Facebook? Maybe.

The Social Network portrays Zuckerberg as emotionally unconnected. I've recently discovered that some studies are showing autistic kids to sometimes have a borderline autistic parent, evidenced by extreme intelligence and somewhat of a social reticence. This certainly isn't always the case, and may be an exception (I didn't read the study), but Zuckerberg, as portrayed in this movie, reminds me a little of a borderline autistic person, having a brilliant mind but an inability to form real friendships. His girlfriend and his only real friend, the CFO of Facebook, were people he ended up hurting the most. It's a sad, sad story.

But like I said, nondisclosure agreements...

The story makes a fascinating movie, but how much is embellished to make the story? I guess, if even half of it is true, it's still incredible, awful, and amazing. One thing that seems to be false is the girlfriend break-up. Several things I've read indicate she was fabricated for the purpose of storytelling, and Wikipedia even has a quote from Sorkin that he was more interested in the storytelling than in the exact truth of the story he told. Other sources indicate Zuckerberg has had his current girlfriend for the past seven years.

The sheer genius and artistry of the movie make it worth the run for the Oscars. Four and a half stars for genius. Two stars for morality. View it at your own discretion.

Now...time to post to Facebook.

ADDITION: This was not in the original post of this blog, but I wanted to add that Mark Zuckerberg is two years younger than me. He was born in 1984. He was in college when Facebook was created in 2004. Doesn't it feel like we've had Facebook forever? But I didn't have it when I went to college. This all happened fast, and it happened to a very young guy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Am Number Four (book and movie)

If you read my last blog, you know that I am on a brief kick of books turned into movies, or in the case of Red Riding Hood, screenplays turned into books. I read I Am Number Four as an advance reader's copy (not even the published hardcover) just last year. I'm amazed at how quickly they can do that. Advance copy one year. Movie the next.

You'd think, then, that the movie wouldn't be all that great for being made so quickly, even before the populace had time to spread the hype on this book. You might be surprised. Alfred Gough and Miles Millar helped write the screenplay. They are also the creators of Smallville; the content is similar.

Here's the basic plot without too many spoilers. Number Four is one of nine alien children from the planet Lorien sent to Earth to avoid a bloodbath by evil Mogadorians, aliens who took over and destroyed their planet. The problem is that those evil aliens have come to Earth to do the same, and all that stands in their way are these nine kids. But the number is down to six because three have been destroyed, and Number Four knows he's next due to a convenient safety measure that only lets the Mogadorians kill the nine in order. Every time one dies, a new tatoo appears on the others' legs.

So, the nine have always been on the run, never staying too long, never making close friends, always forging new identities, with the help of a Protector for each one. When Number Four and Henri, his Protector and father-figure, discover Number Three's death, they erase their lives in Florida and start anew in Ohio. But Number Four, now called John Smith, isn't willing to hide in the shadows forever. He wants to live life and find love and be as normal as he can be, so he goes to the local high school, where he begins to make both friends and enemies and stir up unwanted notice. Even an innocently taken photograph can lead the Mogadorians to his doorstep, and he's running out of time.

I loved the movie. Perhaps it's because I couldn't remember many details from the book, having read it a year ago. But the details began to come back to me as I watched, so I know the movie was following the big picture of the book, at least.

As with all movies made from books, a lot of simplifying has to go on. The story has to fit into two hours, and it has to make sense without a lot of exposition. I thought the movie handled the basics really well without feeling like it was trying to cram all of the book in. It felt like a movie, not a book turned into a movie.

There are differences, of course, that the diehard fans will hate. Personally, I don't think the movie had the budget to pull off the book's crazy, complex, layered last battle, but the simplified movie version is good enough for the movie watchers. It might disappoint book fans as so much is left out. But it would have taken too much explanation and time to fit it all in. The movie stayed simple, and that's why I think it works. However, if you do see the movie before the book, read the book, too, so you can get all the cool stuff from the end.

Remembering more of the book now that I've seen the movie, I'll add a few words on that. Sadly, but perhaps tellingly, I didn't review I Am Number Four when I read it, even though I was reviewing a lot of other books at the time. I think what happened is that I was reading a lot and I'd just had a baby, so I reviewed only what I considered the best. I don't think I Am Number Four was so bad. It just wasn't the one that stuck out in my mind at the time. I thought the idea was unique, I do remember, and the only negative thing I can concretely remember thinking was that the main character, Four, seemed younger than he was supposed to be. He's made to be older than I remember in the movie, though. I think he felt a little like he was in middle school in the book when he's actually in high school. But the movie makes him look like a senior, at least. Could be the choice of actor; he just looks older.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed that they kept well from book to movie was the role played by the Chimera (though still cooler in the book), but I can't say anymore; too spoilerish.

Although the movie is rated PG13 for scary aliens and alien-related violence, including a scene where a small ball with razors revolving on it is placed in a guy's mouth (but no blood or gore is shown), I was pleased with the morality of both the book and movie. No clothes coming off. Nothing more than kissing. And the icing on the cake, aliens from Lorien fall in love with a person for no cheating!

Overall, the acting was good, the special effects were decent, the storyline was clear, and the movie was just fun. Even if you've never heard of I Am Number Four, which I doubt by now, since they've been advertising it like crazy on TV, I think you will enjoy it. No need to read the book first. Save it for after, and you won't be disappointed. You'll feel like you're getting more story by reading the book second, and you'll want that because I Am Number Four is just the beginning of a series and the sequel, The Power of Six, isn't available until September.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Red Riding Hood (the book based on a screenplay)

I will be writing a couple of posts here about movies based on books or, more rare and intriguing, the opposite, as is the case with Red Riding Hood. More on that in a minute.

I am excited to see I Am Number Four, released in theaters tomorrow, because I read the advance reader's copy last year. Last year. Wow. They made that one into a movie fast! It's interesting how excited I am to see this movie when I wasn't particularly thrilled with the book. It was a good enough book, don't get me wrong, but it must not have made a big impact on me because in looking through old reviews, which I wrote before I started this blog, I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore, didn't have one. Sad. Now I will have to see the movie in the hopes that it triggers memories of how I felt about the book. But I am excited to see the movie partly because my memory is foggy and I have hopes that I have forgotten enough of the book to make any adaptations and changes less agonizing and partly because the previews are looking fantastic. I love previews. But enough on that movie/book for now because I will be coming back to it, and on to the book Red Riding Hood, by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright.

Red Riding Hood is a movie, set to release on March 11. Speaking of previews, when I first saw the preview for this one, I was fascinated. It had the feel of M. Night's The Village and the atmosphere and beauty of a Catherine Hardwicke film. (Whatever you think of Twilight, book or movie, Hardwicke made it a lush, beautiful work of cinematography.) In addition to its look, the movie intrigued me for its story; I love fairytale adaptations. So, I marked my calendar with the release date (yes, I do that) and mostly forgot about it.


Until I found the book at Barnes & Noble (where I browsed and then called Summer to have her order the book from her own store for me). I was surprised to see the book there and then sort of disappointed and excited at the same time. Disappointed that, seemingly, yet another movie adaptation of a book was being created. Can't people come up with original screenplays anymore? Excited that now I would be able to delve more fully into the world I'd caught only mysterious, intriguing glimpses of. I didn't look much at the cover or inside. I was getting the book, no matter what. That's how deep a preview can get its hook into me.

When I finally had my own copy in my hand, I noticed again how the author's name wasn't even on the front cover, just on the binding. Actually, the front cover contained Catherine Hardwicke's name in a little blurb saying she'd written an introduction to the book. I'd found it odd at the time but hadn't given it much thought. Come to find out...this novel is based on the screenplay by David Leslie Johnson, an original screenplay! Well, original enough, since it's a complete re-imagining of the classic fairytale. So, this original screenplay popped up on Hardwicke's desk, and she loved it and decided to give it to a recently graduated, up-and-coming writer friend of hers to transform and flesh out into a more complex story than two hours in the theater can give. So, this is not just a novel copy of the movie, reliving each movie scene, but a separate entity, a story of its own, a rare thing: a book based on a screenplay.

I was torn about whether I should read it before I saw the movie because, really, the movie is the original. If you should read an original book before seeing its movie adaptation, shouldn't you do the opposite if the situation is reversed? But I couldn't wait, so I dove in, and here's my overarching view on this phenomenon: I hope the movie is better. The book was okay, more interesting toward the latter half, but in some ways, it was slow. Movies aren't meant to be slow, and I have high expectations that the movie will move at a better pace because, after all, the movie script was written first, and the author of that didn't have to try to squeeze in a novel's full details. In the end, I might have to say, watch the movie first, and if you are still intrigued, read the book to flesh out the characters. I'm excited to see this movie because I have no fears that it will disappoint. It was created to stand alone, which makes a big difference from book-to-movie adaptations.

Now, if the movie disappoints, it will be because of a lack in the original story itself, and on that, I'm not sure what to expect. I would hate to give away spoilers on this movie, which will be suspenseful and mysterious. Spoilers would ruin the movie-watching experience. But I have to review the book.

So, I will make a concession and review the book as much as possible without spoilers and then revisit the book review in March after I've seen the movie.

Red Riding Hood, as a book, is the story of Valerie, a woodcutter's daughter who lives in a village of fear. It's a small village full of old tradition and law, where women and men's lives intermingle little, where a girl can be promised to a man by her parents, where the Church holds the law, and where an animal sacrifice is made monthly to appease the Werewolf. The people live in stilted homes where they lift the ladders at night and never feel quite safe during the day.

Valerie feels like a stranger in her village of Daggorhorn, even though she's lived there all her life. Her father is the town drunk, but there's more to her feelings of unbelonging. She longs to see the world outside, to live a life without fear, to climb the tallest trees, to be someone special. In short, she feels what many a teenager has felt, stifled, needing to stretch and become someone. But no other teenager in her village seems to feel the way she does. And then Peter returns.

Peter was her childhood friend, until the town ran him and his father off after the death of Henry's mom. And Henry is Valerie's arranged future husband. Henry is sweet and attentive, rich, a prize catch for any girl in the town. But Peter is passionate, and the outsider in him calls to the outsider in Valerie. Typical teenage angst here. 

Honestly, the beginning of the book had me a little bored, not bored enough to quit reading, but disappointed. The writing was a little stilted. Certain phrasing by itself was poetic but was not always put together in a lyrical way. Sometimes it was wordy. Sometimes it wasn't subtle enough, not trusting the reader's ability to put the puzzle pieces together.

But it really picked up toward the middle of the book, which I finished in just two days (and that was only during my son's naps and after he went to bed). You can really begin to see how this story was made to be a movie when you get to the point of nonstop action. I'm thrilled to see these scenes translate to the screen. It definitely has that feeling of M. Night's The Village, and I suspect it will be edge-of-your-seat suspenseful as the murders pile up and the identity of the Wolf is revealed to be a villager, but whom, nobody knows. The end of the book has a very Gothic feel. It's deliciously dark and creepy, mysterious to the final words.

But the very last pages of the book disappointed me again. I have a feeling I know what the author was trying to do, but I hope the movie conveys the idea better. We'll have to see, and I can't say much more without spoiling it for you. Just this, a moral issue, because that's what I deal with primarily on this blog: I was unhappy with the moral ambiguity. I think it adds a haunting feeling to the story, and I can appreciate that. But I thought Valerie's actions and thoughts in the final pages of the book were inconsistent. Expect to hear more on this when I've seen the movie. That review will definitely have spoilers!

In the meantime, enjoy my upcoming review of I Am Number Four as I try to remember the book and compare tellings. I should be seeing it within the next week.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious

Here is my first review of a classic movie. Notorious is an Alfred Hitchcock film noir/suspense/romance starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It was made in 1946, just after the war, and tells the story of a woman of loose morals, Alicia (Bergman), daughter of a German Nazi, who is hired by American agents to infiltrate and spy on a group of her father's friends in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her assignment: get in close to a formerly infatuated wannabe lover of hers, keep her mouth shut and her eyes and ears open, and do whatever it takes to keep him close, even if it means marrying him. But Alicia has changed her ways and fallen in love with Devlin (Grant), the agent who is her contact. Their love is tried, and Devlin closes his heart to Alicia, unknowingly abandoning her to an ill fate.

This movie boasts the longest on-screen kiss of the times. Apparently there was a rule about how many seconds a kiss could last on-screen, and Hitchcock got around it by interrupting the kiss with dialog and walking. Compared to movies of our time, this is child's play. Yet the thematic material is anything but.

Hitchcock proves you can do suspense and romance without showing a thing, even in a format that is all about showing. Hitchcock does suspense with shadows and dialog and waiting. You need good actors for that, and Grant and Bergman were among the best of the time. They could even be compared to today's actors. Kate Winslet, for instance, reminds me of Ingrid Bergman.

As for romance, no abandonment cuts worse than Devlin's of Alicia, and we barely see their romance, let alone its blossoming, which so many romances today are all about. We see them meet, and then, bam, they are in the middle of hot and steamy without more than a few kisses and whispered words lip-to-lip. But you believe it. Goes to show that you don't need immorality to make a good movie, especially if a movie where immorality is a central plot point doesn't show any.

My husband made me watch this movie, but I wouldn't have caved unless it sounded remotely interesting. I was not surprised that it was good, being an Alfred Hitchcock film some claim his best. And I was so intrigued I barely noticed the black and white after awhile.

If you are going to watch classics, put this on the list! A big thanks goes to Nick's friend Brian for suggesting this to him.