Monthly Archives: February, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow (2014), directed by Doug Liman


Slick, cowardly Public Relations officer Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is sent to the front lines in a war with alien invaders; when he kills a rare species, its blood initiates a temporal loop that causes Cage to repeat the day endlessly, each time he is killed. He learns more with each repetition, soon meeting a woman (Emily Blunt) who once had the same ability, and who helps guide and train him to use it as a means of combatting the enemy. Ridiculous premise, but well-executed and exciting, leavened frequently with genuine humor. Excellent teaming of an irreverent Cruise with a hard-nosed Blunt. Looking rather like spinning mechanical octopi, the aliens aren’t really a highlight, but then the story isn’t about them anyway. Based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

The Firm (1993), directed by Sydney Pollack


If a novel has an edge — something in the story or in a character that goes against the grain of popular opinion — I typically balk when that element is softened or eliminated entirely in the adaptation. The Firm, directed by Sydney Pollack, is an exception. That it falls into this category cannot be doubted: both the hero, Mitch McDeere, and the story lack the hard edges they had in the book. But, this time, it works. Avoiding the usual Biblical prescription — if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out — screenwriters David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel instead change its shape and color, then remodel the whole face to suit the new configuration.

And yet, on one level, the story is very much the same. Bright, young Mitch McDeere gets an offer he can’t refuse from a small Memphis law firm and is shocked to discover that it’s all too good to be true. The partners (and most of the associates) are criminals and the whole firm has been targeted by the FBI. Either he cooperates with the FBI and discloses confidential client information (which will result in his disbarment) or he does nothing and gets swept up in the inevitable raid (and goes to jail with the rest of them). Or, he begins to wonder, is there a third option? Go any deeper, however, and the stories aren’t at all the same.

I’m tempted to say the book is more realistic and the movie more satisfying (although “realism,” in the thriller genre, is never less than equivocal and “satisfaction” depends, I suppose, on what you like). Perhaps it would be better to say that the book’s grit becomes the movie’s compassion. The book tells us that bad things happen to ambitious people; the movie tells us that bad things happen to good people. In any case, the movie is exceptional.

Tom Cruise plays Mitch, Jeanne Tripplehorn his wife, Abby, and Gene Hackman plays Avery Tolar, Mitch’s mentor in the firm. Their relationship forms a weird triangle (with Abby at the apex) that was not a part of the book, but which is integral to the film’s good guy approach. It was kind of fun to watch book-Mitch sink into the bowels of Bendini, Lambert & Locke; movie-Mitch is more human and easier to identify with, making his plight more dreadful. The triangle — it forms naturally from differences in the plot and the characters — heightens the suspense.

The cast is excellent, and it needed to be. A completely faithful adaptation could have gotten away with character types rather than characters, but this movie needed more. And it gets it, even in the smaller roles: Ed Harris as FBI agent Tarrance, Gary Busey as a private investigator and Holly Hunter as his secretary/assistant/lover, and Hal Holbrook and Wilford Brimley trying to hold down the fort at the firm. These are veteran actors, and they give their roles weight and nuance, bringing the characters to life.

And that’s the big difference here, the way the movie shifts emphasis from plot to people. (Don’t expect the same ending. Like most everything else, it’s similar but different. Both are right — for the stories they’re telling — and neither would have worked if shoehorned into the other.) This is why, though I thoroughly enjoyed the book, that I like the movie better. I like Mitch more, and Abbey, and Avery. But I can see it going the other way for other readers and other viewers. Either way, The Firm is one of the best book/movie tandems out there.

Zero Minus Ten (1997) by Raymond Benson


Benson’s first James Bond book begins in the worst way imaginable, with a training exercise we’re supposed to believe is a real operation, then settles into a story of nuclear threat and corporate intrigue set against the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, finally returning to silliness in the climax. The bad guy pokes fun at villains who devise special means of killing their enemies, then proceeds to do the same thing. Readers who found Ian Fleming’s descriptions of Bond’s gambling (at cards, at golf) too long and detailed will be buried by Benson’s homage, as he plays out a game of mahjong over two chapters and 20 pages.

Both Bond and the book, however, hew closer to Fleming’s than did John Gardner’s, though noticeable and regrettable deviations remain. One of these has to with M (this is the new, female M). Benson goes to some length to position her as a real no-nonsense type, then efficiently undermines her authority by having her recognize Bond as a “loose cannon,” one who can seemingly ignore her direct orders with impugnity. Unlike Gardner, Benson recognizes Bond’s chivalrous attitude toward women, but doesn’t adopt it, his Bond having abandoned all hope of lasting love.

As a spy novel, Zero sounds about right — the plot works like Bond’s “spy kit,” which, though scaled down to fit in the heels of his shoes, contains everything he needs in a pinch — yet as a Bond novel, it is reasonably entertaining. The hope can only be that the series will improve, though as the author’s qualifications for the job include designing software “products” and his tenure as Vice President of the American James Bond 007 Fan Club, this is faint hope indeed.

The Firm (1991) by John Grisham

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This is the story of Mitch McDeere, fresh out of law school, who joins a small Memphis tax firm for the money and the perks, only to discover he should have paid more attention to the fine print, such as the fact that no lawyer has ever the left the firm alive.

It’s a legal mystery-thriller that scores high on the first two elements and about average on the third, which makes it a pretty darn good book. Let’s start at the top.

It isn’t about law, but about lawyers (though Grisham cleverly bases the underlying crime of the novel on the only appealing thing about tax law: the many ways of circumventing it). And it’s mostly about Mitch, the rookie, and how he has to prove with his work ethic and hours that his profession really is as important as medicine. Before long, he’s coming to the office at four in the morning and leaving near midnight. This doesn’t sit too well with his young wife, Abby, but the other wives tell her it’s only temporary; after a year or two, he’ll cut back to 70 hours a week or so, and might even take Sunday off. Might.

Grisham, the lawyer, makes all of this fun: the poor, hungry kid trying to make an impression; the solicitous partners; the friendly associates. You know something bad is going to happen to Mitch, and it’s almost funny watching his ambition and greed lead him deeper into the deception of Bendini, Lambert & Locke.

The mystery, of course, is the firm itself, which is sort of like a mini-Stepford. Why does the firm hire only married lawyers straight out of law school, and why only men? Why does it “encourage” children? On the darker side, what about those portraits in the library, the ones of the dead lawyers? How come no one has ever left the firm? The answers aren’t as pleasurable as the suspense (they rarely are), but for all its activity and camaraderie, it’s a creepy place and a good setting.

If Grisham had been an FBI agent instead of a lawyer, I might have liked the “law” a little less and the action a little more, and maybe it would have evened out. That said, Grisham handles the action reasonably well. Yes, Mitch is too smart and yes, the bad guys and the “Fibbies” aren’t always smart enough, but the author avoids some of the most egregious clichés that plague this type of story. To give just one example, remarkably few people die once Mitch joins the firm. Favoring suspense over fisticuffs works very well here. One of the book’s most exciting scenes involves one of the partners, two women, and a copier.

The Firm was a bestseller and that isn’t always a compliment. But in this case, it is. It’s solid entertainment from beginning to end.

The Disembodied (1957), directed by Walter Grauman


Decent low-budget affair set in the African jungle.  Sultry Allison Hayes plays Tonda, a “voodoo queen” who would rather have the young and handsome leader of a passing expedition than her much older doctor husband.  The voodoo rites aren’t as compelling as those in I Walked With a Zombie, but, like the entire film, they aren’t that bad, either.  One poor native woman loses her husband twice.  Definitely worth a look for fans of classic, low-budget horror.

Carrie x 4

Carrie“I’ve heard rumblings about a Carrie remake….Who knows if it will happen? The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not Casablanca, or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book.” – Stephen King, as quoted in Entertainment Weekly, May 2011

Of course, King knows why, and the 2013 remake, directed by Kimberly Peirce, didn’t disappoint: after recouping its $30M budget, it went on to make an additional $50M worldwide. But he was right to question the remake’s necessity. Brian De Palma’s 1976 original is one of the best horror films ever made. And since, as King points out, it already tops the book, what remained to be done?

In fact, the book is an effective pot-boiler, but nothing more. In this sense, it was a perfect candidate for adaptation. That is, by someone who understands the implications of adapting a book like this. Brian De Palma did. But the producers of the remake, who evidently let it be known that the new script would be “more faithful” to the novel, clearly did not. It isn’t the kind of novel one should be “faithful” to; it is the kind of novel one should use as a springboard to something better.

And what is “more faithful” anyway? The new film begins with Carrie’s birth. Just as in the book, Carrie’s mom, Margaret, gives birth all by herself: she doesn’t hold with modern medicine and she certainly has no friends. On top of that, I think she’s still hoping the baby will turn out to be some weird tumor she can toss in the garbage along with the sin that produced it. But, no, it’s a baby, all right, and though she tries to kill it, she can’t bring herself to do it.

Carrie1976Now, in the book, the police find her hours later, exhausted, and with little Carrie at her breast. It was a battle, one that Margaret lost. In the movie, she goes soft on the little thing and cuddles her. It is the beginning of a strange new element in the story: Margaret’s “love” for Carrie. I suppose the Lord of Faithful Adaptations giveth with one hand, only to taketh away with the other.

It does, however, tell you what you need to know about the remake’s definition of “faithful”: if a scene in the book is violent, it will try to include it.

To its detriment, it reproduces the vengeful side of Carrie’s personality. One of the reasons the original works so well is that De Palma (and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen) tossed most of that aside and focused on the girl, not the avenging angel. I enjoy watching Clint Eastwood wipe out the bad guys in all those “man with no name” movies, but that’s because the bad guys are evil and they are adults. As King has one of Carrie’s classmates point out in the book, we aren’t dealing with adults here, we’re dealing with kids. (She repeats this several times.) One or two of these kids might be evil, but the rest are just…kids. What this means is that, while we might sympathize with what Carrie thinks she would like to do to them, we can’t sympathize with her actually doing it. (I saw a question in a Goodreads group about Carrie: “did you cheer her on?” Good Lord, I hope not. She kills scores of kids, the great crime of most of whom was probably nothing more than that they ignored her.) It’s a subtlety that is lost on Peirce; consequently, we never feel for Carrie the way we did in the original film.

Carrie 2002It isn’t for lack of trying on the part of the actors. While I certainly wouldn’t put Chloë Grace Moretz in Sissy Spacek’s league, she does well in the title role, and some of her scenes with Ansel Elgort, as Tommy Ross, the boy who takes Carrie to the prom, are quite sweet. But this is another thing De Palma had going for him: a killer cast: Piper Laurie (who, King said, “really got her teeth into the bad-mom thing”), William Katt (the embodiment of the All-American boy), Amy Irving, Nancy Allen (much more believable than Portia Doubleday as the girl who can “take her pick” of prom dates), and John Travolta (who does something extraordinary, playing both parts of his bad boy role, coming across as bad, yes, but also as a boy).

In 2002, television got into the act with its own Carrie adaptation. This one stars Angela Bettis as Carrie. (You might remember her as another eponymous character, from another film released the same year — May.)

The oddest thing about this adaptation, which in other respects is probably as good as the 2013 remake, is the ending: Carrie doesn’t die. Why? Because the film was originally intended as a pilot for a TV series. I don’t consider this a spoiler, because it’s really nothing more than a tacked-on ending setting up a series that, thankfully, never happened. According to the Stephen King Wiki, it was supposed to be about how Carrie moves to Florida to “help others with telekinetic problems.”

Carrie2013The reason to watch this one, if you like King’s book, is that it is the only adaptation to try to recreate the novel’s documentary approach. It begins with Sue Snell — the girl who convinces her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom — being interrogated by the police. This is a couple of weeks after the disaster. Other interrogations follow periodically throughout the movie.

The other reason to see it is that it is also the only adaptation to depict the devastation that Carrie wreaks upon the town at the end. The other movies show what she does to the school and a gas station, but as any reader of the book knows, Carrie didn’t stop there. Neither does this movie.

These two elements more or less cancel out a bizarre twist at the end that was also probably dictated by the proposed series, but which I won’t reveal, other than to say that it manages to walk Carrie’s character right down the middle of the road, between “innocent” schoolgirl and vengeful spirit.

Book: ♦♦♦
1976 Film: ♦♦♦♦♦
2002 Telefilm: ♦♦½
2013 Film: ♦♦½

While I agree with Stephen King, I think that it can be said that De Palma’s Carrie is definitely one of the Casablancas of horror film.

Left Behind (2014), directed by Vic Armstrong


Slack and severely underwritten story about several uninteresting sinners who, on the day of the Biblical Rapture, are left behind while millions of others from all around the world simply vanish. One man believes aliens are behind the disappearances, and for all the evidence in the film of God’s involvement (there is none), he might as well be right. Nicolas Cage is Rayford Steele, an airline pilot and adulterer, who may or may not make it back to New York after his plane is damaged during a flight to London. Meanwhile, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), his religion-hating college-age daughter, tries to cope with the loss of her mother and younger brother in a world rapidly descending into chaos. Based on the first book in the 16-volume series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and that’s about what this film feels like: 1/16th of a complete story. With a diffuse and inept script, forgettable acting, and an unimaginative effort behind the camera by Vic Armstrong.

Sphinx (1979) by Robin Cook


Perhaps this was Robin Cook’s thinking:

“Egypt” = Sphinx
“Sphinx” = riddle
“Riddle” = mystery
Sphinx = mystery in Egypt.

In any case, no sphinx figures into the plot of this novel, but it is an Egyptological mystery/thriller.

Young, beautiful Egyptologist Erica Baron, while on a sort of working vacation in Egypt, unexpectedly gets taken into the confidence of a black market antiquities dealer. The dealer shows her a fabulous statue of Seti I, a New Kingdom Pharoah who ruled shortly after Tutankhamen, that doesn’t officially exist and which hints at still more treasure from an undiscovered tomb. When the dealer is murdered and the statue stolen, Erica finds herself drawn into a world of black market intrigue and treasure hunting.

This is Cook’s followup to Coma. For both, he chooses a female protagonist, then undercuts her authority by hinging the plot on her physical beauty. In Coma, the heroine was only able to pursue her research into strange coma cases at a Boston hospital because her boss had the hots for her. Here, Erica remains alive not because of her decision-making skills (extremely poor), fighting prowess (she has none), or her academic credentials (which actually make her more of a threat), but simply because not one but two men find her irresistibly attractive. (The total number is, in fact, four, but one of the other two men wants her to leave Egypt and the other is merely a lackey.) And so, with each new turn of the plot, instead of heading toward increasing excitement, the story explores new avenues of absurdity.

The lure is Ancient Egypt, but this isn’t like a Dan Brown novel, in which art and architecture take center stage. For Cook, its all merely an exotic backdrop for…well, Cook can’t really decide what it’s for. Romance? The black market? A treasure hunt? It’s all three. Sphinx is a prime example of the pejorative definition of “bestseller”: shallow, titillating, and superficially exciting.

The titillating part (this was published in 1979) is Erica herself, and her romantic relationships. You might think that because this is set in the land of the great pyramids, the fact that Erica finds herself at the apex of a romantic triangle is thematically or metaphorically significant, but I can tell you that Cook doesn’t operate on that level. No, he sticks to the basics, giving Erica a choice between a tough ladies man and a sensitive intellectual. Almost forgotten in all this is her doctor boyfriend, who gets to say what we’re all thinking — darling, you’re an Egyptologist, not a super-spy — but who then proves what an ass he is by denigrating Erica’s professional aspirations. During the course of the book, Erica has an opportunity to sleep with all three, but I’m thinking you only need one guess to figure out which one she picks.

Cooks opens the book with a quotation from Herodotus: “Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works that defy description.” Because this novel barely describes any of these wonders (real or imagined), I will close this review with another quotation, this one from one of Herodotus’ critics, substituting only the proper name: “Though we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of Cook having been in Egypt, it must be said that his narrative bears little witness to it.”

King Kong (2005), directed by Peter Jackson


Wow. If you like monsters and creepy-crawlies, it doesn’t get any better than this. I can imagine better. I’d like to see a bunch of people trapped behind the wall of Skull Island without all the modern hardware. But that movie hasn’t yet been made, so this one, with one incredible effect after another, will have to do.

But there’s a catch: you have to sit through everything else.

Peter Jackson whips open a big can of serious when a teenage kid on board the ship headed for Skull Island figures out that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and this movie) “isn’t an adventure story.” Regarding King Kong, the kid’s right…and wrong. It is an adventure story, just not a very good one.

This conceit — no, let’s be clear: this disingenuous conceit — kills the rest of the movie. The long opening in New York could have been fun (especially being a period film of the 1930s), but it isn’t, much, because of all the “character building” scenes. That means sadness, and tragedy, and desperation — those all too transparent triggers that are supposed to make us care about these people. As if we’re really going to be watching them when the creatures come out.

The main reason for the kid’s “not an adventure” line is Jackson’s interpretation of the island natives, which comes off as something from a different movie altogether. Its ugliness, squalor, and brutality might in some ways mirror what lies on the other side of the wall, but it does so mockingly, as if to say, how can you shrink from one and thrill to the other? (Perhaps — and I’m just guessing here — because very little of the film’s $207M budget went to cracking a man’s skull open with a club.)

The return to New York for the third act is undercut by some high-grade silliness, as when Kong, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in hand, frolics on a frozen pond. In isolation, it’s cute, but it has no business in the middle of a massive ape-hunt. Watching this, and the preceding scene, I was reminded of Chuck Norris’ line before a recent Superbowl. To paraphrase, New York is the city that never sleeps — unless Kong tells it to. Then it goes deathly quiet to allow a little quality time for Kong and his gal.

This Kong is a mix of the previous two: definitely a beast (personally I think he would have snapped Ann’s neck the way he treats her initially), but also very “human.” His range of expression here, of course, is by far the greatest, but I have to admit that I still prefer the original, who wasn’t always begging for our sympathy. That said, one very funny and touching scene has Kong giving Ann the cold shoulder after suffering mightily to retrieve her when she runs away into the dreadful jungle.

The other characters, all Jackson’s effort notwithstanding, have no more depth — maybe less, in some cases — than the ones in the two earlier movies, but the performances are good. Jack Black’s Carl Denham is a good example of how hints of psychological depth can be less convincing sometimes than a solid stereotype. (Of all the films, the only one whose characters I actually like is the first.) And in any case, they hardly matter once they penetrate the jungle.

And that’s it, in brief: the five-star jungle is the reason to see this movie. The two-star story is the price you pay to do it.

King Kong (1976), directed by John Guillermin


Though both films follow the same narrative arc, the spirit of John Guillermin’s King Kong really starts where the original left off, with commercialism and corporate greed taking the place of adventure and heroism. Carl Denham, the brave but reckless moviemaker after the greatest animal picture of all time, is replaced by Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an oil company executive seeking to stick it to Shell and Exxon with the biggest oil strike ever. And perhaps this could have worked, if Wilson was half the hero that Denham was. But instead Jack Driscoll, Denham’s loyal first mate who “goes soft” on Ann Darrow, is himself replaced by Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), an outsider who stows away aboard the ship, and whose function (he’s a primate paleontologist and nature lover) is to show how evil Wilson is, while it’s unlikely he ever cares more about Dwan (Jessica Lange) than Kong. Not that Dwan’s any different: she’s young and naive, but also opportunistic and ambitious. This is a movie every bit as cynical as its poster, which proclaims in bold red letters that it is “the most exciting original motion picture event of all time” (emphasis mine).

I don’t want to give the impression that cynicism has no place in the movies, or even in this movie. It’s weak, toothless cynicism that bothers me. The mistake made here was Jack, specifically making Jack with his noble ideas the hero of the story. He weakens Wilson, who is, after all, the prime mover in all that happens, and he is, in the end, notably ineffectual. He’s a drag on the whole story. And this is the guy we’re supposed to identify with.

Him, or Kong. Kong’s a bunch of props and a guy in an ape suit, but he’s the most human character in the movie. The effects are uneven, but when they work, they’re quite effective, such as when we first see him plowing through the jungle on his way to take Dwan from her matrimonial altar and when, back in his lair, he plays with her and dips her under a waterfall.

But even Kong is weak here. The only other monster he (or anyone) fights is a sadly ridiculous snake and his rampage through the native village is stopped at its very gate. This isn’t Beauty and the Beast, it’s Beauty and the Misunderstood Loner. He’s too human. Making him a giant ape is merely an exercise in excess.

I do like segments of the film and the performances are good. Jessica Lange was criticized for her performance, but she also got handed the movie’s worst dialogue, so she was handicapped to begin with. But it is its own worst enemy, sapping its strength by going in too many directions at once. It does this, ironically, for the same reason Denham, in the original, brought a girl along in the first place — to please the masses. But, according to Denham, everyone wanted to see a pretty girl. Here, Guillermin and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., aren’t trying to unite the audience, they’re trying to please each part of it in their own way.