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Relativity: Juno vs Knocked Up

29 May


A few weeks ago I caught Knocked Up and Juno on TV in that order. I had already seen Juno, but rewatching it with that juxtaposition was telling. The two movies have basically the same plot if you distil it down as far as possible. Illicit sex leads to baby which leads to a one night stand turning into a longer relationship, despite the pain and angst of said unplanned baby.

As I was watching Knocked Up, I was constantly aware that, supposedly, people liked this movie. It had done pretty well, and I’d heard many people reference it with approval. I like to like movies, even if only in part and only a little. Usually there is something the movie has to offer, even if it’s only added to my list of movies to MST3K. (Yes, MST3K is a verb now.) So as I looked for things to take from this movie, I wanted to see what other people liked about it. I was actively trying to see its merit.

By the end of the movie, I wasn’t sure I had anything, though I had grasped for things throughout. I wasn’t bothered by the same things my mom was at the time; stoner humor I can get behind in small doses and the cast was good. The relationships early on were very true to life, with all the uncomfortable awkwardness that comes from this brand of comedy-through-harsh realism. But even though the characters seemed real in the beginning, anytime the movie came close to delivering a real emotional pay-off, enter slapstick/physical comedy that derailed it. The characters had very real moments of panic and indecision based on petty things that really do play a bigger role in our lives than they should—potential for dramedy gold. But when the resolutions came, it didn’t come from the characters, it wasn’t even dues ex machina, it just resolved the way writers obviously thought America would want it to resolve. The end. They just get back together and have the baby even though everything that has occurred over the last forty five minutes of movie has suggested that that would suck for both parties. And though people do do things for seemingly no reason demonstrable to others, it makes for bad storytelling, especially when that decision is the climax of the narrative.

Even though some of the climax and denouement left a bad taste in my brain, I may have come away from the film saying something to the ring of “it has its moments.” But then Juno came on. Every minute of Juno made my opinion of Knocked Up drop. By the time Juno throws up blue slushie, I hated Knocked Up, as if the writers had personally insulted and degraded me in creating it. Juno is more offbeat and stylized, but the characters feel hyper realistic even in their weirdness. But more importantly—it has a narrative arc that not only makes sense with the evolution of the characters, but is moving and highly satisfactory (while also managing to avoid excessive sentimentality).

Are there other books/movies that you may have liked a little, except that someone else did it so much better?

How much license should creators take with sequels or adaptations? The value of keeping true to the themes rather than the details

4 Feb

In nerddom, there is an urgency to be true and loyal to the original down to the details. I absolutely understand this impulse; when story is deeply loved, any change to it seems sacrilegious. For me, I try to focus on whether this new piece of the series holds up the themes and feeling of the original, rather than how much creative license is taken with the details. Some details are telling and important to the characters and plot, some are not. One example that jumps to mind is the recent controversy over casting 5’7” Tom Cruise as 6’5″ Jack Reacher. This may seem petty—but it is clearly mentioned often enough in the books to have people balk over the casting. A height like that can be representative of an abstract quality that separates Reacher from other action heroes, makes him distinct. To take away what makes him unique is to make it bland and kill the special bond that character has already made with his fans. However, sometimes big-picture truths can change without destroying the essentials of character.

I finally saw The Hobbit part one this weekend, and generally really enjoyed it. The actors were well-chosen, particularly Martin Freeman, who nailed the hesitant but somehow heroic young Bilbo, torn between the two sides of his nature, Took and Baggins. (After this and the hesitant hero Watson, it will be interesting to see if Freeman is typecast for future roles.)


One of my favorite parts of reading and rereading The Hobbit as a kid was putting the songs to different tunes and singing them to myself. The film’s versions did not at all disappoint. And of course, it was very pretty.

Of course part of the buzz about this movie is its length and the decision to split the book into three movies. Given the length of the book, there was obviously going to be additions to the plot and probably extra characters (at least I hoped so, lest there be whole hours of walking through New Zealand). What I hoped—though I was prepared to be disappointed—was that the additions would keep true to the themes of The Hobbit, which are very different than those in The Lord of the Rings. I have always preferred The Hobbit to LOTR because The Hobbit always seemed tighter and more economical in theme and character. It’s about discovering your own abilities, pushing limits, cleverness overcoming brute power, and that the journey trumps the prize, which is probably my favorite of all the themes books can have. This is not present in the same way in The Lord of the Rings, which seems to suggest the opposite—that the peace, as an end, is worth suffering for.

Given the grand, sweeping battle scenes that Peter Jackson became known for with the LOTR trilogy, I was nervous that these smaller themes would be lost in these prequels, burdened by the additions of other characters and battle scenes. I do not mind when movie makers do not stick closely to the text in detail or even in plot, but it does bother me when the characters are used to portray very different themes than in the original. A fine distinction, perhaps, but I make it.

For the most part, The Hobbit kept true to the themes, though with one or two wrong notes. Comedy was more in the forefront than in LOTR, as in the book, which lightens and personalizes the story. The addition of Radagast was wonderful, I thought, and completely fitting into the feel of the story, because he is not powerful, but he is clever, and cares for the smallest of creatures, another trope found in the book. The necromancer was an obvious elaboration since he is mentioned in the book and affects their journey in major ways, even if he is off-page (the textual equivalent of off-screen), and Jackson did an admirable job weaving these elements into the story, foreshadowing LOTR, all the while keeping true to the more personal themes, the lighter tone, and somewhat smaller scale.

I know I am not alone when I say I was bothered by the addition of the pale orc, but it not disloyalty to the book that bothered me. The conflict between Thorin and the pale orc seemed to be one of power vs. power, not power vs. cleverness. However, upon some reflection, I think I’m coming around, because there is a crucial and lovely turn in the relationship between Thorin and Bilbo, that probably couldn’t wait for the second movie to happen, where Bilbo will presumably kill the spider that gives his little blade and symbolically makes him a hero. The orc may not have been how I would handle this piece of the story, but I must admit it was thrilling. To The Hobbit virgin, I doubt it seemed incongruous.

Now, for this next comparison, I’m aware that I’m very much going against the grain, but stay with me. One sequel that outraged most of the character’s loyal fans was, of course, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Defense of this movie is not the most popular route.


            Matt Stone and Trey Parker certainly made their feelings perfectly clear.

Many have insisted that there are only three real Indiana Jones movie and one crazy abomination. Yes, Kingdom is cheesy, but so is Temple of Doom. I mean, it’s called
Temple of Doom. Part of why those movies are so great is the two helpings of cheese that come with each one. Now, that is not to say I wasn’t a bit disappointed by Kingdom, I was. The updated graphics and film techniques were a jarring change in the aesthetics, making everything a bit too bright and clean. The fridge scene required too much of my ability to suspend my belief. The chase scenes dangerously bordered on Disney-like. Shia Lebouf added very little. But I loved that they brought back Karen Allen, and her dynamic with Ford was still funny and endearing.

However, most of the outrage seems to come, not from the aesthetic missteps, but from where the script and concept diverges from some of the tropes of the original trilogy.

Namely,…

However, this doesn’t strike me as odd in the Jones universe. It is, after all, a mysterious historical object that has more import beyond its historical significance and actually holds a great deal of power and knowledge. The inspiration comes from real life conspiracies and twisted religion, just like the first three subjects. But more importantly, it is thematically consistent with the other films, which for me earns Kingdom a place as a true part of the series (though clearly the worst). Indiana is a nerdy action hero, ever curious, sometimes bumbling. A professor, his driving force is a desire to know and understand. This is what gets him into trouble, as his noble quest for knowledge meets those who would seek it as a path to power. What saves him is his willingness to let go, even if it means he doesn’t get all his answers. He lets the stones drop, closes his eyes against the arc, lets the grail fall, and refuses infinite knowledge from the aliens. The bad guys fail because they cannot let go, and they alternately fall to their deaths or their brains melt. So Kingdom may be the worst of the series aesthetically, but it holds up the themes and most important tropes.

Including SNAKES

Room: Rule-breaking and untouchable

9 Aug

Speaking of five year olds, here’s some thoughts on the best contemporary book I’ve read this year.

There are many things that I’ve heard many times in writing workshops that become, with their strong admonishments, challenges like forbidden fruit. Don’t leave a character alone too long, If you have a gun in the first scene, it better go off in act three, don’t use a narrator that can’t understand what’s happening (like a very young child or a person who is crazy or mentally retarded.) Hearing these warnings over and over has made me somewhat obsessed with finding examples of great things that break those rules. For instance, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon is a wonderful, rare book from Stephen King that brazenly breaks that first rule, as the girl of the title is alone in the woods for about 150 of the 200 pages. Despite my stubborn love for Mr. King, Emma Donoghue, I must admit, achieved greater heights in her Room.

Room tells the story of the last several days of the incarceration of a mother and her five year old son in a nine-by-nine room that has the bare minimum of basic necessities. The child was born in the room and knows nothing else. The first few chapters create a slow, dawning horror, because though the child is happy as a lamb, the reader gradually becomes aware of the extreme limitations of his world.

I read Room all of an evening, unable to put the thing down. I picked it up because someone at the bookstore mentioned that it was told from the first person perspective of a five-year-old child (a very broken rule!). I was more curious about that than anything, and I picked it up intending to read just enough of it to get a feel of the voice, mainly because I didn’t really have the time to read an novel that day. All I wanted was to see if I bought the narrator as a five-year-old, and I fully expected to be annoyed and disappointed. But Room had other plans for me evidently, because it was 3:30 that morning when I finished, wet-faced from tears and exhausted, as if I, not the narrator, had just gone through the most psychologically bizarre trials.

With any unconventional narrator, there is a bit of a learning curve. Getting used to the voice can sometimes take a great deal of patient pages, but by the end of the first chapter, Jack’s voice is alive and clearly understandable. There are quirks to the style of narrative, of course, but they are, if not essential, revealing of his character and not muddling or disruptive to the progress of the plot. He personifies everything and assigns gender according to his whims: Bed is a she, TV is a he and has other vocabulary besides (to “get some” is to breast feed, and there are names for all the games his mother invents to fill their time.) The filter of the child’s perception, while consistent throughout, does not impede clarity of plot at any point in the novel that I could see, and by the end was essential to really feel the emotional impact.
*semi-spoilers after this point*
Jack’s escape and reentrance into the world is abrupt and terrifying. Without the filter of his perception, it would have seemed more like the first five minutes of a Law and Order: SVU episode than the truly shattering experience it was for his character, more akin to Plato’s man emerging from the cave (but also with the very real threat of death and pain).

Can anyone think of other books that break those workshop rules? Or break rules of the genre?

Beasts of the Southern Wild: the movie M. Night wishes he could have made.

8 Aug

When I first saw the trailer for BOTSW, I immediately thought of the beast from Lady in the Water. I’m not sure if the impression came from the music, from the sound effects, or the intimidation factor of hunched shoulders.


While I always try to go into a movie a blank slate, I couldn’t help going into Beasts expecting some kind of deep south spin on Where the Wild Things Are, sort of Black Snake Moan meets The Village. I was delightfully proven wrong, and it made me realize that I could never quite put my finger on what bothers me about Shyamalan’s films. While I haven’t hated them as much as some have, I’ve always left the theater feeling very aware that I just saw a movie with some kind of surreal or other worldly aspect. Movies that rely on world building have to devote some time to giving background, but where M. Night spends a good bit of the story showing his cards one at a time, revealing slowly how his world is different from ours, Zeitlin shows his world wholly from the first few scenes. While Hushpuppy’s (the incredible Quvenzhané Wallis) voice over was at times a little too poignantly on-point (90 percent of her dialogue would be perfectly at home in a quote-a-day calendar), it provided as much explanation as was needed to care about the characters and understand the danger they were in. Surreal aspects in magical realism should be over-explained, because as soon as they are, they cease to be an organic part of the story’s fabric, but a stick the creator hits you with while yelling “hey, hey, this is a symbol! This is a symbol!”

I left the theater after Beasts of the Southern Wild with a lot of questions (what was with the jar of medicine?), but satisfied on more important counts. Go see it.

Prediction: Based on what I’ve seen so far this year, Quvenzhané Wallis will be the youngest winner of a Best Actress Oscar. That five-year-old is a better actress than I will ever be a writer. It’s crazy. I mean, just look at this face: