Jurassic World: Trying yet again to recapture the magic of Jurassic Park

I’m beginning to think that Jurassic Park was lightning in a bottle.

This weekend, Jurassic World will stomp into theaters like a rampaging T-Rex, the third in a series of heretofore disastrous sequels attempting to recapture the magic of Spielberg’s original dino-masterpiece. But while it comes closer than either of its predecessors to giving me what I wanted in a Jurassic follow-up, it still fell far short of the jaw-dropping wonder of the first film. And after two cringe-worthy sequels and one lukewarm one, I’m starting to wonder if Hollywood should just stop trying.

Lots of Jurassic World winds up feeling like a dull shadow of Jurassic Park, like someone studied the original film, making notes of random plot and character points, and then tweaked them for this movie without considering what purpose they served in the original.

Oil-and-water child siblings shuttled off to spend time with a detached non-parent relative (dressed, inexplicably, all in white) on a remote island filled with dinosaurs? Check.

A rugged, outdoorsy type cautioning the park-runners that they don’t have enough respect for what they’ve created? Check.

A starry-eyed park owner with deep pockets, little sense, and fluffy, sugar-coated idealism? Check.

A dude intent on stealing the dino-technology for his own nefarious and greedy purposes? Check.

A giant, carnivorous dinosaur attacking kids trapped in a vehicle? Check.

A character running from a T-Rex while holding a flare, an oh-crap moment of we’ve-underestimated-the-dinosaurs’-intelligence, a quiet moment with a long-necked herbivore, scientists failing to consider the implications of splicing dinosaur DNA with not-dinosaur DNA, trapped kids being menaced by raptors, an 11th hour out-of-nowhere dino hero moment — check check check check.

And yet, while the Jurassic World filmmakers did not make a bad movie by recycling so much of the original, they really missed the mark on what made it special. Jurassic Park was groundbreaking in its effects, sure, but it was also smart in its storytelling. There were far more forces at work than just Dinos Gone Wild, though that seems to be all the sequels remember.

It had the hubris of man, embodied in John Hammond and Dennis Nedry, trying to force the narrative along according to their will.

It had the pitting of science versus nature, as a paleontologist, a paleobotanist, and a mathematician (chaotician, chaotician) are forced to come face to face with things that, until now, they’ve only been able to study in the abstract.

And underneath it all, chaos. This was the entire point of the Ian Malcolm character — to give voice to the chaos undercutting everything they tried to do. Malcolm was there to point out that no matter how much control humans may think they have, there will always be something they haven’t accounted for, because they can’t. It’s easy to overlook in all the black-leather-Jeff-Goldblum-stuttering-and-swaggering amazingness, but over and over, Malcolm warns the group that the very idea of the park is, in its essence, flawed.

“The kind of control you’re attempting simply is…it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained.”

“The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here staggers me.”

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Interestingly, it’s Ellie Sattler, not Ian Malcolm, who sums up the main conflict of the first film toward the end, in a conversation with John Hammond. “When we have control,” Hammond begins emphatically, envisioning how next time, he’ll be able to open the park without problems — then Ellie interrupts, “You never had control, that’s the illusion!”

And it was this thread — this smart, scientific approach to chaos, to humans being forced to admit they could do nothing but watch as things spiraled out of control, and how each time the humans desperately grasped at a way to pull things back together, something else went wrong, to the point where they ultimately had no choice but to admit defeat and flee the island — that made the first movie so thrilling to watch.

In a film that is universally praised for its groundbreaking effects, it’s easy to assume that the spectacle is what made it great — and three times now, sequels have tried to capitalize on bigger spectacle — but without that slow crumbling of control; without the gradual realization of the humans that, no, there is no mastering what’s gone wrong here, there is only, at best, surviving it; without that underlying, razor-edged tension of  watching characters struggle for better circumstances while knowing, deep down, that things will only get worse, you’re left only with special effects and screams. Which may be visually cool, but it isn’t interesting.

This is Jurassic World‘s main misstep. All throughout, despite the glossy effects and big-budget action, it feels too controlled. Both the park itself, and the structure of the film surrounding it. Even though you have Chris Pratt’s character, Owen, darkly warning Bryce Dallas Howard that they shouldn’t be cooking up their own dinosaurs, it turns out to be a bad idea not because the dinosaur is a dinosaur, and thus unpredictable, but because the dinosaur is smart. And while yes, the raptors in the first film proved to be smarter than the humans thought, it wasn’t their intelligence that made the first film terrifying; it was the idea that the humans have no idea what they’ll do next.

All throughout Jurassic World, the dinosaurs are predictable and controllable. Yes, their Frankensteinian creation winds up getting loose and chomping up people and other dinosaurs left and right, but they can see where it’s going, they can shuttle park attendees around to keep them (mostly) out of harm’s way, and throughout the film they never doubt that if they can just subdue that one dinosaur, everything will be fine again.

As for the other dinosaurs — the ones whose survival instincts trumped every effort of man to control them in the first movie, and became exaggerated monstrous versions of themselves in the second and third — they remained either docile in their cages, or were let out only to do exactly what humans wanted them to do. Sometimes they get a bit out of line (the scamps), but even then, they were really only a threat to people who didn’t take the effort to truly understand them.

If Ian Malcolm had died in the first movie the way he did in the book, Jurassic World would have him rolling over in his grave.

Chris Pratt’s Raptor Gang, while a cool action sequence, totally undercut the entire point of the first movie, which was that no matter how much humans might think they’ve mastered nature, they haven’t. Instead of being unwieldy instruments of chaos, the Jurassic World dinosaurs are tools: pets and weapons and rides and blunt objects. The humans are caricatures of the characters in the first film, and as such, it was hard to invest in any of them outside the main quartet, who — though they spent much of the movie’s 2-hour run time cowering and running and screaming — never felt like they were in any real peril.

Jurassic World is not without its good points. Unlike the last two sequels, there are no cringe-worthy, eye-rolling moments of pure inanity. There are snippets of humor, mostly courtesy of Chris Pratt, who can’t help but have great comedic timing even with a mostly wooden script. There are some amazing effects, and as far as shot-for-shot beauty goes, this is probably the most visually stunning of the bunch. There are some sweet moments between the two kid brothers, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire goes from being stiff and distant to genuinely root-worthy. And though the movie’s spectacular, dino-violence-filled climax is not necessarily shocking, it is still pretty darn fun to watch.

But while the original Jurassic Park felt like intelligent, taut, truly frightening science fiction, Jurassic World is simply a summer popcorn flick, with dinosaurs. It won’t make you think, it won’t scare you, it probably won’t even get your pulse up, aside from a few jump scares. It won’t give you any great one-liners to quote over and over for the next two decades, or any characters who will stick with you like friends. But it will entertain, and make you smile, and give you ample amounts of gorgeous CGI and thrilling action sequences.

And maybe, if the original is lightning in a bottle, that’s the most we can ask of a sequel.

Here’s my Drive Through Movie Review of Jurassic World that we filmed right after seeing the movie, in which I couldn’t quite pull all my thoughts into coherent words yet, but I did try to imagine what a Goldblum-T-Rex hybrid might look like.

Film Review: INSURGENT

This past week I got the opportunity to catch an advance screening of Insurgent, the sequel to last year’s action-packed YA blockbuster Divergent. I’ll be honest, I was on the fence about this one. While I was pleasantly surprised by the first movie, the trailers for the second left me scratching my head. The entire first teaser appeared to be either a dream sequence or a fearscape (one of the drug-induced hallucinations characters in the franchise’s dystopian Chicago face to prove their bravery) — is it a red flag when a movie has to advertise using a scene that has nothing to do with the actual plot? — and the full trailer strongly hinted that the adaptation would be deviating in a big way from the book.

Box? What box? The box isn’t in the book. What’s in the box? (Anyone else unable to read that question in anything other than the traumatized voice of Brad Pitt? Just me?)

But since the first film had exceeded my trailer-based expectations, and since the second book was my favorite of the series, I went into Insurgent with an open mind and cautious hope.

Insurgent opens shortly after Divergent leaves off. Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) have sought refuge in the peaceful Amity compound outside the city limits while they try to determine their next move. Meanwhile, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), head of the Erudite faction, has gotten her hands on the aforementioned Mysterious Box, and is obsessed with finding a Divergent who can open it. Hence Eric (Jai Courtney) is leading a group of Dauntless soldiers around attempting to round up Tris and her ragtag group of rebels.

Obviously, chaos ensues. And continues to ensue for the entirety of Insurgent’s 2-hour running time. Which, if you read the book, is about what you’d expect from its adaptation; neither version of the story is short on action sequences.

However, I did take some issue with the way the action unfolded. In both the book series and the movies, Tris becomes a far more competent soldier and leader in the second installment. But while the book version of Tris also develops a more mature and measured way of thinking and problem solving, even if it means making hard decisions, the movie version did away with that pesky nuance, instead opting to have her lash out violently any time she was placed in a tough situation or in a conversation with someone she didn’t like. This did lead to some fun fight scenes, and yes, I suppose one could argue that it made Tris “strong,” but for me, I would’ve liked a bit more strength of character and a bit less strength of temper and fists.

As a sidebar, it was kinda odd seeing Shailene Woodley in scenes opposite literally all of her previous YA movie love interests. I mean. She’s had a really good past few years professionally, but it’s starting to get weird.

TJ: Divergent is the best.
TJ: I just did. I punch people A LOT in these movies. What did you do in Spectacular Now? Cry?
MT: Not as much as SOME people.
AE: Uh, guys? I’m right here.
AE: I took mine off in Fault In Our Stars. AND my leg.
Shailene Woodley: Hate to break this up, but we’re supposed to be filming an awkward scene with all four of us now, okay? Okay.

As far as acting goes, Insurgent boasts a lot of heavy hitters in the cast, but I felt that a lot of them failed to deliver. While I was surprised by how well both Shailene Woodley and Theo James handled their roles in the first movie (despite my complete inability to buy him as an 18-year-old), in this one, they were lacking for me. Naomi Watts, whom I usually like, was surprisingly unconvincing as [highlight for minor spoiler: Four’s presumed-dead mom — who, despite the fact that she is 16 years Theo James’ senior in real life, only looks about 5 years older on-screen], and Kate Winslet, whom I love and adore, had such an odd over-the-top role to play that even her innate Kate Winslet-ness had trouble saving it. I also had trouble connecting with Ansel Elgort’s character, but I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault, as Caleb isn’t exactly Mr. Personality in the books either. However Miles Teller was a wonderfully pleasant surprise, stealing every scene he was in, and Jai Courtney was a sufficiently menacing baddie. So a bit of a mixed bag, for me.

There were also, as I mentioned before, tons of plot changes, both big and small. As often happens in movie adaptations of books with large casts, many characters’ roles were truncated, given to a different character, or eliminated altogether. Subplots were altered and rearranged. And of course, the Mysterious not-in-the-book Box is the central point around which the entire movie’s plot rotates.

While I am not a book purist when it comes to film adaptations — I mean, I thought the Hobbit trilogy was great fun, fanfictiony and ridiculous though it was — I do wish that the filmmakers had taken a little more care to make their Big Changes actually make sense. The logic behind the Mysterious Box is frail at best, a theme that carries through a lot of the narrative choices in the movie.

Characters fight to the death over a misunderstanding that is later cleared up with a single sentence. Characters are shown in no-hope-of-escape scenarios in one scene and then happy as a clam back at their home base in the next, with no explanation how they got there. Bad guys hatch elaborate plots, then they unfold using set pieces put in place before the plot was hatched.

Basically, abandon hope, all ye who seek logic here.

However I don’t want to come across as a big ol’ downer telling you to avoid this movie at all costs. There are some great fight sequences, and anyone hoping to see Shailene Woodley kicking some serious bad-guy booty will be over the moon. There are some huge — albeit a bit video gamey — nifty CGI sequences. There is some surprisingly great comic relief in the form of Miles Teller, whose character I absolutely loathed in the book but kind of adored in the movie. And if Tris and Four (whose shipper name I don’t know, but if it’s anything other than FourTris, which would clearly be pronounced fortress, I quit) are your jam, then you’re in for a treat, as the romance is definitely amped up from the book.

Ultimately, my thoughts on this movie are that if you’re okay with the movie being its own, separate-from-the-book thing, or if you’re there for the action, for the romance, for the high-stakes adrenaline-pumping pace, or for the futuristic dystopian setting, you’ll probably really enjoy it.

If you’re more about tight storytelling and source material faithfulness, this may not be the film for you — or you just need to go in knowing not to place too high a value on those things.

No matter what, if you decide to check out Insurgent at the theater, I hope you have fun, and I’d love to know your thoughts!

Check out the video below for the Drive Through Movie Review Clint Redwine and I filmed after exiting the theater, in which I say “like” way too much, coin the term “Bovine Dystopia,” and do a bad impression of Caleb running. You’re welcome, Internet.

Nutshell Film Reviews: Ender’s Game, The Book Thief, Catching Fire

I have been a bad blogger lately. I’ve been reading good books and seeing good movies, yet my reviews are few and far between. I blame this on the holidays, and writing, and critiquing, and children, and travel, and the Internet, and Netflix, and queso. Since none of these things are going away any time soon (*whispers I love you queso*) I figure it’s best not to stress about it, and to give you what reviews I can, when I can.

Because really, I know you’re all waiting with bated breath to hear what I think before you decide what book or movie to see next. Right?

(And as a general reminder, reviews from me are also a bit sporadic because I only review what I can also recommend. So I’m reading more books than I’m writing about. Thankfully not a lot more — since life is too short to read bad books — but still, more.)

Anywho, I had lofty plans to write detailed reviews on each of the book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen in the theaters recently, but alas, I just don’t think that’s going to happen. So instead, you’re going to get three mini-reviews, and you’re going to like it.

Okay, maybe you won’t like it. That’s really not up to me. Sorry, got a bit presumptuous there.

The three films I’m going to be talking about are vastly different, their only common denominator that they are all based on books written for young adults, and that they are all books I really enjoyed. They are Ender’s Game (novel by Orson Scott Card), The Book Thief (novel by Markus Zusak), and Catching Fire (novel by Suzanne Collins).

Before I get into the individual reviews, let me mention a few of my opinions that apply to all three movies. First, I found the casting brilliant in all of them (with a couple very minor exceptions) and the acting superb. Even when an actor didn’t look like how I pictured a character from the book, their embodiment of their character more than made up for it. I tend to be pretty forgiving when it comes to actors physically matching character descriptions anyway — to me, the feel of a character is far more important than whether they have the “correct” hair or eye color — but even if I was more of a physical purist, I think I could have forgiven most of the times when casting drifted significantly from the way a character was described in the book, simply because the actor was the character.

I also thought the effects in each film were fabulous. Granted, they were certainly more noticeable in Ender’s space-and-explosions setting than in the historical town of The Book Thief, but none of them had effects that made me roll my eyes or felt at all cheesy. The effects were well-integrated and appropriate, and really helped bring each world to life.

Also, each film had a fantastic score. I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack, and I thought all three of these soundtracks perfectly accompanied the stories being told. Book Thief‘s was simple and haunting, Ender‘s was tense and epic, and Catching Fire’s seamlessly wove between the over-the-top anthems of the Capitol, and the subtler, more intimate melodies of the Districts. All three scores were beautiful, and I’ve already added Ender to my writing playlist.

Okay. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the films themselves.

Ender’s Game

I really, really enjoyed this film adaptation, but after talking to other friends who have seen it who have and have not read the book, I’m willing to admit that it’s possible that this film will appeal far more to those who come into the movie already familiar with the story. The movie made some significant changes to the book, streamlining the complex and nuanced narrative down to its core elements to fit into a 2-hour film, and either truncates or eliminates many of the subplots that give the story its texture. So while I don’t think the movie would have confused someone new to the story, it may not have resonated as much with them. Most of Ender’s internal struggle as he adjusts to Battle School is only hinted at, and we lose almost all of the back story of him and his siblings, which sheds significantly more light on his character. The Mind Game that Ender plays, through which his commanding officers are psychologically evaluating him, also only gets a brief scene, as opposed to being a common thread running all throughout the story. In addition, I could have used at least one or two more Battle Room sequences, where Ender is honing his command style, because that would have really helped the audience understand how his brain works, and why the adults in the movie have so much faith in him. (Plus, Battle Room sequences were my favorite parts of the book and the movie, so I could have happily sat through another half hour of them at least.)

That said, there were other changes I was totally fine with. For example, Book!Ender is probably a good 5+ years younger than Movie!Ender, and this pretty much applies across the board to all the kids. Truthfully, if they’d kept the characters elementary-aged prodigies like they are in the book, it would have been nearly impossible to find child actors who could portray them accurately. They also changed the gender/race of several of the adult characters, and/or combined multiple characters into one, and I thought it worked really well. Also, they updated the graphics Ender and his jeesh see on their displays (the book came out in the ’80s, and as such, has ’80s-era graphics notions), for which I was highly grateful.

The one casting decision I was a little torn on was the character of Bonzo Madrid. The actor was a perfect Bonzo — seriously, I can’t imagine anyone playing his personality better — but by casting a kid who was smaller than Ender, it didn’t seem like quite so much of a David-and-Goliath situation, and therefore didn’t evoke the same kind of tension that their relationship evokes in the book.

However, I still thought Ender’s Game was a great adaptation of one of my favorite books, and that even though it at times felt a bit rushed, it’s still a wonderful story that was amazing to see brought to life on the big screen. If you’re a fan of the book, try to catch it in theaters. If not, it’s worth checking out on Redbox or Netflix in a few months.

The Book Thief

I spent this entire movie in awe of how perfectly it captured the spirit of the book. Even the feel of the book — the drifting, hazy quality that comes from having Death as the narrator — translated to the film. I know I already mentioned that I was a fan of the casting, but I need to give a special shout-out to Sophie Nélisse, who plays Liesel. She was absolutely stunning in the role, and I hope to see her in many, many more films in the future.

There were some minor changes and a few parts missing from the book, but I didn’t miss any of them as I was watching. It was only after leaving the theater and discussing it further that I realized changes had been made. The experience of watching the movie was riveting and immersive, and I was moved to tears over and over (seriously, bring tissues). Each moment of the film felt purposeful and thoughtful, and I have to believe that the writer, director, and cast must be devoted fans of the book to have translated its essence to film so beautifully.

While some events of the book were streamlined or skipped, the movie never felt rushed. The plot was extremely easy to follow, and each of the characters developed wonderfully well. I went to see the film with a friend who had never read the book, and she also adored the movie, so while I still absolutely recommend everyone reads the book, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoy the film.

Bottom line, I thought The Book Thief was a thoughtful, moving, beautiful film that will both satisfy fans of the book and enthrall new fans. It’s adapted from a YA novel, but I believe it will appeal to viewers of all ages, from early teens to great-grandparents. And while it tells about one of the darkest times in human history, it does so in a manner that is sensitive and quietly uplifting without becoming saccharine. It recently opened in wide release, so go look up showtimes and get thee to a theater.

And again. Tissues. I cannot stress this enough.

Catching Fire

I’m going to preface this with the obvious: Catching Fire is a sequel to The Hunger Games, so if you haven’t seen the first one, you should probably do so before you see the second.

THAT SAID! If you saw the first one and weren’t pleased with the deviations from the book, or the extensive use of shaky cam, this one is so much better. (Disclaimer: I really liked the first Hunger Games movie, but I can see why some didn’t.) And if you did like the first movie, prepare to love the sequel.

Catching Fire takes all the best parts of The Hunger Games — the excellent cast, the glorious and appalling extravagance of the Capitol, the musical themes, the visceral sense of the Games — and takes them up a notch, in addition to fixing most of the problems with the first film. Gone is the nausea-inducing shaky cam, the significant changes from the book for the sake of action or shock value.

This film relies far less on putting the viewer in the Games, and more on making the viewer feel Katniss’ and Peeta’s gamut of emotions as they are flung back into a fight for survival. While the first film definitely wrung a few tears from me, I was a mess for most of Catching Fire. Secondary characters that I enjoyed in the first movie — Haymitch, Effie, Cinna — are fleshed out and humanized in this one, and we also are introduced to two of my favorite series characters, Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason.

Again, I know I already mentioned casting, but I need to give a shout-out to Sam Claflin and Jena Malone, who portrayed Finnick and Johanna, respectively, because they were perfect. Neither of them is who I pictured when reading the books, but I can’t imagine anyone doing more justice to the characters. Their scenes were my favorites in a movie full of amazing moments (which is doubly saying something, since Peeta Mellark is one of my favorite fictional characters ever).

Catching Fire is my favorite book in the Hunger Games trilogy, not only because of the amazing characters, but because I like how it digs deeper into the turbulent climate of Panem, and how while we do get a second set of Games, how we experience them is totally different. This time, Katniss is not a lone wolf, but a member of a team. This time, it’s not children in the arena, but adults. And this time, although they ostensibly have the same mission, the underlying tone is that they’re fighting for something far greater than survival. And all of this was somehow even more effective in movie form than in book form. I thought this film did a stellar job in driving home the toll the Games take on the Districts, the savage mercilessness of the Capitol, the horror of the tributes and their families, and the psychological trauma that plagues even the “winners” of the Games. And I thought it set up audience expectation going into the third movie (which is going to be painful) masterfully.

My one quibble with the film was that it still harped a little too much on the supposed “love triangle” (which I still maintain does not even exist in the books), which made Katniss more wishy-washy and hormonal than she should be, given the events going on in her life. I think the filmmakers are shooting themselves in the foot, giving themselves an unnecessary uphill battle in pulling off the end of the trilogy convincingly, all in the name of being able to print more “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta” t-shirts. But it’s a minor quibble, and I can overlook it in light of all the other major things the film got so, so right.

Overall, I can honestly say that not only was Catching Fire one of my favorite movies of the year, but one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations ever. It made me laugh, gasp, and cry on more than one occasion (this is another movie where I must stress, bring tissues). My theater burst into spontaneous applause and cheering at several parts. The cast, the visuals, the direction, and the storytelling were all spot-on. I don’t say this often, but the film was, in my opinion, better than the book. If you are a fan of The Hunger Games, whether in book or movie form, Catching Fire does not disappoint. I’ve already seen it twice in theaters, and may need to see it again. It’s that good.


So those are my thoughts on the latest YA book-to-film adaptations, now playing in a theater near you. In non-book-adaptation news, I’ve also seen Thor: The Dark World (twice) and it is also pretty awesome. SO much more of all the things I wanted more of after the first movie (and yes, this includes LOTS more Loki).

Hopefully soon I’ll review some books on here. I spent most of November reading and critiquing friends’ manuscripts (coming down the eventual pipeline to a bookstore near you!), but am now finally caught up and back on the reading-books-currently-on-shelves bandwagon. Right now I’m reading ALLEGIANT, which I’ve managed to NOT SPOIL for myself yet, so please, I know it is polarizing but DON’T TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. Please and thank you.

In the meantime, seen any good movies lately?

Film Review: Les Miserables

I think it’s safe to say that of all the movies released in 2012, Les Misérables was one of the ones I was most anticipating. This is for a few reasons:

1) I love the book

2) It contains my favorite villain of all time

3) I love the musical, and have seen it (I think) five times on stage. I’m not entirely sure. I stopped counting after a bit.

4) The production value looked incredible, like it could finally convey the visual scope of the story along with the emotional scope.

5) Anne Hathaway

After seeing it on Christmas day (and crying for a solid two hours), I came away with mixed feelings. Overall, loved it. I thought it was gorgeous, well-acted, and mostly well-sung. It hit all my emotional buttons, and was one of those movies I wanted to talk about (and did) for hours and days after.

But there were also some places where it fell short. And as a die-hard fan of the musical, I had a hard time just shrugging those things off. And disclaimer: I’m both a lifelong fan and a musician, so I may be drifting into “things no one cares about except me” territory. You’ve been warned.

First off, the casting for this film obviously, with a couple exceptions went in the direction of “well-known actors who can sing,” rather than “well-known singers who can act.”  In some cases, this was fine. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen may not have had the vocal range of their stage counterparts, but their characterization of the Thénardiers (who are pretty much the comic relief of the story, and not the vocal heavy lifters) was so spot-on that I overlooked their “singing.” Then there were surprises like Eddie Redmayne as Marius (I know that his head-shaking vibrato bothered some of my vocal-instructor friends, but I honestly didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out) or Anne Hathaway (who deserves all the awards. All. Of. Them. But more on that later). And Hugh Jackman, who did not have the vocal quality I expect for Valjean (“quality,” in this case, meaning timbre, not excellence), acted the part amazingly and sang it…well. His voice didn’t have the weight or the almost transcendent quality of Colm Wilkinson’s Valjean, but for those who have not had the music memorized for the past twenty years — which, let’s face it, is most of the movie-going audience, and I’m a bit of an anomaly — I don’t think this would be a disappointment.

But in a couple cases, I really, really wish they had gone with seasoned Broadway actors over A-list Hollywood. The main example is Russell Crowe as Javert. Don’t get me wrong, Russell Crowe is a fine actor, but he didn’t do anything acting-wise with the character that a stage actor couldn’t have done, and the singing was just not up to par with what the role requires. Here’s the thing with Javert. His character has this huge presence, both in the show and in Valjean’s life. He carries this tremendous weight of responsibility everywhere he goes, and his songs are meant to convey that. So it’s actually important to the character that he has a strong, solid baritone voice. Having to strain for the notes, or struggle for breath, weakens the character. It’s not just about how it sounds on the recording; I feel the character of Javert was done a disservice by having anyone less than a professional singer try to pull it off. Compare, for example, Russell Crowe singing “Stars” to Philip Quast (who many consider the definitive Javert) on the same song, and notice how much more gravity Quast’s version has. And as Javert is normally my favorite role in Les Mis, and has my favorite songs, having to hear Crowe sing out-of-breath and through his nose was…a disappointment.

And then there was Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, who had the look and the range, but not the support. I’m not sure if hers was a problem of casting, or just a casualty of the decision to film all the singing live. I think she would be highly benefited from a studio recording and some heavy filters. She also had kind of a Snow White vibrato, which can get grating after a bit. But this didn’t bother me as much, because honestly, Cosette isn’t anyone’s favorite character.

loved Samantha Barks’ Eponine and Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras. These are both Broadway actors who were cast in principal supporting roles, and both were amazing. I thought they may have actually been holding back a bit so as not to stick out compared to the Hollywood actors, but any time either of them opened their mouths, I was transfixed. Enjolras is my second-favorite Les Mis character, and Tveit seriously broke my heart with his conviction. Actually, all the scenes with the students made me have ALL THE FEELINGS. Probably because the students were, again, cast with stage actors instead of movie actors.

Let’s talk for a moment about Anne Hathaway. She is the huge, glaring exception to the “they should have cast singers” feel I have about this. Because she was amazing. And really, she sang her songs beautifully. She’s on screen for maybe 15 minutes, but they were the 15 minutes that stole the film. She did Fantine’s signature song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” (which you may remember from the trailer) in one take, in extreme close-up, and it’s phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it on film, or stage, and she deserves every award she’s nominated for. Heck, they should dream up some new awards and give them to her, just so she can have more awards. She’s that good.

Okay, getting off casting, let’s talk about the production. It’s gorgeous, in the way that “gorgeous” can sometimes mean “disgusting.” I mean, Les Misérables is very appropriately titled. Most of the characters are, indeed, miserable. So there are some truly terrible settings: the shipyard where Valjean is incarcerated, the Thénardiers’ run-down inn, the docks teeming with bottom-dollar prostitutes, the sewers, the bloody barricade. So while some places, like the church where Valjean gets his second chance, or the garden where Cosette meets Marius, are objectively beautiful settings, most of the film is in a much grittier world. But the grit is so artistic and real that it’s also beautiful.

And as far as the emotion and the story-telling, Les Mis succeeded. Beyond succeeded. It really told this amazing story, spanning both cities and decades, wonderfully well. It broke my heart again and again and again (which is what I was expecting — this is not exactly a “pick-me-up” kind of show). I started crying at the first scene between Valjean and the Bishop (probably less than 15 minutes into the movie) and did not stop until the end.

They changed some things from the stage show. Some songs were cut entirely, nearly every song was truncated in some way and much of the transitional music was eliminated (it was done well, though, and unless you have the show memorized, you won’t notice). The order of a couple songs was changed around, and at the end, they eliminated a character from the final song (it works). But it all worked for the film, and the story, and even as a musical purist, I didn’t have any problems with it.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this movie to both lifelong fans of the story or musical, or those who are new to it. It’s amazing. Yes, you have to overlook some “meh” singing, but really that turns out to be a little thing in the overall scope of the film. If you’ve been on the fence about this one, go see it. You’ll be glad you did.

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I’ve been trying to persuade my husband that he wants to go with me to see The Amazing Spider-Man ever since I first saw the trailer back in the spring. Look, here, I’ll show you.

Pretty awesome looking, right? But no. He said it looked “fine,” but he wasn’t all that into the idea of a reboot of Spider-Man so soon after the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire versions. *sigh* So I resigned myself to having to wait to DVD.

Then I changed my mind and decided to go see it with a girlfriend whose husband was being equally ridiculous. We were in the theater with a bunch of teenage boys, and THAT WAS JUST FINE.

Guys, this movie rocks. And here’s why. [WARNING: Spoilers ahead from the COMIC BOOKS. So if you’re not a nerd like me and don’t know what happens in the comics, and you don’t want to find out, you may want to skip this review.]

Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker


Don’t get me wrong, I thought Tobey did a fine job as Peter back in the day. But Andrew Garfield was Peter Parker. He really embodied the character, making me completely buy him as the witty, introverted, awkward boy genius. But I also bought him as the tortured and conflicted  vigilante. He wasn’t just some masked superhero that takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. He was a kid, he made mistakes, and he got thoroughly beaten up several times — and then actually acted like he was sore afterwards.

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy

Okay, now I know that Gwen Stacy was not actually Peter’s high school girlfriend in the comics. She was his college girlfriend. But at least this interpretation is closer to the source material than having Mary Jane as his high school girlfriend. And honestly, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane are the only two of Spidey’s girlfriends I’m interested in seeing portrayed on the big screen anyway. No one really cares about seeing Peter moon after Liz Allan.

And Emma Stone was a fabulous Gwen Stacy. She was sweet and smart and feisty, and Gwen and Peter together lit up the screen. They were adorable and lovable. Plus, she actually served a key purpose in the film, and was not relegated to playing the damsel in distress.

The only problem with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy was that the bar has now been set too high, so if they decide to go ahead with the death of Gwen Stacy later in this franchise (because we all know Gwen Stacy eventually dies, right?), I have no idea who they could cast to play Mary Jane that I would like more than Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.

Unless they somehow manage to get Emma Watson (which would be fitting, given the last name and all). I could probably like an Emma Watson MJ more than an Emma Stone Gwen Stacy. I think.

Oh well, maybe they just won’t kill her. Although that would be weird.

Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard

Okay, the villain of the movie, The Lizard, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It was the same problem I had with Doc Oc in Spider-Man 2. You have a brilliant scientist, take something important away from him which causes him to do something rash, and he inadvertently transforms himself into a monster with a totally different personality. It’s that last part I have a problem with, and I know that part of the problem is that comic book villains tend to be kind of one-dimensional while they’re in their villain persona. But seriously, why would their personalities change once they give themselves all these unexpected new powers? And then why would they revert back later? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So while I really liked Rhys Ifans’ performance as Dr. Connors and felt he was sympathetic, conflicted and understandable, I lost that feeling whenever he completely transformed into The Lizard. He just turned into a patently evil comic book character bent on destruction (there is a small effort made to rationalize it by him saying he thinks he’s giving humanity a “gift,” but I’m not sure how he uses that to rationalize the occupied cars he decides to randomly hurl off a bridge).

BUT, this is no worse offense than every other superhero movie ever. It’s the Case of the Too-Evil Villain, and it needs a cure. But until then, I’m not going to let it ruin superhero movies for me, so I just accept it for what it is and move on.

Also, and I realize that The Lizard looks ridiculous in the comics too, but I could have done without the giant Joker-smile. But again. Small gripe.


Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May

I loved the relationship between Peter, Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Of course, I love Martin Sheen in pretty much everything (have ever since The West Wing), so it’s possible that colored my judgement a bit. But I loved their interactions with each other and with Peter, especially after he’s been bitten and is trying to get a handle on his new powers (or, in the case of the above picture, metabolism).

And yes, I cried when Uncle Ben died. I cried in the 2002 version when Uncle Ben died too. I WILL ALWAYS CRY WHEN UNCLE BEN DIES.

But I will say, I felt his death more in this movie, because you actually see it all happen (if you’ll recall, in the ’02 version, his injury occurs off-screen and Peter finds him right as he’s taking his final breaths). And Peter’s reaction is heartbreaking.

Then his relationship with Sally Field’s Aunt May for the rest of the film is in turns tender and frustrating (on purpose) as she grieves Ben while trying to figure out what Peter’s keeping from her. They have a moment right at the end of the film that broke my heart just a little. Peter’s Aunt and Uncle aren’t a giant part of the film, but I really enjoyed what they brought to it.

The Action

It was great. I saw the film in 2D, and although I definitely noticed parts that were probably included for the sole purpose of making the 3D version awesome, I didn’t feel like I missed anything (3D gives me a headache and costs too much).

The Spider-Man swinging through NYC scenes were well done — you really got a sense of gravity and momentum, and it wasn’t just like he was flying safely through the city. You got the feeling that if he miscalculated, he could fall at any time, and it actually made me a little nervous watching him, because he was being so reckless. But it was a good nervous.

The fighting and effects were on par with what you’d expect from a big-budget summer action movie. Well-coordinated, entertaining, exciting.

The Writing

Aside from my problem with The Lizard being too one-dimensional, I thought the writing was solid. Spidey was clever and quippy, just as I’d expect him to be. The science behind the origin story was slightly glossed over, but still solid (as far as comic-book science is ever solid). But all the character development and dialogue was well done, and that’s the important thing.

The only other big problem I had with it is that at one point, The Lizard does something to UP THE STAKES and we brace ourselves for EVEN MORE DESTRUCTION…then nothing comes from it. Kind of makes me wonder what the point of upping the stakes was in the first place.

Little Things I Loved

  • Peter’s accidental first fight, where he has superpowers but no idea what to do with them and ends up beating up a crowd of thugs, while apologizing profusely the entire time and looking mortified at the end.
  • Flash Thompson. Unlike the ’02 version, The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Flash has some depth. Yes, he’s still a bully, but by the end you can see how he and Peter could eventually become friends. And they also worked in Flash’s love for Spider-Man, which is always amusing.
  • The fact that Peter did, in fact, make his web-shooters, and they were not a side-effect of his mutation (as in the ’02 version). Again, I’m not a stickler for comic accuracy, but I really like that this was included, because it helps underscore just how smart Peter really is.
  • Peter’s reluctant realization that the most practical material to construct his suit out of is spandex.
  • I know it’s cheesy, but I love scenes in superhero movies where the citizens of the city band together to aid the hero in a crucial way. This movie has one of those scenes (and it’s even a payoff from a rescue that Spidey makes earlier in the movie, which was neat), and I’l admit it. I got a little misty.
Parting Thoughts

I loved this reboot. I already had a soft spot in my heart for Andrew Garfield because of The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, but this pretty much sealed the deal. It delivered everything I like in a comic book movie: great action and effects, a likable hero, witty dialogue, high stakes, and a thoughtful interpretation of familiar and beloved characters. If you aren’t sure if this reboot is worth your time, it is.

Grade: A

The Amazing Spider-Man is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.