Tag Archives: Orson Welles

A Buried Cinema review — The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

By Tom Kapr

I sat down to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension along with Buried Cinema podcaster and sometime Rant Pad writer Steve Moore, and neither one of us could figure out what was going on at any given moment in the film. But I need to write something about it, so here’s what I know:

So there’s this guy named Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) who performs brain surgery, fronts a very 80s “rock” band, and is such a brilliant physicist that he manages to discover a new dimension of time and space by travelling through a solid mountain — all in the same day. He’s got a bunch of friends who do all this rockin’ and physics-defyin’ stuff with him, plus another brain surgeon friend played by Jeff Goldblum, who is dressed as a cowboy for most of the movie. He sees a girl named Penny Priddy at his rock show (played by Ellen Barkin, and may I say, AROOOOOOOOOOOO!!!) who looks like his dead wife, and reverse-psychologically goads her into almost shooting her herself. (I would have wanted to shoot myself to if I had to listen to one more minute of that music.) Also, there’s a crazy scientist played by John Lithgow with an outrageous Italian-ish but maybe it’s German accent.

 

Peter Weller is Pee Wee Herman as Buckaroo Banzai in THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION!

 

Later that same day, I think, Banzai is giving a lecture about the admittedly cool concept that 99% of matter is empty space, the basis of his whole going-through-solid-rock-and-breaching-the-8th-dimension thing. (They never explain where dimensions 5, 6, and 7 are.) He gets zapped by a telephone which causes him to be able to see some eeeee-vil aliens, which steal something and then drive somewhere and cross paths with other good aliens. The evil aliens look like pasty white middle-aged bureaucrats and the good aliens look like very well-dressed Rastafarians. I have no idea why.

 

Eeee-vil aliens.

 

The bad aliens almost run Buckaroo Banzai over with a van, but he’s rescued at the last second by a kid flying a helicopter. He goes back to his base, where he receives a package from the good Rasta-aliens. Everybody puts on bubble-wrap masks so they can watch a glowing alien lady explain something about how they need to stop John Lithgow and the evil aliens from breaking the barrier of the 8th dimension before eleven or midnight or some arbitrary time or the good aliens will instigate a nuclear war between the US and Russia that will obliterate the globe. (Just want to point out again that these are the good aliens.)

 

Don't be afraid. It's just a good alien disguised as a black guy with dreads, as all good aliens are.

 

Banzai and his bandmates/other random assortment of friends infiltrate the aliens’ secret base by figuring out that they are the real culprits behind Orson Welles’ controversial 1938 Mercury Theatre presentation of The War of the Worlds, which of course means they’ve been hiding out in Grover’s Mill in New Jersey. A battle ensues, Banzai saves Penny from most certainly being turned into some evil form of Trill or something, even though she dies anyway, and… you know what, to make a long, convoluted, ridiculous story short, they save the world.

And then Banzai brings Penny back to life by, I kid you not, kissing her with his electric lips.

Honestly, I have no idea how I feel about this movie. It kept reminding me of one of my favorite cheesy 80s films, Big Trouble in Little China, and it turns out it was directed by that film’s writer, W.D. Richter. I didn’t dislike Buckaroo Banzai so much as I was completely befuddled by it. It’s certainly no great film like its defenders say it is, but it’s kind of a fun one. I mean it’s no Big Trouble, but still….

Incidentally, we will be reviewing this movie on our podcast next week, so check that out. I’ll link this article to it when I can.

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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.

Oscar Month: A Man for All Seasons

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

In 1535, Sir Thomas More was convicted of treason for not supporting King Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church over divorce laws and beheaded at the Tower of London. 437 years later, six people won Academy Awards. Ain’t causality grand? It’s a strange thought that someday, maybe hundreds of years from now, someone could have the greatest moment of his or her life because he or she wrote a screenplay based on a political assassination attempt at a supermarket in Arizona or directed a film about 3,000 people dying en masse on a September morning in Manhattan. Every tragic outcome for one life eventually leads to good fortune for another.

I’ll conclude my philosophizing there. I do not bemoan the fact that without the martyrdom of Thomas More we would never have been blessed with playwright Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. What joy in life would we have if looked at every blessing in terms of the tragedy that paved its way? (So, apparently I won’t conclude my philosophizing there.) Bolt justly won the Academy Award for his adaptation of his own play.

Director of photography Ted Moore won for his gorgeous cinematography of the English countryside and the Tudor-period architecture, though there were no nominations for John Box or Terence Marsh and their beautiful production design and art direction. Also overlooked for a nomination was Georges Delerue’s musical score, which I enjoyed despite this being a 60′s film. (So many period films of the 1960′s employ an overbearing musical style that assaults the eardrums, whereas Delerue’s score is beautifully restrained.) Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge won for their painstaking costume design. Wendy Hiller (as More’s long-suffering wife Alice) and the great Robert Shaw (as Henry VIII) were nominated for their supporting performances but did not take home the Oscars.

"Who needs an Oscar when I have such mirth!"

Taking home the Oscar for what must be one of the all-time great cinematic performances by an actor was Paul Scofield, who, against studio standards of the time, was not a Hollywood star but originated the role of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s Broadway play. (Also reprising his stage role was Leo McKern as the scheming Chancellor Thomas Cromwell.) Scofield’s ability to play More with such a sense of intelligent restraint and then suddenly raise his voice to emphasize his point without seeming to lose his cool is a testament to the abilities of one of the all-time great Royal Shakespearean actors. (Scofield was actually absent from the Academy Awards ceremony; his on-screen wife and fellow nominee Wendy Hiller accepted the award on his behalf–so at least she was able to carry someone’s Oscar off the stage that night.)

The lovely Susannah York (1939-2011).

Scofield's Thomas More faces his accusers.

Rounding out the superb cast, but not registering enough to warrant nominations, were a young John Hurt as the amusingly named soon-to-be-chancellor Richard Rich; Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk (also named Thomas–lots of Thomases in this story); the beautiful Susannah York, who just passed away on January 15, as More’s independently minded but loyal daughter Margaret; the great Orson Welles in a brief but memorable appearance as the Cardinal Wolsey; and both Corin Redgrave and, in what is essentially a cameo, his better-known sister Vanessa, who apparently has always done that weird thing with her lips.

Finally, winning two Oscars that night in April of 1967 for his successfully unorthodox efforts as producer and masterful director, was Fred Zinneman. Zinneman has now become one of my favorite directors. This film, The Day of the Jackal (1973), and High Noon (1952) are three of the best films I have ever seen, and I cannot wait to see more of his work (which includes, in a sad, high position on my List of Shame, 1953′s Best Picture-winner From Here to Eternity). Zinneman’s Man for All Seasons is a 1960′s period piece that does not feel in the least bit stagey (as many do), but rather natural and authentic. His direction and Bolt’s writing present a film largely about spiritual integrity that takes a decidedly moral stand without devolving into preachiness but still manages to have some of the most rousing dialogue ever written. It challenges my conceptions about the dogmatic aspects of Christianity in its historical context and also challenges, assuredly for the better, my own personal Christian convictions.

I love Zinneman’s attitude toward filmmaking–he was going to make the movie he wanted to make, studio conventions be damned. Were he a less resolute director, we might never have had the nearly real-time tension-building of High Noon; nor the antagonist-as-protagonist narrative structure of the equally tense The Day of the Jackal; nor the pitch-perfect “star”-less cast of this amazing, challenging film, A Man for All Seasons.

(Learn more about A Man for All Seasons at the IMDb.)