May 14, 2010

Undead Neo

I watch a lot of films that are never mentioned on The Nowhere Nickelodeon. Part of this may be symptomatic of the embarrassment I sometimes feel of the amount of time I spend watching films. But then I have to remind myself that I don’t think that film is a waste of time. That’s why I got my BA in Film and Digital Media, and it’s why I will drive forty-five minutes to the next county to see Iron Man 2 (which was sort of a shrug movie, all in all.) I am not particularly consistent in my watching-taste; I’ll watch almost anything that made it into a theater, with some exceptions. I don’t watch horror films. I don’t watch torture porn films. I rarely watch “scary movies.” I don’t have much of an appreciation for thrillers, though given the right cast/director I will occasionally indulge. I have no love for film noir, especially not if it was made anytime after 1960. And despite my deep, undying, irrational love for Indepedence Day, I rarely watch end-of-the-world flicks any longer, and especially not when they are made by Roland Emmerich, also known as, The Guy Who Makes Movies In Which Major Cities Suffer Unforeseen Natural/Supernatural Disasters. He also made Stargate, another film I have a deep, undying, irrational love for. I don’t know what happened after Indepedence Day (Godzilla), Ronald, but for the love of God, get a hobby.

Anyway. The reason I don’t write extensively about the vast majority of the films I watch in any given week is that most of the time I don’t have a whole lot to say about them. So much of what passes through our cinemas is so unremarkable that there really isn’t anything to say about it. Critics complain that it’s the internet that is stealing their columns’ thunder, but in all honesty I think it has more to do with what they’re critiquing: movies so familiar/boring/bland that reading a couple paragraphs about them in the local paper requires more time than the average person feels said movies deserve. And I sort of have to agree. Between the films so bad that to read a review of them is a vicious delight and the films so good that critics actually write solid, insightful pieces about them there is a vast, monotonous wasteland of films that very little can be said of. Formulaic rom-coms, tried and true action epics (complete with requisite male protagonist origin story/child star cameo), magic dog stories, cheaply produced kid-targeted CGI projects, buddy cop movies, things starring Jennifer Aniston, Nicolas Sparks “novel” adaptations, flaccid biopics of that famous _______ who just died, crass and likely sexist movies aimed at the 13-19 demographic, and melancholic indie films about 20-something year old manboy on anti-depressants whose salvation lies in that manic pixie dream girl over there. There is rarely anything that anyone can say about any of these films because we have seen them so often, in so many mutations, that no one in their right mind expects anything new, challenging, or worthy of intellectual investigation in any of them. I dare you to try and find a person went to see The Bounty Hunter because they were seeking intellectual stimulation. Find me the person who watches the trailer for Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore 3D and thinks, I am so curious to see what my local critic has to say about the use of cinematography, match-cut editing, and non-diegetic sound in this 3D film about spy cats and spy dogs that fly biplanes (poster byline: Just like real spies… only furrier.)

The movies that are most interesting to write about are the ones a) are so glaringly flawed that you can gleefully rip them apart, mocking inconsistencies, casting choices, and bafflingly daft artistic choices, or b) do something so new and interesting (however small a thing) that it reminds you why you bother wading through all the cinematic garbage searching for treasure. I tend to get the most incensed about films that could be great, but needlessly bungle something that effectively negates all the good qualities of said film. This week’s workshop study: Daybreakers (Michael and Peter Spierig, 2009). This is a movie about vampires. I know, I know. Vampires again. BUT what is truly shocking about Daybreakers is it manages to do a totally new take on vampires, something that you’d think would be totally and completely impossible in this post Twilight world of ours. It also has Ethan Hawke in it (=my reason for bothering to watch this. I have a deep and abiding love for all things Ethan Hawke. I don’t know why, but there you go. I’m a child of the 90s.) So the concept that Daybreakers presents and then completely unnecessarily complicates to the point of cinematic implosion (more on this in a moment) is that vampires have taken over the world and humans are now basically being Matrix-ed into extinction. It sounds pretty simple, and so long as it remains simple it remains interesting. The high concept is pretty well thought out; the world is basically deserted during the daytime, despite technological advancements allowing vampires to traverse the sunlit world without harm (cars with blacked out windows and roof-mounted cameras, an underground travel system cleverly called the “Underwalk.”) At night refreshingly creepy vampires go about their undead lives, and it’s a weird mirror image world where everything is pretty much the same, but not quite. That’s not milk in your coffee. It’s blood. That’s not a homeless guy. That’s a blood-starved/crazed mutant vampire. And that is where things start to get convoluted. You could argue that Daybreakers is a social awareness documentary about sustainable agriculture and civic duty cleverly disguised as a vampire horror film. For some crazyass reason, the vampires didn’t see fit to replenish the residual human population as they systematically hunted them down and drained their blood, so there is now a massive blood shortage. Vampire Sam Neill comes out and admits that there’s only enough blood left to feed the population for a month. Now, I know it seems a little ridiculous to watch a vampire movie and then scoff at the anachronisms in the vampire economy, but I am just that kind of lady. A month? And you’re just bringing this up... now? Even though you for all purposes appear to be an extremely modern and streamlined society complete with government funded public works (Underwalk), a day-functional police force, and coffee kiosks? I am sorry Mr. Spierig and Mr. Spierig, but I am just not buying that.

On top of this basic flaw in the high concept that is the draw of this whole venture, the plot is a mess. At the bare bones of it is a tried and true recipe for success: sympathetic male protagonist changes teams and rectifies the injustices visited on his new team by his old team. It is 2009 favorite science fiction plot line. Avatar, District 9… it’s pretty difficult to go wrong with a good old-fashioned team changing plotline. Ethan Hawke’s character is a vampire-scientist searching for a synthetic blood substitute. It slowly becomes apparent that his motivation in doing so lies with his sympathy for the humans, who are basically being factory farmed in a super-Matrix-reminiscent futuristic slaughterhouse/bloodletting facility. In a clear cut, simple team-changing plot, Vampire Ethan should through extenuating circumstances find himself in the care of the human resistance, slowly align with them and earn their trust, and then re-enter the vampire world only to sabotage it and save the day. I am not saying that this is the only way it could work; I’m just saying that this is the usual progression, and Daybreakers would have been just fine had it followed suit. Instead we get crazy Willem Dafoe, a human colony that avoids detection by just living at a winery, a completely unconvincing “cure” for vampirism, an increasingly complicated crazy-homeless-mutant-vampire-outbreak side plot, and a finale that makes every single character look really, really stupid and illogical. We get really awful supporting actors, a totally uninteresting female protagonist, and a really bizarre scene in which a troop of homeless-mutant-vampires are killed in the most inefficient way imaginable (a chained march into an open air courtyard, where they one by one flambĂ©.) I just do not understand why all of this was necessary. The concept was cool enough to hold the film together, had the film’s plot stayed a manageable and navigatable size. Not every movie needs to be frickin’ Primer is all I’m saying.

The idea is pretty interesting, and it’s refreshing to see vampires who act like vampires. There isn’t a trace of sparklage anywhere in this movie. There is a lot of over-the-top gore for gore’s sake, but it’s sort of nice. It provides some much needed balance to the vampire universe. We see your sparkles and R-Patz and raise you a barrage of grisly decapitations. Something to tide us over until True Blood starts up again in mid-June. Mark your calendars people.

May 3, 2010

How Not to Adapt a Book to Film

It's no great surprise that every time a new film adaptation is announced, the online film community reacts with a combination or excitement and dread. Our hopes are kept alive by the sporadic successful book-to-film adaptations. Where the Wild Things Are, The Lord of the Rings, No Country for Old Men, Sense and Sensibility, The Silence of the Lambs... great adaptations are possible, if rare. Most are not great. Most are barely mediocre recreations of the source material, unimaginatively mushed into script form and thoughtlessly cast, shot, and edited. Some are so bad that they effectively ruin the books that spawned them. They bring out the weaknesses of the source material, amplifying the flawed parts of a book that we once liked, if not loved. Don't even get me started on The Time Traveler's Wife. I mean, Eric Bana. That's like casting, I don't know, a chicken breast as your lead role. Or a bar stool. Or a rolled up piece of beige carpet. Eric Bana?

And then there is The Lovely Bones. The book, by Alice Sebold, is not the Great American Novel. But it is wildly popular, and upon reading it I found I respected the grace with which is handles some truly grisly and complicated stuff--namely the rape/murder scene of a fourteen-year-old girl, Susie Salmon. The strength of The Lovely Bones is in the Salmon family. The author is never too easy on them; they seemed like real people, endlessly capable of human error, but equally capable of earning forgiveness. Mr. Harvey was an interesting element. He was depicted with the level of disgust appropriate for a man who rapes and murders young women, but Alice Sebold also seemed intent on examining him--making him a complete, horrible man rather than a simple monster.

What's really important is that the book seemed adaptable, and had some qualities that would compliment and benefit from a filmic treatment. Some books are just not meant for film (though that doesn't stop the studios from trying, year after year, to make films out of Atlas Shrugged, Enders Game, Naked Lunch, or Catcher in the Rye.) Too long, too much child-on-child violence, too weird, and too loose a narrative. The Lovely Bones had a clear narrative structure, complete with beginning and logical end, and while long, its core narrative could be easily teased from the larger, more sprawling story that the book provides. The main character, Susie, is likable and relatable, if dead. The trick of the thing would be in the pacing; the book takes its merry time, developing characters, creating new relationships, and following Mr. Harvey all while Susie watches from the in-between. A good script based on the novel would need to create a clear plot and character progression with a discernable objective or desire--something the audience knows it wants out of the story, something that keeps them watching, even if it is something as small as Susie kissing Ray Singh, or as large as her redemption.

So, Peter Jackson. Let's talk. What's your excuse? No, really. What is it? Because sir, I gotta say, this was bad. Student film bad. Made for TV movie bad. It was sloppy, boring, squeamish, overlong, and self-indulgent in the worst of ways. When I saw that you were tagged as director, I thought to myself, Muh, that could work. Not only have you more than proven your chops where adaptation and special effects are concerned, this film would demonstrate your ability to tackle realistic dramatic fare. Of course, that was assuming you didn't fuck it up. Which you did. Royally. I mean, everything was lined up for you. You got to work with the same screenwriters you've been working with since Heavenly Creatures. You were handed an amazing cast. Saoirse Ronan more than proved her ability in Atonement, and with Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg (I know, who would have thought he'd someday fall into the pantheon of heavy hitting actors?), Susan Surandon, and Stanley Tucci. To their credit, they all tried valiantly to redeem this quivering mass of a film, but to little avail. The film was tonally so all over the place that any actor would get dramatic whiplash. The Lovely Bones couldn't seem to decide whether it was an after school special, What Dreams May Come, or Halloween. Between those three choices, I think you really have to pick one. I feel like this film was just a brainstorm-vehicle. For example, all the interior scenes with Stanley Tucci's character appeared to be filmed in digital. I can just imagine how this happened.

Peter Jackson: I need a way to cleverly convey that Mr. Harvey is creepy. Other than having him rape and murder Susie on camera. That would be too logical and straightforward.
WETA: We can make him like like an orc. OO! No! A cave troll!
Peter Jackson: That is tempting. But no, I want something more... subtly ingenious.
Unpaid Lackey: Everything you do is ingenious, Sir Jackson.
Peter Jackson: Why thank you, Frodo. Wait! I have it! We'll shoot all of Mr. Harvey's scenes in digital! Like Lars von Trier! He's so hot right now! Digital! Yes!
Voice of Reason: Won't that be unnecessarily jarring, visually, and give the film the air of a poorly executed and clumsy student film project?
Peter Jackson: Silence! Your words are poison!

Which brings me to the most glaring flaw of the whole doomed affair (other than that whole segment where drunken Susan Sarandon appears and temporarily hijacks the film, turning it into an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey): the complete absence of the rape/murder scene. In a film that purports to be based on a book that is expressly about a young girl and her family dealing with the ramifications of her extremely violent loss, don't you think you would want to include a smidge of said violence? I know that including a rape scene in a film is always a bit touchy, especially when it is the rape of a minor, but in this instance I think it was absolutely a mistake to omit it. The book is about trauma. The film seems to be about revenge/teenage fantasy. It's especially disappointing that the only scene in the film that seems to even remotely work is leading up to Susie's murder, when she and Mr. Havrey descend beneath the corn field into the room he built for the express purpose of what happens next. The scene takes its time, and we are left to watch as it slowly dawns on Susie that something is very wrong. Discomfort gives way to terror, she attempts an escape, and then... nothing. We follow Susie from the hatch as she sprints though the cornfield, through Ruth, and then vanishes. This is supposed to be the !!!!!! moment that we realize, Oh no! She didn't escape! In fact she's being raped and murdered! But we don't see this. Peter Jackson leaves us to imagine what is happening to Susie as ghost-Susie runs, terrified from the scene of her censored murder. There is no implication anywhere in the film that she was raped. Given Alice Sebold's personal and writing history, I have a feeling that this was a pretty important aspect of the novel for her. I especially think the rape is significant given that in the novel's final chapters, the rape scene is given a foil in which re-embodied Susie and Ray Singh make love. As part of Susie's redemption, she is given the chance to replace her experience of sex as violence with an experience of sex as love and pleasure. Pretty important. Just saying. But no, all too unsavory for Peter Jackson. So he removes it fully from the film's narrative. He also removes the murder, leaving the audience to fill in between the lines. And as a result, the film that follows does not work.

Because the audience can't experience the moment of trauma, we can't participate in the narrative that follows. We see Susie's anguish (though over what, we never see), and her parent's crippling grief, but it isn't a shared experience. As a result, we can't share in the catharsis, had the film provided the opportunity for catharsis. The end of the film is mangled--a slapped together, emotionally dead tack-on that doesn't seem to have much to do with anything. This is a film that could have only worked if it was emotionally evocative. The payoff of the novel isn't in Mr. Harvey's capture, or death. It was in Susie finding closure to her prematurely ended life, and the subsequent release of her family from their grief. The way Peter Jackson handles it, you'd think it was a murder mystery.

I am not an adaptation purist. It is a rare book that can give way to a film that is both completely faithful to the text and successful at the same time. I am a believer in emotionally-faithful adaptations--movies that may not replicate the novel's narrative scene for scene, but rather seek to capture a novel's emotional essence. In adapting The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson seems more interested in special effects than story. In fact, I doubt he understood the story. If he had, I don't know how he could have made this film.