ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Film

Dredding Part II, or, He is the LAW

Dredd by Pete Travis

Dredd by Pete Travis

Right,

What’s that? A Follow up review to something I’ve already done?? First off, this is a first for the PageBoy site, and if there is anything the internet is good at it is getting people to try new things and new expressions of the things they love, (that and cat gifs right, everyone loves those…) So without further ado, let’s start talking about ‘THE LAW’ and it’s personification in the form of Judge Dredd. As a life-long nerd I’ve always loved the comic character from 2000AD, and whilst the Stallone film was a guilty pleasure of mine (I gave it a good review, promise) I also always felt like the film completely missed what it was about the character of Dredd that made him so compelling, and a great way of exploring difficult themes.

This version was written in 2006 by Alex Garland despite the film itself not being announced until 2008 (now THAT’s optimism!) and after Duncan Jones passed on it directorial duties went to Pete Travis. Karl Urban takes on the role of Judge Dredd, Olivia Thirlby takes on the role of the rookie Judge Anderson and Lena Hadley is the bad guy, drug lord Ma-Ma. It’s usually here that I give a run down on plot, trying to avoid spoilers but as the plot is so simple I don’t think I need to worry about giving any major spoilers. In the future lawless metropolis of Mega-City One a new drug is causing havoc, two judges are sent into a high rise controlled by the drug lord who seals them inside and the two have to fight their way out. I’ve simplified a few of the details there but that is pretty much the long and the short of it. As with the best action movies the stakes, characters and motivations are set up early leaving the rest of the run time for the action. If there’s one thing this film gets right it is that – the action is gorgeously choreographed and brutally violent and when coupled with the simply jaw dropping design and VFX work make this one of the best looking slices of action violence you are ever likely to see from the past few years of mainstream cinema. The design work, especially the Slo-Mo sequences are wonderfully put together and the subtle details (making Dredd’s suit seem like it could take a blow or two) make the world seem compelling and absorbing – a dystopia that could actually occur.  Karl Urban does a great job as Judge Dredd, managing to convey emotion without using his eyes at all as, thank goodness; he keeps on his helmet throughout the film and doesn’t scream ‘LAW’ like Stallone did.

So is it a good film? Yes. Absolutely and the fact that it didn’t do that well at the box office is a crying shame as it meant that any chance of a sequel was dead in the water. It’s slick, well done and tries to be an action film with a good aesthetic standard.

Whether or not this is a good adaptation though is another thing entirely, as, arguably, it isn’t possible to condense the complexities of a character that has been in existence since 1977. The initial drafts of Garland’s scripts dealt with things integral to the world of Dredd too, such as his relationship with Judge Death but these were rejected because it would have been just too much work for audiences not used to the world of the comics. Another adaptation criticism is that the comics used Judge Dredd as a tool for satire – the violence and over the top style was a deliberate choice – a way for the writers to make specific points about the rule of the law, the power of the police and how authority is used against citizens. If the film has done anything wrong it is the whole thing is played far too straight-faced. The violence and action is over the top and incredible to look at but the exaggeration is never something questioned by the film and thus audiences just get to accept Dredd as another action hero who can kick ass and take names without ever getting the deeper level of meaning the writers of the original character intended.

That may well be nit-picking however as whilst cinemas are buried under a slew of grey, dull, mechanical action films Dredd was a blast of bloody good fun. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see anymore.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Les Misérables Review

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I’m not a fan of musical theater – I’ve never really been able to put my finger on it but there is something about the genre that has always left me a little cold. All that emotion just makes something in my slightly repressed British psyche curl up. Thus, I approached Tom Hooper’s new adaptation of the hugely successful stage show with a healthy degree of caution. The show, based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, has a fanatical fan base which only drove my cynicism higher. Thankfully though, I can report that the film is very good. Really good – this is pretty much the highest praise that I can give a form that I am no fan of, so allow me to explain.

From the opening frames of the film it is made clear that subtly and quietness has no place in this movie – the film bludgeons you into feeling, big, bold emotions. Everything that the film touches on is a HUGE issue, themes of death, love, grief, guilt, salvation, redemption. At the film’s closing the sound heard around the theater was a collective sigh – this is film making as cathartic, spiritual therapy and if you have ever wanted to see the stage show I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you’re a fan of brilliant, passionate film making go see this too.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, I’ll try and give a brief outline without any major spoilers. In 19th century France the paroled prisoner Jean Valjean breaks the terms of his parole and is chased over the decades by the tenacious Inspector Javert. Valjean reinvents himself and dedicates his life to taking care of Cosette, the daughter of Fatine, a woman who falls on hard times. This, and Cosette’s journey of growing up is set against the background of revolutionary politics and Valjeans journey from hate-filled and angry to a deeply spiritual man at peace with his place in the world.

The cast is nothing less than universally superb. Jackman utilizes all of his skills in musical theater to give an absolutely captivating performance as Jean Valjean, brilliantly conveying the guilt, the rage and the spiritual conversion he goes through. His relationship with Cosette is really well done and Jackman should get credit for proving to a wide audience that musical theater can have dramatically thrilling leads. Russell Crowe as Javert is a revelation, giving the finest performance in the entire film, investing the initially simple character with depth, nobility and a grand sense of tragedy, after a few dodgy film choices it is great to see Crowe back to his powerhouse best. The man can sing too – really, really well. Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fatine conveys the tragedy of her character and her solo is one of the highlights of the whole movie. Other notables include Eddie Redmayne revealing a spectacular singing voice and the new comer Samantha Barks as the tragic and unrequited Éponine.

There are a few minor niggles – the comic relief of Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen do start to get a little incongruous in the midst of all the deep theological themes and pulse pounding emoting, and the final third drags in places as the pacing starts to fray a little. The whole thing cannot shake the ephemeral inconsistencies of musical theater but you try and pick holes in the film at your peril. The expert direction from Tom Hooper, (showing the King’s Speech was no fluke) and the beautiful cinematography when combined with the rousing score and sheer scope of the film just batters you into submission. This is a film you cannot fight against – it is by no means perfect but is powerful, beautifully done cinema. It deserves all of the praise that it gets, as it’s well choreographed, amazingly directed and utterly uplifting. Go give it a shot – you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by musical theater. I certainly was.

Twilight, or, ‘Is this it?’

Right,

When I first started considering dipping my toe into the murky waters of internet criticism I asked a few friends and acquaintances what I should tackle. One of the most frequent suggestions that I received was that I should take on one of the biggest literary successes of the 2000s – the global phenomenon that was Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ series. The first book in the quartet, published in 2005 was a huge success commercially, spawning a generation of fans tediously known as ‘Twi-hards.’

Now, when I say that these books became a huge success I mean HUGE. The facts and figures surrounding the ‘Twilight’ series are really only comparable to the Harry Potter series so, brace yourself, because here come some seriously big numbers. As of October 2010 the series had sold over 116 million copies worldwide and had been translated into 38 different languages. The books were the biggest selling series in the world until recently and the series spent 235 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller lists and the film adaptation series has grossed over $2 billion dollars worldwide. These are some seriously impressive figures but for all of the devotion the series has inspired there seems to be an equally vicious backlash, you only need to spend thirty seconds on google to see that this series has been incredible divisive in popular culture.

So, it’s time to see what all the fuss is about and whether I’m going to become one of the people who love it, or one of the people who are reduced to some level of inchoate rage. Let’s start with the book and as per usual I’ll give a rundown of the plot but without any major spoilers though if you don’t already have at least some inkling of what the book is about then you are definitely in the minority of people who read/are alive at the moment.

The plot of the first novel follows the life of teenager Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan who moves from Phoenix, Arizona to the small town of Forks in Washington. So far, so familiar – a move from one different culture to another, so you can expect a fish out of water style slice of small town Americana right? Well no – Bella starts going to high school and immediately falls in love with the broody, mysterious teenage heartthrob Edward Cullen. So you can expect a melodramatic bit of teenage romance? Well – not really. It turns out that Edward is a 104 year old vampire. Who wants to kill her and drink her blood, but resists these urges thanks to the power of the attraction between the two of them.

That, some minor plot twists aside, which I leave out here for brevity sake, is pretty much that. Boy meets girl, Boy and girl fall in love, Boy wants to drink girl’s blood. Now, much has been made of the author’s background as a Mormon and whilst I disagree with the idea of judging a work by the author but here it isn’t exactly a stretch. The thinly veiled abstinence/blood drinking analogy that Stephanie Meyer draws in the romance between Edward and Bella is blatant to the point of propaganda and the whole book feels didactic and heavy handed in its approach to teenage romance and sexuality.

This same easy moralising comes through in the film, thanks to the fairly faithful adaptation that the film uses. Interestingly, during the three years that the book spent in film development quagmire, there was a version of the script floating around which could have made a difference to the mostly critical mauling the film took on its release. Unsurprisingly, the studio chose instead to go with a script that is extremely faithful to the book, eliminating the risk of angering the fans who were needed to turn out to make the box office healthy enough to justify the sequels. So, shot in little over two months the film was released in 2008 and became one of the biggest selling DVD’s ever when it was finally released.

Let’s be clear, as a film, this is not very good – it is slowly paced, obvious and highly difficult to care about if you are new to the world of the novels. As an adaptation, this is probably one of the most faithful I’ve ever dealt with. As a romance, obviously much of the film’s success depends on the two leads; Kristen Stewart as Bella and Robert Pattinson as the brooding Edward Cullen.  The rest of the ensemble is largely forgettable although Taylor Lautner has a star making turn as the shirtless Jacob Black and Anna Kendrick as Bella’s first friend in Forks is worth watching. It does rest with the duo leading the film though and for me this is where the film fails and fails hard. Stewart pouts nicely as Bella Swan but her character is written as such a cypher that there is literally nothing for her to do aside from being the vessel that the audience can live vicariously through. As a result she spends the film looking bored but gazing adoringly at Robert. As for Pattinson, he too is basically a cypher. The film and the book make him out to be basically a god amongst men, but the book and film are both so in love with the character of Edward Cullen it feels more like watching a man up on a pedestal rather than an actual real character. He’s all sparkling skin and brooding eyes but he never feels like anything other than a fantasy and whilst I understand a bit of escapism every now and again but I struggle to engage or care about the relationship depicted.

Ultimately though, this isn’t that bad and to be honest that kind of disappoints me. If this really was an absolute abomination I wouldn’t feel bad about smacking this adaptation around some. If anything though, the film is far too well made for the source material it uses. The cinematography is good, the setting and costuming all work well and the director clearly has a strong aesthetic sense. A film version of Twilight didn’t need this amount of money and this kind of quality behind it – and the fact that it has is kind of commendable. The director, judging from her previous work, has a thing for re-working Gothic fairy tales, and I get the impression she was trying to do the same to the Twilight series.

In short I can’t say anything venom filled towards this book and film because it provokes no strong emotional reaction in me, beyond utter boredom. This is really the worst sin of the book – not that is dark, or edgy but that the oh-so-dangerous romance it tries to play out is so painfully, so utterly anodyne – painfully vanilla in fact. And that is why this SUCKS – it is just so so so so so so so so so BORING. When approached like that it makes the whole series make a lot more sense. To be honest it is almost an achievement – to take the concept of vampires, forbidden love and the brewing storm of hormones that is teenage life and to make all of that boring, is actually kind of impressive. More importantly, it is also crushingly disappointing.

The romance genre used to be actually interesting – passionate and dangerous. Romance novels used to be things that had risk to them, ‘Lady Chatterley…’ was banned and burned in some places as dangerous to society. Jane Austen novels were some of the most sophisticated and well-rounded writing produced ever in the Western canon – and they were romance novels. The romance story, as told through the centuries has always been popular because it’s a story that is designed to get people emotionally and passionately involved. These stories should be big, bold passionate affairs and from the setup of Twilight this could have been one of them. But instead, the romance becomes safe, bland and mass marketable to young people who are searching for stories that will help them make sense of their formative years.

Is this what YA fiction is now? I hope not. If literature is where we learn about the world the lessons of Twilight are not ones that should be passed on. Now, I am no expert on YA fiction and I won’t dare assume that just reading Twilight will make me an expert but surely, SURELY this is not all fiction has to offer the young and impressionable – those searching for answers and that comfort of knowing that you aren’t alone in a world that seems confusing and full of conflicting messages.

I don’t hate Twilight – it is far too dull for that. I just wish it was better at what it tries to do and had the courage to try and pass on something genuine to the readers who need to hear it.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS For more eloquent and impassioned writing on YA fiction and sex – read this

http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/why-ya-sex-scenes-matter/

Backwards sense make should this, or, Christopher Nolan, remember?

Right,

 

If the title of the article hasn’t given away the name of today’s film then you clearly need to stop getting out so much and watch some more movies; clearly you’ve been having too much of a social life or friends to be paying attention to a BritishAmerican guy called Christopher Nolan. For those of you for whom this name only rings faint bells, probably associated with a certain Bat-Man, then consider this your movie education. Nolan is a director who is surprisingly little known apart from the trilogy of Batman movies that have proven that superhero films can be critically and commercially successful – for this alone he should deserve unending respect and creative freedom. Personally I also think he should be followed everywhere by the director of the horror that was The Green Lantern movie apologising for not paying close enough attention on how to direct a superhero movie.

Nolan is somewhat unique in modern directors as, speaking personally here, I don’t believe he has ever produced a bad movie. Ever. And when that’s considered in the modern gulag that is the cinematic world that is kind of impressive fact and places Nolan in the company of the hottest directors currently working. Nolan has a reputation as a consummate professional but his films have been played down by some for producing films that are too cerebral. Maybe too cold. Too interested in the intellect and too much emphasis on the power of the mind in getting through events.

Frankly, anyone who thinks this makes Nolan a poor director or someone who can’t communicate a decent story is…well…wrong. And for proof, we’ll turn to what was only Nolan’s second feature film; the staggeringly good film from 2000, Memento.

Now, again, as per usual I am going to try to avoid spoilers but rather than out of mere politeness as with usual films, Memento is a film that any spoilers would ruin. Let me say this, right now – if you haven’t seen this film, go out and find a copy. Buy it. Watch it and you’ll see one of the most creative, interesting films produced in the last fifteen years. The film follows Leonard Shelby, (Guy Pearce) a man who suffers from retrograde amnesia who is looking for the man who has murdered his wife.

So, on to some of the many, many positives  the film posses. Guy Pearce is Leonard Shelby, a man who can only hold things in his head for fifteen minutes at a time. He’s a great combination of driven, vulnerable and lost and the film’s incredible script brings all of this across; the rage, the loss and even the black comedy that comes out of the situation. One great sequence involves Pearce and a man with a gun. In the voiceover Shelby wonders whether he’s chasing this guy or being chased by him. A gunshot rings out. And dryly he realises which is the right answer…

The rest of the actors all do an admirable job but the film’s real strengths lie in the script – which won an Oscar and the direction. The film feels like a noir film with ADHD, splicing between artful monochrome, splashes of colour and an expert use of light and shade. The whole story unfolds in a non-linear fashion and as you watch you piece the story together alongside Leonard. It’s sad and strange and wonderfully done – its themes and the huge twist that the film’s end delivers is made even more brutal by being the beginning of the narrative told at the very end of the film. Once you put the narrative together in your own mind, you’ll want to watch it again. And again. And again. It is that good.

But as an adaptation? Well, here’s the thing, a lot of people don’t know, but the film is based on a very good short story published in Esquire in 2001. It was written by a successful screen writer who worked on projects such as The Prestige and a little known film called The Dark Knight. Yeah, that one. The writer’s name? Jonathan Nolan.

It must be genetic, at some level anyway…

The short story, Memento Mori didn’t really bear a close resemblance to the film but you know something? I think it’s a brilliant adaptation, thanks not necessarily to things like plot or characters but on the level of form and the similarities in ideas.  The story, written, (depressingly) when Jonathan Nolan was still at university, centres around a man called Earl who can only remember things for a few minutes at a time and who developed his condition when his wife was murdered by an assailant who causes Earl memory loss. He uses notes to himself and tattoos to keep track of new information. The temporal nature of the story is as fractured as the film’s. Earl story basically follows three different time scales. We see Earl escape from the mental institution where he’s kept, the next time line follows his escape and his search for revenge and then he manages to get his revenge and utterly fails to remember it.

As I said, the success or failure of this as an adaptation can’t really rest on the similarities between the two on the level of plot. This is an adaptation that works best on the level of form. As with the film, the notes that Earl leaves for himself are done incredibly well and the quest for revenge has a similar ultimate futility to it, given his fragile and broken mind. The question that the short story raises is one that the film will make you think about on around the third time you watch it. Namely, this….if you can’t remember anything that happened to you, then who are you? The most commonly held assumption about what philosophers call our  personal continuation throughout existence is that without the notion of psychological consistency, effectively it would be nigh on impossible to claim that you are the same person that you were. It may sound slightly odd but think about it, if the timescale of your memory was reduced to the length of time it has taken you to read this article, (thanks by the way) then who are you? What will happen when you stop reading? If you have no memory of it – does that make you someone else.

The most troubling implication is perhaps one the film has more time and space in its form to play around with – if everything you are, (in a mental state kind of way) is so fragile, how easy would it be to manipulate you? Who would you be? Could it be shaped? Changed?

In a way, both the story and the film are wake up calls. Who you are is indelibly a construct. A construct of lots of different things, yes, such as culture and nature/nurture and your own psychology but so much of this is dependent on your own memory. The scary thing is, it can all be taken away so easily. So simply.

This is what great art is meant to do folks, to jolt us out-of-the-way we look at the world and remember that life is fragile and precious. The saddest moments of the film and the short story aren’t the horrible things that have happened to them, or their wives. The true tragedy is that they can’t remember winning. Revenge is futile, because how can you take revenge if you can’t remember the hurt you suffered? Or who you’re taking revenge for? Or why?

Lots of questions, I know but if you haven’t watched the movie in a while, seek it out. But be warned, you’ll end up like me, putting your two cents in whenever someone brings it up. Disagree? Saw it and hated it? Great – join in the debate in the comment section.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Oh, I realise that there weren’t that many gags in this week’s column. I was going to do this whole thing where I wrote the whole blog backwards and you would have had to have read to the very end to figure out what I was talking about. Would have been awesome, though I decided it would be way too much hard work. Next time, promise!

 

Punching is manly, or, ‘Imaginary friends often lead to huge explosions.’

Right,

After last weeks dose of book/film joy, which was, without too much generalisation,  pretty much universally aimed at women I decided to focus this week on something different. Something slightly more masculine. Something involving violence, punching, madness, explosions, Meatloaf, and Brad Pitt in some jeans. This long list of requirements left me feeling a little desperate, there would be no way I could possible find a film that was a book that met all of these criteria. Oh, wait a second…

Fight Club y’all….

Again, I feel I should hold my hands up and admit my own vested interest. I adore this film. It is far from perfect but David Fincher’s 1999 film has been one of my personal favourites ever since I first watched it and the more I found out about it the more I loved it. It is one of the most talked about, analysed and debated films in a very long time, so here I’m going to way in with my two cents worth.

The film stars Edward Norton as a nameless white-collar worker who is bored out of his mind by the existential malaise of the modern age and suffering from crippling insomnia, he begins by going to support groups for those with terminal illness and he finds that going enables him to sleep. On one of his travels around the country he meets the charismatic Tyler Durden and the two of them found Fight Club – a place for the men of this bored and disconnected generation to beat the hell out of each other.  As the film goes on Norton’s character begins to spiral downwards into Tyler’s world, culminating in the launch of Project Mayhem; Tyler’s project to destroy the modern world.

There is also a sub-plot with Helena Bonham-Carter as Marla, a loner that Norton runs into in one of his support groups, like him she’s also  looking for something and the two of them become closer and closer. Having done some reading into this, I found that Fincher wanted to make a coming of age film; he personally compared Fight Club to The Graduate, and whilst the two couldn’t be more different in terms of style and content the comparison does make a weird kind of sense.

Personally though I think that comparison misses something of Fight Club’s philosophical leanings. The ideology of Fight Club is incredibly bleak, unremittingly nihilistic and utterly contemptuous of modern capitalist society. For many people this is where their own personal dislike of Fight Club comes from, it seems to take away any and all hope of redemption for Edward Norton’s character. what this misses, is of course, that is exactly the point – for in Fight Club, we’re all trapped in one way or another.

Before I get too abstract then, lets focus in on the details of the film. Edward Norton is simply fantastic; all gaunt eyed despair and slowly disintegrating physicality. He manages to convey so well the emotional sterility of modern life and the sheer panic when Tyler’s true plans become clear to him. It may be a little cliché to say so, but I really do struggle to think of a film where he’s been as good, (as much as I love American History X I lean towards his performance here as slightly better in terms of emotional restraint and subtlety) In short, he carries this movie, amidst all the insanity we as viewers can still connect with the film.

Talking about crazy leads me quite nicely onto Mr Brad Pitt. Tyler Durden is possible one of the most charismatic creations in modern cinema; a swaggering ball of testosterone that every man wishes he had the balls to be – someone who truly doesn’t care about things like money, success, the opinion of your peers or your boss at the job you hate. Now, a lot has already been written about how Fight Club ‘touched a nerve in the male psyche that was debated around the world’ and much of the reason why rests on Brad Pitt’s performance – brilliant, violent and compelling to watch, his performance in this film is proof positive that Brad Pitt is a true cinematic star.

Interestingly the critical reception at the time of the film’s release was decidedly mixed – whilst many critics loved it, those that didn’t hated the film. People feared that it would lead to copycat Fight Clubs being set up; in many cases it was compared to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the way that it glamorized violent behaviour. Now, whilst I can roll my eyes at the lack of moral intelligence that 30 years of cinema has foisted upon its critics, I do understand the point of view. Why? Because I just finished reading some Chuck Palahniuk….and let me just say that some of it, really isn’t for the faint of heart.

Fight Club is probably one of his more accessible book, and yes, that is saying a lot. Though it is dark and highly disturbing in places, just as the film it is easy and engaging to read. This was the book that pushed him into stratospheric  levels of fame; starting a short story Palahniuk claimed that he wanted to write The Great Gatsby, just updated. A story that was apostolic, one where the surviving apostle tells the story of the dead hero and in a twisted kind of way that really does work. So, enough flirting with the question is this a good adaptation?

Yes.

But, I’m not sure which is better out of the book or the film and at the moment; I’m sort of leaning towards the film. Let me get the obvious caveats out-of-the-way; I am well aware that comparing two different mediums and trying to come to any sort of objective judgement about which one is better is not really possible to do completely fairly so before you all get all sarcastic with me in the comments section I do have my reasons. Firstly, this isn’t Palahniuk’s first novel – that was the really quite good Invisible Monsters. So, publisher after publisher turned it down as being tom dark and disturbing and so Palahniuk decided to focus on a seven page short story he was writing for a compilation called Pursuit of Happiness. It was published and then expanded to full novel length and then re-published as Fight Club.

Without getting too mean then, this is why I think I prefer the film. In the book, you can’t see the scars. If you read the book, as talented a writer as Palahniuk is, it is possible to see the short story. Chapter six is by far the best bit of the novel, neat, contained just as every good short story should be. The novel feels a little stretched in places, something that has been spun out to fill the space. The film on the other hand, works as a cohesive whole – everything is slick, well designed and faithful to the original source material.  I know its rare for me to side with the film against the book but it isn’t by much, and without one there wouldn’t be the other. Where both succeed though is in the purpose that Palahnuik had for writing it. To quote the man himself…

‘..bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and How to Make an American Quilt. These were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together. But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives…’

One only has to look around at modern culture to see the effect that Fight Club has had. People have been arrested over it, loved it, hated it, read it and watched it. And they always will I think. It’s become part of the societal landscape and made it OK for men to admit they often felt  lost in this world they had forged. So job done Chuck, good work.

I feel a little strange saying a film adaptation is better than its source…Looks like I’m back to splitting hairs again…Ah well..

If you agree, disagree or think I’ve missed the point entirely, don’t worry. The first rule of the great and the good is talk about it. That’s what the comments section is for.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

“I vant to like this movie” or, ‘This really isn’t good for my blood pressure.’

Right,

So Marvel Month is over and done with and I decided I needed to make a clean break – establish some critical distance from the comics to the rest of the blog. So, thinking it over, I settled on doing a classic – something with a fine pedigree, something that is usually found in the classics section. As an English student I am a fan of the classics in the literature section and I have always had a fondness for the horror classics of Gothic literature. This was the thought process that lead me to the 1897 novel by an Irish writer by the name of Bram, one of my favourite novels and one of the first horror novels I ever read… Oh yes, this week is Dracula week.

Dracula is THE classic horror story and has been adapted multiple times, some of them now considered film classics. However I decided I would focus on a more recent adaptation by one of the best directors working in modern cinema. Francis Ford Coppola has been behind some of the best films of the 20th century; and for the twelve of you who don’t know, here’s a few highlights of things he’s been behind…

The Godfather. Yes, that one. widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. EVER. and Part II. And Part III. THE gangster movies of modern American cinema.

– Apocalypse Now.

Lost in Translation (executive producer)

Sleepy Hollow

Frankenstein

And many, many, many more. As a writer, director and producer this man has been one of the heavy hitters of Western cinema for decades now and in 1992 he was responsible for an adaptation of Stoker’s classic novel.

I feel for the sake of my own integrity I need to declare my own feelings here. I really, REALLY dislike this film. As an adaptation I think it is possibly the worst application of a text into a new medium I have ever sat through. If you’re a fan of this film, maybe it is for the best you come back next time because you’re not going to enjoy this one. If there is anyone still reading who wants to know how I’m going to justify this extreme opinion please bear with me whilst I state my case.

Firstly, the positives. The film looks nice. The design of the whole thing is really quite well done. The cast all know how to act properly.

Good, that’s out of the way…Now, onto the problems.

This film has some of the worst casting choices possible. I would have loved to have sat in the meeting discussing the casting options for this film; I imagine a room full of healthy and tanned American executives discussing Coppela’s latest project.

“So, we’ve got Jonathan Harker, he’s an English guy, seems to have formed the trope of the English Gothic hero. Who should we get?’

” I know, what about Keanau Reeves?”

“Really Charlie?”

“Yeah! He’ll be great!”

“Charlie, how much coke are you on? Keanau Reeves!? He’s from California! He has the emotional range of a roll of carpet samples!”

“Yeah, he’ll rock it! And for his wife, the perfect English Gothic rose? You know who I’m thinking – Winona Ryder

“Charlie – she’s from California! She can’t do an English accent to save her life!”

“No no no, these are the people we need to carry this film…now who wants some more drugs?”

And those are the people they went for. It does not work. At all. The first time Jonathan Harker opened his mouth I had to pause the movie and laugh for a good minute, Reeves is woefully out of his depth and it cannot help but show. Ryder as Mina Harker is better, but not by much and her topless scene smacks of the gratuitous. The rest of the cast is solid but burdened with a script that hinders every single one of them.The reason for this is a script that forces the actors into a plot, that in places, reads more like a poor Harlequin romance than a horror.

It is in the plot that this films lets itself down so badly – the novel sets out to establish the vampire as something dangerous. Not just dangerous, but damning – an encounter with Dracula will not only cost you your life but also your spiritual salvation. Dracula isn’t sexy. Or fun. Rather an encounter with a Dracula, in the book, is portrayed as something so horrific that it will cost you your soul – Mina Harker’s reaction to discovering that she has been tainted by Dracula is nigh on hysterical with terror. On the other hand, the film takes a very different approach…

This starts with the establishing opening sequence, where we see the character of Dracula in the past as solider, who, thinking his wife dead, renounces his faith in God and swears to come back from the dead using the power of darkness. I will admit that the film does this very well, the scene where the chapel fills with blood shows off the production and design and Gary Oldman as Dracula gets to show off his acting chops with his dialogue in Romanian. From here, the film takes an entirely different tangent as to what a vampire is. Instead of being something dangerous, the film effectively sanitized the idea of a vampire – Oldman becomes a sympathetic figure seeking the love of his resurrected wife that will redeem him and enable him to get him into heaven.

Now, if you are still reading this as a fan of the film, I want you to re-read that last sentence and then compare it to the tone and character arc of Dracula in Stoker’s novel and then try and tell me with a staight face that this is a good way of adaptating the text. It isn’t even accurate. At all. The idea of a vampire ceases to be dangerous and no ammount of erotic seduction or lavish production will ever disguise the fact, that this is a horror film that just fails to be scary in the smallest degree.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. “Jon, you just don’t like anything that deviates from the book you’re a fan of..You hate someone who disagrees with you and can’t deal with the idea that someone might have a different take on a character!”

Well, no. I have no objection to the idea of someone making bold choices with a character but this is not what vampires ARE. If you want to make a movie about a supernatural creature looking for his reincarnated wife fine. No problem. No objection here. But there is a well established literaray tradition of what vampires are and how they behave. This tradition isn’t just the work of writers from the 1890’s but something based on the myths and legends of Eastern Eurpoe stretching back centuries. To ignore and neglect this part of the vampire mythos is not good adaptation, if anything it is ignoring the history of the genre and character and trying to make it into something new. In fact, the movie is an indulgence, it’s a fantasy puff piece designed to appeal to the people who grew up to write Twilight fanfiction. Yes, that’s right – I am going to blame this movie for spawning that horror of pop-culture mediocre waste of time that infatuated a generation of tweens. And for that, there will be no pit of hell deep enough… *sigh*

I started with saying that this was a biased review. I love this book, I read it as a teenager and I have constantly re-read it and it has never failed to inspire a little terror every time. I was initally excited about this film version but all that I was left with, when the credits rolled was an over-whelming sense of a missed opportunity . Someone wanted to make a vampire movie but didn’t get what a vampire was, didn’t get why a vampire was scary and had no idea how to make it work with this lavish and over-blown production.

I wanted to like this. I did and I swear I tried to, but as I mentioned with my review of X-Men how you feel about a film does colour the opinion you hold as a critic and enjoyment of a film does tend to cover the worst of filmic sins. But this…this is just terrible.

Don’t let me convince you. If you haven’t either read the book or seen the film then take a weekend and you tell me. Tell me why you think they got it right as an adaptation or tell me if you agree with me and get it off your chest. This is not just bad – this is not getting it, missing the point and producing something that doesn’t deserve to be called a vampire movie, it’s a romance movie for those with a fetish for biting. Classic literature deserves more than that.

But, hey – that’s just my two cents 🙂

Thanks

The PageBoy

PS I promise that next week I’ll do something that makes me less grouchy…

PPS Oh, and the classic black and white Dracula is so so so so much better. Simply on the grounds that the actors all have English accents that sound like English accents puts it over and above this one in terms of quality.

‘Why John Hurt is destined for a happy life in a facist state’ or 1980’s flashback!

Right,

First of all, apologies for the slightly morbid title – but I thought it best to title this one with a quote from the book, and when the book is considered in all of it’s glory there really aren’t that many quotes from this magnificent novel that aren’t as bleak as Labour’s re-election chances. If the small semantic clue I dropped in the last sentence wasn’t clue enough to the more lively cells in the great hive mind of the web, I adore this novel. It was one of the first great works of literature I remember reading from my early teenage years and it scared the bejesus out of me then and still does. All of this is to say, that any adaptation of this book has one hell of a bar to meet.

To that end, enter Michael Radford, whom, in 1984, with the backing of Virgin Films released what has become an acclaimed interpretation. Whilst I was optimistic,  the idea of releasing the film in 1984 initially struck me as a gimmick. Coupled with the tagline, ‘The year of the movie. The movie of the year,’ I was slightly concerned the makers of the film had inspired the marketing strategy from The Omen re-boot, (notable only for the 11.11.11 release date and being a complete load of old balls.)

Thankfully I was swiftly disabused of my cynical notions from the opening minutes as the viewer is plunged into the ‘Two Minute Hate’ and introduced to Winston Smith, played by John Hurt. As the protagonist of the story Hurt carries the film out of necessity as the book itself is all about the isolation that the world of ‘1984’ has forced upon him. Frankly, Hurt is simply incredible; a man blessed with the kind of face that looks like weathered granite, an actor ideally suited for conveying so much through silence, glances or twitches in the face.

The rest of the cast is extremely good but I will only mention one more here, (to see more on the cast of the movie just check out the IMDB page for the film) and that would be the chilling Richard Burton as O’Brien. This was Burton’s final film and his first after a lengthy hiatus but he is simply brilliant. Cold, calculated and utterly convinced of not simply his right-ness but the Party’s righteousness. Though a fourth choice for the part he is O’Brien – the next time I go to read the book I fully expect to hear his smooth and authoritative voice giving me the image of a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

This isn’t merely a post to sing the praises of this Brit-flick classic but to assess how this works as an adaptation. To return to the film’s opening, it highlights what I believe is the crucial difference between the book and the film, a difference that is inherent in the two mediums. The opening of the book contains personally, what I believe to be one of the finest opening lines of any book ever written, ‘It was a cold, windy day in April, and the clocks had just finished striking thirteen.’

Go on, read that again. Take the time and appreciate just how good a sentence that is. That is wonderful, frankly.

The opening of the novel plunges the reader into Winston’s world. It is close, lonely and fetid with paranoia. The milieu is superbly evoked, from the first line we as readers are presented with a brew of the familar and the strangely alien. With the film, immediately the viewer is submerged, not in isolation but by faces. Screaming faces. Watching the film for the first time it actually took me a few moments to realise who was Winston Smith.

This isn’t to criticise, don’t get me wrong – the nature of film is as a visual medium, and the directorial choice to present the viewer with a bewildering and strange image is a very bold one but for me, the power of the story comes from its closeness to Winston’s point of view, something that the close third narrative point of view was specifically designed to do and film, well not so much. The film is commendably close to the original text however, and this is hugely to its credit, the design and setting of the film tracks incredibly closely what I thought the world of the book would look like.

So, all good right?

Yeah – a harrowing retelling of the classic novel for freedom that elegantly juxtaposes the original text with its modern-day 1980’s setting. And now, I’ll stop using the language of an arse and actually offer some criticism. In one very important way, I don’t believe this is an adaptation of the book.

I’ll pause to let people re-adjust. Finished freaking out?

Good.

The film is hugely and apparently indebted to the book yet is that what makes the film an adaptation? I think it could quite easily be argued, no. The closer that a film comes to the original source material the more difficult it is to transfer that into an easily comprehended, coherent visual narrative. Books are, by the nature of their form, designed for the exploration of the psyche, motive, feeling and thought. This aren’t things that have immediately obvious visual markers and whilst the film transfers really well the experience feels more like an attempt at a straight re-telling rather than an adaptation of the story in a new way. The thing that really tipped me off to this was a thought that flashed through my  mind midway through the film.

‘Would I like this as much, if I didn’t know and love the book beforehand?’

Arguably? No, I don’t think I would.

There are a few more examples that back up what I’m saying, from time to time the script feels a little crowded – jamming in points from the book without the means of explaining WHY these things matter. Things such as the old rhyme about the churches of London, the coral in glass, Winston’s thoughts on his young neighbours are all crucial to the book for understanding everything that is going on from Winston’s perspective yet in the film these events felt rushed and crowded out by the main thrust of the narrative. However, there is one moment from the film that I feel gets the balance right, with the sequence in Room 101. Watching it took me back to the first reaction I had to the novel as a teenager. I don’t want to add too many more spoilers here, (check it out on YouTube) but everything about it works. The camera work, (with it’s emphasis on the faces of the two main charcters) along with the minimal violence and the tension of it shows how the film does have flashes of genuine adaptive genius, whilst showing all of the greatness British film making is capable of.

Maybe I’m not being fair and I will certainly admit I’m splitting hairs. Yes I know – the very fact this exists in a seperate and distinct form from the book does make it an adaptation but all I’ve tried to argue here is that, perhaps, adaptation should not simply re-tell, (no matter how well it does) but should give a reason for exisiting as a film – if a re-telling is all a film offers surely I could just re-read the novel.

I will also admit that there are book/films that demonstrate this much more extremely than this one, but if I’m guilty of being too harsh please let me say that it comes from just loving this book too much for my own good.

So.

There we go. Now go off and read the book, (no seriously, go read the book right now) then watch the movie and let me know what you think.

Thanks!

ThePageBoy

So onwards we go. Next time I promise to not split hairs as much and do a book/film that properly lives up to the term ‘adaptation.’ In the meantime, join the conversation, find @ThePageBoy1 on Twitter and keep talking about the best and the worst of books and films.