Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Movie Quick Takes: Belle, Into the Woods, and The Giver

Yikes! I am behind on my reviews! I have several books and movies I would love to share with you. I prefer to give books their own individual blogs, so I will first try to go succinctly, in one post, through the latest movies I've watched.

Belle on DVD
This period piece, a true story, is fascinating and romantic: a great date movie but also an interesting history lesson. It tells the tale of a girl born to a white father and black mother and raised in luxury as a Victorian lady in 18th century England. Of course, the slave trade was in full swing then, and she was accepted by very few into society and unlikely to make a match despite the inheritance left her by her father. She was free and independent but still burdened by the laws and prejudices of the nation. At the same time, her uncle and guardian was under pressure as Lord Chief Justice to make a ruling on the drowning of a shipment of slaves, specifically on whether or not they were insured cargo. The question is, how can you insure something as priceless as life, and if it is insured, is it no more valuable than cargo? Dido Belle finds herself facing a similar question in her personal life. Though not a slave, is she still property, just a woman to be bought by the man who needs her money? Or is she free to have find love?

It's not a story about overturning slavery, but it's one of those that led up to it and one I'd never heard before. Rated PG, it's not a hard look at slavery, like 12 Years a Slave, but a look at the other side and in between, at the good people who fought for what was right and strove to make a real difference bit by bit. Those stories are worth telling, too. The movie is also a reminder of the times that gave us stories like those of Jane Austen's, stories about convention and the rules of society and young ladies striving to make matches and young men inheriting or having to seek out their fortunes by other means, a world very different from our own. Seen in the light of this story, this culture is sometimes amusing and sometimes ridiculous. It's Jane Austen...but not quite. Entertaining but certainly thought-provoking.

Into the Woods in the Theater
The music is memorable enough that I recognized songs from my days of listening to them online, when I worked at a bookstore and had never heard of Into the Woods. This musical was adapted from the stage for the screen and boasts such talents as Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, and Anna Kendrick, just to name a few. The costumes are unique, if a bit edgy. The setting is lush. The music is at times haunting, which is appropriate for a movie about a collection of fairy tale characters crossing tales in the woods, and sometimes it is downright funny. There is a song sung by two prince brothers as they frolic on a waterfall, and it was one of the highlights of this particular viewing experience for me. But the story is depressing and kind of sadistic. The fairy tales we know start as we expect. Cinderella gets to dance with a prince at the ball. Jack brings goodies down the beanstalk. Rapunzel's prince climbs her hair to offer her true love. Red Riding Hood faces the wolf. The story that ties them all together is that of a baker and his wife who are collecting items to break a witch's curse and thereby have a baby.

But the fairy tales end up diverging from happiness in ways the Grimm brothers would applaud. And since I'm not a fan of things grotesque or immoral (The movie is rated only PG, but I found some of the ideas disturbing enough and certain themes mature enough to warrant a higher rating. Planes is rated PG. I don't think I'd take younger than middle school to this myself.), I wasn't as enthralled as the music tried to make me be. The message of the movie ends up being very modern, which is to say, it sounds good on the surface but doesn't have a lick of depth or sense. It's contradictory. It says, "Anything goes." It says, "What happens in the woods stays in the woods." I do realize that some of that absurdity is meant to be there, but I also know that people latch onto meaning in music. And there just isn't any consistent meaning here. I heard mixed reviews about this movie before I went into it and thought I might like it better than what I was hearing. At least, I wanted to see for myself before judging it. And though I don't love witches, that doesn't even bother me as much as immorality and the pretentiousness of one of the ending songs that appears to give meaning to the movie but contradicts everything else the movie seems to be about. I'm rather sad the movie didn't turn out better. I wish it would have ended halfway through with a more positive, less egotistical message.

The Giver on DVD
This movie was so surprising. I'd heard a good opinion of it from someone I respected, but it was out of theaters so fast I didn't have a chance to see it then. I shouldn't have been surprised it would turn out so wonderfully, but since I've read vast amounts of dystopian fiction, some with really unique premises, I just wasn't sure The Giver (PG-13, 97 min.) would translate from book to screen well. I guess I thought it might be too tame, but I was wrong. The world was actually brought to life for me better than when I read the book, somehow. Reading about people living in a world devoid of color is quite a bit different than seeing it. That's one of the things that comes across better in a movie. And maybe it's because I now have children (and didn't when I read the book), I was certainly more affected by the scenes of euthanasia. In The Giver, certain babies and all the old are euthanized, and the people are ignorant of what that means, having lost all emotions. But Jonas is given the opportunity to learn about the world from ages before in order to be an adviser to those who don't have emotions. He alone gets emotions back. And, no surprise, it changes his world. I didn't mind that Jonas in the movie is older than Jonas in the book. It all worked beautifully for me, making the story richer than I had even remembered. Granted, this sort of story is perhaps slower-paced than something like The Maze Runner or Divergent, but I think it's just as well done cinematically and deserves a place among the top runners of the young adult book-to-movie adaptations trend.

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