Monday, January 18, 2010

Messing with success

I promised a list of remakes better than their originals (movies), but I confess I'm stumped: I can't think of a single one. If any of my loyal readers (or anyone at all) can, do tell.

Instead I'll offer a list of the worst remakes or sequels I can think of off the top of my head:

The Pink Panther (Steve Martin)

In one of those rare moments when I actually intended to watch TV, it was the only thing on. Oh god--it was even worse than I feared. I like Steve Martin, but come on--Peter Sellers in the original was one of the greatest comedic phenomenons ever captured on film. The new version is campy and clumsy and self-conscious and dull.

Star Wars, Episodes I-III

Here's a rare case of a movie not being campy enough. I barely made it through one of the three. The "force" comes from mitochondria in the blood?! Anakin went over to the dark side just because he was afraid his girlfriend might someday die?! Please, put away all the CGI and sanctimony and send me back to spaceships with strings attached and Harrison Ford smirking at everything.

The Lord of the Rings

The first installment almost belongs on my other list: nothing could eclipse the books, but Peter Jackson did more with Fellowship than I would have thought possible. Ian McKellan as Gandalf was almost too good to be true, and the opening sequence with poetry and the glowing ring gave me chills. And Gollum! But things foundered in Towers and Return: far too many battles, everyone racing around and shouting, New Age music, and Sam wimpering "Frodo!" until I wanted to slap him.

Not much of a list, but it's all I can think of for now...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Can a movie ever be better than the book?

People sometimes get frustrated with me for seeming always to prefer books to movies. But there are exceptions, and I thought it might be fun, maybe instructive, to list as many as I could think of. Here goes:

The Bridges of Madison County
this was on TV the other night, and thus my mind. One of the worst books I've ever read turned into a decent movie--quite a feat. Not a great movie, but worth seeing just for Meryl Streep's virtuosic accent (not just Italian, but Italian diluted by half a lifetime in Iowa).

Babette's Feast
Isak Dinesen, who wrote the story, was a master of minimalism, apparently blessed with the rare gift of more plotlines than she had time or patience to develop fully. Thus a fine but extremely short, almost "sketchy" story becomes something approximating a full novel in cinematic form. One of the tip-top movies I've ever seen.

Looking for Richard
Not really a true adaptation, this is a film about a film about Shakespeare's Richard the Second. But Pacino does more with snippets of the story than anyone else I've seen, including Ian McKellan, does with the whole thing.

Men of Respect
A lot of people have tried to translate and transplant Shakespeare, but for my taste it rarely works. This re-casting of Macbeth in the Mafia does. Lady Macbeth obsessively launders tablecloths, and the famous "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy gets perfectly condensed to two words. Brilliant.

Hamlet (Mel Gibson)
People remember any number of famous lines from the play--it's a veritable Bartlet's all its own--but they forget that it's Shakespeare's longest by far, and thus notoriously unplayable in full form. Gibson gets a bit anachronistic in dueling with sabers instead of rapiers, but he got things exactly right in "cutting" the script. And for my money, neither Olivier nor Brannagh nor anyone else can touch his embodiment of almost-madness.

The Natural
I have a friend who seethes over this one. Maybe it depends whether you read it or saw it first. Call me sentimental (that'd be a first!), but by the time I got to the book I was fatally hooked on Redford's warmhearted version, buoyed by period costumes and all the visual loveliness that is baseball.

Like Water for Chocolate
Probably not a coincidence that Esquivel wrote both novel and screenplay. Turn-of-the-century Mexican costumes, furnishings, cars, and landscapes just don't reveal themselves well in prose. And then there's the food, and the sex. You don't realize how visual the book is until you see the movie. Nice music too.

No Country for Old Men
The most perfect adapation of a novel I've ever seen. Maybe even better than the original thanks to subtle visual plays (and ploys), and Javier Bardem bringing Shigeur to life in all his cold-blooded consistency. Maybe the most perfect movie I've ever seen--if I had to pick out a flaw, I'm not sure I could.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Road (movie review)

Nearly two years ago, I read The Road. I started late at night, home alone, sober. Three mistakes. By the time I finished I barely wanted to relinquish the quasi-fetal position I'd assumed on the floor, let alone go to sleep. Strange as it sounds, though, this is a glowing review. I can't remember the last time a book moved so much with so little.

Almost one year ago I added the novel to a class I teach. I'd never taught anything like it, and I was not at all sure it would work. I tried to strip my pedagogy down to the austerity of McCarthy's prose, posing just one question per class, the first and most persistent being "What's the difference between surviving and living?" Surprisingly, the students took the meager bait and ran farther than they had with litanies of questions on other books.

Around the same time as my teaching experiment, rumors of the movie's release began to seem serious. Then mysterious delays were announced. I waited. Summer came and went. I waited some more. Fall came, and was nearly spent before we were told, finally, definitively, that the movie would open the day before Thanksgiving--which sounded like a tasteless joke but wasn't.

About a month ago, Banjo52 offered a review of the movie, which I avoided reading lest he give something away.

Last week, I tried to see the movie with a friend while visiting family for the holidays only to find it wasn't playing anywhere nearby.

Today, finally, I saw the movie myself.

The good news: though there are several significant changes from the novel in terms of action and dialogue, and virtually no narration survives, there's nothing wrong with anything about the adaptation. There's nothing wrong with it as a movie in its own right either. I know this sounds like terminally faint praise, but 95% of movies I see have at least a couple fatal flaws in realism, consistency, subtlety, etc.

More good news: some real imagination went into the scenery and filming, including some of the best computer-generated shots (grounded ships, vacant cities) I've ever seen. In fact, much as less is more with this story, I wouldn't mind more such shots.

The pace is slow, as it should be, yet it feels a bit busy somehow, as if the director is afraid we'll get "bored" with the emptiness. But McCarthy works so hard precisely to achieve that emptiness, that fatal boredom, that banality of everything, that I think it's a mistake to make the movie world so visually stimulating. More importantly, perhaps, I wish there were more obsessiveness over physicality--which largely means pain. We see a lot of fires, for example, but we never see the man struggle to build one. We hear about his preoccupation with food and shoes, and we see filthy, haggard faces, but we don't really feel the urgency of hunger, the way it gnaws at the mind and soul as well as body. I've done a lot of camping, and I know that it's the little rituals that make or break you: cold hands rolling up a tarp, lumpy ground against hips and shoulders, stiffness of knees after sitting. So few movies do justice to these kinds of details. (Castaway came close, in the first half.) McCarthy is such a physical writer, almost to the point of self-parody at times, that I hoped for more of this from the film. Less color wouldn't hurt either. Less music, or none at all, would be a major boon.

One thing we could use more of--but don't ask me how you do this on film--is blood, brutality, cannibalism, deformity, horror. There's not a huge amount of it in the novel in terms of pages, but they are some of the most teeth-chatteringly awful scenes I've ever read, forcing my students to think twice about the question "Is anything worse than death?" The environment seems more of a threat in the movie than man, and I'm not sure that's the right balance.

Some little oddities: there's a scene in the trailer of a newscaster narrating as the world comes to an end that never appears in the movie. Prob. just as well, but I don't think I've encountered such a disjuncture before. What we do see in the movie is Viggo awake to fire out the window, get up to look, and, with laughable calm, proceed to the bathroom to fill the tub with water. This is true to the novel in letter, but silly in spirit: the pacing is much too quick, emotion flat, as if he simply said, "Huh. It's the end of the world. Guess I'll go draw some water," without any hesitation or reflection. Unrelated gripe: the piano bothers me. I love pianos, and I don't mind the addition, as it makes for a nice motif and gives Viggo a rare chance to give in to grief, but I can't see any reason why he'd take an axe to it. The one thing that doesn't seem lacking throughout the story is wood. (Besides, it would be pretty hard to attack a piano without ruining your axe.)

Somehow Charlize Theron worked for me, even though she's really far too pretty. One of my main reservations about the story is the idea that a mother would kill herself while her son lives. This remains a problem in the film, I think, but somehow Charlize's beauty causes it to make a bit more sense, as if she doesn't quite belong with the man in the first place, let alone in the hideous new world.

As for Viggo, those eyes just ruin it for me. His acting is fine, but there's this self-conscious "special-ness" about his face usually reserved for cheesy made-for-TV movies about Jesus. Of course neither he nor the boy looks nearly thin enough. The boy works very well; though decidedly too old at first, he transitions beautifully toward the end into a being somehow more responsible, sober, mature.

I had just assumed that Robert Duvall would play the rescuer at the end, to the point that I'd imagined him quite vividly and successfully into that role. His appearance as the much less important geezer earlier was therefore more a distraction than it should have been. Too good a show of acting, oddly, and far too much makeup. I sympathize with Banjo52's reservations about the ending, but it's almost exactly rendered from the book--though the man should have had a bad eye and been older, the children were excessive, and the dog just silly. (Even dedicated non-cannibals would surely have eaten the dog, which begs the question, did Viggo and Charlize eat their horse?)

The verdict: see the movie, but don't neglect reading the book. It's true that I almost always prefer the book version, but this really is a special case, because so much of the novel's power comes from its language. Written with scarcely a verb in sight, Shakespearean-style inversion and Biblical diction, it almost drove me away, but after I persisted through ten or twenty pages, I became seduced.