I had originally planned on posting my own review of Wes Anderson‘s recently released tribute to childhood, Moonrise Kingdom, but upon reading Brett McCracken’s own lucidly expressed thoughts on the film, I quickly lost this resolve.

The Search

A few hours before I watched Wes Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, I was watching the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Biola University. It made me nostalgic to see 670 seniors receive their diplomas and officially conclude a long chapter in their journeys. I remember being there myself, seven years ago at Wheaton College, “commencing” a pivotal new chapter as my 22 years of being a kid gave way to the new adventure of independent adulthood. What a memorable moment, graduation day–abuzz as it was with the teetering uncertainty of the liminal spaces which were its backdrop: between youth, inexperience and protection on one hand and adulthood, maturity and risk on the other. Everything then was new, curious, possible. The world was there to be explored; adulthood to be experimented with.

Moonrise Kingdom dwells in a similar liminal space: between the innocence, wonder and “firsts” of childhood on one hand and the…

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Since there are two Snow White inspired movies being released in 2012, I am splitting this post in two parts.  Part One will compare “Mirror Mirror” and Part Two will compare “Snow White & the Huntsman.”  Happy reading!

Little Snow-White Fairy Tale from the Brothers Grimm

Little Snow-White can be considered the beginning of fairy tales in popular culture.  The story was first adapted by Disney in 1937 with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” which also marked the first animated feature film of the Disney corporation.  Snow White as a character became the quintessential Fairy-Tale Princess, accompanied with her sweet singing voice and cute animal friends… but this concept of Snow White is very off-track with its original telling.

The Brothers Grimm debuted Little Snow-White in 1812; a story that reflects the one we have come to love, but with much deeper complications.  It begins as usual…

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The Hunger Games

image via upcoming-movies.com

The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross, is no exact adaptation of the book from page to screen. Although purists may be miffed by some elements that had to be left out of the film version, Ross’s film captures the essence of the book, faithful in all the areas where it matters most. The film complements Suzanne Collins’ book in a mostly straightforward way, but with an occasional flash of insight. It can be likened to good illustrations in a book: the film offers a wonderful visualization of the story that is not complete in and of itself, but which instead simultaneously provides both a complementary vision of, and a new lens through which to view, the book.

First off, Jennifer Lawrence is perfect. Although she’s forced to externalize much of what was internalized in the book, her acting is not histrionic, but subtle. She plays Katniss with the contradictory fierceness and tenderness that renders her character so uniquely captivating. Josh Hutcherson, not given quite enough screen time or character development as Peeta, makes up for his occasional lack of subtlety with his winsomeness. Liam Hemsworth has a strong presence in the few scenes he is in.

As is always the case in book to film adaptations, particularly in books with first person narration, a certain degree of character development falls to the wayside, most keenly felt in the development of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. So much of this was internalized and developed chiefly through conversations and looks in the book that only a fraction made it to the movie. While disappointing, we can only hope that two such well-cast leads are given the chance to further develop their characters in the upcoming films.

Ross and his team visually read between the lines in many design elements, making this a particularly familiar, historically grounded, post-apocalyptic dystopian society. He develops beautifully the cultural and historical undertones of an Appalachian-like region as the probable setting for the story.

The cinematography, with its jerky, often handheld camera, is obviously inspired by the reality TV that the film both critiques and often seems to takes its stylistic cue from. This can either be seen as annoying or as an interesting stylistic choice given the subject matter. For me it was both.

Heavy silences often remind us of the weightiness of the events depicted. Music is well used throughout to simply enhance what is happening onscreen, instead of being utilized to dictate emotions the viewer is supposed to be feeling. Although it is not always the case, the lack of music in many critical scenes is notable and refreshing. The film tastefully shows how serious and jarring the deaths of these children are, without adding an element of gratuitous violence. Such thoughtfully accomplished visualization of so many tributes’ deaths makes us realize the gravity and disturbing quality of something I’m afraid even I was occasionally guilty of breezing over as action when reading.

At the same time, these deaths could have been made more jolting than they were. Aside from glimpses of desperation, many of the adolescent villains are left relatively undeveloped (as in the book), turning many of them into teenage killing machines without the benefit of the backstory that leads us to instantly sympathize with Katniss and Peeta. With the possible exception of Cato, the “Careers” and other of the less sympathetic tributes are thus somewhat dehumanized, even more for the film viewer than for the reader. Perhaps we should be just as jarred by who is doing the killing in these cases as the fact of who is being killed.

The film also incorporates elements of the series that were not revealed until the second book, thus tying events together, whetting the audience’s appetite for the next film, and creating what will be a very cohesive final filmic trilogy. The film is not perfect, but as far as inaugural filmic installments in popular series go, this one gives us much to look forward to.

For all those that see it, the film is a good reminder as to what exactly it is about this story that has captured the imaginations of so many. The story’s themes blur (or perhaps reveal?) the lines between typical Young Adult fiction themes and those archetypal themes of guilt, betrayal, courage, the value of life, and every kind of love—sacrificial, unconditional, unrequited, wondering… Such heady themes are intertwined into a story that also has allusions of the literary and historical kind (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, Greek mythology, the Roman gladiatorial games), and social critique à la reality TV and our culture’s edging towards violence as entertainment. Perhaps such elements of timeless relevancy are what give this series their almost mythic quality for so many—boys and girls, young and old.

One For St. Patrick’s Day…

With St. Patrick’s Day only a few days away, I thought I would recommend a film set in Ireland. So if you are wondering what to watch as you settle down with a slab of corned beef and a hunk of soda bread, look no further! This film is a feast for the eyes and the mind…

The Secret of Kells, recipient of a 2010 Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, is one of those lovely films that sets itself apart from the majority of commercial animated fare, fitting into its own category as a sort of cinematic literature…and it is certainly not only for children. The film explores Celtic mythology and history as it interweaves the history of illuminated manuscripts, the famed Book of Kells, and the medieval threat of barbarians with Irish lore of fairies and dark mysteries in the forest.

The film follows Brendan’s discovery of the enchantment of the natural world and the secrets of an unfinished illuminated book as he navigates the conflict that surrounds him.  Although Brendan encounters an array of conflicts (good vs. evil, light vs. dark, preservation vs. perseverance, man vs. nature, to name a few), the core of the film is its celebration and exploration of the illumination that Brendan is ultimately questing after. The Book of Kells represents the light of faith and hope and imagination that many medieval abbeys fought to preserve in a world threatened by the darkness the barbarians would bring if they succeeded in quenching the lights of learning and the illuminated Gospels.

The hand-drawn animation plays upon the theme of illumination while paying tribute to the intricately detailed illuminated manuscripts that inspired its style. Every scene set in the forest is teeming with life and hidden patterns. Sunlight flickers down through treetops and clouds and dapples the world beneath. Designs and patterns are hidden in almost every scene while intricately moving borders adorn and further develop many others. I was often tempted to simply pause my DVD for the chance to absorb the many dimensions of light and color and detail in a scene.

Bruno Coulais, the French composer behind several other whimsical and wonderful scores (Coraline, Babies, The Chorus), provides an alternately lively and subtle soundtrack that adds yet another layer of delight to the film.

I meant for this to be a simple recommendation, but I got a bit carried away. Suffice it to say, The Secret of Kells is ultimately a richly historical and truly illuminating film that is exquisitely textured, both visually and thematically.

Image found here.

Fox 2000 Taps ‘Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival To Direct ‘The Book Thief’ – Deadline.com

Cover of "The Book Thief"

Cover of The Book Thief

Fox 2000 Taps ‘Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival To Direct ‘The Book Thief’ – Deadline.com.

I’ve been waiting expectantly for some time to see who would pick up this haunting book for its inevitable film adaptation.  It is hard to imagine any film truly being able to depict the nuances of the book, but a good adaptation could be a thing of beauty.

Screenwriter Michael Petroni penned what was for me the most disappointing of the Narnia films (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), but Emmy-winner Brian Percival has directed some lovely things (Downton AbbeyNorth & South), albeit mostly for TV.

I will be following preproduction with much interest.

‘The Secret World of Arrietty’ is truly enchanting

The Secret World of Arrietty (released in the US on February 17th), the latest from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, captivated me completely, and has become one of my favorite of the many children’s book adaptations to appear in recent years.

This film is one of the most lushly beautiful and intricately rendered animated films I have ever seen. Each scene is saturated with color and creatively imagined details of what the whimsical world of a borrower might look like. The beauty of the natural world outside is meditatively lingered upon in many scenes as Arrietty explores the sun-dappled details of leaves and pebbles and water droplets. The human world, too, is seen in a whole new light: in one instance the kitchen looms like a canyon before Arrietty on her first foray into borrowing.

The sound design adds an unexpectedly rich dimension to the visual elements of the film. Minute noises are amplified in a way that imaginatively captures what the aural experience is like for little ears. The ticking of a clock, the hum of a refrigerator, or the night noises that drift in through an open window accost the listener in a way that they never may have before. Cécile Corbel’s surprising and delightful soundtrack adds yet another layer of intricacy to the film as it coordinates with the detailed sound design.

But how does it compare to the book?

Not following Mary Norton’s classic as closely as the 1992 TV version or diverging as much as the (still quirky and fun) 1997 version, The Secret World of Arrietty strikes a wonderful balance that maintains the heart of the original story while reimagining and thematically expanding upon the original 1952 book. The story is gracefully transposed into the present day, to a modern, subtly Japanese country house.

Arrietty and Homily Clock remain much as they appear in the book, but in the new film, Arrietty’s father has a wonderfully quiet, fatherly gravitas that differs from his slightly more garrulous counterpart in the book. The boy’s character in Arrietty, too, differs and expands upon his character in the book. The Boy, Shawn, is a bit older and wiser than the nine-year-old character in the book. The film emphasizes and further develops the sickness that was only briefly mentioned in the book by making Shawn the lonely only child of busy parents, sent to the country to rest before he has a serious heart surgery. Shawn’s storyline adds a nuanced theme of mortality and loneliness that beautifully complements the scintillating delight for life and celebration of family closeness on Arrietty’s side of the story. His relationship with Arrietty comments upon the bittersweet but lasting joy of transient friendships.

My verdict…

This film in many ways transcends its subject matter. Through both the visual and aural elements, I was deliciously reminded of how fresh and enthralling the world was when I was discovering it for the first time as a child. Each scene is imbued with a childlike sense of wonder and discovery that speaks to the child in all of us. Arrietty is enchanting whether one has read the book or not, but I do hope that such a lovely adaptation will lead many (children and grown-ups alike) to discover—or rediscover—the beloved series.

‘Hunger Games’ breaks a ‘Twilight’ ticket sales record | Inside Movies | EW.com

The Hunger Games is certainly one of the most anticipated book adaptations to hit screens this year (The Hobbit still seems so many months way away).

Will it be bigger than Twilight? I can only hope that this film merits its popularity in ways that the Twilight films have notoriously not merited their popularity.

‘Hunger Games’ breaks a ‘Twilight’ ticket sales record | Inside Movies | EW.com.