‘Where The Crawdads Sing’ Doesn’t Dig Deep Enough into the Marsh

After watching “Where the Crawdads Sing,” I immediately went out and purchased a copy of Delia Owens’ novel upon which it is based. Judging from the opening narration in which the main character of Catherine “Kya” Clark tells the audience how “marsh is not swamp” but instead is “a space of light where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky,” this cinematic adaptation looked to defy all the perceptions we typically have of such places on Earth. This is further emphasized by her describing how swamp exists within the marsh and is “quiet because decomposition is cellular work,” and how it “knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.” This dialogue comes straight from Owens’ prose, and it stayed with me throughout the film’s 126-minute running time.

This cinematic adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing” comes to us from Reese Witherspoon who has gushed endlessly about how much she loves the novel, and she produced this film alongside Lauren Neustadter. The screenplay was written by Lucy Alibar who co-wrote “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and it was directed by Olivia Newman who is best known for her Netflix film “First Match.” Clearly, there is a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera here, and the appreciation everyone has for the source material cannot be doubted. Still, while this film held my attention throughout, I Pate’s came out of it thinking, couldn’t the filmmakers have dug into the material even deeper?

We first meet Kya as a young girl who lives with her family in the North Carolina marsh, and it is fun to watch her being embraced by her loving mother. But then we see her dad (played by Garret Dillahunt) is an abusive bastard who treats every member of his family like crap. From there, Kya’s mother and siblings leave their home one by one to where it is just her and dad, and she learns to survive his drunken wrath in more ways than one. But soon he disappears, and Kya is forced to fend for herself and survive on her own to where she copes with loneliness in a way few others do.

Indeed, seeing Kya grow up in the marsh to where we can believe she can more than survive on her own provides this film with its most interesting moments, but it is all surrounded by a courtroom drama which makes the proceedings feel utterly routine and ordinary. As the story begins, the police come upon the body of Chase Andrews (played by Harris Dickinson), a high school quarterback who had been in a relationship with Kya which ended on a bitter and violent note. People in town are quick to label Kya as the key suspect as they have always viewed her as an outsider to where they fear her for all the wrong reasons. It is not long before Kya is arrested and charged with his murder.

Part of my problem with this film is that it treats many of the characters as caricatures instead of fleshed out human beings. More often than not, the filmmakers only touch on the surface of these individuals instead of transcending their nature to present something more unique. While certain characters are given special attention, others are painted in broad strokes to where they could have come out of so many other motion pictures. The period detail is spot on as the film immerses us in the times and tribulations of the 1960’s, but it still feels like we are just watching events unfold instead of living them through Kya and everyone else.

One actor who elevates his material here is the great David Strathairn who co-stars as Kya’s defense attorney, Tom Milton. While the prosecuting attorney looks and acts like a Jake Brigance wannabe, Strathairn transcends his character’s mannerisms and background to give us a performance which feels alive and lived in. Not once does he ever give us a moment which feels false as his character comes out of retirement to defend Kya in her murder trial. At the start, he asks Kya to her that he cannot help her until het gets to know her better. His character becomes key from there to the story as, like him, we want everyone to see Kya as an individual instead of some odd human being who exists in the shadows where few others dare to travel to.

Speaking of Kya, the actress who plays her is Daisy Edgar-Jones, and her performance for me was worth the price of admission. She more than inhabits Kya to where the character never comes across as some female version of Tarzan, but instead one who merely exists in the marsh as it is the only home she has ever known and feels comfortable in. Jones also renders many scenes she appears in with heartbreaking honesty as we watch her discover love for the first time, and later heartbreak which is always devastating, especially for the young.

It is also worth singling out Jojo Regina who plays the younger Kya as she embodies the character at a fragile point in her life. She shows us how lost the young Kya is when she first goes to school and discovers how cruel children can be to someone different from them. More importantly, Regina sets the stage for Kya becoming wholly independent as she digs in the marsh for mussels to sell to the local general store. Watching her, I believe Regina gave Jones so much great stuff to work with.

I also enjoyed the performances of both Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt as Jumpin and Mabel, the kindly African-American couple who own and run the local general store where boats get their gas. They respect and care they have for Kya is strong and shows through their eyes and actions. Plus, Mabel has one of the movie’s best lines as she rightly points out that the Bible says nothing about being careful.

But as for the rest of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” it all feels inescapably routine. Sure, the cinematography by Polly Morgan is gorgeous, the music score by Mychael Danna fits the material perfectly, and it is clear everyone here has great love for the source material. But in the process of being slavish to the novel, they don’t do enough bring everything it to life. I cannot help but believe this adaptation could have been given much more depth as this movie could have stood out in the same way Michael Apted’s “Nell,” which starred Jodie Foster as a similar individual raised away from civilization. While the novel may have given many a unique experience, this movie fails to do the same as it becomes like many we have seen time and time again.

I think it would have been best to focus much more on the trifecta of Kya, her first boyfriend Tate (Taylor John Smith), and her second boyfriend Chase. Where Kya is a child of the wilderness and the marsh, Tate has one foot in the civilized world and another in the wilderness, and Chase himself is a product of the civilized world which has given him a lot of bad ideas about social status and women. These relationships are dealt with, but in a rather shallow way with some acting which is too theatrical for motion pictures.

Heck, I would have liked to have seen more of Dillahunt as Pa as, from what I have read of the novel thus far, there is more to him than being just a drunken bully. Perhaps we could have been given more depth into this character as a result to where we could understand why he acts the way he does even as we rightly despise his actions. Still, the movie decides to keep him at arms’ length. Granted, the main focus is, and absolutely should be, on Kya, but perhaps knowing more about the key people in her life would have made her coming of age adventures all the more enthralling.

If you are a fan of the novel, I think you will have to see how the movie “Where the Crawdads Sings” compares to it. There is a lot to like about it, and again, Jones is simply wonderful in the lead role. But considering how beloved this novel is, I imagine many will come out of it feeling like more could have been done with the material.

For what it’s worth, both the movie and the novel serve as a reminder of how the civilized and uncivilized worlds don’t go by the same laws as survival takes on different forms in each. And remember, unlike animals, human beings are the only species to put their own in cages, behind bars.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Dolores Claiborne’ – A Stephen King Horror Tale of the Real-Life Kind

Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.

Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.

The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.

The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.

For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.

When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.

Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.

There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.

Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Godzilla (2014)

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The stench which emanated from the sheer awfulness of Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has haunted me ever since I saw it on the big screen in 1998. For a time, it dampened my spirits in terms of where movies were headed as I was afraid many more of them would be dumbed down like Emmerich’s movie was. Had it been an even bigger hit, I feared more summer blockbusters would look exactly like it; filled with lame one-dimensional characters and special effects which look no different from the video games we play at home. But in the end, it was so critically reviled that even Toho, the company that owns Godzilla, looked at Emmerich’s version of the monster as a separate, stand-alone character whom they renamed Zilla. It was if they were saying, “Oh no, that was so not Godzilla. That was a cousin or a step child or maybe the product of a one-night stand.”

But now that stench has vanished as Gareth Edwards has given us his version of “Godzilla,” and it makes for one of the most entertaining movies of the 2014 summer movie season. Instead of having this enormous Japanese monster chase after characters who look like they were part of a rejected sitcom pilot, he stays true to the style of the Toho series of Godzilla films and manages to weave in some commentary about nuclear power. Just as the original “Godzilla” served as a metaphor for Hiroshima, this one doesn’t dare hide away from what happened in Fukushima where nuclear accidents occurred after the massive earthquake and tsunami which occurred there.

The movie starts off with the terrifying destruction of a nuclear power plant, one which ends up dividing a father and his son. We then move to several years later when Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US Navy, comes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son after a long tour of duty. Their reunion, however, is cut short as Ford gets word his father, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has once again been arrested in Japan for trespassing into areas blocked off to the general public as the area surrounding the power plant isn’t all that different from Chernobyl when it suffered a meltdown.

Joe is still convinced the power plant accident was really a cover up for something, and he and Ford come to discover what’s left of it has been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Scientists led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) reveal they have been housing a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and are trying to keep it contained by giving it doses of radiation. But, of course, all hell breaks loose when the MUTO breaks free of its captivity and heads out to sea, and it is then we learn another MUTO (this one a female) has been held in the United States and has also escaped and quickly laid waste to Las Vegas. Like Natasha Henstridge’s character in “Species,” she is looking to start a big family with offspring which will surely destroy all of humanity, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her MUTO mate. Clearly, safe sex is not on their agenda.

This is where the iconic Godzilla comes in. Now in the past, this gigantic creature has been portrayed as an enemy to all of humanity and as an antihero who looks to take down any other monster who foolishly thinks it can defeat him. But in Edwards’ movie, Godzilla is really the good guy who, as Dr. Serizawa puts it, is here to “restore balance” to the world, and he doesn’t even bother the battleships which sail alongside him as he swims from one country to the next. We all know Godzilla will end up destroying a lot of expensive real estate which will cause many insurance companies to go bankrupt, but we’re still on the monster’s side as we know the military won’t have enough firepower to bring down the MUTOs.

Edwards takes his sweet time in revealing Godzilla to the audience, and we don’t really get a good look at him until almost an hour into the movie. When he does finally appear onscreen and let out the biggest of roars anyone has ever heard, the audience I saw this movie with broke into a tremendous applause. This is the fiercest Godzilla has looked in many years, and the way he towers over the tallest of buildings had me in awe. This is the way Godzilla should look and feel.

One of the many problems I had with the 1998 “Godzilla” is it never felt like I was watching a real monster on the big screen. It felt more like I was watching a big special effect to where the creature didn’t even fill the least bit threatening. But in 2014’s “Godzilla,” the creature looks and feels real to where I kept praying the human characters would keep themselves from standing underneath its feet. The thought of being crushed by a creature that big is horrifying.

As for “Godzilla’s” human element, it’s not altogether strong, but I still liked how the characters came across as relatable even if they were at times clichéd. I also have to give the screenwriters credit as the movie starts as one thing but surprisingly turns into something else. Just when I thought I knew what kind of movie this “Godzilla” was going to be, it continued to surprise me as it went along. Yes, we all know how things will end, but getting there proved to be more fun than I expected.

It also helps there is a terrific cast of actors to keep us emotionally involved in the characters before and after Godzilla makes his grand entrance. You can never go wrong with Bryan Cranston whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or anything else, and he makes his character very empathetic when he could have been easily laughable. As for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I almost didn’t recognize him after getting so used to how he looked in those “Kick Ass” movies, and he does good work portraying the typical heroic military character we always see in “Godzilla” movies. Ken Watanabe remains a tremendously gifted actor, and even though I thought stared in horror one too many times in this movie, he is a very welcome addition to this cast. And then there’s David Strathairn who plays Admiral William Stenz, and he can always be counted on to give the military leader the gravitas and humanity a character like this deserves.

As for the female characters, their roles are a bit underwritten and I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. Still, you have actresses like Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins making them into memorable characters when they could have been ones who were easily forgettable.

This “Godzilla” does have its problems, and there are times I wished Edwards and company had injected just a little more humor into the proceedings. Also, the big fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs never seems to come soon enough. There’s a moment where it looks like the fight will begin, but then a door closes on the characters and on our view of the monsters, and that was really frustrating. The human characters may have wanted the door shut, but everyone in the audience was clamoring for it stay open so we could see one enormous mutated creature beat the crap out of another. And yes, there probably are some plot holes and gaps in logic in the story, but I really didn’t care. You don’t always go to these movies expecting a whole lot of logic anyway.

What makes this “Godzilla” work is how it is clearly made by filmmakers who have a great love of monster movies. Edwards, whose previous directorial effort was British science fiction film “Monsters,” has talked about just how much he loves those kinds of movies, and he does an excellent job of making Godzilla a truly terrifying force of nature. After being absent from the big screen for over a decade, it is great to see this iconic monster make such a tremendous comeback.

I also got to say watching “Godzilla” makes me really happy that I do not work for an insurance company. Seeing all those destroyed buildings and roads, I can see claim adjustors going nuts as they field one phone call after another regarding totaled Hondas, decimated condos and bridges which now really lead to nowhere because they’ve been destroyed. You can bet no one’s going to take any guff from someone who tells them their insurance policy doesn’t cover attacks from giant mutated monsters!

* * * out of * * * *

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