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Winter’s Tale

14 Feb

Once upon a time, I made a list of four books that should never be made into movies.  I was right about the first one, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, which became a movie in 1981, with a stellar cast of elder actors (among them John Housemann, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Fred Astaire) and a script which totally missed the underlying secret of the book. 1987’s The Princess Bride and 1989’s Field of Dreams (from the novel Shoeless Joe) were, happily, wonderful movies (well, a wonderful movie and a very good one), making me 1-2.

The fourth book on the list was Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale.  Winter’s Tale (the novel) is a sweeping work of romantic magical realism, wherein a milk horse learns it can fly, a wall of clouds lurks just off shore from New York City, and a bridge builder attempts to build a bridge to heaven.  Its prose is rich and flowery, and its characters distinct and marvelous.  The novel became a bestseller when it was published in 1983, and received great critical acclaim, though “common” reviewers on Goodreads.com or Amazon are a bit more mixed.

Spanning the 20th Century, it tells the tale of Peter Lake, an aging thief in 1899, who is on the run from crime boss Pearly Soames.  While robbing a mansion which he mistakenly believes to be empty, Peter meets Beverly Penn, the beautiful teenaged heiress to a publishing fortune, who is destined to die too soon of consumption (tuberculosis).  Their story makes up the first third of the novel, at which point it abruptly jumps to the latter years of the 20th Century where it introduces a wide-ranging cast of characters in its middle third, the ties the beginning and end of the century together with the return of Peter Lake and Pearly Soames.

In Winter’s Tale the movie, the first two thirds of the movie tell the early-century story of Peter, Pearly, and Beverly, and is faithful to the book.  The visuals are stunning, and the story moves along nicely.  Colin Farrell is perfectly roguish as Peter, and Jessica Brown Findlay is luminous and lovely as Beverly, dealing with her death sentence of a disease with grace and humor.  Russell Crowe snarls and rages and Pearly, exuding a sense of rage barely contained beneath an exterior of propriety.  William Hurt is dignified, loving, and imperious as Beverly’s father. The final third of the movie, set in the present, features Jennifer Connelly as a single-mother report who helps an amnesiac Peter remember who he is and fulfill his destiny.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winter’s Tale for the first third of the movie.  There are a few things I would have done differently, but many of the images seemed plucked right from the book, and thanks to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Emily and Zooey) it all has a lush, somewhat dreamy look.  In his directorial debut, Academy Award winning writer Akiva Goldsman movies the story along at a nice pace, streamlining much of Helprin’s intricate character backstories, as one must do to make a two hour movie. But things fall apart when the movie shifts to the present day.  Since the menacing, magical cloud wall has been omitted, there has to be a reason for Pearly and Peter to still be alive in 2014, and the one Goldsman settles on, while yielding a couple of great cameo scenes for Will Smith, muddy the waters to the point where both the climactic battle between Peter and Pearly and the culmination of Peter’s life’s purpose are met with a resounding “is that it?”.

Winter’s Tale is not a resounding failure, as some critics have been making it out to be, but it certainly loses much of what joy and magic it has in the section set in the past when it makes the jump to the future.  Unfortunately, as I suspected back in the 80s, this may be as close to a good adaptation as can be made, within the space of 2 hours.

I give it 5 Cheeseburgers

 

for the record, it has always been my contention that the best format for a Winter’s Tale adaption would be a series of 3 2-hour television episodes.  Part one ends following the battle on the bridge, Part two ends with the return of Peter Lake.

Movies – The Hunger Games

28 Mar

The number one, must-see movie in the country last week was a story of a mismatched pair thrust into an impossible situation and attempting to succeed beyond all odds, and maybe– just maybe — finding romance along the way. I refer, of course, to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Just kidding. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or hiding away in a woodland shack putting the finishing touches on your lates manifesto, you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to The Hunger Games.

Based on the first book of Suzanne Collins’ best selling trilogy, The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenage girl who offers herself up to prevent her younger sister from having to participate in the 74th annual Hunger Games, a brutal, winner-take-all battle between 24 teenagers (called “tributes”) drawn by lottery from each of the country’s 12 districts. Katniss is teamed with Peeta Melaark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the district’s baker, and they are transported from their Appalachian coal mining district to the luxury of the Capitol, under the watchful eyes of Capitol representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the drunken, cynical Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). There, they are made over by stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and evaluated by Game Maker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) before being thrown into the arena. Once inside the arena, it’s kill or be killed as the entire country watches the live broadcast.

Hunger Games, as with any movie, needs to be evaluated on a number of different questions:

  1. Is it any good? Absolutely. The performances are first-rate, the adaptation is mostly faithful to the book, and the production design offers distinct differences between Katniss’ home in District 12, the Capitol, and the Arena. There’s even an almost Ozian transition between camera styles between the three that serves to subtly guide the tenor of the piece.
  2. Is it as good as the book? It’s as good as the book, but it’s not as deep as the book. Since the book takes the first-person point of view of Katniss, there’s a lot of internal stuff that doesn’t make it to the screen. And since this is a 2-plus hour movie, a lot of smaller details are left out, and some of the backstory is abbreviated. The origin of the Mockingjay pin is changed from book to movie, eliminating a supporting character. The character of Haymitch is cleaned up quite a bit. But everything that materially affects the story is here, along with some things that are not in the book, such as a few glimpses into the Arena’s control room. If pressed, I would have to say that the movie lives up to the book, but does not surpass it.
  3. Is it too violent/not violent enough? Director Gary Ross walks a fine line between delivering a movie that’s not so sanitized that it glamorizes the violence or fails to fully convey how serious —deadly serious — the situation is, but is palatable to the younger portion of its potential audience. Skillful use of shadow and offscreen deaths limits the number of truly gruesome scenes, but there are a few. If the question is rephrased “Can my child see it?” the answer is “You know your child better than I do.” Or, as co-star Elizabeth Banks said on Slate Magazine’s Culture Gabfest last week, “If you watch f*ckin’ Jersey Shore, you can watch this movie.”
  4. How are the actors? Absolutely fantastic. Jennifer Lawrence, who was already an Oscar-nominated actress, should become a full-fledged movie star after this. And, based on what I’ve seen and read to date, no one is more deserving. (I’m lookin’ at you, mopey Twilight girl.) Liam Hemsworth as Gayle, the maybe-boy-back-home, isn’t given much to do other than stare at a television monitor and look concerned, but he does it handsomely. And Josh Hutcherson, who I thought was too slight to play Peeta, won me over as well, especially in his depiction of Peeta’s intuitive understanding of the value of playing to the audience, and the ease at which he did so.  In this he served as a nice counterpart to Lawrence’s all-business Katniss.  In fact, one of my few complaints about the movie is that while both Lawrence and Hutcherson brought subtlety to their roles, the movie itself didn’t play up the differences in their approaches to playing the game.  In the movie, to borrow a phrase from another classic that saw a recent limited re-release, a kiss is just a kiss.  In the book, it was much, much more.

    Supported by the always-great Banks, Harrelson, and Stanley Tucci (as the Games’ unctuous host/master of ceremonies) and the menacing Bentley and Donald Sutherland (as the evil President, a role I still think should have gone to Malcolm McDowell), there isn’t a casting misstep in the bunch. Even Lenny Kravitz follows up his live-action debut in Precious with a solid, if understated performance here.

  5. Do I need to have read the book first? Do you have to? No. Should you? Maybe. The one member of our group who hadn’t read the books definitely enjoyed the movie less than the rest of us. But there are a number of online primers and a sufficient amount of exposition that you won’t get too lost in the movie, although you may need some gaps filled in later.

In short, I strongly recommend this movie, but as an avid fan of the books, I would certainly recommend those as well.  I can’t wait to see the even-more-cinematic Catching Fire adapted (and am already enjoying the speculative casting going on on the internet), and am immensely curious to see how they’re going to do Mockingjay, a book which positively blows up the scope and tone of the first two.

Oh, and go see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen too.

My score: 8 Cheeseburgers

Books: A Discovery of Witches

31 Jan

A Discovery of Witches Cover
We here at FatGuysOn like to think of ourselves as manly men.  This despite the fact that one of us is overly attached to When Harry Met Sally and the other identifies a little too closely with a joke from the Broadway musical Avenue Q in which a closeted gay character refers to his favorite book as “Broadway Musicals of the 1940s”.  Or, we suppose, that one of us can quote jokes from a Broadway musical in the first place.

That being said, one of the things that we have in common is a fondness for what most folks would classify as supernatural chick lit.  We’re both up-to-date on both of Laurell K. Hamilton’s series (Anita Blake and Merry Gentry), as well as Kim Harrison’s Hollows (Rachel Morgan) series.  So it’s with this predisposition that I approached the first book of the “All Souls Trilogy”, Deborah Harkness’ best-selling A Discovery of Witches.

In the world which Harkness creates, human beings live alongside witches, daemons, and vampires. The humans are not aware of the others’ existence, but the supernatural races live in an uneasy balance.  Diana Bishop is a witch, and not just any witch; her mother was a direct descendant of one of the original Salem witches, and her father descended from another powerful witching lineage. But Diana has forsaken her heritage, using magic only a handful of times a year, and only reluctantly.

A history professor, Diana is researching in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she inadvertently summons Ashmole 782, an ancient magical volume which carries a powerful enchantment. She returns the book to the library stacks, but not before supernatural creatures far and wide feel its pull. Beset by witches and daemons, Diana finds herself in the care of an unexpected protector: the centuries-old vampire Matthew Clairmont. As the pair circle each other, they’re conflicted by their growing feelings toward each other, even as those around them attempt to prevent their union and claim Ashmole 782 for themselves. As the tension builds, Diana finds herself manifesting more and greater magical abilities, and is forced to embrace that which she has spent years attempting to deny.

A Discovery of Witches is well-written in terms of character and relationship, but its pacing needs work. Diana and Matthew are well drawn, as are the supporting members of their families. And the Bishop ancestral home, a character in itself, is wonderfully inventive. But the will-they-or-won’t they and “I love you but can’t be with you” aspects of the Diana/Matthew relationship are overly drawn out and repetitive. Harkness restates the same themes four or five times, when once was enough.

As the first book in a trilogy, the novel sets up its world and its conflicts well, and I’m certainly looking forward to the next volume, but in no way does the first book stand up on its own. Very little is resolved by the last page, and the novel ends on a massive cliffhanger. Readers going in with the expectation of a standalone novel will be greatly disappointed. Those aware of what they’re getting into and willing to wait will be rewarded, at least to an extent.

My score:

One For the Money

23 Sep

Yahoo! Movies has the first trailer for the new Katherine Heigl movie, One for the Money online here. The movie is an adaptation of the first book of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. I love the series, but was a little disappointed when they announced Heigl would be starring as Stephanie, and Jason O’Mara and Daniel Sunjata would co-star as Joe Morelli and Ranger respectively. John Leguizamo, Debbie Reynolds and Sherri Shepherd helped a bit, and Patrick Fischler seems perfect as Vinnie, but I was still unconvinced.

The trailer actually has me looking forward to the movie, though. Heigl seems sexy and spunky as Steph, and O’Mara seems to have the right amount of swagger as Morelli. I’m still not entirely sold on Sunjata as Ranger; he just doesn’t seem to have the menace or mystery to play the role. But I’m now looking forward to the movie.