Sunday, 29 July 2012

8 Best Book to Film Adaptations

“It was alright, but it wasn’t as good as the book.”

Films are almost never as good as the books they are based on.  The author writes the text, but it's not complete until it's being read – to make it whole takes a reader, who fills in the blanks with his or her imagination.   

Each individual imagines things differently and runs his or her unique version of events in his or her mind, effectively screening a little movie in their minds, of which they are director, cinematographer, composer, costume designer, and so on.  So someone else who read the book and then put it on screen is never going to produce the same movie you thought of when you were reading the book.  Not to mention the fact that a film has to fit in several hours reading time into a couple of hours bum on seat time.

But some movies do manage to do a good enough job to be satisfactory as both a version of the original story and a piece of entertainment in its own right.  Below are eight of the best.

Lolita  (1955/1962)

Vladimir Nabokov penned a classic tale of forbidden love and lust:  vivid without being explicit, poetic without being pompous.  Stanley Kubrick takes the earnest tale and adds a streak of black humour as wide as poor Humbert Humbert’s eyes the first time he spies his new landlady’s pre-pubescent daughter sunning herself in the garden.  Nabokov gave narrator HH a sly self-aware wit, but stopped far short of the broad innuendo of Kubrick’s take on the material (Lolita's mother: "Hum, you just touch me and I... I... I go as limp as a noodle." Humbert: "Yes, I know the feeling.").  Plus he cuts down the novel’s flabby jaunt around the States mid-section and creates a welcome showcase for Peter Sellers' mania and James Mason’s eyebrow-arched befuddlement.

A Clockwork Orange  (1962/1971)


Kubrick is the master of adaptations, and will appear again in this list.  Here, he compromises none of Anthony Burgess brutal tale of choice and control, and delivers one of the screen’s great dystopian fables.  The major piece of editorial work he performs is in basing his screenplay on the shorter American version of the novel which ditches the final chapter, therefore eliminating a neat but underwhelming coda (Alex simply grows out of the old ultra-violence) in favour of a darker and more ambiguous conclusion (Alex has learned nothing – or whatever he has learned has been programmed into him by the manipulative authorities, leaving him less self-aware than ever).

The Godfather  (1969/1972)


A pulp novel it may be, but what pulp.  Mario Puzo’s various chronicles of Mafioso life revolve much around what isn’t said and done.  A particular look or turn of phrase can be loaded with hidden meanings and agendas.  Francis Ford Coppola (screenwriting alongside Puzo) selects the perfect cast of newcomers (Pacino, Caan, Duvall) and veterans (Brando, Sterling Hayden) to masterfully portray this world of subterfuge, and adds his own licks – the closing juxtaposition of Christening and mob violence, the oranges-equal-danger motif – that further enrich the experience.

The Shining  (1977/1980)


The Shining the novel encapsulates all that is good and bad about Stephen King.  It’s scary as hell and hard to put down, but it’s also maddeningly overlong, padded out with unnecessary backstory – do we really need a lengthy chapter where Jack Torrance reads through old newspaper clippings about the horrible history of the Overlook hotel?  Every decision Kubrick makes improves the experience:  no demonic topiary; no stuttering sub-plot; no neat ending and sunny coda in which kindly chef Dick Hallorann survives.  Aided by a clutch of spot-on performances (Nicholson is rightly lauded, but Shelley Duvall is stunning as well), a great set, classic scene after classic scene, and a score from the depths of hell, the great director delivers a movie that ties with Halloween as the scariest ever made. 

Trainspotting  (1993/1996)

Irvine Welsh’s blistering debut was a collection of tales set in and around Edinburgh’s Leith district.  Characters and events overlapped, but there wasn’t what you would call a consistent narrative.  Screenwriter John Hodge does a great job of taking quasi-lead character Mark Renton and following his story, beefing up some of the characters along the way (Kelly MacDonald’s lusty schoolgirl) and ditching others (Renton’s brother; Rab "Second Prize" McLaughlin).  That the film acquired hot young director and future Olympic opening ceremony maestro Danny Boyle, landed at the height of mid-‘90s ‘cool Britannia’ mania and gave signature roles to Ewan McGreggor, Robert Carlyle, Johnny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner only helped to cement its instant cult status.

American Psycho  (1991/2000)

Close to being the perfect adaptation, it took a woman, writer/director Mary Harron, to bring Bret Easton Ellis’ apparently misogynistic novel to a wider audience.  The movie takes all the best elements of the book (yuppie dissatisfaction, petty male rivalry, intense flashes of sex and violence, soliloquies on ‘80s pop acts) and picks and chooses what to keep without sacrificing any of its integrity.  Harron makes a virtue of the novel’s loose plot, and focuses on its comedy and skewed sense of reality, making the film one of the key turn of the century ‘what is real?’ titles (The Matrix, Fight Club, Donnie Darko…).  Plus it was the acorn that sprouted into the career Christian Bale has today.

Let the Right One In  (2004/2008)

A tale as chilly as the biting Swedish winter in which it’s set, Låt den Rätte Komma In stands out as a superior modern (well, set in the early ‘80s) vampire tale, which stands out in an over-crowded marketplace.  Author John Ajvide Lindqvist compressed his slightly overlong novel into a screenplay that loses none of its bite (ho ho).  Director Tomas Alfredson, later of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, even improves on the underplayed swimming pool massacre climax, and coaxes startling performances from his young star-crossed leads, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson.  Matt Reeves’ American remake is fine, too as far as these things go. 

We Need To Talk About Kevin  (2003/2011)

Lionel Shriver’s harrowing study of nature and nurture is another adaptation that benefits from spot-on casting:  Tilda Swinton alternately horrid and harried as mother Eva; John C. Riley as her ineffective husband; and the standout, Ezra Miller as the centre of all the fuss, demon-child Kevin (further kudos to the casting director for getting a pre-pubescent who is such a good match for his teenage equivalent).  The film translates Shriver’s wordy, thorough prose perfectly into strong images and visual themes (red features prominently), and makes light of the novel’s tricky-to-adapt succession of letters structure. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

10 Key Titles in Action Cinema

With Stallone’s Expendables sequel blasting its way onto our screens this summer and The Raid introducing director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwaiswas as names to watch, 2012 could be a significant year for action movies. 

So here I present ten movies that helped shape the genre.

1. The Wild Bunch (1969)

Famously using more blank rounds than during the entire actual Mexican Revolution of 1914, The Wild Bunch is modern cinema’s first example of total balls-out shooting mayhem.  Events culminate in a Gatling gun, six-shooter and rifle orgy of violence as the dusty landscape is painted blood red. 

Legacy:  The level of violence displayed onscreen; any action movie that climaxes in a massive shoot-out (that’s all of them, then).

Fun fact:  The climatic gun battle sequence took 12 days to film.   

2. Dirty Harry (1971)

 The Clint Eastwood-starring iconic police procedural is a benchmark for one man and his gun powerhouse cinema:  in a world where he can’t rely on his fellow cops to keep the streets clean, Inspector Harry Callahan has to take his sideburns and Smith & Wesson Model 29 and do the dirty work of testing punks’ luck all by himself.

Legacy:  Cop-orientated fare like Lethal Weapon; a vigilante taking care of things His Way such as in The Crow; Keanu Reeves discarding his badge at the end of Point Break.

Fun fact:  The movie was loosely based on the real-life current case of the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco, made into a more straight-up thriller in David Fincher’s Zodiac.

3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indy’s dabbles into the realms of child kidnapping, possession and human heart extraction were, strangely, at odds with the family-friendly PG rating in the US, and thus the first Jones sequel is attributed with introducing the PG-13.  For the UK, see the fuss over Spiderman (2002) and the 12A, although The Bourne Identity was the first film to receive the new classification.

Legacy:  Watered down action movies ever since, but especially in the last ten years.

Fun fact:  Temple of Doom is the only film in the saga where Indy tries to sacrifice his love interest to an ancient Hindu Goddess.

4. Commando (1985)

Col. John Matrix’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) daughter Chenny is kidnapped by evil vaguely South American types for some unimportant reason, resulting in the big guy tracking her down and playing a real life version of those classic shoot-the-screen arcade games with a never-ending succession of extras sporting invisible targets.

Legacy:  The one-man killing machine; the cementing of Arnie as an action legend.

Fun fact:  Future star Bill Paxton has a cameo as a coastguard.

5. Lethal Weapon (1987)

Mel Gibson is the suicidal loner ying to Danny Glover’s family-man yang in this classic, and decidedly dark, chalk and cheese cops comedy-thriller.

Legacy:  Too many mis-matched buddy-buddy movies to mention, some good (The Last Boy Scout, Bad Boys) some painful (the Rush Hour series).

Fun fact: 
Gibson’s anguished performance as Martin Riggs earned him a stab at playing the original tormented soul in Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Hamlet.

6. Die Hard (1988)

Blue collar copper John McClane (Bruce Willis) evades Alan Rickman’s group of Euro-scum terrorists who have taken over his wife’s office building, saving both the day and his marriage.  All whilst barefoot.

Legacy:  The ‘Die Hard on a…’ sub-genre:  any film featuring hostages and their liberation by one brave hero. See Under Siege (train), Speed (bus), The Rock (disused off-shore prison), etc.

Fun fact:  TV star Willis wasn’t deemed famous enough to have his mug on early posters of the movie, which instead focused on its principal building, the distinctive Nakatomi Plaza (really LA’s Flox Plaza).

7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

The return of Arnie’s (almost) indestructible cyborg wasn’t rendered any less potent by him being the good guy, thanks to the sinister efforts of the eye-bogglingly effective ‘liquid metal’ T-1000 and director James Cameron’s liberal doses of top class chases and gun fights.

Legacy:  The film broke the boundaries of the use of special effects in thrill-flicks, and even today you can’t see the joins.

Fun fact:  Was the most expensive movie of its time.

8. Hard Boiled (1992)

‘Bullet ballet’; ‘an orgy of violence’; ‘heroic bloodshed’ – all terms used to describe John Woo’s last Hong Kong flick before his foray into Hollywood.  The Killer is the superior movie, but for sheer unadulterated carnage it doesn’t get much better than this particular example of Chow Yun-Fat jumping around holding two guns and blasting holes into everybody.  

Legacy:  Hollywood had seen the future of action, and it came from the East.  The bar had been raised.

Fun fact:  The climatic hospital shoot-out includes a two minutes, forty-two seconds single take sequence.  And it’s bloody brilliant.

9. The Matrix (1999)

Hacker Neo discovers that our existence on Earth is really a dream world and we are being harvested by a non-friendly alien species.  Only one thing to do then, and it involves ‘guns, lots of guns.’

Legacy:  Bullet time, a new physics-bending way to film action sequences. Something original for the first time in ages, even if the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

Fun fact:  The sequels are crap.

10. Rambo (2008)

Stallone drags his weary, rubber-faced John Rambo back into the battlefield.  Heads, arms, legs and plenty of other things that don’t usually detach go flying.  Complete nonsense in the best possible way.

Legacy:  So far this this splatter fest hasn't seen a return to Eighties style ultra-violence (boo!), but certainly it showed modern audiences that the old boys could still have some gas in the tank.

Fun fact:  Working titles included the enticing Rambo: To Hell And Back and the somewhat muddled Rambo: First Blood Part IV.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Videodrome (1983)

Starring:  James Woods, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Sonja Smits

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: David Cronenberg

Duration: 1hr 24 mins

Rating: 5 out of 5

‘Video’ and ‘drome’.  Have two unrelated nouns ever been combined to create such an ominous-sounding compound?  And just try explaining the movie’s plot without making it sound like the nauseating fantasy of a sick mind (and thus labelling yourself a deviant pervert by association): 

“Max Renn (James Woods), an executive at a sleazy late-night cable TV channel, is always looking for the next edgy product to unleash upon his titillation-hungry viewers.  Whilst scanning the airwaves for illegal content he picks up a transmission containing the most extreme show he’s ever seen:  ‘Videodrome’.  Eschewing niceties like introduction, premise or context, it is simply hour upon hour of a single red room where people are bound, tortured and humiliated.   Renn is hooked and quickly becomes obsessed.  The show turns out to genuinely dangerous:  it’s not staged at all but for real – snuff TV – and worse still is actually a mind-control device that quickly begins to corrode first Renn's brain and then his body.  As our hero descends deeper into a hallucinogenic nightmare, he discovers that Videodrome is part of a grander scheme of mass manipulation involving a deceased professor who only exists via hundreds of video recordings and is the patriarch of a spectacles firm that is actually a front for a NATO weapons manufacturer.”





So not exactly Pixar, then.  And that’s without even mentioning the soft-focus Asian porn featuring wooden dildos hidden in dolls; James Woods inserting a video cassette throbbing with sexual energy into a vaginal slit in his stomach after kissing and caressing his erotically pulsating television set; and Blondie starlet Debbie Harry putting out lit cigarettes on her breast and cajoling Woods into piercing her ears with a dirty needle during sex on the living room rug.

How can you recommend this unique and enthralling movie without making it sound like the worst kind of exploitative sleaze?  Consuming horror cinema does not, of course, actually make you a depraved lunatic, and similarly the creators of such works are (not necessarily) salivating perverts, either.  In fact, it’s become almost a cliché to hear how a director is nothing like his oeuvre:  John Woo apparently hates the sound of gunfire and deplores violence, and David Lynch was called a ‘nice, normal guy’ recently by Chris Isaak on British TV (amusingly, Isaak also stated on the same show that the extremeness of an artist’s work tends to be inversely proportional to his deviancy, meaning that purveyors of kiddie-centric innocence are likely the biggest sickos of the lot).  And David Cronenberg himself comes across as intelligent, erudite and somewhat bashful in interviews.


Ironically, it is often in controversial ‘extreme’ flicks that the most interesting allegorical cinema emerges.  George A. Romero’s …Dead movies each represent characteristics of the society of the time in which they were made; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was Tobe Hooper’s venomous reaction to the US’s callous attitude regarding the atrocities of the Vietnam war; Cannibal Holocaust, arguably the most disturbing film of all time, contains a thoughtful 'who are the real savages here?' conundrum amongst its animal sacrifice, castration and native rape.  

The question is, since you can waffle pseudo-intellectual claptrap about pretty much anything (I still remember agonisingly trying to stretch my undergraduate analysis of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 4000 painful words) how do you identify the texts with genuine depth? 


The answer, for me, is strangeness.  Some films are, of course, simply cheap sleaze and have nothing to say, existing just as exploitative vessels for sex and violence.  Which is fine and often a lot of fun, but such titles can only be appreciated on the basest level.  Even the most desperate Media Studies student would struggle to sit through Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, for instance, and see anything more than a simple stalk ‘n’ slash affair – the series gains no further credence through relocating Jason Voorhees from the backwoods to the big city (he’s actually on a ship for most of the movie, but there’s no nautical relevance, either).  It’s gory, but straightforward; brutal, but conventional.

Contrastingly, when you watch Videodrome, or even hear a description of it, the "WTF?" moments come thick and fast.  Some people do watch it and are left cold, considering it nothing but a crazy and disturbing mess.  But they’re wrong; there is a lot more going on under the gory, trippy surface – it’s just not easy to put your finger on exactly what that is.  I first saw the movie when I was 14 and have re-watched it many times since, and its exact meaning still eludes me.  The dangers of watching too much TV?  How life as we know will eventually become just a reproduction of what we see on television?  The corrupting influence of those who hold power and influence over us, how they keep us in check through subliminal messages that amount to mind-control?  The film’s famous closing line is ‘Long live the new flesh’ – so is it a call to independence and the transgression from mass obedience to individual freedom?

I’ve never quite been sure, just like the viewer never really knows how much is real and how much is just in Woods’ mind after he first watches Videodrome in the film’s early stages.  But to those who are left frustrated by the movie’s ambiguity, I say this:  there can be a satisfaction in letting go of the need to understand what you are experiencing and simply going with it.  Don’t fight your confusion, embrace it; hell, our protagonist is baffled for most of the duration, so it’s not as if the bewilderment alienates us from his journey.  Art doesn’t have to always be grasped on a rational level, and since it’s quite obvious that the strangeness meter is up to eleven in this film and that Cronenberg is no mere hack on the level of Eli Roth (Hostel I and II) or Leigh Whannell (the Saw saga), then just embrace the weirdness and take it all in.  We human beings aren’t meant to understand everything, after all.  

Long live the new flesh!  (Whatever the hell that actually means.)  *****

Sunday, 24 June 2012

10 Best Drama Movie Scores

This list of emotive efforts is compiled in order of release.

The Godfather  (1972) – Nino Rota

Family and honor.  A certain sophistication and panache.  The ‘old country’.  Rules and etiquette, and people who will not hold back with if these are broken.  All in all, The Godfather.

Taxi Driver  (1976) – Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann’s final score invokes all his great Hitchcock ones from the past.  The contrast of innocence and sleaze that the movie revolves around (Travis Bickle’s childish naivety and his taste for firearms and porno theatres; Jodie Foster’s world-weary but pubescent prostitute) is clearly portrayed in this memorable piece.

The Deer Hunter  (1978)  – Stanley Myers

This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, period.

Chariots of Fire  (1981) – Vangelis

Nothing invokes victorious, slow-motion running like this slow-burning theme.  The Sun newspaper has been milking it for their London 2012 Olympics coverage for months.

Local Hero  (1983) – Mark Knoppfler

Dire Straits are a bit of a joke these days, used for throwaway gags in the likes of Shaun of the Dead (Simon Pegg’s Shaun has no qualms about lobbing one of their LPs at marauding zombies).  This pisses me off, as they were one of the best British bands of the ‘80s – and this haunting, gorgeous theme to Bill Forsythe’s wistful tale shows how evocative they could be.  Newcastle United F.C. fans will know what I mean.

Crocodile Dundee  (1986) – Peter Best

Best’s theme uses guitar, drum, and (notably) didgeridoo to create an outback atmosphere that builds slowly and gets under your skin, working towards a rousing climax.  Strewth!

7. Dances with Wolves (1990) – John Barry

You can almost feel the wind blowing through your hair as you survey the vast open frontier, the sun slowly setting across the flatland and bathing the scene in an amber glow.  Man I love this theme.

True Romance  (1993) – Hans Zimmer

I should, by rights, be putting the music from Terrance Malick’s Badlands ('Gassenhauer' from the classical suite 'Musica Poetica' by Carl Orff) here instead, seeing that Zimmer shamelessly rips it off.  But then, True Romance is a pretty shameless flick, and besides I’ve always thought that Badlands is overrated.  This theme is an oddly innocent counterpoint to the carnage the film throws up, and reminds us that at its core it is – aw, shucks! – just a sweet tale of love.

Braveheart  (1995) – James Horner

Nothing like a good emotional piece of full-on orchestral music to deepen the impact of an anti-English re-working of history.  Horner is really the best at this kind of epic, affecting score, and I should also mention the ace dance remix that moved ravers on the dance floor just as much in the late ‘90s.

Requiem for a Dream  (2000) – Clint Mansell

At one point, this music was used to add a bit of drama to every reality show and TV spot around.  Don’t think any of those featured heroin injections into abscesses or a dirty old man gleefully yelling “Ass to ass!” (although feel free to correct me).  Not to mention New Line ripped it off for thier The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers trailer, too.  Not hard to see why, as it’s one of the most powerful scores of modern times.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

BWD – David Cronenberg

A look at the Best, the Worst, and the most Different (for better or worse) of the Canadian gore auteur’s canon.


Videodrome (1983)

One of the interesting things about Cronenberg’s early work is that you witness his craft develop film by film.  From Shivers (1975) through Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981) you can observe a consistent through line and witness a new creative force finding his feet.  The Brood and Scanners are more polished than his ‘70s work, but it was with this ode to the evils of television that we saw him come into his own.  At once compelling, baffling, grotesque, unsettling, resonant and unique.

The Fly (1986)

A success in every conceivable way, The Fly is one of those rare occasions where an intellectual, arty director manages to cross over into the mainstream and deliver a huge hit whilst not compromising his vision one bit (aided covertly by producer Mel Brooks, who pulled off the same trick with David Lynch on Elephant Man).  As the director himself said: “An artist's responsibility is to be irresponsible. As soon as you start to think about social or political responsibility, you've amputated the best limbs you've got as an artist.”  Here, the artist was definitely on show, but so were the kind of box office receipts that announced Cronenberg to a wider audience.

Naked Lunch (1991)

Ol’ Davey boy has adapted his fair share of novels, but taking a stab at William S. Burroughs’ impenetrable semi-autobiographical fantasy is his most audacious attempt to date.  Burroughs and Cronenberg are a match made in surrealist hell and by combining the wandering opium-drenched tales with incidents from the beat author’s own life (such as 'the William Tell incident'), Cronenberg creates something that resembles a story and even almost makes sense.  But, of course, not quite – well, no movie where a durg-addicted half-typewriter-half-cockroach issues top-secret national security orders to the protagonist through its anus is ever going to be a study in coherence.   Special mention to Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller as the solid and sardonic core that keeps the endeavour from careering totally off the rails.

Crash (1996)

There’s no other movie quite like Crash (ignoring the 2004 film of the same name, which is just as unlike it as anything else is).  It’s been described as ‘a porno set on an alien planet’ and so it proves; not many films have three sex scenes in the opening ten minutes, as detached couple James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger float through their empty lives seeking thrills from mutually shagging anything that moves but finding no satisfaction.  That is until Spader is in a fender bender and starts an affair with the other victim, Holly Hunter, whose husband was killed in the incident, a liaison that leads them to Elias Koteas and his underground movement of re-staging famous crashes (Mansfield, Dean) and generally gaining sexual arousal from car crashes.  Definitely odd and unsettling – it featured in a typically childish ‘band this filth!’ Daily Mail campaign upon release – but also somehow haunting and beautiful. 

A History of Violence (2005)

Often I regret watching movies in the cinema, since an audience’s noise can ruin the experience – the worst is comedies that turn out to be unfunny but still elicit hysterical laughter at obvious jokes and warmed-up scenarios.  I saw A History of Violence on the big screen, and the audience reaction was telling, and very interesting.  There was actually a lot of laughter at a film that no one would describe as a comedy;  but this was awkward, uncomfortable laughter, caused by the tonal shifts as Viggo Mortesten’s family man Tom Stall jolts into his old self, gangster Joey Cusack – sudden, brutal, and shocking.  Cronenberg doesn’t shy away from the viciousness, and that extends beyond just showing blood and gore to an under the surface dissection of a family that becomes infected with violence.  In this way, the movie is as much about disease and transformation as any of his others, and was even more accessible vehicle for bringing the Cronenberg themes to a wider audience than The Fly.


M. Butterfly (1993)

Jeremy Iron’s character must have slept through Biology class, since he fails to clock that the ‘woman’ he’s been having an affair with is really a bloke.  Even if you can suspend your disbelief enough to get over this ridiculousness, M. Butterfly is still a dull and pretentious operatic misfire.

A Dangerous Method (2011)

Despite a trio of good lead performances – Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender excel as Freud and Jung, and Keira Knightley is, despite some reports, solid – A Dangerous Method never find a narrative foothold and is just a collection of intriguing but shallow psychoanalytical insights with no coherent flow.  The result is as boring as a droning undergrad lecture; when Knightly-spanking doesn’t liven things up, you know you’re in trouble.


Fast Company (1979)

Those complaining about how ‘un-Cronebergian’ the man’s recent output is would do well to remember that he could go against his own grain decades earlier.  Despite having no body mutilations, transgression themes or identity crisis, this tale of drag racing across the US does showcase one of the director’s more covert obsessions:  things that go vroom.  Only unlike in Crash, no one has sex with a car crash wound.