Brian Selznick on “Wonderstruck”

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For Rogerebert.com, I spoke to author/illustrator Brian Selznick, who has written the screenplay for the film adaptation of his book, Wonderstruck. I was fascinated by his description of casting deaf actors as hearing characters in the silent portion of the movie.

I realized that with a silent section in our movie it gave us the opportunity to hire deaf actors to play hearing characters. Deaf actors were hired all the time in the silent movie era because they were so expressive. They knew how to tell a story without spoken language. And so we used six deaf actors as hearing people. We had these amazing days on the set with hearing actors, deaf actors, sign language interpreters. The rest of the cast, the crew and everybody worked together.

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The Beguiled

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: War (off-screen), injuries, murder
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: June 23, 2017
Copyright 2017 Parmount

Writer/director Sofia Coppola has taken a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie about a wounded but manipulative Civil War soldier cared for and disruptive of the staff and students of a small girls’ school and reframed it as a story about the staff and students of a small girls’ school who care for and are disrupted by a wounded Civil War soldier. It is not so much telling the story of the spider and the fly from the perspective of the fly; it is more like telling the story with the women as the spider.

From her first film, “The Virgin Suicides,” through “Marie Antoinette,” “The Bling Ring,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Somewhere,” Sofia Coppola has been transfixed by stories of slender, ethereal young women who are a bit lost in a world created by powerful but inadequate men, and she has done her best to transfix the audience as well. Her next project, “La Traviata,” the story of a consumptive courtesan who turns out to be more noble than the man she loves, is certain to fit this pattern as well.

It is impossible to consider this latest work, a remake of a film directed by and starring two of the most testosteronic filmmakers in movie history, without that context. And that context is increasingly repetitive, with each iteration revealing not only the limits of the individual film but also the lacunae of the previous ones as well. What once seemed intriguing, mysterious, and thoughtful now appears, when the work is viewed as a whole, as superficial. It turns out that what was omitted was not because it was subtle and deep but because she had nothing more to say. While this film touches on issues of war (and warring emotions), it eliminates the slave character played in the first film by Mae Mercer, because there is really no way to do that relationship justice and any attempt to do so would throw the rest of the story off balance.

It is a pity, because she is just so good with the externals. The settings, costumes, music, and performances in her films are always superb, which makes the dispiriting emptiness even more disappointing.

Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a small boarding school for girls, a retreat precariously close to Civil War battles being fought nearby. When one of the girls is out gathering mushrooms in the woods, she discovers a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and she brings him back to the school for treatment. Miss Farnsworth is not pleased, but she cannot turn him away. She treats him and tries to keep his presence as a male and an enemy combatant from disrupting the students and her co-teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). But he is a novelty and a distraction especially for those who long, perhaps unaware how much, for male attention.

McBurney has a gift for making each female in the house feel that he is what they most want him to be, from the teenager (Elle Fanning) to the widow (Dunst). “I’m grateful to be your prisoner,” he says. At first, he is gracious, unassuming, and charming. But he becomes a more ominous presence, dividing and disrupting the women until they take drastic action.

Kidman and Dunst are outstanding, representing two very different reactions to the intruder. It is precisely presented, even beguiling, but Coppola needs to move on or go deeper.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including war (mostly offscreen), a wounded soldier, an accident, amateur surgery, mutilation, and murder, as well as sexual references and a situation, alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did McBurney assess the vulnerabilities of each of the women and girls? How does this version reflect our era in differing from the original?

If you like this, try: the original version with Clint Eastwood

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Everything, Everything

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medication
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of potentially deadly illness, reference to sad death, domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017

Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
“Everything, Everything,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, is an updated fairy tale about a princess trapped in a castle and the prince who does not exactly rescue her but gives her a reason to rescue herself.

It’s not an enchantment or a curse that keeps her inside. It’s an illness that means any exposure to bacteria or a virus could be fatal. Maddy (Amandla Stenberg, Rue in “The Hunger Games”) cannot remember a time when she was allowed to be outdoors.

Diagnosed at 2 with the immune deficiency SCID, Maddy lives in an irradiated and sterile environment. She has never left her home and has never met anyone other than her doctor mother (Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo). She has books, she has an exercise machine, she has 100 identical white t-shirts, and she has an online SCID support group. She and her mother watch movies and play phonetic scrabble. Maddy studies architecture and builds model rooms, placing the figure of an astronaut in each one. This avatar is her opposite. Her world is measured in square feet; the astronaut’s is unlimited.

Maddy stands at the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the backyard and imagines what it would feel like to stand on grass or feel a breeze of unfiltered air. And she has a seat in the corner of her bedroom overlooking the house next door, which is how she peers down at a new family moving in, a new family with a boy who has a beautiful smile. He is Olly (Nick Robinson of “Kings of Summer”). He draws his phone number on his window opposite her bedroom, and soon they are texting each other, sweetly portrayed as a face-to-face conversation at a table in Maddy’s model diner, with the astronaut looking on. She wears white; he wears black. She says, “When I talk to him, I feel like I’m outside.” But when she talks to him, she wants to go outside. And both of them find their worlds getting less black and white.

The elements of a young teen romantic fantasy are all here, primarily the disapproving parent, the utterly devoted and hunky but not too aggressive young male, adoring and supportive, and the big reason that they cannot get too physical, except maybe one perfect time. In “Twilight,” he was a vampire who could lose control and kill her. Here it’s just his normal human germs. Anyone over the age of 15 may be distracted by impracticalities and plot developments that go from improbable to preposterous, but even people who know that you have to have ID to get on an airplane and money to pay a credit card bill might just enjoy the pleasures of watching Maddy wake up to the world and Olly, through her, wake up to a few of his own.

Parents should know that this film includes risky teen behavior, some strong language, serious illness, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Did Carla make the right decision? Why does Maddy put an astronaut in her model rooms?

If you like this, try: “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Before I Fall” and “The Fault in Our Stars”

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“Gothika Rule” Based on a book Date movie DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Romance

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017
Date Released to DVD: August 7, 2017

Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
Ah, the family car trip. Often excruciating, frequently tedious, always unforgettable. For this third in the “Wimpy Kid” movie series, based on the wildly popular books by Jeff Kinney, the story moves from the schoolyard to the highway as Greg and the Heffley family leave home for his great-grandmother’s birthday party. The kid actors from the first movie have grown up. Remember, one of the characters was played by Chloe Grace Moretz, recently in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” And if that doesn’t make you feel old, consider this: the entire cast has been replaced, with “Clueless” star Alicia Silverstone now playing the mom. Tom Everett Scott takes over the dad role from his “That Thing You Do” co-star Steve Zahn.

The Wimpy Kid stories are funny and reassuring for kids and tweens because they can laugh at and with Greg Heffley (now played by Jason Drucker) as he careens from one excruciatingly disgusting encounter to another, many involving human and animal bodily functions and the products thereof. “I like my family and all,” Greg explains, “I’m just not sure we were meant to live together.”

Greg has a dim older brother named Roderick (Charlie Wright), who mistakes the motel safe for a microwave, subjects Greg to an endless stream of demeaning comments, and explains his secret: “I spent years lowering Mom’s and Dad’s expectations.” He has a toddler younger brother who becomes a rage monster without the pacifier Dad has left behind because what better time to wean him than the road trip? Eventually, they will be joined by another passenger, a baby pig, won by the toddler at a county fair.

Along the way, the family encounters filthy motels, a rude bully Greg terms “Beardo,” and the worst horror of all — a Mom-demanded relinquishment of all devices. “This is an unplugged road trip,” she smiles at the boys. “The only connecting we’re going to do is with each other.” She even forces them to listen to dreadful music like — wait for it — the Spice Girls. And Greg has a secret goal. Trying to overcome public humiliation that has gone viral (“Now I’m a meme!”), he is determined to meet and create a video with his gaming idol at a Comic-Con-style gathering just “two inches on the map” from the party.

The kids in the audience, mostly fans of the book series, enjoyed it very much, but adults are likely to find it a very long haul indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes slapstick comic peril and violence (no one hurt), bodily function humor, and some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why do the worst parts of the trip make the family feel closer together? What was your favorite road trip with the family and why?

If you like this, try: the other “Wimpy Kid” movies and the books and “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, hallucinogen
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense fantasy and human peril and violence, swords, arrows, explosions, torture, fights, characters injured and killed, monsters, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 12, 2017
Date Released to DVD: August 7, 2017

Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers
Director Guy Ritchie pretty much makes the same movie every time. Even when it is set in Victorian England (“Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey, Jr.) or Cold War-era Europe (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“), or based on a classic book (“Sherlock” again) or a remake of an Italian comedy (“Swept Away”), it’s really pretty much about corkscrew story-telling with tricked-up juxtapositions of quick cuts and slow motion, and flashbacks and side-cuts for emphasis and illumination. The characters are a motley crew of cheeky lower-class rapscallions taking on the rich and powerful. They range from wildly proficient to borderline incompetent, often damaged but usually pretty good with a quip, assuming you can understand the argot, and with their own kind of honor.

So, why not take that formula and set it in the Middle Ages, featuring some of the most enduring characters in the Western canon? What’s that, you say? Because it’s already been done by Monty Python? But they were using coconuts for horse clop clop, and we have all this lovely lolly for computers and explosions and fight scenes, that’s why! This begins with a riderless horse running from an exploding building and goes on to include a sort of three-headed mermaid octopus, a gigantic snake, and a therapeutic iowaska-style trip. Plus, of course, that sword gets pulled from the stone.

And that is how we come to have the ponderously, if generically, titled “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword,” pretty far from the essential elements of the Arthurian legend, literally two pie slices short of a round table and no Guinevere or Galahad in sight, but per the title we do get a lot of Excalibur the sword and a bit of Arthur’s dad Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), plus, as noted, a lot of magic and fights and explosions, plus a very cool monster, all of which are a good bit of fun.

As the story begins, the longtime pact between men and mage (magicians) is coming to an end. Uther is King, but his brother Vortigern (Jude Law, lounging menacingly in what looks like disappated British rock star garb) is so jealous that he will destroy what he loves most to get the throne, unleashing the power of the mage, which in this case includes rampaging giant elephants.

Soon Uther and the queen are dead and young Arthur is sent off in a boat, ending up in a brothel, where we see him grow up in a kaleidoscopic flurry of images that show us that he is (1) very buff (ultimately ending up as Charlie Hunnam), (2) very canny at collecting coins, (3) learning how to fight, and (4) very loyal to his friends, including the prostitutes who raised him.

Arthur’s uncle has become king. He rules with fear, which he considers not a necessary evil but the primary benefit of his position. He says it is intoxicating, that it “takes you completely.” In video game fashion, he can only assume total power if he is able to prevent Uther’s true heir from touching Excalibur to some sort of altar and completes the building of a tower. To find and kill Uther’s son, he requires every man of the right age to try to pull the sword. Thus, Arthur is revealed, though he says and possibly means that he never wanted power.

With the help of his rag tag friends from his days on the street and a mysterious mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), Arthur takes on the king and his army of Blackleg soldiers. But this is exactly the problem; the one thing the audience must have in a fight is a good sense of the stakes and challenges. With magic on Arthur’s side, we never know what is really possible. And psychobabble about his not being able to access the full power of the sword until he is willing to confront his painful memories just sounds silly, in part because Hunnam, a true Ritchie not-so-anti-hero, never seems vulnerable enough to need any additional soul-searching.

It is kinetic, fast, and fun to watch, though the rumored prospect of five more in a projected series has me wishing for a mage to make it stop.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/action peril and violence, with explosions, swords, fights, arrows, torture, and monsters. Characters are injured and killed, including beloved parents, children, and spouses. There are scenes in a brothel, sexual references, and characters use some strong language, alcohol, and drugs.

Family discussion: Why does Arthur say he never had any desire for power? How do we know when is it time to face painful memories?

If you like this, try: “Excalibur” and “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Epic/Historical Fantasy Remake
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