Sorry, couldn't help it. But as I say of Miranda July's The Future in my review for MSN Movies, the artist's problem isn't so much twee as it is dink. Also under consideration this week, Cowboys and Aliens. To paraphrase an old Talking Heads song, had a fair amount of fun, could have been a lot better. Soon to post: The Smurfs.To quote an old David Byrne/Brian Eno song, help me somebody.
With Rod Taylor in Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970.
The obits say Spradlin specialized in playing "authority figures," but his real art was in mixing you up about how you felt about them. His most chilling scene is of course as General Corman (the name is amusing) in Apocalypse Now; the cagey cat-and-mouse disclosure game he and Jerry Ziesmer's "Civilian" play with Martin Sheen's Willard at the outset...and then there's the odd, perhaps gratuitous interpolation he makes about the now-"unsound" Kurtz, about his being a "good," "humanitarian" man, a man of "wit and humor." Huh? As in North Dallas Forty around the same period, when his uber-Landry character brings up "Christian" football. A brilliant,invaluable character actor, like the late J.T. Walsh; not only shall we not see his like again, but it's becoming less likely that the movies can support his like.
Once more into the breach. Equipment: For Region A domestic and import discs, Playstation 3 console. For Region B import discs, OPPO BDP 83. Display: Hitachi P50V701, 16:9 Standard 2 Aspect Ratio setting, Day (Dynamic) picture setting, reset by eye by author using Lawrence of Arabia film still in Kevin Brownlow's David Lean biography as guide. And the Hitachi set crapped out for good after I completed the viewing notes for this column, so I am again compelled to mention this blog has a tip jar, alas.
Alice (BFI Import)
Surrealism-inflected Czech animator Jan Svankmajer has made a good number of outstanding, and eccentric and savagely beautiful films, but this cracked consideration of Lewis Carroll is considered his defining work by many, and not without good reason; the juxtaposition of Carroll’s gentle but sly oddball sensibility with the adapter’s often more visceral eccentricities makes for a uniquely bracing end product. This BFI Blu-ray looks pretty great. A key detail: the film is narrated by the title character (played by Kristyna Kohoutova) in a tight live-action closeup of her mouth, and the chapping on her lips increases and decreases visibly from narration sequences to narrations sequence. The tea party scene is particularly incredible, and what this high-def transfer captures so beautifully besides colors are the textures that are so important to Svankmajer’s art: Fur, paint slathered/dabbed on wood/cardboard, etc.—A+
The Big Country (MGM/UA Walmart exclusive)
This 1958 William Wyler semi-epic is the kind of picture that makes some people sit up and say, “Now THAT’S a Western,” but you know us auteurists and quasi-auteurists, even those of us who love, say, Dodsworth: when it comes to this genre, we put Mr. Wyler in line WAY in back of Ford, Hawks, Mann, Boetticher, et.al., and even then, when we get started we prefer The Westerner. But as I frequently say, this is a Blu-ray Consumer Guide, not a movie one, and this disc is beautiful. There is grain here, and the contrast between particular shots is pronounced in an interesting way that reflects the process of shooting such big-ticket action pictures; there’s a discernable difference between actual location master shots, wherein you can see the actors starting to sweat, and the close-ups where they appear more made-up, “composed,” as it were. Check out the initial confrontation between Peck’s and Carroll Baker’s characters and the hooligans led by Chuck Conners for a pertinent example. Another interesting wrinkle in the home-theater high-def realm. It doesn’t detract from the overall, you know, majesty of the viewing experience. —A
Big Jake (Paramount)
A lesser latter John Wayne Western, and not exactly a paragon of narrative sleekness either; fiery opening notwithstanding, it takes a while to suss out just what the heck it’s actually ABOUT, anyway. A bold, zesty, colorful picture, which boosts some, um, interesting detail, e.g. Richard Boone’s big, sunburned nose. Also, a pissed-off middle aged Maureen O’Hara looks even more pissed off (but not more middle-aged, bless her) in high-def. For Duke nuts with Blu-ray players, a must. For everyone else, optional. B+
Black Moon (Criterion)
From my notes: “Damn, this twilight opening looks good! Agh, she killed a hedgehog! What’s up with that? There’s crappy radio reception. A commenter who sounds like Glenn Beck! Whoo-hoo! It’s all Hour of the Wolf, and La Chinoise and shit! Makes ya look at Malle a little differently, huh?” Louis Malle’s scrappy indie—a film he made, he said once, because he wanted to shoot something at his French countryside house—is another Alice In Wonderland rethink, this one a post ’68, post-apocalyptic one. It is more successfully (and mordantly) eccentric than the other Malle film we’ll be getting into later in this column….and I haven’t really made up my mind about the whole thing yet, and maybe never will. Which is a good thing in my book. As for the disc, I don’t think “nearly unbelievable” is going too far with respect to sizing up its image quality. Less fulsome observers may settle for revelatory. This is one of those things worth checking out strictly on that basis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sven Nykvist’s color work look better on home video before. Particularly striking ARE the aforementioned twilight scenes. Dusk is hard on high-def; if you don’t do the compression right, you’ll get a video-noise effect that’s distractingly smeary, particularly on some flat-panel screen. Here the image is clean as a whistle throughout, and gorgeous. Also from my notes: “REALLY REALLY BEAUTIFUL!” A+
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Blue Underground)
I’m not sure what the house is responsible for the high-def transfers of early Argento films that are going to Arrow and Blue Underground, and frankly I’m not sure if it’s a transfer issue or a material issue, but I’ve been noticing what strikes me as an odd consistency in the grain structure in the Blu-rays from both companies I’ve looked at of Deep Red, this film, and now Tenebre, recently from Arrow. That is, the grain is pretty heavy, to the point sometimes of looking like speckling. A good example on this particular disc comes about thirty minutes in; check out the hood of the blue Corvette in the scene, it looks speckled with white. Not to get all Jeff Wells or anything but I find this kind of distracting. I didn’t notice this so much on the excellent Blu-rays, from both Arrow and Blue Underground, of Argento’s Inferno, nor on the superb Arrow Blu-ray of Phenomena. But it is occasionally frustrating, to the point where it’s a bit of a fly in the ointment with respect to my enjoyment of the film. —B+
Crack in the World (Olive)
The quality of certain Olive masters hasn’t always been anything to write home about—to call the disc of Preminger’s Such Good Friends serviceable is almost overstating the case, frankly—but let’s face it, the label’s work largely indicates what the market will bear, as it were, so…anyway, I was a little surprised with how well I liked the look of this. DVD Beaver rates it pretty not-great, and I can see their point, but as I watched, I thought, Wow, this doesn’t look bad at all. It’s certainly not the most pristine in terms of pinpoint sharpness, but it does have substantial detail and color. As with certain other non-pristine Blu-rays in my experience, the overall look brought the Proustian rush of Saturday afternoon projections in the late ‘60s at Bergenfield’s Palace Theater. For those not familiar with said experience, I’ll say that it looks like good/decent vault print projected at proper brightness levels. But what’s with the soundtrack? There’s a lot of irritating discrepancy between the dialogue and music levels, aargh. Be advised, though, a lot of the disaster stuff is stock footage! There’s noticeable video noise at the world-turned orange finale. And there’s also chipmunk stock footage. And apparently the aspect ratio’s off, 1.78 rather than 1.85, but it’s not much of a bother. Lot of caveats for a disc I’m gonna recommend. What can I tell you, I’m a sucker for halfway decent cult items in high-def. —B
Don’t Look Back (Docurama)
Cool. Grainy. Scratchy. But awesome; beauteous documentary clarity. Dylan, what you’d call a legendary performer, to be sure. And a classic document, too. God, the London journalists are assholes, and as those of us who follow such things are well aware, the situation didn’t get a whole lot better when actual “rock critics” came into existence. But there was some improvement. Anyway, if you ever gave a damn about Dylan or the ‘60s or anything, you really ought to invest in this, as it seems a definitive home version. — A+
Drive Angry (Summit)
This proud-to-be-idiotic grindhouse pastiche really IS as dumb as it wants to be, and as bombastic, and is thus moderately impressive. The image quality on the disc is such that it almost (ALMOST) makes one wish one had a 3D display, Blu-ray player, etc. But this gets the job done without stereoscopic enhancement, and is a demo-disc hoot. —A
The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anchor Bay U.K. import, Region B locked)
Regulars of this blog know what a big Anthony Mann fan I am, and how highly I value this understated, elegiac epic. So of course they won’t be surprised that I sprung for a Blu-ray of it first chance I got, regardless of unpopular prices/exchange rates. And I’m glad I did. This looks real nice. There’s just a little color registration issue in some of the long shots, which is likely a materials issue or even a source issue stemming from anamorphic lens distortion or something. Nothing particularly major/distracting though. There’s a little shine/brightness in female lead Sophia Loren’s skin tones from time to time, she’s pretty heavily made-up and her natural olive complexion is covered and very white in certain shots. But the overall impression this gives is of just what a great VISUAL film this is throughout, always. Every shot is an impeccable composition and the flow from image to image is just breathtakingly effortless seeming. The diffused light in the forest battle about 50 minutes in is as spectacular an effect as Kurosawa himself ever captured. Everything holds together, remains solid, and as for beautifully telling details, check out the whites and pale blues of mad emperor Christopher Plummer’s eyes. —A
Talk about movies that don’t get better with age. You can see what director Milos Forman wanted to do with this—create something that seemed as free and loose and spontaneous as he imagined the American ‘60s counterculture might have been, should have been, whatever—but the intransigent material bests him. Thus, this 1979 film is a curio that just gets curiouser. This looks okay, nice autumn-in-Central-Park tones. But it doesn’t PLAY at all. And Treat Williams’ wig, or whatever it is. And that dude who ended up replacing terry Kath in Chicago. And it’s still better than Across the Universe. But not as inadvertently funny. —B-
Hannie Caulder (Olive Films)
This far-less-comedic-than-usual Burt Kennedy picture, a brisk 1971 revenge Western with a career-high performance from Raquel Welch (poor woman is set upon by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin, all at their skeeviest) and a turn by Robert Culp that makes you wish he’d been way more prominent as a film actor, doesn’t look too shabby at all. A clean, detailed image for the most part —little video noise on the sand in a desert ride sequence but nothing to complain about past that on the visuals. The soundtrack is another matter. It’s even more all-over-the-place than that of Olive’s Crack in the World Blu-ray, with music WAY louder than dialogue throughout. It’s almost impossible to find a consistent volume level where you can hear the dialogue clearly but not be overpowered by the score. I’m an old hand at remote manipulation but that’ no way to watch a film and this disc gets docked down to its current grade from what might have been a solid B+ on that account. So: —C-
Heavy Metal (Sony)
A VERY handsome presentation! Too bad the film itself still kind of stinks. Well, mostly. Haven’t looked at this since its theatrical release, which I recall through a certain cannabis haze as a bit of a disappointment best exemplified by the fact that the title song was a solo turn by the member of The Eagles nobody gave a shit about. When was that, 1981? Yep. This time around, I notice a lotta what they call “Canadian content,” that the “Harry Canyon” segment set a lot of precedent for The Fifth Element, which Element largely picked up and ran with a lot better. And goofy art direction and limited animation and a lot of edgy-for-the-‘80s content, which subsists of lovingly drawn giant female breasts. Oh well. The aspect with the most entertainment value is John Candy’s voice work in the “Den” segment, in which he says things like “There was no way I was gonna walk around this place with my dork hanging out” in his Jerry-Mathers-as-The-Beaver tones. The disc is very crisp looking and the soundtrack, ostensibly an important aspect here, is solid.—B-
...Fassbinder's amazing 1973 World on Wire, now at the IFC Center. Richard Brody exults on it here; I exulted on it on this blog last year. I may exult on it further soon; I've had a notion about the film's use of the Fleetwood Mac song "Albatross" nagging me for a while. In any event the film is simply unbelievably undeniably great. So go if you can.
So I was thinking of composing a post entitled " 'Theres' to which one really ought not go" in which I would take friendly but firm issue with Andrew O'Hehir's rather feckless speculation that maybe RKO had a point in mutilating The Magnificent Ambersons (a notion that one could say is almost too easy to disprove), and then pick apart certain points in Matt Singer's proposal concerning a critical parlor game for albums and its potential adaptation for films (extremely problematic in both cases, plus which, and this really can't be overstated, anyone who continues to promulgate the notion that "indie-minded filmmakers ike Steven Soderbergh take high profile gigs like Ocean's Eleven to off-set the costs of more personal projects like" blah-blah-blah literally does not know what he or she is talking about), but then I thought, hell, I'm still on ostensible vacation, I shouldn't even be reading this stuff let alone starting debates/fights over it, and so back to Catch-22 it is. (Can you believe I've never read it in its entirety before? Weird, right?) In the meantime, my review of Sarah's Key, which is really not bad as Holocaust-themed-pictures-with-Harvey-Weinstein's-name-attached-to-them go, is up at MSN Movies, and the wi-fi at my undisclosed location is such that I'm not gonna risk trying to put up a post as big as my July Blu-ray Consumer Guide, so see you some time Friday at the earliest...
[Proprieter's note: As I hope more than a few of you know, the novelist Lawrence Block—a crime fiction maestro whose latest, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, part of his series of novels about detective Matthew Scudder (as great and durable an operative as American crime fiction has produced, I'd say) is a good 'un and well worth buying in its spiffy new hardback edition—has been making a bold frontal offensive into the world of social media of late. He recently unveiled an endlessly wise and entertaining blog, before which he even went and got himself on Twitter (follow him at @LawrenceBlock, where else?). And it was on Twitter that he made an incredibly generous offer to guest-blog for others while his own site was being put together. I alluded to this offer in my prior post, and as you'll see in the comments therein, Mr. Block, who was introduced to me in person some years ago by mutual friends Brian Koppelman and David Levien, let me know the offer still stood. Which offer I'd be an utter clod not to take up, so I did, and so he did, for which many, many thanks, and without further ado, here's the man himself on film adaptations of his own, and some others', books.—G.K.]
"No, But I Read The Book"
Over a good many years, my friend Donald E. Westlake wrote two dozen books about a career criminal named Parker. Because his agent had the good sense to retain rights in the character, many film deals were signed over the years, and quite a few pictures actually got made. At one time or another, and under one name or another, Parker was brought to varying degrees of life on the screen by Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Peter Coyote, Mel Gibson, and Anna Karina.
Don, pondering all this, said he had to conclude that the character lacked definition.
Novels are forever being turned into films, though not nearly as often as their authors would prefer. But how accurately is the novelist’s vision conveyed in the film? And how much does it matter?
I’ve had three books filmed. First was Nightmare Honeymoon (1974), based on my Deadly Honeymoon. It was directed by Elliott Silverstein and starred Dack Rambo, Rebecca Dianna Smith, and Pat Hingle. Twelve years later, Hal Ashby directed 8 Million Ways to Die, based on my Eight Million Ways to Die, with Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia. And the following year, Hugh Wilson’s film Burglar was released, with its story drawn from two of my books about burglar/bookseller Bernard Rhodenbarr. Whoopi Goldberg had the title role, with Bobcat Goldthwait cast as Bernie’s lesbian sidekick.
Now one didn’t need to have written the books to regard all three of these movies as beneath contempt. Reviewers were pretty much unanimous in their disapproval, and the public stayed home; when one of the three bombs turned up on TV, everybody changed the channel. There were things to like here—Bridges and Garcia gave good performances, and Whoopi did what she could in a hopeless cause, but the films stank on ice.
Let’s forget Nightmare Honeymoon, because nobody’s seen it, and with luck none of you ever will. I haven’t had a peek at it myself in over thirty years, and even then I couldn’t watch it all the way through. But it’s easy to say that the other two fell a long way short of reproducing the books that spawned them. 8 Million Ways to Die took a story that was about New York and flew it to L.A., turned the plot every which way but tight, and recast the A.A. material as if written by someone on a bender. Burglar kept too much of the plot of The Burglar in the Closet, while rendering all of the book’s nuanced relationships into hard-edged and antagonistic ones.
Those are reasons why a book’s author might well be disappointed with the treatment given to his work. On the other hand, if I were handed several million dollars and charged turning a book into a movie, I don’t think gladdening the heart of the book’s author would rank very high on my list of priorities.
All things being equal, I’d want to get as much as I could of his vision on the screen. But not to the detriment of the film. Making a movie that worked, artistically and commercially, would be all that really ought to concern me.
Besides, it’s impossible to make a writer happy. Our egos won’t allow it. Whether it’s the treatment we get from cover artists (“Right there on page 117 and again on page 244 I describe her as having long black hair, and this girl’s hair is brown. And it’s not long enough, either!”) or interviewers (“The least she could have done was read the book all the way through. If she’s going to have a writer on for five minutes of drive-time AM radio, wouldn’t you think she’d be better prepared?”), we tend to come off like Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect.
And what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen. I’ve done a couple of adaptations of my own work (and no, they never got made) and found I didn’t have to be asked to make changes; the different natures of the two media demanded it. In each case, I found the process instructive.
Once in a while, of course, someone really gets it right. Once in a while there’s a movie that takes a book, slaps it on the big screen, and works like a charm even as it reflects the writer’s vision. The most vivid recent example would be the Coens’ remake of True Grit. I’d read the Charles Portis novel first, then saw and enjoyed the Henry Hathaway film with John Wayne and Kim Darby. It wasn’t the book, but I thought it was a pretty good movie.
But the Coen brothers went back to Portis’s book, and took the revolutionary step of putting that story on the screen, using his scenes and dialogue pretty much as written. And blew the earlier picture out of the water.
Oddly, something very similar happened seventy years ago. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon succeeded so utterly that not many of us realize it was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. (The 1931 version starred Ricardo Cortez; the 1936 remake, called Satan Met a Lady, had Alison Skipworth playing the Sydney Greenstreet role.)
It’s also not widely known that Hammett deliberately wrote the book in the form of a prose screenplay, with nothing on the page that couldn’t be shown or spoken on the screen. It was his notion that movies were the future, that writers were best advised to write books that could be filmed, and that the ideal tactic would be to do the screenwriters’ work for them while writing the book. After this was conveniently overlooked by two sets of filmmakers, Huston did what should have been done in the first place, and put Hammett’s lines, essentially verbatim, in the mouths of the perfect cast. There’s a reason the film gets better every time you see it.
Long before he got anywhere near the bestseller lists, Elmore Leonard was selling book after book to Hollywood. (He never wrote a series because his agent, the legendary H. N. Swanson, wanted to make sure that each book came from his typewriter unencumbered. Once Dutch confided that he’d enjoyed writing about one fellow—Jack Ryan, IIRC—and would kind of like to do another book about the guy. “Write anything you like,” Swanny told him. “Just call him something else.”)
Leonard’s books have always lent themselves well to filming, and some good movies resulted over the years, along with some that weren’t so good. But the one that succeeded absolutely in transferring to the screen not merely the book but the unmistakable voice of its author was Get Shorty. I don’t even know how closely the plot of Scott Frank’s impeccable screenplay followed the book, and I can’t say I care. Those were Dutch’s people up there, and they were talking and thinking and acting as they did in the book, and making that happen is no mean trick.
It would be easy to point out all the book-to-film moves that didn’t work, and some casting choices that make Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher look positively brilliant. But the hell with that. I’ve come to believe that any film ought to benefit from the principal propounded by Dr. Johnson when he likened a woman preacher to a dog walking on his hind legs. It was, he pointed out, not ours to question whether it were done well; the wonder was that it was done at all.
I’d say that applies. As hard as it is to get any picture made, it seems like the worst sort of nit-picking to complain when one happens to be terrible.
And shouldn’t we let James M. Cain have the last word? When an interviewer asked the author of Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity how he felt about what Hollywood had done to his books, Cain looked puzzled. “But Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books,” he said. “They’re right over there on the shelf, exactly as I wrote them.”
Posting's going to be a bit infrequent over the next week or so, as I'm off doing...stuff. Actually, a July Blu-ray Consumer Guide is tantalizingly close to completion (and a good thing, too, because my fucking TV just blew up again), and if I have the wherewithal/time it might go up after the weekend, and that should hold you for the better part of the week...and I'll have some reviews going up that I'll let you know about...but in the meantime I'll be a bit on the less active side. If only the timing had been better, I would have taken up Lawrence Block's offer (proffered on his Twitter feed a little while back) to guest-blog for any one smart enough to take him up on it until he got his own joint going. But he does, now, have his own joint going, which you ought to check out. Have a delightful weekend!