Tag Archives: Tom Hanks

Straight Adaptations: The Road v. The Da Vinci Code

By Nathanael Griffis

Why do they have to change everything? moans the viewer as he leaves the theater disappointed that a certain ethos was not captured, that a character’s appearance was different, or that they were cut entirely. Well, sometimes very little is changed. Things will be cut, but these two examples are about as loyal to their source materials as movies get. The problem is that loyalty is not always a good thing. On the one had we have The Road, one of the great post-apocalyptic films and novels from one of the best English writers ever. On the other we have The Da Vinci Code, which was written by Dan Brown and a lot of people bought it. So let’s begin.

Man, boy, gun, on the road. This is basically the movie.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy’s work is a mixture of Raymond Carver minimalism, Faulknerian description, and Poe’s sense of horror and realism. In the future this style will probably be simply titled McCarthyesque. Because of his bleak, straightforward method of writing, his books translate well to film. All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men are great movies. (It should also be noted that No Country for Old Men is not considered one of his better novels). In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy writes the Texas setting like few before him. It was completely unromanticized. So when he published The Road, what would you expect but one of the most horrifying visions of the apocalypse ever.

The world has ended, and a father and son travel down a road trying to survive while still holding onto their humanity. Post-apocalyptic films, for all their scary subject matter, normally manage to make the apocalypse seem cool. They’re afraid to show you what the end of the world would really be like. A hopeless bleak landscape of death, is what it would look like, and that’s what The Road give us. (Also, it might not include massive shootouts, explosions, or skimpily clad attractive women, so Hollywood is suspicious of it.)

As director, John Hillcoat was perfect for this film. The Proposition treats the Western in the same sense The Road treats the apocalypse, with unflinching realism. Hillcoat rounded up an amazing cast too: Viggo Mortensen as the father, Charlize Theron as his former wife, Robert Duvall as the Old Man, Guy Pearce as the Veteran, Micheal Kenneth Williams as the Thief, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Boy.

Why's the black guy gotta be the thief?

This film is full of startling performances, and it’s a shame it was forgotten during Oscar season. Admittedly, 2009 was a tough year to break into the Oscars with so many spectacular films that year. Each actor in The Road, no matter the size of his role, seems to recognize the importance of it. The art direction is perfect in the film. A scraggly Viggo Mortensen in a gray scale wilderness wipes out any sense of grandeur left over from The Lord of the Rings.

What is really impressive about the film though is the script. To take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and dare adapt it is a challenge to live up to, but Joe Penhall (who previously adapted Enduring Love, an Ian McEwan novel, so he likes adapting modern classic writers) was smart. He took the book and eliminated little. He followed the plot’s progression and kept most of the scenes and, more impressively, most of the dialogue. When he cut it was mainly to shorten a section from the book. In this case it works wonderfully. The horror and tension experienced when the Man breaks into a locked basement looking for food becomes fully realized when you see the still living dismembered people groping about the floor. There are a few scenes of violence and cannibalism in the book, mostly involving children and babies, that the director and writer show restraint in depicting, but for the most part it is staggering how frightening a film this is. What’s so amazing about the book is its sense of hope in the face of utter destruction, a classic apocalyptic trope. Penhall, I suspect, recognized that it was McCarthy’s bare dialogue that lends hope to the chaotic vision, so he doesn’t lose it. There is no attempt to add extra action, a stirring race-to-the-goal montage, or a heavy-handed death scene with a blaring score.

The brilliance of the whole project is that the source material is too genius not to use. The writer wisely chooses to keep its brilliance and not change much. No one but Cormac McCarthy can still convey hope in the face of extinction and have it feel unforced, so why not use his words and his descriptions to make a masterpiece. So what happens when the author is not one of McCarthy’s caliber?

Do you think it's a coincidence that Audrey Tautou looks like the Mona Lisa?

The Da Vinci Code: I don’t think Dan Brown would be insulted if I said he wasn’t as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy, but who knows, maybe he disagrees. Dan Brown is comparable to Tom Clancy. He’s a proficient thriller-writer who does an impressive amount of research. The man knows his art and art history. If only he’d taken some time to research how to write interesting characters and dialogue. He can write conspiracy mysteries and give you a creepy bad guy pretty well. What he should do is read some Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett to get a sense of how you make a more interesting character than the bland symbologist Robert Langdon. I present to you our introduction to Langdon in the novel The Da Vinci Code: “Robert Langdon awoke slowly.” Wow. What resonance. What a strong verb. Detect sarcasm? I hope so.

The issue here is that Dan Brown crafted a controversial thriller and perfected the art of the chapter cliffhanger, producing a worldwide bestseller. Then, with dollar signs in their eyes, Columbia Pictures bought the rights and an impressive cast and crew: Ron Howard as director; a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen; a musical score by Hans Zimmer; a script by Akiva Goldsman (and mind you, the last time Goldsman wrote a script for Ron Howard, it was Cinderella Man, and before that A Beautiful Mind). So why didn’t this work out? Because the source material is not that great, if you stay loyal to it. A long scene where an old art collector explains the finer points of conspiracy art theory is kind of interesting on the page. On film, it’s slow and taxing, watching Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks lecture us on art, which is basically what it is–a poorly orchestrated sequence of exposition and Q&A about Renaissance painters. There is very little action in the story, a lot of globetrotting but lackluster locations, and the Louvre is amazing, yes, but it isn’t shot well.

Paul Bettany as "Darth" Silas

The only character of interest, Silas (played by Paul Bettany), is killed off way too easily, and all tension leaves the movie. The mystery is already solved, because everyone’s read the book, so relying on a mystery is boring. Like I said in my first article on adaptations, it’s about how you tell the story. We all know Romeo and Juliet die; you have to make us care. You get great actors to imbibe the characters with something new, not just walk around old historical structures and look at the ceiling.

The Da Vinci Code is basically the strangest and most expensive thing ever made by the Travel Channel. It’s a randomly planned tour of Europe for only nine dollars. Books do not translate perfectly to the screen. Being loyal to an audience can mean ruining your art form. It takes away the ability of the director, the writer, and the actors to create a quality product. (I don’t know what Hans Zimmer’s excuse was). The book should have been rehashed like Tom Clancy’s novels have been, or even better, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. Take the premise–a symbologist solves the mystery of a historical conspiracy while running around Europe. That’s pretty exciting. But it isn’t.

When it comes to a straight adaptation, make sure of two things: that the source material is interesting and well written, and that it translates to film well. Without good writing and good visual descriptions, it won’t work no matter who’s involved in the project.

Next I’ll take a look at the most common of adaptations–the basic adaptation–with the movies Holes and The Golden Compass.

Oscar Month: The Red Balloon

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.)

Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) (1956)

The Red Balloon is one of the stranger winners in Academy Awards history, and the strangeness is three-fold. In 1957, it won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar over Robert Lewin’s war drama The Bold and the Brave, Andrew L. Stone’s thriller Julie, Federico Fellini & Tullio Pinelli’s highly regarded La Strada, and William Rose’s dark comedy The Ladykillers. Here’s the first part of the strangeness: there is almost no dialogue in The Red Balloon, which is strange not in regards to its worthiness (for a screenplay is much more than just characters saying things, and The Red Balloon has a beautiful structure) but as a rare distinction in the history of the category. The second part of the strangeness regards why it was even considered for this category, again not because its screenplay is unworthy, but because the film is only about half an hour long, making it a short film and not a feature; and I would be surprised if this distinction was not just a rare one, but a unique one. However, it is the third part of the strangeness that is the strangest of all, for The Red Balloon was not nominated in the short film category. Yes, this short film, perhaps the only short film in the history of the awards to be nominated outside the short film category, was not nominated in the short film category. I, for one, would certainly love to hear the Academy’s explanation for that anomaly of anomalies.

My recent viewing of this film on Turner Classic Movies was my third experience with The Red Balloon. I had seen it as a child. The only impression I had of it from all those years ago was that it was boring and foreign (being a French film). My second experience happened in college when my Fine Arts professor showed it to us during class one morning. It didn’t make much of an impression on me then either, but I’m sure the atmosphere created by my snickering classmates didn’t help. (I admit there may have been some snickering on my part too, though it is more likely I used it as an opportunity to catch some Z’s.)

This third encounter finally cemented the film in my consciousness, and it turns out The Red Balloon is a beautiful, whimsical, sad yet ultimately uplifting film. (If you watch the film, you’ll discover how paronomastic it is for me to say that, yet I mean it sincerely.) The plot is simple: a boy (played by Pascal Lamorisse, son of the film’s writer/director Albert Lamorisse) finds a red balloon, which he takes with him to school and then home, where the balloon is unceremoniously tossed out the window by the boy’s guardian. (I get the impression these people “caring” for the boy are not his parents.) But instead of rising up and up into the sky, the balloon hovers around outside until the boy sees it and lets it back in. For the rest of the film, the balloon follows the boy around, while we quickly learn that this balloon is the first friend the boy has ever had. His classmates are bullies, as are the adults in his life, and the now-sentient balloon takes delight in teasing them, even psychologically tormenting his principal after the man locks the boy away as punishment for the disruption the balloon causes at school.

Spoiler alert

The ending is a tragically beautiful display of love as the boy heroically tries to save the balloon from the neighborhood gang of boys who want to pop it, and then as the balloon gives its life because it refuses to abandon the boy. It is one of the most agonizing death scenes in all of cinema, the death of the Red Balloon. It put me in mind of how I felt when Wilson the volleyball was lost at sea in Cast Away. I cried when I saw that scene at the theater, with Tom Hanks’ pitiful cries of remorse as he watches the only friend he’s known for the past four years float away into oblivion. That scene is deeply emotional because we, the audience, have projected humanity onto this inanimate object right along with Tom Hanks’ character in the film. Wilson, however, was just a volleyball. The Red Balloon has life, has thought, has emotion, and is as much a main character as the boy himself. It’s a heartbreaking scene that thankfully ends on a happier note as all the balloons in Paris suddenly flock to the boy and lift him above the city and away from all this misery and loneliness.

I highly recommend you take a half-hour and watch this film. It is available for streaming on Netflix. Or, you could even watch it here.

Learn more about The Red Balloon at the Internet Movie Database.

Korean Cinema #4: The Good, the Bad, the Weird

By Nathanael Griffis

I love Westerns, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is legendary among them, so I was fascinated when I heard about a 2008 Korean remake by director Ji-woon Kim. The Good, the Bad, the Weird takes the simple story outline of Sergio Leone’s classic Western and places it in 1930′s Japanese-controlled Manchuria. There is little left of Leone’s story, which is a good thing because it allows Ji-woon Kim to provide his own vision.  The story follows the “weird” Tae-goo, played by the awesome Kang-ho Song, who steals a treasure map from the Japanese army that the “bad” Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee) wanted to steal and the “good” Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) was protecting. Did you follow all that, or is it easier to say the weird guy has a treasure map and everyone else wants it.

You're welcome, ladies.

This film is awesome–rife with plot holes and physical impossibilities, but just a blast despite any so called “flaws,” like revolvers that never need to be reloaded, shotguns that miss from close up, artillery that can’t hit anything except the ground, and minor characters whose problems are never resolved. These “flaws” don’t hinder the film but make it all the more endearing. It never takes itself too seriously, and if you take it seriously you’ll be severely disappointed. I was watching it with a friend, who was for the first few minutes pointed out problem after problem and didn’t enjoy the film until he just let it go and lived in the ridiculous nature of what was occurring.

Ji-woon Kim is able to get away with this because he understands the concept of the “plausible impossibility.” We know that a man who just shot five bad guys should have no problem getting the leader of the gang if he has a clear shot, but as long as you show us the dust blast off a wall next the bad guy’s head, we’ll accept that he missed. The action sequences are built upon the impossible and consistently rely on this style to create an enjoyable experience. It feels reminiscent of Indiana Jones in that aspect. The fun is in waiting for the next creatively orchestrated impossible scene to appear. The action is creative and fun, and some of the best I’ve seen in a while. The opening train scene is a great example of how to introduce characters. Tae-goo is introduced by kicking down a door and shooting a bunch of soldiers in the back. He’s a coward and self serving, but endearingly goofy. Do-won the bounty hunter with a bottom-line attitude only aims for the bad guys. Chang-yi takes a malicious pleasure in the chaos and violence he creates. From the framing of the shots, the score, and the costuming Ji-woon Kim utilizes every aspect of film making to build character and conflict in the first fifteen minutes.

No snarky comment. Kang-ho Song is awesome. That is all.

The humor is amazing, and Kang-ho Song shows he’s a master at both sides of the actor coin. The man can make you laugh or he can make you cry. He inhabits a character who is a perennial loser, a foolishly brash petty thief, who can indiscriminately kill and remain likable. His ability to charm an audience reminds me of Tom Hanks. Eli Wallach’s Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly definitely had a comic tinge to it, and his chemistry with Clint Eastwood was great, but here the humor and the redemptive quality of a man who’s been driven from his home is the focus. It was a smart move to shift the focus from the less interesting Do-won to the engaging Tae-goo, and it gives the film its own personality. The story is not nearly as engaging as Leone’s original, and Chang-yi is no Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). That’s the biggest flaw of the film. Ji-woon Kim missed the intrigue that Lee Van Cleef brought to his scenes. Chang-yi is sadistic but little more. There is an attempt to make him out to be a philosopher type, but little is fleshed out. Also, keeping the numerous gangs and their motivations in order gets quite confusing by the end, but luckily it gets lost in the action and humor.

The end scene still holds true to the classic three-way Mexican standoff. It’s well shot, but can’t measure up to the original and is hurt a little bit by having to maintain a consistent stylized action. The final scene would have been better if it had been less stylized and more realistic, but then it would have been inconsistent, a hard decision for the director, so I don’t want to fault Kim for it. The a lack of the Morricone score hurts too, but that’s forgivable. The music composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang is great and keeps the movie flowing, but it doesn’t have the presence and grace of a Morricone score.

Overall, I was ecstatic after watching this. It’s definitely a great group movie, and I suspect it is the type of film that even subtitle haters will stop rolling their eyes at and enjoy. It was a lot of fun, and I really needed something after Chan-wook Park’s heavy and disturbing Vengeance Trilogy.

Next up: Ki-duk Kim’s 3-Iron.

May not be in a graveyard, but it's still pretty cool.

A True Hollywood Story: From the set of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”

An inside exclusive by Tom Kapr

Director Kevin Reynolds sits beside the camera. “Okay everyone,” he says, “quiet on the set! Rolling film. And… ac–”

“Hang on,” Kevin Costner interrupts.

“What’s the problem?” asks Reynolds.

“I’m not ready,” replies Costner.

“But we’ve been prepping for hours for this one scene of dial–”

“Okay, I’m ready. Action!” Costner shouts.

Reynolds looks at the ground dejectedly. “Action,” he mutters to the cast inside his head, where Robin Hood is played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Morgan Freeman is looking at Reynolds. He then looks over at Costner, who has his face bent toward the ground, his eyes tightly closed, obviously trying very hard to be English.

Freeman rolls his eyes, takes a deep breath, centers himself, and speaks: “Christian!”

“What?” says Christian Slater, standing just off-camera.

Everybody looks at Slater, who is focusing on Morgan Freeman, one eyebrow cocked, waiting. Freeman looks at Slater and nods subtly toward Costner, who still has his eyes closed. Slater cocks an eyebrow in Costner’s direction. “Oh, right,” says Slater. “My bad.”

Reynolds sighs. “Cut!”

“No, no, it’s okay,” says Costner. “Keep rolling, we’ll go again.”

“Let’s try it again,” mutters Reynolds. He has a brief flashback to the set of Fandango. His eyes twitches.

Morgan Freeman is still looking at Christian Slater. He then looks back at Costner, who is again concentrating on the Saxon warrior within. Freeman takes another deep breath, trying again to center himself. It’s a bit harder this time, but suddenly he has a vision of a tall man on a beautiful Mexican beach fixing a boat, and is overcome with peace. He opens his eyes, full of Moorish fire, and bellows: “Christian!”

“Hm?” says Christian Slater, cocking an eyebrow toward Freeman. Costner keeps his eyes closed. Freeman desperately clings to his vision of tropical paradise.

Reynolds sighs. “It’s alright, just keep ‘em roll–”

“Cut!” yells Costner. He walks off to nearby line of trees.

“Ah… it happened again, I’m sorry,” says Slater. “Maybe Kevin’s character should have a less confusing name? Hm? Are the writers on-set?”

Costner is gazing into the distance, imagining rolling plains covered with millions of the majestic tatanka.

Reynolds is unconsciously muttering to himself about a post-apocalyptic world in which all the glaciers have melted and covered the world in water. Surely, he thinks, that would be better than this.

Freeman has his eyes closed, and is back on the Mexican beach. He again sees the tall man working on the boat. The man stops his work and smiles at him, then transforms into a small golden statue, as the sand turns into velvety red carpet. Freeman smiles a big, toothy grin. Suddenly, a strange man in shorts and sneakers, with long scraggly facial hair and a red baseball cap, comes jogging across the beach. He jogs past Freeman, stops, turns around, and says, “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” He grabs the golden statue and jogs back from whence he came. The smile disappears from Freeman’s face.

Slater has one eyebrow cocked, looking around at the other actors for validation. “Right?” he says. “Less confusing names?”

Reynolds snaps out of his hallucinatory state, takes a few seconds to remember why he is in a medieval forest, sees Costner is nowhere to be found, and is overcome with happiness. “Alright, let’s take five! We’ll get it when we come back.”

Morgan Freeman sighs. “I hope.”

DiCaprio’s Crappy Prose

By Tom Kapr

Ten years ago, if you told me you thought Leonardo DiCaprio was a good actor, I would have laughed in your face. Right in your face. I would have tried to make you feel bad about your life for having such an opinion. Granted, at that time, I was basing my opinion almost solely on his performance as Jack Dawson in Titanic (of which my opinion has not much changed).

DiCaprio in Shutter Island

DiCaprio in "Shutter Island"

Now, I have to somewhat sheepishly admit that DiCaprio has become one of our best actors. I wasn’t on board until late 2002 when I saw Catch Me If You Can. His performance as master counterfeiter Frank Abagnale Jr., whose daddy issues got him in way over his head with the law in several countries, was astonishing. (I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the credit due to director Steven Spielberg and co-stars Tom Hanks and especially Christopher Walken, who played the senior Frank Abagnale and had some genuinely moving scenes with his on-screen son.)

DiCaprio has since given some of the best star performances of the last decade, mostly in great Martin Scorsese films like Shutter Island (one of this year’s best), The Departed, and The Aviator, in which he gave arguably his best performance to date as Howard Hughes.

But I’m not here to talk about how great Leonardo DiCaprio is. I’m here to take him down a few notches. He is gonna be so burned when he reads this, man.

There seems to be a pattern emerging wherein no matter how great one of his films is, DiCaprio has that one line of stand-out cheesy dialogue that makes me want to throw Macadamia nuts at the screen. (I keep a handful in each pocket at all times for just such an occasion. If you want to follow my example, then also remember not to throw them at actual people who say stupid things. Stupid people have a tendency to react violently when pelted with nuts.)

My favorite example of what I like to call “DiCaprio’s Crappy Prose” is from Titanic, when Jack Dawson overhears that the ship is going down. Leo wrinkles his brow and flatly says, “This is bad.” Really, Jack? Are the impending deaths of 1,517 people bad? Because so is that line reading. (Incidentally, I asked Kevin Costner how he felt about the matter. All he said was, “My boat.”)

Here are a couple more gems (which I already realize might not be verbatim, so chill out):

“You want him to chop me up and feed me to the poor?” We’ve all heard this line about a thousand times, in every single piece of advertising for The Departed over the last four years. Somebody in that marketing campaign either really dug that line, or really hated DiCaprio.

“In America, it’s bling-bling, but out here, it’s bling-bang.” I heard DiCaprio came up with that one himself. I don’t know, maybe it’s more poetic in Afrikaans. But it’s anachronistic in any language. Blood Diamond takes place in the 90s, before that term was popularized.

“Come back with me, so that we can be young men together once more.” I know I’m butchering that line. I guess it’s not so much a bad line, as it is a line that draws more attention to what is already the most nonsensical part of an otherwise amazing film. Here’s my burning question about Inception: Why, in that scene, does DiCaprio’s character still appear so young while Ken Watanabe’s character looks like a mummy? If you’ve seen the film, you understand why I’m asking the question.

And here is the cheesiest line of them all, from the film at the center of the Incidental Dog review crew’s most recent podcastBody of Lies. DiCaprio plays a CIA agent trying to catch a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda. He’s looking for a patsy to play up as a competing terrorist mastermind, and here is his description of who he wants for the unwitting job:

“Someone between Osama and Oprah.”

You know, I think I actually saw that job listing on Craigslist, and strangely enough, I believe I fit that description. Less militant than Osama bin Laden? Check. More militant than Oprah Winfrey? Check. When do I start?

Keep an ear out for more of DiCaprio’s Crappy Prose in your future film viewings. I will be.

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