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Days and Nights (2014)
Chekhov's Play "The Seagull" is Updated
There are countless adaptations of successful stage plays into films. "Days and Nights" is an earnest attempt to update Anton Chekhov's play "The Seagull." When this play was first produced in 1896, it was considered a flop. But when it was revived by the stage director Konstantin Stanislavsky to open his new Moscow Art Theater in 1898, it was hailed as a masterpiece.
The producers of this film clearly had a passion for Chekhov. Music figures prominently in Chekhov's plays, and the music in the film version was also intended to be intrinsic to the characters' lives. The screenwriter's goal was to adapt Chekhov's play to the Reagan era in America of the 1980s. Chekhov was an apolitical playwright, and it was not clear what was intended by inserting one of Reagan's speeches about the Berlin wall as a backdrop for the ennui of the characters. Another curious choice was to incorporate a subtle message about environmental issues. A bald eagle replaces Chekhov's seagull. And the housing developers are encroaching on the rural setting of the play--a detail that appears closer to Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" than "The Seagull."
************* Spoiler Alerts *****************
The following should not be read by those who have not completed their film viewing:
A major change from Chekhov's original play is the depiction of the character of Nina, who is seduced by the well-known writer, Trigorin. In the updated version, the successful filmmaker Peter (Trigorin) plots to run away with Eva (Nina), the young woman who is the love of the life of Eric, the avant-garde writer Konstantin in Chekhov's original play. But before Peter and Eva can meet to leave the lakeside retreat, Peter runs over and kills Eva in a pick-up truck! At the end of the film, there is a sad reunion at the lake three years later.
Still haunted by the memories of Eva, the now successful film artist Eric also is present for the family reunion. In Chekhov's play, Nina, who has been jilted by Trigorin, has a final conversation with Konstantin, rejecting him once again. But in the updated version, Eric has a vision of the deceased Nina, then shoots himself, which is the same ending as Chekhov's original play.
************* End of Spoiler Alerts **************
The hard-working cast (Allison Janney, William Hurt, Mark Rylance, and others) attempted to inhabit the lives of their characters. But the film adaptation lacked the depth, complexity, and the multi-dimensional nature of Chekhov's characters.
One limitation of this film is that it is imperative that the viewers know the original play by Chekhov; it is not a successful stand-alone film. It may be fair to conclude that there was only one Anton Chekhov. No re-written version of his play will ever surpass the original in its seemingly endless insights into human nature.
Die verlorene Zeit (2011)
Good Film With Some Reservations
In this modest film, the Holocaust is the backdrop for a touching personal drama. The narrative blends the story of a family living in Brooklyn in the 1970s with the tortured past of the main character, Hannah Silberstein, a survivor of the horrors of World War II.
The film is successful in unfolding the parallel stories from the late period of World War II and the world of the 1970s. The acting is extremely credible from the two women playing the young and mature Hannah, as well as the two men portraying Tomasz Limanowski. The realization that Tomasz may still be alive was the main thread that tied the two stories together.
One somewhat disconcerting strand of the plot was the apparent lack of sensitivity on the part of the husband and the daughter when Hannah became upset on the day of the party at their home in Brooklyn. It was almost as if the husband and daughter knew nothing about her harrowing past. Both characters were slow to empathize with her situation. Why was Hannah so reluctant to open up about her past, and why couldn't they accept that she was clearly distressed?
By contrast, the older Tomasz confided everything to his daughter in their apartment in Poland, and it was clear that the daughter knew about her father's past love for Hannah. In the American family, it was as if the past had been repressed and was a family secret.
The 1970s timeframe was still the period of the Cold War. I wonder if the filmmakers were attempting to make a point about the seemingly open relationship of the father-daughter in the repressive world of Poland in the the 1970s, versus the rather stern and strict American family in the same era? If so, what was the point?
Hummingbird or Redemption?
This film was initially titled "Hummingbird." The name was subsequently changed to "Redemption." This degree of confusion is an indication of something amiss in conceptualizing a film.
On the surface, the film provided good dramatic tension and plenty of action. But there was no depth to the characters, and the main problem was in the screen writing.
From start to finish, the screenplay lacked credibility. The biggest stretch was in attempting to believe in the evolving relationship of the nun and the commando. These two wounded and fragile characters felt a bonding in the traumatic experiences of their past. But the circumstances of why the two characters were drawn to one another was superficial with the filmmakers relying on externals to demonstrate the characters' internal pain. The most preposterous scenes involved the striking red dress worn by the nun.
Every character in this film was a cardboard cut-out. The performers worked hard with substandard lines of dialogue, and there was some beautiful footage of various places in London. But the film fell short of the mark as a either a metaphorical rendering of "hummingbird" or as a struggle to attain "redemption."
Side Effects (2013)
What Does This Film Say About Our World?
"Side Effects" was two films in one. The first half was a documentary-like film addressing issues in the modern psychiatric and pharmaceutical worlds. At the midpoint, the plot veered away from that topic, and the film became a mystery-style "whodunnit."
By the end, a lingering question was whether there was a single character in the movie that was sympathetic. The only character I could identify who was not venal was the little boy. Beyond the child, the psychiatrists and the patients, the pharmaceutical reps and the salespeople, the lawyers and the cops all made me want to take a cold shower after this film. The content of the film, as well as the character developments, really says something about the world in which we live.
While the performances were good, they did not have much depth. Otherwise, the characters would have elicited a wider range of emotional responses. It was almost as if each actor was performing two roles--one for the documentary half of the film and an entirely new character for the mystery portion. While this schizoid nature afflicted all of the roles, it was especially true for the "double" characters of the two psychiatrists played by Jude Law (money grubbing pill-pusher/victim) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (caring therapist/Vampire Lady). Regarding Rooney Mara's character: she too had two characters...or more.
In sum, the viewer of "Side Effects" is treated to two films in one. But as a whole, the film does not cohere into a single, seamless unit. Hence the grade of 5 out of 10.
Safe Haven (2013)
Good Performances, Formulaic Plotting
Above all, "Safe Haven" is a film with a great pair of leading performers. The chemistry between Alex and Katie was terrific and held the film together.
The plot is extremely formulaic with a surprise coming in the middle of the film that explained why Katie would take to the road. When she arrives in the North Carolina coastal resort town, the film delivers on some beautiful scenery. A nagging issue, however, was Katie's finances and how she could afford to rent a home while living off the wages of a waitress in the local fish restaurant.
In fact, much of the plotting was awkward with set-up lines like "Well, in these parts, we have the greatest Fourth of July fireworks show in the country." Of course, we must then wait for the obligatory fireworks display. Another part of the formula was the stereotypical villain, who, in this case, was beyond the realm of the despicable: a cop with no desire "to protect and to serve."
Viewers have enjoyed discussing the surprise ending of this film, and there is a terrific blog on this site with a wide range of responses.
For a Rom-Drama addict, this is a must-see film. For the general film aficionado, the film may be a disappointment. Hence, the rating of 5 out of 10.
The Scapegoat (2012)
An Excellent Adaptation of a Classic!
This film begs comparison with the original 1959 version. It turns out that both are outstanding! While I must give the slight nod to the earlier version, I nonetheless admired the more intricate plotting and exemplary performances in the newer film.
The 1959 film included a rich black-and-white cinematography and beautiful scoring. There was a haunting quality to the film and greater simplicity than the updated version. Above all, the earlier film had the incomparable Alec Guinness.
Still, Matthew Rhys was solid in the dual roles of John and Johnny, and the English settings were spectacular. In the updated version, there was the clever device of setting the story in the post World War II years at the precise moment of the coronation of Elizabeth II. Additionally, every role seemed perfectly cast. The acting ensemble and details in the scripting made "The Scapegoat" an engaging and memorable film experience.
Great Intensity, Character Development, and Dialogue
Denzel Washington is terrific in the role of the swashbuckling airline pilot Whip Whitaker whose external demeanor masks his internal demons. While the film is noteworthy for the opening section of the airline crash, the more quiet scenes are the most memorable.
There is a subdued, yet riveting, scene in the hospital when Whip meets a cancer patient and a young woman with a drug addiction. The dialogue was both well-written and well acted by the three performers. The cancer patient controls the conversation, subtly conveying that he has his "act together" more than the other two characters. It is at this moment that we first recognize the damaged inner side of Whip that is contrary to his surface personae of the ace.
Although it may not have been intended by the filmmakers, there was a revealing side of the film that depicted the government investigation of the plane crash. There was an efficacy about the team that resembled a military event on the scale of D-Day, including a general's platform and a pair of binoculars wielded by one of the officials. Why can't our government function this skillfully in all of its responsibilities to the people?
The scenes set in the serenity of the farm owned by Whip's grandfather are effective in the dramatic tension evoked as Whip seeks to resist the temptation of alcohol. Throughout the film, the excellent supporting actors keep the pace brisk and always engaging. Don Cheadle is especially dynamic as the attorney with clearly divided feelings about his troubled client Whip.
This film demonstrates that it is not necessary to have exclusively non-stop action, special effects, and daredevil antics worthy of an Eddie Rickenbacker. Washington's thoughtful character study is compelling and unforgettable as the core of the film.
The Family (2013)
Starts Strong, Then Fizzles
In this Whack-y comedy, the opening was lively with Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the two teenagers playing a mob family placed in France in a witness protection program. The best moments were those of the "culture shock" of the family adjusting to life in a small town in northern France.
Pfeiffer was terrific in letting loose her character's uncontrollable urges toward pyromania in setting afire small French grocery stores. The two young actors playing the children were also engaging as they retaliated with over-the-top vendettas against their schoolmates. Tommy Lee Jones and DeNiro were both good in recycling what for them are familiar roles.
But when the creative ideas ran their course, the film began to take itself too seriously. The seemingly improvised finale was a dud, as it completely lost the humorous lines and moments.
The sitcom form had great potential in the interplay of cultural values between a small, rural French town and the American mob-connected family. When that dynamic dropped out, the film and the actors completely lost their moorings.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014)
Superb Production Values, Content, and Commentary
This series is a breath of fresh air when compared to the mindless programming typical of network television.
When the original Cosmos series aired on PBS in the early 1980s, the dynamism of Carl Sagan showed how educational television could also be enormously popular. Now, over three decades later, the next edition of "Cosmos" retains the integrity of the original series while providing the latest findings in science and astronomy.
Carl Sagan was a true Renaissance man, who synthesized history, philosophy, art, and science in the Cosmos series and the superb book that accompanied the program. Now, one of our finest scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, serves as our guide to the universe with outstanding commentary in the sequel. There was an especially moving moment when Professor Tyson recalled the time when he was warmly greeted by Carl Sagan, who took time out of his busy schedule to provide a personal tour of the Cornell campus when Tyson was about to enter college.
It is impressive that a television personality on the order of Seth MacFarlane would produce this series that includes animated recreations of historical events, such as the trial and execution of the seventeenth century "heretic" Giordano Bruno. The animations are a cut above the generic dramatizations with actors, wherein the bottom drops out of most television documentaries.
In the Academic Awards telecast hosted by MacFarlane, he closed the show with a star turn in singing "Here's to the Losers." But in this truly outstanding series of "Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey," it is clear that everyone is a winner, especially the viewers who can embark on the voyage of a lifetime when they climb aboard The Ship of the Imagination for thirteen stellar episodes.
Parkland Fails to Assess the Facts in the JFK Assassination
For a number of years, I taught a course on the JFK assassination at a major American university. I was looking forward to "Parkland" as a film that could provide new insights into the case at the time of the fiftieth anniversary. Unfortunately, the film presents a superficial account of the events of the tragic assassination weekend. Above all, it fails to assess the wealth of new information we have today to understand why and how President Kennedy was murdered.
The film is structured around four main stories unfolding during the assassination weekend--the events at Parkland Hospital, the famous home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder, the instant arrest and subsequent killing of Lee Harvey Oswald while in custody of the Dallas police, and the handling of the case by the FBI. In every instance, the filmmakers fail to probe beneath the surface to shed light on the assassination.
While the film pays tribute to the heroic efforts of the Parkland medical professionals to save the life of President Kennedy, it completely ignores the most important testimony of those eyewitness at the hospital. Researcher Robert Groden interviewed 82 members of the medical staff--the precise group of characters depicted in the film--and learned that every eyewitness (100%) indicated that the president was shot from the front of the limousine, due to the tiny entry wound to his throat. The significance of this detail is that Oswald could not have been the only shooter in the case. The film neatly sidesteps this essential issue.
In depicting the historic role played by dress manufacturer Abraham Zapruder, the film is hopelessly mistaken on crucial details about Zapruder's home movie. Zapruder himself provides a fascinating and detailed account of his filming and his recall of the events in Dealey Plaza, as published in the Warren Commission hearings. It is not clear that the screenwriters even consulted this essential primary source. After returning to his office, Mr. Zapruder first locked the film in his safe. He insisted on working personally with Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels to try to ensure the integrity of the evidence. The film, which shows Sorrels coercing Zapruder, does not come close to depicting the original handling of the film and how the chain of custody in this crucial piece of evidence was broken during the assassination weekend.
In its portrayal of the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the film made the fatal mistake of developing Oswald from the perspective of his brother Robert. We never saw the vehement attempts of Oswald to proclaim his innocence, wherein he informed the media that "I did not shoot anyone" and "I'm just a patsy." In the film's odd treatment of Marguerite Oswald, the performer adopted a Southern accent; but the short Marguerite did not speak with a Southern drawl. In the film, Marguerite claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald was a government agent. But the film never made the effort to determine whether or not there was any truth in Marguerite's assertion.
In perhaps the most accurate subplot depicted in "Parkland," the film focuses on the intentional destruction of evidence by the Dallas FBI office when SA Gordon Shanklin orders Agent James Hosty to destroy its file on Oswald. This strand of the film is revealing because we never see the FBI actually investigating the crime scene: Oswald is immediately arrested, identified as the killer of President Kennedy and Officer Tippit, prior to being shot by Jack Ruby on live television. Immediately, Oswald was convicted in the minds of the public through the efforts of the FBI and, later, the Warren Commission. Astonishingly, the crime scene was not secured, evidence was destroyed, and the facts were subsequently manipulated to fit the instant conclusion of Oswald's guilt.
In 1991, director-writer Oliver Stone was condemned by the media for his three-hour treatment of the assassination in the film "JFK." But Stone and his screenwriter Zachary Sklar published a 600-page book (still in print), documenting sources for every fact in the film. Will the filmmakers of "Parkland" also be providing a companion source book to demonstrate the extent of their research? Or, was the goal merely to present the same story told to the public after Americans returned to work on November 26, 1963?