Thursday, January 24, 2008

Twisting Tales

I often asked myself what exactly a story is; not the construct of it, or language or imagery, but its stature. Of course there are some untouchables, some classics that no one dares soil, but once it’s down on paper or celluloid, is it fixed for all eternity, or is it just a trend that can easily be reshaped when something else is in fashion?

I used to treat and see every story, novels or movies or comic books or TV shows, like they were taken directly from reality. If it’s written as such, you can’t touch it anymore because it happened, period.

And then I stumbled onto “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (those who know me are sick of hearing me gush on that one…sorry folks…). Douglas Adams started out with a radio show, writing a particular storyline. But then a mouth-watering book deal came along, and Doug didn’t like his story as it was, so he told it differently. Than a TV series for which a bit more manipulation was offered. After that, comic books and a…er…towel, which also had some subtle changes. And at long last a feature film, which started out at the same point as the others, but blew the previous endings sky high, and I mean way high. Arthur and Trillian hooking up? The perspective gun? Earth Mark II BEFORE visiting the restaurant? It’s like Doug killed off the last four books in his trilogy, and brought the story full circle in one single shot. Is that bad? Actually, I’m still completely amazed by the film. And the books. And the towel. So what’s the story here?

The Internet age brought along a very watchful eye from fans towards their own favorite tales, making sure it won’t get screwed with. If it did, than prepare to suffer dire consequences! Mind you, it happens here and there nevertheless, but before we movie geeks got ‘online’, Hollywood did take very strange liberties with some stories that should never-ever-ever have been messed with. Surprisingly enough, few seem to remember how much those giants of fiction were twisted beyond their author’s meanings.

Down here are a few which struck my sensibility, and had me ranting a little too much for my friends’ comfort. Take a look for yourself, and see what you think…

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Story as it was meant:
Published in 11 volumes under the titles “Notre Dame De Paris”, Victor Hugo’s original epic ends with Esmeralda being executed by hanging. Quasimodo kills Frollo out of rage and entombs himself alive with the corpse of the lovely gypsy.

Where it went wrong:
Disney’s 1996 animated feature has… ‘Happy’ ending, with Esmeralda and Phoebus hooking up, and Quasimodo happy as a snail. At least, Frollo still falls to his death. And I’m still surprised no one screamed any louder over that one…The original story is a hopeless tragedy where no happiness can be found. Being different is a burden, and death is the only salvation. But Song & Dance and laughter and kissing??? Poor Victor…

Moby Dick
The Story as it was meant:
Herman Melville’s timeless classic has unlikable and bitter Captain Ahab obsessively hunting down the great white whale to exact revenge over losing his leg. His obsession drives him to go down with the whale, in one of the long-lasting lessons thought by fiction.

Where it went wrong:
Director Lloyd Bacon performed what is known as an “extremely loose adaptation” of the book, with his 1930 film starring John Barrymore (Drew’s Grandpa). Ahab starts out as a lovable “scamp”, who thinks loosing his leg to the whale will have his sweetheart running away from him, and thus needs to take revenge. He kills the whale, returns to shore, and finds his pumpkin waiting for him. Or simply put, he gets the whale and the girl…So, being obsessed is a good thing, right??? Hey, can I obsess like that over getting a raise?

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
The Story as it was meant:
Like Moby Dick, Orwell’s theme of a hopeless totalitarian future has been recycled more time than can be accounted for. This still very chilling tale has center character Winston Smith ultimately turn his back on feelings and freedom, accepting his numb fate and devoting himself to Big Brother like everyone else.

Where it went wrong:
Although many have issues with Michael Radford’s version starring John Hurt, the real doozy is the 1956 take by “Logan’s Run” (another one that could be mentioned here) director Michael Anderson. Smith and his gal Julia do give in to the brainwash, but eventually break free from it, ending up killed in a blaze of gunfire. Winston goes Rambo on Big Brother? Yes…I can see that somewhere. On the other hand, one might consider Apple's 1984 add campaign (the one with the East-German athlete hurling William Wallace's sword or something into Big Brother's screeny face) to be a more faithful -or entertaining- adaptation.

Cyrano De Bergerac
The story as it was meant:
The dopey Christian, for whom Cyrano provided aphrodisiac prose, dies at war. The fair Roxanne is heartbroken, and spends the next 20 years mourning. Cyranno remains close to her, letting her in on the truth only moments before expiring. The lady looses her true love all over again.

Where it went wrong:
Okay, Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” was a comedy. So what? Would you want a Romeo and Juliet version where the two lovebirds migrate to the new world and reproduce like rabbits? Ahem…So this contemporary setting sees ‘Chris’ the rookie fireman ditch Roxanne for the local barmaid, and leaving to become a Vegas croupier. Roxanne gets wise over the scheme, and confronts ‘Da Nose’, ending up smooching him on a rooftop. Again, yes it was a comedy. But come on, didn’t they miss the point completely, that true love only exists when you can no longer experience it? Or should I run for my life before my wife finds out where I hid the baseball bat?…

The story as it was meant:
Now, I’ve received a lot of criticism in the past for talking about this, so bear with me a moment. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark whose dad was killed and feigned insanity to expose a murderous uncle, DIES. Along with mom and just about everyone in the room. They DIE. All right??? It’s a friggin Shakespeare tragedy!

Where it went wrong:
This is where people start throwing me rocks: Disney, again. Yes, I feel very strongly that “The Lion King” is hamlet with fur. The king murdered by his brother; the young heir driven away and expected to be killed; the ghost of the slain father appearing to the Prince; Heck, even Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are there! But the young Prince goes, to reprise a previous expression, “Rambo” on the usurper, and lets him be food for the vultures. Then reclaims his kingdom. And gets the girl. Did I mention up there that in “Hamlet”, EVERYONE DIES??? ‘Nuff said…

I do think everyone is entitled to his or her own way of seeing things, and sharing them. But Melville, Orwell, Rostand, Hugo and Big Willie all had precise points they wanted to make. Even more so, they produced highly influential art pieces. Anyone can draw a caricature of the Mona Lisa, but will any museum put up a painting of her wearing leather chaps, and say “this is Leonardo by today’s standards”?

Oh, and reproduction of this article with a different ending is strictly prohibited…

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Three Wise Films of Christmas

There's a lot of downtime in working solo on an office's night shift, even more so during the holidays which offer no real vacation in my field of work (although the overtime pay isn't so bad...). It gets to a point where the usual distractions - learning Spanish, practicing guitar, doing crosswords, clipping your nails - aren't that distracting anymore.

This year, I decided to catch up on my mounting pile of movies to watch - it was getting really high- and proceeded to watch over twenty movies in a little less than two weeks. Some of them were as expected ("Charlie Wilson's War" was sure to satisfy my thirst for Aaron Sorkin's dialogs), some were much worse than anticipated (I honestly thought "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" would be an under-rated gem...) and some were absolute discoveries.

Three in particular caught my fancy more than any others for the sheer surprise in my enjoyment of them. All 3 happen to be either overlooked or downright unappreciated. Since traditional Christians have their 3 Wise Men, I'll use this free and hassle-free podium-of-a-blog to "publicize" my 3 Wise Films of Christmas 2007. My only hope is for more people to discover and enjoy them.

1 - Southland Tales
2007 Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Dark Comedy
STARRING Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott

Richard Kelly's sophomore effort, following the now-cult classic "Donnie Darko", suffered trials worthy of its protagonist, having been delayed over a year and completely overhauled following a much-maligned screening at the 2006 Cannes Festival. And like "Darko", it is destined to achieve Cult-status when the director gets to present his original vision on DVD.

Many critics tried and failed to summarize the movie's happenings, which may explain why most of them thumbed it down - how can you rate something you can't grasp? My own feelings is that the story is less important than the tableaux it exposed or social commentaries it unleashed. Imagine Stanley Kubrick directing his masterpiece "2001" from an Oliver Stone-collaborated screenplay. You don't quite get what's going on, but you do see the targets in bright colors (a porn star hosting a chat show which covers the important issues of Pollution, War and Teen Horniness can't quite miss the mark).

The one sad thing about the film is how chopped-up it feels; two terrific musical numbers leave you with the feeling that 5 or 6 more died on the cutting room floor. "Too Many Cooks" seems to be the case, as producers' anguished change requests can be spotted throughout. Some say the original cut wasn't any more digestible; at least, it must've been more consistent and complete. And if anything, we get treated to an amazing cast of recognizable talent - John Laroquette, Miranda Richardson, Ling Bai, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz, Sheri Otteri and Kevin Smith himself, to name a few.

As previously mentioned, "Southland Tales" made me feel like witnessing our own generation's "2001: A Space Odyssey". You don't have a clue what you just saw, but you'll think and talk about it for years to come.

3* out of 5

2- Mr. Brooks
2007 Thriller
STARRING Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Dane Cooke, Demi Moore
WRITTEN BY Bruce A. Evans & Reynold Gideon
DIRECTED BY Bruce A. Evans

I always loved Kevin Costner's on-screen charisma since his break-out turn in "Silverado", but the strings of (let's be frank) turkeys he dished out following his Oscar-win for "Dances With Wolves" made me doubt his sanity. The new millennium saw a more mature and quality-oriented Costner dwelling in unjustly overlooked gems like "Open Range" (arguably the greatest Western since "Unforgiven") "Thirteen Days" and "Upside of Anger". His latest offering, "Mr. Brooks", keeps it up - a quality script with a Costner visibly having a great time.

Story centers on the titular character, a wealthy and popular family man who strangely allowed his imaginary friend to stick around well into adulthood. Said friend, Marshall, also comes with a monkey on Brooks' back - he's addicted to murder. Following Marshall's insistence to indulge in "just one more" threatens to shatter Brooks' carefully planned double-life, as an amateur photographer blackmails him into an apprenticeship, and a stop-at-nothing cop gets closer to finally catching him. To make matters worse, his 18-year-old daughter might be turning into a chip off the old block.
The film succeeds and surprises on many levels. First in side-stepping the pitfalls of such a setting; the "Imaginary Friend" is never labeled or diagnosed thus allowing us freedom of imagination, the tough-gal cop (played by an unusually sympathetic Demi Moore) shows more layers than the standard film detective, the high-energy soundtrack keeps up the engaging tone and pace, and the story itself sports many non-formulaic (if sometimes expected) twists. But the greatest stroke of genius is casting William Hurt as co-lead. Both he and Costner share such a natural and tangible chemistry that you feel like watching 2 guys who have worked together for years; their split-personality characters feel more like siblings, rivalry and complicity included.
I don't think I'll ever understand why so many people I know downright hated this film, but I for one hope that Kev's interview claim, that the movie is the opening act of a planned trilogy, will become a reality.
4* out of 5

3- Cashback
2006 Dramatic Comedy
STARRING Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Shaun Evans, Stuart Goodwin

This is one of those films that was never shown in any of the dozen theaters in my area, that no one in my entourage has ever heard of and came under my radar purely by chance. And I have to say I love chance. A lot.

"Cashback" follows brokenhearted college student Ben Willis as he journeys through a supermarket's night shift job to get something out of his prolonged bout of insomnia. Surrounded by spectacularly braindead co-workers and a narrow-visioned best friend, Ben tries to relieve his suffering with his uniquely artistic imagination, and the help of the only co-worker capable of putting him back to sleep.

The film started out as a short, whose Oscar nomination gave author Sean Ellis a template to expand - the short is incorporated "as is" inside the feature. Ellis displays every bit of passion from a burgeoning filmmaker who can finally unleash every concept and idea stored in his mind for years. The result is somewhat flawed and clearly uneven, but injected with an absolutely breathtaking innocence and an unmistakable talent. Young Sean Biggerstaff, known to most as Harry Potter's Oliver Wood, displays a very refreshing yet contained charisma that signals the coming of a future star. The rest of the cast, mostly (and to great effect) unknowns never seem to feel out of place, each chewing their every scene with great fun and gusto. And the lovely Emilia Fox continues to make me wonder why she isn't a much better known actress.

I give Ellis and his film only 3.5 stars out of 5, because I know he has barely touched the tip of his talent and can bring us much greater pieces of film making with a little kick in the arse. Until it happens, though, I'll keep enjoying his debut for what it is - a surprisingly sweet and original film.