December 13, 2013
ALL GOOD STORIES DESERVE EMBELLISHMENT: THE CHALLENGES OF ADAPTATION IN PETER JACKSON'S THE HOBBIT, PTS. 1 AND 2
by Christopher Dole
Introduction: “A Tale of Your Own”
A story has always been dependent on who’s telling it. From the beginning of time with the oral tradition, to the present and the Hollywood focus on remakes and reboots, stories grow and change as if they were living, breathing beings. They shift based on the mores of the time, the fascinations of the teller. Even if the major arc remains the same (how many reinterpretations of Romeo and Juliet, for example, have we seen?) the details are filled in differently. Some storytellers cut. Some reimagine. And others expand.
One of the most controversial adaptations of modern filmdom has been Peter Jackson’s expanded version of The Hobbit. Criticized at once for being too beholden to a book, and taking too much liberty, by making an epic out of a children’s adventure book, there can sometimes be a tone of “how dare he?” self-righteousness to these arguments (which, unfortunately, can often overshadow some very real critiques of the films that can be made). Jackson is famous as a filmmaker for being fascinated by filling in the details of the worlds he creates – either timewasting filler or giving his films scope and breadth. And based on Part 1, it was at times difficult to see which would be correct, even if the filler was entertaining or not.
Now that Part 2: The Desolation of Smaug is being released, the fuller scope of what Jackson is attempting is coming into focus. And what’s clear is that Jackson does not lack ambition, nor does he lack understanding of the material he’s working with. For while one often thinks of adaptation as trimming back and cutting down, Jackson instead has chosen to develop, to expand themes and create a fuller world. The Hobbit is a deeply challenging book to tackle – more so than the comparatively straightforward Lord of the Rings, its surface simplicity underlying deep structural and character challenges that almost demand expansion. What’s more, especially in The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson is ruthlessly working to bring out Tolkien’s original themes in The Hobbit. He has tapped into the material, and found what resonated for him in the original work. And isn’t that what adapters are supposed to do?
Part One: The Quest for Erebor – Breaking Down Tolkien’s Hobbit
One day a peace-loving hobbit is gang-pressed by a vagabond wizard and a bunch of dwarves to steal gold for them from a dragon. They have some wacky, deus ex machina-powered random adventures along the way, he proves his worth, and the good guys win, if in a bittersweet fashion. There, I just described The Hobbit for you (or, at least, the very basic conception of The Hobbit which most seem to have) and saved you from reading 300 pages and watching three films. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Hardly.
First, what’s The Hobbit actually about? When you break it down, the answer to that question is a little trickier than one would imagine. The most basic answer is that it’s about a naïve individual learning to open his door to the outside world, proving his own worth, and learning some bitter lessons. Not a bad spine. The problem is, in the actual narrative, this naïve individual is rendered a rather passive observer for at least half the book – both at the beginning and at the end. It’s really only in the midsection that Bilbo Baggins does something – and his last critical-to-the-plot act in the book is not one that can be viewed entirely positively, and happens before the climax. So one has to beef up other elements of the narrative to carry the action onscreen while the Bilbo plot plays out in the background.
November 23, 2013
ROME FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE REVIEWS #3
by Ciro Di Lella
Sebunsu Kôdo - Seventh Code (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
A young Japanese girl (Atsuko Maeda) follows the man of her dreams (who doesn't even remember meeting her) to Vladivostok. Despite finding out that he's involved with the Russian mafia, the girl decides to stay in the foreign country and pursue her romantic quest with the help of two Chinese restaurant owners. As we follow her struggle to adapt to her new situation, we also gradually understand that there's probably more to the story.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film, winner of the best direction prize here at the festival, is a tight little thriller (only 60 minutes long) that manages to build a world of intrigue in the otherwise bleak setting of crime-ridden urban Russia. It starts almost as a romantic comedy and evolves into something much darker, which not only entertains with its twists and turns, but also gives a very clear and moving image of the world of immigration in Eastern Europe. Each character, alien in a country that is not their own, is looking for something better: a fairy-tale romance, economic stability, even just the chance to matter, not to spend a meaningless life. And while the lead character's journey is destined to be intricate and doomed, the most interesting parts of the movie are probably the secondary characters. Their narrative summarizes the essence of the movie: they want more, they want (to use an expression from the movie) "power," an influence which is not necessarily economic or political, but just the power to decide what to make of their own lives, even if that means being uprooted from everything they've known and diving into the utterly unknown.
Out of the Furnace (Scott Cooper)
Russell (Christian Bale) is a well-balanced mill worker who divides his life between his terminally ill father and his loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Rodney (Casey Affleck), Russell's little brother, is in the army and can't cope with the horrors he sees in Iraq: on returning home he spends all his days trying to run away from the demons of war, chasing easy money in gambling and fighting. When Russell is sent to jail for killing a whole family in a car crash, after he's finally released he finds his life upside down: his father is dead, his girlfriend has left him for another man and his brother is off the deep end, involved with some very dangerous people.
Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace is a film almost completely supported by its talented cast. Bale's stoic hero is powerful and iconic, a Clint Eastwood character with strong morals and a deeply rooted sense of family. Affleck, despite being back in his comfort zone of disturbed and neurotic lost souls, proves once again that he truly is one of the most gifted actors of his generation with a performance that is fragile and hyperactive at the same time, and that doesn't try to hide the character's flawed perspective nor his complete and unsettling self-involvement.
The rest of the cast shines as well, especially Willem Dafoe as a good-hearted con man and Woody Harrelson as the evil drug dealer whose menacing presence is felt throughout the film.
On a purely technical level, Out of the Furnace is striking in its dark and gritty cinematography, its dynamic direction and tight editing. The screenplay, however, is flawed, yet extremely well crafted. The moral issues of its final act are quite problematic and their intent not successfully delivered. On one hand the movie seems to immortalize a violent and mindless act of self-justice as something heroic, depicted in a style that goes back to the great American western; on the other hand, the whole first act is a slow-burning accusation against a political class that never quite understands the real struggles of the working class and can be the indirect cause of something as extreme as the characters' actions, which are not necessarily justified but still presented as part of a bigger cause-and-effect chain. There's confusion between the two moral positions, but what remains with the audience is certainly the bond between the characters, so wonderfully captured by some remarkable acting.
Mogura no uta - The Mole Song (Takashi Miike)
Reiji (Tôma Ikuta) is the worst cop in Tokyo. He's incompetent, not very bright, and a bit of a pervert. So, obviously, that makes him the perfect candidate to become a mole in a huge police operation against the yakuza to stop a major drug deal that will destroy thousands of young lives, addicted to a powerful and fatal new pill. Reiji soon finds himself involved in something even bigger, when he discovers that there's an internal struggle within the country's strongest yakuza family. His peculiar view on heroism and his bizarre, but not wholly unsuccessful, sense of duty make the whole operation a success. But the cool life of the mafia boss is too big an attraction for the young man...
Takashi Miike's The Mole Song is an insane ride of epic proportions perfectly faithful to the spirit of its source material, a manga by Noboru Takahashi. Surviving the chaotic first ten minutes, a mess of backstory narrated through cartoonish editing, is a struggle, but well worth it. The movie soon evolves into something that, while remaining just as crazy as its beginning, is less grating and hugely entertaining.
Miike's imagination creates a world of brightly dressed criminals, singing cops, mad doctors who build cyborg legs out of nothing, and over-the-top mafia traditions. His characters become iconic in their originality, with Crazy Papillon, the butterfly-obsessed mafia boss with a heart of gold, as the truly memorable character of the whole festival.
The movie's a colorful concentrate of pop art and film clichés, smartly mixed together with a real sense of bonding between the characters: through the excellent performances, these characters are able to maintain (most of) their humanity in the kaleidoscopic vision of the director, and their relationships are an anchor for the audience who would otherwise be lost in a welter of mental images.
November 17, 2013
ROME FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE REVIEWS #2
by Ciro Di Lella
Her (Spike Jonze)
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a 40-something almost-divorced man whose job is to create emotions: through a company aptly named "Beautiful Hand-written Letters.com" Theodore offers soulful, heartfelt personal letters to people in need of some good old-fashioned romanticism for their loved ones. His day consists of exploring new stories and relationships and writing about them becoming, for a short moment, someone else. Living through surrogate emotions is the only way Theodore can cope with his own personal life, a dull routine of videogames and adult chat rooms, the ghost of his estranged wife (Rooney Mara) still lingering in his mind. When Theodore discovers the possibility of owning a personal super-intelligent operating system, capable of not only communication and thought but self-evolution as well, his life changes, and he soon finds himself completely enamored with Samantha (an amazing Scarlett Johansson, whose voice won her the best actress prize at the festival), the disembodied voice of his OS.
Their relationship is well accepted in a near-future world where having a computer as your girlfriend is not exactly common, but certainly not unheard of. As their beautiful, lyrical love story becomes deeper and deeper, something changes in Samantha, and it appears that Theodore's merely human mind isn't enough for the OS anymore.
Spike Jonze's Her is a little gem of surreal romanticism. The subtly sci-fi aspect of the movie, almost hidden by a beautifully simple set design with a bit of a vintage feeling, is stressed by small changes in the way common things are depicted: there are no flying cars in this future and the city landscape is pretty much the same as it is now, and yet there's something deeply unsettling in how every single human being seems to be constantly connected to a rather menacing and invasive version of the Internet.
Jonze's vision of this world that lives through machines finds its strength in how truly touching the emotions shown by the characters are, even when they're directed at objects with artificial lives. The director's dark sense of humor is able to find moments of deadpan irony in this story, especially in the way everyone seems to treat things like a double date with three human beings and a tablet as something perfectly normal, but even in those moments the film never points and laughs, never judges. Using irony in its purest literary sense, Jonze's screenplay (his first original screenplay for the big screen) lets the audience see through the veil of absurdity and understand the sad hidden truths behind it: these people are truly alone, and on the verge of serious depression, and their inability to connect with real human beings, to find the courage to be individuals in a world of assimilation and homologation, has brought them to something as extreme as making love to a laptop. It's only when science becomes something out of our control that the humans in this near-future rediscover how small humanity truly is, and how important connecting with other human beings becomes to survive the thought of our own limited existence.
Romeo and Juliet (Carlo Carlei)
A retelling of the classic Shakespearean tale, which for once never tries to add new twists to the original play other than Nick Brody as Lord Capulet, Carlo Carlei's sumptuous Romeo and Juliet may be the huge, colossal misfire of the festival. In its attempt to draw in the Twilight crowd, this new version tells the woeful story of the most famous star-crossed lovers of all time using all the clichés of superficial harlequin romance. The look of the film is an easy way to draw the attention away from adaptation, direction and acting. The sets are beautiful and the costumes are just what you might expect from a multi-million dollar production, but when the shiny stuff gets boring the audience starts noticing how everything fits together just awfully. The direction is dull when not awkward, using slow motion and dreadful close-ups and sudden "star revelations" in ways that are utterly embarrassing. The use of music, an intrusive score by Abel Korzeniowski, is painful: the balcony scene is barely audible, hidden by a big, grandiloquent score that belongs in the worst Hallmark productions. The acting, which should be one of the main draws for such a movie, is all over the place.
Romeo (Douglas Booth, whose empty eyes are only matched by his monotonous line reading) is presented right from the beginning as the hunk you might see on bright covers of cheap romance novels: buff, sweaty, with his shirt inexplicably open at all times. Hailee Steinfeld's Juliet is heartfelt and fresh enough, but her chemistry with Booth seems non-existent and her whole performance is brought down by the most ridiculous choices of mise-en-scene (her not wholly successful but refreshingly real reading of the balcony scene is drowned by the music). The rest of the cast goes from watchable (Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone as Juliet's mother, Christian Cooke's barely present but adequate Mercutio) to atrocious (Ed Westwick's Tybalt above all). If I have to sit through another adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that changes virtually nothing from its well-known source material, I at least want to see some serious Shakespearean acting going on, which is completely absent here.
It's a real shame that the movie turned out as it did, because there probably still is room for another adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that is faithful to the text, despite the huge amount of love that Zeffirelli's version still gets. But if Joe Wright's vivid Pride and Prejudice has taught us anything it is that any new version of stories that have been told a million times needs to be really well crafted not to feel superfluous, which is all this new Romeo and Juliet is.
Tir (Alberto Fasulo)
Branko (Branko Završan) is a Slovenian ex-teacher who, after being fired, becomes a truck driver working for an Italian company. The new job forces him to stay away from home for months at a time, and this takes its toll on his relationship with his wife, son and grandson.
Fasulo's Tir, winner of the Marco Aurelio d'Oro for best film, is a difficult movie, which never lets any kind of attachment to the story or characters transpire. The slow pace is emphasized by images that are ermetic in their darkness and claustrophobic closeness to the actors. The emotions are filtered through sporadic dialogue, which adds new dimensions of familiar conflict to the bleak working conditions of the drivers.
While visually striking, the movie never quite comes together in terms of pathos. The style, derived from the works of the Dardenne brothers, lacks the strong and passionate emotional impact of the Dardennes, and when that rare dialogue occurs the sensation is of a superficial and rhetorical j'accuse towards the establishment that makes a profit from the horribly arduous and lonely lives of the characters. Tir wants to be a subtly emotional movie, but in its attempt to work towards a social cause, it loses the focus of its humanity and becomes quite cold and distant.
November 13, 2013
ROME FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE REVIEWS #1
by Ciro Di Lella
Ben o Degilim - I'm Not Him (Tayfun Pirselimoglu)
Nihat (Ercan Kesal) works in a canteen. He spends his days peeling potatoes and washing dishes, and when he goes back to his bare, sad apartment, the cycle starts all over again: he peels potatoes for his own humble dinner, the possibility of lonely, quick masturbation the only ray of sunshine in an otherwise hollow routine. His life changes, however, when beautiful Alyse (Maryam Zaree) comes to the canteen and into his erotic fantasies. Alyse's husband Necip is in prison, and she has the reputation of sleeping around to fill the void left by her violent man. Nihat decides to go for it, and what starts as a carnal relationship quickly becomes something deeper. At least until Alyse's plan comes into full view: using the striking resemblance between her imprisoned husband and her new lover, the woman wants to create a new Necip, one who, hopefully, will be nicer to her. This reshaping of Nihat starts a cycle of identity theft that will eventually develop into a series of plot twists both surreal and claustrophobic, with Nihat and Alyse becoming a sort of matryoshka doll of personalities.
Tayfun Pirselimoglu's latest film is a complex, yet often amusing, analysis on the theme of the "other," of the possibility of parallel lives, both imaginary and real, that represent an escape from the mundane, from an everyday world that is dull and monotonous.
Nihat/Necip's descent into other lives, other pasts and other futures becomes an endless cycle in which each life brings something new, but not necessarily something good. "I'm a pessimist and that's how I see life," said the director during the press conference. In his view, the desire to change becomes change for change's sake, and self-improvement is secondary to the need for pursuing something new when the chance arises. His characters drift mindlessly between lives, with no apparent awareness of the dangers, both physical and emotional, that each new trait or twist of personality brings.
Even though Tayfun Pirselimoglu denied a direct influence, his self-professed love for Aki Kaurismaki's filmography comes through, in a movie filled with long, thoughtful silences, moments of deadpan hilarity brought by the expressive features of both Ercan Kesal and Maryam Zaree, and a dreamlike undercurrent which never jumps into full-blown surreality, but finds little moments of otherworldliness in an otherwise realistic approach.
Belle et Sébastien - Belle and Sebastian (Nicolas Vanier)
Adapted from a children's novel, which later became a popular French TV series from the '60s and a successful anime in the '80s, Nicolas Vanier's Belle et Sébastien tells the simple and straightforward story of a 6-year-old boy (spitfire Félix Bossuet) who befriends a big white dog wrongly accused of being a wild sheep-killing beast. As they bond, and with unexpected help from a friendly Nazi, the odd couple also manages to save a few Jews in 1943's war-ridden France.
The film, a surefire tearjerker, possesses all the schmaltz of an old-time Disney live-action feature from the 1950s (who hasn't been traumatized by Old Yeller), with all the technical grandeur of modern-day French epics, the kind that the Academy loves so much (Joyeux Noël comes to mind).
While it has its indisputable high points in gorgeous scenery, often shot through virtuosistic bird's-eye view, pleasant music and the shockingly gorgeous rural roughness of the actors, there's very little substance to this feel-good family movie that paints by the numbers and never steps outside its superficial sentimentality.
Manto Acuifero - The Well (Michael Rowe)
Carolina (Zaili Sofía Macías Galván) is a cute little girl who prefers to play with bugs rather than dolls. Her mother blames genetics, since her ex-husband and Carolina's father is an entomologist. What the woman fails to understand is that something deeper is hidden in Carolina's bizarre gameplay. The child, uprooted from home when her mom marries a new man and decides to move to a huge house in the woods, feels at odds with her new surroundings, despite her deeply felt closeness to nature, and begins to hate the new man in her mother's life as both he and her mother want to obliterate the memory of her dad, a man who was obviously as bad a husband as he was a good and lovable father.
Suffering from infantile depression, completely misunderstood by her superficially affectionate parents, Carolina begins a journey that will alienate her not only from her family, but also from that natural world she felt so comfortable with.
Michael Rowe's second movie (his first, Año bisiesto, was a winner at Cannes a few years ago) is a sad tale of loneliness and emotive carelessness, which the director expertly sets in a well-off family, where emotional problems are doubled by the conviction that material means can solve everything (Carolina's stepfather tries to buy her love with a new set of dolls, which the girl immediately puts away to keep playing with sticks and cockroaches).
The slow pace of the movie is a perfect reflection of Carolina's inner world, of her fearful and catatonic approach to change, and its fairy tale-like scenery is both enchanting and disturbing. The forest around Carolina's house is gorgeously photographed and feels unsettlingly alive and vivid, almost like an organism that gives Carolina the necessary strength to carry on, and the child's story, while remaining realistic throughout, constantly feels on the verge of becoming a myth of metamorphosis (in a key scene Carolina uses tree bark to dress herself up, in contrast with the common image of little girls trying on their mother's jewelry).
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée)
Texas, 1985. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a rough, tough electrician and cowboy, heavily into alcohol, drugs and women. When he's diagnosed with the HIV virus, Ron is incredulous, as he sees that as a "faggot disease" which a he-man such as himself can't possibly have contracted.
As Ron learns to accept his condition, and educates himself on what's truly behind the pain he's going through, he also starts investigating the experimental cures that the FDA is promoting. Finding them unsuccessful when not utterly dangerous, Ron begins experimenting with (and selling) new, illegal, but helpful medicines that the US medical and scientific establishment refuses to try, most likely for economic reasons and to protect the interests of well-established drug companies.
Based on a true story, which was first reported in a 1992 article in The Dallas Morning News, Dallas Buyers Club moved the audiences of the festival's early days. It's a classic tale of David versus Goliath, explored in a style that is often disturbing in its rawness, but also finds a human, emotional core in the form of Rayon (Jared Leto), the AIDS-ridden transsexual woman whose humanity and candor help Ron not only in his battles, but also in letting go just a little bit of that raging homophobia that prevented him from seeking help and accepting his fate in the early days of his disease. Despite that, Rayon is certainly not some kind of queer manic pixie dream girl, nor is Ron's journey one of complete redemption. The movie doesn't shy away from showing Rayon's weakness (her disease is worsened by constant drug abuse), while Ron's acceptance of the gay community which suddenly surrounds him is not without bumps and never quite unselfish.
The way these characters remain deeply flawed throughout the whole story is the main strength of the movie, and a testament to the staggering performances from both McConaughey and Leto. Their chemistry, and the honesty of their performances, is enough to make the audience love such imperfect and self-destructive creatures. Even though they're both constantly on the verge of overdoing it, the two actors find the right balance of heartfelt realness and showiness, which fits perfectly with characters whose abundant charisma is essential to their survival.
Jean-Marc Vallée is a good enough director when it comes to visually representing excessive lost souls, and while Dallas is not as over-the-top as the director's C.R.A.Z.Y., there are moments of visual alienation which capture the characters' complex inner world quite interestingly. When the movie deals directly with the political and economic side of Ron's battle though, it becomes problematic. The scenes centered around the FDA and its politics are formulatic and didascalic, and they're not helped by Jennifer Garner's insipid performance as a good-hearted doctor who stands with Ron against the menacing drug industry. The freshness of McConaughey and Leto's performances is lost in those scenes, in favor of something that feels awkwardly written in a narrative film and probably belongs in a documentary.