On the Other Hand

I recently decided to stream a 2014 movie based on a well-received YA novel. I’d thought about seeing it in the theater on its first run but the word of mouth on it wasn’t great. So it took me a while to give If I Stay a chance. It starred Chloe Grace Moretz whom I enjoyed in Kick-Ass, Hugo, and Let Me In. On the negative side there was the remake of Carrie, though that misfire all wasn’t her fault.

The movie was the first fiction feature for R.J.Cutler, who is more known as a TV producer (Nashville, Flip That House) and a documentary maker (1993’s The War Room, The World According to Dick Cheney). The novel by Gayle Foreman was adapted by Shauna Cross, who’d done the screenplays for Whip It and What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Foreman did write a sequel  for “If I Stay” called “Where She Went” which kind of answers the original novel’s title right off the bat.

The caught-between-life-and-after-life genre has some good movies in it, but it also has some stinkers. The production is dealing with a universal moment for all humans; simply put, none of us gets out of here alive. You can’t get away from the profundity of the situation, even though it can be handled with humor. What you don’t want is a casual feel since, to use the cliché, this is a matter of life and death. You want to get down and dirty and struggle with the theme. The biggest problem with If I Stay is it keeps its hands clean.

The movie adaptation is straightforward, following the structure of the book. Mia (Moretz) is a 17-year-old High School senior who’s a talented cellist. She’s auditioned for Juilliard and is waiting to hear from them, and she’s also dealing with the end of a relationship with rock band frontman Adam (Jamie Blackley). On a drive with her mother Kat (Mireille Enos), dad Denny (Joshua Leonard) and young brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), an oncoming car comes into their lane and hits them head-on.

Mia awakens on the snow-covered road with emergency service vehicles all around her. She sees what’s left of the family car, which isn’t much, and then she sees EMTs working on her body. She’s transported to the hospital where she watches the surgeons work on her body, but she slips into a coma and no one is sure if she’ll awaken. The movie flips back and forth from the hospital to events to show her family life, her development as a cellist, and her relationship with Adam. At the hospital, friends and family gather, including her grandfather (Stacy Keach), her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato), and Adam.

The best parts of the movie are the depiction of the relationship between Mia and her parents and family. Enos is luminous as Kat, and was likely happy to do a much more passionate role after the two seasons of the AMC series The Killing. Keach is restrained and effective as he switches between stoicism when around others and emotional vulnerability when alone with his comatose granddaughter.

While it has a promising beginning, the love story of Adam and Mia fails to be compelling because of clunky writing that slips into clichés so badly you’re pretty sure you’ve already seen their scenes before. Adam is on the cusp of success in his rock band while Mia’s hero is Beethoven. The story plays up the difference in styles rather than understanding how they blend. The writers apparently nere listened to the Beatles (“Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby” in particular), almost any Harry Chapin song, or Damien Rice’s “Volcano” among a host of others. For a movie that centers on music, its poor understanding of the art form is like a flapping flat tire as the story’s progresses.

If I Stay suffers in comparison to other YA book adaptations, especially The Fault in Our Stars, which came out a few months before If I Stay. With Fault the audience was drawn in completely to the relationship of Hazel and Gus, and the story went in surprising directions. With Mia and Adam, you don’t really care about them, so you also don’t care if Mia stays or passes on. For a fantasy like this, that’s a fatal flaw.


Hollywood Carrie’s On

There have always been remakes in Hollywood. Sometimes they work well – the John Houston version of The Maltese Falcon was a remake of an earlier film, and more recently Steven Soderbergh took the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s Eleven and turned it into one of the best heist flicks ever made. Other times the remakes beg the question, “What were they thinking?” Probably the worst is the 1998 remake of Psycho, which not only retold the story but matched the original shot for shot. If they had to put Psycho back in the theaters, they would have been better off simply colorizing the original and releasing that. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates? That is scary, but for all the wrong reasons.

The newest remake is definitely in the “What were they thinking?” category. The original 1976 Carrie was a milestone in horror movies, which along with The Exorcist moved them from the B-movie category up to the A-list, and garnered Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. It was blessed with an excellent supporting cast including Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and John Travolta in his second movie role. (His first movie role was in a Grade Z movie, “The Devil’s Rain,” which encapsulated in one film all that was wrong with the horror genre at that time.) Carrie was the high-water mark in director Brian DePalma’s career, which turned increasingly self-indulgent and hackneyed afterward (with the exception of The Untouchables). The movie also created a huge buzz about the original novel’s author, Stephen King. Publishing has not been the same since.

I had hopes when I saw the cast that the remake could capture the power of the original. Sissy Spacek was in her mid-twenties when she filmed the original Carrie. For the new movie, one of the hottest teen-aged actresses in the business, Chloe Grace Moretz, was cast as Carrie. Moretz had done horror before as the pre-teen vampire in Let Me In (which was a remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In, and was just as good as the original), though she showed even better acting chops recently as Isabelle in Hugo. Substituting for Piper Laurie’s Margaret White was Julianne Moore, another excellent actress. Replacing DePalma for the remake was Kimberly Pierce, who guided Hilary Swank to her first Oscar win in Boys Don’t Cry. The remake kept the original screenplay writer, Lawrence D. Cohen, with additions by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who prior to this had mostly done work on television shows such as “Glee” which may have given him bona fides for a movie about high schoolers.

Even with that going for it, it doesn’t work. The original had a lyrical quality in the face of the horror elements. It was also, in its own way, one of the first girl empowerment movies. Carrie blossomed as she realized her power. It gave her the strength to fight back against her psychologically-abusive mother. Sissy Spacek had strong support thanks to Piper Laurie’s flinty religious fanatic. In the remake, Moore is more of a mouse than a monster, without the fanaticism to sharpen the action. For Moretz, Carrie’s powers come across as more of a parlor trick than an empowerment.

The supporting cast is bland. Portia Doubleday’s performance as Chris Hargensen has none of the fire that Nancy Allen brought to the role, and Gabriella Wilde doesn’t communicate the inner decency that Amy Irving did as Sue Snell. About the only upgrade is Ansel Elgort as Tommy. You can see why someone would fall for him much more than William Katt.

Of course, the special effects this time around are far and away better than in the original, thanks to the evolution in the art over the past 40 years. Still, the original was much more effective when it came to the mayhem, which happened with explosive fervor. The split screen process DePalma used worked beautifully to highlight Carrie’s actions. In the new one, Moretz looks like she’s listening to some odd piece of music on her Ipad ear buds rather than consciously murdering the senior class.

While they don’t try to recreate the original’s final “gotcha,” which has now become cliché in horror films, the substitution makes little sense and only serves to underline that this is a lesser version of the story.

An A in 3D

While Martin Scorsese has been associated with crime stories set in New York City ever since his breakthrough picture, 1973’s Mean Streets, he has also crossed into other genres with ease and confidence.  His follow-up to Mean Streets was the female-empowerment-themed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, for which Ellen Burstyn won the best actress Oscar.  (If you only know the story from watching the ‘80’s sitcom version, you need to see the original – it’s gold compared to Alice’s brass)  He’s also done documentaries (The Last Waltz), costume dramas (The Age of Innocence), and biographies (The Aviator) – even sequels and remakes (The Color of Money, Cape Fear).  They all show Scorsese’s excellence behind the camera, his encyclopedic knowledge of film technique, and his ability to collaborate with actors to create memorable performances.

When I heard that Scorsese’s new film was an adaptation of a children’s book set in a train station in post-WWI Paris, and that it was filmed in 3D, it sounded like he’d gone off the rails.  I should have known that he would instead produce a gem of a movie, and a love letter to movie lovers everywhere.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the catacombs and scaffolding of a train station in Paris where he keeps the clocks wound and functioning.  He’d come to live with his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and help him with his work after his father (Jude Law) was killed at the museum where he worked.  Claude disappeared months earlier, leaving Hugo to fend for himself by pilfering food from the vendors in the station such as Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), who runs a café.  He must also watch out for the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the platforms, catching children and sending them to an orphanage.

From his hiding places, Hugo watches the life happening around him, such as the news agent Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) and his attempts to court Madame Emilie, and the flower vendor Lisette (Emily Mortimer), with whom the Inspector is infatuated.  But Hugo’s only companion is a mechanical man that his father had rescued from the basement at the museum where it sat, broken and forgotten.  Hugo is continuing the repair work on the automaton that he began with his father, but he is missing a key piece.

He’s been scavenging gears and pieces from a toy shop in the station, run by an embittered old man, Georges (Ben Kingsley).  When Georges catches Hugo in the act, he takes a notebook from Hugo containing the notes Hugo’s father had made on the mechanical man.  To get it back, Hugo enlists the help of Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz).  A friendship develops between the two children, with Isabelle opening the world of books to Hugo with the help of Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) who runs the station’s book store.  In return, Hugo introduces Isabelle to the magic of movies.

This is a story of loss and reclamation, of hope extinguished and then rekindled.  Along the way, it is also a story of movies themselves and the wonder engendered by flickering images on the screen.  Besides being one of the premier directors of this age, Scorsese is also a student of the cinema, and that love shines through.

The casting is incredible.  Besides those already mention, you have Helen McCrory as Georges’ wife, Mama Jeanne, who you see both as a beautiful young muse and an older haunted woman with eyes filled with pain and regret.  Curiously, three actors in the movie appeared in the Harry Potter series: McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), and de la Tour (Madame Olympe Maxime, the giant headmistress of Beauxbatons), though they never had a scene together.  Along with the gorgeous cinematography and set design, the supporting actors make you feel you’re watching a Parisian poster from that era come to life.

Sacha Baron Cohen is the comic relief, yet even with the physical comedy (helped by a brace on his long leg), Scorsese sits on him, keeping his usual wildness reined in.  The result is a comedic performance that also has tenderness and pathos.  Ben Kingsley is stellar as always, especially as he slowly warms to Hugo.

The two young leads are remarkable.  Chloe Grace Moretz has done some remarkable work even before turning 15 (Kick-Ass, Let Me In).  As Isabelle, she is delightful.  Asa Butterfield has the bluest eyes since Paul Newman.  He hasn’t done a lot of previous work, though he was Bruno in The Boy with the Striped Pajamas.  Butterfield captures the awkwardness as well as the humanity of Hugo, who is impelled to fix things (and people) that have been broken.

3D has been used recently as a gimmick to inflate the box office of bad films with the surcharge for the technique.  With Hugo, you see how it can add to the movie experience when used by a master director.  Scorsese designed the film to incorporate the 3D into the experience, and it is worth the extra price to fully see Scorsese’s vision.  He’s always been a director who’s taken the newest techniques and mastered them.

This is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  It plays your heart like a violin virtuoso, lifting you high and dropping you low.  It’s why we’ve been going to the movies for over 100 years, and will continue to do so.