A Look Back: The Giver

Imagine a wondrous fantasy world that only exists in a young person’s book but is universally beloved by all who open the covers and turn the pages. Then imagine years later, the news that it’s going to make the leap from the page to the big screen. Naturally, former readers will nurse concerns. Will the right actors be chosen to play the cast? Will the special effects be too cheesy or overwhelm the story? Will the magic get lost in translation?

Directors often seem to do their best to compound the problem by announcing beforehand that they are going to make some changes, which may seem minor to them, but which become controversies that set off Twitter wars and so on. In “The Giver’s” case, one of the big questions was how the black and white world that predominates at the beginning would be portrayed. Also of concern was that the three protagonists, who are supposed to be twelve in the book, all appeared to be well-acquainted with puberty, at least according to their Internet Movie Database photos.

Also, the author Lois Lowry set off a mini-tempest of sorts when she was interviewed about the film and joked that she was going to have a cameo playing the elderly woman that the protagonist helps bathe at a senior care center in the book. Some took her seriously, so up popped online headlines like “Lowry to appear in “The Giver.”

Anyway, after all that was cleared up, the film was completed and released. Its plot generally stayed true to the book, although there was the aforementioned puberty problem that was jarring for me, though I can’t speak for anyone else. When “The Giver” opens, the young(ish) protagonist, played by Brenton Thwaites, lives in a world where pain, fear, lust and all strong emotion is unknown, but is feeling apprehensive anyway because tomorrow he and his two friends (Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan) will be assigned their adult jobs in a ceremony that takes place before the whole community. Brenton’s parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) try to reassure him, telling him that they felt the same way when they were his age, but he still worries. When the moment does arrive and the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) skips over him, Brenton (and the whole community) panics, but it turns out that this was deliberate, and Brenton has been chosen for a special position: Receiver of Memory. The “Giver” (Jeff Bridges) will entrust to him all the messy memories of the past that the rest of the community has agreed should be his burden alone. Whew! Sounds like a blast.

But soon Brenton discovers that he has the capacity to feel joy, love and all those great forbidden fruits, so much so that he chooses to stop taking the pills that all adults (young and up) are given daily, which unblocks even more emotions. The black and white world (think “Pleasantville”) suddenly begins to change color, just as it has in the past, but more often. He also learns the fate of the previous Receiver (Taylor Swift), the Giver’s daughter, who chose death over continuing to take in the pain that comes along with the memories. Brenton is understandably upset and conflicted, just like Taylor, but when he discovers that the foster infant his family is caring for will be “released” (i.e. euthanized for failure to thrive) and not only that, but his father will be the one to do it (as it’s “just” his job), he decides to leave the community. With him gone, the village members will be forced to start receiving the memories. But (unlike the book), this will put him in direct conflict with his two friends.

“The Giver” is a short book, so much of the fleshing out the world building makes sense. Why Taylor Swift was chosen to be showcased, I have no idea, but the other cast do a fine job. And Katie Holmes, who has had real-life experience surviving as a mom in a cult-like community, is great as Brenton’s mother. The film doesn’t attempt to answer some important questions about how the community works, but then that’s up to the reader or viewer to imagine.











Movie Review: The Post

While watching Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” which tells the story of how the Pentagon Papers were publicized in The New York Times and then the Washington Post, I thought of another movie that has nothing to do with journalism. Specifically, “A Few Good Men,” in which Tom Cruise, playing a hotshot lawyer with a YooHoo fetish, demands “the truth,” and is promptly bellowed at – in one of the great all-time movie bellows – by Jack Nicholson as a Military Higher Up – that he CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! No one hams it up that baldly in “The Post,” thank goodness, but it is also a movie about facing the truth and the painful consequences that may well result.

“The Post” opens not in a newsroom, but in the jungles of Vietnam as Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is serving his country and risking his life on a regular basis and then once he returns and gets a job with the government, he happens upon the famous papers which reveal the unpalatable truth that multiple Presidents and their administrations knew full well that the Vietnam War was unwinnable yet did nothing to save the lives of those who fought in it. So he decides to do a little leaking to the media which happens to be The New York Times. Fast forward to Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of The Post after her husband committed suicide, sitting bolt upright in bed from solid slumber because that is the only way people wake up in the movies, and also to indicate that she is worn out from juggling business decisions about her newspaper – especially, as she has never done this sort of thing before until her husband’s death. Also, she is a woman, and the only bigwigs with whom she interacts are all men. Who are still making their way out of the thicket of pre-feminism, although still respectful to Meryl, as a gentleman would to any proper lady.

When Meryl meets Post bigwig Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) for breakfast in a smoke-filled men’s club, Tom bemoans the fact that a reporter at The Times, who has scooped them in the past, seems to be Up to Something. Soon Tom is sending an employee over to spy on The Times; eventually, they get scooped when The Times starts printing the papers. However, the Post gets a break of sorts when President Richard Nixon orders The Times to stop publishing The Truth and takes them to court. Now it’s time for Meryl and Tom to decide whether to risk a similar fate – which may end by them sitting in a jail cell, as well as end the Post altogether.

Since this is a movie about the media in the seventies, we get lots of shots of pale, paunchy men in shirtsleeves frowning intently at documents and typewriters, or for variety, running around in the streets dodging taxis or making calls on a pay phone while the voice at the other end demands, “You don’t think your phone’s being tapped, do you?” Three-quarters of the way through, the viewer senses that someone reminded Spielberg that he should make some statements about sexism, as well, and so we get those alongside the debate on how far the press should go to check the government. “The Post” is unsurprisingly excellent since it has Meryl and Tom, which is easy to predict ahead of time, the same way someone ordering a restaurant dessert containing both chocolate and peanut butter is guaranteed a treat. Expect bushels of Oscar nominations and likely Oscars to come.





A Look Back: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

When I was still very young, I noticed a decidedly odd thing about orphans – whether in book or film – that so many seemed to be blessed with amazing musical talent. (A majority also had red hair.) This did not make a great deal of sense when you sat down and considered it, but I went with it because why not? At the time, I did not have a series like Lemony Snicket’s (alias for Daniel Handler) “A Series of Unfortunate Events” which would have clued me in that not all orphan characters possess the ability to turn their woes into song, dance or impromptu gymnastics. The series, which stars three orphans who lose their parents in a suspicious house fire, and was made into a movie starring Jim Carrey, is honest enough to inform the reader from the start that the books are terrifically depressing and that the reader would be better off reading something else. Which of course, works as reverse psychology, as the series was quite successful.

In each book, the reader – while faced with the truth that life for the young is often unpleasant and/or unpredictable – can be assured of three things. One, that each orphan – played in the movie by Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and twins Kara/Shelby Hoffman as their infant sister – will be faced with dealing with their nefarious “uncle” (Jim Carrey) who is determined to get his hands on their fortune, and who has a seemingly endless array of disguises. Two, that when the children realize what their nemesis is up to, they will be disregarded if not presented with absurd reasons for why this truth is otherwise. And three, that while they will be able to use their unique skill sets (they are an inventor, a bibliophile and a biter respectively) to wriggle out of trouble – more will simply await them in the next installment.

The movie of “A Series,” stays true (at least at the beginning) by the narrator (Jude Law) recommending that the viewer seek another film to watch, and then gets down to business by having the children’s new guardian (Timothy Spall) meet them on the beach with the unfortunate news that they will now be living with Jim Carrey who is soon dismayed at the fact that he can’t get the fortune until Emily turns 18 or the trio croaks, and pawns them off on another guardian (Billy Connelly), a herpetologist, who seems benign until Jim shows up in disguise. From there, it’s curtains for Billy, forcing the trio to move in with an aunt (Meryl Streep), who is deathly afraid of everything, lives in a house overlooking a leech-filled lake, and who also meets an untimely end. The third act has the orphans living with Jim, who decides to engineer his marriage to his niece, by putting on (why not?) a play with his equally awful allies.

Luckily, the orphans manage to foil every unfortunate event that comes their way – though the movie’s end, which allows the children to take revenge on Jim that never arrives in the early books, is more Hollywoodish. Apart from that, it’s true enough to the books, although if a child watches it with an adult, they probably will be treated to a series of, “Hey, isn’t that so-and-so?” Life is tough when you’re an orphan, but as hokey as it sounds, sticking together and pooling your talents will help you survive in the long run.



A Look Back: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A quick question. When a filmmaker decides to improve upon the original source – such as a children’s book – is it really necessary to add dark psychological overtones? Specifically, does the target audience – in the case of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the book by Roald Dahl and directed by Wes Anderson, really care if an Oedipal slant is inserted? My guess is no, but like Tim Burton’s remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (also based on a Dahl book), it received it anyway. The good news is that Mr. Fox’s (George Clooney’s) conflicts with his eccentric son (Jason Schwartzman) don’t detract from the movie, even though adding a backstory about Willy Wonka being estranged from his dad was, in several senses, excess baggage.

Like classic fairy tales such as those from the appropriately named Grimm’s, many of Dahl’s children’s books feature horrifying parents or guardians. The titular Matilda (of the book and movie starring Mara Wilson) gets told by her used car salesman dad (Danny DeVito), “There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from television faster.” The beloved grandmother who teaches her grandson about “The Witches,” and loves him just the same after he’s enchanted into a mouse, however, is a exception. So too, are Mr. Fox and his wife (Meryl Streep) whose brood of youngsters is shrunk in the movie into one son, although soon a houseguest arrives, their overachieving nephew (Eric Chase Anderson). But there’s bigger problems than quasi-sibling rivalry afoot because Mr. Fox, now a journalist, still longs for his old life raiding nearby farms, particularly those belonging to the mean-spirited, dim bulb trio of Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugo Guinness). When circumstances force the Fox family out of their home at a tree base, and George, with his family and friends is forced into warfare, with the trio, it’s up to Mr. Fox to use every bit of his ingenuity to keep them all from starving.

Originally, Dahl had intended to have Mr. Fox solve his problems by having him burrow under and rob a supermarket. However, his American publishers were concerned that that would send the wrong message – that stealing is acceptable – so they fixed things by suggesting that Mr. Fox rob the original villains of the tale. Though they were afraid that Dahl would take offense, he actually loved the change and accepted it without argument. In the movie, ultimately, Mr. Fox winds up “borrowing” from a supermarket, but suitable revenge is also taken on the three bad guys. Capturing the magic of the original source is a challenge for any director wishing to bring a children’s book to the big screen, but the filmmakers do an excellent job here.