A Fresh Crop of Movies Based on 2017 Books

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

I wish a bang-up movie would be made from James Joyce’s Ulysses, so I could watch it and no longer feel guilty I’ve never read this nearly 700-page classic. OK, I’m a heretic.

As for lesser works, this same time-saving compulsion makes me glad Paula Hawkins’s new book, Into the Water, is among the 2017 novels being prepped for the tv or the movies. Having seen the film of her so-so debut, The Girl on the Train, I don’t want to spend more than two hours on the new story, if that.

Shayna Murphy in the BookBub Blog has compiled a list of 22 recent books en route to screens large and small. No surprise that Stephen King’s 700+ page Sleeping Beauties, written with his younger son Owen, is on the list, despite tepid reviews. Ditto James Patterson and David Ellis’s Black Book, whose protagonists and plot Kirkus Reviews deemed “more memorable than Patterson’s managed in quite a while.”

I’m delighted that Reese Witherspoon’s production company snapped up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for television. Like her remarkable earlier mystery, Everything I Never Told You, it’s about family secrets under the deceptively placid surface of suburbia. I’m also excited about plans for a movie of Artemis—another futuristic tale by Andy Weir, whose book The Martian translated so effectively to film in 2015—and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, set in our Civil War past, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope Hollywood doesn’t make a hash of them.

Some critics considered Don Winslow’s disappointing book The Force to have been a victim of early interest in making a movie out of it. The characters turned to cardboard and the complexity of his much better The Cartel went out the window. In his story, Manhattan reveals itself to be top-to-bottom corrupt, unbelievably so. And, yes, that movie is coming 3/1/19. Maybe playwright David Mamet can save it.

Two fine literary authors are in the movie mix: Alice McDermott for The Ninth Hour and Jennifer Egan for Manhattan Beach. About this book, Alexandra Schwartz writes that, to Egan, 9/11 felt “like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world” and the new book, set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s, was a backwards look to “what was the beginning of that something.” My book group loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man called Ove, which I didn’t have a chance to read (or see on film), and now a television series is planned for his book, Beartown.

All in all, some tantalizing screen-time coming up.

Weekend Movie Picks: LBJ & Battle of the Sexes

Spanning the short period 1960 to 1973, these two movies are based on real events—political, in the largest sense, and human, with their subjects’ vulnerabilities and strengths on view on a very public stage.

LBJ

LBJ - HarrelsonWoody Harrelson as LBJ? Actually, the Texas actor does a fine job in this eponymous movie written by Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner (trailer). When it comes to the history depicted, this film gets it more right than most, partly because Reiner took the time to read and absorb the Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin histories.

In 1960, LBJ is a genius in the Senate, though he’s profane, even vulgar, the opposite of the Kennedy clan. Johnson won’t say whether he plans to run for president in 1960 because, his aides suggest, “he’s afraid he’ll lose.” Lady Bird (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) overhears and corrects them: “He’s afraid people won’t love him.”

When Jack Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) surprisingly asks the Texan to become his vice president, Johnson accepts. You think it may be as much to tweak Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who obviously loathes him, as anything else. One of the most uncomfortable scenes occurs when he corners Bobby in a door alcove and says, “Bobby, why don’t you like me?”

Johnson never expects this office will be a sure path to the presidency, especially not after a mere thousand days. Seeing how the public loves Jack, and the outpouring of grief after the assassination, he apparently decides the best way to make people love him is to pursue Kennedy’s policy relentlessly. And, thankfully, he did.

That decision brought us new Civil Rights laws, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start—and, tragically, the full-on Vietnam War. (The War just received the full Ken Burns treatment and isn’t touched on much here.) He achieves those programs by continuing his masterful managing of the Senate, personalized here by Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) and Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins).

Though the critics are cool to it, for the accurate history and some fine performances, it’s nevertheless worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 52%; audiences 64%.

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the SexesThis film is much lighter fare, though it certainly has moments of intensity (trailer). Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it shows the lead-up to the famous 1973 tennis match between world number one women’s tennis player Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). You even get a bit of Howard Cosell, though filmmaking magic.

In 1970, women tennis players received far less (about a tenth, I think) prize money than the men, because, as the head of the lawn tennis association explained (Bill Pullman again), women’s tennis is just less interesting. King led a walkout, and the women left the association to form a new league. With Virginia Slims cigarettes as a sponsor, they had their own competitive tour (ironically, none of them smoked), managed by highly entertaining Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) who does.

In that context, Riggs—a hustler and clown, playing tennis costumed as Little Bo Peep, complete with sheep, wearing swim fins, and the like—said he could easily beat the best woman player. “I love women,” he says, “in the kitchen and in the bedroom,” an attitude, unfortunately, newly topical. King takes up the challenge. While she trains, he cavorts.

Home life isn’t simple for either of them. Riggs’s wife has left him, tired of his gambling, and King, though married, has her first lesbian relationship. At the time, public knowledge of that might have destroyed her career.

Emma Stone does a fine job—likeable and focused—and Carell is a believably driven character, teetering on tragedy as comics convey so well.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 84%; audiences 76%.

Columbus

“A lot of today’s Hollywood films don’t have a lot of patience. They sort of expect the audience to get bored really quickly, so they’re like, ‘We’ve got to have an explosion every 10 minutes.’” That was said about the dystopian science-fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049. It’s hard then to imagine how a film like Columbus, the debut film of writer/director Kogonada,  got made at all or that American audiences would sit through it (trailer). I liked it.

Set in Columbus, Indiana, home to an astonishing collection of modernist architecture, the buildings speak to a young city resident, Casey (played by Haley Lu Richardson). She’s been offered a chance to go to Boston to work and study with a prominent woman architect, but has decided to stay where she is, shelving books in the local library. She lives with her mother, recently recovered from a bad meth habit, and is afraid to leave her. They treat each other like thin-shelled eggs that require constant vigilance. She has an admirer at the library (Rory Culkin), who, like her mother, urges her to go.

This stasis changes when she meets Jin (John Cho), the New York-based son of a prominent Korean architecture scholar who suffered a stroke while visiting the town. He’s in the hospital and may never recover consciousness. He and Jin have had a distant relationship and Jin feels little connection now. He wants to get back to his life. The father is probably closer to his long-time assistant (Parker Posey), who, like Casey, has given up her individuality to play a supporting role.

Richardson and Cho bring great depth to their parts, and it’s a pleasure to watch them—indeed, the entire cast—work. There’s not a lot of yelling or acting out. And not one explosion.

The example of Casey, denying herself so much to protect her mother, weighs on Jin, just as his encouragement to follow her dream inspires her. This sounds simple, but the movie never drifts into the banal. The healing power of architecture is often referenced and the Columbus buildings, lit from inside at night or seen from odd angles, are stunningly beautiful. They loom over the characters studying them like benign watchmen. Arty, and satisfying—as Sean P. Means said in the Salt Lake Tribune, “a tender, beautiful gem that should not be overlooked.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 84%.

Weekend Movie Pick: Logan Lucky

Need a 119-minute break from the news headlines? This Steven Soderbergh caper comedy, script by Rebecca Blunt, may be just the thing (trailer). There’s nothing too serious going on (a planned heist at NASCAR’s big Memorial Day weekend race), but the characters are so well-developed and their robbery plot so complicated and devious, your attention is captured from the outset.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, out of work and, if his ex-wife has her way, out of his young daughter’s life. He needs money. He proposes the theft to his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), the serious one, a bartender who lost an arm in Afghanistan. Clyde is reluctant, because he’s convinced every family enterprise is destined for disaster—“the curse of the Logans.” Love how he whips up a martini one-handed to quiet a mouthy British patron (Seth MacFarlane)! Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), a beautician, is in on it too and gets sweet revenge on an irritating client who drives a purple Caddy. See that for yourself.

To pull off this daring crime, the brothers need help. Unfortunately, the one man they know who really knows how to blow a safe is in prison. Part of their plan is to spring him for a day. Daniel Craig plays prisoner Joe Bang, in “a wonderfully wacky, show-stealing turn,” said Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter. Joe insists his two brothers (Jack Quaid and Briain Gleeson) be brought into the plot, and the likelihood of success appears to plummet as these two slouch onto the scene. Prison warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam) is also a treat.

Many funny moments, some relatively subtle. I particularly enjoyed the big race’s opening ceremony, which deployed all the worst excesses of American sports jingoism.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 76%.

Wind River

Wind RiverI know a lot of people who would not like this remarkable movie, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (trailer). If you don’t like violence, you might as well stop reading now. If you oppose hunting, you can stop. If thoughts of a child being lost are too troubling, stop.

But if you want to see a powerful tale about achieving retribution despite the forces aligned against that possibility, you may appreciate Wind River. So many easy mistakes this movie could have made, but didn’t. There was no unconvincing romance, despite the respect and understated chemistry between the main characters. There were no long quasi-editorials about the plight of reservation Indians. The filmmakers show you that. There was no pretending that people simply get over soul-wounds by the next scene. These characters carry their pain with them and it helps shape who they are and what they will do.

What the filmmakers do give you is beautiful, treacherous mountain scenery (the Wind River Indian Reservation is in Wyoming, though the film was shot in Utah), where blizzards are blinding and it’s so cold that breathing can burst a person’s lungs. They give you snowmobiles racing across the fields, forests whose sounds could be branches breaking or a family of stalking cougars.

Best of all, they give you several profound cinematic moments, achieved not when the characters say a lot, but when they say almost nothing. “At times, Sheridan has his characters spell out a little too clearly what they’re thinking and feeling . . . but the words are so beautiful and come from such a place of deep truth, it’s hard not to be moved,” says Christy Lemire in her review for RogerEbert.com.

I don’t want to say too much about the actual story, so as not to take away from your experiencing it fresh. Suffice it to say it’s about the investigation of a murder; it’s about gun culture and drug culture and their inevitable consequences; and it’s about survival. And it’s about loving and safeguarding your children. Once you have them, a father says, “You can’t blink. Not once. Not ever.”

Put everything else aside and concentrate on the fine acting. Jeremy Renner plays the protagonist, fish & wildlife employee Cory Lambert (“I hunt predators”) who has many reasons for trying to solve this killing; Elizabeth Olsen is the FBI agent who learns more in a week in the snow than in her FBI Academy training, that’s for sure; Graham Greene is the laconic, seen-it-all tribal police chief; and Gil Birmingham is the father of the murdered girl.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 86% ; audiences: 92%.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk, Christopher NolanIt would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.

The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.

England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”

In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.

Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.

With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.

In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.

Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%;  Audiences: 83%.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan  The Big Sick is loosely based on the real-life romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who together wrote the script. Directed by Princeton native Michael Showalter (trailer), it puts fresh juice into the romcom genre.

Kumail’s family moved from Pakistan to the Chicago area when he was a child, in part to give him a better life. What they gave him was an American life. While his parents (played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) expect religious devotion,  marriage to a Pakistani girl, and a professional career, he’s become perhaps too assimilated—secular, uninterested in an arranged marriage with any of the beautiful but traditional young women his mother parades before him, and a part-time Uber driver focused on developing his skills as a stand-up comic. At the downscale comedy club where he works he meets graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan), and the two of them hit it off. Really well.

Ultimately, though, if he marries a woman who’s not Pakistani, he knows his family will disown him. When Emily at length senses the problem, she asks, “Can you envision a future where the two of us are together?” He can’t say it, but he shakes his head, and she breaks off the relationship.

Kumail finds out Emily has developed a mysterious illness and is hospitalized with cascading medical complications. He goes to visit her and ends up signing papers allowing the doctors to put her in a medically induced coma. Now he’s responsible, and he cannot leave her bedside. Her frantic parents (played to perfection by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive from North Carolina. Aware of the unhappy break-up, they are not very friendly, and now Kumail must deal with them too. And his wobbly career.

Nanjiani does a terrific job as himself (much harder than it might seem). He occasionally reminds me of Bill Murray, in the way he has of being acutely observant and still, as if thinking, “Ok, I’m smiling, but would somebody please tell me what the hell’s going on here?!!?”

The acting all around is warm-hearted and true. Particularly enjoyable are the other comics (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler) jabbing each other mercilessly. They’re all experienced, well-regarded comedians IRL, and kudos to Braunohler for taking the role of a somewhat dim guy who the others decide is really not that funny.

It’s sweet, you’ll laugh, and it has a rewarding core of truth.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; Audiences: 92%.

Richard Gere: Two Ways Cinematically

Norman

Richard GereFull title of this Joseph Cedar movie is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (trailer). Norman the person is not very likeable. He stands too close when he talks to you, he’s relentless in searching for an angle, he’s quick with the half-to-full-lie. But in Richard Gere’s nuanced portrayal, initial discomfort turns to something more like sympathy. How he’s treated by the people who see him for what he is becomes simultaneously justified and painful.

The sympathy is possible because Norman isn’t angling to benefit himself, at least not financially. He only wants to feel important, that he matters in the world, yet he remains “always just a few capillaries removed from the beating heart of power,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. When he has a setback, and he has plenty of them, you see the gears turning until he hits a way to make the best of it.

When Norman “bumps into” an Israeli diplomat and does him a favor, right there you know the seeds of calamity are planted. I won’t say more about the plot, which is complicated in the delicious way that only someone like Norman could complicate it.

Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi plays the diplomat; Michael Sheen plays Norman’s put-upon nephew; Steve Buscemi as the rabbi of a financially distressed congregation is “a marvel of wit and off-kilter humanity,” Scott says; and Manhattan plays itself, beautifully.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 87%; audiences 70%.

The Dinner

Richard Gere - The DinnerI have a friend who doesn’t like intense family dramas—too many bad associations. He’ll have to avoid The Dinner (trailer), written and directed by Oren Moverman. The movie is based on Dutch author Herman Koch’s excellent novel (2013), which I greatly admired (best book cover ever!). It’s told in the first person, and I wondered how the narrator’s snide and witty commentary would translate to the screen. That aspect of it worked differently in the book and survived less successfully in the film, with biting humor replaced by mental chaos.

Steve Coogan plays Paul Lohman, an erstwhile high school history teacher who loathes (actually, is desperately jealous of) his politically successful older brother Stan (Richard Gere), now embarking on a gubernatorial campaign. The brothers and their wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) are to have dinner at an exclusive restaurant, but Paul at least is not looking forward to it. Nor should he be. Stan has an agenda. He wants to discuss something truly awful—criminal, in fact—their teenage sons have done, which could explode all their lives.

Comparisons with Roman Polanski’s Carnage are perhaps inevitable, but the fireworks and the damage here are all in the family. The kids who caused the whole debacle are weakly portrayed, and the movie, unlike the novel, ends ambiguously. If your focus is on strong performances, this is a worthy effort. If you want a convincing story, read the book.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 51%; audiences, 18%.

Two Good Movies: Their Finest & The Zookeeper’s Wife

It turned out that these two weekend movies had more in common than their World War II settings, strong female protagonists, and top-notch acting. Both were marred by trailers that told too much, so no trailers today. Avoid the previews if you can, but not the movies. (Or, order the books these films were based on. Affiliate links below.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Their Finest

While this drama, adapted by Gabby Chiappe Directed by Lone Scherfig, is too serious to be a comedy, it offers many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few tears along the way. The conceit is that the British government has commissioned a feature film that will inspire Britons and, with luck, the Americans too, to support the war effort. The subject: the inspiring evacuation of Dunkirk.

The filmmakers realize they need to appeal to women in the audience, so they hire a young woman (Gemma Arterton) for the writing team to create “the slop”—that is, the female dialog. She turns out to more than fill the bill and has the chance to find her own voice along the way.

In addition to Arterton, fine performances from Sam Claflin as the cynical head writer, Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill actor who’s never fully convinced he shouldn’t be the romantic lead, Rachael Stirling as a spy for the foreign office with a soft heart, and Helen McCrory as Nighy’s no-nonsense agent. You’ll love the Jeremy Irons cameo, in which he gets carried away delivering Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 87%; audiences 77%.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

On the very positive side, this drama about Jews hidden in the wreckage of the Warsaw Zoo is based on a true story. Right now, when meanness seems to trump acts of charity and compassion, that’s an important message.

At the same time, there’s quite a bit of déjà vu here, as director Niki Caro fails to plow new ground or to “capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors,” said Sheila O’Malley on Rogerebert.com, and a contrived and unpersuasive relationship between the main character and “Hitler’s zookeeper.”

Antonina and Jan Zabiński really did save more than three hundred Jews after German bombs and stormtroopers destroyed their zoo. They hid the refugees in their own home, changed their appearance, gave them false papers, and spirited them away, under the enemy’s noses.

See it for the animals, the fine performance by Jessica Chastain as Antonina, and for the reminder that even in extreme circumstances there are people who believe, as Jan Zabiński said many years later, “If you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Supporting performances are strong as well. Written by Angela Workman.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 60%; audiences, 81%.

Paterson

Paterson, Adam DriverOppressed (or freaked out) by the news? Here’s a calming and rewarding way to spend two hours in a movie theater cocoon. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson (trailer) doesn’t travel far, but it’s a pleasant journey. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey Transit bus driver (possibly he was cast based on his name alone) named Paterson, who drives a bus in—you knew it!—Paterson, New Jersey.

He lives there with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). Though he follows the same routine and drives the same bus route every day, Paterson is not bored, because his creative imagination is fully engaged. A basement poet, he polishes his creations on the job, and they scroll gently across the screen as he makes his rounds or studies the Passaic River’s Great Falls.

He carries his books of poetry—especially that of William Carlos Williams—and listens to the small talk of his passengers, the rhythm of their language as much as the words. It’s “a movie that’s filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself. The movie’s very being is based in echoes and patterns,” said Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

Laura bursts forth with her own creative endeavors, the only common thread of which is their black-and-white color scheme. Black-and-white frosted cupcakes—a big hit at the farmer’s market—which she hopes will make them rich; a black and white harlequin guitar, which she hopes will launch her career as a country singer. She’s a charming dabbler and Paterson’s muse.

Every night when he returns home, it seems some other part of their house or Laura’s wardrobe has been reconceived in her favorite non-color combination. I couldn’t help believing that at some point she’ll recognize that her immense talent with fabric would be an awesome career direction. Meanwhile, her patterns fill Paterson with visual interest, “creating a vibrant visual punctuation to the otherwise relaxed storytelling,” said Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Paterson the driver, or perhaps I should say, Driver as Paterson, has one extracurricular activity, a visit to a neighborhood tavern every evening. Lots happens during that one nightly beer. Most of it hilarious. The décor of the tavern, replete with articles about Paterson greats—especially Lou Costello—further ties the man and the story to a circumscribed geography, the launchpad for his words.

Driver, Farahani, and Nellie play their roles winningly, with a memorable, if small, supporting cast.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 95%; audiences, 73%. (Not enough happens for some audience members would be my guess.)