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My Top 5 Movies Based on Books / 2014

The Edge of Tomorrow ...  Tom Cruises his Way to Top Gun
Originally published 6/12/2014

I left the house yesterday fully intending to combine a west side appointment with seeing The Fault in Our Stars at the Landmark. But I took a detour to see the Jacaranda trees winding down on a nearby avenue and then I got distracted by a striking blue buffet at Urban Home. By the time I got to the theatre it was 11:20 and The Fault in Our Stars started at 11:00am. Drat! I still had a couple of hours to kill so, recalling my friend Laura liked it, I bought a ticket to the 11:30  showing of Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

I love going to the movies by myself at midday; the theatre is always nearly empty and I can relax and enjoy the film without worrying whether the person I'm with is enjoying it too. I was a little surprised to see that the audience for Edge of Tomorrow, which is being trounced by The Fault in Our Stars, was a little larger than the usual handful of folks who turn up for the bargain matinee; it ended up being me, a couple of younger women, not together, a handful of t-shirt wearing 30-something guys and some older men, who like me were probably worried they wouldn't make it through the 113 minute running time  - over two hours with previews - without a bathroom break. We all had a blast.

I headed to the movies looking forward to a good cry while watching The Fault in Our Stars but I ended up having a good laugh instead. A really good laugh. Cruise is in top gun form, back to his old adorable charismatic self as Major Cage, a non-com type forced to join a unit headed to the beaches of France to fight an alien invasion. Like D-Day, it's a massacre. Cage is completely out of his depth, Cruise has him clunking comically around in a weighty armored suit, desperate to escape. Instead Cage gets zapped by an alien but rather than die, he wakes up on the deck of the aircraft carrier at the start of the day. In a hilariously effective Groundhog Day conceit, Cage relives the same pre-battle day over and over again, getting smarter, learning a little more about defeating the alien invasion  each time. He joins forces with alien fighter par excellence, Full-Metal Bitch Rita (Emily Blunt), trying to get it right and save the world by the time the movie ends.  Hence the tag line: Live. Die. Repeat.

They were fantastic together. Cruise looked amazing, nicely aged - if he's bothering with Botox he's doing it sparingly. He was manly with a sweet sexy sunniness I haven't seen in awhile. For me he was the old Top Gun Tommy, charming, charismatic and a true movie star. His comic timing was exquisite, he and Blunt and an excellent stunt team both pulled off some incredibly physical feats, the action was non-stop and the writing was fresh and funny. The script has to be one of the best Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, Jack the Giant Slayer, The Tourist) has written. Directed by Doug Liman, known for the Bourne movies, Edge of Tomorrow is based on the book All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

I don't do the star rating thing but if I had to, I'd give Edge of Tomorrow 4 Tom Cruise Couch Jumps.

2  Gone Girl:  Gone Girl, Blonde Girl
Originally published October 8

My husband and I went on what's being called 'the movie date to end all dates' last night. Yep. Finally saw Gone Girl starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. While I've heard the movie can make you second guess your relationship, in a couple of shocking scenes I grabbed for said husband's hand and it was there, rock solid and steady as ever, so I suppose our old married love passed some sort of test. As if the tests real life has tossed our way over the last twenty plus years weren't enough? As if we both haven't looked at our mutual shortcomings before seeing this film? Come on. 

Beware: My take on the movie assumes you've read the book or seen the movie or both.

The first thing to remember about Gone Girl is that it's a movie, one that fairly closely mirrors the book that author turned screenwriter Gillian Flynn based her screenplay on. The fact that Amy Elliot Dunne is a lying, manipulative, psychotic bitch who frames her lying, cheating husband for her murder, who falsely accuses Tommy (Skoot McNairy) of rape, and turns the old romance with the controlling Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris) on its ear, isn't a veiled diatribe against all women, isn't trying to say all real world female victims of rape are weak, angry women using sex - and false allegations of rape - as a weapon. Just this one woman. So, first and foremost, to those of you who would try to make the film stand for some grand sexual political statement reinforcing negative stereotypes, lighten up. Does this particular woman do everything she can to keep her man, even twisted, dark, deeply depraved things? Yes. But the fact that her bizarre behavior and evil scheming choices ends Desi's life, ruined Tommy's life, and threatens to destroy Nick's, shouldn't be taken to mean more than it means. It's a thrilling piece of fiction, which may occasionally, mirror life. My God, if every horrible, murdering male bastard we see slashing and killing in countless books and movies were supposed to be representative of the average man then surely we'd never go to the movies; the world would be such a dark and dangerous place, we'd all stay locked safely inside our homes, never to venture out where the wild things are again.

But it was a movie and a bloody good one. Standing in the theater lobby, waiting for my husband to come out of the mens' room (turning that stereotype around) I overheard a young man tell his female companion "I wanted to strangle her". They walked out of earshot before I could hear her response but mine was "I wanted to strangle both of them!" Which pretty much sums up how I felt about the books' ending as well, so entirely frustrated and angry that Nick would make the choice he makes. The movie, contrary to what we where led to believe doesn't change that basic ending. Realistic? I don't think so. But no less realistic than sending Amy home from the hospital in a clean pair of surgical greens but still covered in a garish shade of blood I'd call 'maroon 5'. No less realistic than a group of male FBI agents and state police standing by lamely while Amy wraps them around her little finger with her monstrous lie about Desi. No less realistic than carrying on an affair in a small town and your crazy wife, instead of being the stereotypical 'last to know' being the only person in the whole wide world who does know about it. 

Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn didn't invent a genre or pull off some revolutionary film archetype; they just had a great time with playing with our expectations, as the best film makers and writers have always done. Add to that the imitative imaginings that we all owe the material that's come before, inspiring and giving us ideas, and you get a whole lot of depraved movie fun. I learned from a Slate magazine article that looks at what Flynn and Fincher both borrowed from the great suspense king, Alfred Hitchcock, that Gillian Flynn's father was a film professor and that she counts Psycho as one of her biggest film influences: Cue the shower scene in Gone Girl! And you don't have to be a film geek to see that Rosamund Pike, distant and haughty (one review I read said she was too 'aristocratic') is a direct descendant of Alfred Hitchcock's icy blondes. She's even played one the play, Hitchcock Blonde where she was a body double for Janet Leigh's character.

There are a couple of nice nods to the master of suspense whether, as the article points out, it's intended as homage or just outright cinematic thievery. If you remember the scene where Tippi Hedrin transforms from brunette to her true color, an icy blonde in Marnie, Amy's opposite transformation in Gone Girl is wink-wink wonderful. As is Neil Patrick Harris as Desi, when he purchases a box of hair dye to transform Amy's now-mousey hair color back to his and Hitchcock's preferred bleached blonde. Remember how Jimmy Stewart's character makes Kim Novak dye her hair blonde to look more like his Madeleine? While the article points out the similarities between Gone Girl's opening shot, a closeup of Pike's blonde head accompanied by Ben Affleck's voice over imagining cracking open that head to unspool what's inside, and Hitchcock's closeup of Kim Novak's blonde chignon, those are details for the cinephiles to be sure. The thing is we don't need to know them, we need never to have watched a Hitchcock film or clue in to whether Gone Girl is a feminist dream or a nightmare to enjoy it for what it is: two and a half hours of delicious fun, that ends with the girl and boy living 'un'happily ever after.

                                                            GONE GIRL IMAGE GALLERY

Or do they? 

Another movie goer I heard leaving the theater asked her companions if there was another book, or if this was it. That, my friends, is an interesting question. Are any of you interested in seeing what becomes of this not-so-loving couple? Fincher and Flynn are already re-teaming on an adaptation of the British thriller Utopia for HBO; maybe if we ask pretty they'd be amenable to putting Nick and Amy and their offspring in the same house together. Can you imagine the drama of these two raising children? If that was the case, I think we'd end up like poor Margo, curled up in an almost fetal position, crying as she realizes what Amy says about Nick may be true; rather than a good little Midwest woman, Amy is a duplicitous, conniving poseur, and the worst part is he likes his wife that way.
A word about the cast; yes Affleck is amazing as the asshole husband. Even Amy makes a comment about the two of them being so annoying you want to punch them in the face. Ben, you certainly do. Pike, as noted, is pretty near perfect as the icy blond. For me the big surprises were Kim Dickens as Detective Boney and Carrie Coon as Margo, both are actors I've not given an iota of thought to before. I surely will now, as both females play real women (I guess that's why they're brunettes) with intelligence and grit. Despite Boney's being cut off at the knees at the end of the movie (calm down, just metaphorically) I was mesmerized by her ability to hold our attention with her character's strength, attention to detail and no bullshit attitude. Give me more women in movies like that please. 

Trent Reznor's much talked about score was barely noticeable - a good thing - helping to build suspense and tension. Costumes by Trish Summerville were perfect although I can see why Fincher's go-to designer had to tell Affleck to stop bulking up for Superman already as the casual dress shirts he wore over the endless t-shirts did occasionally make him look not hot, but, dare I say it, borderline fat. 

So what about you? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? What was your favorite cringe-worthy scene?

3  Inherent Vice: It was a trip, man!
Originally published November 20

Inherent Vice:  An exclusion found in most property insurance policies eliminating coverage for loss      caused by a quality in property that causes it to damage or destroy itself.

Basically, you can't get insurance that covers a built in flaw. Would that you could, eh?

In a way, I was the beneficiary of the 'inherent vice' of my son's job the other day. Even though he's  currently working as a production assistant on a television show, my husband invited him to a 7pm screening of Inherent Vice. The screening was followed by a Q&A with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the directors our son most admires. However showtime was 7pm, and when you're working as a p.a. in Hollywood, thinking you'll be anywhere but on set at 7pm is simply stinkin' thinking. It's not going to happen.

Luckily, yours truly was able to swoop in at the last minute and take his place. All in a day's work for this mom; I'm a giver.

Okay, Inherent Vice. As you know I loved the book, not so much for the plot — Doc AKA Stoner detective, is trying to find his ex-old lady, Shasta and her current old man, the wealthy real estate developer Micky Wolfman — but for the magical mystery tour that reveals life in So Cal back in the day. The day being 1970.

I think the story, full of twisty plot turns, was also secondary to Pynchon, who had a lot of fun creating a crazy cast of characters. Paul Thomas Anderson took the best of them and had himself a whole lot of fun re-imagining them for the movie and having Doc (channeled adroitly by the masterful Joaquin Phoenix)— tripping along in his stoner daze like he does — encounter them in his tribute to the author and to California, the state he loves. While Doc travels further afield in Pynchon's novel, Anderson reins in Joaquin Phoenix's Sportello a bit, both in where he gets to and how he gets there. While still the very stoned out detective, and quite the crazy, he's not quite the crazy Pynchon gives us — I was disappointed Joaquin Phoenix didn't sing.  Still he gets around, encountering wacko after wacko going from the fictional Gordita Beach to Topanga to Ojai to the Glass House AKA Parker Center, the police station in downtown L.A. and various and sundry locales in between.

Here's the thing, while Doc the stoner should be the wackiest of the wack jobs, he actually serves as the voice of sanity, pointing out the craziness of the other characters, the insanity of the world around us. Quite directly as he stares in disbelief at Josh Brolin's brilliantly funny BigFoot Bjornsen as the LAPD detective orders more pancakes in a bizarre language hybrid. Not to be outdone is Martin Short's oversexed dentist, Dr. Blatnoyd, Owen Wilson who pops up again and again as Coy Harligen, a recovering heroin addict turned temporarily brainwashed shill for the Nixon admin and Benicio del Toro as Doc's lawyer Sauncho Smilax of whom Doc asks 'whose side are you on?' Indeed! That's the question of the day. Whose side are you on? Reese Witherspoon is sensibly conservative in her role as Penny, the assistant DA; secretly dating Doc, Penny perfectly represents the two-faced straight world,  'the system', the man, all of which conspire to keep the average citizen in his or her place, so the greedy corporations and the politicians in bed with them, can keep on keeping on. In contrast to all the misdeeds of the thugs and the police, Doc Sportello is the good guy, a wise man, in a film filled with liars and fools, 'gypsies, tramps and thieves.'

Anderson expands the role of Sortilége from the book where she waxed poetic about the lost continent of Lemuria; in PTA's film, Joanna Newsom's "Lége" does the voice over as Doc's maternal, all-knowing side-kick, the teller and interpreter of Doc's wistful tale. She has a beautifully nuanced and wispy voice filled with affection for Doc, a bit of a romantic fool himself. He's clearly still head over heels in love with Shasta played by Katherine Waterston — shimmering bravely in the part that calls for a complex mix of sweetness, toughness and a flash of full frontal nudity.

Like Pynchon, Inherent Vice may not appeal to everyone; it's pretty far-out there in its meandering ways. The humor —much of it digging at Doc and his marijuana-induced haze — is much smarter than that sounds. It's sharp and comes in unexpected bursts. The comedy is also sharply critical of our culture; while the world portrayed is the top of the 70's, the ideas are contemporary as the wealthy continue to devour the rest of us, sucking up our savings as they record record profits and the number of the poor and disenfranchised continue to grow.

Did I read the book? Yes, and you can read my take on the book here. But you don't have to have read the book to see this film; my husband had not read Inherent Vice but enjoyed the film just as much as I did. You may have heard PTA changed up the ending of Thomas Pynchon's book; he did. I'm still mulling over how I feel about that: I liked Pynchon's original ending, but if I look at the two as separate beings, PTA's version worked beautifully too.

The movie comes out December 16th; why don't you see it and let me know what you think? We can compare points of view.

After the screening which received applause I'd define as warm but not wild, Paul Thomas Anderson and the moderator took to the stage for their discussion. I took notes rapidly, so much so that my handwriting is very difficult to decipher, but I will transcribe them here when I can. Overall PTA, lean and rangy with a shock of grey in his hair, was funny and passionate. Talking about his reasons for making the film he spoke about the feeling that he used to think the world was going to change, but that he still wakes up everyday, reads the paper and says "WHAT THE FUCK!?!"

4  Still Alice: Julianne Moore is Unforgettable
Originally published: November 14

I shared a clip from the film Still Alice starring Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart last week and told you I scored a ticket to 11/13 screening at the AFI film festival.  It was the last day of the week long festival, held at the Chinese Theaters at Hollywood & Highland—not to be confused with what was formerly and famously known as Grauman's Chinese, where all the stars have their footprints in
the cement, just a few doors down. Hollywood and Highland is more like a big, garish mall, overstuffed with shiny things to buy, and places to eat. For the most part these are the exact same shiny things and places to eat that you'll find in your hometown or the nearest large city. But it's in the heart of Hollywood so there's that. I go there so rarely I always feel like a tourist anyway; it's hard to ignore the studly Superman in costume asking if I want to take a picture with him. No. I don't. Pissed he thinks I'm a tourist or a sucker. Thanks anyway.

It's a bit of a kick seeing a movie at a film festival isn't it? The over-abundance of volunteers standing around in clutches in their AFI Fest T-shirts, the plastic encased credentials hanging on lanyards around their necks. They feel special and frankly there's something about seeing a film before it officially opens that always gives me a little thrill too. Like I'm finally one of the cool kids. I'm not that cool though, otherwise I would have been at last night's screening of Still Alice, the one where the actors were there for the Q&A. Today's screening is celebrity free, just a bunch of your everyday movie fan types. The guy next to me, young, in yellow jeans and red shoes that look like Converse but I think they're trendier and more expensive, has been every day this week. He says he's exhausted but he's got his ticket for Foxcatcher, the final presentation of the fest, screening tonight. The woman on my right is a talker, she's whispering to another woman she met and made friends with while they were waiting in line as the program director introduces the film, assuring us that we are in for something special, a beautiful movie about a family's struggle with a difficult situation, filled with beautiful performances.

There's something about the tone of his voice — an almost indiscernible catch in the throat, maybe — that makes me wonder if I've made a mistake. Maybe this movie will be too hard to sit through, to see in public; I don't want to break down in wracking sobs in a crowded theater, surrounded by strangers, a boy in yellow pants and red shoes, a woman who talks too much.

When the curtain opens, the first thing I see is a promo for AFI; it's a young Sophia Loren singing and dancing in a clip from an old film I've never seen but I know the song she's singing and I forget my worries. I'm at the movies. Tucked into my purse is a wad of toilet paper I grabbed from the women's room just in case. Naturally I forgot to bring tissues. I almost always do.

I don't know what Still Alice will be like for you, whether it will be as intense and powerful and emotionally moving as I found it to be. I think if you have someone you love who's been affected by the disease, your emotions may be magnified, multiplied to the power of 10. The same probably holds true for readers of Lisa Genova's gut-wrenching book, many of whom will flock to see this film when it's released countrywide in January. Because the performances by Julianne Moore as Alice and Kristen Stewart as her daughter Lydia are both so powerful, SONY is also releasing the film for a brief Academy Award qualifying run in December.

I think I've shared in this space that my mother died a couple of years ago, that she'd been living with Alzheimer's for years. While my mother had your basic garden variety brand of Alzheimer's, Alice—played to perfection by Julianne Moore—has a much rarer form of the disease, Early Onset Alzheimer's. While my mother was in her seventies when we knew for sure, Alice is only fifty. She's still a vital, attractive, and brilliant woman, working as a professor of linguistics, giving speeches, conducting seminars. Language is her life; watching her lose it is as horrifying to her as it is to us. Part of the pain comes from Alice's awareness of the problem, her understanding of the disease and how it will progress. She uses her intellect to compensate for her memory loss, just the way many of use post it notes or our phones to remind us of appointments to keep and things to pick up from the market. But Alzheimer's is progressive and unrelenting in its gobbling up of the brain, and Alice's intellect disappears and with it her ability to have any independent control of herself. You can't use your phone to remind you of a task when you've forgotten what a phone even is. Julianne Moore tracks that decline flawlessly. From the first look of confusion on her face to where she behaves like a docile child —there's a scene where she and her husband (Alec Baldwin) stop for frozen yogurt at Pinkberry's and she orders what he orders because she can no longer remember what she likes — to the phase where we see her, vacant, checked out, living deep inside her own head — Julianne Moore reminded me over and over again of my mother.

Do you worry that YOU have Alzheimer's? Me too. 

How could I not cry, tears just streaming quietly down my face in recognition as Baldwin helps Alice dress, pulling on her pants as she stands there quietly like a good little girl, when I remember doing the same thing for my mother? How could I not cry as Alice doesn't know her own daughter when I remember the first time that happened to me. I was walking with my mother and my ten year old son and my mother turned to him and asked him in all seriousness 'Do I know your mother?' Of course I cried, and instead of trying to dry my tears, attracting attention, I just let them flow. They were quiet tears and it was dark, hardly anyone would know. Maybe my neighbors but it didn't matter. They were equally moved. Throughout the film the woman who talked too much couldn't stop making little quiet outbursts: Oh no! Ohhh! The boy in the yellow pants grabbed his jacket and held it to his face; I think he was crying too.

I'm glad the filmmakers didn't take it further down the line in the progression of Alzheimer's disease, to the last and worst stages, where all the money in the world won't buy you nursing care that takes away the fact that the loving, laughing, vibrant, proud person you knew is gone. They've been reduced to wearing diapers, to muttering incomprehensible nonsense sentences if they can speak at all, that there is no way to keep them looking happy and engaged, that they'll sit alone, silent, and unresponsive and their eyes will close and their heads will nod and the person you knew isn't Still Alice or Still Enid or Still Your Parent. And nothing you can do will change that.

Phew. Sorry for being so maudlin, I know this isn't exactly helpful in terms of being a 'review' but it was a tough one to watch, and it sent me to a pretty sad place. Will it be as tough for you? I don't know. I know some of you avoid going to those sad, dark places, it's not what you look for in entertainment. If that's the case then skip Still Alice. Yes, it's incredibly moving and resonant for those of us who have a personal connection to the disease, but it was so well done, the material is so affecting and the acting so stellar, I think you'd have to have a pretty hard heart not to be deeply, deeply moved. It was, as the program director said, a beautiful film full of beautiful performances. Most notably Julianne Moore's whose face and body changed just as slowly but inexorably as did her mind. She was stunning in what has to be the most important role of her career. Kristen Stewart, who I'm only just discovering having avoided the Twilight films, did a wonderful job as the daughter Lydia. Stewart was understated and believable in the role; her eyes speaking volumes. Her approach felt real to me. I know I always talked to my mother matter of factly, I made sure I kept my emotions in check when I was around her, no histrionics. Alec Baldwin was terrific, as was Kate Bosworth as Alice's older daughter but make no mistake, it's Julianne Moore's movie. Her tour de force. And first in line for an Oscar nomination.*

5  Into the Woods: I went Into the Woods and found a Dark and Glorious Place!
Originally published December 25

I won't be seeing a movie Christmas Day.  Instead we'll be at my sister's for Christmas dinner, too much champagne and a few rounds of charades in which I expect the movies of the day to put in an appearance. Unbroken, Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Wild. I can see my sister flapping her arms around the room doing Birdman. I can hear the big groan coming from whoever pulls Inherent Vice from the hat. That'll be one of the hard ones. Into the Woods should be good, just the right amount of challenge.

But, if I was to try to leave the big family celebration, to slip out early to see one of the movies opening Christmas Day, it would be to see Into the Woods. We watched a screener but I enjoyed it so much, I'm looking forward to seeing it on the big screen too. I haven't had time to write up my thoughts before now; Christmas busyness and all, so I'm taking some time to do that this morning while everyone is still asleep. (Late night Christmas eve party at grandpa's house always gets our Christmas Day off to a late start)

Briefly — because it is Christmas — Into the Woods is a movie that takes you on an emotional journey and leaves you feeling joyous and uplifted. I was thrilled to see Meryl Streep once again didn't disappoint as she mastered the part of the witch; she struck all the right notes, and I'm not just talking about her singing. Streep just owned the complexity of the witch's character. The last time I saw Emily Blunt was in The Edge of Tomorrow in which she was funny and fierce; she's funny here too playing The Bakers Wife with a sharpness and a real knack of melting at the sight of the prince.

Anna Kendrick is a modern day Cinderella, perfectly cast as the young woman who realizes it's not all about finding the right man, you've got to find yourself too, know what you really want. Not overly cloying and pretty, her brain very much in evidence and she proves again here she can sing.  Christine Baranski seems born to play the wicked stepmother, and seeing Tracy Ullman again after what feels like a long absence reminded me how talented she is. Where has she been? She's Jack's mother here.

I loved Jack, in part because he was young Gavroche in Les Miz. Seeing him here — doing a great job — felt like I was reconnecting with a young nephew, watching him grow up. I resisted the urge to pinch his cheeks and say, My! How you've grown! Chris Pines was drop dead fantastic as the prince, sexy, arrogant, hilarious, as was his lesser known counterpart 'The Other Prince' played by Billy Magnuson.

James Corden delivered a complex, multilayered performance as the Baker, it was easy to see why the attractive Baker's Wife fell in love with the slightly chubby, hard working busy baker. I'll be trying to stay up late, watching Corden as he takes over the Craig Ferguson show, a very strange career choice, indeed. (I'll miss Craig too).

Johnny Depp was gloriously, purposefully over the top as the Wolf, preening and lusting after Little Red Riding Hood in a spot on performance by Lilla Crawford. Crawford is new to film but not to stage, she starred in James Lapine's production of Annie a few years back, she shines here too. Director Rob Marshall kept Depp's part short and sweet. The sets were incredible, a magical mix of reality and make-believe and the clothes, well the costume designs by  were simply perfect. James Lapine wrote the screenplay and translated it to film flawlessly. Into the Woods was everything you'd expect from this dark fairy tale. In short, seeing the movie felt like I'd gone to see the show on stage; I felt glorious and alive. Disney, despite all the worriers, allowed the filmmakers to go deep and dark and get it right. I'd go Into the Woods any day.