Archive for the ‘adaptation’ category

Arrival

February 12, 2017

art-amy-adams-arrivalArrival, a Best Picture Oscar nominee that hits home video this week, is a poem about time. That may seem a lofty description of a sci-fi movie about a dozen alien spacecrafts hovering over various parts of Earth, but that’s what it shakes out as. Its direction, by Denis Villeneuve, is sure and deliberate and hushed; Villeneuve, I’m guessing, coached his cast seldom to speak much above a murmur. That befits a movie about human communication and its limits — limits founded in our equally limited understanding of time.

This is a pensive experience that evokes something very much like awe, though on some level it’s a bit of a letdown. Unlike, say, 2001 or Solaris (either version), it hews too closely to conventional narrative, to a Hollywood knot cinching things together for the popcorn-munchers. Ultimately it acquiesces to a human viewpoint, wedded to a third-act conflict ginned up by our brusque modern boogeyman China. (Then it wipes that conflict away conveniently with the gentle spectre of grief.) I am trying to step lightly around the plot, which is, in any event, not the best reason to see nor the best level on which to process Arrival.

What I can tell you is that the aliens almost-land, and the military, represented by Forest Whitaker, recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find out what the visitors want. The visitors, when we see them, are foggily-seen critters the humans call “heptapods.” They look sinister as hell, and they communicate via inky, jagged circles drawn in the air (or their version of air — they are separated from the humans by a transparent barrier). Louise’s job is to figure out what the language-circles mean, and somewhere offscreen she devises a code. It’s clear Villeneuve and scripter Eric Heisserer aren’t interested in the linguistic nuts and bolts of how Louise deciphers the heptapods’ scribbles. The real point of the film isn’t the literal meaning of the language but its shape.

I suppose this is old news to veteran science-fiction readers; even if we discount the movie’s source material, Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life,” there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and its Tralfamadorians with their apprehension of time as simultaneity. A man, or a teenage girl, who is alive now is also dead elsewhere in time, and vice versa. Arrival hints and feints at a new way of reckoning life, time, and lifetime, but then wraps it neatly in a Chicken Soup for the Soul formulation along the lines of “If you knew how your life would play out, would you do the same things?” This yokes the story’s metaphysical concerns to a comforting tale of someone who knows that certain choices she will make will lead to heartbreak eventually, but who makes them anyway.

It’s comforting because we in the audience can’t know our future, but are reassured that whatever choice we do make will be for the best — Desiderata and its “the universe is unfolding as it should” writ large (tell that to the Syrians). That remains to be seen, always. The movie falters at the end zone. I don’t know what it should have done; maybe the accumulation of awe and mystique sort of paints the film into a literalist corner. But most of it is masterfully assembled, with great near-wordless performances from Renner (whose gobsmacked smile after his first trip inside the spacecraft is perfect) and especially Adams, who conveys everything we want from a hero without stepping outside the bounds of a fallible human. “HUMAN,” reads Louise’s first volley of English language to the visitors, as if that were the most impressive fact about her instead of the equivalent of a gnat holding up a sign to us reading “GNAT.” As best I can recall, the aliens, in one of the film’s very few concessions to humor, politely let that slide.

Moonlight

January 29, 2017

moonlightRoger Ebert, who I’m pretty sure would have loved Moonlight, had a recurring dictum: “A film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it.” Uncle Roger would probably have said the same about the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Moonlight, whose subject is an African-American man with three different names according to his level of growth. As a boy, he’s nicknamed Little; as a teenager he assumes his given name, Chiron; as an adult he takes the nickname Black, given to him by a school friend with whom he was once intimate. The movie, a second feature by writer-director Barry Jenkins, is structured as a triptych, with each portion named after whatever Chiron is called.

Plotwise, some of Moonlight feels familiar. The child Little, afraid of his crackhead mama (Naomie Harris), begins to spend more and more time staying with a couple who look after him: Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe). The twist is that Juan is a crack dealer who supplies Little’s mama. Eventually, as a man, Black goes into the same business, emulating the only male role model he ever knew. What’s different about Moonlight is the contemplative, painterly treatment that Jenkins gives the material. One could never fairly call the movie melodramatic; at times its energy is surprisingly low.

I was held, though, by the naturalistic performances and by Jenkins’ insistence on telling this story without flooding it with false emotion or incident. I imagine Juan could uncharitably be called “a crack dealer with a heart of gold,” but Mahershala Ali makes him a complex man capable of threat as well as kindness. When the sullen, almost wordless Little, tormented by bullies, asks Juan “What’s a faggot?”, he answers “It’s a word to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” The irony, in a movie loaded with ironies, is that Little’s schoolyard bullies may or may not be the ones calling him that, but his own mother does.

How Moonlight is about what it’s about is with as little dialogue as possible, and with well-judged use of color throughout (cinematographer James Laxton can take a bow). Things happen, major things, in between the three segments. We fill in the blanks of a portrait of sadness that’s not without hope. Nothing is made terribly explicit, nor is the movie particularly plot-centered. We follow Little as he becomes Chiron and then as he becomes Black; the changes in his character are presented as inevitable, unquestionable. Moonlight was shot fast, often on location in the same Miami projects where Jenkins grew up, yet it takes its time. It’s not so much a riff as a becalmed tone poem.

Jenkins’ handling of Chiron’s sexuality is as quietly oblique as everything else in the film. Chiron has a moment with childhood friend Kevin, but then is never intimate with anyone else until he meets Kevin again as an adult. Is he gay? Bisexual? Just looking for any meaningful male attention? The movie lets us grapple with the ambiguities. Jenkins trusts silence and inertia; he doesn’t move the camera needlessly — he also trusts composition and color. The achievement here is only possible in cinema, a story whose novelistic details are suggested by image and editing and what the filmmaker chooses to include and exclude. It is governed by a sure command of the medium that never insists on itself or bullies the audience. It’s a shame Ebert didn’t live to see it; he did, however, see Jenkins’ 2008 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy, which he awarded three and a half stars, and praised Jenkins’ “confidence to know the precise note he wants to strike.” I’d say Uncle Roger called it.

 

A Man Called Ove

December 18, 2016

a_man_called_ove_-_2For some time, I’ve wondered why Fredrik Backman’s Swedish novel A Man Called Ove, a huge international bestseller, has captured so many imaginations. Having watched the film adaptation, which hits DVD in America next week, I think I know. Which is not to say it deserves all those imaginations, or knows what to do with them. The film stars Rolf Lassgård (Wallander) as Ove, an irascible widower pushing sixty and yearning to follow his wife Sonja, who died of cancer six months ago. Ove tries various methods of suicide, but life — in the form of his neighbors — keeps intruding. This wounded old man must, of course, learn how to rejoin the human community. And that’s about all there is to it.

The movie jerks its tears tastefully; there’s a minimum of schlock, because the tone takes its cue from the film’s astringent, taciturn protagonist. There seems to be a trend in recent Swedish pop culture to lionize the grouchy and rumpled; witness the success of the novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and its film version, or for that matter the detectives Wallander and Backstrom and many others. Ove slouches through the Swedish chill and fog, growling at everyone he looks at, lording it over his condo association, browbeating clerks and youths and, at one point, a clown. He’s the sort of joyless asshole who can only be enjoyed from a distance — men like him make life hell for retail workers the world over.

Of course Ove has a lot of pain in his past to explain his behavior. (So do the targets of his scorn, quite likely, but the movie isn’t interested in that possibility.) He grudgingly — always, in these movies, grudgingly — forms a bond with a new neighbor, Iranian immigrant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), who has two cute-as-a-button daughters and is carrying a third baby. In no time he’s giving her driving lessons as well as agitating for the rights of a disabled friend and taking in a young gay man whose father has disowned him (this plot thread gets forgotten).

In this construction, a man filled with rage and despair can be healed by the warm touch of the well-meaning. (Ergo the story’s popularity from sea to shining sea.) Fredrik Backman packs his narrative with neatly relevant thematic elements, and the movie, adapted and directed by Hannes Holm, tries hard to include them all. The block association that Ove dominates and resents comes together to help him. Even a foofy old fussbudget of a cat follows him around. It’s as though dear departed Sonja had arranged for a micro-society to close ranks around her husband and keep out that Swedish cold and angst.        

People have fallen for the book and will fall for the movie. It could be worse. The film’s flashback structure is smoothly fastened together by editor Fredrik Morheden, its present-day gloom and past-glory color clearly captured by cinematographer Göran Hallberg. Bahar Pars is appealing as the voice of life, and Lassgård anchors the movie with his sad, churlish gravitas. But things are made a little too pat (for instance, Sonja is a bit idealized, and the subplot about Ove’s trying to keep his disabled friend out of a home lacks credibility), which makes this entertainment, not art, and simplistic, familiar entertainment at that. A Man Called Ove is harmless, I suppose, except for its assurance that all a miserably suicidal person needs is a family of friends. Well, the many grieving friends of the many depressives who have attempted suicide — and succeeded at it, not semi-comedically failed — might beg to differ with that diagnosis.

The Maltese Falcon

September 26, 2016

the-maltese-falconHumphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of vague and various nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.

This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.

A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.

Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.

Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.

Dr. Strangelove

September 11, 2016

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.

Chimes at Midnight

August 28, 2016

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Orson Welles was just 49 when he started filming Chimes at Midnight in 1964, but he looked 70 — the age he was when he died, in 1985. Partly that’s due to make-up, and partly it’s because he always seemed older than he was. The movie, one of Welles’ finest works and a personal favorite of his, has been difficult to find outside of dodgy bootlegs until it was restored recently, and this week it appears on shiny new Criterion DVD and Blu-ray editions. It’s essential viewing for fans of Welles and of Shakespeare, whose great comic-tragic buffoon Falstaff is at the film’s center, played by Welles as though he knew he might never again get such a juicy opportunity.

As director, Welles contended with a puny budget, which resulted in some infamous issues with dubbing. The words and the images aren’t always in sync; sometimes the characters, played by stand-ins, face away from the camera to hide the fact that Welles didn’t have a particular actor that day. None of this matters, though, because what comes through is Welles’ passion — and, of course, his genius, which presents here as creative workarounds. In the end, Chimes at Midnight is as radiant an example of film-love as any of Welles’ other train sets. Somehow, the movie gods smiled down on Welles’ efforts, and what could have been an embarrassing boondoggle takes its place as a classic.

Falstaff was close to Welles’ heart. At its core, Chimes at Midnight tells the story of an old scoundrel who loves a young man — Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), destined to become King Henry V — as though he were Falstaff’s son. The young man must eventually reject Falstaff and the juvenile antics he represents, in order to earn the gravitas that being the king demands. That Falstaff understands this doesn’t make the rejection any easier, and there may be no more heartbreaking moment in Welles’ career as an actor or as a director than when the former Hal rejects Falstaff and Falstaff’s expression speaks of both pride and despair. The entire dark, stylized movie leads up to that moment, which in its original context as a two-part play about the passing of power from Henry IV (John Gielgud) to his son might come off more as a sad footnote about a supporting character.

The movie is famous for its ahead-of-its-time depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury, filmed in chaotic fragments that nonetheless cohere into a vision of the horrific nonsense of war. Pauline Kael pointed out that the sequence was the only one in the film in which Welles could use editing as an artist rather than as a magician trying to misdirect us from budget problems. It’s ferocious and saddening without an ounce of schmaltz, leading up to the duel between Hal and the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). The movie gives the impression that this is either the first life Hal has taken or the first one that means something to him, and it sets the stage for his maturing and his rejection of his surrogate father. Thus does war destroy anything decent in its path.

Welles said that the movie was less a study of the passing of Falstaff than of the passing of a way of thinking about England. Chimes at Midnight, whose very title resounds with awareness of mortality, is stylistically a bleak and cold vision, with steam often visible on the actors’ breath in the frigid air. At one point, John Gielgud’s ailing Henry IV exhales steam through his nose disdainfully, like a dragon in repose. In opposition to this is the warmth of Falstaff, who in this telling is only incidentally a clown, waddling into battle in his armor and then hiding behind bushes. Falstaff’s “cowardly” response to war seems the only sane reaction to it, and his subsequent attempt to take credit for killing Hotspur reads as a way for him not to gain glory but to forestall the reality that Hal is no longer the Hal he knew. It’s a great, sad, exhilarating, stinging accomplishment.

Batman: The Killing Joke

July 30, 2016

killing_joke-640x356There’s a whole lot to unpack in Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated effort shown in theaters for two nights before its debut on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Based on a lionized 1988 comics story written by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and drawn by Brian Bolland, the movie supposedly asks, as the comic did, why some people respond to trauma by going mad while others get stronger. Moore’s story did this by setting up the classic antagonists Batman and the Joker as two men deformed by grief in their own ways. One man became a hero, determined to make sure no one else was murdered in an alley like his parents were. The other man became a supervillain, an anarch cackling at the cold cruelty of the universe. Dark as Batman is, he’s essentially an optimist — he believes his holy war on crime matters — while the Joker is a nihilist.

Whatever depth survives into the movie comes from Moore’s script — a script he himself disavowed years ago, uncomfortable with its grimness and with the way it handled Batgirl, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, the crimefighting daughter of Batman’s tacit colleague on the Gotham police force, Commissioner Gordon. The Joker disables Barbara with a bullet to her spine, then kidnaps her father and torments him with photos of her naked and in anguish. Why? To prove that anyone is only “one bad day” away from being a basket case like the Joker, who on top of being disfigured also lost his wife and unborn child in a random accident.

The Killing Joke comic is rather short, so the movie pads things out by devoting its first full half hour to Batgirl. Screenwriter Brian Azzarello invents a smooth gangster who calls himself Paris Franz, who’s obsessed with Batgirl. When she isn’t trying to catch Franz, Batgirl is mooning after Batman and, eventually, having sex with him on a rooftop under the watchful eye of a gargoyle. Aside from being pointless, this extended prologue makes the story about Batgirl, a focus and emphasis it was never designed to bear. Yes, Moore later regretted what he’d done to Batgirl (with DC Comics’ enthusiastic editorial indulgence, creepily enough), and the way his story uses her as a way to test her dad’s mettle is unfortunate at best. But expanding her role before the story proper begins doesn’t add any weight to her suffering; it just turns the story into The Sorrows of Young Barbara, first sexualized by Franz, then rebuffed by Batman, and finally brutalized by the Joker.

It’s good, though, that a post-credits scene sets Barbara up as Oracle, a wheelchair-bound but brilliant and powerful hero who fought crime via computers for years after her injury. And there’s little quibbling to be made about the vocal talent here — Killing Joke reunites Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong, who respectively voiced Batman, the Joker, and Batgirl in The New Batman Adventures. There are some Easter eggs for longtime Batfans, such as a monitor in the Batcave showing various iterations of the Joker over the decades, nodding to Nicholson and Ledger. If you don’t expect this Killing Joke to pack the wallop it did when you first read it 28 years ago, it’s smoothly rendered. Once it gets to Moore’s story, it’s slavishly faithful, which means it eagerly reproduces every element that has struck readers as problematic for the last few decades (including its continuing insistence on referring to the dark ride Commissioner Gordon takes as a “ghost train”). Still, as with the animated adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, if all you ever wanted was to see the iconic Batman story in motion, here it is.

One other thing: Batman: The Killing Joke is rated R (for “bloody images and disturbing content”). It’s not the first DC superhero film to be so classified: the “ultimate edition” of Batman v Superman released on Blu-ray a couple weeks back earned an R for increased violence. This sort of thing — age-restricted versions of superheroes that began as kids’ entertainment — is what Alan Moore came to disdain, though his own work popularized the trend towards grim and gritty. More off-putting than the violence here — which, aside from a bloody head shot here and there, isn’t much worse than in the PG-13 Dark Knight Returns — is a moment when a gangster refers to the Caped Crusader and Batgirl as “Batman and his bitch” (an addition by Azzarello, not Moore). Not to sound paternalistic, but I think young girls who like Batman (and Batgirl) and might want to see this movie can probably wait a few years before hearing that particular insult. They’ll be hearing it soon enough and often enough. They don’t need to hear it in a movie about a man — or a woman — who dresses as a bat and fights crime.