Talking Movies

April 30, 2010

Revolutionary Adaptation

Revolutionary Road was acclaimed by Kurt Vonnegut as The Great Gatsby of his generation, but does that classification beside a totem of modernist literature suggest that filming Richard Yates’ novel in a straightforward realist fashion is doomed to failure?

Watching Revolutionary Road you wish you knew more about how the Wheelers came to this point, the substance of their dream and their complaint about suburbia, and you wish that the supporting characters were more fleshed out. Then you read the book and find that a third of the text, if not more, is taken up with flashbacks showing how each character came to this point. The Wheeler children are barely characterised in the film but an undercurrent in the book is the damage that Frank and April’s fighting inflicts on their children. There are heartbreaking descriptions of how they simply crumble when their parents fight, and in one devastating scene it’s implied that April’s behaviour will be faithfully replicated in the future by her daughter Jennifer – she will always do whatever she feels like doing.

Yates is a masterful writer. His language isn’t as gorgeous as the heights reached by his hero Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby but his prose is so wonderfully incisive that you find yourself reading a paragraph repeatedly for its insight. Asides from an unfilmable delicacy with language Yates treats his characters with a universal sympathy hidden beneath endless irony. Mrs Givings is a mere figure of fun to be scorned in the film but Yates manages the nigh-impossible feat of making you laugh at characters for their self-delusions, and in the next paragraph feel pity for them. These characters know they are deceiving themselves, but they must do so in order to go on living. Compared to this Tolstoyan compassion Mendes’ film makes characters and events far simpler and clear-cut. The film removes much of the sting from the fights because we are not privy to Frank’s constant despair that April may leave him at anytime simply because she feels like it – she is a master of mental torture, and even her line about his recourse to physical abuse against this is cut.

The comedy of the novel, such as the epic shirking of work at Knox by Frank, Jack Ordway, and all the other staff, is almost completely lost in the film. Yates’ novel is extremely funny throughout, and its lengthy description of how Frank organises his desk to avoid work is side-splitting stuff. Instead Mendes presents Frank’s Toledo memo as nonsense, when it is the only genuinely good work he has done in years for the company and so merits the attention it bestows on him. Also lost are Frank’s qualms as he runs through various possible comments in his head before delivering horrendous lines for his appraisal of the performances of the Laurel Players and Maureen Grube. Modernist literature is defined by its concern for interiority and the loss of that inner perspective hurts the film by making Frank seem a good deal more callous than Yates intends him to be.

Can a faithful treatment really ignore so many elements of its source? Can a blackly comic novel be truly rendered as an unremitting tragedy? Can a modernist novel be adapted at all without drowning a realist film in voiceover and flashback? Adaptation is always a perilous task but Revolutionary Road suggests that adapting modernist novels is impossible to do within the accepted confines of Hollywood realism…

April 23, 2010

Who the Hell is … Mark Strong?

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 2:28 pm

This second in a series of occasional features celebrating character actors who deserve more attention focuses on the current blockbuster villain of choice Mark Strong.

I first noticed Mark Strong when he starred as an East End Jewish gangster in 1960s London in the BBC 2 four-parter The Long Firm. After that he had minor film roles as the torturer who pulls out George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana and as the crazed Russian cosmonaut trying to destroy humanity in Sunshine. Matthew Vaughn gave him a more substantial film part in Stardust as the surprisingly bloodthirsty villain of the fairytale who continues to duel even after his death, in a show-stopping piece of mechanical special effects. At this point Strong became a fine actor who should be getting better parts, like Linus Roache in The Chronicles of Riddick, with a minor role in another Vin Diesel mess Babylon AD. Thankfully that didn’t derail him and Vaughn’s old collaborator Guy Ritchie gave him a high profile gig in Sherlock Holmes as the evil revenant Lord Blackwood. Vaughn cast Strong again in his next movie, the outrageous Mark Millar comic-book flick Kick-Ass, as Frank D’Amico the crime-lord driven to distraction by amateur superheroes ruining his business. Vaughn has now been joined in praising Strong by Ian McKellen who called him the greatest actor in England at the present moment.

Strong, like Ben Kingsley, possesses features which casting agents deem capable of portraying a span of nationalities from Jewish to Syrian, via English and Italian. But he can do this without it seeming insulting because of his chameleon like ability to change for each role – a complete lack of vanity which saw him buried under fright make-up and shot out of focus for his appearance in Sunshine, or, as Vaughn raved to me in a 2007 interview for Stardust, to go limp like a rag-doll, be wired up to a rig overhead, and be physically puppeteered for a swordfight as a magically animated corpse. So, now that you know who Mark Strong is look out for him as The Lord Villain (not the actual character name but accurate) in Robin Hood, and as Sinestro, the renegade alien Lantern, in 2011’s long-in-development Green Lantern. Geoff Johns has been masterminding a resurgence in the comics title of late and an unreliable appraisal of the screenplay last year suggested that this was going to be the real deal. The casting of Strong along with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Blake Lively as Carol Ferris certainly bodes well for a movie as romantic, thrilling and sweeping as Johns has made the comics.

It would be a great pity if Strong was reduced to playing villains for the rest of his career but for the moment let’s just enjoy an unsung actor having his star ascend by sheer talent and hard work.

April 16, 2010

Who the Hell is … Kevin Durand?

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 1:24 pm
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In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to celebrate a character actor who I always cheer when I see hove into view.

Kevin Durand is a Canadian stand-up comedian turned actor who has been consistently thwarted by his own physique. Durand first came to my attention as Joshua in season 2 of James Cameron’s Dark Angel. Joshua was the original genetic experiment by the shadowy genetic scientist Sandeman who founded military program Manticore to create super-soldiers after putting a bit too much canine DNA in the mix for Joshua. Buried under layers of prosthetics and make-up Durand gave a fine performance as the hulking dog-faced man, mixing humour with tragic nobility, that helped raised the show’s game considerably after its misfiring first run. After this turn though Durand’s great height, 6’6″, started to get in the way of his natural comedic talents. In a world of leading ladies like Kristen Bell (5’1″), Hayden Panettiere (5’1″), and Ellen Page (5’1″), you can see how it might be just a bit of a problem in getting leading man roles in romantic comedies…

He floated through half of America’s TV shows in one-shot guest roles, notably as a terrifying psychopath in a very chilling episode of The Dead Zone, before a far bigger role in season 4 of LOST as the psychopathic leader of the mercenaries dispatched to the island to kidnap Ben, and then returned as a slightly more rounded version of the same villain in the frankly ridiculous parallel universe used as filler for season 6 of LOST. This of course led to a higher profile and an appearance in Wolverine followed, as the Blob. Sadly no one either noticed or could win the argument over relative star billings that Durand rather than the miscast Liev Schreiber was the natural choice to play Wolverine’s half-brother Sabretooth. His role as the Blob though was perhaps the best use anyone had made of his uniquely endearing mix of comedic timing and imposing physique since Dark Angel. It was certainly more rounded than his thugs in 3:10 to Yuma, Smokin’ Aces, The Butterfly Effect, or his vengeful archangel in Supernatural knock-off Legion. Thankfully, and probably courtesy of his Yuma gang-leader Russell Crowe, he’s essaying a rare good guy role in Robin Hood next month, he is of course playing Little John…

Can Durand overcome his own physique and escape from the pigeonhole of one-note psychos or insanely script-specific good guy parts? Here’s hoping that Robin Hood marks the beginning of more varied and high-profile roles for the man who should be the next Donald Sutherland, sharing as they do an ungainly height, a goofy grin, and a flair for playing villainy, comedy and pathos equally well. Oh, and did I mention he’s Canadian too?

April 6, 2010

Whip It!

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:24 pm

Drew Barrymore assembles a strong ensemble of comedic actresses for her directorial debut led by Juno and Hard Candy star Ellen Page in her first lead role since Juno.

Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a teenager attending blue bonnet pageants to please her mother while simultaneously plotting her escape from 1950s throwback that is her hometown of Bodeen, Texas. A shopping trip to that liberal enclave Austin sees her encounter the fishnets wearing, eyeliner dripping members of the Texas Roller Derby. So begins a secret life as the new jammer for the perennial losers the Hurl Scouts led by Maggie Mayhem and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore’s ridiculous supporting role). Adopting the name Babe Ruthless, Bliss, as the fastest skater on the team whose job is to pass other players, soon becomes an integral part of the team and propels them to success and a rivalry with the reigning champions. Juliette Lewis takes a break from music to return to acting as Iron Maven, the wild child captain of that team, and is a joy.

Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig is surely only one decent role away from being a film star as, following Adventureland, she is once again wonderful in support as Bliss’s self-proclaimed ‘cool aunt’ figure Maggie Mayhem. Only Maggie and Smashley are depicted as having a life outside the rink but that’s to quibble when life inside the rink receives so much screen-time in a series of games that never become repetitive thanks to Barrymore’s ultra-violent and very exciting choreography of the bone-crunching plays designed to take out rival skaters. It probably helped to have Quentin Tarantino’s favourite stuntwoman Zoe Bell as one of the Hurl Scouts…

The creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, as Bliss falls for a pretty boy rocker, and becomes estranged from best pal Pash (Alia Shawat) and her mother to the strains of oh-so-hip indie music but this is redeemed by a third act which is pleasingly subversive on two counts. Barrymore, unsurprisingly as an actress turned director, coaxes fine performances from all the cast, especially the two most important males – Andrew Wilson’s exasperated coach and Daniel Stern’s supportive father – and even manages to rein in Marcia Gay Harden’s usual histrionics as Bliss’ mother so that you get a sense of the real love between mother and daughter even as she seeks to push Bliss down the road she herself abandoned.

Amid all the debate about Bigelow’s Oscar for a macho film it’s nice to see Barrymore quietly assemble a talented female cast to take on such a traditionally male genre and to do this a good job of subverting expectations. Whip It! is not a great film but it is an awful lot of fun and signals Barrymore as a director of note as well as actor/producer.

3/5

April 1, 2010

Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 1:50 pm

So, for this the final part of the three-part series, it is finally time to examine the Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation) to see historically what has been most popular with audiences. And the answer (un)surprisingly tends towards the gimmicky, the romantic, the big broad brushstrokes, the zeitgeisty, and the already popular from other mediums…   

10  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
9    The Exorcist
8    Dr Zhivago
7    Jaws
6    Titanic
5   The Ten Commandments
4    E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
3    The Sound of Music
2    Star Wars
1    Gone with the Wind

Gimmickry showcasing of spectacle, especially spectacle unavailable to TV, is important in a number of these films. The Exorcist was full of grotesque effects that TV legally couldn’t replicate. Dr Zhivago and The Ten Commandments showcased the widescreen landscapes TV couldn’t do with The Ten Commandments also being a special-effects extravaganza as well as having the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’. Star Wars was of course mind-blowing when released because of its complete reversal of previous film-making methods involving model-work, and Gone with the Wind was both in the expensive and new ‘glorious technicolour’ as well as being so lavishly produced that a Confederate veteran famously complained of the burning of Atlanta sequence that “If we’d a had that many men we’d a won the damn war!”. Jaws was nearly the pinnacle of the 1970s obsession with shooting on location, 1937’s Snow White was a risky gamble that audiences would accept feature-length animations (you’re welcome Pixar), and Titanic was a monumental folly of integrating huge sets with unprecedented use of CGI.

We criticised Avatar for using broad brushstrokes but many of these films use such a large canvas you’d have needed a damn mop. The difference is craft… Jaws was such a superbly directed suspenser that Hitchcock handed the torch to Spielberg, who then reduced children and their parents to blubbering wrecks with E.T.’s outrageous emotional manipulation. The Sound of Music showcases its joyous musical numbers with a much sharper script that you remember, and Satan Vs Christ is enlivened by a sub-plot of some depth about faith and doubt in The Exorcist. Lean never lost sight of his characters’ emotional truth in Dr Zhivago’s epic landscapes and The Ten Commandments was filled with charismatic performances, while Snow White and Star Wars enacted their simple archetypes with great charm. Gone with the Wind meanwhile successfully melds an intimate love story with an epic backdrop with humour, romance and compelling dramatic grandeur.

I’ve previously argued Gone with the Wind’s release just before the world plunged into World War II was apt as people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling through. Stephen King argued that The Exorcist appealed to parents concerned about losing their kids… and those teenagers, eager for shocks. Jaws was a subtle allegory of post-Watergate political tensions, Star Wars showcased the all-American optimism that had been so lacking in 1970s cinema, while Charlton Heston’s Moses appeared in Eisenhower’s reign as President during which Ike added references to God to both dollar bills and the Oath of Allegiance. Critics meanwhile noted E. T. as one of the first mainstream films that was informed by the new baby-boomer experience of a divorced father’s absence from a middle-class white family and the bitter cost on the children.

A number of these films were adapting already popular material. Snow White was a universally beloved fairytale, while The Exorcist, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and Gone with the Wind had all been bestselling novels, and Cecil B DeMille was dramatising the Bible. Robert Wise was adapting a hugely popular stage musical from the reigning kings of Broadway, while Star Wars drips with archetypal elements from Joseph Campbell’s rummaging thru the heroic legends of the world’s ancient cultures, and everyone thought Titanic was clichéd in the way Avatar was clichéd in its use of over-familiar story tropes, and on top of a famous event to boot. E.T. is the only original script here which would have been completely unpredictable to audiences. Perhaps the decline of reading as attention-spans collapse has eliminated the universal reception possible to films in the past, especially Gone with the Wind whose casting of Scarlett O’Hara was as protracted and famous as it was simply because so many people already had their image of Scarlett from reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. The new impossibility of gathering a monolithic audience in any sphere of entertainment means no film will ever top Gone with the Wind.

Oddly enough for an age that regards romance as a structural necessity regrettably foisted onto blockbusters or the stock-in-trade of the worst genre in the world (rom-com) we find romance dominating half these films. Snow White is the idealised fairytale romance, Omar Shariff and Julie Christie are thwarted lovers married to the wrong people in David Lean’s swooning 1965 epic, while forbidden romance again figures in Maria’s transformation from nun governess to beloved stepmother of the Von Trapp family, and Titanic is the archetypal American romance between an uptown girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And of course the most tormented, dysfunctional, sweeping romance of them all stands at the very zenith. “Our love is epic”, Logan Echolls told Veronica Mars, “Epic?” “Epic. Spanning continents and decades. There’s betrayal, bloodshed and heartbreak. Epic.” And damn if Epic Love isn’t still the top film of all time. From the Golden Age of Hollywood comes the mythic love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance while the Confederacy burns around them.

Titanic is the only film made since 1982 on the list. Seven of these films overcame television, with Titanic also defeating the ubiquity of video which removed the urgency of seeing something ‘only in theatres’, but we are now at an historic low for cinema-going. Why is a question for future postings…

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