Monthly Archives: August 2011

Adaptations: Remakes: Cape Fear vs. Star Wars

By Nathanael Griffis

In what is simply horrifying news, and a disturbing continuation of a frightening trend in Hollywood, Tony Scott recently announced a remake of The Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, his more talented brother Ridley announced in past weeks a return to the Blade Runner universe for a pseudo-remake. One seen as an awful idea, the other an exciting idea. Why is it that two respected classics, neither of which need a remake, can be greeted with differing opinions? I agree with the opinions, mind you, but the reason for incessant remakes bothers me. One reason is that Sam Peckinpah should be avoided for remakes. (I’m looking at you, Rod Lurie.) Films like Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch are complex, disturbing, and hard to understand with Peckinpah behind the camera.  Remakes are nothing new, of course, and remaking movies is essentially what an adaptation is in the long run, but because a movie, unlike a live play, can exist in it’s original form for a longer time, it often seems unnecessary to remake it. And still we’re getting a new Footloose. Last year we were subjected to The A-Team. Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs have returned, but then again we’re also getting The Muppets coming up. With such a mixed bag it’s hard to filter through it all, so I will attempt to by giving you a good example and then the prime unholy grail of all examples. (Warning: I may geek out a little.)

Cape Fear (1962 & 1991)

Cape Fear is a unique remake, but I think the perfect example of a successful one. The 1962 version starring Gregory Peck as a lawyer driven to the brink by Robert Mitchum’s psychotic rapist is a frightening film that was heavily censored in the 60’s. What survived on screen is still pretty surprising. Max Cady (Mitchum) was imprisoned for rape and when released moves into the same town as Sam Bowden (Peck), the lawyer who poorly defended him years before. Cady then proceeds to manipulate, stalk, torture, and eventually attempt to rape and kill Sam Bowden and his family. Cady, as a man fueled by hate and some primal psychotic desire to sexually overpower women, including the 14-year-old daughter of Sam Bowden, is scary, really scary. It’s a terrifying performance by Mitchum, which is stunningly counterbalanced by Gregory Peck’s fascinating turn as Sam Bowden, who turns to breaking the law to protect his family. It is an interesting deviation from Atticus Finch in many ways.

When Martin Scorsese directed the remake in 1991 it seemed almost unnecessary considering the status of the first one, but the finished product proves that theory wrong. Scorsese, as he did often in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, turned to Robert De Niro to play Max Cady. He brought in Nick Nolte for Sam Bowden, and Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis play his wife and daughter. There are wonderful supporting performances by Robert Mitchum as the town sheriff and Gregory Peck, in his last big screen role, as Cady’s oily religious fanatic defense lawyer. The first thing Scorsese’s remake is able to do is kick the censors out the door. The original Cape Fear, while challenging, clearly feels hampered by its 60’s mentality. Issues are never fully discussed. It’s frustrating in a lot of ways to see Robert Mitchum beat and rape a women, and then listen as the characters dance around the subject, because it’s not appropriate to talk about. In an interview with the director of the original, J. Lee Thompson mentioned his frustration and noted that several scenes of dialogue were cut because of the nature of the discussion. The censors were frequently asking for the film to be rewritten, going over the film scene by scene to control the artistic expression.

Scorsese has no such problem, and he’s able to flesh the characters out a lot more. Sam Bowden is given more depth; he’s not a perfect or pristine symbol of honor like Gregory Peck, which fits with Scorsese themes. Everyone in this film is guilty of something; crime and violence inhabit our world, and it’s how we respond to it that matters. Max Cady is let off of his leash, and De Niro delivers what is, in my opinion, his most frightening performance. He’s manipulative, unforgiving, and driven by some demonic sense of hatred to hurt anything the Bowdens get near. The final scene, which I won’t spoil, is as terrifying a death as any in cinema. The reason this remake works is because Scorsese is not simply trying to cash in. He’s taking these characters and this well-respected film and building upon it, reinterpreting it for a new generation, and improving the technical aspects of the filmmaking. The film simply looks better, the art direction is better, and it feels more realistic and less set-piece-driven. Visually, it’s a cleaner and more clearly shot film with better camera work.

A lot of times the main argument for remaking a film is that the original was good in concept but poor in execution (e.g., Tron). I want to point out that this is not the case. A good remake is more about how you tell the story, who’s involved, and the theme you’re trying to convey. You must have a reason to remake a film, and the good concept- bad execution is a good reason, but not the only one. Don’t get up in arms simply because Fright Night was remade (turns out it was good) or that Aronofsky wants to do Robocop (it could be good). Cross your fingers and calm down, it’s not the end of the world–unless George Lucas is involved, in which case it just might be.

Star Wars (1977, 1997, 2008)

Leaving aside his prequels and his astounding ability to ruin childhoods, George Lucas created the greatest sci-fi franchise ever and then proceeded to stomp all over it. Initially a “special edition” that is remastered and cleaned up sounds like a great idea, and watching the documentaries of the process to clean up the negative of the original trilogy fascinated me as child. I saw all three special editions in theaters, being as I was too young to see the original films in theaters, and truthfully enjoyed them. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become more and more bothered by the changes Lucas keeps making. He’s not merely adding a deleted scene, extending a song montage, giving us a more lively Mos Eisley, or simply a better picture quality–the story is shifting and changing.  A New Hope has plot holes, physics problems, and technical issues, but with the 2008 DVD release, none of those issues are fixed, they’re simply compounded with new problems.

Let’s try and let our nerd problems go and forgive Lucas for the 1997 remakes, because for the most part it is simply a remake that technically needed to happen. The original negative was degrading and it had to be remastered. It looks better and some of the improvements, like adding more character to Mos Eisley and Cloud City bring out the worlds more. The sarlacc’s beak and tentacles do look better than just the pit of sand with spikes in the original. The extended Max Rebo Band sequence is fine, sometimes annoying, but it doesn’t detract from the character or story. Yes, Greedo shoots first, but let’s calm down–if there weren’t T-shirts and websites dedicated to complaining about this fact, we might not have noticed.

What is truly appaling is the 2008 DVD release version that tries to connect the original trilogy to the prequels. Hayden Christensen’s visage has replaced Sebastian Shaw, which just creates an inconsistency, because why doesn’t Ewan McGregor then replace Alec Guinness? It’s as if Lucas was afraid to do this (perhaps the thought of Alec Guinness’ ghost haunting him with those judgemental hazel eyes makes him think twice), leaving us wondering, why is Obi-Wan old, but not Anakin? Gungans make an appearance in the final celebration, though thankfully no Jar-Jar. Voice actors are changed to fit with the prequels–Boba Fett is now voiced Temuera Morrison, the voice of Jango Fett in the prequels, which seems like nothing short of an insult to Jason Wingreen from the original and again an added inconsistency, because shouldn’t the son sound different from the father? New scenes of Ewan McGregor talking with Uncle Owen just seem out of place, and the lighting and scenery don’t coalesce with the later shots of Tatooine. Overall, though, what is most disturbing is that the digital remastering is severely botched. At one point Luke’s lightsaber has been color-corrected to be green. Vader’s lightsaber has lost its deep red hue and turned to a rosy pink, and there is a strong blue wash over the film, similar to the wash that is found commonly in modern sci-fi.

It’s infuriating, but what is happening is that an author has not been made to stop. As a writer, if I don’t put my work out there, I will never finish it. I am never content with what I write, and I always feel like there is something worth changing, so I constantly change things, but what we have here is an artist who’s in the midst of revision and gives us his drafts every couple of years and claims each draft as the true masterpiece instead of just leaving them alone. I suspect Lucas will in a few years (I’m afraid of the Blu-ray) correct some of these problems, but he’s created so many more with his changes that there’s little room for trust in his ability any more. He’s not fixing inconsistencies, like why Obi-Wan disappears from his cloak but Qui-Gon doesn’t; he’s simply tweaking and adding inconsistencies that loosely tie all six films together.

Remakes need to be just that, remade entirely. You have to start anew. Treat it as an old concept with a new spin and go from there. We can’t have one bearded madman destroy everything we know and love about science fiction in film. The good thing is that even though they may try to remake classics like Akira, we can always go back and watch the original.

Next, I’ll finish up my long and drawn out series on adaptations with some of the oddballs, like adapting a song, a theme park ride, or a painting.

10 reasons why I’m looking forward to September (part 2)

By Tom Kapr

In part 1, I wrote about seven films being released in September that should be getting wide release, but there are three more films I’m looking forward to next month that are listed as getting a limited release–meaning I’m not sure if they’ll be coming to a theater near enough for me to go see them, or if they do, when exactly that will be.

Nevertheless, here are the three limited releases to round out my 10 reasons:

Director Gus Van Sant’s new film Restless is getting a limited release on September 16. The IMDb’s synopsis reads, “The story of a terminally ill teenage girl who falls for a boy who likes to attend funerals and their encounters with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot from WWII.” Come on, that plot sounds fantastic. And that teenage girl is played by Mia Wasikowska, who after her phenomenal performances in The Kids Are All Right and Jane Eyre is one of my favorite newcomers. (She was also one of the better ingredients in Tim Burton’s misguided Alice in Wonderland.)

The other two films get their limited releases on September 30: writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon plays a family man who starts seeing visions of the apocalypse, but doesn’t know whether they are real portents of things to come from which he must protect his family–or if he himself is the impending threat to his wife and children. Another of my favorite up-and-coming actresses, Jessica Chastain, co-stars. (I recently saw her in The Help and The Tree of Life, and she was amazing in both films. I’m hoping she gets an acting nomination this season for The Tree of Life. I hope the same for Mia Wasikowska for her Jane Eyre performance.)

This final film on my list not only has one of the best titles ever, but has a premise that excites me more than maybe any other for this month. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil stars Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, and Katrina Bowden, known for their characters on the TV shows Reaper, Firefly, and 30 Rock, respectively. Now here is the premise from IMDb: “Tucker & Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are attacked by a group of preppy college kids,” turning the entire genre on its head. I love it already. Add Alan Tudyk to anything, and you automatically make it better (he had the one truly inspired comedic moment in Transformers: Dark of the Moon); and it will be fun to see Katrina Bowden out of her 30 Rock short-shorts (that sounded better before I wrote it) and in a different setting where she can show off her comic timing.

So there are 10 reasons why I’m looking forward to going to the movies next month. The Rant Pad will be back on its regular schedule come September, with Steve’s articles appearing on Mondays (he’ll be into the home stretch of his apocalyptic film series), Nate’s appearing on Wednesdays (he’ll be continuing with his series on adaptations), and my own articles appearing on Fridays. I’ll be starting a new series called “The Old Toy Chest,” where I’ll be looking at movies that I haven’t seen since I was a kid that had a big influence on my childhood. Also look for more Buried Cinema articles, and possibly more reviews of terrible horror movies (though nothing on the scale of what I did last October).

Thanks for reading!

10 reasons why I’m looking forward to September (part 1)

By Tom Kapr

On September 2, sci-fi thriller Apollo 18 finally will be released. This “found footage” film about the “truth” of NASA’s moon expeditions has been pushed back a few times since it was originally slated for release this past March. Truly good found footage films are rare since the genre essentially began with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 (Cloverfield is a towering exception, and Paranormal Activity is not too far behind), but I am always drawn to the genre for its pure visceral experience. Here’s hoping for a good one–in space.

September 9 sees the release of the newest team-up between director Steven Soderbergh and headliner Matt Damon. The premise of Contagion is nothing new–the threat of a potential deadly worldwide pandemic (see Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak or any number of much cheaper films)–but it’s never been done with Soderbergh’s personal style or with a cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, and John Hawkes. The trailer gives away one of the film’s most shocking moments, but somehow it only makes me want to see this more.

September 16 has what is possibly the most exciting film of the month. The plot of Drive may sound like a Jason Statham film–“A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong” according to the film’s IMDb page–but the director is a well-respected if not well-known creator of some gritty, intense films; and the cast is headed up by Ryan Gosling, one of the most interesting and exciting actors of the past decade. Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks–this is an amazing cast. This could be the indie film to put to shame most Hollywood action-thrillers. And it already has a rating of 9.0 from more than 1,200 viewers on the IMDb. I cannot wait for this film.

September 23 has yet another exciting, low-profile action film in Machine Gun Preacher, which at first sounds ridiculous until you realize that it is a biographical account of, again according to IMDb, “Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing biker tough guy who found God and became a crusader for hundreds of Sudanese children who’ve been forced to become soldiers.” And that it’s directed by Marc freaking Forster, whose every film is a complete departure from the last and has a track record of quality that any director would kill for, including Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner, and Quantum of Solace. Lead Gerard Butler could finally break free from his own less than stellar record.

Also being released on 9/23 is a more family-friendly film, but one that could actually be really good. Charles Martin Smith directs Morgan Freeman in Dolphin Tale in “a story centered on the friendship between a boy and a dolphin whose tail was lost in a crab trap” (IMDb). I’m looking forward to seeing a well-made inspirational tale. Plus, dolphins are awesome.

September 30 also has two major releases I’m having trouble choosing between, in terms of which I’d rather see. One is 50/50, a comedy/drama in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character deals with his cancer diagnosis with the help of his friend, played by Seth Rogen. With talented beauties Bryce Dallas Howard and Anna Kendrick in the mix, and the reliable presence of Anjelica Huston, this is a cast I am truly anticipating.

On the other hand, In America director Jim Sheridan directs Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, and Rachel Weisz in a mystery-thriller about a family that moves into a house with a violent past. Dream House is not a horror, but has potential to be truly horrifying in its more down-to-earth mystery plot.

In a couple days, I will write about limited releases Restless, Take Shelter, and the delightful-sounding Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.



Adaptations: Updating a classic: 10 Things I Hate About You vs. Clueless

By Nathanael Griffis

Ahh, what says classic English writing more than West Coast high school life? Not the seemingly most obvious place to shift the works of Austen and Shakespeare, but sure, why not? Updating a classic is a tough task, because you have to justify not doing the simple period piece. You have to answer the question: Why set the story in 1990’s Beverly Hills? The easiest answer is to show that the themes of the story are timeless and the plot relatable to today’s audiences. Well sure, that makes sense, but you still have to make a good movie. Updating a novel or a play can, like anything, be a success or a failure, so here’s one success and one failure.

10 Things I Hate About You

Shakespeare’s plays were almost adaptations themselves; people had been doing Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet stories for a long time before William came along. So his plays tend to translate well to modern times, but you have to be careful. His comedies fit in brilliantly in the cliquey, silly, dramatic, and strangely idyllic setting of high school. His tragedies, not so much; for an example, see O–or don’t. What is amazing about 10 Things I Hate About You is how respectful of the source material it is, while still maintaining relevance and keeping a clear 90’s sensibility about it.

With 90’s punk and grunge rock for a soundtrack, and up-and-coming stars Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Stiles, and Alex Mack–I’m sorry, Larisa Oleynik–it seemed like a simple romantic comedy that stole the basic plot of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. What we’re treated to instead is a genuinely thoughtful adaptation. Lines of Shakespeare are integrated directly, few characters are left out, they modified the story to be made relevant, and it’s pumped full of sexually charged clever humor that would make Shakespeare giggle with pride. To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of the play–I think it’s up there with Romeo and Juliet as easy to read and understand, good poetry, great moments describing love, but a little shallow. What 10 Things I Hate About You reminded me was that the simple act of loving a person isn’t shallow or lacking. While it may not have the complex, interweaving themes of King Lear or lyrical perfection of Hamlet, it is worth it.

Gil Junger somehow hit this one film out of the park after a long career in sitcoms, and then subsequently returned to sitcoms and stayed there, pretty much. He manages to give us the classic romantic comedy that pushes beyond the typical realms of the genre. He smartly cuts Shakespeare’s framing device, and somehow gives credence to the oft-debated misogynistic themes of the play. Kat’s feminist ideas and fight-the-establishment mentality, which is what has to be tamed out of her in the play, are presented as a logical defense mechanism to the loss of her mother and the scars of an impulsive sexual experience. This brilliant moment of screenwriting may actually be an improvement on the original play, which seems to be little more than a ridiculous comedic romp. (Also, Shakespeare just may not have had that high an opinion of women.) Karen McCullah Lutz would reattempt this feat of screenwriting with the Amanda Bynes film She’s the Man, an adaptation of Twelth Night, with decent results.

It’s amazing how loyal to the play and the romantic-high-school-comedy genre this film is able to be. We have the party scene, the teary-eyed poetry-reading ending, a father who is afraid to let her daughters go, a nerdy new kid who falls head over heels for an un-gettable girl, and yet it’s Shakespeare; somehow it all works. Oh, and also we get to hear Heath Ledger singing and deliver lines like: “What is it with this girl? Does she have beer-flavored nipples or something?”


Now, I understand this film has a cult following and is pretty funny at times. I also have to remove my personal bias towards it because of an incident involving this film on our Buried Cinema podcast, so I rewatched it a few days ago to test my theory that it is a bad adaptation, and I have to say that it’s also a weak movie. The comedy hasn’t aged well. In middle school, it was funny to watch spunky Cher (Alicia Silverstone) make mistake after mistake, but it doesn’t add up and as far as adaptations go, well….

Jane Austen’s Emma was a milestone for her writing for several reasons. Emma was one of the first truly unlikeable protagonists; she has several redeeming qualities, but her vain and selfish lifestyle is really pretty revolting, and what is astounding is to watch Emma grow and recognize that there is inside her both vulnerability and a desire to be loved. She’s also unique in that she’s the only protagonist of Austen’s who is financially free and does not require a man to satisfy her in that sense. It was a fascinating chance for Austen to stretch her writing a little, and for ages the text has befuddled critics because it’s not traditional Austen. Several initial reviews wrote that there was very little substance, that it was basically a forward-moving plot with some funny moments. This could unfortunately be said of Clueless.

The film takes the plot of Emma and loyally adapts it, but then it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the story other than make Cher date a gay guy, hook up the wrong people, fall for her step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd), have a spiritual shopping spree, and then–hey, why not–give everyone a boyfriend in the end. Austen saw Emma’s material wealth as a unique problem that had rarely been considered in literature. She is frequently showing us in her novels that women can still posses strength without the man’s financial protection, but here we see the reverse of that which hints at the idea that there is something inherent in the relationship between a man and a woman that is good and necessary.

What is kind of disturbing about Clueless is just how much it lives up to its name. It’s trying to be satire, but it seems unwilling to fully satirize the materialistic person it’s portraying. It’s a shopping spree montage that makes Cher feel good about herself and gives her the confidence to open up to Josh. On a side note, I had thought that maybe they were being loyal to the text by making Josh her step-brother, because weird relationships with close family was more usual in Austen’s time than in the 90’s, but nope. Emma falls for the brother of her sister’s husband, which would have been a lot easier to do. I mean, why isn’t Josh just some kid at school that doesn’t fall for her crap, who has a brother, cousin, or friend who dates Cher’s friend or sister? No, I guess step-brother makes more sense.

The humor is also not as endearing. It lacks the clever bite of 10 Things I Hate About You, and Cher has little charm. Good intentions don’t stop you from being impossibly annoying. They’re clearly pointing out that materialism and selfishness are annoying, but it’s still okay to be yourself. The only problem is that unlike Austen’s novel, where Emma sees her selfishness in her jealous reaction to Harriet’s professed love to Mr. Knightley, so in the movie this would be Cher getting mad at Tai (Brittany Murphy) because she and Josh just aren’t a good fit. Cher learns nothing, she just loves who she loves. Her personality changes little and her materialism is not seen as a character flaw. Emma, in the novel, is approaching Mr. Knightley, humbly expecting that her selfishness has left her ruined and hoping to find good news for Harriet, but is given redemption in Mr. Knightley’s confession of his love for her. In Clueless, Paul Rudd kisses his sister on a staircase and all is well?

The film just doesn’t add up to much more than a feel-good message about helping people, finding a boyfriend, buying clothes, getting teachers to be nice, and making out with your siblings.

Next, I’ll talk about the ever popular reboot, where Hollywood pretentiously takes their own self-described classics and reintroduces them to the populace by looking at Cape Fear and Star Wars. Yep, Star Wars.

Buried Cinema: The Warriors and Modern Myth

By Steven Moore

I decided to take a break from the post-apocalyptic fare this week and write about a film that I had not only never heard of, but also would probably never have watched if not for Tom’s suggestion. On his recommendation, I decided to watch The Warriors despite a general aversion to cult films from the ’70s and ’80s. It was one of those movies I never knew existed, but once I did, it seemed to be everywhere. When I finally found the time to sit down and watch it, I was treated to one of the greatest modern epic translations put to film. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess), I had to get past my own prejudices before I realized how good of a film it is.

The Warriors is mesh of West Side Story, A Clockwork Orange, and The Odyssey. Inspired by Anabasis, a story of ancient Greeks who are stranded on foreign soil and must make their way home, The Warriors is set in a future where New York is overrun by rival gangs. Each of these gangs controls a neighborhood, or “turf,” and has their own motif that identifies them–some wear hats, others wear certain colors. When one of the most powerful gangs, the Riffs, calls a truce and sets up a meeting, the Warriors attend with nine unarmed representatives. Although they are unsure if anyone else is going to show up, when they arrive, every gang in the city has a representative crew ready to hear what Cyrus, the leader of the Riffs, has to say. Cyrus tries to rally all of the gangs together in a bid to take over New York City from the police, but before he can finish speaking, he is gunned down by the Rogues, a particularly nasty gang with anarchist leanings. The Rogues then manage to pin the killing on the Warriors. With every gang in the city out to capture or kill the Warriors, they must try to fight their way back to Coney Island, their home turf.

This film follows the tradition of modernization similar to West Side Story, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Lion King. These are stories that, although we may not have read Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, and Hamlet, respectively, we know because of they are part of our cultural consciousness. The Warriors feels epic and familiar. We’ve seen this story before, and we can listen to it being told a thousand times because it resonates. Something about the desire to escape the unfamiliar and get home is an evolutionary desire. When the world has turned against us, the familiar comforts us and gives us strength; that’s human nature.

What’s brilliant about this movie is that it uses conventions of film to convey those emotions. The Warriors are lost in the unfamiliar territory of New York City, a place most Americans (except those who live there) imagine as unfamiliar and unforgiving. Their desire to get home, to escape the cold dark streets of a foreign landscape, is shared by the viewer, and their arrival home is met with sun and ocean air. The tension and relief of this kind of journey is mirrored by the natural tension and relief of film. All of the expectation of character arc and third act resolutions are built into the themes of this mythical story.

The characters in The Warriors are gang members, and the film makes no apology for them. These aren’t the roguish heroes with hearts of gold. When their leader is killed, a minor power struggle breaks out between Swan, played by Micheal Beck, and Ajax, played by an impossibly young James Remar. Even though Swan becomes leader, you never feel that his position is secure while Ajax is around. In fact, Swan makes a choice later in the film that gets rid of Ajax and solidifies his role as leader. Swan isn’t above leaving his own behind. Later in the film when Mercy, a good time girl who hangs with the low rent gang The Orphans, antagonizes the Warriors, Swan grabs her and threatens to just “pull a train on her right there.” This is a man who, although he may not follow through, has no problems threatening a woman with gang rape. There are no heroes in this film.

"I wanna knock some balls all niiight...."

The difficulty with The Warriors is getting past some of the late ’70s/early ’80s cheese. Although it came out in 1979, The Warriors maintains an ’80s aesthetic. The soundtrack makes liberal use of electronic keyboard, and the costuming looks dated. What was probably fashionable and edgy-looking then, now looks silly. It’s very difficult to take a guy seriously today when he is shirtless under his leather vest. Likewise, some of the gangs, like the Baseball Furies (who are apparently the official baseball team of Kiss) or the gangs of Mimes, just don’t seem that threatening. In fact, the most threatening gang in the film is the all-female gang, The Lizzies, playing the part of the sirens. The dialogue uses phrasse like “can you dig it,” “suckahs,” and “wimps,” which wavers between caricature and comical. Fortunately, the film forced me to push past my own prejudice for ’80s film tropes and styles by tapping into the timeless themes of the myth it was recreating.

There are some amazing moments that elevate the movie beyond its source material. After a particularly brutal fight, the Warriors and Mercy are on the subway, disheveled and wounded. A pair of clearly upper-class couples wander onto the train, drunk and laughing, not even noticing them. When they eventually do notice the gang and are repulsed and afraid, Mercy tries to straighten her hair to make herself more presentable. Swan stops her, revealing the clear separation between the gang world of the Warriors, where survival is a fight, and the upper-class world where everything is easy. They live in their universe and will not pretend otherwise for the benefit of those who don’t understand it. The Warriors manages to capture the human themes in a classic myth, while managing to also comment on contemporary society. What more can you ask of a film?

Buried Cinema: Transsiberian

By Nathanael Griffis

This man loves old crumbling destitute churches.

Once again the death of the American movie rental store has served me well. In any other circumstance I doubt I would have picked up this movie. But, there I was wasting time on a Thursday, staring at a DVD cover that seemed strangely too picaresque for its blood red title. I can’t remember who first told me about Transsiberian, but I thank you, forgotten movie suggester. This film is an amazing, little-known thriller. The acting is stellar all around. The plot is full of twists and turns, but it’s not hard to follow, incomprehensible, or ridiculous like so many thrillers. Normally I’m not bothered by telling spoilers, but I’m going to hold back on this one, because watching the mystery unfold is so exciting in this film that I want you to enjoy it. The plot is a simple one: an American couple gets caught up in murder, drugs, and trains while taking the long trip from China to Moscow.

Emily Mortimer holding onto the backpack, and holding in a fart. Hehehe.

The first thing that needs mentioning about this film is the acting and the characters. There is so much depth to each, but it’s really an impressive performance from Emily Mortimer as Jesse, the converted Christian trying to resist her former life of sin and figure out how to live in a healthy relationship with her husband Roy (Woody Harrelson). The two main characters’ relationship is the strongest aspect of the film. They’re human beings, not stereotypes (which so often happens with Christian characters in films), neither judgmental doomsayers nor smiley naive idiots. Roy does come off as naive at times, but that seems to stem from his love for humanity, and when it counts he steps up, so his naiveté isn’t the only thing that makes him human. And honestly, how many people aren’t naive about the international drug trade? Both Jesse and Roy are complete, complex pictures of people. Jesse desires a family but is still tempted to live her past adventurous, destructive life. She’s embarrassed of this past, making her leery of authority. Roy is naive, brave, loving, and overall a supportive husband who is willing to protect his wife at all costs.

Eduardo Noreiga here reminds us all that Spanish men will always be prettier than white guys. (Sorry, Woody Harrelson.)

The rest of the cast–Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, and Thomas Kretschmann–are phenomenal as well. They give each character enough nuance in their brief appearances to intrigue and draw you in. Most of the film is these characters riding trains, until the intense climax, so it’s an amazing job by director Brad Anderson and writer Will Conroy to balance their stories so wonderfully. Brad Anderson is a “buried” director in his own right, delivering solid movies every time out, with The Machinist, Happy Accidents, and Session 9 under his belt. He has an excellent sense of how character drives film, and isn’t afraid to push towards horrific violence. Transsiberian may have the best use of a torture scene I’ve ever watched. It doesn’t seem to be reveling in the torture, but like the nail-pulling scene in Syriana, the torture builds character and later reveals a frightening depth of human capacity for survival in Jesse.

Transsiberian is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen. Amazing cinematography, as well, portrays the broken down remainders of a now-dead empire to its full potential. Issues about life in Russia and America’s response are not harped on or politicized, but discussed and presented in the midst of all the exciting thrills. It’s a fully balanced, complex, and exciting thriller. I can’t recommend this film enough.

Let’s Start Again: The foreign sensibilities of “Delicatessen”

By Steven Moore

Visions of the post-apocalypse reveal a lot about a culture, what it sees as indispensable to civilization, and what it cherishes. The American vision of the post-apocalypse often involves the loss of safety and convenience, and life becomes a hard toil of survival and violence where power is consolidated into an oligarchy. American visions of post-apocalypse, including Logan’s Run and The Book of Eli, reveal that they prize their comforts and their freedom above all else. In short, Americans want nothing more than a comfortable, easy life. The post-apocalypse from the French perspective does not concern itself with comfort or freedom, beyond necessity.  The terror of the post-apocalypse is the opportunity for the nouveau riche to control the poor. The resurrection of a great class divide and economic disenfranchisement defines the end of civilization.

Delicatessen (1991), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first feature film, only hints at the possible causes of the Apocalypse, suggesting a war with artificial intelligence that has nearly destroyed the earth’s ability to grow plants. Presumably, there are no more fossil fuels, because cars are pushed by servants; and although the air is breathable, it reminds me suspiciously of Eliot’s yellow fog that represents the pollution of London. The film focuses on a small group of people living in an apartment building with a butcher shop at the ground floor. All around lie the ruins of what was once a suburban neighborhood. While the wide shots reveal that this is all that is left of the neighborhood, life goes on pretty much as normal. The people watch TV, play music, and sit around being French. When the butcher asks the postal officer about the city, he replies, “Awful, they are eating each other.” The suggestion is that the entire world has turned to cannibalism because “there are no more rats,” and this little building is the last bastion of decency.

Of course, some compromises must be made. To keep the community from turning on one another, the butcher lures unsuspecting travelers, murders them, and sells their meat to residents. However, he uses his advantage for personal gain. Because grain is so scarce, it has become the primary form of currency. Between selling food to the residents and collecting rent, he has become wealthy beyond necessity. He sits in his basement, counting his many sacks of grain, while the people living above him starve. He buys candy, an almost unheard-of novelty, for his daughter, while children in the next room are being fed boots.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a French film if it did not view the tragedy and horror of the situation through the eyes of comedy. Juenet establishes the butcher’s dominance over the small society through a sex scene in which all of the residents are performing whatever tasks they are assigned to the rhythm of his sexual encounter. They cannot stop until he has *ahem* finished. The butcher dominates the community absolutely, so that no one can break free of his rhythm despite ruining a bike tire, breaking strings on a cello, or working faster than humanly possible.

The film makes a point to turn the comical into horror and horror into comedy. The butcher mistakenly attacks one of the residents, cutting off his leg, then proceeds to kill an elderly woman for the meat. Juenet somehow manages to make this and the following scene in which the elderly woman’s daughter weeps over the meat she has just received from the butcher comical. However, a nightmare sequence involving a monkey and a clown, two easy comedic props, is one of the most horrifying dream sequences I have ever seen. (I’m afraid I will be seeing them in my own dreams.)

The characters in Delicatessen are what make the film. Quirky, eccentric, and unbelievably French, they are both lovable and despicable. One woman continually tries and fails to kill herself because of voices coming from the pipes. The Troglodytes, a bumbling underground group of vegetarians who have a sense of Robin Hood about them, attempt to steal the grain and save anyone in danger. The protagonist, Louison (Dominique Pinon), who can’t face his previous life in the circus without his monkey by his side, is oblivious the the decay and danger around him, but is remarkably kind.

The frantic pace and sometimes farcical moments create an atmosphere where I, as the viewer, am barely hanging on to what is happening but am enjoying the ride. I could tell that this film was poorly translated, and that may have had something to do with the sense of confusion. There were many moments where the action was incomprehensible, but I felt like I was butting up against a language barrier and not a plot or directing deficiency. The askew cinematography and tonal juxtaposition work together to create an intentional disorientation, but the mistranslations sometimes add one too many confusing elements.

While the film demonizes the sole man taking advantage of a situation when he could be solving a problem, it does reflect that nobody intends to be evil, that circumstance or ignorance makes us evil. Louison claims early on that, “Nobody is entirely evil: it’s that circumstances that make them evil [sic], or they don’t know they are doing evil.” Even the butcher asks his mistress whether he might have been a good man if the world was different. We all have the potential for evil given the right circumstances or lack of understanding. Like in A Boy and His Dog, when a person is fighting for survival and has never been taught compassion or selflessness, the natural course is to work solely for personal gain. Without society, life is nasty, brutish, and short. And then you end up dinner.

Classic Adaptations — Pride & Prejudice vs. The Count of Monte Cristo

By Nathanael Griffis

The classic adaptation: making every student’s life easier and every teacher’s life more frustrating. A movie will never be able to capture the grace and complexity of Austen or Dumas, but they try anyway. It’s a wonderful way to be introduced to a story, or to see a visual interpretation of a story, and frequently they turn out alright, because their source material is hard to ruin (watch out for the upcoming Three Musketeers in 3D, though).  For this installment of my series I’ll focus on the importance of theme and conciseness, two aspects that I think are crucial to adapting a classic work.

Pride & Prejudice

Keira Knightley couldn't help but think of Colin Firth while kissing Matthew Macfadyen.

Joe Wright had worked in television for three or four years directing miniseries when either presumption or genius inspired him to adapt Pride & Prejudice as his first feature film. Naturally Universal and Focus Features said sure, because people will watch a Pride & Prejudice movie no matter what. You must remember, this is a story so beloved that it inspires meta-fiction and continuation novels even today. Then in 2005, Joe Wright delivered a perfect example of a classic adaptation. The key to an adaptation is to balance cutting and keeping. Basically, it’s the world’s toughest editing job. You will not please everyone, and some people may bemoan the loss of this or that character, but if you can capture the theme and character of a 500-page book in a two-hour span, you’re successful. This is exactly what Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach did.

Austen’s plotlines are nothing special. There are no surprise twists or turns. She writes deep, relatable characters into a relatable situation and taps into our desire for acceptance and love as the plot unfolds. The real charm of the 2005 version is in its somewhat modern take on theme and character. For example, versus the much-lauded 1995 BBC version, Elizabeth Bennett’s fiery independence is more focused on and played up in this version. The 1995 version is more accurate, and more capable of accuracy because of its longer running time, but less effective because, to be honest, Elizabeth Bennett is not as relatable in the 2005 version. Much of this should be attributed to Keira Knightley’s amazing Oscar-worthy performance; she somehow managed to combine Victorian morals with modern sensibilities and philosophies realistically. We don’t question her strange behavior or refusal to be controlled by social norms, because Knightley’s performance is so honest and believable.

Elizabeth Bennet as the focus is what makes this version so wonderful. The main flaw with the BBC version is that Darcy overshadows everything, making a wonderful female-character-driven novel into a patriarchal story. Part of that is Colin Firth’s fault for being so good, but the other part is a lack of understanding of theme. Joe Wright knew he had to focus on characters recognizing their inherent flaws and inability to look past the surface of a person to create a genuine film. The love story is an amazing process to see unfold. It’s not in an immediate twinkling of an eye or a dance at a ball. Jane Austen tapped into the very heart of love. It has no prejudice and it humbles human beings to become vulnerable, but it doesn’t happen magically or immediately. A lot from the novel is cut (the running time is barely over two hours), but these basic themes are kept and drive the film. The cinematography and art direction are astounding, the script is succinct, and the supporting cast is wonderful.

What’s interesting is that I could say these same things about The Count of Monte Cristo. So why is it a bad adaptation?

Jim Caviezel being a jerk and refusing to help Richard Harris dig out of prison.

The Count of Monte Cristo

For all intents and purposes, I enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s an exciting period-piece revenge-thriller. I’m breaking my own rule here about separating the source material from the adapted material, but so be it. I understand this movie can be enjoyed and even seen as a good movie; but it is not a good adaptation. Remember what I said about theme and conciseness? A good classic adaptation captures the entirety of a novel because it keeps the central themes central to the film. This adaptation, I suspect, is based on the SparkNotes. I get the feeling director Kevin Reynolds knows that Edmond Dantès gets wrongly imprisoned, escapes, finds treasures, changes his identity, and kills those who imprisoned him. What he misses is the implications of what revenge does to a human being. If you’ve seen the movie, you might be left at the end with a sour distaste for Dantès, and you might think that revenge is a bad thing and does more damage than good, but this is little more than a theme of any revenge thriller.

The movie takes more from other Hollywood films than it does the book. Stars Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and Richard Harris are amazing. Luis Guzmán turns an amazing character into a comic relief waste. What they miss, and spoiler alert here, is the complexity of everything Dumas presents in the novel. The prison sequence is maybe 90 pages, for starters; in a 1000-plus-page book, it’s barely a blip. In the film it’s a major focus–a good sequence, but basically a training montage. We see hints of Dantès’ obsession with revenge and his ability to plot, but what we miss is that he is more consumed with revenge than a desire to get his wife and daughter back. Dumas in his novel is trying to show us that revenge becomes the primary concern for a man bent on it. Dantès does drive his wife and his son away in the book, because he’s obsessed with achieving the gratification of his plan. It’s a deep look at the self and what it means to be a damaged man, and what happens when one tries to repair that.

Even more than this, though, Dantès is obsessed with violence in the book. I’ll never forget the scene where he watches two men in a knife fight and takes pleasure in the slow gruesome death of the loser. Revenge drives a person towards violence and away from others. In the movie we see the drive towards violence certainly, as Dantès kills Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) at the end, which is different from the darker ending of the book where Dantès drives Mondego to kill himself because he takes more pleasure in Mondego’s suicide than in murder. In the film he gets what he wants and revenge wins. In other words, vengeance is seen as having some consequences, but it’s an okay response that will give you what you want and desire. This goes against the Dumas novel entirely. If it weren’t for the existence of the novel, The Count of Monte Cristo would be a fun, enjoyable revenge thriller–but it shouldn’t been merely that.

Next I’ll be looking at modern updates of classic literature with 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless.

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Let’s Start Again: “Last Night” is bright

By Steven Moore

When does society become post-apocalyptic? Must society completely collapse in order to push the world into a post-apocalyptic state? According to Don McKellar’s Last Night, the world becomes post-apocalyptic the moment people realize that the party is coming to an end. Knowing the exact moment life will end brings out the truth in people. Of course you have your dregs, devolving into violence and anarchy to distract themselves from the fear of impending eternal nothingness; however, unlike so many other post-apocalyptic filmmakers, McKellar chooses to acknowledge, but not focus on, this aspect of the apocalypse. Instead the audience spends 95 minutes following people who are trying to figure out what it means for everything to end. Each person comes up with a reasoned idea of what is important, what matters most in the last few hours of life.

Although the specific cause is never mentioned, hints suggest that a nearby star has gone supernova, and that the radiation wave is approaching earth. It will wipe out all life on the planet, and everyone knows the exact moment it will happen. This is one of the more brilliant causes of apocalypse I’ve seen in a film, being completely plausible, unexpected, and inevitable. There is no bad guy, no political agenda to get in the way of the raw look at the human psyche. This is the universe, uncaring and unconcerned with this speck of dust floating out in the backwoods of a rather unremarkable galaxy. Nature has declared us unfit to live, and it is just a matter of waiting until the axe falls. So when there is no one to blame, people must turn to examining themselves.

The film is a montage, following several story lines. Normally I don’t like these kinds of films because they tend to focus more on thematic development than character development. Films like Magnolia and Crash, although well made, just don’t appeal to the things I look for in a movie: story, character development, world building. Fortunately, here it works. The primary protagonist is Patrick Wheeler, played by McKellar himself. He is a sullen man who has experienced tragedy and cannot forgive the world for what it has taken from him. He has resolved to spend the last few hours of life alone. His determination borders on cruelty as he refuses his parents’ attempt at a final Christmas, his sister’s attempts to connect with him, and even a stranger who, although he eventually makes the connection, he initially sees only as a temptation. Despite the minimal character growth of the minor characters, his growth is one of the most subtle and profound I’ve seen in a film.

Patrick’s encounters throughout the movie spiderweb out to reveal the many different ways people deal with the end. His best friend, Craig, decides to amass as much sexual experience as he can. While he initially seems to just be falling into the trap of hedonism, his eventual defense of his actions is surprisingly well thought out. He takes sex seriously as not just a physical connection, but an emotional and spiritual connection. He wants to build that connection with as many people as he can in as many ways as he can. Craig inevitably propositions Patrick for a sexual encounter that, in the context of the film, seems strangely reasonable between two heterosexual men, despite the relief I felt when Patrick refused him. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Chasing Amy when the logic of Holden’s argument is uncomfortably clear.

Patrick ends up spending his final hours with Sandra, played by the always wonderful Sandra Oh, who tries desperately to return to a man she loves. Her final solution to deal with the end of the world results from an obvious and empathetic despair. Her performance made me feel her anguish at not being able to return to her new husband, a dedicated workaholic who nevertheless is compassionate and conscientious. There are no stereotypes here, and each human being has something worthy about them to make the approaching tragedy even more tragic. The eventual connection made between Patrick and Sandra is a complete human connection that has passed through despondency and loneliness, beyond physicality, a pure humanity built from empathetic love and the desire to live in the face of inevitability.

Don McKellar hasn’t done many movies and primarily works in the short film format, which I suspect attributes to the short running time of the movie. I would have liked to spend more time with these characters who find different ways of connecting to the world around them, if only for a few hours. When the world comes to an end, every person is left with a choice: connect to what is beautiful and human in the world or lose all social constraint and purpose. At one point two old women are sitting on a couch discussing the end of the world. When one laments over the children never knowing what life is about, the other protests, “I’ve invested 80 years in this life. Children don’t know what they are missing. I don’t care about the children.” This film sees life as an investment, and challenges the viewer to ask, “How do you invest in humanity if it has no future? Are we worth the investment?”

I cannot recommend this film enough.