Monthly Archives: June 2011

Loose Adaptations: Children of Men & War of the Worlds

By Nathanael Griffis

A loose adaptation is simply when the source material, a novel normally, is used only as a conceptual basis for a story. Sometimes characters are kept, themes may remain, but the overall plot is basically rewritten. Loose adaptations are tricky. On the one hand you allow for a more creative take on a story. On the other you may offend the loyal fan base of a book. Deciding to adapt a novel loosely is always interesting and for the most part relies on the talent surrounding it, so when you have Alfonso Cuarón, Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, and Chiwetel Ejiofer on a film one can produce one of the best films ever made. Talent isn’t everything though, because Tim Robbins, Steven Spielberg, Dakota Fanning, and Tom Cruise should spell success, but it didn’t. So here’s my look at why these two loose adaptations succeeded and failed respectively.

Plain and simple, one of the greatest moments in film.

Children of Men: If at all possible, let’s forget the revolutionary cinematography, the haunting performances, and the sharp editing of the film, and focus on the story. Theo Faron is asked by his ex-wife Julian to acquire a pass to the coast for a young woman whom we later discover is pregnant in a world where there has not been a pregnancy in 18 years. This is the basic plot of the movie, but it is slightly different from P.D. James’ novel. Theo was never married to Julian, and is significantly older; Julian merely wants an audience with the Warden of England; oh, and Julian is the pregnant woman. So, besides keeping characters’ names and the overall concept of an infertile human race, the differences are significant.

The novel is quieter and more slowly paced, exploring the political side of power structures controlling a population. The government executes the elderly in a mass drowning off the coast of England. The powers that be then use these events to maintain a sense of order through indirect threats, while also satisfying a dying population’s desire for release from the torment of the end of humanity. They dictate what pleasurable activities are allowed and round up foreigners and miscreants (which is kept in the movie). The book is also concerned, as most books are, with being more subjective. We stay with Theo, and his inner struggle is more the story than anything else. Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps this concept in Children of Men, as the camera never really sees what Theo can’t, but we don’t spend time meandering around his brain reminiscing. The book is brilliant and has wonderful characters and descriptions. I have to say the film and the novel are even; neither outshines the other, which is rare.

The film takes the concept of infertility and runs with it, adding ideas of racism and social revolution, which are in the book but not major themes. The decision to connect Julian and Theo is brilliant–it adds another layer to the characters. Both versions have a bleak tone with hopeful endings amidst death and suffering. What is different is that Cuarón understands that his medium is a visual one. He needs the visuals to enhance his thematic ideas. The setting becomes as desolate as the situation. I think of the scene of Theo and the mid-wife, played by Pam Ferris, waiting in an abandoned school. It’s subtle because Cuarón doesn’t meditate on it, but unforgettable as we see the pregnant Kee (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) stolen through rotting playground equipment.  The book relies on description and dialogue to show us man’s reliance on order and power despite a decaying future. The long single takes throughout the film heighten the tension, increase the reality, and provide a more subjective sense for the audience. Cuts give film a sense of fabrication, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but a long single shot of a car being attacked or an entire neighborhood at war places the viewer inside the situation. P.D. James wants us involved in the discussion. Cuarón provides us with an experience. Children of Men is the ultimate example of how to successfully loosely adapt a novel.

War of the Worlds: There are several loose adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but I am only going to mention two: the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation that sent America into a panic, and the middling action flick that Spielberg offered us in 2005. H.G Wells’ novel is tough to adapt, as any classic is, but especially since it is a science fiction period piece. How does one do futuristic 1898? Well, you have to modernize it, which almost always means a loose adaptation of sorts. What Orson Welles did was brilliant. He took the concept of the alien invasion and its themes of science, warfare, and the ineffectiveness of Victorian mores, and used it to scare the bejeezus out of the country. That is how you loosely adapt something. I can’t speak to much to that performance as I’ve never heard it, but its impact alone is legendary, so we can assume it’s good.

Tom Cruise coming to terms with the film.

Steven Spielberg, we should be able to assume is good too. After Minority Report, a good adaption of a Philip K. Dick short story, the pairing of Cruise and Spielberg should have been welcome, and it was, but the product was underwhelming. Wells’ novel is a cautionary tale at heart. It warns man of the dangers of science for the advancement of warfare. The aliens metaphorically are not some outside force, but a superpower gone wrong. They destroy without any warning, any forethought, out of nothing but a sense of greed and desire to conquer. The novel is frighteningly prophetic when one considers that two world wars followed it and were started, at the basest of levels, out of humanity’s desire to conquer others. These concepts could be taken and placed into a modern day context to warn a growing scientific community that is becoming heavily reliant on government defense contracts to take heed. Instead we are served up with what eventually becomes a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action flick.

Spielberg’s film keeps the concept of a cylinder burying itself in the ground. It keeps the death of the aliens by the common cold, which should signify that humanity/science will ultimately not be able to combat nature in a warfare setting, but here feels like a lame cop-out ending. They add an interesting reference to Harlan Ogilvy, one of the few named characters in the novel, in Tim Robbins. I can’t help but feel though that a lot of this is wasted potential. The beginning has some haunting Holocaust imagery. Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier shaking the ashes of victims from his hair sets a frightening tone. The bodies floating down a river as Ray’s daughter Rachel (played by Dakota Fanning) watches leaves us startled. The blood-drenched trees and landscapes that Ray walks out into horrifies. All these images seem like wasted art, bad abstraction without a directed substance or meaning. They symbolize things and matter within the scene and build character, but they don’t hold weight in the overall story.

Run! No, don't stare at the alien tripod, run, Ru...uh too late.

What both Orson and H.G. did in their stories by keeping the narrator anonymous, was provide the sense of subjectivity we got from Cuarón’s Children of Men. The protagonist becomes an everyman of sorts and we place ourselves in his role, asking what reaction we should have. In the case of Orson Welles, it was such an effective subjectivity as to transcend the line of fiction and lead the masses in the expected reaction of a panic.

There is nothing wrong with building characters in a film. In fact, a film adaptation would require it. Spielberg attempts this with Ferrier as a single father trying to connect with and raise his kids. Initially it works, but there are two problems: First, Tom Cruise is not an everyman. He’s a character actor who portrays an intensely specific persona. I’ve  never seen a performance of his and felt I could relate to it; several times I’ve been impressed, but relate, no. He’s not Jimmy Stewart or, dare I say, Matt Damon.

The second problem is the lack of a consistent theme, along with egregious plot holes. Spielberg’s penchant for tying things up in a bow in his blockbuster films falls flat here and leaves the viewer confused. Why does the son survive and randomly show up with perfect timing? If all it takes is a few grenades, how are the aliens still fearsome? The action becomes the focus in the second half of the film, and the death of the aliens at the hands of the common cold doesn’t resonate. It feels like another unnecessary bow on a muddled package.

So if you’re going to adapt something loosely, make sure it has good themes, and make sure you utilize them. Having the title of the novel, a star actor and director, and good special effects is not enough. It takes innovation, a great script, and an overall sense of purpose to garner success. You don’t have to be unrepentantly loyal to a source material to make a successful story–but what would happen if you were? We’ll see next time when I discuss straight adaptations with The Road and The Da Vinci Code.

Let’s Start Again: The apocalyptic vision of “A Boy and His Dog”

By Steven Moore

A true post-apocalyptic world is an awesome thing to behold: humanity stripped of everything that makes us human; compassion, appreciation of beauty, and altruism all crumble like the cinder blocks of supermarkets and shopping malls, to be replaced by only the hardiest of weeds–self-interest and survival instinct. The 1975 film A Boy and His Dog is a true post-apocalyptic vision, taking place long after everything has gone to hell and the landscape contains only the scraps and decay of humanity.

The world has fallen to the destruction of World War IV, which was swiftly followed by a moral apocalypse, in which the dirt “belongs to anyone strong enough to take it for his own,” and men do nothing but search for food and women. The premise is that most men are off fighting wars, so the real victims of a nuclear war would be civilians, women, and children. This insight is one of the many understated insights of the film. Very few women are left, so men wander the desolation, looking for women.

Vic, played by a young Don Johnson, is a child of the war. His parents were killed in the carnage, and he has been forced to grow up alone but for his psychic dog. He has no moral compass, no sense of what is right. He is the symbol of human baseness, what we would become if left to our natures. His dog, Blood, is the result of some wartime experiments that gave dogs the ability to psychically communicate with some humans. Blood helps Vic find women with his sense of smell. The pair eventually come across a subterranean subculture that owes a lot to Brave New World and Orwellian dystopia.

The film is based on a book of the same name and is pretty faithful, though it cuts out some technically difficult scenes. While Blood’s abilities are explained at length in the book, the film only lightly touches on them, which left me a little unclear on the relationship between Blood and Vic initially. The real controversy of the film is in the final line, which makes light of the surprise but complicated ending. What the book presents as a serious moral question, the film makes into a joke, undercutting any sort of weight the film might have had.

This is a difficult movie. Vic is no hero, and his actions are appalling. The general cavalier attitude toward rape almost made me shut it off ten minutes into the film. However, the backstory forced me to confront the question: would it really be that different? What else would a world in which very few women are left, run by men who grew up without any guidance from adults, look like? Can you blame a person who has never been told that forcing yourself on another human being is despicable? I hope I know the answers to these questions, but this movie did make me think. In the end, Vic chooses someone else over himself. Although his choice is his dog, isn’t that what social morality is about–putting someone else over yourself? There is a glimmer of hope that something in us is good, even when it hasn’t been nurtured.

The overall quality of this film is pretty bad, partly because it hasn’t aged well and partly because it didn’t have much of a budget. There are also a few silly moments, where the “love interest” knocks out two grown men with nothing but a bouquet of flowers. A general pulp feel permeates everything and distracts from the serious ethical questions the film is exploring. It would make a great remake, although it would probably be even more controversial in this day and age. As the author of the original book notes, the final line of the film, not present in the book, undercuts nearly every question the film explores; however, if you can ignore it’s own undoing and stomach deplorable behavior in the name of exploring some important questions about humanity, A Boy and His Dog will be worth it.

What Do You See?: Danny Boyle’s Vexing Sunshine

Special Guest Writer

Steve Hawco

 

I often find it ironic that British director Danny Boyle has done so well critically over the last few years. Looking at his films and his personality, one can see his undeniable love for the cinema. Beginning with 1996′s raunchy Trainspotting, his first film to be well-known worldwide, I have enjoyed, if not loved, almost every film he has given to us. His ability to successfully approach radically different genres, from Horror in 28 Days Later (2002) to Comedy in Trainspotting, is a testament to his directing chops.

However, one aspect of his directing in which he rarely varies is his visual style, and it is in this that Boyle leaves himself open to criticism from the film establishment. Boyle’s style is of the MTV generation; he employs quick cutting, extreme camera movement and compositions, and pop music all throughout his movies. In other words, his films are put together a lot like music videos. This is too shallow for the pretentious of today’s critics, who demand slower, more pensive filmmaking if they are to declare a movie anything more than competent entertainment.

These critics were unhappy with Slumdog Millionaire‘s Best Picture win at the Oscars in 2008 and were no doubt just as upset that this montage director won for Best Director. But the film even more deserving of these accolades was 2007′s Sunshine, Boyle’s fabulous flight into the rickety world of serious science fiction. Sadly, this UK production never got the distribution of Slumdog in the US, and it never got the attention, good or bad, of the world.

Sunshine is serious sci-fi and serious filmmaking to the extreme. It is not fantasy, but what I would call realistic sci-fi, like 2001 before it. It tells the story of eight astronauts of the future, Earth’s last best hope, as they fly towards our dying sun in an attempt to re-ignite its fires so that humanity does not perish in an endless winter. Their payload is a huge stellar bomb, with a mass equal to that of Manhattan Island, to which their living quarters are strapped. The front of this ship, Icarus II, is a huge, circular shield, the only thing that protects the heroes and the payload from the merciless light and heat of humanity’s star. After the obligatory distress signal, in this case from their long-lost predecessors on the missing Icarus I, things begin to go wrong and lives are lost. The most basic question the film raises is whether or not our protagonists will choose to fight until the end, in the face of death, to save the homes and loved ones they left behind.

 

Does anyone know how to change the channel?

But the film raises other questions too, and they all radiate from the same source: the sun, towards which the astronauts are flying. It grows bigger and brighter in the view port every day; it seems to drive mad those of the crew who gaze into it. So what is Sunshine really about? It is, perhaps, most enjoyable to view it as the aforementioned adventure story of perseverance, bravery, and self-sacrifice. But is it not about the quest for truth, and the horrors involved in knowing the whole truth about life and existence, as embodied in the madness of those who look into our source of light? The light of the sun functions as a metaphor for the cinema itself, as the very movie screen in a darkened theater (or living room) lights up the area and the faces of the audience, like the sun itself, more than once during Sunshine’s run time. Is Boyle sending a ship to re-ignite the flame of world cinema?

Sunshine can be all these things, but after all the flashy sizzling it Boyles down to an atheistic morality play. The sun is the face of God, the god that Boyle does not in reality believe in, and the humans aboard Icarus must make a choice, to either defy His will with their science and technology, to preserve humanity past His desired extinction, or to embrace His will as final and give up. The crew’s physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), is fully aware of the weight of this choice by the film’s end. So is another character, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), but his decision counters Capa’s, and thus the film is plunged into its much-maligned and misunderstood climax, in which the monster-like Pinbacker chases the crew around to kill them and prevent the mission’s success. It is the central theme of the sun representing God that creates this situation, and therefore the alleged tonal shift into Horror is justified.

So, while containing a compelling story, is the film better or worse for Boyle’s directing style? Sunshine looks and sounds wonderful, fully modern in its

The Beautiful Struggle

special effects, fully convincing in its production values, and fully moving in the music video moments that Boyle creates. It has one of my favorite montages in the history of cinema, a section I myself call “The Beautiful Struggle,” as Capa continues, alone, to stumble towards his goal in a clumsy zero gravity suit, while the theme song “Surface of the Sun” from composer John Murphy blares. The story could have been told by anyone, but only Danny Boyle would tell it like this. His ability to move the audience through the use of montage, of images edited in conjunction with sound and music, is unrivaled.

The stars shine bright in Sunshine, not just Murphy, but Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai) as the captain, Kaneda, and Chris Evans (Captain America: The First Avenger) in his best film performance as tough pilot Mace. The music by John Murphy and the band Underworld is beautiful. The art direction, and the thought put into the science and space travel, is astounding. This film is my favorite by Boyle, a director who always holds my respect., truly buried cinema, I believe it to be one of the ten best films of the last decade, though it probably wouldn’t appear even in the top 50 of most popular critics. Nevertheless, Sunshine is radiant.

 

Adaptations: there are no new ideas, so stop whining.

These are books. Inside are ideas ripe for stealing.

There are no original ideas. Everything’s based on a book. Oh how the populace moans. We demand that Hollywood be the center of all creative genius when in reality they’re predominately effective adapters of other people’s writing. Writing that is probably based on someone else’s story or some series of historical events. If it bothers you that there are no original ideas in Hollywood, you’re probably going to contend with many a sullen and grumpy weekend because there are no original ideas. There’s nothing new under the sun. Story expresses the human experience, which hasn’t changed that much. We’re still born, live, and then die. What’s fascinating is how you tell the story, how it’s presented, how it’s interpreted. New is simply a way of adding to or building upon something else. Of course, what you add is probably just a rehash of a previous idea. Everyone, not just some, stand on the shoulders of other giants.

Alright, enough philosophizing, I’ve probably lost half–if not all–my readership, so for the loyal few who’ve dared to push beyond the first paragraph, I reward you with whining. Adaptations are hard to do, and a poor adaptation can be beyond frustrating. Why oh why does Moaning Myrtle get all seductive on Harry Potter in The Goblet of Fire? Why, Mike Newell, huh, tell me, why? It’s cool that the Elves fight at Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but that never happened in the book, and why not end with Shelob killing Frodo? That’s an awesome ending!

Should I continue? Yes, I should. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–the whole film. Or, how about taking all the heart out of E.B White’s writing–see, or don’t, Stuart Little and the 2006 adaptation of Charlotte’s Web. Apparently, someone forgot that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was funny. Or how about the decision to end The Golden Compass on a shot of an airship–really not the monumental cliffhanger of the book.

And Prince Caspian, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways:

1. Eddie Izzard as Reepicheep.

2. Bad fight scenes stolen from The Lord of the Rings. (If you’re going to screw up an adaptation, at least adapt the right book so it seems like you tried.)

3. Prince Caspian and Susan making googly eyes and kissing, and bad pop music [insert expletives].

4. The stupid water nymph/Poseidon at the end.

5. The White Witch again. Did Tilda Swinton have a two movie contract and figure she’d bang the second one out?

6. Adding a whole castle “fight.”

Okay, I’m done. There are more, I’m sure–in fact, why don’t you complain about them in the comments section. It’s good to get our grievances out ther–that’s what the Internet’s for, you know.

In the end, we all know the book is better than the movie, with a few exceptions, so why even make the movie? Well, because they can, and sometimes it turns out good and actually helps the book make more money. Although, we do have to contend with lame new book covers with Ben Affleck or Will Smith’s visage plastered over it. I sound like a whiner, and it’s therapeutic to write some of this down, but a while ago I had to stop expecting things from adaptations in film. Otherwise, I would leave the theater each time sulking and kicking up invisible dust in protest at the villainous harm done to my beloved source material. Since you’ve read this far, I feel confident in giving you advice. You have to judge the two separately and not demand certain things be made a certain way. You’ll hate every adaptation if you do. Let it go. Let all the pain done by Akiva Goldsman, Matthew Vaughn, and Stanley Kubrick, the serial adapter, go. Forgive them.

Good, now that we’re in the right state of mind, I’m going to start presenting a more in-depth look at the different ways we adapt various things. I’ll look at loose adaptations that take characters and concepts only; straight adaptations that change nothing; the basic or common adaptation; adaptations of classic works; reworkings or modernizations of classics; remakes of older films; song adaptations; theme park ride adaptations; and the unique, like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. I won’t be looking at movies that are purely based on historical documents. For this series I’m simply exploring how someone takes one person’s interpretation or presentation of a story and makes it their own. For each article, I’m simply going to take a category (e.g., the classic adaption) and discuss it in the context of both a well-done example and a failed example (e.g., Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings vs. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings).

Up first: the loose adaptation. (Of course, you’ll have to wait a week, unless you’re reading this after the fact, in which case, click away.)

 

Let’s start again: “Mad Max” and the two kinds of post-apocalypse

By Steven Moore

Because I have a long summer of sunshine and flowers ahead of me, I have decided to counter it over the next few months by exploring worlds where humanity has been stripped of everything it has built and brought to the brink of annihilation. The post-apocalyptic vision in film is one of my favorite themes because it strips away all of those things we think are so important, and presents the audience with a raw look at humanity, usually a not-so-pretty look. It presents simultaneous death and rebirth with the possibility of something better, even if it usually devolves into dystopia.

The first film I will be looking at in this series is Mad Max. Having never seen Mad Max, and as a fan of post-apocalyptic cinema, it stood high on my list of shame. After watching it, I could argue that it’s not a true post-apocalyptic film, but it turns out to be a great first film for this new series because it illustrates the two different kinds of post-apocalyptic visions. The traditional post-apocalyptic film is one in which society and all its achievements have been destroyed completely; human beings are left scavenging the bones of civilization, stripped of the many thousands of years of effort to pull ourselves out of the swamps and trees. Every aspect of society has collapsed, and the destruction is usually imposed by some outside force, be it virus, alien, war, etc.

The second kind of apocalypse is a moral apocalypse. A dystopian society is left intact materially, but social morality has collapsed. Society has cast off the chains of moral restraint and devolved into civilization where the stronger and less principled man or woman gets what they want. The dystopian post-apocalyptic vision is really a subset of the first vision, where the physical destruction of society often leads to a moral collapse. Where it differs is that the characters often deal exclusively with moral decay, and survival is not about basic necessity, but instead about becoming strong.

Mad Max presents a vision of the apocalypse perfectly in line with the latter. The world (or at least Australia) has succumbed to roving biker gangs who rape and pillage whenever and wherever they see fit. Society itself goes on as normal, except when these biker gangs stroll into town, and take what they want. The biker gangs are combatted by road warriors, police officers who roam the roads searching them out, hunting them down. The road warriors are nearly as lawless as the biker gangs, except that they generally protect civilians, as long as it’s convenient.

The thematic notion that the protectors are only a slight nudge away from the lawless and psychopathic biker gangs is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, and the characteristic of the film that most recommends it as a dystopian post-apocalyptic vision. When those who are supposed to protect us are as thrill-seeking and morally questionable as those they are hunting, the social contract has expired. Even when Max tries to escape the decay of authority, he is drawn back in not by justice, but by a desire for violent revenge.

Other aspects of the movie are less stellar. The heavy-handed moment when the baby is playing with a hand-gun (just so we, the audience, know things are bad), the absurd police chief with nothing on but a scarf and leather pants, and the terrible pacing of the movie all make me wonder why this film is so revered. When a revenge tragedy only begins the revenge plot fifteen minutes before the film ends, the script needs work. Max’s solution to his buddy being horribly disfigured is to cut out. What follows is at least 30 minutes that seem like home movies of a young Mel Gibson hanging out with the fam.

Friends have told me the that the sequel, which I will be reviewing next week, is a better version of the same movie and more in line with the first kind of post-apocalyptic world. Mad Max has some great ideas, but the execution is poor. Hopefully, those great ideas are expanded and refined in the sequel.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #6: “She says the jungle… it came alive and took him.”

By Tom Kapr

A long time ago, in a federated state far, far away, I began a countdown of the ten scariest movie aliens ever. Then my world turned a little bit sideways, and two months and two thousand miles later, I landed in Colorado. Now life has calmed some, so it’s time to turn back to the wonderful horrors of the silver screen with a film that caused one of the most heated debates ever on the Buried Cinema podcast. And though it still loses my Flickchart vote to Shaun of the Dead, here is number six on the countdown…. (You can read the list from the beginning here.)

Predator is a paradox. Written by brothers Jim and John Thomas (who went on to write a handful of other, poor-to-middling thrillers) and directed by John “Die Hard” McTiernan, Predator is one of those big, dumb, loud, vulgar, testosterone-fueled action flicks for which the late 80s are known. Machismo runs rampant and cheesy dialogue seeps from every seam, not least of which is that immortal line uttered by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” However, what makes Predator such a paradox is that it is also one of the coolest and most brilliant science fiction films ever. And it gave us one of cinema’s all-time great antagonists: the Predator himself (played by the seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall).

Other Predator aliens have gone on to battle everyone in film from Danny Glover to Adrien Brody to the xenomorphs from the Alien films–even Batman. But when it all began, it was one terrifying, unseen presence lurking in the Central American jungle, picking off platoon commandos one by one as easy as if it were swatting butterflies. As the line from the movie suggests, it was as if the jungle itself had become a sentient, hostile force. Eventually it came to one of the great climactic showdowns in cinema: Predator vs. Schwarzenegger. And when Schwarzenegger finally got the upper hand and saw the Predator up-close, personal, uncloaked, and unmasked, it turned out to be one of the most fearsome alien beings ever conceived–and one of the ugliest (though I’m sure he was very handsome to the ladies back on his home planet).

It’s true what they say, that a picture is worth a thousand words:

[Editor's note: I forgot to mention Stan Winston, who is responsible for the awesome design of the Predators and the special effects in the first two films, as well as many other memorable creatures in some of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Stan Winston, the world of the movies will never be the same without you.]

Next on the countdown: “Across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us….”

Buried Cinema: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

By Nathanael Griffis

My brother demanded that my dad and I watch this movie. I don’t trust my brother’s movie judgment all the time, but after seeing It’s Kind of a Funny Story, my estimation of his opinion has gone up. This movie is spectacular as an honest, hopeful look at escaping depression. It doesn’t have any of the rough cynicism of doctors and psychiatrists who can’t help their struggling patients, which is seen in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The story focuses on Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist), a normal, stressed-out teenager–no drug-addicted parents or sudden loss in the family, he’s normal and relatable, just struggling with depression. One night he checks himself into a psych-ward because of suicidal thoughts he can’t eliminate.

This is actually the book cover, because like all good things this film was based on a book.

The rest of the movie is a respectful, introspective, and comedic look at mental illness. Craig goes from denial of his problem through shame and eventual acceptance, and it’s all done with wonderful respect. One never gets the sense that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are exploiting their subjects; they love these characters and want to help them succeed as much as we do. Craig is mentored by an older patient named Bobby (played by Zach Galifianakis, who really stretches his acting ability here). Craig meets a girl, reunites with his family, and makes steps towards conquering his depression. What’s even more amazing is that it’s all believable. Sometimes in feel-good films I find myself thinking yeah, right, it doesn’t work that way in real life. It’s Kind of a Funny Story does the work needed to make you realize that success is achievable. It can’t be magically manufactured in the last five minutes of a movie.

The humor seems humane and not mean-spirited. Craig clearly is surrounded by very disturbed individuals, and that’s strange, bizarre, and uncomfortable at times, but we never lose the sense that these people are not immutably damaged. Every character has a chance to change, and you want them to even if it’s just your run-of-the-mill, bedridden-with-fear Egyptian schizophrenic taking a few steps out his door. Boden and Fleck (who also adapted the screenplay) imbibe each scene and character with such honest humanity that you can relate thoroughly. It’s painful to watch Bobby struggle as his wife verbally abuses him or as he panics over a group home interview. Craig is still a self-centered teenager who betrays his best friend, but he accepts the consequences and admits his wrongs. In the midst of all this there is a whole cast of characters, from Noelle (played by Emma Roberts) who is more than just a love interest for Craig but also a symbol of hope to those struggling with self-mutilation. Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis play an orderly and the head doctor, respectively, with respect for their positions and the people around them. Jim Gaffigan and Lauren Graham are loving but distracted parents, like most are, and it’s amazing to just watch these characters grow with each other.

I'd be depressed too if Zach Galifianakis wouldn't share his ice cream.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have built up quite a resume in the past five years with the Oscar-nominated Half Nelson, the equally buried and highly underrated Sugar (which is one of the best sports movies ever made and easily one the best baseball films), and now this delightful, lighthearted romance with a serious message of hope for anyone struggling with mental illness. In Half Nelson, they approached inner-city education, drug addiction,  and drug-dealing with the same poise. Sugar is an honest look at racism, identity, and sports in American culture like I’ve never seen combined. They’ve only done small independent movies, but I hope it stays that way, because they seem to have such a grasp on character, and they get such amazing performances out of all their actors, that I would not want to see them tarnished by the demands of a major studio.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a must-see, especially for high school students and teens. It’s funny, relatable, and respectful of their position. It never seems to be talking down to teenagers struggling with the pressures of society or to people with mental illnesses. There is a respect for the issues people deal with. Ultimately, Craig is a teen whom some might say needs to suck it up and just work harder, that his life is fine and what does he have to complain about. What Boden and Fleck understand is that it doesn’t matter what caused the depression so much as getting the person to a place where they can succeed. The focus is hope, not diagnosis. If you get a chance to see It’s Kind of a Funny Story, don’t pass it up–this one’s worth it.

Better Remembered: Tim Burton’s Batman

By Steven Moore

Comic book movies have had a hard road to travel. Granted, most of the bumps and potholes along the way were of their own and Joel Schumacher’s making. Often, any step forward brought two steps backward. The recent endeavor by Marvel to create a film universe that parallels the comic universe adds a new level of legitimacy to the comic book genre, but I still don’t expect the Oscars to nominate X-Men: First Class for Best Picture (even though I think it’s deserving). One of the first comic book films to legitimize the genre was Tim Burton’s Batman. Burton took a superhero who had been bastardized into a cartoonish, so-bad-it’s-good schlock-fest, and brought him back to the dirty, gritty slums of Gotham.

Actual photo of Steve riding his bike home after the movie.

Batman holds a special place for me. Being a huge fan of the comics, my friend (who had incidentally never been to a movie before) and I rode our bikes several miles to the theater, through the scorching hills of Mission Viejo. Our parents knew nothing of what we were up to, and after we purchased our tickets with pockets full of change, we walked out of the 95-degree Southern California heat into the cool, stale butter-drenched air of the theater. One hundred and twenty-six minutes later we came bounding out, yelling “I’m Batman” to one another in our uneven attempts at a gravely voice. On our ride home, swooshing down the hills as the salt air screamed past us, we pretended our bikes were the coolest version of the Batmobile we’d ever seen. This film was everything we ever wanted Batman to be.

Watching it again recently with my daughter revealed that perhaps it wasn’t as close to perfection as my 12-year-old mind saw. Robert Wuhl, who plays the pushy Alexander Knox, easily gives the worst performance of the film. His character is supposed to be boyish and charming, but he comes off as an actor who can’t be boyish or charming. He delivers his lines like great lead weights he can’t wait to drop. Knox is a two-dimensional caricature of a reporter that stands out like a bad actor surrounded by well-rounded, interesting people.

Michael Keaton as Batman & Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale

Although the other characters are not immune from the cheese that radiates from Knox, many lines of the film are just plain bad. Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger, delivers the worst line in the film when she is coming to terms with her new beau’s hobby: “I just gotta know, are we going to try to love each other?” I can see the screenwriter trying to finish the script, just wanting to be done with it, wincing as he is writing this line, but hoping that it will get fixed somewhere during production. Michael Keaton delivers a few flat lines as well, most notably when he exclaims, “I gotta go to work.” I think this was intended as a cute, audience-cheering moment that might work if the superhero were Green Lantern, where expectations are low; but not Batman.

Many of the sets are clearly models, and in the age before CGI came into its own, it’s obvious that they are working around some scenes so as to avoid having to show Batman moving the way he should move. There are several times throughout the film when you can see the wires on Batman, although it’s almost as though they aren’t even trying to hide it in the museum scene. Overall, the effects, although amazing for the time, haven’t aged well, and an audience used to more sophisticated effects will easily spots the flaws.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker

Nevertheless, this movie has brilliant moments and humanizes Batman (and the Superhero) in a way never fully accomplished before, and it manages to do so while presenting a backdrop of social decay and human decadence. A lot of credit goes to Michael Keaton (who would have ever picked that one?) for playing an incredibly charming Bruce Wayne. The amazing dinner scene where he attempts a formal dinner for the benefit of Vicki Vale but gives up after revealing he usually just hangs out with Alfred in the kitchen could only have been pulled off by someone of Keaton’s acting caliber.

The museum scene, featuring Jack Nicholson’s oft-cited, inspired performance as the Joker, seems to fortell the future of art with a Banksy-esque revision of classic pieces. It’s almost as though Banksy watched this film as a kid and decided to base his entire art career on that one scene. It is a brilliant insight into the Joker, an artistic genius trapped inside the mind of a psychopath.

This film has done so much for comic book films and has shown serious directors that the superhero was a worthy subject. If not for this film, I doubt we would have Spider-Man or Iron Man films that treat their subjects with respect. We certainly wouldn’t have an X-Men movie that could actually be nominated for Best Picture. Batman is a film leaps and bounds above its predecessors. It forced the genre to move forward. Unfortunately, it pushed so hard, it’s fallen behind. In the end, I guess that’s a tribute to the film itself.

 

 

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)