I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

(more…)

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“Denial” (Image via Wikipedia)

Denial is a courtroom drama about the libel lawsuit filed by author David Irving (portayed by Timothy Spall) against Prof. Deborah Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). Irving sued Lipstadt for calling him a “Holocaust denier” in one of her books. Because Irving brought the case in England, the burden of proof is on the accused, and so Lipstadt and her legal team are required to prove Irving knowingly lied in denying the Holocaust.

As part of the research for the trial, Lipstadt and her lawyers go to Auschwitz, where her barrister, Richard Rampton, asks a series of matter-of-fact questions about the camp and the methods of killing. This makes Lipstadt very uncomfortable, but Rampton argues it is necessary to build their case.

As the trial begins, it is clear that Irving is a master of public relations.  He acts as his own lawyer, against Lipstadt’s well-financed legal team, to cast himself as an underdog and create a “David vs. Goliath” image.

As part of their strategy, Lipstadt’s lawyers don’t allow her to speak at the trial, or to the press.  They also refuse to allow Holocaust survivors to speak, even after Lipstadt is approached by one, pleading with her to allow their voices to be heard.

Lipstadt is greatly distressed by this. But as Rampton explains, these are the sacrifices they must make. “It’s the price you pay for winning,” he tells Lipstadt. The goal is to make the trial not about the Holocaust, but about Irving himself.

The strategy works well, and gradually they begin to expose Irving as an anti-Semite, and his “historical errors” as deliberately calculated to paint Hitler in the best possible light.  Ultimately, their strategy succeeds, and Irving is ruled to have knowingly lied to deny the Holocaust.

The victory is satisfying, but Irving remains a genius at the dark art of “spin”–after the verdict is announced Lipstadt watches as Irving is interview on television saying that he obviously beat Lipstadt’s legal team, but was just not forceful enough to convince the Judge.

Although the ending of the film is as upbeat as one could expect, given the subject matter, there is a certain subtext that suggests Irving may have lost in court, but will use his skills as a showman to win with the press.  I’m not even sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Irving is portrayed as a shrewd and manipulative man, and the implication seems to be that he–and others like him–could continue to trick uninformed people.

The acting is terrific throughout. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as Lipstadt, right down to her Queens accent. Timothy Spall plays Irving as a man of intelligence and a veneer of “old English gentleman” charm masking a core of hatred. Every performance is excellent.

The script is not bad, but at times tries too hard to be clever and snappy (a common flaw in dramas nowadays), and too often has characters blatantly stating exposition or background information for the benefit of the audience.

The annoying wordiness of the script is compounded by the fact that some of the film’s most powerful scenes are the ones where the characters don’t speak. The scenes at Auschwitz are every bit as powerfully haunting as they should be, without any words being necessary.

Of course, a courtroom drama is bound to have some talking, and the script is certainly good enough when it needs to be. The trial scenes are riveting, even knowing the outcome.

It’s a dark film, and not only because of the Holocaust subject matter, but also because of its depiction of how the bigot Irving advances his agenda with lies and clever manipulation of the press and public alike.  The concept of truth itself comes under attack from Irving, and Lipstadt is forced to confront the possibility that to even respond would be to lend him legitimacy.

Overall, a very good and interesting film. I recommend it. It prompted me to do more research regarding Irving, the lawsuit, and the subject of Holocaust denial generally.  I have a lot more to write on those topics, but that will be a separate post.

220px-loving_282016_film29Historical dramas are tricky.  The director has to balance telling a story with a satisfying dramatic arc with staying at least reasonably faithful to the facts of what happened.  Since life rarely conforms to neat three-act structures, this is always a difficult feat to achieve.

Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia.  Interracial marriage was banned in the state, and so, after several encounters with law enforcement, Richard and Mildred are forced to leave their home state and live in Washington D.C., which recognised their marriage.

Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy,who referred their case to the ACLU.  Ultimately, it resulted in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which the Lovings won, legalising interracial marriage throughout the United States.

This is a summary of the events depicted in the movie, and if it sounds rather dry, let me make it clear that this is merely the framework of the film.  The real meat of the story is in the interactions between Mildred, Richard, and their families and friends–as well as the occasional lawyer, police officer, or journalist.

Much of the film depicts everyday events in their lives.  Richard and Mildred went to work, shopped, cooked, cleaned house and raised their children like any other couple.  It is that basic normality which underscores the injustice driving the film’s narrative: that such a healthy family should be forbidden brings home the sheer immorality of the law.

Because the film is almost completely focused on Richard and Mildred, rather than the court battle surrounding them, it is critical that the actors portraying them be able to carry the film.  They are more than up to the challenge.  Ruth Negga portrays Mildred as a kind, sensitive woman who ultimately realizes that she is fighting for more than just herself, but also for many other couples.  She is intelligent and strong, often without ever saying a word. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, portrays Richard as a man who may lack education or sophistication, but who is driven by a profound decency and love for his family.

Both Negga and Edgerton do terrific work.  I worry that their roles may not be flashy enough to earn them the credit they deserve, but both are absolutely marvelous at conveying so much emotion in such subtle ways.

Despite the brilliance of its stars, Loving doesn’t completely succeed at balancing historical realism vs. the necessities of drama.  Sometimes scenes go on a bit too long, or don’t resolve themselves in anything dramatically significant. It’s no coincidence that the poorest scenes in the film are the ones in the latter half which involve the Lovings’ lawyers, and from which the Lovings themselves are absent.

There are nit-picks I could make here and there about the historical accuracy of certain lines of dialogue, and a few of the reporters didn’t look authentically 1960s to me.  But these are minor gripes, and it seems a disservice to a wonderful film to dwell on such things.

Loving is a quiet film about decent, moral people who love one another, and therefore it won’t get much love from the folks who go to movies to see glitzy CGI special effects and anti-heroes betraying each other.  In the present political climate, however, I think we could do with a few more Lovings, and a lot less of the other sort.

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“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)

“You can let the sun shine on your story, if you still have a mind to,” Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) tells his ex-fiancée, Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), in the final act of Jane Got a Gun, as they await an attack from the Bishop Boys–the criminal gang out for revenge on Jane and her wounded husband, Bill “Ham” Hammond. (Noah Emmerich)

I wrote a glowing review of Jane Got a Gun back when it was in theaters, and have seen it several times since, appreciating it more each time. As it is being released on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, it seemed like a good time for me to write about it at length.

Once in a while, a movie comes along that really dazzles me. Lawrence of Arabia was one, Chinatown was one, and Jane Got a Gun is the latest. Westerns don’t usually hold much appeal for me, and I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor (as the villain, John Bishop) weren’t two of my favorite actors. Their performances alone would make a solid film. But there is much more to Jane than that.

The first thing that stands out is the bleak desert environment–Mandy Walker’s cinematography does the harsh landscape justice, and communicates the feeling of emptiness and vast desolation that I do so love in art.

The early scenes of the movie are really meant to establish a mood more than physical distances between places. Jane’s ride to her ex-fiancé’s house, with its beautiful silhouetted rider shots and underscored by haunting music, reminiscent of The English Patient, is about creating an atmosphere. The soundtrack is tremendous throughout the film. While rarely grand or sweeping, it is full of subtle touches, like the ominous growl that sounds as Jane enters the town of Lullaby, implanting the idea that populated places are dangerous and sinister. This foreshadows the shopkeeper’s indifference as Jane is seized by one of the Bishop Boys.

Subtlety and nuance are what make Jane such a riveting film. The characters’ emotions are conveyed in silences and in glances as much as they are in dialogue. The scene in which Jane hands Dan a roll of bills as payment for his service as a gunslinger packs an emotional punch, as both of their faces show them recalling the happier days of their youthful romance. Dan says little, but with every move conveys his misery at losing Jane.

The film is packed with moments like these–from the suspenseful scene when Jane, Dan and Ham hear an ominous sound from outside the house, to Dan’s tense encounter with another member of the Bishop gang, it balances building the suspense of the impending showdown with exploring the Jane/Dan/Ham love triangle.

The love story–or more accurately, stories–reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s romances, especially Far From the Madding Crowd. In Hardy romances, someone usually marries someone other than who they are truly “meant for” first, only to encounter that person again later. This is a tricky thing to do in writing a romance, but in Jane, as in Hardy’s novels, it is written so well that the actions of all three characters seem reasonable and logical, and never forced or contrived.

Jane loves Dan, and Dan loves Jane, but cruel circumstances keep them apart. Both characters are honorable and honest, and that forms the tragic core of the story–both are trying to do the right thing, and both suffer for it. Bad things happen to good people.

I think the marketing for the film was misguided in that it played up the action/gun-fighting elements, instead of the personal relationships at the heart of the film. The Bishop Boys, though very effective villains–thanks in particular to McGregor’s performance–are secondary to the real drama. They are the catalyst for Jane taking control of her life and confronting her fears, and for reuniting her with Dan.

Another marketing mistake was to play the climactic scene in the trailer. This lessened the effect of the powerful sequence when Jane, filled with the rage of a mother who has lost her child, holds John Bishop at gunpoint. It is the culmination of her evolution from the sweet, gentle country girl of the flashbacks into a strong and confident woman. Bishop tries to use his slimy charms to save himself, but Jane will have none of it. There is a desperation in Bishop’s eyes when he realizes that even after confessing to Jane that her daughter is alive, she will not hesitate to mete out justice.

Where Jane departs from the Hardy romance pattern is that it ultimately rewards its characters with a happy ending. A few ignorant critics may grouse that it seems forced or tonally dissonant, but in fact the film only works dramatically if the ending is a happy one. It has to provide some hope, some measure of relief, in order to balance all the pain Jane and Dan endure.

As I said, I rank this film as one of my favorites, alongside Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, both of which have decidedly grim endings. But those two films start off relatively light, and gradually descend into darkness. Jane starts off dark, and gradually rises to a hopeful and upbeat ending.

The key is balance. Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown with a happy ending, called the effect of the final film a “tunnel at the end of the light”. You can’t make a film that is unrelentingly dark throughout, or it is excruciating. Likewise, you can’t make a film that is completely lighthearted, or it is cloying. If Jane ended as grimly as it begins, it would feel pointless and unsatisfying.

The Western is a quintessentially “American” genre, and Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.

The film touches briefly, yet significantly, on the Civil War–the conflict at the heart of America as we know it. It forms an important backdrop for the events of the film, but never are the political or social details allowed to overshadow what really makes a strong narrative: the people caught up in these events, and their struggle to survive.

“Not much sun in my story,” Jane tells Dan before she begins recounting the horrors she experienced at the hands of the Bishop Boys. This line, in addition to echoing an earlier line of Jane’s, also sets up one of the most memorable transitions in the movie: from the muzzle flash of Jane’s pistol as she fires the fatal round into Bishop to the sunlit sky as she and Dan ride to rescue their daughter.

The sun in Jane’s story, after a lifetime’s worth of darkness, shines brilliantly–and, most importantly, it is through Jane’s toughness and bravery that it does.

I’m an argumentative kind of guy. I also hold a lot of controversial opinions about movies. So I tend to get into arguments about movies a lot.

One thing I’ve learned from these arguments is that people seemingly can’t tell the difference between bad acting and bad screenwriting.  If people decide they don’t like a character, or they find them boring, they usually assume it was the actor’s fault.

Take my old favorite: the Star Wars prequels.  People complain the acting in those is bad, but it’s actually pretty good, aside from Hayden Christensen in Episode II.  The problem is that the writing is bad: the lines are awkward and sometimes nonsensical.  The amount of acting talent in those movies is incredible, and it got largely wasted by a script that was very bad.  No amount of good acting makes the line “what’s wrong, Ani?” work.

Here is an example of actual bad acting: in the “picnic” scene in Episode II, Anakin (Christensen) is teasing Padme (Natalie Portman) about a boy on whom she had a teenage crush.  He asks what happened to him, she says “I went into politics; he became an artist”,  and Anakin’s reply is “maybe he was the smart one”.  A good actor would play this flirtatiously, since the two characters are supposed to be falling in love. But Christensen for some reason delivers it in an angry, almost accusatory manner.  That is bad acting.

I’m probably sensitive to this because I am a writer, and so I tend to watch movies, plays, TV etc. with my focus on the decisions the writer(s) made.  I think most people don’t really think about the fact that people actually write these things–if something doesn’t work, they blame the actors. An actor is the face that the audience associates with the character, and so they tend to think of them as “being” that character, without remembering that in the majority of cases, somebody else wrote the character’s lines.

Once in a while, good acting can rise above a lousy script–Apocalypse Now is the best example I can think of–but generally, a bad script dooms you from the start.  It’s like sports: if you have superstar players running badly designed plays or formations, the results will be bad, no matter how flawlessly they perform them.

For example: there is a scene in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin where Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) is arguing with his daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) about plans for her impending wedding at the start of the scene and then–with no new characters or information being introduced–concludes the scene by telling her she can’t get married because the Axis forces are about to invade, and handing her a pistol to use on them or, he adds darkly, on herself, if necessary.

John Hurt is a great actor, and he delivers all of his lines in this scene very well.  But it does not work, because there is no way a person would start a conversation discussing wedding details and then seemingly suddenly remember “Oh, yeah and the Nazis are invading–you might have to kill them or yourself.” In journalism, they call that “burying the lead”. In script-writing, they call it “dreadful”.

This is one big reason why dramatic productions have directors: their job is to make the script and actors work together.

It reminds me of a quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.  But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

If lines don’t make sense, if character motivations are not clear, then the writer is to blame.  But if they do make sense and are clear, and the scene nevertheless does not work, then it is the fault of the actors and the director.

I expected “The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu” to be unwatchable.  Anytime you see a DVD for $2.00, you can’t have high hopes.  But, Lovecraft movies aren’t super-common, so I thought I’d give it a try, fully expecting to stop watching after five minutes.

I was very pleasantly surprised.

The movie stars Kyle Davis as Jeff Phillips, the last living relative of horror-writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Jeff and his friend Charlie (Devin McGinn, also the film’s writer) are entrusted by a secret society to protect an ancient relic that the Cult of Cthulhu is trying to steal to awaken the infamous Sea-Monster-God.  Only Jeff has Lovecraft’s genetic ability to resist the telepathic powers of the Cultists, which drive all others who meet them insane.

If this premise sounds a little silly, well, it is.  That’s because the movie is a horror/comedy, but I’d say it’s about 80% comedy, and 20% horror.  And it works.  It’s a very amusing little adventure, while still being reasonably faithful to the principles of Lovecraftian-ism.

The monster special effects are horribly cheap and hokey-looking, but it all works because (a) it’s a comedy and (b) Lovecraftian horror isn’t really about the monsters you see; it’s about the monsters you don’t see. Granted “Lovecraft” and “comedy” are two words you don’t often see together, but in this case, the two blend pretty well.

Is it a great movie? No, but it’s a lot of a fun for anybody who enjoys Lovecraft’s “Yog-Sothothery” but doesn’t take the “Mythos” too seriously.  It’s the most successful blend of cosmic horror and  comedy I’ve seen since the great “Fishmen” musical adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

The only other thing I’d add is that if you are offended by coarse language, you might want to steer clear.  There is a lot of swearing, although it never felt forced or like “swearing for the sake of swearing”. There is also a fair amount of violence, what with the monsters eating people etc., but frankly, the effects are so silly it barely qualifies as violence in my book.  Your mileage may vary.

As I promised when I reviewed the movie, I finally read Stephen King’s  novel. Interestingly, I’d say I have about the same overall opinion of it as I had of the movie: it was interesting, but very flawed.

That’s not to say, though, that they are similar–there are huge differences between the book and the movie.  Let me start with the ways I though the book was better than the movie:

  • Wendy seems like less of a shrieking idiot, and more of a fully-realized three dimensional character.
  • Mr. Halloran has more of a role to play than just “show up and die” so that Wendy and Danny can escape at the end.  The scariest part of the book was the moment when the malign influence of the Overlook briefly tries to take hold of his mind, just as they are about to escape. (However, there are also problems with Halloran’s survival–I’ll get to that.)
  • The suspense of whether or not Halloran will reach the hotel in time is very, very well done.

But then are the things the movie gets right:

  • Getting rid of the stupid attacking hedge animals–that would have been even worse on screen than on the page.
  • Also, getting rid of the wasps.  Actually, most of the hotel’s early attempts at harming the characters are pretty laughable in the book.
  • In my review of the movie, I complained that Jack Torrance seemed “like a blundering, angry buffoon”.  This is lessened in the book, but there is an even bigger problem–a problem so big I’m going to drop the bullet point format to discuss it.

The problem is that instead of Jack seeming like a buffoon, the hotel itself seems like a buffoon.  At the end, when the Overlook has almost fully possessed Jack, it forgets about its own boiler, causing it to explode.

If you accept the strong suggestion that the Overlook is a conscious entity, then this is equivalent to someone forgetting to make his heart beat. This makes the hotel seem less scary and more of an obnoxious idiot.  Which is even worse than Torrance seeming like an obnoxious idiot.

Then there was the problem of Mr. Halloran’s survival.  I was sort of conflicted about this, because I really liked the character; but in the movie the fact that he is killed by the possessed Jack makes the supernatural forces seem like a more credible threat. In the book his survival cheapens the haunted hotel’s powers even more.

Finally, the other thing that annoyed me were the repeated references to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. I felt like it was suffering the same problem I noted in the movie Prometheus and its references to Lawrence of Arabia: “this story isn’t so great–maybe inserting a few bits from something better will spruce it up.”

Both the book and the movie had interesting concepts in them, but neither one quite works. I read that King apparently disliked the Kubrick movie so much he backed a miniseries that was more faithful to the book.  I’ve yet to see it–I’d be curious to see how it handles the hedge animals.

I happened to see a bit of the first Harry Potter movie on TV the other day.  It was about as I had remembered: too faithful to the book, to the point where it got dull.  (An explanation of the rules of Quidditch is funny and entertaining on the page.  On the screen, it is boring.)

For whatever reason, I decided to also watch the last Harry Potter film as well afterwards–mostly just to see how the cast aged.  But what I noticed, due to the discussion of color in my last post, was how different everything looked from the first film to the last.  I’m not talking the actors here–I’m talking about everything.

Apparently, Voldemort’s rise resulted in a change in how light is reflected.  The colors in the first movie–while still relying heavily on orange and  blue–were nonetheless fairly vibrant and distinct from one another.  By the last movie, everything looked completely washed-out and greyish brown.  It appeared that someone had applied a desaturation filter to everything except the magic spells.

I’m guessing they think they were doing a good job matching the darker tone of the story in the last movie by doing this.

They were wrong.

The movie was so visually uninteresting that it physically hurt to watch.  That’s not good film-making, and it’s not a good way of matching the tone of the story with the scenery.  It can be, sure; but it is not automatic.

The first Harry Potter film was by no means a triumph of cinema, but it was fairly decent visually. The last one was borderline unwatchable because of how uninteresting it looked. I might not have thought too much more about this though, except that I then happened to watch a couple scenes from the movie Apocalypse Now a few days later.  Now, I don’t think it’s an especially good movie, because the story doesn’t make any sense, but it does have awesome cinematography. If you couldn’t tell from the title, it is a rather thematically “dark” film as well, and yet the ending scenes where Martin Sheen goes to assassinate Marlon Brando have plenty of vibrant color.

Here is a still from the climax of Apocalypse Now:

Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now”. Used under “fair use” for the purpose of criticism. Image via IMDB.

Here is a still from the climax of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Still from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. Used under “fair use” for the purpose of criticism. Image via IMDB.

How is it that a picture of a camouflaged man standing in a muddy lake at night is more visually compelling than a wizards’ duel?

[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]

About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.  Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book.  And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.

As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film.  And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best.  That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.

To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much.  It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it.  So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo.  But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying.  And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.

It was never clear to me what the point was.  I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers.  Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.

Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad.  And so he does.

A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin.  In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives.  And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.

(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)

Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.

I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base.  While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically.  Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base.  It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.

(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough'”.  For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)

(Last aside: this post has too many asides.  One of them should be removed.)

I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch.  The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.

To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz.  Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal.  Then, in  Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did.  And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.

Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad.  And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!

Just kidding, that’s not the difference.

(more…)

I have not read Stephen King’s novel yet, so I cannot comment on how the film compares to it.  I have heard there are major differences.

The plot of The Shining is–oh, heck, you all know it: Jack Nicholson goes crazy and chases his family around with an axe in an isolated hotel.

A problem I noticed early on–and, I have read, something Stephen King also complained about–is that Nicholson seems insane from the first shot he’s in.  He looks absolutely crazed in an early scene where he’s driving his family to the hotel.  This sort of makes it less shocking when he does go crazy later on in the movie.

This is compounded by the fact that when he does go insane, he’s ridiculously easy to defeat.  Two of the most famous scenes of madness end with him being easily subdued by his screaming and frightened wife, Wendy.  The “All Work and No Play” scene ends with her somehow knocking him out, and the “Here’s Johnny” scene ends with her giving him what amounts to a minor cut that somehow completely stymies him long enough for her to escape. This makes him seem less menacing and more like a blundering, angry buffoon.

Speaking of Wendy: she does nothing to counter my belief that Kubrick was a misogynist, and incapable of having interesting female characters.  She goes to pieces constantly, and seems like an overwhelmed hysterical idiot all the time.  And somehow she’s still able to thwart Jack, apparently by panicked flailing. People criticize Shelley Duvall’s performance, but I think it was a problem of direction rather than acting.

The Shining is strongest in the quiet, mood-setting shots. It does an absolutely  excellent job conveying the eerie atmosphere of the haunted hotel.  There is a famous tracking shot of Jack and Wendy’s son Danny riding a Big Wheel around the interior, and its fame is justified.  I knew going in how that scene worked, and it still was effective.

Kubrick has a reputation for being a genius cinematographer and having  no ability to relate to people.  The Shining totally fits that.  The atmospherics are awesome, and the characters are ridiculous. The best performance is Philip Stone as Delbert Grady, the ghost of a previous caretaker of the hotel.  He has a long dialogue with Jack that is the scariest sequence in the movie.

It has some good elements, don’t get me wrong.  There is a Turn of the Screw-like ambiguity as to whether the ghosts are real or all in Jack’s imagination. (Though this is undercut in the finale.) In broadest strokes, the plot is similar to The Haunting: Jack Torrance and Eleanor Lance both go to the haunted house, feel the haunted house “wants” them, and ultimately die and are implied to be claimed by the house.

Bottom line: the movie has gorgeous visuals, good music, and some eerie concepts.  But it fails to be truly scary because the malevolent spirits have chosen as their agent an incompetent, drunken, abusive idiot.  It would have been scarier if they had tried to use Danny to carry out their plans.  Come to that, why on Earth didn’t they? He was psychic!  He should have been the one most prone to ghostly machinations. Granted, then it might just turn into The Exorcist or The Omen on ice, but still, it would be creepier.