Wonder (****1/2) is something that everyone should experience


Wonder – 2017

Director Stephen Chbosky
Screenplay Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad & Chbosky based upon the book by R.J. Palacio
Starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Sonia Braga, Millie Davis, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Danielle Rose Russell

When I was about 5 years old, in kindergarten, I made a friend named Eric. He and I literally just spent time in recess together and thought it might be fun to play after school. Eric was to walk at home with a teenage girl – a friend of the family – who was coming from the local High School to meet us.

She arrived at the school with another girl, her friend, who laughed and joked a lot. Before we started for his home, Eric decided to run from them in some manic form of tag in the wide open school yard. Instinctively I started running too. The friend of the family started chasing Eric, so her friend volunteered:

“You go get Eric. I’ll get the ugly one.”

I fell on the ground within three or four steps of this when I realized that I was not Eric.  And I was never going to be. The girl tagged me with her hands then. I didn’t feel that one.

I carried this event with me. I hauled it around like luggage. In some ways, it’s extra weight made me sensitive to other comments about my looks, which I went ahead and added that to my load. I let this shape me into a person who desperately wanted to be known as something other than “the ugly one.” It pushed some personality traits to the fore, and dragged others into the background.

One of the things I became really good at was reading people. I could tell a lot about someone based on where their eyes went after we were introduced.

I did find that I had a lot less social courage when it came to others who were less fortunate. I didn’t want to stand up for them, because I felt I had no leg to stand on. I was certain that I was on the edge of being thrown into the group of kids who were always teased for being “special.” Even the kids with seemingly no visual faults had a hard time facing up to bullies. There was no magic words back then. There never seemed to be an adult around to referee when someone said something cruel. I don’t know where I would have found that courage. It just took years to develop on its own.

If only this movie and book had been around then.

 “ ‘Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ ” Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.” 

It would be one thing if Wonder taught us the value of forging ahead through rough waters. If it only taught kids and adults to be considerate would be amazing. This film does it one better. We get everyone’s perspective and if we pay attention, we have a chance to realize that everyone has a burden to bear.

Wonder is a wise film. It’s simple, heartfelt and not subtle at all. Unless you consider listening a form of subtlety. Even if you’re not paying close attention the message of the story is hard to miss. Indeed, it’s hard to not agree with.

August Pullman (Tremblay) is a 5th Grade boy with a facial deformity, which he has mandibulofacial dysotosis and a cleft palate. I was born with the latter. His parents worked with him to make the decision to join a private school. The story starts with his visit to the school for a tour, before the first day.

On that day he makes an enemy and a friend. He doesn’t realize this, of course, until much has happened.

Where this film succeeds is in its simple multi-sided approach to the story. By dividing the story into perspectives, we are allowed the privilege of adjusting our judgement to fit the procurement of new facts. The film gives the wisdom of acknowledging that with an understanding other people’s side of the story, we can go a long way into understanding why Mr. Browne’s (Diggs) first precept is a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer:

When given the choice between being right, or being kind, choose kind.

There is an inherent amount of grace to showing simple kindness. This is something that Auggie’s Principal Mr. Tushman (the marvelously understated Mandy Patinkin) expresses effortlessly.

Auggie has a tough road in front of him. Not only does he need to learn to navigate the complex form of relationships of an “ordinary kid,” he also must look beyond the bullying he gets from the simple fact that his mere existence is a medical wonder augmented by over two dozen surgeries.

The reason is, his sister Olivia (Vidovic) is undergoing some pretty big issues, too. Her friend Miranda (Russell) has recently drifted away, and she recently lost the biggest fan that she had, in her grandmother (Braga).

This is just the tip of the Rashomon iceberg.

The simple story is augmented by some spectacular performances. Tremblay continues to show (this time through incredibly real prosthetics) a range that most actors years older could not touch.

As Olivia and Auggie’s mother, Isabel, this may be Julia Roberts’ finest acting performance. She is in command of the logic and completely beholden to the heart of her character. I didn’t know she had this kind of ability, Erin Brockovich notwithstanding.

Owen Wilson is just the right touch as Nate Pullman. He’s a simple, loving man who wants everyone in his family to succeed and to feel loved. Let’s just say Marley and Me was a warm up for this role.

Mandy Patinkin. What is possible to say about him by now? His skill is only exceeded by his ability to pick material and roles that are absolutely genuine to him. It’s hard to imagine this film succeeding without him, even if he had a limited role.

As “Via” Vidovic is a key player here, too. She does an admirable job presenting someone who understands her problems don’t have to be the biggest thing to take a toll. Her loving, but challenging relationship with her brother brings a depth that enriches both characters.

Chbosky once more (as he did in The Perks of Being a Wallflower) shows that he can navigate complex thought and actions in relatively simple, short strokes. His propensity is to show that no human is beyond redemption bodes well for this ultimately optimistic take on growing beyond what you are right now.

His choice to make Summer, Jack Will and Miles (Davis, Jupe and Breitkopf) more than one note characters gives the actors more to do than most directors would give peripheral child performers. They show they are ultimately up to the task.

The only time the film stumbles is when looking to find someone to blame for all of that teasing. There is a ham-handed exchange between Tushman, two parents and a child that might have gone better had they put actors more worthy of being counter to Patinkin as the adults. The result feels like we’re witnessing an awkard form of shadowboxing.

There is also a fight scene that comes out of nowhere that feels forced and unnecessary. If they’d given the kids something more clever to overcome, it would have been more respectful to their abilities.

My complaints are trivial compared to what this movie gets right. I have to be honest, I was crying from about the 10 minute mark through to the end. My oldest daughter and her friend were in a constant state of tears, too. My youngest even found a lot of this felt true to the challenges she goes through. This film is honest, painful, but mostly it’s optimistic. This is my favorite film of the year and it is the kind of story that goes a long way to improving the human experience. And if my view of the film is colored by my personal experiences, I wish I could have used these colors years ago.

(****1/2 out of *****)



Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)

Divergent Series: Allegiant (***) gets worse than it gives


Divergent Series – Allegiant (2016)

Director Robert Schwentke
Screenplay Stephen Chbosky, Bill Collage, Adam Coper, Noah Oppenheim based on the book by Veronica Roth
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Octavia Spencer, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Bill Skarsgård, Naomi Watts

This will be thought of as the film that ushered forth the end of Hollywood’s necrophiliac habit of making multiple films out of books that don’t warrant them. It’s a fate that should have fallen on a worse film, to be sure, but it had to happen sometime. It’s not a great film. It’s better than Insurgent. Having the cast it does, it should be approaching great, instead of treading through good.

That none of these films share even one author might have something to do with the increasing disconnect with audiences. In total, 9 writers claim credit from the first film until this one. At least the last two had Robert Schwentke, even if in the end it really didn’t help. He was off the docket if there had been a 4th cinematic venture. R.E.D. seems so far away now.

In it’s wake, we have a decent effort by Woodley and James, leading a revolution against an ever evolving foe. The mark has changed from film to film as the world of our heroes expands from myopia to dystopia. Moving from the formidable Kate Winslett to the frayed Naomi Watts to the deceptively smooth Jeff Daniels, the game is still the same: divide, conquer and use for testing.

That my daughter and I enjoyed this film more than the previous probably has more to do with changing venues than anything. We discover a few unsurprising things about the Earth and we’re supposed to root for these fresh-faced kids as they decide that teenage wasteland is not a fun place, because all of the adults are jerks.

As nice as this all is, it’s the kind of film that will be hard to remember in two weeks. To be fair, I waited two weeks before writing this review and my theory proved correct. I need to refer to notes more often than should.

If they’d finished, the series, it likely would not have been improved much. The same can be said for every film set that tried the same gimmick outside of the last Harry Potter film. In that case, the first one was the let down. Still, there are worse ways to pass a rainy Sunday. The Hunger Games series, for instance. Too bad the bottom didn’t fall out on that series first.

(*** out of *****)




The perks of being a wallflower can take you by surprise


The perks of being a wallflower – 2012

Writer and Director Stephen Chbosky
Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Nona Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Lynskey, Zane Holtz, Paul Rudd, Joan Cusack, Tom Savini

Everyone’s journey begin’s with a single step, even if that step is taken within a daze.  For Charlie Kelmeckis (Lerman), the first walk through the halls of the biggest period of his life are rife with feelings of isolation and remorse.  This is something I can relate to.  I spent my freshman year wondering what a fresh start at another high school might do for me.  Soon enough, Charlie finds a friend in the rebellious and flamboyant Patrick (Miller).  Within minutes, he is introduced to Patrick’s step-sister, Sam (Watson).  Just like that, the daze is lifted, just a bit, and his course is set, as far as he can see.

The thing about high school, for a lot of people: this is the most open you will be in your life.  New experiences collide freely with your limited past and create a fertile ground for the possibility of who you just might become.  Charlie is quite literally an open, unwritten book.  He devours every word presented to him by his engaging advanced literature teacher, Mr. Anderson (Rudd).  Indeed, he considers him the first friend he acquired in High School.  As the words and experiences come pouring in, he begins to learn about his new friends, and, to a lesser extent, their friends.  Sam and Patrick, as seniors, are a bit further down this road than is Charlie, but they do not chastise his inexperience.  They bring him into the fold, like a friend they are proud to have.

In this way, The perks of being a wallflower resonates.  Having friends across borders is an important experience, and one can see that it has a profound affect on Charlie.  He is reeling, we think, from the suicide of his best friend the previous May.  This is something that is all too familiar to many kids of high school age.  For Charlie, though, there is something more.  Lerman, impressive in many of his previous ventures, including 3:10 to Yuma, Percy Jackson… and The Three Musketeers, has the appearance of profound innocence.  He captures the feeling of sadness and amazement at once…as well as the trance of one who has prepared to move on from a traumatic event.  It is a difficult feeling to capture, and he nailed it.

As Patrick, Miller is almost as successful.  His comfort with who he is feels natural enough, and there is a certain authenticity to his ability to withstand the nickname “Nothing” with aplomb.  His friendship with Charlie feels real, too, for the most part.  Growing up with a few persons of his caliber, it takes performance like Millers for one to have an appreciation for the courage that it took to be unique, or, at the very least, comfortable with yourself.

Watson’s performance as Sam is a mixed bag.  In a way, she is the perfect person to play the role, in that many people who grew up watching the Harry Potter films developed an unrequited crush upon who she was to them.  In the same way, Charlie has an idealized version of Sam.  She is way above him, and Watson’s ethereal grace does nothing to diminish this.  That she is kind does not hurt, either.

The problem with Miller and Watson’s roles is not as much in their performance, but, rather, the script.  At some points, they are clear thinking, kind-hearted and forward thinking.  Within a couple of frames, however, Chbosky has them imbibing with spirits and drugs of one sort or another, with no clear consequences.  This is a lie that threatens to derail all the things going right with the film, which involves an exploration of the darkness that one can envelop one in what can be the brightest time of their lives.

Many of the experiences that happen in this film have happened in the lives of kids in America, myself included.  Mae Whitman’s girlfriend in the way, in particular, rings true.  Factoring in hallucinogens tends to quickly exacerbate  the highs and the lows.  Having not read the book, one cannot speak with authority why this is omitted.  They sure spent enough useless time at The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Even I wasted one evening going through one of those horrid live performances.  My then girlfriend was innocent enough to admit she’d never seen it before, much to our dismay.  But like everything in life, one must just endure.

If they had cut at least 3/4 of the Rocky Horror fluff out, they could have given the substance use the gravity it deserved.  That Chbosky ignores this relationship is to the detriment of the message of the film, but it does not take away from the power of the last half-hour.   In that time, we see many changes, and things go from bad, to better, and good to worse.  What happens will be left for you to explore.  I exploded in tears at one point, and confused the hell out of  myself, as well everyone near me.  The way things had gone earlier, I really could not have expected it.  Looking back, though, everything makes sense, for the most part.  Feeling a profound connection to Charlie, I realized he is made of stuff that we all contain.  We really shouldn’t contain it, though, through blocked memories, drugs, alcohol or other walls.

(**** out of *****)